The Silent Traveller in Oxford

In Oxford last week, I spent time browsing second-hand books on the third floor of Blackwells. The rest of the store is slick and modern, but the top level of Blackwells, with views onto the quads of Trinity College, has a creaky wooden floor and that hint of dust and mildew that makes it somehow an isolated eyrie of an older Oxonian age.

Lapwings Over Merton Field – Chiang Yee

One book immediately caught my eye – a 1946 edition of The Silent Traveller in Oxford. It was written by the Chinese artist and author Chiang Yee in 1942 while he was living in Oxford, after his flat in the East End of London was destroyed in the Blitz. As a registered “alien”, Chiang Yee couldn’t leave Britain in wartime, and so took rooms in Southmoor Road in Jericho.

First published in 1944, Chiang Yee’s account of 1940s Oxford is particularly interesting for me. My father was born in Oxford during the war: my grandparents worked for the Food Ministry, and had their London offices relocated to Oxford, out of harms way. So thanks to Goering’s bombers, Dad was born an Oxonian.

(Oxford was not targeted by the Luftwaffe during WW2 for a number of possibly apocryphal reasons. The one I like best recounts that many high-ranking Luftwaffe officers were German aristocrats who had studied at Oxford and could not bear the idea of bombs raining down on the Turf Tavern.)

From a Railway Bridge Near Lake Street – Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was (a little like me) an accidental expatriate in Oxford. The “foreign-ness” of his eye is reflected in his colour plates and ink sketches that accompany the text. The landmarks and characters are all in place, but somehow Chiang’s Chinese art transforms familiar views of the city into something more ancient and timeless.

The blackout curtains and ration-books are gone, but today’s Oxford seems little different to the city described by Chiang Yee 65 years ago . In the 21st Century, peacocks still strut on the roof of the Trout Inn, crowds still line Magdalen Bridge on May Morning, and the 8.05 “down train” to Paddington is still full of be-suited commuters and the occasional tweedy academic departing for an errand in London.

Despite the hardship and tension of the period, Chiang’s Oxford is a harbour of peace and reflection. The war is barely mentioned – the undergraduate population is depleted by conscription, a bomber wheels lazily over Port Meadow, and the Cockney accents of Blitz evacuees mix with shopkeepers’ Oxfordshire burr on Cornmarket. But Chiang’s attention is drawn more to the landscape, nature and cityscape.

Chiang’s eye for detail and contemplation is quite disarming. His writing captures perfectly the shift of seasons against the colleges’ grey stone. Several paragraphs are spent describing the facial expressions of a duck and the delicate dance of crocuses in the wind. Verses from Li P’o, Longfellow and Shelley enter his consciousness while wandering up the banks of the Isis towards The Perch.

Peacocks at Trout Inn – Chiang Yee

I have read many excellent books about Oxford (Jan Morris’ Oxford is still the essential primer). But Chiang Yee’s is definitely the most charming: it’s available in a 2003 reprint, but I think the 1940s Methuen  editions (“printed in complete confirmity with the authorized economy standards” as stated the frontispiece) are quite hard to come by now. This was a lucky find!