Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Oxford Rituals

Come exam weeks , you’ll see students in academic gowns treading cobblestones past ivory towers. It doesn’t feel like Oxford has changed in centuries until you look closer.

Undergraduates read (ie study) only one subject, with the exception of some new hybrids like PPE (politics, philosophy and economics.) There are qualifying exams at the end of the first year and weekly tutorial papers. However, the only thing that counts towards the final degree are the exams sat at the end of 3 years in 10 subfields.

If that weren’t enough pressure, the students are required to wear 19th century kit known as subfusc for exams. Young men must wear: a white bow tie, shirt, black suit and black shoes under an academic gown. Young women substitute a black tie and can wear either a black skirt or trousers. Don’t say “pants”- that’s underpants in British! On hot days they can at least sit the exam in their shirt sleeves.

A more recent custom is to don a carnation on the lapel. On the first day of exams, which can last 10 days, the flower is virginal white. During the middle days it is pink. On the final day the carnation is red, as if it had been soaking in a red inkwell, slowly reaching saturation, not unlike the student.

Not everyone is on the same examination schedule, so lunchtime in hall is an amusing clash of period dress. At Oriel there were lads in their sports kit elbow to elbow with suited chums. Gowns were hung on pegs to keep tidy. The lunch food was institutional. I had mystery meat on a skewer. Fish? Chicken? Pork? Quite unlike a high table feast. No one seemed to mind as they ate heartily after morning exertions.

Most exams are sat at Examination Schools in silent, cavernous rooms. I could feel the tension in the air when I peeked my head in on my way to a history lecture. It’s a grand 19th century sandstone building with an enormous two story foyer. The halls sport black and white checkered floors and colorful walls leading to stone steps. The whimsical feeling is misleading.

These third year exams count for everything and are administered by the university, not the separate colleges. Very few students graduate with a First Degree. Most get a Second, and the worst get a Third or fail. There are nicknames. A Lower Second (2-2) is called a “Bishop Desmond.” A Third is called a "Richard."

The joking spins out of control after the final exam. A student’s mates greets him/her with balloons, silly hats and necklaces as they exit. They are covered in treacle so that tossed flour will stick to their gowns. A plate of pastry cream or shaving cream is shoved in the face. Traditionally the student was sprayed with champagne, but the police have been cracking down on that. I still spotted students chugging champagne bottles on side streets.

This elaborate Oxford ritual is called “trashing.” Plenty of drinking and celebration follows at the pub or in the dorm rooms.

Out punting on a Saturday, I spotted a trashed student in his filthy gowns by the river. At the urging from his bank-side mates and more students in a punt, the lad dove in and swam out for a glass of wine. He was offered the entire bottle but declined in a posh accent, “Christ Church ball tonight.”

Every other year the colleges hold a Commemoration Ball, a white tie affair that starts in the evening for dinner and lasts all night. At dawn there is a violin serenade with champagne and a greasy full English breakfast in hall.

I went to a similar ball at Cambridge University back when my sister-in-law was there. We ladies wore floor length ball gowns and danced all night under the stars. Well, we didn’t actually see the stars, but they must have been there twinkling over the dense fog.

The final ritual is Oxford’s graduation ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren. It’s too small to fit everyone, so the students graduate on separate days. I attended the honorary degree ceremony, called Encaenia, meaning "festival of renewal" in Greek. A bit of a misnomer as most of the ceremony was conducted in Latin!

The ceremony opened with a trumpet fanfare, and then black robed officials with white hair and long silver staffs escourted the honorands inside. The University Chancellor sat upon that golden throne conferring degrees.

The ancient language could not keep up with modern times. The introductory speech for Sheila Evans Widnall, former US Secretary of the Air Force, waxed poetic about Icarus and such.

The only honorand I recognized was Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of mind who once asked “What is it like to be a bat?” Thanks to a translation sheet, I now know how to say bat in Latin: vespertilio.

Another Encaenia ritual was to thank (in English) the donors – that was dull! The speaker livened up his speech with jibes against rival Cambridge University, the “daughter school.” Then all the dons in their academic gown processed outside into the rain.

I enjoyed seeing the Encaenia spectacle but was sorry to miss fellow Oxford blogger John Kelly give a new media presentation at Reuters. Since I couldn’t be two places at once, my husband, Henry, will take over the blog from here. Our daughter snapped this photo of the Kelly family before they flew home to Washington D.C.

