Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Oxford Again! Giving A Lecture at Exeter College

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Made it! Despite getting to bed about 2 am, we boarded our Megabus coach to Oxford at 6. 30 right on schedule. Llew tried to snatch some ZZZZs but I was so keyed up about my 9. 00 am lecture at Exeter College and spent most of the ride into Wiltshire reviewing my draft and editing it as I went along! As the coach skimmed the outskirts of Oxford and arrived on The High, I took a deep breath and decided that this was it—I had to just hope that all my weeks of thought and ideas would achieve success and go down well with the students.

It was still only 8. 15 am when we arrived at Exeter College. The High and Turl Street were empty and eerily quiet as we checked in at the Porter’s Lodge, introduced ourselves and made our way to the Saskatchewan Lecture Hall where I met Jacqueline Darville who has been corresponding with me for weeks as I have prepared for this very prestigious but very daunting assignment.

It wasn’t long before I met up with Sandie Bryne who had invited me to speak to the International Graduate students who are here for the summer. They were already assembled in huge numbers when I arrived in the hall and made my way up to the stage. Miraculously, the butterflies in my tummy had stopped playing catch and I was able to focus entirely on the hour that lay ahead. I decided to speak slowly as I was not sure how many of my listeners would be familiar with the authors and the works I would be discussing. Post-Colonial Literature is not necessarily their area of specialization though it might be of interest to them. Sandie Bryne introduced me and the subject of my lecture (“India Ink: Themes and Techniques in Post-Colonial Literature from the Sub-Continent”)…and then I was off.

I spoke for a full hour and fifteen minutes covering as comprehensively as possible the main movements in literature in English from the Indian sub-continent that have been inspired by Great Britain. Yes, there was a great deal for the students to take in and I was asked for a reading list at the end of the lecture. Even though I judged only by the faces of my listeners, I could tell that my words were going down well and that they were taking in a whole lot. Sandie said a few words at the end of my lecture and then told me that she thought my lecture was great. And then, before I knew it, she was inviting me to come back again next year to address the students once again. I was so thrilled, I told her right away that it would be my pleasure and privilege indeed. So I now can look forward to another visit to the UK and Oxford if not sooner then at least next summer!

As soon as the lecture was done, I had students come up and tell me how much they enjoyed it and on the way out, a couple of the members of my audience, professors of English themselves, one from Australia and another from Miami, Florida (oh, and there was a third from South Carolina), told me that they thought I was "outstanding" and wanted to know more about my background. Well, I was deeply deeply pleased and as I walked out of Exeter College with Llew, I told him that I felt as if a massive weight had been lifted off my mind and that I could now really put my work for the year behind me and start to enjoy our forthcoming travels in France.

Back to Norham Road:

Llew and I took a circuitous route around Oxford towards the North as I was headed to Mrs. Longrigg’s home on Norham Road, the place in which I had stayed a few weeks ago, as I had left my electric adaptor plug there and hoped to pick it up. This gave Llew a chance to take in the charm and serenity of North Oxford and to see the lovely gracious Victorian mansion in which I had stayed.

Taking in the Pitt Rivers Museum:
Our next stop was at the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum where I wanted Llew to see the famed but very eerie shrunken heads. We did not stay there too long as the heads take not more than ten minutes to examine and the rest of the museum is much too large to be seen in detail. Llew did say that the architecture of the Museum of Natural History reminded him of Empress Market in Karachi and I informed him that both these buildings were built during the heyday of Victorian architecture informed by staid facades, rising turrets and an alternation in brick and granite blocks to create decorative walls. Indeed, this style of architecture is also to be found at Crawford Market in Bombay which is distinctive for its tower or turret too. Llew also loved the architecture of Keble College (again, a great example of Victorian construction) with its vast sunken Quad.

Our rambles then took us back to The High where we visited Blackwell’s, one of the world’s most famous bookstores where we browsed for a bit and then carried on along the walk that I have placed on my website (in virtual form) as this stroll takes in the main sights of the town such as the Sheldonian Theater, the Radcliff Camera, the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on the High Street, etc. I also took Llew into a few of the pubs frequented by the Morse crew during the making of the series (as Llew too is a big fan of the TV series).

