Visiting Oxford, and/or Other Places

a side-walk-footpath of a road in Oxford

I know I should be frantically freaking out at the moment, what with writing up coming to a frenzied conclusion, but by way of taking another “break,” it is high time that I toss up another post, to keep my mind from sputtering to a halt … .

A couple of weekends ago, I managed to get over to the Other Place, as we call it in Cambridge. I went by bus, and stowed by bike in its belly, as it were, for the longish trip (it is much closer to the west of England than Cambridge).

Now, I’d be warned about this particular bus trip.

“It’s rather a long one,” my English friends told me. “And there’s something on the order of 70 roundabouts along the way.” I wasn’t sure why it’d take so long, or why roundabouts in such numbers were such a bad thing. After all, back in the day, there had been a direct train that must have been delightfully convenient, and so how bad could a bus be? And crossing through roundabouts on one’s bike, while thrilling, certainly wasn’t arduous. I had yet again underestimated British understatement.

As Lewis says, the universe rings true whenever you fairly test it, and so I had to experience this journey for myself. It felt more like 70,000 roundabouts, each one plastering me to the window as I attempted to read (speaking of Lewis) Surprised by Joy (and quite a good read it is, if somewhat intense and convicting). ‘Surprised by Roundabouts,’ was more like it. Slightly dizzy, several hours later, however, I eventually hopped off the bus with my bike and found I was in a bustling city full of history, bigger than Cambridge, and even a tad older and majestic, i.e. in Oxford.

My first stop was a pub.

the pub of humility

Not because I had to get my pint or perish, per se, but because I am a nerd, or a geek, or perhaps both. My visit was to be a sort of Protestant pilgrimage (though, actually, perhaps, a merely Christian one) to see and be immersed in all things Lewis for a day. The pub in question being the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and the Baby”), where the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s informal writing group, had once met around lunchtime on Mondays or Tuesdays (they also met in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College on Thursday evenings) for nearly 30 years, from about 1933 through to the start of the 1960s, to read and discuss their various writings projects. Tolkien reflected on their name, as “a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with vague or half-informed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” Other Inklings included such towering twentieth-century literary figures as Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield and such “honorary” members (though there were hardly any rules) as Dorothy L. Sayers W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (the latter three more indirectly associated).

For a wannabe’ historian, and under-informed and somewhat under-read Inkling fan (not to mention an American abroad, and thus prone to silly sentimentalizing), to be in the very same “Rabbit Room” that people I had long read and admired and hope to read and admire for a long time to come, was … strangely surreal.

And so I ordered a club sandwich.  Munching away, with an odd mix of pop music playing in the background, I felt a keen sort of pride, as I sipped on my lemonade (hey, it was a hot day, though by “lemonade” they really mean what we might call lemon-lime soda back home). Every few moments, an (American) tourist would stop and take a photo of the mantle, which had a signed note of thanks and health-wishing from the Inklings to the former owners of the pub.

“Is that where …?” and then a “Yes, dear, that’s where they met…” “… that’s SO cool,” would be followed by the click and whir of a digital camera.

My immediate seat-mates were British, a young couple with their in-laws, and I overheard them asking who the fifth most famous-est Inkling could be (rather like the fifth Beetle).

Very smugly, I must confess, and feeling like no mere tourist, I turned and declared, “you must be referring to Hugo Dyson,” to which unsolicited counsel my mess-mates were suitably impressed and thanked me.

They asked me where I was from, clearly coming across as a Man of the World (a very bad sort of man to be). “Cambridge,” I whispered, for even in my pride I knew that I was among rivals, who we had just trounced in the annual rowing regatta between the two universities.

“A spy?!” they whispered back, in a bit of wry teasing.

“Well, in a way,” managed to mutter back. As it turns out, the young fellow (who appeared to be the son-in-law of the older couple) had a very distant ancestor (though not so very distant for them) who had been a printer in eighteenth-century London, one of the sorts of figures I ostensibly study.

could I be? why yes, I am, a cheesy American

Anyway, I finished my lunch and marched outside (after getting the obligatory photograph, and saying a serene ‘fare-thee-well’ to my new British acquaintances), squinting in the sunlight. I came up to my bike, and to my great and utterly enforced humility, found I couldn’t quite find my bike lock’s key.

