Me outside Westminster station, London.
After an unwelcoming immigration interview where I was compelled to detail my travel plans to a stranger to an extent not even my own mother cared about, I stepped into the invigoratingly cold tube station and headed straight for London Bridge.
Upon arriving at my hostel and stowing my bags in a locker, I mozied into the bar and requested the burger.
“Sorry, but we’re on the breakfast menu until 12.”
“It’s not even lunchtime?” I thought to myself.
“How long ‘till then?”
“A bit more than two hours.”
Time’s only residual meaning was embedded in place and how long until menus started, now.
“I’ll have the big breakfast,” I said, impressed with the price.
Except, what the familiarity of English culture had tricked me into believing in that exhausted moment was that the breakfast was only $3.50, not £3.50 (or about six or seven Australian dollars). Nonetheless, it still wasn’t expensive, and having room to move my elbows more than a few inches while using the cutlery was a welcome treat.
Equipped with advice from the Australian barkeep, I headed off to see the classical Westminster stuff. It was about as good as the pictures, really, though the morning sun beaming over a statue of Winston Churchill was more than a picture to witness – it was a moment.
Both camera and personal battery failing, I headed back to the hostel to check-in to my room above an old pub accessible via a stone alleyway. It could have easily been from Middle Earth. Collapsing on my bed (the first I’d felt or could call my own for days), I fell asleep with the camera charging and my moments uploading to the laptop.
I woke anxiously several hours later, remembering my plans to meet an old school friend downstairs for dinner. He was late, luckily, but also not unexpectedly. We bought a few beers before heading out into the cold London night.
He showed me St. Paul’s and recounted stories from here and there. Our life paths, once intertwined in an everyday context, had diverged wildly. I, the bookworm, had stayed in my natural habitat of Melbourne to study, whereas he had learnt different things, in different places, and in different ways. Being an ambitious and seasoned traveller, I trusted his experience and knowledge completely, which he was only too happy to share with me on my first expedition outside of Australia. His advice on travelling to my next destination: take the bus.
Perched above the morning traffic, looking out the front window of an iconic double-decker bus was the perfect way to make up for lost sightseeing during my afternoon nap the day before. As the housing got sparser, the rolling English countryside revealed itself behind a thin curtain of mist. My excitement for the magic of Oxford was growing.
The plan consisted of two parts: sightsee in the morning, and surprise Justin Oakley, my bioethics teacher and research supervisor, in the afternoon. Justin was due to give a talk on the ethics of pharmaceutical marketing and prescription ‘consumerism’ at a conference on virtue ethics at Oriel College.
In the morning I saw All Souls, the Bodleian Library, and the most complete remains of a dodo to be found anywhere in the world. About these attractions, I met a busker who played the tuba. I asked what his favourite memory of playing was.
“All of them are from my childhood,” he said, “I’ve recently had a heart attack. My mother and father passed away. Life deteriorates and breaks down, eventually.”
He went on to claim that he was not special and that this happens to everyone. He, like the dodo, was mortal. However, he said that music was special, as it fails to deteriorate. I think the same could be said for most abstract things or experiences. Nevertheless, how long until the remains of humans were the exhibit?
I rested my feet in a pub while pondering the question. I decided that, unlike the dodo, it was mostly up to us to determine the length of our species’ flourishing. It wouldn’t be easy, and there might be some impossibilities or random events which form insurmountable blockages to our passage through time. But that only means we best make the most of it. And so I was off to make the most of my time in Oxford.
Oriel’s inner sanctum was encased in a castle-like defence, though an open front door made entry easy for the intruder and reckless racketeer. I reported to the reception, however, for directions, and to my delight I met the very generous and competent conference organiser, who was happy to collude in my plot. She suggested I join the delegates for lunch in the main hall; I could spring my surprise there.
Interior of the main hall of Oriel College, Oxford, with the tables set for lunch.
I entered the hall as if it were a cathedral of knowledge. Gazing upon the traditionalistic stained glass and portraits of past fellows, students, and provosts, and one of the Queen, I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the history that surrounded me. After a few extra moments of indulging in the visual feast, I strategically positioned myself to one side of the main doors. As people passed me – engaged with one another – I could see them before being noticed.
Courtesy of my placement, Justin heard me greet him before he saw me. He was pleasantly surprised, and invited me to join him and a colleague from the Netherlands, who he had been chatting to on the way in.