By the time lunch hour was reached, we were both ravenous having made do with a very light breakfast. I suggested we eat at Jamie’s Italian Restaurant on George Street which I had passed a few weeks ago and decided I would check out when Llew joined me. But before that, I thought it would be great to get a real ale at one of Oxford’s more historic pubs—and though there are a bunch of them, each frequented by famous writers and politicians over the years, I chose The Bear on the corner of Alfred and Merton Streets because I did want Llew to have a look at the collection of ties that line its walls and ceilings in beautifully designed glass cases. Indeed, it was once a possibility to pay for one’s drink at this tavern with a tie (alas, not any more!). Each tie is carefully labeled with the name of the wearer and his Oxford affiliation and as we sipped our Perry (pear cider, for that was what we decided upon, ultimately, as the afternoon was warm and just begged for a lighter drink), we studied the cases and their fascinating histories. And so on to Jamie’s

Jamie, of course, is Jamie Oliver, the UK’s most famous TV chef, author of a slew of books and owner of renowned restaurants such as Fifteen (in London and in Cornwall). He is also single handedly responsible for changing school menus in the UK by critiquing the heavy fat and sugar content in them and begging for alternative healthy choices for the kids who eat lunches in school.

Well, the lunch time offerings were quite delicious indeed. I had the Tagliatelle Truffle (8. 50 pounds for a main size serving though this also comes as an appetizer for 5.95) which was finely shaved wild black truffles folded with butter, parmesan and nutmeg, and described on the menu as “a real luxury”—and indeed it was silky and very subtly flavored, the truffle adding a powerful earthiness to the concoction. Llew chose the Spiedini Sicilian Pork Skewer which was free-range British pork fillet stuffed with Italian cured meats, breadcrumbs and parmesan served with lemon, garlic and oregano dressing (11.95 pounds). Believe me, it was scrumptious and I am glad that Llew and I always tend to share our choices as he is invariably the one who seems to make the better ones! Having said that, I must emphasize that my pasta was really superb and I was so glad that I did finally get to sample one of Jamie’s concoctions as I have watched him work his magic on TV for years and have always been intrigued by his extraordinary flair.

Lunch done, we decided to go for a long walk along the Meadows to the banks of the River Thames. The afternoon was warm and very typical of summer days in this delightful town. Having eaten too much of an excellent meal, we had to practically pull ourselves along to the banks of the Cherwell near Christ Church College where we watched punters glide lazily by stalked by two saucy swans who stuck their long beaks at them! A few people enjoyed the bucolic quality of the light and the breeze in the best way that they can be experienced—with a long lie-down on the grass--and it was not long before Llew and I succumbed to the temptation and did likewise.

Dinner at Exeter College Dining Hall:
We had dinner plans with Sandie again at the 16th century Dining Hall of Exeter Collegee where I had enjoyed many a delicious meal as a student and I was keen that Llew should have that singular experience himself. So I have to say that I was disappointed to discover that students are no longer invited to sit in rotation with the dons at High Table and enjoy meals within the formality of one of the most hallowed spaces in town. Instead, they sit casuallyto a meal that is served without the recitation of a Grace (ours used to be recited either in Latin or in Welsh by the excellent Geoffrey Thomas who, hailing from Wales, proudly spoke in the tongue of his native land).

We had reservations on the Megabus Coach back to London at 8. 40 pm and at the end of what had turned out to be a really good day (but for the disastrous meal), we boarded our coach and arrived at Notting Hill Gate where we switched to the Tube to arrive at Denmark House and get ready…no not for bed but for our next trip!

It wasn’t as if we could make up for our short night, for we had to awake early again—this time to get the 5. 30 am Eurostar train from St. Pancras International Station and it was a good thing that our bags for France were packed and ready. We set our alarm clock once again and prepared to sleep well as our French adventures lay ahead of us and we were ready for another meaningful week together in one of my favorite parts of the world.

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