Thursday, December 30, 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 Bosphorous Tour on the ferry despite its cheesy name

The streets are very clean, smell like cigarette smoke and sometimes rose perfume but not spices
Visit in December, when the weather is sunny and mild and the tourists are celebrating Christmas at home
Take the classic guide to the city Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely’s Strolling Through Istanbul
Spend more than 20 minutes at the Topkapi Sarayi, the sultan’s palace
Note to self: Learn Turkish. Come back with friends.

Friday, December 24, 2010

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.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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 have to raise your hat. Gerard and I went to Christ Church last week to see the icon exhibit at the picture gallery. (The icon exhibit was disappointingly small, but I did see some Dürer woodcuts, including his 1514 woodcut of St. Jerome in his study.) Before the doors opened, we wandered the ground, sniffling.

The late Norman Cathedral is gorgeously rich. The Jonah window, with its sixteenth-century stained and painted glass.

Came upon this bust, and as I'd just remembered that Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, was librarian here, I wondered if we'd run into him. And here he is, memorialized as Democritus, his pseudonym in his Melancholy.

The altar and the ceiling above it were particularly fine, a collision of shapes, arcs, and details.

Best of all: the cobwebs in the sunlight windows, out of reach, aesthetic spiders spinning their webs near the music of the choir and the colors of the windows.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


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 a result, I’ve found myself itching for peregrination (new favourite word: meaning journey, travels, rambling, random movements, pilgrimage). I’ve toyed with the idea of catching a coach and going to Yorkshire for two days, wandering the heaths and moors, and warming myself by the fire. Singing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Being soaked in solitariness and loneliness, bleakness and bareness. This is only accentuated by the medieval English history I’m reading: the cold clammy castles, the marches, and the Percys of Northumberland.

This is obviously as romanticised as I always get over the unknown: but I think I’d like a bit of it – old and creaky, miserable and shabby, with the promise of hot food. Of course I’d need company to enjoy the hours of eating. Most Harris Mancunians have gone home; there’ll be five of us left this week. In the wake of a sudden stillness, I suppose it is the poets one is left with.

So I’ll take a leaf out of Rob Brydon’s book with the beginning of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Keep your eye out for The Trip: If you’re in the U.K. you can find it on BBC iplayer, and it’s been edited into a full-length film to be released in the U.S. in 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

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.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

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.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

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 sat in front of the microphone with a chest cold – “a stupid, stupid infection…my chest, not poetics” – and with precise, enunciated punctuated consonants gave a pessimistic, ironically rousing, lecture. As the “Professor of Perjury”, Hill compared himself to a “traumatized old man”, said that contemporary poetry does not require any encouragement from the university and compared the “national treasure” of British contemporary literature to a landfill. Hill made it clear that he would not be using his post as a podium from which to air his own poetry – saying that to do so before “a captive audience...[would be] abhorrent”. Instead, it would be a place to give a sense of his own poetics. He spoke about Shakespeare, Sidney, Eliot, and the American critics of the mid-twentieth century: R.P. Blackmur, Lionel Trilling, and Allan Tate.

“The greatest tragedy of the last sixty years is the extinction of the ontological reader,” Hill said. Like his writing, Hill's voice dripped with extreme severity.

Hill has been accused of obscurity, and he spoke clearly about his belief that “the emotion of art is impersonal”, that his advice to young poets is to be inventive rather sincere, and that “relevance and accessibility strike [Hill] as words of very slight value.”

The satisfaction of listening to a poet who is both erudite and wrathful was only increased by the various expletives Hill volcanically produced when misspeaking or misreading, crumbling the Dumbledoresque image he conjured up when peering over his glasses. I’m vastly looking forward to Hill’s next lecture.

If you’re interested in Hill, read Greg Wolfe’s editorial statement from a past issue of IMAGE, and then give Hill's daunting poetry (his newest volume is Oraclau/Oracles) a try.

Photograph by Andrew McNeillie here

Sunday, November 28, 2010

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 lectures I so look forward to with the wild-haired purple-vested Dr. Methven, and took a trip down St. Aldate’s.

