Spring in Oxford

Oxford is one of those cities that looks good in whatever it wears. Winter gloom, spring freshness, summer splendour and autumn storms, each give it a different yet somehow appropriate character that it shrugs off when the next season arrives. Of course, when I visualise Oxford in my mind’s eye, I am always wandering down wide, gracious Broad Street to Blackwells (the greatest bookstore I have ever known) on a sleepy Sunday morning, or enjoying a solitary tromp along the mighty Thames or the Oxford Canal. Oxford has distinctly unbeautiful areas too, but in imagination no necesssity ever drives me to them as it did in real life. I can forget, too, about the students and the tourists and the traffic; I reclaim the city for myself, remembering those moments in a perfectly ordinary day, when Oxford’s ageless charm would flash forth again to remind me that the city wasn’t just a backdrop to my life, it was a character in its own right.

Spring in Oxford creeps up on one rather, but on a sudden one day all the signs will come together. That is the day that the chill in the early morning air isn’t quite so cold. The sky is washed with the palest blue, touched with gold rather than wintry yellow sunlight. Snowdrops and crocuses peek out cautiously, then take a deep breath and proudly stand forth. A keen-edged, spring-filled breeze plays along the street, jostling the trees whose leaves burst with chlorophyll and stretch jubilantly for the sun. From Magdalen Bridge, the punts can be seen being moved from their winter refuge on the banks of the river outside the Botanical Gardens. Just under the bridge they go, to the punting station on the other side, presaging summer afternoons of river-drifting in dappled shadows. Sunlight falls on the stonework of colleges, ripening their dull winter grey to honeyed warmth. Buses, cars, people all seem newly scrubbed and shining and flocks of fairweather cyclists, unseen all winter, take to the streets. The city wakes up.

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The Fortnight in September

My latest Persephone treasure arrived, guiltily ordered when buying a gift for someone. This one arrived within a week of ordering, unexpectedly soon and doubly welcome. Delivery times vary widely from the UK – will it be a week, two weeks or more? On one particularly horrible occasion a book took more than a month to arrive, and I feared it was lost forever.

As soon as is remotely feasible I begin to anticipate the arrival of the small, humble padded envelope. This gives a certain lift to the end of every day, a certain sense of expectation as I open the mailbox and then, of course, a twinge of disappointment when only a pile of bills and pizza delivery flyers reveals itself to my book-hungry eyes. Finally, usually on a day when I’m a little distracted and not even expecting the book, there it is!

I rush into the house, throw the rest of the mail aside as trivia to be dealt with at a later date, tear open the envelope and feast my eyes on the dove grey volume within. First, the end papers have to be carefully examined. Persephone creates beautiful endpapers from fabrics or patterns contemporary with the setting of the book, so the plain cover opens to reveal a glorious wash of colour. Next, the bookmark, tucked carefully inside every volume, matching the endpapers and to be used only with that book. Perhaps a flick through the pages next, stopping to read a particularly enticing paragraph or two. Finally, as soon as is possible, all previous plans for the evening or day carelessly abandoned, I settle myself in the corner of the sofa that is gradually moulding itself to my shape and fall into the text. As my husband says, I’m gone.

The Fortnight in September is a ‘typical’ Persephone book, in that along with many of their other titles, it focuses on ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, happy or tragic in the way that ordinary people are. They are consistently the best books that I read.

This one deals, very simply, with the annual two-week holiday of a lower middle-class family, beginning on the evening before their departure and following them almost day by day until their return. It captures marvellously the sudden sense of liberation that holiday-eve brings. The small pleasures of getting an empty train carriage, first seeing the sea, the temptation to skip the unpacking in favour of that first walk along the beach. How, at the begining of a holiday, time extends luxuriously ahead, until the mid point is reached and the sad, inevitable, unbelievable countdown to the last day begins.