So there I was, my bicycle securely locked to a post, in Oxford, outside of Lewis’ pub, in the sun. I feared I’d have to leave “Everest” (my bike’s provisional name) behind forever, and then explain to Werner, the generous friend who had given me the bike in the first place, why, exactly, I had had to abandon it.

Saying a quick prayer, in a bit of desperation, I stuck my pen cap in the lock, hoping against hope that it would somehow cause the pins to release and thus free my bike.

“Pop!” and off it came. Now, I wasn’t sure if was more relieved that such a desperate trick actually worked, or if I was grateful that God was merciful to his smuggish servant,  or if my bike lock was about as secure as some pirate refuge in the Caribbean.

As it was, and as usual, I was late.

I had scheduled a tour of the Kilns, Lewis’ home (so named because there was once a working brick kiln nearby) for 2 o’clock. It was about 10 ’til 2 by the time I got my bike lock off, and before I managed to peel away into the Saturday milieu that was Oxford. I pedaled out of town confidently, assured that I knew where I was going.

I didn’t. Not a bit, as it turns out. I got very lost. Nearly two hours later, and after consulting a gardener (a smiling Dave, who said he liked Americans so much that he had married one, and was married still) and a burly bartender for directions, I was still hopelessly turned around, circling a pleasant suburb over and over again. If they could remake Groundhog Day and set it in a single afternoon in England, that would have drawn a similar sense of wondering ennui.

Along my turned-around way, I got shouted at by a gaggle of English school girls. “Don’t go that way!” they ordered, “Get off your bike now!” (I was going down a one-way road).  A bit peeved, and sun-addled, and grumpy, I shouted back, “thank you!” but obeyed As it turned out, moments later, a car passed by. Chagrined, I was even more chagrined to find myself standing over Lewis’ grave moments later, having found even that more or less by accident (thinking by now that my entire day might be a sort of living lesson in humility).

Resolving to give my quest one final try, however, I consulted my second bartender of the day (having by now realized that I had no idea where I was, my maps being hopelessly vague, and having also realized that I had failed to put in a destination address before printing off my original directions): “how do you get to CS Lewis’ house?” I asked, plaintively, having given up all pretense of being anything other than what I was, a lost American, with a tie, beard, and a book bag, all bedraggled.

Lewis’ house was just across the byway.

yep, that's where our man Jack once lived

Ugh. Thoroughly humbled, I finally made it, and had a very pleasant tour of his home and the grounds. Yes, he was a real person, and yes, he really lived there, and yes, I am a dweeb. But that’s OK. I even made it back into town with enough time for evensong at Magdalen, a brief skip down Addison’s Walk (where Tolkien and Dyson helped explain to Lewis, one August night in 1931, how myth and legend supported the Christian story of Christ as a real man in history).

I even managed to squeeze in a quick dash past the Bodleian Library before regaining the bus for the Roundabout Return Rattle, and the trip back to my little Pigeon Hole of a room at Wolfson. Having been nearly run over, turned around until I was sweaty and exasperated, and repeatedly put in my place by Providence, I can safely say (in retrospect), that I had experienced a series of marked inconveniences, I hope, however, now rightly considered, i.e. as an Adventure. It is hard to believe that the end of my beginning in grad school is just a couple of weeks away, and that I am nearly home again.

But I will miss England, and its people, and I pray that such (mis)adventures will have tempered me, in spite of myself, when and whilst looking back on this time away.

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springing into adventures, as it were

the dark tower, not looking so very dark in the daytime ... but it gets a little spectral at night, esp. in the mists ...

While my last post (the first new one in a while) was full of circumspect  musing and mulling, this one, I promise you, will be lighter, as in more crazy.

