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Archive for September, 2008

addendum

If I sound overly melodramatic about the state-of-the-political-world it’s only because I am. This distance, put between me and the circus quite consciously, is making me crazy. I went to a Democrats Abroad meeting in the pub a few weeks ago and felt bolstered; I listened to a young student from San Diego deliberate with herself and felt like the world was coming to an end.

All in all, I think I’ll feel better when it’s over and we have a new leader.

In the meantime I’ve started school again. I’m sinking rapidly into the feeling that what I want to do more than anything else is wrap myself up in words and swim in the sea of Academia and sunbathe in the fruits of my research. (Mixed metaphors, anyone?) So I’m formulating a vague plan.

On a happy note, the Man has returned from his sausage-making expedition smelling of pork and bearing 22 lovely-looking sausages. Moreover, he assures me, we have some more in storage, waiting in a friends’ freezer. It’s a good world, all in all.

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This being the first and only write-up on last night’s presidential debate that I’ve read so far, I’m coming from a distinctly uninformed standpoint here. But never mind that. There are only three points which I wish to call attention to, and I don’t think any of them requires a higher degree of credibility than I have:

1) I can pretty much guarantee that Senator McCain’s almost-decision to “suspend campaigning” in light of the current financial crisis was a purely political move, likely cooked up by advisers to make the Senator appear sympathetic to the crisis and more concerned with his country’s plights than his own campaign. But it’s a catch-22: if he had suspended his campaign, he would STILL be campaigning. The very act of suspension would have been an act of campaigning. Once you enter the presidential race, you don’t leave until someone’s been declared victor. EVERYTHING that you do is part of the act.

2) From the Post article:

“Later, McCain’s voice dripped with derision as he questioned Obama’s statement that he would meet with the leaders of rogue foreign countries, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“So let me get this right: We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, ‘We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,’ and we say, ‘No, you’re not’?” the senator from Arizona said.”

Oh, I know what’ll help the USA interact with the world at large: cutting ourselves off from it! No, Mr. McCain. I think it takes a lot of guts for Obama to say something like that on national television (in this era of frighteningly instinctive, “gut-based” electoral politics, Obama now runs the risk of being unhelpfully associated with the Iranian President). I also think that he’s absolutely on the right track. Forging relationships–however tremulous–is something we clearly haven’t tried to do as a country for the last eight years; and I fail to see how a simple willingness to meet with other leaders–however terrible they might be–can be detrimental to us now.

But I think it all stems from a fundamental difference in worldview that was highlighted later on in the debate…

3) Also from the Post: “The two candidates had an emotional exchange over the bracelets they each wear in memory of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq, underscoring the deep divide created by the war.” I think staff writers Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray are wrong here: this is not a divide created by the war. This is a divide that always was. See here:

McCain wears the bracelet of a 22 year old soldier killed outside of Baghdad. McCain recounts the plea of the soldier’s mother: “But Senator McCain, I want you to do everything — promise me one thing, that you’ll do everything in your power to make sure that my son’s death was not in vain.”

Obama wears the bracelet of another young soldier. He says of this soldier’s mother: “She asked me, ‘Can you please make sure another mother is not going through what I’m going through?'”

I couldn’t help, in my circuitious mind, to think of Euripedes’ play The Trojan Women, which might be the most powerful anti-war narrative ever told. It’s not about the soldiering, or even the war itself; it’s about how it effects the women left behind, and it’s painful. McCain wears a bracelet that symbolises finding meaning in war–a defeatist attitude, as if the act of war is inevitable and all we can do is not seek to prevent it, but merely make sure that it is “not in vain”. Obama wears a bracelet that symbolises the possibility that future generations of mothers and sons, of human beings, will not have to suffer the rigors of battle and its gutting aftermath.

“I have left the gates of darkness where the dead are hidden and Hades dwells apart from the gods, and come to this place,” says Polydorus, son of Hecuba and Priam, appearing as a ghost, opening Euripedes’ play. The candidates are in the “this place” of the play; a place not where the dead are hidden but where the living roam, where “future” and “possibility” exist, where the human mind may still be swayed, or opened. Let us hope that we move towards light, and not closer to the gates of darkness.

