I had been expectantly searching, since my arrival at Oxford, for that ‘garden overlooked by no window’, that symbol of romantic fulfilment evoked in ‘Brideshead Revisited’. I was extremely impatient for this. Within a few days of my arrival I was already complaining to a friend, Michael Simpson, that I had not yet found it. ‘Well, you have only been here a week,’ he suggested.
There came the time that I became confident that I had found the romantic Oxford I was looking for. ‘Was it you, John,’ I wrote, ‘ who said of me; ‘Jeremy has found his Arcadia?’
‘I had always previously been terrified of dying with Rousseau’s words on my lips, “Qu’ai-je fait ici-bas? J’etais fait pour vivre et je meurs sans avoir vecu.” But now I wouldn’t mind dying. To be male! To be alive! That is enough. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but to be young was very heaven.”’
It was Lucy Rothenstein, a young woman who my mother described, on first seeing her, as ‘pure Renoir’ that induced this sense of euphoria.
A student at the Ruskin School of Art, which was based behind the Grecian portico of the Ashmolean Museum, Lucy had been instructed to spend her first year there drawing the plaster casts of life-sized statues that thronged the murky foyer. Her good looks came from her mother who was a handsome woman from the American blue grass country. It was these good looks, repeated in Lucy, modified into a rounded plumpness and combined with a langourous temperament, that endeared her to my mother, and to me.
Lucy’s father, John Rothenstein, was director of the Tate Gallery and was not a good looking man. My father, always apt to go for a less optimistic view of things than my mother, objected to him saying that he looked like a Japanese parachutist. Rather prematurely, so I felt, he asked what would happen if Lucy and I had children and they arrived looking, not like Lucy, but like her father?
When not in their flat in the basement of the Tate, Lucy’s parents lived in an early nineteenth century stucco house to the South East of Oxford whose lawns sloped down to the river Thames. Soon after meeting Lucy, I was invited out there. We sat beneath a huge yew tree on curved chairs. There was salad from a two-foot bowl, then melting ice cream with chocolate and nuts.
There was a game of croquet and after it Lucy and I drove on to a party on Rose Island, an island on the Thames. You can see it from the windows of the train that goes from Oxford to London and I still watch out for it if on a train journey through those parts and remember the light from the water reflecting up on the guests and our five hosts wandering round with bowls of fruit salad and confectionery, tarts and cakes.
A gramophone played for guests to dance to in a small outhouse whose walls were clumsily painted with large and exotic fish. The amber water around the island washed against some narrow concrete steps and Lucy and I sat on the grass at the top, our feet dangling down towards the water. She was fiddling with a ring her mother had lent her and it slipped from her hands and, with a small splash, disappeared under the water. We put on bathing costumes and dived for it. Lucy gave up but I carried on. One by one the other guests left and I was still diving as the night grew whiter and colder. I don’t remember ever finding the ring.
Back in Oxford, we walked through Christchurch Meadow and climbed on to a college barge. Then into a punt, borrowed from a shoal of them moored under Folly Bridge, we paddled through the darkness, past the rowdy cries of drunkards, on into quietness and night.
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