Monday, May 18, 2009

Keele Diary #12

I am back in Keele after a fun-filled weekend seeing old friends and making new ones in Oxford. I'll dispense with the play-by-play, which I suspect would amuse no one but myself and just stick to a few observations about Oxford and being back at Keele.

One of the interesting aspects of train travel is how much of the hidden world you see. By their very nature train tracks cut a swath through a country, but they usually try to do so in ways that are unobtrusive to most (which is to say, to the upper-middle and upper classes. So one ends up seeing a great deal of hustle and bustle in places like garages, or the loading docks of warehouses, or the parking lots of office buildings the shiny facades of which are presented to the public. Train tracks overlook fences and reveal the mundane. Yet there are aspects of the mundane that we rarely see.

Partially it is a function of the country's scale, but train travel in Britain is great. It is convenient, and if not exactly cheap, it is also not exactly expensive. Trains are frequent -- one can leave Stoke-on-Trent station every hour at seven past en route to Oxford. Coming back there are two trains an hour, largely because the Cross Country Rail route to Stoke is one that passes through Birmingham and Manchester. If I end up going to Paris this weekend, I'll almost certainly end up going via train for at least part of the route.

As I say, Oxford was great. Caught up with RoJo right away and stayed at his family's North Oxford home. Managed to round up a couple of the Armitage Shanks each night along with some other friends of theirs and sat around talking and joking and arguing. Saturday afternoon involved a grand ramble through vast Port Meadow, which though I did not really realize that a meadow could be such a thing, is quite famous. Four of us, and three big, rambunctious dogs, walked for miles and miles along a river bank, passing through docile bovines and regal equines, through muddy bogs and near a nature preserve. We earned our pies and ale that night, much of which we enjoyed at the Gardener's Arms, one of the most preferred pubs of the Armitage Shanks, alongside The Lamb and Flag (drinks on Friday evening) and The Turf (lunch on Sunday) and a few others.

But while I am happy to have gotten to Oxford, I may not go to Paris, which I hoped to accomplish this weekend. I managed to fix the glasses situation of Friday morning with superglue and the repair job held and does not look too ridiculous, save for the fact that the result is noticably crooked and that it left an indelible smear of superglue on the corner of my left lens. It's precarious, and at some point will break again. So I headed on down to Newcastle (not the Newcastle way up North with the famous Ale and the football team that is likely to be relegated after this coming week's Premier League conclusion, but a smaller one that nonetheless provides the closest market town to Keele, because lord knows that England has run out of names for places) to an optometrist. But of course my eye insurance does not carry here, and things in the UK can be more pricey. Plus, I went to the aged shop of a colleague rather than to the massive chain store, and supporting locals is great, but it's not cheap. In any case, in two days, and some £350 later (trust me for those disinclined to figure out the exchange rate -- it's a huge amount of cash) I'll have new glasses that will look much like my old glasses. I will, I imagine, feel akin to how I always do after a costly car repair -- I spend a bunch of money to get back my car as it was status quo ante. The necessity of the transaction does not make it particularly pleasurable. Keele has a university travel center, so hopefully they have some acumen on reasonably priced trips across the way to France. Otherwise, that trip will have to wait for another time.

Part of my need for new glasses and unwillingness to roll the dice on them lasting out the trip is that within a day or two of my return to Texas I have to turn around and head to New York. I am being interviewed for a documentary on the Freedom Rides and do not want to roll in to my close-up looking like Professor Frink.

Today for lunch I was invited by a retired senior professor in the history department to a quaint out of the way pub in one of the nearby villages. Bothomley is one of seemingly countless little villages in the area. Many have nice, ancient homes, most have one little pub that serves as the center of community life, though some of those pubs are dying as the housing market for those lovely homes become the domain of rich folks buying a holiday house. This pub -- I believe it is the White Horse -- has the requisite character and serves a lunch that draws people from all around. We got there by noon to beat the rush, and while we were early enough to be the first to order, within minutes the two tiny rooms were bustling with conversation and orders from the bar and the clicking of forks on plates. I ordered oatcakes, a regional specialty, that can best be described as an oat pancake or crepe folded around cheese and onions and in this case (there was some discussion as to what constitutes a true oatcake) tomatoes, beans, and bacon (British version). It was tasty and filling. We were also accompanied by an elderly cardiologist who was one of professor Adams' contemporaries. The conversation was lively and wonderful, breaking all laws of subjects that are supposed to be taboo (politics and religion were fair game) and ranging far and wide. It was a wonderful afternoon and helped me to fight off some mid-trip doldrums that crashed over me last night upon my return.

I'm back and with less than two weeks to go now. My time is open and I hope to get a ton of writing and revising done in my remaining time here. If only the damp, raw, rainy weather would pass. That's not great for the mood. Suffice it to say one of the many things I am looking forward to upon returning to Texas is stepping into glorious, unremitting heat. Which I will enjoy for a few minutes before wistfully saying "boy, it was nice and cool at Keele."

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