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Travels in Time and Space

Book Review: The Silent Traveller in Oxford, by Chiang Yee
Godfrey Hodgson's foreword to this volume is very useful in setting the context. Chiang Yee left China in 1933 "after a disagreement with a local warlord" and arrived in England. He visited various parts of Britain and settled in London, where his flat was bombed in the Blitz, and he was evacuated to Oxford in 1940 and had lodgings in Jericho.

Chiang writes about the Oxford he encounters, how it reminds him of his homeland, and how it contrasts with it. His focus is very much on nature - trees in Christ Church Meadow, walks in Magdalen Deer Park and on Port Meadow, as well as further afield in the environs of Hinksey and Boar's Hill. The colleges feature frequently, but often a little distantly. (In an interesting example, I think he loses orientation when he is invited into Queen's - his description of the houses is clearly the Drawda buildings, but he describes it as north of the main quadrangle rather than west). Though the writing has the background of wartime, Chiang conveys a convincing sense of quasi-normality, of people coping with altered circumstances. He frequently quotes both Western and Chinese poetry, and supplies some of his own: it's clearly elegant, but I obviously feel that as a non-Chinese speaker, there must be something missing in the translation of the formal structure of the poems (his own poetry appears alongside translations in Chinese script).

As a visual artist, Chiang's line-drawings are precise; his watercolours are enchanting. Often buildings are delineated in great detail, with other features, such as people or traffic on The High, have almost a cartoon-like feel to them. Other paintings of Port Meadow or Youlsbury also combine realism with a distinctive stylistic touch, with curious and inviting perspectives. It's a shame that some of these appear in the book some way from the text which clearly accompanies them, but I presume that is an authentic reproduction of the original arrangement.
Tags: books, oxford
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