For 20 years the Stevens’ have been staying at ‘Seaview’, a B&B in Bognor that they first visited on their honeymoon and to which they have returned faithfully every year since. Over the years, Seaview has declined gradually and imperceptibly, until now the sheets are thin and worn, the crockery is chipped, a hole in the linoleum is patched with a strip cut from somewhere in the room where its loss will be a little less noticeable than the hole it now covers. The landlady, Mrs Huggett, is deteriorating at the same decorous pace as the building, but tries valiantly to keep up the semblance of comfort and hospitality.

As the characters relax and exchange their confining city-clothes for worn but comfortable items, so they throw off some of the constraints that sustain them in their working lives. Mr Stevens touches on the faded bruise of a promotion he didn’t get; Dick, the grown-up son is struggling to swap the modest success of school life for the dull anonymity of work; Mary, the grown-up daughter, has her first brush with love. Only nervous, bullied, Mrs Stevens remains the same as she is at home, unable even to change her outward appearance: ‘she was never comfortable without her hat.’ Her work has come with her and she is beset with concerns about the shopping, the meals, the weather, and the dangers of cold sea water and hot sun. For her, the best part of the holiday is the evening when she is left alone with her glass of ‘medicinal’ port, one bottle carefully measured out to last the whole trip.

At the beginning of the book, there are hints that this might be the last family holiday: next year, Dick and Mary may branch out on their own. Part of the story also tells of the family’s loyalty to their landlady, Mrs Huggett, as her other ‘people’ abandon her. Will ‘Seaview’ even be open next year? Somehow, this fragile, ordinary, yet wonderful fortnight holds them all together for another year.

The books not read

I tried, I really tried, to write about my perspective on the war in Iraq. And then I realised that I wasn’t 100% confident that I could, in fact, freely express my opinions without the immigration procedure that seems to be moving along rather swimmingly grinding to a sudden and incontrovertible halt. So I buckled.

And on to a nice, safe, bland, anodyne topic: the books I am not going to read in 2007. The list is already getting longer and longer, which in one way is good – I’ll know where to start next year – and in another way, bad – I’m already worrying about the amount I won’t get to read in 2008 because the 2007 books will be even more forlorn and neglected if I don’t get to them first. This year’s fiction ban is having the desired effect, and my dissertation is piecing itself together happily. But just look at what I am missing out on:

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
– Marcel Proust. I read vol 1 last January, in search of a continued challenge after successfully despatching ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. After which all other fiction seemed somehat flimsy. What no slow, stately progress and cast of thousands? Pshaw. A friend of mine has been reading a volume of Proust every year and it seemed like an excellent plan. But, alas!, I shall have to read two volumes next year.

Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope. ‘The Warden’ was an absolute revelation to me, a book ill-served by the very bad blurb on the Penguin edition. ‘Barchester Towers’, of course, had the deliciously unpleasant Steerpike-like Slope one could cheer against. What delights does the third instalment have in store? I shall have to wait and see.

Virginia Woolf -Hermione Lee. This is the fault of Mrs Bookworld, who has been blogging so consistently about the joys of Woolf’s diaries that I found myself searching for them without even knowing it when last in a second-hand bookstore. And then I saw this biography and knew my fate was sealed.

Leonard Woolf : A Biography – Victoria Glendinning. The other side of the story. Last year I read ‘The Wise Virgins’ by Woolf, L., and that got me interested in him. This book is a double no, being both weighty and hardback. Sigh.

Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon. I’ve never managed to read any Pynchon, and in fact have a deal with a friend wherein if I read Pynchon, he’ll watch a Julia Roberts movie. But this one has me intrigued. I toyed with the idea of getting the audio book, but at 53 hours long – well, I’m more daunted by the prospect of how many hours at the gym that equates to. So, this one also goes into the mental pile for next year.

St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories
– Karen Russell. The title got me. How can I resist it? In fact, if I see this kicking around in paperback I may have to buy it. I’m sure I can squeeze in the occasional short story. Also, look at the cover. That’s a nice wolf. I’d like that wolf on my shelf somewhere.

The Towers of Trebizond
– Rose Macaulay. My erst-while boss has mentioned this on more than one occasion, and he has yet to steer me wrong.

