Since October we have been living by the river — or should I, following Kenneth Grahame, say, the River. The Thames splashes by under our flat, with the balcony providing an exceptionally good view of the islet directly before us and of the two River arms bypassing it. A flock of white geese lands on the islet every morning and then crosses the land, from left to right, in a noisy and self-important fashion.
Most of my ‘nature observations’ have been confined to weekends, as leaving the house in the morning dusk and coming back late after work means I am in no position to notice what’s happening on the riverbank during the week. That said, the weather is changing (‘and my luck is in’), the days are getting longer, and there is chance our bodies might start producing vitamin D again. Woo-hoo!
As evidence of such preposterous claims, I can offer you the picture directly below. It was taken at sunset on Monday, from my spot at the dining-table. I am using the word ‘dining-table’ loosely as — although a very respectable piece of furniture made of dark oak and easily sitting eight — that table is the only one in the flat. It is where we eat, work, play board games, write letters, build Lego cities, entertain guests, and cry over bills. It is a universally useful four-legged beast that supports us daily and, sometimes, nightly. A part of the table is included in my Writing Corner, where I plot and type and, occasionally, look out of the window to my left to see Osney on fire.
A recent drop in temperature brought fog all over Southern England, with two days of flight cancellations because of the weather conditions. For the same reason, my walk to work on Wednesday felt especially adventurous: I have to cross railway tracks, a canal, the Castle Quarter, and two cemeteries as it is, but now everything a block-distance away was hidden by the mist, which set the mood to Extra Gothic.
I try to remember that it is good luck and happy circumstances which allow me to live and work in Oxford — in its centre, too. The fact that my journey to the office is through an actual castle, past Colleges, old alleyways, museums, and legendary pubs (that I also frequent) makes me giddy. Once you spend enough time with a city, learning its streets and their insides, tracing ancient walls and following the movement of rivers and canals, the frivolous cut of the seashore, that knowledge stays with you. It is like tree rings, these demarcations of different places in one’s life. Mine read: St Petersburg, Helsinki, Oxford.
Oxford Castle, the oldest parts of which had been built at the time of the Norman Conquest, served as a prison from the 1350s until 1996. Currently it is part-museum, part-hotel and retains a lot of the prison decor (see the bars in the picture below). I visited the complex with a guided tour a year ago and it is, certainly, an interesting historical exhibit, if not much of a traditional castle. When parts of the former prison were being converted into the Malmaison Oxford hotel, they took care to make the rooms ‘associated with corporal or capital punishment’ into offices, rather than use those for guests. Which, on one hand, is quite thoughtful; on the other hand, what a nice office environment where working oneself to death would be entirely appropriate.
Waterstones Oxford is a five-floor bookshop on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket, and it is, naturally, a treasure trove. The basement is dedicated to children’s literature, the top floor, to academia and texts in foreign languages, and the rest of the building provides examples of the best fiction, memoirs, history and cookery books published in English in recent years. The graphic novels corner on the first floor is especially dear to me, having provided a few favourites.
I used to work at this Waterstones branch during the two years of my Master’s degree, and that resulted in some of the closest friendships I have. The pay in retail is notoriously poor, but being in an environment where everyone is genuinely excited about books, plus Internet, free coffee and a 50% discount on all items, balanced the low wages. Somewhat.
A number of my former colleagues still work at the bookshop, so I get to say hello when going to pick a new volume. Currently, my heart is set on Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Rockadoon Shore by Rory Gleeson (find its white-and-blue cover in the photo below!). Rory was my course-mate at Oxford, and so I am most intrigued by his novel ‘about friendship and youth, about missed opportunities and lost love, and about the realities of growing up and growing old in modern-day Ireland’.
Another book that I have my eye on is This Wide Night by Sarvat Hasin, a brilliant author, a dear friend, and another MSt graduate. Published by Penguin India in December, the novel is not directly available in Britain at the moment, but I’ll get you, my pretty!
Normally, when a tourist asks you, ‘How do I get to X?’, you explain that they need to take the first turn left, crawl through the passage, wade across the river, go in circle twice — and then a half-an-hour bus journey will take them right to the final destination. The bus, of course, runs every other day and the fee must be paid strictly in shillings.
I might be exaggerating somewhat but, normally, the difficulty is in giving and receiving directions. The Oxford tourist has it much worse. The Oxford tourist comes up to you, asking, ‘Where is the University?’ and you feel immediately at a loss, because the University is everywhere. There are 38 colleges, most of whom own significant chunks of property, including streets. There are about 60 departments, faculties, schools, and institutes that are also parts of the University. There are museums and libraries, the University Press, gardens and shops, boat houses, and parks spread out through the city. Frankly, the Oxford tourist should be specific and name the premises they are after — then I can happily reply, ‘The Sheldonian Theatre? Why yes, follow me!’
