Saturday, February 22, 2014

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Morris dancer at Oxford's May Day celebration

SUMMER IS ICUMMIN IN  continued...
On this occasion, dotted among the crowd were teams of Morris Dancers dressed in traditional costume; white shirts, white trousers, heavy boots or clogs with rows of bells around their legs. Headgear, depending on which dance group they were affiliated with, varied from floppy felt hats, bowler hats, black top hats, and straw hats decorated with fresh lilac, daffodils, peach blossom and early summer roses. The Morris Dancers’ traditional dancing goes back more than 600 years.

As the crowd became restless a musician struck up the fiddle and dancing ensued. Jack in the Green, a figure who accompanies the Morris Men on their dances, stood motionless beside me, and I suspected that I was being observed. The man was invisible beneath a tree-shaped arrangement threaded with greenery. As I photographed the Morris Men, a voice came from deep within the evergreen. “When am I going to see the photographs you took of us last time, Anne Gordon?”

I pulled some of the leaves aside and peered into the darkness and the face of Peter Lund, a don from Christ Church who had loaned me a book on the history of the Morris Dancers.

As 6 a.m. approached, a choir of Magdalen men and teen boys emerged with their singing master onto the sloping roof at the top of Magdalen tower. For more than 500 years this ceremony, or one very similar, had been re-enacted right there on the banks of the River Cherwell. It was originally a pagan tradition, culminating in the crowning of a Summer Queen to honour the spirit of vegetation.

Suddenly a splash of light touched the ancient stone of Magdalen tower. All eyes turned towards Christ Church meadow where the first rays of sun pierced the dawn shadows. There was an expectant hush. Who would have thought that there were thousands of people beside the river at that moment? Then, from high above us, soprano voices burst into song; a Latin hymn followed by a lively rendition of “Summer is Icummen In.”

For a moment my mind flashed back centuries to the millions of people who had welcomed past summers in this same place.

As the singing faded, enthusiastic applause greeted the deafening peals of church bells reverberating across the city. With summer appropriately ushered in, each group of Morris Men, like pied pipers, drew the crowds behind them as they danced along cobbled streets to the music of fiddle, pipe and drum. Other entertainers had gathered at their traditional venue beside the Sheldonian Theatre, Fire-eaters spewed flames. Jugglers and gypsy bands entertained the crowds and a Morris Man encouraged children o try their hands at weaving the red, white and blue ribbons as they danced around the maypole.

Was this the 20th century? I felt as if I had stepped back in time.

Morris dancers celebrating May Day in Oxford
The Morris Men clambered onto a raised platform opposite the theatre. Then to the music of a fiddle, they launched into the intricate formations that make up their dance. Heavy boots beat rhythmically on the ground, sticks crashed together and handkerchiefs fluttered like butterflies as the men bobbed and weaved from one step to the next.

As the sun climbed higher, weary crowds drifted away. Two university undergraduates in naval dress uniform sat befuddled on the sidewalk as I passed on my way home. One made a half-hearted attempt to summon a passing taxi, the other, smiling contentedly, slumped in a heap beside his empty beer glass.

Would they, with others of their year, return to Oxford to celebrate in the future, encouraged by fond memories of that May Morning so long ago?
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 28th November, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

Carfax, Oxford's city centre
At that early hour pubs were open for business. Some had been on the go all night as the crowds drank beer and celebrated till dawn.The aroma of an English breakfast – eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread, tomato and freshly brewed coffee – wafted from more than one doorway as I passed.

At Carfax, where Oxford’s four main roads meet, street cleaners in orange overalls swept the night’s debris from around tired students lolling on the edge of the sidewalk.

By day this very spot is a maelstrom of double-decker buses. Weaving bicycles challenge the traffic, taxis hoot and jay-walkers take their chances between rushing cars. But in the early hours of that particular morning, the only sound was muted voices as walkers hurried toward Magdalen tower.

In the distance a sea of spectators gathered, waiting for that moment when the sun would tip the spires of the city.

