Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Walk This Way

I was in a bad mood yesterday morning, annoyed by a cascading series of minor irritations that ended with my being unable to fit my bicycle into the back of the Vauxhall Astra station wagon we'd rented for the weekend. Two days earlier I'd cycled to the car rental place, shoved the bike inside the Astra and driven home. But now it was time to return the car and my bike had somehow grown--infinitesimally, perhaps, but enough to guarantee that no amount of twisting and pushing would get it back inside. It was like a geometry problem I couldn't solve. Fuming, I left the bike behind and drove to the car hire place, pondering my three-mile walk home.

But if biking allows you to see more than you would driving, walking forces you take in even more, little details lost as you glide along. As I trudged up Marston Ferry Road I passed the Magdelen College playing fields, where a lone groundsmen was rolling the dewy grass billiard-table flat. Further up, across from a pub, was an oddly attractive little building. Engraved above one door was the legend "England expects that every man will do his duty." Above another were the words "Be prepared." Do Boy Scouts walk in one door only to emerge from the other as Royal Navy sailors?

I pondered this while passing semi-detached house after semi-detached house, most finished in that pebble-dash facade unique to England. It seemed like every other house was undergoing renovation and the sounds of sawing and hammering leaked out from inside. Driveways were full of building supplies: big bags of sand or gravel. (And I mean big bags: The English use rip-stop nylon cubes that must be four feet square. Much tidier than a pile of dirt entropying to its angle of repose.)

Saxophones and trumpets gleamed in the window of a woodwind shop, while up near the roundabout a sign announced what I took at first to be "MARSTON DENIAL SURGERY." Ah, the "T" had come off the dentist's office sign. (But what a great place Marston Denial Surgery would be: "Tom, you refuse to believe that you have a drinking problem. We're going to perform a denialectomy.")

I turned left on Cherwell Drive. The houses were a little tidier here, their front gardens lavished with more attention. Then after a few blocks came one of those transitions so common in England and so alien to a visitor from suburban America: At Old Marston the houses just stopped and I was walking past farmers' fields. On either side of me were expanses of freshly-turned earth, crows picking their way fussily among the dirt clods.

Many of England's cities are girded by green belts and even here in Oxford there are little oases of rural life. I never actually see anyone working in these fields: no farmers, just seemingly abandoned farm equipment and the odd rambler with a dog. Maybe the fields are for tourists, or maybe the farmers have finished their work by the time I have to return rental cars.

Cows grazed lazily in one pasture, sheep in another. I was assaulted by a sweet and cloying odor and I looked down to see windfall apples rotting at the base of a tree. The smell and the sight of the pulpy flesh reminded me how disturbingly fecund England is. Oxford has been inundated with apples this autumn, the trees issuing forth a profusion of pale green fruit.

A movement above me caught my eye and I looked up in time to see a pair of swans flying overhead. The looked so ungainly--those bulbous bodies extruding those pipe-cleaner necks--and yet they beat their wings with a casual grace and honked softly and reassuringly to one another. I was just wondering to myself "I wonder if horses actually use that bridlepath" when I heard the clop of hooves behind me. Horse and rider trotted across the road and slipped through a hedge.

This perfectly modulated revelation of English archetypes--the swans, the horse--girded me to expect a Spitfire to come diving out of the sun. But there was no Spitfire, or sun for that matter. The sky was cloudy and woolen, the air cool and moist.

A woman pushed a stroller towards me. The 2-year-old boy inside was zippered into some sort of sleeping bag and a knit cap was pulled on his head. His cheeks were crimson in the cold. As we passed our eyes met and his seemed to say: "Why has this woman taken me out of my warm house? Soon it will rain."

My look in return said "Sorry kid. You're English. Get used to it."

The empty "crisp packet" (potato chip bag, for North American readers) is a common part of the English landscape and I passed one every few yards, most tossed carelessly on the pavement but some displayed almost artistically: upended over a tree branch like a polythene puppet or impaled on a fence post. English litterbugs take a certain perverse pride in their work.

I had been hearing the shouts of schoolchildren as I drew closer to Summertown but by the time I passed the Cherwell School's fields, the games class was over and a few stragglers were dragging heels and collecting rugby balls. I was almost home. My mood, I noticed, had improved.

I was almost at Banbury Road, deciding to treat myself to an Aero bar for completing the 45-minute walk, when I was startled by someone shouting "Just keep staring!" Without breaking my stride I looked up to see a woman standing in an open window in jeans and a bra. Was there a telescope-wielding voyeur in the apartments across the street? Or was she shouting at me? And wouldn't standing in the window in your underwear be the wrong way to keep people from staring at you?

I suppose the same thing might have happened if I'd been on my bike, but somehow I doubt it.


suburbancorrespondent said...

"The smell and the sight of the pulpy flesh reminded me how disturbingly fecund England is."

You've got it backward, my fellow American. It should remind you of how disturbingly sterile our suburbs are.

cktirumalai said...

My twenty years in Oxford, beginning in 1976, made me familiar with most of the places you describe. You could have taken a bus from Marston to Banbury Road but that would have destroyed your walk.
I once heard a gentleman tell his young daughter that her uncle called the Marston Ferry Road the "Fast and Merry Road" because of its traffic in the morning and evening; she chuckled in appreciation.

KTinDC said...

Beautiful writing, John. True comment on the fields, too. However do they grow/get planted/harvested? Were you here for the yellow rapeseed fields? If not, you're in for a treat next spring. -KT in Cambridge

John Kelly said...

You're right, SC. What's surprising is how England manages to avoid that (although I have been in a few soulless planned communities).

I hadn't looked into the buses, though I did contemplate a taxi, since one was discharging someone at the car hire place just as I was leaving. But I wanted to save money--and do my death march.

And, yes, we missed the rapeseed, though I'm not sure I would recognize it. I have a tough time IDing crops. I think corn and tobacco are the only two I can reliable recognize.

mtbenson said...

What a lovely little travelogue. How I wish I could live in England, even for a while!

Old Lady said...

Interesting that Fisher is in touch with this marvelous blog....every time I open the Metro section of the Washington Post and see his article where yours used to be, I read it and appreciate it, but miss yours.