Oxford: A City of Aquatint

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.


6 thoughts on “Oxford: A City of Aquatint

  1. My wife and I have gone through the Morse series three times over the last 10 years and Lewis at least twice, both for enjoyment of the characters and the setting. You’ve gotten me wanting to start watching them again. Great post.

    • They are very addictive aren’t they! I highly recommend the ‘Endeavour’ series as well (if you haven’t seen it yet) – a worthy addition to the Morse family tree. Also, as it is set in 1960’s Oxford, it is (in many ways) even more comforting 🙂

      Thanks for the complimentary comments!

      • We have watched, and greatly enjoyed, the Endeavour series; I hope they keep making them. I meant to add that, every time I watch a Lewis, I’m tempted to buy a ticket on the next flight out of Denver bound for London in order to find one of those delightful country pubs and enjoy a pint (or two). It seems an idyllic way to watch the world go by.

        • Excellent (re Endeavour)! I hope one day you give into the urge to hop over on a plane and find one of those country pubs – I haven’t sipped any ale in Oxford(shire) itself, but have done so in many similar places (the whole stretch of countryside across from Oxfordshire to Gloucestershire and Somerset is filled with nice pubs, such as are featured in Lewis) and can certainly testify to its being an idyllic way to watch the world go by 🙂

  2. Well, I don’t drink ale myself 😉 , but having just returned from a holiday, visiting family and friends, and my home town area of Kent and Sussex, I can add that many really quaint and charming pubs are to be found in this green, hilly and idyllic corner of England too. 🙂 And all bathed in the beautiful golden lights of the English Autumn… so lovely (nostalgic sigh)!

    Ah, magnificent Oxford! It’s years since I was last there, but I heard that it is now – horror of horrors – filling up with Muslims and mosques!! Do you know if that is true? (Part of the growing islamic takeover we keep hearing about I fear.)

    All the same, with creepy Synods, the continuing reports of horrific brutality by jihadists in Africa and the Middle East, plus all the other depressing news items filling the air, you are a wise man to “dip into nostalgic waters” where you can fill your head with the beautiful and the good.
    I think I’ll follow you down that path myself…. 🙂

    • Your time away in England sounds wonderful, and certainly worthy of a nostalgic sigh! 🙂

      I don’t know about the growth of Islam in Oxford in particular, but its presence is certainly growing in the UK in general so it wouldn’t surprise me. It also wouldn’t surprise me (although it does sadden me) that the council there would countenance cluttering up the beautiful skyline there with mosques interspersing its ‘dreaming spires’. I don’t even think the atheist Inspector Morse would approve to be honest!

      And yes, when one thinks of all this sort of thing, as well as the wider problem of militant Islam across the world, it is very tempting to take a dip in nostalgic waters 🙂

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