04 December 2009

A tale of two cities

A clip on Channel 4 News a couple of days ago about the sale of old UK prisons to help fill depleted public coffers has spurred me to skip ahead from French to English travels. My two cities aren't Dickens's cross-channel London and Paris, but Manchester and Oxford (once upon a time the difference would have been almost as great). Dr Manette languished in a Parisian gaol, but we slept in luxurious comfort in a restored Oxford prison of equal vintage, featured in the Channel 4 broadcast.

Sand has brought us many adventures, and these Oct/Nov junkets were two of them. OUP paid for Michael to attend the Manchester Science Festival. I tagged along. The Oxford visit was an overnight mini-break indulgence that included hearing Michael's fellow OUP author Jan Zalasiewicz talk about his book The Earth After Us at a Café Scientifique evening. I have to give these geologists credit: they're really entertaining speakers.

I didn't take as many photos of the actual city of Manchester as I should have, since, with Michael being a Mancunian, we've been there many times before. Oxford, however, was a first for me. Michael has always said that after spending three years living in Cambridge, I didn't need to see its inferior sibling. He must have been only half-joking, since it has been about forty years since he initially made that comment.

So . . . Manchester, with apologies to the city for short shrift. OUP put Michael up in the local branch of Malmaison, a terrific hotel chain connected to the Hotels du Vin that are also springing up throughout the UK (we've stayed in one of the latter in Cambridge and had lunch in the Henley-on-Thames outpost). The decor is dramatic black-and-red bordello:

We had lunch in the hotel, where Michael's hamburger was even more photogenic than my pork belly:

Properly fortified, we trotted off to the Darwin exhibition at The Manchester Museum before a reconnaissance mission to the Blackwell's bookshop near the university where Michael would be giving his talk.

Our next trip to Blackwell's was by taxi, c/o Kate F-T, the charming OUP marketing head for science books, who met us in the hotel lobby that evening—without her dog, also staying at Malmaison, whom we got to know when we took her out for lunch the next day.

The audience was sparse for Michael's 6:30 pm talk. His later comment: "crowd control was definitely not necessary." As I mentioned in another post, it probably didn't help that the Manchester Literature Festival was still on, and Hilary Mantel, author of this year's Booker prizewinning Wolf Hall, was speaking at the same time. Oh well. The Blackwell's staff who set up the screen and the beverage table couldn't have been nicer.

After staying to hear a pair of brothers discuss their OUP book on paranoia (more students had straggled in by this stage), we returned to have dinner with Kate at the hotel. The next morning saw us hitting the streets of Manchester again, this time with shopping in mind rather than culture. We did encounter this civic sculpture, though, very reminiscent of the Richard Long exhibition we saw at Tate Britain (http://www.magpiesalmagundi.com/2009/09/out-and-about-in-london.html), but with added autumnal detritus, water and leaves, since it was in the great outdoors.

Final stop before a quick lunch with Kate F-T & dog and then the train back to London was one of my favorite shops, Jigsaw. The Manchester branch is in the old Corn & Produce Exchange (outside photo stolen from Wikipedia entry), now known as The Triangle, expensively and elegantly restored after the 1996 IRA bombing. I went in to find the fingerless mittens that Nadira had bought in one of the London Jigsaws and emerged with those and a beautiful blue and gray striped sweater, all carefully wrapped in tissue paper, bag tied with a grosgrain ribbon. Just as well I rarely put my nose inside their doors: too many temptations.

About two weeks later we were in Oxford, a case of feast not famine for the old Visa bill. The Oxford Malmaison is a bit pricier than the Manchester one, but the fact that it was housed in an old prison sealed the deal. The Channel 4 news broadcast revealed that the building had been bought for a pittance (not helping the taxpayer much then?), but the new owners spent £35 million on restoration.

interior of door to our room

one of the original cells has been preserved

After checking in, we strolled through the drizzle to the Ashmolean Museum. The core collection from which the museum grew was the Ark, a "cabinet of curiosities" collected by the John Tradescants, father and son; there's a lovely little botanical museum in Lambeth, near our flat, where these extraordinary gardeners to Charles I are buried. Their "friend" and eventual London neighbor was Elias Ashmole, who, via a murky transaction later disputed by the Tradescant family, acquired the collection. The whole saga of a deed signed when the younger Tradescant was drunk and the mysterious drowning of his widow in her own garden was conveniently forgotten when Ashmole signed over his entire collection to University of Oxford, with the proviso that this first public museum in Europe always bear his name. By the time the Ashmolean was opened to the public in 1683, the costs had been so high that reportedly the Bodleian Library was unable to buy books for several years.

