Isolarion by James Attlee

December 21st, 2021

I read and really liked James Attlee’s book on moonlight, Nocturne, back in 2010, and I think it was after that when I spotted this book in a secondhand shop in either Cambridge or London and decided I needed to buy it. I’ve never been to Oxford, but I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of Cowley Road, the multicultural commercial center of East Oxford, where Attlee lives. The book is an engaging mix of the historical and the personal and the reportorial, as Attlee visits various places on Cowley Road and talks to various locals about a number of topics, while also talking about the history of the area and about other aspects of history more broadly. At the start, Attlee talks about the idea of making a pilgrimage, and then talks about making a pilgrimage in many pieces, and close to home. He wants to undertake “an urban, post-modern, fragmentary pilgrimage that could be dipped in and out of” rather than a pilgrimage that’s a journey far away that takes you wholly out of your normal routines.

So: this book is a Cowley Road pilgrimage, but we get glimpses of other pilgrimages for contrast: Attlee talks to a friend who has written about French priests making pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the 16th century, and to a Muslim neighbor who has undertaken the hajj; he also talks about St. Edmund’s Well in Oxford, which was itself a pilgrimage site in the 13th century. Attlee’s associative style really works for me; I like the way he jumps between places and times. And I like all the local details of Cowley Road that Attlee captures, all the places he visits (some of which have of course closed/changed/moved between when this book came out and now): he goes to pubs and cafes, talks to a jeweller, tries out a float tank, learns about the Chabad movement from a rabbi after reading about the opening of a mikvah, visits a car factory, and more. He quotes Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Peter Ackroyd (“The city itself is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book that can never be completed”) and takes part in various planning exercises to do with the future of Cowley Road/possible aesthetic and safety improvements to it. He goes to a reggae show and to Carnival, and talks to an artist named Jo Thomas who led a walk on the summer solstice “visiting places mentioned in ancient records as being the locations of wells and springs.” I like the way Attlee writes about the built environment and the natural world and the moods of certain moments: like this description of a graveyard: “In certain weather conditions in winter, the ground emits a mist that hangs in ribbons between the gravestones, taking on a sulphuric tint under the street lights.” Or this, from when he has dinner in a neighbor’s yard: “the wheeling, screaming swifts are replaced by bats that flutter silently above our heads, the intricate calligraphy of their flight paths indecipherable as daylight fades and night pours into the gardens of East Oxford.”

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