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Found in Moleskine

“If this is love…there is something highly ridiculous about it.”
Virginia Woolf, Orlando

After the crowded late-Summer bustle of Brighton, Oxford seemed full only of ghosts if it was full of anything: the streets wide and empty, the people, when they came, very quiet. Gone were the calls of the Hare Krishna as they marched, the yelps of excited babes and the storms of hip young traffic. All old; all calm.

As I sat waiting for the clouds to part overhead (they showed some inclination to do so just over Blackwell’s), it seemed to me that all of Oxford was bathed in the most precious of blue-grey light, which made the walls shimmer and the air, though quite cool, as in a dream.

At last I began to feel cold, sitting there on the steps, and glancing idly to my left saw that tiny pub, The White Horse, and thought, just as idly, that I could go and sit in the warmth and have a half-pint of cider and be quite content for a time, especially with a book; and so struck was I with the idea that I leapt up almost at once and began to make towards the place, whose windows glowed appealingly yellow. I was tired of sitting on the hard stone, of watching everyone on their way, of being unmoving; tired of waiting for a friend or acquaintance to pass, and quickly, happily, found myself inside where all smelled of wood and ale. It was warm, too, and this warmth meant a great deal to me, for all the air of summer seemed to have been bled from the day, leaving only a soft Autumnal chill and a grey haze over the city. I asked for a half of cider.


“Just a half?” said the barman, but without any humour. I might easily have been cajoled into a pint by a cheerier ‘tender, but so dry seemed this one that I simply said:
“Yes, just a half,” and took it and sipped, and sat down upon a high bench near the window.

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A few weeks ago, I experienced my very first St. Giles’ Fair. Surely this must be some kind of secret Oxford induction: in the dead-quiet of early September, when the leaves are on the cusp of changing and a hush has come over even the busiest streets, suddenly the flame of festivity erupts on one of the city’s most charming tree-and-college-lined roads. In my research, I read that, “since the nineteenth century, St. Giles’ Fair has been held on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday after St Giles’ Day (1 September)”—a fittingly circuitous formula for a circus-esque display.

Here’s what John Betjeman wrote about it in 1937 (in An Oxford University Chest):

“It is about the biggest fair in England. The whole of St Giles’ and even Magdalen Street by Elliston and Cavell’s right up to and beyond the War Memorial, at the meeting of the Woodstock and Banbury roads, is thick with freak shows, roundabouts, cake-walks, the whip, and the witching waves. Every sort of fairman finds it worth his while to come to St Giles’. Old roundabouts worked by hand that revolve slow enough to suit the very young or the very old, ageing palmists and sinister, alluring houris excite the wonder and the passions of red-faced ploughmen…. Beyond St Giles’ the University is silent and dark. Even the lights of the multiple stores in the Cornmarket seem feeble…. And in the alleys between the booths you can hear people talking with an Oxfordshire accent, a change from the Oxford one.”

It isn’t so very different today, fundamentally: “Beyond St. Giles’ the University is silent and dark…”.

Historical photos of the fair show ladies under wide parasols, in sweeping black skirts and busty white blouses. The men wear caps at jaunty angles and plus-fours, or suits and bowlers. There are striped tents and little girls with ribbons in their hair. The great stone walls of the University are all but hidden. Elaborate, fairy-tale structures have been erected where once was only an empty avenue.

The caption of one photo, taken in 1895, reads: “A large crowd gathered in St Giles during the annual fair to watch the Fair Days Menagerie. A clown and a pelican are entertaining the crowd waiting to enter.”

When I attend the fair, the outfits are t-shirts, scarves, and denim, and nobody carries a parasol, though they wouldn’t need to anyway: it’s a day as grey as they come. A mist settles on my bicycle as I wheel it through the crowd. There is none of the frivolous accordion music you expect at a fair, only the heavy thump of electronic beats and rock bands (the Man, who works in an office on St. Giles itself, came home that evening looking frazzled and as if he never wanted to go near the place again). The only people on the whirling carousels are white-haired women being photographed by their white-haired husbands, reliving the glory of their childhood one musical spin at a time. Today’s young prefer the faster-paced rides: the roller-coaster outside the doors of a college, the things that spin and shake you into a state of blissful oblivion.

