Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

Brideshead Revisited

April 7, 2014

Just after a full-on week of the Daunt Books Festival, came another full-on week of preparing to lecture at my old Oxford college about building communities around books, followed by a special Emily’s Walking Book Club discussing Brideshead Revisited in Christ Church Meadow. It turned out to be a fun, if exhausting day, and above all it provided an excuse to re-read Brideshead, which was much better than I remembered.

Brideshead RevisitedI first read Brideshead Revisited at school. We did it as AS Level coursework and I suspect studying a book for a whole term is almost enough to ruin it for anyone. Especially if your English teacher insists it’s all about Catholicism, and you’re a seventeen-year-old with no interest in religion at all.

It is terribly embarrassing re-reading a book from school, with so many bits underlined and one’s adolescent scrawl in the margins. On almost every page were penned dreadful words like ‘desensitised’, ‘ironic’, ‘self-loathing’, and, tellingly often, ‘relig.’ and ‘Cath.’. I cringed as I turned the pages, hoping that no-one was peering over my shoulder on the tube.

As well as being about Catholicism, Brideshead is very much about nostalgia, and re-reading it for this Oxford walk was a strange exercise in triple-nostalgia: its echo of my own halcyon Oxford days; the painful memories of reading it in our sixth-form English lessons, air stiff with newly awakened sexual tension; and, of course, all the nostalgia in the book itself.

Charles Ryder, our narrator who find himself stationed at Brideshead when he’s in the army during the Second World War, tells us ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it.’ So the rest of the novel unfolds as Charles tells of his time spent at Brideshead and with the Marchmains, its family. The first section of the novel is probably the one everyone – myself included – recalls when they think about Brideshead. Charles is new up at Oxford, where he meets eccentric, charming Sebastian Flyte, one of the Marchmains. Sebastian vomits in Charles’s rooms, then apologises by filling them with flowers the next day and inviting Charles to lunch. Charles tells us:

I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

It’s a wonderful passage, positively aching with nostalgia. That youthful curiosity, ‘in search of love’, and the inkling that grey old Oxford, up till then reasonably unexciting, had its secrets, would offer so much if only you could discover the low door to its enchanted garden … It captures so perfectly that feeling of excited anticipation, of knowing you’re on the verge of something wonderful, and venturing forth, curious, yet also somewhat timid.

Interesting that Waugh uses this metaphor of doors, wall and gardens. Interesting too that the novel is named after a great house, rather than being given one of his more abstract titles, like A Handful of Dust, or Vile Bodies. Evidently, Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the presence of architecture is strongly felt. Charles even goes on to become an architectural painter, succeeding largely thanks to the aristos’ declining fortunes:

The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.

Not unlike Charles’s paintings, Brideshead Revisited captures a great country seat just as it was on the verge of decline. A great many pages are spent describing its rooms and décor, ‘the high and insolent dome … coffered ceilings … arches and broken pediments’ and the fountain, where the young Charles discovered his own artistic sensibility, as he sat:

hour by hour … probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubble among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

The fountain later becomes a scene of love between Charles and Julia:

There Julia sat, in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled and broke into scattered flames.

When Charles returns with the army, however, an officer shows him around and stops at the fountain, now turned off and squalid, to say:

Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there…

Here is a once-mighty house now ‘debased’; its beauty not appreciated by its new inhabitants. Yet Waugh has succeeded, as Charles does in his paintings, in preserving the house in all its glory. When we think of Brideshead Revisited, we scarcely remember the army prologue and epilogue; we don’t see the fountain dry, filled with cigarette ends and sandwich crusts, but we think of the house in all its splendour of before, when it was the scene of so much love.

So Brideshead Revisited is in part about the death of the great country house, and an attempt to preserve its life. It is about nostalgia for a lost youth, for opening that low door in the wall and discovering the enchanted garden within. Just as it succeeds in revisiting it, resurrecting it, letting us re-live those Arcadian days of strawberries and teddy bears and love, so it also points to all the youth that cannot be preserved.

The many lost youths of the soldiers of the First World War haunt the novel. References to the War, and to the lives lost, pepper the text. This time round, it struck me that Waugh gives us examples in which these lost lives are attempted to be preserved in literature: Lady Marchmain commissions the dreaded Samgrass to write a biography of her three brothers all killed in the War, and there is also the moment when Anthony Blanche recites ‘The Waste Land’ through a megaphone. In including these, Waugh invites comparison, holding up Brideshead Revisted as another testament to lost youth. Certainly Christopher Hitchens thought it was ‘all on account of the war’, in his brilliant essay on Brideshead Revisited in the Guardian. Hitchens was of course a renowned atheist, and I can’t help but feel that if he loved the novel even half so much as his article suggests, then it really must be about more than Catholicism.

