Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day in Oxford

I awoke at 4:00 am to see dawn on May Day, but the Oxford students had been reveling all night long. The police requested that the students refrain from jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell River after previous years’ injuries. Try reasoning with a lemming. I heard of a couple that got engaged in mid-jump. Honestly! Can you imagine how much drink was involved?

May Day is a pagan celebration, and yet there are Christian overtones. Or should I say over-tunes? After six bell chimes, choristers sang in the sunrise from Magdalen Tower. Crowds of drunken students and sleepy townspeople tilted up their heads to hear the Latin hymn. The young boys’ voices were truly angelic. Over the tower a small patch of blue sky dissolved dark clouds. But for a few cheers and loose balloons, the crowd stood still in silent awe. The Magdalen Boys Choir then sang Sumer is Icumen In. The minister spoke a few words about Mary Magdalen, the college’s namesake, and welcomed spring.

The many gargoyles of Magdalen College leered down at the less than reverent crowd.

Inebriated students in tuxedos with lost bow ties lounged upon the street as their micro-mini skirted girlfriends shivered, lurched and giggled. A Scottish gentleman in a dinner jacket, white tie and a kilt gave his stiletto-ed lady a piggyback ride. Others had painted their faces or hair in fluorescent hues. I looked for traditional Morris dancers and was impressed by this modern take:

There were live bands playing along High Street:

In Radcliffe Square Scottish country dancers spun in kilts and long skirts before a bagpipe player:

Another Scotsman welcomed spring with not so fresh air before St. Mary’s Church:
Vault & Gardens inside the church was serving a hot cooked breakfast from 5:45 am, but the queue (line) was too long to join. Many cafes and pubs had been open most of the night.

On New College Lane before the Bridge of Sighs, groups of Morris Dancers cracked sticks, stamped clogs and jingled bells to accordion players.

Dawn’s early light made the sandstone buildings glow pinkish gold.

A tree man watched. Must be a druid thing. Note the pink haired lady and the cheese-headed accordion player behind him. At least I think it was a he. It’s hard to sex a tree. Green families gathered on the steps of the 18th century Clarendon Building.

Despite the forecast for heavy rain, not a drop fell. The rites of spring must have worked!

May Day is also peak bluebell time in England. The hovering purple-blue mist could make a curmudgeon believe in fairies.

Best place to see these lovely woodland flowers is on National Trust Land. The Holies in Berkshire overlooks the beautiful Thames Valley.

Fluorescent yellow grouse and fields of rape provide the perfect compliment. England can be relentlessly grey and green so to see such rich color is pure joy.

May also heralds World Press Freedom Day. At The Reuter’s Institute my husband, Henry Laurence, gave a brilliant talk on political censorship of public television. In a related article Henry revealed how the Japanese government altered NHK documentary coverage of the comfort women (WWII sex slaves) and how the Bush Administration censored PBS children’s programming.

The British BBC is by far the most progressive public broadcaster, although not free of incidents of self-censorship. Henry referred to the phenomenon as “the pre-emptive cringe.” Expect a really interesting book to come out of two sabbaticals of research in Japan, the UK and the USA. It is fascinating and provocative material, but you don’t have to take my word on it.

Washington Post journalist John Kelly blogged about Henry’s talk. John Kelly’s Voxford is one of my favorite blogs; it’s topical, controversial and often very funny. Fridays feature the gargoyle of the week. Like us, the Kelly family is on sabbatical from the USA. John refers to England as the land of warm beer and cold loos (bathrooms,) but he clearly loves it.

Another new friend from this sabbatical year is women’s fiction author Miranda Glover. She’s in my writers’ group. Miranda’s second novel, Soulmates, just came out last week. Soulmates is about sisters, daughters and the sad havoc of depression. From trendy London to the cold beauty of Stockholm, it’s a captivating read in a soothing voice, rich in detail. I’ve only just started and look forward to reading more tonight.

I’m cross with the characters in the new novel I'm writing. They’re not even out of the prologue and already they are waking me before dawn for adventures. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation or the amount of work left to do for this English novel, but I can’t believe it is already May!


tina said...

Those bluebells are awesome. I have never had the opportunity to see them in person. Your dog is saying, "Come on Mommy, quit taking pictures of me and the bluebells!" Have a lovely day in England and glad it didn't rain!

rpkelly said...

You missed the jumpers on (from?!) the Magdalen Bridge! Just after you left for the Folly Bridge, the police opened up the barricades at the Magdalen Bridge, and sure enough - just like your lemmings! - 3 or 4 guys immediately jumped. Safely, I'm glad to say, into fairly deep waters. Although I was all for leaving anyone with a broken leg there in the water to assess the magnitude of their stupidity. Aren't I charitable?! But I have to admit - it was funny to watch.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Love your photos of the bluebells! Makes me miss my time in England.

Bee said...


I celebrated my May Day (and sunny sky!) by walking by the bluebell woods. The bluebells, and the cherry blossoms, are gorgeous -- and do compensate us for some of that rain!

I think that I would rather see drunken Oxford students on your site than in person! I've heard about the Oxford May Day celebrations -- and it is really fun to get to "see" them without waking up at 4 am.

Anonymous said...

what a fantastic sum-up of May Day! - made me feel as if I were there myself - (as in fact I was, about a million years ago, up the very tower itself ...) found your blog via john kelly - looks like a great find - i'll be tuning back in - bestest -

Anil P said...

You've got an interesting blog here, will be back to read it at length.

The flowers carpet the earth beautifully, imagine if every inch on the planet were carpetted so.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, Stella agrees.

Ruth, no way! I hope John got pictures.

Welcome, Alyson! When/why were you in England? I visited the social networking for readers site you recommended: looks fun.

Bee Drunken, you have to go to May Day for your namesake. The Oxford students weren’t that bad – more amusing than aggressive. It was a glorious day, but the one shower hit while walking my daughter home from school. Guess I shouldn’t have abandoned the old umbrella.

Dee, welcome! Very happy to have a John Kelly referral as I love his Voxford blog. Aren’t we lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time in Oxford? It’s like living inside a classic novel. There’s a chapter’s worth of material for my own novel just in this post.

Anil, welcome! So many new visitors today – what a lovely start to May. Your blog about India is a window to another world for me.

walk2write said...

Sarah, I just found your blog (saw your comment on someone else's), and I love it! Especially the bluebells. You and I must have been thinking along similar lines lately, because a park I visited this weekend and posted about brought back memories of drunken students and their various shenanigans. I'll be back here to read some more...

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

While I hate to be away from my garden in spring, I'd make an exception for May Day in England. That looks like so much fun! I love choral singing & I would love to see Morris Dancers in person. Thanks for documenting this splendid pagent of eccentricity.

Alyson | New England Living said...

I was in England in '93. I was an exchange student for a year in high school. Such an amazing experience!

You should join goodreads. It's good fun! By the way, I love your blog. So well done. I love seeing pictures of Oxford. That was my favorite place to visit.

Sarah Laurence said...

Walk2write – welcome! I love your moniker.

MMD, May in England is my favorite time.

Alyson, lucky you! This blog’s a virtual exchange. Also material for my novel about Americans studying at Oxford for junior year.

walk2write said...

Sarah, I'm glad you like the name. I thought of it when I was writing a short piece that I submitted to AARP. I've always had to "trot out" my thoughts before I can write them down in any coherent fashion. Must be the ghost of Aristotle haunting me!