The High, Oxford’s main street, is considered by many to be the finest thoroughfare in all of Europe. Among its centuries-old buildings – The Queen’s College, Oriel College, Pembroke College, Magdalen College, the Examinations School and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin – are some of Britain’s finest examples of architecture. Parts of St. Mary’s Church date back to the 11th century and the church itself is mentioned in England’s famous Domesday book. For me, walking to Magdalen tower that morning was like a walk through history.

As the sky coloured with the onset of sunrise, the throng of people swelled until they seemed to fill every space. Elevated positions, walls, steps and surrounding windowsills, were choice viewing points and had long been commandeered by earlier arrivals.

Many onlookers were dressed in elegant ballgowns and black tie from college balls the night before. And then there were the revelers from the May Ball at Shotover on the outskirts of Oxford. After a night of dancing and drinking, mayhem erupted on the main road as inebriated parties decided to walk back to Oxford.

On this particular occasion, punts are rented for champagne breakfasts. Punters with picnic hampers gathered near the bridge in their flat-bottomed boats where the chance of being tipped into the water or jumped on from above are hazards that go with the event. At a previous May Morning celebration two young men, overcome by youthful exuberance, dived from the bridge into three feet of water and suffered severe injuries.
More to follow tomorrow...
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Monday, 25th November, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Summer flowers in Oxford's Covered Market


To those not familiar with England’s passion for tradition, a celebration that starts in the early hours of a usually chilly May morning must seem a queer thing.

Why do they do it?” then-Russian Prime Minister Nikita Kruschev reportedly asked, when told of the May Morning celebrations during his visit to Oxford in 1955. “Because”, replied the president of Magdalen College, “they have done so for the past five hundred years.”

As a Canadian who had lived in Oxford for many years, I found the celebration of the first day of summer, another English festivity that constitutes tradition in this ancient land, a source of constant delight.

I had talked many times of rising at 5 in the morning to join the celebrations at Magdalen tower, but each year on the first of May, I snuggled down into my warm bed and left the welcoming of summer to others. Then finally, with my return to Canada imminent, the urge to celebrate May Morning became more pressing.

At a pre-dawn 5.30, I stepped out onto the towpath behind our house where a damp mist rose ghostlike from the surface of the Thames.

A heavy beating of wings, and a flurry of movement and flying droplets filled the air as a pair of white swans emerged from beyond a gossamer curtain. As they raced across the surface of the river, their short gray legs seemed to tread the water before one mighty effort lifted their straining bodies free. Necks outstretched, feet tucked under feathers, creaking wings sent the pair soaring higher and higher above the chimney pots.

Contrary to popular belief, May Morning and other traditional events in Oxford have little to do with tourism, although tourists attend in droves. With its cosmopolitan student population thousands of Americans, Europeans and Asians who have studied at Oxford regularly return from foreign lands, often into old age, to relive those nostalgic memories of youth. Other dedicated fans are the English of all ages.

And so it was that on my way into town I passed couples, groups of students, tourists with cameras and families with children. Little girls in frilly dresses, flowers entwined in ringlets or with flower-bedecked hats trailing long ribbons, danced along in a frenzy of excitement.
More to follow...
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 21st November, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mercury, God of Speed, Christ Church Oxford
One afternoon as I was heading on home, I stopped beside the pond in the middle of Tom Quad and watched water slide like olive silk along the smooth back of a large fish. In the fading sunlight its scales glittered silver, like sequins clothing the sinuous body of a dancer.

As Mercury, God of Speed, poised above gently rocking lily pads the scene was tranquil.  What stories our Mercury could tell, including one of his own dunking.

Way back nearly two centuries, a mischievous gathering of students intent on a night of vandalism and led by a youthful 14th Earl of Derby, tippled bronze Mercury from his plinth and it was many a long year before he was replaced with our present Mercury who is a copy of a statue by Giovanni da Balogna.