So rats to you annoying English teacher who nearly ruined this beautiful novel for me … I’m so pleased to have re-read it, and I can only encourage others to do so too. I am also rather tempted to track down the BBC boxset for some rather indulgent viewing when in Italy.


A Literary A-Z

July 18, 2011



J surely boils down to a battle of two great Jameses – Henry James and James Joyce. I have soft spots for both.

My tutor at university was a Joyce expert, and I remember the experience of reading Ulysses very clearly indeed. I was sitting on one of my Mum’s quite smart cream sofas, with a cup of tea nearby – perpetually  nervous that I might spill it – holding the thick paperback with both hands, amazed that my tutor understood this incredibly dense book so well that she had actually edited it. I was on that sofa for several hours every day for a week. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have a tutorial with her about it. I was so unnerved at the thought of having to write an essay, which she would then read, or, worse still, that I would read it aloud to her, that in the end I wrote about a character who only appears in about six pages – a man in a macintosh.

One of my favourite lines of all literature is the final line of The Dead, the novella at the close of Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Incidentally, I mentioned this in a post about Orhan Pamuk a while ago, only to overhear Andrew O’Hagan tell someone – just the following day – that it was his favourite line. Strange coincidence. He definitely thought I was a bit peculiar when I rushed up to him and told him it was one of mine too, and I’d just written about it on my blog.

As for the other James, Henry, well he has an Oxford-related story too. During my entrance interview, I was asked which writers I liked, whose work I hadn’t studied at school. At the time I was obsessed with Milan Kundera. My future tutor (the Joyce expert) was unimpressed. She said she didn’t want to talk about him and asked me for something else. My brain went spectacularly blank. For a moment it felt as though I’d never read anything at all. At last I remembered something. ‘I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ I ventured.

We discussed Ian McEwan for a while. I said I’d liked the way Atonement was told from a child’s perspective, but yet there seemed to be an adult’s sensibility behind it. The Joyce expert introduced me to the word ‘focalised’. Then the other tutor in the room – who was to become my Middle English tutor – piped up for the first time.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘he just does what Henry James did. Only Henry James did it so much better.’

‘Really?’ I asked, remembering that I’d read Portrait of a Lady and struggling to see the similarity.

‘Of course. It’s just like What Maisie Knew. But James was a real master.’

I left the interview feeling that it had gone quite well. I thought I might try to track down a copy of What Maisie Knew so that when it came to my second interview with them I’d be able to say something about it.

At what seemed like an ungodly hour the following morning, someone knocked on my door. I was informed that I was wanted for an interview at another college, in half an hour.

I felt sick and confused. I hurriedly got dressed and gobbled my emergency Kit Kat Chunky. I was escorted to this other college, which was about five times the size of little Exeter. On the way, while crossing one of the quads of this grand college, the heel of one of my stupid shoes, which I wasn’t used to wearing, got lodged in between two paving stones and I was momentarily stuck in the mud. It was a sign of things to come…

With most of these interviews, you’re given a piece of writing to look at for half an hour beforehand. For this one, I was given a piece of poetry. I began to read it.

‘Oh no, I’m so sorry,’ the lady said. ‘You wrote about poetry in one of your essays. John Donne. There’s no need to test you on that. Here’s some prose instead.’

And she handed me a page of prose. I looked down at the bottom, where it said, ‘taken from What Maisie Knew by Henry James’.

I then suffered the most appalling interview you could imagine. Everything I said was twisted around and thrown back at me. I felt as though we were playing some weird game, in which I had to say why I loved English Literature and then they had to show me that actually I’d just said why I didn’t. It was terrible.

Until it came to the questions about the unseen extract. I talked about it for a while. They didn’t appear to be listening to me. Then, at last, I ventured, ‘It reminds me a bit of Atonement by Ian McEwan.’

They both sat up. ‘Do go on,’ said the one who had been marginally less nasty to me than the other one.

I went on for a little while. I used the word ‘focalised’. It was the only three minutes of the interview that weren’t horrific. And then, I’m not sure how, but I found myself talking about John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

At this point the nastier tutor cut in. ‘Given that the course at Oxford is very traditional. Do you not think that your taste in literature is rather too modern?’

Back to the ridiculous game then. I struggled through the rest of the interview, left it in tears, sat on the train back down to London, steely with determination never ever to study under such a horrible man.

