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 entrĂ©e 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.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I hope that at some time soon this blog will catch up to daily life, but at the moment I'm backlogged with the events as they happen.

I arrived in Oxford this past Monday. It was - of course - more complicated than I planned. But then, I should have planned for that, shouldn't I? The tube workers went on strike on Monday morning, so the Piccadilly line, which I needed to take to Heathrow to pick up my bags before busing to Oxford, was closed. When you are as ignorant as a orphan this is catastrophic. The policeman told me to take the seven to Paddington. What this meant was entirely beyond me for about twenty minutes as I lurched around like a camel with my backpack swaying behind me.

I found the bus stop eventually and took the seven to Paddington station which is as chaotic as a playground under heavy shelling. People were wheeling and running and walking and cartwheeling in every direction, and of course I bought the wrong ticket and went into the wrong platform and had to be let back out by a long-suffering conductor. I always thought I was kind of a good traveller. I now know the truth: I am completely at the mercy of directions and ticket machines.

Picked up bags, caught the x70 to Oxford.

"Where do you want to go, then?" the driver asked. "I mean - which stop. Gloucester Green?"
"Whatever's closest to the - the colleges."
"Which college, love?"
"Harris Manchester?"
"I don't even know where that is." (This is a common response, but slightly unnerving.)
"Opposite Mansfield?"
"Just down the street from the Bodleian?"
"The Boadleyan?" he said, provoking a sudden crisis of pronunciation. "Suppose you'll want Gloucester Green then."

I had it better than another passenger who asked if we were going to Gatwick Airport.
"Not going to Gatwick," the bus driver said shortly.
"Oh. It's just that's it's on the side of the bus."
"Yeah, well, I have the Taj Mahal on the side of the bus, too, don't I?"

It was a quick hour-long bus ride, and we quickly rounded into Oxford through once-familiar Headington, and as we drove past St. Clements the sun shot through the uniform clouds. And then we we crossed the Magdalen Bridge over the Cherwell and the architecture broke into chiselled faces and gargoyles and stones and figures on the roofs holding their arms aloft (to knowledge!) and the spires and gold rims and the sculpted jagged beauty on every side. The clouds disappeared and the sky was pure blue and the sun reflected off the windows and welcomed us in.

The High Street! A man in robes! Bicycles and buses and cars. The theological bookshop is still on St. Aldate's and so is the ice cream shop.

It took me, I think, forty-five minutes to walk less than a mile up George St and down Broad and Holywell with my bags. I walked for ten steps and stopped, sweating, panting, mortified. Absolutely aware of the eyes of all of Oxford watching me. I could see their disapproving faces at my over-sized luggage. They imagined them full of high-heeled shoes and hair-products; an American, obviously. There were no taxis.

I stopped a distinguished-looking man for directions - he looks pained when answering and vaguely resembles Simon Schama. (Was he Simon Schama?)

I ran towards a plain building up Mansfield Road, like the long-lost sheep, only to discover that it is a language building. I fell back onto the wall behind me; only it was not a wall, but a doorway and stairs.

Harris Manchester College. Wiping my face in disbelief and wildness, I noticed that my right hand is bloody from blisters that grew and ruptured on the walk, making shaking hands with the bursar uncomfortable.

I'm sorry to bore you with more pictures of my garret, but here are more shots of Rathmell number 12, before being strewn with - what else? - piles. Notice above how the jars of buttons survived the journey.

Now I'd better get back to my reading. The guilt begins.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Streets of London: Part II

So I woke as early as I could. I planned to go to the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields for the 10am Eucharist service, so it was back to Trafalgar Square for me. Was lost several times in every direction before coming across it accidentally. I couldn’t say that the Not For Tourists London guide saved me from being wholly lost, but without it I would have laid down in a ditch somewhere and never been found again.

