Apologia Pro Vita Sua

I’m sorry, I really am, about the whole thing.  But then again, not sorry at all.

I’m far from sure that my own life requires defending, but I came up with this heading for my UK travel piece on my very first full day in Oxford this month.  The title is of course borrowed from John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography.  He was the leader of the mid-19th-century “Oxford Movement,” and wrote it to defend his religious beliefs, when he converted to Catholicism and abandoned his Anglican pulpit, later to become a cardinal.

Not that I know all that much about him, but he popped into my head as an avatar of the intellectual eminence that Oxford is steeped in.  That eminence surged through me in a flood as I walked in Port Meadow on my first full day in Oxford, and thought of all the heady geniuses who had trod the very path I was on.  Part of the meadow was drying mud instead of the pond it was on my previous acquaintance (see here), but that feeling of focused brainpower flooded over me like hot water over a teabag, releasing the following effusions.

I have absorbed the atmosphere, if not the substance, of Nat’s education.  At Concord, I walked in the steps of Thoreau and Emerson (who also gave up his pulpit in pursuit of truth), Hawthorne and Alcott.  At Swarthmore, I steeped in Quaker values and the botanic splendor of the campus.  At Harvard, I followed the paths of William James and other intellectual heavyweights too numerous to list.  And at Oxford, the same – long and distinguished centuries of elevated thought and substantial scholarship.

So here is a collection of my cloud thoughts, lofty and airy:

I propose a personal philosophy of radical ease.  It’s an open question whether this philosophy is a justification of the life, or vice versa.  Does the life justify the philosophy, or is the philosophy just a rationalization of my own predilections?  Not for me to say, just to do and die, according to my own light.

What do I mean by radical ease?  First off, I mean just what the words mean, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4/E:

Radical: free and reactive, basic and revolutionary, getting to the root of a word or a quantity or a problem.

Ease: comfort; freedom from pain, worry, or agitation, from constraint or embarrassment, from difficulty, hardship, or effort; naturalness; dexterity, facility; a state of rest, relaxation, or leisure.  Works even better as a verb: to lessen discomfort, pain, or stress; alleviate, assuage, give respite to; loosen strain or pressure; reduce difficulty or trouble.

So my philosophy is radically different from most, by encouraging easiness, reducing difficulty and stress, relaxing about one’s ultimate aims as well as the day-to-day approach to existence.  I aim to live my life at a sauntering pace, in free-floating composure or equilibrium.  My philosophy is as much an expression of need as a statement of principle.

Life can be hard, but don’t make it any harder than it needs to be.  Confront difficulty when you have to, but don’t trouble yourself.  History will take its course.  All an individual can do is to make the best personal adaptation to the course of history.

Perhaps this is an old man’s philosophy, or even worse, that of a “retired gentleman.”  Or maybe it’s a stoner’s philosophy, a last gasp of hippiedom.  There’s certainly nothing new or epic in it, but it’s fine with me if you want to trace it back as far as Epicurus and Epictetus.

I also acknowledge that the philosophy is predicated on personal luck, privilege, and the kindness of others.  And I confess that it’s easier to accept things the way they are, when things have always been pretty good for one’s self.

As a baseball hitter is advised, I just strive to “stay within myself, not try to do too much.”

I offer an apology for this philosophy, but not an argument for it.  As theology, it is strictly confessional and nothing like apologetics.  This belief works for me, and as a Jamesian pragmatist, that is enough for me.  If I can’t propose a Kantian categorical imperative, and “take the maxim of my action as a universal rule,” or legislate for humankind in general, I can say that it takes all kinds, and the world would be a poorer place without the likes of me, feckless fucks that we may be.

(If you zoom in, or look very closely at the center of this picture, you can see the pedestrian bridge over railroad tracks, which leads to Nat & Nicole’s place.)


