Shimer College in Oxford

Friday, 27 March 2009

The View from Malvern

The chill's not got as sharp a bite lately, and the light seems to linger ever-so longer each day. But the turn feels bittersweet, to me anyway. Spring's showing all over (the apples and cherries are blooming) and while it's beautiful, it means Shimer will be leaving Oxford in little more than a month.

Still, we have a lot planned in that time. Our senior seminar on the history of western civilization is entering rather rough, deep waters under the lowering skies of modernity (having just finished Nietzsche, Weber, Heidegger, and Arendt, we're on to Dickinson, Kafka, Welles, and Camus in the next few weeks) just as the warming air lulls us out of doors. And soon (following our return from the thesis writers' final break), we'll be hosting a farewell Open House for all our friends here in Oxford: tutors, landlords, housemates and neighbors, the staff at the Turf, and just plain friends. Of course, we'll be sure to invite the housing staff and porters at New College. They've been generous with their rooms in college all year, and for the Open House, they're lending us their Long Room, a medieval hall overlooking Queen's Lane. Those taking music tutorials are planning performances - on the piano, lute, guitar, violin, in song, and (if I can persuade others) some poetry recitals. And, to be sure, we'll be feeding the festivity with our own fare, as we've been doing lately (see Kim's post below - all of which makes me wonder if we've ever had a student do a cooking tutorial . . . ). Then, there are many of us planning last trips before returning to the states in late April and May.

But even with all this ahead of us, for days to remember it will be hard to top last Saturday. We went up to Great Malvern, about an hour and a half northwest of Oxford by train. The town perches at the upper end and lower slopes of the Malvern Hills, a chain of high bald beacons that runs southeast toward Wales just west of the Severn River. We had plans to climb the highest of these, the Worcester Beacon, after stopping in town to take in the 15th-century stained glass at the Priory. There, we found that in addition to the glass (which was magnificient despite being generally decayed and thus oddly empty in places) the Priory had other treasures. Most interesting to me were its misericords, which also date to the 15th century. The misericord is a "mercy seat" for those having to stand for long hours in the choir stalls during services. The seat itself tips up for the sitter to perch on (and thus appear to be still standing), and most are carved on the underside so that once up they reveal sometimes startlingly comic and bawdy scenes from folklore of a decidely non-sacred bent. Here, I offer a photo of one that I have no explanation or source for except that its neighbor depicted a medieval doctor taking a urine sample from his bedridden patient. Most misericords aren't quite so broadly comic. (At least I hope this is supposed to be comic; and I apologize if anyone's offended, but I find myself delighting in these eruptions of the everyday and often brazenly profane medieval imagination into the otherwise otherworldliness of the gothic. Think Chaucer, I guess, or Piers Plowman, which has the Malvern hills as its opening setting).
One other thing we discovered at the Malvern Priory was the apparent inspiration for the early passage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (a student in Malvern once upon a time) in which Lucy enters Narnia through the back of an old wardrobe after seeing a gas light shining through a small hole. Here's my best shot of what purports to be that very hole and gaslight (one of those which do march, oddly, right up into the woods out of town, just as in the books). The hole here is for the key to the back door of the Priory itself, which looks out onto a grassy lane toward the market square. So, here we were walking off into a fantastical Christian allegory, rather than Worcestershire, as we'd thought.
But first, we lounged (not for the first or last time) in the cemetery outside, where Darwin buried his daughter after the waters at Malvern failed to cure a fever. The waters themselves are spring fed, and much of it comes from St. Ann's Well, our next stop (after a few more breaks, of course) about a third of the way up the mountain (which the Beacon is, really, being more than a thousand feet from stem to stern, as one of our number accounted it). From St. Ann's Well and the Octagon Cafe (Shimer's next business venture, anyone?) we made our way staunchly, and finally a bit raggedly, up the side of the hill, which rises in a half mile from 50 (at the train station) to 425 meters (that's about 1230 feet). It's a good walk. But we got to the top. As we crested, we noticed a kestrel hawk hovering, fixed in the air, over the lower, eastern, windward slopes. Kate mentioned a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that she'd read in her literature tutorial, the Windhover:

. . . this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, daple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding / High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing / In his ecstasy!

