Monday 12th December

Short Italian food shortages back (4)

I am summoned to Phil’s rooms in Univ so that I may discuss wedding plans with the bride and groom, the folie d’amour aboard the Folly Bargères, but Phil has evidently forgotten the appointment. Marie-Claire is there, tapping away at a text or two, and I’m assured that the great man is expected imminently. I park myself on one of his beanbags and make steady inroads into a bottle of Old Peculier.

“You never did finish that story of your time being brainwashed by the e-Lutherans,” Marie-Claire observes between texts. “I looked them up on Google and found absolutely nothing.”

I have had a little time to prepare for this moment.

“Maybe you left the hyphen out?” I suggest. “They’re long gone, I think. Maybe they digitised themselves and went up into the Cloud? I’ve lost touch.  I managed to get myself thrown out when someone said I was plotting to kill the e-Lutherarch.”

“Mmm, it all sounds entirely credible,” Marie-Claire laughs and I fall in love with her all over again.

“So, what are you working on at the moment?” I enquire of the blushing bride, by way of further small talk.

“Giving a bunch of mice a hard time, as ever.”

“To any particular purpose?”

“It’s based on Sheldrake’s morphic resonance hypothesis. We’re exploring a barely appreciated influence on adult behaviour – ancestral experience prior to conception.”

“What, the things a mother does, before getting pregnant?”

“Or the father. From a translational perspective, our results with mice show us that the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both the structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations. We’re trying to isolate the genetic components of a phenomenon that has been observed in many walks of life. Dog-breeders, for instance, have noted that if you teach a dog a brand new skill, that dog’s offspring may one day demonstrate the same skill without having to be taught at all.”

“So the children of a violinist, say, may have a head start in learning the instrument?”

“Maybe. Possibly even the grandchildren. But it’s not all good news. The same phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential inter-generational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve been training mice to fear the smell of roses, then testing their offspring and their offspring’s offspring who have never encountered roses at all, to see if they exhibit the same phobia. Sure enough, most of them do. Uh-oh, look who’s turned up, smelling of …”

Phil saunters in, muttering of hebdomadal councils, and the conversation quickly turns to carnations and other wedding paraphernalia. I reach for another bottle of Old Peculier, zone out and ask myself a few questions based on my inadequate understanding of Marie-Claire’s research:

  1. What if this is just the tip of the iceberg?
  2. What if our genetic inheritance compels us to feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, as our parents and grandparents?
  3. Can the coding skip a generation, two generations, four generations, eight generations?
  4. We think of ourselves as creatures of free will and yet 99.9% of our actions are instinctive and habitual or guided by some kind of atavistic impulse. Is what we think of as memory actually not just a store of our own memories but memories hard-wired across the generations?
  5. When I experienced an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu in Hyde Park, was it because my mother or my great-grandfather had once passed the same way and had some kind of profound experience there?
  6. Most of us have experienced a sense of déjà-vu at some time or other. We rationalise it as best we can, but perhaps our forebears really have been there before?

I remember the first time I set foot in University College. We were on some sort of family trip to see relatives and Dad fancied a trip down Memory/Logic Lane, so we all trooped in to Main Quad. I remember feeling instantly at home there. Was that because I was in a well-tended quad with reassuringly ancient architecture all around me? Or was I genetically programmed to remember the sights and sounds and smells that my father had once experienced?

If that seems rational enough, the whole business about Thomas Jefferson Hogg has, I confess, spooked me. Two centuries have gone by and yet we seem to have so much in common, not just a shared phobia of amphibians, but a whole range of life-experiences. It is almost as if … please don’t laugh, gentle reader … as if I am Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Minus the sideburns and the skullcap, thank goodness. It would explain a lot: I have never felt quite in sync with the 21st century – all those mobiles and i-pads and whatnot that most people take for granted. Facebook, Twitter … forget it. I was muttering about the youth of today even when I was one of the youth of today.

