This Monday happened to be Easter Monday, which meant it was also a Bank Holiday and I was officially given the opportunity to sleep in, wear work-inappropriate jumpers, and take a long walk along the River. It all was especially glorious since Sam had been given a day off, too, and thus could join me in my adventures.
In the morning he made my favourite breakfast (Belgian waffles, double cream, and raspberries), and I made faces at him in return. In the afternoon we packed a bag of tangerines and a water bottle and set off towards Binsey. The walk went along the Thames banks from Osney and to The Perch pub, and then we took Binsey Lane to the northeast. It is blooming season and there are trees there that look identical to candyfloss: like a soft pink cloud on a stick. Behind the trees there are fields, verdant and fresh, sometimes dotted by the white spots of grazing sheep. Lambs and nursing ewes have been separated from the rest of the flock, and the result is a view that is as pastoral as it is Easter-themed.
Binsey Lane ends with the Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch, a mediaeval temple that has remained largely unchanged during the last four hundred years. There is no electricity, but there is a sacred well that used to be a pilgrimage site. King Henry VIII, him of the many wives, came here to treat his ailments and, much later, Lewis Carroll used the well as an inspiration when writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One way or another, there is no escaping magic in Oxford.
Being your typical office bee, I get to visit the museums on weekends only, but I pass the Ashmolean every morning on my way to work. I pass it on bright days, and on gloomy days, and in any weather there is. It helps that the museum is always closed at that hour, otherwise I might have strayed from the intended route and choose to spend a while with the Antiquities or the Pre-Raphaelite art.
The forecourt of the Ashmolean is used as exhibition space for monumental sculpture. For a couple of years the forecourt served as the stage for Henry Moore’s Three Piece Reclining Figure (1963) and for Taichi Arch (2000) by Ju Ming. Both of those works put ‘monumental’ into monumental sculpture; they had weight and presence and ignored your touch. I grew so accustomed to the dark bronze shapes before the Ashmolean, I think they have a permanent place on my mind-map. In reality though, both sculptures left the forecourt in 2015 and that space remained unoccupied until now:
Earlier this month two large stainless steel sculptures, Howling Beast I and Crouching Beast I, were installed before the main entrance. These exhibits are by Lynn Chadwick, ‘one of the greatest British sculptors of the twentieth century’, and were made in 1990.
I took a picture of the Howling Beast on Tuesday morning. I think I quite like this creature in its solid suspended impatience. It also goes to show that large-scale origami shapes in Western art pre-date Etsy masks and David O’Reilly’s animation. That’s cool, my shiny wolf brother.
There are many graveyards in Oxford, the closest to our home being Osney Cemetery. Osney Cemetery had a relatively brief life, being established in 1848 and shut down shortly after 1876, as the conditions were reported as ‘very bad’. I am not sure what exactly the phrase meant, but Oxford churchyards had previously been described as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘offensive to passers-by’. I imagine they stank.
Osney Cemetery has thus been disused for a while and is now treated as a green area, apart from the commemoration of soldiers’ graves: twenty-seven of them, from both World Wars.
The main entrance to the cemetery is from Osney Lane where a wooden lychgate leads onto the grounds. By the way, I have just learned the word ‘lychgate’. It means ‘the roofed gateway to a churchyard under which the corpse is set down, to await the clergyman’s arrival’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Sounds like an entirely practical invention, and the Osney lychgate comes with wooden benches on the inside, too, so that it could be used as a shelter with greater comfort.
To me, the time period and the nature of this architectural piece suggest Dickens. As the preeminent Victorian author, he has left a literary legacy of many orphans, widows, and otherwise desolate relatives. I can see their figures under the arch: women in black dresses of bombazine and crape, men in dark suits, with somber hatbands and cravats.
The University of Oxford leads a very structured life. The year is divided into terms (Michaelmas, Trinity, and Hilary), the terms are divided into weeks (eight of those), and weeks come divided into days (as per usual). The matriculation dates are known over a year in advance, and regular events, such as Encaenia, are often announced three years into the future.
Therefore, it comes with little surprise that the menu at the Department Common Room has its regular options, too. On Mondays there is always tomato soup, on Thursdays it is roast lunch, on Fridays they serve the Big Breakfast: an extended version of Full English. It brings all the Engineering Department to Physics.
