Gentle reader, I’ve only been in Canterbury a few weeks. Maybe that’s why, when I go to London or Broadstairs or Whitstable, I feel like it’s a voyage within a voyage. A Russian doll within a Russian doll.
My roommate and I took the train to Broadstairs last weekend, a coastal town about a half hour away. We were hoping to tour “Bleak House,” which is where Charles Dickens spent many summers, and – some say – the home that gave him inspiration for the fictional Bleak House (that fact is hotly debated and may be a pile of rubbish). Anyway, it’s rather a moot point since Bleak House was firmly locked when we got there – despite the fact that we had phoned that morning and were told enthusiastically to come and bring our cameras!
But never mind. Instead, we took a taxi to Botany Bay (no, we did not travel to Australia, there is another one) and saw the most gorgeous beaches.
I get up to London quite regularly, and it’s a bit of shock after the peace and quiet of Canterbury, with its mossy river and weeping trees.
London, in comparison, is hectic. Full. Noisy. It exists on a completely different scale – not just in terms of population (Canterbury is about 45,000 souls) but its sheer size. The massive network of tube stations, squeezing people in and out of tubular cars and pumping them back out on the streets, where they throng past massive buildings that rise out of the pavement and soar into the sky, drawing the eye upward, constantly upward, with their domes and arches.
Last weekend we wound our way through the Temple Gardens, just off the Thames, where the Inner and Middle Temple (legal societies) are headquartered, to find the Temple Church – built by the Knights of the Templar.
You enter the unusual round church (you might recognize it from The Da Vinci Code) to stumble over the fellows above. Rather a surprise. But London is a series of surprises. Like New York, everything is here. Iconic things, which you have read about, seen in films and TV shows. The Eye, looming like a Ferris wheel on steroids above the Thames. The theater district, with all the shows that come to Calgary once in a blue moon, all packed into a few dense blocks of cobblestoned streets. Mama Mia, Kinky Boots, Annie, Dream Girls. And now, The Ferryman.
I went to a London Literary Festival event yesterday to celebrate a poetry installation called the Wall of Dreams, designed by Danish poet and artist Morten Sondergaard.
Above, you see the front of the Royal Festival Hall, taken from the Jubilee bridge. You can see the line from the Wall of Dreams: I dream of my mother’s smile. Here is the wall on the other side of the Royal Festival Hall:
Here’s a better picture, taken later at night. The wall features snippets of poems by refugees, and the event I attended was a performance by women refugees, reciting snippets of their poems.
Some quotes from the performance:
“I dream of living without fear in UK.”
“I dream that someone finds a pill for broken souls.”
“I dream of meeting my children again.”
A powerful performance by the Women for Refugee Women, based in London.
The city of London is also home to the British Library. I have emailed my guest supervisor requesting a letter of introduction so I can introduce myself to the letters of Virginia Woolf. Thank you, Virginia, for setting the stage so women can access important documents without the company of a man.
Yes, thank you for trying so hard, Virginia. Thank you for taking on the men of the literary and academic worlds, for attempting to walk on forbidden lawns and enter forbidden libraries. The men who honored you with awards which you refused. Thank you.
When I look at her letters, written in her own handwriting (who else’s would it be – I am a pile of mush just thinking about reading her actual letters) I will no doubt wish that her labour had taken us further down the road to equality. As I read the news about Hollywood, about Washington, it’s impossible not to feel Virginia-like, despite the decades between us.
I felt particularly Virginia-like on the train from London last Monday, coming home from a brilliant play called Labour of Love about the Labour Party (starring the wonderful Martin Freeman and the amazing Tamsin Greig – if you haven’t yet watched Episodes on Netflix, please do – not to see Matt LeBlanc but to see Tamsin Greig). Long story short, a drunken arsehole (let’s call him AH) sitting behind me had a revolting conversation on his phone with his girlfriend – on speakerphone – about knickers and the removal thereof, which clearly made the 12-year-old girl across from me uncomfortable (her mother had fallen asleep). I am sad to say that I said nothing, since AH seemed unpredictable at best. Once he hung up, he tried to strike up a conversation with the girl across from me, who looked over at me in alarm. Had she been to the concert that night, AH wanted to know. She said nothing. He asked again, sounding drunkenly annoyed. I turned around and suggested he let her be. At which point he told me that people who jump in on other people’s conversation are asking to be slapped upside the head. Which made me re-assess the situation. In the meantime, the girl’s mother woke up, telling AH in no uncertain terms that he should not strike up conversations with twelve-year-old girls.