As for sex ’n drug’s ’ n rock’n’roll, well, the first has generally passed me by, I’ve steered well clear of the second and even my tastes in music seem curiously retro to my friends – grandad rock, as my mother once described it. While the language of most of my peers is full of four-letter words, I can’t abide swearing – I wince whenever someone says ‘****’ – you see, I can’t even write it down! I am as repressed as any Victorian, so it would not be so surprising if it turns out that I actually am Victorian.

“So, what do you think, Alex?” Phil asks suddenly.

“About what?”

“Well, the table decorations, obviously.”

“It’s a brilliant plan,” I agree. “But would you mind awfully if I head back to the office?  Vlad doesn’t like me spending too long away ….”

So who was this Thomas Jefferson Hogg chappie? Wikipedia seems the obvious place to start. Let’s see: born 1792 in Norton near Stockton-on-Tees. We Hoggs really haven’t moved around much, have we? I cycled along Norton’s high street with its avenue of trees, its village green and duckpond, quite often as a boy. Norton was an important settlement in Anglo-Saxon times including a large pagan cemetery which predates Christian and Viking influences. Prior to the construction of the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825, Stockton was a village on the edge of Norton; now their roles are reversed.

Hogg was educated at Durham School, which seems to have had something of a fast-track arrangement with Univ on account of the fact that the college was founded by William of Durham in 1249. So he follows in his father’s footsteps, just as I have done, and arrives at Univ lodge a few months too late to appear in Turner’s famous painting. Who should he bump into but a precocious young fresher called Percy Bysshe Shelley? The two young men live in each other’s pockets until they are sent down in Shelley’s second term. The next few lines in Wikipedia are intriguing:

‘They remained good friends, but their relationship was sometimes strained because of Hogg’s attraction to the women who were romantically involved with Shelley.’

But Hogg settles down to a respectable, if unspectacular, career as a lawyer in London and the north of England and marries a woman called Jane Williams, also apparently linked with Shelley before the latter’s death, and they have just one child surviving beyond infancy, the mysterious Prudentia.

There seems to be a single surviving image of TJ Hogg – the one my father had printed out – and that shows him aged 65, well into his pantaloon years, so it is hardly fair to judge him on that unflattering profile. I can’t help wondering what he looked like at 18 (or, indeed, 28) but it is not easy to knock so many decades off this imposing image. Was he as much of a firebrand as young Bysshe? It sounds as though Jefferson (as his friends called him) also aspired to a literary career but lacked the staying power or the independent wealth which sustained Shelley through his lean years. Or perhaps the Shelley friendship was just a haphazard interlude in a life of deserved obscurity? We’ll see.

The Wikipedia page offers so many promising avenues of enquiry that it is hard to know where to start. I decide to begin with Jane Williams. Was she the Jane of ‘With a Guitar, to Jane’ which I dimly remember from my student days and the Casa Magni? Yes! These are Shelley’s lyrical opening lines:

Ariel to Miranda:–Take
This slave of Music, for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee …

What poor girl could resist such a gift and such a serenade? That final summer of 1822, 29-year-old Shelley and his ever-pregnant wife, Mary, were sharing our accidental beach-house, the Casa Magni, with another young couple, Edward and Jane Williams, although it turns out that Edward and Jane were never actually married at all. Jane was still technically hitched to some other chap, one John Edward Johnson. So the ‘Ferdinand’ of this beguilingly submissive tribute is Edward Williams, also at a loose end and playing at boats in the Bay of Lerici – what does he know of these shenanigans? Wikipedia claims: ‘Jane was successful in her attempts to prevent Edward from suspecting infidelity on her part.’ Considering Shelley’s reputation with women, that seems a little unlikely.

This blossoming seaside romance was somewhat short-lived because, on the 8th July, Shelley and Edward Williams both drowned when Shelley’s racing boat, the Don Juan, went down in a storm. It is all too easy to imagine the two men at each other’s throats, locked in a mortal embrace while their flimsy boat is tossed across the bay. But there is little firm evidence to support such a conjecture – for all we know, they may have been bosom pals to the end.

