The Stones in Literary Oxford

Literary Tourist in Oxford

The first thing you notice about Oxford is the stones. They’re everywhere: under

foot,

in the surrounding walls,

covering the sides of churches and towers, on the roofs. It’s all rather beautiful. Oxford University has one of the best preserved groups of medieval buildings in the world. Back then, stones were obviously big. It brings to mind Shakespeare (what doesn’t?), and his use of stones to describe heartlessness: ‘flint-bosom,’ ‘harden’d hearts, harder than stone;’ ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things;’ ‘thy stony heart;’ ‘No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand.’ Just one thing. It’s clear that Oxford has heart.

Since it was right around Christmas when we visited, the libraries and theatres were closed, so we had to settle for admiring their exteriors. Not all bad. The Radcliffe Camera (built between 1737-48) was the first round library in England.

Sheldonian Theatre (1664-7) is modelled on a U-shaped open-air theatre in ancient Rome, it’s Oxford’s first Classical building and the first large building designed by Christopher Wren.

It’s located across the street from Blackwell’s Bookstore, which it turns out, was open.

Here you’ll find an enormous selection of titles, an amazing basement containing the world’s largest single display of books, and a good second-hand/antiquarian department up on the Third floor. Plus the shop puts surprisingly recent stuff on sale

The tourist information office was open too. I knew literature was in the air when I saw these for sale

Next door to Blackwell’s you’ll find the Bodleian Weston Library, also in stone, new and sleek, Canada’s contribution to British education. The library was named in honour of the £25 million donation given in 2008 by the Garfield Weston Foundation.

The pubs too thankfully were open, so I strolled over to The Eagle and Child, ‘the bird and baby,’ as members of The Inklings literary discussion group who met here regularly during most of the 1930s and 1940s, called it. They included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. The group was ‘informal, no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections,’ and generally ‘praised the value of narrative in fiction and encouraged the writing of fantasy.’ I know this because I read a good biography of Lewis not that long ago by A. N. Wilson.

Further along the road and down to the left a few blocks you’ll find two lovely little used book shops. Only one, The Last Bookshop’ at 25 Walton Street, was open. Every book is on sale here for only £3. The other one, a block away

has a cafe.

Less than an hour’s drive away from Oxford you’ll find Reading University and its Special Collections Library. Three collections caught my attention: British publishers’ histories, Samuel Beckett, and Ladybird Books which is housed in the Museum of English Rural Life. It contains ‘the world’s first and only permanent exhibition space dedicated to the art of the iconic Ladybird Books. The gallery showcases an archive of over 20,000 illustrations – 700 boxes of original Ladybird artwork, proofs and documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby.’

I collect publishers histories so was very keen to learn more. Reading University Archivist Guy Baxter filled me in. Here’s our conversation:

For more information on visiting Oxford and environs here’s the place to go.

Literary Adventures in Prague

Literary Tourist in Prague

We experimented with Airbnb in Prague, for the first time. It was an unmitigated success. A beautiful apartment, high ceilinged, modern fixtures, clean, close to two bookstores, across the road from a crazy restaurant/hotel,

around the corner from this wonderfully warped whatever

And here I thought Austin was weird.

One of the shops, The Globe Bookshop and Cafe, sells English books. In fact it’s the largest of its kind in town.

It was here that I first met Stephan Delbos, an American poet who teaches at Charles University, is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology, and founding editor of the online international literary journal B O D Y. I later joined him at his apartment to interview him for my podcast on books, passing this incomprehensible sign along the way,

and this monster church

Here’s our Biblio File podcast conversation.

Among other things we talked about the great poets in From a Terrace in Prague and it functioning as a literary guide to the city; prolific surrealist poet Czech Vítězslav Nezval; the importance of reading and translation to the Czechs and Europeans, and famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. After the interview we made for Stephan’s local, and a couple of quick cold Pilsner Urquells, passing this statue of Czech poet Svatopluk Čech in the dark along the way.

Not surprisingly, Prague is shrouded in the Kafkaesque, filled with fascinating,

mysterious,

disturbing statues.

There’s the Kafka Museum situated upstairs, dark and mysterious, under a stooped roof, with its piss artists

complete with people picking coins out of its waters,

another English language bookstore close by, Shakespeare & Co. – not to be confused with its more illustrious Parisian namesake; the Mucha Museum, with the famed Czech Art Noveau artist’s Sarah Bernhardt theatre posters (yes, he also illustrated books) and, although I missed it, the not to be missed

Library at Strahov Monastery.

