We reached Oxford late in the morning, parked at our last booking, the Cotswald Lodge Hotel (points!) and walked the mile into town. Jim, as usual, was rarin’ to go, but Michelle was tired and coming down with a cold. She’d also decided to break in her new shoes—oxblood wingtip broughams. Starting out, they seemed fine.
We found the tourist information store, and admired all the [Harry] Potter merch in store windows. Our first destination was the Bodleian Library. Jim was hoping for the 90-minute tour, but when we arrived, only the 30-minute one was available as the divinity school was closed for an event. Our 30 minutes did take us to the oldest rooms of the library, which date back to the fifteenth Century, when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester and King Henry V’s younger brother, gave the existing university his collection of almost 300 manuscripts. Sixty years later, most of those books were destroyed in an anti-Catholic purge, and the building went to the medical school. The library reopened in 1602, when Thomas Bodley, a diplomat and philanthropist, reclaimed the building and donated many books. What we saw was a long, rectangular room with an exquisite high ceiling bearing a complex design of painted dark wood. The shelves lining the walls held four to five hundred year-old books, all of which used to be chained to the shelves. (From the beginning of the Bodleian, nobody, not even the king, could check out a book. Hence: reading rooms.) Bodley also arranged that one copy of every book published in England would be sent to the library, so that now their collection sits at over 16 million, many of which are in vast warehouses elsewhere. We were not allowed into the reading rooms, lest we disturb the scholars. Heat and electricity were not installed until the 20thCentury, and it is said that at least two scholars had died of hypothermia. (Michelle, who recently has been working in the Huntington Library, did peek into a reading room for comparison’s sake. The Huntington’s reading rooms compared favorably—high ceilings, excellent lighting, silence, palpable concentration--except in quantity, as the Bod has seven such rooms, the Huntington two.)
It was Jim’s good fortune to be in Oxford when there was a small exhibit celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien. Throughout his life, Tolkien both studied and invented ancient languages and myths. He was also a painter and mapmaker. Impressionistic rather than linear, the exhibit showed the range and depth of his imagination. Some people said that no one could influence Tolkien, but CS Lewis put it better: when you gave Tolkien your opinion about a work-in-progress, he would either ignore you or tear it up and start again. Michelle, dragging a little, studied an astonishing tapestry hung in the foyer; in the lower left-hand corner alone, Heracles fights the hydra—he’s hacked one head off, and has at least six more to go.
After the library, we went in search of lunch. Jim had been wanting to try an English pie. We found a food court and a pie shop therein. You could buy many flavors of sweet and savory pies and pasties, heat them up in a microwave, and eat them elsewhere. Michelle, going off to buy beverages, discovered a hip little sit-down café that specialized in pies and raced back to tell Jim, but too late: pies were already in the microwave. With our warm, grease-spotted bag in tow, we went in search of a place to sit and found a bench facing the doors to a bank on a large busy street and shared it with a bag lady. Michelle had a lamb and rosemary pie—she mostly ate the filling; Jim had a chicken and cheese pie and a Cornish pasty (potatoes, a ham-like meat); all of it washed down with Diet Coke. Not our best meal in England, but a curiosity was satisfied. Dusting pastry flakes from our laps, we moved on.
Michelle suggested that Jim continue on his own. She was tired, and her throat was sore, and the new shoes were making themselves known. She wanted to go back to the rather forbidding-looking hotel—echoes of Max Gate--with the rustically alluring name (Cotswold Lodge), drink tea, and read her juicy little novel (The Friend, by Sigrid Nuñez, which is all about a woman and her [enormous] dog, and also tells a lot of the secrets of the creative-writing instructor’s life). Jim was keen to visit a college, but agreed to walk Michelle back to the hotel.
We set out, but there, in our path, was the Ashmolean Museum. Even Michelle couldn’t resist. We promptly got in trouble in the 20thCentury art room trying to take a picture of a small Bonnard (having already bagged one of a beautiful little Morandi still life)—it seems you can take pictures in every other room, but some of the 20thCentury paintings are still under copyright. Who knew?
We walked through other centuries without incident, and enjoyed a collection of Tamil Nadu bronzes which reminded us of our visit there almost 3 years ago: also, a stone carving of the plump elephant-headed god Ganesh; a beautiful mid-sized Nandi, the bovine transportation of Shiva; and a fearsome Varaha, the wild boar avatar of Vishnu who rescued the earth (sometimes depicted as the earth goddess) from an evil power-mad demon. Carrying it (her) carefully on his two tusks, Varaha returned the landmass (or goddess) to its (her) rightful place. (We soon might need Varaha to save earth again, given the present evil demon trying to destroy it.)
Michelle felt strongly that her rightful place was the hotel room. In the Victorian dark brick Cotswold Lodge, our upstairs room was hyper-upholstered in a busy toile. The ornamental apparatus over the bed, a cove-like awning of many pleats, looked ready to suck us up to another dimension. Never mind. A gray, thrashing little rain storm had started up outside, while within, we were as snug as a teapot in a cozy.
In a desultory way, Jim looked up colleges on the internet. His first random choice was Magdalen, and opening the website, what did he see but a photo of our friend Sarah Vernallis—laughing, as she often is—with an amused-looking young man. (She’d spent a quarter there last winter, as an exchange student from Stanford). In the end, even Jim found he could not leave the room. This was the last day of our great busy trip. We were tired. We needed a few hours to do nothing.
We did wander out for dinner, to a mostly empty, somewhat fancy, continental place on the river Cherwell, with punts tied up and clonking against each other out front. Among other things (a too rich squash soup made with almond paste and coconut, a scanty beet salad, fresh firm turbot) we ate venison—yes, yes, from beautiful fallow deer--that was stewed into tenderness and just a little gamey: another curiosity satisfied.
We close our literary tour of England with the ultimate homage:Henry James on a tea towel!
Farewell England! Farewell faithful readers! Till we meet again….