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.



Trinity College: built on ... lots of paperwork

My first inclination was to apologize, which was very English … as instead of finally writing about my recent trips to some of the villages surrounding Cambridge (which I still promise to do), I wanted to mention one very British bugaboo: paperwork.

Amazingly, the UK has a bit of a bureaucracy. Shocking? Not quite. Nonetheless, I am used to paperwork. Growing up in a military family, we did a great deal of paper-pushing, form-filling and question-answering, and as my parents used to say (and still do, even though I ought to know better), “God doesn’t fill it out for you” (usually used as an encouragement to apply to something I know I don’t have a hoot and a holler of winning, but should apply to regardless; another saying of my mom’s: “the only way you can make sure you don’t get something is by not applying for it!”).

Really, I have some empathy when it comes to writing in block letters in little boxes on piles, nay, veritable swaths, of dead trees (err, I mean paper).

Yes, I am slight environmentalist; I love to recycle, and therefore feel bad using so much paper … But the British have taken it to a whole new level: they love the stuff! Forms in triplicate, forms for forms, signatures, notarized copies … it’s all very Proper and Procedural, of course, sort of like politeness turned pulpy, or queuing on stationary. If they were good at it, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth of the matter is that they’re not.

For example, I ordered a mini-fridge for my room a long time ago (back in October). I waited for the proscribed amount of time (about five weeks or so) and then checked to see where it was … it wasn’t quite ready, they said. So I told them not to worry, but to deliver it to my room for the first week or so of this term … ah, but no fridge was forthcoming. I checked again. Several weeks later, a sincere apology is made, but “sorry, sir, but it seems we never actually ordered it …” . Ugh!

Now I just assume that processing all that paper will just take time. If they say something will be ready by Thursday (in this case, my student-loan checks), I realize nonchalantly that they won’t really be here until Monday.

“They’re not in yet … sorry.”

“Oh, that’s all right …” I saw out loud, but to myself: “didn’t expect them to be, you silly Brit!”

With internal dialogue like that, it’s a wonder I haven’t lost what remains of my sanity. I’ve come dangerously close on several occasions, mind you, but several good cups of tea and several dozen sugar cubes usually sets me right again. I realize that just to be here I had to slay whole forests.

Going back home and hiking in the woods will my chance to atone for all the paperwork I’ve done: “I am sorry, my arboreal friends, for taking so many of you down in my mad quest for a Cambridge MPhil!”

In the end, however, I can agree with Treebeard: “My home is deep in the forest near the roots of the mountains.” I do miss you all back in the Northwest, and hope to see you soon.

For now, however, my road (or rather rail) leads to London; I am hoping to go down on Friday, to visit a few touristy spots, and take some photos.

Getting asked for directions, a sighing bridge and some Pooh

in the library's tea room

I am not quite sure what it is, but I get asked for directions often in Cambridge. Perhaps because I look deceptively trustworthy, with a rapidly developing winter beard and “space-cadet” jacket complete with nerdy flag patch (my dad’s boss was a space tourist), or maybe because I still retain the  very American habit of smiling for no apparent reason and looking people in the eye when they approach me, usually looking quite confused; for whatever reason, however, I get queried every few days.

“Where am I?” or “Where is such-and-such?” or “Where is the river?” are common questions. Since my college’s neighborhood (Newnham) is on the western edge of town, it tends to collect lost fellow foreigners, or, what is more amusing, lost British tourists.

“Ah, well, you’re near Wolfson College,” I’ll usually begin, as that’s all I really know. This usually elicits an even more confused look. I go to one of the “lesser” colleges (as a taxi driver once reminded me), as I sometimes forget.

“Well, OK, you’re on the west side of the city,” I’ll quickly add. This brings some relief to face of the poor person I am attempting to help.

“Yes, but how do I reach (fill-in-the-blank) road?” they’ll ask again.

“Hmmm…” not wanting to admit that I don’t know where I am half the time, I’ll ask them a question, typically out of slight desperation, but with a firm and commanding voice as I stroke my nascent chin hair: “Ah … is it near anything? A notable landmark, perchance?” (OK, so I may not say “perchance,” but I am definitely thinking it).

