Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bits and Bobs: An Amazingly Varied Second-Last Day in Oxford

Friday, September 23, 2016
Bits and Bobs: An Amazingly Varied Second-Last Day in Oxford

    I had the best day in Oxford today! Seriously! Each day seems to have been better than the former, but today, somehow seemed exceptional.

Morning Chores and Rituals:

     I awoke at 6.00 am, as usual, which is wonderful because it is amazing how much I manage to accomplish even before the sun is up and while everyone else is having a lie-in. I washed and started on my chores for I had a heap to do in preparation for my departure—alas, all good things have to come to an end.

    So first off, I did laundry and while the machine was running, I blogged. When that was done, I sent off the scholarly essay to the academic journal—the one on which I have been working for the past few days. Next, I caught up on email—work-related and family-related. Next, I chatted with my Dad and my brother Russel in Bombay and got all their news.

     When the machine stopped running, I organized my breakfast—the last two pieces of bread went into the toaster and I ate them with jam and coffee: once again I am trying to finish up things in my fridge. Simple but satisfying. When that was done, I got out the drying rack and laid out my laundry for drying. Most of it was quite dry already but I decided to wait an hour before I ironed out the heavier ones,.

     Next, I had a very important call to make to Virgin Media regarding my UK phone. I was worried as I had an issue to resolve with them and I have to say that I had the most splendid service from their attendants who patiently helped me out with my problem in the most courteous way. By the end of a 20 minute call—and they offered to and did call me so that my phone charges were not accumulating—they resolved my problem to my fullest satisfaction and brought me the peace of mind that had been alluding me for the past couple of days. A million thanks, Virgin Media and Mr. Branson: you will have my undying gratitude forever.

     More planning for the day ahead was accomplished before I returned to the kitchen to take charge of the ironing board and do a spot of ironing. Most of my lighter tops were all ready for the next phase of my journey to London and thence forth. The heavier leggings and my windcheater I laid out for some more sunning. Because yes! The sun was out! After three days of overcast skies, I greeted it like an old friend…and all the more because I did want my clothes to dry. One of the things I have discovered about the UK (that we take for granted in the US) is that few people have a dryer in their homes. They have washers but they place their damp washing out on lines to dry in their gardens or they use drying racks indoors to get the job done. I don’t recall how long it is since I have dried my clothes in this way. When I had lived in London, a few years ago, I had a combo washer-dryer in my kitchen, so I never needed to use a rack. Next door, there is a major renovation project going on as my hosts’ immediate neighbor recently passed away and her children, who had inherited the home, have decided to flip it before putting it on the market.

Oxford Real Estate:

     I am astonished by the price of real estate here in Oxford—prices have gone up so much that these houses in modest Grandpont (a 10 ten minute walk south from Christ Church College along the Abingdon Road) which were once considered working-class housing for the staff of the Oxford colleges, are now the most coveted bits of real estate by yuppies who are flocking to live in the chic university town. Their recent wealth acquisition has caused prices here to skyrocket so much so that this little terraced house (row house) that has three small rooms downstairs (a spare bedroom that I occupy, a living room and an eat-in kitchen) and two small bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs are now on the market for 575,000 pounds. That is pounds, people! So it is the equivalent price of homes that in Southport, Connecticut, would include a family room and a separate dining room, a large eat-in kitchen, a study, another full bathroom and a half-bathroom (or powder room) and a deck with at least a quarter acre of property. Hard to believe!

     The street on which I am staying—as I said, modest working class housing in the Victorian Age when it was built—houses the renowned novelist Margaret Drabble just a few doors down, and then two doors down from her, lives the mother of Cheri Blair, former First Lady of the UK! So there you have it: I am on a street in which celebs live!!! Wow! I have absolutely loved my time here and despite the knocking and hammering that has gone on next door as the refurbishment continues (since I am out before the workmen arrive and do not return home before their departure, but for one day when I worked at home in the morning), they have not bothered me at all. What’s more, there is a meadow at the back of the house in which dogs and their walkers start their day and which the sun’s rising rays gild warmly each dawn. Just gazing across that meadow from the upstairs bathroom window makes me feel spiritual. And not a few feet away, is lovely Hincksey Park with its duck pond, prancing dogs (some off leash) and the delighted shrieks that emanate from the outdoor swimming pool. Truly, this is my idea of England and I have reveled fully in it!   

