From The Economist print edition
James Attlee's anti-travel book on Britain's oldest university city is a gem
FEW images of Britain are quite as distinctive as the dreaming spires of the Oxford skyline; few cities are more often visited and more nostalgically remembered, and few are more connected with the world of books. Yet little of the love and attention lavished on Oxford trickles down the Cowley Road, which starts on the wrong side of the Cherwell river, and winds up in the grungy industrial district that for decades epitomised Britain's inefficient and stroppy motor industry.
Indeed, the Cowley Road seems at first sight not just unloved, but outright unlovable. It has no glorious medieval buildings, their golden stone soaked with centuries of scholarship. C.S. Lewis did not drink there. John Ruskin did not draw it. J.R.R. Tolkien did not fantasise about it, nor did Lewis Carroll take any boating parties of little girls there. Even by the standards of the suburbs, it is unglamorous: north Oxford's glorious red-brick town-houses inspired John Betjeman, the former poet laureate. It is hard to imagine even a limerick being written about the scrappy shops and tatty houses that lie to Oxford's east.
Yet James Attlee's scholarly, reflective and sympathetic journey up the Cowley Road is one of the best travel books that has been written about Britain's oldest university city. It is not—at least not directly—the Oxford of punts and gowns. His raw material is diversity: the Cowley Road as a corner of the outside world, where change and excitement are squeezed into the cramped hinterland of the scholarly theme park of the city centre.
Among his neighbours are “Jamaican, Bangladeshi, Indian, Polish, Kurdish, Chinese, French, Italian, Thai, Japanese and African restaurants”. And that is not all: “sari shops, cafés, fast-food outlets, electronics stores, a florist, a Ghanaian fishmonger, pubs, bars, three live-music venues, tattoo parlours, betting shops, a Russian supermarket, a community centre, a publisher, the headquarters of an international NGO, musical-instrument vendors, butchers (halal and otherwise), three cycle shops, two video-rental stores, post offices, two mosques, three churches, a Chinese herbalist [and] a pawn shop” all sit side-by-side with “a police station, two record shops, two centres of alternative medicine, a 24-hour Tesco, an independent cinema, call centres, three sex shops, numerous grocers, letting agencies, a bingo hall, and a lap-dancing establishment that plies its trade on Sundays.”
“Why”, he asks, “make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?”
Mr Attlee's own migration—he calls it a pilgrimage—is a haphazard and unhurried one, sometimes experienced alone, sometimes with companions. The central thread is interviews, recorded with shopkeepers and residents on an old-fashioned tape recorder. Mr Attlee weaves their stories with his own wry descriptions, and with acute historical references that range from the erudite but appropriate to the magnificently obscure (his vade-mecum is a disintegrating copy of “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton, an eccentric 17th-century Oxford cleric, who would have known the area as a lane leading to a leper hospital).
Mr Attlee likes his street, but he is no sentimentalist about a district that varies from the captivating to the callous. The first chapter describes a pub whose sign is a reproduction of “The Scream”, Edvard Munch's iconic depiction of existential angst. But its loud music, heavy drinking, slot machines and lamely punned menu (Screamburger, anyone?) celebrates just the sort of crassness that would have had poor Munch howling to the rafters. Perhaps, ponders Mr Attlee, the scream no longer symbolises alienation, but “the combination of fear and exhilaration that is the drug of choice for the young male”.
Three quiet student neighbours of his were mugged and beaten up after drinking there; when they returned from hospital later in the evening, they found the muggers had also burgled their home, stealing the laptops on which their PhD research (inevitably, not backed up) was stored. Plenty to scream about there.
“Isolarion”, named after a detail on a medieval map, is unsparing, but not bleak. It blends humour and passion, for example, in the author's entanglement in a local-government consultative exercise. Mr Attlee tries valiantly to understand, and then to frustrate, the well-meaning busybodies who want to prettify the road and clear its pavements of the sprawling wares of his beloved Asian greengrocers. Seldom has the suffocating atmosphere of local democracy in Britain—politically correct yet tone-deaf, participatory in rhetoric yet bureaucratic in spirit—been better captured.
The result blends a vivid account of daily life, fluid and unsettling, in a modern British town with powerful allegorical reflections on the connections between past and present, time and space, and high culture and the hard scrabble world that sustains it. Oxford may be the city of lost causes, and this book is indeed ambitious; it could easily sound sententious or twee. But it works, gloriously. After reading it, the visitor will not linger in the city centre but scuttle past the Radcliffe Camera and Magdalen Tower, over the Cherwell, and on to the Ultimate Picture Palace, where a projectionist, solemnly dinner-jacketed, shows art-house movies to a tiny and devoted audience.