A rule of thumb that I came up with a while ago is that any limestone-coloured building, most probably, belongs to the University. The photo below was taken in High Street, just before Carfax. The two bottom floors of the houses are occupied by retailers, but I would not be able to tell you what goes on above. Meetings of the student Numismatic Society? A secret house-elf-run B&B? Pigeon canoodling?
…It’s probably pigeon canoodling, isn’t it?
I spent a good portion of Sunday on a quest, finding such exciting things as the right kind of peanut butter and laundry detergent, as well as stopping by the barber’s to trim my undercut and dropping expired medicine off at Boots. My favourite parts of the quest were book- and tea-related: the purchase of new hardbacks and more Assam.
A few months ago now, Sam and I went into our local Whittard shop and splurged on a tin of Tippy Assam (#765) and another one of Mango and Bergamot (#07). Oh dear. Oh ancient Asian gods of tea ceremonies. Getting introduced to both of those blends proved to be a deeply educating and humbling experience. It is not that I do not usually drink tea — I do that several times a day — but there is an enormous difference between a cup of warm beige liquid (I like it milky) that lacks flavour and this beautiful fragrant drink that has you savour every sip. The latter is a casual pleasure not unlike sleeping on fresh sheets: so easily done and so satisfying.
Technically speaking, Tippy Assam is a black Indian tea made from leaf with a ‘golden tip’, hence the name. The Mango and Bergamot blend is based on Chinese Sencha, with added rose, sunflower and blue cornflower petals, and flavours of mango, lulo and bergamot. Both teas are delicious, although Assam has a more traditional rich taste, while #07 is a sweet slice of tropical heaven that decided to perch on the tip of your tongue.
I got a pouch of loose leaf Assam and a box of Mango and Bergamot teabags for work. I might be actually looking forward to going back to the office on Monday now.
The Covered Market is in the very heart of Oxford, fronting the High and Market Street and accessible from Cornmarket through the Golden Cross alleyway. Opened in 1774, it is a network of perpendicular passages with cafés, shops and stalls. The produce varies from fresh vegetables and poultry to leather bags, cheese, cakes, and wooden trinkets. This is where Ben’s Cookies came from, this is where I go to sigh at Christmas trees on sale in December, and this is where one can buy the most Oxford of Oxford sausage.
If I were to give advice, I would recommend getting a peanut butter cookie from Ben’s, to enjoy it warm and so recently baked that your fingers leave marks as you hold it. Then, a buttonhole from one or the other flower shop, on your way to Georgina’s for some reading time in the company of a mozzarella sandwich. Eat the sandwich while perpetually interrupted by the question ‘Is it okay if I use that plug?’ coming from a laptop-laden student pointing behind your seat. Having followed these instructions, you should feel at least 12% more local.
The Royal Mail pillar box in the picture bears the royal cypher of Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina). That dates the box to the pre-1901 era and, given the particular type of this pillar box, one can be even more specific and say it was made after 1887. Should you wish to see the postbox in person, it can be found in the Covered Market, at the crossing of Avenue 3 and the passage leading to Golden Cross.
On Sunday I finally unpacked my favourite Christmas present, a record player given to me by Sam. It is a pretty portable thing disguised as a white faux-leather suitcase with metal buckles and corners that are rose gold in colour. I am in love with it already, and I foresee many hours spent in the most content fashion, listening to this or that vinyl record.
Speaking of records, one came with the player. As the main gift, it had been picked with such care and precision that for a while I kept looking at Sam like this. He had chosen Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, an album by my favourite band. (Their records always come with short stories, too — see the text on the inside of the cover below.) That was a singularly beautiful gesture. I am smiling as I am typing these words right now.
In retrospect, this week has been a half-conscious attempt at self-care and quiet calm. What is happening in the world — in America, with Trump giving out Executive Orders for all things evil, in Russia, with the Parliament decriminalising domestic violence, in Canada, with a deadly attack on a mosque etc. — is so devastatingly horrible that a need for a safe space, physical and mental, becomes real. To quote my tweet, ‘I never had to work this hard on suspension of disbelief when reading the news before. Fuck this shit.’
There will be an Oxford demonstration against the Muslim ban on Monday and another one on Wednesday. Whether protests influence the Government’s decisions, remains to be seen, but what they do accomplish is uniting people and stating that 2 + 2 still equals 4. In the time of ‘alternative facts’, that is no small feat.
Sam made a joke, saying that 2016 is getting a sequel. Perhaps, but now we are experienced and better equipped to deal with it. I will have my baking and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you will come with cheap wine and new poems. Tell the rest to bring placards.
Current album: Belle and Sebastian, Belle and Sebastian Write about Love
Current book: Ian McEwan, Nutshell
Current TV series: Gravity Falls, Series 2 (2014–2016)