Oxford B&B

Oxford B&B

Oxford Botanical 2

We spent 24 hours in Oxford last week – there primarily to see Cezanne and the Modern, the current exhibition at the Ashmolean.  Somehow, I’ve reached retirement age without ever having been to Oxford before, so we spent time strolling through the streets of the town and ambling along the shaded path that lies between the Cherwell and Christ Church Meadow.

I was quite taken aback by how much Oxford conformed to what I had assumed was a clichéd image I had of the town: you know – young people punting lazily along the Cherwell, drinks in hand; bicycles everywhere, left leaning against walls and railings; the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone of the buildings. Two of the most memorable places we encountered on our meanderings were the Botanic Garden (above) and the Bodleian Library.

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Poppies in Oxford Botanic Garden

The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden is Britain’s oldest, founded almost 400 years ago, when the first Earl of Danby donated £5000 to start a ‘physic garden’ to grow plants that would support medical practice.  From the beginning the garden was intended to be, in Danby’s words, ‘for the glorification of God and the furtherance of learning’. Danby might have been motivated to appease the almighty by having, thirty years earlier at the age of 21, murdered a man in a long-standing feud between families.

A site for the garden was chosen on the banks of the River Cherwell at the north-east corner of Christ Church Meadow.  The land belonging to Magdalen College, part of it having been a Jewish cemetery until the Jews were expelled from Oxford (and the rest of England) in 1290.

The garden, established for ‘the furtherance of learning’, continues to support scientific enquiry and understanding, but is also a place for taking aesthetic pleasure in nature, or for quiet contemplation.  Undergraduates studying biological sciences at the university visit the garden to learn about many aspects of plant biology, while thousands of school children visit the garden each year as part of the university’s schools education programme.

Strolling around the rectangular ‘family beds’ where plants are grouped according to their botanical family, geographical origin or uses, we occasionally came across signs that described the investigations currently going on in a particular section.

The garden is home to more than 5000 plant species – on less than five acres of land, this makes it, according to the guide we were given, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In addition to colourful flowerbeds, there are sections where herbs and vegetables are grown, and – dispersed throughout the garden – some very interesting and beautiful trees. One tree survives from the original 16th century planting – an English yew, a species, as a label informs, that today is the source of drugs used to treat breast and ovarian cancer.

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The blossom of the Tulip tree

There is a Gingko, a Monkey Puzzle, and a Tulip tree with beautiful blossoms that look like tulips, though the plants are not related.  Most dramatic was the towering Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a tree known only in the fossil record until several living ones were discovered in China in the 1940s.  This one was planted in 1948, so is my age but a little taller.

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The Dawn Redwood

Then there is the Black Pine.  I love pines, and this one reminded me especially of one of my favourite Cezanne paintings, ‘The Great Pine’.  But this tree has literary, rather than artistic associations.  Indeed, the garden is rich in literary associations: Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, would bring the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church (including Alice), for picnics in the garden. In John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland the garden’s water lily house can be seen in the background of one of the plates illustrating the Queen of Heart’s Croquet Ground.

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Alice in the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground: inspired by the Botanic Garden

The Black Pine, brought here as a tiny seed in 1795, was the favourite tree of Oxford professor and author, JRR Tolkien, who often spent hours in the garden sitting under this tree.

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The Pinus Negra in the Botanic Garden

The tree is also a favourite of another Oxford-based author, Philip Pullman; he so loves this tree that he has Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials, sit under it tree at the conclusion of the trilogy.  In his story, a bench beneath its spreading branches is one of the locations where the parallel worlds inhabited by the protagonists, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. In the last chapter of the trilogy, both promise to sit on the bench for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s day every year so that perhaps they may feel each other’s presence next to one another in their own worlds.