Campion Hall is tucked on Brewer Street past Dorothy Sayers’ birthplace and the Christ Church Cathedral School, with rich and simple wood-paneled interiors and devotional sculptures on every way. The library is not nearly as ornate as our HMC Tate library with all of its stained-glass and smugly sitting James Martineau, but it is gravely snug, very wooden and cozy, wall to wall books (as libraries should be). Father Endean - a tall, kind and hasty man, with black button eyes and eyebrows that tend towards raised-ness - and I were joined by one, then two, three, four Jesuits. Three were students, and one a very distinguished-looking older gentleman who I thought must be a classicist. Spot the odd one out: the Protestant female in a circle of Catholic priests-to-be in this sanctum of celibacy. (What would Hopkins have said had he known how close my profane fingers were to be to his private writings?)

Father Endean started by opening an early school notebook, an intricate drawing of the battleship positions from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian war, with all the Greek and Persian ships geometrically aligned and perfectly labeled. Hopkins clearly had a mania for order and specificity (very evident in his choice of poetic language). His handwriting is miniscule, and as he is comfortable slipping into Latin, Greek and French, he demonstrates his good education. His ‘d’s’ look like lower-case deltas. In his early journal and notebook, both bound volumes each about the size of a fist, his handwriting shrinks to the microscopic.

“Even a moderately competent priest would have known to burn these,” Father Philip tut-tutted, handling Hopkins’ miniature notebook of confessional prompts. He cheerfully confessed he would have. “Though they’re for Anglican confession, so I suppose it doesn’t count.” (laughing.)

We were shown Hopkins’ sketchbook, his sermons, his personal notes on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and a draft of his vow. Father Endean left the room to collect another manuscript, and, the vow being in Latin, all Jesuits began to read it, debating the true definition of one or another of the words, ordination practices etc. When I asked awkwardly if anyone would be willing to share a translation or paraphrase, the distinguished classicist kindly jumped forward and began to translate on the spot this beautiful and moving vow for the priesthood. It was a moment to remember: the dry and locked-up words of a man long dead suddenly revived into the closeted air of that rich library.

Father Endean came back and nervously stood behind the desk, watching our nearness to the manuscript, and eventually “Fingers, Father, fingers!” When the reader paused to consider the wording of the last few stanzas, Father Endean could supply them from memory, as he is editing these manuscripts for publication.

In the last notebook we were shown, a compendium of notes, marks (for the university students in Dublin he taught in his later, most miserable years), and comments, we found an early draft of his poem 'Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves' and read in quiet admiration:

Disremembering, disremembering all now. Heart you round me right
With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

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 wonders? Apparently (citing Facebook) they are videoing themselves having dance parties on the desks of the Lower Rad Cam. Activism at its finest.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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 (thanks in part to my friend G and that academy award winning film Leap Year and Matthew Goode’s ‘Trow it in the wash an that’ll be grand’), but can’t articulate the difference between Brummie (Birmingham dialect) and Scouse (Liverpool). To carry on the Harry Potter references, I’ve been told that Hagrid is not North England, as I anticipated, but very likely some version of Somerset (or summer-sayt).

Today in Dr. Helen Barr’s lecture on reading verse (or perhaps, as she said, sounding verse), she mentioned the Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison, who is a example of someone with a bifurcated tongue: who grew up in a particular social environment, but was well-educated. As a result, Harris had to speak two languages, and writes about and within this peculiar form of dislocation. He intentionality uses rhyme to subvert – in his poem 'Book Ends', his rhymes privilege the North English accent and ‘lock’, as Dr. Barr said, the privileged tongues out.

Of course there is the typical Oxford rah. I went to attend a history society at Christ Church at the beginning of term, and – big surprise, no conforming to stereotypes here – I have never seen such a collection of peacockish old fogeys in my life. The tweed blazars, beardless faces and heavy-rimmed glasses (all carefully stylized to look Auden-and-Larkin-esque) have not been seen in such profusion since 1968. If you thought the Oxbridge accent was satirical it’s not. “Oh you,” said someone in a starched shirt as I was swept from my conversational partner, “I simply have someone I must introduce to you.”

Saturday, November 20, 2010


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 this' (re: Foucault's writing on the Victorian approach to sexuality).

