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
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Audio: Matthew Tree on the best Literary Things to do in Barcelona

Literary Tourist in Barcelona

Matthew Tree is a British writer who has lived in Barcelona since 1984. In addition to publishing fiction and non-fiction in both English and Catalan, he contributes to various newspapers and magazines including Catalonia Today, The Times Literary Supplement, Barcelona INK, Altaïr, El Punt Avui and L’Esguard. He appears on Catalan language radio and TV, and in 2005 and 2006 scripted and presented two series of the infotainment programme Passatgers for TV3 (Catalan Public Television).

His novel Snug is about a small village in the Isle of Wight which finds itself under siege by Africans who have gone there for that very purpose.

I caught up with Matthew on a blustery afternoon to talk about cool literary things to do while in Barcelona. Books mentioned during our conversation include:

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia
John Langdon Davis’s Behind the Spanish Barricades
Merce Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square

Speaking of Diamond Square, after our conversation I made straight for it to check out the statue that Matthew mentions.

Diamond Sq, Barcelona

This from Little Brown:

“First published in 1962 as ‘La Placa del Diamant’, this is considered the most important Catalan novel of all time.

Barcelona, early 1930s: Natalia, a pretty shop-girl from the working-class quarter of Gracia, is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand.

They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. When Joe decides to breed pigeons, the birds delight his son and daughter – and infuriate his wife. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence. Natalia remains in Barcelona, struggling to feed her family, while Joe goes to fight the fascists, and one by one his beloved birds fly away.”

‘An extremely moving love story…which reveals much about the Spanish civil war as ordinary, non-political people had to live it’ says Diana Athill.

***

There was another reason I wanted to go to the square.

Hibernia Books, the only secondhand English bookstore in Barcelona, is close by. It’s a fine establishment. I found a first edition of Power Politics, an early work of poetry by Margaret Atwood, signed! The shop is owned and operated by a pleasant Irish couple