Saturday, 17 March 2018

first frog spawn, forecasted freezing temperatures

First frog spawn of the spring in our pond. Worried, though, by the forecasted freezing temperatures.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


When the snow cleared - almost as soon as it cleared - the spring came. On Sunday I looked at one of the big pots on our terrace and saw daffodils amongst the snow, their heads bent but starting to flower, the yellow petals unscathed, the leaves bright green. Ready to go. It was as if the spring would not be stopped.

At dawn the chorus has started and on the water meadows beside the Thames at Old Man's bridge the curlews have returned to nest.

Elsewhere - as in the photo above, taken near Raleigh Park in Oxford - the old is giving way to the new.

I've started reading Tim Pears' The Horseman. Though not before finishing Elmet, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted first novel, by Fiona Mozley. I read about half around New Year and wondered whether I would go back to it. I'm glad I did. I can see why it was shortlisted - it's a thorough piece of work and its world and characters stay in the mind. Not that all the characters are that developed. Some are stock.

Elmet is set in South Yorkshire, in former mining villages and deep in the countryside. A time before mobile phones, I think I'm right in saying - don't remember one cropping up. A primitive-seeming time, where things have regressed to a kind of medieval lordship and serfdom society. The evil Mr Price, manor-owner, and his other land-owning cronies, grinding down their tenants and workers, who mostly live in privatised council houses that Price et al snapped up for song.

The story is told by Daniel, whose family - sister Cathy and their Daddy - have claimed squatters rights on Mr Price's land. Daddy has built a stout, primitive but snug family home in the middle of a dense copse that was once part of a farm owned by Daniel and Cathy's mum, who sold up after she spent all her money and then left the area. Life is rich in its simplicity and individualism. Life follows the patterns and rhythms of nature.

That the idyll can't last is a given. You know that something has gone horribly wrong from short sections set in the present that are interspersed with the main narrative. The latter tells of how the family came to the plot of land and how relations with Mr Price deteriorate.

Daddy, nearly seven-foot tall, used to work for Price as a bare-knuckle fighter and rent collector. The emotional complexities of his and Price's previously deeply entwined lives are what resurface and drive the tragic events that conclude the book.

The novel occupies a curious fictional and generic space. Neither quite real nor made up. There are echoes of contemporary Britain. The style is both naturalistic - sometimes beautifully, lyrically so - and that of a folk tale. There are long passages of narrative and not that much dialogue. While there is conceptual plot-arc suspense there is often not too much powering the story at scene-level other than the charm and vigor of the prose. One could imagine readers giving up, as I almost did. When characters do speak, they often do so in long blocky monologues, filling in events that have happened off-stage. I wasn't sure whether this was early-career writing or an intentional part of the folk tale style.

Yet, the novel is something of a triumph. You can tell that Mozley knows what she is about, even if she stretches scenes and sections - and patience -  almost to the limit, at times. You know she has a novelist's stamina and is thoroughgoing. I think this is, despite its faults, a very striking and special book. Mozley is definitely one to watch.


Though not a Theresa May fan, I was impressed by her article on the new Domestic Violence Bill in the Guardian, entitled, 'Our new domestic violence bill will outlaw economic and physical abuse'.
For me, one paragraph stood out:

'Not all abusive behaviour is physical. Controlling, manipulative and verbally abusive behaviour ruins lives and means thousands end up isolated, living in fear. So for the first time, the bill will provide a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes economic abuse, alongside other non-physical abuse.'

If the new bill confronts the misery caused by non-physical and economic abuse, it will be very welcome.

I've written about my own experiences in this blog and elsewhere. I am mindful, though, that I was in a privileged position: a very good education; a significant degree of financial independence. Yet still the reach of the abusive behaviour was long and devastating, even when I had moved away. What horrifies me is what life must be like for those who are trapped and cannot escape.


On Saturday I read a letter that I inherited that confirmed, painfully, something that I had suspected for many years.

As at other times I wondered why I feel driven to get at the truth, even though doing so causes the extension of suffering.

On Sunday, when listening to the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan on Radio 3's Private Passions, I heard an answer that made sense to me. He was talking about a logging scandal in Tasmania that he had protested about. It involved politics and big business and was causing the destruction of areas of rain forest. In the context of the slow process of people trying to find out what was really happening, Flanagan said (00:45:27):

'The truth is slow but it's inexorable and...people have a profound hunger for the truth that's as real as their hunger for food and water and sex - it's a fundamental need in us.'


Did a spot of DIY data recovery the other day after the hard drive of my laptop crashed. Used Recuva software and Bipra USB 2.0 to SATA/IDE Adapter Kit with Power Adapter for 2.5/3.5/5.25 inch SATA or IDE Drive. Both excellent!

Saturday, 3 March 2018


The village was cut off on Friday. No 19 buses; roads blocked by stalled cars or inundated by drifts. Some 4x4s got through, probably.

Today snow ploughs have been out and traffic is passing along the streets again. It was quiet and still yesterday.

Apart from in the pubs. When I took our dog for a walk at about five-thirty, I could hear the voices and see how full the rooms were through the steamed up windows.

When later we went for a pint the snow made the night air excited and you could hear it in everyone's voices. I could feel echoes of feelings from snowfalls over the decades.

