Wednesday, April 11, 2012

silence please

...silence please...

The Bodleian Library: The Tower of the Five Orders:
Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian & Composite columns
When Tea in the Library, that bookshop café of fond if brief renown, was in its heyday there perched upon the mantle-shelf (yes, this excellent bookshop café boasted a fireplace) a handsome teapot. It was pristine white and printed, in small letters, with the motto: ‘silence please’ - that familiar exhortation of libraries everywhere. This particular teapot had been imported, with great excitement, from the famous Bodleian Library in Oxford, along with a range of greeting cards (bearing Shakespearean quotations) and bookmarks bearing pictures of, well, books. The teapot was for sale, and as I recall it was a tad on the expensive side - it was, after all, imported from a famous library far, far away; and was, besides, a very handsome teapot. As to what happened to it - ah, therein lies the mystery. It disappeared in the midst of the general melée that surrounded the closing of the shop, when getting rid of 5,000 books took rather more precedence than one lone teapot. Perhaps it was sold to one of the well-wishers who clustered loyally around in the dying days of the shop. Or perhaps not...we’ll never know. To follow melodrama with cliche.

With this story in mind, imagine my delight at espying this very teapot upon a shelf in - you guessed it, I’m sure - the Bodleian Library Shop in Oxford. I had returned, not deliberately, to the motherlode. 

I was in Oxford on a sunny April Sunday for the Oxford Literary Festival, and I had such a good time that I’ll be back next year if the stars are in anything like the right alignment. To start with, the OxLitFest (to use the Twitter handle - social media was big this year) is held in the gorgeous surrounds of Christ Church, one of the Oxford University Colleges. Christ Church is all dreaming spires, mellow yellow stone, green quads (the big is called ‘Tom Quad’ - not sure why) and frankly medieval architecture. On sunny April Sundays is it a quiet and contemplative place, even with hoards of booklovers jostling to hear their favourite authors. The OxLitFest had been going for a week when I discovered its existence - late to the party, yo might say - but nevertheless I managed tickets for several excellent events.
The Marquee booksellers

I arrived in Oxford via a pleasant 1.5 hour journey from London, and found helpful signs directing me to the LitFest. Inside the salubrious grounds of Christ Church College was the heart-throb of the Litfest - the Marquee. Inside the Marquee was a generally useless, though keen, young volunteer whose answer to a request fro directions was a general wave of his arm. However, the Marquee also housed a temporary LitFest bookshop outlet of Blackstones, purveyors of books in their Broad Street, Oxford, shop of centuries. And behind the till as I purchased my, er, books - was a very helpful bookseller who provided a map, directions, and two lovely new hardcovers: Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” and Peter Carey’s “The Chemistry of Tears”

Having oriented myself, obtained a map, and bought books, it was time for lunch. No ordinary lunch -- but a carvery roast in the Hall of Christ Church College. Yes, sitting at the High Table with 45 other booklovers, 300 empty chairs below us, we partook of roast beef and rhubarb crumble, along with a drink, if we liked, from the College Buttery. (Ah! Memories of my own university college buttery!) It wasn’t until later that I heard the Hall - which was many centuries old and lined with portraits of various Old Boys (think John Wesley, etc) - referred to as ‘Hogwarts’. Yep, a Harry Potter mise en scene. I understand that Christ Church provided a variety of locations for the movies.

'Hogwarts' Hall
Local special

After lunch it was time to find my way to another marquee to join several hundred acolytes to hear Alain de Botton talk about his new book. The talk was excellent - Alain is recently back from a book tour of the USA, and was in Australia before that. I guess he has been polishing this talk ad infinitum. In any event, it inspired me to want to take notes - it was very good, as I say - and as I had a pencil in the recesses of my ageing handbag, I began to scribble on the most convenient paper available: the fly leaves of his book. After the talk I eschewed the scrum to get one’s book signed, and opted instead to begin reading - it is thoughtful stuff, though in the end I think I preferred the live presentation. Alain is a good very speaker. I philosopher with a high forehead and a young face and an excellent suggestion for bridging the acrimonious gap between religious fundamentalists and militant atheists. Thoughtful.

Waiting for the author

After my reading break - I sat right near the bathtub promoting Hendrick’s gin - there was a lot of gin-drinking in the sunshine - I followed my Blackstones-booksellers-map and found my way through the backstreets and ancient alleyways of academic Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre, a rather ugly round building off Broad Street. Having headed to Oxford for the LitFest, I had neglected to acquire a proper tourist map or any other touring-type info, so I had no real idea what I was looking at. But the buildings looked exquisite. A mini ‘bridge of sighs’, beautiful facades, lovely golden stone...I had some time and wandered through a blackened ancient-looking doorway...and emerged int eh courtyard of the Bodleian Library. OMG!, as they say. Doorways marked with the disciplines of the scholars who might enter them: musica, philosophia...and in one corner: The Bodleian Library Shop. And thus my encounter with the teapot. Ahhh!

Library doorway

The Bodleian Library is so-called after its initial founder and benefactor, one Sir Thomas Bodley who lived in Elizabethan times. It’s distinction in a town famous for its libraries is that it has always been, and remains, open to all, unlike the College libraries which are exclusive to their own students. The very beginnings of the Bodleian Library go back to c.1320. Bodley’s version opened in 1602. There have been some ups and downs since then, as you can imagine, but the present Bodleian Library holds some 11 millions printed books plus scads of manuscripts, maps, etc. It expanded across the road into the New Bodleian Library in the early twentieth century, and that building is now being upgraded -- they love their books in Oxford.

Having made my teapot purchase - there was no way I could have left it behind - I advance on the Sheldonian to a front row seat to hear an interview with Peter Carey, the Australian double-Booker winner. I’ve always been a fan of Carey’s books - some but not all, shall we say - and he’s a huge influence. He is a very nervous speaker, and it was quite pitiful to watch his nerves, even with a very good interviewer. But he was most generous with his insights and anecdotes (I just knew that 'Illywhacker' was influenced by 'One Hundred Year of Solitude'!) I was sitting next to a short chirpy American lady, who appeared - from her interchanges with the ushers - to be a bit of a VIP. It turned out that she is the Head Librarian of the Bodley VIP indeed! (Dr. Sarah Thomas). Her role this afternoon was to present 'The Bodley Medal' to Peter Carey, as a person who had promoted literature and the library and access to all - or some motherhood statement like that which I can’t remember in detail. It was all very feel-good.

The Radcliffe Camera - a beautiful thing

As a consequence of which, I missed my last event of the day, which was a performance of Bach’s ‘St John’s Passion’ in the chapel at Merton College. Still, I sat on a seat outside the chapel, on a lawn from which daffodils were gamely springing, and I could hear the faint strains of the music. I have an ancestor who left his papers and treasures to Merton College Library - I must go back one day and find its librarian. 

A quiet spot in Merton College

As the sun began to set on a warm afternoon, I took a wander around Oxford: the Radcliffe Camera (part of the Library); peeked through ornate grilles at several other College grounds; Broad Street with its funny little shops, many of them bookshops...and so to a pub, built in the 1600s and still serving beer and fish & chips today. Began the Peter Carey book on the train home, but it had been a long day....zzzzzzzz

"And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening" 

- Matthew Arnold, describing Oxford from Boar’s Hill

Oxford local

Peeking into the Colleges

Blackwell's Bookshop

Oxford Street

...silence please...

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