Archive for the 'The Oxford Correspondent' Category

Browsing in Blackwell’s

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Blackwells must be the world’s best bookshop, surely? I know that lots of people have favourite bookshops but I feel pretty lucky that Blackwells mother ship in Oxford is my local. I go there to soothe my soul. It’s a Russian doll of a shop – eccentric at first sight because the shop front has two front doors and windows divided by a pub. The bigger of the entrances leads on to a rather old fashioned bookshop, quite large but no superstore. Should you descend the modest staircase signposted to the Norrington Room you will emerge into a vast underground room, with a well which leads to another level below and then, another below that. It is situated under the quad of Trinity College which is its neighbour.

Blackwell’s is an ordered world in which no-one is hassled because they have sat reading a book for too long. Indeed, there are armchairs in odd corners encouraging it. And this being Oxford, there’s an awful lot of work by local authors. Our old bookshop in Blackheath Village used to make a fuss of a book by a local author with special labels cut in the shape of a star but Blackwell’s would have to have a complete galaxy if did the same. One Christmas I had the experience of buying two copies of book for presents and then, coming across the author of those books, sitting quietly in detective fiction.

I love browsing the bookshelves, taking a book off the shelf and sitting in a corner dipping in to get the feel of the book. Today on the table as I went in, was Good Food for Everyone by Colin Tudge – a science writer, philosopher, advocate of good food and friend. I was reminded that I owe him and his wife dinner soon. The next book that I picked up was Treasure Islands, the Truth About Tax Havens. The label said “frightening and true”. It looks completely engaging and from a brief look, confirms my feelings about Jersey, which are that it is a dull island overwhelmed by moneyed people with no taste. And then, Anthony Seldon’s book on Gordon Brown – a heavy hardback. If I had difficulty picking it up, I had more difficultly putting it down.

Blackwell’s is for me a great temptation. I can easily walk out having bought a dozen books. But this is a problem. Our house is full of books; ours, our own, some inherited, some from relatives, some of our children’s. I am constantly trying to thin them out and am a regular at the Oxfam bookshop. I have a tottering pile of books by my bed, all of them waiting to be read.

I’m actually a fan of digital books although I don’t, as yet, have a Kindle. Being able to store all those books online would be terrific. And I’d be able to find a book there with ease. Often, I know I have a book SOMEWHERE but when I try to find it on one of the bookshelves it can’t be found. On occasion I’ve bought a second hand copy of a book that I know for certain is somewhere in the house.

But if everyone used Kindles and books in their current form were superseded, whatever would happen to bookshops? No electronic version will ever be as tempting as a book on a shelf. The wandering around and picking up books introduces me to a whole range of subjects and authors that I wouldn’t necessarily find otherwise. Walking through travel writing on my way to politics means I am distracted by the covers and the labels into reading a book on walking in India, on living in Spain or on the medieval villages of the Lot Valley. Going to the cash point means seeing beguiling titles in the science section or beautiful covers on botanical works.

I don’t have an answer. I love that bookshop but I don’t want to live in one. I like to keep my books but don’t have either the shelf space or the dusting time. An electronic reader helps out a lot with that but I want to keep the bookshop. Perhaps in an ideal world, I’d buy a book and get an electronic version at the same time. I could read the proper book, send it to Oxfam afterwards and then keep the electronic version. Would that work? Whatever, I’ll still spend happy times in Blackwell’s whenever I can and be excited to bring a bag of books home to add to my tottering, ‘to read’ pile.

A Duck story

Monday, July 27th, 2009

I’ve always been very fond of ducks. They’re essentially rather jolly creatures I always think and I like that slightly aggrieved brurk brurk noise they make. The ducklings are essence of cute, the males are blokey in a duck sort of a way and the females always seem busy and slightly cross.

When I was at primary school we kept ducks as class pets and one summer we looked after them at home during the long break. My mother adored the ducks who would follow her around when she was gardening so she could feed them worms. She would cook an evil smelling stew of vegetables and pea pods specially for them and they showed their affection for her by eating the stuff with apparent enthusiasm. It was of great sorrow to my mother when these well-fed, organic creatures went missing from their duck house just before Christmas.

Yes, I know a couple of them are geese

Yes, I know a couple of them are geese

On my way home through the local park I watched the large numbers of ducks busying around the pond and noted the ducklings are obviously at the gawky teenage stage. What I also noted was that the ducks were all girls – I don’t think I saw a single lad. G suggested that maybe all the male ducks were gathering somewhere at a gay duck convention. He referred me to a rather beastly story about a Dutch museum, two ducks and an Ig noble prize (see what I did there). I found it in The Guardian so it must be true although I’m a little sad to think it might be. Just shows one shouldn’t anthropomorphise too much – one can be so disappointed.

