Wadham graduates arriving

The Isis, seen from the Folly Bridge

As soon as I saw the Library Court – two levels of rooms clustered around a central courtyard, with only thin curtains blocking a direct view into one another’s rooms – I was reminded of Bentham’s panopticon model prison. Thus, ‘The Panopticon’ has become the nickname of our shared space.

Two more Canadian law students joined us in Library Court around 2:30 today, after the rest of us shared lunch in the MCR. One is from Ontario, the other from Montreal. The young woman from Ontario, Abra (Joelle Faulkner), was being aided in the process of moving in by yet another Canadian, the captain of the women’s hockey team. It’s quite astonishing to be in a residence in a foreign country where, so far, five out of the seven residents are Canucks. The process of collegiate population remains a very exciting one.

I did actually manage to spend some time in the Wadham College library. Somewhat disappointingly, there is no political science of international relations section. It will therefore be more of a place where reading and work can be done than an actual resource for me. Still, it’s a nice thing to have immediately downstairs and open 24 hours a day. Given the astonishing amount of reading in my program, I have the feeling that libraries will become a frequent haunt.

I finished The Metaphysical Club this afternoon, a book that certainly wandered extensively between disciplines, time periods, and different lives. Not having much knowledge about the people and times presented, it was difficult to follow. Nonetheless, I think it was quite worthwhile. I learned quite a bit about things like jurisprudential theory and railway strikes during the period following the American Civil War. Likewise, it included much that was interesting about the nature of education and academia, as well as the purpose and usefulness of both.

The discussion of tolerance, and its connection with the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism as explored by Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey, seems particularly relevant today. As during the cold war, democratic societies are struggling to determine a mechanism for balancing pluralism (in culture and ideas) with the need to respond to an external ideological threat. The parallel is inexact, but the concerns are the same.

After finishing The Metaphysical Club, I took a brisk walk from Wadham College to Folly Bridge, by means of as many alleys and small streets as I could manage. I then made my way back up to the college more directly, along the road that passes the entrance to the Christ Church quad and the Oxford museum. Upon returning to the Panopticon, I spoke with Tristan over Skype for a while before repeating nearly the same walk with Nora in darkness, taking more than four hours instead of less than one. Judging by comments on the last entry, I failed spectacularly to express the overall character of my conversations with her. The disagreements to which I made reference are not an impediment to discourse, but rather the basis of a profitable one. While elements of her thinking are quite different from my own, there is nonetheless a considerable extent to which these discussions are the foundation of my only substantial relationship in Oxford so far.

While walking back to Wadham the second time, I had my first experience with one of the notorious Oxford kebab vans, from which I purchased a large box of vinegar-soaked chips for £1.50. Having missed our increasingly-traditional shared dinner in the MCR due to my first walk, it was a welcome correction.

I now have my schedule for what is called 0th week, or freshers’ week. It includes plenty of orientations from the college, university, and department. It also features a great deal of social content: notably a school uniform bop (dance) on Friday, October 7th. Another useful fact I’ve discovered is that, even though the Wadham Library has no IR section, they do have one of the recommended pre-readings for my M.Phil course. I will go and have a look at it tomorrow, as well as ferrying some new documents to Joanna Coryndon, having yet more passport sized photographs printed for the college, and trying again to open a bank account.

Rooftops and The Turf

People in The Turf

Today was mostly very social, though I did make some progress in the Menand book. Ben and Andy – the two Canadian graduate law students living in Library Court – joined Nora, Kelly, and I for a walk around Oxford in the late morning. We visited a number of the colleges, saw some gardens, walked over to the Thames, and had lunch in a nice local pub that Kelly discovered, called The Wheatsheaf. Their spicy bean burger was much better than I would have expected a vegetarian dish in a British pub to be. At the end of the walk, I purchased an electric kettle, teapot, and some loose tea. The tea is a bit lacking in bergamot oil and the teapot is seriously lacking in a filter to strain out the loose tea, but I will certainly figure it out in the end.

Our triad-come-pentad seems quite neatly balanced. I seem to fit reasonably well between our two medieval historians and the two lawyers, insofar as they tend to break off into discipline-matched pairs which I’ve been able to integrate myself into reasonably well. I have the strong sense that this group will hold together in an important way once the pressure of school becomes apparent. Actually, the existence of a community of fellow scholars, not necessarily in the same discipline, strikes me as an important counterweight to the anxieties that will inevitably emerge. A school where 85% is literally the best possible grade and where praise, if it exists, is sparing will take a bit of getting used to.

