Friday, 30 April 2010

oxford in springtime


It's been a mad week, with term taking off like a rocket. All the planning of tutorials, introductory meetings, supervision schedules and, at the libraries, readers flooding in through the doors as soon as they are opened.

The Easter vac suddenly seems eons away, though I am aware that it refreshed me more than I knew.

On Monday, at lunchtime, I bought a sandwich in the Covered Market and headed for Christ Church Meadow, only to be stopped by a guy in a yellow fluorescent jacket. Yep, more filming. This time Any Human Heart, which novelist William Boyd has adapted for TV himself, and is just one of the dramas commissioned by Channel 4 as part of a new £20 million initiative. The story spans the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Logan Mounstuart (played by Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Claflin). The four-part story also stars Gillian Anderson and Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall.

The shot I saw being filmed involved an actor pedalling along Merton Street on an ancient bike with a camera mounted by the front wheel pointing towards him. He laboriously headed to Oriel Square then back again. For the return journey onlookers were instructed to crouch down. As with Downton Abbey one of the intriguing things about watching filming is seeing how niftily the illusion of a particular period is created in an otherwise very twenty-first century setting. The scene will look to the camera as if it's the 1920s but an inch to the right is a brand new Chrysler.

Yesterday, I walked along Queen's Lane in the pouring rain to Stanford, Oxford. Beside New College I saw the beautiful display of lilacs and cherries above. Robin Lane Fox's planting, perhaps.

Today, I was very shocked to learn that my cousin Mark Egerton died five years ago. I couldn't believe it. No one else that I'm in contact with seems to have known. He had very much gone his own way and his death only came to light in a proof of the Sutherland entry in the forthcoming Debrett's.

I hadn't seen Mark since 1974 but we were at prep school together and although he was a wild boy he was very kind to me. As I don't have brothers or sisters I felt special to be Egerton Minor to his Egerton Major.

I have thought of Mark quite a lot recently--my age, I suppose--and it seems so appallingly strange to have been imagining him living in Spain when all the time he was dead.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

faces of the countryside


I cycled this morning for the first time in a fortnight because I've been digging the allotment the last couple of weekends.

The countryside was looking really fresh after the rain last night, which was apparently heavy for about half an hour, although I slept through it.

The oilseed rape is coming into flower between the Great Brook and Aston, the neighbouring village. It's an odd but quite startling and dramatic sight. The oily, itchy pollen hasn't begun to fill the air yet.

Another thing that's got going in a big way since I was last out on the bike is fly-tipping. There were lorry tyres in the Great Brook and the pile of rubble and rubbish above in a gateway between Aston and Yelford. Whenever money is tight fly-tipping increases.

Between Yelford and Lew I came across several clumps of cowslips and one of cowslips and bluebells (above).

It's really nice to see cowslips, although I'm not sure whether these ones are wild or sown. The daffodils further along the lane were definitely garden ones. I remember when I was a child lying down in the watermeadow at Tynings Farm*, our off-lying holding, which was a sea of cowslips. In the years that followed cowslips and other wild flowers disappeared as spraying crops became widespread.

When I got home and had breakfast there was a disturbing article in the Sunday Times about a new book called Silent Summer, which is named after Rachel Carson's seminal work on the effects of agricultural sprays that came out in 1962. The new book has a foreword by Sir David Attenborough and contributions from 40 British ecologists. The Sunday Times sums up Silent Summer's message as follows:

'The book describes the decline of 75% of butterfly species, the near disappearance of many moths and similar reverses for bees, flies and snails.

'Attenborough warns that such organisms make up the foundations of Britain's ecosystems. "We tend to focus on the bigger animals and ignore the smaller ones--but small creatures like these are the basis of our entire ecosystems and they are disappearing faster than ever. That loss is transforming our wildlife and countryside," he said.'

The causes of the decline of these creatures include pesticides, population growth and intensive agriculture.

A chilling article.

For more info about the book, see http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521519663.

*My father eventually sold Tynings Farm to the property developer Gerald Ronson. It became his family home for a time.

Friday, 23 April 2010

bus, canal, film, dog and kite















justthoughtsnstuff.com is the blog of novelist Frank Egerton. www.frankegerton.com

Today was the last time I'll be coming into Oxford on the bus without work to do, for quite a while. It was the most beautiful day on which to be just carried along. My gaze was fixed on the spring countryside as we tootled through the lanes to Standlake and Northmoor and Bablock Hythe. The blackthorn was out in the hedges and in the gardens there were all different kinds of cherry blossom and brightly coloured flowers. At one point we went past a pheasant pecking at the drilled corn--his plumage was so painted and he really stood out against the red-grey earth.

