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.)

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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!

AMURICA F*CK YEAH

I called my parents this evening (well, okay, they called me and I missed the call, and then I called them and they missed the call and eventually the Powers That Be got bored of messing with us). After a couple of minutes chatting about my little brother’s social graces (much better than mine as a high school freshman, i.e. he has friends) and my cousin’s awesome music camp where they got a bunch of teenagers to produce a credible Mozart Requiem at the end of the week, my dad casually said, “And of course  we’ve been doing gardening and housework all day for the 4th of July.” And I remembered that, again, I would miss the most quintessentially ‘Murican holiday of all time by being in England. I’ve been missing the 4th of July for years now; since at least the summer of 2010. When people ask me about it, I say that I don’t want to go back–not now, not ever–and that’s true, as far as it goes. I don’t want to live in the States, I don’t want to have a career or start a family or build my life there. But I started my life there, and that does make a difference. Sometimes, especially in the summer, there are things that I miss about America. We do a lot of things pretty poorly, but some things we get right. To wit:

Oreos. I swear they’re smaller here.

Highways. You can’t really do a good road trip in England. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it as this:

The Extraterrestrial Highway–more UFO sightings than anywhere else in the country.

Milkshakes. English shops sell something called “milkshake”. It’s essentially flavoured milk, a sad, pathetic shade of what it claims to be. I particularly miss the ones from Chaps, a downtown Charlottesville institution.

County fairs. Their combination of livestock, quilting and jam exhibitions, healthful snacks such as cotton candy and funnel cake, stomach-dropping rides, all in the dying heat of a late-summer evening…that constitutes my childhood, in some ways.

Heat haze. Where the blacktop meets the horizon and it looks like water.

Flipflops. Every day from April to October.

Ceiling fans. They’re beautiful, they create a delicious breeze, and the low humming sound the blades make is the most comforting in the world.

The Blue Ridge Mountains. Just…unghh.

Sometimes I get really bored of how flat Oxford is.

Guitars being plucked. Like this:

Bandanas are cool. Srsly.

The University of Virginia. Especially the Lawn. And all the frat houses on Rugby Road, which are the most gorgeous big old red-brick neo-Palladian things.

Coffee. Look, I am sorry, but screw instant granules.

Thunderstorms. They just don’t seem to exist in England, and I miss the way the world feels scrubbed and fresh after they pass over.

School buses. Obvi.

Wilderness. In Virginia, you can drive for fifteen minutes and be in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. In most of England, you can be pretty sure there’s a tea shop somewhere nearby. Which is often a good thing, but sometimes you want to be in East Jesus Nowhere, and uncertain of how you’re going to find civilization again.

Cheez Whiz. GET ON BOARD, REST OF THE WORLD.

The sheer ingenuity of this awful, awful creation must be acknowledged.

Accents. Simply watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?. People actually talk like that. (Not everywhere, of course.)

Summer nights that are warm enough not to need a jumper when you sit outside.

Whitetail deer. Everywhere.

Baseball. Watched on TV on aforementioned warm nights, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Football. Watched in freezing, windy, bright-blue-sky conditions, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Diners (and their cheeseburgers).

Flexible Flyer little red wagons (a brand name which, now that I think about it, sounds like a burlesque act).

Fireworks.

Macy’s 4th of July firework display, NYC

Just put on my travelin’ shoes

I’ve never really moved before.

It’s true that I moved to 52 Cowley from college at the beginning of second year, but that was nothing. When you live in, you have to move all of your stuff in and out of your room at the beginnings and ends of terms anyway, so you have much less latitude to acquire things. I had even less latitude because I don’t have parents who can come and pick me up in the car, so when I was living in, all of my belongings had to fit in four transparent plastic storage boxes (which could be left in college) or, if it was stuff I actually wanted to take away with me like clothes, two wheelie suitcases, a backpack and a hefty handbag. Getting the plastic storage boxes from college to Cowley Road involved a single taxi trip.

Having lived in the same house for two years, though, I’ve never had to move any of my stuff anywhere. Now, my lease runs out in two weeks, and I own a lot more than I did when I first moved in.

Much of this accumulated stuff is books. My course was, to say the least, reading-heavy (that is the funny thing about English), so my degree required me to have a lot of books. I want to hold on to most of them, too–though I’ve managed to give away Ben Jonson’s collected poems (I hate Jonson), and a copy of Faulkner’s Light In August that’s too tatty and run-down to be of any use. I’ve had better luck with the books I’ve acquired independently, giving away (with some sadness) Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, the magisterial Moby-Dick (which I’m pleased to have read, but which I shan’t want to read for a long time to come.) I’ve decided not to give away any books that were given to me, like the copy of David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls that my parents sent me after Finals, or the Arden Troilus and Cressida that Darcy picked up for me in a second-hand bookshop.

