Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Two days in Oxford - "There's life out there Jim, but not as we know it."

We booked into the Old Dairy Campsite, then more or less drove straight out again towards the Oxford Redbridge park and ride. Oxford is ringed by half a dozen or so park and ride sites each with regular buses into the centre. All of them apart from the Redbridge site have height barriers making them inaccessible to motorhomes. It only took us about 20 minutes to drive to  Redbridge which is situated near the intersection of the Abingdon Rd. and the ring road.  It was late afternoon, the traffic was dense but at least it kept moving. Since our last visit, the parking area for high-sided vehicles has been extended and fenced-off from the main car-park. It's good value at £2.00 for 24hrs. The bye-laws posted on the sign next to the ticket machine ban sleeping and cooking in motorhomes. Clearly this is regularly ignored; one Belgian moho was parked on levelling ramps, a sure-fire sign that the occupants were planning an overnight stop. I have no idea if the place is policed, but we tend to stick within the rules.

We had arranged to meet Matthew and go for a meal. It was great to see him and meet Jess for the first time. She seems lovely, and we we reflected afterwards that all three off-spring are 'in relationships' as Facebook so coyly puts it and have jobs. Long may it continue! We grey-haired provincials are always keen to be educated by our more savvy, urban offspring so far as eating out is concerned. Matthew had lined up a Chinese restaurant called 'Sojo'. It looked unprepossessing from the street, adjacent to a backpacker hotel and a Staples office supplies shop. Inside was modern and quietly understated, the menu extensive and the food excellent. We cannot pretend to be knowledgeable about Chinese cuisine, but the dishes we had, duck in plum sauce, chicken satay and an aubergine with ginger dish, were just as good as anything we tasted in Hong Kong. More to the point, the place was packed with Chinese famililies, both local and visitors, or it seemed. So, when I googled the place later, it came as little surprise that it has received rave reviews from the Telegraph food critic. These days we don't eat out much. Gill loves cooking and seeking out interesting ingredients. This is just as well, our tendency to look at a restaurant bill and convert it into the cost of filling Maisy with a tank of diesel somewhat stymies any pretences we might have had towards fine dining. It's good our kids push us from time to time towards eating out. Otherwise we might become completely reclusive.

Sojo - dull exterior, fab food inside.
Matthew and Jess had just returned from a long weekend in Bristol. Matthew planned to take the rest of the week off. So, while struggling with chopsticks, then reverting to forks, we hatched a plan to meet him the next day and visit the Pitt Rivers Museum. It houses Oxford University's Natural History and Anthropology collection. Rather than drive to Oxford we caught the bus from Thame, On time, twice hourly, but at over £8.00 pounds each return a tad expensive. We have grown too accustomed to really cheap public transport in Europe; UK prices come as a shock. We arrived an hour or so before the time we planned to meet Matthew, so wandered about for a while. Over the past three years since Matthew moved here we have become quite familiar with the city. It is a beautiful, if somewhat frenetic place. I like University cities, because they are full of young people and have energy and an optimistic atmosphere. I think most of the bright young things today were probably tourists rather than students, the majority from the Far East. Even so, there was a definite buzz about the place, at least in the main streets and around the University area centred on the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera.

The 'Bridge of Sighs' and Sheldonian Theatre

Hawkesmoor's All Souls.
Yet you only need to stray a couple of hundred yards away from the tourist scrum around the Radcliffe Camera to find quiet corners. Most of the college quadrangles are off-limits to tourists or have an admission charge, but you can get a glimpse of them through the gates. My favourite is probably Hawksmoor's re-modelling of All-Souls's dating from the early years of the eighteenth century. Unlike his contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, Hawkesmoor did not embrace continental Baroque fully, but absorbed diverse influences derived from vernacular and medieval architecture. The result is an eclectic mix, peculiarly English, pre-figuring the juxtapositioning of styles found in High Victorian buildings while avoiding their more vulgar tendencies. I am a Hawkesmoor fan!

The opposite side of the Sheldonian to the Radcliffe Camera, a comparative haven of peace - not a selfie stick to be seen

A figurine of Pan on the gable of an old pub.
Oxford is a city of intruiging lanes and alleyways as well as magnificent squares. We wended our way back towards the high street through a few of them, then happened upon the central market. The place seems to be at a bit of a crossroads, part touristy designer stalls with handmade shoes at £200 a pair, part slightly gritty food market. I hope the former does manage to prevail, but Matthew when we met-up confirmed that the place seemed constantly under threat of closure. This would be a pity. One of the things we really enjoyed visiting cities on southern Europe was their vibrant meat, fish and veg markets. It's great that Oxford is hanging onto this amenity, but the cost of real estate must make it a prime target for re-development. Enjoy it while it lasts! We admired the fancy celebration cakes in the bakers, salivated over the pies and sausages in the old butchers shop, and bought some mushrooms and salad stuff from the veg stall. Matthew promised to buy a selection of sausages before visiting us for a BBQ at the campsite tomorrow.