The bench is now the subject of pilgrimage, and the names of Lyra and Will have been carved on the backrest. Such is the resonance of this place that the University has added to its website a podcast in which the author shares his passion for the Botanic Garden and reads from the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy where Lyra sits beneath the pine and dreams of the time when the Republic of Heaven will be established:

The Master had given Lyra her own key to the garden door, so she could come and go as she pleased. Later that night, just as the porter was locking the lodge, she and Pantalaimon slipped out and made their way through the dark streets, hearing a’r the bells of Oxford chiming midnight. Once they were in the Botanic Garden, Pan ran away over the grass chasing a mouse towards the wall, and then let it go  and sprang up into the huge pine tree nearby. […]

She sat on the bench and waited for Pan to come to her. He liked to surprise her, but she usually managed to see him before he reached her, and there was his shadowy form, following along beside the river-bank. She looked the other way and pretended she hadn’t seen him, and then seized him suddenly when he leapt on to the bench. […]

Pantalaimon murmured, ‘That thing that Will said. . .”
‘When?’
‘On the beach, just before you tried the alethiometer. He said there wasn’t any elsewhere. It was what his father had told you. But there was something else.”
“I remember. He meant the kingdom was over, the kingdom of heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
“He said we had to build something. . .”
“That’s why we needed our full life, Pan. We would have gone with Will and Kirjava, wouldn’t we.”
“Yes. Of course! And they would have come with us.
“But -”
“But then we wouldn’t have been able to build it. No one could, if they put them first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build. . .”
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others further off, one cracked and peevish.
another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.

Gallery: Oxford Botanic Garden

Earlier we had drifted into the quadrangles that enclose the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In Britain it is second in size to the British Library, containing over 11 million items. In its current form the library has a continuous history dating back to 1602, though its roots can be traced back even further. The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford – a small collection of chained books – was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester.

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The Divinity School, built between 1427 and 1483, and attached to the Bodleian Library

Thomas Bodley was the son of a Protestant merchant family from Exeter who had studied under Calvin in Geneva – a Protestant exile in the reign of Queen Mary- before returning to England when Elizabeth came to the throne to study at Merton College) In 1598 he wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the small existing library.

The library expanded rapidly, with the Schools Quadrangle – where we had entered – being added between 1613 and 1619.  Doorways leading off the quadrangle are labelled with the names of various disciplines and I was interested to note the entrance to the School of Natural Philosophy.  Only a week before I’d heard Melvyn Bragg’s panel on In Our Time discuss the work of the pioneering scientist Robert Boyle – one of the first to conduct rigorous experiments to lay the foundations of modern chemistry.

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Doorway to the Schola Moralis Philosophiae (School of Moral Philosophy) at the Bodleian Library

Except that Boyle – as a member of the panel pointed out – wasn’t a scientist, and would not have understood the term.  He was a natural philosopher, the term scientist only coming into use in the mid-19th century.  As an interesting feature in yesterday’s Guardian explained, the word was coined in 1840 by the Reverend William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, which contained a 70-page section on the Language of Science:

In it he discusses how the new words of science should be constructed. He then coins the universally accepted term physicist, remarking that the existing term physician cannot be used in that sense. He then moves on to the larger concept. ‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’ The word that scientist replaced was philosopher. An account of this coinage in Word Study, a newsletter published by Merriam-Webster in 1948, noted: ‘Few deliberately invented words have gained such wide currency, and many people will be surprised to learn that it is just over a century old.’

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The Radcliffe Camera

Leaving the quadrangle, we came face to face with a circular building constructed from the local honey-coloured limestone.  This was the Radcliffe Camera, designed by James Gibbs in neo-classical style and built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Known as the Radcliffe Camera (camera, meaning ‘room’ in Latin), it was taken over by the Bodleian in 1860, as the library grew short of space.

Gallery: Bodleian Library

On a warm afternoon, we strolled the sun-dappled path alongside the Cherwell, as students punted past us in celebratory mood.  Where the Cherwell meets the Thames we sat and watched teams of rowers as they practised on the Thames, the shouts of their cox’s splitting the air.  Later we enjoyed a drink at the waterside pub by Folly Bridge, The Head of the River.  Then over the river to The Folly restaurant for a delicious meal on the terrace as the sun set on a balmy evening.

Gallery: Cherwell and Thames

Philip Pullman: the greedy ghost of profit and public libraries

 

This is worth further dissemination.  Last week Oxford town hall was packed with people who had gathered to oppose the County Council’s plan to shut 20 of the county’s 43 public libraries. The author, Philip Pullman, spoke to the meeting. False Economy, which campaigns against the Coalition government’s strategy of cuts, co-published Philip’s inspirational speech in full with OpenDemocracy.  These are some extracts:

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

[…]

Imagine two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, neighbourhood watch schemes in every road, all organised and ready to go. Now I like people like that. They are the backbone of many communities. I approve of them and of their desire to do something for their villages or towns. I’m not knocking them.

