When the living is easy

<em>Summer Special</em> - Jan Morris remembers an idyllic summer of gatecrashing and fantasy

On the whole, the most summery place I know is Oxford. Think of a summer in Oxford and you think of young love, punts and the start of life. My own best summer there, though, was long after I had taken my degree. I had gone back to the city to write a book about it, had acquired a house in the nearby countryside (later, as it happens, the home of Mr Bean) and had nothing to do but potter about the place thinking about it - no emotional anxieties, no looming examinations, just wandering all summer long around one of the world's most beautiful and fascinating cities.

It is not simply nostalgia to say it was a better city then, in the early 1960s. It was much less crowded in those days, had more confidence in itself, was not so cruelly commercialised, and I could meander about it in perfect peace. I had a Volkswagen camper, and sometimes I did not bother to go home at night, but simply drove to a city corner somewhere and went to sleep. During the night, I often forgot where I was, and very early one morning I woke up to find myself parked all alone in Radcliffe Square, the very heart of the university and the most utterly Oxfordian place imaginable.

My sunshine roof was open, and when I opened my eyes I saw above me snatches of Oxford, as it were, set against a sky of baby blue - a great dome, golden pinnacles, weathered walls and mullioned windows. The first birds were singing. Clocks chimed. Am I imagining it or did I hear the early thunk of a cricket ball from the nets somewhere, or the shout of a coxswain from the river? Is it only my fancy, all these years later, or did the air really smell sweetly of old stone and mown grass? It was certainly true that, as I lay there, I seemed to sense all around me the stir of a thousand Oxford years, as all the generations of Oxford folk, scholars and students, peasants and factory workers, got up to go to work.

Believe me, a summer in Oxford writing a book is perfect for the arousal of fantasy. It is a city full of quaint suggestion, evocations, exceptions, where there are surprises around every corner. On another morning, when the night-mist still lay thickly over the city, waiting for the June sun to burn it away, I was trespassing in a college garden before breakfast. The whole place was hushed in vapour, the whole city silent. There was nobody about, not a soul, but through the murk I heard measured footsteps approaching along the footpath outside, with the click of a walking stick, and I poked my head through the garden railings to see who was coming.

There I hung like a gargoyle, peering weirdly around me, when the distinguished head of the college strode steadily out of the miasma. He was altogether unperturbed to find me there. "Good morning", was all he said, as he disappeared back into the mist. "Pursuing your investigations, I see."

Oh, the delight of that summer long ago! What fun I had penetrating forbidden parts of Oxford (PRIVATE; FELLOWS ONLY) or gatecrashing academic parties ("Are you a mem-ber here? No? Well, have a glass of wine anyway") or lying on the banks of the Isis while the eights sculled by and hilarious young people raced them along the towpath on bicycles. Choristers sang celestially from college towers, bands played all night long at May balls; ducks and moorhens scrambled for crumbs beneath the willows of the river Cherwell. Sometimes I ate at one of the cafes of the covered market, where market men and truck drivers mixed with undergraduate Etonians, and the coffee was thick and sickly. Sometimes I dined with friends at colleges, and all was oak tables, napkins, port wine and catty gossip. And when the day was done, I drove home through a silent countryside to our old house, where the owls hooted in the elm trees and the hens stirred on their roosts in the barn next door.

Perhaps it was not all so idyllic really. It must surely have rained sometimes. I must occasionally have got a parking ticket, or found myself politely asked to leave a function. That college head may well have been a little frostier in his greeting than I remember. Owls did not always hoot in the elms. Sometimes I wonder if it was all a dream anyway. Was there really such a place, even in 1963 - an Oxford so absolutely Oxonian, an England so utterly English? Summer is the time of hallucinations, after all, and Oxford was always the home of lost causes. But no, it all truly happened to me, in that lovely high summer of long ago - and here in my hand is the book I wrote, to prove it.

Jan Morris's Trieste is published by Faber and Faber in October

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame