Friday, 31 December 2010

happy new year!

Well, according to our local MP, David Cameron, the road ahead is a tad uncertain. At least the bike's ready, even if I'm not!

Happy New Year!!!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

bull

Our new friends' house was darker than expected and there was no sound of guests enjoying themselves. But then the door was thick.

We rang the bell, which mercifully didn't work. A tiptoe round the side and a peep in the kitchen confirmed that no party was being held tonight.

Back home, after wandering through the village all dressed up, we looked at the invitation. Yep, tomorrow night. I blame all these bank holidays. No idea what day of the week it is.

Meanwhile, in response to a request, here is the bull.

Hoping for my first bike ride in ages tomorrow.

kelmscott

An enjoyable late walk to the west of Kelmscott--starting and ending at the Plough; passing the manor; turning onto the Thames path; heading to Eaton weir (no sign of the old flash weir that used to be there up to the 1930s, nor of the inn that was destroyed by fire--'in tragic circumstances' according to the National Trail Guide--just some rather picturesque moorings and a warehouse); then to Buscot lock; up to the Lechlade road and back to Kelmscott for a pint of Marston spiced ale.

The light was fading, even at 3 pm, and there was a mist from the melting snow--this was yesterday. The snow, though, was still very much there, in contrast to today, when, in Bampton at least, all but the deeper traces have gone.

The roads to Kelmscott hadn't been salted and were treacherous despite winter tyres. These tyres are especially good when it's icy but the slush seems to clog them and they slip a bit. There was one abandoned car with its bonnet smashed in and at the pub people talked about other accidents over Christmas.

William Morris' manor was all shut up. I tried to take a photo over the wall but all I got were shrubs with one or two glimpses of the building behind. In the paddock before you got to the manor there was giant bull--red Devon, perhaps. It seemed placid enough.

It was when the Downton Abbey filming started that I last posted a photo of the Plough. That was over six months ago and it was spring. In a way it seems a lifetime away because it was then that I was phoned about family problems that I'd no inkling of before then. Over the summer and into autumn the news got worse and worse--unbelievably so. There was a flare-up over Christmas, as is always said to be the way at this time of year. Some people are their own worst enemies--and I suppose one will never change them, no matter how much one hopes they might change. So sad to think of someone so wilfully isolated and destructive.

Now off to drinks at a house we've always wanted to see inside. How nosy!

Monday, 27 December 2010

shifford walk

Surprisingly chipper today after long, long Christmas day.

Went to Morris Clown at lunchtime yesterday, which was, as usual, great.

Today, the temperature didn't get above freezing, although we had a wonderful walk from Tadpole Bridge to the weir to the south of Shifford Lock.

Just after the bridge (above), half-way along, we met a friend and watched a barn owl working Chimney Meadows nature reserve.

A feature of the nature reserve--and other stretches of the Thames hereabouts (frozen over in parts, incidentally)--are the World War II pillboxes. These seem so out of place now--brutal concrete polygons with mean gun-slits--but there must have been a strategic reason for them years ago.

After the walk we had a pint at the Trout at Tadpole, a pub which was immortalised by the brilliant travel writer and illustrator, Robert Gibbings. I think he would still recognise the place, though some walls have been knocked out and the intimacy he describes has gone.

Later, at home, we watched more of Downton Abbey--so gripping! It's amazing but my blog got masses of hits during the broadcast of the series, because of one or two of my photos, but I've not seen the programme because we don't have a TV. Terrific to catch up. The village streets seem really spacious--no cars parked in them.

Friday, 24 December 2010

end of the cold war, humanism, friends, happy christmas

We went on a lovely walk this afternoon in the snow.

There are a lot of green lanes near the village and it's easy to imagine you're catching glimpses of how the landscape looked in previous centuries.

There is also what remains of RAF Bampton Castle--shown in two of the above pics. Now the buildings have been turned into business units and only a couple of the installation's steel towers are left. But when we moved here ten years ago, the place was still a cold war listening station. There were armed sentries, giant pylons and porcupine fields bristling with rows of little masts. Then it was decommissioned, over night it seemed like, and diggers worked late into the evening, eerily clandestine, dismantling everything.

