Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Writerly holiday highlights: Oxford

I've just returned home from ten Decembery days in England! Pub food was eaten, Christmas lights shone, friends were made, and snow followed me everywhere I went. And though this wasn't a literary trip, books, as always, found their way into the mix. From Oxford to Cambridge to London and Ramsgate, literature was there. But then you can't really step foot in England without that happening, especially in Oxford where some of the greats (Lewis, Tolkien, Cooper, Grahame, Wilde, Carroll, Pullman, etc.) have lived, worked, and studied.

In touring the grounds of some of the colleges, my friend Ellen and I often found ourselves walking the pathways of those before us (I know, there are lots of people on this planet and we're always walking in someone's pathway no matter if we're in Oxford or not, but these were very specifically writerly pathways, and if anything leaves behind a ghostly trace, it's the footstep of a storyteller who has connected us all in an imaginary realm and then disappeared leaving only words and worlds behind).

One of those pathways was the beautiful (especially under a dusting of snow) Magdalen College where C. S. Lewis taught and Oscar Wilde studied. I was freezing that day. Absolutely freezing. It had been cold the entire time, but that morning the snow started, and we'd spent the greater part of it walking around the icy Botanic Gardens...


...and I was so chilly I'd decided not to visit the school at all even though it promised a deer park and even though Ellen was going without me. But as we discussed plans to meet later, the sun came out, and suddenly I felt warmer. I think this was meant to be because a mostly empty Magdalen College campus is perfectly inspiring for that grand picture I need in my mind of a location for a confrontation between two characters who . . . I'm so glad the sun came out.




We also had a walk around Merton College where Clive's old buddy Tolkien was a language and literature professor. It wasn't as inspiring to me as Magdalen, but it was very pretty, especially with the Christmas tree decorating the square, and as I'm probably never going to write an epic genre changing fantasy, I didn't really mind either way.



The Bird & Baby, celebrated haunt of the Inklings, was about 400 feet from the hall where we stayed, so Ellen and I honored the worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth like so many before us have done (and like someone is probably doing right now) by having a meal there.



The food was good. Really good, actually. I had some kind of pasta thing with green leafy stuff on top and a yummy sauce. Ellen went with a bangers and mash concoction with onion rings and gravy. We probably should have written something while we were there, or discussed the stories we have in our heads and may someday develop, or at the very least described our favorite aspects of the worlds the authors who smoked and drank and ate in that very pub created--but then our food would have gotten cold, and we'd have had to order dessert and probably slept the rest of the day, and then where would we have been?

Exeter College is another we visited. It had a beautiful chapel with a youngish guy inside playing piano and a bright Christmas tree and a Moravian star hanging from the ceiling. And though he's not one of my favorite favorites (even though he seems to have perfect ease at world building which is never true and actually means he works really hard at it to beautiful [because believable] results), Exeter is where Pullman went and taught. The school (according to wikipedia) is the place Lyra's Oxford is based on.




Somehow I thought more about Lyra and her rooftops while overlooking Oxford at sunset with all the windows glowing and the mysteries of the college squares revealed than I did in the tight courtyard of Exeter's campus. Perhaps if I'd gone inside...



Speaking of fictional little girls with an unspoken ownership of Oxford, Alice seems to be hiding around every corner. One of the places we visited (though very briefly as most of the grounds were closed to visitors) was Christ Church where Carroll studied and lectured. My previous visit there was much more informative about the connections of the school and Carroll's mathematical mind to Alice and her wonderland, but it was nice to visit again, even if it wasn't a very welcoming campus.



Last summer we were able to see the great hall from the Harry Potter movies (as pictured below), a room which is also home to stained glass Alice characters, but it was closed for a reception on this visit.



Our other bookish Oxford excursions included a tour of the Bodleian and at least a couple of trips to its shop:


Plenty of time in bookstores, resulting in the following treasures:


A morning in the Museum of Natural History where a nice Alice display can be found:



And a walk around the Pitt Rivers Collection where seemingly endless cases and display drawers are packed with history, including that of the writerly and readerly type:




After four days of colleges and cold, Ellen and I left Oxford for a day in Cambridge before parting ways and there found many more adventures like bongs and paperbacks and fresh baked bread at the open market, like the unexpected snow that fell through the night and caused train delays the next day, like the ghost who turned others from gazing on a book that was meant to be mine for over a year, and like the drunk guy I accidentally let into the b&b and had to run from up three flights of stairs only to hear him arguing with someone outside our door before Ellen wisely put a chair under the handle.

But that's for next time. For now, I'm still wondering at the literary cloud that seems to hover over Oxford and hoping some of the snow that fell from it and melted on my face and hair and hands and coat sunk deeply enough to make a difference.