Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2010

Things I learned in Istanbul

Istanbul on the outskirts of its heart is a place of motion: buses, speeding cars and taxies, and the trams. The buildings on either side of the wide street were like seventies apartment buildings covered in signs and placards and lights. The shops were clothes re-sellers, leather bag stalls, hairdressers, gyro-ceries, cheap wares and street food. Every so often the minarets of a mosque, a camii, would separate the stores, and through the garden grilles were grass covered sepulchers decorated with gold Arabic calligraphy.

There are stray dogs in Istanbul, but there are far more cats



Men will follow solo female travelers (but not very far)
There are far more men on the streets, men and women do not walk together, and men frequently hold hands



Don’t have Turkish coffee with sugar and baklava. The coffee is better black.
The Blue Mosque is not the Haghia Sophia. Both are bigger than they seem.



Don’t try to walk into town, use the tram. It’s cheap and easy to use.
Do take the Nostalgic Bospho…

Flying at Christmastide

Stuck at Heathrow, missed flight, stuck in Istanbul. Now home in South Africa for a green Christmas. Will write more about the voyage later but for now - Merry Christmas.

L'hiver's here

The snow started at 8.30 this morning and has continued to fall, a ridiculous, exorbitant, gratuitous amount of snow for which I am both exasperated and thankful. The city is very pretty in her winter wear, but all errands must be put aside because of the difficulty of walking. Within minutes one is completely covered in snow, which sticks and makes us look like a bunch of sheepish yetis. This morning the people out quietly walking under their bright umbrellas, heads down, feet shuffling, meeting friends silently, linking arms, made me think of Lucy and the faun.



Pauline Baynes' illustration



On St. Giles

I went into Oxfam to find a copy without any luck, but I did find an inexpensive first edition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, which has been on my mind lately.



There’s a wedding happening in the college today, so I’m keeping my head low and enjoying a lock in with Roberto Bolano, watching the snow from my window.

College Envy

You can't underestimate the seethings and manoeuvers within the Oxford system. It is not enough that everyone has made it here; there are secret loyalties, secret glees, secret shames: colleges and their status anxieties.

I'm not afraid to say that we are conscious of our position as being slightly outside the ordinary Oxford experience: as mature students, even in our twenties, we stand out among teenagers. And HMC is the newest and smallest college, with a modest endowment and a humble JCR, though we do make much of the prettiness of the buildings, the few illustrious college members (Joseph Priestly, James Martineau, William Gaskell) and dissenting heritage, the Burne-Jones window in the chapel, the central location, and the food. We are only one humble step above the Permanent Private Halls, which HMC left behind when becoming a constituent college in 1996.



But when you come up against the older, formidable colleges, the well-endowed institutions, the Grandes Dames - you h…

Ramblings

This week, in a city suddenly emptied of its students and crammed with Christmas visitors and nervous interviewees, has had its moments of misery and fun. For the majority of it I was sick, the weather was below zero, and everything was weary. In a moment of divine inspiration, a friend told me about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s six episode show The Trip (directed by Michael Winterbottom) and I’ve watched it compulsorily every since.



In The Trip Steve Coogan has booked a trip around the north of England to write up various restaurants and pubs for the Observer magazine. Though this was planned to be shared with his girlfriend Misha, in the face of their separation he invites Rob Brydon to join him. This show combines favourite elements: improvised comedy, impressions, pompous conversation, meta-television (how much are the actors themselves?), hours spent over food and wine, Wordsworth and Coleridge, beautiful wintry northern landscapes, and inevitable piano-accompanied melancholy.

As…

The pleasures of winter (to be fair)

- Visible breath
- Frosted spider webs
- Red berries gathered with ice
- The sharp sun
- Mint mochas
- Evening ice skating!

In addition: today I stopped by the Oxfam on St. Giles and found a first edition copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Book & the Brotherhood for £1.99. It was destiny!



(Manic joy; forgive the nose red from sneezing.)