One of the real delights of this year has been getting to know the Kelly family. John is a columnist at The Washington Post who spent the past year as a Fellow of The Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism researching the red-hot topic of citizen journalism. He presented his findings last week.

Citizen journalism hit the front-pages (oh, the post-modern irony of that phrase!) in the aftermath of 9/11, the Tsunami, and the 7/7 bombings. Nifty new technologies like mobile phone cameras and wireless broadband mean that just about anyone can be a reporter, by-passing “old media” journalists who are, John reports, less trusted than even estate agents. User-generated content (UGC), wikipedia, youtube and blogs have created powerful new networks which have turned upside-down the old relationship between reporter and audience.

That’s good news if you think the old media are a complacent elite delivering patronising lectures - isn’t it better to choose what you want at the buffet than have some snooty waiter decide for you? A citizen journalist broke the story of Obama’s “bitter” comment, and bloggers spread the word, leaving the old gatekeepers flat-footed.

On the other hand, many fret about the erosion of the old journalistic values of professionalism, objectivity, and fact-checking. Instead of a vibrant cyber-democracy, these folk see a cacophony of ill-informed opinion - a view hilariously captured in this Mitchell and Webb spoof of the the BBC’s "Have Your Say" fixation.

John steered a helpful middle course between these extremes, holding onto the hope that we can figure out a way to get the best of both worlds. He noted that the same technology that allows every Tom, Dick or Harriet to post something bogus also allows anyone to correct it in real time. “Check, then publish” is a good old-media rule, but “publish, then check” has its merits in a networked world.

In any case, the evidence is that most citizens don’t actually want to be journalists - less than 1% of the BBC’s on-line traffic is UGC-related. We’ll always need objective, contextualized reporting and informed analysis. Journalists who can deliver this AND who are savvy to the latest media will be in high demand. Journalists, in short, like John.

We miss you and your family already, John. Keep blogging back in the USA!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oxford High Table and Imps

You can pay a few quid for a tour of lovely Magdalen College, but please be my virtual guest at high table. I promise a new perspective.

My old friend, Stewart Wood (at right with my husband, Henry) is both a Magdalen fellow and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s advisor. His boss keeps him busy, but Stewart took a night off before President Bush’s visit to take us to dinner at high table. It was a special night, Magdalen College’s 550th. Happy Birthday!

After admiring the Magdalen gardens and deer park,

. . . we had a champagne reception in the Senior Common Room. The oak-paneled chamber was out of another century and not a recent one with its deep-set windows overlooking the quads. The dark wood furniture was antique; the art was museum quality and the arm chairs were red leather before a fireplace.

There were the dons in black academic gowns, their guests and the college president. It was very social, and people were curious about what an American novelist was doing at Oxford. I was struggling to describe my genre of women’s fiction, when one fellow figured it out: “an Orange Prize book!” I wish. Magdalen has quite a literary history: Oscar Wilde and C.S. Lewis.

When it was time to dine, we filed out a tiny door onto the roof. The roof? Yes! Philip Pullman did not invent his heroine’s rooftop rambling. Before Lyra, dons have been walking the Magdalen roofs every evening, and now I follow in their footsteps. I did promise you a new perspective!

There was a wooden walkway, covered in chicken wire for better footing. I was relieved my heels weren’t too pointy. Way down below was the cloistered quad. Even in the highest echelons of English learning and antiquity resides the silly sign:

We entered the dining hall through another Hobbit sized door. The main entrance for the students, who ate earlier, was at the other end. That entrance is approached by a grand stairway. The high table is literally a long table placed at 90 degrees to the others on a raised platform below the oak-paneled end wall. Do the students wonder how the dons mysteriously apparate at high table?

Before we dined, the Magdalen Boys Choir sang hymns from the balcony, and we stood for a Latin grace. Seating was open except for those at high table. By silver clad candlelight, we enjoyed a fine 4 course meal: soup, fish, meat and pudding. Then, as is English upper class custom, we changed seats for dessert wines, fruit and chocolates. You hold onto your napkins but nothing else.

This time we were seated at high table, but first I admired the 550 year old royal charter displayed under glass. There were plenty at hand to translate the Latin. The delicate writing was perfectly preserved except for one smudge.

I slipped out to the loo (English for toilet) which was in an annex from the courtyard, built into the fort-like walls. There was even a moat. Henry gave me directions: “down the hall, take a left, down the stairs and a sharp right, pass the 3-headed dog….”

