My Short, Happy Life as an Oxford Scholar

by David Bratman

Oxford. It's a magical name to any anglophilic American. Oxford has beautiful colleges, wonderful museums, the best bookstore in all Britain, and a generally pleasant air. It's cleaner and more welcoming than London. For a Tolkien fan, such as myself, Oxford has a special attraction: the pubs he and the Inklings frequented, their homes, their graves, and the colleges they taught and met at.

I've visited Oxford many times. I've even stayed at a couple of the colleges, which rent themselves out as conference facilities between terms: the British Tolkien Society holds a relaxacon called Oxonmoot every September, which I've been to twice. Many visiting fans have done as much. Fewer have actually lived and researched in Oxford, even for as short a period as a week; and native Brits with Oxford degrees might not retain the sense of its strangeness I experienced. So I will try to tell a little of what it's like to be an American briefly incarnated as an Oxford scholar.

It's not easy for an outsider to get a reader's ticket to do research at the Bodleian, Oxford University's main library. If you're an accredited university professor, you can do it. But I'm not: I'm just a mere college librarian, and at the time I worked at Oxford I temporarily wasn't even that. I'd been studying manuscripts at the main American center for Inklings research, the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College near Chicago, for two research projects one of which, an edition of Charles Williams's Masques of Amen House, was published in 2000; the other will soon see print as the appendices to Diana Glyer's study of the Inklings. The Wade Center, like many American institutions, is open to any researcher, even without academic affiliation, who shows serious intent. The staff are efficient and eager to be of help. I spent three weeks there over two summers (fitting in a drive to Midwestcon with Dick and Leah Smith the first year) and came to feel at home in its relaxed, comfortable reading room. After I discussed my further research needs with the Wade's directors, they kindly agreed to sponsor my application to Oxford.

I was planning to go to England anyway, for the Corflu in Leeds in March 1998. It would be a nice, quiet, dreary time of year to spend a week holed up in the Bodleian Library. I made my applications, communicated via e-mail with the curator of the manuscripts I'd be using, and arranged to have some particular folders set out for my use on the first day I'd be there. I reserved a room at a bed & breakfast in Summertown, a quiet academic neighborhood in North Oxford, and arrived via coach from London early on a Monday morning. I exchanged my credentials at the main university offices for a reader's pass good for any ten days over a multi-year period, signed an ornate pledge promising (among other things) not to set fire to the building, and set off to the library. This set my pattern for the rest of my stay.

Spending a week in Oxford commuting to the Bodleian (or the Bodder as it's sometimes known locally) each day gave me something of a feeling of what it would be like actually to live in Oxford. I'd alight from the city bus at the Martyrs' Memorial each morning, hefting my briefcase, and walk along Broad Street. Commuting along it is a different experience from gaping at it as a tourist: I'd go past Balliol College; past the stone cross in the pavement marking where Cranmer was actually burnt; past the Sheldonian Theatre and the Emperor's Heads that have been gaping ever since Zuleika Dobson went by; past Blackwell's (past it, I say: on, on!); around the corner; and into the New Bodleian, a massive 1930s stone block of unutterable drabness. On first seeing it, Nevill Coghill of the Inklings, comparing it with the classic Old Bodleian across the street, commented, "Bless thee, Bodder! Thou art transmogrified!" If you know your Shakespeare, that'll inform you fully about Coghill's opinion of the building.

Inside the library, the guards would stamp the date on my pass. After entering a small reading room I'd unpack my laptop at a reading desk. The computer has a transformer, so all I needed to use the wall power outlet was a plug adaptor I'd bought at home. Then I spent all day paging through manuscripts.

Working with manuscripts at the Bodleian is not like doing so at an American university, thanks to the extremely antique and rusty rules and regulations, dating from the days when the role of the librarians was to protect the books from the users. There's no stack access in normal cases; there's a ten-item limit to how much material you can order at once; you have to fill out all these little slips, one for each folder; it can take (depending on time of day) up to four hours for the material to arrive; the manuscript indexes are on little handwritten cards in an antique filing desk on the second floor of another building; and so forth. Patience is a real virtue here. Maybe there's a reason they make you promise not to burn down the library.

The older manuscript acquisitions are taped into blank volumes like photo albums. This fact alone will give a heart attack to anyone knowing the basic rules of manuscript preservation. The tape is carefully hinged so that one can turn over the letters to read the flip side. In the more popular volumes there are accumulations of greasy fingerprints in the corners of the manuscripts.

