Thursday, June 28, 2012

Field Trip to Magdalen College

For our final class meeting in Oxford, Dr. Snyder decided to take us on an afternoon tour of Magdalen College (pronounced "Maudlin" after the spelling in the college's original charter: "Maudelayne").  Founded in 1458, the College of St. Mary Magdalen is one of the oldest and largest of the colleges of the University of Oxford.  Of particular importance to our J.R.R. Tolkien seminar, Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis taught English as a Fellow of Magdalen College from 1925 to 1954.

Map of Magdalen College with tour route

Magdalen College's beautiful grounds are a popular tourist attraction, making it one of the most-visited colleges in the city, and today was no exception. In fact,  following the end of term last week, the University has been flinging open its doors to the hordes of summer tourists and prospective students.  The customary visitor's fees for each college have even been temporarily suspended to accommodate this Open House week.  It is a rare chance for visitors to see the interiors on these hallowed institutions, but it is also a bittersweet moment for us students.  The arrival of the tourist season and the relaxing of the colleges' entrance policies are reminders to us that we are also visitors.  We have been granted the privilege of studying here for a short while, but now our time in Oxford is coming to an end.

We were greeted at the Porter's Lodge by some bright-faced Magdalen students eager to give us a tour as part of the open house festivities.  We thanked them and said that we were actually meeting for our own private tour.  They seemed mildly surprised to see students after Week Eight.  I'd had a similar experience at Christ Church yesterday and was disheartened by being indistinguishable from the average tourist despite my Associate Member status.

Hannah and Melissa in St. John's Quad, Magdalen College
These days Magdalen College is home to approximately 600 students (400 undergrads and 200 graduate students) as well as 70 Fellows who tutor the college's students in a wide variety of subjects. The college boasts five libraries and an impressive chapel.  The college is famous for its May Morning ceremony during which its choir sings from the top of the chapel's Great Tower at 6am.

Stained-glass window, Magdalen College Chapel

Interior, Magdalen College Chapel
Choir stalls and altar, Magdalen College Chapel

After a stop in the chapel, we continued around the east side of the college and  paused for a group photo near the New Building, built in 1733.  C.S. Lewis kept rooms in this building and roses are still grow in the first-floor window boxes in his memory. Historian Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) also had rooms here.

Bailey and Melissa in Magdalen Cloisters
Maddy stops and smells the roses.

Garden path
New Building with roses in C.S. Lewis' window
MSU Shackouls Honors College Oxford Summer Study 2012

As beautiful as the buildings were, Dr. Snyder had saved the best for last.  He led us on a walk over the River Cherwell and north through the Water Meadows along Addison's Walk, a footpath leading to the Fellows' Garden.  Just behind the New Building lies The Grove or Deer Park,  where the college's herd of deer has resided since around 1705.   We meandered along the tree-lined paths, and Spencer Hall claimed his rightful place as "King of the Woodland Realm."

View across the Cherwell to Magdalen College
Swans on the Cherwell
King of the Woodland Realm

We explored the paths and ponds of the Fellows' Garden for several minutes before returning to the New Building Lawn.

Goodbye, Magdalen (and good weather)!!

Afterwards, several of us retired to the Turf Tavern on New College Lane for a late afternoon pint in celebration of the end of our Tolkien program.  A few of the Lady Bulldogs opted for a cup of tea in a nearby cafe.  We shared a few jokes and wished each other well as we prepared to go our separate ways, some back to the United States and others to various parts of Europe.

However, we all have an essay due this week which will keep us busy for the next two days as well as a longer final research paper due in two weeks.  But those can wait.


Around 4:30 I left the tavern and walked down the lane for my last tutorial on Weimar-Era Cinema with Dr. Kiss. My assignment for this week had been to watch several films dealing with Sex and Sexuality in the Weimar Republic. From my viewing list, I'd selected Der blaue Engel, or The Blue Angel (1930) and Die 3-Groschen-Oper, or The Threepenny Opera (1931).

Der blaue Engel (1930) tells the story of a morally-upstanding professor (Emil Jannings) who is tempted by the beautiful cabaret dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and is driven mad by his lust and jealousy. The film was a breakout role for Marlene Dietrich as a vixen archetype. 

