Wednesday, 28 July 2010

gill & co

I was really sad to read about the closure of Gill's the Oxford ironmonger (founded 1530!), which is due to happen next month. In fact, I wondered if the paper had made a mistake. Sure enough, though, the 'to let' sign is up outside the shop.

I first went to Gill's in the summer of 1985. I was business managing a couple of theatre productions for Oxford Drama Programmes (which was to become the Oxford School of Drama). One of them involved the audience being bussed around Oxfordshire while watching the performance. The bus stopped occasionally and various events occurred. One such event was an actor hurtling across Shotover hill on a Honda trike. A Honda dealer lent us the machine and I tracked down a convenient shed behind a hedge where it could be stored. I needed a padlock--a big padlock--and was told to go to Gill's, which had everything.

I've been a regular there ever since, even after moving to Bampton.

True, the premises became a touch less old-fashioned a few years ago when it was refurbished but it remained special. Darting down the ancient wind off the High Street to get to it has always had an element of time travel about it. To a time that was less pre-packed and standardised than the present one.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

two walks to the trout

Last Friday we did the walk from Lower Chicksgrove to Chilmark, via Fovant. It was along the track from Fovant that I took the photo above. I love looking down the valley when you reach the trees. I love the contrasts--the light and shade, the cool after the hot. Though cool was relative that day.

On Sunday we headed for the Trout at Tadpole Bridge for lunch. It was just after Christmas when I last did this walk and the snow was thick on the ground. It was a bright sunny day then too and at times I was almost blinded by the glare. The snow was dry--more Alpine than Oxfordshire--and when you kicked the surface you sent powder skimmering. This time the land was parched, the corn nearly ripe.

As you approach the Trout I always think of the illustrator, author and publisher Robert Gibbings. In his books Sweet Thames Run Softly and Till I End My Song he writes about visiting it in the forties and includes a woodcut of the frontage. The land is flat and echoey between Rushy Lock and Tadpole, with big skies that can look brooding to melancholy much of the year. The latter seems particularly so when you hear the cry of curlew from the meadows.

RG ran the Golden Cockerel Press and is an inspiration to all aspiring publishers.

Today it has rained and the garden and allotment must be feeling altogether more cheerful. The gardeners certainly are because they don't have to water and can go to the pub instead.

There is talk of potato blight on the allotment, though, which is worrying.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

compasses, fonthill, beckford arms

Staying at the Compasses Inn, Lower Chicksgrove (http://www.thecompassesinn.com), a favourite pub in beautiful south Wiltshire, approached by single-track roads and blissfully quiet. It's billed as a '14th century thatched freehouse'. It's also the Good Pub Guide Wiltshire Dining Pub of the Year for the second time since 2008.

Had a great walk round Fonthill park this morning before lunch at the refurbished Beckford Arms (http://www.beckfordarms.com). Excellent 6d Original and ham, duck egg and hand-cut chips.

Deep green space.

(Links probably won't be live when posted from phone...)

Saturday, 3 July 2010

dame beryl bainbridge

Very sad to hear of the death of Dame Beryl Bainbridge. Here is a review I wrote of her hugely enjoyable and admirable novel Master Georgie. It was originally published in the Evening Standard on Monday 27 April 1998.

Beryl pulls off the perfect Crimea

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Duckworth, £14.99)

Is Beryl Bainbridge incapable of disappointing her readers? With this historical novel, she has pulled off a scintillating hat trick. Its predecessors, The Birthday Boys and the Whitbread winner Every Man for Himself, focused on two defining moments in 1912--painful blows to post-Victorian self-esteem: Captain Scott's tragic expedition and the sinking of the Titanic.

These are not naturally cheerful subjects. Nor, on the face of it, is the Crimean War against which this novel is set. More than ever, Bainbridge embroils herself in historic failure and the stench of death. The plot should be dismal. It concerns George Hardy, a Liverpool surgeon, and several members of his household who make an ill-fated humanitarian journey to Sebastopol. Yet this is far from a morbid book. On the contrary, the tone is irrepressibly vivacious.

Bainbridge embellishes her themes like a virtuoso. George, it turns out, is also an amateur photographer and the plot is structured around this art-form and how it can be used to distort the truth. At the very least, as one of the narrators observes: "It appears to hold reality hostage, and yet fails to snap thoughts in the head." Added to which, George and other characters are incapable of taking a picture without tweaking the image (plus ├ža change). This discrepancy between appearance and reality extends, with great wit and playfulness, to questions of who exactly each person is and what they are up to.

And the characters themselves are splendid creations, especially those who take turns to narrate the different sections, or photogenic "Plates" as they're called. First, there is Myrtle, a spirited foundling, who has been brought up by the Hardys and who, somehow without devaluing herself, is utterly devoted to George--cruelly unaware though he is; next, the true object of his affections, Pompey Jones, a sort of amalgam of the Artful Dodger and an Angry Young Man--assistant to a Roger Fenton-like war photographer; finally, the vain failed academic, Dr Potter, endearing when you least expect it, and married to lustful Beatrice, George's sister.

The first two Plates, set in Liverpool, show the Hardys to be one of those beguiling but rather gothic, almost proto-Addams Family households found elsewhere in Bainbridge's work. George's over-possessive mother goes in for china-throwing; the housekeeper likes beating children.

Once they are on their travels, the full complexity of each character emerges subtly through their responses to the new locations and by the changes in narrative viewpoint. By almost subliminal suggestion, the reader ends up with a fascinating 3-D view of the private arrangements these people negotiate around surrogate motherhood and bisexuality.

The book's approach to history is captivating, particularly when considered alongside the two earlier novels. In all of them there is a vividly realised sense of an era coming to an end. What Bainbridge seems to be implying is not only that the Victorian Age took a long time to die but that change is always a much slower process than we tend to imagine.

This is a wonderful book: it delights in history and in the eternal vanities, foibles and eccentricities of human nature. The ironic surface of its language is as teasingly ambiguous as shot silk. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read in a long while.