By James Attlee
University of Chicago Press 2007
The Cowley Road area, aka “East Oxford” is Oxford’s hotspot of cultural diversity, with migrants from almost every nation in the UN, and a diversity of shops to match. James Attlee, who lives in the area but works in London, so retains a somewhat detached perspective while being able to immerse himself, has recorded his impressions, experiences, and even hesitant attempts at involvement with local politics, under the leitmotiv of a “pilgrimage.” His travel doesn’t have to take him out into the world, he argues, as the world has come to the area where he happens to live.
The first of three parts is dominated by his reports, travel-writing style, of experiences he has sampled along the road – ranging from the Brazilian art gallery to the new-agey immersion pool. In the second and third part, musings on history, philosophy, religion take over, making the whole, as the author admits on the last page “as much an allegorical as a physical journey.”
This is all quite fascinating for us who live less than a kilometre upstream from the start of Cowley Road, but seeing that the book was published by the University of Chicago Press, one does wonder what readers in Chicago may make of it. Even for us who know the territory, a map would have helped.
I’m sure the book is exactly as the author needed to write it in order to make sense of his experiences relating to the area where he lives. Personally, I might have liked it even more if he had been more of an explorer and less of a pilgrim. An explorer might have sampled all the diverse experiences on offer on the Cowley Road, from the mundane to the wildly exotic, a bit more systematically, maybe charting the course of the road completely, rather than escaping into philosophical asides.
For instance, the nice Italian chap (presumably the owner) at the small bike shop CycloAnalysts doesn’t appear in the book, neither is any of the other bike shops included, nor the Daily Information offices, or the videosyncratic shop (which has now given way to an old-fashioned record shop, bucking the trend). Neither the musical instruments outlet nor the numerous charity shops get a look-in. Definitely space for a sequel there.
Scene from last year's Cowley Road Carnival.
PS Memorable experiences I have had along the Cowley Road include concerts by Marina and the Diamonds, The Noisettes, Bat for Lashes, and Imogen Heap. I've also bought an inordinate number of bikes there, including a tandem and two unicycles, and have visited the Ultimate Picture Palace on a few occasions, though it's not my regular cinema.