But sometimes it makes sense to keep to the straight and narrow, since by definition the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  And unlike a meandering river, a man-made canal is about as straight as you can get.  So the Oxford Canal became my main route into and out of City Centre, as we went about collecting colleges and gardens, and exploring libraries and museums.  Orient yourself with this sign (open larger version in new tab):

I was staying with CE in a cozy little basement studio apartment in the Summertown neighborhood of North Oxford (right about where the 1.5 mile marker is).  We’d reach the Oxford Canal Heritage Trail by the bridge right in the middle of the map.  The mug of beer denoting The Anchor marks the location of Nat and Nicole’s place, with access over Aristotle Bridge to the Trap Grounds, and over a pedestrian bridge above the train tracks to Port Meadow, where cattle and horses have grazed freely for a thousand years, and waterfowl abound.  Walton Well Bridge takes you into the lively neighborhood of Jericho, and Hythe Bridge leads into the center of town.

So take a walk with me down the canal, first crossing over and under the Elizabeth Jennings Way Bridge, and then taking a look north, to a rougher and more rural portion of the canal (which is segmented into residential and short term use), where the narrowboat community is rather tinker-like.

I didn’t go north along the canal very often, except on the first day, dragging myself along in intermittent rain, after twenty-odd hours of travel and no sleep.  On the bank in front of me I spotted a grey heron, and as I walked along the towpath, it would take off as I approached and land fifty yards further on, over and over again.  Once I saw it snap a snack out of the water and glug it down, and I felt as though I was developing a relationship with the bird.

In fact, much of this trip seemed to be about relating to birds.  In pictures and text herein, you’ll find more grey herons, as well as mallards and other ducks, greylag and Canada geese, nesting and battling swans, a bouquet of pheasants, an owl & falcons, and not least, a feisty little robin.

Back at the bridge, I snapped this historical scene from the canal mural project.  The canal reached Oxford in 1790 and carried coal from the Midlands for 150 years.  Now, like so many waterways and waterfronts, it has been turned into an urban amenity, nature reclaimed from industrial exploitation.

And now we head south:

As I was walking along the canal, I saw a swipe-left slideshow as the ideal simulacrum of the experience, but facing my own technical ignorance, I rely on the tile mosaic option offered by WordPress.  Click on any image to start a full-size carousel of the whole gallery.

That carries us past Frenchay Bridge, and the next group takes us past Aristotle Lane Bridge – where you turn right a few hundred yards and you’re in Port Meadow, and to the left even closer is Nat and Nicole’s apartment – and on to Walton Well Bridge.

Now we go under Walton Well Bridge, and into a surprise — a modern housing development right down to the water’s edge.  I thought it was overbearing until I learned that it replaced Lucy’s Ironworks factory, and did so quite tastefully.

Jericho boatyard and wharf:

Over Isis Lock to Hythe Bridge:


I have another brief photo essay of my own about one of Oxford’s special places, a semi-wilderness area south of University Parks called “Mesopotamia,” i.e. “between the rivers,” where the Cherwell divides into two streams, and a path runs between.  Whether you take the rivers to represent the Tigris and Euphrates, or Lethe and the Styx, or simply birth and death, they provide a refuge for philosophical contemplation.

If you don’t see what any of this has to do with my philosophy of taking it easy, I can only suggest that you look again, take a stroll with me, looking and thinking and appreciating it all, without point or purpose other than the simple joy of observing, of completing one’s own personal perspective on the world, feeling a part of it all, whether natural or man-made.

Come with me then, between the rivers, walking the narrow path in solitude, while in the midst of abounding life, among so many shades of green growth, and white, between earth and sky, so connected, where the silence foregrounds the symphony of birdsong, such a contrast to the babble of accents and languages, the Babel of human tongues, that one overhears on Oxford city streets.

From Mesopotamia, one emerges onto Lucas Walk at the south edge of the Parks, where I finally happened upon some fritillaries, which had become an object of botanic quest for CE and me, after not finding them as promised on Addison’s Walk around Magdalen College, and then glimpsing them painted on the ceiling of St. Cross Church (now the Balliol College Historical Center, which happened to be open for an interesting exhibition one time when we passed by).