The indignities of winter

- Sunset at 4pm
- the third cold in two months
- unshuttable windows and meager heating device
- thus frigid bedroom
- thus arthritic fingers
- cold toilets & showers
- not enough jumpers
- constant hunger
- hibernation instincts
- sense of the isolation of mankind
- belief in imminent destruction of the planet by comets
- walking around with an unchanging grimace



Who are these people who talk about crystalline walks in nature? And the minute perfection of frost patterns on windows? I’d like to know. I’d make them spend a night in my freezer – I mean room. Consolation: mulled wine.

Poetry as Perjury

Yesterday I had my last tutorial of the term. It’s hard to believe nine week went by so quickly and now we’re saying goodbye to the Victorians, and staring straight across the table into Christmas’s sloe gin eyes. So now I have a little bit of time to I have to catch up on the things I missed.

Last Wednesday Geoffrey Hill, the newly elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, gave his inaugural lecture at the Exam Schools titled “How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester”. In our excellent seats (claimed a tad overeagerly, unsurprisingly, an hour before) we had a good view of not only the new Professor, but also of the various distinguished people, writerly people, who flooded the room in their London coats, newspapers tucked under their arms, with definitive noses and eye pouches. I recognized Hermione Lee, most of my lecturers, a man who may have been Philip Pullman – I couldn’t help wondering why everyone didn’t just come in with name tags on their lapels.

Tolstoyan, Darwinian, Hill sa…

Six Jesuits (one dead) and Me

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on Gerard M. Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland, a sharply-wrought, uncomfortable, ecstatic poem. Hopkins had given up poetry when he joined the Jesuits, until he read of the sinking of the Deutschland in 1875, which so affected him that it wrenched open his cellar doors and propelled this beautiful monster out:

THOU mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread
World’s strand, sway of the sea


going on to create the most radical poem of the nineteenth century. Hopkins was a student at Balliol, and I sneaked around on the internet and discovered that his juvenilia, fragments and devotional writings are housed in Campion Hall, the Jesuit Private Permanent Hall. (A PPH is not one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford). So I wrote to ask if I could take a look at them. The Bodleian, fairly, refused my request to see the mature poems.

Father Philip Endean kindly agreed to let me come to take a look, so I skived off the Decadent Victorian Gothic…
I've just received an email to say that the Bodleian library has been closed. There have been increased student demonstrations and riots across Britain in the last few days - the first in Oxford were two weeks ago - protesting the budget cuts in university education (tuition will double within the next few years). There have been student activists inside the Rad Cam all last night. This is no Paris yet, but we'll see how it breaks down.

When I stood outside the Rad Cam in the freezing afternoon air, the police were pacing back and forth, the student newspapers were crowding in for pictures ("And get someone to ask the police how much money it's costing to keep them here all night..." in a suitably journalese voice), and everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

Meanwhile, I've heard from a few irate third-years protesting the means of protesters, displeased to lose time on their Final Honours papers. What are the protesters doing inside, one wond…

Sound & (non)Sense

Last December when I had my phone interview for Oxford, the British accents from the three academics on the other end of the line – so far away in this magical, unreal city that rained books and fellowships – the contrasts between their voices (which seemed to me like the poshest of posh Oxbridge accents) and the voices I heard every day in the bookstore (on the bus, on the streets, in my apartment) made the event even more surreal and unnerving.

It was only after weathering the first few days here that my ear began to pick up the nuances. My tutor now had an unmistakeably Scottish coloring in his voice.
The system is far more developed than I (should have) realized. I have very little idea what makes a Newcastle accent different from a Nottingham accent (if there is a difference). The different shades of Londonish don’t tell me who is from Croydon and who is from Hampstead (again, if there is a difference, and I think there is). I can tell the difference between Irish and Scot (thank…

Swamplandia

I thought working in a bookshop made me a panicked reader. I brought my favorite books with me in the hope that a life devoted to reading - at least for the next three years - would allow me to more engage with the writers I hoped to enjoy and be educated by. Instead (big surprise) this rollercoaster of non-stop reading is rather (strangely enough) course related. This term I have dedicated myself to those funny people the Victorians. Aside from (or maybe in light of) their quirks, their categorization, their love of the miniature, their strange hobbies and anxieties, their advances and retreats, their observations and wrecks - I have found the Victorians to be an intriguing bunch. But as my tutor says, I must be warned not to lump them all into a big pot. The nineteenth century was a complex age, and just as the modern era, social attitudes changed throughout the century in small oscillations and wide leaps. Though tempted, one cannot summarize and say 'The Victorians were like t…

Seasons of Mist

In the last two days the temperatures have dropped to around or below freezing, and we’re suddenly puffing frosted breaths. This sudden chill is accompanied by a mist that has hung low over Oxford yesterday and today. It is not uncommon, I suppose, for mist in the morning, but yesterday the mist stayed until two in the afternoon, when it lifted for a sudden shout of blue sky, and then descended heavily two hours later. The same happened today. I made sure to get up earlier this morning and document the mist.

