Re-visiting York: And there came raiders from the sea

I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.

We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).

York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)

We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.

The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.

After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”

With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:

His virtues were equal to his descent;

By abilities he was formed for publick,

By inclination determined to private life…

He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,

In friendship sincere, in domestick relation

The best husband, the most indulgent father.

His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.

Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.

On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)


Do fidem

I graduated on Monday.

What the hell, you guys. This was not supposed to happen, like, ever. I was meant to come to Oxford and be ridiculously happy and make friends and learn things and never, ever leave. All of those things happened, but now it turns out I have to leave.

Well, sort of. I’m still living in town next year. But I won’t be a student again for a while to come, and I sure as shootin’ won’t ever be an undergraduate again. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it turns out that it is really quite surprising.

The morning I graduated, I woke up so nervous that I felt sick. I’m still not sure why. It might have been motivated by a subconscious fear that my family would do something American and gauche, like cheer at a wildly inappropriate moment, or it might have had to do with the fact that I knew perfectly well what the day would entail: inhumane amounts of clothing experienced simultaneously with extreme heat, stress, uncertainty about where to go and what to do, and a general inclination of circumstances towards the unenjoyable. Actually, most things turned out fine. I had already pre-ordered the BA gown and hood, which is lined with white fur, from Walter’s, the shop where I’d bought both my commoner’s gown in first year and my scholar’s gown after Mods results. I’d completely forgotten about the problem of subfusc when I was packing up my house earlier this month, and had therefore put mine in storage, which forced me to buy an entirely new skirt, shoes and black ribbon for the graduation ceremony. But apart from that, which I’d taken care of before getting to Oxford, all of the regalia proved unproblematic. The woman at Walter’s, whom I’d spoken to on the phone, leaned to me conspiratorially as I left: “I’ve given you a nice hood,” she said in an undertone. (And she had.)

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

We were meant to show up at the lodge and leave our hoods in the rector’s lodgings, before attending a briefing by the Dean of Degrees on how to behave during the ceremony. I met both Darcy and the lawyer in the quad, with their respective families, and although I quickly lost track of the lawyer (finding him again later), Darcy and I went off to the dean’s meeting together. Our Dean of Degrees is one of the modern language tutors, who frequents chapel for the music, so although I’ve never met him officially, his was a familiar face. His duty in this instance is to present us to the Proctors and the Vice-Chancellor formally, to ask them to admit us to the degrees which we’ve worked for. There’s some onus on you as a student, as well; you have to bow at certain points, as a mark of respect, and you have to respond “Do fidem” (“I swear”) to the injunction to uphold the “statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of the University”. This question is posed in Latin, and, as the Dean warned us, it did not sound like a question. Consequently, there is a lot of bleating and mumbling as people try to work out whether their turn to assent has come or not. I think the graduating group of Exeter B.A.s did better than most. We were certainly an improvement on the two hapless men receiving one of the Masters degrees, whose incompetence so greatly surpassed the norm that it even flustered the officials.

There were, I admit, a couple of tricky moments. One of them was the point at which the Vice-Chancellor told us to applaud our families, who were all sitting in the uncomfortable, closely-spaced, high-banked seats of the Sheldonian, watching the ceremonies. He reminded us, pertinently, that we would not have succeeded without them. This is quite true, and it made me feel a bit weepy. (I could see, even from several hundred feet away, that my dad had already succumbed to the same impulse.) When we sat again, I pinched my wrist to deflect the weepiness, and watched the blue-and-rust mural of unidentifiable semi-pagan figures and painted clouds on the ceiling, waiting for the hot prickling sensation behind my eyeballs to disappear.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

After you say “Do fidem”, you are marched out of the side doors of the Sheldonian and into the Divinity Schools (a massive room in the Bodleian, where they filmed the infirmary in the Harry Potter films). All of our hoods were somehow moved into this room while we were inside, and the ritual is to don the hood before being paraded back through the Sheldonian, three by three, like a weird triumphal procession. I found my labeled bag without apparent difficulty, fastened the hood properly, and cast around for Darcy. He was standing by the window, hoodless. “Someone’s stolen mine,” he said with peculiar calm–so I waited, with the lawyer, for the Development Office minions to find a spare. As a result, we ended up the last three in the procession. “At least our parents will know which ones we are,” I pointed out.