..lude sing cuckoo

Monday, May 4th, 2009
May morning Oxford

May morning Oxford

A young colleague of mine arrived at work on May morning and told me that she’d just been assaulted by a Morris dancer! I think she was more surprised than upset at having been slapped on the bottom by a man with flowers in his hat, bells on at his knees and smile on his face

If you live long enough in a place it gets to be normal. I’ve lived nearly 15 years in Oxford and accept all sorts of strange things which in the real world might be considered very abnormal.

May 1 is a very particular day. The Magdalen choir sing from the top of their tower and, having spent several years getting up at 4.00 am on Mayday to escort a chorister to his important day, I’ve grown very fond of this somewhat eccentric but certainly charming ritual. They sing the Hymnus Eurcharisticus and Summer is icumen in with the line, I have been informed by my choir expert, lude sing cuckoo. Perhaps it should have been lewdly..

I’ve heard the choir sing to blue skies in warm breezes and also battle against winds on the swaying tower against slate skies. On that particular year we’d been invited to watch and hear from one of the other College towers. The experience must have been a bit like that of a Spartan son, exposed to the elements to toughen up.

And the Morris men, and women. On May 1 in Oxford the full English country folk tradition is on show. There are the Morris troupes, known as sides and the men (I think they’re men) dressed as trees. I arrived at work to find a congregation of groups gathering outside the next door College.

I’m not going to reference the well-known quote about incest and Morris dancing. I’m going to suggest looking at this trailer for a film with a wonderful cast which can’t get mainstream distribution – it’s been going around the church halls. I think it may have managed to combine several English traditions – Morris dancing, a certain knee-jerk embarrassment for our own traditions, and an English way of managing such things – through self-deprecating humour. It might also mean we look at Morris men in a different light – just like my work colleague probably will.

Summer in the small city

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Ah here comes summer. And here come the summer visitors – huge groups of teenagers from all over the world who take over the streets of Oxford. I swear there are more this year than ever before. I hate to be someone who moans about tourists – I’m planning on being one myself shortly – but with the best will in the world (which I don’t actually have) it would be difficult not to snort a bit when plastered like a flattened fly against the walls of Christchurch as a group of about 90 Spanish kids flooded down the pavement toward me as I attempted to walk into town.

Many of them come for the language schools which is good for the local economy but not always good for the locals. Just like that bulging financial section in London. It does sometimes occur to me that just because you can transport hundreds of kids from country to country doesn’t mean you have to.

Several of the groups are given a sort of Oxford quiz when they arrive to orientate them. They are meant to find out facts about the town and university. This means that hordes of Chinese girls and Spanish lads ambush locals like me with a seemingly innocent question – “do you live here” which they then follow with a slightly harder one “which college is that” and then proceed if allowed to ask every question on the sheet “when was Balliol college founded, where is the Martyrs memorial” and so on. The culmination this week was looking out of the window by my desk on the ground floor to see about 10 faces crowding it several of which were shouting through the narrow, open gap “how old is Balliol College.” I know that travel is said to broaden the mind. I hope it broadens theirs because it sure as hell is narrowing mine.

If the groups aren’t finding out facts about an ancient university, they are moving in great groups often with identifying clothing or accessories. The pics are just two of visiting groups which appealed.

Strangely, for July, the sun has been shining and this is the anniversary of the great summer floods of Oxford. Last week the colleges had an open day and even — gasp, began to draw attention to themselves. Jesus actually had a banner outside which said, I hope, welcome to Jesus but I thought Lincoln college had a nice Oxford touch (it’s the picture in the middle). When I first moved here it would take a lot more than rushing up to passers by asking which college was which to find out – many colleges had no name plates as far as I could see and it took me a good year to find out. I’m glad it’s changed but there is a challenge for a town like this, between the working university, the commercial town and increasingly the entrepreneurial university which also entertains large numbers of people in the summer. For the moment, I’m quite glad I live in the unfashionable part of the town, south of the river.

Then I saw it, now it I don’t!

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

I went to look up my quote from The First Post a few days after posting and hey – it had disappeared. So, as I am reminded by my publisher husband, I should have added that it was downloaded on Sunday 8 June. I didn’t make it up – really.