Not that I am going crazy, or have gone crazy, or even know if I am crazy, but (to use several of my typically horridly disproportional metaphors), I feel very much like Alec Guinness’ character, Col. Nicholson, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, sweating it out in the jungle, meticulously planning a bridge that I, in the end, will only ultimately help blow up … well, OK, not quite like that. Perhaps this whole time is much more like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, digging his way out of a prisoner-of-war camp with help from his British friends … hmmm, well, not quite like that either. This might be more like Colditz Castle, where the Germans placed the most escape-happy Allied military prisoners (gee, let’s put them all in the same place and watch what happens! sounds like a plan to me …).Well, not really … ah … hmm.

All bad metaphors aside, I have been trying to do uniquely Cambridge, or, rather, British, things, before I head home, or at least observe such things in action.

Starting with watching a man smoke a pipe. Yes, a real man, with a real pipe. And smoking it, no less …

It was a rainy Thursday afternoon, all misty in an English-spring sort of way. I was waiting for my editor James outside of Nero’s on King’s Parade (we were meeting for coffee), when a tweed-jacketed, tweed-panted fellow ambled past (though I use that latter word with caution, perhaps I should say trousers, to be safe) … anyway, said tweed-donned don (for I assume he was part of the Faculty, for he looked so very Official) was measuring his gait, it seemed.

*poof*

The grey smoke curled around his greyish-white head (I could practically see the “e,” so I know it’s there, and not “gray”) and mixed in with the mist, mystically, and a little melodramatically (all right, I’ll stop with the almost annoying alliteration).

For the briefest moment, he paused and looked at me (slightly upwards, in my eye, as he was a tad shorter), out of the corner of his own eye, his right, I think. Up and down it scanned. “Another damn Yankee,” I could imagine him thinking. Then an almost imperceptible smile crept up his lip, and crawled across his craggy face. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t wearing anything silly. Just jeans and a sweater that were both blue. Perhaps that struck some sort of blue tune with him. In any event …

*puff*

And then he walked on, into the rain and mist. I could smell the tobacco in his wake.

In another spate of craziness, this one more proactive, I finally managed to climb the Dark Tower, i.e. the off-limits top of the Cambridge University Library. Featured in an unfinished story by Lewis, it has long been a source of speculation amongst Cambridge students (no one really knows what’s up there).

I’ve tried to climb it before, only to be stymied by locked doors and “staff-only” signs, and 1930s-era elevators that stopped obstinately.

But earlier in the term, while walking along one of the library’s  stairwells with a pile of books in my hands, I spotted two library workers emerging from the door that led to the stairs. Before it could close, I precariously (but, as I thought, rather deftly), grabbed the latch and slide in before the door could close.

My heart rose to my throat:  I was in! Up I climbed, up and up and up.

Since there were two properly British (or half) flights of stairs per floor, counting off led me to about the 13th floor (including the ground floor, which they don’t have here). The views were getting better and better before I reached the top: quite a charming view of the city and colleges, with their turrets and spires through the narrow window slats in the stairwell (I wish I had my camera on me) … I was tempted to dare fortune further by attempting to get into what seemed to be offices near the tippity-top (but which could have been storage of some kind; I still want to find out exactly what!), but I heard a door open from another floor several doors down.

Without an ID badge, I’d be spotted and turned in immediately, or so I thought, and shot (OK, perhaps not shot, but thoroughly lectured, or at least frowned at, and I couldn’t bear that) … but even still, I wasn’t really supposed to be there. I thought I could claim I was lost, or that I was just really curious and a little nuts, which would have been at least honest … but as the steps echoed ever closer, I opted instead to hug my books and dart past whoever it was – in this case, from what I could tell, a bespectacled lady librarian. Hoping my maneuver would conceal my lack of proper authorization, and covering my unadorned chest, I did just that – it worked!

“Excuse me,” I muttered, in my best Busy Voice, as I bounded past. She didn’t look up, but I couldn’t tell, as I didn’t look back … I heard a responsive, “excuse me,” but didn’t stay to convey the customary exchange of apologies (usually a “sorry” on both parts, followed by a second round of sorry’s). Instead,  down I departed, exiting on the nearest floor accessible to non-staff people. My head was thudding with the thrill! Dumb, yes. A good idea? perhaps not. But fun: yes, very much so.