Die 3-Groschen-Oper (1931) is director G.W. Pabst's film adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht stage play which is itself an adaptation of the 18th-century The Beggars' Opera by Englishman John Gay. It is a darkly-comic tale of London crimelord Mackie Messer, his marriage to the daughter of a rival criminal, and their plan to control the London criminal underworld. Die 3-Groschen-Oper is loaded with populist rhetoric and Marxist critiques of capitalism. While the film leaves out several of the play's best moments, it boasts a wealth of good music (Mack the Knife, anyone?)  Brecht is one of my favorite playwrights and I highly recommend this film as an introduction to his work.

I'd chosen to write my essay on the role of women in Weimar society for the opportunity to research the history of feminism.  As a business student I never had the time or opportunity to take any critical theory coursework, and one of the great strengths of this Oxford program is that I am surrounded by fellow students from a variety of disciplines who can expose me to new concepts.  

Just the other day, Hannah, an English and Journalism student, suggested some essays on feminist theory and the concept of the "Gaze." (Homophones are great. Every time I mention this topic to my friends, I get weird stares and am forced to spell it out.) After reading Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay on the subject, I opted to write about the camerawork in these two films and the objectification of the female characters.  Granted, there is only so much one can learn about a subject in a couple of days and with limited academic resources (our library cards expired last week, restricting us to online sources).  Dr. Kiss tore my essay apart as I expected she would, but between writing the essay and hearing her criticism, I gained a new appreciation for feminist theory.  We also had a good discussion about Brecht's ideas on Marxism and capitalism, a subject with which I have more experience and was therefore better able to defend my positions.

Overall, I have had a really great experience with this tutorial.  I've gained a new cinematic vocabulary and have a new appreciation and understanding of film and storytelling.  I feel that I have also improved my writing skills, having cranked out 4 ten-page essays for this tutorial and another 3 papers for the Tolkien course in the space of a month.  I've had to research, develop an argument, and defend my work orally.  I rarely did any of these things on a regular basis in my undergraduate work, and now feel better prepared for the rigors of graduate school.   

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Dapper Party

This morning I received an invitation to attend a most dapper party hosted by the Ladies of Venneit Close.  Enclosed with the invitation was a very manly stick-on moustache, "man"-datory for all party guests both male and female. Oh, this is going to be good!

Especially if this guy will be there!

Such was the invitation:

The Ladies of Venneit Close "moustache" you a question:
Would you grace us with your presence Sunday, June 24 at 8:00pm for desserts, drinks, & dapper company?  If you cannot procure a pudding, please bring spirits or cordials.  

Moustache is "man"datory.


Maddy making the invitations!

Messrs Stroud and Hansen  

Mr. Stroud and Lady Nguyen of Gautier

With 'staches...

...and without.

It could be rightly said that Dapper Josh was the toast of the party, though the pairing of Messrs Alex Herbighorst and Cameron Clarke with their pipes made a strong challenge for that claim.

Bailey, Melissa, and Josh

Chocolate-covered strawberries, precioussss?
 The party was a rousing success and a fitting way to mark the final week of our time in Oxford. The delicious comestibles and smartly-attired company made for a memorable evening.

Cheers, Ladies.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2012: A Survivor´s Tale

A Sucker Born Every Minute...

If I have not mentioned it before, Spencer Hall has by now established himself as the group's resident free-spirit.  Although he can appear rather quiet and withdrawn, Spencer is actually quite adventurous.  Whenever the group asks "Where's Spencer?" (a common occurrence), chances are that he is off exploring.  So it came as no surprise when, early this week, Spencer mentioned to me that he was considering traveling down to Stonehenge for the annual summer solstice ceremony.

I thought the proposal had some merit and floated the idea of a trip to some of my classmates; let's call this group Team A.  "It's a religious ceremony," I said.  Famous last words. At some point during the last three days, word got around that a party of some sort was to take place at Stonehenge on Wednesday night.  "Weeknight party? We're up for that" said the group of students henceforth referred to as Team B. "But it's a religious ceremony," I protested.

And thus the stage was set for an epic clash of ideologies on Salisbury Plain, or as I now refer to it,
The Binge at Stonehenge.

(***I don't usually like to break the narrative, but as this blog has ties to my home university, I'd just like to take a moment to offer the following events as an example of what NOT to do when traveling overseas. I usually gloss over poor behavior on this blog, but the actions of certain individuals during this particular outing achieved a new level of stupidity. So for the record, Team A = acceptable behavior, Team B = so much FAIL***)

The Road to the Ring:

Much has been said by others about the travel arrangements to Stonehenge, but in the long run, the details aren't terribly important.  Here is a short version of events: Team B managed to secure a discounted group rail ticket for themselves (a surprisingly good start), while Team A was forced to purchase slightly more-expensive individual tickets.  (A station agent gave an incorrect closing time for the group ticket window.)

