Pubs, Queues and Haunted Libraries

Now that I have been in England for over two weeks, it’s time to drag myself out of the pub and into the light of day – which on this island is only present between noon and three p.m. – so that I can tell my beloved readers at The Minaret my initial impressions. Depending on how much I manage to get out next week, we might be calling this column simply “Eye on Oxford,” or, just as appropriate, “Eye on the Bottom of This Pint.” But fear not, for I am firmly in control of the commentary section from several thousand miles away.

The first thing I noticed about England was the way the bathrooms are arranged. This may seem odd, but it makes perfect sense when you realize that the airplane lavatory was inaccessible for most of the journey (whether due to natural turbulence or the pilot actually being a flightless bird of some kind, I’m not sure). In England, the toilets have enough water to double as aquariums. Said toilets growl at you for a good five minutes after you use them; perhaps this comes from the subterranean crocodiles you’ve just disturbed.

Of course, while searching for a working restroom under the watchful eyes of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I came into contact with another uniquely British phenomenon: the queue. The queue is so culturally important in Britain that before I actually left Newark International Airport I had already heard the most common greeting in the U.K. at least two dozen times: namely, “Is this the start of the queue?” The British seem to have a knack for lining up single-file and even manage to create invisible queues at the bar of the pub. Rather than spontaneously breaking into song, the British spontaneously break into queues.

But, although I have only been in England a short time, I feel that I now have some insight into the culture. I’ve discovered why people here drink, or at least, why they do so in Oxford. I have narrowed down the potential causes to one: the Bodleian Library, a collection of over eight million books to which practically no one on the planet actually has access.

The library is charmingly referred to as “the Bod,” in much the same way one would refer to Alcatraz simply as “the Rock.” As a non-lending library, it has a proud and illustrious history of obstructionism, of which visitors are informed in detail. The first figure of note to be denied a requested book was King Charles I, followed by Oliver Cromwell. No doubt both of these stands led to the execution of, at the very least, the messenger who returned without the book; but it doesn’t really matter, since, even if they’d been allowed to take the book away, first they would have to find it.

James Bond couldn’t infiltrate this place. I can imagine the conversation:

“My name is Bond. James Bond.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Bond, but this Bod card is out of date. Next in the queue, please!”

But the challenges don’t end at the front gate. When searching for a book in the Oxford library catalog, you might sometimes find that it is located on the Bodleian Book Stack, in which case it might be a clever idea to order it from Amazon or travel backward through time and accost the author in person. The “stack” is housed mostly underground, where, through a clever series of levers, tubes and mice running on wheels, required books are placed on trolleys and conveyed through a labyrinth of passages. After passing through the mountain-home of the Dwarves and being pursued some distance by rampaging bands of Orcs, your book presumably arrives somewhere within the general perimeter of England.

On completing this fantastic voyage (which, I am informed, occasionally involves bringing books out of a disused salt mine) the reading material in question is deposited within one of the Bodleian’s many reading rooms. The reading rooms are located all around the building and generally still display facets of their pre-electric legacy; the library was unheated until 1845 and lacked artificial lighting until 1929. Different areas of the library all have quasi-mystical sounding names, such as “Nuneham,” though I have not seen the spirits of any slain Vikings wandering around just yet. If they’re here, I’m sure they can’t borrow books, either.

After a few hours of wandering through the Bod’s timeless corridors I emerged and, as someone who has rarely consumed alcohol in his entire life, my first thought was, “I need a pint.” I am almost certain that this is how pubs in Oxford stay in business. Since being issued my Bod card, I have visited the Goose, the Eagle and Child (where J. R. R. Tolkien once drank and is now immortalized on every flat surface that will bear his likeness), the White Horse, the Lamb and Flag, Old Orleans and, god help me, the McDonalds on Cornmarket Street.

Overall, though, I find that I’m settling in well, and my academics are going splendidly. I avoid the Bodleian where possible in favor of the library that is literally two minutes away by foot. If the sun is seen before noon or after three, I consider it a great day. The only issue: bartenders keep asking me if I know Adam Labonte. Adam, if you’re reading this, the people of the Cock and Camel want you to come home!

Simos Farrell may be contacted at

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