Of carnie ginks and geniuses

The St. Giles Fair closed the streets in the central part of Oxford today, and we went expecting medieval knights, an open air market and arts and crafts.

Carnival ride on St. Giles
Carnival ride on St. Giles

Instead, the midways of every county and state fair or village carnival from the United States had been moved in to compete with the spires of Oxford. We walked through but never stopped for cotton candy, a chance to win a stuffed animal or for a ride on one of the puke generators we used to love so well.

We made our way through the noise and crowd to the Vodaphone store to find out what happened to the extra pounds I had loaded onto my phone for calls back to the States. One call and all but 90 pence were gone. Got a different plan that gives us 50 minutes of international calling for a month. Mother Marian, we will not neglect thee (reading too much Shakespeare?).

Then it was on to the Weston Library for the “Marks of Genius” exhibit. In climate-controlled glass cases the library (part of the Bodleian Library) has spread out remarkable examples of remarkable genius. Let’s start with parchment shards of poems written by Sappho about 700 years before Christ. Of the nine volumes of poems she wrote, only one survives intact.

Go look at the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C., and think how old that seems for a document to survive. Then think about the Magna Carta, first written in 1215. There’s no trace of an original, but the Weston’s is one of 17 copied by hand on parchment. So it may not be all of 800 years old — give or take a decade or two.

There are ancient texts from China, the Arab world, Edmond Halley (predicted the cyclical return of the comet named after him), the original manuscript of “The Wind in the Willows” and the original book jacket for “The Hobbit,” designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.  Wonderful colored original prints by Audubon, drawings by William Blake and Copernicus. A travel journal kept by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley (talk about a couple of messed up lives!). Original calligraphy lessons by Queen Elizabeth I. There are original or early volumes of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante, musical scores by Handel and Mendhelssohn, the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s novels and the “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope (my favorite Pope quote: “The higher you climb, the more you show your ass” — for this I went to grad school).

Interesting that they included early printing — handbills, posters, etc. — as examples of genius. But then this is a library, after all, that collects printed material — 13 million volumes to date. So why not? It’s been the medium of genius — and much else — for almost 600 years.

What stuck with me the most might have been a letter written by Isaiah Berlin about the visit of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to Oxford to receive an honorary award. Shostakovich, in and out of favor by Stalin, arrived with two Soviet “diplomats” who accompanied him everywhere, making dinner and cocktails difficult and more seriously leaving evident signs of strains on the composer’s face. The effect of this repression on genius made a vast impression on Berlin, whose letter conveyed the feeling to me. That’s genius.

Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.
Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.

Touring Oxford, relishing Shakespeare

Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.
Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.

By Kathy

Day 3 of our adventure in England was packed with discoveries, revelations and inspiration. We walked a mile from our flat to the center of town to join a tour highlighting important sites, including one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges.

Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.
Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.

Our personable guide, Katie, introduced us to the centuries-old university and how it works: each college independent yet allied; nearly all quite small (just 22,000 students in the entire system), housed primarily in decorous stone buildings surrounded by well-worn walls (yet open to the public at certain times). The schools, with their manicured courtyards, ornate edifices and streams of students, dominate the look and feel of the central city.

We visited Jesus College, co-founded by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century for the people of Wales. Students live, study and play together on the campus, where they meet with their professors once a week for “tutorials” in which they review projects assigned throughout the eight-week terms.

The dining hall at Jesus College.
The dining hall at Jesus College.

Students go off the grounds to auxiliary campuses around the city for lectures, research and more. The “collegiate” feel of the place came across most vividly in the dining hall with its soaring leaded-glass windows, carved oak panels and enormous communal table. I expected to see Harry Potter at any moment.

Speaking of which, we had a chance to walk through the old Divinity School now surrounded by the incredible Bodleian Library (which houses more than 13 million volumes and counting). The school, made entirely of carved stone, is a wonder of architecture and beauty. A ballroom scene in one of the HP movies was filmed here.

The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.
The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.

We celebrated all that we’d seen by stuffing ourselves at the cozy White Horse pub (one of the city’s oldest); fish & chips and a pint of Guinness for me, “toad in the hole” for John. The pub appears in the Inspector Morse TV series, which we hope to find time to watch (our apartment has the complete set of DVDs).

Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.
Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.

After a rest back at the flat, we returned to the central city and the newest part of the Bodleian (the Weston Library) for what may have been the most extraordinary “college lecture” I’d ever heard. John has already written about Professor Wells (emeritus, Univ. of Birmingham), but I thought I’d share a few impressions, too. We are still discussing all that he said, looking up film clips of Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, finding Sonnet 29 to read again, and so on. Such is the “imprinting” power of a fine teacher/writer.

As an editor most of my working life, I trafficked in the power of words. Wells spoke with passion and insight about Shakespeare’s skill and why he still matters more than four centuries later.

Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.
Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.

Quoting from memory Hamlet, Lear and more, he made us feel the lyricism of the words, moving from complex syntaxes to simple declaratives, soft and loud, thoughtful and emotional; sometimes simply silent. More than the meaning, we felt the majesty.

Beyond the skill at crafting words, Wells explained, Shakespeare possessed the ability to convey a set of values that live across the ages: the importance of intelligence and wit, of moral courage and plain kindness; an appreciation of individual idiosyncracies (“what a piece of work is man”) and of the transformative power of imagination.

Certainly, Professor Wells possesses transformative powers of his own. Ah, to have been his student!

The terms -- after the Latin word terminus -- surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.
The terms — after the Latin word terminus — surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.