Thus capping an otherwise lovely weekend in the city of London.
So (and this is my curt nod to HW), it has been a week of women speaking out. Not perfectly, but speaking out.
Gentle reader, it has been a week of ups and downs – literally and figuratively. First, let me tell you about my love-hate relationship with The Hill.
I have heard dozens of warnings about The Hill, on which the University of Kent is situated, resulting in a spectacular view of Canterbury. You would not want to walk up this hill, I was told. You must take the bus, I was advised. It only takes about 15 minutes. In my feeble head I managed to do the math. The walk up the hill takes only 30 minutes, so why bother taking the bus if it saves you only 15 minutes?
What else, I wondered, did the bus save you? I pictured a lovely day – not necessarily sunny but not raining – and an ambling, cathartic trek up The Hill. I could see on Google Maps that there were many options for walking The Hill, several of which take you through lush green fields or bridleways crowned with dense vines and shrubbery.
Sure, your legs would be tired at the top but it would be worth it!
Why, I now wonder, did no one tell me the real reason for taking the bus? The real hardship saved by taking public transit up The Hill?
The full nature of this real reason came crashing down on me like a salty tsunami last week as I sat at my carrel, with every inch of my skin gasping for breath. It had rained that morning and the air, when I walked out the door that morning, felt like a cozy blanket tucked beneath your chin. It was going to be a lovely day! I set out in a t-shirt and sweater, my rain coat tucked over my briefcase. I wore my thick leather boots, figuring the ground would be damp. All of which was fine, until I was about three-quarters of the way up The Hill. At which point all the humidity in the planet tried to force its way into my body while all the air inside my body tried to force its way out, through the impermeable seal of dampness. I wasn’t hot so much as swimming in my own juices. As I sat at my carrel, I counted the drips of sweat running down the small of my back.
Six, seven, eight.
Would it be possible, within the normal bounds of polite behavior, to remove the boots that were making my feet feel as if they’d been lost forever in a steam bath? Would my carrel mates mind?
Eleven, twelve, thirteen…
No, I decided, visions of Speedo man from the U of C grad commons floating into my head.
I will keep shoes on, come what may.
As drop fourteen trickled down my back, the real reason for taking the bus finally dawned on me. The Hill does not tire you because of its pitch or length. It sucks oxygen from your cells and force-feeds them with H2O until your eyeballs fill up with humidity, thinning and stretching until finally they pop like a balloon.
Why no one told me this remains a mystery. I can only guess that once you’ve lived here a while, you take this balloon-popping effect in stride. It goes without saying that sweating is unpleasant. You keep your balloon intact by not walking up The Hill.
Before the weather became so humid, I went with my flat mate and her friends to the Canterbury food and drink festival.
The entire city had squished itself into the lovely Dane John gardens (this is a bastardization of the Old French donjon, referring to a Norman castle founded by William the Conqueror) which features a “mound,” likely an ancient Roman burial mound from the 1st or 2nd century.
In this venerable location were packed stalls featuring everything from churros and chips to wine and jams to Pims and cheese. Also this:
Give me careless jam with sloe gin any day!
The gin jam was just one of many tasty food sensations… We inched our way past the stalls, reaching out as vendors distributed slivers of local brie, samples of gourmet oils, splashes of spicy dips. The samples were delicious, as was the curry I bought for lunch. I topped it off with a Pim’s cocktail and went waddling home.
On Sunday I cycled a pathway out to the coast called the Crab and Winkle Way. That’s right. Crab and Winkle.
Side bar: in my next life I’d like to come back as the official namer for British places please. Side bar side bar: I was walking along a nondescript suburban street the other day and saw this street sign:
Now, to me this sign belongs in a forest where people in jodhpurs are riding horses and chasing steeples. This sign might also belong in a war film:
Where the sweaty soldier shouts: “Fox down close! Fox down close!”
But I digress. Back to the Crab and Winkle Way. This is a pleasantly named, pleasantly flat cycle from the university to the beach town of Whitstable, and it’s named after one of the original rail lines of Kent.
I approached the excursion with caution, since I would be cycling alone through farmland, woodland and more. I asked my flat mate if I should be concerned about security, and she said, Absolutely, if you’re terrified by elderly people in tweed jackets. She was quite right; the main cause for alarm was the density of said elderly people, all of whom had at least three dogs (all of whom were either labs, long-tailed spaniels, pugs or Westies).
