Photographer Arturo Soto shares an exclusive extract from his new book – textual fragments and images offering a counter-narrative to the city of Oxford
Images come with a promise; words with a compromise. The rewards of both lie in the affinities they create, as long as we distinguish reality from reality, as my friend Matías once said while having beers on the lawn of St Catherine’s College (Catz).
Can I say something meaningful about this city if I do not read the local newspaper frequently? I am tempted to start a compendium of frivolous headlines from the Oxford Mail, similar to what Félix Fénéon did in Novels in Three Lines. I decide against it in the end, but it comes as a relief to find out that even the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ has some thorny stuff going on.
The only ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Oxford is Mission Burrito, whose slogan is “Authentic Burritos passed on from Mexico via San Francisco to the UK.” That should serve as enough warning, but the place does surprisingly well. To add insult to injury, it is mostly staffed by Spaniards, and the music selection alternates between Colombian cumbias, Cuban son, and Puerto Rican reggaeton.
I quickly become friends with a British-Brazilian guy who is a great wingman when drunk. We seldom discuss politics, although we sometimes talk about history. He seems to be very knowledgeable about the Holocaust. He messages me the morning after the Brexit referendum to celebrate the result, which makes me realize that I do not know him well enough. We argue for hours via text messages. His arguments borrow anti-fascist expressions that he spins around against Remainers. The conversation goes nowhere, and we fall out after that. Our friendship does not survive our ideological differences. I sometimes see him at The Half Moon, but we have not spoken since.
I was once queuing at Hassan’s kebab van when a guy opened his window at Balliol College across the street to yell out his order. It was promptly taken and delivered, undercutting several customers. It seemed like he had done this before, which is in line with the deeds of remarkable alumni like Boris Johnson and Julian Lewis.
Photographers can either carry their cameras at all times or lament the pictures they missed. An example of the latter: the adverts on the phone booths at the corner of St Clement’s and Glebe Street happened to contrast beautifully with their discolored door handles, one of which is pink, the other one green. Once the adverts changed, the scene’s color scheme was no longer complementary. Another example: I sneaked into St John’s College on a foggy afternoon to walk around the quads and spotted a giant log behind a gated garden resting amidst the debris of its demise. The winter light gave the scene a gothic look. When I returned with my camera a couple of days later, the log had been removed, and I did not see the point of taking a picture of a beautiful garden.
The University’s guidelines stipulate that students have to live within twenty-five miles from Carfax Tower. The rule is rarely enforced with doctoral students, many of whom rather keep their cosmopolitan London lives. Some even commute from Amsterdam, Berlin, or Zurich just for the graduate seminars. They are usually unimpressed by the quality of coffee here and return to their havens as soon as possible.
For many, the experience of controlled rurality is an essential part of their life in Oxford. Some locals even find places like Port Meadow more exciting than the historical city center. I believe what makes this place so unique are its buildings, not the trees and the cows nearby, although I hear that some of the birds that migrate near here are genuinely fascinating.
There are very few places to sit – benches, steps, planters, ledges – in the city center. In the film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte describes how squares, plazas, and parks that offer such amenities promote human interaction, contributing to a civil environment. This leads me to think that the unavailability of these fixtures in Oxford is a purposeful method of alienating people and reinforcing a hierarchical relation between town and gown by the colleges. Some of these benches, like the ones outside of Trinity College, seem perpetually occupied. Others, like the ones at Friars Entry, have been removed to install bike racks, although I suspect the real reason the council replaced them was the homeless people that congregated around them.
I like to eat on the steps of the Martyrs’ Memorial at sunset, but only if tourists have not left it too dirty. The view is fantastic, with the Ashmolean Museum to the left and the forking paths ahead. The way Banbury Road curves past the trees by St John’s College makes it seem that the splendor of the city center extends for miles.
A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published by the Eriskay Connection, September 2021