Howard Anglin: Spring returns, a king is crowned, and Oxford endures

Spring is here and new trees now shade new men, as they always have, every May
King Charles III with the The Sovereign's Orb, as Lord President of the Council, Penny Mordaunt, carries the Sword of State, during his coronation, at Westminster Abbey, in London, Saturday, May 6, 2023. Richard Pohle/Pool via AP.

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is May.

English poetry is tree-laden. From Housman’s “loveliest” cherry to Larkins “unresting castles” that “thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May,” to Shakespeare’s “yellow leaves” that cling to “boughs which shake against the cold” and Keats’s apple-heavy “moss’d cottage-trees,” it feels as though England’s poets are determined to replant the great forest that was first felled by Bronze Age farmers and kept clear by centuries of monarchs to build a navy that would rule the waves. Of all the literary trees, I reserve the softest spot for Hopkins’s Binsey Poplars, which he immortalised after they were cut down in May 1879. “All felled, felled, are all felled.” The anguish spills from his pen. Hopkins, who was a curate at my Oxford church of St Aloysius, was a singular genius of English letters. With Donne, he was the great poet of divine complexity, but here we hear him in pain at an earthly desecration. Walking the path beside the Isis from Binsey to Godstow several times this month, I hoped that Hopkins, looking down, is able to take some comfort in the new poplars lining the river, the second generation since his “aspens dear.” New trees now shade new men, as they always have, every May.


Maybe it’s just the arrival of the sun that has me in a good mood, but there is something reassuring about being in Oxford while the rest of the world seems to be disintegrating in real-time. This city has seen it all before. The Anarchy, multiple civil wars, Reformation and counter-Reformation, iconoclasm, riots, hangings, burnings, and (by my count) no fewer than 23 plagues and pandemics: Oxford has survived them all. When the first students arrived in the Middle Ages, the university was a small abbey in a third-tier country on the fringes of the civilised world. Much later it would churn out prime ministers, ministers, and governors of the largest empire the world has known. It’s hard to rattle Oxford. Sitting in the shade of the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden overlooking Radcliffe Square as the robed students crowd past to and from the Examination Schools, it is hard to imagine that any of this can change—I mean really change—no matter what roils the world outside.


One measure of Oxford’s endurance is that this month’s coronation marked the 29th monarch since the university’s founding (not counting two Lord Protectors). It was hard to gauge the level of enthusiasm, especially in a city with so many foreign students, but there was enough red, white, and blue bunting to confer a festive mood. In an ecumenical gesture, St Aloysius hosted a viewing party after the 10 am Saturday mass, to which I contributed a bottle of Chapel Down “Coronation Edition” sparkling wine. There were many highlights: Bryn Terfel’s Welsh Kyrie; the Byzantine Chant Ensemble’s Psalm 72; and of course, Zadok the Priest, reclaimed from the wastes of Champions League broadcasts and gloriously restored to its proper context. But the day’s real winner was Charles, who seemed mostly relieved but slightly overwhelmed by the occasion. I wonder if he could have imagined in the dark days of Diana, that he would someday be crowned next to his queen, Camilla. Theirs is a great love story for our time—an anti-fairy tale romance, as all the great love stories are, a story of pain, shame, persistence, and, in defiant rebuke to the silly fairy tales, a happily-ever-after ending. 


The month’s lowlight was an athletic contest. I’ve never been to a cock fight, but I imagine it is something like the convulsive mob thronged in Corpus Christi’s Main Quad around the lettuce-lined ring of the annual Tortoise Race, but with fewer Pimm’s. I split my bets on Foxe, Corpus Christi’s resident tortoise (no doubt familiar with the terrain), and last year’s winner, New College’s Tortilla. As the grass rang with the stampede of testudinal feet, we crowded close, rent money clutched tight. Never has such clamant frenzy been showered on such impervious ears. Foxe was immobile, which was positively frisky in comparison to Tortilla, who performed a convincing impression of a taxidermist’s trophy. Grudging congratulations to St. Peter’s College’s Aristurtle, and venomous imprecations to the World Wildlife Fund, beneficiary of my unwilling donation. 


In happier sporting news, cricket has finally returned to the University Parks. If there is a better way to spend the first properly hot weekend of the year than half-following the drowsy rhythms of cricket (or, perhaps, its American cousin baseball) then I’ve not discovered it. It’s not a coincidence that both cricket and baseball bring out the conservative instinct—an feeling of deep connection with past and place—in even the most militant radical. Cricket as played today may only be a few hundred years old, but if you told me new archaeological evidence shows that Caesar’s landing at Pegwell Bay had interrupted white-flannelled Britons at play, I’d believe it. Even an old Lefty like Harold Pinter couldn’t escape the nostalgic tug when he penned a short bit of doggerel that must count among the greatest conservative poems:

“I saw Len Hutton in his prime. 

Another time, another time.”

There are still batsmen capable of innings of grace and genius, lissome technicians like England’s Joe Root—another Yorkshireman who has also captained England—but as modern test cricket has become a game of quick and aggressive scoring (much as baseball has become a game of home runs and strikeouts), Pinter’s refrain echoes ever fainter and more poignant across the late spring grass.

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