I’ve been trying to work on the one-in-one-out principle so beloved of bouncers: I’m not allowed to acquire more books than I give away. The snag in this plan is Blackwell’s, which is running a 3 for 2 deal on most Vintage books, and a buy-one-get-one-free on Oxford World’s Classics. I picked up five books there this afternoon, and so I’m giving away another five tomorrow. It’s an arduous process but there’s nothing else for it. (I’ve always had this problem: the books my dad used to buy me would accumulate in my room until the floor was invisible. Sometimes I would find them in my bed. I cleaned up twice a year, usually sending two or three brown paper grocery sacks’ worth of books to the Salvation Army or the library on Gordon Avenue.)

There are also no more readily accessible plastic boxes, so I popped over to Boswell’s this afternoon (after Blackwell’s–why are so many Oxford shops named for possessive nouns that start with B?) and got some. My ever lovely uncle has promised to come up from Bournemouth and take winter clothing and duvets back with him for the summer, so in some ways it won’t be as much of a challenge as it was in first year. It’s kind of exciting, actually. I feel a little bit more like a grownup now. Moving’s what grownups do, right? In August I’ll sit on the floor in my new house, surrounded by boxes, and eat some takeaway before unpacking, maybe from the Thai restaurant across the road. I don’t know how many times I’ll move in my life, but I think that’s meant to be one of the fun bits: discovering your new neighborhood (even though it’s only a couple blocks away.) Taking all of your stuff out of its packaging and then acquiring some more. Making yourself at home.

There’s something to look forward to, after all.

Beginning-of-life crisis (or, You’re not a freak)

Although the Duchess (who’s seen me through many, many weepy outbursts) will tell you otherwise, I’m pretty good at hiding my existential terror from most people. If I don’t live with you, chances are, you think I’m completely okay. If I know you from around college, and you’ve asked me what my plans for next year are, I guarantee you I’ve given you some form of the following: “Well, I’d like to go into academia, but I need to earn some money to pay my way through postgraduate degrees, so I’m taking a year out to work in Oxford–I’ve signed a lease on a house with four friends–and I’ll apply for an M.St. next January.”

I almost certainly have not mentioned to you the following things:

a) I’ve already applied for that M.St., this past January. I didn’t get in. So, yeah, I need some cash, but I don’t really have a choice about it either. And, yeah, that makes me feel like a pretty big failure.

b) I’m terrified about the implications of that failure. The course I applied for is one of the most oversubscribed around (English lit 1550-1700), but what if that’s not the major reason? What if I actually cannot do the thing that I have spent my whole life believing I will do, the only thing that I have ever felt in any way good at or qualified for? And what if, when I apply again next year (to more than one university this time), it still doesn’t work? I mean, when might it be time to give up?

c) I’m terrified about next year. It’s not because I fear the world of work: I’ve worked before, all through high school and the summer after first year at Exeter, at the bookshop. But I got that job when I was fifteen, and my dad had been such a loyal customer there, how the hell could they not have hired me? (He bought me a book every Friday after I turned two. Every Friday. At primary school we had to do a counting worksheet where we counted things like how many stairs there were in our house, but also how many books we had. I don’t know if we were meant to count our own personal libraries or our parents’ books, but I did the former, and I had something like one hundred and thirty-five. You want to know why I did an English degree, that’s why. Thanks, Dad!) I mean, I turned out to be good at the job, but I don’t seriously believe that I actually got it because of my innate competence.

I’m terrified about next year because seriously what if I can’t find a job. I’ve already given up on doing anything “career-enhancing”: first of all, what does that even mean when you want a career in academia? Most people don’t use research assistants these days (thanks, Internet) and I’m pretty sure the ones who do don’t exactly pay them a living wage. And secondly, there don’t appear to be any “real” jobs in Oxford for someone who’s just finished a B.A. The closest thing I could find was a graduate traineeship in Jesus College library, which fell through (whatever, as if I wanted to be picking up the phone and going “Hello, this is Jesus” twelve times a day. Except I did. I totally did! Wouldn’t you?)

So I’ve been submitting my CV to cafes and trying to think things like: “This is fine, I can get a job or two waitressing somewhere, make some money through tips, and have a little time to focus on writing poetry, articles, maybe getting them published, doing some general reading–all the stuff I haven’t been able to do for three years.”

Which is a good mental strategy but only gets you so far. Because there’s that back corner of my brain that isn’t as tiny as I’d like it to be, and it keeps saying things like this: “So, what, you got a degree from Oxford? What’s that degree doing for you at the moment? You think you’re smart? Oh, okay. You must just be misunderstood, I guess. Especially by the graduate selection committee. What a shame.”