Oxford Central Market - a curious mix of artisan sausages abd designer shoes.

Sadly the food stalls seem to be diminishing, tucked away in the corners of the place.
The Bodleian in icing sugar...
Old caffs and newer bars....
After lunch we headed for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. As we passed through the University area hardly a college seemed without an adjacent building site. Like most other academic institutions in the UK the university seems to be investing the windfall of increased fees funded through student loans in bricks and mortar, which is good, as well as increased five figure salaries for their senior staff, which is not so good! The biggest building site seemed to be a new physics building. Information boards on the fencing boasted that the department was the largest and best in the UK and had over 800 Phd students. Think about it, 800 bright young minds theorising about gluons and fermions. A parallel universe exists. It's right here in the collective doctoral super-brains! Or, as Professor Feng of the University of California speculated only yesterday,"there may also be a separate dark sector with its own matter and forces. "It's possible that these two sectors talk to each other and interact with one another through somewhat veiled but fundamental interactions. This dark sector, in a broader sense, fits in with our original research to understand the nature of dark matter." Summarised more succinctly by the USS Enterprise's medic, "There's life out there Jim, but not as we know it!"

The museum was just around the corner. The grand High Victorian building that houses the collections is in itself significant. It was the University's first building dedicated to the study of the natural sciences, one of the first in the country built in the 1850s just as the debate about the implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection was beginning to catch the public imagination.

The building in fact houses two contrasting collections. The great hall contains the natural history collections - cases of bones and stones - that aim to tell the story of the Earth's formation and how life evolved upon it.

A big question....How did this....

lead to this?
The second space resembles a massive Victorian market building, all wrought iron girders and glass, houses the Pitt-Rivers archeological and anthropological collection. Named after a nineteenth century General and incorrigible collector of human artefacts, hundreds of glass cases over four floors contain thouands of items. In the main, they are presented thematically, musical instruments in one area, weapons and guns in another, examples of pottery from all over the globe are placed next to magical amulets and witch-doctor's paraphenalia. The mundane and the magical rub shoulders. Since it's the school holidays lots of kids were rummaging about. I can imagine some of the exhibits must have looked amazing to a child, like the 20 foot high totem pole. Others, such as the ritual dance masks from Nigeria and shrunken heads from Papua New Guinea are the stuff of nightmares and probably will haunt their dreams for years!

Scary masks

In some ways the Pitt Rivers is a deeply unfashionable place both in its appearance and intent. Visually, it is big on display, but light on interpretation. These days when we are used to highly curated exhibitions which 'walk us through' an experience showcasing carefully chosen artefacts, beautifully lit, interspersed with stylish information boards and hands-on computer-based dispays; coming across a traditional museum is a bit of a shock. It leaves it up to the visitor to make sense of the place. The wealth of material on show, the fortuitous juxtapositions, the way your feet and mind are left to wander is overwhelming but exhilarating. It's refreshing to be left to your own devices.

In these days of Post-colonialist theory and concerns about cultural appropriation I suppose the purpose and intent of a collection like the Pitt-Rivers has become open to question. There can be little doubt that filching sacred items such as totem poles and ritual masks then sticking them in a museum glass case is a product, more often than not of barefaced theft followed by a subsequent misappropriation based on the re-interpretation of the artefacts by academic study. However it's not that simple, as Mary Beard explores in her book about the Parthenon. The demand by Athens for the return of the Elgin Marbles is difficult to argue against. So should all the archeological items in the Pitt Rivers be returned to the cultures which produced them? Taken to an extreme it could be argued that any scholarly study of artefacts from non-Western cultures is a kind of appropriation as the evidence based, Socratic method that underlies academia is a Western invention, but only the most die-hard post-modernist would attempt to defend this position. What is great about the museum is it does provoke this kind of inner debate. At least it did for me, and since the three of us more or less immediately became separated I wandered about on my own, much bemused.

Above all, because of the juxtaposition of natural science with anthropology the place confronts head-on one of the big questions of our time - What is the relationship between science and culture?  During the 1850s when Oxford's Department for Natural Science was established the study of nature was seen in semi-religious terms as an exploration of the wonders of God's creation. Subsequent study over the last 150 years have discovered many wonderful things, but no evidence whatsoever of a creator. Not only does it seem likely that life on earth is the result of a chemical accident, but the what, where, and how of this molecular accident is becoming clear to scientists studying the venting of undersea volcanoes in Iceland. 

