The picture to the left is a portrait of Charles Dodgson (i.e., Lewis Carroll), which I took a few weeks ago on July 7th, “Alice’s Day,” a celebration of the sesquicentennial of Dodgson’s famous boat-ride from Oxford to Godstow. During the summer of 1862, while Union forces were battling their way north to secure the Mississippi, Dodgson was rowing along the Thames and telling Alice Liddell and her sisters for the first time the story that would be published a few years later as Alice in Wonderland. As the book opens,
All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretense
Our wanderings to guide.
The portrait hangs in the Great Hall at Christchurch (the college where Dodgson taught and whose head was Henry Liddell, Alice’s father), but most of this year’s Alice’s Day events took place in the Christchurch Meadow.
From the amount of hype in the weeks leading up to Alice Day, you would have thought the Meadow would be the site of a great big blow-out, but no. It looked as though the organizers had woken up that morning and thought, “Oh damn, is that today?” and threw some things together at the last moment. Aside from a few locals dressed up as Mad Hatters and such, nothing really Wonderland-y was happening. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the lack of naked capitalist aggression. Where I was certain that we would be queuing up for expensive rides on the Caterpillar or shelling out £15 a pop for cotton-poly Cheshire Cat T-shirts, there was just nothing there at all, not even over-priced drinks.
The Olympics presented a similar phenomenon, and memorabilia was actually hard to find this summer. Much of this had to do with the vigilance of LOCOG, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, whose avowed job was to crack down on non-authorized use of the Olympic logo and generally to be the Ministry of No Fun. One Saturday, I did manage to make my way down to the John Lewis Department Store in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre, from which you could peer into the Olympic Village and, at long last, score some official Olympic swag.
The crowds were vast at John Lewis, and in order to see the Village (which turns out to be, thrillingly, a bunch of tents), I was “processed” along with everybody else to the Viewing Platform by way of a long, circuitous maze through the clothing, candy and linens departments. It was during these moments, passing by portraits of Her Majesty rendered in Jelly Bean or throw-pillows reading A Right Royal Knees Up that I begin to recall a few lines from Carroll.
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
But even pressed up against the department store glass, looking through it at a bunch of tents while Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now played on continuous loop, I don’t think this was the biggest throng I experienced this summer in England.
No, that privilege belongs to Alice’s Day. If you look at my picture of Carroll’s portrait above again, you can see reflected in it the image of a great crowd in Christchurch’s Great Hall, which was, of course, the filming location for many of the scenes in Harry Potter. Ordinarily it costs £8 to get in for a gander at the Great Hall, but admission happened to be free on Alice’s Day and, as a result, the press of people inside was overwhelming. Safe upon his perch on the wall, I think, Charles Dodgson is casting an amused sidelong glance down upon all of us.