I was in Oxford not long ago and, for once, I kept notes. I went there in order to attend a lecture by Sir Geoffrey Hill, and, thinking I may as well make a day of it, I took an early bus and arrived there in time for a spot of lunch. At the Grand Café on High Street, reputed to be the first coffeehouse in England, a woman in her late thirties, in a patterned beret, sat at the table next to mine. She ordered a bowl of porridge. What sort of woman, I wondered, orders porridge at one in the afternoon. A classics professor? Someone with a complicated personal life? Who was she? She had a story, I’m sure. Her cheeks were dabbed with rouge, overly so, a bit like the wooden ballerina in Coppelia
, and she wore bright red lipstick, a fur coat, blue jeans, and shoes with white spats. No single article of her clothing matched another, which made for a kind of unity. She ate, she paid, she went, another of the world’s unsolvable mysteries. I was certain of one thing only: she knew I was writing about her as surely as if I were sketching her from up close. She didn’t flinch, nor did she silently yield to my brown study. She’ll know herself if ever she reads this.
With time to spare I went to the Ashmolean, settling for a while on its collection of Cycladic figures, and was not a little dismayed to learn that originally their faces were painted in reds and blues. Suddenly those beautiful white ...
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