At the Cherwell boathouse, I sat on a rough bench facing the river and stared into the green waters. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my college room, a very pleasant walk through a treelined path with the boughs overhead making a wide canopy through which the sunlight fell in cool green beams on the ground. It reminded me of one of my favourite places in literature, the world between worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia, which, as we all know, is one of the most beautiful metaphors for a library.
I had booked a punt through the college site, and then cancelled it at the last minute. One look at the boats and I was glad that I had cancelled it. I would have looked like a fool trying to handle the punt by myself. But I felt a deep sense of peace sitting there watching the ducks float past. The summer crowds, mostly students and locals from their appearance were a jolly lot, floating across the river in laughing groups, the little boats swaying. The background sounds blended into the silence and I sat there in peace, contemplating the last two years and the darkness that had threatened to seep again into my mind in the spring, among other things.
I remember someone’s quote that happiness was a library and a garden. Which is true. But to sit by the banks of a river in silence gives something more valuable than happiness – tranquility. Watching the placid green waters of the Cherwell (which the college warns is infested with water-rats, among other things), I felt an immense sense of peace.
This song has been stuck in my head throughout the merry month of May, ever since I spent a charmed afternoon watching a matinee performance of As You Like It at Corpus Christie College, co-directed by John Retallack and Renata Allen of the Oxford Playmaker and performed as part of the college’s 500th-anniversary celebrations. I had gone there expecting to watch a students’ play and came away enriched by a remarkable experience of great theatre.
The play was set around multiple locations around the college. The audience followed the scenes at the garden, the cloister, a cosy auditorium set up as the Forest of Arden, the college chapel and the hall. The cast consisted entirely of students and staff, and yet the play was nothing less than professional. Each actor lived their role on the stage as they emoted, fought, fell in love, fainted, philosophised, wooed, teased, hunted, dined, played the fool, sang and danced through the play. Orlando’s frustration over his life at the beginning of the play came through as earnestly as his devotion to his lady-love in the later scenes, as did Oliver’s cruelty and subsequent transformation. Both Rosalind and Celia had immense stage presence as well as the chemistry of devoted cousins whose lively dialogue was at the heart of the story. Touchstone was the star of the show, stealing every scene with her exuberant presence, whether it was grudgingly accompanying the cousins to the forest, leading the audience (sometimes literally) to the next scene, wooing an equally brilliant Audrey or kicking the simpleton William off the stage in a sequence of comic dance steps. The actors from amongst the staff were as effective – the genial Senior Duke and the wicked Duke Frederick, the devoted Adam and honest Corin could not have been any better.
All five songs set to music by Howard Goodall were rendered melodiously. Amiens cast a spell on the audience with her songs that invoked both the pastoral setting and the philosophy of the simple life. Every aspect of the play came together perfectly – the idyllic settings of Corpus Christie in spring, the lilting music, and the talented cast. The fourth wall was pushed aside regularly and deliberately to include the audience, as characteristic of the Bard’s comedies.
A very few minor quibbles. Rosalind and Celia batting their eyelashes to convey that they were falling in love appeared artificial, for the actors are naturally good without the need for histrionics. Jacques delivered his much celebrated lines beautifully but he was too lively, without the melancholy that marked the original character. Orlando could have attacked the Duke’s table brandishing a sword rather than a gun. But overall it was a magical performance which took the audience back in time to the Bard’s own theatre.
On the way to the play, I was reading my textbook in which Professor Waugh elaborates on how ‘‘all the world is not of course a stage’ and ‘the crucial ways in which it isn’t’’ (Waugh, P.4). But the play restored a gentler, simpler world on the stage. A world in which life was lucidly defined in black and white and despite the Bard’s caution that ‘most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly’, people still believed in friendship, true love, and happy endings. The effect was rather overwhelming. When the play concluded with drinks and cheers to Corpus Christi, I wanted, like the others in the audience to congratulate the cast, to greet the Professor whose guidance was visible throughout the performance and hang out with my classmates in the audience. Instead I left quietly, unwilling to break the spell around me, hoping to hold on to the enchantment for a few more hours before the grey post-postmodernism of real life took over.
Last month I read from The Reengineers for the first time in public, to a most distinguished audience. More on that later. The day before, I had an interesting assignment to read a paragraph from an author who had inspired me the most at the Albion Beatnik bookshop.
Based on what I had heard and read about it, I had imagined a large bookstore like Starmark where hordes of people thronged in and out, and wandered into the separate cafe section which had gleaming chairs, deep carpets and soft background music, where poets and writers read.
It was nothing like that.
The Albion Beatnik is a small bookshop, which seems smaller than it really is, packed as it is from floor to ceiling with carefully chosen books. Small wooden tables and chairs are scattered around a colourful teacup rack, one side of which is fashioned roughly to look like a vertical pile of books, with more real books piled here and there around the place. The whole effect is rather warm and cosy, a place where one feels immediately at home – especially so after seeing the selection of books.
It was like being in a blissful dream, sitting huddled in groups around the little tables on that cold September evening, listening to a small group of like-minded people read or recite from the authors who meant the most to them. There was a hush as each person read, the kind of quietude that can only be found in a library or a bookstore. One reading was interrupted by one of our group leaning into a side rack, only to have a heap of books come crashing down – causing a smile to spread all around. It made the place feel more authentic, and more likeable. The sound of books falling down was engulfed by the silence that surrounded the place even during the readings.
There was W.H.Auden, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, John Green and James Joyce among others. And there was Muriel Spark.
This is the excerpt that I read. Earlier I had practised to read the first page of the novel, but chose to read these lines a few minutes before the reading. The sentences resonate strongly with me, just as most of the other sentences in the book.
“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.
In a discourse on drama it was observed by someone famous that action is not merely fisticuffs, meaning of course that the dialogue and the sense are action, too. Similarly, the action of my life-story in 1949 included the work I was doting when I put my best brains into my Warrender Chase most nights and most of Saturdays. My Warrender Chase was action just as much as when I was arguing with Dottie over Leslie, persuading her not to get him with child, as she came round the next night to tell me she was determined to do. My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better.”
From Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark