Saturday, 30 April 2016

brrr! don't do it! wait! life-writing in the digital age



Brrr! A pretty sharp frost this morning. Amazing how plants survive - the bluebells and cowslips above, for example.

Am worried about the pear blossom in the garden, though it continues to look OK - despite the fencing it is against being covered in frost on at least three mornings this week.

I hope it really is OK.

One of the apple trees is coming into flower. I want to say, Don't do it! Wait!

An exciting Life-Writing/Digital Humanities event coming up next week - though sadly I don't think I will be able to attend... There is suddenly SO much to do this term! See Life-Writing in the Digital Age.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

splendid vetch flowers!, snowdrifts and icy wind, car-stopping blizzard, challenging!


Walking to work yesterday it was grey, sure - but not so grey that spring was obliterated. Before yesterday, I'd not seen such splendid vetch flowers along the Oxford canal, ever! Just wonderful!

But today, the moment I got off the bus at the top of the Woodstock Road I saw little snowdrifts and the wind was icy.

Before a meeting, a colleague told me about standing at the bus stop in Frideswide Square in a car-stopping blizzard at 10.30 last night.

Well, there were moments of beauty this morning but this - hopefully brief - return to winter is challenging, to say the least!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

so chilly, magnolia, rus like everyone else by bette adriaanse - albion beatnik launch, facing the strange by s b sweeney


Beautiful sunlight when I was cycling earlier - though it was SO chilly!

Magnolia in flower beside the bus stop in Alvescot.

Sad not to be going to the launch of Bette Adriaanse's first novel, Rus Like Everyone Else, this evening, which is taking place at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford at 7.30 pm.

A book on my reading list, from a former MSt student. Published by the Unnamed Press.

Preparations for the StreetBooks publication of SB Sweeney's excellent novel Facing the Strange are gathering momentum.

Monday, 18 April 2016

hedging on mount owen, a natural history of the hedgerow by john wright



Cycled up Mount Owen on Sunday for the first time in a while.

Came across the hedge that I first photographed back in January 2012. At that stage just a short section had been laid but each year since another twenty yards and then another twenty have been done. This spring the whole stretch between the top and bottom gates has been completed. It is a beautiful work of art and craftsmanship.

Appropriately, after getting home and having a late breakfast I read a review in the Sunday Times of A Natural History of the Hedgerow: And ditches, dykes and dry stone walls by John Wright (Profile, 2016). The piece begins:

'How many species do you think can be found in a stretch of British hedgerow? In one survey of 90 metres in Devon, carried out in 2015, a naturalist found 2,070, with many more awaiting identification at the Natural History Museum. The final tally is likely to be about 4,000.'

Later there is a quotation from an Anglo-Saxon land deed defining the boundaries of an estate: 'The border of the estate runs "to crane pool, thence to thung [probably the poisonous hemlock water dropwort] pool, thence to king hill...thence along the stream as far as sand ford, thence to arse marsh’s head."' The reviewer adds: 'It leaves you simultaneously regretful at the loss of our cranes and thoughtful about what might be meant by “arse marsh’s head”.'

What isn't covered in the review but which I imagine will be discussed in the book is the value of traditional hedging like that above as opposed to the more usual flail cutting that bashes hedges to pieces and seems to lead to their gradual degradation.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

early walk, jo pullen's tree, julian fellowes' belgravia, the girl on the train by paula hawkins, heinrich gerlach's breakthrough at stalingrad, sean sweeney's facing the strange

























On Thursday I had to be at work early and got a lift to the top of the Headington Road. It was great to be walking into the city from a different direction and passing the places where we sometimes used to eat years ago, all of which seem to have closed or changed hands. Time passes but the memories remain.

Opposite Oxford Brookes, I turned into Pullen's Lane and not long afterwards started along the old footpath that runs down Headington Hill to Marston Road. Almost immediately the noise of the traffic disappeared and there was just birdsong, some allotments and the empty park.

I remember we used to go to Café Noir in Headington and would walk back to Osney the long way round via this footpath, Mesopotamia (middle photo) and the Parks.

Incidentally, and in the context of Pullen's Lane, there is a rather majestic engraving that sometimes crops up in the Oxford print shops entitled The South West Prospect of the University, and City of Oxford by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck of 1731. The main buildings and places of interest are numbered. On the horizon on the right-hand side a tree is given the number 47. The key reads, 'Mr. Jo. Pullens Tree.' Find out more about the tree on the excellent Headington website.

I was intrigued to read in the Times that Julian Fellowes was launching a serial novel at the London Book Fair entitled Belgravia. From the book's dedicated website, I followed the Google Play link and signed up for the free first instalment, which came out on Thursday. Set in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, part one, Dancing into Battle, is competently, if rather efficiently, told. By 'efficiently' I mean that the text has a somewhat formulaic, written-to-order feel. The at times intrusive author is also pretty old-fashioned in tone, which could be thought suited to the project but which I found pedestrian. Not that the story isn't a good read - well, pretty good - and I certainly admired the textbook choice of sympathetic central character (Sophia Trenchard, whose father, James, is Wellington's supplies manager - James is the son of a market trader and is known as 'the Magician').  On the strength of Sophia's fledgling relationship with Lord Bellasis, the family is invited to the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the night before the first military engagements. Will her beloved survive the fighting?

