Day 479: Oxford

Mention Oxford, Mississippi, and several thoughts are likely to come to mind. Some may think about University of Mississippi—“Ole Miss” as it’s commonly known—the state’s first-rank educational institution. Others may think of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, when the enrollment of James Meredith, an African American, set off a brouhaha that included riots and murder. Still others will think of it as the home of William Faulkner, one of America’s greatest authors.

Faulkner was born in nearby New Albany, but his family moved to Oxford when he was five, and he lived there for most of the rest of his life. He attended Ole Miss for one year only, but did contribute some articles that appeared in student publications. The tensions between the cultures of America’s North and South left unresolved by the Civil war and the social changes that the war wrought in the South underlie some of Faulkner’s writing. The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, was his first successful novel and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. In his acceptance speech, he said: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”

Laetitia and her group began the tour at Oxford Square in front of the statue of a Confederate soldier that is featured in several Faulkner novels. Next they visited the house of Faulkner’s mother, Maud, then Faulkner’s home at Rowan Oak. The house was built originally in 1844 and is situated on 29 acres of wooded grounds. They ended the day at Faulkner’s grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Oxford. Laetitia’s group did not participate in the Faulknerophile ritual of bringing a bottle of Jack Daniels, taking a swig, and leaving the rest for him on his tombstone, but the thought spawned the limerick of the day.

Faulkner said, “the last dingdong of doom”
And he wrote about tension and gloom
With Jack Daniels nearby
And when his fans drop by
They leave bourbon for him on his tomb.

Day 353: Crotch Crescent

The settlement that became Oxford grew up around a place in the Thames River that was shallow enough for oxen to cross. After the Norman Conquest, a castle was built to control the river crossing and the surrounding countryside, but it was never very important militarily and was later converted to a prison. Described by nineteenth century poet Mathew Arnold as the “city of dreaming spires,” a reference to its churches and university buildings, Oxford has been a college town since Saxon times.

Most of the people in Laetitia’s group today were Laetitia’s group were young adults who found the campus ambience intoxicating. She took them to the Natural History Museum in the morning, turned them loose to mingle with the campus crowds for a few hours, and then collected them again for a walkabout.

Crotch Crescent is another Oxfordshire locale listed in Rude Britain. Located in the Oxford suburb of Marston, this half-moon-shaped street was named for an Oxford professor of music. William Crotch was a composer, organist, and teacher who was named professor in 1797 and remained so until his death in 1847. During the walkabout there, Laetitia talked to a resident who enjoyed the notoriety that his street achieved when Rude Britain first appeared on the market. Sadly for him, the phenomenon didn’t last long. Laetitia summarized their conversation in the limerick of the day.

Hugh relished the humor pubescent
Brought by his address, 8 Crotch Crescent
In which he took delight
But sad was his plight
For the fame it brought was evanescent.

Day 350: Golden Balls

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Its founding date is uncertain, but it dates back to at least the eleventh century. Prior to that, where Oxford is now, there were Roman settlements and later monastic institutions. During the twelfth century, the University of Paris kicked out all of its English scholars, and they brought the French university’s curriculum with them when they fled back to England.

Sipping from a cup of freshly brewed Guatemalan dark roast as she surfed the Internet in the Emerald Victorian library, Laetitia ran across an interesting piece about an Oxford scholar who was applying new imaging techniques to ancient codices (manuscripts bound in book form) from the University’s archives. He had discovered, among other things, a piece of Roman erotica that had been written over with a religious text. Parchment, made from specially treated animal skins with the hair removed, was costly and hard to obtain. Thus monastic scribes recycled parchment by disassembling old discarded texts, removing the ink, writing new text in its place, and reassembling the rewritten pages into a new codex.

The original text, from the Roman period, was written in Latin. It was a variation of the story of mythical Phrygian (Greek) King Midas. Midas was given the golden touch as a gift by Dionysus or Bacchus; mythical stories vary. In the recently discovered manuscript, the Midas story has been reset in England near Oxford. Midas’ wife, Queen Demodike, distraught because Midas can no longer touch her without turning the touched area to gold, takes a lover. Midas discovers them in flagrante delicto and takes his revenge on her young suitor. At the end of the story, the queen secretly has her servants erect a monument to her lover somewhere in the vicinity of Oxford.

Shortly after the discovery of the manuscript and its translation was in the local newspapers, a man from a nearby hamlet called Golden Balls called on the scholar and told him that the Midas love triangle story had been part of the oral tradition of their community for centuries. Part of the legend was that the monument was an anatomically correct nude male statue made of marble, except for testicles, which were made of gold. The gold parts were almost immediately stolen. Until recently, there was a badly eroded and unrecognizable piece of marble statuary in the hamlet that local folks thought might have been the one in the story, but unfortunately it was accidentally destroyed during the construction of a roundabout.

After reading the Internet piece, Laetitia took another sip of coffee and thought to herself, “I can’t believe Bailey and Hurst would miss a place called Golden Balls.” She looked and indeed they hadn’t. She found that Golden Balls was number 90 in Rude UK. Next to the text was a picture of the sign announcing the approach to the Golden Balls Roundabout. Laetitia decided she wouldn’t lead a tour today. She already had her limerick.

There’s a story around that appalls
‘Bout a King Midas curse that befalls
A bloke who was seen
Trysting with Midas’ queen
And the hamlet that’s called “Golden Balls.”