Thankfully there was no vicious dog, but there was a phantom call box. I half expected to find Dr. Who. I was certainly a time traveler.

It was good to walk and test my balance. After the champagne, white and red wines, I decided to pass on the sauterne and only took a thimble full of port, which is always passed to the left. The rooftop footing on the way back to the SCR was more treacherous in the dark.

Someone must have refilled my glass during dinner without my noticing, or why else would I consent to be weighed after eating so much? That leather bound stool is a scale, and my weight is now preserved for posterity in the Magdalen SCR record book. It was in stones so I have no clue. It’s hard enough to multiply by 14 when totally sober.

Stewart and I became close friends in our early 20’s. I was finishing college, and he and Henry were starting graduate school at Harvard. Being around Stewart makes me revert. Instead of staggering home to bed, I accepted his invitation to visit the Magdalen student bar.

Henry chimed in that it would be “research” for my novel. He was right. My protagonist is 20, she wouldn’t decline a pint (or a half pint in my case.) The bar was hopping with students celebrating the end of term and exams.

It was all good fun until I woke up the next morning. Hmm, now I remember what being 20 really felt like. On top of that, I’d agreed to meet an Oxford student for a pint the next evening. If I’m looking a bit worse for wear in the photo, you know why. Marisa Benoit was great company and perked me up.

Marisa first came to Oxford on her junior year abroad, and now she’s come back for an MSC. She’s from a really small town in Maine. I was thrilled to meet her because she has given me insight into my character who comes from a similar background.

Only Marisa’s back story was better than fiction. Her father is a tugboat captain in NYC, my hometown. He works 2 weeks on and off and decided to raise his family in Maine. On board he reads my blog (hello, Captain Benoit!)

Marisa gave me a tour around Lincoln College. The time to see it is in the fall when all the ivy turns bright red. I peeked my head in back then but had longed to see more.

Lincoln is a small college, but has a large graduate student population, making it a good choice for further degrees. It’s a warm, cozy place unless you're an imp.

An imp? That’s a daemon they keep locked in a cell by the student bar. No, I hadn’t even started drinking when I heard this tale. That’s him in the photo. I’ll zoom in closer for a better look. Do you sort of wish that I hadn't? He makes gargoyles handsome.

The Lincoln Imp used to grace a corner of the front quad, but now he’s been locked up for safe keeping, and a modern imp has taken his place. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This imp could be the inspiration for Pullman’s daemons and the deathly tunnels below Oxford. It gave me the chills.

The library at Lincoln gave me good chills. It was once a chapel (they have another) but is now devoted to worshiping books. Wouldn’t you want to study in this glorious space? Thanks, Marisa, for the tour and the pint.

Another new friend this year is Bee. She writes a similar blog, Bee Drunken, about life as an American married to an Englishman here. We also share a love of reading. You have to check out her funny post on the 9 signs of going native (English.) For #10 I'd add putting the wash out on the line as soon as the sun shines. Bee and I met for a Port Meadow walk, but of course it was pouring. We had lunch at The Trout instead.

When people ask what I enjoy about blogging, it’s the 2-way street. I’ve “met” so many interesting people though comments and blog links. It has made this year living abroad feel much less lonely. I love hearing your responses. I also appreciate writing and publishing in an instant click.

A bunch of you have asked me about buying my novels. It will be a wait. My agent is looking for a publisher for my first novel, Moose Crossing, now. S.A.D. is still in revision. I’ll be writing NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) when I return to the USA based on material collected in this blog. It takes a long time for a manuscript to become a published book. Read my post, Shaping a Novel, if you want to learn more about the process.

I will announce the good news on my blog and add links when (if?) the books are available for purchase. It’s conceivable they will end up with different titles. In the meantime, I’ll definitely keep blogging when I go back to Maine, and I’ll revisit England from time to time. I still have a few more weeks left. So much to do!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Shakespeare's Rose

My favorite venue for Shakespeare, especially with kids, is the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. In June Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens are in peak bloom.

Doves flutter across the stage and coo from trees. What better place to hear Juliet ask Romeo:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Timothy Sheader’s Romeo and Juliet was dynamically staged with as much Leonard Bernstein as William Shakespeare in spirit. The 1950’s gang member costumes and the elaborate dance routines were very West Side Story, but the language was from the Bard.

