One room paradise

Except it’s not one room, y’all. It’s SIX. And two bathrooms. Boom!

The lease started on Wednesday and so far it’s been all good, settling in. My brother (who is no longer The Kid) came down to Oxford with me on the day and helped enormously with suitcases and the faffery of the check-in. Moreover, he didn’t seem to mind sleeping on the sofa. Our inaugural dinner, at the massive antique scrubbed-wood table, was a six-egg omelette with red pepper, chopped ham and onions, and half a bottle of red wine each, on which we got rather merry.

It’s a much nicer house than 52 Cowley, although I still feel nostalgia for that house and probably always will. It was my first proper home away from my parents. It was the place I first learned to cook and pay bills and ring the council when the bins hadn’t been taken away for two weeks (yes indeed). It was the first place in my adult life where I sat at a table full of friends who were eating, drinking and making merry, and thought, “I am happy. Everything is good. This is how it should be.” That said, 52 Cowley was also dark, cramped and extremely difficult to keep clean (not that we tried very hard). Our new house is a tremendous improvement. It’s a townhouse; somehow, it’s been constructed at an angle such that both sides seem to receive light throughout the day; all of the rooms have double beds, which is a huge advantage; and my room is simply enormous. The kitchen is infinitely better arranged, and larger; we have a dishwasher, and the wall has been knocked through so that, beside the table, there’s a space with a sofa, coffee/TV table and armchair–all our entertaining can be done in one place!

My much bigger bed (slightly wrinkled from First Nap)

My much bigger bed (slightly wrinkled from First Nap)

We tested this out with a visit from Hawkeye and Casanova on the second night. The Duchess had come down for the night as well, and my brother was still with me, so we had five people sitting down to dinner. I made chicken jalfrezi with a jar of curry paste from the store cupboard, a couple of chicken thigh fillets, and some red and green peppers. Being able to cook without having to ask some of your guests to perch on the table or flatten themselves against the wall to give you more space is a pretty delightful perk of the new kitchen. (Also, the curry seemed to go down rather well. The Duchess, who is a notorious epicure, gave it a Seal of Great Approval. This pleased me very much.)

I spent most of yesterday, after delivering my brother to the station, unpacking my things, which had been driven up from their temporary summer storage in Bournemouth by Lovely Uncle. Excepting a pile of winter clothes and cocktail dresses, and two boxes of books which Bunter kindly took for the month, I’m nearly all moved in! I relieved the tedium of unpacking, and the sudden loneliness which sometimes descends when you’re suddenly the only person in the house, with a playlist of my brother’s which is mostly a medley of Spanish rap and upbeat ‘70s classics. It worked terrifically, both lifting my mood and making me rather more efficient…

As much as I could get of my mostly-unpacked room: books on shelves, pictures on noticeboard, quilt on bed...joy!

As much as I could get of my mostly-unpacked room: books on shelves, pictures on noticeboard, quilt on bed…joy!

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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!

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.

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.

All I want is to have my peace of mind

I love long deadlines. There, I said it. My degree has given me three of them: one in Trinity of last year, two weeks to produce a tute-length essay (2-3,000 words) and a commentary; one last term, four weeks to produce a 5-6,000 word Special Author essay on William Faulkner; and one this term, three or four weeks to produce a Special Topic essay of equal length. I’m writing, as I said before, on the use of the grotesque and the Gothic in Southern fiction. The thing about this paper is that, unlike the Special Author one, you don’t answer a question. You make up your own thing, write an abstract, submit it to the examiners for approval, wait for approval, get approval, do your own research, and write the thing. This means the schedule of production is pretty much completely up to me. The deadline for abstract submission was last Thursday, and the examiners will officially approve the topic this coming Tuesday, but in practical terms, the only reason this happens is so that they can make sure you’re writing on more than one author (you’d be surprised how many people just don’t read the exam regulations.) With the Faulkner paper, on the other hand, I was constrained: the question wasn’t released until Tuesday of fifth week, and the paper was due exactly four weeks later. This time around, there’s no release date, so there’s no technical start date. The start date is whenever you like.

I love this because I am a chronic worrier about deadlines. I always start too early because I labor under the delusion that four weeks won’t be enough time. Consequently, I’ve been reading since Monday. Reading for an essay is kind of an amazing process. If everything you read in one working day is entirely or even mostly relevant, you can work for five hours–hell, you can work for three–and emerge from the library with your level of understanding and comprehension about ten times higher than it was when you woke up. That’s just one day. It’s almost scarily rewarding. (If you have bad luck, on the other hand, you can spend more than five hours trying to extract usable information from tracts written by people who use phrases like “the pregnant womb-brain of Wordsworth’s imagination” and “The character is a southern chronotope who throws into focus the infinite heteroglossia that work to construct him.” (True story.) This is also scary, but not rewarding.) Anyway, so far all of the reading has been relevant, and because I am (besides being a chronic worrier) pathologically impatient, I decided to try and start writing something on Friday afternoon.

This is only possible, I should add, because I don’t have to. I can decide to read early, and I can decide to start writing early, because it’s not a requirement. My schedule is free and clear, the Chair of Examiners isn’t imposing any time restraints on me other than the requirement that I give them a finished product by 12 March, and I can do whatever I like, whenever I like. Are you starting to see why I love long deadlines?

As a result (and, you must remember, the chronic worrying plus the impatience is responsible for this, not necessarily my native work ethic, which is capricious), I have 1,526 words as of noon today. I have three weeks to produce another 5,500 more. I’m not even finished with my introductory section, and I know exactly where I’m going to start when I return to the essay on Monday morning. Forgive me for gloating, but things rarely go this smoothly with weekly work.

This is how my days go when I have long deadlines: I wake up at eight. I write until eleven or noon. Some of that also involves reading–I tend to need to read more things as I go along–but by lunchtime I’ve done enough to clock off. The afternoon is mine. I’ve spent this afternoon doing the following: cleaning our kitchen (not just the dishes, but the stovetop and the oven door and also the counter by the microwave, which was beginning to develop its own ecosystem), watching the first twenty minutes of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents (quality programming from BBC Three) over lunch; reading the introduction to Moby Dick (another great thing about long deadlines is that, for a change, I have time to read for pleasure during term); writing this blog post (in Blackwell’s, with a fat little pot of Earl Grey at my elbow). This is pretty much how I want to spend my life. This works well. Also, it’s sunny today, and although the winter isn’t over yet, I am easily bamboozled (like the snowdrops) and am credulous enough to be quietly but thoroughly pleased about good weather in February. I’ve given up being annoyed for Lent, and though it’s probable that by this time next week, something or other will have happened to provoke annoyance, for the moment, things are just fine.