Here's Arlosh Quad in the morning:



En route to the square:



The Rad Cam, looking entirely fake.



The High.



The mist in conjunction with our Friday lectures on decadent Victorian Gothic and Jack the Ripper most recently has caused speculation as to which familiar face will soon loom out of the mist in a heavy coat, collar turned up, knife in hand. I have a few theories.



(Anna and Gerard on Holywell.)
If you need a bit more Oxford in your life (let's face it, who doesn't?), check out this wonderful blog: Oxford Daily Photo. I'm a horrible wuss when it comes to stepping up and taking photos of things - it makes me feel conspicuous - and am so grateful the little things are being recorded.

Theatrics

I posted about Harold Pinter’s Old Times a few weeks ago – I was over-the-moon when in a lecture on Tuesday on reading drama at the end of the class the lecturer asked three students onto the stage, where they read the first ten minutes of the play culminating in Anna’s monologue about London. The first read-through was done with a dominating man, a passive woman, and an ecstatic Anna; the second time was done with an anxiously affectionate husband, a laughing wife, and a dominating, deeply knowing Anna. I struggle to control my facial expressions when watching any acting (film or theatre), so I have no doubt I looked like a slaw-jawed child at Chuck-E-Cheese.


Theatre is becoming an increasing interest of mine; it’s something that’s popped up inexplicably with more and more frequency. It all started with the Tom Stoppard rash earlier this year. I saw Michael Gambon in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape on Saturday night (see photo; more later), and I’m thinking of doing a paper on Bec…

Remember, remember

On bonfire night it rained. It started to spit when Anna and I went to buy jumpers to keep us warm for the evening around the fire (they wouldn’t keep out the wet). A large group of people were excited about the venture to the Isis tavern in Iffley: a long walk into the wooded area, along the river, and then the pub with its bonfire, sparklers, mulled wine, and live music. It was spitting as we left (umbrellas and raincoats on). The rain increased. We were soaked. I like being wet or dirty when it’s an outing or a story to tell later so I was quite happy by the dampness, the wet feet, the plastered hair, the wind, the splashing buses, the grim gargoyles gurgling above us, everything. It was like captaining a ship in a fine gale: a brisk trot headed south for the river, all in shipshape and thoroughly soaked.

On the Magdalen Bridge half of our number went back. Yes, they abandoned the drenched woods, the lit river, and the bonfire on the fifth of November for another evening at the col…

Song for a Saturday Night

Joni: I drew a map of Canada, Oh Canada, with your face sketched on it twice

After midnight on a bus, whispers from a couple in the fourth row sharing seats. Dark fields, sheep gathered in, no winding road, lonely twinned streetlamps suddenly go. Legs aching like all the rest, strangers asleep with wide open mouths. Drenched in guitars, the sound of deserted bars.

Joni: Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine, taste so bitter, bitter and so sweet -

For all those cat people

I have to share this wonderful poem, which I was given in a lecture today. I'm not naturally a cat person, but living with two cats has won me over. This is a part of a poem called Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, a man who wrote it while incarcerated in Bedlam for insanity (or what we would call a mental breakdown). Without further ado:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the …

All Hallows

To those tempted to think that classical music is a dull, afternoon affair with sentimental violins beloved by old women with tea cozies – listen to Mozart’s Requiem. For a mass on behalf of the dead, for all its frequent pleas to rest in peace, this Requiem is a seething, tense, and dramatic exploration of the distance from the bowels of hell to the heights of the sublime. This is gut-wrenching music; music that moves you physically. Indulging in Mozart lore, one can imagine the composer scribbling furiously as the grim reaper approaches with his calling card; Mozart tossed into a pauper’s grave without the reception of his masterpiece.

