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I read this morning that on this day, back in 1386 , St John of Capistrano, leader of the 1456 Battle of Belgrade, was born. I was immediately transported to Belgrade, one of my favourite European cities. Read more

I’m well aware of my limitations. Painfully aware of them at times. When it comes to all that’s arty, I have my favourites. But as breakfasting with the Telegraph is not on my list of Sunday-morning pursuits, my education in this regard is severely lacking. That could get me down, were I to dwell too much on it. Instead, I revel in the delight of new discoveries that others, better read than I, have long-since enjoyed.

IMG_0002 (800x600)Take Antony Gormley. He of Angel of the North fame? [Another addition to my bucket list.] The artist behind the series Another Time? I’d never heard of him until I was in Oxford last week and happened to look to the skyline while in the vicinity of Blackwell’s bookshop. The last thing I expected to see (not that I had any conscious expectations) was a statue of a seven-foot-tall naked man in all his glory. Inspired by the artist’s own physique, it’s quite a sight and a somewhat refreshing change from the gargle of gargoyles that are more Oxfordy in style.

OX signBut that wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention. This sign has me completely puzzled. Sleeping in the loo? What exactly is an overnight facility? And how does that differ from a public convenience? Enquiring minds want to know.

20150710_153418_resizedMind you, if I had to pick one thing that really impressed me – it wouldn’t be the magnificent colleges, the churches, the statues, the Alice Shop, Sunday lunch at the Parsonage, or any of the usual Oxford attractions. Perhaps I was suffering from a slight case of Stendahl’s syndrome – it certainly surprised me that I was so fascinated with something rather mundane. Boring even: a self-service machine at the post office in St Aldates. What does that say about my life, I wonder, that the thoughts of being able to successfully interact with a machine 20150710_152843_resizedthat speaks my language and can, in its own way, smile, delights me.  I spend way too much time in the post office as it is. And this would make it all the smoother. I know there are ramifications in the form of job losses and redundancies. I know that machining the life out of social interactions can’t be a good idea. I know that there are myriad social consequences of going self-service… But even knowing that didn’t detract from the sheer pleasure of a hassle-free exchange. Yep – Oxford has it nailed.

 

It’s been ten years since I spent any time of note in Oxford and it felt a little strange to walk the streets again, rediscovering old haunts and marvelling at how little and how much has changed in the interim. What surprised me, too, were the places that I consciously sought out.

20150710_153715_resizedI wanted to see Alice’s shop, made famous in the 1850s, when the unassuming Rev. Charles Dodgson (known to the world as Lewis Carroll) wrote a story for Alice Liddell, whose father was then dean of Christ Church College.  To say the story was revolutionary would be an understatement – it’s said to be the most translated work of English Lit, second only to Shakespeare. The Old Sheep Shop where Alice bought her sweets was a grocer’s shop till the 1960s. Now it sells Alice stuff… a tad twee but a lovely part of the story. I was glad to see that it’s still thriving.

20150710_153440_resizedIn the year I spent in Oxford, I made it to some of the colleges but not all of them. I did go to Christ Church, to the dining hall where Harry Potter and his Hogwarts crew ate at school. I saw the secret tunnel that inspired Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, and I still marvel at the number of ‘greats’ who have graduated from the great institution. Everyone from William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) to Einstein to the Winklevoss Twins who gave us Facebook. I used to pass by it every morning on my way to Uni. Christ Church on one side and Alice’s shop on the other. It still felt a tad surreal.

As I passed the various pubs, memories of nights and days and afternoons came flooding back. I spent the afternoon of the Pope’s funeral with a Polish mate in the Lamb and Flag (a pub owned by St John’s College whose profits fund D.Phil. scholarships, putting a whole new slant on drinking to educate). I spent a Friday evening in the Bear, amidst the collection of ties, marvelling at the misogyny of Oxford’s male student cohort. And I felt a peculiar attraction to the Eagle and Child and quite liked to sit where Tolkien and Lewis would hold forth with the Inklings. 

20150712_134529_resizedPerhaps one of my favourite things to do back then, when I had money, was to take Afternoon Tea at the seventeenth-century Old Parsonage. It’s said that Oscar Wilde once roomed there, back in the day when he was still known as Finigal O’Flahertie Wills. And I loved it. This time around, I was invited to Sunday lunch after mass at the Oratory and can say, hand on my heart, that it has lost none of its magic.  Starting the late morning with a Bloody Mary, munching through lamb sweetbreads and then ploughing through a Roast Beef dinner… it’s the simple things in life that afford the most pleasure. And true to form, while enjoying the locally produced fare, we set the world to rights,  for what would Oxford be without the myriad debates and discussions that crackle through the air.

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20150709_193746_resizedI rediscovered the joys of Jericho. Paid homage to Oxford University Press, the only publisher I ever wanted to work for (how different my life might have been). I caught up with old friends and  idled away hours in the charity shops. I spent afternoons recounting all that has happened in the last ten years and while I enjoyed every minute, I wouldn’t want to go back there to live.

The year I spent there back in 2004/2005 was a good one. I learned a lot about my subject and about myself. But for me, the city is like a posh frock that I never quite feel comfortable in. It’s nice to wear every now and then but isn’t something I’d knock around in every day.  There’s too much of a divide between town and gown for me to ever really feel at home there. That said, I’d happily go back and am already planning a return visit next year. I can’t believe that I spent a year living by the Isis and never once punted. That’s something that simply has to be redressed.

