A few weeks ago an American named Gary Taylor found a lost Shakespeare poem in the Bodleian Library here. This surprised absolutely nobody who knows the Bodleian. It is probably full of lost Shakespeare poems, and indeed lost works of literature by every major English author since the days of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As my wife remarked of Mr. Taylor's discovery, "It was probably in the catalogue all the time." The next morning the Oxford Times carried the headline LOST SHAKESPEARE POEM WAS IN THE CATALOGUE.
The Bodleian catalogue is notorious. It is split into two sections, pre-1920 and post- 1920 (books published during 1920 itself seem to have vanished). The pre-1920 section is written on tissue paper in violet ink, frequently in Latin, in a crabbed medieval hand. Some of it is alhabetical, but a great deal is catalogued under such helpful headings as Poesis and Anglia (meaning poetry and anything to do with England). The post- 1920 catalogue is in English but gives out around 1955, after which you must tangle with microfiches, British National Bibliographies, Books in Print, Books Out of Print, and little bits of paper which have been steamed out of the catalogue by a tribe of fearsome ladies who occupy a side-office and are theoretically reorganizing the whole thing. Many of us find it easier to do our research in America.
On the other hand if you do happen to stumble across the reference number for a book you want, the Bodleian will invariably manage to find the actual volume, and will deliver it to you in a matter of hours. At the Reading Room of the British Museum, or British Library as we must all now call it, they take two days, then deliver the wrong books or no books at all, and since the staff consi chiefly of prison warders in peaked caps the atmosphere is not altogether conducive to fruitful concentration. Oxford still has the edge over London in this respect, and is really the better place to live if, like me, you go in for what a friend once described as literary coal-mining.
On the whole, though, we seem to be losing the struggle against London. Three or four years ago Oxford was bidding fair to become Britain's literary capital. Not only were one or two real authors like Iris Murdoch still floating around, but we suddenly seemed to have acquired the cream of the "Young British Novelists" and "Young British Poets" (as the booksellers were currently labeling them) not to mention some of the Young British Literary Editors and even the odd Young British Publisher. The place to spot them all was the 9 o'clock morning train up to London (the first of the day to accept cheap off-peak tickets). There, regular as clockwork, would be the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, resolutely tie-less (well, Rupert Murdoch owns the paper these days) and weighing in at around 35 years of age, thereby just about qualifying for the Young British label. Opposite him, engrossed in conversation, would be the young bearded poet whom the Professor of English Literature had just announced was the best thing in metaphysical verse since John Donne. Holding rather aloof in a corner, in regulation Young Fogey brogues and cavalry twill, was the prolific novelist widely regarded as the Evelyn Waugh of his generation, on his way to manage the literary pages of a certain conservative weekly. Another bearded poet, prematurely bald and hailed by another professor of Eng. Lit. as the best thing since Auden, was grumbling that financial privation had driven him to accept menial employment as the drama critic of a leading Sunday newspaper. Everywhere as one moved down the aisles in search of the usually nonexistent restaurant car, the talk was of contracts, advances, royalties, American rights, agents, and literary prizes. The few dons who had managed to find seats amid the throng of authors listened with ill-concealed jealousy.
GLAMOUR ATTRACTS glamour, and soon certain established London authors, believing that the grass was somehow greener on the Oxford side of the hill, had purchased palatial mansions -- even with swimming- pools -- in the heart of don-land. But it could not last. The flaw was that this literary cabal only held together by meeting daily on the train. And soon the commuting wore them out. About half of them defected to London; the other half managed to get the sack from their London jobs and now live quiet lives of literary productivity behind their closed Oxford front doors, never setting eyes on each other from one end of the year to the other. Only one member of that once-glamorous crowd, the poet Craig Raine, still commutes, and since he is the poetry editor of Faber & Faber, a job once held by T.S. Eliot, he is only obliged to pay very occasional visits to his office. The train is empty now, except for the dons.
In the old days of course, Oxford writers didn't need a train; they met in the pubs. In the 1940s it was impossible to walk into an Oxford pub without falling over J.R.R. Tolkien reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to C.S. Lewis. Nowadays the same pubs are filled with actors impersonating Tolkien and Lewis while film crews make dramatized documentaries about them. The film industry has long regarded Oxford as photogenic, for reasons which those of us who live here cannot fathom. Actually the place is filthy dirty and chiefly consists of hamburger joints. Attempts to clean it up have only exposed its ugliness. When Granada Television filmed Brideshead Revisited three or four years ago they were seen desperately caking the walls of Waugh's old college, Hertford, with thick black mud in order to disguise its appalling architecture.
BUT WE still have an eminent publishing house in our midst, and not any years ago the Oxford University Press was throwing lavish parties for local authors, hinting at riches beyond the dreams of avarice for those who signed up with them. Actually the Press are frightfully nice chaps who don't really go in for that sort of thing, and the money for the parties soon ran out. These days their lives must be much easier, since they seem to have decided not to publish any more real books at all, but simply to reissue the Pocket Oxford Dictionary under as many different titles as they can dream up. Almost the only author they will still publish is Shakespeare. They now have not only a Dictionary Department but a Shakespeare Department, under the management of several computers, which is where Mr. Gary Taylor, who discovered the Shakespeare poem, spends his working hours. Clearly we can now expect not just the Oxford Shakespeare, but the Concise Oxford Shakespeare, the Pocket Oxford Shakespeare, the Hip Pocket Oxford Shakespeare Sonnets, the Vest Pocket Oxford Shakespeare Problem Plays in a Very Stripey Plastic Cover, and the Very Easy Pocket Shakespeare for Foreign Students, not to mention 40 other varieties. Whether poor Mr. Taylor will be allowed to print his lost poem in any of these, I very much doubt.