Center City



Painting Eyes




Exalting Towers




Blurry Pictures

Entirely Myself

Preface & Reader Response

Where you find yourself is but one step from where you need to go.



Phases of Astonishment


by Jerry Murley

Chapters: i | ii | iii | I | II | III | IV

by Jerry Murley

It would have been remarkable if I had been associated with the family beforehand or worthy of note myself. It is more remarkable because I was close to being a complete stranger, taken in with unknown expectations at the request of the mother's brother, then working in Memphis and associated in some business way with my father. This family gave me England and asked not one thing in return. I still marvel at the generosity offered to a low and lonely foreign boy over forty years ago.

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So accustomed to the countryside of the south of England by that point – with its dark-green gently rolling farmland divided into geometric shapes by stone or hedge enclosures, interspersed with tufts of woodland, villages and small circles of farm cottages – I read a Faulkner novel during my entire journey to Oxford for the first time. In retrospect, I dearly wish I had not. [1]

Oxford was a closely packed, rustic-looking town. We walked through Christ Church, under the dark gothic arches of the chilly walkways, past the doors of the tutors' rooms and the eating hall, under the natural arches of giant trees lining the dirt road running along the Christ Church courtyard, to the Isis river for a picnic. Then I circumambulated the green along the riverside. I went by the deer park behind Magdelan College and then along the city wall guarding New College, one of the oldest colleges in Britain. (I was not sure if the city wall originally was meant to protect the city from the students or vise versa, or if it was to protect the citizens and the students from armed dissidents during and following the Hundred Years' War, for without modern-day diversions, I assumed that drunken and religious rampage was a pastime of the era.)

While in my first month abroad in England, I was the guest of a family in Cheam. The oldest daughter, Mary, whom I had only recently met, shared a flat with four or five young people near Camberwell Green in London. She and her flat mates allowed me to stay in the small bedroom of one of the flat mates who was traveling outside of the city. I had the pleasure of their open and intelligent company and conversation, shared meals, and a plentiful supply of books. At night I read novels, studied English history, and tried to learn beginners' Italian. (I recommend the study of Italian, for it is a simple language with delightful words and pure, clear sounds.) On Thursday, back in London after the day trip to Oxford, I read all day and did my washing and cleaned up the flat a bit; I had developed a cold just two days after bragging defiantly to myself about my sturdy constitution despite the damp weather.

Friday I took a bus to Oxford Circus in central London. First, I browsed through shops looking for a white straw hat, like Rupert Birkin wore in Women in Love, for my upcoming journey to Italy. Afterward I went to Bierwick to the street market and bought a quarter pound of Stilton cheese and a banana; then I went to a pub for a pint of bitter and my 10p-worth of fruit-and-cheese lunch. From there I went to see a movie. After the movie I ran into a Spanish writer living in London whom I had met the week before; he invited me to dinner and to look him up in France in July. That night after a supper of curry and rice I went to the pub and watched part of a Marx Brothers movie on television.

Saturday I got a lift to Clapham Junction station for a weekend trip to Cheam. I took about 15 pounds of my luggage back to my host family's house for storage. The family had invited me on a trip with them on Sunday to take their daughter Alison to Cambridge. [2] Luckily, I only had to wait 30 minutes for a train, even though at the moment the rail workers were staging a slowdown and threatening a strike that would virtually cripple Britain. I played chess and tennis, ate and read all day only to be mercilessly attacked by my cold again that night.

Sunday we drove to Cambridge, but on the way we stopped at Alison's friend's house. His name was Julian. He was an accomplished lutist who was to play Italian ballads Monday night in a concert at the Purcell Room. At the time, he had recorded two albums of Elizabethan chamber music and he built lutes.

It was sunny and warm Sunday, which was a novelty. I walked all afternoon along The Backs, but unfortunately there were so many visitors, students and students' parents, I refrained from picture taking. Then I went to Alison's college and had champagne with her and her friends. Later I ate supper and talked with her until about 10:30 p.m. – her family had gone back home at about 5 p.m.

Alison and I proceeded to hitchhike from there to King's College, where I was to stay the night with a student. Dere's room, to my surprise and delight, was located in the entrance gate tower of King's College. During a number of rounds of hot tea, I listened to a heated discussion and the tactical planning of Dere, a Welsh nationalist, and Steve, an expat American who had been in Brittany at a monastery over the holidays trying to stimulate Breton people to resist the domination of French culture and thus prevent the demise of their own Celtic language.

