Saturday, January 20, 2007

A good smoke

I went down to Oxford yesterday in the hope of whipping up some business. I took the train which involved 3 changes on the outward trip and none on the return. That's 4 trains. They were all late. Not, according to the announcements, because of the storms on Thursday, but because of 'staff illness' or a 'points failure'. Be that as it may, I spent 6 hours travelling for a one-hour meeting. But I'm not writing this to complain about the trains.

I hadn't been to Oxford for over 20 years, so when the meeting finished leaving me 3 hours to wait for the train home, I set off into town. I knew where I wanted to get to. I had a vague memory of a very broad street lined with plane trees and an ivy-covered college on one side. Turning according to which street seemed hazily familiar, I found myself at the Martyrs' Memorial, which only in that moment was added to the remembered scene, and so walked into St Giles. As I had recalled it, it was empty of traffic, though I can't imagine why. Nevertheless, a little of the suffused excitement of an old courtship returned and I looked round for a pub where I could wallow a little in comfort. There was one in front of me, but as I glanced across the breadth of St Giles, a name caught my eye: The Eagle and Child.

I knew I knew it, but I didn't know why. Pint in hand, I sat down in a small room lined with darkened wood and one glance told me why. This was the Rabbit Room, the old parlour where Tolkein, Lewis, Charles Williams and others sipped, puffed and talked of what they were writing, reading and thinking. I was sipping rather an ordinary ale, and puffing with that intense feeling of inhaling essences of ...something that only a smoke in the right conditions confers. Fresh Old Holborn out of my worn old leather pouch, with a glass of beer in a warm atmosphere filled with associations both historical and personal. There is little to equal it.

And it will soon be gone. Travelling is a renunciation of a good smoke. You can't smoke on the train; you can't even smoke on open-air platforms while waiting for the train (except in Crewe, for some reason). You can't smoke in offices. Since I hate smoking standing up or in the street, it usually means a day without nicotine, or any of the other essences of ... something that I mentioned above. Except in a pub. In a pub, moreover, where Tolkein puffed on his pipe and Lewis burned down a good number of his 60-a-day as they worked up the mixture of essences that would result in Middle Earth and Narnia and so much else. And did it in good company. After June this year, it will be impossible, and the memory of it will linger like that of the nectar of the Gods, a mere literary topos, or convention, irrevocably gone.

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