Monday, 29 April 2013

One place; many Simons

I find the importance of places very interesting - as I'm sure we all do.  In literature, I am particularly fascinated by the resonances of houses.  I will rush towards any novel where a house is significant for itself, especially if staircases are involved (don't ask me why I love staircases so much, I have no idea.)  But recently I've been pondering about places which are neither very familiar nor unfamiliar - the sorts of places I go a dozen times over the years, but couldn't be considered a home, and how they may thus witness different stages of life, quite coincidentally.

There are lots of places in Oxford which act as a metaphorical palimpsest in this manner, but I've picked Wellington Square Garden - tucked away parallel to St. Giles, it's a neat, sweet little park - often filled with office workers enjoying their lunch in summer, or ice cream eaters on a Saturday - but, foolishly, with only one bench.


The first time I went to it would have been before I went up to Oxford as an undergraduate.  Wellington Square is right next to Kellogg College, which runs courses and lecture days for non-students.  As a sixth-former, I sometimes stumped up £30 to spend a day with my Mum and our friend Barbara, listening to lectures on various English literature topics - it's how I first heard about my beloved Katherine Mansfield, for instance.  It was an early sign of how much I loved studying literature - and my introduction to Wellington Square gardens, where we wandered in between lectures.

I've witnessed many strange and eccentric things while in Oxford, and probably done a fair few myself, so it's only one example from many that I could mention (and the only one which happened in this park.)  A pirate asked me to take his photo.  Well, a man dressed as a pirate, I assume... but, still.  I was innocently reading a book on the bench, and was approached... I expected to be asked to give money to a charity but, no, just the photograph, and... they went on their way.


Wellington Square Garden does have a literary connection for me, too - well, that is, I read a much-loved book there for the first time.  Just around the corner, on Little Clarendon Street, there is a charity shop (I forget which.)  In the basement, they have a selection of books - and in 2007 I decided to buy the slim Virago Modern Classic I picked up, because the synopsis sounded interesting and it was only about 50p.  I toddled round to Wellington Square Garden and, since it was a nice day, lay down on the grass to read it... and was instantly in love.  The novel was The Love-Child by Edith Olivier, which I have read many times since - and written about at length in my doctoral thesis, as well as putting it on my 50 Books You Must Read.

Most recently, a little over a year ago, I came here after I'd been told that the first test I'd done was positive, and I'd have to be tested for cancer.  Everything turned out to be fine, but it was a terrifying and frustrating time.  I walked from the GP down St. John Street to this park, sat on the bench and cried and cried.  And then I mopped myself up and went to work, because it was 8am and I hadn't taken the day off.


So, Wellington Square has seen quite a lot of disparate emotions and memories - and it's still one of my favourite places in Oxford.  Who knows what it'll see in the future?

This isn't the easiest meme to transfer to your own blogs, because it requires a bit of thought and memory - but I'd love to see other people picking a spot which has proved significant over their lives, but still not home or deeply familiar.  Just a place you sometimes go, which has coincidentally been the site for different moods and different events.  There's your challenge - pop a link in the comments if you take it up.

17 comments:

  1. Those are lovely gardens. Their association for me is considerably less emotional or interesting though - every time I walk past it reminds me of the bit in Notting Hill where Julia Roberts goads Hugh Grant into jumping over a gate into a garden and he falls down and says "whoopsadaisy"... Anyway.

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    1. Ha! Yes, I know what you mean - I always think of that when I pass more exclusive gardens in London.

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  2. Hi Simon,what a lovely post. My place is a gate to a field near my home, I pass it regularly when walking with my family and visualise it often - here's my link
    http://claire-thinking.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/of-summer-book-and-importance-of.html
    I also talk about The Summer Book here which I see is number one of your fifty must reads!

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    1. Lovely, Claire, I will go and have a look! Anyone who talks about The Summer Book has won me over already.

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  3. What a lovely post. And good use of the word "palimpsest", too. Also, I'm glad you're OK, obviously.

    The whole of Birmingham is a palimpsest for me, as I spent a chunk of time here, went away for eight years, then came back at a very different life stage. I wonder if that's doable in a post ...

    Liz B

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    1. Thank you Liz :)
      I love the idea of palimpsests, which I think I borrowed from Genette.

      I generally have quite a poor memory, so I can't separate events for my home village - it has to be somewhere I've only been fewer than a dozen times.

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  4. Worcester College lake would be the place for me out of so very many in Oxford. It was one beautiful Autumn day with the colours reflecting in the lake when I first realised that bringing a new life into this troubled world was not an act of irresponsibility but one where such sights as these could be shared. Nine months later my son was born and over thirty years on his own love of the world's beauty is shared with mine. I have even been able to pay tribute to the lake and the moment with one of the illustrations in the book that is about to be published 'That Sweet City - Visions of Oxford'

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    1. What a very lovely story, Kathy! I haven't been to Worcester College for ages (although I walk past it everyday.) Next time I'm at the lake, I'll think of you.

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  5. What a poignant and utterly thought-provoking post, Simon! On the literary side of things, I too am also keenly interested in, and my own thesis has increasingly come to be about, the textual production of place, especially the threat that the books I work on often pose towards the possibility of maintaining any kind of quantifiable distinction between places themselves, and the subjects within those places. On the personal side of things, it is definitely something I will give some thought to in the near future.

    Take care,
    Chris

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    1. Thank you Chris!
      I love the connections between text, reading, and place - so many people end up thinking about that, don't they? I hope to see you at the next middlebrow conference...

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  6. This is a wonderful post, Simon!

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  7. Simon, I love this kind of thinking. I will have to mull your idea over and get back to you!

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  8. Simon, this post is absolutely beautiful.

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  9. Oh Simon, I didn't know about your test last year but I'm glad to hear that all is well.

    I have so many little gardens where I've caught a bit of sunshine while reading such as Gordon Square in Bloomsbury and the Old Kitchen Gardens in Waterlow Park next to Highgate Cemetary and not to mention Regents Park. But you'll be happy to know Mount Street Gardens in Mayfair has a whole row of benches and you can take your pick. Plus it's a lovely garden too.

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