On Thursday night I left the library at closing time just before 7pm. I walked up Catte Street to unlock my bike and cycle home for dinner. As I was crossing the lane underneath the Bridge of Sighs, I thought "What the fuck?!" as I saw flames coming from the New Bodleian. It was on fire. When I was closer I realized it was a deliberate fire: a huge globe of little flames in flower pots, smoking incense.
I stood on the corner outside the History Faculty, drinking tea from my flask, taking in the wonderful scene. I love how Oxford can surprise you like this. The whole of Broad Street was transformed. Wires of lights were suspended from the Clarendon Building and the Sheldonian Theatre.
There were braziers in the middle of the street.
Further up, there were metals columns above a bowl of fire, with some sort of gear-wheel mechanism controlling the supply of oxygen, so they would periodically explode a fireball from the top. They were being operated by men in black suits wearing black hats. I thought they might have been local gypsies, celebrating some kind of rite of spring or the Ides of March. (14 March, I discovered, is Pi day: if you write the date the American way, 3.14, it's the first two decimal places of Pi.)
(Pardon the lopsided orientation of this video. I still haven't got used to the fact that you can't hold the camera in portrait upright fashion when taking videos.) There were also little carvings in metal.
And a massive star-shaped chandelier suspended from a crane opposite Balliol College.
There was a brilliant atmosphere of excitement, wonder and calm. I was torn between trying to enjoy the moment and wanting to share it with other people. I toyed with the idea of going home for my camera. I texted a few people to tell them to get down here, even tried phoning. I was quite glad no one came, though. I was happy soaking it all up by myself, trusting my own impressions.
I liked not knowing what it was all about at first, what it was in aid of. It felt pagan, medieval, properly old English. And yet everyone was desperately trying to record it with the camera phones and digital cameras, and even I was using my mobile to try to contact people. Eventually I was given a leaflet explaining what it was. The bandstand in the middle, with some book* music from Jali Fily Cissokho, a Mandinkan Griot and kora player from Senegal - an instrument played between the legs like a cello, looking like a sitar/guitar, and sounding like a harp - was part of a festival organized by Oxford Contemporary Music. The huge pendulum of fire, which I didn't notice on the first night because a crowd of people surrounded it, is supposed to swing around 1,000 a night, marking the 1,000 years of Oxfordshire. It's all part of a cultural celebration initiated by Oxford Inspires, the company that was formed after Oxford's unsuccessful bid for European Capital of Culture in 2008.
These photos and videos I took on Friday night. Going back wasn't quite as special. There wasn't that sense of surprise and confusion. I also didn't look at things in the same way, as I was always thinking of the photo, of which settings to use, where to place my camera. That was why I didn't want to spoil Thursday night. I wouldn't have experienced it in the same way. I wanted to veer more towards the medieval than the modern.
* "book" is what predictive text spells when you type 2665 for "cool". I believe it has become (and probably ceased to be) playground slang for "cool".