“Boys will be boys” they say, and these occasional acts of mischief are looked upon with tolerance by the Dons, although Christ Church has its fair share of scars to remember them by.  A scarred door at the bottom of the steps leading to Christ Church's Great Hall bears testament to that bit of mischief.

Legend has it that the words NO PEEL inscribed with the aid of a nail into the solid wood of the door was a protest by students in the 17th century.  They were, the story goes, forced on the advice of the college doctor to dine on potato peelings.  The unappetizing potato peels would ward off the Black Death he said.  Not surprisingly a rebellion among students erupted.  

But legend it is. The truth is that the students were protesting against Sir Robert Peel Prime Minister of the time. 
More recently another group of undergraduates, maybe drunk after a night in the pub, emptied a bottle of bleach into the dark pool in the centre of the quadrangle as Mercury looked on. By morning the surface of the water was full of dead and dying fish as they floated in a stinking mass atop the poisoned water. Amidst the carnage bobbed the bleach bottle – empty. 

Those fish fortunate enough to have survived were transported to the “animal sanctuary” in the Meadow where they were lovingly tended and nursed back to health. It was a particularly unpleasant act of vandalism and doubly devastating; the fish had been a gift from the Emperor of Japan.

The pond has always presented an irresistible attraction for drunken students, so much so that during my tenure at the college each student found swimming there was fined 20 pounds payable to the Senior Censor.

On Red Nose Day almost the entire student population of Christ Church as well as Mercury and the stone carving of Archbishop Thomas Wolsey outside my office sported red noses. And then one morning when I arrived for work, Mercury was swaddled from head to toe in toilet paper.

Photo copyright Anne Gordon

Posted by Anne Gordon on Tuesday, 19th November, 2013.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Oxford's 'The Eagle and Child' - aka 'The Bird and Babe',
a popular student pub
Having a University degree from one of the world's most famous places of learning is not an encumbrance when feeling silly.

Shelley the poet while studying at Christ Church is a good example of student mischief. One of his juvenile pranks was to connect door knobs to a generator to give people shocks. Another more serious prank was swopping babies into different prams if they were left out on the street while the mother was shopping on the High.

During my time in Oxford it was not uncommon to hear complaints from restaurant owners about the ignorant behaviour of many a so-called well-bred youth. Out for an evening on the town, bread throwing was considered fun and woe betide diners who were in the line of fire.

In one of the colleges there was a warning notice, “Gentlemen coming from homes where bread throwing at the dinner table is habitual, and finding a difficulty in conforming suddenly to the unfamiliar ways of higher civilization, will be permitted to continue their domestic past time, on the payment of 5/- a throw.”

A short while before he retired Dr. Heaton was horrified one afternoon when the ladies of the Mothers Union exited the Cathedral following a service. Making their way through the archway beside my office, three drunken students with their legs tied together as if in a three legged race approached the ladies, shouting uproariously.  The Dean was right there and rushed them, his black cloak billowing out behind him, mortar board askew and shouting above the voices of the students “For the good name of the college...GO.” Coming into my office moments later he was outraged that the ladies of the Mother's Union should see such behaviour. Did he see my covert smile. I think not.

Even Dons were not averse to a bit of fun. In the 1890s when bicycles became a popular means of getting about in Oxford, one of the more mature tutors enjoyed nothing more than careening down Boars Hill with his feet on his bicycle's handlebars. It seems that he found the view of Oxford from this vantage point particularly appealing.

As for heavy drinking Oxford colleges have had their fair share of imbibers. Wine is consumed copiously, and sipping sherry before dinner – and lunch – is a tradition. Many of the colleges have excellent cellars and they are big spenders when stocking up on booze.

Dutch Admiral Cornelis Tromp was an imbiber to trump all imbibers. When entertained by the Dons in Oxford in 1675 he was so drunk by the end of the evening that he was loaded onto a wheelbarrow and carried back to his lodgings like a barrow of cabbages at Covent Gardens.
More to follow tomorrow...
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Monday 18th November, 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Contemplating a plunge in Oxford
Before long I settled into what for me was a job made in heaven where I was to act as personal assistant to a delightful man as well as perform other quaint duties.