My other big Prague adventure involved tracking down a legend. A last minute decision to email his agent put me in touch with Ivan Klima’s son Michel who set up the meeting. Now, all I had to do was to get a hold of his memoir, My Crazy Century. Since it was too late to get anything from the publishers, and not stocked by any independent bookshops I’d visited, my last shot was to scour some second hand shops in Oxford, where we’d stopped prior to travelling to the Czech Republic. At the very ‘Last Bookshop’

I chanced upon it, yes: another biblio-coincidence. Downstairs in the biography section it was. Every book in this extraordinary shop was priced at three pounds. My lucky day.

Klima’s house is located on the outskirts of Prague, right across from a little forest, copse really. After getting off the tram, hiking up a winding road for about 10 minutes and asking several people for directions, I finally found the house. It had these plaques on it

Ivan’s wife greeted me at the door and led me upstairs to where I found Michel and his wife, and Ivan himself. The three of us then started to talk. Here’s the conversation:

Love and Garbage is Klima’s ‘best,’ and most popular novel. It probes the waste, dishonesty and hypocrisy found in authoritarian regimes, and examines the challenges that those inside experience trying to ‘live in truth’ and freedom. Other important authors connected with Prague include, Kafka, of course, who imposed his dark, tortured world-view on the city with depictions of helplessness in the face of aggressive, incomprehensible bureaucracy; Jan Neruda, whose Prague Tales (1877) about the tumultuous, loving lives of ordinary citizens, was very influential (he’s been called the Charles Dickens of Prague; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda adopted his name); Jaroslav Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a satire flagging the futility of war and stupidity of military authority; Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.

For more visitor information on Prague, click here.

Photo of David Cerny’s Mimina Babies by Caroline Liguori Beale.

Salem Massachusetts Before and After

Literary Tourist in Salem

This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.

We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.

Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot

Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery

where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,

beside which you can

Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.

It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.

Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.

For presentation alone however: Most memorable!

Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.

Bookshop, Salem

I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.

***

While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,

dog motiffed

coffeehouse. The service was spirited

as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,

Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”

For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.

Literary Interviews in New York

Literary Tourist in New York 

It was interview day! First up was John Galassi, president and publisher of FSG, one of the great American literary publishing houses.

I’d read a good part of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, selected a quote from Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing to start things off, and primed myself with a battery of questions. The office is located at 175 Varick Street, between Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village. While the facade of the building isn’t so impressive, unlike this one in the background

NYC building

its foyer has a cool art deco decor. I especially liked the lights.

Listen here to my conversation with Jonathan

After the interview I made my way up to The Met (remembering this time that one has to be aware that subway trains travelling uptown are caught on one side of the street, and those travelling down are caught on the other – it took me several days to figure out that you can’t cross  Continue reading “Literary Interviews in New York”

The day didn’t start off with a bang

Literary Tourist in New York: 

The day didn’t start off with a bang. Quite the contrary. The early morning meeting I’d set up had been cancelled. I was stranded down at 5th and 14th with several empty hours yawning in front of me. I decided to stroll up 5th Avenue towards Times Square to see what I could see.

This was a good start

After passing a sign of the times,

I hit Broadway where I re-encountered Rizzoli Bookstore at it’s newish location. It was for years on 57th Street in an elegant six story townhouse, here it continues to specialize in illustrated books on architecture, interior design, fashion, photography, cookery, and the fine and applied arts, as well as literature, and foreign language books; the store also carries European magazines and newspapers and a delightful selection of note cards and stationery.

Further along Broadway I came across this appealing combination: free books and free music

This walk along Broadway reminded me of my first visit to NYC back in the eighties with my friends Pat Grew and Ann Stoner. It was late at night. We had the street to ourselves. Starting right at the bottom of Manhattan we walked all the way up to and past The Lincoln Center. It was hot and Ann’s shoes were bothering her, so she took them off and went barefoot. You should have seen the colour of the soles of her feet by the time we got to our destination. Soot black they were. No idea how long it took to get them back to normal. Months I’m sure.

It began to rain, so I decided to hop on the subway (I’m likin’ some of the art

that decorates the walls) with my convenient three-day pass, and check out one of the places where writers must hang out in New York: the lobby of the Ace Hotel at 20W 29th Street, just off Broadway.

All the seats in the pit were Continue reading “The day didn’t start off with a bang”