Monday, 29 January 2018

roadside snowdrops, burns night supper, the debatable land: the lost world between scotland and england by graham robb







Came across this patch of snowdrops when cycling on Saturday. They were on the verge between Clanfield and Black Bourton.

As last week, there are days that feel as if spring has arrived and others when winter whistles in with a vengeance.

On Saturday night we had our Burns Night supper. Delicious Cullen Skink and haggis, get-up-and-dance Orcadian fiddle music, tingling Cairn o'Mohr spring oakleaf wine and a dram of Highland Park. Not to mention a poem or two.

On a related theme, I was fascinated to read Melanie Reid's review of The Debatable Land: The Lost World between Scotland and England by Graham Robb (Picador, 334pp, £20) in the Times on Saturday. An exploration of the violent history of the borderlands of Scotland and England - or, as the Times intro put it 'the brutal past of the bloody no man’s land where two countries meet'.

More accustomed to writing about French literary history, Robb seems nevertheless to have produced a vivid account of the area to which he and his wife (my former boss) moved some years ago. Having heard a little of these lawless times from a friend who is a descendant of one of the fearsome border reiver families, the Armstrongs, this is a book that I look forward to reading.

Melanie Reid concludes by saying of Robb:

'His skill as a writer is to understand, without being fey, the fourth dimension: peeling back the modern landscape to find buried stories and forgotten paths, metaphors for life. He has the ability to bring alive quirk and coincidence - although sometimes too much - in the resonance of place and time. If nothing else, I hope his book encourages people off the M6 and into the lost interior of the Debatable Land.'

For those with access beyond the paywall: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/review-the-debatable-land-the-lost-world-between-scotland-and-england-by-graham-robb-k6htvtzhc.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

narrow boat wedged, spring-winter, russell square, log fire, narrative magazine writers' resources - including oxford mst








Came across this narrow boat wedged under the footbridge over the Thames just south of Bossoms Boat Yard. Am hoping no one was injured. Suspect that it broke free of its moorings during the floods.

I first saw it over a week ago and yesterday, when I did the same walk, there were river rescue vehicles on the bank, so I imagine it will have been extricated by now.

Alternating spring-like and gloomy-winter days recently.

In the middle of the week, I was in London for a committee meeting and ate my sandwiches in Russell Square beneath the plane trees. The air was scything but the light was delicate and reassuring of good days to come.

Today is all fine misty rain, milky skies and muted colours. A day for marking work beside the log fire.

For creative writers, a new section has just been launched on the Narrative Magazine website called Writers' Resources. It lists Writing Programs (good that the Oxford MSt is there in the international listings), Conferences, Books on Writing, Best Advice and Editing Programs. Definitely worth a browse.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

refreshing and energising holiday, bampton history, bampton poet, john philips 1676-1709


























Went back to work this week, after a wonderfully refreshing and energising holiday.

Enjoyed lots of walks, even though the winds were strong and sharp at times. On Buckland Marsh, the Thames flooded the water meadows. But those at Burroway, where the curlew nest in spring, were mostly dry and when we walked them looked almost spring-like.

On Marsh Lane, some of the trees were both blue-green with lichen and swathed in claret-coloured ivy leaves.

This Christmas, I returned to the Victoria County History entries for Bampton and its neighbouring villages, which I first read in 2001. In those days, I read from a massive volume borrowed from an Oxford library. This time, I read on my phone - times have changed! - thanks to the estimable British History Online project.

Something I'd missed early in the new century was the mention of a poet, John Philips, who was born in Bampton in 1676. I was intrigued and read round him, discovering that he wrote in the Miltonic style and was praised by James Thomson (author of The Seasons - 1730) for his 'rhyme-unfetter'd' - or blank - verse. Philips' most respected poem is Cyder, which celebrates the growing of orchards, the making of cider and the rural way of life, amongst other things, and which is modelled on Virgil's Georgics. In its turn it was the model for later georgics, including Thomson's.

Philips was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and died in Hereford, where his mother's family came from, of tuberculosis in 1709, aged just thirty-three.

The New York Public Library copy of the 1708 Jacob Tonson edition of Cyder has been digitised and is available on Internet Archive.

The poem is a delight to read. It's actually much more wide-ranging than its title suggests, combining passages about orchard growing and cider making with moral philosophy, sweeping summaries of British history, politics, paeans to various aristocrats - 'Thee al∫o, Glorious Branch of Cecil's Line,/This County claims...' - (presumably existing or hoped-for patrons), and rural lore. While there are Miltonic and neo-Classical flourishes - 'Hyperborean Bla∫ts', 'Tartarean Dregs', 'Th' Olympian Hill' - the writing is generally accessible and has considerable charm and humanity.

The best bits are the passages relating to Cider and the countryside. I loved the names of the cider apples: 'Woodcock...Pippin...Moyle...Rough Eliot...∫weet Permain'.

There is plenty of advice - about, for example, grafting apple trees and, here, knowing the signs that tell of the weather to come:

The Woodcocks early Vi∫it, and Abode
Of long Continuance in our tempertate Clime,
Foretell a liberal Harve∫t: He of Times
Intelligent, th'har∫h Hyperborean Ice
Shuns for our equal Winters; when our Suns
Cleave the chill'd Soil, he backward wings his Way
To Scandinavian frozen Summers, meet
For his num'd Blood. But nothing profits more
Than frequent Snows: O, may'∫t Thou often ∫ee
Thy Furrows whiten'd by the woolly Rain,
Nutricious! Secret Nitre lurks within
The porous Wet, quick'ning the languid Glebe. (p. 60)

'Woolly Rain' is wonderful!

Finally, in these two extracts, Philips first extols the virtues of moderate drinking - keeping things 'within The Golden Mean' - then warns of the dangers of over-indulgence:

...the well fraught Bowl
Circles ince∫∫ant, whil∫t the humble Cell
With quavering Laugh, and rural Je∫ts re∫ounds.
Ea∫e, and Content, and undi∫∫embled Love
Shine in each Face; the Thoughts of Labour pa∫t
Encrea∫e their Joy. (p. 72)

But:

...if thou wilt prolong
Dire Compotation, forthwith Rea∫on quits
Her Empire to Confu∫ion, and Mi∫rule,
And vain Debates; then twenty Tongues at once
Con∫pire in ∫en∫ele∫s Jargon, naught is heard
But Din, and various Clamour, and mad Rant... (p. 76)

It's lovely to know that there was a seventeenth century Bampton poet. Meanwhile, I haven't finished reading the County History - the rest is a treat for the coming weeks!