Wednesday 30th November

Does something essential rest on these? (6)

Osney is mentioned briefly in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale as the “nearby town” that Nicholas’s Oxford landlord, John the Carpenter, visits, thereby allowing his pretty wife, Alison, to fall victim to the young scholar’s charms. Later, Nicholas points to various apocryphal portents to convince the gullible John that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent and the only way to save himself and his wife is to suspend himself in a tub from the rafters.

Naughty Nick, with his Almagest and his astrolabe, is a role-model for philanderers and conmen everywhere, drawing on a wide range of apocryphal and astrological signs to bend the world to his wiles. Meanwhile, on modern-day Osney Island, subsumed into a rather larger Oxford, my own landlord, dearest Papa, is dozing quietly in his favourite armchair, his collection of zappers on one side and a pile of unread newspapers that is now two feet high on the other.

“Dad, what will you do when the great tidal wave comes and Osney Island disappears under water?” I ask.

“What’s that, son?” He half-opens one eye and closes it again.

“You’ve seen the long-range weather forecasts, Papa. The Environment Agency has got us on Amber Alert already. But the great flood could come without warning one night while we are asleep in our beds.”

“It can’t be any worse than it was back in 2007, can it?” he snorts. “And please don’t call me ‘Papa’ – I’m not Greek, I’m the Hogg!”

I have not the faintest idea what he is talking about.

In July 2007, as I idled away the summer before my Finals year, the whole of West Oxford was under water. Osney Island, flanked by the Thames/Isis on its Eastern side and encompassed by Osney Ditch on the other three sides, was the first to go as the floodgates were opened, all too literally, further up-river towards Cirencester, and the rest of the Botley Road floodplain succumbed, about an hour later. Even Noah could hardly have experienced quite such a rapid influx of water as Osney’s residents suffered that day. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky and many an Osney resident was watching Padraig Harrington fend off Sergio Garcia’s challenge in the Open at Carnoustie when suddenly they noticed their carpets becoming a little moist. Within minutes, if not seconds, water was appearing from all directions, through the walls and floorboards. There are two hundred houses crammed onto this tiny island and there is nowhere for the water to go. Frog Island, as it was once known, was underwater for a week. And then suddenly the water drained away, almost as fast as it arrived, no doubt catching a few frogs on the hop.

The impending floods of 2016 could well be considerably worse.

“Why don’t we set up the attic for emergency use?” I suggest, although there is barely room in our attic for a medium-sized stash of pornography. “We could get the plumbing sorted out and set up a temporary bathroom-cum-kitchen up there. How do you fancy bathing under the rafters, Dad?”

“Very funny, Alex. You’re not the only one who has read the Miller’s Tale, you know!”

It’s easy to forget that my decrepit, mildewy Dad studied at Univ too, way back in the sixties, long before he met Mum. PPE, a solid Second. It wasn’t quite the ideal preparation for a future rock star or poet laureate and, sure enough, Dad became a tax inspector instead, the sort of mistake that any of us might have made at that time. As he says, it was a choice between the Revenue and MI6 and he decided he was marginally less likely to get shot at if he joined the Revenue. Dad passed the Civil Service exams and pretty soon found himself in some prefab tax offices back in Gateshead, the start of a happy lifetime spent exploring the mysteries of capital gains tax.

He’s retired now, of course. They let you out of the Revenue quite early with good behaviour and the Civil Service pension was calculated according to 1870 life expectancy statistics, so he will be comfortably off until he pegs out some forty years hence, long after the unfortunate demise of his only son has become a distant memory.

The one big disadvantage of retirement was that my Mum couldn’t stand having him about the house all day, so divorce followed retirement as surely as night follows day. So now I tell people I’m the product of a broken home. Mum got to keep the house (a couple of miles from Stockton-on-Tees) while my father, footloose and fancy-free, decided that it might make sense to move back to Oxford where he had been so happy as a student.

The fact that his son was already living there may have been a mild disincentive but Dad was not to be deterred and he had just enough money from the divorce settlement to buy himself a modest two-up-two-down on Swan St, on the western edge of Osney Island. A small part of Frog Island became Hogg Island. It’s a lovely little house, separated from the Oxford mainland by a little footbridge, on the other side of which is a primary school and, beyond that, the industrial estate of Osney Mead.

Our terraced house has a tiny back garden which slopes gently down to Osney Ditch, one of the many tributaries and relief-channels which meander across the fertile floodplains of West Oxford. This backwater is, like the Hogacre Ditch, little more than a muddy trough most of the time but, when the rains come, it soon transmogrifies into a raging torrent, ready to burst its banks and engulf the neat rows of Victorian terraced homes.

The original Osney, a little further east, was the home of Rewley Abbey in Chaucerian times but the abbey disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries back in 1538. The Osney backwater remained just that for the next three hundred years until the arrival of the Great Western Railway. The iron road cut a swathe through West Oxford in 1851, a great exhibition of technological progress.