At St Edwards school I got off and headed for the canal, which, as shown above, is now greening up, so that the houses disappear and you almost can't believe you're in the town.

At one o'clock, I got a return bus, ate a Sainsbury's sandwich (BLT), drank a bottle of San Pellegrino water and dozed, despite the mid-day gorgeousness outside. I quite liked opening my eyes every now and again and catching drowsy sight of sheep and lambs, a deer by a wood, a moated manor...

Later, during a break from the online course, I went round to the square to catch up on the Downton Abbey filming.




















This time I actually saw some of the filming, which was great--just a snippet of a scene but somehow pretty mesmeric as everyone went quiet and the actors wandered towards the church, speaking their, to us, inaudible lines. Then one of them turned back and walked off in her elegant Edwardian tweed suit looking mightily miffed until the director called cut. A dramatic moment, I daresay, in the finished movie.

Unfortunately, though, I couldn't get a shot of this scene, even though I'd deliberately turned the sound off on the camera. But I'd taken Tufty with me and just as the guy in the yellow jacket was telling everyone to be quiet Tufty started whining. Quick as a flash, the guy in the yellow jacket produced a bag of dog biscuits, which he proceeded to give to Tufty, making a big show of lifting his arm away and grimacing as Tufty grabbed them from him. 'Slowly,' the guy whispered as Tufty wolfed another one down and sat up straight expecting yet another. Still, the biscuits--all 10 of them--kept him quiet.

On our way back, near the Manor, we saw a red kite soaring above the new cemetery. Kites started appearing around here about a year ago and have become regular visitors ever since. They don't seem as threatening and as solitary as buzzards. I once saw one happily sharing some carrion with a pair of crows, which I doubt a buzzard would do. The photo I took turned out like a spot-the-kite game (below), so I blew up the bit with the bird in, which isn't much better. For a great kite site, visit http://www.redkites.co.uk.



Thursday, 22 April 2010

downton abbey









































justthoughtsnstuff.com is the blog of novelist Frank Egerton. www.frankegerton.com

Returned to Bampton this afternoon because I don't start working with Stanford students until next Thursday. Beautiful day to be at home. Before tackling library and Writers in Oxford things (the latter being the forthcoming joint WiO and Oxford branch of the Society of Authors party), I nipped round to the church square to check out the filming that I'd been alerted to by someone on the bus.

ITV are making part of a new Julian Fellowes series called Downton Abbey, which is set in Edwardian England and stars Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. The press release reads, 'The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So secure does it appear, that it seems as if the way of life it represents will last for another thousand years. It won’t.'

Well, be that as it may, I didn't actually get to see Dame Maggie or the estimable Hugh but was intrigued by the extra pubs and shops that had been created out of homes that used to be--well, pubs and shops, as it happens. There were also numerous horse-drawn vehicles and ancient cars and lorries parked up. It was a kid's dream.

Then there were the extras and masses of people, some in fluorescent coats, wielding mobiles or walkie-talkies. Nothing seemed very urgent, though, and it made me realise just how much standing about there is on a film set.

This evening, after I'd spent a couple of hours contributing to the online course, we drove over to Kelmscott for a pint at the Plough, which opened last autumn after having been closed for two years. It was badly affected by the disastrous floods of summer 2007 (200 homes in Bampton flooded). I have to say, the pub is fantastic (see below)--even better than it was before. A nice drop of Brakspear's too.

A fine place, in the light of yesterday's post, to contemplate the legacy of the great William Morris whose manor is a few hundred yards up the road.




Wednesday, 21 April 2010

trimdon labour club

There was a report from the Trimdon Labour Club on Radio 4 this morning, a place that was described as the epicentre of New Labour. The piece brought memories of the excitement of the 1997 election. Everything really did seem new and hopeful then.

I don't think, though, that I had much clue about what New Labour was, or would become. For me, the 'New' bit just meant something like 'a fresh start'. I had memories of flawed but inspiring idealists like Tony Benn and Michael Foot, and of decent pragmatists like Dennis Healey and Jim Callaghan. I had the ideologies of Victorian socialist pioneers, like Marx and William Morris. Not that I am remotely a Marxist but I do feel that his and Morris’ writings are society's conscience.

I had my membership of the party too and the words on the back of the membership card that read like they might mean things that Morris, et al, might approve of.

I had no idea that the 'New' in New Labour would mean a party that was largely unrecognisable to anyone who remembered 'old' Labour when it was in power.

Not that the last 13 years have been bad for us personally. We have spent that time first coming to terms with my family's particular tragedy, then recovering from it, and house price inflation and low interest rates have helped us.

