March 21, 2007 - Spring is a truly wonderful season in Oxford. There is a bit of rain and wind, but there are already flowers by mid-March, and far more sunshine than England normally sees. And, unlike in Chicago, there is no snow, and certainly no tornadoes.
I’ve been taking a tutorial in poetry this semester - not any particular kind of poetry, but more of a tutorial to explore poetry. So, in celebration of the warm weather, the subject for my last tutorial was poems about spring. I came up with a number of these, covering a wide range from Chaucer to E.E. Cummings. My tutor suggested that the best place for a discussion about spring was in the actual experience of it, and so we set off on a walk in the gardens of Worcester College.
Oxford has an abundance of parks and gardens: there are at least three large public parks within walking distance of where the Shimer-in-Oxford students are living, and in addition to these each college has its own gardens, although these are usually private. As we walked, my tutor pointed out all the different kinds of birds and flowers to me. Only about half of them coincided with those that are common in America, and those that did were often quite different. England has miniature robins, by comparison, and gigantic ravens.
Of course, we also talked about the poems I had chosen. One of them in particular comes to mind: Home-thoughts from abroad by Robert Browning. The poet being British, the poem is about thoughts of England. It was very remarkable to be able to actually see all, or at least some, of the sights he describes. I admit, I never would have though that a chaffinch was any different from a goldfinch, but for this experience!
For me this combined some of the best things about Oxford: being able to experience a different country, being able to discuss it with people, and not always being stuck in a lecture-room.
March 5, 2007 - If you are reading the Shimer-In-Oxford journal, it seems to me that the possibility exists that you are acquainted with the difficulties of finding obscure books, or if not acquainted, at least sympathetic. In Chicago this can be very difficult, and often involves extensive travel. Not so in Oxford.
The first book that I’ve been wishing to find for some time is one of Boethius’ lesser works. (He is known for the Consolation of Philosophy, I believe.) I gained access to the Theology Faculty Library, which is just North of city centre and a very short distance from where I am living. There I found said book, and a pleasant chair by a window for the afternoon. My method of entry into this library was to wait until someone came out and catch the door to go in, so it is possible that I wasn’t supposed to be in there at all. But, no one seemed to much care, or to notice that I have nothing to do with the theology faculty.
The second book was found at Blackwell’s, a lovely and extensive bookstore in Oxford already described by David Shiner. I have been looking for anything written by Archimedes for a few months, and Blackwell’s has the first volume of two containing the full works of Archimedes. This was found in the Classics section, and although I had no intention of buying it, again no one seemed to mind. David seems to believe that all the comfy chairs have fled the Classics section, but I found a lone one in a corner that served its purpose quite well for a few hours.
February 12, 2007 - Last night I went to a classical music concert at the Holywell music room, just south of the centre of Oxford. The music room was built in the late 18th century, and claims to be the first building built solely for the purpose of playing music. Whether this is true or not, it certainly has the wonderful acoustics of a building made for concerts.
The group I went to see was the Allegri string quartet, a group of talented musicians that are currently doing a period of residence in Oxford, teaching their skills to Oxford University students. The programme for the evening included Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Edward Elgar, a British composer, with a short talk given on Schubert before the concert began. I was particularly fond of the Tchaikovsky piece, which was the String Quartet No. 1 in D major.
Concerts of this sort go on every day in Oxford. I simply decided that I would like to go out that evening, and looked up what was going on in Oxford’s daily info sheet, which is posted around Oxford and is very informative. I did struggle a little at first: tickets on the door means that you can buy your ticket when you get there; concessions, rather than being popcorn or some kind of edibles, is the student price for tickets. In this case, the concessions price was half of normal price, which made the concert affordable for me, and a fun thing to do for a break from studying.
February 5, 2007 - Last week, all the Shimer in Oxford students went on a trip to Stratford, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, for our combined classes. Stratford itself was a very quiet town, although it did contain some tourist type attractions. We visited the Shakespeare birthplace museum, as well as the house Shakespeare was born in. We also visited the church where Shakespeare is buried, although unfortunately we could not quite locate his grave. However, the main point of our class trip was to see a production of Richard III.