In the end, luckily, I was offered a place at Exeter, and only once came across the horrid man in a lecture, out of which I swiftly walked.

Well, I suppose it’s actually not a particularly nice story, that one. But then I did end up reading What Maisie Knew and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. So brilliant that it inspired me to start my own writing. I wrote a few chapters of a book, focalised through a little girl who had quite a peculiar imagination, who was staying in a house with her mother and grandmother, while terrible grown-up things were going on. I didn’t get particularly far with it, but it was a start. And if it weren’t for that, well then I probably wouldn’t still be trying.

I suppose that means Henry James has to win.



There seem to be several Ks who I like. Kafka, Kapucinski, Kapur, Keats, Kipling, Kunzru, in alphabetical order.

But I’m going – surprisingly decisively – to opt in favour of Keats. There’s a great deal about his poetry that should be praised. Not least, that it’s exceptionally beautiful. But I’ve always felt particularly fond of his poetic use of medical and scientific language:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

Keats mingles hemlock and opiates with the river Lethe. (The Lethe was one of the rivers of the Underworld; drinking from it led to complete forgetfulness.) Poetry is always full of mythical references like this. They make it seem magical and old and mysterious. But the precision of the medical language, of naming these two substances – hemlock and opiates – that would achieve the same effect as drinking from the river Lethe, creates something unique and quite extraordinary.

During A-Levels, I was the only person in my English class who was also studying Science. And I was the only person in my Chemistry class who was also studying English. The Science block was a seven-minute walk from the main School building, where English – and other Arts – lessons took place, which meant that I was always slightly late for everything. Unfortunately, in English, as everyone knew that it was because I’d come from the Science block, it meant that my being late wasn’t remotely cool or rebellious. It just showed that I was a Science geek. And when I turned up late for Chemistry, having come all the way from English, everyone thought I was a wishy-washy arts student.

It felt as though the combination of English and Science couldn’t possibly be resolved. Until I found Keats. And then I saw that really, if the two very different disciplines could be brought together, they could create something that really transcended either one of them alone.



D.H. Lawrence, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, or Emmanuel Litvinoff.

The man who managed to get the C word into literature must be given due credit. And everybody loves The Leopard. Plus those two are double-Ls: Lawrence with Lady C; Lampedusa with The Leopard.

But I’m going to go for the one who’s usually overlooked, Emmanuel Litvinoff.

I discovered Emmanuel Litvinoff thanks to Iain Sinclair in his Hackney book. He was mentioned a few times as a writer of the Jewish East End. But then I could never remember his name when I went into a bookshop. Indeed I’d almost forgotten about him, by the time I started actually working in a bookshop.

And then, a couple of weeks in, as I was shelving some books in the London section, I saw it: Emmanuel Litvinoff Journey Through a Small Planet. The book looked rather smart – a Penguin Modern Classic. The cover shows an eccentric-looking man wearing big specs, light shining full onto his broad forehead, in contrast with the dark stairs on which he’s standing. Intriguing.

I bought it, read it and loved it. Litvinoff’s memoir is about growing up around Brick Lane at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was filled with Jewish immigrants.

People spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs

It is rather a subtle portrait of a time and a place – rather than always feeling proud and part of his community, at times he feels ashamed:

The Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation

And yet, it was Litvinoff who stood up at the ICA in the 1950s, to recite his poem accusing T.S. Eliot of antisemitism, even though T.S. himself had just joined the audience.

A great man, and his book is a great story. L is undoubtedly for Litvinoff.

King Lear

January 10, 2011

I’m sorry this post has been a long time in coming. I was ill, then it was Christmas, then I was away … but enough excuses. Now I’m back, and here it is.

Just before I was struck down by ’flu, I was lucky enough to see King Lear at the Donmar. Even before the rave reviews appeared in the papers, I knew that Jacobi – who I last saw in his award-winning role as Malvolio in the Donmar West End’s Twelfth Night – acting Lear in the confined space of the tiny Donmar Theatre would be truly extraordinary.

Lear is my favourite Shakespeare. Perhaps spending so much time on it at A-level ingrained it into me, so that, although I’ve always had an atrocious memory for lines, now when I hear Lear there is a wonderful soothingness in the familiar beauty of the language.

corky arms … crack your cheeks … looped and windowed raggedness … burst smilingly …

It is heaven to hear them trickle into my ears, especially my favourite question ever:

Dost thou squinny at me?

