The real world of the Left Hand of God

New College Oxford

To the understandable shock and disbelief of almost everyone who knew me and my dismal academic record I won a place to read English Literature at New College, Oxford because in those days (1973) it decided places based on open competition. Having been tutored for a year by my extraordinary English teacher, Faith Tolkien, I managed to give the impression of no longer being a menace to society.

New College is so called because it was new when it was built in 1379. It was the first university college in the world to be designed as a campus where all the students would live and study. The section in the above photograph is referred to as The New Building because it’s only 200 years old. As I dragged my yobbish knuckles over its hallowed courtyards I felt like Mike Tyson arriving at Harvard. My first cathedral-sized room was just behind the third floor of the curved tower.

The cloisters at New College. They’re used twice in the trilogy. The general structure, though much more open to the outside in the book, is used in Chapter 21 of the The Last Four Things when Gil assassinates Redeemer Parsi from beyond the walls by means of the laws of probability.

In The Beating of His Wings the attempt by the Two Trevors to kill Thomas Cale in Chapter 10 takes place in an exact replica of the cloisters.

Why such a beautiful and quiet place inspires ideas of murder is a mystery.


This is the largest section of the immensely thick medieval walls of Oxford City. In The Left Hand of God, Cale meets Arbell Swan-Neck for the first time when he bumps into her in the dark interior. This is based on an odd incident in this same place in 1974 when I went into its dark passages in something of a hurry and also bumped into a woman, but this time one in late middle-age. It was surprising that I didn’t see her coming as she was dressed in an excruciatingly dazzling pink outfit. We stared at each other and there was a brief moment before I recognized her: it was Queen Elizabeth II.  It was such a peculiar experience it might just as well have been Henry VIII.

I can’t remember why she was there and the internet reveals nothing either.

I based Memphis in all its elegant and privileged magnificence on NewCollege in particular and Oxford in general. If I had ambiguous feelings about the place, then and now, there’s no denying it is another world and a remarkable one at that. Students of the incongruous will be interested to know that this picture is taken from the mound built to cover the largest cesspit in Europe, one that went unemptied for three hundred years.

The Sanctuary | Salesian College

Salesian College

The main Salesian dormitory known, in The Left Hand of God and in real life, as The Barn.  It slept about eighty people.

Inside theBarn. This doesn’t really give a sense of the immense size of the place as the photo is taken from half way down the dormitory and foreshortens the width considerably.

These two lovelies, both about fifteen, might persuade the sceptics about the physically intimidating nature of some teenagers. Compared to two of my friends in particular they look rather sweet. Though a couple of years before my time they were apparently taught boxing by a priest nicknamed ‘Killer’

The ambulacrum or ambo where we sheltered from the weather. There were almost no inside spaces to go during the day as the dormitories were locked.

This is the Refectory or ‘ref’ where the boys ate their terrible food. The eagle-eyed may notice that the tables are carefully laid and with tablecloths and that this hardly speaks of the privation I’ve complained about. This photo was taken before it became a school when it was a house of studiesfor priests only.

Note that we ate our meals under a lifesized image of a man being tortured to death. The notion of The Hanged Redeemer – a character whose obvious good nature was simply ignored bythe Redeemers – is an example of the strange-making I write about in the Essays section. By changing the method of execution I wanted to try and make it clear what an odd image of Jesus it was: he is not someone whose philosphy is dominated by death and suffering as central aspects of living the good life. What would he have thought about the point of making children eat their meals under an image of such horror?

Tiger Mountain | Kilimanjaro

Tiger Mountain in The Last Four Things is based on Mount Kilimanjaro. For two months a year while I was at my Catholic boarding school I escaped on holiday to my parent’s home near the mountain which rules the African plains for hundreds of miles around. My father was a soldier seconded to the Kenyan Army to train the first parachute regiment in Africa, mostly to fight the army of bandits known as the Shifta in a guerilla conflict that still dominates Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. For an alternative view see the Wikipedia entry on the Shifta as freedom-fighters. Whatever the truth of the matter it was clearly a fight carried on with considerable brutality on both sides, a brutality which informed the description of the war against The Folk in The Last Four Things.

The picture can give some idea of why I dubbed it, ‘The Great Testicle’ but in real life the wrinkled surface of the mountain is even more apparent.