Much as I sometimes cringe at how strained, even belabored, Hopkins can sound, I can sympathize with his urge to somehow convey the perfectly poised stillness of the bird, the only movement an occasional shivering of wings (see! there I go myself) watching, to its prey just a still black mark in the sky. Continuing to watch the hilltop traffic of birds, dogs, hikers, bikers and kites, we collapsed into a hollow place out of the wind at the top of the Beacon for lunch. This was supplied mainly by (who else?) Kim, who made a delicious, robust Italian salad sandwhich and even brought her cutting board to serve it up on!
After frolicking a bit, and reading some poems and telling stories, we ambled down the other end of the Beacon and back into town, past one of the many quarries that have taken whole sides of these hills away and left massive scars of scree, wrack, underbrush and shallow mossy pools. Back down, we slouched for an hour looking at each others' photos of the day in the Abbey Hotel's quiet tea rooms before we headed back to the train and home. What I haven't said, though I imagine you've guessed, is that the weather was more perfect than any of us could quite believe after the winter winds and rains. Somehow we'd been blessed. But rather than end on such a solemn if sincere note, I give you The Shimer Seven, i.e. the band photo that we'd have been there to take were we actually an organized group of musicians (can you guess which one plays the violin? the lute?). If we sound as good as we look, the Open House performances should be memorable, too.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Orchard

As an addendum to the most recent Shimer dinner, here's a note on our last (both our most recent and, I think, ultimate) trip to Cambridge. Michael, Heath and I took advantage of the OSAP bus ride there last Saturday while the rest of the Shimer gang was cooking up the storm pictured in Kim's post below. Part of the morning we spent on a stroll through King's College Chapel with our Cambridge City tour guide, who offered a few insights on the symbolism in the masonry. I took a few shots this time through of the amazing "perpendicular Gothic" fan-vault ceiling (and offer one here to illustrate why the Chapel bears revisiting).

The tour ended, I dragooned Michael and Heath for a ramble through the fens toward Grantchester, a little hamlet about two miles southeast of Cambridge. There we had (an expensive and not too filling) lunch under the (still leafless) boughs of the apple trees at the The Orchard Tea Garden. (They also endured me taking the obligatory photo, below). Going on a century now, The Orchard has been a playground for Cambridge worthies, starting really with a crowd that revolved around the poet Rupert Brooke. Brooke is mainly known today for his poems from the front in the First World War, where he was killed in 1916. But it was the hende Brooke who also drew together the likes of Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and John Maynard Keynes to The Orchard in a sort of movable (and, judging from their letters, sometimes catty) feast of politics, belle lettres, and logic games. The place is also storied for being just up the River Cam from Byron's favorite swimming hole. The Orchard does still have its charm. But it seems to have given way to its own celebrity. Only ten years ago (when I myself was last there) the walk through the fields was still dirt and gravel; now it's paved. The kitchen seems to cater mainly to high end tourists and families looking for a late morning haven. Though we're told that reveling students still descend on the place during the so-called "May Balls" which actually take place after exams in June, one wonders where Cambridge's current Rupert Brookeses and Virginia Woolfs make their forays during the off season. All in all, it was a pleasant outing, but it was also nice to be treated to the warmth and fun of our own little Shimer scene in Oxford when we returned.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Shimer Oxford Family Dinners

Whew, we are NOT eating like college students this term! We’ve made a point of getting together weekly for a pot-luck (Raya & Alex kicked us off on making this a regular thing). These dinners have turned into us all into Foodies! One Saturday, Raya and Matt made an EXCELLENT lasagna, Alex- brushetta worthy of your mortal soul, lemon-balsamic salad (Kim), and Kate a tiramisu that came from a little tiny section of heaven I like to think of as Bailey’s, Coffee, and Chocolate Central. On Sat 2/28 we had our first Tapas theme- See pics below, but as for menu: stuffed dates with Walnuts and cheese (Lila), Baked Prosciutto cups with seasoned rocket greens and shaved parmesan (Matt), 3- humus mixes and pita (Alex), chorizo, white-wine steamed fresh mussels, lemon- caper artichoke salad (Kim), Cashew bake-yum (Raya), Brushetta with fresh mozzarella and bread (Tory), Home baked Shortbread with Raspberry filling (Kate), Mushroom & Aioli open faced bread, various cheeses, wines, and Mojitos with fresh mint to kick us off. It was a feast!!!! Wish you were all here! J

From Kim

First, Shimer College in Oxford Blog entry- how exciting! Wanted to pass on some fun details of this term’s activities. First- I CANNOT believe I am here!!!! A forty-something career woman with crazy work, financial and familial responsibilities, who started a serious collegiate education four short years ago…..studying in OXFORD??? Solid proof that, indeed, ANYTHING is possible! I can share with you at least one impossibility, I guess….that there could be no happier person in Oxford than I. Can’t conceive of it! Although, I have caused some consternation in my neighborhood- mainly if I am insane or not, as I am always walking around with a huge smile on my face and saying, “Hello.” to everyone I meet. Still can’t believe I am here!