But hasn’t middle-class prosperity, welcome though it is, been bought at a high price? The gap between averagely well-off and disadvantaged has burst open under New Labour (and it is this gap, more than the astonishing headline-grabbing one between super rich and super poor, that is really significant, I suspect). 'Stability', not least the illusion of relative stability that has been created during this slump, has been propped up by a dishonest and irresponsible national borrowing policy.

The empty tackiness of Brit Art and the terminal scuzziness of the expenses scandal are, it seems, just the surface cracks in a building that is built on the shoddiest foundations.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

autofiction

It is a singular period. The time when he can climb the Bourbon Tower's spiral staircase and step across the top of the brick wall as if there are still floorboards. Oblivious to the drop, save for the times an image from a film flashes into his head. For a moment he is in Kidnapped, the actor playing the character, camera mounted above, the well of the tower even deeper than this one, rocks falling as he treads.

It wasn't always like this, even though from the moment he realised that boys could climb out onto the tower's roof, he was fascinated, head spinning with an excitement that could never match the truth. For months, maybe even a year, the feeling and its imagery existed like ideals--magical perfected expectations.

Before he found the courage to cross, he trod the steps up to the wall several times, more than once going part-way down again before returning, willing himself to try. He took a step, then another, then was paralysed, cold, sweating, legs trembling, his mind filled with his own stupidity, his pointlessness, the certainty that he both didn't want to die and wanted to reach the other side.

Just a year after leaving Stowe he returned to the tower and crossed again for the last time. It was a cold day but sunny. The tower seemed smaller, his feet bigger. Stepping across took more courage than expected but was no big deal. Falling, for that goal, didn't seem worth it. He never crossed again.

Monday, 19 April 2010

all quiet on the allotment

Spent several happy and productive hours on the allotment over the weekend. Dug the rest of the potato area on Saturday then planted Cara and Charlotte (salad variety) yesterday. The potato dibber has now been put away for another year. Also planted shallots and onions (Yellow Moon and Sturon, respectively)--the patch of ground I prepared for these was amazingly easy to work and couch-free. The hard winter was a good friend when it broke down the clods.

Apart from the occasional roar of a power-cultivator and a rotavator all was blissfully quiet. Brize Norton has been brought to a standstill by the effects of the Icelandic volcano. For a few idyllic days living in the village really does feel as peaceful as it should do, given how tucked away it is.

Trinity Term online creative writing course launches later today. In theory this should be less affected by cancelled flights than face-to-face courses, although if people are stranded abroad they might not have full access to computers.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

witney

David Cameron was apparently out and about in Witney today and when we were on the bus coming up the High Street the boys at the back, who had been talking about 'shagging', suddenly called out, 'There's Dave,' but whether they meant a friend or Dave himself, I don't know because the bus had suddenly lurched forward. The boys seemed quite excited, so perhaps it was him. If so, he would have been in the same place as Count Tolstoy was when canvassing for UKIP yesterday--outside Waterstone's. People looked quite bemused when the elegant count accosted them. He was wearing what looked like an incredibly expensive tweed overcoat and was beaming rather too much for comfort.

Today we were off to the Hollybush to meet our friends Jonathan and Anne for lunch. They had got the S1 from Oxford. They were bringing birthday and Christmas presents from last year, which was lovely. We decided to switch from our favourite table indoors to one outside because it was so sunny. The pub's yard is overlooked by the old stone buildings of the Wychwood brewery.

We all knew Chris Moss who founded the brewery. He lived on Osney a few doors down from us and was the most wonderful man. Sadly he died of cancer in 2001, a few weeks after we moved to Bampton. I remember walking along the footpath from Mill Green to Weald and hearing the carillon and thinking, 'Chris is dead'. I felt tears in my eyes and this awful sense of loss as if a huge amount of energy had suddenly been drained from the world. I have never before felt anything like that. The next morning Jonathan phoned to say that Chris had died at that time.

I mention Chris in the acknowledgements at the back of Invisible because the Tom character is partly inspired by his brewing stories.

Now about to eat a shrimp chow mein from Mark's Kitchen, accompanied by Brown Bros Tarrango.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

leaders, wildfell, editorium, english pen and lasa


As I just mentioned on Twitter, I weakened and listened to a bit of the leaders' debate (see http://www.twitter.com/frankegerton).

Before that we watched some more Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was pretty harrowing. Really well done but Huntingdon's alcoholism, mood swings and abuse of Helen were so disturbing.

