If you love animals, you’ll like this book. In a crass sense it’s a pile of fragments – animals appear absolutely everywhere in Oxford once you start looking, and not just in the over-familiar pub names. But the larger question the book asks, principally through an excellent foreword by Peter Whitfield, is whether the pile amounts to anything more.
Whitfield runs us through the bestiary — a medieval list of animals, some the product of fantasy — with each considered in moral, even spiritual, terms, and thus richly endowed with anthropomorphic meaning. Oxford’s conceptual bestiary, hence the book’s title, can be understood in similar terms, given an effort of historical imagination.
Later, of course, came Descartes with the idea of nature as mechanism, animals as indifferent beasts; the split between reason and nature that we associate with the Enlightenment and the onset of a modernity as troubling as an icy cold day in May. Whitfield and Huxley’s point is that many, if not most, of Oxford’s animals pre-date that rupture and can be recovered for their intended significance — if only we can identify with Pablo Neruda’s casual comment uttered in a poem, that ‘People are not enough.’
Unfortunately, you still have to endow the ensuing pile of fragments, organized correctly in terms of categories of animal, with this effort of imagination. But this reviewer was simply delighted by the odd and arcane knowledge on offer.
There’s a great big sculpture of an Ox as you come out of Oxford’s railway station who is, apparently “letting everyone know that he represents the city.” I had always taken it to be a bull, and overlaid its adjacency to the business school to imply a quotation from the Merrill Lynch bull — as in bull market — that famously inhabits Lower Manhattan. Animal spirits or beast of patient, agricultural burden? The meanings couldn’t be more different. I still wonder.
Then there’s the incidental story of Sir David Macdonald, who zoomed around East Oxford in an old taxi in the 1970s trying to ensnare foxes to fit them with radio transmitting collars. Photographer Paul Freestone even snatched a cute shot of an urban fox cub, right paw lifted in supplication; a beautiful, full-fur creature completely unlike the ravenous, half-blackened urban foxes of east London.
Elsewhere, we’re reminded of the meaning of the martlet, a heraldic bird traditionally without legs, akin to swifts and like them believed never to land. “This is symbolic of the restless quest for knowledge,” explains Huxley. “And in Oxford martlets appear in the coats of arms of both University College and Worcester College.” Read further and you find that Univ used the martlet, drawn from the bogus arms of a bogus founder, King Alfred, to further its own ends — and the wonderful symbolism loses a bit of its shine.
Turning off the High, we learn that Magpie Lane once housed a brothel and was called Gropecunt Lane. At this point Whitfield’s moral compass is a troubled instrument — but it is rescued by The Piper Window, by British artist John Piper (1903-92), in St Mary’s Church, Iffley. Depicting the tree of life inhabited by a larger than life cock, goose, crow, owl and lamb, it’s beautiful and spiritual on its own terms, in the pre-Enlightenment sense, despite being a product of the last century.
Freed of all the irksome strictures of the Research Excellence Framework, and with her own imprint, Sophie Huxley might have the ideal life at Oxford. She tends to one of the greatest gardens, at Corpus Christi, and writes between all the conventional lines, in this instance supported by the Greening Lamborn Trust. She has already written about Oxford’s trees, and is the author of the Oxford Science Walk. Although originally studying physics, she notes within this narrative that for her, the animals populating C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles “seemed an entire world to me and one that was in some ways better than reality.” Sometimes, it feels that way for all of us.