My weekly essays are largely self-determined. Each Friday at nine, when I go to my tutorial I am given the option of choosing the next week's study. So far it's been Browning, George Eliot, the sensation fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and now Trollope. I thought I should (as they say) curl up in bed with a Trollope, and so I picked The Way We Live Now. The last page was numbered close to 500 so I thought I could accomplish it despite its deceiving girth. Once I started reading it I realised that it was in two volumes and, in actuality, runs near to 1000 pages. I have only myself to blame. All week I sank into it. And now - now that it is over - I'd like to look around and read more Joscipovici or Geoffrey Hill or Bolano, all of which are in a pile by my bedside lamp and fill me with desire. Instead, I realize that it's not over. It's never over. There's the contextual information, the secondary sources, the essays and journal articles.

Even going down to the JCR for a coffee break to read the arts sections of the Guardian and the Times is overwhelming - there's simply no time to read all of this. It's a sad day when one has one of these What's-the-point?-I-forget-everything-I-read-I'm-just-a-needle-in-a-haystack-of-books kind of days. The only solution? More coffee, and the inevitable grim return to the stack on the writing desk.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

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.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


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 Beckett in Trinity (spring) term. I’ve been reviewing plays for the Oxford Theatre Review, which is an online review (free plays, sign me up!) and saw Sir Arnold Wesker read two weeks ago. And the famous South African playwright Athol Fugard spoke in Oxford this evening as the Humanitas Professor of Theatre (more later) with the playwrights Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin). And – I may be starting a theatre company with two ladies, depending on whether the play we’d like to put on next term gets selected for the Burton-Taylor theatre to stage. It’s all so sudden.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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 college bar. Because it was raining. (I’m revoking their English cards.) Onward six intrepid travelers down the Iffley road, through quiet streets, interrupted by bangs! from sporadic hardcore fireworks enthusiasts. The clouds were so low that they reflected the city lights into the water – a clouded surface on which the ducks swam happily, uncaring of the hour or the wet weather. A puddled path. The smell of wood?

The rain was coming down so hard at this point that a bonfire – the main draw – could not be depended upon. But we got to the Isis, and surely enough there was a bonfire - a pile of large embers superficially flaming, but a bonfire nevertheless. The inside was horrendously packed (visitors sadly misunderstanding the queue system) and the mulled wine ran out three times, but eventually we had our drinks and stood under the marquee and around the fire, dripping, sizzling, sparklers in hand, and victorious. Later, in the room where the music was playing, listening to some man sing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in falsetto (video here for the uninitiated, like me), knowing we’d have to go back outside into the unstopping rain, not knowing how much like an eel I looked (as Inman says in Cold Mountain: Ah’m wetter than a feesh. I cain’t get much wetter), happiness.

(Picture actually of Isis from the other side of the Thames. We were round the back)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

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 -

Thursday, November 4, 2010

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 forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

This last line is the best ever.

Monday, November 1, 2010

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 entered the nave at the opening heights and the censer swung in step with the moving bass, the incense ascending with the sopranos, the timpani entering with a roll. This is high drama.

I sang the Mozart Requiem five years ago and its surprising how little of it disappears. The choice Latin phrases spring up “solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybilla…” and the gyrating eighth notes that appear and disappear in each voice part, twisting around each other in urgent counterpoint; the quick breaths - it’s a sport. And this is what happens when you’re commanded to bounce around to your seat to the subdivisions by your conductor – years later you can’t help bouncing around in your seat surrounded by strangers who wonder if you suffer from a twitching disease.

I’ve heard the Requiem performed several times, but never listened to it as a part of a service. It was organic the way the music wove in and out of the service proper. The congregation sat in dark wooden pews facing each other, eyes to the colorfully tiled floor, or up to the painted wooden ceiling with clumsy angels and scriptural figures, all the cold stonework at the altar softened by candlelight. Elegant men with canes and famous chins; scholarship recipients identifiable by their proudly-worn full-sleeved gowns; token autumn coughing attacks; ten minutes of hearing the names of the dead recited; and free wine afterward.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

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, red telephone booths etc. I might as well own up to my tendencies. It’s only fair that I inform you of my predispositions. These will probably continue. But I’m also looking for something that’s accurate. I don’t want to be another woolly (female) enthusiast.

