From the age of six I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford with this building at the end of our garden.
The library is an exquisite Queen Anne edifice with an imposing stone eagle on the top. The eagle’s presence is explained by the college’s coat of arms, which is a shield with three red eagles on it. This is the coat of arms of the founder of the college Robert de Eglesfield (1341) and I assume the eagles were a pun on his name.
My bedroom was in the roof of the Provost’s Lodging’s and looked straight out at the eagle. It was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep each night.
Not long after we moved into the Lodgings, the eagle was struck by lightning in the middle of a spectacular thunderstorm. I was looking out of the window when it happened. It shattered and crashed down into our garden. It was odd that it was struck because we were surrounded by much higher spires: St Mary’s, the University church was not far away and that is the highest spire in the city centre and then there were the turrets of All Souls college and indeed the Queen’s chapel. But it was the eagle that attracted the lightning.
Perhaps it saw the opportunity to take flight and seized it.
What is it like to live in this city of birds and shadows? It is like being the offspring of a ghost and a hooligan
PHILIP PULLMAN ON OXFORD
It is an event from my childhood that is fixed firmly in my memory because I was upset and frightened by it. The following day I remember looking at all the pieces of it smashed on the paving stones and trying to hide the fact that I was crying. Some of it disappeared into my mother’s rockery, other bits were swept away.
In time another eagle was carved and hoisted aloft, this time with the precaution of a lightning conductor running down its back. I remember how big the new one seemed, almost as tall as me, and I remember touching it before it was hoisted aloft. I thought no one was going to touch it for a long time once it was up there.
However, I never felt quite the same way about the new one.
On my desk I have part of the stone eagle that I saw being struck by lightning; a hand-sized piece of its wing that my mother kept. It reminds me of her and my father and of that old eagle that shattered.
Sometimes I imagine the old eagle is out there, surfing the currents above the Oxford spires, sometimes I imagine he might land on my window sill one night to reclaim this from me.
I have it here to remind me to retain a little bit of that magic from my childhood in my writing. After all, what are our imaginations for, if not for taking flight from time to time?
Do you have an object or touchstone that has a particular significance for you? What is it?