Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oxford: Disturbing Histories amidst the Golden Spires

Oxford, 2012
This is writing done on the run and I haven't figured out how to download photographs yet, but I did not want to lose you.

After a 23 hour flight from Melbourne, via Singapore, we arrived in a rain drenched London and quickly though sleep fog made our connection with the bus to Oxford. La Professoressa had me hold her huge container of black coffee while she settled herself in, her stimulant of choice, and then we just watched the green green swards pass by with their oh so white sheep almost hidden in the wild green growth. “Oh let there be wildness and wet,” begged the poet priest, in his most lesbian poem, and there was.
An hour later we pulled into Greenhouse Common, the bus depot, with the day just beginning to hit this literature- drenched town. We have four weeks ahead of us; our home is a small apartment on Rewley Road, along the Oxford Canal with its moored barges and pleased swans gliding softly by except on these mornings, nothing on the canal is really quiet because of the rush of the overflow through the weirs, the green waters almost overflowing their banks much to the delight of the duck families that see all becoming more roadways for them. Our street is set back from the main thoroughfares of the town which is a good thing because like Cambridge, Oxford in the summer holidays is like a theme park fitted inside a most guarded box, the Colleges with their gates and signs saying, no public allowed, but we pile up before the opened exclusions to oh and ah at the old stone facades drenched in tradition which is almost a tangible commodity here.
Before I proceed, with my Swinburne in my hand, more on that later, I have to put in context my slightly off putting first days in Oxford. The second day we were here, we fought against the urge to sleep, sleep, and took to the streets walking down George Street to the Information Center where amidst the mobs, we found the city street maps we needed and proceeded amidst rain showers to take the outlined walking tour. It was a lovely morning, in its own way, the soft mist, sandstone yellows, the gray stone fences surrounding the purples, yellows, reds, whites of humble field flowers with some hollyhocks thrown in, the perfect green lawns and soon we were in an early morning quiet walking away from Cornmarket Street, the town’s shopping mall, out past Christ Church College and Merton on the aptly named Broad Walk, heading towards the Botanic Garden that runs before Magdalen College. Long stone walls, and the massive structures of learning facing their green fields, the morning’s light grays part of the hush of the history we were walking past and then I stopped and looked up and there they were, the spires of dreams, the decorative towers of Christ Church and Magdalen, drawing the eye upward and the spirit also, if one shares the desires of Hardy’s Judd, if only, if only, the poor man’s son yearned, his Latin book stuffed in his carry bag pushing in its soft way against the sharp stone- working tools that earned him his bread. Even aspiration here is a literary figure and so is its rejection, as Shelley found out, when youthful imagination tested time-bound mores and he found himself on the street outside his College, forbidden entry evermore, until his fame raised him above his disgrace and we are told, a statue of the too young lost poet, stands in the courtyard of his now devoted College.
It reminds me always, stories like these, of the Smithsonian exhibit to honor Paul Robeson, the great African-American internationalist that I stood before sometime in the 80s, I think, the exhibit pretending that he was not an American native son forced into exile for unwanted political views, banished in ill health from his country of birth, but later rehabilitated back into the Smithsonian Hall of American Fame, far from the Poughkeepsie fields through which he and his fans had to flee for their lives from the bat wielding good Americans fueled by McCarthyism and racism. Wait for the sanctity of death and pluck the banished who have proven so much more than those who hated them into exile, pluck the now needed hero from their history and parade their ghosts in new clothes of national acceptance. I have left the map of Oxford behind a little in this digression, but walks through tradition-adored places do encourage other tellings, the insistence of the rememberer to complex the national story, to do the pillow talk of, “I will tell you what you need to know, what is mistold, so you too can walk off the official maps.” Perhaps this is just another way to say to the young ones, be patient with the words that seem to come pouring out of their own accord, so wanting to give you other versions, just listen a little longer to strange names and unknown places because some day in your journeys, you will witness or be an actor in an offered moment of betrayal or easy acceptance of a lie or a hatred or exclusion—even though I know you will travel in worlds I cannot even imagine now—my stories move toward you, like the currents of the River Cherwell, sometimes gentle and others, rushing into small river mountains, with their outrage.
Where is all this coming from, as I try to force my steps back onto the fold out map of the now of Oxford. I will tell you. After our two mile walk, the rains grew harder and so to finish the day, we boarded the city’s tour bus, dutifully plugging in our little red ear pieces and pushing English on the dial that made all intelligible. These two decker tour buses which I have met in many cities now all seem too thick for the streets they want to reveal and Oxford’s streets are narrower than most. All was going well, however, with all the other wheeled things giving way to our behemoth of income—the churches, the Colleges, the Castle mound all introduced to us, some with small jokes—like the anecdote about a post card mailed to Kirby College with the address “close to Rome,” because the voice explained, it was so high church. Then we turned towards the Botanic Garden and the voice said in the same half amused way, the Garden built on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery when in 1290, the king after borrowing all the money he needed to fight his war refused to pay back his debt, invoking his right to banish the money changers and so the Jews were banished from England, broke and unwanted and their cemetery turned into the Oxford gardens under the watchful eyes of the College Magdalene’s “spires of dreams.”
 I did not follow the rest of the history telling, so taken was I by this throw away story of the excluded from this city of dreams. I have found no other mention of this source of botanical richness in any of the material provided by the Tourist Information Center; after writing these words, I turned to the index in Jan Morris’ Oxford and found reference to a memorial plaque in Hebrew beside the entrance gate saying once Jews were buried here, her discussion focusing on the linguistic richness of this so- educated place;  I will soon make my way to the gates of this garden, pay my requested fee and pay homage to those who did one of the few things they were allowed to do, trade in coinage. This is always the dilemma for those of us who are not Zionists, to look hard- eyed at the history of those who had all the power to do better, to think differently, to open gates and refused to see the Jew as fully human. Here in Oxford, under the stone carvings, within the old cold stone walls, flowers grow from the centuries old flesh of the emptied- of- value.
Beneath this garden lies a medieval cemetery.
Around 1190, the Jews of Oxford purchased a water meadow outside the city wall to establish a burial ground. In 1231, that land, now occupied by Magdalen College was appropriated by the Hospital of St John and a small section of wasteland where this memorial lies was given to the Jews for a new cemetery.

An ancient footpath linked this cemetery with the medieval Jewish quarter along Great Jew Street, now St Judiates. For over 800 years this path has been called Deadman's Walk, a name that bears silent witness to a community that contributed to the growth of this city and early University throughout the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 1290 all the Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I. They were not permitted to return for over 350 years.
May their memory be blessed.

History keeps speaking. This morning, I sat in the market square reading the Guardian, enjoying a brief time of sunshine and came across this article:
Tycoon gives L75m for Oxford's poorest students
(by Jeevan Vasagar)
"It is common for altruistic billionaires to make their mark in brick, steel and glass on a university campus or to sponsor one of the more fashionable branches of research, but Michael Moritz will leave a legacy in flesh and blood. The venture capitalist, born in Wales and living in California, announces the biggest philanthropic gift for undergraduate financial support in European history yesterday....Moritz, who attended state school in Cardiff and graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with a degree in history, said he was moved to help others by his father's escape from Nazism...He owed his existence to the 'generosity of strangers.'"
I have fallen into this conversation while walking along the gentle shores of the rivers that flow through this iconic spired town; I walk in the wake of exclusions, old ones and new.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joan, lovely to hear you're in the uk again, closest I get to Oxford is through TV dramas, lovely to see it through your political and lyrical blog! Jx