Soon after I mentioned John Keats in my post about Paris, his presence lodged itself into my brain, awaken from hyper-sleep. It’s not that I haven’t thought of Keats in a long time, it’s just that writing about him as I recalled the days spent in the uni’s library brought back such vivid memories that it prompted me to pick up one of my anthologies and read some of his work. But I did not pick up my usual edition, the Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th edition, for that was the latest one when I started my degree course), but I picked the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, a fabulous volume with commentaries by Kermode, Hollander, Price and Bloom among others. As I stood by the shelf, turning the book in my hands and wondering how it came to be one of my books, the soft pages released a very faint scent. And so there I was, walking through the sharp carpeted corridors of the English Department at Lancaster University, my petite madeleine not a taste in my mouth but an eye-narrowing smell that I knew so very well but that I had not perceived for many years. I was so happy then, yet, I did not know it.
Inside the softback there is a sticker which reads: ‘EX LIBRIS MICHAEL WHEELER’.
Yes of course, Professor Wheeler. I met Professor Wheeler in my first year, when he gave a lecture about Victorian literature, if I am not mistaken, but it was not until my second year, when I took his literature and Christianity course, that I was privileged enough to work with him and witness his kind and persuasive teaching method. This is not to say that he tried to turn us around when we expressed various opinions; but he was always interested enough as to hold our cocooned suggestions in the palm of his hand and turn them into something that could flutter about the room of its own accord, no longer a matchstick with twitching wire antennas but a fully-fledged butterfly. Out of all of the colourful individuals that have started, followed and nurtured my academic career, Professor Wheeler is the one that stands out. I have often thought of him over these many years. He left Lancaster University as I was dabbing into my PhD proposal leaving the Ruskin Library as his greatest legacy. He was interviewed by the BBC over The Da Vinci Code brouhaha a couple of years ago since he is now also canon of Winchester Cathedral. I wonder whether he met Tom Hanks?
Every time I watch Dimension Jump from Red Dwarf series 4, I think of Professor Wheeler. In Dimension Jump, a much improved Arnold Rimmer bursts onto the scene as the heroic nemesis of the weasel-y, back-stabbing-Judas Rimmer as known in the series at large. As the story goes, it turns out that one important decision was taken at some point in the past; one Rimmer went one way and the other went the other in a parallel dimension. One turned into a sour, bitter moron, the other into an all-around super-hero. When I watch Dimension Jump, with all of its goofiness, I think of the day I sat in Professor Wheeler’s office, telling him that I was considering doing my PhD on John Ruskin, and possibly, Oscar Wilde. He grinned widely, rubbed his hands together and told me to ‘have a seat’. You may have guessed that I am the Steph that did not do the PhD on John Ruskin; I am the one who is doing cultural studies and whose work centers on post-modernism, horror and the super-human. I couldn’t have ended up father from Ruskin if I had tried to.
Yet, I am absolutely convinced that on that afternoon in that room , some other Steph, the more successful one, took the opposite decision and went on to spend her foreseeable future handling precious originals in the newly opened Ruskin Library. I wonder where she is at right now, whether she followed Professor Wheeler to Southampton, and then Winchester, whether she is an eminent Ruskin critic, whether she has been to Venice yet, whether she hobnobbed with Tom during filming of The Code. Perhaps she is not even married, doesn’t have a horse or not even dogs, but she sure as hell must have already finished her PhD.
When I returned to Professor Wheeler’s office a few weeks later and told him that I had decided against the PhD on Ruskin after all, he seemed slightly disappointed, for he suggested that such an opportunity, to work on originals, doesn’t come twice in a lifetime, especially so early on in the game. He was packing his books as he was moving out of the uni. He told me to have a look around and take whatever I wanted. What a guy. I picked the two volumes of the Oxford Anthology, one of them currently opened on my lap, its very faint scent a strong yet invisible link to my past and to my other life. This is probably as close as I will ever get to my self from the parallel dimension.