Back to my computerised tomhoggraphy (sorry!) … it turns out that TJ Hogg was nowhere near Lerici in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1822. Encouragingly, he did not drown. He was a practising lawyer in Northumberland and Durham and something of a Greek scholar in his spare time. He had turned down all invitations to Italy and hardly seen his old college friend since 1817. Nor had he met Jane Williams. So how did he come to marry the merry widow and become the stepfather to her two children? I must find out more …

 

… although possibly not on college premises. I am so deeply engrossed in my research that my boss, the fearsome Vlad, has come into my office and is patiently watching over my shoulder.

“I hate to interrupt,” he barks and I almost jump out of my skin. “You and I need to have a little chat, Alex.”

“Er, OK …”

Vlad looks round as if to check that none of our colleagues is in earshot. He then pauses for effect like a results-announcer on Strictly.

“Alex, we’re going to have to let you go.”

“Right. I see …”

“In fact, I’d like you to clear your desk and leave immediately. You’ll be paid up until the end of December.”

“But …”

“It’s non-negotiable, I’m afraid.”

“But I was really beginning to make some progress. Pres …”

“Ah yes, Mr Clinton.”

“I almost thought I’d persuaded him to make a major bequest.”

“I’m afraid quite the opposite was true. In fact …”

“Has he said something?”

Vlad lets the question hang in the air for a few seconds.

“I couldn’t possibly comment,” he says at last.

 

Well, stuff that then. I didn’t like the poxy little job anyway. There is something more than a little unsatisfactory about earning close to the minimum wage while ringing up a bunch of rich people and begging for a few crumbs off their table. They can take their job and stick it up some convenient orifice. The fact that I would have been slightly too dead to turn up for work after the New Year Bank Holiday is neither here nor there. Vlad wasn’t to know that my world ends on 30th December, was he?

Has Bill Clinton issued some presidential decree from god-knows-where and the college has said “yes, sir, three bags full, sir!”? I doubt it. The truth is probably rather simpler. Vlad never liked me. He never wanted to give me a job in the first place, the bastard. It’s a blow to my pride, of course it is. Most of the guys I knew in college have gone on to become hedge fund managers, film makers (the future Tom Hoopers and Armando Iannuccis) and brain surgeons, while yours truly can’t even hang on to a job that barely keeps him in tins of spag bol. It is a humiliation.

I’d like to describe a blazing row that culminates in me lobbing my PC out of the window and on to the dome of the Shelley Memorial before I am frog-marched off the premises, but I’m far too English for anything like that. I pack a plastic bag with my stuff and leave, quietly. I wonder if Shelley himself made a little more fuss when he was given his marching orders back in March 1811? History records that he went off and had a good cry on the broad shoulders of his close friend, Hogg, and signally failed to prevent the latter from spoiling his own university career in pursuit of some obscure point of procedural justice.

But why should I take this lying down? Like Shelley, I will mobilise the troops! Instead of turning left and out of the Porter’s Lodge, I cross the Main Quad and wend my way through the Radcliffe Quad, past the Master’s Lodgings and Durham Buildings and round to Cecily’s Court, scarcely bothering to dodge the puddles as I go. Surely Phil will help me in my hour of need? I knock very tentatively on the door of his teaching room even though I can hear some poor girl is being interviewed inside for a place at the college. Another spotty youth is waiting anxiously across the landing. There is a moment’s silence until eventually Phil opens his door a fraction.

“Alex!”

“Sorry, Phil, bit of a problem …”

“It’s Hattie, isn’t it?”

Hattie? No, I shouldn’t really have come round, but …”

Phil looks over his shoulder and turns back to me expectantly.

“It’s just that I’ve lost my job,” I continue, lamely.

Phil seems to be at a loss for words. We stand there awkwardly for a few seconds while the Park Fellow in English Literature weighs up his options. He looks at the boy in the tweed jacket who is trying to melt into the background.

“You see, I’m a bit busy interviewing until four o’clock, well, until five o’clock, actually. Do you think you could …”

“Hang on till then?”

“I’m sorry, Alex …”

And with that the door closes on my time at University College, Oxford. I carry my cross home, alone, through streets filled with Christmas shoppers and people putting up reindeer. I wish I had a river I could skate away on, like Queen Matilda besieged in Oxford Castle

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