As Team A ran back to Venneit Close to regroup and purchase tickets online, we saw the mysterious Beast of Venneit Close! It was a family of foxes! We paused long enough to take some photographic evidence.

A little blurry, but definitely a fox.

The ticket screw up actually proved to Team A's short-term advantage.  While we were panicking over our travel arrangements, Team B pre-gamed before their journey and then decided to just bring the party with them on the 10 p.m. train. Meanwhile, Team A was struggling to purchase tickets at an automated terminal and was eventually herded onto the wrong train by a station employee.

Fortunately, the train was going in the right direction, just not to the correct station.  After a short and slightly-panicked ride, Team A was forced to change trains in Reading but without significant delay.  The journey was uneventful, and about an hour after departing Oxford, we arrived at Basingstoke sometime around midnight.  There we were required to wait another hour until the train to Salisbury, the closest station to Stonehenge, arrived.

Things were great until we hear someone slurring our names from across the empty station.  Team B was waiting in Basingstoke too! Yeah!  They were probably on their third or fourth hour of drinking and looked the part. Team A tried to hide, but we were all eventually driven by the evening chill into a small waiting room with dingy florescent lighting.  Team B wore themselves out dancing and singing; it was quite a show. 

The Salisbury commuter train arrived around 1 a.m.  Team B was by now too drunk to notice, but I just didn't have the heart to leave them behind.  I genuinely do not believe that they would have been able to function on their own.  With a brief word of apology to the incredulous stationmaster, I prodded them towards the platform, and we all settled into our seats.

The last leg of our journey passed slowly, Team B  continuing the party on their side of the aisle and Team A cringing on the other.  The dirty looks of our fellow passengers went unheeded. In full disclosure, Team A had actually brought a couple of bottles of stout to enjoy quietly, but there was no longer any question about taking those out now.  Somewhere between the latest track from some manufactured pop-star blaring from a tinny cell phone speaker and the chugging of wine straight from the bottle, we witnessed just how obnoxious Americans can be.

It's Getting Near Dawn...

We arrived in Salisbury and made a pit stop at the station restrooms.  Team B very nearly didn't come back.  Afterwards, we then looked around for the bus to Stonehenge. We learned that the buses had stopped running and the only option was a taxi (£30 per car). While waiting for a break in the rain, we struck up a conversation with a nice group of hippies. As you might expect, they had lots of piercings, tattoos, and musical instruments. After a while, they broke out into a drum, vuvuzela, and gypsy flute improv which was phenomenal!  Team B missed a lot of the fun, since they were nursing some of their more-inebriated members in the corner.

I will play you the song of my people!

We finally hired a pair of taxis to drive us the dozen or so miles from Salisbury to the monument. Team A was seriously considering walking the 12 miles to Stonehenge to burn a few hours, but since certain members of Team B were by now so drunk they needed to be physically carried, it was just best to take a cab.  Team A's driver carried us through winding streets to the edge of the town and then down a dark and narrow country lane.  The high-beams of the taxi cut through the rain and gave us glimpses of the hills and trees surrounding the car. Then we left the trees and came out onto the Salisbury Plain north of the city.   After about ten minutes we could see dim lights ahead, brighter than that of the sporadic pre-dawn traffic, and cresting the last rise, we made out the lights of the pagan host arrayed on the hills before us...

Or rather, we saw the lights of a car park; police checkpoint; and the various stalls, vendors, and temporary facilities which such a large and remote gathering attracts. Our driver set us down at a traffic circle about a mile west of the festival grounds; he could proceed no further past a police cordon and the long line of cars attempting to park in the muddy fields. The time was now about 2:30am and the rain was holding steady.

Casey Elliott and Melissa Atchley: wet but undefeated
We collected Team B from the second taxi and walked for about 40 minutes over the hills, tracing back the long line of revelers who were leaving the grounds early to escape the weather. Team B had sobered up a bit and could now stagger. By now it was clear that cloud cover would linger past sunrise and the summer sun's rays would not illuminate the plinths of Stonehenge this year. A dark cloud of alcohol-fueled despair had now firmly settled over Team B. Nevertheless, we'd come this far and couldn't turn back now.