Fortunately they stopped doing that some years ago. More recently acquired manuscripts are filed in manageable sets in acid-free manila folders, as in American libraries. But there still has to be a British twist, to make life a bit harder for researchers. When a new acquisition to old holdings, such as a newly purchased letter by an author whose letters the library already mostly has, arrives at an American university library, it's interfiled with the existing set, or at least put in an addendum folder in that set along with other late purchases of his work. At the Bodleian, they never amend their existing sets. I was looking at a lot of material by C.S. Lewis, whose literary executor, for reasons of his own, has donated manuscripts to the Bodleian in tiny drips and drabs for many years. Consequently there are scads of Lewis letters scattered through manuscript folders with titles like "Miscellaneous Acquisitions, 1985." I had to order dozens of these. When each arrived I'd open it, paw through to find the single Lewis letter in each, read it quickly, and then put the folder in the returns tray. What with the ten-item-per-request limit and the one to four hours it took for requests to be filled, I was juggling three or four sets of requests at once for a couple of days.

Then there's the printed material. I mentioned that the Bodleian is a closed-stack library, which generally does not allow patrons where the books are. I wanted to look through a long run of The Oxford Magazine, a rare journal published by and for the university faculty, in search of articles by the Inklings. Mindful of the ten-item limit, I put in a request for ten years' worth. Two hours later, the request came back unfilled. An attached note informed me that they were mighty big volumes: perhaps I should be more specific as to which ones I wanted.

Rather than waste another two hours twiddling my thumbs hoping that a smaller order would be filled, I decided to ask for help from the curator.

"Look," I said, showing him the slip and the attached note, "this is only the beginning of my request. I need to go through thirty-five years' worth of this magazine." He studied the slip for a moment. "I think we'd better get you a stack pass," he said, his tone making clear this was a rare honor.

The pass was procured. On instruction, I took it upstairs to another reading room. The clerk on duty walked me down the main corridor, unlocked a door virtually invisible against the wall in which it was set, and ushered me into the rows of book stacks. He took me to the shelves where the magazine was kept I'm grateful that he did: I'd never have found it on my own, as not only are the stacks huge but the classification system was beyond my comprehension, even though I classify library books for a living and pointed out a couple nearby desks against the wall at which I could work. Then he left me to get on with it. I grabbed the first bound volume it was indeed huge, containing two years of the magazine and set to work.

Despite being just on the other side of a thin wall from the hushed corridor, the stacks were an entirely different world. It wasn't just that they were full of bookshelves, something totally absent from the corridor which could have been in any anonymous 1930s office building. No, there was something else in the stacks besides the books, something which made its presence constantly felt.

I was in the New Bodleian, but most library patrons sit in the vast ancient high-ceilinged rooms of the Old Bodleian, where reference books, a tiny part of the collection, occupy the high wall shelves which were the main library stacks for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, most of the stacks are now in the New Bodleian, two buildings away across Broad Street. Since this is not only a closed-stack but non-circulating collection, whose books must be used in-house, there's a lot of movement of books back and forth. This task is accomplished with an application of mighty 1930's technology: a conveyor belt. It starts with a dumbwaiter arrangement running up and down through the floors of the New Bodleian. In the basement books are transferred to a horizontal belt running beneath the street all the way over into the basement of the Old Bodleian.

The dumbwaiter is the other occupant of the New Bodleian's stacks besides the books. It makes its presence felt through sound. Rattle, bang, crash, clang, chuggachugga: pretty much never-ceasing. It sounded like an abattoir in there. Fortunately it smelled only like a dusty library, but the sound was still profoundly distracting. I worked as quickly as I could. Mostly I wrote bibliographic citations in a notebook, marking the articles I wanted photocopies of, so that I could request the volumes to be paged. (Naturally I couldn't take the volumes out of the stacks with me.) Fortunately this time I only wanted a few, and they all arrived.

Thus began my most dire run-in with library regulations, because at the Bodleian the photocopy machines are no more self-service than the stacks are. The regulations are not only ornate but bizarre: I've heard of books that couldn't be copied because they were too fragile, but never before of ones that couldn't be copied because they were too heavy. And why were they so heavy? Because of the two years of the magazine in each volume, which had of course been bound before the days of the photocopier. And, in a characteristically British way, they hit you with these regulations one at a time. Only after I'd finished filling out all the photocopy forms at the desk, with the volumes piled around me, under the eye of a clerk, did he bother to tell me that the volumes looked as if they'd be too heavy to copy. Back to the reference librarian to plead for a waiver, which I got for some of the volumes. As for the rest I just had to type the articles into my laptop.

The next weird regulation was the discovery that I couldn't pay for my photocopies with cash, but needed to rush downstairs and buy a chit from a machine. Then I had to come back the next day and pick up my copies, packed in little plastic bags, from one of a set of cubicles next to the chit machine. At this point I discovered the last oddity: despite my careful notations on the photocopy request slips, which I inserted into the volumes at the relevant pages, the copies were made of the pages with those numbers from the wrong year in the two-year volumes. I brought this to the attention of the reference librarian. She agreed to resubmit the request at no additional cost to me. And since this was my last day in Oxford, I made them mail the copies to me in the U.S. at their expense. The copies arrived a couple months later. They still weren't all of the right pages, but enough of them were that I decided to leave the matter be.