The service was lively with a bright and radiant choir which sung a lot of Herbert Howells-ish music, a surprisingly friendly passing of the peace (aren’t the British supposed to be reserved and hate that part?) and a Eucharist of an unhappily polystyrene wafer and grape juice but also good will. The rain and wind began and I slipped into the National Portrait Gallery to see the Tudors, Victorians, Bloomsbury set, Iris Murdoch and photos of John Taverner and Harold Pinter.

Sadly the publishing house I’d planned to see, Persephone Books, was closed, which was disappointing but not surprising after an enormous hiking expedition to find it. I did find various literary houses en route – Vera Brittain’s flat, Dickens’ house on Doughty, the house where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, and also the place where the first anaesthetic was administered in England – and then went to meet a high school friend and his girlfriend on Goodge Street.

Followed by a walk to Euston to see the British Library (closed) and back to Russell Square to see the British Museum (closed), and finally into the London Review Bookshop (not closed!).

In Tavistock Square at dusk I found two friends: Virginia Woolf (Bloomsbury is, after all, her hood) and Mahatma Gandhi (photographed here in honor of Kristin and the Fremont Community School).

The evening ended with Indian food and some sort of feathered licorice seed (which, on second thought, may not have been for eating. I certainly couldn’t swallow it, and left them on the table in my napkin.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Streets of London: Part I

It’s clear now that I packed badly.

I should have listened to everyone. It would have cost less to ship the books than to carry them; and with much less hassle. I had to pay for extra baggage on the flight to London via Iceland. Sadly, I saw nothing of Iceland but the dawn above Reykavik in the distance. When I got to London, harassed with the umbrella and violin and computer and hand luggage, seeing that there was no possibility of physically moving with three additional (heavy suitcases), I ran into a storage facility, which wrapped the bags and stored them for two days. And – of course – the bags were wrapped before it was distractedly remembered that my credit card and other important papers were inside. So they had to be unwrapped and wrapped up again, and charged twice for the pleasure.

Then it was on the tube to central London, but not before I went to the wrong exit. I tried to load the Oyster card Autumn was so kind to give me, but in the rush at the machine, ended up paying twice as much as I should be a ticket on the Piccadilly Line to the Russell Square station where I was “to alight” for the hostel in Bloomsbury.

The streets around the hostel, which is on Tavistock road, are small and cobbled and English. It was raining lightly, the telephone boxes were red, there were accents of every sort. We won’t talk about the hostel. It was wonderfully situated, but gaudy in electric blue and yellow, overrun with Australian girls on their gap-year, and Euro pop. This may sound exotic, but it was tiring and I would’ve paid for a conversation with a friend.

Because I had a zone 1-6 day pass I took the tube to Leicester Square, with every intent of finding the bookshops on Charing Cross Road. I found two antiquarian bookshops and left them quickly in search of more but didn’t find any. I got very quickly lost walking through the West End, the theatre district and Convent Garden.

When I came upon Covent Garden I thought my heart would jump out of my throat – so many people in rain jackets and umbrellas, out for a stroll on a Saturday afternoon, the picturesque buildings, the thoughts of Pepys (there was a sign saying that he may have watched a Punch and Judy show there), the cobbled streets, voices and babble and languages and dialects, the stray sentences that jump out of the hubbub in a counter-puntal cacophony; the movement – of buses and trains and pedestrians and cyclists and prams.

Then I was lost trying to find Trafalgar Square, but I found it eventually. The grandness of the monuments and large national buildings. I stood in awe and satisfaction until a homeless man vomited near my feet to the general applause of his friends. I popped into the National Gallery fifteen minutes before it closed (managed to see mostly Dutch masters), and then got lost meandering over to Westminster Abbey and Parliament before turning back home for dinner at a pub where I ate by myself very conspicuously, trying hard not to be so conspicuous.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

12 Rathmell

I'm in Oxford now. I've picked up my sub fusc (my academic robes) and moved into my room. It may sound gushing, but - I couldn't have been given a better room. Up five or so flights of narrow, creaking stairs onto a dark wooden landing to an attic under the eaves of the slanting roof, with a window that opens onto Holywell Street. Though bringing up my luggage was a nightmare, I have a bird's eye view of the spires and chimneys. I can see the cupola of the Sheldon building where I'll matriculate next week, and I hear the bells tolling every fifteen minutes. It seems invented.

