Friday, June 26, 2009

Pottering in Harry's Footsteps

Friday, June 26, 2009
Oxford and Witney

I guess the great weather had to come to an end sometime and that happened today. I awoke to the drumming of raindrops on my windowpane and though my curtains were drawn and didn’t allow me to see the falling droplets, I could hear them. I awoke at 7. 00 am, read Harry Potter for about 45 minutes, then got up to wash and dress and start breakfast at 9 am. It was a Continental affair again with a new face at the table—a girl from Johns Hopkins whose name I did not catch. We had a companionable breakfast and then it was time for me to get dressed and get to St. Antony’s College to pick up my ID card.

But great disappointment awaited me there as the card had not arrived (stuck somewhere in in an inter-office mailbag) and since today is Friday, I cannot expect to get it until Monday morning. Needless to say, I was annoyed as I walked towards The Broad. I had an 11.oo am appointment with an Anglo-Indian called Philip who had agreed to drive up to Oxford to meet me as he lives in nearby Bicester (pronounced 'Bister'--bizaare!). The rain had stopped but the rain-washed scent of fresh summer flowers wafted towards me from the passing gardens along Woodstock Road with each step I took. The air was fresh and clean and despite the lack of sunshine, it was warm and rather humid and I had to pull my hoodie off.

An Interview with another Anglo-Indian:
Philip was already at the Blackwell’s Bookstore coffee shop when I arrived there. Every time I need to meet someone in Oxford, this has become the spot for our rendezvous—being opposite the Sheldonian Theater, it is very easy to spot—though as Philip pointed out to me, there are two or three Blackwell’s Bookstores in town. Over a café latte, Philip answered all my questions very patiently indeed. I found a great deal in him to admire especially his dedication to fund raising which allows him to help destitute Anglo-Indians in India. Our conversation was very interesting with never a dull moment. As always, the stories of these individuals inspire me deeply and make my fieldwork really stimulating.

The Harry Potter Tour:
It was almost 1. 30 by the time we left Blackwell’s. I crossed Broad Street (The Broad) to get to the Oxford Information Center but found that the folks who wished to take the Harry Potter Tour had already gathered outside the store. I joined them, produced my ticket and was introduced to the guide who would start to lead the tour in a few minutes. There were 20 people on the tour, of which at least half the number were children between the ages of six and eleven. The tour began with an introduction outside the store and from then on, it continued for two hours, the bulk of which I found deeply uninteresting.

In fact, I believe that this tour is a real misnomer. It merely cashes in on the Harry Potter hype and left me felling deeply disappointed. As the tour guide stated at the outset, “This is a tour about Oxford with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in”. Granted I have only seen the first Harry Potter film, but the fact that I have read all the books (and recently at that) ought to have made it fascinating for me. Instead of which, I found myself bored stiff for most of the tour. The commentary was slow and lack luster and just very monotonously delivered and I found the kids just wilting with boredom. I doubt many of the adults were deeply stimulated either.

The group was led to just three spots associated with the Harry Potter films: the Divinity School where we were told about one of the scenes (when Harry is in the sanatorium in Book Four—The Goblet of Fire) and then we were shown pictures of Duke Humphrey’s Library where a part of the first film was shot. But we were not allowed into the library. When I asked the guide why he weren’t taken there, he said we’d have had to pay more. But we had already paid over 10 pounds for this tour! It wasn’t inexpensive, so why wasn’t Duke Humphrey’s Library included? Such a rip off!!!

Next, we went to New College where, in the cloisters, we were shown the spot where Malfoy is turned into a ferret under the shady branches of a spreading oak. Inside, in New College Chapel, we were shown the Joshua Reynolds stained glass windows and an El Greco painting of St. James--but there were no further associations with Potter.

The third location associated with the film was Christ Church College where we taken up the stairs with the spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling (where Prof. McGonnagal greets the new freshman students to Hogwarts) to the Great Hall (which was the inspiration for the Hall in the films—I repeat, this was the inspiration for the Dining Hall at Hogwarts, but the film was not shot on location here.)

So, basically, we were taken into Christ Church College to see the Hall and the Cathedral (both of which we could have done on our own without joining a Harry Potter Tour). Needless to say, I was deeply irritated with the entire tour, which I thought was a complete waste of money. I certainly hope that the Inspector Morse Tour which I am taking tomorrow will be more interesting and will have a younger and livelier guide and one who can make the commentary more humorous and more absorbing.

My Tour of Christ Church Cathedral:
I have to say that I found the tour of Christ Church Cathedral very interesting (but it had nothing whatsoever to do with Harry Potter). In fact, the guide had left us by this point and said goodbye, so we wandered around on our own. I have never been in here before and have decided that I will try to attend Evensong here tomorrow at 6 pm. Christ Church Choir is world famous (like King’s College Choir in Cambridge) and one of the highlights of my stay in England had been the opportunity to listen to them last December when I was in Cambridge.