On the way home this afternoon, we called in at the Morris Clown and saw friends, which was lovely. Excellent Christmas Bonus on handpump too.

At home, listening to the radio, I heard a news item about the Pope's broadcast on the Today programme earlier, which I missed. David Starkey was on talking about the Rationalist Association.

I have to say that I have a lot of time for the RA and its magazine The New Humanist. I first came across it--and its fellow Humanist publication, The Freethinker--amongst the piles of magazines in the graduate common room at the Bodleian in the early nineties. Someone, I don't know who, used to put them out for people. Reading them was a life-changing event. Magazines that contained articles written from a point of view that I'd felt but not been able to express myself.

At the same time as I discovered these mags, my parents moved to a cottage not far away from my old junior school in Gloucestershire. I walked sometimes beyond the Roman Camp to the church above the school. Years before I'd played Joseph in the nativity play to Sally M's Mary. Sally's dad was Egyptian and she was dark and very pretty. She was kind too and I was in love with her, of course. I remember the evening light in the church one time in the nineties and how magical it seemed. It put me in touch with the poetry of religion and how I'd felt about it as a child.

For a time, in the nineties, there was a Humanist programme at Westminster College, Oxford, and I considered applying to do a masters in the subject. I explained that I saw myself as a Christian Humanist and the people running the programme seemed to be interested in what I wanted to research.

Despite thinking of myself as a Humanist, the Christian part mentioned above remains important to me, because, I suppose that was the tradition I was brought up with. During the difficult family times during the nineteen-nineties I prayed. And recently, when old sadnesses have resurfaced, I sometimes stop at St Barnabas on my walk into work and pray--often using a Catholic prayer book, which I bought years ago at Worth Abbey when I was visiting a friend who was part of the lay community.

Are, I wonder, my religious-humanist views confused, post-modern, dilettante or just muddled-normal?

Well, tonight, rather than midnight mass, it's off to the Horse Shoe for the bawdy christo-pagan mummers play. The Bampton mummers have been performing the same play--with topical additions--since the mid-nineteenth century. It's great!

Later, by the fire at home, I'll think of friends and wish them a very happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

holiday

Yesterday I finished pretty much all the work I had to do before the Christmas and New Year holiday. It took less time than I expected and it was great to start the break early.

This morning I had a lie-in till 6.30 before walking round the village once it got light (see pics above). It was so strange not having to think about work. Also, I haven't done the walk I did for so long--maybe a year? Awesome.

One of the things I want to do this holiday is read--read for fun. A book I picked out was The White Peacock by DH Lawrence, which I read in about 1980, then sometime in the 90s. It feels about the right time to look at it again. It was really strange but I did notice a lot of new bits when I tried the first chapter. It was as if I'd never read it before in my life. Uh-oh. Ageing process not going quite according to plan...

Meanwhile, headed for Oxford earlier to do Christmas shopping. Roads so much better. Oxford relatively quiet, I would say.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

snow walk

Lovely walk in the snow earlier.

The sun broke through and for a time you could feel its warmth.

Now it's night and even though the log fire is as hot as it gets there is still a chill in the room.

The cold makes me feel really sleepy!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

views from the bus

Well, my morning at the library was pretty short. When the snow grew really heavy, I was allowed to go home because I had furthest to go--thanks a million guys.

At the bus queue all the talk was of the service being suspended but then an S1 loomed into the top of George Street and a back seat on the top deck is where I've been for the last two-and-a-half hours.

Nice atmosphere on the bus, though. Everyone patient, friendly. That slightly nervous sense of AN adventure too.

The crawl to Botley was SO slow, then we were flying (everything's relative) on the back road to Eynsham (where these pics were taken). Now stuck on A40...

Still, a midwinter chance to chat on Facebook--haven't done that for years, feels like.

Yikes! The snow here is DEEP!

Writing to the accompaniment of Thom Yorke's Harrowdown Hill btw.

views from the bus stop

Two great parties yesterday.

Now on the bus to Witney which is tootling through some distinctly snowy--getting snowier--west Oxfordshire countryside. I'll change at Witney for Oxford. With luck I'll get there in time for a quick coffee at Green's before opening up the Taylor for 10.

