Posted on March 11, 2013
We left Berlin last Wednesday and made our way to Oxford to visit Emma. I wrote about my fall visit there in an earlier blog post, so won’t repeat those highlights except to say again that Oxford is less a site than a state of mind or being. It’s a place you soak up, “soak” being the operative word here. The weather was perfect: rainy, chilly, and foggy. Just right for making a cozy pub with a wood fire about the best place imaginable. Emma introduced us to a new one, the Turf Tavern (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turf_Tavern) and it is now our all-time favorite. Built in the 13th C. on what was then Hell’s Passage (now St. Helen’s Passage) you could walk right by the little winding alley that leads to it. The timbered and low ceilinged building – I only hit my head twice – is charming and steeped in history. It’s where Oxford students have gathered for centuries, where the future PM of Australia, Bob Hawkes, set the record for drinking a “yard” of beer (11 seconds), and claims to be the place where Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale.” The place is on its game and the staff knows it – smart, gracious, and speedy, they serve excellent food and even better beer.
We toured two of the oldest of Oxford’s colleges, Merton and New College. The latter was called New College when it was founded in 1379 because there were already four or so existing colleges. Upstart. It was the first to have a quadrangle:
Emma’s fellow Rhodie, Josh, gave us a fabulous tour that included the chapel, cloister, medieval dining hall, and gorgeous gardens that incorporate some of the city’s original walls. One of the Harry Potter movies used a large tree as the place where Malfoy scurries away after being turned into a ferret.
Emma is going to a medieval ball there and her college, Keble, keeps a crypt full of costumes for such purposes. One of those “only at Oxford” things we found ourselves remarking on again and again.
Merton was equally striking. Founded in 1264, it was already older than SNHU is now when the fledging New College was founded. It was around for 356 years before the Pilgrims set foot on land in North America and preceded Columbus’ discovery of the New World by 226 years. At New College we saw graffiti from 1666.
Oxford is full of these humbling moments in which one feels connected across the centuries. For example, we attended Evening Song in Magdalen College and I sat just in front of the spot where C.S. Lewis came to listen to the renowned men and boys’ choir. This link will give you a feel for the sound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xUGaU8VZjc, if not the experience of sitting in that amazing candlelit space.
Good friends Dan and Judith came up from London for an overnight and joined another old British friend, Nicholas, and we had a group at a wonderful riverside restaurant called the Trout at Wolvercote. How great a name is that? Emma’s British boyfriend Phil, Damascus-based journalist and rescuer of animals, was with us and we came to see English life a bit differently through his eyes. On one hand England is so familiar and comfortable for Americans as we visit our “cousins” and yet we are almost blind to the markers of class that still so much shape people’s sense of where they fit in.
For example, Phil described someone as his “better” and we Americans at the table all looked quizzical and agreed we’d never use such a phrase. He was describing someone from a class higher than his own, but an American of even the most modest of means would never think of someone as his or her “better.” Richer, smarter, or more successful perhaps, but not in the way Phil explained it. Another example: he ventured into the Bodliean Library for just a moment with Emma (it is rigidly restricted only to Oxford students) and he described how a librarian swooped in and immediately identified him as an interloper and, more importantly, how he felt and was sure he acted like one too. “How could she have known?” we asked and he assured us that the English have radar for such things. We blithely ignore such things. No, we actually don’t see such things.
England, class-bound and quirky and struggling to understand what it is all about with no Empire and new citizens and a depressed economy (wait….sounds a bit like the US too), is still one of our favorite places. While it struggles to hold onto its traditions and probably should let some of them go, to we Americans with our cultural resistance to history and tradition it is as comforting and reassuring and pleasurable as a two-episode showing of Downton Abbey. I always leave thinking we could learn a lot about the quality of day to day life from the British.
And when at a place like Oxford it is also easy to be struck by how much this little island nation has accomplished. Josh tells us that Hugh Grant often comes to hang around New College, his alma mater, so I’ll close with a passage from his Prime Minister’s speech in Love Actually:
We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.
That and so much more.