Our London hosts, Tom and Rachael, generously send us on our way to Oxford with bellies full from a(nother) hearty English breakfast. The Brits are either unafraid of consuming sausage, and lots of it, or they are just showing off. The reasons for me to like these folks continues to mount. Though blander than I am accustomed, I find that English food is nowhere near as poor as some Americans report. This fallacy is likely a myth first concocted and perpetuated by a Cajun cayenne-junkie.
I’m starting to get the hang of ordering my coffee properly: “Americano white, please. Cheers.” In my fumbling attempts to quietly assimilate and count out correct change, at no point do I get the sense I am putting any employee out in my struggle to articulate my food, drink, or book order. The English further cement in my mind their reserved, level-headed, and patient nature. I suppose a thousand-year-old culture has a way of tempering the soul.
A word on the English coin system: though pockets-full could readily drag a man’s beltless pants down to his ankles, the English pound is an absolute delight, what with its significant weight in the palm of the hand, the carved Latin phrasing on its scored sides, the Queen’s profile (God save her), and gold color. The £1 coin is a thing of substance; it says “I matter.”
At no point on this tour do Andrew and I have a drive longer than three hours, but the peculiar English (or European?) employ of roundabouts makes for seemingly longer periods in the car. It puzzles me that the Brits have not yet given these circular marvels a proper nickname as they have with their “Tube,” or “Chunnel”; I hereby propose “Roundie.” Over the course of our ten days here, our longest roundie-free, uninterrupted stretch of motorway driving is a scant 27 miles. Every other stretch of road, even in remote townships, involves hurtling through roundabouts spaced every foot or so, give or take. That’s to say nothing of the incredibly confusing signage thereof. I’m glad Andrew is not only doing all the driving, but has been here before to make sense of the road signage that is no less alien to me than an assortment of crop circle patterns. To further confuse the average hyper-ventilating Yankee driving in this country, each roundabout is utterly unique, and at no point does any sign resemble another. It all looks like cuneiform. The Brits did, after all, crack the code of the Zimmerman Telegram (thus dragging the United States into WWI), so I have to trust them, though I don’t always understand.
We at last reach Oxford, the city of incomparable medieval spires, stone buildings, and 800-year-old college quadrangles where, oddly enough, no one is playing hacky-sack. We park across the boulevard from The Eagle and Child, a pub made famous (to us Americans, at least) by the Inklings. Entering the establishment, I am, for pressing reasons, more interested in its loo than its lore, while Andrew beelines for the Rabbit Room, less a “room,” more a hallway. He is intent on locating a small white publication hiding a letter he wrote two years earlier. Having since been signed by numerous fellow wanderers aware of the letter’s cached existence, Andrew is eager to find it tucked away on the upper shelves among the other smattering of books. Dining patrons curiously keep an eye on this tall, stubbled, Swedish-looking man hovering over their fish and chips, oddly but earnestly scouring the bookshelves above their heads and their half-pints of ale. Perplexed, Andrew can’t find the book, at last conceding defeat, but it disturbs him greatly, as it should. Why would anyone take an innocuous small book containing a handwritten letter?
England, on this day, lives up to its reputation of cold, wind, and rain. We meet the host and promoter of our two Oxford shows, Micah Coston—an American Oxford man donning scarf and umbrella—near the spot where Thomas Cranmer and pals were burned at the stake as heretics in 1556. The history lover in me shows outward solemnity as Micah tour-guides us, but inside I am giddy, not at the thought of that horrible event, but at the existence and passing of real time, of standing in the presence of the past. That one of the world’s significant moments occurred on this exact plot of earth some 500 years earlier—the very spot where I now stand in my new, not-at-all-broken-in sneakers, waterproof coat, hot coffee in hand, with friends—is hard to fathom. Time moves on, it always moves on, is never static, and we live our lives, making decisions with no real concept of the repercussions half a millennium from now. I find this to be a remarkable truth. But it is cold and miserable outside, and I—remember, Andrew was the first to dub me “Pappy”—am more than willing to escape the elements.
Walking on, cowering beneath the rain along Broad Street, we enter Blackwell’s, a multi-level bookstore where I finally—miracle of miracles, I made it four days without a single book purchase!—buy my first book, Taste and Technique in Book Collecting (John Carter, 1948). This is the first of what will, in the end, be an unholy amount of books I will acquire in England. I did, after all, tell the customs agent I was here as a book buyer.
Our show that night is at Illyria Pottery, a fully-functioning artisan pottery shop owned and operated by husband-wife duo Micah and Katie Coston. We arrive and help clear the open showroom floor of every table, display, and handmade piece. I brag to Katie that I own “#4” of the original small batch of mugs she made for the Rabbit Room, circa 2009. Before the show, the Costons take us around the corner to a pub called The Rickety Press for dinner. I gasp, as there are shelves of books everywhere. In a restaurant! This scenario—needing to be polite and friendly—is cruel to bibliomaniacs like me; I can barely order my food or avoid being an absolute oaf by getting up and scouring the shelves over other patrons’ fish and chips. Andrew and I play the first of two shows on separate nights on Illyria’s hardwood floors. It is a treat to sing in a room like this, what with the sound, and notes, and songs having nothing to dull them, so they just bounce around, off every hard surface in the room, taking their sweet time disintegrating.
Agreeing to get an early start the following morning, AP and I barely sleep, knowing that a Welsh book town, Hay-on-Wye, is our destination for Day Five. I am a 42-year-old man, and I have butterflies in my widdew tummy.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.