Alice Day In Oxford, 9th July 2011

The last time I attended an Alice’s Day in Oxford, in 2009, I spent most of it wandering around lost because I had foolishly ventured out with nothing more than the map on the tourist leaflet to guide me – which was all very well if you were on one of the main thoroughfares which were all that were shown on that map, but if weren’t, it was about as much use as the Bellman’s. Consequently, on this occasion, I came prepared, having laboriously drawn up in advance you a comprehensive list of events and locations and a detailed city centre map marked with all the venues I wanted to attend. I had also time-tabled within an inch of its life a personal itinerary for the day.

But the best laid plans … I had intended to begin the day at the Museum of Natural History (see picture) where there were two lectures and a film all under the auspices of the LCS, the first being at the civilized time of 10.30am. However, I contrived to be late even for this, so missed the majority of Mark Davies’ talk on ‘When the Hatter Met the Red Queen’. It sounded fascinating from the bit I caught at the end, but as he is the author of a book called Alice in Waterland, I think it likely that one would be able to find the information in there that he spoke about on the day.

Lindsay Fulcher introduced the next lecture at 11.15am, ‘Alice in Numberland’ by eminent maths historian and holder of a variety of Professorships, Robin Wilson, author of Carroll in Numberland. He began with a Carrollian number trick (to which the answer is always 1089) then discussed the numerous references to mathematics in the Alice books and other Carrollian works, showing how the subject pervades Carroll’s writing. He spoke about the author’s interest in maths from an early age, and showed us some amusing examples of maths problems in a primer by Francis Walkingame that Carroll would have used and which may well have influenced his own approach to designing such problems in later life. As he got older, Carroll became a fervent supporter of Euclid, and also grew interested in logic, creating The Game of Logic and leaving unfinished at his death the book Symbolic Logic. There was a brief Q&A session at the end of this lecture, and Robin replied on subjects including Venn diagrams and whether other Victorian mathematicians combined sense and nonsense in their work: he said that a few of them used to write ‘pretty dire’ didactic verse from time to time. Thanking him, Lindsay asked rhetorically “Who knew that maths could be fun?” to which Robin countered that millions of people do Soduko every day!

There followed an extra item, a three minute film by The John Mason School, which reminded me a little of the work of Jan Svankmajer but was far less disturbing. The next film was entitled Sincerely Yours, a short art film by Andy Malcolm and George Pastic that covers a year in Carroll’s life when he took up photography and met the Liddell children. However, I had seen it before (it is available on DVD) so I left the venerable halls of the Museum to hurl myself into the bustling throng of Oxford.

My companion and I first went to the Bodleian (see image) to look at the Dali illustrations laid out there in glass cases. They had advertised a storyteller called Peter Chand in the quad, but no times had been posted and he wasn’t there when I was (and nor was his promised Magic Carpet), so I cannot describe his ‘journey to faraway places and magical encounters inspired by Alice’.  

By now, unusually for me, I was a tad peckish, so we made our way to The Vaults for lunch. They, along with several other venues, had advertised a ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ (sic) but the only Carrollian thing I could see inside were some cup cakes with ‘Eat Me’ inscribed in icing on the top for which they were charging £1.60 each. I’d thought this was exorbitant until I got the final bill for my meal afterwards!

Now all but penniless, we headed for The Story Museum to watch a theatre group called Scandalmongers entertain children with Alice-related tales and games, in a courtyard overlooked by giant cardboard cut-outs of Carrollian characters (don’t you just love alliteration) peering from the windows. This was followed by a ‘surreal storyteller” (with an accordion) called Xanthe Gresham. Like a number of the events on the day, it had been promoted as for ‘the family’ but in reality was just for small children: I think the Alice’s Day organizers would do well next year to try to cater for a wider age range, as at the moment it seems to comprise lectures and exhibitions for adults, interactive story telling and theatre for small children, and little in between, or which all ages could enjoy together.

According to my itinerary, we should next have gone to the Museum of the History of Science to see the photographic exhibition, including Carroll’s photographic chemical box, and to have a go at making our own stop motion animated Tea Party film, but we were running late by then, so eschewed that treat and went direct to Oxford Castle to join in a “promenade tour … where you will meet some of the real life historical characters who may have inspired Lewis Carroll …” Once again, this proved to be aimed primarily at young children, so we took a few minutes to sit down and relax in the sunshine instead.

This nevertheless left us ample time to get to The Museum of Oxford before what I thought was its closing time of 5.30 pm. This was the venue I was most interested in visiting, as there were two exhibitions on there: ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ looking at how Alice has inspired different art forms, and ‘An A-Z of Literary Oxford’ which featured personal possessions of both Carroll and Alice as well as other literary links to the city. Consequently, I was deeply disappointed to arrive a minute or two after 5 pm to discover that the museum had closed. My hours of planning and preparation for the day clearly weren’t as thorough as I’d thought!

There was one more event on my itinerary, an ‘adults only’ Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (sic) in a sort of night club called The Living Room at Oxford Castle, running from 7 pm until 2 am. A group of us got there mid-evening, to find ourselves in a very stuffy room with deafening music and two ‘Alice-inspired’ cocktails on offer, one of which cost £12.95. However, there was a long table laden with free food (mainly cake) so I decided that it would be worth the inevitable headache to stay for an hour or two! In addition, there was a large TV screen on the wall showing five Alice films cut together (the two Disney versions, the Cecil Hepworth one from 1903, an all-star American one with people like Telly Savalas in it, and a charming old black and white one that I’d never seen before) so that you got to see each event several times in succession (Alice following the White Rabbit, falling down the Rabbit Hole, meeting the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, etc.) as the story progressed. A very interesting idea, and I wish I could have seen it with the sound on, and with less ambient noise from the late night revelers who – despite some of them being dressed up as her -- inexplicably seemed to be more interested in drinking and listening to thunderously repetitive music than in Alice!

Of course there were numerous other events during the Day that I did not manage to get to. Mark Davies was leading fact-filled riverside walks both on the Friday evening and on Alice’s Day itself; there were ‘parties’ and ‘workshops’ and theatre and storytelling events for children at a number of places throughout the day, including the Ashmolean Museum and the Botanic Gardens; there were Wonderland ‘activities’ at both Blackwell’s Bookshop and Waterstones, in Broad Street; and about 4 miles outside town at a place called Science Oxford Live, there was an ‘Alice’s Day Discovery Zone’ with interactive science exhibits. A little further afield, some 10 miles away, Millet’s Farm Centre was hosting the inevitable ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ (sic, again), but more interestingly have a maize maze which is to have an Alice theme for the next two years. It didn’t open until 15 July, but sounds worth a visit if anyone is in the area.

So the fourth Alice’s Day drew to an end, and I am already looking forward to the fifth. Admittedly I have some criticisms, mentioned above, but taking the event as a whole, it is a fantastic day out and so gratifying to see the city of Oxford paying tribute to one of its most famous residents in this way. I spotted a few friendly LCS faces in the lecture at the beginning of the day, but sadly did not run into any of them later, and I hope they enjoyed themselves as much as I did. And I hope a lot more LCS members will be able to make it next year, when we will be marking the 150th anniversary of the story being told for the first time. I might even go to a Mad (Hatter’s) Tea Party!