Summer Study 2012: Oxford
Lest anyone should forget, I did actually take classes on my study abroad. Each of the 34 creative writers chose two courses which were each held every other day. For me, I had a morning class on the odd days, an afternoon class on the even.
Five days a week at 11:15 a.m. we would also have plenary sessions. These were lectures by industry professionals. We had literary agents, publishers, editors, and the manager of Blackwell Books all come talk to us.
Many of our session tutors did readings for us during theses sessions. Julie Hearn, the young adult fiction tutor, read to us from some of her 11 young adult novels. Frank Egerton, beginning fiction tutor, read a chapter from his newest and as-of-yet unpublished novel for us.
Poet Jon Stalworthy, one of the organizers of the program, read to us from his work and told us about the three phases of a poet’s awareness. Jenny Lewis, poetry tutor, read to us work from her collection, Taking Mesopotamia. The fiction tutor I worked with, the lovely Rebecca Abrams, read to us from her historic novel, Touching Distance.
Every day there was someone and something new and exciting at the plenary session. I collected a notebook full of the dribs and drabs of their wisdom during those brief sessions.
In our daily seminars we read with each other, did writing exercises, and analyzed what made writing better or worse. Sometimes we were sent out onto the streets of Oxford to find a stranger or a building to write about.
Sometimes in the evenings just before or just after dinner there would also be optional lectures. They would be on the history of the Olympics, the history of Oxford, or Oxford literature. Attending these had absolutely no bearing on our coursework, but being the gigantic nerd that I am, I attended them all. They were fun, informative, and relaxed due to their informal nature.
The Oxford literature lecture was especially fun. Sandi Byrne, one of my tutors, gave the lecture and even taught us some interesting limericks about Oxford. All the facts I soaked up did come in handy during the pub quiz during the last week (though I fear I may have lost my team half a point in the quiz by referring to “Maggie Thatcher”—such familiarities were frowned on).
We all had our major assignments due in the beginning of the third week, so by the end of the second week, we were having mass writing parties. The young adult fiction class took over the student bar, all sipping wine and swapping papers.
My room, being on the spacious side (there were some benefits to being banished to Staircase 15), held five of us at a time. We made tea with the tiny, college-provided kettle and sprawled out on the floor with our notebooks and laptops, sipping the hot liquid and passing around a tube of cheap biscuits we bought at Sainsbury’s.
Awkward Celebrity Sightings
Maybe it’s because England is a small country full of very talented people. Maybe it’s because British productions film many things on-location instead of in studios. Whatever the reason, I always hear tales of celebrity sightings from friends who have lived and traveled around the UK.
I didn’t expect that while in Oxford I’d have my own terribly awkward sightings.
The ITV program Inspector Lewis (spin-off of Inspector Morse, based off the novels of Colin Dexter) is a detective drama set in Oxford. I’ve found the show to be one of my favorite guilty pleasures for several years. It’s imported to America by PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series. They film the program in Oxford using the colleges as their backdrop.
At the beginning of August while most of the students were off on holiday, the Inspector Lewis crew was filming in Oxford. As I was strolling back to my room in Staircase 15 one night, I passed The Turl Street Kitchen. Right across the street from Exeter College, it’s a cozy café where I’d been for coffee a few times. Sitting at the table in front of the window facing the street was Kevin Whately, a.k.a. Inspector Morse. Across from him sat a tall blonde man I can only assume was Laurence Fox, his lanky co-star. It appeared that they and a few members of the crew were grabbing some food after a day of filming.
I stood in front of the window wondering if my eyes (or the pint of warm Red Speckled Hen I’d just consumed at the student bar) were playing tricks on me. I’m sorry to say that I stared for a moment. Kevin Whately looked up at me, puzzled, and I quickly broke eye contact and walked away.
I turned to my friend Cate and told her I believed I had just seen someone famous, but wasn’t sure. “Go have a quick look,” I told her.