Following three photos lifted from internet:

the original Ashmolean

the "new" Ashmolean, built in 1845

the truly new extension, doubling the display space, that
was opened to the public the week before our visit

The Ashmolean was still in a state of transition, labels not yet posted and boxes littering some of the galleries, so we weren't able to pass judgment on its curatorial experiment with mixing up periods to create new resonances between disparate objects. Very much Eliot's "juxtaposition of incongruities." The interior architecture, however, was a convincing argument for how successfully old and new can be melded.

After a delicious and reasonably priced lunch (pumpkin risotto, bucatini carbonara) on George Street at Jamie's Italian, the Naked Chef's latest gastronomic venture, we ventured into the original Ashmolean, pictured above, now the Museum of the History of Science. Michael was in his element, even though we somehow missed Einstein's blackboard: antique microscopes, astrolabes, titration apparatus, electrical charge generators (Wimshurst? Van de Graaff? already I've forgotten). As we entered, Michael spotted an example of why 250 years or so makes graffiti so much more acceptable:

A real highpoint of this visit was coinciding with the museum's steampunk exhibition:

I've bought Kate steampunk novels and sent her links to, for example, steampunk guitar websites, but I had only a hazy idea of what the term meant. The definition here was concise: "Imagining a Victorian future that has not come to pass." As elaborated on an internet site I came across:

Steampunk is the science fiction of the steam age, re-imagined with the advantage of modern hindsight. Drawing upon the wealth of historical technology and the scientific fantasies of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, steampunk seeks to reinvent modern wonders such as the computer as the people of the age might have envisioned them. Following in the footsteps of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, steampunk authors blend history, science and imagination into a world of wonder that might have been. --http://www.myspace.com/steampunkmagazine

The retro-futuristic exhibition was WONDERFUL. Sadly, though, no catalogue or postcards were available for purchase, so here are some internet images of different work by four of the artists featured (followed by website links), just to provide an idea of the steampunk aesthetic. #1 and #2 are by Daniel Proulx, from Montreal; #3 Kris Kuski, Missouri; #4 Stéphane Halleux, Belgium; #5 Eric Freitas, Michigan.





Now a few shots of the ancient city of Oxford itself:

a very fitting urban sculpture

Pret-à-Manger beneath a nice bit of half-timbering

Oxford's Town Hall, opened 1897

two shots of Balliol College, founded 1263,
arguably (of course!) Oxford's oldest

barley sugar columns at the entrance to the
University Church of St Mary the Virgin

an interior snap now, in Blackwell's to check whether it stocked

Broad Street: the round building here is the Sheldonian Theatre, one of Christopher Wren's earliest commissions; the Clarendon Building in the foreground, once home to OUP, was designed by his most famous pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Three views of the Bodleian Library, behind the two buildings above (you can seen the dome of the Sheldonian Theatre in second photo); somehow we missed view 3, the Tower of the Five Orders, which I've lifted from google images.

Hertford College, which Rosalie's ex-husband Trevor (and John Donne and Evelyn Waugh) attended, from the back; its two quadrangles are linked across New College Lane by the bridge shown in the photo that follows.
Looking at the Sheldonian through the Bridge of Sighs (not as old as you might think—1913-14); the one in Venice, given its English name by Byron, dates from 1602, Cambridge's version from 1831.