Took these pics while waiting at the bus stop at the top of our road in Bampton.

Friday, 17 December 2010

ice flowing, party season, nearly xmas

Spent the weekend in Hay on Wye. It was good to get away for a few days--during term it's Oxford, Oxford. Great city but it's nice to rediscover favourite not-Oxford places.

Saw swans grazing a field of roots on the first day's walking. It was strange how some suddenly started striding into flight and then another group. The line creaked round in a broad circle before a few curved back to the field, landing in almost the same place they'd started from. The others headed off along the river then banked inland, white kites running against the slate sky.

Also saw a broad ribbon of ice flowing down the Wye off the Warren. The slabs were tight-packed up to the weir then a loose and orderly file, save for when one or two got snagged on branches or an islet. In the middle of them one time was a football, looking out of place but cheerful somehow.

The Sunday was beautiful sunshine and clear reviving air.

In Oxford it's party time this week. It's great to catch up with old friends and spend time with colleagues. Wednesday night was the Taylor dinner at the University Club--a warm, lovely evening. Today it's the St Antony's drinks and lunch, followed by the librarian in charge's party at the Taylor. Then... Well then I'm at work tomorrow... Will have to pace myself.

This morning the Nokia shuffle has turned up rather more Star Sailor than is comfortable. I remember one moody winter lying in front of the fire nights and near-drowning in Star Sailor's complimenting melancholy. Well, that was then. Now the music's a bit of pain to be quite honest. And mannered--once you can see how music's done; when it's all just sound and form and no emotion, it's had it. Ah, what's this, Distant Dreamer? Phew!

So, nearly Xmas. So looking forward to the break!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

snow, ice, things

The last ten days of freezing conditions have been such a shock. Somehow you don't expect weather like this until after Christmas. The day the big freeze started, I was all set to spend Friday afternoon digging the allotment. I couldn't believe it when I got off the bus back from Oxford and found the ground in Bampton was frozen solid.

One very sad thing has been losing several frogs. We've been melting holes in the ice with a coffee maker before it gets light to let in air and then keeping these ice-free throughout the day. All seemed well till the incredibly severe frost on Thursday night. On Friday morning two frogs were dead and more have died since. I don't understand why. Is it the cold or is it some illness brought on by the cold? Melting holes in the ice like this has worked in past years. You might lose one or two frogs but never this many.

Meanwhile, on a selfish note, I'm hoping that there will be a thaw round Christmas time so we can lift the carrots, swede and parsnips.

Teaching is winding up now and I'm looking forward to a nice break before the mad fortnight of launching the online courses and marking diploma assignments from 10th January...2011. Can't believe it's nearly 2011. For some reason 2011 seems so much further into the 'new' century than 2010.

I was interviewed by the Oxford Times about Invisible and StreetBooks the other day. I don't know whether I said anything interesting--or embarrassing. I just remember feeling numb with cold. Not sure when the piece is coming out.

This morning on the radio there was the usual 'on this day' feature at 5.40 and one of the events was the shooting of John Lennon. I remember driving to Chestall to see Belinda and Radio 1 being wall-to-wall John Lennon songs. It was very cold that year too. It doesn't seem long ago at all. Yikes!

This morning they played this clip from his last interview in which he said how safe he felt walking the New York streets. Maybe they play this clip every year but I don't remember hearing it before.

On Monday it was the Latin American Centre Christmas party. It was great to get together with everyone. Lovely atmosphere, as always. Quite a few parties coming up, which I'm really looking forward to.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

lasa report, toronto memories, invisible weeks, initiate

Last weekend I wrote the report on my trip to Canada that is a requirement of the funding. Writing this brought back happy memories of the conference and the city. I'm now posting what are my very last pictures!

I was bowled over by the size of everything in Toronto, whether it was a 'street' like Spadina or my hotel room which was as large as the ground floor of our house. I loved the weird thing in Toronto airport that involved jets of water powering plastic cubes round a glass tank.