So that's what I did in the library. How about the rest of the time? The manuscripts reading room kept something akin to bankers' hours, 9-12 and 1-4. During lunch hour I'd stash my laptop in the cloakroom (which was staffed) and head out to a nearby pub.

The Inklings are associated with the Eagle and Child, better known as the Bird and Baby, but they were actually dedicated pub-crawlers known to have met in five different pubs in central Oxford. With five days at my disposal, I had lunch at each of these. The Bird and Baby, whose food offerings in those days were mostly odd sandwiches, was not the best. This honor went to the King's Arms, right across the street from the New Bodleian, a favorite of researchers including C.S. Lewis, who patronized it regularly while reading through the Bodleian's holdings of hundreds of Renaissance authors for his volume in the "Oxford History of English Literature" series. The King's Arms not only serves good hot lunches, but has the only non-smoking room I've ever found in a British pub. (With the impending smoking ban in pubs, this will no longer be unique.)

With my lunch I always had a pint of cider. English hard cider is like nothing you normally get in North America, even the Canadian kind which is pretty good too. I've been fond of English cider ever since I was introduced to it by some drunken Scandinavians at a bid party at the 1979 Brighton Worldcon. I now drink any brand regularly on my visits, though I rarely touch alcohol in any other form. The pint, when consumed with lunch, always gave a pleasant buzz, enough to keep me going through a hard afternoon of research without putting me to sleep.

After the library closed in the afternoon there was a little time to do other things before Oxford finished rolling up its sidewalks for the evening. Of course I went back to Blackwell's. It seems a reasonably-sized shop from the street; the ground floor level runs back a fair ways, which alone would make it a decent-sized bookstore anywhere in the U.S. There's also three upstairs floors of the same size. But the real shocker is tucked behind a tiny flight of stairs leading down. Take this, and opening up before you is a huge two-level basement complex bigger than the rest of the store put together. It's like the secret underground fortress in some spy film, except that it's full of books. Naturally I bought a great deal and hauled my purchases back by bus to my room.

I also visited Oxford's used-book stores, choice places which alas in the years since have closed down or shrunk. I paid my respects at Tolkien's grave, as I always do when at Oxford, and also visited Corpus Christi College, where the name of Tolkien's close friend from high school, Geoffrey Bache Smith, a budding writer even more talented than his friend, may be found inscribed in the chapel among those of other men of the college whose lives were lost during World War I.

In the evenings I was at a bit of a loss. Oxford communal nightlife is not geared to short-term residents. Even the laundromats close early. One evening I attended a concert by the English Chamber Orchestra in the Sheldonian Theatre. Christopher Wren's beautiful interior architecture made for a visual splendor as great as the musical one. Another evening, at a playhouse on Beaumont Street, I attended a play on its out-of-town tryout before moving to London. We don't get that sort of thing much where I live, so I thought, why not? Because it wasn't very good, that's why not. Titled Our Lady of Sligo, it dealt with a slightly dotty old Irish woman, sick in hospital, who reviews in her mind her wretched, tedious life in, alas, a wretched and tedious manner. The other evenings I just went back to my room, wrote letters home to Berni, and retired early.

But first I had to find supper, always the most depressing part of the day for a solo traveler. In the States one can usually manage this without too much awkwardness at a coffee shop, but these are few in Europe. One can often order an evening meal at a pub, but as far as I can tell nobody ever does. I had some delicious but lonely meals in Summertown restaurants, because I certainly wasn't returning to the pizza joint I'd tried on my previous trip. English food is often much better than its reputation, but there is one food the English have no idea how to make, and that is pizza, which is uniformly vile, both thin and soggy. One evening I decided to seek out a kebab take-away van. The guidebooks inform you that these are parked on sidewalks throughout Oxford and are very popular, but I could only find one, all alone up the Woodstock Road at Somerville College. I knew food vans from my undergraduate days at Berkeley and from innumerable art-and-wine festivals, but what the guidebooks all failed to explain was what a kebab is. I knew what a shish-kebab is, but were kebab purchasers expected to walk down the streets of Oxford munching chunks of meat off a skewer? This seemed unlikely. It turned out that a shish-less kebab is what in America is called a pita-bread sandwich: much easier to carry and fairly tasty too.

When the next Monday rolled around I packed my bags and took the bus back to Heathrow to head home. At my desk, along with other miscellaneous ID, I still have my reader's pass with four days left on it and a few more years in which to use them. I'm trying to think of something else I can research only in Oxford and hope to return there soon.

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Copyright 2008, David Bratman