A New Life in Ol’ Blightey – London and Oxford

It’s a bloody stinker out there today, at least by South England terms. Coming straight from one of the driest climes in Europe, I’ve encountered a world in which everything seems to drip. Though the mercury has barely risen over 25 for the whole of Spring, I’ve definitely sweat more in my short time in Reading than I did throughout my entire stay in Murcia. Humidity is a hell of a drug.

But despite the thunderstorm-induced headaches and the bedsheets drenched with horrible human oils, I’ve been feeling grand. Pisces season agrees with me, it seems. A recent Twitter Horoscope told me to be wary of what I wish for, because I’d soon receive it… and I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of change this past month.

In the last posts on Electric Holy Road, I made some small notes about gratitude in the moment, about accepting uncertainty, flowing wherever the Great Magnet demands and patiently altering that course with your own voice. I’ve come to accept most of these lessons, though it has been hard going to keep up the gratitude and mindfulness in what has been one of the busiest periods of the last few years. I’ve been back and forth to London at least five times in the past weeks for a barrage of interviews, popped to Oxford to enjoy the sights and even been offered a potential jump forward for my career (though this is yet to be finalised). After months of struggling to embrace the moment due to inactivity and the pain of rejection, now I’m struggling to stay present because everything is moving at light speed. “It never rains, it pours,” as the old codgers say.

I’ve been struggling to feel real, to feel present, in the new 9-5 schedule that has developed around me. I have had to give up my regular freelancing for the time being and even my miniature painting hobby to a certain extent, but I know that sooner than I expect, I’ll be back to both with a new fury.

Spring boats in oxford

In this busy time of (hardly unexpected) upheaval and change, I have had to quickly learn a new life lesson, illustrated through a fitting nautical (read: wet) analogy: Life is a trip across a vast sea in a small boat. There are many shores to reach, but beyond those shores are whole continents to explore. You can’t see them all. Along the voyage, you’ll undoubtedly dock at unfamiliar ports, pick up exciting friends, treasures and skills, but you must always move on with the boat you have. To the next shore, you must set sail with a hoard of newly acquired goodies (your hobbies, desires, physical objects), while trying to maintain a floating weight. It’s all too easy to take on too much, to try and sail with every single treasure and dead weight encountered along the way, but sometimes you have to jettison even that which is seemingly precious. You’ll surely find out what is important to your voyage as you encounter, collect and discard a life-times worth of souvenirs. In fact, this is probably the only way to know. (Thanks to Bonica for the beautiful and poignant image. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on my boat’s bobbing weight.)

So I guess I’m still experimenting, still trying to find that single treasure that I couldn’t bear to jettison. Some seem obvious, others are still a bit ambiguous. But being close to one of the world’s biggest cities, with all its treasures and offerings, is definitely making that process… interesting.

Phoenix garden in london

London Town

London is insane. It’s ridiculous. Truly, ever visit opens up a new world, a new trips worth of things to explore, to see, to photograph and to buy. My last day trip, taken with Bonica just this weekend, saw us encounter a colourful, movie-set world hidden within Soho that I never knew existed (in the form of Kingly Court), as well as a little slice of Spain within the trendy Seven Dials. Every street, every square in London is overwhelming, worth spending hours in. For someone like me, who will wear himself out investigating every tiny detail, getting a hundred angles on a subject and even writing about the individual rivets on trains and bridges, attempting to boil London down into a small blog post is maddening. I can offer you a previous blog post, written by little 21 year old James, on my first trip to London.

This last visit was sad, lonely and a little anxious. Looking back upon it, I can see a world of difference between my two perspectives on the place. What remains true, is my desire for breathing space, quiet roads and silence that London can’t really offer. I have come to fully realise that London is a rich person’s city. Shock, horror, I know. You are herded like sheep or squealing pigs through the underground, spat out lost and disorientated, and then expected to pay for the privilege of sitting down. Seriously, I have never been anywhere with such disregard for the art of rest. It’s go go go all the time, and if you have to duck out you’re either going to have to pay for a Starbucks coffee, or battle hundreds of other sore-footed tourists for the limited public bench space.

It’s great to now live so close to this exciting madness and have the option of popping in now and then. Strangely enough, I have actually started to imagine a life there. I could certainly see myself living in a small apartment, full of plants, venturing out to meet friends and see art, only to return to my cosy orange box in the midst of madness. That’s the dream, innit?

The reality of the London dream is more likely to be packed tubes (I was veritably sardined on the rush-hour Bakerloo line), constant and unceasing noise, a world in which the sky disappears and the nights are eaten up by the act of washing face and clothes. Every time I’ve returned from London, I’ve wiped a good foundation layer of black dust from my skin and discovered my snot a pleasing charcoal grey.

Still, having a few friends around the Big Smoke is definitely a plus, a plus that I will have to treasure and take advantage of, once things slow down a tiny little bit.