But my favourite memory of my last hours in Canada was a fleeting one and there was no time for pictures. I was on the bus from Bloore to Pearson, which was crammed full with people heading for work--at five-thirty on Sunday morning. I dozed for a while and when I woke up we were stopped at some traffic lights and there it was. A sign: Resurrection Road. I wanted to live on a street called that! Number 3, obviously. Frank Egerton, 3 Resurrection Road...

One final memory, though, was waiting for the bus outside the Holiday Inn. This taxi passed then circled back then round again and drew up. The driver asked me if I wanted him to take me to the airport. I asked how much. $60. I said no, he offered $50 then asked me if I knew what the bus fair was. I didn't so he came down to $40. I was tempted but still said no. He drove off. Well, when the bus came the fare was $3.50.

Over the last few weeks I've been doing a lot of teaching and one or two Invisible promotional things. Most fun of all was my talk to Writers in Oxford about digital publishing at the Victoria Arms, Marston. The event was really lovely. It was great to see old friends and the pub has a terrific atmosphere, not to mention excellent beer and food. I did a talk, PowerPoint presentation and reading from Invisible.

To start with, though, it looked like the PowerPoint wasn't going to happen. There was a fancy laptop projector but no screen... Fortunately the pub came to the rescue with a tablecloth.

Tonight I'm off to Blackwell's for the launch of Initiate, the anthology of work by last year's MSt graduates and professional writers associated with the course. I've been on the editorial panel that's been working on the project for just under a year. I can't wait to see the finished book!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

demo

As I came out of the Stanford Centre, opposite Magdalen, last week, a stream of good-natured protesters ambled past. They had fluorescent home-made placards with felt tip anti-government and save the arts slogans on them.

I'd not been aware of any protests before apart from the anti-vivisection ones on Parks Road.

Stupid not to think there wouldn't be protests really.

It still surprised me, though, and taking these two photos reminded me of demos years ago, when Mrs T came to power--and before. I remember taking photos of people on Solidarity gatherings in Nottingham city centre when I had aspirations to be a smudger.

There is a feeling of disquiet, which is both unsettling and energising.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

jo thoenes, kate saunders, oxford street, kc, stephen

On Thursday I appeared on BBC Oxford's Jo in the Afternoon programme, talking about Invisible and the big chunk of my life that I've lived in Oxford and Oxfordshire.

I was a bit nervous before I entered the studio but was immediately put at my ease by Jo Thoenes. It was fascinating seeing how she produced the programme as it went along while developing the interview and making me feel very much at home.

One of the things we talked about both before and during the interview was an incident years ago when I met the descendant of one of the characters in DH Lawrence's The White Peacock.

My girlfriend at that time was studying English at Nottingham University and I used to visit her a lot when I was studying agriculture at Cirencester. We used to go and explore the places DH Lawrence used in his novels, as described in a lovely little book called The Country of My Heart.

One afternoon we went to a churchyard beside a huge mansion which featured in his first novel. It was really exciting to see things like the flight of steps from church to terrace that were so vivid in the novel (glimpsed by moonlight in the book, if I remember rightly).

Anyway by then the house was a football academy and you couldn't visit, only look at it from the churchyard. When we were there we became aware of a man standing nearby. We got talking to him and he told us that his family used to own the big house. He looked as though he'd fallen on hard times because his clothes were frayed, although he was wearing gold cufflinks with his family crest on them. He invited us back to his 'new' house for tea.

Well, the new house was pretty big too and there were Stubbs paintings on the walls and beautiful furniture. We talked to him and his wife for an hour of so. It turned out that his grandfather had been the squire in The White Peacock. This character had been criticised by Lawrence and his descendant was keen to set the record straight, revealing lots of stories about 'nasty' Mr Lawrence in the process.

Lawrence, incidentally, had particularly objected to the fact that the squire had fenced off the rabbit warrens on the estate and stopped the miners from snaring a free meal.

From what I remember, the rabbits were killed by the gamekeeper and sent by train to London for their meat and fur. I think Lawrence thought this mean-spirited. The squire, like his real-life counterpart, was, of course, the mine-owner.

If you'd like to listen to the interview, it's available on the iPlayer till Wednesday and my piece starts 19 min, 10 sec into the programme: http://bbc.in/9A2nlZ.