I'll write more about my misadventures in London and post pictures. It seems ungrateful to say, but I miss a few familiar faces.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Before I go

I'm at the airport with too many bags. A last minute weigh in required me to pull all my books out of my bags and redistribute the weight, while the service representative had to call Iceland (where I pass through en route to London), and the fifty pairs of eyes behind me glared and grew glassy.

Though this morning the weather was pure, clear and copper-sunned, the fog has descended so low that the tips of the trees are nearly obliterated. This is Seattle. This is the city I know.

Here's something I wrote a month or so ago, an ode to this city, its literary scene, and its inhabitants.

When I graduated from a small Midwestern liberal arts college with the music degree I knew I might never use, I felt lost looking for What To Do Next. Despite the pressure I felt alongside my friends – future accountants, teachers, and doctors - to map out a life just so, a much respected professor suggested that each step in one’s life seems microscopic, a darkened footpath occasionally lit by a chance lamp. This leaves a discernible trail only after years of walking and finally looking over one’s shoulder. I knew that that the next step wasn’t – at least yet – grad school. It was getting my hands dirty and figuring out how to do the things I’d have to put in practice as an adult – paying bills, avoiding fines, eating well, cultivating small pleasures. I wanted to be part of a literary culture, and that place wasn’t New York.

Someone told me that it only takes a person a single year of living in New York to claim it as the answer to the question Where are you from? But a Seattleite will customarily give the last city they lived in. The city’s position on the northwest coast has made it a decades-old gateway to the Japanese, Thai, Laotians, Hmong, and Vietnamese, as well as Russians and Swedes, and Americans who come from all over the country to tap into the vibrant cultural life and the jobs offered by massive corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks who use the city as a base. This is a city cobbled together from people in motion; people who affirm the significance of place. It’s changeable weather and indeterminate seasons require almost hourly conversations on the expression of the elements: the rain and its specific characteristics, the sun and whether it will show, the green profusion of flora, or the unseasonable withering heat, and devastating Christmas snow.

Though Seattle is a young city (a nineteenth century frontier timber town and gold-rush destination) in a young country, the moniker “Most Literate City in America” means something, even if it’s just to its booksellers. This city is the home to – among others - novelists David Guterson and Jonathan Raban (and claims National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie and short-story writer Raymond Carver who is buried on the Olympic Peninsula, and many other journalists, essayists, poets, and publishers. As others have said before me, the contemplative weather drives us to our notebooks and laptops.

But it’s a city still self-conscious enough to make its qualifications sound like a defiant teenager. We may not be New York but…It’s high time that the city puts aside its inferiority complex and speaks for itself.

Seattle is a good place for a transplant interested in whatever literary culture the city had to offer; a city with enough readers and patrons to know that literature and the arts is an important cornerstone of both civic culture and private leisure. (Though for some reading is less leisured than vocational.) The key to an intelligent society is the circulation of ideas (the “fresh play” as Victorian reformer and poet Matthew Arnold would say), and the key to an imaginative society is recognizing the importance of stories to communities and to the individual. And yet, for all the established organizations, writing programs, journals, and local writers - we have far to go. There is much work to do.

Amazon was spawned here on this lush rain-logged hills, and though this provides fuel to the incendiary debates over literacy and the future of the book and of independent bookstores in the marketplace, the debate over the Kindle proves nothing less than that the issue of what we read and how we read it is worth arguing about. We are not unconcerned.