The lawyer, whom I’ve known since freshers week, stood on my right; Darcy, on my left. “It feels rather appropriate to graduate with you,” the lawyer said. “End as you began, after all.” End as you began, and as you continued, I thought: with your friends. The doors opened. We walked in, and through, and bowed to the Vice-Chancellor, and out. We had degrees. We could officially put “B.A. (Oxon.)” after our names. We were really, truly finished.


But I’m not finished here.

I know I started this as an Oxford blog, but it’s become more than that–a travelogue, a sort of incubator for opinion pieces and sketches of places, people, events, a record of thoughts and doings–and I want to keep doing it. In the fall, it will move to a different website, and I’ll keep you all updated on that as it progresses. (I’ll also include a link to the new site here, when it moves.) Meanwhile, the summer beckons: I’m in York at the moment with my parents, which is a good chance to revisit a city I loved six months ago, and a further trip seems to be in the offing in August. Keep coming back, and I’ll keep feeding you!


Well, happy Easter, little chicks! I hope you did have a happy Easter, and not a dreary cold one. The weather has scuppered not only any chances of getting a pre-tan, but also any chances of me being able to wear a cute sundress, which is like the grown-up version of getting really excited about your new Easter bonnet. Actually, when I was younger, my parents did put me in Easter bonnets. They were usually straw hats with a blue or pink or yellow ribbon round the brim, and I liked them very much until the age of about eight, when I started to rebel against the whole notion. This coincided with my wholesale rejection of dresses, which made it harder for my mother to dress me for Easter as she would have liked, in white tights, white sandals, and taffeta-and-tulle confections. We used to have confrontations about what I was going to wear for Easter; I would protest violently that God didn’t care what I wore, and wail with rage when told that yesterday’s corduroys were not acceptable church-going attire. These contretemps became more frequent, and generally more focused on the hideously inappropriate quantity of leg displayed by my chosen garments, as I got older, and continued throughout my teenage years.

My mother, if she reads this, will therefore be pleased to know that it was so cold in the parish church yesterday that I wore an extremely warm and modest navy blue jumper. I doubt we shall ever reach an agreement on the merits of taffeta and tulle.

We were slightly late arriving, and thus slipped into a seat at the back without much thought. It was only after we were well and truly wedged into the pew that I noticed the small child in the pew in front of us, who was sitting on his mother’s lap, drawing with a pencil on the service booklet. He was probably a year old or eighteen months, with a shock of black hair, a plump rosy face, and a cheeky, gap-toothed, utterly irresistible smile. He had wriggled round and was gazing at us with every appearance of great delight, turning now and then to make an addition to his drawing. I smiled back and made a few faces at him, which he found greatly amusing; he giggled and crowed and stared some more. This went on for quite a while, as the service was a long one, and as it wore on, the child–whom I suspected wasn’t used to church–began to get both bored and confident. It’s a dangerous combination for a toddler: they’re old enough to verbalize, but young enough to completely lack self-consciousness. “Daddy!” he demanded, as one of the former colonels of whom Harting has many made his way slowly through the prayers at the front of the chancel. “Daddy! Hug! Daddy! Hug! Hug, Daddy!” The colonel droned gamely on (or possibly he was too deaf to hear, I’m not sure which.) The child’s father picked him up; he grinned at me over the man’s shoulder, and stuck a finger in his mouth. Eventually he was returned to his mother, in whose arms he wriggled for a bit, until the point of consecration (in a Eucharist or communion service, this is where the priest blesses the bread). At this pivotal moment, the child gazed upwards and said, loudly and clearly, “Tit!”

The chancel was totally silent. Reverend Vicar, who was miles away up at the other end, carried on, apparently oblivious. Interestingly, everyone else ignored it too. This became more impressive as the child carried on: “Tit, Mummy! Mummy! Tit!” I don’t know whether he was still breastfeeding, or had just landed on an inadvertent word and didn’t understand what it meant. As if it mattered. I was practically blue from trying to stop inappropriate gigglesnorts leaking out of my nose. The boy next to me was pinching the bridge of his nose; his eyes were shut, but his shoulders were shaking with similar attempts at suppression. The Revered Ancestor seemed not to have noticed anything, and was gazing solemnly at his shoes. “Mummeeeee! Tit!” the child cried triumphantly.