That corner of my brain is an asshole. I know this. Unfortunately, it’s a rhetorically gifted asshole. It is a modern-day Cicero, if you will. It is frequently very convincing.

Anyway, I don’t have a tidy moral lesson or a particularly happy ending for this post, I’m afraid. Fundamentally, of course, I have faith that things will turn out all right. In a way not quite religious but somewhat uncanny, I have been thinking, right from the moment of rejection, that this was meant to happen. Something out there–circumstance, if you don’t believe in anything else–wants me to have a year to explore my own life, before I go back to the rhythms of studying. But I am still really scared. I’m afraid that I won’t get a job, but I’m also afraid that if I do, this one year off will turn into two, then three, then a lifetime. That I’m signing up for a life of anxious mediocrity.

I think maybe it’s useful to let other people know that you can be scared. I keep feeling like a failure–as a Finalist, as a student, as an adult human being–for not having the thrilled anticipation that everyone else seems to have about the rest of their lives. There must be other people who feel the same trepidation. To you, fellow worriers, I have this to say: we are not failures. We will not be failures. We will be okay. It is all going to turn out right.

(But try not to drink alone too much. Really, that is too sad.)

Sweet Omelettes and Operettas

The other day Darcy, who surprisingly both likes cooking and is good at it, made a sweet omelette. They’re much like normal omelettes, only you add a great deal of caster sugar to the mixture, and the filling is berries. He was ever so pleased with it. So was I, because it was delicious.

Just like in a fancy-dancy cookery book! Isn't it nice.

Just like in a fancy-dancy cookery book! Isn’t it nice.

Summery, juicy berry-ness.

It’s a summery, juicy mess.

Anyway, here’s the recipe if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Three things are different: 1) we didn’t limit the filling to blueberries (because WHO WOULD. Really.) 2) The frying pan doesn’t need to go in the oven to heat up, just put it on a low heat on the hob. 3) The berries didn’t go in a saucepan on top of the stove; they got sprinkled with caster sugar, mixed around in a bowl, and left in the oven at 200C for a few minutes, til they’ve caramelized and maybe burst a bit.

Further to summery joys, we went to see Guppy’s show last night: Utopia, Limited, a satire on colonialism and limited liability companies, among other things. It’s a Gilbert & Sullivan, but so infrequently performed that Guppy had to write to the D’Oyly Carte opera company (who premiered all the G&S shows when they were written) and ask them for scores. They sent him back a number of handwritten orchestral parts, which are bound in fading blue cloth and transcribed in indigo ink, with some pencilled notes in the margins but a very stern notice pasted onto the front saying that marking of these scores is PROHIBITED IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS AND VERY HIGHLY IMMORAL TOO.

The show is infrequently performed because it’s supposedly not very good, but the production we saw yesterday was so intensely enjoyable that I can’t see why its reputation is so poor. Actually, I kind of can. The satire is very unfocused: comedy is mainly generated through the peculiarly English device of laughing at one’s own absurdity, but whereas in other G&S productions specific institutions are mocked–the House of Lords in Iolanthe, the Royal Navy in HMS Pinafore–in Utopia, Limited you’re never really sure what the Target, with a capital T, is meant to be. It could, I suppose, be limited liability companies, but that really only enters into the last third of the plot. It could also be forms of government more generally (the “despot” of Utopia is entirely under the thumb of his two Wise Men and the Public Exploder, who is licensed to blow him up with dynamite should he stray towards any exercise of actual power.) But again, the exploration of that theme isn’t particularly sustained. The idea of “government by party”, which is introduced as a way of keeping the lawyers, doctors and legislators of Utopia in employment and preventing too much social progress, is something of a deus ex machina, mentioned in the final scene more as a throwaway line or a cheap giggle. Several things made up for the vague comedic charge of the libretto, though: the poignantly ridiculous situation of the king of Utopia; the relationship between him and his daughters’ governess, the redoubtable professional Englishwoman (a la Anna in The King and I) Lady Sophy; the performance of the actor playing Captain Fitzbattleaxe (yes, yes), whose aria about trying to sing whilst in love was probably the show’s musical highlight; and the glorious interaction between the Escort First Life Guards (all garbed in lifeguard shirts, for obscure but amusing reasons) and the daughters of the Utopian king, who spent an entire musical number attempting to gain the attention of the men with increasing degrees of desperation. Basically, it was entertainment at its silliest and most innocent, and it was wonderful. Guppy’s musical direction should not be shortchanged, either; every time I glanced over, he was practically on tiptoe with concentrated energy, and in the final number he actually jumped into the air, which was just perfect.

