Sunday, 31 December 2017

wayfaring tree, happy new year!!!!























Wayfaring tree in flower, near Buckland, west Oxfordshire, 31st December 2017.

Happy New Year!!!!

Friday, 29 December 2017

blackcurrants








This Christmas we've been eating some of the blackcurrants that I harvested in the summer.

Though they've been frozen they are as piquant and as blackcurranty as the fresh ones - or at least that's how they seem in the depths of winter, with their taste of hot summer days.

whizzing s1, shortest day, raleigh park at dawn, robin singing







On the shortest day, the S1 bus whizzed from Witney to Oxford and I had a lovely walk to work from Botley.

Took this photo from Raleigh Park looking towards the city centre, which was completely obscured at dawn.

Fifteen minutes before - when it was still dark - I recorded a robin signing in Cumnor Rise Road.

Monday, 25 December 2017

☆♡☆♡happy christmas!!!!♡☆♡☆

























☆♡☆♡Happy Christmas!!!!♡☆♡☆

Allotment beetroot soup!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

witney market square, fantastic christmas lights, concluding seminar, lingering snow, christmas day beetroots, blue danube/shetland black lucky dip, can't wait for the christmas holidays!























Set off for work early, yesterday. Took this photo of the fruit and veg stall in Witney market square as I was waiting for the S1 Oxford bus. The Christmas lights in Witney are, incidentally, fantastic this year - including the long tassly ones hanging from the trees.

My concluding long fiction seminar on Thursday night. As I think I mentioned this is the tenth anniversary of when I started teaching this course on the University of Oxford Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing programme. I really enjoyed the discussions we had about experimental fiction and narrative shapes.

The snow is still lingering, although the temperature is significantly higher today and the rain has washed much of what remained at dawn away. The ice on our frog pond will take a few days yet to totally disappear, I suspect.

Went to the allotment before a late breakfast to harvest the beetroots for our Christmas Day soup and some chard. I was worried that the beetroots would have gone soggy in the frost but they seem OK.

Going to have either Blue Danube or Shetland Black spuds with lunch today - or a mixture of the two. There weren't that many of either variety when I harvested them, and they looked distinct at that stage, so I thought it wouldn't do any harm to put them in the same sack... I think I've managed to separate out the latter and it's these I'm imagining we'll have. But they all look pretty similar now they're dry!

Can't wait for the Christmas holidays!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

snowy walks, the snow-muffled land, widford church, an unmissable walk

























Walks from Burford over the weekend, including one through the snow on Sunday.

It was as if we were the only people - with the only dog - in the Windrush valley.

The snow was thick and the going tiring.

Sometimes I felt afraid - even though we were never far from one of the villages. The snow-muffled land can be a lonely place. There are just the animals and birds and the crunch of your steps. Once, the sound of a branch falling from a tree under the weight of the snow in a nearby wood.

A few minutes later we passed the 13th century church of St Oswald and the ground where once was the medieval village of Widford.

I wouldn't have missed that walk for anything.

More photos on Instagram.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

finished digging, chard for lunch, chomping deer























Finished digging the allotment today.

Most of it, I did in the early autumn but three beds remained till last weekend, when I dug two of them.

I was fortunate that it hadn't got too wet. Some years it would be waterlogged by now.

Picked some chard for lunch. The plants that were sown this year are still going strong, although the self set ones have been chomped by deer...

Oxford full term is over. A very busy eight weeks it has been!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

portrait unveilings, wio competition winners, outrageously beautiful views























I was pleased to be invited to the unveiling of the portrait of the Bodleian's 24th librarian, Sarah Thomas. The event took place in the gorgeous, fan-vaulted Convocation House, where the Lords sat during Charles I's Oxford Parliament in 1644. The portrait was painted by New York artist Ted Minoff, who gave a speech explaining some of the techniques he used and the portrait's underlying themes.

