I’m visiting G. in Oxford for a few weeks, and Oxford being what it is of course she’s being kept very busy by weekly essays and exam prep. So on Wednesday I decided to escape the student city and take the Oxford Tube down to London to spend part of the day. By the way, Wednesday was also May Day, which means a big morning of celebrations in Oxford, including listening to a choir sing from the top of Magdalen tower at 6 am, followed by a delicious breakfast in a local café (or pub) open early for the occasion. No one jumped off Magdalen bridge this year, as far as I know.
Bloomsbury is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London, so when I don’t have a lot of time in the city I usually end up spending it there instead of discovering new corners. My day in the capital started rather late in the morning at the British Library, where I wanted to check out an exhibit on crime fiction, Murder in the Library: The A to Z of Crime Fiction. I thought it was a full fledged exhibit like the Science Fiction one I’d seen a couple of years ago, but it ended up only being a series of small cases and panels in a corner of the lobby (there will be a larger exhibit on propaganda opening this month). The exhibit was still interesting, however—I just wouldn’t recommend making a detour specifically to go see it.
After a delicious lunch at a favourite haunt, I enjoyed the beautiful weather and made my way down to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to visit the Soane Museum, a strange little collection I’d heard about but never gotten around to visiting. The building was designed by Neo-Classical architect Sir John Soane as a museum for his extensive private collection of artifacts, paintings, and memorabilia. After a polite welcome from butler-like museum staff who regulate the entry and ensure your possessions are carried in plastic bags, I was ushered into the house without further direction or information. The visit begins in Soane’s elegant library, and then moves into other rooms in the house, which are cluttered from floor to ceiling with classical urns, vases, busts, plaster, marble ornaments, bronze replicas, etc. I found very few explanation panels; I guess the point is to walk around and gaze in admiration at the impressively haphazard collection. There’s a room lined with large canvases, Hogarths and Canolettos among them, with walls that open thanks to a clever contraption and reveal plans for buildings designed by Soane. In the dank, dark basement of the house lies the massive alabaster coffin of Seti I, father of Ramses II. The whole experience was a little overwhelming and definitely a little confusing. I did very much enjoy the exhibit at the end of the visit, Piranesi’s Paestum, which gave a lot of context to neo-classical architecture and 18th century interest in classical buildings.
It was already nearly time to go back to Oxford by then, but before I left London I had one more stop: the London Review Bookshop, near the British Museum. Every time I go there, I’m amazed and impressed by the bright surroundings and their incredible selection. Somehow, this bookshop manages to stock every literary writer, past and present; I firmly believe they have everything I could ever look for. Still, I searched around for something special to purchase, not any book I could’ve ordered online in a flash. I wanted something exiting, something I didn’t know existed. I wanted to surprise myself. Despite the thousands of volumes, however, I didn’t find anything that fit the bill. But then, just as I was leaving the store, something caught my eye in the front window: a small, elegant hardcover with a name I recognized, Al Alvarez. I’ve written a little about Alvarez before; he’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, a true “man of letters,” who wrote books on subjects as varied (although not altogether unrelated) as night, gambling, and suicide. His book on writing and reading, The Writer’s Voice, is one of the most helpful and engaging books of literary criticism I have ever read. I’m a big fan of his; I had no idea he’d written a new book.
So I entered the store again and grabbed the book from the window display to purchase it. It’s called Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal. It could’ve been about the life cycle of bullfrogs and I would’ve already been sold, basically. It turned out the book is made up of short journal excerpts Alvarez kept between 2002 and 2009 (the year he turned 80), focusing around his daily swims in the pond at Hampstead Heath. Exactly the kind of British non-fiction I love to devour. Needless to say I returned to the city of spires and honey-coloured stone with a London Review Bookshop bag in my hand.