Novelist and French fellow at St Anne’s College Patrick McGuinness has written a blisteringly perceptive book about, wait for it: Oxford.
No one anticipated this.
Born in Tunisia, McGuinness’ home town is Bouillon, Belgium, his named subject area is French literature and his Booker Prize-listed novel The Last Hundred Days was written from experience in Ceaușescu’s Romania as it collapsed. His preferred politics is Welsh Nationalism and he’s lived in Iran.
‘I don’t want it [Real Oxford] to be understood as a tour guide…’ he says, but the Contents beg to differ.
Central; East; North; West; South, and under those headers highly specific entries: Botley Interchange, Folly Bridge Island, Carfax.
You could walk out of the railway station – the first entry of the book – and go from there, copy clutched in hand.
But the entries aren’t level with each other. One of them is ‘Industrial action’. Another is ‘Doris, Olive and Clive: A Cowley Road Story.’
‘I have written about what I saw, immediately, in front of me,’ he says.
The railway station is: ‘Tacky glass doors and blue PVC fascias, and toilets that are small and rank, the air inside them untroubled by any form of ventilation.’
But literalism can’t be held back by literature. The station ‘…looks like the shell of a bankrupt garden centre,’ he says. Funny, true.
Would the station be better if the station was beautiful, perhaps with a Ted Baker outlet thrown in?
Thereupon hangs a dilemma that hovers over the book. You decide.
But he asked me to say, as we went for a wander in Jericho, that there’s plenty of stuff in here that he’s never dealt with before; that the book has been on the literary runway for perhaps a decade, maybe more; that this is and isn’t psycho-geography (Discuss) and Oxford serves it up like no place on earth. It is a work of literature even if it sits within a series trying to unlock other towns, curiously mostly Welsh.
Here are Patrick's tips for anyone returning to Oxford who wants to re-discover the city they never knew in the first place, Top Five Must-Dos and Bottom Five Must-Nots – the latter essential, he insists!
Top Five Must-Dos
- The Donnington Arms ‘my regular place…’ says McGuinness, ‘a modern metaphor for Britain.’ Allow a very long walk from The Plain or rent a Voi street-scooter. Notes: half old-fashioned boozer and the other half Nepalese cuisine served up by Gurkhas, in uniform. Where? Howard Street, OX4 3AZ.
Fish Market, Osney Mead Industrial Estate (‘the fishmonger is the best in Oxford’, the Industrial Estate ‘an exiled High Street that has secretly regrouped’). Where? OX2 0E
- Oxford Cowley Mural (‘a fine piece of public art.’) Where? Cowley Shopping Centre, OX4 3XH
- Polish Kitchen, Allow an even longer walk, but you’ll need it to earn a meaty kielbasa. Where? Rose Hill Parade, OX4 4HX.
- Nuffield Needle, Oxford Business Park (‘If I wanted to make a memorial so banal it was really just a prompt to amnesia…’) Where? OX4 2SU
…competing entries: Cutteslow Walls, OX2 7SU (‘a new kind of enemy, the modern developer…’); CND co-founder Olive Gibbs’ grave in St Thomas’ Church, Becket St, OX1 1PP); Ship of Fools house mural by Alex Singleton showing Oxford-educated political leaders, 1 Westbury Crescent, OX4 3RZ.
Top Five Must-Nots
- Westgate Shopping Centre (morally bankrupt entrepôt of lèche vitrine - window licking)
- Railway Station (‘like the shell of a bankrupt garden centre’)
- Clarendon Shopping Centre (‘yesterday’s idea of tomorrow’, or for want of a better word, ‘Progress’)
- Templars Square Car Parking (‘the car park and the graves breathe the same air’)
- All of George Street (!)