The Commemoration of All Souls Requiem Eucharist at Merton College Chapel began with the Introit and Kyrie as the ministers processed in. It’s a piece that stacks up the intensity, beginning with the winds, adding strings, then the basses, tenors, altos and sopranos until what began as a whistle has become a vibrating mass of sound. The ministers ente…

Against the Picturesque Or the Purpose of This Blog

Friends and family will know that I’m a born Anglophile. I looked forward to life in England with almost unmixed glee, and – as is natural – it is looks different from the other side; now that Seattle is a place beyond my reach, is looks perfect, like home.

In a city as dense with history and myth as Oxford, it is inevitable that one is lured into the city’s hazy atmosphere: the Keatsian seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Arnold’s dreaming spires, Waugh’s halcyon days, the tweed and pipe legends of Lewis and Tolkien, the detections of Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Morse, the gown-flappings and dinner halls of Harry Potter. It is in part because it is true; it is a magical enclave. But it’s also self-perpetuation, and I am guilty. Reading back over my blog posts, it’s a construction; no less true perhaps, and forgivable, but still a construction.

I am very susceptible to the picturesque. I am a fan of sheep grazing, buttons, widows with veils, rooms with views, literary people…

Second Sunday Outing

Last Sunday, I and Anna and Gerard took an afternoon trip to Iffley, a village tucked inside a southern suburb of Oxford, a lovely, hushed village, with thatched cottages (with wire constraining the thatch). The sun was out at first, in wide skies. The church was on church lane, the mill on mill lane. Good sensible town naming committee.



A few weeks ago, I went to a cello performance of the Bach suites at St. Barnabus, a neo-Byzantine Anglo-Catholic church in Jericho. While I was looking around the church, which is only half-completed with mosaics, my companion remarked that he found it interesting that England, which has so many churches, should have all the churches used more and more for secular events and losing their religious ties. It’s a sad sentiment, but Philip Larkin said as much in a poem I very much like.

(From “Church Going”:

And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I…

Sunday Outing the First

I’ve come to the pleasures of walking late. Gone are the days when my family had to pull me out of the house with a rope around my neck. I’ve been converted. Two weeks ago a bright Sunday coaxed me outdoors. As I had just had coffee with an old friend from York High (those were the days), and he suggested a number of excursions, I thought I’d take meself off to Port Meadow, which had wonderful suggestions of sweet wine and rolling around in the grass. I experienced neither, but it was the perfect thing nonetheless.

I went up the Woodstock Road, past Jericho, and found it quite easily about half an hour out. I took the long way around, walked across the meadow, which was neither rolling hill nor flat field, but something in the middle. Groups of walkers in twos and threes and cyclists covered the footpaths, and happy blond children in jumpers gamboled and fell over each other on the hillocks.




I walked across the lock where the Thames crosses and past the few buildings (I must return to …

Now it's Official

We might as well talk about matriculation, which happened last Saturday. Unlike high school, where we “matriculated” at the end of 12th grade, first years matriculate at Oxford to become full, official junior members of the university. This meant that we had to put on our subfusc – white shirts, black skirts or suits, velvet ribbons (women) or white bow ties (men) – and our gowns and carry mortar boards in our hands.

It meant walking down to the Exam Schools (the usual venue, the Sheldonian, alas, is closed for repairs) led by the famous translator of Anselm and the Desert Fathers, Sister Dr. Benedicta Ward, and being lined up like sardines inside the large writing hall (carpeted floors, powdered blue ceilings, the single portrait of Sweden’s favorite king trapped behind a projector screen) to await the ceremony along with the thousands of other first years who trooped into the hall in shifts.

The Vice Chancellor came in, we peered over shoulders, he waved his cap at us, recited a few…

Thursday Fears

Today has been long. I shall use a term I just learned and write about the important bits both syntagmatically (in sequence) and paradigmatically (with association).

The sun bright and early, best thing about my room is the slices of light at sunrise and sunset.