Stratford is a much less quiet place when it comes to theatre. It has numerous theatres, including renovated theatres where Shakespeare’s plays are reported to have been first performed. Stratford is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is perhaps one of the most famous theatre groups in the world, particularly for Shakespeare. It was this company that was performing Richard III. The day prior to our trip, all the Shimer students had met, in characteristic Shimer style, to discuss the play. We were assigned Richard III for class, and although it was rather long I think some people were able to get something out of it. As for myself, I struggle with Shakespeare. I simply cannot manage all the characters and sub-plots. Before the play, all Shimer students were required to attend a talk with the director of the play. The director discussed some interesting points, such as his decision to have the actors wear modern clothes, and was clearly very excited about every aspect of his work, from the actors to the music. But, still I felt that the play was somewhat beyond me.
Luckily for me, the Royal Shakespeare Company are as good as people say they are. Seeing the play really brought the text to life for me. Especially interesting was the way that the company interpreted the play, adding things not explicitly written in the script. One thing in particular that was very interesting for me was the play between the two halves of the character of Richard. In actuality, Richard is something of a villain. However, he spends much of his time pretending to be a very pleasant, normal person. In the production, each person Richard killed left a blood stain on the stage, so that even in the scenes where Richard is pretending to be at the pinnacle of morality, the blood stains are right there for all to see.
In retrospect, I would say that this play was worth the lengthy bus ride from Oxford to Stratford, although before seeing the play I was quite opposed to the trip. It’s actually quite exciting to know that Shimer in Oxford students have such fabulous theatre available to us within two hours on the bus. In fact, a group of students from Shimer are planning to return to Stratford in March to see Ian McKellen perform as King Lear, which is something that few people from Illinois can say they have done, or will ever have a chance to do.
April 19, 2007 - Students participating in the Shimer-in-Oxford Program live in Jericho, a very nice part of the city about a mile north of City Centre. I have a particular fondness for that area owing to the fact that I lived there myself the first time I directed the program. As this year’s program is coming to an end, I decided to revisit my old haunts between classes today.
After stopping by my old “flat” (apartment), I wandered over to a lovely little park a few blocks north of the student dwellings. The park is located on Aristotle Lane. This fact has always struck me as the quintessence of Oxford: many towns have pleasant parks, but very few of the others are situated on streets named after ancient philosophers.
Picture by Sara Heatherly
The park was very pretty, with flowers blooming and the grass a vibrant shade of green. On a playground on the northeast corner, small children played while their mothers spoke amongst themselves. The adults appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30s. I sat on a nearby bench and wondered whether those women had been part of a similar scene, in the roles now occupied by their children, when I last visited the park half a lifetime ago.
Picture by Sara Heatherly
March 29, 2007 - Last week we Shimerians took a group trip to Winchester. Winchester is about an hour’s drive from Oxford, so it was very convenient for a day trip. Most of us had already been to the other culturally-significant cities within that general distance (London, Stratford, Bath), so Winchester seemed like a good choice.
And it was. Winchester has much to recommend it. The venerable stone walls of the city, which we inspected at the beginning of our day there, were built by Alfred the Great some twelve centuries ago. Winchester was the de facto capital of the old kingdom, and remained the capital city after the new country was founded in 1066. Eventually London became the capital of England, but Winchester continued to flourish, as it does to the present day.
The most well-known of Winchester’s historic buildings is its cathedral. Built in 1079 on the orders of William the Conqueror, Winchester Cathedral is a huge and impressive edifice. It boasts some of the best of the sorts of items for which the great English churches are justly noted: stained glass, sculpture, mortuary chests, stunning alterpieces, and the like. It also houses, for eternity, some of the greats from the local area, including Jane Austen and William of Wykeham.
I’d never been to Winchester before, and was gratified to have the chance to do so. I’m always aware how many great opportunities there are within Oxford. It’s good to be reminded how many there are outside the city – especially those that are not all that far outside.
