I wrote this post back on May first, but for whatever reason I didn’t plan to post it right away. I think I was going to wait until I scanned some photos to illustrate the story. (I don’t have a scanner here, but my Mom has one at her place.) I was over there for supper on Sunday and I was going to bring the pictures to scan then, but of course I forgot. So I either dump this post altogether or just run with it with some stock photos from Google Images. So I chose the latter. It actually kind of works out well because the post is mostly about a day I spent with Mom, so you can consider this my “Mother’s Day Post”. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Thanks for a fun day on a fun trip!
It’s May Day today! (I probably won’t be posting this for a few days, though, so it may actually be May 5 or 6, or even 8 or 9 by the time you’re reading this. Or even later! Maybe you’ll be reading this on a May 1 some time in the future. If so, Hello from beyond the grave! Did the Cubs ever win the World Series? Keep reaching for that rainbow, boys!)
I tweeted my disbelief that we were into May, sort of a Springtime version of “I can’t believe it’s November!”
So May is here. I began to think about some of the traditions belonging to this day. May first is not only is it the day that Barack Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden last year, it is also the birthday of one of my favourite movie directors, Wes Anderson. Happy Birthday, Wes! Looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom later on this month! There are other festivities associated with this day, but their origins are “lost in the mists of time”, as it were. You can read about them here. Don’t even get me started on the Maypole, people!
Another May Day tradition is the speaking of the words “rabbits, rabbits, rabbits” to ensure good luck for the entire month. I had not heard of this until a faithful member of the fan base alerted me to this last night. Apparently they have to be your first words of the day or you’re screwed.
The most memorable May Day for me happened 11 years ago. I was in London on a holiday with my Mom. May Day has a number of connotations, one of which is a day for the labour movements around the world to protest and demonstrate. This is more prevalent in other parts of the world than in North America, and this particular year saw protests and riots shutting down Oxford Street and much of the area around Parliament. My Mom and I decided it would be a good day to get out-of-town. We hopped on a bus at Victoria Station and headed North to Oxford.
We got off the bus in the “gown” section of the town and gown and signed up for a walking tour of three or four of the colleges, including the great Bodleien Library. I couldn’t believe I was actually walking around Oxford! It felt like I was in Hogwarts or something. Even though there were no Americans on our tour, the tour guide took great pride in pointing out: “This is where Bill Clinton stayed when he was a Rhodes scholar!” It was time for lunch, and there was really only one place my Mom and I wanted to go: The Eagle and Child pub, or the “Bird and Baby” as it is known locally.
The reason we wanted to go there so badly was because it was made famous as the local spot where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and a number of other Oxford professors would gather on a weekly basis for drinks, pipes, and discussions about every topic under the sun. They called themselves “The Inklings” because they claimed they “didn’t have an inkling” as to what they were talking about. They usually met Tuesday mornings, and during these weekly sessions many early version’s of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “Narnia” series were premiered, discussed, tossed about, and changed around. (Word nerds: Notice the use of the “Oxford” comma in that last sentence?)
My Mom and I ordered some traditional pub food (Bangers and Mash for me, Shepard’s Pie for my Mom) and some local ale. I believe it was called “Greene King”, and sat and soaked up the atmosphere. After lunch, we thought that we should really find and visit the graves of our two literary heroes, and so we set off. I only had an inkling of an idea of where they were. Headington Quarry for Lewis. I had a map and we started walking in the general direction but I soon realized it was much farther than I thought. I popped into a pub and called for a taxi. Our cabbie arrived within a few minutes. He was not from England, and English was not his first language. Amazingly to us, he had not even heard of Lewis or Tolkien! But he was game for an adventure and the three of set off. “You want churchyard? I find you churchyard!” he shouted at us as we pulled into Headington Quarry. That place is like a rabbit warren and we had to stop three times and ask locals for the directions to the church. It was a cool, peaceful afternoon when we pulled into the tiny churchyard. “You won’t leave us here, will you?” my Mom asked our cabbie. “No problem, ma’am! You hired me! I am yours until you release me.” What the hell? We had acquired our own personal Gollum, it appeared. It didn’t take long for us to walk amongst the graves before we found Lewis and his brother Warnie side by side. A very simple headstone for one of the greatest Christian apologists and fantasy writers of the 20th century. It’s humbleness seemed appropriate, somehow.Returning to the parking lot, our faithful cabbie was as good as his word. It seemed like he was getting into it as much as we were. I had the name of the cemetery when Tolkien was buried, on the other side of town. On the way there, our cabbie called home and told his wife he would be later than usual. “I am on a QUEST!” he shouted to her. A minute later: “Yes, yes, I will remember to pick up milk”. There was a sign as soon as you entered the cemetery that Tolkien’s grave was on the far side. This was even before the Lord of the Rings’ movies were out, but you could tell many more people paid their respects here than in Headington Quarry. Two more little signs led the way and sure enough, we found a much grander memorial, adorned with flowers and trinkets. We spent a few minutes there too, and remarked that this too seemed appropriate, knowing a bit about the personalities of both writers. Lewis and Tolkien became friends and in fact Tolkien re-introduced Lewis to Christianity and encouraged him in his faith journey. Yet later on their relationship was strained and they had frequent disagreements over Lewis’ approach to incorporating Christian values and imagery into his stories. While both writer’s works live on in the hearts and minds of millions around the world, it seemed right that Lewis would have the more humble marker. By this point we relieved our driver of his duties with a healthy tip for his willingness to take a couple of sillies on their adventure. I’d like to think he enjoyed the change of pace too. I think he did.
By now, it was supper time. Guess where we ate? You got it. Back to the Bird and Baby for another pint and some more excellent grub! It was filled with students dressed head to toe in pink and also covered in mud. Apparently it is some May Day tradition to jump off Magdalen bridge and/or punt up and down the river. They were all in good spirits and let my Mom and I sit with them. We ended up buying each other pints and the rest of the evening slipped away pleasantly, indeed. The ghosts of Middle-earth and Lucy’s wardrobe were in the air that night too. I didn’t want to leave! I actually don’t remember leaving, to be honest. Maybe a part of me never did.There were a couple of things we didn’t get to see in Oxford, but that’s always a good reason to go back, yes? You always need a reason to return. One of these things is the May Day tradition of listening to the Magdalen College choir sing hymns from atop the Magdalen College tower. This has been going on for over 500 years! This happens at 6 a.m., so although I seem to acquire superhuman levels of strength on holiday, getting to Oxford by 6 am was not in the cards for us that day. Actually, we didn’t get to see much of Magdalen College at all. A pity, really, since it was C.S. Lewis’ home college and it would have been fun to have a look around. The only problem was this was at the height of the “mad cow disease” scare and wouldn’t you know Magdalen had sheep. I could not sweet talk my way past the doorman, even for a quick pic, so that must remain a mystery until my next visit.
Here’s a taste of the choir from the tower.