I love Oxford in the rain. Even a little drizzle seems to clear the streets, and if you head off into the city’s many alleyways during a decent downpour it can feel as though you have the whole place to yourself. I got caught out in a thunderstorm while walking between talks at the literary festival today, and had a great time taking touristy pictures in the moody, semi-empty streets. I was pleased to warm up in front of the open fire in Christ Church College’s Great Hall after a little too long taking pictures in the hail and the rain- I was soaked through!
Last night I went to an Oxford Literary Festival talk on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and why they still resonate with people which had the poet Patience Agbabi and the comedian Mark Watson as key speakers. Oh my gosh it was amazing, and having bored my boyfriend and friends sick telling them about it, I’ve decided to bore you too.
For me, the best bit, beyond a shadow of a doubt was Patience’s live performance of some of the poems from her new book, Telling Tales, a twenty-first century remix of Chaucer which represents the diversity and dynamism of modern Britain while remaining faithful to Chaucer’s work. Sceptical? So was I until I saw Patience perform, then I was enchanted and I have now bought the book and am watching all of the videos of her performances on YouTube. She originally wrote a modern version of The Wife of Bath’s Tale in her collection Transformatrix, before becoming poet laureate for Canterbury which required her to write poems which had a connection to the city of Canterbury. Check the collection out and I’m sure you’ll agree that the results are phenomenal. If you’d like to see what has turned me into such a raving fan girl, check out this performance from Telling Tales below- I spent most of the night wondering how Agbabi would have approached The Prioress Tale given the overt antisemitism of the Chaucer text and this video shows how brilliantly she’s done this:
Mark Watson read from a modern prose of translation of Chaucer, which inevitably lacked the colour of the original, especially when compared to Patience’s blistering rhymes. Nonetheless he was brilliantly witty all the while being charmingly self-deprecating, telling us before reading “If you like, you can imagine I’m Chaucer, but this may take substantial effort…I’ve never read this aloud, because why would you? I didn’t write it. I wasn’t at any of the publishing events.”
It was a really lovely night, the only downside being that there was one of those in the crowd… if you know what I mean. One of those is one of the reasons I decided against doing my masters in Literature because one invariably shows up in every seminar and lecture. The ones who always make a point of asking a question which implies an argument with the speaker and is intended to show off which only makes the one of those look silly and irritates the rest of the audience. The most annoying thing about this one was that they actually swapped seats with their wife to get a better eye-line with which to snidely rebuke the panel for not being as clever as they clearly thought they were… tedious, tedious man!
I’m off to more talks tomorrow and on the weekend, very exciting 🙂
“God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think.”
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
Set in 1663, twelve years after the end of the English Civil War, An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a bitingly clever murder mystery set in the streets and colleges of restoration Oxford. Narrated by four narrators, the reader is left to piece together the true course of events from highly unreliable narratives before discovering “the truth” in a final narrative which leaves you, despite your better judgement, unable to question the credibility of the self-proclaimed “objective” narrator.
This is simultaneously the most intelligent and most enjoyable novel that I’ve read in a very long time. It’s clearly been immaculately researched, but at no point do you feel as though you’re having a lecture on life in post-Civil War Oxford. What particularly impressed me was the way that historical characters are seamlessly woven with fictional players (in reality, most of the characters are historical characters, though the events of the novel are fictional) and familiar figures from history like John Locke and Robert Boyle drift in and out of the novel as minor players, their genius and personalities noted as incidentals in the more pressing stories the characters are telling.
I admit, that part of my fondness for this novel was the Oxford setting. The descriptions of areas that are now fairly gentrified within the city centre as filthy, run down hovels was amusing, but I especially enjoyed the description of a religious meeting in a warehouse on the quay at Abingdon (a hotbed of radicalism, apparently). I’m almost certain I know where the building the author describes must be.
If you’ve ever spent any significant time in Oxford, or are planning a little sightseeing, this is a wonderful read and one which will truly stand the test of time.
