“Wonderful! Wonderful! This death!”

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The Ouse, the river I cross each day as I walk to work, has become sinister. It is impossible not to notice the flat, burbling brown ribbon threading through the center of York. It chokes our traffic over tight bridges and belches over the banks in bad weather. Since I first posted about it, the Ouse has claimed the lives of two young adults, who fell into the river during drunken nights out. I suppose it isn’t all that uncommon, cities with rivers have drowning fatalities, so I’m not sure why these deaths have animated this particular river with menace for me. As apparent from the marble plaque above (located in the Minster), people have been dying in the Ouse for a long time.

I had a startled moment today when I realized that Virginia Woolf committed suicide in the Ouse on this day, the 28th of March…but a different Ouse entirely, down in Sussex. Her suicide note is sweet, deeply sad, and I wished that my stepfather had left something similar. He too committed suicide, last November, up Poudre Canyon in Colorado. The nearest mile marker on the highway was noted on his death certificate–when I came back to England after the funeral I spent a little while looking for the spot on Google Street View, until I realized that I should stop. Godspeed.

The quote in the title is from William Etty, a famous English painter who died watching the sun setting over the River Ouse, his last words: “Wonderful! Wonderful! This death!” I found Etty while I was looking for background for a fantastic project we are starting at York. But it’s all tumbled together in my head now–poetry, death, madness, digital ghosts, cemeteries–all roiling and frothy in the brown waters of a river that never really was all that innocent. The Ouse. The Oooze.

It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, I dream of you….

In the Manor of Kings: a walk

It starts out among tightly-packed terraced houses that are built right up to the sidewalk. They’re all painted white on the front and I’ve learned to looked at the doors as I pass by. Red one, wooden one, blue, window on top, white–a solid wall of dwelling only punctuated by a single door and window for each house. The windows look directly into the front rooms, and sometimes you are startled by a person, standing a foot away, directly at eye level. It feels like an invasion, so I don’t look at the windows, just the doors. From the top my neighborhood looks like tangled zippers, long blocks of two-up, two-down dwellings (in America, a house is a free-standing structure; in England it just means that you have stairs and so therefore it is not a flat) that were built for workers.

My walk then takes me down a busy street that reeks of diesel fumes, and past a stately pub that was once a train station. It is red, red sandstone and brick, and would be the prize of any city on the midwestern plains in the States. Here, it is slightly shambolic and has a pub-manager-wanted sign covering the entryway. But then I climb up into the neighborhoods, and I watch a crazy mixture of concrete, asphalt, paving stones, tile, cobblestones, and blue iron furnace slag pavers that remind me of Puerto Rico pass beneath by feet.

Up and over the railway bridge. I’m just barely too short to see over the walls, but if I jump, I can get a glimpse of the fat ribbons of railways and yellow and blue trains beneath my feet. If there is a train thundering past, the whole bridge shakes a little bit. This may be why so many people seem to get sick on the bridge. It’s hard to say, but the evidence remains when I walk by in the morning.

At the other end of the bridge there is a dedicated pedestrian/cyclist lane that wends through industrial yards and parking lots and goes behind the train station, and is probably more presentable in the summertime. But at the moment it is bare, and stark, and I pass this stretch by concentrating on whatever is playing on my headphones, and looking at the red-pink painted wall that sometimes has graffiti. The courses on the wall are slightly strange, and I think that maybe the brick has been recycled, alternating courses of soft-ish rounded bricks, and crisp, smaller, squared-off bricks. I could probably find out, but I let my brain meander through the archaeological steps each time anyway.

I pass through a long, white-tiled tunnel, under the train tracks this time. I like the over and under and through of my commute, the varied terrain, weaving through the brick and steel industrial background toward the soft stone heart of the city. My walk takes me past a lot full of sturdy red Royal Mail bicycles–I occasionally see a postal worker take off, panniers fat with mail, and I am delighted every time.

I walk over the Ouse, which I always spell out (and probably pronounce) as the Oooooze, and in the wintertime it is flat and brown and disrespectful of its banks. The center of the river is at a constant, slow-motion simmer, making flat circles that blend and fade and reemerge to break the surface. When the Oooooze becomes too threatening, gates go up that block all the walkways to the center of town, and a line of pedestrians forms, boosting bags and bikes and each other over the barriers.

The walk shifts abruptly when I turn away from the river, with the precinct walls of the ruined St Mary’s Abbey rising on the right. Through the gates and into a garden with small green hills, where I walk through the broken arch of St. Mary’s. There are frost-rimed squirrels that lazily bob about, but it is usually too early for many tourists. Even a non-archaeologist would see that the area is ripe with archaeology, jagged walls coming out of the ground, bits of discarded stonework lining the gardens.

I walk alongside the museum, past a crumpled Roman tower, and up and around to the gates of King’s Manor. They’ve just redone the crest above the door and it is gilded and glorious.

And this is where I work.

Yorkshire & the Ragged Ends of Travel

I was standing in the middle of a medieval street when it finally hit me–I’m going to be here for a little while. It was nighttime and cold, and I’m woefully unprepared for wintertime in Northern England. I am still living out of a suitcase, which is only half-full anyway, as I left most of my summery digging clothes back in Qatar. Two hoodies, a cheap scarf that I bought on Green Lanes in London wrapped so that you could only see my eyes, a pair of gloves with a hole in the thumb, and shoes so thin that I could feel the exact dimensions of the flagstones beneath my feet. And I was happy.

I had one of those moments that the full impact of two years spent ricocheting between continents came to rest on my shoulders. A wild reel of colors and flavors and faces, and a profound weariness. But there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with that kind of weariness, a reliance on your own endurance and self-preservation.

The street was unfamiliar, full of huddled medieval timber houses that lean over you, arching their eyebrows and trying to get in a word. I passed by a pub where Guy Fawkes was born, and a big, fuck-off cathedral, and isn’t this a little bit different than dusty ol’ Oklahoma? As I walked through the streets I was taking the usual inventory of useful shops and streets-I-should-remember, slowly getting used to the idea that this will become familiar and invisible in the months to come. The casual way the tea shop uses the Roman wall to prop up their signboard, soup advertised with all sincerity, the unselfconsciously tweedy old folks, the profound whiteness of this little Northern city will no longer deserve attention or comment.  The constant travel has only sped up the cycle of acclimation.

Earlier that day we had hired a removal service, which sounds very Repo Man-meets-the-mafia to me. All of my possessions were decanted from their storage unit and are trundling North toward a very tiny terraced house that I managed to lease on the same day. I’ll somehow cram all of my books and eventually my wayward husband into the place–he’s still off directing excavations in Qatar for the foreseeable. Still, I’m looking forward to doing a nice little bit of research while I’m at York, and they’ve been kind enough to furnish me an office in the stately King’s Manor, which King Henry VIII fussed around in at some point. Though I doubt he came to my office, which is next to the former kitchens.

Later I found out that the name of the little street that I stood on was Stonegate, but at that moment I was only aware that I was outside of a small bar with stiff drinks, and I shrugged off my introspection and went in out of the cold. To my delight they had Bulleit, which I ordered neat, with a cherry. Because not everything changes, and a sweet bourbon goes a long way to make a girl feel right at home.