March 19, 2007 - This year, 2007, is a special one in Oxfordshire, the county in which Oxford is located (naturally). The county is celebrating “a thousand years of Oxfordshire.” In truth, no one knows whether the county was actually founded in 1007. Still, that’s as plausible a date as any, so interesting events are taking place in various parts of the county all year long.
One of the major celebrations within the city of Oxford took place this past weekend. For three nights, Oxford's Broad Street (home to Blackwell’s Bookstore, about which Liz and I have written in earlier journal entries) was transformed into an extravaganza of light, featuring a specially commissioned pendulum sculpture that lit up all of City Centre. The light show was accompanied by atmospheric, largely atonal contemporary music.
Those Shimerians among us didn’t hear much of the contemporary music, as we happened to be downtown for another musical event. The beautiful Sheldonian Theatre, also on Broad Street, was hosting a concert by the Oxford City Orchestra. The program featured Beethoven’s 6th (“Pastoral”) Symphony, also including a brief Mozart piece and a remarkable Mendelssohn violin sonata that I considered the highlight of the evening.
The Sheldonian is a masterpiece of architecture created by Sir Christopher Wren many centuries ago. Circular in structure, it offers decent sightlines and excellent acoustics. As the concert came to a close, I couldn’t help but contrast the classical music and architecture with the 21st-century events on the street outside. But then, the marriage of old and new – in intellectual matters as well as all others – has long been one of the defining features of Oxford.
March 6, 2007 - The Union Society is the heart of the social life of Oxford University. It’s housed in a small but architecturally impressive area in the center of town. The main building includes a library, pool room, bar (cheapest beer in Oxford), dining hall (almost the cheapest food in Oxford), and assorted lounges. During the term there are lots of events, and it’s just basically a great place to hang out. And it’s easy to hang out there, because its hours are long and all the Shimer-in-Oxford students are members.
Although there are many good reasons to frequent the Union Society, by far the best are the debates. Debates are held in evenings throughout the term, on topics ranging from whether Great Britain should join the European Union to whether Holocaust denial should be punishable by law. The debates are invariably world-class events, featuring heads of state, members of Parliament, academic heavyweights, and celebrities of various sorts. Students with exceptional forensic skills sharpen them by participating in these debates. Whatever your view on the issue being discussed on a given night, you’re guaranteed to leave the debate hall thinking a lot more deeply about it.
I’m very pleased that several of the Shimer students who are here in Oxford this term are attending the Union Society debates. While Shimer’s academic expectations are heavy and there are many other aspects of Oxford to enjoy, it’s important that everyone who comes here take the opportunity to savor this particular one.
February 23, 2007 - I’m eternally impressed with the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’s finest public repository of art and architecture. Its several floors and many rooms accommodate many remarkable paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art. Ancient stone, glass, crockery, and even musical instruments are also plentiful. Everything is well presented and well described. In short, if you like museums, you’ll love the Ashmolean.
It’s been well over 300 years since the museum was founded on the basis of gifts from its first benefactor, Elias Ashmole, a 17th century art collector. The idea of placing a private collection in a public building was very unusual; even the word “museum” was new at that time. According to the museum website, a book entitled New World of Words, published in 1706, characterized the Ashmolean as “a neat Building in the City of Oxford.” I wholeheartedly endorse that description, although I don’t capitalize quite as many words as they did in those days.
The Ashmolean is on Beaumont Street in Oxford’s City Centre, about half a mile from where Shimer students reside. We took a tour of the museum back in September, and I encourage students to visit when they have time. There’s little difficulty in doing that, since entrance to the Ashmolean – as to most of the finest museums in Oxford – is absolutely free.
February 14, 2007 - Blackwell’s is the best bookstore in the world. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, but that was the way they advertised themselves years ago, and I’ve never seen any reason to doubt it. The bookshop is right in the heart of Oxford, a couple of blocks from Shimer headquarters. The fact that you can enter through any of several doors adds to its charm. It’s almost as though you’re entering a different Blackwell’s each time, each of them as magical as the rest.
