Oxford’s supposedly dreaming spires have been committed to print so often that you’d have thought there’d be nothing we don’t know about the city by now.
Yet James Attlee shows otherwise with a book about the last part of Oxford that remains colourful, wild, unpredictable and, for the moment at least, untouched by the dead hand of ‘regeneration.’
Its subject, the Cowley Road, features in none of the bus tours of Oxford, none of the tourist guides and probably not many of the countless novels or poems about this city. It is a ramshackle, multicultural melange, the old track through the marshes between Oxford and Cowley village, which is now home to a mix of races and religions, and strung with halal butchers, flotation centres, porn shops and pawn shops, independent cinemas, Chinese herbalists, guitar shops, pubs, Caribbean fishmongers, Russian grocers and mosques.
It’s my neighbourhood, and I thought I knew it pretty well. But Isolarion has made me think, not just about local history and the hidden everyday, but about subjects from religion to philosophy, democracy to social change. Attlee’s declared aim is to undertake a pilgrimage: the journey of a man who needs to find something but has too many commitments to walk to Santiago or India . Anyway, ‘why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?’ So Attlee’s pilgrimage will be along the Cowley Road , sampling its wares, talking to its residents and shopkeepers. ‘This city’, he observes, ‘has dispatched anthropologists, explorers, scientists, authors and poets to every nation represented on Cowley Road . Perhaps it’s time to flip the coin and see ourselves through their eyes.’
But Attlee is a writer who can’t stand still, either literally or on the page, and his journey along this straight road is far from linear. He can’t help himself: diverting off down side tracks which might lead literally to the site of the old leper hospital of St Bartholomew or the Oxford workhouse, or metaphorically into discussions about the history of pilgrimage, The Anatomy of Melancholy or the significance of kerbstones.
Along the way he brushes up against the encroaching gentrification of this most ungentle of areas: the well-meaning planners employed by the city to tidy it up; the fancy friends who want to replace the legendary local baker with one that sells focaccia; the rent rises; the ‘upmarket’ bars. Money and hyper-mobility are threatening this most mobile of communities with the encroachment of the clone town.
If it comes, a living demonstration of that much-debated ‘multicultural’ ideal will disappear beneath a tide of Subways and Starbucks. Perhaps this should be no surprise: for centuries, East Oxford has been an embarrassing family secret to those who prefer the medieval sterility of the tourist images. ’ East Oxford was another country to the Oxford of Matthew Arnold or John Ruskin’, writes Attlee. ‘The East was a place of mission, populated by heathens to convert, the unseen territory to which servants and tradesmen returned at the end of the working day.’ It still is, and through it Attlee captures the essence of this city better than any tour bus ever could.