Period Piece: The Victorian Childhood of Charles Darwin’s Grandaughter
– Gwen Raverat. This one is from Slightly Foxed, the only literary journal I read, because its authors write about books they have enjoyed, whether old or new. So all the essays have a pleasing sense of personal enthusiasm to them, which I find very endearing. Gwen Raverat was a wood-cut illustrator, and I do like wood-cuts.

Alms for Oblivion – Simon Raven. Another recommendation from Slightly Foxed, but something I would never have thought of if A Dance to the Music of Time hadn’t been so bloody brilliant. The two series are roughly contemporary, although Raven only managed a paltry 9 volumes. This is only available in England, which means each volume will be about $50 and I shall have to arrange complicated payment via obliging friends. And, obviously, have time for 9 back to back novels.

The Harpole Report – J L Carr. Again, only available in England, and this time from the author’s own press, Quince Tree Press. But A Month in the Country was such a gem of a book that I can’t resist more from Carr.

Thursday is the new Friday

Hurrah, huzzah and three cheers all round. It may only be Thursday but as far as I’m concerned it’s the end of the working week. We are taking Friday off for a long weekend away and the thought of not going into the office tomorrow has me as a giddy as a schoolgirl at the beginning of the summer hols.
Or maybe that’s the second large glass of red talking (Maestre de Campo, from Fountainhead – soft, fruity, light yet almost chocolatey, very smooth and no real tannins. I’m allowed to drink because I propose to do no work whatsoever between now and Sunday. Even I am not such a lighweight that I will still have a hangover on Sunday.)
Whatever the cause of my newfound euphoria, the good news is that tomorrow morning will not entail being woken, with a jump and a cry of ‘WTF?!’, by my new, extremely loud, olde fashionede, tickinge, winde uppe alarme clocke that I went to considerable effort to track down because I loathe radio alarm clocks with a passion and a vengeance. I’d like to say it will certainly involve sleeping in, but that’s not the case either since the husband has an alarming habit of leaping out of bed at ungodly hours and then luring me out by placing a mug of coffee just beyond reach. Just as the scent of gravy brought home the wandering Bisto Kids, so the morning coffee aroma will draw me to the dresser.
The morning will certainly entail a reasonably leisurely date with the cafetiere, perhaps accompanied by a bit of home made toast, and even (dare I hope?) a shot of reading the shiny new fiction-treat I bought for this very weekend. Followed by packing, acquiring snacks for the journey, stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts for a medium cappuccino and then heading off in an entirely opposite direction to that usually taken on a Friday morning. I say again: hurrah, huzzah and three cheers all round.
I am a huge fan of the extended weekend away. I think a bit of effort and a day of vacation nets you a break that can feel as though you have been away for much longer than is the case, all on account of a change of scene. There is also something particularly liberating about setting off on a trip when everyone else is at work. I crave newness and a break from routine, and just about now, when I’m becoming so bored with all possible permutations of the route to work that even audiobooks can’t distract me, a weekend away is exactly what’s required. We have no particular plans for our time away other than to be elsewhere, and that is fine by me.

Where I’m from

A question I haven’t tackled in a while, but which Emily really made me think about.

I’m from a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. A country with a history so rich and thick it’s almost tangible, a history that I took for granted until I left it behind. There is a Neolithic settlement that was buried for thousands of years in sand and accidentally rediscovered in the mid-20th century; there is a Viking tomb, where at sunrise on Midsummer’s Day a ray of sunlight bounces off a stone one field away and lights up the entrance way. There are Roman villas, Norman churches and buildings from every period since and despite these architectural glories there are whole towns constructed from concrete. ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/It is not fit for humans now’.

I’m from the Black Country, a former industrial heartland that got its nickname from the smoke that shrouded it in the 19th century. I fled and lost my nationally despised accent, and moved around enough to recreate myself as someone who isn’t from anywhere in particular. So I’m also from Sheffield, built on seven hills like Rome. The people are dour but friendly, with a dry sense of humour and wicked self-mockery. It’s another industrial town, but I like brick buildings and half-broken windows and ruined factories gradually taken over by weeds. I sympathise with rusting ironwork, disused railway bridges and forgotten canals.

