Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oxford II: Ice

It turned out a clear, sunny, cold morning. Surprisingly, because I'd been awake most of the night listening to the rain, with a nasty stomach ache. Meh. Anyway, in true pluvialis fashion, the cure for anything, stomach ache included, is COFFEE. So I beetled over to the nearest cafe, squinting in the sun, with the wet pavements underfoot giving off a chill so intense you could almost believe they’d been running with meltwater.
Signs on the café wall:

coffee. it’s an EYE opener. BRAIN activator, energy giver, IDEA stimulator, be REVIVED.

drink COFFEE. Hang OUT IN coffee bars. Be PART OF THE CROWD. stand out FROM the CROWD. OBSERVE AND BE OBSERVED. or just IGNORE everyone and ENJOY your cup.

what ARE YOU thinking about?

Boy, that second sign freaked me out. The third one didn't, because I'm
perpetually ready to rebuff an interrogation. My hackles rise. "As if I'd tell you, sign!" That's what I'm thinking. But the second is just plain unsettling. Are those all direct orders? Suggestions? What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to want to do? (Maybe the creeps are behind this).

(Note: Weird Orwellian signs on café walls are a bit of a personal bugbear. In Tescos supermarket, Edinburgh, c. 2003, pluvialis was transfixed for a good minute by a giant purple photograph of a woman drinking a cup of coffee with the words "Coffee Time" printed next to her in three foot capitals. What? Why? Wherefore? It's not like it's an advertisement—you can't see it unless you're sitting down in the cafe already drinking coffee. Is it for reassurance? "Yes thank goodness I chose to come and have a cup of coffee, because that poster on the wall shows me it was clearly the right thing to do"?)

I get over my pathetic ex-literature-student-who-took-too-much-acid semiology panic, eventually, and drag my ass to the Bodleian to check out these mss. The Bodleian is famously, geologically slow at getting books to its readers. While our University Library resembles a soviet-era powerstation, it is super-efficient at book collection. Twenty minutes, thirty minutes: blam! There's your book, with a little paper ticket in it, ready for you to collect. At the Bodleian, it seems, you order your book and you wait for it. What I didn't know was how long. The readers guide I was given suggested anything from three hours to three days. Wow. Three days! And furthermore, if you wish to consult manuscripts, like I did, you're supposed to write to them in advance. Write!

So knowing nothing of this, pluvialis skipped blithely and ignorantly down to the end of Broad Street with a sheaf of papers assembled to convince the Admissions Office that she was a bona fide researcher (which I am, come to think of it).

And as I find the gate to take me into the — hand on my heart, holy moly, by far the spookiest place I've ever been. The bodleian quad. Picture doesn't really communicate how walking into it was like walking into a tank of very old, very cold water, like the stuff that pours out from under a retreating glacier.

Fortuitously, despite all my ignorance, the Bodleian was on high-efficiency mode, and the mss appeared in an hour and a half. I spent the rest of the day going through box after box of papers, diaries; photographs of the young Charles Elton on Bear Island, Spitsbergen, in the 1920s; letters, booklets, postcards, and so on. I particularly liked an enthusiastic schoolboy letter in a rather wobbly cursive hand, from Charles (on holiday in the Lake District) to Geoffrey, from 1913. It lists all the fauna and flora he's seen, and ends (spelling as in original):
I am not sending primroses because I suppose you can get them at Cambridge. Leonard and I walked to Hawkshead today and went to the reading room, and afterwards got a hard compo. ball for catching practice. Write a card soon if you do want primroses and I shall send some. The ravens have been mobbed by the perigrines. The sparrows are always driven away from the bird-table, by throwing woollen balls at the window. There are heaps of lambs here now. Please write, if you have time. I am staying till the end of the week. C.S.E.

I'm happy to report that you can get primroses here in Cambridge. And oxlips, too, in local woods. Neither are out yet. The snowdrops are, though.

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