Just down the street, opposite the Martyr’s memorial which stands out like a tiered stone Gothic cake, is a bus stop out of Oxford. Down-and-outers and their ratty dogs wait outside the grocery store, pedestrians collide with each other as they walk past with no apology or acknowledgment, schoolboys with sharp voices and cigarettes loiter. Why don’t I linger in front of Sainsbury’s and the bus stop like I dawdle in front of the Sheldonian Theatre? The two scenes form a diptych. And yet this “other” side of life is as much as the first a question of framing.

Part of my excitement at moving to a new place was the chance to exercise observation. I’m a born eavesdropper (but that’s another story). I’m fascinated by the members of the Mass Observation who after VE day in 1945 went around London recording the public’s responses. This attention involves a degree of separation and removal; regrettable – inevitable. So I’m going to do my best to attend to this. I’ll continue to write about the walled gardens, and burial places. But you deserve to know – and I should remember - about the drunken Frenchmen on the streets at night, the broken windows and break ups I can’t sleep through, the black hole of Primark, ups and downs of Harris Manchester, the Jamaican restaurants and mosques of Cowley Road and the real History Boys of Christ Church.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

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 wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was…

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.)

This church, St. Mary’s in Iffley, was entirely deserted on a Sunday afternoon. We were the only ones in the thousand-year-old space, wandering down the nave, kept company by the plaques on the wall with the dates of birth, marriages and death dating from the eighteenth century. There was a note about a thirteenth century female anchorite who set up a shack against the building, but we couldn’t find her remnants, and we moved on. (I apologize for all the churches and graveyards. It seems like my sight-seeing has been quite grannyish, hasn't it? I haven't yet taken a camera to the King's Arms...)

Onward over the lock, alongside the Thames (at this lock the river is called the Isis), past the pleasure canal boats with their tiny tables and miniature lunch parties. The sun hid. Winter came. We stopped to have a cheeky half-pint at a pub called the Isis, a Georgian building with no hearty wooden sign and good Cotswalds cider. There’s folk music on the weekends here, and a bonfire planned for the fifth of November. I’m planning to return wearing a thick, ugly knitted sweater. Penny for the old Guy?

Monday, October 25, 2010

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 the Perch, which apparently is a prize-winning pub and has peacocks in the garden).

Fancy the river life? Step aboard...

Wondering if I had missed Binsey I asked a woman for directions on the road. Ten minutes further, she said. The road was deserted aside from an older gentleman on a bicycle (tweed coat, cap, and collie trotting beside) who did not acknowledge me, and a motorer or two.

To my delight, there were sheep.

And the Burrow!

Also swallows and very large cows. Eventually I found the church, St. Margaret’s, with goats grazing outside in a pen.

I did not go into the church but I did look around the graveyard and explored the healing well, an ancient site of pilgrimage attributed to St. Margaret (or of Oxford's patron St. Frideswide), supposed to be the inspiration for the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland. Instead of looking like a place where dessert is found, the well looked like a place bodies might rot for a very long time a la Lady Audley’s Secret, so I left.

I’m embarrassed to say I brought Brideshead Revisited (the dorkiest thing you can carry on your person in Oxford) with me. It seemed that sort of day. But I hid it close to myself and read it as I walked. I found the most apt exultant statement – I wish I’d hit upon it myself:

“ was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God…”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

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 lines in Latin – hocus, pocus, quanta, esse, universitas, matriculam - waved his hat again and then addressed us in English, primarily to say that this is not in fact a sardine packing factory but a dignified “rite of passage” where “you are now what you were not before”.

And then we trooped outside to catch hypothermia waiting for photographs of us looking like cold penguins and then inside for a brunch. And – I met my new friend Lois’s mother, who happens to be the lovely Angie Sage, writer of the Septimus Heap series which I read in college. A red-letter day!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

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 around the same time Eliot was writing The Waste Land; we read a passage from Woolf’s diary where they shared a taxi on the way to the theatre one night in 1921 and talked about Keats and how – though he wrote classics magnanimously – they were “trying to do something harder”. I’d forgotten how interested in modernism I’d been, and that together with Gabriel Josipovici’s book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (which I haven’t read, but look at longingly every time I go into Blackwells), is causing me to come back.

