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Through the centuries, people from all walks of life have heard the siren call of a pilgrimage, the lure to journey away from the familiar in search of understanding. But is a pilgrimage even possible these days for city-dwellers enmeshed in the pressures of work and family life? Or is there a way to be a pilgrim without leaving one’s life behind? James Attlee answers these questions with Isolarion, a thoughtful, streetwise, and personal account of his pilgrimage to a place he thought he already ...

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Through the centuries, people from all walks of life have heard the siren call of a pilgrimage, the lure to journey away from the familiar in search of understanding. But is a pilgrimage even possible these days for city-dwellers enmeshed in the pressures of work and family life? Or is there a way to be a pilgrim without leaving one’s life behind? James Attlee answers these questions with Isolarion, a thoughtful, streetwise, and personal account of his pilgrimage to a place he thought he already knew—the Cowley Road in Oxford, right outside his door.

Isolarion takes its title from a type of fifteenth-century map that isolates an area in order to present it in detail, and that’s what Attlee, sharp-eyed and armed with tape recorder and notebook, provides for Cowley Road. The former site of a leper hospital, a workhouse, and a medieval well said to have miraculous healing powers, Cowley Road has little to do with the dreaming spires of the tourist’s or student’s Oxford. What Attlee presents instead is a thoroughly modern, impressively cosmopolitan, and utterly organic collection of shops, restaurants, pubs, and religious establishments teeming with life and reflecting the multicultural makeup of the surrounding neighborhood.

From a sojourn in a sensory-deprivation tank to a furtive visit to an unmarked pornography emporium, Attlee investigates every aspect of the Cowley Road’s appealingly eclectic culture, where halal shops jostle with craft jewelers and reggae clubs pulsate alongside quiet churchyards. But the very diversity that is, for Attlee, the essence of Cowley Road’s appeal is under attack from well-meaning city planners and predatory developers. His pilgrimage is thus invested with melancholy: will the messy glories of the Cowley Road be lost to creeping homogenization?

Drawing inspiration from sources ranging from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy to contemporary art, Attlee is a charming and companionable guide who revels in the extraordinary embedded in the everyday. Isolarion is at once a road movie, a quixotic stand against uniformity, and a rousing hymn in praise of the complex, invigorating nature of the twenty-first-century city.

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Editorial Reviews

Architect's Journal

"It''s now a familiar story of the local versus the global; the tide of increasing uniformity as chains proliferate and streets succumb to banal prescriptions. . . . But Attlee tells the story vividly and well, and it''s a book that anyone concerned for the future of their own town''s Cowley Road could read with profit."

— Andrew Mead

"The fish-out-of water travelogue is a staple of the bookstore, but Attlee . . . has set himself a different task: to be the fish, and to give a detailed description of the properties of the water. . . . Attlee''s reading is deep and wide and engagingly circuitous, and this book frequently provides the delights of discovery that make any adventure worth undertaking."—Rebecca Mead, Bookforum

— Rebecca Mead

"A gem. . . . James Attlee''s scholarly, reflective and sympathetic journey up the Cowley Road is one of the best travel books that has been written about Britain''s oldest university city. It is not—at least not directly—the Oxford of punts and gowns. His raw material is diversity: the Cowley Road as a corner of the outside world, where change and excitement are squeezed into the cramped hinterland of the scholarly theme park of the city centre. . . . .The result blends a vivid account of daily life, fluid and unsettling, in a modern British town with powerful allegorical reflections on the connections between past and present, time and space, and high culture and the hard scrabble world that sustains it. Oxford may be the city of lost causes, and this book is indeed ambitious; it could easily sound sententious or twee. But it works, gloriously."—Economist
Financial Times

"In this offbeat, personal exploration of his city, James Attlee takes not only the historic colleges but the prosaic Cowley Road in east Oxford as his chosen map. . . . Isolarion, despite its title, is about engagement. Attlee shows the hidden beauty of the plural society: ''To put it simply, this is what I love about the moment in history I inhabit.''"--Isabel Berwick, Financial Times