I honestly don’t know how she shut him up, but she did (not, however, by acquiescing to his request), and the rest of the service continued normally. The whole incident, however, is vastly improved by the Revered Ancestor’s comment afterwards: “Did you see the old chap in the pew in front? Sitting with the couple and the little boy? Yes? That’s my good friend, Barry, Lord Ashbourne.” Twenty years from now the little boy will probably be Baron Ashbourne, and if we have any luck, I’ll end up teaching him or something and will be able to tell him precisely what a cheeky little monkey he was.

(Also, Oxford won the boat race in the afternoon. VICTORY TO THE DESERVING!)

In the blood

The change in the atmosphere around college near the end of term is palpable. The pace of life works up to fever pitch: deadlines approach, essays need handing in, coursework is polished to a high shine. Everyone tries to get through the last week or so in one piece, as money starts to run out, feeding yourself seems too much trouble, and washing your smalls (as one of my friends noted last year) “becomes a labour of Hercules.”

I made my word count a couple of days ago and took an afternoon off to go to a lecture which a new friend–a physiologist I’ve mentally christened Spock–said I might like. I understood not a word, but he showed me round his department afterwards, the closest look I’ve had so far at how the Other Half (scientists) live and work in Oxford. Up a flight of stairs like those in a hospital, he pointed to a door on the landing that said “Ashcroft Wing.” “Recognize the name?” he asked me. I thought hard but could only come up with John Ashcroft, erstwhile US Attorney General and amateur singer of patriotic power ballads (observe, enjoy: Spock shook his head with patient disappointment. “You owe her your life,” he said.

A moment later, I understood what he meant. I’m a type I (insulin-dependent) diabetic; I’ve had it since I was three. My pancreas doesn’t produce the hormone that allows cells to convert sugar from food into usable energy, ATP. I inject insulin instead, every time I eat and again just before I go to sleep. Without it, my body wouldn’t have the energy to perform any of its functions. It’s not just that I would feel tired; I would be unable to move my fingers, to speak; my blood wouldn’t pump, my eyes wouldn’t see. I would spend most of my life–and it would be a short life–in a coma. Maximum expectancy before the twentieth century–this is with the best of care, management by diet and very good luck–was twenty-one, meaning that even if I’d made it this far, my time would be just about up by now. In one of those beautiful advances that causes me to realize how quickly medical science has made strides, it’s now completely manageable. Insulin is delivered subcutaneously by injection, adjusted to whatever I eat. Lots of sugar and carbs still aren’t advisable (but they’re not advisable for anyone really), and there are potential complications (we’re statistically more likely to have heart problems, retinopathy, what you will), but the diabetic now lives just like everyone else. It’s why I haven’t mentioned it here before; it’s not very high up on my list of Ways I Would Describe Myself.

All of this isn’t for sympathy; it’s to explain why I owe Fran Ashcroft my life. She’s the woman who figured out how insulin moves in and out of cells (it’s via calcium and potassium channels, which I can’t tell you much about, though I vaguely remember them from AP Biology). Technically I don’t owe her my life–insulin has been synthesized since the 1940s, originally from pigs, which is also kind of cool–but she’s enabled the development of a pill instead of injections. She’s made a huge difference. And she’s here. And I’m here.

I forget this about Oxford. Most people do. I mean, we don’t forget completely, but we live with these people, they teach us, we become accustomed to them and we don’t really think about the fact that they’re some of the most important people we’ll ever meet. Our children will learn their names. They’re our contemporaries, too. We’re the next prime ministers, the next Fellows of the Royal Society, the next directors of museums and of films, the next judges of law and literature, the next people with our fingers on the button, or the trigger, or the pulse. Our children may well learn our names.

And if they don’t? That’s fine too. We’ll still have been here. We’ll still have seen it. We’ll remember, when we think about it forty years from now, things that seem trivial to us at nineteen or twenty. We’ll wonder why we didn’t pay more attention. And then we’ll remember that we were drinking, meeting our lovers, having our friends to dinner, doing our work, keeping our chins up. We’ll miss it, and we’ll be glad it’s over.

Anyway, this has gotten philosophical which is always a good indicator that it is time to stop, or at least switch tracks. I submit tomorrow (can’t wait), and then it’s Revision Central. Wish me luck!

