What can I say of my second week at Belshade College? Oxford has proved as charming as I remember it, Belshade College continues to be as peculiar as expected (though I really ought not say too much!) and my students are as queer to me as I suppose I am to them. Certainly, they have no appetite for Scottish poetry and Tuesday’s lecture passed in deathly silence.
Undoubtedly, today has been the high point of the past two weeks: I am now, some thirty years after my student days in Oxford, once more a fellow of the Bodleian Library. This honour comes, by right, to all students and faculty in Oxford University and, thanks to Belshade’s associate membership; it includes our peculiar little establishment. I found the letter from Edwin Shale, Chief Summoner of the Bodleian, waiting for me on Tuesday. Our – I was to be inducted alongside my students – appointment time was at four this afternoon; accordingly, I have delayed returning to Avebury until the morning. Mrs Pumphrey has been advised and she assures me Boris and Tusker will be no trouble at all for an extra day.
Presently, I write this in the saloon of the Lamb and Flag. The evening is wet and I have one eye on the clock for the last bus. I only mention it as I may need to break off rather suddenly.
The Bodleian, or to use its informal name, ‘The Boddy’, is not a lending library and takes great care to ensure that its many thousands of books, some of which are very aged indeed, remain collectively and individually intact and I recalled that at induction one must kneel before the pulpit in the Divinity Room at the library and swear not to damage, remove anything from, kindle fire within or bring into disrepute the library and its contents or any part thereof, nor to expectorate from the upper gallery or windows onto one’s fellows – outsiders being thought fair game – and etcetera.
This, I was much looking forward to (I have a weakness for ceremonials), however I was reminded that Belshade College is no ordinary establishment of the pedagogic craft for the text placed before me by Summoner Shale was not that which I recalled from my student days at Israel College.
To be fair, The Bodleian has reason to be nervous of Belshade students. In 1904, not long after Belshade students were first admitted, one Lysander Jones, a first-year, conjured an ignis fatuus of such ferocity it singed the eyebrows of an under-librarian and damaged a rare seventeenth century palm book. Whether it was accident or intent was never cleared up: Lysander Jones protested his innocence and as he was reading a grimoire at the time it was allowed he may have unwittingly conjured something simply by the act of reading – books of magick are notorious for this – equally, it was rumoured that he had eaten nothing but cabbage for several days beforehand so it may have been flatulence aforethought.
As a member of faculty at Belshade, I have now sworn, in addition to the usual strictures, never to practise magick upon the property nor to commit by spell, charm or divination any act of magick directed towards the library or its contents. I would remind you that I am no more likely to practise magick than I am to dance a gig, but the stern gaze of Summoner Shale forbad any protest. Incidentally, the Bodleian Library takes magick exceedingly seriously for I noticed a queer little ‘green man’ carving in a niche by the door to the Divinity Room. It is some kind of talisman or fetish, I presume, much like that which appears in the First Prologue of MacGregor’s Acts of the Servant.
Happily, the palm book survived Lysander Jones but these days it is kept locked away. Such books were a peculiarly macabre product of the early modern period. To the casual observer they are nothing but sheaves of blank vellum, or calfskin, but closer inspection brings out the marks and impressions left by the gruesome practise that gives them their name.
According to the prevailing belief, the certainty of death given to condemned criminals and suicides proffered them a degree of fore-knowledge of the next world and, as their fate was, in general, brought by their own hand; the hands of these unfortunate wretches became the focus of a gruesome study akin to phrenology. Palm books are the record of this study and were made by placing the deceased’s hand upon a sheet of vellum and compressing it for several days in a cheese or cider press. Usually, the images are quite faint but occasionally the vellum is blood-stained, suggesting either the means chosen by a self-murderer or that the corpse’s hand was severed from the arm prior to pressing, or simply that the press was over-applied, causing the flesh to burst.
Quite what might be gained from studying such a book is hard to fathom, but the seventeenth century was a queer time when magick had entered what would be its terminal decline while at the same time finding strange new expressions under the influence of early scientific thinking. Those with clearsight assert that palm books detest being handled and even those, such as I, without an ounce of the gift, are uncomfortable in their presence.
With some thirty students and several new members of faculty to admit, it was dark when we exited the Bodleian. The weather being grim, the party, led by Principal Stonebreaker, returned to college immediately – we had been permitted use of the college’s omnibus, an ancient contraption with hard seats and forty-year-old advertising for things most of the students cannot possibly recall – but I had determined to make the most of the evening in Oxford and declined the offer of transport.
I fear Principal Stonebreaker did not take my desertion at all well and, being a formidable woman, she rather tried to browbeat me into obedience. However, I made the excuse that I had toiletries and other supplies to purchase that fell outside the (meagre, need I say it) items provided by the college. The excuse was true enough, but I elided the exact nature of those supplies and as soon as the bus departed I bought The Times and headed to the Lamb and Flag on Giles Street for a pint and a pie, which is where you find me now.
Once a writers’ haunt, the Lamb and Flag is now, like so many Oxford pubs, as likely to ring to an American’s accent as an Englishman’s, but I have enjoyed this hour or two away from my chilly and unwelcoming garret… speaking of which, the clock tells me I must dash or miss the bus; I have heard that taxi drivers are reluctant to call on Belshade College especially after dark, so I must, as forewarned, leave abruptly, if not in media res, then at least without conclusion.