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A Different Oxford Journey

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.

Read an excerpt.

296 pages | 1 map | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2007

Travel and Tourism: Travel Writing and Guides


“I have written much about the streets of Oxford myself, but seldom so perceptively or interestingly as Attlee. Anyone who can drag Lucretius, Susanna, Bathsheba, and St. Jerome into a Cowley Road porn shop deserves our attention and admiration.”

Colin Dexter, OBE

“I have never read a better book about Oxford—its oddities and eccentricities. The peripatetic local form of James Attlee’s delightful book makes it a storehouse of information as well as a joy to read for its wit and humor.”

John Bayley

"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."


"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

"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

"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

"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

"[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

"Attlee captures the essence of this city better than any tour bus ever could."

Paul Kingsnorth | Independent

“Attlee paints an iridescent picture of a new Oxford that no guide book has yet captured.”

Richard B. Woodward | New York 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 | London Times

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

Bruce Elder | Sydney Morning Herald

"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 | Architect's Journal

Table of Contents

Of Music and Cannibalism       
Doing My Part 
The Melancholy Pilgrim
Bread and Circuses     
Boucherie Chatar         
Designated Desire-Lines: Planning a New Road           
Further Purification of the Pilgrim          
Of Love and Jewels     
Behind the Blue Door (Inside the Private Shop)
From the Literal to the Allegorical and Back     
Wittgenstein’s Lion and a Cappuccino Sea       
Virtual Streets and Gateways: The Plans Revisited        
Cosmonauts and Coleslaw
St. Edmund’s Well and a Faded Warning         
Making Do and Getting By      
Egyptian Vagabonds, Afternoon Men, and the Malus Genius of Our Nation    
Losing the Key
Bed-Sits and Birardari
What They Think You Can Bear: Football, Religion, and Nightmares on the Cowley Road        
Between Two Fires: Pulling the Dragon’s Teeth
Melancholy, an American Photographer, and the Irish Writer    
Cowley Road Calling   
Just Less Lucky           
Dreadlocks and Rim-Shots: Reggae at the Zodiac        
Of Lepers, Lunatics, and Layabouts     
Dancing Sand and Zum-Zum Water    
Junior Jihad     
Of Books and Bitumen
Returning to the Source
A Journey in the Hinterland      
Into the Furnace          
Blessings and Tribulation          
A Graveyard Reborn   
Finding a Clue 
Of Bats and Mutton Curry       
Margaret’s Story         
A Hidden Pool
The Liquid Kingdom    
The Gateways Close    
Of Robots, Wild Rhubarb, and the New Oxford Way  
Things Fall Apart: An Ending of Sorts

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