In Jericho

A poem

Posted - January 05, 2003

When there are Carr’s wheat meal biscuits with afternoon tea,
I invariably think of Geoff’s squat
on Great Clarendon Street,
in Jericho, Oxford.
Memory wakes my post-meridian ghosts.
I remember Rory Forsythe
with whom I shared those communal digs.
Settling in front of his coal fire,
we’d brew a proper pot of Earl Grey,
eat “bickies”, anticipate dinner
and the inevitable pints at the pub.
Rory with Rossetti hair,
a bassoonist and composer,
had a choir boy face that hid
his randy hetero heart;
a dandy who worked as a janitor.
He was one of the friends I
found a home with in Jericho,
trying to find Elusive Life.
Home truly is
where you find your heart.
21 Great Clarendon was home.
Rory and the rest were part of home.
Geoff was the heart.

One of a group of decaying
Victorian row houses,
always beautiful during the
late day gold mist light,
in town, not gown, Oxford,
21 G.C. had a crooked wooden door
painted canary yellow;
two stories of less than solid floors;
papered over holes in hallway walls;
heat provided by paraffin lamps, and
hot water supplied by kettle.
No shower. No bath.
Electrics were regulated
by a jerry-rigged meter
that ate ten pence pieces
like a glutton at a banquet.
A small gas range cooked grand holiday feasts
of goose, pheasant, and plum pudding.
We got to the outdoor loo
by a cobbled stone walk
in a brambled back yard.
And over a garden fence
vined in Spring with rambling roses,
we’d chat with Mrs. Jacobs,
our neighbor o.a.p.,
who thought we were all
such nice young people.
Well, we were young.
Other than Geoff,
my compatriot and contemporary,
the others all younger than me.

Autumn dusk announces tea and
I remember Mike McB:
intense, psychotic, aspiring poet,
who keened as darkness
became his poetry.
And Peter G.:
his pitch blue black waist length hair
and dense full beard hiding
the quiet, gentle Scotsman
who relished fresh salmon,
daily litres of sweet Martini,
and cigarettes rolled with hash.
And Sonia: more than
the Sally Bowles of Somerville
she pretended to be, a former actress,
and very much the saloniste
she hated being called;
I heard she married well,
went unhappy, and then insane.

But most of all there was Geoff.
We knew each other from our pre-sex
sixties college and Catholic days.
Then went quite different ways.
But when I, during a long, dark time,
seemed able to grasp hold only of straws
that quickly ignited to flame,
I thought of Geoff;
and the idea of an exile in Oxford
naively appeased whatever ache ached.
I wrote and asked he open his home to me.
He wrote back a warning about his poor squat.

O how my heart stumbled over itself
when that crooked yellow door was opened
by wild eyed, wild haired McB.
My so comfortable Jesuit blood
froze at the poverty
of a dark and broken hall.
But when Geoff arrived home
bearing filched eggs and butter from work,
welcoming me with a wary,
though warm smile, wondering
what he had let himself in for with
this dazed lump of a man with luggage,
who ate self doubt like candy,
all things were well.
We quickly took up our old lives as friends
puzzled by vocation, by sex,
by experience that confused, not clarified,
by who we were, and at how
our so long separated lives
led to Jericho.

Geoff, lover of Henry James and Tolstoy,
and the perfectly made genoise,
believed in porcelain words
as guards against the hostile world.
He mirrored me by too often
nuancing life into diurnal inaction,
and also in strong choices made,
then fled from.
Rejected for entrance by the Jesuits
because of a” latency”
indicated in psychological tests—
the same tests I took—
he was at first an Air Force ROTC lieutenant;
then onto Johns Hopkins, but was unhappy and left;
then to Oxford and Wadham College for philosophy and left;
apprentice chef work at a local bistro;
finally after a make up year of math and chemistry,
med. school in San Francisco,
graduating with honors and onto Yale,
and a prestigious psychiatric residency.
Two years into the program he died of AIDS.

Friend of my heart,
your death is still
the most difficult for me.
We grew to love each other,
and to understand each other,
and I remember you
most of all in Jericho;
not in your last dim phone calls
across a continent,
as I heard your mind
grow more distant
with each fading, broken word;
until that last call
which was almost all
silence across 3000 miles,
except your plea
not to be seen
by any one.
But I grew to love you in Jericho
on Great Clarendon Street,
across from
University Press
and far too near The Gardeners
(all too welcoming) Arms.

A symbol must be complete,
and life, with its own
inevitability, completes:
those walls in Jericho
did come tumbling down.
When I returned some years later,
still searching for
whatever it is I search for,
the squat had become
St Barnabas playground.
But in Jericho there was still
the afternoon luminescence
that creates the shadow of memory:
of Rory and his bassoon, or Geoff talking
about The Golden Bowl,
or my boyfriend Colin wretchedly
drunk at midnight mass,
or Bob and Caroline, or Jill
and Penny and John; Nick, Helen,
or great hearted golden haired Greg;
ghosts—all ghosts waking in the afternoon,
all hidden from a future
that would come as such a
complete surprise.

John Niespolo lived in Jericho for two years in the mid-1970s. After 18 years of wandering he has made his home in the High Mojave desert of California.

Did you know?

How religious we are?

In the 2001 Census, some 50% of Jericho residents said they were Christian, 2.2% Muslim, 1.9% Buddhist and 1.2% professed other religions, while 34% of people said they had no religion. In Oxford as a whole the proportion with no religion was 24%.

Why Juxon Street?

Juxon Street is named after William Juxon, President of St John’s College from 1621-33.