Perhaps the loveliest building in the city, the Radcliffe Camera, also a library, by the architect James Gibbs, who also designed London's Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Then it was back to the Malmaison and next to Jan's talk at Blackwell's, where we got to chat briefly with OUP's delightful science commissioning editor, Latha Menon, and to learn which human artefacts might still be around a million years after our species disappears. We returned to Jamie's Italian for a late dinner. Jan had the mushroom ravioli, Michael flash steak with fresh sage pounded into the meat, and for me, pappardelle with sausage in tomato sauce. A view of the busy basement kitchen:

Next morning's hotel breakfast was excellent. Michael had Eggs Benedict, while I returned more than once to the buffet for fresh orange juice and a gorgeous, gooey, buttery, caramelized dried fruit combination with honey. I would love to know how they made it, but perhaps it's just as well I don't: too tempting an indulgence.

We set off on a second day of rubbernecking, plus a window-shopping-only tour of Oxford's covered market. Several ancient pubs still serve beer in the town, including the 13th-century Turf Tavern that we never managed to find, but the wonderfully named Swindlestock exists only as an inscription:

As an American, I was immediately captivated by the UK's red phone and pillar boxes when I first arrived here 40+ years ago, but I never saw these wooden variations of the latter until this visit to Oxford:

Unlike Cambridge, Oxford has two rivers—an inferior arrangement according to Michael, who didn't think either rivalled the Cam. I have to say that it was a surprise to see that the Ox- of Oxbridge doesn't have the same layout of colleges backing onto the river that Cambridge does. A punt along the Cherwell wouldn't be quite the same. Magdalen College—Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis (fellow here, undergraduate University College), John Betjeman—was the only college we came across with what Cantabridgians would call a "back."

The Cherwell, first view with punts, second with mistletoe in tree:

Outside the town center. The Isis, as the Thames is known in Oxford, where rowing teams practice. Photo taken from Folly Bridge.

Several photos follow of Jo's college, Christ Church, also attended by William Penn, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), and thirteen prime ministers. The largest college in Oxford, it's probably most famous now for being used as a set for the Harry Potter films. We saw advertised and encountered several HP tours in various languages, just as Paris can now be mapped by scenes from The Da Vinci Code.

Close-up of Tom Tower (center of previous shot), designed by Christopher Wren. The bell is still rung 101 times every night at 9:05 pm, which was once 9pm Oxford time, as opposed to 9pm Greenwich time. Contrary, those early Oxonians. The tower at Dunster House, Harvard—distant memories of a boy I dated my freshman year at college—is modeled on this.

We were running out of time when we arrived at Kieron's alma mater, The Queen's College. Cory Booker, current mayor of Newark and possible future president of the US, was there on a Rhodes Scholarship when Kieron was an undergraduate.

Each of us under an appropriate street sign:

Michael is standing at Logic Lane, leading through University College from High Street. Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke conducted experiments in a house once located near this corner; Boyle's formal education ended at Eton, but he joined the "Invisible College" in London and then Oxford; Hooke began assisting him when an undergraduate at Christ Church.
Famous alumni: C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Andrew Motion, V.S. Naipaul, Bill Clinton (who left early for Yale without a degree) .

If you can't decipher the plaque, it reads
In a house on this site
between 1655 and 1668 lived
Here he discovered BOYLE'S LAW
and made experiments with an
AIR PUMP designed by his assistant
Inventor Scientist and Architect
who made a MICROSCOPE
and thereby first identified
This second day in Oxford was the first anniversary of Michael's throughthesandglass blog. Synchronicity must have been in the air, because we spotted this Dutch hourglass, now displayed next to Kate's antique microscope, in the window of Scriptum, a tiny, elegant stationery shop on Turl Street.

Lunch next, not in the Eagle & Child (or Bird & Baby), another watering hole we couldn't find, where Inklings like J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis used to enjoy a tipple together, but in the Bear Inn, a 13th-century hostelrie serving typical pub grub. Its USP is the wall decoration: cases of clipped tie ends (mostly of the club and old school variety), carefully dated and signed, exchanged for a pint of beer.

Back to Malmaison for our suitcase and to the station for the London train. Another notch on my metaphorical UK gun: finally Michael had consented to let me see Matthew Arnold's dreaming spires—or the dark, satanic mills of William Blake, if you prefer the academic rather than the industrial interpretation of his famous phrase.

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