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I was at mass yesterday in Oxford. In the oldest Catholic Church in the city – the Oxford Oratory. Mass-goers in Oxford are spoiled for choice as there are plenty of churches to choose from. This one is particularly noted for the quality of its sermonising priests and I was looking forward to hearing them in action at the Solemn Mass, sung in Latin.

I wasn’t disappointed. For the first time in a long time I heard a sermon that actual said something. Had I to evaluate the priest as a speaker, he’d have gotten top marks for vocal variety, humour, content, use of body language, and engagement. He ticked all the boxes. He had a strong opening, a strong close, and all that was in between was perfectly pitched with grace and humour. Impressive stuff. I’d go back for more.

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I knew that a publisher friend of mine was in town from Poland but I hadn’t been in touch with him. He’s a mass-goer too, and I figured that being Polish, he might go to the Polish mass at Blackfriars. But then, I had a feeling that I’d see him at mine. I said as much to the friends I’m staying with. I was sure I’d run into him.

I went up to take communion and caught a glimpse of the chap kneeling beside me at the altar. My mate. Small world. Afterwards, when we caught up, he didn’t recognise me. It’s been a while since we’ve met in person and I’ve changed. And if you add the fact that both of us being in Oxford was so out of context, his lack of recognition can be excused.

But when it finally dawned on him, the warmth of his greeting was staggering. He was genuinely delighted. And it was infectious.

We’re working on a book project together and are in pretty regular email contact with the occasional phone call. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been in the same city at the same time but we keep in touch. And yet nothing can really compare to meeting in person.

Yes, Skype and Facebook and letters and phone calls are all well and good, but seeing someone in the flesh, hugging them, holding their hand, that’s something that the virtual world can never offer.

I am blessed with the friends I have around the world. These past few days have seen a series of reconnections  with friends from previous lives and despite the years, nothing much has changed. We’ve moved on. We’ve done things. We’ve had some catching up to do, but the friendships that were there years ago are still alive, kept alive perhaps by the vitual tendrils that are Facebook updates and Viber messages.

This week (I’m still having trouble sitting, by the way) I’ve a lot to be grateful for: Old friendships. New friendships. A life that allows me to live it anywhere I can find an Internet connection. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in Oxford and rediscovering it has been a pleasure.

 

Apart from the fact that I’m having an increasingly hard time imagining sweet nothings whispered in German actually sounding remotely romantic, I was quite taken with Bonn. I’ve even picked out my house. It’s a small, walkable city that seems to be living in the shadows of its perhaps more famous, or more ‘out there’ neighbours: Cologne and Dusseldorf. I know you can’t go by my geography, but last time I was in Cologne, I had no idea that Bonn was literally up the road. Yes, I knew it was once the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, but that’s about the sum total of my knowledge. How pathetic is that?

Apparently, it started off in the first centry AD  as Castra Bonnensia, a Roman fortress. When the Roman Empire broke up, it became a civilian settlement and then, in the 9th century, it became the Frankish town of Bonnburg. In 1949, the quiet University town was catapulted into the limelight as the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, a term it would serve until 1991, when Berlin once more resumed the mantel as Germany was reunified. So, it’s been around for a while and despite the wars, it’s still a beautiful city, tucked away on the banks of the Rhine. Beethoven was born there, Schumann lived there, and Karl Marx studied there.

The first thing I noticed about it is that it’s green. It has so many trees, parks, lawns, flowerbeds… a nightmare for those afflicted with hayfever, but a welcome respite from the usual, built-up metropoli that pass for major cities these days. Apparently 51% of the city is protected:  28% under landscape protection and 23% nature preserves.

The second thing I noticed is that it has big bio supermarkets – not a couple of shelves in the main shops dedicated to a paltry selection of bioproducts, but huge stores stocked with organic and bio products. So much to choose from and so much locally produced. How novel is that? I even came across a clothes shop that stocked only clothes by a German designer that are made in Germany – Zero has become my second-favourite, must-visit, must-buy clothes shop after the WE  chain in the Netherlands and Belgium.

And the third thing is its community spirit. Okay, so this isn’t exactly a tangible thing but if you watch, you see. The door of the Cathedral seemed to be staffed by a series of what look liked those on the down and out. They opened and closed the huge doors as visitors entered and left the church. Some people gave them money.  I saw a old lady pass off a packed lunch with a sleight of hand that said she wanted neither thanks nor recognition.

And then there’s the book stops: places where people can come and swap books, free of charge. Ok – I’ve seens these in some more progressive cafés, but never as standalone bookbanks in the middle of a street or park. There’s one on Poppelsdorfer Allee that draws quite a crowd on Sundays. I met an American chap there who appears to be its self-appointed guardian – making sure that if you take a book, you leave one, too, unless, of course, you’re a visitor to the city and didn’t know the rules! [And yes, people still wait for the green man to cross the road.] Interstingly, he is writing a book about these book stops and the characters they attract and the emotions they bring out in people. I don’t think I quite caught everything he was saying, but he managed to spin me a tale of mystery, mafia, and melancholy that might just make me buy his book, if it is ever translated to English.

There’s another one up by the University – this time housed in a red British phone box which was donated to Bonn by the University of Oxford. Right beside it is a signpost showing the distance to Oxford in kilometres, and the distance to Budafok. Is that my Budafok, I wonder? And, curiously,  the local wine is known as Drachenblut (Dragon’s Blood), a fine competition for Hungary’s Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).

Both book stops are near to huge, open park areas with plenty of park benches – it was so nice to see so many readers out there doing their thing! All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.