A block or two down South Parks Road is Nat’s office, and here I will begin weaving my text around several galleries of CE’s photos.  Starting with the botanic ecstasies collectively known as wisteria hysteria, which encompassed lilacs and laburnum, as well as apple and cherry blossoms, elderflower and the elusive fritillaria.  And of course the ancient and massive trees – horse chestnuts, willows, beeches, plane trees – which the old man contemplated in solidarity.  As for avian ecstasies, already adumbrated, CE managed to capture two birds in aggressive action, which will come up later in the story.

Here are some things we did around Oxford:

And here are some outings we took with Nat and Nicole:

Here are a few British signs I asked CE to snap since they struck me as amusingly phrased:

And here’s the view from the living room of the 5th floor flat where we stayed in Portsmouth, or Southsea more specifically, the last three nights in the UK, with a final shot that means a lot to the taker, who had reached the end of her endurance for the first time on the trip.  I am as usual far ahead, headed straight for our building, one of the brick fronts on Western Parade.

(From this point on, whatever I need to illustrate my story, I will pluck from Google Images.)

Nat and Nicole were very busy with work, so we took excursions with them on weekends, but during the week saw them mainly at meals, lots of good ones:  at a memorably good Chinese restaurant right in our Summertown neighborhood the first night; then walking through Port Meadow to The Perch the next night; Sunday roast at the Crown in Woodstock with their friends Megan and John, after visiting Blenheim; the Gardeners Arms for sentimental reasons (it being the place where Nat learned of his three-year appointment, where CE and I ate our first dinner in Oxford last year, and now the place we learned that he’d actually won that teaching excellence award.)

We had a couple of nice breakfasts with Nicole at Gail’s Bakery in Summertown, and lunch with Nat at Turl Street Kitchen, and with both at the Pie Minister in the Covered Market.  We ate well in Portsmouth too, with good dinners at Turkish, Thai, and pizza restaurants, and breakfasts at Southsea Coffee.

It was on the garden patio of the last that we had our encounter with that feisty robin.  It felt as though we were in a big cage with him, and it was amusing to see him pecking at the remains of the house specialty sweet bun left on the next table.  But when he finished with that, he sat eyeing the piece that Nat held teasingly in his hand.  Sure enough, the robin made several aerial assaults on the baked treat, while Nicole did a credible imitation of Tippi Hedren in The Birds.

But CE formed a continuing relationship with the Weston Library Café, eating lunch or having tea there every day we were in town, and I was eventually won over to it as well, since its entry hall made an excellent place to rest or to meet, with plenty of exhibits to maintain interest while waiting.  I’ll come back to it later while discussing our Bodleian Library tour, which was a centerpiece of the trip, but for now I’ll continue to describe what we did with Nat and Nicole.

After taking a bus to Burford for a Cotswold hike on Saturday, on Sunday we took another to Blenheim Palace, where we met N&N’s friends Megan and John.  It didn’t take long to understand why the two couples had hit it off, as fellow Americans who’d met at Quaker Meeting.  M&J were as extroverted as Nicole, and the two men could converse on a supernerd level, with John an astrophysicist.

I went along for the ride, but had no interest in going into the palace, or taking in the Churchill hagiography, nor much in the jousting or falconry or other Renaissance-fair-like activities.  But there was much about the Capability Brown-designed grounds that appealed to me, and I spent most of my time walking around alone.  I enjoyed the created lake and cascade, and the secret garden of a later Duke of Marlborough, and walking through a bouquet of pheasants, amidst huge old trees and wildflowers galore.  And I circled back to the group in time to see Megan volunteer before a crowd of people to let a trained owl land on her gloved arm.  But in the end, the phrase that echoed in my mind was “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” which I found out to be attributed to Balzac.

