Archive for May, 2008

In no particular order, as there appears to be no particular order about my reading habits, to be frank:

Mind the Gap by Ferdinand Mount
The English by Jeremy Paxman
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
Jill by Phillip Larkin
Oxford by Jan Morris

And I’m enjoying them all—even the Harry Potter, which I’m re-reading as a sort of “lull myselfto sleep” book (though I couldn’t have picked a worse book, physically speaking—it’s so huge that it slumps from side to side and makes it close to impossible to read comfortably in bed). The last two are for research purposes, technically; but then again, I suppose there’s a way in which everything I read is for research purposes.

The Mount has managed to elicit the strongest emotional response from me, because I’m reading it with a mixture of incredulity (“They let him say this? They think it’s good? But it’s just absolute shit!“) and awe (“Oh, he’s really on to something here”etc.) He’s often very apt: “Mobility is the essence of being modern,” he writes, and I couldn’t agree more; or this one: “There is something peculiar about the British attidue to class, some contradiction or unease. On the one hand, we say that class is a thing of the past or rapidly becoming so…On the other hand, we continue to ‘mind the gap’. The subject has not lost its power to provoke and wound and illuminate. We still talk quite a bit about it in various ways: journalistic-facetious, or pretend-anthropological, or even old-fashioned snobbish.”

But then he comes up with gem like this, next to which I tend to scribble things like “bollocks” in the margins: “Social difference in the old-fashioned sense is no longer a legitimate topic for discussion. This is an admirable change. It removes a set of stultifying constraints…Looking back, we may find it odd that the class code should have lasted so long after the material power of the aristocracy had unmistakably cracked.”

See, the thing is, not talking about class division has changed its face, without question–but I don’t see how this is necessarily an “admirable change”. As far as I can tell, all it’s done is pushed class issues under the table; it makes understanding the whole thing, as an outsider, nigh on impossible (even my love, who is elegantly verboise, often finds it frankly too hard to try to explain certain subtle customs or cultural understandings to me, playing the classic “I can’t explain…it’s just something you have to know” card, and referring me to a book, which more often than not is just as coy as he is on the subject)–it wrenches those of us who weren’t born with this apparently inherent British knowledge from the core of perception and sets us precariously on the edge of acceptance, where we teeter delicately, often able to play our gaffes as charming local-isms but sometimes just plain out of touch.

It’s hard, sometimes, to live here, when you don’t know all the things you think you should. Because it’s never talked about, because it’s changed shape so drastically over the years, a morphic monster that hides in hearts and minds, social transgression is both easier and more punishable. We’re terrible snobs everywhere, really, us humans–and no less so in the states. I’m a terrible snob about a lot of things on a personal level–if I wanted to be honest with you, I’d say that I look down, at least a little, on people who don’t read obsessively, for instance. But it isn’t snobbishness, per se, that plauges the British, any more than it plaugues anyone else. It’s adherence to a secret code, I think: an understanding of what is and isn’t truly naff, for example, that has nothing to do with the word’s actual definition and everything to do with a grasp gained by years and years of repeated example and association. It’s not that there’s more class consciousness here; it’s only that it’s a far more elusive and enigmatic thing.

I’m waiting to see if Mount can tell me why.


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The Cold of Early Summer

I have a cold; it’s a nice day, and I have a cold, and I’m grumpy about it in that “there’s nothing I can do, and it’s not even a bad cold, but I’m going to harrumph about it anyway” way. Last night I lay awake trying to decide if my throat hurt; when it decidedly did hurt, I lay awake trying to decide if it hurt in a coldy way or a just-kidding way. Having spent my lunch in the garden trying to convince myself that it’s a just-kidding way, I have a feeling it’s not. Ah well.

I’m also at work. This is not what they pay me to do at work, as you might have guessed. Ah well.

