Monday, January 30, 2017

Afloat in Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

Monday, January 23, 2017
Oxford and Abingdon

            I am awake early, I do some reading in bed on my smart phone and then I fall asleep again. When I awake, it is about 7. 30 and my friends have already eaten breakfast. I wash and shower and settle down to a coffee and two slices of toast with Tony’s excellent homemade orange marmalade and some Lurpak butter. I finish off with grapes. It is amazing to me how everyone in the Western world eats fruit with breakfast. My family members in India have only recently caught up with the practice, but I have still to adopt it fully.

            The cleaning lady, Leonardo, comes in to do. I meet her briefly, then get dressed and leave for the City Center. I take the Thames Path that I so love and upon which I had done a lot of wild blackberry plucking and eating in the late summer. Now the canes, while still green and leafy, are stripped off their berries. It is freezing and there is more than just a touch of frost everywhere I turn. I am layered more thickly than a Vidalia onion with a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, a cashmere cardigan, a fleece hoodie, a long down coat. Plus I have hat, gloves, pantyhose and socks and scarf. I am cozy as I stride along towards Carfax. I do pop into Marks to take a look at shoes—I find a pair that I’d like to buy…perhaps in Essex, as I do not wish to lug it around. In L’Occitaine, I find one of my favorite perfumes in the world, Pivoine Flora (Peony) in eau de parfum format on sale! Buying it is a no-brainer as I have looked for this fragrance on sale for the longest time and never found it! With a bottle in a smart bag, I leave.

            I then walk briskly along the Banbury Road towards the Museum of Natural History which opens at 10.00 am. My aim is to potter around at the back in the Pitt Rivers Museum—but, wouldn’t you just know it? On Mondays, it opens at 12.00! I am disappointed but spend time at the glass cases that talk about Charles Ludwig Dodgson (Lewis Carol) who pulled the Alice in Wonderland stories out of his mind while boating on the Cherwell with Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, where he taught Math(s). Next door, is a case with information about the Dodo that became extinct in the late 19th century from being over-hunted. Lewis Carol loved the bird because a stammer caused him to say his own last name as Do-Do-Dodgson! Hence, he included it into his stories! How charming to be able to laugh at yourself!

            There is a lot to fascinate in the Museum of Natural History—from the stone carved sculpture of famous naturalists (Linneaus, Darwin, etc.) to cases filled with birds and animals and, of course, the towering dinosaur skeletons. The place was heaving with school kids out on field trips with their teachers. A famous early episode of Lewis that involved screaming school kids was shot in this space and I recalled it vividly as I surveyed the towering glass and iron ceiling. I adore these British Victorian museum buildings—the outside of them remind me of Crawford Market in Bombay while the inside is just stunning. Sadly, after I swallowed my disappointment at not being able to get into the Pitt Rivers Collection, I left to brave the cold once again.

Meeting Prof/Rev Judith Brown at Brasenose College:

            I had an 11. 45 am meeting with Prof. Judith Brown, formerly of Balliol College, who, after her retirement as an Oxford don has taken the part-time position of College Chaplain at Brasenose (Brays-Nose) College as she is also an ordained Anglican minister! Thirty years ago, while still a newbie in the USA, I had reviewed her book Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope for India Abroad. Since then, she has gone on to publish extensively on South Asian History and her latest work actually looks at the South Asian Diaspora in Britain. Luckily for me, her study did not include Britain’s Anglo-Indians—which is the lacuna that my coming book will fill. Unfortunately, a work commitment does not permit her to attend my talk tomorrow at St. Antony’s College but she was eager to discuss my findings with me.

            I pass through the Clarendon Building, into the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library and arrive at Radcliff Square where I greet the Radcliff Camera in which I had spent ecstatic hours researching in the late summer, as if it were an old friend. Brasenose College adjoins Exeter, my own college, and I find its entrance easily. We were supposed to meet at the Porter’s Lodge and she is there right on the dot. In a few minutes, after we have met, she leads me through two quadrangles and up a flight of antiquated stairs to her room—again, the setting is reminiscent for me of the Morse and Lewis series!!! I am such a fan, aren’t it?

            It is a lovely freewheeling chat as we discuss her work, my work, her findings and mine. I discover that she was born in India (in Meerut) and lived there till the age of two and a half as her missionary father worked there. This explains for me, both her academic interest in the Indian sub-continent and her ecclesiastical calling. She is warm, funny, unassuming, everything an iconic Oxford academic is usually not! I am charmed. Her room is huge, filled with cozy sofas, books on bookshelves and the inevitable tea and coffee paraphernalia. But our chatter goes on longer than I expected and before I know it, it is 12. 45. I was supposed to meet Sue for lunch at 12. 30 at Pizza Express in the Covered Market. I must dash.

Pizza Lunch with Sue:

            We say hasty goodbyes and I run along The High, for Judith opens a wooden door for me that leads me directly to the entrance to the Covered Market. I find the entrance to Pizza Express in a medieval courtyard dating from the 12th century at the back of the market and when I get there, I find Sue seated at a table. We order our pizzas—a Veneziana for her, a Pianta for me—mine is topped with baby rocket (arugula) which I adore. They are large and very hearty and we eat well and when we are done, Sue takes me to the back to show me the Painted Room (part of what used to be The Crown Tavern) which consists of medieval wall frescoes that were discovered quite by chance during renovations. Care has been taken now to preserve them behind flexiglass panels—they present mythological creatures, fruit and flowers and vines, all remarkably distinct despite the passage of centuries.