Rachel, Dr. Heaton’s wife, soon discovered that she and I had a mutual love of antiques, and so periodically she popped into my office at the start of day with the suggestion that the two of us ride the train to Birmingham for a weekly antique sale. She made sandwiches for our lunch and I contributed my favourite Eccles cakes – a delectable English pastry covered with sugar and filled with spicy raisins . The Dean, obliging as always, wished us good hunting. It was a job with a difference.

On those occasions, while other college staff dealt with more mundane tasks, I spent the day doing what I enjoyed most, chatting to antique dealers and searching for undiscovered treasures.

After a days rummaging amid mounds of copper kettles, antique snuff bottles, Worcester cups and saucers, farm scythes in various stages of decrepitude and even the occasional repro Chippendale chair with an outrageous price scrawled on a label dangling from a chair leg, we returned to Oxford at days end well pleased with our purchases.

As for quaint duties, one misty morning Rachel hurried into my office to say that the mallard duck that had been broody for days and had built a nest beneath a climbing japonica creeper beside my office window had hatched out a clutch of beautiful little yellow ducklings. They were, she said, scampering all over the garden. The problem with this scenario: the annual charity Cruse Fete and Sale hosted by Rachel was to take place in the deanery garden that same day. The ducklings, she feared, would be trampled in the rush for bargains.

The rescue was on. All in a day’s work , the two of us gathered up the precious balls of fluff, put them in a shoebox, and me in my office apparell and Rachel in her apron – she’d been cooking breakfast – set off from the Deanery garden down a cobbled walkway through Christ Church Meadow to the Thames River. Rachel carried the box and I, like the proverbial goose girl with a twig in hand, stumbled along behind in my spiky heels, shushing the quacking mother each time she strayed off route.

Upon reaching the river, mother duck plopped into the water and the ducklings, in a state of high excitement, jumped in feet first, in hot pursuit of their sleek feathered leader.

More to follow tomorrow...

Photo copyright Anne Gordon

Posted by Anne Gordon on Saturday 16th November, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tom Tower, the entrance to Christ Church in Oxford
In the palatial deanery, 'Upstairs and Downstairs' in the upper echelons of English society was alive and well. Operating in a less rigid format, sans tweenies, housemaids, footmen, head cook, under-cook and kitchen maids, men of consequence I was to discover, still managed with a butler, a housekeeper and a cleaning lady or two.

And so, with limited experience of the English heirarchical system, a colonial such as I - a Canadian of South African birth - could hardly be blamed for mistaking the impeccably attired handsome Irishman who greeted me at the Deanery door that morning, for being the Dean himself.

Fortunately I didn’t disgrace myself by indicating as much. Instead, I shook the hand of the handsome Irishman and followed him into the hushed confines of what I thought was his study, ready for my interview. Within seconds I realised my mistake. Tom Burke the butler, my greeter at the front door, announced “Mrs. Gordon to see you sir”.

Across from a desk at which the ‘real’ Dean sat, flames flared and crackled in a huge fireplace. Along the mantelpiece, invitations, mostly grand and gold lettered, imparted a sense of the event and the importance of both sender and recipient. The walls of the beautiful room were lined with bookcases from floor to ceiling.

On an elegant polished table beside a wingback chair near the fireplace, a bowl of white daisies and sprigs of late summer lavender brought to mind a still life in oils.

For a brief moment I looked enviously through tall windows at a beautiful English walled garden. It was early fall and the leaves were turning gold. A Horse Chestnut tree with branches propped up with wooden poles dominated the far corner of the garden. I was to learn later that that same Horse Chestnut was the very tree in which the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's famous childrens classic “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” sat when talking with Alice.

Dr. Heaton, impressive and tall with a courtly manner, rose and walked towards me with hand outstretched. “Shall we have tea in front of the fire?” What could I say. I was charmed.
More to follow tomorrow...
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Friday, 15th November, 2013