At dinner tonight, the five present members of Library Court were joined by a former inhabitant: a young Bulgarian mathematician who finished her M.Phil here last year and has now progressed into a D.Phil program in statistics. Knowledgeable and friendly, she gave us some advice about life in Oxford and then led us on a bit of a tour. For fear of butchering it in a way similar to how every branch of Oxford has butchered mine, I shall not attempt to spell her name yet. We visited the pub that Hannah recommended to us earlier, but found it too busy to be of use. We then had a drink at the King’s Arms – the pub owned by Wadham College – before going for a walk up to Jericho and then back down to Wadham. Colleges, pubs, and Marks and Spencer seemed to be the focus of today’s wanderings.

After we got back, I spent a few hours conversing with Nora atop one of the roofs of the college, looking out over the spires of the city and the dome of the Radcliffe Camera. Largely personal while outside, the conversation became much more political when we retired for tea. Among the people I’ve met so far, I’ve definitely encountered the greatest conversational depth with Nora, which is not to say that we understand things similarly. She is disarmingly pro-capitalist and Jeffersonian, in the strength of her anti-government conviction. It’s a position to which I have difficulty responding and that makes me wish my recollections about political theory were a bit sharper. It does, in any event, demonstrate the difficulty that intelligent, civil people can have in understanding one another when they are approaching matters on the basis of sharply differing premises. I find myself occasionally quite flabbergasted by her statements: reduced by astonishment to being quite unable to rebut them effectively, or as effectively as I am sure someone like Tristan or Sarah Pemberton could.

Notably, Nora spent two years teaching high school history in North Carolina. She also had to swim across a channel where the bridge had been washed out by a hurricane in order to catch her plane to get to Oxford.

Possibly due to the hour, possibly due to a sudden infusion of tea, I am feeling less than entirely well and should probably get some rest. Tomorrow is another day and, since many of my neighbours will be going to mass in the morning, I may have a chance to do a bit of pre-reading for my course, undistracted by more appealing options.

Arrival in Oxford

The main quad of Wadham College

When I arrived in Oxford, it was raining. I made my way from the train station, with bags in hand and strapped to my body, guided by the map I bought with Sarah, until I reached Wadham College. With little difficulty, I found the Porter, who gave me the keys to my room in Library Court. My windows open onto a balcony that overlooks a courtyard, with the college library beneath it.

Within minutes of arriving in my room (before I was even unpacked), I met Kelly, the Alabaman student of ancient languages and medieval history who is living in the room beside mine. She means to stay in England permanently. I spoke with her for about half an hour, sharing tea in her room. She has helped me to become somewhat oriented, a process that was enlarged upon later when I made visits to the Domestic Bursar’s office and the Tutorial Office. Before doing so, however, I met another resident of the upper portion of the Library Court: Nora, who is from North Carolina. She and Kelly are studying Latin together for an hour each morning and afternoon.

After giving myself a bit of a tour of the college, I set off back into town: intent upon at least starting the process of opening a bank account. Unfortunately, NatWest won’t give a free youth rail card to international students opening accounts, as they will for domestic ones. I shall, in any event, have to wait until Monday for any banking stuff to move forward. I was able, nonetheless, to purchase some groceries to tide me over until the college begins serving dinners at start of term. Even then, it will be up to us to produce our own breakfasts and lunches. I have a very small fridge in my room and there is another down in the shared kitchen for the Library Court residents. We each have an en-suite washroom with a sink, as well as shared shower rooms on the floor below.

As I came back from shopping, I found my way down to the computer room and met Richard Leach, the IT Assistant. He set me up with a temporary keycard for the side gate of the college and the library. Since the Bodeleian cards for the other Wadham grad students are not yet working, I am probably the only graduate student at Wadham who has such access.