Yesterday afternoon I took a detour while shopping in Oxford to drop into The Bodleian Library’s exhibition of Magical Books. As with any Bodleian library exhibition, this did not disappoint. It was so exciting to see hand written manuscripts, art work and artefacts that some of my favourite writers created or were inspired by.
Along with the usual suspects like C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkein and Philip Pullman who you would expect to see at an Oxford based exhibition of fantasy literature, there were some real gems that I hadn’t expected to see like medieval manuscripts on divination, the Rawlinson necromantic manuscript and, my personal favourite, the plates which inspired Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
We read The Owl Service when I started secondary school and I can remember how I used to get told off for reading ahead in lessons when we were meant to be reading along with the class. It’s the first time I’d really appreciated that a story was updating and twisting an ancient myth into something new and modern (even though the book was at least 30 years old by the time I read it). I think that this is where my love of fairy tale and myth inspired novels has come from so it was really nice to be able to trace out the flower owls like Alison did in the story.
Unfortunately, I’m not able to share any pictures from the exhibition here, but the lovely people at the Bodleian have made the entire exhibition available online for anyone who wasn’t able to make it to Oxford to see it.
On Saturday I went into Waterstones, Oxford and found myself in the middle of a Regency style musical performance. I was a little annoyed that the crowd which had formed around the performers meant that I could get nowhere near the fiction books I’d planned to spend half an hour browsing, but when I heard Austentation (there to mark 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice being published) performing Greensleeves– which is one of my favourite folk songs- I quickly forgave the disruption!
I haven’t posted in a while and unfortunately, I’m doing it because I’ve got really sad news. This evening we had to have my best friend, Lettice the Rabbit, more commonly known as Rabbity put down as she had caught myxomatosis.
I know this isn’t my usual book or food related topic, but I thought that this was important news to share, as I had no idea that there is a massive outbreak of myxomatosis in the UK this summer, or that rabbits who aren’t in contact with wild animals can catch this. The vet tells me that this can be spread by insects such as fleas or mosquitoes. Even indoor rabbits aren’t safe. Rabbits can be vaccinated, and the vaccine should last a year, but they’ve had to euthanize animals who’ve had the booster as recently as six months ago, so if you have a rabbit please get it checked and vaccinated by your vet as soon as possible. I’m devastated to have lost my little friend, and I am hoping that by telling people I will be able to help keep their pets safe.
Please pass this message on to anyone you know who has a rabbit. Once they catch it there is nothing the vet can do to save them.
Rabbity Rabbit, you will be sorely missed. Who else will take as much interest in what I plant in the garden, cuddle me as I sunbathe and bite my ankles to let me know I’ve been reading too long and that it’s time to play?
I recently visited an exhibition at the Bodleian Library Oxford which showcases some of the rare and ancient manuscripts the library owns. The exhibition will run until December 23rd 2011 and allows the public to view the treasures to decide which should go on permanent display.
You can see all sorts of wonderful things including a Shakespeare First Folio, a 1484 copy of Aesop’s Fables, fragments of lyric poems by Sappho, a draft of Frankenstein, The Kennicott Bible and original watercolours from The Hobbit. My favourite was Gregorio Reggio’s Herbarium which contains samples of plants collected around 1596. I just found it incredible that this has survived so long and is in such great condition.
I can’t post pictures from the exhibition here (without paying a £15 permissions fee) but do check it out on the Bodleian website and visit if you get the chance.
On Saturday, after I’d visited the festival bookshop of The Oxford Literary Festival in Christchurch Meadows, I stopped by Alice’s Shop which sells memorabilia associated with the Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass books by Lewis Carroll.
As you can see it seems to be very popular with tourists and was even busier inside that it was out. I bought some post cards (as part of my campaign to resurrect the art of letter writing- they are letter writing-lite) and Mad Hatter Tea for my father, as well as a Mad Hatter quote card. We’re big Alice fans in my family.
Something that really excited me was learning that the shop itself actually features in Alice Through The Looking Glass. It used to be a grocery shop that the real life Alice used to visit to buy her sweets, and was run by a lady with a bleating voice. This ended up as the mean sheep who sells Alice the egg that becomes Humpty Dumpty. I remembered the passage well because Alice is told that two eggs are cheaper than one, but if she buys the two she must eat them both. It always struck me as the type of thing you would say to a greedy child whose eyes were bigger than their belly, though I could imagine an eccentric shop keeper having such a policy.