It was visually stunning and engaging. The acting was good too if not as seamless as the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Nicholas Shaw’s Romeo brought a youthful vigor and handsome charm to his role even if Laura Donelly’s Juliet was too girly in her pink gowns, teddy bear and tears. Amazingly Claire Benedict stole the show as the nurse. She was laugh out loud funny, attractive and endearing – her body language, timing and delivery were natural. I was amazed so much could be done with such a stereotypical role. Benedict made it her own. Another star in both performance and humor was Oscar Pearce as Mercutio, and Dale Superville was hilarious in the bit part of Peter.

Watching open air theater in England is a gamble. It’s best to come prepared as if for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Raincoat, sweater, hat and sunglasses: I used and removed them all. Your kids will get the action better if they know the score, but what if they’re a bit young for reading Shakespeare?

My husband found a manga edition of Romeo and Juliet (U.K. and U.S.A.) that used only true lines and nothing more. Did it work? As we left the production, my ten year-old-daughter asked, “Why didn’t they kill Paris?” We assumed she had that wrong until we checked. The comic book was truer than the abridged performance! My husband explained that most Shakespeare is edited for performances as was the Bard’s intention. Both kids enjoyed it all the same as did their parents. Romeo and Juliet is playing now through August 2, 2008.

After the matinee we strolled through Regents Park. The light is amazing at this time of year in England. The sun (when it shines) rises before 5am and sets after 9pm. The rain and mild climate does make everything so lush and green.

Queen Mary’s Gardens were fragrant with roses in many more hues than you could imagine.

The only down side was that dining options were limited. We had a quick dim sum meal at Ping Pong, which we enjoyed although it’s not as good as Dim-T or China Town elsewhere in London. The restaurant did at least have as many Asian clients, always a good sign. Not such a good sign was when I ordered sake, the waitress brought a cup for my 13-year-old son! He’s grown a lot this year and his voice is dropping, but does he look 18? Freaky!

On the train I finished a fun novel, Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti. It was a bestseller in Sweden and is now translated into English. I like the Swedish title better: Grabben i Graven Brevid (The Guy in the Next Grave.) It’s a tale of mismatched modern love that starts in a graveyard. It’s light and funny without ever being saccharine. The characterization is great, the writing fresh and if there isn’t much plot, it matters little as the story breezes along. Sadly, I don’t think it’s available in the USA yet, just the UK.

We didn’t have to travel to London for good Chinese food. Shanghai 30’s back in Oxford is surprisingly sophisticated. The setting is a 15th century building with high ceilings, later period detailing and generous windows. We went there a couple of weekends ago.

The crispy duck was especially good as was the spicy Ma Po Tofu, and there were interesting, original dishes like honey roasted chicken in a citrus sauce. The prices were high for Chinese food, but the service was excellent. We also had great company. Through our daughter, we’ve become friends with the Kellstedt family who have been on sabbatical from Texas since January.

Before that dinner we had all gone to Evensong at Christ Church. It’s the largest college chapel and the only cathedral in Oxford. The candlelit service below the high vaulted ceiling was a perfect setting to hear hymns sung in Latin by the choir. It was a very spiritual experience.

Afterwards my husband pointed out a chapel grotesque that he is convinced was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. The girls were entranced as both our families had reread Alice in Wonderland at bedtime this Oxford year.

The Oxford Botanical Gardens is another pleasant family excursion. It’s not the nicest or biggest botanical garden you’ll ever see, but it’s a calm oasis from High Street traffic. Lovely Magdalen Tower presides in the background, making it special

I know it’s a garden cliché, but I love a fountain of lily pads, and these were such vibrant colors. The old stone walls were covered in climbing roses, but nothing anywhere near as spectacular as Queen Mary’s Gardens.

The sun was shining (my whining last week worked,) and the Botanical Gardens is one of the few places in Oxford you are allowed to lie on the grass and admire the rare blue sky.

Even on a rainy day, it’s worth a visit for the greenhouses. The tropical vegetation is like a jungle.

These South African clivia miniata were outside a room of cacti. I wish I’d visited in the cold, damp winter. A year membership is just £10, and it’s £3 for a single visit. Students are discounted and school children are free with a parent.

This post is part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Thank you, Kate, for recommending a visit to the Botanical Gardens. If any of you readers have other recommendations, please post a comment now. I only have one month left to enjoy Oxford. It amazes me that even after 10 months here, I’m still finding more to see.

Photography Credit: Romeo and Juliet photos from the Open Air Theatre's website. All other photos (except book jacket covers) by Sarah Laurence.