No hiding place

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

A few weeks ago I was a little concerned when a creature dressed in the distinctive plumage of his class passed me on my way back from work to my south of the river home. I was pretty certain I’d spotted a member of the Bullingdon Club, a notorious group which has had more publicity that in probably deserves because Dave Cameron and Boris Johnson were both members. Only the very wealthy students get invited to join –the “uniform” which includes a pink tailcoat costs north of £3000.

When I looked up Bullingdon club I found the Wikipedia entry which covers it rather well I thought

“The Bullingdon Club is a socially exclusive student dining club at Oxford University, without any permanent rooms, infamous for its members’ wealth and destructive binges. Membership is by invitation only, and prohibitively expensive for most, given the need to pay for the uniform, dinners and damages”

More wordy but perhaps more informative is The First Post about David Cameron.

“At Oxford, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, which is pretty much the embodiment of the very worst of the public school character: an arrogant contempt towards the “lower orders” (porters, waiters, scouts); a yobbish criminality; and a wallowing in utterly undeserved and unmerited privilege. It’s viciousness tempered by cretinism, and the strongest argument for class war I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen a few”

Imagine then my feelings when last week the peace of a summer night was breached by drunken singing. It’s not the singing I object to – I’ve always been a south of the river type and happy to be lulled to sleep by the reassuring sound of police sirens, foul language and breaking glass. Rather it was a line of tuneless song carried clearly through the limpid night – “we don’t give a fuck what you think – we are the famous Bullingdon”.

Oh damn. There goes the neighbourhood.

Shock horror

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

On the way downSo, thank goodness, we didn’t get flooded although number 2 son did manage to get himself electrocuted wading through water and treading on a live wire, exposed when a traffic bollard had become dislodged. Happily, when I found him in the emergency room at the hospital he was vying with his chum to make ‘this is rather shocking’ type jokes. A photographer was passing (as they so often are) and took several pictures of the action which Max then showed me. Having got over the panic of a sizzling son, I saw the picture of him, rigid and lying in the water and found it very disturbing. And of course, it made me think again about pictures and publicity. If I had seen the picture dispassionately I would have thought it was brilliant and it certainly conveyed the event far more eloquently than words could. I’ve personally taken the ‘use the off button’ view so although it is on the photographer’s web site, I’m not going to advertise it.

The flood time or non flood time in our case was rather strange. Our main road was closed so we could cycle freely and the Head of the River Pub was almost empty. By Folly Bridge the narrow boat, moored hastily as the waters rose, was abandoned to the river as they went down. It’s still there and fast becoming a local sight.

The River Rises

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

I’m often told that I live in a beautiful place and it is true. One of the most attractive things about Grandpont is the proximity to the river which is about three minutes walk from where I live. Every morning I walk over Folly Bridge by Salter’s Yard from where ‘on a golden afternoon’Alice and her sisters set off on the boat trip which became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and on golden afternoons I can become quite sentimental about that story although, in truth, I never much enjoyed it when I was young.

It is also the spot where Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog reached the end of their journey and then turned back east for home and London. That I did enjoy when I read it and occasionally read a chapter or two to remind me of those jolly Victorians interspersing the jokes with the lyrical

‘The river – with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech- trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory – is a golden fairy stream’ wrote JKJ before making the perfectly reasonable point that in the rain the river is ‘a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets’.

Well, the river is currently being extremely tempestuous and, in the case of Grandpont, rather a tease. On Friday the town ran with water and vain regrets were everywhere under steel skies disgorging curtains of rain. By Saturday, the Windrush, normally a twinkling waterway, had bigged it up and flooded Witney and rushed through woods and across fields at the edge of the Cotswolds causing innocent motorists (us and many others) extreme inconvenience. We spent about three hours attempting to return to Oxford after lunch at Rissington. The main road, the A40 was closed and each avenue we attempted seemed to end in lakes across the road, often ornamented with an abandoned car. The evening light grew darker, the rain continued, we drove about 60 miles out of our way and then the severe flood warnings were announced.

It was quite unnerving to be driving around country roads, not sure if they would lead us home and to hear that our area was about to be given a severe warning which means risk to property and life. We had to get home to move our valuables upstairs. We could almost feel the encroaching waters and felt we were battling the clock. But we did get home and then worked until past midnight to clear rooms. Then we retired to bed.