I was thrilled that Invisible got a favourable review in the Times yesterday from Kate Saunders. The web version is behind the News International paywall: http://bit.ly/aTBvVt. But the best bit is: "This is Posy Simmonds territory; we're among fretful middle-class types who take themselves very seriously and make an enormous meal of every bit of slap-and-tickle. That these people are bearable company is entirely down to the author's lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape."

Canada seems long ago now, although I have such happy memories of Toronto--including my last supper there at the Duke of York and of Oxford Street (which looked as if it were in... Oxford).

Yesterday, I went to Stephen Wall's memorial service at Keble college chapel. Stephen was the man who interviewed me when I was applying to the college to read English and was my tutor when I was an undergraduate there. I owe him so much. He gave me an opportunity that transformed my life.

The service was secular, as Stephen must have wanted. Family and colleagues talked about their memories of him and read from his fiction and his criticism. I had not realised that one of those who spoke, Val Cunningham, had been one of his first Keble students. Neither did I realise that the brilliant critic Ian Hamilton had also been taught by Stephen. What an influential man Stephen was.

It is appropriate, perhaps, that Posy Simmonds is mentioned in the Times review of Invisble. It was Stephen who introduced me to her work. I remember vividly him telling me about Tesoddit and chuckling.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

last of the summer veg

A surprisingly sharp frost this morning.

When I went to the allotment to pull up the bean, courgette and cucumber plants I wasn't expecting to harvest any summer veg. And yet, as the picture above shows, there were some runners and cues left.

That was a lovely surprise.

Carrots looking good although those are pretty much the THREE turnips! Not a good year for turnips, beetroots or swedes (despite lots of watering)--though the parsnips look OK.

Every year's a challenge...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

can't believe, village idiot, kensington market (what a trooper)

Toronto seems like a dream. I can't believe I was really there. Maybe if I'd had a day or two's rest after returning, the experience would seem less unreal but as it was I had just four hours sleep after getting home before the alarm went and a busy week started.

More marking, First Week of Oxford's full term and lots of extras, including more Initiate editing (which is, though, looking very good--launches on Thursday 18th November at Blackwell, Broad Street).

This time last Saturday, I was eating my last Toronto supper in the Duke of York pub, after attending the final day at LASA and spending a couple of hours exploring something of the city. I'd been told I should visit Kensington market because I would love the atmosphere.

On my way I stopped off at the Village Idiot pub (or L'idiot du village), which is opposite the Art Gallery of Toronto, at the start of a fascinating oldy-worldy quarter that includes China Town. Amongst the newish buildings are a lot of Victorian-looking terraces. Nearly all the buildings, old and new, are pretty battered. Wherever you see shops selling Artist's Material you know you're onto a winner.

It was good to have a pint of London Pride at the Idiot (served better than in some UK pubs), although I did resist the triple-distilled Belgian Delirium Tremens (8.5%). Bar staff wore T-shirts with the slogan, 'A good pub couldn't function without an idiot!'

Kensington market was like I imagine the King's Road to have been in the 60s. The tatty Isuzu Trooper cruising past, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds blaring out, said it all.

Happy memories!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

portrait room, humanities library, and gran baile?









































Getting up early to go to the 7 am Gale presentation in the portrait room of the Law Library of Upper Canada was a bit of a shock to the system (not to mention the brain), although the walk downtown in the dark was magical, especially going through Queen's Park (all squirrels sound asleep, the sensible things). The Law Library is a magnificent Georgian-style building opposite the Sheraton--all oak panelling, chandeliers and, well, portraits. Thanks to Gale-Cengage Learning for the breakfast and coffee.

I really like the juxtaposition of old buildings and new in Toronto, especially in the university quarter, which I was shown round yesterday by my former colleague Miguel, a very experienced Hispanic subject specialist based at the humanities library. (He had faith in my abilities when he was in Oxford, for which I am eternally grateful.) The library itself has all the features that British libraries are only now beginning to aspire to--the banks of computers for readers, the provision of both informal and formal study space, cafes that help to make libraries not just places where you read but popular social venues, and 24/7 opening.