The workers for a big programme of railway-building needed to be housed somewhere so Osney Island, then uninhabited, was leased from Christ Church and a symmetrical grid of cheap, terraced houses was designed by George P. Hester. In no time at all the tiny egg-shaped islet was teeming with a thousand residents and twenty pubs. These days there are perhaps five hundred, mostly middle class, islanders and just a single pub, the Punter, now that the once evergreen Holly Bush has been lopped.  Osney has been gentrified but it probably has more novelists, poets, artists and musicians per square foot than any other plot of land in Britain. Failed artists and unheard musicians, admittedly, but you can almost feel the thrum of creativity as you wander its bicycle-fringed streets.

Having bought the place from a strange old lady with a brocade hat and a huge fluffy white poodle, Dad lived here on his own for a year and the very thought of moving back in with my father was something that would once have seemed ridiculous, yet here I am. Dad decided he wanted to take a lodger and I happened to be looking for new digs at round about the same time and, let’s be honest, the economic argument was a compelling one. At my age, Dad had already married and become the proud owner of his second house, but I can barely see the property ladder now, never mind leap on to the bottom rung. Even the flimsiest and tattiest of Osney’s two-up-two-downs goes for the best part of half a million these days. Where am I going to find a bank that would lend me that sort of money when I have no more than the derisory “salary” which Univ deigns to vouchsafe to its loyal retainers? So I moved into Dad’s spare bedroom for a couple of weeks “while I sorted myself out” and somehow never moved out again.

I cling on to the few shreds of dignity that are left to me. My circumstances are not quite the same as the middle-aged man still living with his Mum, is it? I’ve already proved I can live independently, haven’t I? I don’t get my socks ironed and my dinner on the table at 6.30 sharp every evening like one thirty-something adolescent I know. No, I make a point of doing my own ironing once a quarter. Dad does do a lot of the cooking, I confess, but it’s not as if he’s got that many other things to fill up the average day, is it? We rub along OK and I maintain the pretence that I am still on the look-out for a place of my own.

The big disadvantage, of course, is that it kills any prospect of a successful sex-life. What self-respecting girl wants to go out with a 28-year-old man who still lives with his Dad and whose bedroom is only separated from his father’s by the flimsiest of partitions? Outright lies and a fantastical autobiography can only keep a girl interested for two dates max. The more outrageous the inventions and prevarications, the bigger the let-down when the truth finally emerges. My best chance, I figure, is to meet a girl who, for purely practical reasons, is still living at home with her parents, and who will understand where I am coming from on this, but Oxford is not full of such creatures.

Dad’s two great passions in what one hopes are his autumn years are bridge and genealogy. He’s a keen member of the Oxford Bridge Club on the Banbury Rd and likes to while away his afternoons playing for threepence a hundred. As most of his fellow-members are in their nineties and a couple are actually over a hundred, he tends to bring home anything up to ninepence of pure profit from each session.

Dad dreams of executing a triple entry-shifting backwash squeeze (or some such) at least once in his life and the house is full of textbooks that fuss over the nuances of the Acol system. It’s a world that seems to have moved on very little from the 1920s but he can lose himself in a game of bridge for hours at a time and, to be frank, I’m just grateful to have the house to myself. Dad has an alter ego called the Hideous Hogg, named after a famous fictional bridge player, which he uses for discussion forums and the like. I think he has even had one or two Hogg stories published.

But genealogy is his latest big thing. His mission, predictably enough, is to fill in the Hogg family tree as far back as it will go. The information is all there online these days, census details, parish registers – it’s like using the full 848-page Roget’s Thesaurus to solve the Sun’s Quick Crossword, but he loves the thrill of the chase. He’s gone back through six generations without breaking sweat, mainly because the Hoggs are not really a nomadic tribe. We seem to have put down our roots in and around Stockton-on-Tees and undertaken a variety of glamorous tasks – solicitor, funeral director, bank clerk, that sort of thing. Solid yeoman stock and, let’s be honest, I’m a pretty solid yeoman myself these days.

But working backwards, the Hogg line peters out somewhat abruptly in the middle of the nineteenth century, round about the time Osney Island made its overnight appearance like a long row of celestial dominoes. We reach one Henry Leigh Hogg who seems bereft of parents of any kind. No doubt he was raised by wolves (or black cats?) before embarking on a stimulating career in marine insurance. After HLH, there’s a pretty clear line of Hoggery through to the present day.

“It’s so frustrating,” Dad whinges. “I should be able to get back to 1750, at the very least. We can see that Henry Leigh Hogg married Violet McDermott in 1874, had a son and two daughters, and died in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, all without leaving Durham, but we’ve no idea where he came from.”

“And you’ve tried all the available documents?”

“Yes, all the parish registers. Not just Durham, but right across the north-east, in case he moved to Stockton from foreign parts. But there’s nothing. I’ve traced Violet Westlake back another four generations but it’s not quite the same thing. She isn’t a Hogg.”

