“This city, it’s members only.”
I want to think about place today. More specifically, about what kind of effect real places have on fictional narratives; what goes on when we read about, or see, a place we know in a work of fiction.
What’s brought this on? you may ask. Well, last night I was watching a rerun of Lewis, a Murder Mystery set in Oxford, where I lived for three years, and it was a strangely bittersweet experience, watching all the buildings I knew floating around behind Lewis and Hathaway. (I never did manage to catch them filming, to my disappointment.)
As it happened, The Great and the Good was an episode which felt specifically rooted in the idea of what place means, or, rather, what Oxford means. The rape of a schoolgirl leads Our Heroes to investigate a series of murders tied to the upper echelons of Oxford society, where favours are traded above the reach of the law and public figures wear two faces. The “chippy copper act”, as Superintendent Innocent points out, has no place in this city, although the show goes to great lengths to disagree.
Now, this might be a fairly run-of-the-mill truth-to-power narrative, if it weren’t grounded so deeply in this city, this specific place. What does it mean to tell this kind of story in Oxford, instead of Midsomer or London or any other fictional/generic setting? Most obviously, it’s about the disconnect between Oxford as ancient university town – hidebound, genteel, exclusive – and Oxford as modern, a site for the gritty and mundane business of murder and policing. Our Heroes act as stand-ins for “normality”, shining the bright light of the modern world into the dusty closets of the dreaming spires, into murky old boys’ clubs and gangs of dodgy academics. In a way, it’s almost voyeuristic: “what’s going on in here, then? What are all those nutty geniuses actually doing?”
What’s interesting about The Great and the Good, though, is that it’s a narrative about wanting to belong to this world, and not quite being able to access it; a story not about contempt as much as it is about aspiration. IT manager Oswald Cooper wants so desperately to belong to the upper circle to which his friends belong that he’ll commit fraud for them; that he’ll make that upper circle, that gathering of the great and the good, a fraud in itself, a lie, because in stooping to fraud these men are neither great nor good. The great and the good are, therefore, what we make them; they are great and good because we want them to be, because we allow them to be by making up stories about them, putting them on pedestals, kowtowing to them as Innocent does or relentlessly believing in the myth of their goodness as Lord Adebayou’s secretary Phoebe does. And they become not-great and not-good when we open up other narratives, as Oswald does when he gives the police evidence of his own fraud.
What does this have to do with Oxford, though, with my sense of strange nostalgia? Well, perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that Lewis‘ Oxford has never felt like my Oxford; it’s always felt like an Alternative Oxford, an AU Oxford if you like, a strange semifictional construct of streets that I know and stories I don’t. And perhaps it’s also something to do with Innocent’s line, which the show so vehemently disagrees with: “The chippy copper act has no place in this city.” Except it does, because Lewis and Hathaway fight to make themselves a place in it. Oxford itself, I want to say, is what we make of it. If we tell stories about dreaming spires and ivory towers then we get a city of dreaming spires and ivory towers. And if we tell stories about a complex city where spires dream and criminals stalk and the great and the good are not all they seem then we get a city where all of these things happen, where the law can work because it has something rational to work on.
Is this, then, what happens when home becomes fictional, why the experience of reading/seeing home in a story is at once so exciting and so strange? Because the home we read about or see is never really home, because the stories we all have about home are so different to the ones being told to us. Because home is what we make of it; and what “home” means is never, or hardly ever, what the story means.
Or maybe not. Because meaning is also what we make of it.