Flora and fauna of the Cowley Road: A bestiary of student housing

Here’s something I can’t believe I’ve never talked about: the creatures that invariably share your dwelling with you when you’re paying minimal rent for a cheaply built house. Nature isn’t content to stay outside your box. In the wintertime, it wants in because it’s cold (and can you blame it, poor thing); in the summertime, it wants in because it’s warm (a little less likely in England, I grant you.) At 52 Cowley Road, we’ve been gifted with two particularly outstanding forms of Nature over the past two years.

The first was mice.

I’m not meant to write that because if the Duchess’s mother finds out, she’ll never come to visit us any more, but the lease runs out in July anyway so hey, worth the risk. (Also my mother, if she finds out, would never come to visit us any more, but then she hates the house anyway–last time she refused to go in the kitchen at all.) Our new house is a million times nicer, Mums United, I swear.

Anyway, mice. I can’t imagine why I didn’t write about this last year because it was a serious occupation of ours for quite some time during Hilary. The damn things knew no fear. Once we were all in the kitchen (this was when Bunter was still with us) and we opened the door to see a little furry fellow sitting in the middle of the carpeted hallway. He only scurried away when I actually moved towards him, and disappeared into the wall between the hall and the sitting room, which did not bode well at all. With some trepidation we installed traps. The sissy-looking ones with the fake cheese came first (as if mice are at all bamboozled by fake cheese. The only reason humans recognize that yellow triangle of plastic as cheese is because we understand stylization. Mice, I would imagine, do not.) After that, we drafted in Darcy’s dad, who has a farm and knows how to deal with pests. He brought down to Oxford a series of farm mousetraps staggeringly reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition’s interrogation tools, all teeth and spikes. None of these were even remotely effective. Only the installation of a little black plastic plate, which glows with a strange blue light and which apparently emits a frequency too high for human ears, had any result: no more mice. [edit: Darcy has since informed me that his father also put down “enough poison to kill a small tiger”, as did Warren, our delightful mustachioed handyman. Disillusioned.] It was only several weeks later, when Darcy began to appear in the kitchen looking dismal and holding a succession of gnawed socks and ragged jumpers, that we discovered how our small lodgers had truly occupied themselves.

The second wave of cheerful emissaries from the Great Outdoors has been slightly less cuddly.

I came in from Schools dinner (a formal meal with your tutors and coursemates post-Finals, in which you eat rather less than you drink) on Thursday night, or rather early morning, full of what, for euphemistic purposes, I shall call the milk of human kindness. (The milk of human kindness, it turns out, comes in three varieties: red, white, and sweet. We’d had rather a lot of all three.) The Duchess was still awake and in the kitchen, in the company of a large grey-yellow slug, which she was contemplating with the appearance of someone calculating the distance to the nearest salt shaker.

I’ve always liked slugs. I don’t know why, but they strike me as kind of poignant. I mean, they are probably the most poorly-endowed creatures on earth re: evolutionary defense mechanisms. All they have is slime. It doesn’t seem very fair in comparison to, I don’t know, the poison dart frog or the Komodo dragon. It just makes people go “Eww, gross!” and then try to kill them. As an evolutionary strategy, disgusting other organisms so much that they actually wish to destroy you seems piss-poor, to put it mildly. Anyway, I have a fondness for slugs. According to the Duchess, I marched into the kitchen (or, as is more likely, I stork-walked into the kitchen; bear in mind that I’d had a lot of the milk of human kindness, and my heels are three inches and skinny), stopped dead, bent down and picked up the slug. Our conversation then, apparently, went something like this (my conversation with the slug, I mean. Obviously.): “Hey, little buddy! What’re you doing inside? Let’s take you back out again, okay? You’re a nice little slug. Here”–I must have opened the back door–“you can sit on this leaf”–I think I remember depositing him on a piece of green weed growing between the tiles–“Okay, you just stay out there, okay? I’m sorry I have to put you out. Don’t get too cold.” I shut the door to the sound of the Duchess murmuring something which might have been, “You’re so weird.”

Lest you think this was a fluke, I found another one–it might have been the same one–this evening, when I opened the door to the shower. Now, that was something of a shock: I was stone cold sober and only wearing a towel, both of which circumstances tend to produce less charitable reactions to…well…almost anything. But, I’m proud to say, I did not scream, nor flee, nor reach for the nearest noxious chemical/condiment with which to destroy the slug. I picked him up (with some difficulty–ever tried to get something slimy off a damp tile?), took him outside and put him on the same leaf. If he comes back again, he’ll have earned the right to a name.

And if you read this and think for even one minute that I am sad and pathetic and weird, then I urge you to do two things. One: take Finals and then, when you’re done, see how full of love and benevolence you are towards literally everything living (except for the Board of Examiners). Two: try being a slug for a day. It’s a hard life, and it’s a cold night. I kind of hope he makes it back inside.