Here are some of the things Seattle does right:

1. Writing Programs

Aside from local MFAs and degrees in creative writing, Seattle has several community spaces for those who want to write. The Capitol-Hill based Richard Hugo House, named after a Seattle poet who wrote about “the mysteries of ordinary life in the city and the lives of working people,” is the third largest writing program in the country and offers writing classes, residencies for writers, and community events. 826 Seattle (also known as Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.), one of the nonprofit writing centers begun by McSweeney’s editor and writer Dave Eggers, offers students access to tutors, writing workshops and publishing projects.

2. Publications

Though the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sadly stopped their printed daily in March 2009, the Seattle Times, winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News reportage during the city-wide hunt for the cop-killer Maurice Clemmons, comes out seven days a week. Though Seattle may not have literary journals to rival New York or San Francisco, it is not without effort (Seattle Review, Cranky, Swivel, Rivet, Crab Creek Review). Image, a journal which explores the intersection of religion and the arts predominantly in the Christian humanist tradition, is one of its kind and has published Nobel laureates and writers, critics, poets, and essayists from around the world at a consistently excellent standard.
And let’s not forget The Stranger, the ubiquitous free weekly publication which, despite its leftist yells and vicious slandering of all those from outside the fold, continues to be a bastian of liminal literary culture, a crusader for the marginalized, and a dependably entertaining read. Paul Constant, the books editor and writer of the Constant Reader, is the everyday espresso-drinking reader’s man-about-town critic and a welcome voice in the conversation about reading devices and the book wars.

3. Bookstores

Wallingford’s Open Books: A Poetry Emporium is one of the only poetry-only bookstores in the country. The Elliott Bay Book Company has long been a puissant force in drawing nationally and internationally acclaimed literary figures for readings and lectures as well as providing an excellent independent source of books. The University Bookstore, the University of Washington’s bookstore is another giant, and together with the bookstore I work at, Third Place Books, provide a triumvirate of communal spaces with knowledgeable staff and literary events designed to keep communities involved. Besides these stores there are an abundance of bookstores that offer the reader frequent destinations. Unfortunately, these gems are closing are an alarming rate and require champions from a reading public.

Before the modern publishing house was created, books were published through booksellers. To be a bookseller, as Samuel Johnson’s father was, was to be a publisher. The books sold were personally championed by booksellers. This relationship produced a spirited connection, a legitimate chain, between the writing, printing and selling of books. We need to recover and rekindle (lowercase “k”) that connection.

With the separation of publishing houses and independent brick and mortar stores – where publishers have stopped listening to the little Shop Around the Corner and begun to give way to the bullying price wars of large chain stores and internet companies - and advent of espresso book machines – small printing presses that can access thousands of out of print titles, as well as producing self-published works – booksellers once again have the opportunity to become personally involved with publishing.

I believe that booksellers, often low-paid workers who spend their paychecks
on the books they sell and their free time in the reading and digesting of books, have something to offer. These are often passionately minded individuals who take to heart the importance of the small work that they do. With lives that are daily, unglamorously, occupied with the parsing of good literature and the sharing of unknown or long-forgotten works that very often might fall between the cracks, these are observers of human nature (how readily people betray their deeper selves in retail situations), ideas, and beauty.

If this sounds idealistic and self-important, it is because I am one of them, and like my fellow booksellers, have to believe that the small work we do, though largely invisible, is significant to the health and continuing intellectual and creative life of the community. If this sounds idealistic and self-important, it is because I need to believe it. We may not have holidays off, or weekends; we may eat poorly because our money goes to a re-translated novel by Witold Gombrowicz; but by God we know books.

I felt that my coworkers and I, and others like us, who are by day (and by night) booksellers, and secret scribblers in those in-between times on little pieces of recycled paper hoping, sometimes fruitlessly, to join the community writers whose voices resound in their heads, have something to offer to and on behalf of their city. These apprentices of the art and craft of literature must have something up their sleeves.

So let’s toast a life of vital engagement through books. Here’s to the secret scribblers of Seattle.

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