In the week between Christmas and New Year I went to London with my family to see Les Mis, something we did before around ten years ago. At that time I started writing a post called ‘Christmas, London literary lifestyle & travelling with grown-ups’ and at the end of this post I’ve put a copy of that post that I never finished writing. The part of that post concerned with the part of its title that it shares with this post, which I never wrote anything of, was concerned with just how many people one sees reading on the tube.

In particular one girl stood out, sitting there reading on her e-reader, as someone essentially in my peer group—of course, I don’t know whether she was university educated or what subject she studied but she could have easily been one of the humanities students I knock around with. I thought a little about all these people reading and thinking while working, probably, or maybe still in academia doing degrees.[1]

This weekend I got thrown right into this L.L.L. when I went to visit a group of friends who are either working or doing master’s degrees in English or History, in London, people who left Oxford two years ago. Walking in to their flat I found myself very clearly in the home of literature nerds: a place where you’d find the London Review of Books and the TLS lying around the kitchen table. One girl was on her way out and said to someone, ‘can I borrow a novel for the tube journey?’ when most people would just listen to music or plane inane games on their mobiles if they didn’t already have a particular book they wanted to read. On the shelves in the living room were a series of LPs with poetry readings and the like on. And of course loads and loads of highbrow books, but brilliantly, so few of which I recognised: this isn’t just people lining up the classics on their bookshelves for show, but people dedicated to literature as their way into figuring out the human condition. By this I mean that I am increasingly led to believe that the Humanities are all of a piece. The records and front cover of The Great Gatsby on the wall are just like my School of Athens poster.

In the introduction to The Mind of God and the Works of Man, E.J. Craig gives a conception of philosophy that I’ve come to agree with over the past eighteen months or so. Philosophy is and has always been about worldviews, he says, whatever contemporary philosophers say about their work being pure and worldview-free—in a non-trite way, that’s just another worldview. Philosophy’s job is to fill in the logical detail of these worldviews, but this is far from being the entirety of the worldview; literature and music and whatever else probably have a role to play in filling in the rest. Perhaps the friends I visited would disagree with my conception of their subject as expressed briefly here. Maybe they just study literature for fun. But I find myself encouraged to learn more about the other Humanities.

Most of this was inside my head. It was great to see my friends and we were more interesting in discussing young graduate life and end-of-undergraduate life. One thing that was very fun is how, because these people were the first people I knew well in Balliol, they seem to have an aura of cool in my mind which lets them do and say things that I would look down on others and myself (generally in hindsight) for. For example they started talking about postmodernism a few times, and since this is a strictly forbidden subject in Oxford philosophy, I would ask them, ‘what does that word mean?’, for it is never something that I have understood, and they would answer ‘well it’s a bit amorphous, there’s no way in which we can just tell you’. The good little Oxford-trained philosopher that I am should have objected very loudly at this point: ‘this is obscurantism, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.’ But I didn’t really do that.

Another thing was how self-conscious of their young graduate lifestyles in London they all were, very willing to talk about it—though I questioned continually, trying to figure out how they spend their time. I remember when I started secondary school and this meant getting a moderately complicated series of different buses each day (up to four different ones) I would talk to adults about it, and then afterwards feel foolish for doing so: this is purely practical, it’s something to be discussed when someone asks for advice, not something to be brought up as interesting in itself! But I found my London friends doing this themselves about their complicated system of public transport. As someone who only occasionally visits London, my answer to all transport problems is: figure out nearest tube station to where you want to go, enter tube network, get various trains until get to destination.

But armed with unlimited travel passes, my friends, more concerned about their time than anything else, combine normal trains, the underground, buses and the mysteriously named ‘Overground’ to get around. They spend hours travelling and even more time discussing it: they talk about their worst stations, the things that annoy them most. Into their journey planning they factor in things like: I could sacrifice an extra ten minutes journey time here in exchange for more reading time because I’m avoid that particular change which involves lots of walking around underground. Of course a lot of these discussions involved referring to clever programs on their phones with buttons like ‘tell me the route home’ which would tell you precisely (to the minute) where to talk and which trains/buses/tube trains to catch to get home, fancy stuff.

The other thing they are perhaps a little self-conscious about—though I am regretting using that term earlier as I’m not sure it’s actually that appropriate—is how high-speed their lives are and how much time they use. One guy—former computer science student, naturally—said that he saw the flat as his ‘meta-life’, his ‘save game screen’, somewhere where he came to sleep each night and eat, but otherwise he’d be leave in the morning and not come back until late at night each day. London is huge and they take advantage of it, with their clever transport planning. We went to see an expensive Lucian Freud exhibition on Saturday, then went to an art centre. There are plenty of parks to just go and read in. There is no time for video games or mindless TV or cheap trashy (fantasy/scifi) novels.

I’m not very happy with this post because what’s essentially going on is I’m making a lot of things up to add to things I observed from my friends this weekend, while trying not to talk directly about the individuals who I love, and who fascinate me. I’m glorifying and romanticising plenty. Still, though, I find myself inspired to continue my current spate of reading a lot, at the very least.

Old draft post mentioned above:

Going to note down a few things from Christmas and activities this week, particularly concerning trip to London yesterday to see Les Misérables, which was my mother’s gift to step-father, sister and myself. Great to see it performed live again (went before about ten years ago), though the fact I know almost all the words by heart probably took something away from it. They girl playing my favourite character, Éponine (”I know this house, I tell you, there’s nothing here for you! Just the old man and the girl, they live ordinary lives”), was pretty good. For some reason they cut out the song Little People, replacing it with just a few lines here and there from Gavroche; not sure why they did this. There were plenty of bits in between the famous songs that I’d forgotten, and I was particularly struck by Enjolras’ death; the barricade spins round, hiding the dead bodies of all the rest of the students, to show him alone on the other side, body hanging as loosely as the revolutionary flag hooked in with him, an image of defeat.

We asked each other afterwards, “did you cry”, and it was interesting how we did so at very different points. My sister said she did at various deaths. For me, it’s certain lines about struggle, loneliness and justice (conceived Platonically), from Javert, Valjean and Éponine. I mean that is what the whole thing is about, as far as I can tell: the conflicting senses of duty on the parts of both Valjean and Javert, the uselessness of youth seen both in the love stories and in the revolution, yet, the romance of said uselessness.

It’s great to travel to London. I couldn’t help but contrast the place with Sheffield city centre where I went for coffee with a friend a day previously.

[1] Because the vast majority of Oxford graduates who don’t stay in Oxford move to London, either to work or to do master’s degrees I find it hard to believe there are any undergraduates there.