     After a shower, just a little later, I left my house. Today, I did not make or carry my own sandwiches because I thought I would eat a Full English Breakfast as advertised in the restaurant of The Mitre Hotel that is at the end of Turl Street and the High Street—that would be my brunch. So, off I went, along the Thames Path (that I am also delighted to have discovered) picking and eating blackberries and pausing to take pictures of Folly Bridge and other vistas that greeted me. It is little things like this that fully lift my spirits when I am in England and make me feel as if I could stay here forever.

Coursing Through Oxford:

     I bought the postcard from the shop I have been promising myself I will visit and then here, roughly, is how I spent my last day in the university city:

1.     Stepped into Alice’s Shop that has sprouted for Lewis Caroll fans who make a pilgrimage to it in the same way that I go to Morse and Lewis locations. Caroll was a mathematics don and his stories grew when he went boating on the Thames with Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College which is right across the road.  

2.     Into the restaurant of The Mitre Hotel on Turl Street for breakfast. Alas, it was 11.45 and they stop serving the Full English at 11.00! Well, then, I would return on the morrow…

3.     Attempt to get into the Bodleian Library’s Duke Humphrey’s Library. Highjacked as there was a massive Hollywood shooting crew at the venue and Radcliffe Square was closed to through traffic. Lots of people milled around with cameras trying to catch a glimpse of Mark Walberg who was shooting a sequence for Transformers—the next edition! I am unfamiliar with the action-packed film series as it is not really my cup of tea.

4.     Walk around the Square to get to the Bodleian. On the second floor, where Duke Humphrey’s Library is located, I discovered that I am not allowed inside unless I check my bag into one of the lockers below. It is a magnificent medieval space. While the Radcliffe Camera where I have been doing my research for the past two weeks was built in the 18th century’s High Baroque vein, this is Elizabethan—and to proclaim that fact there is a bust of Thomas Sackville of Knole House in Kent, favored courtier and adviser of Elizabeth I. I decided I would get back again tomorrow after I have left my bag behind. This is the most filmed space among the Oxford libraries and has stood in for the library at Hogwarts in all the Harry Potter films and in one episode of Morse and one episode of Lewis. No photography is allowed, however, so a trip to the Bodleian Library Shop was next.

5.     Visit to Bodleian Library Shop to buy postcards of Duke Humphrey’s Library and the Radcliffe Camera. Came out with a Thank-you card for my hosts and a Welcome to the UK card for Chriselle (who had arrived safely in Scotland and was enjoying a whirl around Edinburgh).

6.     Visit to The Museum of Science. This museum is free and I have been promising myself I will go in here. Today I did. It is a small museum: a basement, and two floors, but the building is of great significance as it was the original Ashmolean Museum—before the grand Neo-Classical edifice was built. Inside, the biggest attraction is Einstein’s blackboard which still carries an equation in his own handwriting based on a lecture he was invited to deliver at Oxford in 1931. There are also dozens of astronomical items, astrolabes and the like and, for science geeks, this would be Paradise. I took in a few of the more interesting items and left.

7.     Hunger pangs were beckoning by that point—it was almost 2.00 pm. So in I went to Sainsbury and bought myself a baguette with chicken and bacon. It was huge—I ate half of it while sitting on the steps of the Martyrs Memorial overlooking the Ashmolean and the Randolph Hotel (something I have also been promising myself I will do).

8.     Went into Marks and Spencer on Queens Street to buy a dessert for my former landlords, the Longriggs who had invited me for drinks to their place at 5.00 pm. I picked up M and S’s new Chocolate Fondant and Williams’ Pear Tart which my friend Rose had served us for dessert at her home, a couple of weeks ago.

