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Showing posts from October, 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…

Second Sunday Outing

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



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

(From “Church Going”:

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

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

Sunday Outing the First

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

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




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

Now it's Official

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

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

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

Thursday Fears

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

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

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

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

Distractions

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

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

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

With the promise of cheese

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

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

To be poor, and young, and a girl

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

ANNA:

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

Another Graveyard

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



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



Apparently, the inspiration for Carroll's Ma…

Transitions

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 …

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 bu…

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 t…

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.

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 …