She walked over and stood, staring in the window for a moment. “Who am I looking for?” she asked.
“Come here,” I told her. We dashed up to my room and I brought up a picture of them on my laptop. She agreed that those were the men in the window. I was right, she just had no idea they were famous.
With more presence of mind, we walked back down to the street. I very maturely intended to say something along the lines of, “Hello Mr. Whatley, Mr. Fox. I realize you’re very busy, but I just wanted to say that I very much enjoy your work.” And then I possibly would have asked them for a photo or to sign some part of my body. Or, you know, my notebook. Probably the notebook.
By the time we returned, they were gone. Our friend Najim, waiting for us in the street, didn’t even notice them leave. He was busy memorizing Oxford’s Latin motto: Dominus illuminatio mea, The Lord is my light.
I saw Mr. Whately one more time before I left Oxford. It was the night of the Summer School’s closing reception. We all wore the best clothing we had brought with us and they handed us each a flute of champagne in the Fellow’s Garden before sending us off to begin our last night together in Oxford.
Up in the balcony of the Garden we were taking some final group photos. Across the lane, in front of Brasenose College, there had been film crew vans all day. While looking out over Radcliffe Square for what might be the last time, I saw Kevin Whately emerge from the College.
I pointed him out to my fellow students (none of whom knew who he was). “Just wave anyway,” I told them. Impulsively, I shouted down, “Hi Kevin Whately!”
As a car pulled up to take him away, he waved half-heartedly at us. We must have been a sight, all leaning over the stone garden wall, champagne in hand. He looked slightly annoyed. Alas, I guess I won’t be applying for a job on the Inspector Lewis crew after all.
I packed my rain boots and my rain coat. The week I arrived was a week of brilliant sunshine, not a spot of rain. In fact, the end of July saw some of the warmest weather of the year in England . After the torrential rains of early summer—rain that made some wonder about Summer Olympics on soggy playing fields—there was a sudden spate of fine summer days just in time for the opening ceremony (I think the queen requested the sun especially).
The program director said she thought the Americans brought some of the heat with them. The temperature reached into the low 80s. While walking along the river on a Wednesday afternoon, I was forced to shed my cardigan. Men in the street were removing their shirts and growing pink in the sun.
Coming from temperatures around 100, during our midsummer heat wave, it seemed quite mild to me. Too mild for public stripping. Trying to communicate with the other students about temperatures was unexpectedly difficult.
Only the American students understood Fahrenheit, and we were puzzled by weather reports telling us the week’s forecast in Celsius. It took some mental calculations to describe the temperature in terms everyone else would understand. Part of me resented the lack of training in Celsius in American schools.
By the end of the first week, I was oddly disappointed at the perfect weather. I had packed tights, boots, sweaters. Where was the cool English summer I had been promised? The perfectly overcast drizzly days? I had my wish soon enough.
By the beginning of August we had splendidly rainy days, sometimes several times a day. I noticed a difference between English rain and American rain. Where storms often build and build in America (often causing pressure and pain in my sinuses), these summer storms in England would break out of a clear blue sky and disappear again quickly. My sinuses were often oblivious to their presence.
On my first Sunday in Oxford , two other students and I went punting on the river. We rented a boat and a rowing pole on Magdalen Bridge. Damon, an Australian student, did most of the punting (we bought him a pint afterwards in repayment), and we meandered along the Cherwell river for the better part of an hour.
Just as we were coming in to dock, the blue sky broke into another shower. We hurriedly found our way to a pub. By the time our drinks were finished, so was the storm.
With a suitcase under the weight limit, but still containing far too much, I arrived at Newark International. It was my first time in an airport. I had never been on a plane, never been out of the country. I had never even been traveling on my own for more than three days—and that had only been to New Jersey to spend a long weekend with my brother.
