Monday 25 August, 2016
So the day is finally here. I’m going to Oxford. Despite the July heatwave, Newcastle Central Station retains its crown – awarded by my family – as the coldest place in the North of England, particularly when you’re sitting on a delightfully modern metal seat with custom draft-holes. For once, however, this is a relief. I’m about to sit on a train for over four hours, so I’d rather not be flustered and sticky before I even begin.
Stations without steam have lost a good chunk of their ‘romance’, but there’s still a feeling of possibility. My fellow travellers and I could go anywhere. Do anything. Escape. Be anonymous.
I’m full of anticipation for the mythical Oxford of my mind’s eye, peopled by characters both real and fictional: The Inklings, Wilde and Bosie, Nicholas Jenkins, Inspector Morse/Endeavour. I imagine gorgeous, otherworldly views of ancient buildings shrouded in swirling mists (based chiefly on my Morse box-set and a guidebook I’ve borrowed from the library).
Of course, waiting at a train station stirs specific Narnia memories; I’m choosing to focus on the events of Prince Caspian rather than The Last Battle. Just as the children were whisked away into another world, hopefully I will be. But I’ll be able to use the buffet service.
My brother-in-law mentioned to me recently the idea that humanity, whether secular or not, often feels the need for a spiritual or emotional quest of some sort. (As discussed in my previous post.) I can’t quite articulate why this visit means more to me than just a sight-seeing tour would. Logically, I understand that standing in a room where Lewis worked on the Chronicles won’t help me to understand or enjoy them more. But still, I long to do it.
On the train, I’m awaiting the final whistle. I’ve calmed down a little now, the mundane reality of 21st Century travel overriding my dreamy mood: I’ve not got a window seat. To see out of the window at all I have to lean forward and peek past the seat in front.
I was intending to be very grown up and scholarly, by reading one of my books on the Inklings. (If any of my fellow passengers glanced across at me doing this, they’d surely think, ‘What an interesting, sophisticated person she must be.’ Unless they happened to look when I was shovelling jelly beans into my mouth.) Instead I’ve succumbed to the lazy pleasures of the Prince Caspian audio book on my iPod. Childish excitement means I can’t focus on anything properly for more than five minutes. It’s just as well I’ve brought entertainment, as the philistine in the seat in front of me has, without consultation, closed the blind. Hasn’t he heard of the romance of rail travel? How am I supposed to gaze dreamily at blue-remembered hills passing the window now? Curse you, Anton J****, and your desperate need to check your emails every ten seconds. (Yes, I had a good nose at his screen. I’d do it again, too.)
So, I’m sitting here thinking about why Lewis and the Chronicles mean so very much to me. I devoured lots of books as a child, but the only ones which came at all close to Narnia in my affections were Tolkien’s. Even then, the world of Middle Earth felt like it belonged to me and my family – we listened to, discussed and enjoyed the stories together. But Narnia was mine. A private world just for me.
Maybe part of the appeal was of a place where I fitted in. I’ve been thinking about ‘fitting in’ recently. I’m pretty adept at doing so in a variety of situations, with many different people. But when I stop to think about it, I’ve always felt inwardly like I’m a little off to one side. Out of step. Observing rather than being. (A terrible thing in these times of mindfulness, no doubt.) I don’t mind. I’m not sad about it. It just is what it is.
In part, this feeling of otherness may well have been because my interests haven’t always been those of my peers. At primary school, I wanted to talk about knights, castles, chivalry, poetry and military history. The other little girls in my class were less keen, and I learned to keep my passions to myself. This continued into high school, where I spent the day discussing all the usual stuff teenage girls discuss, and the evening devouring as diverse a range of writing as I possibly could. I hadn’t any prejudices or preconceptions. Books were books. I would read anything and everything – from The Way of All Flesh to Trotsky’s autobiography to Sweet Valley High – and would happily spend hours alone in the local library. But I didn’t really mention my reading to my friends. (I was at school long before the ‘nerds are cool’ thing started to gain momentum.) At University I was a little more open, partly thanks to the liberating effect which sharing large amounts of alcohol has on conversation. But as an adult, I’ve generally found myself working in environments where the main topics of conversation have been diet fads, gossip and the triumphs and disasters involved in potty training toddlers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that, but I’ve not really felt comfortable talking about my love of fantasy stories and medieval history in these places. So whenever I’ve presented a face to the world, there’s always been a part missing.
So here I am, and whenever I read the kindly, paternal narrative voice of the Narnia stories, I feel I’m with a friend who understands me. Nobody in Narnia seemed like they would mind my bookish over-earnestness and complete inability to be ‘cool’. They liked stories, and knights, and all the things I liked.
Journey time from Newcastle to Oxford: 4 hours 5 minutes.
Cost of return ticked booked 12 weeks in advance: £90.00.