— Isabel Berwick


"The subtitle [of Isolarion] promises ''a different Oxford journey,'' one confining itself to the Cowley Road in east Oxford. The attraction, for Attlee, is that the Cowley Road ''is both unique and nothing special''; the resulting book is unique and very special. . . . Residents of East Oxford can be proud to have this eccentric advocated and eloquent explorer in their midst."--Geoff Dyer, Guardian

— Geoff Dyer


"Attlee captures the essence of this city better than any tour bus ever could."—Paul Kingsnorth, Independent

— Paul Kingsnorth

London Times

"Attlee''s encounters lead to thoughtful investigations of the human condition. . . . Through observation and comparison, of ritual, belief and family, Attlee reinforces the common needs of humanity. . . . In an age in which air travel opens up the world, and holidays are to escape the mundane, Attlee encourages us to look at the riches on our doorstep. . . . The end of our journey as humankind is not known, but Isolarion provides an invaluable guide to how to progress along the way."

— Elizabeth Garner

National Geographic Traveler

"Attlee grabs our hand and drags us down Cowley Road in Oxford, determined to prove that it is not a stuffy, medieval, Masterpiece Theatre town. All the messy glories of Cowley Road—pubs and porn shops alike—come to life in this work, which becomes a meditation on home and the nature of pilgrimage."—National Geographic Traveler

New York Times

“Attlee paints an iridescent picture of a new Oxford that no guide book has yet captured.”—Richard B. Woodward, New York Times

— Richard B. Woodward


"[James Attlee] asks, ''Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?'' So he sets 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. . . . 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. . . . 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."—Eric Christiansen, Spectator

— Eric Christiansen

Sydney Morning Herald

"The vignettes, like marks on a painting by a pointillist, eventually coalesce to become a beautiful work of art."

— Bruce Elder

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781459605695
  • Publisher: ReadHowYouWant
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Pages: 438
  • Product dimensions: 0.89 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 7.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Attlee works in art publishing in London and is the coauthor of Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements     xi
Introduction     xiii
First Partition
Embarkation     3
Purification     8
Of Music and Cannibalism     11
Doing My Part     19
The Melancholy Pilgrim     21
Bread and Circuses     30
Boucherie Chatar     37
Designated Desire-Lines: Planning a New Road     40
Further Purification of the Pilgrim     48
Enrobed     55
Of Love and Jewels     60
Behind the Blue Door (Inside the Private Shop)     66
From the Literal to the Allegorical and Back     72
Wittgenstein's Lion and a Cappuccino Sea     78
Virtual Streets and Gateways: The Plans Revisited     84
Cosmonauts and Coleslaw     93
St. Edmund's Well and a Faded Warning     97
Second Partition
Making Do and Getting By     105
Egyptian Vagabonds, Afternoon Men, and the Malus Genius of Our Nation     113
Losing the Key     118
Bed-Sits and Birardari     122
What They Think You Can Bear: Football, Religion, and Nightmares on the Cowley Road     129
Between Two Fires: Pulling the Dragon's Teeth     133
Melancholy, an AmericanPhotographer, and the Irish Writer     141
Cowley Road Calling     143
Just Less Lucky     145
Dreadlocks and Rim-Shots: Reggae at the Zodiac     152
Of Lepers, Lunatics, and Layabouts     158
Dancing Sand and Zum-Zum Water     171
Junior Jihad     176
Of Books and Bitumen     177
Carnival     179
Returning to the Source     186
Third Partition
A Journey in the Hinterland     197
Into the Furnace     200
Blessings and Tribulation     205
A Graveyard Reborn     215
Finding a Clue     220
Of Bats and Mutton Curry     223
Margaret's Story     227
A Hidden Pool     234
The Liquid Kingdom     245
The Gateways Close     248
Of Robots, Wild Rhubarb, and the New Oxford Way     252
Things Fall Apart: An Ending of Sorts     269
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