This morning was sunny and fine and everyone waited for the advertised flood. The river was brown and thick and running hideously fast with eddies and flows, grabbing branches and buffeting them downstream, past a narrow boat jammed against a mooring post, the stern sinking low in the water. All around though there was a certain cheerfulness, no doubt encouraged by the sun but also because we could do nothing but wait and see. It must have been like that in the ‘phony war’ in 1939. I gather the day war was declared it was very sunny and I imagine that having heard the forecast of menace people did as we did and got on with normal life but with a queasy foreboding. I still have that sense and will know in about 90 minutes if the river will invite itself into my hall across the newly laid wood floor and into my new kitchen, making a thorough mess of everything and behaving badly. We shall just have to wait for 48 hours or so and meanwhile, the war time spirit is flourishing as we gather round the radio in an upstairs bedroom surrounded by most of our furniture, electrical equipment, (apart from the kitchen which will have to be sacrificed) and every ornament and photograph we could pack. The best scenario is that we take it all downstairs again on Tuesday but there is a little, completely idiotic, part of me which will be disappointed if the floods don’t come. If they do, then the year or so it will take to recover our house will no doubt cure me of that particular stupidity.


Trip cancelled

I’ve never much taken to Dave Cameron although I’m told by friends who are constituents of his in Witney that he is very personable. I think I liked him more when I’d heard about him rather than from him. I can’t say quite why I’m rather repelled but I think it might be that picture in the Bullingdon Club, which frankly I always thought was rather more worrying than the possibility that he might have smoked dope at Oxford. The Bullingdon Club as far as I can gather is a frightfully exclusive Oxford undergraduate club which, one could easily believe is purely devoted to wrecking restaurants. I think Evelyn Waugh was a member and had a go at thrashing the Spread Eagle at Thame but certainly there was a restaurant incident about four years ago reported in the Oxford Times.

Dave C sits for Witney who’s previous MP was Shaun Woodward, who famously crossed the floor and now is in Government. He had the inconvenience of buying a house in St Helen’s his new constituency in the North West but he is a very wealthy man and has been much lampooned for having a butler

Aaanyway -the unfortunate Dave seems to have adopted Tony Blair’s mantle just as ordinary punters (numbers surveyed =1) have sighed with relief that the original owner has cleared off to sort out the Middle East and we are left with a proper, old-fashioned Prime Minister. Rather unfortunate I’d have said. Dave was widely advertised as going to Rwanda for the weekend to chivvy up the Conservative charity workers there but I see he put off the trip – probably the very wet denizens of Witney (who have had a really horrid time) expected their MP to front up in wellies – and so he did.

Walking home through wonderland

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

I have an ambiguous relationship with Oxford, where I live but today it was unequivocally beautiful. I walked back from work along one of the loveliest parts of the university city, along a gravel path which runs from a cobbled street between two ancient colleges. From one college I could hear someone playing gentle jazz piano and as I went past the chapel window of Merton College, the sun hit the stonework, the cherry tree was out and the organ was playing inside.

All this sunshiny luvliness though rather reminds me of Sherlock Holmes telling Watson about the horrors that lurk behind the “smiling face of the countryside”. Despite the Morse factor I don’t know of that many murders and certainly not of the intricate and Byzantine type of the detective story. Although it is always possible that the murderers in Oxford are just better than anywhere else and don’t get caught out. Indeed knowing how ruthless the callings of both academia and medicine can be I’m often surprised there aren’t more unexpected vacancies in the higher reaches of the university ladder. Perhaps it is the words that wound the more whilst leaving no visible scars.

But there is something of the stifling gilded cage about the place. There are things so wonderful – brilliant, spirit enhancing choirs, fantastic enthusiastic campaigners, original thinkers who change the thinking of whole societies and others who set up Oxfam and Earthwatch and so much more. So it is a little churlish to rail against this little jewel. But, but, how delighted I was when I read a book by an author who knows exactly what this city is about. Charlotte Mendelson says it all for me.

The problem for me of course, is that having become somewhat inoculated against some of the worst excesses of the place, I’m now turning a bit native. By which, I mean of course, that I wasn’t born here at all so I’m merging with the melee of transients and tourists who people this place. (According to a recent review, the group least represented among the university work force is native Oxonians although the transience can quite easily exceed 25 years or more). For the most of us there is always the knowledge that we make no mark on this obviously ancient and self contained, self satisfied city. I knew of a man who was a student here and fell in love with the learning, the debate, the greenery and the river, the whole youth and beauty thing; the drawing out of his skills and the making of his mind. Poor man could never get over the experience and his family felt that it was the separation from paradise that led to his early death from drink. Not the first by any means. This city does not have much of a heart I suspect but it can certainly put on a pretty face.