August 19, 2016

Roadside Universities in Oxford

(The present article is the author’s nostalgia for his sojourn in Oxford for the past few months as a visiting research fellow.)
Reading maketh a full man;
Conference a Ready man;
And Writing an Exact man.
(Sir Francis Bacon)
At first sight, I have not fallen in love with Oxford until I found out about its chequered past. The city owes much of its international fame to its string of colleges. Still, Oxford, with its metaphorical name “the city of dreaming spires”, is said to be really a tale of two cities. It is one of the most special places in UK especially for education. It lays very quiet among the vast meadows, century-old colleges and museums. It is situated in Oxford Shire in the southeastern part of UK. It is also the home of the Oxford University, the oldest university in English-speaking world. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of London. Its core comprises a gravel terrace between the upper River Thames (the Isis) and the smaller River Cherwell.
In retrospect, probably the first settlement was established in Oxford since Saxon times. The city obtained its name from the original “Oxen ford” (the present day Folly Bridge). As for education, the Augustinians established monasteries as the very first learning centers in the early 12th century. Later, the need to meet the local demand for higher education arose. It was far beyond the ecclesiastical schools could provide. Therefore, in 1167, during a feud between Henry II and the King of France, the university of Paris was closed to the scholars. Consequently, they migrated to settle in Oxford. In about the 13th century, friars from the most prominent religious orders came to teach in Oxford, living and studying in large town houses or academic halls. Late in the same period, rich and powerful bishops established their own centers of scholarship in the town, which turned out to be the establishment of the first colleges there. As was the case elsewhere in the world, the arrival of students in the town caused friction with townspeople. In 1209, a scholar killed a local woman in Oxford. In consequence, the scholar’s two unfortunate friends were hung in revenge. This led to a strike staged by the university. Many students fled in fear and some moved to Cambridge where they founded Oxford’s sister university. Today, the university comprises 38 colleges and almost 20,000 students. The appeal of the city may be its medieval atmosphere created by many of its college quadrangles. Most of the locals said that much has changed since the early days.
I still remember that when I came to Oxford from London, I took Oxford Tube that plies between London and Oxford. It cost me 15£ for a one-way ticket. It was just a 2-hour ride. The sun has already set when I stepped down from the tube at the Gloucester Green bus stop. What first amazed me in Oxford were books. In fact, I almost ran into books placed in order on a shelf close to the door when I entered the house rented for me there on Observatory Street. They were chronologically and neatly displayed on the shelves. They numbered more than one hundred on each shelf. Thus, I thought my landlady must be a bibliophile or a bookworm. Later I found out that I was right when I happened to chat with her about books. Next morning, in order to cook my lunch, I entered the kitchen to see another bookshelf. The kitchen bookshelf disclosed those books on culinary art. She said she used to consult the books whenever she was to prepare a special dish on a special occasion. Two German friends and I had the chance to enjoy her dishes at times during our sojourn. She even made our breakfast tea according to these cooking books.
Even in my room were two bookshelves with books about English literature, history, geography, etc. Many paintings were also hung on the wall. So I was thankful towards her for all her room-decoration. The first bookshop I visited in Oxford was Oxfam, located on St Giles street. It was the first of its kind officially opened in 1987 by Sir John Mortimer. It had a wide selection of academic and foreign language books at a relatively cheap price. As that two-story building was a thrift shop, volunteers, donors and customers to that bookshop were part of the thriving University community. New books, old books and secondhand books were available at the shop. Next was Water Stones or “The Bookshop on the corner”, situated in William Baker House, a Grade II heritage listed building on the corner of Cornmarket Street and the Broad in the center of Oxford. It is a haven for lovers of literature with five floors of books, Stationery, Gifts and a Café W, as well as a host of regular literary events. Even the same book can be available in various format and package styles at a varied price.  Specially packed books for gifts were always available for special occasions like Christmas.
I also liked to browse around a second-hand bookshop called Blackwell’s Oxford on Broad Street.  There, new, secondhand, antiquarian and rare books across every conceivable subject were within the reach of every bookworm. It has been serving the needs of academics, students and book-lovers since 1879. At the same time, I remember my window-shopping at Albion Beatnik on Walton Street with its impressive range of US pulp, beat poetry and Jazz and Blue literatures, the Classic Bookshop on Sheep Street with its plethora of books on archaeology and ancient history, the Last Bookshop on New Inn Hall Street, offering the customers very good quality reminder and secondhand academic, literary and specialist books and Oxford Univeristy Press Bookshop on High Street.
While drifting myself into Oxford’s reverie, I strike upon our roadside bookstalls with a wide variety of books on display. I also miss my frequent visits to those bookstalls on Pansodan Road during my freshman and sophomore days in order to taste those books financially beyond my reach. One day, I happened to spot a rare book of my favorite in a shop beside the Ganesh Temple on the Pansodan Road. The seller was an old and cheerful man. I knew the price was very reasonable. But, like true to the type of sellers, I tried to strike a bargain out of its floor price. The old man indulged my unreasonable thriftiness. So I managed to get the book at a far lower price than it really should be. All on my way towards, I was sad and uneasy, let alone to have been happy, whenever I recalled the event in a sad flashback with an old and sweaty man in dingy yellow shirt sitting all day with the harsh sun. I have wronged him. I made up my mind to pay for it. I jumped down from the bus before it took off and scurried towards him. He was already gone when I got to the spot. I made another visit next day. I saw him selling his old books in the hot sun. As I caught his eyes, he beamed at me. He seemed to recognize me so well that I flushed a little bit, as if stung by a pang of guilty-consciousness. I came to greet him and bought him a mug of sugarcane juice. For, I knew he would refuse if I compensated for his loss yesterday. Meanwhile, I apologized to him for my self-centeredness yesterday. On hearing my apology, he exploded with a wild laughter, saying “O what a naïve! I got it from a friend for free (He did not know that you looked more naïve by his admission.). He then presented me with a Readers’ Digest in return for my drink. So I was pleased with all I had done that day. Thus have I been an avid frequenter to the roadside bookstalls at Pansodan since my varsity days, which in a way created me a window of opportunity to be able to haunt the roadside bookstalls at Oxford. To me, these roadside bookstalls, local or foreign, mean universities in a sense that they serve as feeding grounds for initiating any of my academic pursuits.


Related posts

Translate »