Christ Church College has a rich and unique history. Not only was it founded by Cardinal Wolsey who began building it with his own colossal fortune (which explains why the symbol of the college is a Cardinal’s hat) but when he fell out of favor with the king, construction was abandoned until King Henry VIII took interest in it once again, called it King’s College for a while and later called it Christ Church College.The foundations of what were intended to become the cloisters can still be seen around the quadrangle. These were never completed. It is a Cathedral because it contains the seat or chair (‘cathedra’ in Latin) of a bishop. Thus, it is both a cathedral as well as a college chapel—the only one of its kind in the UK. It was used during the Civil War by Charles I as a refuge until he tried to escape from Oxford, was caught and led to his execution. It has some beautiful stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones done in the distinctive style of the Pre-Raphaelites. I found all of this material much more interesting than anything I saw on the Harry Potter Tour.

A Trip to Witney to Meet A Friend:
I hurried out of Christ Church College to try to find a bus that would take me to Witney where I had made plans to meet an old Oxford friend, Stan Fuller, once Hall Stewart at Exeter College when I was a student there. Stan and I have stayed friends over the years only through letters and the annual Christmas cards as he does not use email. Over the years, on my many trips to Oxford, I have met him for a cup of coffee and each time, I have found that his health has deteriorated some more. In recent years, he has become practically disabled with a knee injury that had rendered him bound to a wheel chair at home (he is now 77 years old). Though he does walk about with the aid of a walker, it is very difficult for him to move about.

I would have been pleased to have seen him in his own home, but clearly he did not wish to have me over in his house in Eynsham (pronounced En-shim). He suggested we meet in Witney Market Square and I took the Stagecoach S1 from Gloucester Green to meet him—a lovely journey that took about 45 minutes, given the rush hour traffic. I had a lively conversation on the bus with a lady who pointed out very interesting things to me along the way as the bus wound through the patch work quilt of the fields, past the little picturesque, typically English villages of the Cotswolds and a multitude of animals—horses, sheep and dappled cows were all in pasture .

Stan was waiting for me and I have to say that I was shocked to see how much he has aged since we last met—which must have been about eight to ten years ago. He has put on an enormous amount of weight (probably from lack of exercise) and he has black bags or pouches hanging under his eyes which I do not recall seeing before. My heart went out to him and I was so saddened by the manner in which he has aged. Given the hardships he had encountered to meet me, I was deeply touched by the effort he put into our meeting.

I suggested we get to a pub for a meal and that’s where we ended. Witney is a small medieval market town with its little market square, its stone shelter, its clock tower, its village green abutting a church with a brown stone turret-like spire. There is the sprinkling of shops and pubs in the market square and it was in one if these that we settled down for a natter. I ordered a half pint of cider for myself and a ginger ale for Stan who chose fish and chips while I had the steak and ale pie. There was rather a lot to talk about and Stan was eager to tell me everything about his family—his wife, his children and grand children. His interest in British History is very impressive and he always fills me in on valuable local historical information when we get together. He told me, for instance, that Witney used to be the center of the wool blanket industry—sadly, the last factory closed over ten years ago. He also told me that the native Americans were very partial to Witney blankets and that they once averted a massacre by using Witney blankets that they knotted together to shimmy down a ravine while the US Cavalry settled down for the night intending to attack them the next morning. I thought it was amusing that Stan referred to them as “red Indians”—a phrase that we used to use for native Americans when we lived in India. It has been a long time since I have heard that phrase!

Twenty-two years ago, it was a much younger and more vigorous Stan who had driven my friend Dr. Firdaus Gandavia (then a young doctoral student like myself) and me to Boar’s Hill to Matthew Arnold’s field to see his “dreaming spires of Oxford” from the vantage point at which he had sat and composed his famous poem The Scholar Gypsy. I still have a picture that I had taken then as I had perched on a wooden stile that protected the field from straying cattle. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that lovely summer’s evening, so many years ago, and these memories were very much on my mind as I recalled how much local history Stan had introduced us to then. If only we could stop the Hand of Time from marching on in its destructive fashion, robbing us of our vitality and energy and leaving us to nurse wounded shadows of ourselves in our old age. All these thoughts made my meeting with Stan very poignant indeed and I am very glad that I made the effort to get together with him. Who knows, but the next time I return to Oxford, Stan might no longer by able to meet me anywhere!

It was finally time to say goodbye to Stan at 8. 20 pm when we stood together at the bus stop to wait for the bus that would drop him off at Eynsham and take me on to Oxford. It was while we were at the bus stop that he broke the news to me that a famous singer had died last night,. He could not get his name and asked the young girl sitting at the bus stop, “Who was the singer who passed away last night?” and she replied, “Michael Jackson”. You could have struck me down with a feather! Of course, I have no access to news media of any kind…so I had no idea anything of the sort had happened. Needless to say, I was speechless and when I finally did receive the details, the young girl told me he had died of a heart attack.

I have to say that I was still reeling with shock when I got off the bus at Oxford and walked on the Banbury Road to my place.

I spent the evening typing this blog and chatting with Llew and then getting ready for bed as I was suddenly very tired indeed.

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