In 2007 James Attlee, local resident of East Oxford and commuter to London for his day job in art publishing, published Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey. The book was well received, remains in print and — as books about Oxford go — remains thoroughly original, taking the Cowley Road as its subject but treating it to the sort of psycho-geographical workout familiar from books by Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.
Isolarion is the term for a fifteenth-century style of map that describes specific areas in enormous detail, but without providing any overlying clarity as to how they relate to each other. From the perspective of 2013, when we have become comfortable with swiping thumb and first finger on an iPhone screen to see the Big Picture on a Google map, the Isolarion approach sounds a bit risky. And it is.
However, in Attlee’s book you don’t just get the Cowley Road down to individual paving slabs. Rather, you get paving slabs through which the world entire is viewed, a wildly expansive journey of discovery.
In the most psychogeographic chapter in the book, called Wittgenstein’s Lion and a Cappucchino Sea, Attlee sets sail on a miniature voyage concerning Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, noting that we can’t see the world like an Amazonian tribesman even if we learn his language. He then links this to Blackwell’s bookshop, whose Oxford headquarters was once on the Cowley Road and who first published Wittgenstein in English.
From there, he pulls off a crazy stunt, linking the backyard of the HQ to a friend who had maintained a cabin there in the 1980s, then on to his connection with an Enid Blyton manuscript discovered in a drawer, and swiftly to the lost — and thoroughly white, non-multicultural — world of those novels, in which East Oxford has no part. From there, he continues haphazardly to the sea of cappuccino and coffee shops, Viennese and Turkish history, and the way in which Oxford may have hosted the country’s first coffee shop. All this and more in eight brief pages.
It only works because Attlee is so comfortable with his material. He keeps it as light as a Mary Berry fairy cake and just as delicious. I munched through the whole book in a few brief hours, but the next day I couldn’t recall a single morsel in any meaningful detail. The book’s message is clear enough, however: namely, that the whole world is right under our noses if we care to see it. Don’t bother flying to India; it’s right there on the Cowley Road. Forget heading to Russia; you can find it on shelf in an East Oxford shop.
One of Attlee’s successes is to note, in two instances, how stuff was changing even as he wrote. A pub changes its name; a man stops baking the author’s favourite French bread. The book itself disintegrates, whether by design or its absence you cannot tell: “The account of my wanderings has ended up more akin to time-lapse photography than a chronological documentary.”
It was then that I set off to do an impromptu walk down the road to see what else had changed in the six years since Attlee published. A very great deal, as it turns out — so much so that one marvels at the courage exhibited by the tribe of small shopkeepers and traders who traditionally make the Cowley Road what it is.
A massive NHS Trust has been built; Cycle King, the purveyor of cheap wheels, has burnt down and re-opened temporarily up the road; Beeline Bikes, the other stalwart, has opened a second shop; Rick’s Café is a new comer, along with Quarter Horse, a coffee house which only opened in 2013. There’s even an American-themed restaurant full of hip young things, serving achingly fashionable posh versions of junk food and overly hoppy US beer.
Rick’s, a coffee shop named after the bar made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the movie Casablanca, was only opened two years ago by Sam Benbakti. He tells me about his French-Algerian roots; how once he flew search and rescue for the Algerian air force; how he moved to the UK and hence Oxford; how he makes less money now but the satisfaction is higher; and how business rates have just doubled from £560 to £1,200, fuelled by a greedy, cash-strapped council. “What would make business better?” I ask. “Summers are deadly because no tourist comes here and the students have left,” comes the reply.
That resonates with a major theme in Attlee’s book, about an interminable consultation that led to a tidying up of the Cowley Road. Attlee helped to defeat the effort of others to brand the Cowley Road by erecting gateways to make it a ‘cool’ destination. Attlee loves the piles of rubbish, the racial and ethnic diversity of the street, and the globalization in miniature. Turning it into a zoo-pen would have been wrong, he says. I think I agree with that. But it doesn’t remove the blunt fact that, while gentrification is the rule in East Oxford, tourists still don’t come and the students disappear too frequently.
If I was taking inspiration from Attlee, I would write of the history of patisserie in Paris (Sam is behind Chateau Gateau as well, on St Clement’s, and it is fantastic if you like coffee and cake), the colonial subjugation of Algeria, the pieds noirs role in the war of independence against France, the subversive role in that of some half-forgotten Oxonian, and how it comes to a froth in this cup of coffee in front of me.
But I’m not going to. The only truth may be a Heraclitian one: that the river flows constantly and differently, and thus all meaning is subjective. But the cakes are objectively good — so I sincerely hope that Benbakti is not forced to close shop.