Striding past a drive-thru MacDonald’s the last day of April, contemplating my ignorance of the highest spiritual truths in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, clutching a battered Harrods’ bag full of photocopied lines of Shakespeare, on the last leg of a journey to a teaching gig outside of Oxford, I was feeling highly unlikely. Happy to be teaching Shakespeare all day, I felt massively displaced.

I’ve come to appreciate the odd day of teaching out of town. Sometimes I get to sit in an old bishops’ palace and talk to vicars and shamans for hours about the inadequacies of literary theory. It’s not unusual for me to convince a college that I must take my students to visit Stratford or to see a play at the Globe. But the situation of the college at which I taught the other weekend was something else.

I was advised to take a cab from the station. It looked a straightforward enough route on the map. Obstinately I walked. It turned out not to be a long way, but a deserted and polluted one, by the side of the busy A339, through housing estates and shopping warehouses. By the time I came to the brand new college in the middle of its car park, I felt as if I had walked out of England into the desolate suburbs of an American city, or a cr*p British version of them.

Inside the college there were drink machines emblazoned with commands like ‘hydrate’, notice boards that boasted of ‘Sport and Enrichment’ and a ‘Book Bar’, or shelf full of Jilly Cooper and Penny Vincenzi titles (I could see only one academic volume, something called ‘How to Study’).

Wow! I thought to myself, if I write about my bemused reaction to all of this next week in The Oxford Times I’ll only appear slightly more pompous than I probably already am. Then my students began to arrive and we had a (hopefully for them) delightful day talking about Shakespeare.

At the end of the day, as we waited for our transportation out of the college I got talking to a pair of my students. It turned out she was a novelist and he was a painter and that they had met while up at Oxford in the fifties. As the husband opened my eyes to the very particular tone of blue of the thunderous clouds on the horizon above the drive-thru MacDonald’s, I half-wondered to myself, which of the generations can be held responsible for what I perceive to be the ugly mess of modern life in the UK today? Perhaps the answer is: Shakespeare’s generation or the one or two before. Back then, as Yeats has made Balzac say, “Europe might have begun the solution of its problems, but individualism came instead; the egg instead of hatching, burst”.

When Bottom awoke from his visionary dream on May morning he declared: “man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream”. As I continue to go about the country expounding A Midsummer Night’s Dream I am mindful that I may well be an ass to do so but I also recall St Paul: “the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the bottom of God’s secrets”. While I stand in the college car park or on the podium and try to discover the divine contents of Shakespeare, will something rare even then rush to knowledge?