Our contribution to the chorus of academic discourse which filled the hall was a discussion about moral education and the recent child euthanasia laws passed in Belgium. What would give impetus to the moral education of medical students? Was limiting euthanasia access to adults arbitrarily depriving children of relief from immense suffering?
What these walls would have heard throughout the years, I thought. Oriel is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, and the oldest royal foundation.
Before long, we had to head off to the next talk. It was a keynote by British sociologist Andrew Sayer. He reminded me of a more softly-spoken Tony Benn, especially when he made a passing comment about Marxism. His talk was ultimately philosophically unrevealing, albeit entertaining. One point that caught my attention was on the so-called strategic survival personality, seen most prominently in the political elite during Question Time. Such a personality was one to never show weakness and never back down. They often thrive in cutthroat environments like politics, and traditional boarding schools were suggested as a probable breeding ground. I was instantly reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens, a fierce writer and political commentator who was educated in strict British boarding schools and later attended Oxford.
After a short break, Justin’s session was on. I had expected a small lecture theatre about half full, but found myself sitting at a long table with a dozen or so others in the style of an intimate Oxford tutorial. I’d heard some of Justin’s argument before, but thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again and in full. The subsequent questions and answers were rather enlightening, too. And it was at this moment that I realised: this was just like a class. In fact, it was a class. The only difference was that this was the first time Justin had taught this lesson, and in part he was still testing and developing it, figuring out what it ought to teach us. This, I thought, is where knowledge begins.
Another short break followed. Justin and I mazed through a labyrinth of ancient walkways, in search of the conference reception’s location and to enquire as to whether I could be included in the evening’s festivities. I was included, incredibly. For the most obvious time in my life, it was clear that relationships were powerful, and the old saying of who you know rang true. I’d come to Oxford unannounced, without knowing a soul, and here I was, given intimate access the very day of my arrival.
The conference organiser was also a gifted singer, and sang songs with a small choir above the dinning area before our meal. These walls heard some of the finest songs, and some of the finest conversation. (It’s a pity it couldn’t also taste the fine food and wine.) Incidentally, my evening conversation seemed to carry on from lunch, being also about moral education. This time I had the pleasure of hearing the perspective of a Japanese philosopher of education from Nagasaki.
Though I wished I could stay longer, I had travel plans for early the next morning. So, after dinner, I bid Justin and the others I’d met a fond farewell and returned late to my hostel.
My body clock unexpectedly woke me at four the next morning. As I couldn’t force myself to rest any longer, I resigned to catching up on social media and writing in the common room. As early as I could, I checked out and headed for the train station, booking tickets from Oxford to Salisbury and Salisbury to London.
Salisbury is a beautiful small town that I would’ve liked to explore more of. The cathedral alone boasts the oldest working clock and the best copy of the Magna Carta. But I wasn’t here for the history of Salisbury, truthfully. I was here for something much older.
Although Stonehenge is many kilometres inland and not located at a particularly high elevation, the wind hitting you upon alighting from the bus from town felt like it belonged to the edge of a pier on a stormy winter’s day. Recent wet weather meant most of the archaeologically-interesting grounds surrounding Stonehenge were closed, but visitors could still get very close to the main attraction. Imagining prehistoric societies bracing these elements for the sake of establishing this monument, and then actively using it in some way, was mystifying to say the least.
In London the next day, I saw the Churchill War Rooms, used by Churchill and senior military and political figures during the war. Built totally underground, you could feel the anxiety and seriousness in its construction. A specially-engineered gas mask sat by the head telephonist’s desk, which would allow her to continue working in the event of a chemical or biological attack. The Prime Minister had his own bedroom down there, though he apparently rarely slept in it. He also had exclusive access to what many thought was the only flushing toilet in the bunker – in fact, the ‘toilet’ door (which was always engaged) was the secret entrance to the codes room. Staff walked past it the entirety of the war, never knowing of its existence.
The National Gallery was next, where I witnessed originals by Claude, Monet, Van Gough, Titian, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and many more. I couldn’t help but witness the stolen history at the British Museum, too. Much is said of the Elgin Marbles (which are undoubtedly beautiful), but there are many more marvels robbed from their respective homelands. In the trophy room of colonialists, everyone has something new to treasure and something old to miss.
Now I was off to see a different type of room, one in which treasures were donated and combined together to affect unity and a greater good. It was the true purpose of this trip, but I had politely stolen a small holiday on the side (granted, I paid for the extension myself, so perhaps it wasn’t stolen at all – then, I wonder if colonialists would say something similar?).