It looked like a perfectly ordinary campus: the security at the gates, the bus stop, a handful of students waiting for a bus; the grey buildings but also the neat lawns, roads and paths. In 2011, I was at the University of Stirling in Scotland for three months on a writing residency, and it was April when I arrived.
I’d always been drawn to Scotland through literature: Walter Scott, sure; but also Muriel Spark, Dorothy Dunnett, Edwin Morgan, Kathleen Jamie, Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks and, unquestionably, Ian Rankin. I thought I’d got the country covered, between the historical fiction and the poetry, the crime and the grime.
My first few days at Stirling were a proper dismantling of my expectations — and I didn’t have any in particular, beyond finding the time to work on my second collection of poetry.
It was an unusually warm spring in Scotland that year. I had prepared for the cold and the rain, but what I found instead were clear skies and cotton candy clouds. Every day, one lady in the office said to me, “You’ve brought the sun with you” and I was courteously flattered. Apparently, such long periods of uninterrupted sunshine were unheard of in Scotland until climate change changed everything.
So it was that on the first day walking around the campus, I found I’d stumbled most unexpectedly into the eternal summer of a PG Wodehouse book. Pick one — any one — and it could have been set on that university campus.
The University of Stirling is a part of the erstwhile Airthrey estate, which boasts a little loch beside the Airthrey Castle, and some picturesque parkland cupped within a semi-circle of woods. As I walked around the path surrounding the loch, I discovered that it was dotted with swans. It was mating season and nesting season; any one of those bad-tempered males could easily have trapped and harassed Bertie Wooster in a folly, on one of the tiny islands in the middle of the loch.
There were boats on the lake. If the people occupying them weren’t mostly middle-aged men with their sons, I could have imagined a romantic proposal or a plot twist or two. Come to think of it, those men were definitely versions of Uncle Fred, propelling their hapless nephews into mischief and mayhem. The path was lined with rhododendron bushes in flower, behind which some conspirator was surely lurking and eavesdropping, plotting shenanigans.
People came to play golf on the greens surrounding the lake and, I imagined, within the clubhouse there was an Oldest Member just lying in wait for the next droopy, unsuspecting sap in need of a pick-me-up. A little further away, a football game was on but it could so easily have been rugger or cricket.
I sat on a bench warmed by the sun, not far from the football field from which I could hear the shouts and scrambling of the players, and looked at a giant oak tree in the distance under a clear blue sky, and dandelions dotting the verge, wondering just how I’d stumbled into the pages of the books I’d read as a child, through which I’d formed a particular idea of summer so different from the temperatures of my own country.
A whole century on from the rural idylls of the Wodehouse canon, so much around me was still recognisable and familiar. I wondered if the same castle and loch would have suggested a different writer’s more dour world if it weren’t for the fizzing energy that the weather seemed to bring to the people around me. But these speculations evaporated almost as soon as they arose.
Here were these young men and women in the springtime of their own lives, having impromptu barbecues on the green, engineering the shifting of a television set out of a third-floor room and down, so everyone could watch a royal wedding together while getting plastered.
Nobody, it seemed, needed to study, write exams, or do anything that did not involve a public celebration of being young in spring, just as it never occurred to a reader to think, while reading a Wodehouse, of a generation of men on the cusp of war and post-traumatic stress disorder, or a social order about to be disrupted forever.
That April, I stepped into a well-preserved snapshot of irresponsible youth, beauty and privilege, the “idyllic world that can never grow stale” to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh’s description of Wodehouse’s world. I didn’t go looking for it, but I found it anyway. And having been inserted into that world, I slid into the role of observer and chronicler, the intellectual female writer of slim volumes of verse, or, perhaps, a well-received novel that might have been called Spindrift.
In fact, you may address me as Lady Florence Craye.
Sridala Swami is a Hyderabad-based poet.
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