London does offer unrivalled access to arts and culture (even if that culture was pillaged from the rest of the world). There might be little in the way of arts in Reading, but just down the train line, you’ll find a gallery on every block. It’s fantastic, exciting and a real high for us visually minded creatives.

Tate Britain

The upper-crust neighbourhood of Fitzrovia is better avoided for anyone with a salary lower than a cool mill. I was tempted to wander into some white-cube galleries and auction houses in and around this area, only to be rebuffed by a palpable wave of affluence. Shopping-floor galleries face streets lined with Dior and Louis Vuitton stores of an unparalleled scale. Business men in suits and their lucky, young protégées wander the auction halls and debate the merits of purchasing 75,000 Pound paintings for the downstairs landing. Some of the roads in this area really stink of sour ethics and greed. There is authenticity to be found in London but, for a small-town guy from Adelaide, South Australia, a good majority of the art world here seems impossibly beyond. It’s quite a step up from the old anarchist/artist’s collective in Adelaide (RIP Format), or the Nueve Arte white-space of inner-city Murcia. The question now… how to break in?

I also returned to the British Museum, amazed and blown-away again by the size and complexity of the place, but this time bearing a healthier goal of only visiting the galleries that I was interested in. You really have to control yourself in London. You have to take bite-sized chunks or you’ll walk away with a sore stomach. The TATE Britain is similar, but on a much smaller scale. I enjoyed walking around this gallery in two gos, one either end of yet another job interview. This slow approach is good patience practice in a world that is far too fast-paced, far too consumption obsessed.

My favourite parts of London, the areas I always seem to return to, remain Soho and the immediate area along Shaftesbury Avenue. This little, colourful, lively area offers everything I’ve ever wanted out of a city: culture, theatre, art, nerdy stuff (Forbidden Planet has, unfortunately, stopped selling KidRobot stuff in favour of Funko) and great food. Gosh Comics, not far from all of this, might very well be my favourite comic store in the world. This central area is pricey, noisy, but it’s the perfect match for my romantic mental image of London (perhaps alongside Camden, though I’m yet to return this year. We’ll see if I can get there soon!)

So, now I’ve got London town on the doorstep, I’m sure I’ll be making a lot more visits, and a lot more discoveries. It’s just a matter of not overloading my little life-boat with treasures and consuming the city through sensible little nibbles.

Natural History Museum Oxford

The City of Dreaming Spires

When I first arrived in Oxford, I was overwhelmed, struck by Stendhal Syndrome. This was, of course, before I returned to London. Now the city can’t really compare in scale, though it certainly puts up a fight in terms of immaculate beauty.

Oxford is almost a stereotype of itself, a parody played out to unbelievable levels. To someone from Australia, in which our European-styled history stretches to little under 200 years, it’s almost impossible to believe that those Harry Potter-esque gothic universities could ever actually exist. Well, they do, and Oxford seems to be a city built entirely from them. It is a walled fortress lined with trees, chained-up bicycles and heavy with the weight of knowledge (and a bit of pretension… I saw a young guy smoking a pipe, for crying out loud).

The city is a suitable replacement for London in a lot of ways. It’s much quieter and much cleaner, full of interesting stores and things to see, though it doesn’t seem to be filled with art in the way I’d most love and is full to the brim with snap-happy tour groups. There are a few promising spaces yet to explore, and one major contemporary art gallery that seems to specialise in sensory, walk-through works, but that appears to be the limit of the public art scene. I’d love readers to suggest me any undiscovered spaces, though, Please let me know in the comments section if there’s anything I should check out!

On our first visit to this historic city, we were lucky enough to find ourselves audience to the dress rehearsal for a classical orchestra performance, set within the university church building in the very heart of the city. Listening to lilting violin and emotion-charged piano under the gothic swirls and stained-glass windows really captured what Oxford is all about and what makes it magical (apart from the Harry Potter and Tolkien connections, of course).

The Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums at the edge of the city are certainly worth a visit. They’re of a much more manageable size than London’s equivalents and of arguably equal quality. The Natural History Museum is gorgeous and incredibly well organised. The specimens on display call out to you to pay close attention. I spent a good hour or more studying the intricate curves of elephant bones, the stone shapes of a T-Rex skeleton and the creepily human head of a spider monkey. The building itself, with its magnificent steel arches, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the place.

Pitt Rivers museum, with it’s dull lighting and complex stacking of items, makes you feel a bit like you’ve been sucked into an Indiana Jones film as soon as you step through the portal. The weight of history is dropped on your shoulders at that point too. There are angry ghosts in that place and stains of blood shed under the grinding wheels of Empire.

There’s Always More to See

And so, I think I’ve written enough for now. I won’t overload your life-boats with too much information. I just want to give you a little taste, a set of images and dreams to take away. I want to inspire, not just tell. I want to use my struggles to educate others. If Electric Holy Road is still doing that, I’m happy living anywhere in the world, especially in a place as lively and beautiful as Southern England.

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