Page 16, 30th November 2007

30th November 2007
Page 16
Page 16, 30th November 2007 — An ancient city stalked by a materialist spirit

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Locations: Warsaw, Cambridge, Oxford


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An ancient city stalked by a materialist spirit

By Garry O'Connor

Was I the only one to be astonished when the stalwart Portuguese detecti ve on the Panorama about Madeleine's disappearance said the statements from the seven friends of the McCanns didn't add up and form a coherent picture? As if different peoples' accounts of what happened on such and such a night could ever be the same. Should they have had checked one another 's statements and scrupulously coordinated them to back each other up, and give the same version? And could the Portuguese detective ever believe that a crowd of English medics, who'd got through a fair number of bottles, existed on some higher plane of being able to dovetail their recall?

This is what Hillary and Bill Clinton did over Clinton's Monica Lewinsky affair, and his subsequent impeachment. In their autobiographies both tell exactly the same story. Will Cherie and Tony Blair do the same when they write their books? All four are lawyers. Hillary's crowning judgment is that "his failing wasn't a betrayal of his country". Will Cherie say this of Tony Blair?

Detectives of course need to find objective facts about a crime so that arrests can be made. Crime detail apart, I note on a visit last week to see friends in Oxford that the search for scientific truth and, its bedfellow, rampant, material utilitarianism have largely taken over the ancient city.

Perhaps the impending closure of Greyfriars, that rather austere pebbledash fortress of faith on the Illfley Road, next to the stadium where Roger Bannister ran his four-minute mile, is a symbol of this. No doubt it will be applauded by the Oxford secularists in their crusade against faith.

In the 15 years, from 1976 to 1991, when I lived in north Oxford and four of my children attended local schools, a different ethos and spirit, in what might be called the Tolkienian epoch, prevailed. Catholics had a choice of Mass from at least six separate churches: Greyfriars, Black Friars, St Aloysius, St Benet's, Campion Hall, and the University Chaplancy in the Newman Rooms. There was even a tiny, rickety church up the Woodstock Road. Each establishment was presided over by a distinguished priest of a very sound and dependable character, and taken together this made a formidable assemblage of intellect and example. Even so these men were able to relate to us town folk and our needs at a very simple, ordinary level.

Writers such as the late Humphrey Carpenter were writing biographies of Tolkien and C S Lewis, as well as those of Runcie , Auden, and Benjamin Britten among other traditional talents, while the fluent moralist A N Wilson was penning his novel Wise Virgin among a host of books about believers. At least two people I knew were writing lives of Cardinal Newman.

On the fringes of this, to take but one example, there was Greta Verdun, a lady of a most delicate and distinguished literary sensibility and impeccable culinary skill, who taught English Literature at the High, and who presided over a circle of literary friends. She might almost have been the reincarnation of Jane Austen, but she became very depressed, later disappeared, and was found unaccountably drowned in the River Cherwell near her house.

So now real estate had become the presiding materialist spirit, and during my time there property prices went up more than 10 times. North Oxford gave up its dark mysterious corners, its ramshackle, crumbling old houses in the Woodstock Road, its misty swamps and willow walks, its overgrown eerie towpaths, for sleeping policemen, for Warsaw-like batteries of residential blocks, joined to terraces of thin, tall identical houses in watered down Wilkinson and Moore style.

No longer those fine metallic particles from Lucy's foundry which smote the nostrils on walking through acade mic thoroughfares, one recently dubbed "vomit alley" by a head of college; no longer tramps and travellers lurked darkly by their fires on the fringes of Port Meadow. Now there is an underground car park being dug for residents under the St Barnabas graveyard. Superstition has been driven out of the city centre. Parking is the main preoccupation.

So all hail Dawkins and Philip Pullman, and the new presiding utilitarian spirit of the greatest number of expensive boxes and parking places for the greatest number of people. Here's what Pullman says about Dawkins: "a ferocious and implacable opponent of those who water the dark roots of superstition"; and here's what Pullman says about his predecessor in magic, C S Lewis: he calls the Narnia series "one of the most poisonous things I have ever read".

Perhaps the believers are getting their revenge, at least on the children front, as accounts proliferate all over Oxford of the secular brigade sending off their hopeful kids to audition for the next Narnia film. At least this puts them on their knees praying: for their child to win the nasty part of Eustace in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and begin a life of underage celebrity like Harry Potter stars so they can be sure of the school fees (the casting concentrates on the independent sector).

Is Oxford leading us into the dark pit of secular atheism, where, in tune with Darwin, only the fittest will survive? But who are the fittest? Andre Maurois, in writing about the collapse of France in 1940, says "in England the people's government had the benefit of historical experience. In a France for a long time, the divorce between Parliament and the real leaders of the country in culture, business, and labour had been very nearly complete. Most of the professional politicians were lawyers..." Recognise the scenario? Maurois quotes the Cambridge professor Barker who began a lecture at the Sorbonne: "England is a democracy [ie a successful democracy, as opposed to crumbling France] because she is an aristocracy." The paradox is true, adds Maurois.

Garry O'Connor's The Darlings of Downing Street is published by Politico's

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