We passed through the first of two security checkpoints.  As a sign of things to come, police were operating a rather large amnesty zone where visitors could safely turn over their stashes of illegal substances before taking their chances with the drug dogs at the gate. Despite the drug ban, visitors were still allowed up to four non-glass bottles of alcohol.

Before you ask, that is not a body on the ground.

Artist's rendering of the average Stonehenge visitor
Once inside the perimeter, first reports were promising: "There's a whole family of Gandalfs in there!" said one exiting reveler. (NOTE: For the uninitiated, Gandalf is a fictional wizard from The Lord of the Rings)
 3:30 a.m. - Just before reaching the henge, we saw the 22ft. tall statue called Ancestor which is meant to depict the first man worshiping the sun.  It has been installed at Stonehenge for the Solstice and will be moved to London for the Olympic ceremonies. At first, we weren´t really quite sure what to make of it, but a friendly Neo-druid in a bearskin robe offered his take on its significance:  "He 'as a crown 'cause he's a 'blingy' motherf*****." At this point, Team B's fearless leader demanded that we proceed over to Stonehenge and "worship the Dawn," or something to that effect.

Ancestor.  James Cameron was clearly influenced.

Game Time:

 And then we came at last to Stonehenge. The massive trilithons were back-lit by blue and white flood lights mounted on scissor-lifts. From across the field, we could already hear the drums and cries of the Neo-druids at the center of the ring. At least a couple of thousand people were already gathered under the plinths, waiting for the coming dawn. We crossed the  ancient ditch and earthworks (3100 BC??) surrounding the henge (2000-3000 BC) and joined them. (I later read that the reported attendance was 14,500 over the course of a couple of days.)

 4:45 a.m - I didn't last long. Between the overpowering stench of marijuana, cigars, alcohol and the din created by countless didgeridoos, drums, and vuvuzelas, I was ready to go within a few minutes.  I held out until about fifteen minutes after dawn (which occurred officially at 4:52am), but since the sun was not visible through the clouds, much of the effect was lost this year. In the meantime I had a very uninteresting conversation with some blazed Spaniards.  I later heard from a police officer that 70% of the crowds were foreign and basically there to do drugs.  I'm not really sure of any other reason why they would be there. Nor why we were there for that matter. Most of the crowd just seemed to be there for the spectacle of it all.

 I did meet a grandfatherly man in a kingly red and white robe whom I dubbed the Super Pagan or maybe the "High" Druid, though I believe his actual title was Archdruid (see below). On a serious note, I didn't actually see any Neo-druids using drugs.  

Ironically, the Neo-druids seemed to be the only  "normal" people there. Everyone else was either a hippie, druggie, or a out-of-place tourist with a camera (just for the record, I self-identify with the latter category). Most people were just there to climb on the otherwise off-limits stones and party. By contrast, all the Druids wanted was to wear their colorful robes, bearskins (no joke), or birds' feathers and dance in peace.
 I clawed my way out of the henge and made my way over to a stone a ways removed to the north-east from the main structure.  This was the Heel Stone, above which the summer sun rises on the solstice, the longest day of the year. A small and well-behaved crowd had gathered there to hear a group of Neo-druids give a sermon in all their finery.  Their leader, who I understand was Rollo Maughfling the Archdruid of Stonehenge and the Glastonbury Order of Druids,  exhorted the gathering to look past their differences and belief systems and come together in brotherhood.  Then, he led them in several chants and songs. My favorite was the Druid's Oath:

 "We swear 
by peace and love to stand,
 Heart to Heart and Hand in Hand
Mark O Spirit, and hear us now,
confirming this, our Sacred Vow."

It went on like this for several lines and the repeated three of four times. Soon the whole crowd had the gist of it.

The real festivities took place over by the Heel Stone
Rollo Maughfling the Archdruid of Stonehenge and the Glastonbury Order of Druids, leads the crowd in the Druid's Oath.

 This part of the festivities was much more interesting than anything actually going on within the monument, people coming together to celebrate this changing of the season as they've allegedly done for thousands of years (or at least since the early 20th century). At this point in my tale, I must bear the report that Spencer Hall succumbed to the Druids' spell and was last seen at the forefront of the crowd.  We fear that he had "fallen into Shadow and comes not again."