Some great events at the Congress earlier--including a moving documentary about the migration of Cuban farmers to the cities. It was clear how much the farmers loved the land and way of life and how let down they felt by centralised agricultural marketing schemes.

Tonight there is the Gran Baile at the Sheraton from 10.30 until the small hours. I'd like to go but am not sure I'll still be awake then. We'll see.

If I do go, my route will take me past the Royal Ontario Museum, above, which somehow looks even more of a disaster-zone than it must do usually, what with the building works and bollards on the opposite side of the street.

Friday, 8 October 2010

toronto











































Arrived in Toronto the day before yesterday for the Latin American Studies Association congress, which is being held at the Sheraton and Hilton. Was really exciting to see the first signs of Canada--lots of tiny islands--just north of Goose Bay.

Staying at the Holiday Inn on Bloor myself, which is in the heart of the University quarter. Very buzzy and full of life, this area of town. Good pubs, cafes and restaurants, plus a mass of museums and theatres, it seems like.

I've settled on Overeasy for breakfast and Hemingway's for dinner--latter washed down with a pint or two of Tankhouse, a dark red hoppy bitter.

The half-hour walk to the congress takes me through Queen's Park with it's amazing squirrels--most of which have glossy black coats (some even have white paint stripes down their tails). What an amazing sight they are. I had no idea there were such squirrels.

Downtown Toronto is pretty impressive, especially at night. The towerblocks are like light sculptures.

A couple of coincidences. On the flight out I was sitting next to an Irish guy who now lives in Canada. It turned out that his brother is best mates with the guy who owns Hamilton's bar in Leenane--a favourite pub. It was good to chat about Galway and about Canada. Then, yesterday, as I was setting off for the conference, I caught sight of someone heading into a shop out of the corner of my eye. There was something about her. 'It can't be,' I thought. But it was--a friend from Osney days, over here to talk at another conference. She's staying at the same hotel and goes back on the same flight. Weirdly wonderful.

As well as attending the conference, I'm teaching online and marking.

It's good to have a lot to do, to be honest. No matter how exciting a new city is, there are always gaps that ordinarily you struggle to fill.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

holmes, boom, old man's beard etc

Watching Sherlock Holmes--Robert Downey Jr is God.

Meanwhile, on a serious note, I was sad to read of the death of Holly Eley in the Times yesterday. About ten years ago when I'd lost confidence in my abilities as a critic, she sent me a series of about seven or eight seemingly random non-fiction books to review for the TLS, which by their very difference from the fiction I'd been writing about for years quite refreshed me. The last was the estimable She Moves Through the Boom, about what seemed then to be the Irish economic miracle.

How this reviewing came about was itself quite random. I phoned the TLS and got Holly. I explained that I wanted to speak to Lindsay Duguid about reviewing fiction. Holly talked to me about my work and when I asked her when Lindsay would be back, she said something like, 'I think I'd like you to write for me.' Two days later a parcel of four books arrived. We never met but I have always been grateful to her.

Went to the readings at the end of the first MSt residence of the 2010/11 year last night. Really enjoyed the students' work and that of the guest author, Tim Pears.

Funnily enough we'd been talking about In the Place of the Fallen Leaves when we were staying in Somerset. We'd been wondering about cider-heads and what it was about the drink that caused all the trouble. It was nice to see Tim again and he settled the point.

I thought the pieces he read from his new novel were very interesting. I know his early work, having reviewed both In a Land of Plenty and A Revolution of the Sun but this was different from those. There was a measured simplicity to his prose last night, which one suspects only comes with time.

Talking of Somerset, the above pics are the last of the holiday ones I'll post.

As far as Invisible is concerned, I'm really pleased that Blackwell is now stocking it.

Last weekend btw was partly spent working on an unusual Latin American subject request that involved researching the Mayan prophesy about cataclysmic events on 21st December 2012 and the problem of correlating the Mayan and Gregorian calendars. I had to research the subject and produce a short essay. I love my job!

Ho-hum, I can't work out whether SW is winding me up for some strange reason. Time will tell, I suppose. Which is where I shall end.