I am reviled by the prospect of such things, though a lifelong attraction to bumper cars is rekindled as soon as I see the shiny floor of the Dodgeum ring. Enormous stuffed animals, arcade games, and the universal sweet smell of the fair (cotton candy mixed revoltingly with fried foods) accost the senses at every turn. I have the sense that I have stepped off my cycle and into a Fellini film. I don’t know quite where to look: at the Haunted House? The giddy teenagers in their tiny straight-leg jeans and pixie haircuts, cigarettes protruding from underage lips? The enormous pink polar bears on display, the food stalls, the patient tweed-clad fathers trying to keep up with their eager, bounding toddlers? I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see a clown and a pelican holding court. Part of me is disgusted, but another part of me can’t help cracking an enormous grin.

**

When I get home I check the news, as if there might be something new, but there isn’t. There’s doom and gloom and the circus of the presidential election–McCain/Palin (a clown and a pelican?) making gaffes wherever they go, Obama making speeches, pundits and political analysts making predictions, everyone else making noise. The whole world appears to have been swallowed by the same Fellini film that took over St. Giles for two days in September.

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I went to buy a new bath mat today, but they didn’t have any under £12.99 that weren’t all kinds of ugly, and I decided I’d rather not spend that much money on something I’m going to use to dry my feet off with after a lengthy soak. Too lazy to try anywhere else, instead I went down Broad Street and bought myself a few books–which came to a grand total of £13. But in retrospect, I’ll take books over bath mats any day.

We have other people’s mail coming through our letter box. Some of it I don’t know how to send on, so it just piles up on the second desk in the study. We don’t own either of the desks, but there they are, lit up by lamps that aren’t ours either. I think if you stripped the both of us down to our own true possessions we would have nothing but books and clothes, in that order. I can’t decide if that makes us free or just pathetic. But when you have somebody else’s furniture crowding up the house you’ve come to think of as yours, even when it isn’t, you start to feel tied down by things.

When I paid the tuition for my MA the other day, I swear my card looked weary when it came out of the machine. It looked up at me balefully as if to say: don’t ever make me do this again. I spent a full quarter of an hour marvelling at the fact that I had never ever spent that much money in one easy go before. And I wonder, in a way I’ve never really wondered before, how all those people with their fancy strings of degree initials actually manage to pay for that much education.

But I’m distracted by the necessity of buying new books, and pens, and stationary. Eighteen years in you would think this might get tiring but there is something eternally satisfying about the back-to-school season, and I don’t think that I could ever feel disappointed by the return to education.

It’s funny to think of the formative memories I have from my early schooling. Mixing raisins with my apple juice, with disastrous consequences (I was put off raisins for years). Being in the bathroom at preschool and wondering what it would be like to pee standing up, like the boys did. Mouthing the words to a song and having the teacher call me aside after. Her gentle, crushing admonition. Saying my favorite color was white, and not pink, just to be different from all the other little girls. Running across the tarmac at snack-time, falling, scraping my knee, crying, being helped by a boy whose name I have no recollection of. Making stories with felt cutouts. The teacher who limped and carried a cane and frightened me so much that I dreaded the days when my mother would tell me she couldn’t pick me up until after storytime. Children calling “na, na, na na na!” at each other on the playground for no good reason. Putting on a play I wrote in the second grade and later in the year coming home to my mother after discovering that King Arthur, our newest focus of study (we’d just finished a lesson on giants), hadn’t been a actual king and asking when we were going to learn about real things.

***

It almost almost smells like autumn outside. And it’s getting to be chilly. I wore a wool coat to a dinner the other night, and I wasn’t sorry. Inside we wrap ourselves in duvets (I’m wrapped in one now). We refuse to put the central heating on until October of course.

Mostly I am in the back-to-school daze, and everything I think to write has left my head by the time I make my busy way back home. The house has become a refuge. Which is funny really. A few weeks ago there was the house down the road which burst into flame; and the fight at the pub at the other end of the street which warrented what seemed to be an entire fleet of police vans. This weekend we were startled into wakefulness by a pair of voices–male, female–arguing in that way that only couples do, and just when we thought maybe they had had their last go we saw the ambulance coming down the road and the man got in with a book tucked under his arm. In the morning we saw the blood pooled outside the house directly next door, where the head wound he had inflicted on himself by hitting the door had spilt onto the concrete. And after all that was over there was an incessent rapping across the street, all morning long, it felt.

Sure, we stick our heads out of the door. We can see other heads poking out, too. But I feel like this is part of living here, and the truth is that I still think we have the most beautiful house in the neighborhood, just like I think I have the handsomest bicycle in Oxford; and we cosy up to the rush of September leaves together: he now only semi-bearded, me wearing thick jumpers. It’s winter in California, here: green, rain, cold sunshine, gentle light.