Overheard Quote: "Normally I think really horny thoughts when I hear this, but I look over there, and I see a man doing better..." - random Viking with a woolen poncho describing a robed Druid leader 

At some point Alex and Taylor arrived from London, still wearing suits from an afternoon tour of Parliament the previous day. They had managed to catch an overnight bus service to the nearby town of Amesbury but then couldn't find their way the two or three miles from the town to Stonehenge. Taylor had called me repeatedly for directions, but I had only downloaded maps for Salisbury, not Amesbury, and was of little help. Fortunately, they later said that a passing patrolman had given them a lift. They really stood out  amongst the backpackers and assorted grungy types on the plain and many people took photos of this odd pair. (FYI: Taylor is 6'8'' and Alex's fashion sense is decidedly 19th century.)

Alex Habighorst and Taylor Luczak (just arrived from London) and Casey Elliott

 Approximately 5:30 a.m. - Although the morning was growing lighter and the rain had finally abated, the winds and evening chill were still strong.  Bailey, Hannah, Spencer, and I chose to leave the Druids and Team B to their fun and to return to Salisbury. In search of the special event bus stop, we marched east over the hills, about half the two-mile distance to Amesbury. There we found a bus queue just beyond the police roadblock and had a morning lesson in Supply and Demand, paying an exorbitant £6 fee for the crowded double-decker to Salisbury. (In comparison, $7.50/person would have covered a private cab, while £13 is the bus fee for a round trip from Oxford to London.) We weren't the only passengers to be ticked off; a very drunken man, in fact the same one we'd seem confronted by the police upon our arrival at Stonehenge, badgered the driver about the ridiculous fee and threatening to walk.  We wished that he had walked home.

Can we have our souvenir "survivor" t-shirts now?
 We were glad to be off our feet, and as the bus carried us away from the Neo-druids and Team B, we drifted off to sleep.


6:30 a.m. - The Salisbury train station was now overrun with hippies and confused tourists. Since our train wasn't due for a couple of hours, Team A chose to walk about a mile over to the 750-year-old Salisbury Cathedral, beckoned by the lofty spire which just peaking out through the morning mist. The cathedral's spire is the tallest in England and the building also houses both the world's oldest working clock (1386 A.D.) and the best-preserved of the four surviving, original copies of the Magna Carta. The Trinity chapel also houses an excellent Modernist stained-glass window which is dedicated to prisoners of conscious around the world. The cathedral is perhaps best-known in recent years as an inspiration for Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth. At 7:00am on a misty weekday morning, the cathedral is practically empty, and the vastness of the space is overwhelming.  It is an absolutely beautiful building.

7:30a.m. - Ate a delicious breakfast at  a downtown cafe called The Boston Tea Party. It occupies a wonderful half-timbered house on the High Street.  We were the first customers of the day, intruding on the staff's breakfast, but they were delighted to serve us, waving us inside from their seats by the window. The coffee is first-rate and the all-day breakfast menu includes pancakes and omelets.

We could have stayed forever.

The Long Road Home:

8:47 a.m. - The Salisbury station was even more crowed than we'd left it earlier in the morning.  More and more revelers were arriving from Stonehenge.  Suddenly, we spied Team B looking lost and forlorn on the platform.  We tried to avoid them, but Taylor spied us over the crowd.

Salisbury --> Basingstoke: Approximately 45 minute train ride. Standing room only due to Stonehenge crowds. Bailey made a loud comment about the stupid hippies clogging the train, and I reminded him that, for once, five average college students were the ones out of place in this particular crowd. After that we tried to keep a low profile.

 Basingstoke --> Reading: Quick transfer.

For the Reading --> Oxford train, the group split in two again. Team B with its discounted group tickets was restricted to using only Great Western line trains while Team A with our individual tickets could immediately board a waiting Cross Country line express train. Team A quickly boarded the waiting train and huddled together in the luggage area at the rear of a car. We'd lucked out in catching an earlier express service, but we then managed to bungle to opportunity by missing our Oxford stop and continuing on northward. We therefore had to find yet a fourth train to take us home at last. (In fact we'd disembarked at Oxford originally, within eyesight of our apartment, but exhausted and confused as we were, we became disoriented and allowed Bailey to convince us to re-board the train.)

We weren't at all pleased, case in point:

''You're waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you; but you don't know for sure. But it doesn't matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you?
---Because you'll be together."

All's Well That Ends Well
Despite the detour, we finally managed to stumble home to a much-deserved rest.  That evening, Dr. Snyder invited the class to his apartment to watch Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings:The Fellowship of the Ring in preparation for next week's discussion on the films.  Most of us managed to stay awake despite the film being the 3-hour Extended Version.  Dr. Snyder was generous enough to provide some snacks, tea, and coffee for everyone.