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Thoughts in the key of Oxford

  • 29 November 2013

Here in Oxford at the end of a busy week I took up yoga, entranced by notions of myself perfectly balanced in a state of other-worldly calm. And then the class started: 'Lie on your back, put your backside to the ceiling and rest your knees on either side of your head ... and now relax ... breathe calmly ... let your mind become detached'. It was an exercise akin to Luke Skywalker trying to channel the force while flying his X-wing around the death-star.

Even in the moments of physical relaxation, I found it hard to concentrate — things that I'd heard during the week kept entering my mind, making it hard to find the mental detachment the yoga master recommended.

Later I was thinking of these same things I had heard during the week, entertaining them further. One of Oxford's more remarkable qualities is its soundscape — take the bells: some are loud and triumphant in the morning and some ring dimly in the middle of the night, subdued and respectful. I'm struck by what I might term the aural landscape of a week — the collection of sounds, voices and verses that assemble in the mind over a few days.

It's a diverse collection, from the woman at the canteen yelling 'Urrry up! Speed up! Who dropped that?', to the 30 second washing detergent ad that prefaces a video you want to watch on YouTube. Or the man who was homeless, talking to his dog over a sandwich: 'Get lost Chance! It's mine, you've 'ad yours!' And Chance replying: 'Grrrr!' All these snippets of sound linger in the mind.

When I first arrived in Oxford I heard a psalm at Evensong that still resonates — perhaps because in the midst of heavy sandstone and biting winds it reminds me of cedar trees: 'They will take root like the forests of Lebanon.' The vision of the 'forests of Lebanon' conveys a sense of great richness, deeply rooted, strong and bountiful. The 19th century Russian school of spiritual thought — 'Sophiology' — understood the world to be humming with 'presence' and 'wisdom', filled with 'deeper currents'.

Metaphysical beliefs aside, it's interesting to think of the aural landscape of a week in a similar way — as a current of sounds, various but similarly rich. It's a current that, when attended to, gives some reflective shape to our daily lives. Words rise on the