I've also been mulling over the results of my recent typesetting experiments for the StreetBooks edition of Invisible. The one I'm most excited about is that shown above--very clear, pleasing text, I feel.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm going to spend some time exploring the Editorium website and its resources for Word typesetters. A real enthusiast's site (http://www.editorium.com).

This morning the postman delivered a big letter from English PEN, which contained the excellent little publication The Light of the Lights, an anthology of work produced during creative writing and reading workshops at the Migrants Resource Centre, London. Very nicely produced and inspiring.

The thinking behind the book is perhaps best summed up in a piece by Daljit Nagra:

'As someone from a minority community, I felt it even more urgent to speak about myself coming from a distinct, little known community that resides in some pocket of England. I hope other new writers will consider their work as news or a despatch from a particular world.'

ISBN 978-0-9564806-0-6. See also http://www.englishpen.org.

Finally, I learnt this afternoon that I shall be going to the LASA International Congress in Toronto later this year. Yey!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

ramblings

Been watching Tenant of Wildfell Hall on DVD in front of a suitably crackling log fire, hound at my feet--well, small fluffy dog at my feet anyway. Don't know the book but am now so gripped by TV version I just wish I had time to read it. Love the decaying house on the moor Tara Fitzgerald rents.

David Cameron posters were being nailed to stakes as bus came into Aston this evening. The self-styled arrogant bastard in hoodie and ripped jeans who was sitting next to me gave a snort--though not one filled with the full-throttle derision I expected.

I didn't snort but did feel... No, the point is I didn't feel. Hardly a thing. The poster could have been promoting anyone and I'd have had the same numb reaction. I suppose I'm just determined to ignore all the hype and vote for the candidate I was going to support anyway. Not that I'm particularly inspired by that person. I'm certainly not going to listen to the three-way debate tomorrow. I've never experienced election-apathy before.

Will I be voting for Dave? That would be telling.

Meanwhile, I can't believe the online course will be staring next Monday. The relative calm of the vacation has been fantastic.

Nice pint of Hooky at Bell at Langford this evening.

Have also been learning new type-setting tricks, which my friend Richard alerted me to.

Night.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

plantation road bus stop

Photo taken as I waited for bus nearly opposite Latin American Centre. A view I've pondered since 2007.

When I started at LAC, I'd not long been made redundant at the Oxford Union, where I was cataloguer for several years. I'd been very fortunate in having found a temporary two month post at the Geography Library before being taken on to run the centre's library as maternity leave cover.

LAC is a very friendly warm place and I was immediately made to feel welcome. The atmosphere is more like a family home than an academic institution and was such a contrast to the formal Union. I'd been happy at the Union but it is a strange, unreal sort of place, where people play up to a particularly competitive and abrasive Oxford role.

Being at LAC restored my humanity, I felt at the time--I could sense myself coming back to life.

I was really pleased to be able to return there as site librarian and subject consultant last September.

It's a surprisingly busy place, though, and one always runs out of time. This afternoon was no exception.

The church in the picture, St Philip and St James, is now the Centre for Mission Studies. The building LAC occupies was the original vicarage. Tony Benn proposed to his future wife while sitting on a bench beneath the spire. He subsequently bought the bench for his garden.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

potato planting

Spent some very happy hours on the allotment this weekend--the first time I've been able to get up there this year. I'd hoped to start preparing the ground last weekend but it was still too wet. The soil's Oxford clay, which takes a long time to dry out--and to warm up.

Mostly the ground was pretty easy to fork through, having been dug over last autumn. The severe winter really broke down the clods.

For years we've been cleaning what was a very overgrown plot and this weekend I felt that all that hard work was paying off--not much couch or bindweed about, save for near the paths. The bindweed will come up from deep down, of course, but the topsoil if free of it. People who've had plots for years say we'll never eradicate it.

This afternoon I planted our first rows of spuds, using an amazingly useful potato dibber that was given to us by our friend Carol. It belonged to her father and I've never come across another one (see pics above). Planted Estima and Kestrel. Will plant Cara and Charlotte next weekend, weather permitting.

Friday, 9 April 2010

tory girl?

Not, I take it, official Tory propaganda?

(Seen opposite St Edward's School, Summertown, Oxford earlier. I was on the way from dentist to bus. Thought maybe I was still coming round from an anaesthetic I hadn't realised I'd had...)

st barnabas, northern lights, etc

It's been great having time to walk in the mornings this week and not having to work on the bus and in cafes as well as at work.

I love Oxford for its hidden places and for all its history and literary associations. The above pic shows the Oxford canal running through Jericho, which has plenty of literary associations.

