Dreaming of spires

In Oxford, likelihood flies out the window. So where better for novelist Philip Pullman to base his fantasy?

Saturday July 27, 2002
The Guardian

A couple of years ago I finished the last in a trilogy of novels [The Amber Spyglass, part three of His Dark Materials] set partly in an alternative universe, which contains an imaginary Oxford. Imaginary, because the story is a fantasy; but perhaps a great deal of Oxford is imaginary anyway. In Oxford, likelihood evaporates. At about the time the book was published, the Fellows of All Souls announced that they had just spent an evening parading around their college following a wooden duck on a stick. That was obviously a very sensible thing to do, and I wish I had thought of it first.

However, it is better to ease your readers in without startling them too much, so the fellows of Jordan College, in my imaginary Oxford, eat dinner in Hall and then retire elsewhere to drink coffee, almost as if it were real life; and that is the point at which the story begins.

Jordan College occupies the same physical space in Lyra's Oxford (Lyra is the young heroine of my story) as Exeter College occupies in real life, though rather more of it. Exeter was where I was an undergraduate many years ago, and I did not see why I should not make my college the grandest of all. Jordan, where Lyra grows up, has developed in a haphazard, piecemeal way, and for all its wealth some part of it is always about to fall down and is consequently covered in scaffolding; it has an air of jumbled and squalid grandeur. And furthermore, "What was above ground was only a small fraction of the whole. Like some enormous fungus whose root-system extended over acres, Jordan (finding itself jostling for space above ground with St Michael's College on one side, Gabriel College on the other, and Bodley's Library behind) had begun, sometime in the Middle Ages, to spread below the surface. Tunnels, shafts, vaults, cellars, staircases had so hollowed out the earth below Jordan and for some yards around it that there was almost as much air below ground as above; Jordan College stood on a sort of froth of stone."

I don't know whether that is true of Exeter, but I can locate the origin of that bit of fantasy. When I was up (1965-68) I had a group of idle friends who occupied their time and mine betting on horses, getting drunk, and sprawling about telling creepy tales. One of the stories we frightened ourselves with concerned the Bodleian Library, which, we assured one another, had been intended to be Hitler's Chancellery when he had conquered Britain. Beneath the library, apparently, the stacks extended for untold miles in every direction, and each of the levels, named with letters of the alphabet, was more secret than the one above. The lowest, Level L, was profoundly sinister. It was occupied by a race of sub-human creatures, the secret of whose existence was only divulged to the vice-chancellor on his accession.

However, there were forgotten shafts and lost passages through every part of the ground between the Clarendon Building and Palmer's Tower in Exeter College, and sometimes the creatures got out. You could hear them howling and scrabbling if you pressed your ear to the cellar wall under staircase 9. I did, and you can.

When she's not exploring underground, Lyra spends a good deal of time on the college roof, spitting plum-stones on the heads of passing scholars or hooting like an owl outside a window where a tutorial is going on. That, too, is based on something I remember from Exeter. In my second year I occupied the rooms at the top of staircase 8, next to the lodge tower, and a friend, Jim Taylor, discovered that you could get out of the window and crawl along a very useful gutter behind the parapet. From there you could climb in through another window further along. I gave Lyra a better head for heights than I have, but I did the gutter crawl a number of times, usually when there was a party on the next staircase.

One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that you can sit at your desk and just make up what you are too lazy to go and find out. But sometimes I do stir myself to look for things, and when I find something interesting but irrelevant to my immediate purpose, I save it up for a later book, and invent a context to fit it. In the Retiring Room at Jordan, for example, after the dinner that takes place in the first chapter, "The Master lit the spirit-lamp under the little silver chafing-dish and heated some butter before cutting open half a dozen poppy-heads and tossing them in. Poppy was always served after a Feast: it clarified the mind and stimulated the tongue, and made for rich conversation. It was traditional for the Master to cook it himself."

Heaven forfend that the rector of Exeter should feel obliged to serve opium after dinner, but this is an alternative universe, after all. I lifted that dainty detail from the diary of an English lady living in India before the Mutiny, which I'd come across 10 years before while I was looking for something else entirely. I knew I could use it somewhere.

The way a novelist "researches" - this one, anyway - is quite different from the coherent, focused, disciplined sort of reading which I imagine you need to do if you want an academic career. Despite my three years at Oxford, I never mastered that sort of grown-up reading: I couldn't do it then, and I don't do it now. Instead, intrigued by this patch of colour or that scent, beguiled by a pretty shape or blown sideways by a wayward breeze, I flit from book to book, subject to subject, place to place; and it is only later, in solitude and silence, that I begin the laborious process of changing it all into something else. Read like a butterfly, write like a bee.

Fantasy, of course, allows you to change things into other things as much as you like. The part of Oxford known as Jericho (whose name, by the way, suggested that of Jordan) is, in real life, thoroughly respectable: terraces of small Victorian houses built for labourers, now occupied by young professionals and their families; the campanile of St Barnabas, the embodiment of Victorian high church Romanesque; and, of course, the great building of the university press, sometimes apparently mistaken for a rather distinguished college, not only by tourists. (I have known editors who had the same impression.) However, the area has always struck me as having a hidden character, more raffish and jaunty altogether, with an air of horse-trading, minor crime, and a sort of fairground bohemianism. That is the Jericho I describe in the story.

A similar sort of opportunistic transformation went to work on the highly respectable road called Linkside, north of Sunderland Avenue and its strange, artificial-looking hornbeam trees. Behind the neat houses is a pretty little lake which used to be a brickworks, apparently. I was describing Lyra's life among the other children of Oxford: "A rich seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties . . . The children (young servants, and the children of servants, and Lyra) of one college waged war on those of another. But this enmity was swept aside when the town children attacked a colleger: then all the colleges banded together and went into battle against the townies. This rivalry was hundreds of years old, and very deep and satisfying.

"But even this was forgotten when the other enemies threatened. One enemy was perennial: the brick-burners' children, who lived by the Claybeds and were despised by collegers and townies alike. Last year Lyra and some townies had made a temporary truce and raided the Claybeds, pelting the brick-burners' children with lumps of heavy clay and tipping over the soggy castle they'd built, before rolling them over and over in the clinging substance they lived by until victors and vanquished alike resembled a flock of shrieking golems."

That idea came to me the moment I began the paragraph, and not a second before. I needed to describe an enemy for Lyra who would make a contrast with the slippery, light-fingered, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow enemy I was going to describe in the following paragraph, the Jericho enemy, and since I live only 10 minutes' walk from the lake in question, I suppose I just thought of it. This enemy had to be different, so the thought process went: dull - slow - heavy - mud - clay - bricks - ah! Linkside! Got it! The battle in the Claybeds would turn out to be very useful 1,034 pages later, but I certainly didn't know that when I was writing Chapter Three.

The commonest question writers get asked is: where do you get your ideas from? The truthful answer is: I dunno. They just turn up. But when you are wandering about with your mouth open and your eyes glazed waiting for them to do so, there are few better places to wander about in than Oxford, as many novelists have discovered. I put it down to the mists from the river, which have a solvent effect on reality. A city where South Parade is in the north and North Parade is in the south, where Paradise is lost under a car park, where the Magdalen gargoyles climb down at night and fight with those from New College, is a place where, as I began by saying, likelihood evaporates. I shall always be grateful to Exeter College for letting me in and allowing me to discover the fact. If it is, in fact, a fact.