The pattern was set for the following weekend as well, as I waited around for the others to be the last people let out of an attraction at closing.  At the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, that would be Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, on which he died while winning the battle of Trafalgar ; Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose, sunk in Portsmouth Harbor in 1545 and raised in the 1980s to become the focus for fascinatingly multifaceted archaeological exhibits; and the HMS Warrior of 1860, the first ironclad battleship.  It was all very interesting, but my interest was not as inexhaustible as the others’.  But I found the hero-worship of Nelson more quaint and appealing than that of Churchill (I’d prepared by watching Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman).

What I did love was walking the Millennium and Southsea promenades – looking out across the Solent to the Isle of Wight – with their ancient harbor fortifications going back to the 16th century, and even earlier.  And on a trip where gardens were a focus, I was happy to happen upon the Southsea Rock Garden – with semi-tropical vegetation in the warmest spot in Britain – and went back every day.

One day we Ubered (a first for me) around Portsmouth Harbor to Portchester Castle, where a 12th century keep was built within the walls of a 1st century Roman Fort – an education in history and an adventure in climbing, up the very narrow spiral of a stone staircase to the parapet, where the sun and wind did not encourage one to linger long over the spectacular panorama of whole harbor.

Both in Oxford and in Portsmouth, though different, there was a magic to the combination of water and ancient stone.  I rather expected Portsmouth to be rust-belt down-at-heels, but it turned out to be a classic festival marketplace, suggesting an infusion of Russian and Arab money.

Before my story returns to Oxford, let me note how satisfactory the Airbnb experiences were in each place, as well as transport by train and bus, if less so by crowded plane.  Still and all, very little stress in two weeks away from my familiar haunts.

Though we happily took refuge from showers in the Ashmolean and Natural History Museums, they were not as central to this visit as the last.  This time around I had two main desiderata, to take the 90-minute Bodleian tour (which is the only way to get inside the Radcliffe Camera), and to visit as many more colleges as I could, starting with three reputed to have the best gardens: New College, Magdalen, and Worcester.  They did not disappoint.   Nor did St. John, Exeter, or Keble, in their own distinctive ways.  Rather than extensive commentary, I offer links to photo galleries or short videos:  New College; Magdalen College; Worcester College; St. John’s College; Exeter College; Keble College.

A few personal highlights:  At New College (established 1379!), medieval city wall enclosing garden, the cloisters, and impressive reredos in chapel; at Magdalen, bell-tower and gargoyles, deer park and Addison’s Walk, evensong in chapel with scholarship choirboys; at Worcester, lake and grounds (battling swan), magnificent old trees, and wisteria-clad, half-medieval-half-Georgian quad; at St. Johns, the Canterbury Quad with busts of women on opposite sides (later learned to represent the Seven Virtues and the Seven Liberal Arts), and the decorated drainpipes that epitomized the richest of all the Oxford colleges; at Exeter, mainly my repeated but always foiled efforts to see Pre-Raphaelite tapestry and windows in chapel; at Keble, on the other hand, controversial chapel known as the “Holy Zebra” proved a highlight, with all-over Victorian decoration.  In general, the warmth of golden Cotswold stone (restored after more than a century of blackening by the coal that came by the canal), but the continuing evolution of architecture through the centuries, offering a continuous experience of unfolding time-travel.

So in conclusion, we come down to the trip’s focal point, the Bodleian Libraries.  When Nat was a student at Oxford and we visited the UK in 2008, I was writing my blog about the history of libraries at Williams, and specifically wanted to see the famed reading rooms at the British Museum and the Radcliffe Camera, but couldn’t get into either.  Same thing last year, so this year I signed up online two weeks in advance for the requisite Bodleian tour.

Though the few minutes under the Radcliffe dome were a bit anticlimactic, the tour as a whole exceeded all expectation.  The tour guide was tremendously well-versed, and her presentation was polished but not rote, full of historical, architectural, and bibliographic interest.

