Given the inherent tension of my alter ego as The Oxonian in Cambridge, I sometimes wonder if I'm the perversely willing victim of a peculiar variant of OCD — Oxford Cambridge Disorder — from which, though painless, there's little respite.
Certainly, on last week's visit to Oxford, my first foray in six months, I had a relapse. Escaping from the library, I may just have been suffering from a touch of Oxford's own affliction — let's call it Jericho Syndrome — a variant of the Jerusalem/Stendhal master strain, which rendered me vulnerable. The temptation of a pun about low Ebbe's is symptomatic. Perhaps that Turkish coffee in Walton Street, intended to galvanize, was just a little too strong. Or perhaps it was just the dizzying first brush of spring and stroke of sunshine, timed to find me where else but Summertown, after an eighteen-month winter in the Fens.
Any or all could explain why courage failed me at the prospect of finding somewhere to park and make my appointment in time. Not only is the journey to Oxford a dispiritingly dismal drive from Cambridge, but any visitor with the temerity to try four wheels over two arrives prey to the mercy of the meter and dreaming of spokes ahead of any spires. Putative familiarity with back streets and hidden corners counts for nothing.
Failsafe to all but the driver devoid of change, the Pear Tree Park & Ride was my fallback. Which meant a few shared minutes on a bus stop bench, under early blossom at the end of South Parade, as I waited for the green giant to convey me back to my car at the end of the day, engaged in conversation by a delightful, elderly lady also bench-bound in expectation of her bus. Hers being the rather more imaginatively suggestive Last Bus to Woodstock. It's not only age I reveal in admitting quite considerable disappointment that a maroon Jaguar Mark 2 didn't, to my knowledge, glide past to the strains of an operatic aria.
Morse and his motor are a relatively recent ring in Oxford's trunk though no less important for their populist appeal. In fact, Britain's relationship with the car, agent of so much social change during the twentieth century and emblematic of defining freedoms, is inextricably linked with Oxford thanks to William Morris, Ist Viscount Nuffield and founder of Morris Motors Limited one hundred years ago.
From the original £175 'bullnose' 2-seater model which rumbled out of Cowley in the Spring of 1913 to the ubiquity of the 'Oxford VI' between 1961 and 1971, Morris was arguably the national marque, even after merger with the competing Austin Motor Company in 1952 and sublimation into the British Motor Corporation, progenitor of nationalised producer, British Leyland, in 1975. Those feeling nostalgic, and flush, might like to know that Winston Churchill's last car, a pale blue-grey Morris Oxford VI, registered in 1964, is to be auctioned this month.
Doubtless, had I the wherewithal, let alone change for the meter, I might be tempted by this or one of Austin's numerous 'Cambridges' also still roaring and roadworthy. The name was first given to one of Austin's pre-War and endearingly dumpy 10bhp models before being transposed to a new A40 model from 1954. Following the Austin-Morris merger, the last A55 Mark IIs were, in fact, re-badged Oxfords, as were the final Cambridge A60s, registered in 1971, just before I was born.
In part due to their market dominance, few cars bear such resonant names, their choice and longevity evidence of more than just reliability. That these cars, which vanished before my lifetime, are as much part of my cultural wallpaper as Oxford and Cambridge inform my personal perspectives says something about the hum of history and a well-tuned engine, with or without a charismatic, bitter-loving detective behind the wheel.
With my thoughts on Morse, Morris and the tonic of a trip to Oxford, I drove home with quite a spring in my step.