It was wonderful listening to Professor Lee. She speaks with absolute assurance and good-humored familiarity; these Bloomsbury figures are intimate acquaintances as well as significant 20th century figures. She has the mouth of Emma Thompson, narrow shoulders, high cheek bones, and a sharp chin, softened by her interested expression. It's marvelous to hear a world expert speak on her subject.

As you can tell from my new words, I had my first Mods Paper tutorial at Corpus Christi this afternoon. There is a golden pelican in their quad. Yes. We sat down somewhat nervously and then were asked about our lecture this past Tuesday on defining Literature (which is much harder than it sounds) and then whether language was necessary to thought. This sudden departure into the abstract, which is not comfortable ground for me, made us a bit queasy. We went on to talk about Literary Theory, a much neglected part of my education. In fact, I became exactly aware of how ignorant I am, despite having read Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. But now I know that the immaterial world is built by language, that language is necessary to structure time and space, that it is a system of signs: the signifier and the signified. And words like synchronic and diachronic and people like Cixous and Barthes and Saussure and ideas like the Intentional Fallacy and the death of the author…

We’re heading into new waters, where there be dragons. There can be no more television for me. I have some serious work to do.

(Man of the day: Ferdinand Saussure, pioneering Swiss linguist. Sorry, P; I know how you feel about linguists.)

Monday, October 18, 2010


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, scriptwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), pre-war decadence, Anglo-American marriages of fortune, stately homes etc. If you can get a hold of it do.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

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, dead son that Lord and Lady Arlosh dedicated this hall; the name sounds like onomatopoeiac eating noises of the Hungarian stew variety. The high table is perpendicular to three longer tables which stretch down the length of the hall under the gazes of various other portraits (upright dissenting ministers, and one maiden-faced older woman in her lace cap) and seat the students.

Unusually for a dinner meal at Harris Manchester on any other night of the week, there was wine on the table, and the hall lights were dimmed to enhance the atmosphere. There's no need to artificially create the atmosphere that the buzz of excited voices and the surprise that students seeing each other in their stringy and piecemeal regalia for the first time creates. This was, if you will, the Start of Term Feast.

Conversations halt abruptly when a gavel bangs, a short prayer is uttered like a military command, and we're welcomed to our seats by a brisk Amen and the sound of scraping chair legs. It took us a few meals in college to become accustomed to the staff who works in Arlosh, who walk around behind us putting bowls of soup in front of us (from the left) and removing them (from the right), to the cheerfully savvy Mr. W, whose portrait hangs in the foyer of Arlosh Hall, and who presides over the meal with the quickness of an stage manager.

“Doesn’t it feel strange to be served?” we said to one another the first week. “Doesn’t it feel wrong not to remove your plates yourself?” “Isn’t it embarrassing to leave half of your bread-and-butter pudding in the bowl? Isn’t it rude?”

Soup or salad, an entrée and a dessert – all vegetarian-friendly. Cheese and port on formal nights. Port, which prompts a new set of whispers (Is it to the left or the right?), indicating that life at Oxford is, at least at the beginning, a series of anxieties about whether one is transgressing or passing at this great game.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

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.


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 expectation of it all, the looking-forwardness of it all, and so poor, but to be poor and young, and a girl, in London then…and the cafes we found, almost private ones, weren’t they? where artists and writers and sometimes actors collected, and others with dancers, we sat hardly breathing with our coffee, heads bent, so as not to be seen, so as not to disturb, so as not to distract, and listened and listened to all those words, all those cafes and all those people, creative undoubtedly, and does it still exist I wonder? do you know? can you tell me?

From Old Times by Harold Pinter

Photo by Blanc et Demilly found here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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.)
At any moment the Man-Booker Prize will be announced. I'm on pins and needles. (Go, Tom McCarthy, go!)

Monday, October 11, 2010

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 Mad Hatter is buried somewhere on the grounds, and though I missed the graves of the aesthete Walter Pater and art critic Kenneth Tynan, I did spy the Inkling Charles Williams.

I wandered through the untrodden grass through the slight paths, all utterly quiet and reverent, with the breeze lightly disturbing the ivy but not the sleepers, and the only sudden noise a pheasant erupting from a bush.

"And autumn grows, autumn in everything," writes Robert Browning.