By John Garth
(St Anne’s, English Literature)
Vegas brought out my worst vices. Handed carte blanche to indulge recklessly and obscenely for twelve months, I borrowed books from the university library in such numbers that when it came to returning them, I had to use a suitcase. I even inadvertently smuggled one home to England.
I had indeed gone to Sin City to spend my time in the empire of books, not bookmakers. I had been wordily appointed 2015 Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Carol C Harter, Beverly Rogers Black Mountain Institute, a literary centre affiliated with the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where I stayed on a three further months as a visiting professor.University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Flying into Vegas at night, you might be landing on an island in a pitch-dark sea. But that sea is a desert, and water here is an ever-present need disguised as an item of decadence. At dusk and dawn, when the hidden sprinklers spring to life, Joni Mitchell’s phrase ‘the hissing of summer lawns’ makes sense at last. On the Strip, choreographed fountains dance and digital hoardings advertise beach parties and surfing. Fresh fish, crab and lobster are flown in daily. In dusty yards, motor yachts wait for the weekend – and Lake Mead.
This, the nearby reservoir where the Colorado River meets the Hoover Dam, looks big enough for a whole thirsty nation, but it has sunk far below the high watermark. A GIF animation of satellite images reveals it as an ailing bubble of blue dwarfed by a pullulating grey-brown parasite of city sprawl.The eight-acre Display Garden at the Springs Preserve
Visiting Springs Preserve, a museum and nature reserve run by the Vegas water authority, you feel you might be on Arrakis, the desert planet in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Yet when it did rain, it did so with true Vegas excess, sending all the wheely bins in my street bobbing off round the corner and down the hill.
The other great resource of Nevada – of the whole American South and South-West – is air-conditioning. When I arrived in August 2015, very late one sizzling night, mine wasn’t working. It broke down again a few days after I invested in a humidifier to help with dry nose and rattly chest: the air intake had hoovered up the fine mist, which had turned the innards of the air-con unit into a block of ice.
I owe it all to the BMI and its patrons, and to the UNLV English Department, which backed my nomination and allowed me to teach two semester-long literature classes. But first of all I owe it to John Bowers, a UNLV professor who had come to the OUP archives to look at the manuscripts of a book on Chaucer by J R R Tolkien. Bowers was put in touch with me by Peter Gilliver at the OED who saw me, as author of the 2003 book Tolkien and the Great War, as Oxford’s go-to expert on the Lord of the Rings author.
Bowers told me about the BMI fellowship beginning in 2014. It seemed a very long shot, and my doubts seemed vindicated when I was passed over. But in February 2015 I received an email from the BMI – my application had been revisited, and the fellowship was mine if I wanted it. In my bewildered excitement, I managed to delete the email halfway through reading it, and briefly wondered whether I had been hallucinating.
Accepting the position meant giving up my lovely part-time job as Oxford Today digital editor. Since I had not written a book since 2003, it seemed a bit of gamble – but what else should a visit to Vegas be? I certainly had plenty more to say about Tolkien. And so I found myself in the bizarre position of heading to Vegas to write about modern literature’s most famous Oxford don.
It is a testament to the changing world that (archival research aside) I could do almost as much from Nevada as I could in Oxford. UNLV has a fine library, and also gave me the means to borrow books from other universities, plus digital access to a vast array of journals and other resources.
The best ‘small world’ moment was when I opened a book ordered from Abebooks – the Thomas More biography that inspired Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in a 1935 first edition. The surname on the flyleaf, Hadow, was oddly familiar. St Anne’s has a Hadow Room, and it turned out I had bought a book from the personal library of a former principal of my own Oxford college.
More himself could scarcely have been more monastic than I was in Vegas. I would drive across town from home to university and back, passing gun shops, strip clubs, pawn shops, topless golf ads, and the gleaming 64-storey gold brick of the Trump Hotel, concerned only with trying to make the most of the astonishing opportunity I had been given to step off the work treadmill and simply write. I spoke at the artsy Writer’s Block bookshop and, on a rare trip away, to a full house at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Aside from these moments, and BMI events with my fellow fellows Okey Ndibe, Gregg Jones, Hossein Abkenar and Walter Kirn, it was as solitary a life as you might expect. I became very good friends with the local cat.
Life returned when my wife and daughter visited. We saw the Grand Canyon in the snow, and (less sublime but more enchanting) Utah’s Zion Canyon as the trees were coming into sage-green leaf. My daughter, seven, will never forget our afternoon clambering around local Red Rock Canyon – nor Valley of Fire, where she investigated a cactus too closely. We also had our Vegas moments – seeing relics of the Titanic at the pyramidal Luxor, being cheesily serenaded by a gondolier at the Venetian, and watching the Cirque du Soleil show Love, an artful and overwhelming Beatles extravaganza.
As I write this, I am sitting in a motel room in Staffordshire on the eve of a visit to Tolkien’s First World War haunts, with the sound of rain dripping and puddling outside. Already Vegas seems as remote as the Dune planet, but I have come back immeasurably enriched by my twelve months’ writing and teaching. I’ll return the inadvertently smuggled library book – I promise! And once I have pulled some complex threads together, I hope UNLV will be adding to its shelves a further title, of my own making.
John Garth was digital editor at Oxford Today 2013-15, and is the author of Tolkien and the Great War.
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