In the north of England you become attuned to the myriad subtle beauties of grey skies with their delicate opalescence of pearl and lilac. They are a foil for the open moors, where the clear air can take your breath away and the heather paints a thousand shades of autumn over the hills. The seaside isn’t where the beautiful people go to sunbathe, it’s where the ordinary people go to sit in their cars parked on rainswept promenades, to burn their mouths on Sarson’s-drenched chips that came wrapped in newspaper. The car will smell of grease and vinegar all the way home.

Then there’s Cornwall, King Arthur’s country, a place associated with childhood holidays. There’s a particular quality to the light in Cornwall so that artists congregate there. Barbara Hepworth had a studio in St Ives and some of her sculpture is in the garden of the cottage she owned. There’s a Tate St Ives where, on a clear summer’s day, the most remarkable image is the view of the coast, all blue and gold like the colours from a medieval painting.

I’m from a country where summer really does mean cricket on the green, the pleasing sound of a leather ball struck by a willow bat. I don’t even understand cricket, but it’s a marker of my year as are punting and Pimms, hot cross buns, the start of the football season and mince pies.

I’m from a whole different array of holidays: May Day, when we danced around a maypole and no one told us it was a fertility symbol; Pancake Day (Fat Tuesday), the only day of the year when we got pancakes and we could eat as many as we wanted for dinner; May Bank Holiday, when you knew summer had started; August Bank Holiday, when you knew it had ended and we still hadn’t had more than 3 consecutive days of sunshine; Bonfire Night, when the air smelt of smoke and we were allowed up late to watch fireworks and write our names in the air with sparklers and eat potatoes baked in foil in the bonfire. Lapsang Souchong tea tastes of Bonfire Night to me now.

Of booze and books

I don’t know how it happened, because I haven’t breathed a word to anyone, but Someone has found this blog and kindly left a welcoming comment. Now, of course, I must actually put some effort in, for fear said Someone returns and discovers that I’ve done sod all.

This weekend’s breakthrough discovery has been that alcohol and study do not mix. Groundbreaking, I know. Sadly, I’m not talking about knocking back a couple of bottles of Montepulciano by myself and then being justifiably hungover the following day. Those days are long gone. Mostly. No, now one or two glasses over the course of the evening is enough to ruin my ability to think. Today’s attempt at study went something like this: switch on computer; put kettle on; put in some laundry; change bedlinen; add water to teabags in pot; return to computer; open document; return to kitchen to pour tea and find biscuits; take tea up to husband, who is busily constructing shelves in the attic; return to computer; read email; phone mother; take out laundry; look at reading list; put aside books for photocopying; update bibliography; make more tea… The recurring tea motif is a clear sign of me not settling down to anything much at all.

By the mere fact of sitting at the desk with an open monograph beside me, I can sometimes convince myself that even though I’ve spent the past half hour looking for shoes on Zappos, I’ve still done some work. The miserable truth of today is that I’ve achieved very little indeed. I haven’t even bought any shoes.

So, this is my blog?

Well, we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure why I’m doing this, except that I’ve had many discussions with friends who blog and I got all intrigued. And, I think this might be a good way to keep in touch with friends in the UK. And, I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation so there’s probably some not-all-that-unconscious work-avoidance thing going on. My self-created rules say I’m not allowed to read fiction, else enormous tracts of time will vanish and in their wake will come equally enormous great swathes of guilt and anxiety.

I must say that this page was seductively easy to set up. No wonder half the known world blogs (I believe that’s the official figure). The question is, what next? Somewhat illogically, I find I don’t want to tell anyone about the blog, so I’m publishing it in the hopes that no one will read it. I’ve already furtively changed tabs on the browser when my husband wanders in to look over my shoulder.

I’m calling this an experiment, a foray into Web 2.0. But, just in case, I’m keeping my fountain pen and my beautiful stationery.