Not having been to portrait unveilings before, this is the second in a month. At the end of October, I attended the ceremony at St Antony's at which Benjamin Sullivan's painting of Professor Margaret MacMillan, the college's fifth warden, was unveiled by Lord Patten.

A fascinating tradition, this portrait unveiling.

Meanwhile the winners of the Writers in Oxford Young Oxfordshire Writers competition are celebrated on the WiO hompage. I've been enjoying re-reading the winning stories.

More outrageously beautiful views of Oxford on my walks to work this week, which the picture above only does partial justice to.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

stupendous sunny days, tumbling bay, twenty pound meadow, monkey puzzle, wio 25th anniversary party and competition winners























There have some stupendous sunny days - in between the rainy ones - this last week.

The photo above was taken from the Thames towpath looking upriver towards the entrance to Tumbling Bay where there used to be an attended open-air swimming pool, now long gone. On the left bank are the Twenty Pound Meadow allotments, where we had a plot when we lived on Osney Island.

I remember one day at the Monkey Puzzle cider house in Worcestershire chatting to the landlady's father, who it turned out had grown up in west Oxford and used to swim at the Tumbling Bay pool. He said that as schoolboys they had crossed the railway tracks just to the north of Oxford station to get to the old chain ferry that used to cross the part of the river shown in the photo. He recalled how the drivers of the shunting engines used to open their throttles with the brakes on so that the wheels revved round menacingly, but without the engines moving forward, to give the kids a scare.

Really enjoyed the Society of Authors and Writers in Oxford party at Balliol. Lovely to see old friends and to find out the winners of the Writers in Oxford twenty-fifth anniversary Young Oxfordshire Writers competition. Will link to the competition page when the winners are posted there. I was part of the judging panel and was fascinated to learn the identities of the winners - there were no names on the stories when we read them, just numbers.

The above photo is the latest jtns photo to be posted on Instagram. See: https://instagram.com/justthoughtsnstuff.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

soaked, logs, ug diploma, ten years, wio, twenty-five years, young oxfordshire writers competition





Got soaked cycling this morning.

But at least it was going to brighten up later, I consoled myself... True, the rain stopped mid-morning but it's been dark and damp all day...

A log delivery at lunchtime. Nice to have a full store of wood.

Preparing for my Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing seminars. Can't believe it was ten years ago that I taught on the course for the first time.

Looking forward to the Writers in Oxford/Society of Authors party next week. It's the twenty-fifth anniversary of WiO. Can't wait to find out who has won the Young Oxfordshire Writers competition.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

mist, trust, central heating, awp writer to agent series

























Several misty walks to work this week.

The landscape is certainly autumnal now - though it has become especially so in the last couple of days.

Harvested three beetroots today. We'll have cheesy beetroot sauce with hock of ham tomorrow and J is going to experiment with freezing beetroot for our Christmas soup. We suspect that the other beetroots might not last well.

Finished rereading Trust: A family story this week. The suggestions made by colleagues and friends make sense now and I can see what needs to be cut and reworked. What was heartening was that after a nine-month gap, I felt that the story was mostly very strong. I'm looking forward to the editing and rewriting process.

Put the central heating on this evening. Partly because it was cold; bit more so because of the damp, even though we have had log fires since the middle of September. (Log delivery next week.)

Recommended an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 'Writer to Agent' webinar* to students today. It's from a US agencies perspective but contains much that is universally valuable about genre, character and voice, as well as about the editorial role that agents take on nowadays.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkPXZqqJNsA

Sunday, 29 October 2017

lord poulett, nightmare journey, autumn sunlight, errol morris, conspiracy theories, documents...
























On Friday, we stayed the night at the Lord Poulett pub in Hinton-St-George in Somerset. We were meeting old friends who we hadn't seen for two years. It was wonderful to catch up with them. Though the journey there was a nightmare, taking four and a half hours - involving traffic on the M5 grinding to a standstill after an accident, a protracted detour through Bristol - where did the signs for the A38 go? - and a cross country route with queues in almost all the villages (though the Mendips at sunset were beautiful!).

