I have been meaning to write about That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford by John Elinger and Katherine Shock for ages – ever since I was kindly given a copy by Signal Books in May – but somehow it hasn’t happened before today, for which I can only apologise. But it is a timeless book, so a few months here or there shouldn’t make much difference. It’s a clever mixture of art book, guide book, poetry volume, and a celebration of Oxford.
Full disclosure time: I have known Kathy all my life, as she is my Mum’s best friend from school, and my first trips to Oxford were to the house in North Oxford where Kathy and her family have lived as long as I have known them. Little did we think, back then, that I would eventually call Oxford home too – for nine years now – and, if I do not have Kathy’s familiarity with the city yet, I certainly share her love of it.
And, as long as I have known Kathy, I have known that she is an artist. I remember Mum, Kathy, and their respective children (including me) sitting by a river bank and painting the view, with varying levels of success – and I’ve had the privilege of seeing examples of Kathy’s work for many years, and would recognise her work anywhere.
But it is not just partisanship which makes me say that the illustrations are the best part of this book – I’ve included a couple in the post, apologies for wonky camerawork. I certainly don’t know how to write art criticism, but I will say that Kathy’s watercolours have a wonderful vitality – sprightliness, even – which brings stone walls alive just as much as the river. Look at this lovely view into Worcester College (which is, in my very subjective ordering of Most Beautiful Colleges, in at no.4, after Magdalen, New, and Corpus Christi):
I want to keep using variations of the word ‘liveliness’, as that is what I think Kathy does best. There are hundreds and thousands of pictures of Oxford out there, whether postcards or paintings or sketches or photographs, and so any artist turning once more to these much-depicted places must bring something new, and for me, Kathy does that through this liveliness. Is it the not-quite-straight lines, or the dashes of colour which are graphic rather than precise? I don’t know, I haven’t the expertise to judge, but I know that it works.
I attended the launch night, back in May, where poems were read brilliantly by Rohan McCullough, and learnt a bit about the process behind the book. Apparently John Elinger’s poems were written first, and then Kathy painted scenes to go alongside them. After some success with postcard series in this line, they decided to go a step further and put together a book, published beautifully by Signal Books – and it is, incidentally, exceptionally well produced, a really lovely object.
So, the poems. Well, you know that I struggle with poetry
, and I have to admit that it was a while before I ‘got into’ these. Apparently the order in the book pretty much reflects the order in which they were written, which didn’t surprise me, as they definitely improve, A great deal of the poetry is in a form which, though seeming to follow a rhyme scheme on the page, uses enjambment so much that, when read, it becomes much more like prose. Indeed, the earliest poems in the book are more or less a paean to enjambment. (For those who took their GCSE English a long time ago, definition of enjambment here
!) Of course, it’s a perfectly valid technique, but I felt it was rather overused. (And, on a personal note, I found the recurrent jabs at the church in Oxford a little unnecessary…) Having said all this, when Rohan read a few of them, they came to life wonderfully – so perhaps a good orator is what is needed.
But, as I say, they improved. This was my favourite poem in the collection – I thought it was structured rather cleverly.
I haven’t properly mentioned the clever way in which the poems and paintings are arranged yet – they follow various suggested walks around Oxford, which is where the guidebook bit comes in. There is a map at the beginning of each section, and then seven places to stop off and see along the way – I think it would be a very fun way to take yourself around Oxford (some of the walks are pretty long, so it’s not just a case of walking down the High Street) with sites to match up to the paintings, and poems to read to oneself or aloud when one gets there. These walks are cleverly chosen, and far more interesting than the usual tour guide traipse through the biggest colleges and (Heaven preserve us) the places where Harry Potter was filmed.
For instance, how many people see the unprepossessing exit near the railway station, and follow the beautiful canal along to this bridge? (I took the photo a while ago… I *think* this is relatively near the railway station, apologies if not.) It’s another of my favourite illustrations.
If you’re visiting Oxford, That Sweet City is available in a few of the bookshops – if you want to imagine you’re visiting Oxford from afar, you won’t be able to follow the walks in person (of course) but it’s the next best thing. Indeed, what fun it would be to get to know and love these pictures – and then, when you finally come to Oxford, match them up with the real places!