“Beautiful city! Spreading her gardens to the moonlight,
and whispering from her towers
the last enchantments of the Middle Age...
her ineffable charm...
Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic!”
~ Matthew Arnold, from the preface to Essays in Criticism.
My month of studies and living in Oxford coincided with the annual Saint Giles Fair. Dating back to the 13th century, as a parish celebration, the city street festival began in the early 17th century. Well, I had been entirely unaware of the breadth and depth of the festivities, being so captivated by reading and writing. Then, while turning a thick page when aperch at a windowside reading table, on a high floor of a Bodleian Library reading room, my peripheral vision noticed an object intermittently emerging from behind the rooftops. It turned out to be one of those carnival rides that swings enclosed capsules of humanity airborne on an axle. Going to the window, I saw protruding edges of accompanying amusement structures. Later in the day, walking from Keble to Blackfriars colleges, the presence of the fair on Saint Giles Street was loud and clear to me.
Saint Giles Fair, with Saint Giles Church (12th century)
Walking along and around the density of festivities reminded me very much of the Feast of San Gennaro, which I remember from my childhood in New York. Amusements, buskers, children’s toys, and a buoyant mélange of hot food and cool air aromas blended with a high-volume din of voices and music. Fairs like these have roots among church celebrations, along with seasonal markets. A feast can be an occasion for exchanging provisions. The country fairs so familiar to me, in northern New England, combine amusements and feasting with the displaying and trading of both wares and seasoned know-how. Knowledge is also a provision. This came to mind, while squeezing through the growing evening crowds, with my satchel of books, writing tools, and camera slung on my shoulder. I’d come to this festive crossroads which is in the form of an ancient collegiate city, procuring ideas, words, images, and inspiration. And there were numerous occasions for the exchanging of insights and experiences.
Although I had arrived with the basic materials I needed to do my work, I also anticipated being able to find any missing pieces in a place like Oxford. In fact, I left some baggage space for acquisitions and various collateral discoveries from the pilgrimage. My working provisions included the requisite graphite for archival research and jottings, with pens and ink for journal-writing. Along with my typewriter, I brought two extra ribbons, including one especially for C. S. Lewis’ machine. Writing paper and a blank journal book sufficiently started me off well prepared. Being an urban creature, I naturally took to the intricate streets of Oxford, and quickly began noticing beautifully-appointed shops along the downtown streets.
Late-afternoons, following hours of studies, were perfect occasions for exploratory walks. Walking and observing releases energy, and all the animated chats with shopkeepers re-energizes. To my delight, I found the many hosts and hostesses at Oxford cafés and shops to be gracious and pleasant to converse with. Much as in my home grounds of New England, most everyone will respond to appreciation. Those who know about their wares, and care about promoting them, have their own experiences to offer. Making purchases becomes more than mere transacting. Returning to some of these shops added a measure of mutual familiarity. More specifically at stationers and book shops, visits often combined sharing remarks about our present tools of choice and reading preferences.
Views of Pens Plus shop, High Street
My favorite shop in Oxford is Scriptum, on Turl Street.
Indeed, I was a good customer, and found fortune at the fair of this sojourn. Collecting treasures from various shops, there are practical materials to use for writing, good reading to keep me nourished, and reminders of an experience of a lifetime. As with every journey, among my treasured gains are the many photographs I was able to make, the journal entries to witness these intricate adventures, and new friends with whom I keep in contact. There are still more essays to write- about Oxford and beyond; it takes time to digest so rich an experience. Among fellow writers and researchers, it was assuring to see the patience and the personal aspects that are integral to creativity. The craft we practice is at once immediate and time-honored. Enjoying my found treasures, writing these words right now, I marvel at the future implications and manifestations of all I have seen, heard, read, walked, and written.
Above: C. S. Lewis' ink stand, at The Kilns.
Below: Note-taking with C. S. Lewis' archives.
"Make Your Mark a Good One."
Above: graphite theme;
Below: pen & ink theme.