--

The autumn sunlight spilling into the spare bedroom office this afternoon is rich and gorgeous.

--

I was intrigued by a feature on the Broadcasting House programme* on Radio 4 this morning about the release of documents relating to the assassination of JFK. Paddy O'Connell asked Errol Morris**, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, whether he knew why people cling to conspiracy theories. Morris replied:

'They cling to conspiracy theories because conspiracy theories simplify the world. If the world was just utterly chaotic without rhyme or reason that in itself would be a very, very frightening thought. Conspiracies give us solace. They tell us that there were those malefactors rubbing their hands Iago-like in the wings, plotting, conniving, figuring out a way to create the malefaction in the world.'

This resonated because I've been reading some of my parents' papers recently. Over a thirty-eight year period, my Mum and, eventually, my Dad were cursed by conspiracy theories that were supposed to account for why a painting that they owned was really worth some thirty-six times the artist's market value. The conspirators were said to include the great and the good in the worlds of the art market, the racing establishment and the government.

In order to buy time so that they could prove the conspiracies, my parents spent all their money, plundered trust funds to get more cash and ran up debts of nearly a million pounds before being declared bankrupt, their assets, including the painting, realising a fraction of what was owed.

Mum was secretive about what she and Dad were up to, although it became obvious that something was very seriously wrong. Only for a short while in the early 1990s did she confide in me. This stopped because I was very doubtful about the accuracy of what she was saying. She wanted affirmation not questions.

I was struck by how reductive her theories were. All the people in them behaved in the same simplistic way, with exactly the same limited range of motives. There was no allowance for individuality. Everyone - business associate, friend or family member - was portrayed in comic-book terms. Mum could imagine the malefactors rubbing their hands in the wings. I think that believing that she could see through their plots gave her a sense of control over things she had no control over and brought her considerable solace.

Looking at my parents' documents, I am struck by their mundane clarity. In black and white one reads why sums way in excess of the painting's market value couldn't be realised. Experts, friends, family told them this again and again.

For a long time, once I suspected that my parents were in trouble, I gave them the benefit of the doubt about certain things: did they perhaps not understand what the market was doing? Did they not know how the trusts worked? But obviously they did know about these things. They simply chose to ignore them. Anyone reading the documents would realise within minutes that they were deluding themselves and needed help. But my parents knew a different story. One that they created in order to prove that the facts were wrong. The conspiracy theories were magic bullets that shot down any suggestion that they had lost everything.

--

The greatest puzzle is how my Dad got sucked into the theories that Mum dreamt up. He always seemed so straightforward and sensible. Yesterday, I looked at his summary accounts for the period 1970 till just before his death in 2012. Loose leaf pages in a blue plastic ring binder. The entries are precise, measured. In 2007 he wrote the figure for that year's interest payments, £77,935.75. He would have known that he had borrowed money in order to pay this. That he was being pursued by his creditors. That he would soon be declared bankrupt. Yet he must also have had an unshakable conviction that he was, as he told me, a multi-millionaire. That he would trump his creditors and his doubters in the end.

 * http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09bxjzy

** https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Errol_Morris

Sunday, 22 October 2017

working in oxford, brian, shed roof ok
























Worked in Oxford yesterday.

A bit of a rush to start with because the bus leaves five minutes earlier on a Saturday, for some reason.

A refreshing walk in, although Storm Brian had started and it was certainly breezy. On the Thames the water was beginning to get choppy. Not that Brian ever got too bad in central and west Oxfordshire, so far as I could tell.

Even so, there were gusts - at their strongest when we were waiting for the bus home from Witney, after meeting for a delicious late - very late - lunch at the Hollybush.