This morning the shelves in the Co-Op were bare, where there should have been fresh veg, fruit, meats, pizzas, cheeses and milk.

Last night there were ice-needles beneath the stone window ledges but this afternoon the snow is dripping and slipping onto the white and grime on the pavements.

In the garden drifts remain. Plants and ornaments are hidden up to a certain height. Fieldfares have come to feed, seeing off blackbirds and thrushes. I hope the frogs are all right beneath the thick ice.

Yesterday I worked at home. Accessing systems by virtual private network and apps. I might have been in my Oxford office, were it not for the dog snoozing by my feet.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

east wind, defining sunshine, the horseman and the wanderers by tim pears - spring reading!

Bitterly cold east wind. Yet there is also amazingly rich and defining sunshine.

Snowdrops are beginning to go over in the garden. Crocuses are in their prime.

Read a review in the TLS the other day of Tim Pears' latest novel The Wanderers, the second part of a trilogy that began with The Horseman. I have to confess that in the midst of last year's busy-ness, I missed the publication of the latter novel and am now really pleased to have been alerted to both. (Links above take you to Guardian reviews of the books.)

Set in the West Country during the early part of the twentieth century, the novels sound intensely alluring, with their promised evocations of the countryside and rural ways of life. Oxford vacations are never that much less busy than term times but there is perhaps a fraction or two of time to spare in the evenings and at weekends. I have found my spring reading!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

frosty mornings, spring sunlit days, poem

Frosty mornings and spring sunlit days. Very uplifting and optimistic.

The daffodils ringing the bases of the lime trees along our street are all ready to flower.

I wrote the poem below this week. It is, of course, personal but I hope that something of it connects with readers. It stands alone but is also intended to be the start of a longer work.

The incident described happened a long time ago but it - and others around that time - cast a long shadow.

That phrase 'You'll get nothing' was so unexpected, so baffling. Even now, when I understand the strange thought processes behind it much more, it seems utterly bizarre - and terrifying. And prophetic - though in a way that wasn't intended.


You'll get nothing

October 1992

Mum opens her eyes and fixes me,
brow dark, lips disdainful.
'You'll get nothing, Francis.'

At lunchtime, there was no sign that
she might make such a statement.
When afterwards she fell asleep
watching the racing she seemed OK.

As so often, her words ambush -
but quite what the purpose is,
or whether I am really the intended victim
are impossible to say.

The benefit of hindsight -
time brushing the soil from the truth
at its inscrutable pace -
will give insights.

It is as if there is another me in the room.
Someone to whom the words,
'You'll get nothing, Francis,'
seem appropriate.

I know these wrong notes,
have known them all my life.
And they do ambush you, every time.
Strike you dumb.
Not sure if you've heard right.
Self-anaesthetised, protected,
you get through the moment.

Mum observes her imbecile son,
shakes her head.
'Never mind, never mind.
Are you going to make the tea, Francis?'

Sunday, 11 February 2018

rich spring sunlight, hedge, waterlogged ditch, celendine, hail

Rich spring sunlight this morning, giving life to everything it lit, whether the brickwork of the old piggery or the first primrose beside the pond.

Out cycling, I stopped to photograph the hedge bounding a field near Lew that I've revisited in this blog a number of times since January 2012.

A short section was laid each year and now the whole roadside boundary is done.

But today the light wasn't right and I decided not to take a picture. Then I looked across the lane and saw the waterlogged ditch and field beyond. Beside where I had set down my bike a celendine was almost out. Both in their way images of early spring.

By the time I was home the hail was starting.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

balmy january, freezing february, melodious birdsong, cruellest month?, educated by tara westover, eight goldfinches!

Brrr! Pretty chilly these past few days.

Sometimes the views are gorgeous and the light can be full of spring and hope but the cold really gets to you.

All the worse because the balmy days of late January made me think that we'd got through winter and, hey presto, it was all birdsong and budding trees.

I always forget freezing February.

Though I have to admit that the lengthening days do make you feel like the world is waking up in spite of everything. There is, in fact, a lot of melodious birdsong accompanying amorous skirmishes, with flappings of wings, plumage boldly defined and luminescent.

TS Eliot thought April the cruellest month but I can't help feeling that the first days of February can have their sadistic moments.

Read a terrific review of a new memoir on Sunday. Educated by Tara Westover (Hutchinson, £14.99) is written by a woman who recently graduated with a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Cambridge, despite having had no formal education up to the age of seventeen. Brought up in a survivalist family in a 'jagged little patch of Idaho', she, as Helen Davies writes in the Sunday Times:

'...showed the most remarkable resilience in the face of extreme poverty, rigid religious beliefs, violence and family betrayals. It is a beautifully written account of how she grasps the sheer enormity of the world - and struggles to find her own place within it. The result is a memoir that is fit to stand alongside classics by the likes of Jeanette Winterson and Lorna Sage, Andrea Ashworth and Patricia Lockwood.'


Of course, the Sunday Times piece is behind the paywall... So, here's an open review from Kirkus.

Returning to birds, a better tally than last year during the Big Garden Birdwatch, including eight goldfinches! Eight! Not that I think of the BGB as a competitive sport or anything...