Off to Abingdon:            

            Ever since her official retirement, a few years ago, my friend Sue has worked with a social service organization in Abingdon called St. Ethelwold’s House. She is keen to introduce me to it and I am keen to discover it and her special calling. We get on the bus to Abingdon at St. Aldates and in 20 minutes, along a lovely wintry and somewhat foggy highway, we arrive at the pretty town. Once we alight from the bus, we pass the medieval County Hall (which now houses a museum that is closed on Mondays and from where buns are thrown to the waiting public downstairs on days of national significance such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in a long and inexplicable Oxfordshire tradition). We head on to a charming, curved street that the architect Sir Nicholas Pevsner called one of the most beautiful streets in England. And I could see why. There are low, row cottages on both sides of a cobbled street with a charming church at the end. The vista is strikingly rural England and I am delighted.

Discovering St. Ethelwold’s House:

            On a bank of the River Thames that offers pretty views of Abingdon Bridge sits a delightful property that was acquired by a philanthropist called Dorothea Pickering who bequeathed it for the spiritual well-being of the community. And so it was that we explored a Tudor house with exposed timbered sides, low roof, thick white stucco walls and tiny glass windows to discover what is today a B and B run mainly by volunteers to keep the establishment going and to enable part of it to be used for the greater good of humanity. Today, the place houses two Syrian refugees and attempts to rehabilitate them by offering lessons in English, training for the job market, etc. There are community rooms and Sanctuary spaces for meditation, yoga classes offered all week round, counsellors available on call and retired attorneys who provide pro bono services. The atmosphere is quiet and serene and tucked around a lovely garden that winds it way down to the river bank where two cottages are available for hire, for reflection and meditation and for a spot of quiet knitting. Birds whistled plaintively in the bare trees when I was there and as Sue gave me the grand tour, I was enchanted by it all. I met one of the Syrian residents briefly as well as his counsellor in the midst of a session. It was all very old-fashioned and very uplifting and I was so glad Sue took me along to show me the place in which she spends several days a week doing all sorts of work that keeps places like these running in these days of dreadfully high heating and other bills.

More Exploration of Abingdon:

            By the end of the quick hour during which Sue whizzed me through a guided tour, we saw 12th century Alms Houses with a most unique wooden cloister attached to an old Cotswold stone church. Outside, a river walk offered views of Abingdon Bridge and the tow path across where a dog walker was exercising her pooch. Ducks flew quackingly overhead and others left trails in the river. We walked towards the ruins of an abbey in which Aethelwold was the abbot in the 9th century. Here too the gardens, despite wearing winter gloom, had sprouted the first primroses of the year in a soft lemony hue. The arch that connects the church with the pastoral houses next door reminded me of Winchester Cathedral. Along another side street, we found thrift shops from where I bought yet another DVD—In the Café starring Kelly McDonald and Bill Nighy. And then at Oxfam, where I could have spent the next two hours because there was simply tons to be seen, I found an amazing vintage English tea set by Foley (part of the Shelley Pottery Factory that closed down in the 1960s). Highly collectible today, I felt sorely tempted to pick it up. Only the fact of becoming overweight and wondering how I could transport something so delicate stopped me from buying it right away. Finally, it was Sue who dragged me away with the plea that we had to leave as she had dinner to organize.

            Back on the bus to Oxford, we hopped off at Grandpont, walked through Hincksey Park and reached home. A quick cup of tea later, I was pleading jetlag and the need for a nap which my hosts agreed would be a good idea as we had guests expected for a sit-down dinner later in the evening. I retreated to my room, checked email and then fell off to sleep, to awake refreshed and ready to face new friends.

Sit-Down Dinner With Friends:

            Sue and Tony had invited their friends Steve and Rae to have dinner with us. The two of them will be attending my talk at St. Antony’s College tomorrow and they thought it would be a good idea to meet informally before the lecture. They arrived exactly at 7.00 pm and over a glass of red wine and Sue’s starter of avocados and olives on buttered toast, we then adjourned to the dining table. Since one of them is vegan, Sue had a menu planned along vegetarian lines: we had Aubergine Parmesan made from scratch with homemade tomato sauce and aubergines grown on their allotment. It was delicious. There was garlic baguette also to go around. The dish was very tasty and very hearty indeed—made fragrant by the liberal use of crumbled basil. For dessert, Sue made a Chocolate Almond Torte (gluten-free) served with home grown stewed blackcurrants and vanilla ice-cream—which was simply lovely. We did not have a moment’s silence for at least two hours as we discovered so much about Steve’s own Anglo-Indian background, Rae’s experiences in Belfast from which she had just returned and, of course, the dire possibilities of the Truummphhhff administration got a lot of air time! We were bristling with anger, indignation and wonder—who could possibly vote for such a man??? they wondered.

            It was about 9.00 pm when the party broke up as Steve and Rae had to go out into the freezing night to find their car and get home. Sue and Tony had worked hard together to put forth a meal that was memorable in company that was compatible and stimulating. I left them to clear and wash up as they know the drill in their own kitchen better than I do. Not long afterwards, I was snug in bed, ready to call it a night.

            I have a stressful day ahead—what with my talk at St. Antony’s…in many ways, the culmination of a host of dreams and a fitting end to what has been an incredible Sabbatical period for me. So I fell asleep with a prayer on my lips.

            Until tomorrow…cheerio.

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