Sunday 12 December 2010

Night at the Museum

I've enjoyed a pleasant weekend in Oxford having driven straight from the Hafal Learning Day in Builth Wells in under three hours. As usual we stay at the Travelodge 3 miles north of the centre. This is a best kept secret as it can be booked in advance for peanuts but is very nicely appointed and sits right next to the park-and-ride so you can potter into town whenever you want. However, we get off to a poor start as on the first evening we are too tired to bus it and so try the KFC nearby on our first and certainly last visit. It is telling that they sell their wares by the "bucket" and my advice is don't chuck it away when you have eaten the contents as you may need it later.

Next day we look around the refurbished Ashmolean Museum which has been cleverly restructured by removing much of the rear of the building and letting light in through walls of glass. I experience my usual problem of only honestly being interested in the European stuff. I'm fairly sure I'm not a cultural imperialist nor do I think other cultures inferior (on the contrary many artifacts from distant cultures make a lot of Western stuff look dumpy and primitive). The truth is I don't understand other cultures so I find them hard to grasp however cleverly they are presented. So my favourite bits were some of the Graeco-Roman statuary (a nice bust of "Sappho" - wishful thinking by Victorian romantics because it's obviously Athene; and a theatrical mask which is funny) plus a setting of early 18c. English pudding course tableware which intrigues as I am presently reading Dan Cruickshank's "The Secret History of Georgian London - How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital". So I can now imagine Sally Salisbury, Lavinia Fenton and other demimondaines eating their figs and peaches suggestively.

That evening we are back to eat unsuggestively at the positively-reviewed restaurant on top of the Museum. They serve an expertly-shaken Cosmopolitan (required by Mrs Blog as compensation for the KFC insult) and a fine mezze of Mediterranean delicacies including quail's eggs dusted with toasted cumin and salt cod quenelles. Our friendly Polish waitress says it's not doing so well in the evenings as people find it strange to eat above the closed galleries below. Spooky.

Next day we lunch at Manos - Greek deli and café in the trendy Jericho district - then visit Al Mizan - Sciences and Arts in the Islamic World at the Museum of the History of Science. I can just about engage with this interesting stuff helped by recently reading "Byzantium - The Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire" which provides a useful bridge into the historical Islamic world for those like me who want context from the perspective of their own culture. In any case Islamic culture is equally an inheritor of the Classical World but whereas we chose the ancients' literature they opted for their science, medicine, mathematics, and the habit of taking a regular bath. Now, I like Horace as much as the next man but I know where I would prefer to have been living in the Middle Ages...