Wednesday, September 24, 2008

England, part 4: The conference, a castle, random Oxford


The conference, an interdisciplinary meeting on the topic of madness, went very well. The range of presenters -- both geographically and in terms of the kinds of work they were doing -- was remarkable, and at the same time the conference seemed very coherent, as everyone was concerned with the same broad set of questions relating to mental illness and its troubled connections with agency and creativity. This is not an academic blog, though, so I'm going to talk more about the building and the food. The building was Oxford's Mansfield College, a late-Victorian neo-Gothic structure that would not look out of place on U of T's St. George campus. Dinner on the first day, and lunch on the subsequent days, was included with conference registration, and was served in a dining room with vaulted, painted ceilings, halfway up the college's central tower. The food was marvellous: roast lamb with mint sauce, chicken-and-mushroom pies, piles of steamed vegetables, golden roasted potatoes, and for dessert: bread-and-butter pudding with stewed apples and little pitchers of clotted cream. I have nothing bad to say about English cuisine.

Post-conference on the second day, some of us went for dinner at The Big Bang, "Officially the Finest Sausage and Mash in Britain." They serve nothing but mash (potatoes and/or turnips), and sausages. If you are vegetarian, you can have vegetarian sausages. It's a small place, and about a dozen of us descended on it unannounced and were served by a flummoxed but cheerful waitress who seemed to be channelling Emma Thompson circa 1990. I have no idea whether the sausages were indeed the best in Britain, but they were good.

What else did I do in Oxford? I visited Oxford Castle. Its central tower was built by the Normans in 1071, but as I learned on the tour, archaologists now believe there was already a Saxon structure on the site which the Normans took over and built up, and that the Saxons in turn had built on a pre-existing, pre-Saxon burial ground. So: Really old building. It was a castle & a keep, then it was used as a jail for 700 years, decommissioned only in 1996. Now it is partly a museum and partly a "hotel and leisure complex"; you can stay in a jail-cell-turned-hotel-room for up to £300/night, and there is a posh restaurant and a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

All my Oxford photos are up now. Next: On to London!

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

England, part 3: There's the dodo! -- and other scenes from museums

Squid in a jar!

The weather was pretty awful -- rainy and cold -- but that made it a perfect day for checking out some of Oxford's fantastic museums.

First: the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This is a Victorian neo-Gothic museum -- opened in 1860 -- stuffed with dinosaur skeletons, insect specimens, cephalopods in jars, and all kinds of other relics of the natural world that are interesting to look at. It was the site of the famous (if largely apocryphal) debate about evolution between T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, and there's a statue of Darwin and a display about evolutionary theory. Also, the museum houses the Oxford Dodo -- the "most complete remains of a single dodo" extant today, along with a model of what a living dodo likely looked like.

The Oxford Dodo.

Excitable small British child in the Museum of Natural History: "Where's the dodo? Where's the dodo? Where's the dodo? THERE'S the dodo!"

Then I moved on to the Museum of the History of Science, which is apparently "the world's oldest surviving purpose-built museum building" and was "the world's first museum open to the general public" when it opened in 1683 to showcase the collection of Elias Ashmole. (There is now a New Ashmolean, a different museum, which I didn't get to this trip.)

The focus in the History of Science museum is on esoteric and wonderful antique scientific devices of all kinds: clockwork models of the solar system, early cameras and microscopes, the second-oldest grandfather clock in England, etc. Also, a chalkboard which Albert Einstein wrote on when he gave a lecture at Oxford in 1931, which someone had the presence of mind to take down & cover with glass before it could be wiped clean.

Einstein's blackboard

More museum photos.

Next: The conference, and random Oxford photos.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

England, part 2: Canal, houseboats, friendly cat

I had one full day to explore Oxford before the conference began. I didn't have any kind of plan, but Oxford's pretty small, and I figured it wouldn't be hard to find things worth looking at. I was really jetlagged, but, bolstered by that impressive hostel breakfast, I went out and started walking.

Almost immediately I happened upon the Oxford Canal. Did you know Oxford has a canal? And it's lined with houseboats!

I walked along it for awhile, taking pictures of the houseboats. I saw this cat perched on one of them & tried to take a picture of that, but as soon as the cat saw me, it hopped down onto the path and presented its belly to be rubbed, and then it followed me for awhile, purring.


More houseboat pictures here.

Next: Museums!


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

England, part 1: Getting to Oxford


I have no fear of flying. We flew to Holland regularly to visit family when I was little, and it was always a big treat for me -- I still have the KLM "Junior Stewardess" pin I was given on a flight in 1974 -- so I have all these pleasant childhood memories of being on airplanes. However, every single aspect of getting on and off a plane -- from buying the ticket, to getting to the airport on time, to running the gauntlet of customs and security checks, to standing by the baggage carousel hoping one's suitcase is here & not in Budapest -- scares the living crap out of me. So many opportunities for things to go catastrophically wrong!

A few things nearly did go wrong on my way to Pearson. At Kipling I somehow got on the 191 bus instead of the 192, and if a kind West Indian lady had not leaned over & said, "Are you trying to go to the airport?" seconds before the bus took off, I would have wound up way the hell out on Steeles instead. Then I couldn't figure out which stop to get off at when we got to Pearson, and the driver was having a screaming argument with the father of a family of four over the fare, so it was impossible to ask, and I wound up at Terminal 1 when I needed to be at Terminal 2. But I was still about an hour early, and I took the nifty airport monorail to where I needed to be.

And then my carry-on was too heavy but the nice check-in guy let me keep it anyway, and then I was finally on the plane, watching the sun rise over the Atlantic.

I took a coach from Gatwick to Oxford, through green countryside dotted with pheasants and red-brick farm buildings, and checked in at the Oxford YHA. It was spartan, but quiet and clean, and in the mornings they had the most amazing breakfast buffet, included in the (very low) accommodation price. I have no idea why the colours came out so horribly in this photo -- the breakfast was much more appetizing in real life.

Hostel breakfast

Note the sausage, which was fresh and delicious, and the grilled tomato. A grilled tomato on your breakfast plate = surefire sign you are in England.

More photos here.

Next: Houseboats!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Here we go


This is what Ward's Island looks like from the 44th floor of a posh downtown hotel. Kim's a juror with the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and they flew her in from Vancouver and put her up in this great room, and she invited some of her friends, including me, up to check it out. I hadn't seen Austin and Leslie in ages; they'll be spending a lot of time at the Festival as well, Austin in particular, as the production company he works for has 3 feature releases in TIFF this year -- including the gala opener.

And I'm going to miss it all -- because I'll be in England! I'll be presenting a paper at this conference in Oxford next week. Leaving tomorrow. Wow.

So there's a real sense of It's All Really Happening Now in the air these days. It's going to be a busy year for me. This blog will still be updated, though. How often? What will I post here? Not sure yet. Check back and see.

More photos from the 44th floor here.

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