Some personal reminiscences of a superannuated Editor

Memories from ages past from Anna Vaninskaya, Miruvor Editor 2001-2 and 2005-7 (as well as President 2004-05 and Secretary 2003-04)

‘O agéd city of an all too brief sojourn’

I first became aware of Taruithorn about eighteen years ago. I was sitting in the Math Resource Center [sic [that was the author’s [sic], not mine – Editor]] of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado and surfing the net on an Apple Mac during a free ‘period’. Tolkien had been my life since about 1992, and I thought of Oxford as one would think of the Heavenly Jerusalem – a place no mere mortal such as myself could ever attain to in this life, but one whose contemplation could solace the weary soul. And then I saw it – the Taruithorn website – and photographs of some Taruithorn Holiday (of the mid-90s it must have been). I looked at the unknown faces. There was no inkling in my mind of the future, but I have remembered that moment ever since.

Less than four years later, I rushed into a room in the Exam Schools and went straight up to the Taruithorn table, my heart pounding. The person manning it (Russ Shannon?) was doubling as an Arthurian, so I joined the Arthurians on the spur of the moment as well. I came out of Fresher’s Fair elated: the impossible had happened, the dizzying gulf between the Math Resource Center in an American suburb far far away and the glamorous and mysterious world of those people in the online photographs had been bridged.

Exactly fourteen years ago (Hilary 2001) I became Miruvor editor. That too was unplanned. I had no idea, my first Michaelmas, of the internal politics of the society, of the perennial desperate scramble to find and co-opt new members onto the committee. Walking down Queen’s Lane with Lukas Lehmann on a dark and cold evening, I felt the offer of the editorship as an unexpected and unearned honour, both thrilling and frightening. Oh for those prelapsarian days! When the turn came, a few years later, to serve as Secretary and then President, the awe had long since evaporated, but the Taruithorn of those later years (c. 2003-2006) had instead become a homelike, comfortable place, that fit like the proverbial glove. We had no shortage of committee members then! Committee meetings – with turnouts of ten or above being commonplace – were almost livelier than the Friday meetings proper. This was also the time of the Russian hegemony – we occupied all the main posts, and on our watch the battle with the Tolkien Estate solicitors over the licence fee was fought and won. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! And I too finally went on a Taruithorn Holiday.

Back in 2000-2001, I had been aware of the presence in the society of a certain mathematician from Teddy Hall. I knew that he spoke Russian, that he had a weird hairdo, and that he was the treasurer, and – as such – on the receiving end of exasperated rants from certain members who shall remain nameless. We did not exchange two words that entire year. By the time I went on the Taruithorn Holiday, we were dating – and hiding the fact strenuously from everyone in the society. I now have no idea why – but we would time our comings and goings to make sure that no one would notice we were heading in the same direction. If it had not been for Taruithorn, I would have missed all the fun of a clandestine love affair. Then we gave up on the charade and got married – neither the first nor the last in a long line of Taruithorn weddings.

Part of the D.Phil. thesis I was writing when I was president focused on late-Victorian and Edwardian socialist societies. I thought at the time that the nature and history of Taruithorn as an institution showed some remarkable parallels with those societies, and I think so still, though it has now lasted longer – a quarter century! – than quite a few of them. But of course it is not just the dynamic of Victorian socialist societies that Taruithorn replicates, but that of any small voluntary organisation, although with the constant turnover of student generations everything happens at an accelerated pace. There is no time to ossify – the constant infusion of new blood prevents that – but there are plenty of opportunities to splinter and fall apart, to take the wrong turning and scare off potential new recruits to the Cause. This has not happened yet, and long may Taruithorn continue – until a three-volume history of the Society is published by Oxford University Press. And then the game will be up.

Between summer 2001 and Michaelmas 2003 I was back in American suburbia, working – with full conscious intent this time around – to get back into the Heavenly Jerusalem. I succeeded, and the fallow years were mercifully cut short. In 2006 I technically moved to the Other Place, to take up my first job, but I continued living in Oxford, editing Miruvor and attending meetings. By 2008 this was becoming progressively harder to do, and in 2010 the gates of Tolkien’s City were finally shut upon me and I went as an exile into the North. I had been clinging on for a good decade: much of it frustrating and awkward, but much of it glorious beyond anything I had experienced before or since. For the last five years I have watched things unfolding as Húrin from his seat in Thangorodrim, though Taruithorn’s fate has been a happier one so far than that analogy implies. When I am released at intervals to wander back, I exclaim, in the words of the old Oxford eulogist:

How changed is here each spot man makes or fills! 
In the two Hinkseys nothing keeps the same […]
Here came I often, often, in old days –
I see each new generation of Taruithorn pass by like

A troop of Oxford hunters going home, 
As in old days, jovial and talking […]

But let it never be said of me as of Arnold’s Scholar-Gypsy: she ‘came to Oxford and [her] friends no more’.

Hades

by Anna Vaninskaya:

Hard grows the leaf on marbled tree.
Still hangs the bird upon the air.
Smooth to the shrinking mortal touch
Seems the high rail of that broad stair.

Fretted and filigreed it curves,
Its carven beasts stare down amazed
As you climb up the tall, worn steps,
As you turn back – dizzied and dazed.

Above you spins the stony vault,
Below the stair is lost to sight.
No one is here to speak a word,
No one to make the burden light.