I went through a major Virginia Woolf phase about a year and a half ago, and it continued for about a year before easing off. During that year I read Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf; I loved it. Instead of adhering to an artificially rigid chronological biography pattern, it was written in the sort of cyclical organic associative way Woolf would have favored. It was massive, but I enjoyed it all.

Knowing that Hermione Lee taught at Oxford, I made sure to stop into her midday lectures on Woolf. Last week she lectured on Reading Virginia Woolf (and what Woolf thought about reading), and her lecture today was on Woolf’s pleasant, competitive, sometimes tense relationship with T.S. Eliot. Woolf was writing Jacob’s Room ar…

Distractions

You can only read so much. In the times when I am not reading or working on essays, I am enjoying one of the following: television on the internet, bookshops, coffee shops, and pubs. Each deserves to be dealt with on its own.

I am a huge BBC fan. Unfortunately (or perhaps blessedly) there were no televisions around college. And then I was told about BBC iplayer – where you can watch the last seven days’ television on your computer. I was not enthusiastic until I did it myself and can now say I’m happily converted. Whether it’s getting into Spooks (a spy drama called MI5 for U.S. viewers) for the first time or the new episode of Life (voiced over by the dear David Attenborough), this is a constant menace to my productivity. It’s just a click away.

It’s gone one step further with my discovery of ITV’s (the oldest independent commercial TV station) iplayer and their period drama Downton Abbey which combines a few of my favorite things: Dame Maggie Smith, upstairs-downstairs drama, scriptw…

With the promise of cheese

It’s just like Harry Potter, people keep saying. (And who can blame them? There’s an H on the library walls.) One of the most Potteresque of all Oxford traditions is the dining experience. Our college has two formal dinners: a lesser formal on Monday nights, when academic gowns are worn but formal dress is not required, and one on Wednesday nights when academic gowns are worn over formal attire.

Our first formal Wednesday dinner provoked the first of many clothing crises. (Whispers throughout the day: Gowns or No Gowns? Full Subfusc or Just Gowns? Ties or no ties? Skirts or pants?) We waited behind our stiff-backed wooden upright seats until the fellows and faculty members of the college processed in to the hall and took their seats at the high table which is at the front of Arlosh Hall, directly under the portrait of young Arlosh painted in early nineteenth-century Arcadian innocence, flowing-locked with a spaniel looking adoringly at his master’s hand. It is in memory of their young…

To be poor, and young, and a girl

For the ladies I've lived with, and for C who told me about the play and found this wonderful passage.

ANNA:

Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? my goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? to look back, half the night, to do things we loved, we were young then of course, but what stamina, and to work in the morning, and to a concert, or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you haven’t forgotten? and then riding on top of the bus down Kensington High Street, and the bus conductors, and then dashing for the matches for the gasfire and then I suppose scrambled eggs, or did we? who cooked? both giggling and chattering, both huddled to the heat, then bed and sleeping, and all the hustle and bustle in the morning rushing for the bus again for work, lunchtimes in Green Park, exchanging all our news, with our very own sandwiches, innocent girls, innocent secretaries, and then the night to come, and goodness knows what excitement in store, I mean the sheer expect…
Alas for Mr. McCarthy; the prize goes to (if the alerts are correct) Howard Jacobson for his novel The Finkler Question. I haven't read Jacobson's novels, but he had a great article in The Guardian this week on the necessity of humor in literature (or rather, the insignificance of novels which don't acknowledge the comic.)

Another Graveyard

Today is the first day of lectures, with Wilde, Victorian "place", and George Eliot on the menu. These lectures are all held in the St. Cross buildings, which are less than five minutes walk from Harris Manchester. Last week we had (another) library induction at the English Faculty Library, which is in the St. Cross buildings. The trees are flaming up before their annual death, and the streets busy with new students. En route to the St. Cross buildings, I saw a small gate leading away from the road and several grave stones beyond.



I love graveyards, as I've said before, so I followed under the leafy bower to what I thought was a paltry scattering of ancient stones and what turned out to be Holywell Cemetery, a venerable clearing of the dead next to St. Cross Church, a medieval church undergoing restoration. The first headstone I came to belonged to none other than Kenneth Grahame, beloved writer of The Wind in the Willows.



Apparently, the inspiration for Carroll's Ma…