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