This book is a (literary) pilgrimage down the Cowley Road in Oxford. Cowley Road is a scruffy rundown main road of local shops and restaurants in a multi-ethnic part of Oxford, beloved of the more bohemian students and middle classes who like to live in multicultural districts in cities. During the last two and a half years we have lived in three locations near Cowley Road and got to know it well.
Cowley Road is already an institution having a group on Facebook defending it against encroaching chain stores and restaurants. I have written about it several times (here and here ) on the blog, including about the mysterious metal castings which appeared in the pavement, whose story is explained in the book.
The book itself might be quite hard to find, since Bee remarked that Blackwell's (where she works on Saturdays) had sold out before Christmas.
It's a pilgrimage over several years, since I don't recognise all of the sights he describes, though he updates himself, pointing out for example that the Russian food shop has become a Baltic Food Shop. As for the justification for making a pilgrimage down the street round the corner from your home, as he says:
Why make a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, when the world has come to you?
listing the locals: Jamaican, Bangladeshi, Indian, Polish, Kurdish, Chinese, French, Italian, Thai, Japanese, and African, (and that's only the restaurants).
And then there is the question whether travel broadens the mind, and whether a pilgrimage produces an achievement with lessons for the rest of life.
If we go off into the forest to learn lessons, are the things we learn there applicable to the city, or are they just forest lessons.
The book interweaves the history of the district (as it develops in the 1860s from a swamp outside the city eventually to house workers for the Cowley car plant built in the 1920s); the history of the immigrants coming to live there since the Second World War; the constant friction between "town and gown"(the ordinary people and the university which is a large landowner and employer and thus exerts an enormous influence); the variety of the shops, restaurants and services offered there recently; together with the lives and troubles of the author's neighbours and his involvement in the local planning committee's attempts to "improve" the road by restricting the traffic and "rebranding" the neighbourhood (he becomes well-known locally for opposing this).
In some ways it is a similar pilgrimage (without the murky black and white photos) to WG Sebald's wanderings in East Anglia described in Rings of Saturn, but the author engages much less with memory and his internal world than with the external world and its inhabitants.
Some of the road's less obvious offerings are explained and experienced: the Eau-de-Vie Flotation Centre; the Blue Door (private shop), the graveyard, the robemaker, the Ultimate Picture Palace, a Mikvah. The chapel just behind my house, I only discovered one Saturday before Christmas when a craft sale was announced. Walking down a road I had never noticed before, within 10 yards it seemed I was already in the country with woods and a field in which there appeared a farmhouse and a small chapel labelled St Bartlemas. The book reveals that this was the site of a leper colony. The author records the stories of many immigrants (even about a Georgian and the news about the liberation Georgian region of Adzharia) who are making a success of life in the UK but also those who struggle to obtain asylum. He records the sad story of one Albanian with mixed Serb/Albanian parents, who, despite being ready and qualified to go to university, is being sent back to Serbia although his parents are dead, to a very uncertain future and certainly no university education and a way out of poverty. As he says:
Asylum seekers are just like other people. We are just less lucky.
There are many little anecdotes and descriptions of places I have never noticed although I walk along the street nearly every day when I am in Oxford. But most of all it is an affirmation of a UK which is multicultural, as well as appreciative of diversity. As a character in the book puts it:
Although East Oxford is very multicultural, it has a very English character of its own; very tolerant, easy going. ... The other side [of town] is more snobbish, more boring. I lived in Summertown, and on Saturdays sometimes you didn't see a single black person on the street.
The Brits are never happier than to be able to point out difference, despite their reputed tolerance :).
Britishness is somehow under attack, by terrorists. Yet the victims of the recent London bombing on the underground
comprised only 12 Brits, the rest being 3 Poles, and one each of French, New Zealander, Turkish, Iranian, Afghani, Romanian, Vietnamese and Mauretanian.
For me the (carriage and those) occupants represent the country I am proud to belong to. Despite the appalling failures of our system - still marred as it is by inequality, racism and violent crime - urban Britain represents one of the best examples in a history of a tolerant, pluralistic society, albeit one based on the Briton's famous characteristic of reserve, of keeping himself to himself and minding his own business. At certain moments, Cowley Road can seem to represent this untrumpeted success, one that appears under attack from all sides.
But the end of the book ("Things fall apart") records that Cowley Road is losing the struggle against gentrification. In the last year, Costa Coffee has arrived, the Zodiac is now Carling Academy.
And here in Tbilisi, the locals point proudly to Sharden St, a row of upmarket shops and restaurants, which could be in any big city in the west, frequented mainly by those expats and Georgians who need to be seen and be seen in smart places.
Whereas I am looking for the equivalent of Cowley Road.