To the understandable shock and disbelief of almost everyone who knew me and my dismal academic record I won a place to read English Literature at New College, Oxford because in those days (1973) it decided places based on open competition. Having been tutored for a year by my extraordinary English teacher, Faith Tolkien, I managed to give the impression of no longer being a menace to society.
New College is so called because it was new when it was built in 1379. It was the first university college in the world to be designed as a campus where all the students would live and study. The section in the above photograph is referred to as The New Building because it’s only 200 years old. As I dragged my yobbish knuckles over its hallowed courtyards I felt like Mike Tyson arriving at Harvard. My first cathedral-sized room was just behind the third floor of the curved tower.
The cloisters at New College. They’re used twice in the trilogy. The general structure, though much more open to the outside in the book, is used in Chapter 21 of the The Last Four Things when Gil assassinates Redeemer Parsi from beyond the walls by means of the laws of probability.
In The Beating of His Wings the attempt by the Two Trevors to kill Thomas Cale in Chapter 10 takes place in an exact replica of the cloisters.
Why such a beautiful and quiet place inspires ideas of murder is a mystery.
This is the largest section of the immensely thick medieval walls of Oxford City. In The Left Hand of God, Cale meets Arbell Swan-Neck for the first time when he bumps into her in the dark interior. This is based on an odd incident in this same place in 1974 when I went into its dark passages in something of a hurry and also bumped into a woman, but this time one in late middle-age. It was surprising that I didn’t see her coming as she was dressed in an excruciatingly dazzling pink outfit. We stared at each other and there was a brief moment before I recognized her: it was Queen Elizabeth II. It was such a peculiar experience it might just as well have been Henry VIII.
I can’t remember why she was there and the internet reveals nothing either.
I based Memphis in all its elegant and privileged magnificence on NewCollege in particular and Oxford in general. If I had ambiguous feelings about the place, then and now, there’s no denying it is another world and a remarkable one at that. Students of the incongruous will be interested to know that this picture is taken from the mound built to cover the largest cesspit in Europe, one that went unemptied for three hundred years.