It was going to be a series of firsts. I was going to spend three weeks in England at Oxford University. I’ve always been an Anglophile—since I picked up my first copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare at the age of 12. English history and culture has always fascinated me. It was a country so old and so steeped in… well, quirkiness it seemed. For years I had romantic dreams of seeing London from the top of a double decker bus and trekking through the countryside in a pair of Wellingtons.
I applied for the summer creative writing school at Oxford University with little expectation of getting in. I mean, it’s Oxford. Would such a respected institution that seemed to produce world-class writers with almost industrial efficiency have any interest in me? Lewis Carroll, J. R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Philip Pullman, T.S. Eliot, Susanna Clark, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Bennett, Diana Wynne Jones…. The list of literary alums goes on for pages. It’s an intimidating crowd to try and follow. That’s to say nothing of the scientists, politicians, historians, and philosophers that had darkened every doorway I would slump through.
With my hopes high, though tempered slightly by my persistent inner cynic, I climbed aboard my first plane with a prayer on my lips and a book in my lap. About seven hours later I looked out the window and saw my first view of England. Green fields and hills broken up by little lumps of city welcomed me under the bluest of skies. I was stiff, cold, and sleepy, but bristling with excitement. The steward, who noticed that I had wrapped myself up like I was on an arctic expedition, handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Here, maybe this will warm you up.” I took the cup gratefully between my numb fingers and sipped at it while watching London loom up below me.
Heathrow was huge and mazelike, full of people waiting for other people. I felt alone, but strangely sophisticated to be greeted by nothing but the disinterested woman who checked my passport and told me “Welcome to London.” I took the Heathrow express to Paddington station. The ticket machine didn’t know what to do with my American debit card. I approached the information booth and asked, “Is there anywhere I can buy my ticket from a human?”
“A human?” he asked in shock, then smiled and said, “Through those doors.” I joined a massive queue of others who were rejecting (or rejected by) the machines. I purchased my ticket to Oxford and waited. It was nearly an hour until my train would arrive. The station was huge. Kiosks selling Paddington bears, cafes, even a large florist stand crowded in around the various platforms. I stood and peered out at London, longing to run out and explore for a few minutes. My suitcase was a hindrance. I was regretting the volume I had packed already. Instead, I watched the pigeons fly in the wide open gate and observed the noisy cross-section of life around me.
Finally, my train arrived and I hoisted my case in next to me. It was soon packed with people headed for one of the four stops. Oxford was the last. In front of me was a family. “Settle down, Rachel,” the mother scolded. I inadvertently raised my head at the sound of my name. Across from me, a couple read, their heads bent close together over the same book. I took a glance at the cover, curious. It was Fifty Shades of Gray.
I dozed off during the hour and a half ride. I woke up right before my stop and joined the crush of people in the tiny train station. The next leg of my journey was the taxi ride up to the college itself. I was staying at Exeter College, one of the most central of Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges. It was right along Broad Street, but I decided to get a cab instead of lugging my case for almost a mile and searching for the college.
I later realized what a wise decision this was—the colleges are very poorly labeled, many of my fellow students accidentally walked into Lincoln or Jesus College by mistake that day. Cabs were coming at regular intervals, and it didn’t take long. As we looped around the town, I stared out with excitement as we passed college, chapels, and pubs. The Eagle and Child passed by my window. I tried to make a mental note of where it was. It was on my Oxford to-do list.
Within just a few minutes, the cabbie dropped me at the tall, medieval doors that looked ready to withstand a battering ram. I approached the porter’s station just inside the door and gave him my name. Part of me expected it all to be a huge mistake. I expected him to look up from his list and tell me that there was no record of me. Instead he handed me a swipe card and a key.
“Wait a minute, your room’s not in here,” he said. I watched puzzled, as he made his way across the quad (skirting around the pristine lawn at the center). I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t living on college grounds, but decided I was too tired to make any sort of fuss. I was just glad to have made it in one piece. Eventually, he returned and escorted me, along with another student across the street to a door that said “18A.”
This was Staircase 15, my home for the next three weeks.