Fall Travel Issue: A pair of Oxfords

True Brit: Oxford, England's dry spirits, dry wits and finely aged eccentricity

The city of lovable eccentrics -- and brilliance.
By John Kelly
Sunday, September 12, 2010

In the fall of 2007,I moved my family (wife, teenage daughters, dog) to Oxford, England, while I was on a journalism fellowship. I always felt like an impostor there, gnawed at by an inferiority that came from being a University of Maryland graduate studying at the University of Oxford, of being a deadline-driven hack at a place where a professor can spend years scrutinizing a single scrap of Ovid. But Oxford has a way of seeping into your skin, and it wasn't long after I saw England getting smaller through the airliner's window that I started contemplating my return.

Last autumn, I was invited back to present the fruits of my year of research. It was a slim paper I'd taken to calling "The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485," after the stupendously mediocre journal article written by the hero of Kingsley Amis's novel "Lucky Jim." My paper was actually about ... ah, who cares? I was back in Oxford!

The English have a lot of national characteristics -- reserve, dry humor, self-deprecation -- but what I like most is their mania for, well, for everything. The English will collect, study and celebrate just about anything. Oxford seems to me the zenith of this tendency. For an Anglophile such as myself, being in Oxford is like wrapping a rubber tube around your arm, pulling it tight with your teeth, tapping your skin with a finger to raise a vein, then mainlining pure Englishness.

"Oxford has a reputation for being charming, quaint and full of lovable eccentrics," one friend there told me. In other words, it's the exact opposite of Washington.

On the Thursday morning I arrived, I went straight to the weekly market at Gloucester Green, a large, open and not particularly green space near where the intercity buses berth. Tables bristled with treasures: Victorian postcards, ammonite fossils, lacquered boxes, prints torn from the pages of old books, stamp albums, military badges, lawn bowls, a ceramic Buddha, a rusty dagger. ... This seemed to be the mercantile expression of the acquisitive impulses that created two famous local institutions: the Bodleian and the Ashmolean, the former one of the world's oldest libraries, the latter one of the world's oldest museums.

"I like an Oxford crowd," one vendor told me as I held up to the sun a slide from a magic lantern, an old-fashioned slide projector. "They're not stuck on decorative things. They like ephemera."

About half of the stalls at the market sold food. There were establishments whose names sounded like the inventions of a comic novelist: Callow Farm, Sotwell Manor Fruit Farm, Little Wittenham Lamb. Not far from a stand called the Soupery was one called Watercress Etc. I didn't see much in the way of Etc., so I ordered a watercress scone to munch while I walked. (How did it taste? Watercressy.)

The Oxford Covered Market is a few blocks away. An 18th-century shopping mall in the center of town, it harbors, among its cafes, shoe stores, candy shops and fishmongers, a peculiar artifact that I'd passed many times when I lived in Oxford but had never scrutinized.

M. Feller, Son & Daughter isn't the only butcher in the Covered Market. It isn't even the only one surrounded by carcasses in the process of aging -- deer, rabbits, pheasants and other animals whose bodies dangle from the rafters like furred or feathered Christmas decorations. But it's the only butcher that displays in its window what appears to be the shriveled lung of a two-pack-a-day smoker.

This ... thing -- black, scabrous, about the size of a toddler's forearm -- is the Oldest Ham in the World.

"This ancient ham," read an explanatory text, "came to England in 1892 from Cudahay & Co. of Chicago and was retained as a curiosity by its importer, Mr. Arthur M. Barrett, a wholesale provisioner."

I carefully copied down the story and was pulling out my camera to take a photo when a butcher emerged from his shop, dressed, as all English butchers are, in a hat, tie and crisp white jacket. He looked like a Victorian ice cream seller but wearing an apron stained with blood, not butterscotch. It was Michéal Feller himself, and with hardly any prodding, he proceeded to tell me how he came to own the Oldest Ham in the World.

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