This evening, I had a lovely dinner with Nora and Kelly. We made pasta with sauce infused with fresh vegetables. Accompanying it was a bottle of Shiraz that I purchased at Sainsbury’s for £4.50. All told, both the preparation and the consumption of the meal were most enjoyable. Nora provided me with a somewhat detailed overview of British history from 54 A.D. until the time of Richard I, to be continued at a later date. The part that stuck in my mind is mostly about how a great deal of time was spent fighting one another, Scots, Danes, and such. After dinner, we retired to Kelly’s room again and combined the drinking of tea with what became a conversation (read, somewhat heated debate) about the importance of understanding the thought processes and reasoning of terrorists, whether we consider their actions justifiable and rational or not.

In short, I’ve been impressed by my first day in Oxford. The initial rain soon became a nicely diffused sunshine that complimented my initial wanderings. I’ve also had the excellent fortune of making the acquaintance of two neighbouring D.Phil students who are good conversationalists. Right at the end of this evening, we were joined by another member of the upper gallery of the Library Court: a 27 year old former Osgood law student with a focus on international humanitarian law. A bit odd to have two young women from the southern United States and two Canadians suddenly living together, but definitely not a bad arrangement. For the first time ever in residence, I am excited about my neighbours and glad to live in their company. I am glad I came early. I am glad I chose Oxford. Many anxieties have been neatly quashed today.

I was astonished a moment ago to see the time. Even with whatever effects jet lag should be producing, I still feel quite energetic. In the morning, we are going to meet for breakfast, along with the newest addition to our social and self-orientation group. In consideration of that, I should go to bed. Since all of the college bureaucracy will be closed for the weekend, I am supposing it will be best spent in meeting people and getting a start on my reading, by means of the key card that Richard so helpfully provided for me.

Published from 11 Library Court, Wadham College, Oxford

Milan on the Millenium Bridge in London. Photo by Sarah Johnston

Sitting on the train to Oxford, from London, I am thinking back on the exceptionally extended day that was yesterday. Sleepless on Tuesday night, I spent much of the flight to London in a kind of uneasy resting trance: punctuated by turbulence and the screaming of infants. As it worked out, I had one such child on each side of me.

Unable to find a bus to Oxford from Gatwick Airport, I decided to take the train into London. I arrived at Victoria Station at 5:00am in the local time. Knowing that I couldn’t carry on thinking of myself as a fairly decent human being if I called Sarah so soon, I spend the next two and a half hours reading The Metaphysical Club. It’s a book about which I cannot possibly hope to hold on to the details, once I am finished, but about which I’ve appreciated the general thrust. In particular, I like the bits about the nature of the Northern abolitionist movement in the United States prior to the civil war, as well as the lengthy section discussing the evolution and frequent misapplication of statistics.

At 7:30, I called Sarah and then conveyed myself – along with my weight in baggage – from Victoria Station to a tube station in the northeast part of greater London, where she met me. She and her fiancee Peter are living in a flat immediately beside the construction site where their new and permanent home is being constructed. Glad to be able to leave my bags there, I headed back into town with Sarah for a day of wandering.

We began by visiting Covent Garden, one of many places that I remember from my prior visit in the summer of 2001. Nearby, we visited Sarah’s favourite map shop and I got small maps of London and Oxford. Just having them in my pocket, I feel less out-of-place. From there, we briefly visited Trafalgar Square: with Nelson’s column, Canada House, and hordes of marauding pigeons on display. Afterwards, we stopped by University College London, where swarms of international students are waiting in long lines in colour coded sections. Naturally, I got my photo taken beside the preserved corpse of famed utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. We then met with Peter for lunch in the building where he works; Sarah tells me that the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 is modeled after it. It was also a favourite building of Adolph Hitler, who apparently intended to make it into his headquarters once he conquered Britain.

After cappuccinos and conversation with Peter – who works at digitizing data when not doing historical research towards his PhD – Sarah and I took the tube to Saint Paul’s, crossed the Millennium Bridge, and visited the Tate Modern Gallery. She had never been there before and I took care to bring her into the building through its soaring atrium. A converted power station, the Tate Modern has a very distinctive aesthetic that I quite appreciate. Wandering through at about three times standard, respectful museum walking speed, we realized that we have a view of modern art that is not overly dissimilar.

Back at Peter and Sarah’s flat, we had lasagna and wine for dinner. Despite the interesting conversation, I found myself seriously wavering by 9:30, having not properly slept since Monday night – some sixty hours previously. This morning, I woke up around 7:30am, feeling much more awake than I would have dared to hope for. Sarah accompanied me along the streets and through the tube to Paddington Station.