Still, you can’t be too careful. I was diligent in obeying all traffic signs. Such as this one.
I got off my bike, took a picture and laughed out loud. Then I saw this.
The picture is a bit blurry because the horse was yelling: Fox close down! Fox close down!
Clearly all signs must be obeyed.
It was a gorgeous cycle, very peaceful, through an ancient wood called The Blean, and then through farmers’ fields.
After about an hour and a quarter, I was cycling through the town of Whitstable, where Brits seem to come to get away from city life.
I found a pub at lunch time and had a cheddar and chutney sandwich, then headed back to Canterbury.
On Monday, I headed back up The Hill to my carrel in the sociology building, and began pounding out the old dissertation.
I had another chat with my guest supervisor, who continues to be generous and kind. I was to hand in my first submission to her, so she could offer feedback and see if her research group was interested in reading it too. I have more than 100 pages in the manuscript so I was not worried about finding about 50 that would give her an impression of the characters, storyline and theoretical undertones. I had a few chapters in mind, several of which I had already revised. As I sat in my carrel, waiting for the sweat to evaporate, I scanned the chapters.
Oh, the horror.
These chapters were, in a word, awful. They were also pedestrian, reductive and turgid. I could imagine my guest supervisor reading these pages of prose and thinking, Good lord, how much of this drivel will I have to read over the next three months? How can I tell this Canadian woman that she is not – and never will be – a writer of interesting words?
So I spent the day replenishing my sweat reserves and revising the chapters.
In the end I was not unhappy with the pages, but that’s the way it works, isn’t it? You read them right after you write them and you think, Yes. This is compelling. I’ve captured a certain atmosphere, I’ve said something interesting about life and human nature.
The next day you boot up your computer and you see yourself for what you really are: a bottom-dweller, slithering along on your belly through the sand, oblivious to the fishy fecal matter that’s been left there by other, higher beings, which is now sticking to your flesh in dark glutinous clumps.
But never mind. I know I am not the only one to experience this slithering sense of self-loathing. I simply rise from my carrel and head back down The Hill. There is the cathedral, bobbing in and out of view between clumps of maples. There is the densely clouded sky, with its promise of rain, or worse – humidity. And there is the trickle, running damply down my back as I make my way down The Hill.
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017
Do the No-Jet-Lag pills really work? They taste like sugar pills but I chewed them diligently as I flew from Calgary to Canterbury. After just two days in the UK, my home-away-from-home, the place where I will magically finish the first draft of my dissertation, I have nearly become a non-jet-lagged Canterburian. Canterburyite. Canterbourois?
I managed to sleep a bit on the plane, despite the angle of the seat, which forces your chest to curl forward and your head to tip back until you feel as if a lovely spike has been driven through your neck.
Fast-forward to the Heathrow customs line, where, after an hour-long wait, the border agent refused to look at the bundle of paperwork I had assembled for my crossing. She cared not one whit that I had made a special trip to the bank to have my statement printed out on official Bank Paper, signed by an official Bank Person. She brushed away the original letter from SSHRC, the notice from U of C that I am truly a foreign exchange student. Feeling miffed, I collected my bag and made my way to the public area of Heathrow, where I found my assigned driver so fast I had no time to experience the palpitations about potential airport terror attacks, which I had planned into my schedule.
Having gotten the spike-induced kinks out of my neck as we walked to the parkade, I piled into the car and dove into conversation with my driver. I am here, after all, to do research. And to get a handle on how Brits feel about insularity, refugees, Brexit and more. Here was my first opportunity to grill an ordinary citizen on the politics of the day. The Zeitgeist of the UK. The yay-or-nay on Teresa May.
It was a short conversation.
The driver, although lovely, had taken The Oath of Quiet Living. He had resolved never to turn on the television set, scan a news site, or sully his eyes with social media. You have to turn all that off, he explained. If you want to live happily. The news will make you mad.
So we covered other territory. My driver, it turned out, was the son of a Thai government advisor – the right-hand man to the former king, he told me. Fascinating! When I asked how he felt about British monarchs, he snorted. What a waste, he said. They do nothing! But what about Diana, I protested – the land mines, the AIDS patients. Well, maybe Diana, he grumbled.
I asked who he thought should succeed the Queen, and he said, Well, it certainly won’t be Harry.
