‘That morning, I think, we were both within an inch of learning to fly, or at least I think I might have managed as much as is required for a decent crash. But we never catch the propitious moment.’ W. G. Sebald, Vertigo
There is a space between the roof and the stone vault of the college chapel where, in the first years of my academic life, I would lie for long hours, flat out with my back to the skin of the vault, facing up into the shiplike timbers of the roof, feeling the air breathe through that long and secret tract of space. I think it was the knowledge of the immense void below me that electrified the experience; I would sit on the keystone bosses, feeling their time-worn masons’ marks, trying to appreciate the exact antagonism by which this puzzle of stones pushed against each other, maintaining an illusion of relaxed levitation, hundreds of tonnes of Purbeck limestone in perfect flight. Sitting in this position I imagined myself on the bridge of some titanic vessel: the chapel, an oceangoing craft, dry-docked by time and fate on the parched back lawn of my college. From the porthole-narrow windows at each end I could observe the ebb and flow of tourist tides and the flotsam-drifting of gowned fellows across the court, aloft in my crows nest, removed from the storms below, free to chart fictitious courses and sound imaginary depths. And, like a stowaway, I found I could withdraw behind one of the great timbers of the roof, hugging my legs up to my chest, and make myself invisible, whereupon the roofspace would go about its usual business, seemingly unobserved. Sparrows and starlings would flit from east end to west towards the setting sun which, for a few magical days each year, would throw a golden ray from bow to stern, from porthole to porthole, piercing the space, illuminating the motes in which the sparrows drew a turbulent wake.