This morning, I was pleased that the shed roof on the allotment was still sound - including the south pitch, which I refelted last Sunday. Harvested some smallish courgettes, a yellow round cucumber and chard.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

warm, putting the allotment to bed, beetroots, christmas soup?, nicely-paced weekend























Extraordinarily warm day for mid-October. Shirt sleeves on the allotment and certainly no log fire at home.

Took down the runner and French bean wigwams, grubbed up some of the courgette and cucumber plants and dug over their ground and where the spuds had been.

There may be few more courgettes to come but mostly that's the end of the summer veg. Just some beetroots - hopefully they will last till Christmas Day and out traditional soup - and various chards (Swiss, rainbow and self-set).

A nicely-paced weekend compared with the last one - which was spent reading finals papers.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

the dawn allotment























The air is thick with vapour and the lingering night.

I park my bike against the wire fence,
avoiding the pointed knots that have caught the saddle before now.

The shed roof looks safe from this side but
the covering on the far pitch has flapped over in one place
and worn bare in others.
At least it's not any worse, despite the winds.
I have a roll encrusted with sea-green grit in the sturdier shed at home
and will felt in a week or so's time
when the grubbing up and the digging are done.

I fit the battery to the strimmer and for a quarter of an hour
scythe to right and left along the paths.
An electric Poldark in scuffed jacket
and misted safety goggles.

Thank goodness for the lingering night.

--

The leaves of the cues and the Italian courgettes are brown-mottled,
though there are small fruits still -
lemon and wax-green, acid with ridges, smooth striped.
The beans are desiccated wigwams with no runners and just a few French.

Fine rain drifts across and I almost decide not to dig.
But there is a pause and I fetch the spade and
cut along the edges of where the potatoes were, in preparation.
More drifts. Another pause.
I start.
I turn over a couple of yards,
Uncovering missed spuds, slicing some.
Until St Mary's tolls eight.

I set the petering-out autumn harvest on the grass.

Click. I take a photograph and wonder what I'll write.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

the byeways of carterton























Bus home, early again.

So, another saunter down the byeways of Carterton.

Quite a chilly evening.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

spud harvest, desiree wins, early autumn, oxford rush of energy























Harvested our spuds this morning.

Once again, Desiree was the most successful variety. It must suit the claggy Oxford clay.

Difficult to find a moment when the earth was dry enough. Autumn seems to have come early this year.

Oxford term about to start and the MSt residence is this weekend. As always, the University is suddenly alive with a rush of energy after the long stretch of summer.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

early autumn views, elmet by fiona mozley, sequentiality is key!, p.s., thanks, ml!









Excellent walk on the Barrington Park Estate. Lovely early autumn views.

Very much enjoying Elmet by Man Booker shortlisted Fiona Mozley. She tells a great tale. From a creative writing point of view, one of the brilliant - and deceptively simple - things she does is, as it were, just to put one foot in front of the other, taking us to the other side without ever looking down. Sequentiality in fiction is key!

P.S. A friend - and Oxford Creative Writing graduate - picked me up on 'sequentiality', saying that some tutors and writers would disagree about its importance because it leads to predictability. Which is fair enough and I obviously didn't explain myself well. I meant sequentiality at scene and paragraph levels not that of plot. The kind of sequentiality that constantly takes the reader onwards, creating a strong, page-turning momentum. In Elmet this is done in a way that seems incredibly simple and yet the power of the 'everyday' observations drives you forward inexorably. Thanks, ML!

Saturday, 23 September 2017

walking, somerset, fb wishes





Loved walking in Somerset.

Thanks to Facebook friends for birthday wishes!

Monday, 18 September 2017

lichen, downpour, fire in the grate, poldark























A muted-colour day.

Topped by an outrageous - and completely unforecast (if the internet weather was to be believed) - downpour!

A fire in the grate. It's not exactly cold but the dark, dank night demands it.

Poldark, Series 2, Episode 6 on DVD.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

old stoic day, the years went - where?, lions, first fires of autumn, hangover square and netta the fish





Returned to Stowe for our year group's Old Stoic day yesterday... Forty years since we left. Help!