Relating this all to my fellow MPhil-mates in the library’s canteen later, I got looks of shock: “you did what?” This is something the mild-mannered “old Will” from Michaelmas or even Lent terms wouldn’t do.

“It’s like in those old war movies when the quiet guy snaps at the end,” conjectured my friend Neil, adding, “and you’re the quiet guy. Have you snapped?”

Not yet, but perhaps I’m closer than I think … there are more “memories-in-progress” to follow, I hope, so please stay tuned. Let me know if there is anything you want me to find out/answer about life here too, as I’d love to relate it, before it’s all over, and I am home again, I hope.

getting to know England, in time to leave it

it's pretty dang pretty in the spring here

Having been back to Cambridge for a month now (eek!), I’ve done what lazy bloggers tend to do when they get distracted with life-things … not post. First, my apologies! True, I have been rather preoccupied with the writing-up of my MPhil dissertation (the ostensible reason I’ve been here all along, or so I’m told), but even still, much has happened that I should have kept you posted (so to speak) about, including my decision to continue graduate school back at the University of Washington this fall (back to my old department; my program here was just for this school year), barring something unexpected. Deciding to do so was the definition of a difficult decision, I must confess, and I am trying to be all right with it now, but, indeed, I must trust that God will walk with me in it.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to savor what’ s left of my time in England, or, rather, Britain. Not being an especially perceptive person, I’ve finally -truly- realized that this place is very much like its people: “reserved, [but] not unfriendly,” as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain (issued to our boys – and gals – heading over to fight Hitler’s Germany side-by-side with our old Allies, and advising us Yanks on how to behave properly).

Like some of my good English friends (not necessarily the wild and woolly British ones), it took a while – in my case, two terms – to get to know them, and vice versa, but in time, I have come to very much like and respect, and even to love, parts of this country and its ethos, and it has returned the favor. Not as much as my own nation,  but far more than when I began. I have been tempered by my (mis)adventures here, I hope, and feel calmer, and steadier, about being in what really is a foreign land (but still oddly and paradoxically familiar, probably because so much of our history and culture are shared, well, somewhat shared). Before, my affection for England was theoretical – it came from books, mostly, and the love of those who wrote those books (esp. the Inklings and their ilk).

“Well, of course I like England,” I always thought. And I did. But it was quite another thing to make what was a bigger leap than I thought and live here, and experience England and her people first hand.  Not that I am some sort of expert now, mind you. But I can now say that yes, I will miss this place, thanks to my friends here, and the hard-won lessons realized here, about what I value in life, about the need to rely on the Lord daily, in a real way.

I will want to come back, someday soon, to Cambridge, but also Britain and Europe. I feel bad for having felt so bad, at the beginning (I was a sissy, really), and for not reserving judgment, on how life was progressing away from home, in my Pigeon Hole here at Wolfson. I am glad, however, that I reserved enough (just barely enough! I should have reserved more, I think) to finally realize these things, and ere the End to boot.

I’m not done yet, of course. With a month or so to go, I still have quite a bit of work to do, and not much time to do it in (but that’s part of the fun!). I still want to see a few more things, and spend more time with my friends on this side of the Pond before heading back.  I will not have a full perspective on this adventure until I’m done, of course, but I want to get a head start, and tell my story well to anyone who asks (and do a better job than saying, “It’s very English,” to anyone who asks, “how was England?”).

In the meantime, I hope to put a few more anecdotes about the silliness of life as an anxious American abroad, and a word or two more (there is just one issue remaining for the year for The Cambridge Student). Stay tuned!

Quoting from Instructions for American Servicemen by way of conclusion:

“The best way to get on it Britain is very much the same as the best way to get on in America. The same sort of courtesy and decency and friendliness that go over big in America will go over big in Britain. The British have seen a good many Americans and they like Americans. They will like your frankness as long as it is friendly. They will expect you to be generous. They are not given to back-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections. But once they get to like you they make the best friends in the world.”