The www is, of course, well suited to serial novels, as Stephen King (amongst others) quickly realised with The Plant (2000), and it is interesting that Fellowes and his publisher Orion are trying their hand at the genre. Will I be reading future instalments? Possibly.

In technical terms, I was pleasantly surprised by Google Play, which I'd not used before. The web version of the ebook displays well on the Blackberry Passport, even though it took me a little while to make the text bigger - the controls being pretty minuscule. I also liked the Recent Bestsellers feature on the homepage, through which I tried a sample from The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Now that is a book I want to read - on the strength of the taster.

Meantime, this morning there was a fascinating article in the Times about the discovery of the original manuscript of Heinrich Gerlach's The Forsaken Army, the tour de force novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, in a Russian archive. Gerlach wrote the original version of the novel when he was a prisoner of the Russians but the manuscript was confiscated. After the war ended, he tried to rewrite the work without success until he underwent hypnosis. Scholars have always wondered how different the highly successful second version was to its predecessor. Well, according to Carsten Gansel, a professor of literature at the University of Giessen, who uncovered the manuscript (the novel's then title was Breakthrough at Stalingrad), the difference is one of tone rather than events. As the Times' David Charter says in his excellently-written piece: 'the hypnosis had succeeded in helping Gerlach to recall almost every episode. What was different was the style.' According to Professor Gansel, '"The original Breakthrough at Stalingrad is more authentic, it was written immediately after the whole catastrophe and Gerlach had the horrors still clearly in his mind. The narrator comments less."' As always, it's a shame the article is behind the Times paywall. It contains a fascinating story of a man who was compelled to write about his horrific experiences and his struggle to recapture his book after the loss of the manuscript.

Last but certainly not least in what has turned out to be a thoroughly bookish post, I am delighted to be publishing the novel Facing the Strange later in the year. You can read more about this terrific book on the StreetBooks Facing the Strange webpage.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

clanfield cross-country, bird's nest, sheldonian, 2016 mogford prize, why we write about ourselves



Walked to Clanfield cross-country on Sunday. We said it would be the last time we would do so for a while because from now on we would be working in the garden or on the allotment at weekends. But the weather is so changeable and I doubt the allotment at least will dry out for some weeks yet. Oxford clay and all. The garden, though, is free draining light soil over gravel.

Spring is springing but the landscape still looks quite bare. Saw the old bird's nest over the ditch in Marsh Lane near Clanfield.

Last week was unusually social. On Wednesday, I attended the Department for Continuing Education's degree ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre, It was great to see Certificate of Higher Education and Undergraduate Diploma students receiving their awards. Tried to capture a flavour of the ceremony with this tweet and this one. Very enjoyable buffet supper followed at the newly refurbished common room at Rewley House - tremendous improvement on the old décor.

Thursday I went to the annual Mogford party at Quod in Oxford High Street, at which Martin Pevsner, an Oxford author, was awarded the 2016 Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing for ‘Çay’, which you can read online. I'd not been invited to the party before. It was a wonderful evening. Saw many old friends and some faces from the distant past. I loved the bound copies of the story that were handed out to guests. At £7,500 and with over 600 entries, this is a significant prize.

Came across a thought-provoking article about life-writing via a friend on Facebook, entitled Why We Write About Ourselves. The piece is linked to a new book called Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (Plume Books, 2016), which I intend to buy. Since completing Trust: A family story - and indeed in relation to writing jtns - I have become increasingly interested in why people write memoirs and autobiography and the article provoked further contemplation. Is life-writing therapy, for example? Or part of a therapeutic process that can seem anything but therapeutic to begin with?

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

tadpole nursery, thrush chick killed by jackdaws, nature, eh?

video

New life and then death in our garden this week.

On Sunday I took this little film of the tadpole nursery in our pond. The tadpoles all seem to hatch out at once and huddle together in the middle of the empty spawn. They wriggle and splash about.

But today there was a sadder scene. Two jackdaws suddenly attacked a thrush chick that was hopping beneath the bird feeders. I couldn't believe the speed and viciousness of the attack. The chick - which was quite big and able to fly - was killed.

Nature, eh?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

oxford, geese, pool, jacob's room, sublime, best americano


Working in Oxford today.

The land warms up and spring flowers appear along the canal and Thames. Yet the reflections of the trees in the pool below Bossoms boatyard remain winter-stark.

Back to work this week after our wonderful Easter break.

Making some time for reading, though. A revelation has been Jacob's Room, a novel dipped into some years ago and forgotten. Reading it now on the bus on my phone (Project Gutenberg edition) and loving it. While the plot and the scene structures are broad and ought not to have much momentum, they really do compel you. Why? It's the beauty of the descriptions and the sharpness of the observations, whether of landscape or townscape or social situations, together with the audacious handling of perspective, space and time. Boundaries are freely broken, so that we switch from character's to character's point of view in the third person, so that the narrative loops and spools, unifying the world and the people. Well, of course, Virginia Woolf does that elsewhere to stultifying, straight-jacketing effect, but here, everything is kept light and sublimely supple.

Enjoying a regular American at Maison Blanc - the best coffee in Oxford, I feel. Soon heading for the library.