The years went - where?

Lovely, lovely to see close friends from school days - close friends too little seen.

Other friends not seen at all since that time. Gosh.

And such a different school. The grounds managed by the National Trust; the stately home restored to former glories, when the Dukes of Buckingham lived there. An extraordinary place to be at school - then as now.

The lion on the South Front shown in the photo - one of a pair - was recently reinstated (having been sold off in 1921, before the school was founded) after it was discovered in a park in Blackpool. On extended loan now. See this YouTube video: https://youtu.be/fogGLSoyMdQ

Really enjoyed talking to the school librarian too.

At home, we lit our first log fire of the autumn last Sunday and have lit one each day since. It's been freezing out!

Finished Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Beautifully written and constructed, from a page-turning point of view - it has amazing momentum - but I found the short section told from Netta's perspective, in which her personality and attention span is compared to those of a fish, seemed both reductive and contrived. How much more powerful the book would have been if her interior life had remained a mystery. I even wondered if that section was added later. A fascinating novel of its time, nevertheless.

Friday, 8 September 2017

missed that one... missed another..., still feeling the effects



How was I to know that the bus timetables changed on 3rd September?

Mostly, there were hardly any changes at all. Just the 2.57 pm from Bampton Square, which now goes seven minutes earlier. It took quite a while to realise we had missed that one - well, we just assumed there was a hold up somewhere. As you do... Until...

I was also unlucky with the 6.40 pm from Carterton. Now zooming off at 6.32...

So, an earlier bus from Oxford after work means I have longer to wait for my Carterton connection and more time for exploring.

Pleased to say that the effects of the holiday are still felt.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

one of those days























A great walk this morning.

But a somewhat disappointing day, as far as the weather was concerned...

Lots of other good things, though!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

vapourous early morning walk, raphael, ipa, cherwell lunch







Up early for a walk over at Clanfield. The morning vapourous along the lane and in the fields; misty towards Folly Hill and the Iron Age fort.

A heavy dew and spider webs everywhere: some, near-symmetrical wheels; others seemingly randomly-woven stacks of dense strands.

Later, a bus trip to Oxford to see the Raphael drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean. So intriguing - as well as beautiful and inspiring. I know so little about the Italian Renaissance, really. Just the obvious things. Let alone about the techniques used. I thought the text on the boards accompanying the drawings was excellent, opening up the thinking behind the way things were done and why in accessible language. I loved the case that illustrated the tools and resources the artist used. Black ink from oak gourds, not least.

A half of American-style IPA at the Rose and Crown, North Parade, afterwards, and a delicious lunch on the banks of the Cherwell.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

light rain, owls























A little light rain during our walk this morning.

Last night, falling to sleep to the sound of owls.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

apples, reading, family papers


Some wonderful holiday days in west Oxfordshire: beautiful long walks, catching up on the allotment and in the garden, eating the produce (the delight of Cox and James Grieve apples), sitting out under the stars and marvelling - at our ignorance of the constellations as much as the stunning, infinity of it all!

Listening to owls in our garden.

Reading. A luxury. All Souls by Javier Marías - fascinating to see an Oxford I can just about remember through very narratorial, very cerebral, but also very intriguing, Spanish eyes. Now, Hangover Square by the immediate carry-you-along involving brilliant Patrick Hamilton.

Also, more practical things.

When Mum died I inherited the family papers. Not looked at since. Now, today, the process -  nearly two years later, and the right time to face this - begins: of the librarian's indexing, digitising and boxing; of occasionally dipping into; but mostly preparing to go through...

The broader aspects of how a multi-million pound fortune was turned into a million pound debt have already been explained by the bankruptcy process. But the nuances - the subtle revelations of what Mum and Dad (and others) did. That begins now.

I'm ready for that. Much water has flowed beneath the bridge.

