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Into The Heart of Borneo with James Fenton


'If God had existed he would have made Oxford'
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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Now, when I went to Oxford, I thought, the first thing I thought, arriving in Merton, in this, you know, beautiful... Far from thinking, 'This is paradise on Earth', as it is. It's the nearest you get to a celestial city, Oxford. There is no eternity, this is the best going. I didn't think any of that. I looked around the quad and I thought, 'This is just like my public school. Any minute, these bastards are going to beat me', is what I thought.

Absurd. And sad, but at least, you know, once I'd married Belinda, it all became plain that this was the greatest privilege you can have in Europe, to be in a place like this. And I found out where the Bodleian library was and the Radcliffe Camera, and I just released into a world where, I don't know... You know, if God had existed, he would have made Oxford. It's just... there's no... nothing to compare with it anywhere on Earth. And you might say Cambridge, and not a joke, but look at the Bodleian, how many volumes does the Bodleian have? Let's go for the real thing.

[Q] Do you really think that?

Yes. I really think that. And not only do I think that, it's become far more powerful a feeling as I've got older. I get back from the Congo, and I think, 'What is this'? This is not going to last two weeks. This is the most fragile product of civilisation. How can this possibly be? How can people pay, A, pay their taxes, B, support a place like this? It's just unbelievable, and I actually kissed the stone on the Bodleian. I thought, I mean, you get into a frame of mind where you find yourself thinking: 'God, that was a magnificent building, in the'...

If you're in there for six months, probably gone. And you think, 'Wow, look at the way that rattan is holding that particular post together. That's terrific.' You get back and thought, this place, it's all stone. It feels the highest possible pinnacle of any civilisation, the greatest thing that could be achieved. It's nothing whatever to do with an individual ruler, it's nothing to do, anymore, with religion. It's to do with a real ideal that you can translate into young people's lives. Thank God, it's commemorated there in the most beautiful stone buildings in the world. It's there. This is... this is something that anybody who's interested in the life of the mind should aspire to.

I don't know. Nowadays, if I didn't live here, I'd like to go and stay in a B&B in Oxford for a week and walk around it.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Oxford University, Merton College, Bodleian library, Oxford, Cambridge, Cambridge University, Congo

Duration: 3 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009