Another Friday feature is, of course, fish and chips for lunch. Where do I start? Fish and chips is that quintessential British meal that is not made for export. It is greasy and heavy and every part of it had been fully processed before meeting your plate. It is also comforting and tasty and the default pub order. It goes amazingly well with beer, cold or sunny weather, company or none of it, and tartar sauce. For me it means that the working week is over and now it is time to relax — and that applies to my belt, too.
On Saturday morning I found myself wandering around Gloucester Green, looking at the market stalls and thinking about fresh bread and second-hand books. As it was time for breakfast, I eventually stopped at the Café from Crisis for a bite. The café shares its building, the Old Fire Station, with an art gallery and a shop. That shop has many more exhibits than the gallery, and I have often spent longer with the cards, kitchen towels, and pins than with the paintings. In addition to household treasures, the shop sells magazines that I gawk at, being a sucker for any written word.
Art magazines are now living through a strange time where printed periodicals have become rare and an art form unto themselves. As a result, the magazines are beautiful and obscure, published quarterly on thick paper with vegan dyes and best intentions. Personally, I do not owe a copy of any of the titles below, but I have leafed through Aesthetica and Kinfolk with keen interest. I might have also looked up and printed out their submission guidelines. Attempting to collaborate with the publications that fascinate you is pretty much the writer’s equivalent of ‘Let’s be friends!’ I love friends. Especially, the ones with shiny covers.
Waterstones, the bookshop on the corner of Cornmarket and Broad Street, has a unique gravitational pull. That is the place where I end up on my walks, the way pocket change ends up stuck behind the coat lining and the TV remote hides inside the sofa. I had loved this shop before I worked there, and my former employment only made the connection stronger. The place has got books, Wi-Fi, coffee, and cake. What else can you possibly want in life?
The middle section on the first floor, directly behind the counter, is now dedicated to ‘General biography’ (insert obligatory joke about the military being unjustly favoured over the civilians). Earlier this was the ‘Art monographs’ and, before that, ‘Crime’. The constant migration of genres within the shop had been invented to make booksellers’ and customers’ lives into an exercise in patience. The unnecessary search for the right title may seem like a waste of time at first glance — and then at second and third, too — but, boy, do you appreciate the right tom once it has been discovered.
The pink cloud behind the glass belongs to one of the trees in the graveyard at St. Mary Magdalen church. The building on the left is local Debenhams, the department store that specialises in catering to wedding guests. So it goes.
Today, on Sunday, Sam, Steve, and I went to the KA to celebrate MIchelle’s birthday. Michelle was turning awesome and decided to have drinks with friends. The friends obliged. (I had some port, Sam drank a pint of Guinness, and Steve decided on cider. That is more or less all you need to know about our household dynamics.)
The Kings Arms is a special place, designed for drinking and friendship (for drinking and friendship!). It must have been my first Oxford pub, and I shall always think of it fondly, regardless of the overpowering smell from the men’s bathrooms. This outing confirmed, yet again, that the right combination of booze and political opinions can create miracles. We laughed about the impending general election, then we cried about the impending general election, then we bonded over Eurovision aesthetics. Michelle drank Bailey’s.
There was an ease to the night, brought on by spring and kind words. Have a good new year, darling!
Other adventures this week included a visit to my new GP. During said visit I was prescribed folk dancing: it is good for both your physical health, as exercise, and mental, as a social activity. I thanked the doctor and, following the appointment, looked up the beginning of Three Men in a Boat. Namely, the part of the text where the narrator visits his physician to complain of many perceived maladies. The physician then issues the following prescription:
1 lb. beefsteak, with
1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.
It is remarkable how well British medicine has preserved its character over the last 150 years.
The weather is mostly nice, if temperamental. Everything but daffodils is in blossom. Daffodils have disappeared until next March. My personal duckling count remains at two. My personal gosling count remains at zero. On the other hand, I have massively progressed with Pokémon Go and my need to see cute tiny creatures should really be satisfied.
Current album: Karen Elson, Double Roses
Current book: Brian Lee O’Malley, Lost at Sea
Current TV series: Twin Peaks, Series 1 (1990)