"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A sunny day in Oxford and reflections of the country and the city

 Hello again. It is now my 5th day in the UK, and today I come to you bearing pictures. The weather since I arrived has been absolutely glorious (although too hot if you go out past noon), but knowing it won't last, I decided to take my camera out with me today and capture the sunshine. 

I spent most of the morning at Christ Church Meadows, which is a beautiful expanse of lawns and meadows threaded through by the rivers Charwell and Isis (Charwell is pronounced Cherwell, unless it's actually called Cherwell and pronounced Charwell....I can't remember). I've gone walking there several mornings this week, and it's certainly one of my favorite bits of Oxford so far. There aren't too many people, especially if you go early. The tourists are all too busy lining up to take a tour of Christ Church college, so that leaves you with a few joggers, absorbed in their own exercise, the one homeless guy who stands at the same point of the river bank every morning with his radio and bids you a very polite "Good morning, miss," and a handful of fellow contemplators of nature. Oh, and the cows and the ducks. I ran across this little family sunning themselves on the bank this morning.

Most of the ducks are either adults or gangly adolescents at this stage, but these ones are still quite cute, I think.

Once you get down to the Isis, the larger river, there are swans, too.

This is how I spent my morning, then:

A book and a pastry by a beautiful river - I couldn't ask for more. I took refuge from the sun on a shady bench and read for an hour or so, until I got the urge to start walking again.

The more I travel, the more I think I'm a strange kind of country girl. I love so dearly some of the trappings of the city - theater and opera, nice clothes, gourmet food, good public transportation, beautiful architecture - and I'm very much a fan of creature comforts like running water and a comfy bed. I hate bugs and creepy-crawlies, and if I'm out in the sun too long my skin burns and my feet swell.

And yet, the contrast in my feelings between the moment I was hustling along the busy street on my way to Christ Church this morning and the moment I stepped off that street, through the college gates, and onto the path leading into the meadow was very strong and in favor of the meadow, not the street. There's a whole other side of the city that I dislike - the throngs of people, the constant humming and rumbling noises and the sharp sounds of cars backfiring or people yelling that always startle me out of my skin, the fumes and stinks, the never-ending barrage of obstacles, from street crossings to people begging you for money. The city, to me, is like an endless series of difficult choices: where should I step? With whom should I make eye-contact? On which side of the street should I walk? At which café should I buy my lunch? What should I buy for lunch? Is this a good neighborhood to be walking in? Is that car going to stop for me or not?

What I prefer is to be walking along a single dirt path, preferably even along a natural path, like the bank of a river, with my picnic already packed and only one book in my bag to read, with no need to talk to any one I meet unless I feel like bidding them good morning, and no buildings or traffic hemming me in and forcing me into somebody else's path. My mind roams so much more freely when my feet walk freely.

I'm not saying the country is a place of perfect peace. Actually, I found it harder to sit and read my book on my little shady bench today than I did a few days ago in the café at Blackwell's bookstore. There were little flies and bugs to be flicked off my arm or my foot and pigeons taking off suddenly, making the branches rattle overhead, and even the occasional walker going by. But the bugs were small and not very gross, the pigeons were pretty to see flying, and the walkers went calmly on their way without either of us disturbing the other.

The thing is that more and more, it seems, the things I like about the city - the food, the arts - are moving out to the country. In the UK, there's a whole slew of 'gastro-pubs,' where they serve haute cuisine in tiny little country towns. And traveling theater companies sometimes land in the darnedest of places. And the fact is that I don't take advantage of half the cultural offerings a given city has to offer, because more often than not the energy it would take to go out and take the harrowing journey to get where I'm going, outweighs the pleasure of the event itself.

When I was in Paris, I spent entire days cooped up in my tiny room because the thought of striking out on the streets was far too tiring. But of course I don't want to spend my life staying in. More and more, recently, I've been feeling a little stifled indoors. Maybe the last few years of small dorm rooms are finally catching up to me. Or maybe this summer, during which I got to visit Yosemite and camp along the north coast and hike in the local hills a fair amount, has rekindled an outdoorsy feeling in me.

I think what I'd really like is to have a grand country house with plenty of space indoors and outdoors and a driver to take me to the station when I wanted to go into town and enough room to host friends and invite musicians and writers and other interesting people to stay and a stage on the grounds where traveling theater companies could put on plays and a beautiful kitchen where I could cook up my own delicious dinners and a great big workshop space to accomplish all the creative projects that my daily walks around the countryside would inspire.

Alas, it's not that simple, is it?

Part of my admiration of nature today included this tree, which is in the part of the Christ Church gardens that's off limits to visitors, but which you can see through a little side gate. I'm not sure I've managed to convey it in this photo, but it's the most magnificent tree. It grows up as tall as the main building, which is pretty tall and impressive itself, and I wish I could have gone and stood under it to look up at its branches from below - I think it would have been beautiful.

I also noted this tree, which peeks over the wall of some college I don't know the name of, right near the Radcliffe Camera. I took a picture of it when I was last in Oxford, two years ago, which is below.

As you can see, it was a little less bright and sunny that day. I was there in October, so that's understandable. But I just love the gold-green tint of its leaves and the way it reaches up over the roof. Either it's planted on a raised terrace, or it's very very tall.

So, this has been quite a rambling post.

I did promise yesterday a bit about the play I saw last night, which was the Globe's touring production of Hamlet. To be brief, it was an excellent production, very clean and clear and engrossing. The group was small, and most actors played a few parts and did so very well. The Hamlet was actually a foreigner, possibly a true Dane, which added to his seeming an outsider and a loner. All the actors either played instruments or sang, and the show began and ended with rousing, period music which gave it all a very old-theater, carnavalesque feeling that I liked a lot. The play within a play was particularly well done, with some clever curtain movements and a really fantastic rendition of the prologue/dumb show. Here's a quick picture of the stage that I snapped today on my way past - can't see it very well, but my camera battery was dying and that's the best I could do.

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