Alongside the comforting familiarity of such beautiful words lurks the rather more traumatic memory of lying in bed at 6 a.m. on the morning of my Shakespeare final at university, desperately trying to memorise them. Scribbling away on pages and pages of notepaper any quotations that might be useful for the unknown questions that would be seen in three hours time. The terror and frustration at consistently forgetting a word or muddling up their order, cursing my brain that seems only ever to remember the gist of things when what was needed more than anything was perfect minute detail.

I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because of all that time spend on Lear at school, but while studying Shakespeare at university I kept coming back to it. Whatever aspect of Shakespeare I was thinking about, whichever plays I was scrutinising, Lear always reared its head. It was the lethal still centre at the heart of a whirlpool, the other plays swirling around its centrifugal pull.

And if Lear is the centre of Shakespeare’s vortex, then at the centre of Lear is the storm, the moment when Lear’s madness breaks.

Blow winds and crack your cheeks!

How astonished I was when these greatly-anticipated words were rasped low, echoing in an amplified whisper through the Donmar rather than being shouted over the crashes and booms of a theatrical storm.

When I was much younger my cello teacher told me that it was good to be able to play loudly, but to get someone to really listen you must be able to play softly; you have to make them lean forwards in their seats, craning their heads, straining their ears. And so, in Lear, we listened, spellbound, to this powerful quiet, this hissing entropy at the centre of the play’s destruction.

It is these unexpected moments that remake a play like Lear. An audience for Shakespeare already knows the story, and that must be a terrific problem for directors and actors. There can’t be a new twist, a new character, a new subplot … it’s all there already, written down hundreds of years ago and has already been read, performed, seen countless times.

And the audience will rely on the fact that they know what’s going to happen. There’s an inevitability to watching a Shakespeare play – especially one with so great a tragic arc as Lear – he will fall, his world will fall apart … this is what will happen and there is cathartic pleasure in watching it unfold.

So perhaps it is down to the director and actors to trip up the audience. To throw in something unexpected, to make them lean forwards to hear the words anew, or to make them lean back and gasp in surprise.

Ian McKellen’s Lear was renowned for the moment when he got completely starkers. Germaine Greer’s article about it for the Guardian is reliably ascerbic. I bet few people (other than director Trevor Nunn) had thought of ‘unaccommodated man’ in quite such graphic terms before.

And the Almeida’s production of Lear, back in 2002, to which I was taken on a school trip, conveyed the storm by the wooden panels of stage set falling down with terrific ‘crack’s and crashes, and rain pouring in on the stage for half an hour. It was wonderfully dramatic; we were all stunned.

Both these were visually astonishing. (It seems crude to say impressive.) But what I so admire about Jacobi’s Lear is that the astonishment lies in the way he speaks the words. The set was markedly stark, the costumes stayed away from opulence, the only props were the occasional letter or sword (and some rather simplified stocks for Kent). It was a bare performance in a much more impressive way than McKellen’s, stripping everything down to language rather than to the naked body.

I was stunned to hear those lines whispered, and I was grabbed even earlier by Jacobi’s scream before he uttered with dread certainty ‘I shall go mad.’ Lear’s madness risks becoming something of a refrain, ‘the King goes mad … when Lear is mad … do not make me mad … O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heav’n! / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.’ But here, the piercing scream, the frankness of his line, brings a whole new horror to it.

Another resonance Jacobi brought to Lear’s madness was his terrific anger. Jacobi is so furious in the early scenes of the play that it brings the now-American sense of ‘mad’ as in ‘angry’ to the play. Being ‘beside oneself with anger’ is a meaning of ‘mad’ from c.1300, only thought of as an Americanism in the late eighteenth century.

And it is this anger – his temper, his tantrums – that made me think of Max from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

After all, Max, like Lear, makes mischief, and – albeit in his imaginary world – is King of the Wild Things. The anarchy of his Wild Rumpus surely has a parallel with Lear’s storm. Isn’t Where the Wild Things Are, like Lear, about the creation and then dissolution of worlds?

As Jacobi is an old Lear, not far off his years of ‘fourscore and upward’ stipulated in the text, it seems particularly pertinent to think of him in relation to a child. Max’s madness, his mischief-making, his anarchic fun is so joyful. His chaos is celebratory – a wild rumpus – and when he’s had enough of it he can return home to comfort and normality. Lear’s is destructive and tragic, spiralling rapidly out of control. And Shakespeare denies a happy resolution, despite dangling it so tantalisingly with Cordelia’s return.

‘Old fools are babes again’, but I bet Lear wishes that his mischief, his madness, had only such brief and contained consequences as Max’s. If only he could go home again and find his supper waiting for him, still hot.