Why not, I asked.
He’s not Charles’s son; everyone knows that.
Everyone except me, I thought, but decided to grunt appreciatively instead, and nodded knowingly when he mentioned James Hewitt. I made a mental note to google Rumors Re Prince Harry as soon as I could find a wifi connection (spoiler alert – Daily Star readers voted decisively that Harry is indeed the son of Hewitt, due in part to his ginger hair and also – small canine teeth).
Fast-forward to my arrival in Canterbury. My flat mate, Tamara, is wonderful. She swept me up to our second-floor flat and, seeing that I was on the verge of starvation (Really, Air Canada? White flour pasta and white beans in water sauce?), cooked me a delicious meat pie using puff pastry and beef/mushrooms slow-cooked in herbs and tomato. Which I certainly did not eat, due to my unfailing devotion to my vegetarian lifestyle choice.
Fast-forward to my first trip to the Kent campus. I dash from the flat at 8:15 AM, having slept marginally better in my new comfy bed than I did on the Air Canada bed of nails, and still needing change for the 8:30 bus. Mission accomplished. Small corner store: open. Bottle of water: purchased. Bus fare: obtained, almost exactly. The bus driver, unlike the Canadian drivers I know and love, does not seem to care that I ask him where he is going. In Calgary if you ask your bus driver his destination, he will look at you as if you’d asked him to co-sign your mortgage. Not Mr. Canterbury Bus Driver. He tells me politely that the bus will go to the University of Kent, and then he proceeds to GIVE ME CHANGE from the coins I have given him (not completely sure what they were or what the fare was). This is a foreign concept to anyone who has stepped onto a Canadian bus. We in Canada do not expect the driver to pause for more than a millisecond before waving you to your seat and stepping on the gas, causing you to slip on a patch of melted ice and sending you sprawling across the lap of the elderly gentlewoman in the front row.
As it turns out, I was not the only one in the precarious situation of not having mastered the Canterbury transit system. At almost each stop, a studenty-looking person got on, handed over some coins, asked a question, and stood for a moment, pondering the information offered by the driver. At first it was charming. How much lovelier these drivers are than the ones back home! But then there was another stop with another inquisitive student. And another, and another. This, surely, is meant to be a five-minute bus ride, and already fifteen minutes seem to have gone by. I began to feel nostalgic for the jolt of a Canadian bus and the puddle of melted ice. However, I stand by the value of friendly drivers – huzzah!
At the campus, I breezed through the hyper-organized registration process, facilitated by a young woman named Dora, no less (a sly reference for those of you who know my mother’s name), and her colleague Sarah, who once visited her sister in Calgary and thoroughly enjoyed it, having spent the bulk of her visit in Banff and Jasper. Huzzah! Bolstered by my success with bus drivers and registrars, I strode boldly to Cornwallis East, home of the sociology department.
My supervisor met me in the lobby and showed me around the building, which I had thought might smell of moss or possibly of Henry V, but no. This is a newly built building and it smells of paint. It is also warm, unlike buildings which smell of moss, and this pleases me no end. Huzzah!
I have been welcomed into the School of Sociology fold – they are a truly gracious bunch, making room for a Canadian interloper. I can use any of the carrels in the PhD study space, but one of the students confirmed my suspicion that existing students have long since marked out their territory. I promised to ask if my chosen spot had already been chosen. This territoriality will not surprise my own U of C cohort (is Speedo man still in the Grad Commons, wriggling his bare toes at the window?).
Such has been my Canterbury experience so far.
You’re probably thinking, surely it’s not all kittens and rainbows. Surely there has been at least one drop of rain on the sunshine of my Canterbury?
And to that I say, pish posh! After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good 1-800 session with the Apple Service Team? I’m taking a page from my sunny bus driver’s book; I will see only the positive side of the six to eight hours spent fixing my aesthetically pleasing iPhone. How else would I have made so many new acquaintances at Vodafone, StormFront (the lovely Apple re-seller folks in Canterbury!) and of course the Apple Service Team, available until 7 PM nightly, toll-free? I feel confident that my inability to send and receive texts to my friends and family back home will be remedied any day now.
So I lay myself down in my comfy bed with the Apple phone call to look forward to. And then, the lovely walk up to campus, which winds through fields that are still brilliant green, lush with ivy vines and chestnut trees (I think). And then, the calm of the carrel, where the real work will begin.