The Dreaming Spires
This is the second part of Alice’s adventures back in June. You can read the first part here. Done that? Then…
Oxford, the city that awoke my thoughts and dreams
Sadly, my time at the June 10th get-together was cut short. Happily, this was to go to Oxford, to meet Kevin. Terrifyingly, this would be in quite a formal setting: dining at Balliol College! Kevin had warned me that I’d need something smart to wear – my jeans and NO2ID badge would have to go – and I wondered who would be there, what they would talk about, whether I would look like an idiot. Last time I was in Oxford, I had run into Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. To cap it all, I was late. Chris reassured me. “Kevin’s leaving,” he reminded me. “It doesn’t matter if you dance on the tables.” I said I hadn’t actually been planning on that.
Credit: Balliol College
Balliol College was beautiful. We stepped over a tall wooden threshold which reminded me of the doors on the Cutty Sark, and onto a great square lawn fringed with trees and dotted with calm-looking students. The buildings were golden and the chapel bells were ringing. Kevin introduced me to a graduate working on the mergers, named Dan, who I hope will join our forum soon to tell us more. It truly felt like another world to me, when Kevin thought he might have to don his “Batman costume” – it turned out he didn’t, and there were only the three of us in a large dark hall with silver candlesticks. I had an urge to whip out a notebook and start writing a novel. The food was excellent (Kevin, did I say thank you?), although I was glad the chef hadn’t made balsamic vinegar ice cream this time. The gowns and grandeur – my younger self might have mocked it all. But it seemed to work. Immersed in this new culture, I could almost drink and breathe the thinking. And who wants everywhere to be the same?
Some time after arriving at the Denys Wilkinson Building (“the ugliest building in Keble Road,” said Kevin) at 8.40 next morning, I learnt that Chris was in a meeting in London. I went to explore Oxford instead, and ended up at a river running through the park. I felt as if I was in a dream, as if I had seen it before, in this passage by Richard Dawkins, from The Blind Watchmaker:
It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air. There is no consident air movement, and the seeds are drifting outwards in all directions from the tree. Up and down the canal, as far as my binoculars can reach, the water is white with floating cottony flecks, and we can be sure that they have carpeted the ground to much the same radius in other directions too. . . . It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. . . It couldn’t be plainer if it were raining floppy discs.
There were no cottony flecks, but there were willow trees. And the canal goes through the centre of Oxford, not this park. But it was precisely as I’d imagined.
I ask your indulgence for a cultural diatribe. I can’t tell you much about Galaxy Zoo II yet; but I’m here now, so I want to show you all the city of Oxford, with its calm and thought and beauty. The complex, solid, golden buildings put me in mind of Granada, southern Spain, where I lived when I was twenty-one. I got the same feeling here as there: that hundreds of years ago, someone had taken the sort of trouble nobody in today’s corporate world would consider worth taking, to make a city to last forever and always be pleasant to live in and be in, for each of its citizens to jointly own. The architect Richard Rogers, who wrote Cities for a Small Planet, describes “single-minded” and “open-minded” areas of cities. The former is a residential area, or shopping mall, or business park, in which everybody is in a hurry, nobody speaks to anyone, nobody seems to own the place, and nobody feels safe. The latter might be the market street, or the plaza, or the park, built to cater for many purposes together – where you can linger and chat, which everybody has a part of and cares for. The tourist information office was a hundred times as friendly as any I have visited in Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, the “touristy” areas. They recommended I take a stroll around Catte Street, and I second that. Those dreaming spires seemed to almost to look at me as if they had faith in me. I had the feeling that it would be impossible to run noisily through them, or feel stressed or close your brain when inside. Rather than the fashionable envy of Oxford, and resentment that it is so hard to get in, I thought: why can’t more places be like this?
On the way back to Keble Road, I dropped in at the Natural History Museum, which features in The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. The novel describes places on Earth so carefully that I was disappointed not to find the exhibits the heroine, Lyra, sees. If anyone knows whether they really exist or not (a skull from the Bronze Age, which Lyra’s alethiometer says is actually 33,000 years old, and a picture of two men with a sledge, who had captured her in her universe), I would love to know.
Chris found me sitting on the wall of the steps up to the Denys Wilkinson building reading a novel, but not really taking it in. I was already writing this blog in my mind, simply about Oxford itself – and a very interesting task awaited me indoors.