I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Alderman’s new book The Lessons, essentially a Secret History set in Oxford.
Reading it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, not so much for Oxford (‘Ah, Oxford’) but for that naïve feeling of indestructibility that one can have in a close-knit group of friends.
In The Lessons, the main character James finds his group after just a term. For me, that came much later on in Oxford. It was partly there in the second year, when we were all living in houses out of college. But really it hit at the very end of university, after exams, when we had three weeks of doing absolutely nothing other than lazing around together and partying.
It felt like we were a proper gang. There must have been around twenty-five of us, and we were always together in the most clichéd of ways. Afternoons would be spent playing croquet in the college quad (yes, really), sometimes there’d be punting, or picnics and then there’d be evening drinks, followed by dinners – in formal hall, or barbeques – and then out to the various clubs, back to someone’s house, chatting, dancing, watching the sun come up, asleep around breakfast time. Looking back, I almost can’t believe it was real.
It was sad, after university, to see our numbers dwindle. There were some inevitable casualties of the general move to London. Some people stayed on for an extra year, or moved to different parts of the world. And then there were the ones who were in London but gradually distanced themselves from the group. The ones who I realised I didn’t really know well enough to arrange to see one-on-one, who slowly faded into the horizon.
But as the group got smaller, so it felt more special. It was around three years after university that it felt like there was something truly amazing about our group.
We went down to stay at a friend’s house in the countryside for my birthday weekend. There were eight of us. It felt incredibly special, even at the time. I remember being anxious that someone should take lots of photos, to try to capture the weekend, preserve it against time’s distorting dust. Every moment of that weekend felt as though it could never happen again. So much so that I almost felt nostalgic for it, even while it was taking place.
And it never did quite happen again. We had other weekends away, other trips, other times together. But it was always slightly different. It was never quite as good as that first time, never quite the same. At times it could risk feeling like a rehashing, repeating a performance, knowing that the more it was acted, the emptier it became. All the best hiding places had already been found, the best charades already acted, the best meals already cooked …
I almost think that something awful should have happened that weekend. We should have discovered a dead body, or made some dreadful pact. Or else something really nuts, like an orgy. But we just stayed up all night drinking and playing games and chatting. And during the days we went for beautiful long cold green country walks.
It makes me feel sad reading The Lessons. It makes me think of those days, of feeling so firmly part of something, so inseparable from the others, so bound together.
But I suppose those slightly incestuous hermetic groups can’t last forever. Perhaps they really are best in a novel, where such intense friendships are bread and wine for the writer.
And I shouldn’t really want them to last forever. Surely it’s a good thing that friendships drift apart and then together again, new connections are formed, old ones dissolve? Everything is always changing, and that’s what keeps life interesting.
But during that weekend, it felt like the eight of us were the centre of the world, the still point in the middle of life’s and time’s various whirlpools. It was the most wonderful, decadent, indulgent, naïve feeling. And I think Naomi Alderman captures it perfectly in her novel.