Second- what a truly fantastic treat to have a chance to really get to know my fellow Shimerian students here. It’s a day-to-day interaction I have missed in my Weekend Program experience, which I have truly relished here. Fantastic people, and I am honored to be able to call them my friends and Oxford family.

Third- We all went to see The Tempest in Stratford-Upon-Avon--which was a truly exciting adaptation of the work. Although there was some debate amongst us, I found the African setting absolutely fitting from a British colonial standpoint. The ending was a particularly powerful interpretation- the colonizers leave and Caliban, an elderly black man, once bent over, shackled and spiritually defeated, stands strongly upright, throwing off the cloak-of-oppression (literally), raising his arms and fists and face to the sky; once again full of honor and power that had seemingly been inherently there all along. Quite a moving elucidation.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Fencing, Part Deux

I went to see Lance fence against Cambridge with the Oxford team last Saturday (that's the team getting off the bus, Lance in his blazer). The two clubs have been holding an annual grudge match (not to put too fine a point on it) since 1898 (with a few years' gaps). The score now stands, I believe, at 52-50 in Cambridge's favor. So, it's a statistical deadlock, and in some ways that approximates my sense (as a mostly bewildered beginning observer) of how subtle are the factors that decide a point between two evenly matched fencers. I'd never attended a fencing match, and still couldn't tell you much about what went on, except that it was exhilerating. On each point, the two opponents would dance, toward and back, weapons hovering, sometimes touching, until one or both flashed toward the other into an apparently chaotic engagement of blades and bodies.

In the pictures that follow, that's Lance on the right, typically about to take the head off whichever hapless Cambridge man he was facing. You'll also see how even the camera had trouble keeping up with the action. As for me, after watching for upwards of two hours, I still couldn't decipher most of what was going on. That was the job of the Director, the woman in the undertaker's outfit. She was there to interpret the dully buzzing sirens that registered hits between opponents - a fraught occupation, especially when, as often happened, both lights sounded off simultaneously. When that happened, she would offer a kind of semaphoric pantomime of what had just passed, breaking it down into a formula of gestures she used to signal each fencer's changing momentum and direction along with the split-second attacks, parries and ripostes each had made during the clash. All of this she did to justify awarding the point to one or the other, or neither. Fencers on each side grumbled at her now and then, but they all seemed to respect her keen sight and judgment. I was agog. She could have been making the whole thing up for all I could see, but she had the aplomb of a Solomon.

But now, having paraded my ignorance of the sport, I should still urge on you that Lance was truly impressive out there. To begin with, the score would rise reliably in Oxford's favor every time he stepped onto the piste. But I also liked how he roused his teammates by keeping his cool, which rattled Cambridge no end (they threw at least one substitute fencer and plenty of razz at him, all to no avail). I find myself tempted to offer puns and innuendo here on the name "Lancelot," but it's pretty easy to resist as his talents deserve more than cheap effects. So, instead, here are a few more shots of him in action. (Maybe we can get him to offer a few comments on the photos and day on the blog here, and if not, you might look for his own write up of the event in the upcoming Symposium.)

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Tempest

We all went to see The Tempest in Stratford on Avon earlier this week. Here are some shots (taken on the sly, I'm afraid) from the upper gallery. As you can see, they set it in Africa. At the very least, it gave us much to discuss about the racial politics of the play and production both. This first shot is of Prospero, Ariel and the ghost of Sycorax, from Act I, scene i.

Here are Ariel, Alonso, Sebastien, Antonio and Gonzalo from Act III, scene iii.

And the pageant Ariel and Prospero whip up for Ferdinand and Miranda in Act IV.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Let it Snow

Oxford looks very cozy under a fresh blanket of snow. But not everyone's been thrilled with the weather here lately. Apparently, it's been a twenty-year event to have had an overnight fall of two or three inches. Those of you in Chicago may scoff. We did a bit. But I also got at least one request for a "snow day."

Instead we had a snowball fight. That was right before we discovered we were raising a bit of a ruckus in our rooms in New College. We stumbled into the Conduit Room laughing and shouting only to discover a class already there. Ooops (not our fault, but a bit of a breech of decorum, I guess).

Shimer College in Oxford 2008-2009

The Shimer College in Oxford Program invites you to check in here periodically for news and notes on our doings in this "sweet city with her dreaming spires."