Monday I was awakened by the lively movements of young students settling back into the traditions of Cambridge life two days before the term resumed. Dere and I kicked around the problems of Anglo-American mass-technical society for about two and a half hours over tea. (I found that British youth were very pleasant and lively conversationalists; they basically appeared to think discussion is for understanding and creation rather than self-defense. Where did they get that quaint notion?) From Dere's I went again to King's College Chapel, the elegant pinnacle of English Perpendicular Gothic architecture. Afterward I wandered aimlessly and briskly through the Fitzwilliam Museum, hunted for a cap, and then went to Dere's for lunch. At 1 p.m. I started hitchhiking to London, for I had to be back for Julian's concert at 7:30 p.m. I got a ride with a history teacher, and after an interesting conversation, a two-hour ride, thirty minutes on the Tube, and an hour walk, I arrived at the flat at 4 p.m.

By Tuesday my cold had steadily worsened, so I stayed in most of the day and read. To be sure, I defeated the purpose by spending part of the night in a pub. Such was a bad day in London, reading all day before a trip to the local pub.

Wednesday I had almost decided to stay in when I remembered that I had a luncheon engagement at Alvaro Pombo's, the Spanish philosophy student and would-be writer. Alvaro lived in a dark one-room flat, comfortably stuffed with old furnishings and cloaked in the faint aroma of previous meals. He cooked hamburgers and sausages. I noted the difficult adaptations he made in order to prepare food on hot plates in the absence of a kitchen. We talked over whiskey and hot tea until 2:30 p.m., at which time he had a Latin lesson. As I left Alvaro's flat and rounded the corner of his quiet neighborhood, I was met with billowing black smoke and orange flames against a deep-gray sky. A long row of identical flats was ablaze and firemen were soundlessly at work.

From Alvaro's I went to the Victorian and Albert Museum, where he met me later. The museum was much too big for only one late afternoon, so I went through the British clothing and furniture sections, the weapons section, and saw some fine neo-classical chalk drawings by William Mulready. The drawings were interesting primarily in the distinctness of line and shadow, but they were academic studies lacking any real pull. I saw an over-sized collection, in the prevailing Victorian taste, consisting of plaster casts of Continental cathedral facades, Michelangelo's "David" and "Moses", etc. – pure perversity given how nearby the originals were. Alvaro extended another invitation to me, this time to Madrid in September to stay with his parents, and I tentatively accepted.

On Thursday, the day my letter home was written, I stayed at the flat all day. I vowed to rid myself of my cold for good, for May would carry me to Italy.

* * *

Reading this packed travelogue fills me with bemusement. Pretense and naivety are everywhere in evidence, but as usual completely harmless and excusable. However, the sentiments, insights, and eagerness are anything but trivial. Knowing nothing, expecting much, and being lucky enough to drift through such splendor, a youth casually collecting daffodils in glorious spring – all were the essence of being a young man not at war. Untimely illness did much bodily and psychological damage prior to my journey, but that slap in the face, cushioned by a smattering of education, opened a world never before imagined, a basket of splendor as fresh and wondrous today as it was over forty years ago. The Internet has its charms and usefulness, but faces, voices, bodies, buildings, drawings, and paintings – real life – have far greater draw and staying power.

This planet of ours is not ordained a drab and vicious place, though it seems so at times. A man's path broadens where fields, streams, and cultures flourish, where people nurture and harvest with skill and respect. Ours is more than a passive seat from which to watch the interminable tossing of dirty laundry. Our lot, instead, is constant cause for astonishment.

Young man and woman, go forth, see and be amid the living, thriving world. Where you find yourself is but one step from where you need to go. Head west or east, south or north, but go! Only then will you know home and prize it.

[ Next Chapter ]

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1. As clearly and eagerly confessed early in this series, most of what is written here is adapted (lifted wholesale) from letters home. The primary source for this account is a letter home to a friend.

2. I have not heard from Alison since I left England in December 1972, though I have heard sketches of her life from her mother in over forty years of annual Christmas correspondence. I know that Alison started weaving baskets in Ireland. She teaches at Priory Cottages in Benburb.


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