The Pitt Rivers collection next door raises the key issue for people, myself included, who take a humanist position and assert that all our gods, superstitions and belief in the supernatural are human inventions. This can be the only rational conclusion from the evidence of science. The problem, evidenced from the plethora of artefacts in the Pitt Rivers collection, is that humans are not an entirely rational species. We are also inventive, playful, violent, imaginative and highly superstitious. Science is wonderful at explaining 'how' but not 'why'. Indeed, it asserts that there is no why, nature just is, stuff simply happens the way it happens. Many of the Pitt Rivers' artefacts are testament to humanity's basic dissatisfaction with pure materialism. From West African shamanic masks to Micronesian shrunken heads, all posit a magical spirit world, or some 'hereafter' that science provides no evidence for whatsoever.

Of course you could simply decide that the scienctific view is more advanced, and the all rest more primitive beliefs. Irrespective of whether this is the case, even today most people on the planet simply don't go along with this view. I googled the estimated number of atheists worldwide. The answer seems to be around 16% of humanity. Atheism is most prevalent in China, which is also the most populated country. This means that in the rest of the world religious belief stands at at almost 90%, despite the overwhelming evidence from science that there is no supernatural. So, though it may be depressing, the overwhelming evidence from both past and present is that humans are going to cling on to their non-existent gods and continue to kill each other in their name. 

As we walked out of the museum towards 'The Grand Cafe' in search of a caffeine fix, I observed the latter-day human tribe going about their rituals. Some were shopping, some having a social moment eating together at an outside cafe, others gathered in a huddle around a selfie-stick while the young warriors of the tribe hunted diminutive mythical monsters. In terms of anthropology, Pokémon is as exotic as anything you might find in the Pitt Rivers. The overwhelming sense you get at the end is the common ground between different human cultures, not only in their artefacts and behaviour, but in some fundamental sense of their place in the scheme of things; conciousness drives us to believe that we cannot be alone in the cosmos, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

It was great to take a break in the Grand Cafe while we swapped impressions of the museum. Gill bewailed the fact that labeled columns which gave the origin of each polished stone pillar did not have an example of the raw rock next to it. She took some stunning pictures of the dinosaur skeletons which I missed somehow, despite them being the biggest exhibits in the place. Matthew seemed much taken by sword collection, which surprised me as he is the least aggressive person you are ever likely to meet. As for me, it was the collection of contemporary Aboriginal art that struck me most. The fate of Australia's native peoples is perhaps among the most shocking in the history of Western colonialism, not least because it is not really fully acknowledge by the majority of white Australians even today. Just a few months ago historians at the University of New South Wales caused uproar when they issued guidelines to undergraduates that the arrival of the British settlers should be referred to as an invasion rather then colonisation. Yet what else was the appropriation of tribal lands and the destruction of Aboriginal culture but an invasion, and the fate of the native peoples an act of cultural genocide? 

The only area where tribal life continued with some measure of continuity was in a tract of bush west of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Here, during the latter decades of the 20th century native artists adapted modern materials - wood panels and acrylic paint, to develop an exciting hybrid style using symbolism drawn from tribal myth with a contemporary style. We saw some superb examples of this in Sydney's Gallery of New South Wales, and I was delighted to discover two examples here. My favourite was the depiction of two turtles, which reminded me of symbolism associated with Taoist yinyang, which like the Aboriginal notion of 'dream-time' asserts the co-existence of temporal and spiritual realms. The turtle iconography too occurs widely - from the myths of Native Americans to the poetry and essays of the 'deep ecologist' Gary Snyder, and of course in Terry Pratchett's Disk-world.

An information board explaining of the concept of 'dream-time' had been placed next to the pictures. What struck me about the ideas concerning the co-existence of past and present is how they reminded me of Dr. Brian Cox's recent programme where he tried to explain Einstein's idea of space-time. He personalised the abstract theory, carefully laying out snap-shots of his family on the broad sands of Bamburgh beach. In the golden light of late afternoon with the silhouette of the ancient castle behind him, Brian Cox's musings seemed as much philosophic as scientific. For all his theoretical knowledge the sense of wonder and awe that we sentient chimps experience as we contemplate the depths of time and space binds us together across generations and cultures. Perhaps there is no contradiction between anthropology and natural science, both are aspects of we humans' inate curiosity and urge to tell our story. 

An afternoon perusing the imponderables - that must burn blood sugars big style. The Grand Café' carrot cake is awesome, but pricey. One slice, two forks, good for the waistline, gentle on the pocket. 'All good' as my dearest might say.



  1. Two places you might wish to check before future visits to Oxford are:


    ( a small and pleasant farm CL in north Abingdon)



    ( A Thames-side " aire" close to Abingdon town centre where, if you phone or e-mail in advance, you are welcome to overnight. )

    Both of the above have a very frequent bus service to Oxford centre, which takes about 15 minutes, a short walk away from the site.

  2. Thanks Chris - we phoned the Peachcroft place before we found the place at Thame - but they were fully booked. I note the Ryr Croft Farm commercial car park requires people in motorhomes to phone the council if they intend to sleep in the van - which I guess is an arrempt to manage its use to prevent use by travelling people. Thanks for the information.