As a summer student in 1967, I banged the heavy knocker on the old door of the Gothic revival building on St. Giles Street in Oxford. Consuelo Vanderbilt had been a neighbor after her divorce from the duke of Marlborough. St. Edmund Campion once walked those acres often when he was at St. John’s College. My model theologian, Austin Farrer, frequently came by, and there was a nameless man with a pince nez who used a large ear trumpet to hear High Mass.
The Rev. Hugh Maycock (1903-1980) who greeted me was rarely hailed by his first name in the Californian manner, although he was “Uncle Hugh” in his absence. As principal of Pusey House, he oversaw a library and residence hall thrust up as a blatant celebration of the Tractarian movement. It was aware of being more Catholic liturgically than the Catholics, and the chapel, designed by Temple Moore and Ninian Comper, where generations including John Betjeman and Harold Macmillan served at the altar, still glows in Edwardian gilt. After my first stay I occasionally returned and, years later, I became a member of St. Cross College, which has taken over some of the property.
Besides preserving the death mask of Dr. Pusey in his carbuncular glory, the house has an 80,000-volume library, mainly history and patristics. Deus scientiarum Dominus was the motto, and I passed golden days just for reading and occasional punting down the river. One long croquet match provoked complaint from the rarely uncomposed Uncle Hugh about the incessant din of mallets. He never objected when I practiced Elgar on the chapel organ, which, inexplicably, had come from Brattleboro, Vermont. His own hobby was collecting antique pawnbrokers’ balls whose history he traced to the Medici.
Inordinate sleep was a necessity after he was bitten by the tsetse fly in Malawi as a missionary. “I can always tell what time of day it is. When I awake in my pajamas I know it is time for Mass and when I awake in my trousers I know it is time for tea.” Being a clergyman of the Church of England in its mellow sunset years, he pacifically regarded what it had been, with no delusions about what was happening to it. Abroad was worse: “In liturgical processions, American bishops waddle.” He spoke seldom at table. Occasionally some singular humor broke forth: “I say, if your name were Baden Baden I could ask, Have you ever been to Baden Baden, Baden Baden?” Notice of his amiable little ways began upon his arrival in 1955 from Cambridge, where he was vicar of Little St. Mary’s and had published a tract on original sin: “A comforting doctrine because, since Adam did it, it’s not our fault.” He imputed eccentricity to another only once in my presence: A maths don in his undergraduate days had developed a conceit that he was turning into a mushroom, like Gaius Caligula who thought he was made of glass. Uncle Hugh added, rather chillingly I thought, that there was no truth to it.
Wearing a World War I-style flying helmet, he drove me to a pub in ancient Newbridge, steering along the right side of the road in tribute to my American citizenship. We survived, but his successor as principal did not. The Australian fell off a ladder shortly after his arrival and died within hours. Uncle Hugh told the press that the incident had caused confusion, and confusion he most disdained. His next successor, Cheslyn Jones, was a Welsh narcoleptic, often falling asleep in mid-sentence. Rooms that had heard the voices of Charles Gore, Darwell Stone, F. L. Cross, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien never knew anything like that awkward silence. I suppose it was the last slumber of a way of life vanished now like the Cheshire Cat, but enchanting when it was.