At the far end on the left bank of the canal is the start of the boatyard that Philip Pullman has been fighting to save from development (don't know whether the campaigners have won or lost, though--anybody know?). Both Northern Lights and Lyra's Oxford feature Jericho.

The church tower is that of St Barnabas near to which lived Jude and his family in Hardy's Jude the Obscure.

Oh, and towards the end of my novel The Lock, Gerald walks along this stretch of towpath to the grebe pool on Port Meadow after he has learnt a lesson or two when visiting his daughter Alison on her barge.

Btw The Lock will be reissued next year by StreetBooks. Meanwhile, there's a copy on Amazon UK going for £95. Fair play to the seller but the price does seem excessive.

My wife said they'd probably got the decimal point wrong (hope she meant £9.50, not .95p).

RIP Malcolm McLaren--or should that be something like CBS (come back shouting).

Thursday, 8 April 2010

reedbed

Amazing walk along Oxford canal this morning. Air fresh, bright spring sunlight, ducks frisky.

Took this pic near Aristotle Lane--reedbed in between Victorian terraces and new housing development by railwayline. Even fifteen years ago there used to be a mile or so of these bits of marsh and copse but most of them have now been built over.

When you walked from Osney Island to Jericho, say, for a pint at the Harcourt Arms (one of the few city centre pubs with real fires) it was like being in the countryside.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

binsey polar bears


This morning I walked to Binsey church (see photo, above, and http://www.achurchnearyou.com/binsey-st-margaret), where we were married back in the nineties.

It was one of the rare mornings nowadays when I have the time to do an Oxford walk like that, heading from Summertown to the canal, across Port Meadow to the Perch and Binsey village. To get to the church you follow a lane--along which I and my best man and ushers walked from the pub that far off day. It's a magic part of Oxford that feels quite out in the country, even though the ring road is half a mile away and the city an equal distance. As I walked through the village--a hamlet really--a woman was sitting on her doorstep smoking a cigarette, the tiny front garden either side of her already alive with colour.

The church is medieval and has no tower, only a low, narrow arch above the nave from which hang two bells. The building is on the site where the patron saint of the city, Frideswide, founded her nunnery and beside it is her sacred well (see photo). Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are said to have visited in the hope that the water would help them conceive. This well was also made famous by Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland where it is described as a 'treacle well'.

In one of the legends of St Frideswide she escapes the attentions of an unwelcome suitor, who she has blinded (quite a woman, Frideswide), by sailing off up the Thames to Bampton, which was then a wilderness. Prophetic--the flight to Bampton--I like to think.

There is also a story about her seeing masses of magpies in a field near Osney and deciding on the strength of this to found an abbey (or some such). Well, I once saw some sixty magpies in a field near Binsey... And no, I wasn't on my way back from the Perch. And no, I didn't decide to found an abbey (or some such).

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to hearing the Front Row piece on Mark Haddon's play Polar Bears, which is on at the Donmar Warehouse until the end of May (which we taped--while we escaped to the Bell at Langford). See http://www.donmarwarehouse.com.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

youwriteon and happy easter holidays!

I mentioned on 21st March that I was concerned about the distribution of Invisible by YouWriteOn, the Arts Council-backed publisher of the bridge edition of the novel. I'm pleased to say that the distribution problem has been sorted out and I wish to thank Ed of YouWriteOn for resolving the matter so quickly and generously.

I was also interested to hear about the new plans for the company's publishing programme that will be implemented in two to three months time, as the result of increased Arts Council funding.

Enhancements to the programme will include:
  • Sales of YouWriteOn titles direct from its website http://www.youwriteon.com
  • Opportunities for those whose books sell well to cross the bridge to mainstream publishing
  • Better communication between the company and its authors
I remain enthusiastic about YouWriteOn's bridge publishing concept and wish the company every success.

Happy Easter Holidays!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

adlestrop, st nick's and the fox


Thanks again to Helen Peacocke for her book Paws Under the Table, 40 dog-friendly walks from Oxford to the Cotswolds (Wychwood Press, ISBN 978 1 902279 35 0).

This time we drove to Lower Oddington, just west of Stow-on-the-Wold and did an hour-and-a-half walk via Adlestrop and Daylesford before downing a pint of Hooky at the Fox, a flagstoned, beamed and inglenooked foodie pub.

And, yes, I took a photocopy of the Edward Thomas' poem Adlestrop with me and read it aloud to Jess and Tufty near the disused station. (Copied from my prized Faber Collected Poems, 1945.)

We also visited St Nicholas' church, Lower Oddington and saw the medieval doom painting that was restored early last century (photo above).

Here is Aldlestrop:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop---
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop---only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and father, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.