Well, of course it’s near something, as you might imagine, namely, the something they want to find, which they remind me, sometimes looking over to their fellow passengers or driver in suspicious annoyance, if they’re in a car (as if to ask, “does this dumb American know where the hell he even is?”).

Seeing this sudden twinge of skepticism, I will typically hasten to add something like, “ah, yes, but of course, that road …”  at which their countenances brighten (truthfully, I sometimes do know roughly where they want to go).

“Take two lefts and a right, at the moss-covered pub,” I’ll declare, pointing with a manly karate-chop with confidence, half-blinking, in the direction, more or less, of where they are trying to get (or “two rights and a left, at the fork in the road” but never “three lefts,” or “three rights,” as they’d know I was making it up for sure then).

At this point, they’ll toodle off, probably satisfied that they know more about where they are than I do, but perhaps, every once and a while, really knowing a bit more about where they want to go. I suspect that I have inadvertently caused more harm than good, and gotten people more lost than last year’s misplaced Easter eggs. But such are the nature of accidental adventures.

To borrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” As I’ve experienced them myself, in places as varied as parking lots, ferries, airports and English alleys, yes, he’s right. And as a certain Hobbit put it: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Speaking of being swept, before work on Wednesday afternoon, I spontaneously opted to play the part of a tourist myself, and trekked out to the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College, and then the Wren Library at Trinity College, to look for a bit of “Pooh.”

There are signs warning tourists to stay away, unless you’ve paid an entrance fee. As a student, of course, you don’t have to worry about such things, but the best way to avoid being stopped by the vigilant porters (or, rather, the porter’s adjuncts, manning booths like unarmed guards, who invariably ask for your ID, to make sure you’re not a visitor who hasn’t coughed up the fee), is to look exasperated while muttering into a book as you march into the entrance to the college in question.

I managed to do so without fanfare on two occasions on that particular afternoon, with my pantomime aided by an increasing fever brought on by a head cold (probably my own fault, for stumbling around in the rain).

yes, a sighing bridge

Anyway, I located the famous bridge, so named after an even more famous bridge of the same name in Venice, took the appropriately cheesy tourista shots, and sighed quickly on it (oh, the wonderful literalism of sighing on a sighing bridge: how often to you get to do that? perhaps not the best logic, I’ll admit, to inspire yourself to do things, but even still). The original bridge was supposedly the last thing that prisoners saw before they went to jail (or, more melodramatically, were executed, or so Byron thought when he imagined the sad name in his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published in the 1810s) from the fourth canto:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron’d on her hundred isles

Ah, alas, no one is executed in Cambridge these days, except for those who dare to walk on the grass uninvited, or worse yet, those who don’t vacate the tea room in the library on time … I’m just kidding, of course … I hope.

I next meandered back to Trinity, where hapless half-lost grad student that I am, I had failed to find the Wren Library earlier. The Wren contains lots of old and priceless things, including copies of old bits of the Bible and Shakespeare, and notes from Milton and Newton (along with some of the latter’s hair and walking-stick collection … oh yes, this is Cambridge, they like old things here); the reason they have lots of these things to begin with is because some of these men went to Trinity (though not the Bard).

the way up ...

Despite my addled mind, I did finally manage to find the library.  There were only a few minutes left until it closed (it only being open from 12-2 each day), so I had to move quickly to find what I was looking for: their manuscript copy of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which is quite unique to the library.

despite the glare, it's there; the manuscript on the top, the first printed copy on the bottom; can you spot Owl?

I found it and even managed to snap a slightly illegal photo of the document(s) in question before leaving. By this point, I was verging on the delirious, and thus retreated, not wanting to experience any truly inconvenient inconveniences (I wouldn’t want to test my theory of the Bridge of Sighs being only a symbolic last sight, and not a literal site of execution for grass-walkers, tea-room loiterers or Pooh photographers …).  I hope to keep you posted, as it were, on these sorts of adventures as they develop; in the meantime, have a good weekend, and good night from England.