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Showing posts from 2013

A sentimental break

It’s the night before the move, and I’ve just taken a last stroll around the Radcliffe Camera. Hardly anyone there, but a party of Spanish bankers calling affectionately at each other. Oxford is soaked in nostalgia, and my dose has arrived early. I'm not going far, nor am I going to move to a radically different environment. I swap bogs for fens. I’m looking through Brideshead to find the words to salute Oxford, especially in this week of low mists and unseasonably wintry light.

There aren’t any, I suppose.

Trains, planes, and automobiles

We had underestimated the journey. The train to Gatwick was fine; the plane to Pisa was fine. A. watched out the window for nearly two hours, fascinated by the wings, and the clouds, and our view of the Alps. Our bags came off the conveyer belt first; we ordered our Panini and café in Italian with ease, and we ate outside, beaming with our luck, watching Pisans slowly cycle by in khaki shorts and neck bling. But this was where the streak of luck ended, or at least, became chronically uncertain. I had, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered to drive us to the rural place we’d rented for ten days. There was no other mode of transportation. To save money, we rented a manual car. I’d earned my license on a manual car ten years ago, but haven’t practiced since, though I drove an automatic for nearly as long. It couldn’t be that difficult, I told myself. There’d be a baptism by fire, and then we’d sail onto the other side. This was woefully wilful idealism.

We got our rental car by the skin of…

Questions of Travel

I’m stuck in something of a conundrum. I’ve realised that writing about Italy – Tuscany in particular – leads otherwise capable writers into committing themselves to the most self-satisfied, plummy language. There are other places in the world in which this becomes equally tempting: India occasionally, rural England, Burgundy, Provence, New England, the Pacific Northwest, one’s own garden, etc. But Italy is particularly bad. It is difficult, when writing about Italy, to avoid harping on upon the vivaciousness of the Italian tomato, or the quirkiness of the stray Italian who happens upon your path. This is problematic. It may be a pleasure for the writer to descant on la dolce vita, but the reader suspects there is degree of the writer’s self-romancing, suspects she has read it before somewhere (or everywhere) else. Such writing does no favours to anyone. It comes to no realisation. It smacks of privilege (and a lack of the imagination). It is best kept for the self to feed over. It is…
The sun has risen in some kind of send-off, and the journey to Florence (or, rather, just outside Florence) is about to begin. I'm accompanied by Dante's Inferno and a dictionary, three of Nabokov's early novels, the diary of Cesar Pavese, and a book to review. A sketch-book, two notebooks, a diary, and my language books. One packs too much, but one always wants the luxury of choice. Wish us buon viaggio...

Domestic vices

I have just discovered that one of my tutors contributes marvellous posts on tea to a culture blog. As befitting Sally, a curator of a moveable salon of former pupils, artists, and literary junkies, these posts are evocative of a social past. And they further evoke generously articulate comments about readers’ own tea experiences.

Directly after reading her posts, I went down to make myself a thimbleful of coffee, which I tell myself I need to do in order to avoid a headache the next morning. (For the record, A. believes I make this up.) As I washed the caffetiere and brought out from the cupboard my little ceramic eggshell blue pot with COFFEE on the outside and Taylor’s Café Brazilia inside, I began to think about the culture of coffee and the society of its drinkers.

Coffee is dark, ambitious, the drink of workers, of pioneers; and it’s the drink of poseurs, of salons, of fashionable 18th century Londoners gathering to exchange rumours, scandal, and political opinions. Here is Addiso…

The Pleasures of Father Brown

When the BBC showed their new series of GK Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries in January, featuring the lovably familiar mug of Mark Williams, better known in the comforting role of dear Mr Weasley, I felt that at last I would acquaint myself with Chesterton. I have come across him before in passing – either in his relation to CS Lewis, a figure who hovered over my growing up like an ancestor, or as a patron saint of the literary journal where I worked for six months – but was never familiar with his work.

But this BBC incarnation - which, to my surprise, has received a commission for a second series – is no way to get to know the clerical sleuth or his author. Even before I read a single Father Brown story, it was clear that the adaptation was dull, blunted, amplified, and misshapen. With additions and new characters to stretch out Chesterton’s jewels into forty-five minute segments, the series drafted a Keep Calm and Carry On tea-and-bunting brigade, resetting the stories in th…

Read at Oxford

I’ve been scanning my notes from the last few years and presented with the big compost heap – the muddle – that makes one’s reading life. There have been times over the past three years when I’ve wondered (and other people have asked me) why I returned to university; As a literature student, surely it would have been prudent to have just saved my money and read everything on my own. This course of all courses is one which might suit the nominal autodidact. This may well be so, but there is no way I can imagine having the time (not leisure; not really) to read so much – or having the expertise to guide my reading – in three years without the structure of the course. (This is without the added benefits of tutorials, relentless essay-writing, the large libraries, societies, lectures, and other resources.)

