I did not go to university. My grades were good enough to secure an excellent placement, but ultimately it was my decision not to go. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the many writers who had started by honing language in advertising, then move into journalism. During that journey, I fell out of love with the idea of being a reporter. As a consequence, the very concept of university remained a mystery to me.
This weekend I was invited to attend the FT Oxford Literary Festival, not because of my position as a former FT writer but because Joanne Harris, a festival regular, wanted to interview me onstage, and as Worcester College agreed to put me up I jumped at the chance. Greg, our introducer, warned me that there were two Oxfords. One, the hidden world of manicured lawns and amber stone, the other a lawless no-go zone of street drinking and brawling – and so it proved to be.
Greg firmly belongs in the first world; a self-assured, eloquent chap who appears absurdly confident and young. I asked him how long he had been shepherding writers, many of intimidating fame. ‘Eight years now,’ he replied, ‘but of course I was just ten when I started.’
So Oxford, as it has seemed in my previous experiences there, is more than ever a paradox between haves and have-nots, intelligensia and uneducated, rich and poor, right and left. The Ashmolean and the Bodleian (the former having two superb exhibitions of James Gillray and Roman reliefs in their original dazzling colours) are even grander and better financially supported than I remember, while the high street has junk food chains occupying half-timbered houses.
The festival is a phantasmagoria of events, well attended and glamorous. Our discussion on thrillers was followed by a medieval Venetian banquet for Jessye Norman at the college, with grace sung by choristers and the dinner attended by dignitaries including the former Archbishop of Canterbury; this was just one among many such memorable occasions, and who could not be wooed by such grand treatment?
It’s therefore all the stranger to step back into the street the next morning to find broken bottles and McDonalds boxes everywhere, as tourists wander through the detritus searching for the dreaming spires of their collective imagination, only to find – as is ever in Britain – that the very Englishness they seek most is not ever quite available to them.