ON MY DESK: EAGLE WING

From the age of six I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford with this building at the end of our garden.

library summer storm

The Queen’s college library with a summer storm coming in

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.

the lodgings

Top right was my bedroom window

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.

eagle wing

Eagle wing

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?

 

THE ODYSSEY – HOMECOMING

The Provost's Lodgings, Queen's College, Oxford

The Provost’s Lodgings, The Queen’s College, Oxford

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live now? The flesh and blood people you live with – your community of friends, husband, wife or partner? The place you raised or are raising your children? The bricks and mortar of the house or flat? The surrounding city? The country? Your childhood home? The people you were raised by? Mother, father, grandparents, brothers and sisters? Over this festive season lots of people will have been travelling home with all sorts of expectations and with varied outcomes. Coming home is the central theme of The Odyssey and if you think a bit about what home means to you and how complex that is and how the meaning changes over time, you’ll see why the dramatic possibilities of the ‘homecoming’ have been so popular with film makers, playwrights and novelists ever since.

The University Church, St Mary's and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

The University Church of St Mary’s and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Recently, I went back to the city that was my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, Oxford. The last time I was there was for a literary festival in my old college. Before that it was for my father’s memorial service. I don’t go back very often. I walked around on a sunny, bitterly cold, winter morning. I sat in a restaurant, eating on the exact same spot I had come to with my father to set up my first bank account. I listened to the bell of Tom Tower ringing 101 times at 21.05 pm. I had breakfast in The Grand Café which is, I think, on the site of the old Co-Op shop, where I was sent to get milk by my mother. Today this café has golden plaster, Jean Cocteau arms, reaching out of the walls, holding candlesticks, and a sign on the wall saying it was the earliest coffee-house in England. I was not chased up and down by a fat woman in a nylon coat, crackling with static electricity, who thought I was going to steal her sweets.

The Queen's College library, Oxford

The Queen’s College Library, Oxford

This time I enjoyed my visit and I marveled at the beauty of the city. Was I really brought up here, I wondered, and what effect did that have on me? My memories were no longer tinged with grief. It’s only taken thirty years! Oxford, I have come to the conclusion, is not an easy city to leave. When I was twenty-one, I was naive enough to think it was as simple as getting on the bus to London.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

The second half of the Odyssey is given up to what happens to Odysseus once he returns to Ithaca nineteen years after he set off to the Trojan War. One of the first things is a spectacularly flirtatious scene with Athene ‘of the flashing eyes’, who first appears to Odysseus as a beautiful, young male shepherd. Odysseus immediately lies to her. He can’t help himself. It’s his nimble wits. Does she mind? No, she does not. Instead she is highly appreciative. She caresses him, turns back into a beautiful woman and says

‘What a cunning knave it would take to beat you at your tricks! Even a god would be hard put to it.’ 

Later she adds

‘How like you to be so wary! And that is why I cannot desert you in your misfortune: you are so civilized, so intelligent, so self-possessed.’

Magdalen College tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Magdalen College Tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

You see? Very, very flirtatious. Athene – get a grip, girl! Fortunately, she does just that by turning him into a withered old man. It’s a disguise to protect him but I have the feeling she’s also reasserting her power over him just a little.

One of the most touching scenes in the whole book occurs shortly afterwards when Odysseus is reunited with his son, Telemachus, who was a babe in arms when he went off to war. I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole book

 

‘… Telemachus softened at last, flung his arms round his noble father’s neck and burst into tears. And now they both broke down and sobbed aloud without a pause like birds bereaved, like the sea-eagle or the taloned vulture when villagers have robbed the nest of their unfledged young. So did these two let the piteous tears run streaming from their eyes.’ 

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

This is also an example of something else that I love in the book. Men are allowed to express powerful emotions by crying and this is not viewed in any way as unmanly. Odysseus cries a great deal. Given what he goes through this is not at all surprising. He is also a mighty warrior, ‘a sacker of cities’ but there is no suggestion that his masculinity is compromised by his tears. The Greeks, it seems to me, were obviously a lot better adjusted around manly tears than we are!

Do you have a favourite homecoming scene in film, theatre or books?