Nevertheless, for those who are interested in what might read during three years at Oxford, I’ve compiled a list, which is equally a personal aide-mémoire, in all its raggedyness. I am e…


It is the last day of 8th week of Trinity Term. All the finalists are finished wearing sub fusc, trading carnations, reading weak-eyed in the afternoons and through the night, frantically flipping through their notes. They no longer have to be herded into the tent outside the exam schools where the shell-shocked students bleat in panic. There’re no more sober hours under the large round face of the clock in the North Schools, and all the dour faces of the ruffed portraits. The irregularities – a blood-curdling scream, the to-ing and fro-ing of a room of people continually going to the bathroom, the intrusion of rock music from the street – are all behind us and part of the pomp and circumstance of the whole event. Everyone has processed out the back door with their red carnations into the cobbled street behind the exam schools where friends wait with flowers, champagne, confetti, silly string, balloons, hats, flour, milk, water guns and in our unfortunate case, an uncooked trout, whi…
It's the night before my final exam, and there's an inevitable pulse of nostalgia. It feels a bit like Donne's 'the world's last night'; fittingly, as this last exam is on the Renaissance. A red carnation day.
After Easter, my resolution begins anew. Apparently, the French celebrated Easter as the first day of the year until 1563 when Charles VI changed it to the first of January, so I'll be reviving that practice.

Knee-deep into finals revision, I am reading the wonderful Montaigne alongside Donne on death:

'I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can; and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.'

- from his essay 'That to philosophize is to learn to die' (I. X)
I believe them now: Robert Frost WAS cranky:


Well, you once said in my hearing that Robert Lowell had tried to connect you with Faulkner, told you you were a lot like Faulkner.


Did I say that?


No, you said that Robert Lowell told you that you were a lot like Faulkner.

(Whole interview here)
An arresting title from Aquinas' Summa Theologica:

Article 6. Whether penance is a second plank after shipwreck?

This is surely the title of a poem. Apparently it's from St. Jerome.

beau ideal

Will you come and visit me next year? I shall undoubtedly have a large circle of witty and interesting friends by then and life will be on a very high plane – elegant, literary, and in perfect order… On the roofs of the brick houses and on the island in the pond there will be all sorts of romantic musicians, and supper will be served on the island too – strung with lanterns. It will be very pleasant, reminiscent of Venice, and the Last Days of Rome and the Chinese Emperors, with a bit of Coney Island thrown in. - Elizabeth Bishop to Frani Blough, 1934
Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! Keep time: how sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept! - Richard II

After the ceilidh

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
Robert Burns' Address to the Haggis
'Harriet has made a contrapuntal composition, so intricate she is unable to play it. What can be played sounds post Schoenberg, but that may be due to her faulty command of what Allen would call traditional skills.’ - Robert Lowell on his daughter to Peter & Eleanor Taylor
Space seems to be either tamer or more inoffensive than time: we're forever meeting people who have watches, very seldom people who have compasses.

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces

Saturday Night

Theseus: Say, what abridgement have you for this evening?
What masque? what music? How shall we beguile
The lazy time, if not with some delight?

Midsummer Night's Dream V:i

Because of the snow

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow...

From Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man
‘I have a vague theory that one learns most – I have learned most from having someone suddenly make fun of something one has taken seriously up until then.’ Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson
'To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow a trace, a mark, or a few signs.’ - George Perec, Species of Spaces

proposition for a commonplace book

Over Christmas my dad said he’d noticed that nothing had been happening on this blog, and it’s true. Moreover, it’s probably going to get – in a way – worse, as I prepare for my final examinations in May. My good angel says keeping a blog – writing for its own sake – would be a welcome alternative to weekly work, but the truth is that the quality would be very low and uninspired. I predict as the next two terms wear on that my trips outside the garret (I’m living once more in my happy attic room overlooking Holywell Street) will be less and less and that my excursions into books not necessary to my passing Finals will be similarly restricted. I’d still like to keep this moving, however, if only as a record to myself of what I’m reading.

So, in that spirit I’d like to post a quotation every day – long or short – from something I’ve read during the day. I’m going to try to avoid the purely inspirational and vary it from day to day and present amusing things from the newspaper, from poet…