9.     Into the Covered Market to try to find some fresco paintings that my hostess Susan had told me about. Alas, I could not find them and, when I inquired, none of the salespeople around seemed to know anything about them. So that one mission remained unaccomplished!

10.  Into the Radcliffe Camera for two hours of reading at my favorite carrel in the Upper Gallery. Thankfully, the film crew was just wrapping up. I got pictures of some of the props they used—very fancy cars, for instance. Then, into the library I went and there I stayed as a means to carry on with my notes and reading and to give my feet some much-needed rest (because I had been pounding the pavement since 11.30 am). It is truly the best refuge for inside you find silence and studiousness. I can’t help looking around at my fellow-scholars and thinking: One of these might be a future Nobel Prize winner!

11.  At 4. 15 pm, I left the library and walked down Parks Road to get to Rhodes House. This mission put me in search of another William Morris Tapestry that supposedly hangs inside the venerable building. Five minutes later, I was there. It happened to be the day on which the new Rhodes Scholars of 2016 were moving into Oxford and getting orientation tours. The sweet porter not only allowed me in but led me personally to the tapestry. It is called ‘The Romance of the Rose’ and while the cartoon was created by Edward Burne-Jones, its woven interpretation is by his friend and fellow-Pre-Raphaelite William Morris by his company called Morris and Co. It was just lovely. Although sunshine bounced off the glass which made it difficult to take pictures, I did the best I could. I also realized that the Tapestry was presented to Rhodes House by Herbert Baker, architect of the building. Now Herbert Baker has an Indian connection: together with Sir Edwin Lutyens, he is the architect of New Delhi! I was delighted to make the discovery that Baker is the architect of the unusual Rhodes House with its rotunda and its spacious galleries and its lovely garden behind, Meanwhile, being inside Rhodes House, I had a chance to poke around: I saw the grand Dining Hall with its curved High Table and its oil painted portraits of Cecil Rhodes and his colleagues who instituted the international Rhodes Scholarships.

12.  I walked on, past University Parks and Keble College to arrive in North Oxford which is so well-punctuated by massive Victorian Gothic houses, most in solid red brick, multi-storied and accentuated by turrets and stairs and other charming architectural embellishments. I loved every second of that walk especially along Norham Gardens which was the setting for a wonderful novel I had chanced to come across at home in Connecticut, called The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively. Because I had lived on Norham Road myself with the Longriggs, I had snapped up the book and then given myself up completely to the thrill of reading it. Set in a similar home to the one owned by the Longriggs, the story unfolds when young Clare comes to live with her ageing blue-stocking aunts in a rambling three-storey Victorian house whose attic is filled with relics from the past that help her unravel the mystery of their lives. For that reason, it was a thrill to walk down Norham Gardens and arrive at Norham Road where the sunroom I had once occupied during an earlier research stint at Oxford is located.