Friday, 25 August 2017

out and about




Out and about in the beautiful west Oxfordshire and Cotswolds countryside.

Oh, and on the allotment too.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

cross-country to clanfield























A lovely walk cross-country to Clanfield yesterday.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

dog rose, the lock, liber dh wg, writers in oxford young oxfordshire writers comp
























The dog rose by the entrance to the Walton Well Road car park was in flower this week.

I remember it from years ago. If you're coming from Port Meadow, you go through the gate and there it is. It used to be intertwined with stems of Duke of Argyll's Teaplant but that seems to have gone now.

I'm surprised that the dog rose is still alive. There have been many changes to the car park over the last twenty-five to thirty years.

The dog rose featured in my first novel, The Lock (Smaller Sky, 2003) - see extract below. In Chapter 6, Elizabeth is walking towards Port Meadow to visit her daughter who is living with her boyfriend in a truck on the far side of the car park - the novel is set in the early 1990s during the Grunge and Travelling years.

Meantime, I recently joined a new Digital Humanities working group, which has been set up by LIBER (Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche - Association of European Research Libraries). If you're interested in DH you can find out more by visiting the group's page and the LIBER blog post about the launch workshop (which sadly I wasn't able to attend).

A reminder that the Writers in Oxford 25th Anniversary Young Oxfordshire Writers Competition closes very soon - entries must be sent before 1st September.

Two other writing competitions to consider are The Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18 and the Sixth Annual Mogford Food and Drink Short Story Prize (opens 26 October).

--

Extract from The Lock by Frank Egerton (Smaller Sky, 2003), Chapter 6, pp. 80-81 (now available as a Kindle ebook from StreetBooks)


Even near the bottom of the hill, the cover from the, in spring, scraggy-seeming ash trees, and the new growth of rosebay willowherb and dog rose bushes was impenetrable.  In amongst the last of these, Elizabeth noticed, with some surprise, growing the long, silvery-green tarragon-like branches and delicate star-shaped purple flowers of the Duke of Argyll’s teaplant.  She remembered seeing this before in an area of rough ground by the railway station, which was on the way along a short cut to the Island from the canal which she and Gerald had sometimes used when they were returning on summer nights from having a drink in Jericho after he had collected her from the University Press, where she then worked, shortly before they were married.  Since then, and though she had walked this way often over the years, she had not seen the shrub anywhere else.

Elizabeth also remembered how she and Gerald had spent time observing the structure of the teaplant when they first noticed it, and had then gone to his house and sat side by side on the green velvet sofa’s somewhat drab predecessor in the sitting-room, Gerald leafing through the pages of the Oxford Flower Book for the Pocket, both he and Elizabeth staring intently as if in competition with each other, until, with the alacrity of snap players, they cried simultaneously ‘There!’ and identified it.
She stopped walking for a moment and then approached the dense seethe of dog rose and teaplant, which were also, she now saw, bound up with a plethora of the flimsy but inexorable, twining stems of convolvulus, coming into leaf, but not yet in flower.  The dog rose flowers themselves were unusually large and big-petalled.  They were mostly pinky purple with thickly-stamened yellow centres, like pincushions, though there were some white ones, which she presumed must be on a separate bush, but it was impossible to tell.  She could have tried to part some of the stems and find out, but, quite apart from their large thorns, they were guarded by nettles.

Were, she wondered, lost for a moment in reverie, these bushes, with their extraordinary flowers, even dog roses?

Sunday, 13 August 2017

morning glory!, osney birthday party, hb allen centre







It's that morning glory time of year. Every one of them different. Each startlingly beautiful.

Worked in Oxford yesterday before going to a birthday party on Osney Island. Loved seeing friends.

On the way to work I took a photo of the old building on the former Acland site that is being incorporated into Keble College's HB Allen Centre. Extraordinary to see it sitting on stilts like this. Keble has put up so many new buildings since I was an undergraduate there in the 1980s.