Only the unknown craftsman’s face
Dispersed through every leaf and flower
Of that accursèd balustrade
In this eternal marbled tower.

Baker’s Dozen

by Anna Vaninskaya:

One day God came to Man and said:
Behold!
You have the writer’s pen and painter’s brush,
To people’s eyes and ears you can unfold
New worlds I’d never thought of in my rush.

Your efforts are indeed worthy of praise,
The name of Sub-creator you deserve,
I think that you have earned a little raise:
I’ll make you God and the results observe.

So Man went forth to ply his new-found trade…
But it was lunchtime, he suppressed a yawn,
And rested on the first day in the shade,
Then made himself an awful rose of dawn.

He dabbled first in wars, and then in newts,
He raised up mountains and cast down the hills,
He harrowed hell and he gave speech to mutes,
He tore up his great heap of unpaid bills.

So slipped a week by, God knocked on the door.
And what have you been up to? He inquired.
But Man was lying passed out on the floor,
A Smirnoff in one hand. The chap was tired!

God left him sprawling, and surveyed his work:

Before him stretched as far as eye could see
Some wilting clocks on rocks, some kosher pork
Half-eaten on a plate, some cups of tea
Brewed à l’anglaise, some houri virgins shy,
Playing a game of hide and seek among
Half-finished Roman arches, and some sly
Investment bankers flying to Hong Kong.

I tell you, God was not amused that day.
He stormed back to the house and thundered out,
Thou fool! What meant thou by this child’s play?
Durst thou my awesome will and power to flout?!

But Man was long since gone – he’d left a note
Pinned to the table by a three-pronged fork,
En route he’d nicked God’s many-coloured coat
And in its place he set a crumbled cork.

God took that short note up with trembling hand,
He had not seen its like in all his days.
It merely said, with modesty, Dear Friend,
I move, like you, in quite mysterious ways.

Life

by Anna Vaninskaya:

Somewhere once I saw a picture:
All was dark save on the right, in the corner,
In the light cast by one unhappy candle,
Leant a man against the handle of a painted wooden door,
And his shadow on the floor sideways stretched
Until it faded into darkness, darkly shaded.
Peter Lint,’ the frame proclaimed, ‘Flemish artist, widely famed.’

‘That is wrong,’a voice behind me softly whispered,
‘It reminds me of an early Marcus Stone…
But the artist is unknown -’

Not to me were those words spoken, not for me the silence broken,
And I dared not stir or turn, hoping something more to learn.
‘- Though the subject of that picture, here set forth with greyish tincture,
Is a man of wide renown – now…
You see his sullen frown?
He was born well nigh three hundred years ago,
He knew but one dread all his days:
To die and leave no live soul behind to grieve.

For the man was poor and lonely, without friend or child,
Only barren longings shared his bed or disturbed the life he led.
Years he spent in isolation,
Taxing his imagination with the queerest, wildest schemes,
With the most grotesque of dreams.
In his workshop he constructed forms mechanical –
Distracted, crazed at times, he paced till dawn,
Till the flowers on the lawn raised their heads to greet the morning.
He saw nothing.
In his mourning – his contraptions dead around him –
Well he knew that they would hound him to his own grave at last.
None would care if his life passed.

Then one night in desperation mingled with a strange elation,
He decided to create Life itself to cheat his fate.
If no human being would take him,
If all chose to forsake him,
If the works of his own hand failed to grant his one demand,
Surely then no god or devil, angel good or demon evil,
Would dare judge him or accuse
Of usurping to abuse powers not granted him by nature.
He would use his skill to capture that ethereal flame or breath
That gives life and conquers death.

From that moment his strange story passes into legend hoary:
Some say he achieved his goal, though he paid a heavy toll,
Others that he perished trying,
Punished for his daring flying Icarus-like too near the sun.
Either way he is long gone.

But if you who stand here gazing at the picture,
Slowly phrasing to yourself this man’s sad tale,
Should some other time regale other listeners with his story,
Think on this and be not sorry:
Three long centuries have passed and his memory still lasts.’

At these words I turned around,
Keen to catch the fading sound in the gathering evening gloom.
There was no one in the room.

In Memoriam (à la Tennyson)

by Anna Vaninskaya:

I saw the evening shadows fall
Upon the lonely Norman cross,
And turn from green to grey the moss
Upon the crumbling churchyard wall.

I saw the willows weep their leaves
Into the darkened stream below,
I saw the tower all aglow
From topmost stone to nether eaves.
But I did not see him where oft
Of old I knew he used to stand,
Touching the carvings with his hand,
Tracing their edges worn and soft.

Gildas At The Ford (A Fragment)

by Anna Vaninskaya:

The sun was high when Gildas came
To Darren’s Ford. His horse was lame,
His lance askew, his shield was bent,
The last of his young strength was spent.

The sun was low when Gildas woke.
His horse was gone, his fire smoked,
He lay alone beneath the sky,
The pebbles of the Ford were dry.

And facing him across the Ford,
With helmet plumed and upraised sword,
He saw Sir Gorn. Sir Gorn saw him.
‘My end,’ thought Gildas, ‘will be grim.’

So up he leapt to meet his foe.
He grasped his lance, slung on his bow,
And waiting stood upon the bank,
Casting a glance to either flank.

But dread Sir Gorn did not advance.
Young Gildas stared as if entranced,
And neither moved, and neither spoke.
No earthly sound the silence broke.