One of my treasured privileges is my Bodleian Library reader’s card, issued when I was studying at Oxford and carefully guarded ever since. Imagine my horror to discover a few weeks ago that I’d let it lapse! Once upon a time, the greatest library in the world – though some other universities might cavil at that title – guarded access to its collections jealously, and once you lost your rights to get in, that was it, unless you could prove absolute, incontestable academic need. Now, however, the new(ish) Bodley’s Librarian says on the Library’s website that all Oxford alumni are ‘members of the Library’ and so I was emboldened to take a trip to the city yesterday to have lunch with my friend Ms T and to attempt to renew my card.
Things change at the Bod., as in Oxford more generally, and yet they stay the same. A few years ago, with the digitisation of the collection records, the great Catalogue Room got rid of its ledger books. When I was an undergraduate, and for many years after, this was the very hub of the Library, jammed full with people heaving the great leather volumes, 18 inches long and four thick, onto the desks in order to find the book or document they wanted, or impatiently waiting until the relevant catalogue became free. On some pages you could see where the little slips of paper bearing the book details had had to be peeled off and moved around to make room for a new acquisition. The computer terminals are infinitely more practical, but infinitely less picturesque. Yet of course the room is still there; and so are some of the librarians. The volumes of the English Place-Name Survey – one of my most regular stopping points – have been moved, but, deliciously, their new location is on the shelves of Duke Humfrey’s Library, the dark, oak-panelled section of the Bod. redolent with the scent of wood and leather and, for contemporary visitors, shades of the Harry Potter films in which it features.
The Admissions Office, where I had to go to renew my card, is no longer in the Clarendon Building, but has moved across Broad Street to what was the New Bod. – dating to 1934, and in Oxford things don’t get much newer than that – and is now the Weston Library. Its glossy atrium, the Blackwell Hall, is a splendid space, but the entrance to the refurbished reading rooms beyond is now via a 16th-century stone gateway which used to stand at the way into the gardens of Ascott Park, about ten miles away: it’s on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Here again the new is smoothed and rendered palatable with doses of the antique.
The blue of the sky features in my photographs of the day as much as the buildings: conditions were perfect for photographing the city. I found the little Victorian cottages where my ex Lady Arlen used to live, although the rest of the Castle and Brewery quarter near them has been altered quite radically. The church of St Thomas the Martyr is where my friend Comrade Tankengine the railway manager used to worship, though he would now have to pick the few moments when the church is open. I had a shock when I saw the sign ‘History Faculty’ at a completely unexpected location until I remembered that the Faculty had moved some years ago. The new building is, naturally, a very old building.
I regarded the preposterous, Thatcherite, would-be-cool nineties swagger of the Said Business School on my way from and back to the railway station with the scorn I always feel for it.