In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Relatively Unknown

The Edinburgh Festival draws people from around the world to experience culture and fun in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.  The festival also attracts the fringe—artists not associated directly with the festival, but who get included in what used to be a huge, thick catalogue that would keep us busy for hours, considering what a student and spouse could afford, and what you could not afford to miss.  One year a group called Outback was performing at an area church.  It featured Graham Wiggins on the didgeridoo—an Oceanic aboriginal instrument that is essentially a tree branch hollowed out by termites.  It’s so long ago now that I can’t recall if I knew ahead of time, but the leader of the group, the didgeridooist, was Graham Wiggins.  While not exactly a rare surname, Wiggins isn’t common either and when I saw him a strong family resemblance was immediately obvious.  So much so that after the concert we went to meet him only to find out his Wiggins side was from Oxfordshire.  Mine was from South Carolina.

Graham Wiggins, who was a month younger than me, was known as “Dr. Didg” because he held a D.Phil. in solid-state physics from Oxford University.  While an American, he had decided to stay in the UK to make a living from his music.  Some months later, on a Christmas break, we saw him busking in Bath on a chilly night.  We bought the band’s second CD from him that evening.  When my wife put on our Baka disc the other day, I grew curious whatever became of him.  I was surprised and saddened to learn that Graham Wiggins had died three years ago.  I knew we shared a surname and a family resemblance, as well as UK doctorates, but I learned he went to the British Isles from Boston University, which is where I had studied before attending Edinburgh.  He left the year I arrived.

Websites are reluctant to say of what Wiggins died.  I learned of this just days after finding out that a high school classmate had passed away, so mortality has been on my mind.  Wiggins, unlike this Wiggins, was a talented musician with a brilliant mind.  We saw him interviewed on television about the physics of didgeridoo playing.  I never did find out if we were distantly related.  The US Wiggins clan from South Carolina doesn’t have strong genealogical interests, although we know they started out in North Carolina many years ago.  It stands to reason they had come from England at some point, since it’s an English surname.  I only met Graham of the clan twice, but now I can’t get the fading didgeridoo sounds from my mind.

Biological Imperative

DiamondNothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.

Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.

This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.