Blackwell’s is chock full of books, with a special emphasis on really good ones. They carry a lot of best sellers, but that’s a small fraction of their inventory. Whatever you want – literature, philosophy, economics, physics, and on and on – the likelihood it that it’s on the shelves. And, the last time I was here with a Shimer group (1999-2000), there were a number of comfy chairs in the Classics section, which would have been my favourite (note the British spelling) even without the chairs.
When I visited Oxford a couple of years back, I was appalled to see that a gigantic Borders bookstore had gone up a block from Blackwell’s. “Do you think that justifies firebombing?” a tutor teasingly asked me recently, and I replied that I’d have to think about it. But then he told me, more seriously, that the Borders store has had a positive effect on the area in general and Blackwell’s in particular. It seems that the coffee shop at Borders has served as a welcome hangout for poorer folks who like to read. Furthermore, it has induced Blackwell’s to install a café of its own, which has had a similarly salutary effect.
So I visited the Blackwell’s café, and it did indeed seem to be a pleasant place to hang out. Folks quietly sipped their lattes and turned the pages of their books. Alas, the café contains the chairs that used to be in the Classics section. I guess I’ll just have to take my volumes of Sophocles and Vergil over there now.
February 2 2007 - Yesterday we held class in a pub. While I can't say that I'm a big fan of that sort of thing, I'm not inclined to enforce a “don’t drink while discussing” rule either. Particularly not in Oxford. And anyway, we didn't have any alcohol, although we were enjoying lesser drinks during class.
The social function of pubs (short for “public houses”) in the United Kingdom is somewhat different from that of bars in the United States. For one thing, the level of conversation is usually a couple of levels higher. That’s certainly the case whenever Shimer students are involved.
But it’s not only we Shimerites who enliven the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford pubs. Just north of City Centre is an establishment called “Eagle and Child.” For many years during the first half of the 20th century, a group of famous and soon-to-be-famous writers met there, in an alcove that still exists. That group, which included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, was known as the Inklings. They supped, imbibed, and read their latest scribblings to each other.
Yesterday’s Shimer class, which focused on the Florentine Renaissance, is not likely to be as widely celebrated as those famous gatherings. Still, we had a fine discussion, to which the pub lent venerable if silent support. We enjoy carrying on the thousand-year-old tradition of intellectual discussion in a place that is a hallmark of social life in Great Britain in general, and Oxford in particular.
January 22, 2007 - The Summertown Community Centre (note the British spelling) is located about a mile and a half north of City Centre in Oxford. It’s an easy walk orbike ride from downtown, or a bus can get you right there in a matter of minutes. The Centre hostsa number of interesting events, one of which I attended last Friday night.
The event was a lecture and slide presentation. Jeremy Naydler, an Oxford academic who has tutored several Shimer students over the years, was the presenter. His topic for the evening was “Images of Christ.” Jeremy, whose research interests include early Christian iconography, had been searching for the earliest images of Jesus and had made some fascinating discoveries which he shared with his audience.
Lectures of this sort take place throughout Oxford every day of the week. Some, like Jeremy’s, are sponsored by particular organizations. Others are part of the official programme (British spelling again) of Oxford University itself. The latter are all publicized by inclusion in a large leaflet each term. A copy of that leaflet is prominently situated in the lounge of the Oxford Study Abroad Programme, Shimer’s affiliate here in Oxford. And almost all of these events are free, or at most cost very little.
The images Jeremy Naydler presented were from the third and fourth centuries AD, the earliest ones he could find. In some it’s not entirely clear whether some of the images were actually intended to represent Jesus. He is often depicted as a shepherd, but – as Jeremy noted – the “shepherd” motif long predates Christianity. He is also presented in the likeness of a Greek god, normally Hermes, Orpheus, or Apollo. Some aspects of a few of the images, such as the inclusion of a small cross somewhere in the picture, seem to indicate that the subject is in fact Jesus, but the evidence is rarely definitive. Yet, despite the lack of certainty about much of what Jeremy presented, I learned a great deal from his lecture. As, indeed, I do whenever I attend academic events in Oxford.