Perhaps most foolish of all was my Shakespeare tutor at university. At the end of a big, grand, black-tie dinner, which involved port and snuff and all those other Oxbridge trappings, we all retired for coffee and a game of charades. My tutor proceeded to enact the following clues:


Two words.

He draws a crown around his head.

He leers at each of us in a truly creepy way.

So we can comfort ourselves with the thought that at least Lear wasn’t leery in his old age, just mad.


Boxer Beetle

September 6, 2010

I have just read a book called Boxer Beetle. I suppose this is an unusual choice as I don’t particularly like beetles or boxing.

But the book is written by a chap called Ned Beauman and, while I can hardly call him a close friend, or even really a friend, he did once punt a friend and me along the backs when I was visiting her at Cambridge.

Ned is slightly younger than me, and probably slightly cooler as well. What I remember most about him from that singular boating encounter was that he had painted his fingernails black, was surprisingly good at punting and had quite a few eccentric anecdotes to add to the conversation.

So I was intrigued when this book arrived in the bookshop. How fantastic, I thought, how wonderful that he’s got himself published. I was also pleased to come across some good reviews of Boxer Beetle, like this one in the Guardian.

I decided that buying a copy and reading it was the least I could do.

Now some people, when I told them I was reading a first novel by someone younger than me, said things along the lines of ‘How sickening, how galling, aren’t you jealous?’

I wish that I could say, with all honesty, no.  But of course I’m jealous. Of course I feel somewhat sickened by the idea that someone has already made it, when I haven’t (yet). And when I first picked up the book, my excitement was tinged with a horrid feeling of dread. But I’m pleased to say that as soon as I began to read it, all jealousy evaporated. Here is the first line:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forth-third birthday party.

It’s a great opening line. It’s unusual. It’s funny. It’s quite strange. It’s intriguing. But it’s also something that I would never have written. I have never imagined any of Goebbels’ birthday parties and I don’t think I’d ever dream up a character who would.

This line made me realise straight away that Boxer Beetle might be fantastic and imaginative and funny but it is completely different from what I’ve written and from anything that I might write in the future. (Not that my writing isn’t fantastic, imaginative and funny.) If it were about the 7/7 bombings, or about a young artist travelling around India, or had parallels with E.M. Forster, then, well, then I might have ripped it up in desperation/misery/fury, but I will never write a book about boxing, beetles, or Goebbels. So I was able to switch of the competitive part of me (which mostly surfaces when playing tennis) and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.

And I did enjoy it. It is funny. It is peculiar. It is pacey. It is clever. It is rammed full of meticulously researched digressions. I particularly liked the unexpectedly detailed descriptions, which are casually dropped in and utterly transform the scene.

There was something so submissive and exhausted about the place, thought Erskine, like a thin farmer munching on grass because his own fat cattle have bullied him out of his hot dinner again.

Ned’s imagination really shines throughout the book. I kept thinking that it would be extraordinary to see the world in the similes that he throws in again and again.

The other real achievement is the ambitious architecture of the book – different characters and their plot lines are woven together with real skill. Ned begins with the story of ‘Fishy’, who smells unbearably strongly of fish, is a collector of Nazi memorabilia and spends his time either on Internet chat rooms or doing odd jobs for a dodgy property developer. Then there is ‘Sinner’, aka Seth Roach, an East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s. And finally there is Philip Erskine – a rich young man of the 1930s, who is interested in eugenics and particularly interested in the case of Sinner because of his unbelievable strength despite being small and Jewish and having a right foot with only four toes.

And somehow Ned manages to bring them all together in a narrative that spans over a hundred years (there is a brief chapter about the end of the nineteenth century) and it isn’t confused at all.

On the few occasions in the book when I felt something grate, it was generally a precocity, an arrogance, a pretension, which could be quite annoying. For instance, when Fishy is on the internet chat rooms, he gets a response to a question from someone with the screenname ‘nbeauman’. Ha ha, not. Paul Auster did it twenty years ago. And it wasn’t even all that clever then. It’s a sort of – oh look, this is so witty and post-modern – but actually it just feels unnecessary and a bit smug.

But that grating brings to mind something I came across at university. At Oxford, and I expect at most other universities, a much greater proportion of Firsts are awarded to boys than to girls. And the powers that be thought this was probably because boys have a habit of being so much more arrogant than girls, especially in writing. Perhaps Boxer Beetle does have an underlying arrogance, but that probably comes across as confidence most of the time, which usually gets very well rewarded indeed. Just think of Martin Amis, for instance.

I conclude that if I am to make it in the book world, I shall have to grow a pair. Watch out.

Lessons from The Lessons

May 7, 2010

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.