Red trousers, dark blue suits, and the Prince of Saudi Arabia

Douglas Hurd came to speak at Exeter yesterday. No big deal or anything. (For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, or weren’t paying attention during politics lessons: he was in the governments of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but is probably most famous for being Margaret Thatcher’s foreign minister and home secretary.) Darcy secured him as a speaker, partly because Darcy has a habit of inviting himself round to tea at important people’s houses and then persuading them to come and disgorge their wisdom upon the younger generation. Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. In any case, Douglas Hurd was here last night in the rectors’ lodgings, talking about his experience working with three prime ministers, so of course I went along.

I’ve been in the same room as Hurd before; he spoke (again at Darcy’s behest) last year to the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, and I went along to that. It’s hard to say whether he was genuinely on better form last night, or whether I’m more informed than I used to be and therefore simply better placed to get more out of him. Perhaps he’s more effective when with small groups. When I came in, he was sitting in front of the fireplace in the rector’s drawing room, legs crossed, wearing red trousers of a hue that precisely matched the carpet. He has an unusual face, quite full along the chin, with a surprisingly small nose and crinkly eyes; combined with the shock of fluffy white hair, it gives him the appearance of an elderly but merry Persian cat.

Hurd started off talking about Ted Heath, who, from his account, seems to have been rather a sad and embittered man at the end of his life and career: the impression I got was of a man with passionate interests and values, who wanted to accomplish more than he practically could, and who was too invested to survive the failure. (This, according to the Duchess, is pretty much correct.) Hurd quickly segued to his time with Thatcher, however–she was, as he said, the most “outstanding” (by which he meant “significant”) of his three PMs–and this was where things started to get surprising: Hurd spent at least as much time discussing Thatcher’s personal appearance, demeanor, behavior and “charm” as he spent discussing her politics. I didn’t think much of it to begin with, but the angle became more and more obvious as he went on. At one point, he described a trip he took with her to Saudi Arabia to meet the Crown Prince: she had worn a dark blue suit and looked “like Queen Alexandra in the old portraits you sometimes see in embassies–both of them were always very well-dressed”. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was clearly startled to be engaging with a woman in public, much less political, discourse, and in one way, I suppose, that fact alone is worth celebrating. But Hurd dwelt upon her clothes. She had, he said, surprised the Saudis by reading up on the way they liked their women to be dressed, and then by dressing in a way that accorded with their beliefs and preferences. I’m not sure what he meant by this. She obviously wasn’t wearing a niqab. Regardless, he seemed to be praising her for her willingness to capitulate to a highly oppressive system, the boundaries of which are entirely determined by men.

I couldn’t help but think that such a characterization might serve well to describe her political career generally. The rector told us about her time editing the Guardian women’s page in the 1980s, when thousands of letters from female readers exhibited a widespread sense, among women, that the prime minister was not really one of them at all. “She’s a man,” one colleague said. Thatcher was not interested in feminism, but nor was she so confident in the innate ability of a woman that she could comfortably perform as a woman. She performed femininity in her dress and her “beautiful manners” (Hurd’s formulation, again); but she also famously performed aggression, masculinity: her cabinet feared her, although I don’t know how much they respected her. The phenomenon of Thatcher, in gender terms, is endlessly fascinating, and I don’t have the space to explore it here, but it seemed deeply odd for Hurd to be speaking of his former employer, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in terms such as “radiant” and “stunning.” He seemed entirely unaware of the incongruity. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but that is only an explanation, not an excuse.

Still, Hurd’s a deeply likable man. This is the refreshing thing about England: feeling personal affection for your political opponents is plausible. In America, public discourse is so violent, so vehement, that it’s nearly impossible to disagree politely with somebody. Americans are much less interested in politeness anyway; during an intellectual sparring match, to be courteous is almost viewed as quaint. Here, however, it is easy. Hurd’s very charming. It is possible that he’s not a particularly deep thinker: Rory Stewart, as the Duchess said when we were comparing notes later, has a much more profound way of engaging with questions, whereas Hurd’s great qualities seem to be his prodigious memory and his anecdotes. Yet I like him very much. I can see at once why Darcy wanted to have tea with him; I wanted to have tea with him. Should’ve joined a student newspaper long ago.