Though I don’t use them all that much anymore, I’ve always loved libraries, from the time I turned sixteen and got my first job at the local public library, through years of library work at Williams and at Brooklyn Friends School.  The only reason I didn’t make a career of it was my refusal to go to library school, so bookselling came as a welcome substitute.

I’ll use iconic images culled online to recapitulate the tour, beginning with the minute-long video that plays in multiscreen presentation in the courtyard of the Weston building.  Orient yourself with this map, then enter through the Great Gate to the Old Schools Quadrangle, approach the Proscholium, and turn to look over the shoulder of the Duke of Pembroke at the Tower of the Five Orders with statue of King James I, all of which date from the early 1600s.  Enter the Divinity School, from two centuries before, with the Convocation House behind it, and go upstairs to Duke Humfrey’s Library, which was founded later in the 15th century for manuscripts, dissolved during the religious conflicts of the 16th, and restored by Thomas Bodley to house printed books at the beginning of the 17th.

Passing through other reading rooms in the Schools Quadrangle, we now cross over to the Radcliffe Camera, from the early 18th century, all these buildings still in active library use.  For the Radcliffe reading room dome, one picture conveys the architecture and the other the coloring.  The tour took us through the 19th century “Gladstone Link,” a tunnel through which “Bodley boys,” on scholarship like chapel choirboys, would push cartloads of books between buildings, like child laborers in a coal mine.  The link was extended when the “New Bodleian” was built on the other side of Broad Street, an impregnable fortress of books constructed in the years before and after WWII, which has been converted in the 21st century to “Weston Library” and opened up to a marvelous public space in the center of the city (with most of the books moved 30 miles offsite).  This brief but well-made BBC clip celebrates the opening of the project.

The evolution of the Bodleian through the centuries encapsulates the history of libraries in general, and it’s massively telling that its end point (at least for now) is the magnificent Blackwell Hall of the Weston Library, open where it used to be closed, public when it used to be private, moving from manuscripts to printed books to modern media, serving a multitude of purposes and constituencies instead of merely scholars, though they retain their privileges and amenities as well.

Now I have to confess that everything about the Bodleian seems like a refutation of my embrace of radical ease.  It seems the epitome of strenuous scholarship, continuous change, comprehensive collecting, and monumental effort.  As does the Oxford English Dictionary, the history of which I was reading over there, in Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything.  Talk about heavy lifting, from an intellectual perspective!

So I admit to being something of a lightweight.  But I do not disparage myself for it.  We carry the weight we can bear.  Better to walk upright and sprightly, than borne down by the weight of things known and unknown.  I favor an ambling pace, though it may seem shambling to some.  I leave supreme achievement to others, along with tragic heroism in the vein of Admiral Nelson.  I am at best the antihero of my own story.

Easy is not lazy, though the two traits can have a negative synergy.  In Oxford I was certainly at my ease, taking my leisure as I found it, but I definitely did not laze away the days, averaging at least ten miles a day of walking.  Nonetheless, at play as at work, and in every other endeavor, I am opposed to the application of force.

I value stability, continuity, and intensity, with emphasis on solitude, focus, and independence.  In short, I am more tortoise than hare, but hold out for a fairy tale victory anyway.  So even if I never have a book in the Bodleian Library, and have never been as impressive a bibliographic minder as a Bodleian librarian, I seem to have achieved a modest living in books.  (Which, not coincidentally, is the theme of my next essay.)

Get to the root of who you are, and be easy on yourself – so maybe my “philosophy of radical ease” is not a creed for all seasons, or all persons, or all situations, but for a fortnight, for me, on busman’s holiday in England, it suited just fine.  And that’s enough, for this subluminary fellow in this sublunary realm.


Author: Steve

Steve Satullo grew up in Cleveland OH, attended Williams College, and has spent the rest of his life in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Ran Either/Or Bookstore for 17 years, and has been affiliated with Clark Art Institute ever since, so definitely qualifies as a book (plus film and museum) person, but has always self-identified primarily as a writer and editor, now with four blogs active.

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