“No, I can see that must be quite important.”

I make suitable cooing noises as yet again he shows me the vast Tree of Hogglife, with its many branches and tendrils snaking out across the grubby sellotaped collection of A3 sheets on which Dad has laboured. But what I’m really thinking is this: does it resemble the Giant Hog(g)weed celebrated by Peter Gabriel on Nursery Cryme? Found in the Russian hills and presented to Kew Gardens in an act of misguided benevolence, before running amok across England’s green and pleasant land:

Mighty hogweed is avenged.
Human bodies soon will know our anger.
Kill them with your hogweed hairs
Heracleum mantegazziani

The sap of the giant hogweed causes phytodermatitis amongst humans, resulting in blisters, scars, and – if it comes in contact with eyes – blindness. No wonder we Hoggs have always been so popular.

But I feel I have more in common with the common hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, also known as fools asparagus. Indeed, as a small boy I owed much of my music and sex education to the hogweed. The unkempt gardens of Priory House, where I spent so much of my summer holidays in solitary contemplation, were full of hogweeds, some as much as seven feet tall when in full flower in July. These gentle hemlock-like giants towered over the rest of the undergrowth, their umbels like clouds of tiny white flowers. Uncle Alan showed me how you could turn sections of the thick hollow stems of these magnificent weeds into a musical instrument by inserting a long blade of grass and blowing. Well, it was cheaper than a kazoo.

Unlike the other umbellifers (carrot, parsley, coriander, etc), hogweeds are not really edible – at least for humans – but they do seem to have a narcotic and aphrodisiac effect on insect life. In high summer, the mass of white flowers form a platform or stage on which randy beetles can strut their stuff and mate to their hearts’ content. What are those beetles doing, I asked my uncle? I forget his mumbled reply, something about making baby beetles, but it was clear even to my young eyes that these little soldier beetles were having a very good time indeed. No wonder the popular name for the species is the hogweed bonking beetle. They would wander about in a stoned state, hook up with a member of the opposite sex, then remain attached even when flying away to investigate the pollen elsewhere. In this state of zonked and erotic distraction, they are easy prey for house martins (or martlets, as Uncle Alan insisted on calling them) that swoop down and hoover up the delicate and tasty couples in mid-air. What a way to go!

Sorry, I digress. Having duly admired all the fronds and tendrils of Dad’s Hogg-Tree, I ask casually whether he bumped into Bill Clinton at all back in the sixties.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason, really. I guess he was slightly after your time. It’s just that you both did PPE, didn’t you?”

“I heard he used to loiter around the Porter’s Lodge mesmerised by the way Douglas, the Head Porter, treated everyone. Ideal prep for someone who wanted to run the free world, I guess. I never met Clinton. But I have to say there were quite a few other Univ PPEists and PPPists who went on to great things in those days.”

“What, greater than being a taxman?”

“Arguably so. There was Peter Gibbs who opened the batting for Derbyshire and then had quite a distinguished career as a playwright and novelist. Lovely chap!”

“Never heard of him.”

“OK, perhaps you’ve come across Mike Ratledge?”

“You mean the Mike Ratledge, keyboard-noodler supreme and founder member of Soft Machine? He wasn’t at Univ, was he?”

“Indeed he was. We got paired up for Philosophy seminars. I remember a long debate on whether Hegel was the clumsy charlatan that Schopenhauer maintained.”

“Was he?”

“I can’t remember a word that either of them wrote. But it all seemed quite important back then. Mike was a tall, thin lad, quite shy really. He was already into all that avant-garde music. He was up and down, Oxford, London, Canterbury, so he missed a few lectures. But he was a serious scholar too. He wanted to do a postgrad in America but didn’t get the paperwork malarkey done in time.”

“So he formed Soft Machine instead?”

“I guess so. I didn’t see him much after that. I wasn’t really into jazz, being more of a Peter, Paul and Mary fan myself.”

“What taste you had, Dad! What did you make of the Rolling Stones in those days?”

“Awful racket! You’re not still doing their stuff, are you?”

“Phil’s organising a big do in the Parks next summer. We’re going to try and recreate the 1969 Hyde Park Free Festival, God help us.”

“They say Bill Clinton was a big Stones fan …”

“Is that so? Hyde Park would have been just after the end of Trinity Term in ’69, halfway through his time in Oxford. Maybe he was there!”

Later, while my father shouts out the answers to Victoria Coren on Monday’s Only Connect, I retire to my cell with its solitary reproduction of Turner’s ‘High Street, Oxford’ (1810) clinging to the damp wall and contemplate the idea of Bill Clinton singing along to ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in Hyde Park in his tie-dye t-shirt and flared jeans. No doubt he would have been puffing at a spliff with an impressionable English rose in tow. I picture them cooling off in the Serpentine and holding hands on the bus back to Oxford.

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