But they do have certain advantages that the other community, the second one I’m talking about, does not. There people are out of work, there are a lot of single parent households, young mothers struggling to look after their toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, they might have a slow old computer if they’re lucky and a beaten-up old van and they dread the MOT test – people for whom a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise, a lot of energy to negotiate, getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can imagine it. Which of those two communities will get a bid organised to fund their local library?

But one of the few things that make life bearable for the young mother in the second community at the moment is a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road. She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome. But has she, have any of the mothers or the older people who use the library got all that hinterland of wealth and social confidence and political connections and administrative experience and spare time and energy to enable them to be volunteers on the same basis as the people in the first community? And how many people can volunteer to do this, when they’re already doing so much else?

What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses. I’ve always hated it.

[…]

And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

[…]

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

[…]

I want to say something about my own relationship with libraries. Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re in it for the money. […]

No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library.

[…]

I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Historical footnote: Local councils on Merseyside were among the pioneers of rates-funded public libraries in the mid-19th century.  The foundation of the modern public library system in the UK is the Public Libraries Act 1850. Prior to this, the municipalities of Warrington and Salford established libraries in their museums, under the terms of the Museums Act of 1845. Warrington Municipal Library opened in 1848. The Public Libraries Act 1850 allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries and Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bolton, Manchester, Sheffield and Norfolk were among the first to use the power.

105 Duke Street: built around 1800 by John Foster senior, it was originally known as the Union Newsroom. From 1852-60 it was Liverpool’s first public library. Image: Philip Pye, English Heritage.

Update 6 weeks later

On 30 March, author Zadie Smith gave a speech in defence of Kensal Rise library, threatened with closure. Books are a form of education, Smith argued, and education is one of the few effective methods of social mobility that this country has. “I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives.”  Zadie Smith said:

“I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library,” she said, to very unlibrary-friendly cheers and whoops from the packed audience. “But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little.  But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down. Perhaps this is why they are so cavalier with our heritage. “The fewer places there are to find a history book these days, the better.”

Local libraries, said Smith, are “gateways to better, improved lives”.  Later, Smith recorded her speech for Today.

In 1894, Mark Twain wrote that “a public library is the most enduring of memorials: the trustiest monument of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them”. Six years later, he opened Kensal Rise library. As he predicted, it endured: for more than 100 years, it has been a cornerstone of the community. But this is one of Brent council’s six libraries that face imminent closure – along with 800 libraries around the country, a fifth of the total. It risks becoming an “enduring memorial” to nothing more inspirational than government budget cuts that, in Brent’s case, have left Brent with a £37m financial hole this year.

Another celebrity opposed to the library closures is Guy Garvey of Elbow.  Manchester’s Portico Library is a hidden gem.  The Portico opened in 1806 and the first secretary was Peter Mark Roget, who worked on his thesaurus here. More recent members include Coronation Street founder Tony Warren, Eric Cantona and Garvey himself. The current cuts to libraries are close to Garvey’s heart, and he told The Observer that he was horrified when his mum told him that Unsworth Library, where he wrote some of Elbow’s first lyrics, was being closed to save a meagre £29,000. “When I first went there as a child I couldn’t believe it. ‘What? They let you take these books away?'”

He backed a campaign to save the library, which earned it a 12-month reprieve, though its long-term future remains in doubt. “When I used to walk past Central Library as a kid with my granddad, he would say: ‘That library belongs to you, and all the books in there: don’t let them take it away from you.'”

Although by the mid-19th century, England could claim 274 subscription libraries and Scotland, 266, the foundation of the modern public library system in the UK is the Public Libraries Act 1850. Prior to this, the municipalities of Warrington and Salford established libraries in their museums, under the terms of the Museums Act of 1845.Warrington Municipal Library opened in 1848. Salford Museum and Art Gallery first opened in November 1850 as “The Royal Museum & Public Library”, as the first unconditionally free public library in England.[42][43] The library in Campfield, Manchester was the first library to operate a free lending library without subscription in 1852.[44] Norwich lays claims to being the first municipality to adopt the Public Libraries Act 1850 (which allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries—although not to buy books),[citation needed] but theirs was the eleventh library to open, in 1857, being the eleventh in the country after Winchester, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Kidderminster, Cambridge, Birkenhead and Sheffield.[citation needed] The Scottish-American philanthropist and businessman, Andrew Carnegie, helped to increase the number of public libraries from the late 19th century.[citation needed]