As was the case last summer, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for Sarah’s exceptional hospitality. It changes the whole character of arriving in a strange place to have a helpful friend there. I shall have no such friends in Oxford, but this day in London has mitigated many of my concerns about that.

PS. Let it be known that the Shane Koyczan CD that Sasha Wiley gave me (American Pie Chart) and the Apocalyptica CD that Drew Gave me (Reflections) are both superb. They enriched the plane ride and the days before it.

Whirling Preparations

These last few days at Staples have been by far the busiest I have ever seen there: a circumstance that made Jessica’s brief visit to Vancouver all the more welcome. It’s always pleasant to have the chance to show somebody the more interesting bits of an unfamiliar city – a role I am certainly hoping to play for more than a few friends at Oxford.

Speaking of Oxford, there is much about it that is causing me distress. Given the clear superiority of numbered lists as a way of conveying information, I shall convey them thusly:

  1. The accommodations manager at Wadham College cannot tell me whether I am to live in the College residence in the centre of town, as it is my strong preference to do, or in the Merifield flats about a mile out.
  2. The admissions officer at Wadham can’t even confirm that I have a place in the college, because they now want proof that I can pay for both years.
  3. The admissions officer has not responded to my repeated and increasingly panicked requests to know just what kind of proof they want.
  4. Finances are looking as though they will be extremely tight, even for just the first year. This makes me want to bring as much as I can along with me, but I am restricted to the amount of physical matter I can carry. This includes a bicycle, since I will be ill-equipped to purchase even a used one there.
  5. I need to open a bank account to transfer money into to pay the first of three installments to the college and university, but cannot do so until I arrive.
  6. Nobody seems able to tell me what kind of internet access, if any, I will be able to get in whichever residence I end up in.

This general collection of nervous facts combines poorly with increasingly nerve-wracking days at Staples – with three sets of customers nipping at my heels as I try to serve the requests of a fourth. Also, with the original version of the NASCA report now distributed, all manner of people are simultaneously getting back to me with suggestions for changes, ideas for how the whole document can be reorganized, and generalized demands that I carry on working on the thing. I’d rather have a few friends over to drink scotch and watch Sin City, but such are the pressing demands of life.

Tonight, I mailed off email invitations to my departure party on September 17th. I hope I managed to send them to everyone in Vancouver who I profoundly hope will attend. Since I won’t have any kind of meaningful or well-attended birthday party this year, this party will serve as a surrogate. It will also be a departure party for anyone else who is leaving soon and able to attend: as I hope will be the case for Kerrie.

Returning to the matter alluded to earlier, of Jessica’s visit: it consisted of getting vegetarian Indian food at Yogi’s, where we got enormously faster service than I did the last time I went there, followed by drinks at Subeez (becoming cliche for me these days, but definitely my favourite place downtown) and generalized wandering in the English Bay area. Aside from the single brief time when I met Frank, this was the only time I’ve met someone in person who I had only known of previously online.

This morning, I remember standing at the end of a stone breakwater at Ambleside Beach in the rain, looking out at the morning city landscape. Like looking at Kits from English Bay last night, it was a sight that filled me with preemptive nostalgia: a sense that this is a known and familiar place that it is now appropriate to leave behind. That calm certainty forms an empowering counterpoint to the specific anxieties raised by the actual mechanisms of leaving.

Anyhow, I need to go over the messages I have received about the NASCA report and determine how long, working on the nights between Staples shifts, it will take to get the urgently desired second major draft into the hands of Allen Sens. Hopefully, most of their objections will be fairly quibbling and the linguistic edit which I am very thankful to Meghan for helping to provide, will go smoothly.

PS. At work, I briefly got extremely excited about the prospect of getting a SkypeIn account. The idea behind them is that you get a phone number in an area code of your choice (for me, Vancouver) and people there can call it and be directed to your Skype account. Then, your computer rings and you answer it like a phone call. Aside from a $30 a year fee, nobody pays anything. Unfortunately, the service isn’t available in Canada; apparently, that’s because you cannot use it to call local 911, or so I was told today by a Vonage representative touting their equivalent service for $40 a month. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.