I have recently been binge-watching episodes of Lewis, the follow-up to Inspector Morse, and they have compounded the feeling of nostalgia and longing that I experience every time I watch something that includes the city of Oxford as its backdrop – which includes Morse itself, its excellent prequel Endeavour, and most famously of all, the televised adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. With respect to the Morse ‘trilogy’, one is presented with so many pictures of dreaming spires, ancient stone buildings bathed in soft receding light, and panoramic views of rolling English countryside (not to mention the frequent wistful visual meditations on dusky riversides and the calm, steady currents of canals), all accompanied by an equally soothing score interspersed with moments of blissful choral music, that it is easy to forget the central premise of the show is a murder investigation.
Add to this the recurrent visits of Lewis and Hathaway to riverside pubs in order to quaff pints of delicious-looking English ale, and you have a sure formula for evocative and reassuring viewing. I am well aware of course that Oxford has as many problems as any other city, as it undoubtedly has done throughout its history, and that the image of it presented by ITV detective series is not a comprehensive or wholly accurate one. Nevertheless, I can’t help loving it, or the city itself, which, despite its flaws, remains one of the most picturesque and evocative places in the world. Therefore, in celebration of Oxford, and of nostalgia, I present to you a passage from the first chapter proper of Brideshead Revisited, and challenge you not to be charmed by its beautiful language describing a beautiful, albeit idealised, city:
‘That day too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford – submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in – Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.’
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (2011), p.25, Penguin Classics.
Lovely stuff isn’t it. Nostalgia and idealism are not things upon which one should rest any laurels or base any fundamental theories of reality, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot bathe in their rich, cordial light from time to time. The important thing I suppose is that we do not mistake them for truth and authenticity – if this is remembered, I actually think a great deal of good can come from the occasional dip into nostalgic waters; they refresh our sense of what it is good and beautiful and wash away any feelings of discontent and cynicism that the world may have covered us with. Anyway, for the time being I am going to continue to give reality a miss, quenching my thirst for nostalgia and the romance of antiquity with Lewis; after that I imagine I’ll be sorely tempted to visit the Megabus website and look for cheap tickets down Morseshire way.