13.  Lovely visit with the Longriggs. They are a delightful couple, now facing old age stoically but with the kind of dignity that comes from a lifetime devoted to scholarship. She was a don at St. Hilda’s College, he was an English and History teacher at the Dragon School which is right behind their home on Dragon Lane. It is one of the best-known and regarded public schools in England, difficult to enter and hard to pay for—annual fees run to 30,000 pounds a year! Mr. Longrigg taught both Hugh Laurie and Emma Watson among a host of other luminaries that have made a mark for themselves in the world, such as the novelist Val McDarmid who wrote the series of detective novels, Wire in the Blood (the TV series of which I have enjoyed very much with Llew). The Longriggs always make me feel very much at home. They lay out drinks (pink rose wine that was simply deliciously light) and nibbles that were all fish-focused as she is a staunch Catholic (he is C of E). I discovered also that the Catholic Church in the UK has brought back the No Meat on Friday rule with which I grew up in India (the US has not revived it yet). Hence, there was taramasalata, potted shrimps, whole peeled shrimp, shelled “cockles” (what we call clams in the US) and guacamole with crackers and chips (truly a feast for the seafood lover). We had so much to chat about, so much to catch up on. My beloved  former landlords have become dear friends and I never leave Oxford without making the time to see them. It is links like these that bond me to such locales and make me feel the sense of ‘coming home’ each time I visit. Of course, we took pictures (as I always do with them) as I toured my former haunts: (my former room was locked as it is occupied by some other lodger today), the vast dining room in which I had breakfasted each morning with other scholars (as the Longriggs only take in academic lodgers), the garden where I had spent many a happy summer’s afternoon. It was just the most charming visit and I had a thoroughly grand time as we caught up on all the happenings of the past few years as it has been three years since I last saw them (but about 10 years since I had lived in their home).Incidentally, they informed me that homes such as theirs in North Oxford, now go for three million pounds and are being bought up by Chinese tycoons. They have a sixteen room house--four floors with four rooms on each floor! Go Figure!

14.  A Visit to St. Antony’s College was next. I have been elected to the position of Senior Associate Member at this college (about 10 years ago) but the secretary whom I know well has been on vacation for the past two weeks. Hence, I did not stop in to say Hello to her earlier. However, as I will be returning here in January to give an invited lecture myself during their graduate seminar, I took a tour of the lovely premises and many pictures. St. Antony’s, being one of the more recent colleges to be built, has a mixture of architectural styles—from the older Victorian stone structure that comprises the chapel to the very modern auditorium and buttery. It has fountains and gardens and lovely lawns (as all the colleges do) but being secluded on Bevington Road, it also has its own ambience. It specializes in South Asian Studies which is why my forthcoming book shall be featured in a graduate seminar here in January.

15.  Dusk was falling rapidly when I left St. Antony’s to walk along the Woodstock Road. I had a couple more stops to make en route.

16.  Visit to the former Radcliffe Infirmary. I stopped here to review this space in which my beloved Inspector Morse breathes his last. In fact, Morse’s death episode is one with which I can identify on many levels: he pontificates at the Victoria Arms pub (in Old Marsden) where I had once taken my hosts Susan and Tony for dinner; he collapses outside the chapel at Exeter College where I have frequently attended services; he is declared dead in what used to be the Radcliffe Infirmary and County Hospital. A few years ago, the area was closed down for refurbishment and I am very pleased to say that it is very attractive in its new avatar. The Chapel of St. Luke is now exposed as is the Radcliffe Observatory (another episode of Morse was set here). The lovely stone fountain of Neptune in the main courtyard has been retained although the vast parking lot has gone, its place taken by a new glass wing. The entire place is now occupied by the Humanities Department but I am thrilled that the original façade of the Radcliffe still stands as a testimony to the past. Oxford now has a new hospital--the John Radcliffe Hospital.

17.  A visit to the Eagle and Child Pub. Next door, past many Oxford churches (the First Church of Christ Scientist, Blackfriars Church, the Oxford Oratory where I heard Mass on Sunday) is the pub that was made famous by the Inklings—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friends who nicknamed it the Bird and Baby. They held weekly meetings at this pub that still commemorates their presence with various blackboards that remind us where they sat and what they discussed.

18.  Back home along the Abingdon Road as night swiftly fell. It was dark by the time I reached home at 7. 45 pm but I had gone through one of the most varied and fulfilling days I have had since I came here.

      I ended the day with dinner—I was tired and hungry and intended to finish my food in the fridge. I ate the last of my Lamb Jalfrezi with a slice of toast and devoured another chocolate éclair (I am becoming dangerously addicted to these!) as I watched New Tricks on TV. Then, I folded up my laundry, started on a bit of packing of my back pack and when much of it was done, I got into bed and went to sleep at about 9.30 pm.

     I looked forward to my last day in Oxford tomorrow when I shall try to cover those bits I have not yet done.

     Until tomorrow, cheerio…                            

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