This book is about the Cowley Road, which runs for about a mile and a half south east out of Oxford towards a place where they assemble motor cars. Most of it was built up between 1830 and 1940, in many varieties of cheap and sometimes cheerful brickwork for the housing and lodging of ungenteel and downright working-class newcomers needed by but not welcome inside the well-fenced seat of learning across the river Cherwell. The far end crossed a marsh and was colonised and re-routed by Morris car workers between the wars; the dividing line was marked by the grandiose Regal cinema, which dwindled into a bingo hall in the 1970s and is now a huge, padlocked nothing.
The road has a frenetic history still detectable in rebuilt reaches, which may remind Londoners of the many shabby two-storey conduits linking middles to outers all round the capital: the line up of small and transient businesses, the sharp new shopfronts set between dusty declining frontages, shrill political graffiti, posters for musical events slapped up in layers, organic refuse underfoot. Here it is ‘squeezed like toothpaste from a tube’ away from the beautiful city which is stifling with tourism, cack-handed development, corporate greed and heritagitis, and James Attlee thinks his road is a ‘barometer of the health of the nation’ where the cultures of Europe, Asia and the West Indies and North Africa co-operate.
He exaggerates, but this remains one of the last three Oxford thoroughfares with a bit of life in it. For the time being, before the rents shoot up and the developers triumph, it is where you go for foreign fruit, halal meat, exotic dry goods, cheaper domestic wares, direct calls to Dakkar, the Authentic Flavour of Kurdistan and 17 other lands, and all the amenities floating in the wake of the immigration quinquireme. As well as the sex shops, the postcard and stamp specialist, the hard-shell socialism, the Honest Stationery, and the sound of Urdu, Bengali, Chunga Chunga (fidget freezin’ crazy breakin’ funkin’ beats), and of Imperial Leisure (supported by Random Character and Drunken Uncle Bungle); not forgetting Inflatable Buddha. As the author asks, ‘Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?’
So he set off with his tape-recorder and his sensibility and brings back memorable snapshots of some aspects of the road, interspersed with musings on what it all means. The title seems to mean nothing. Isolarion was the name of an exhibition of old maps held at Lund in 2005, and the definition offered by a Miss Tottie is as baffling as no definition at all. A Swedish joke, presumably. In this context it is a signal to warn readers that this is not a guidebook, and if that doesn’t sink in there are frequent scent-markings to remind them to expect more. The Anatomy of Melancholy has to have a look in, but some will protest: enough already with the Adorno, the Walter Benjamin and the Oswald de Andrade. Let them not flinch: the tone varies between that of Mayhew’s London Labour and those helpings of buttoned humour which used to be dished out by Peter Fleming under the name of Strix: the piece on building roads out of superfluous books is pure Strix.
There is also the story of how Mr and Mrs Attlee helped to stop our city councillors from tidying up and rebranding the road as a tourist attraction, and it becomes clear that the author is a force for good when it comes to resisting the drive and the dismal dialect of modernisation. He is a good finder, also; of the pool for purifying women recently opened by a Chabad Hasidic rabbi, of a veteran who remembers the teeming British-Irish Cowley Road between the wars, of the last proper English baker’s shop left in the city, of the lady who paints coppery discs on the sites of abandoned wells, of the long orange sausages made by Moors in Boucherie Chatar, of the Victorian baptismal register from the old workhouse. If only he had known the Regent Billiard Saloon where the mist from below stairs hung over the ravaged tables and the cues and everything else were bent; or the old Princess of Denmark before it was themed as the Hobgoblin; or the last three bookbinders who worked up a cast-iron stairway in a former grocery warehouse; he would have known what to say about them.
But if the road has a motto it is Ubi Nunc? Where is it now? The shops, the people and the mood change with increasing speed. By a miracle, the 14th-century lepers’ chapel of St Bartholomew survives in a time warp down a lane on the edge of a former marsh (evensong 5.15 last Sunday of each month except December); the rest seems poised for a few more years before the descent to the morbid entropy of estate agents, supermarkets, charity shops, simplified eating houses, and cellophaned groceries. The influx of appreciative consumers kills off the thing they love by upping the property values beyond the reach of the immigrants on which it depends. To stiffen the sinews for the rearguard action every Oxonian should buy this book, which is nicely turned out by the Chicago Press although missing two essential parts: a map and an index.