Monday, October 17, 2011

More Exeter Reflections (UK Trip Day 5)

It's a lovely afternoon in Exeter, sitting in the Old Well House Tavern, listening to the rustling of leaves outside. A chilly October wind has come up, persistent enough to drown out the pub's music and conversation. On the Cathedral Green outside the door, a very chubby pigeon sits on the low wall in the sunshine, bracing his feathers against the cold wind. Eventually he gives up and moves on. It is said that the bones of plague victims are all throughout the ground in the Cathedral Green, piled so high that the occasional bone will stick up through the ground. To my left, there are 15th century buildings covered in reddening ivy.

I'm sitting near the door at a small table with a local bitter, and everything seems in its place. Everyone moves and acts in a manner exactly as I expect; everyone is polite, but no one is in your business. There are unspoken rules that everyone follows, and I feel like I know what they are. When such rules are broken, the British are hardly ever confrontational in a direct way, but more in a passive-aggressive way. The cultural norms are as hidden and old as the rest of the country.

A number of men in suits are standing around a rubbish bin, as though they're waiting for some kind of ceremony. I find myself thinking of the Monty Python sketch about the grand opening of a new mailbox. Tourists and students walk back and forth, wrapped in sweaters, pushing their hair back against the wind. I can only imagine how my own hair looks. A taxi is driving in reverse along the bricked road, with the phone number 66-66-66. The irony of this is not lost on me on a sunny day that was supposed to be gloomy. 666 is a solar number.

Earlier in the day I spoke with the department chair at the University of Exeter, and we had a lengthy discussion about what staff would be most suited to help me with my research interests. He also suggested the possibility of applying at the University of Amsterdam, where I could get a fully funded Ph.D. (though it is very competitive). While the idea is excellent, I couldn't bear to think of being anywhere but Exeter. It's not that people here are any different from how they are anywhere else. I just don't feel like I'm supposed to be anywhere else, as though Exeter has a secret just for me.

The wind is tossing about a great tree outside, making me think of the Algernon Blackwood story about the willows. Two young women, with dark red and purple hair respectively, sit on the lawn of the Green eating sandwiches. There is a delightful sense of integration here, a variety of influences and ages in one place with no conflict, yet no merging. The Jungian in me wants to say it's an individuated community in some sense.

My feet are very tired, as I have been walking around in boots all day. I spend some time examining Exeter Cathedral up close. Some restorative work is being done on the outside, but around the Gothic architecture you can still see gruesome faces and tall figures carved into columns that have been around since at least the Norman Conquest. I should like to examine the inside, and more of the surrounding area, but I am too tired.

My plans for the next two days were going to include a visit to Cornwall, but it appears I will have one or two more meetings at the university, so I am going to stay in town. I don't actually mind; if John Foxx wasn't playing, I'd happily stay here for the rest of my trip.

A phone call to my mother assures me that the cats are fine at home, and my house is still standing. Aside from the cats, I'm not missing home much at all. I've seen three black cats in town thus far--a chubby long-haired one that jumps the fence into the hotel's yard during breakfast, one running up the sidewalk towards the university, and another in front of someone's house along Prince of Wales Drive. I miss having a cat at the foot of the bed at night, though I don't miss the allergies that come with it. I have been remarkably allergy-free since coming to the UK.

Tomorrow will be a very ad-libbed day, as I don't know if I will be suddenly summoned back to campus. If not, it is likely I will get lost somewhere down by the Exe River, or in Northernhay.

1 comment:

Jez said...

good to read that you had such a good time in Exeter, and had positive impressions of the city. The place has changed so much over the years, even in the 10 years I have been here since moving from London. I am a BIG John Foxx fan, and actually had tickets for the Bristol show, but was unable to make it for one reason and another. If you do end up coming back, it would be nice to know there is another serious JF fan in the area :)