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Just one on the agenda today, because, let’s face it, apart from all the doom-and-gloom predictions about how shit the economy is, and how much shitter it’s going to get, there’s really been only one constant this week, and her name is Sarah Palin.

I have but three things to say about Ms. Palin (the very sight of whose name makes me feel anxious in a way I haven’t since High School, when I was consumed with worry every day).

1. SHE IS A CREATIONIST. Who just recently acquired a passport. No, ladies and gentleman, this is not the latest Miss America, this is the potential President of the United States.
2. When, how, how and HOW did various (fairly respectable) media outlets decide that she not only isn’t that bad, she’s…er…an invigorating choice for VP? Am I living in an episode of the Twilight Zone?
3. Did I mention she’s a CREATIONIST? Who just recently acquired a passport? ‘Cos, see, we have this thing called the separation of church and state, and I’d quite like to see that upheld. Moreover, we have this thing called FOREIGN POLICY. Foreign. Policy.

If Ms. Palin is allowed anywhere near the White House—anywhere near—then I shall suggest a mass exodus from the USA.

In other news, the St. Giles fair is on in Oxford. I’m now of the opinion that you can’t fully comprehend the word “surreal” until you’ve seen a roller-coaster shooting by the austere walls of an Oxford college, a Merry-Go-Round beside the Martyr’s Memorial.

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In the old days, people would ask you how your crossing was–was it a rough crossing, or a smooth one? they would want to know. That was when the only way to get to Paris was over the thin, choppy stretch of sea called the English Channel, and it was much more of a production.

Now there is no crossing: only a long, swift, sweeping motion, like a wave of the arm–you fall asleep in Paris and wake in London, and there is just a tunnel, a fast train between two cosmopolitan cities. At the station everything is in French and English and all the announcements are made in both languages. Even at this early hour people are reading newspapers and preparing for their day in suits or swish trousers and high heels. It is impossible to tell why they are making the journey. I myself am making it to get my visa stamped.

“Is this your first presentation?” the man at passport control asks me about the visa, and I nod.

We stayed first in a cheap hotel and then at a friend’s crumbling, recently sold apartment. On our last evening there we were having a meal on the mattress–cheese, paté, wine–when a girl came into the apartment to take away all of the furniture. It was embarrassing because our friend had forgotten to tell us she would be coming and had forgotten to tell her that we would be there. We slept without a mattress that night (last night), in the August heat, but it was okay somehow.

We walked around a fair bit, but because he had sprained his ankle the night before we left we had to take it easy. I read The Flaneur by Edmund White; it reminded me that Ernest Hemingway was hungry and poor in Paris, too. There is a passage in A Moveable Feast that I had forgotten until I read The Flaneur; it’s long (less a passage and more a chapter) but the start of it goes: “You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food”. Then he describes how he used to wind his way around the city avoiding all the places that made him hungry and tempted to spend money. But also he writes: “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” So there’s that, and it’s a far nicer thing than being able to afford a fancy hotel with a mattress or to enter every museum or shop for souvenirs and clothing that will just take up space anyway.

We drank café au lait facing the street so we could watch all the people. Our biggest expense was coffee, not accommodation or food. It was a good thing he had bought me The Flaneur, really; “the flaneur,” White writes, “is…in search of a private moment, not a lesson.” And, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone.”

We had a kir each at Sartre’s café, Café Flore, across from the Lipp where Hemingway eats in A Moveable Feast. Because the drinks were so expensive we drew them out, sipping slowly and delicately, enjoying being able to rest our feet while other people walked on by. The waiter brought us a plate of green olives and I sucked them from a toothpick and we picked the pits out from our teeth.

There is probably a lot more I could write but I’m tired. We’ve been on the road for most of August, it seems. We’ve been to Cambridge, the Cotswolds, Brighton, and Paris. Oxford has emptied completely, taking a tiny breath before she fills with students for the term. Even the Cowley road this morning as we walked back from St. Clements seemed wide and quiet; only a few cars trickling past, hardly any other pedestrians. I’m uploading photos and going to have a nap. It’s September, and part of me doesn’t know how this came to be, even though I’ve seen it happen so many times before.

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