‘I should like to buy an egg, please,’ she said timidly.
‘How do you sell them?’
‘Fivepence farthing for one— Twopence for two,’ the Sheep replied.
‘Then two are cheaper than one?’ Alice said in a surprised tone, taking out her purse.
‘Only you must eat them both, if you buy two,’ said the Sheep.
‘Then I’ll have one, please,’ said Alice, as she put the money down on the counter. For she thought to herself, ‘They mightn’t be at all nice, you know.’
The Sheep took the money, and put it away in a box: then she said ‘I never put things into people’s hands— that would never do— you must get it for yourself.’ And so saying, she went off to the other end of the shop, and set the egg upright on a shelf.
‘I wonder why it wouldn’t do?’ thought Alice, as she groped her way among the tables and chairs, for the shop was very dark towards the end. ‘The egg seems to get further away the more I walk towards it. Let me see, is this a chair? Why, it’s got branches, I declare! How very odd to find trees growing here! And actually here’s a little brook! Well, this is the very queerest shop I ever saw!’
I’ll be going back when I get my house buying sorted out to buy myself their amazing character key holders. I think I’ll get myself one of each and use them to hang my necklaces from!
I consider myself a bit of a Shakespeare aficionado yet still I don’t remember any reference to milkshakes in his plays. In fact the closest I can get to that is the “too full o’the milk of human kindness” from Lady Macbeth… that and her knowing how tender it is to love the babe that milks her…
So you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the milkshake shop I used to frequent in Oxford which had closed in February had been reopened today rebranded as Shakespeare’s Milkshake Bar. They’ve broken away from the parent company and have had to come up with something different. I’m not sure if the Shakespeare bit was an attempt to lure tourists (very limited Shakespeare connection in Oxford) but it has given rise to a series of milkshakes which are named (completely randomly) after Shakespeare plays.
Today my boyfriend and I opted for the All’s Well That Ends Well containing those classic Shakespearean snacks Reese’s peanut butter cups, toffee crisps and minstrels. Well at least they technically had minstrels in the time of Shakespeare.
Further bizarre combinations included:
Hamlet Banana, coconut and malt (knew there was a reason I didn’t like that play…)
Macbeth Oreo, bournville with mini oreo top (missed the chocolate thing when I read it)
Romeo and Juliet Strawberry and nutella with a flake top (Romeo was a bit flaky…)
The Comedy of Errors Skittles, bubblegum millions with a popping candy top (one word: error)
The full list also includes Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest. The most baffling use of play names I have ever come across. Still, the milkshakes are delicious even if the whole name thing is weird.
If you were going to make a Shakespeare milkshake, what would yours be called and what would it contain? I think I’d have things like a Bloody Dagger with lots of red like strawberries, jammy dodgers and strawberry millions. Or Puck’s Potion with love hearts, sherbert fountain and wham bar (for that I’ve just woken up and find myself in love with a person who hates me experience…)
I was introduced to this little shop on the weekend, and I could have spent years in here. It’s an amazing treasure trove of wax seals, leather journals, quills and assorted oddities. If I could have bought the entire shop, I would have. They don’t really sell reading books, the only books on display were some very expensive folio editions (cheaper to become a devoted member of the Folio Society and purchase heavily for a time) but if I ever win the lottery I will be going back to stock up my desks. I can see me now writing in a leather-bound tome with gold engraving, writing in an elegant script with a peacock feather quill and rainbow coloured inks. The perfect place to act out your Romantic/Gothic/Medieval/Harry Potter fantasy.
I came away with some vintage look postcards showing animals on vintage maps. There were two of each so I will have one to frame and another to send to lucky recipients. I will have to go back soon though. I’m sure that come pay-day I can justify my new-found need for a magnifying glass, butterfly patterned sticky notes and a few pretty marbled notebooks. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Oxford area, their website is http://www.scriptum.co.uk/