One year ago, I had a cold, too. I went to the Summer Eights and sat reading near the river in the shade of a tree near Christ Church Meadow and sucked on lozenge after lozenge pretending that I was just jet-lagged. I did this because there was a boy I’d met who I wanted to go on seeing, and I couldn’t bear to miss out on a date because of a cold, a lousy cold. Before we met up in the evenings I blew my nose furiously, took several ibuprofen pills, and put on a brave face, and since things were so exciting, I never once noticed my illness until the next morning, when we would wake with gin-soaked heads and I would have to swallow about a gallon of water before I felt able to speak, and then I would tiptoe to the bathroom and blow my nose furiously again and apply masses of careful makeup so that he would think, this boy, that I woke up not feeling hungover but feeling radiant and looking blemish-free.

I wore lots of skirts and dresses and shorts, not because the weather permitted but because it was summer, so one morning when I woke up and saw it pouring rain outside, he had to lend me a jumper to wear with my shorts, which was large and red and warm and had two neat holes in the armpits.
“All my jumpers get holes there,” he told me sheepishly.
“All your sweaters get holes there,” I corrected him. It was a thing we had about jumpers and sweaters, because I thought jumpers were actually the little onesie things you put small children into.
“Yes, well,” he said.

My cold disappeared, not aided by the late nights, the drinking, the way I felt all the time, which was happier than happy and full of youthful energy. He called me for dinner one night—proper dinner, he said, at a proper time (we tended to eat at midnight, generally). When I arrived he said he had a rotten cold and he hoped I wouldn’t get it and I felt too awful to admit that of course I wouldn’t get it, I had given it to him in the first place, so I said, “I probably will, but I don’t care!” and kissed him very deeply and wetly to prove it, because I hoped secretly that he would have felt the same way if I had admitted my own sniffly condition earlier. We drank several bottles of wine and watched High Society, which may or may not be one of my favourite films of all time purely on its laughter value. I never told him the true source of the cold–so I’m sorry, my love, to have made the truth so public now.

I remember sitting by the river during Eights Week so clearly. I don’t mean I remember the details—I can’t even recall what I was reading, though it may have been 100 Years of Solitude which I abandoned when I realized that the fluid, breathless, running tone was going to carry on throughout, unable to make my mind concentrate on it; I know what I was wearing, but only because I had picked it deliberately to impress him (a sheer, flowy white-and-blue floral summer dress), but I don’t know the day, the time, the circumstances of my being there. I had made my way to the river to see tradition in the flesh, and having found it (crowded riverbanks and boathouses spilling spectators onto the paths) I retired to a spot of warmth-and-shade with a strange glow of contentment, for the first time not because of anything but my own personal satisfaction.

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For breakfast, he makes us boiled eggs; and gives me the egg cup while he utilizes a half-empty Ox cube box, which I find simultaneously chivalrous and ingenious of him. Then he watches while I struggle through the egg (I haven’t had a boiled egg in years, I tell him, truthfully and a bit defensively), giving me the occasional and helpful pointer, until I cry out:

“You can’t assume that I know everything about eggs!”

(And then add, in a very small voice: “and just because I don’t doesn’t make me any less of a person.”)

Things are fine until we start on the toast:

“This is good marmalade!” he says.
“Mmm. Good, proper, marmalade-y marmalade,” I agree. Then I add, because I somehow think this is relevant to the discussion: “It’s just from the shop around the corner. We bought it in October.”
“I know,” he says. “We keep forgetting to use it because it’s been in the fridge.”
“You have to refrigerate it!” I say. This is an argument of ours; well, I say argument. It’s more like a mild but irrevocable cultural rift.
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh I know,” I concede, as if he’s somehow dragged it out of me after hours of hard debate, “But it’s better if you do.”
“It’s got preservatives. It’ll keep for months out,” he tells me, for the thousandth time in our relationship. Then he adds thoughtfully, “hmm, lucky we did put it in the fridge, really, given that we got it in October.”
“Hah!” I say, and we reach a quiet sandstill, punctuated by chewing and swallowing and a sort of haughtiness that neither of us quite deserves. I finish my toast. I say:
“Anyway, I like jams better when they’ve been refrigerated.”
“You do?”
“I like the cool taste of refrigerated jam contrasted with the hot crunchy feeling of buttered toast,” I tell him; and I mean it, I think.
“Um,” he says.
“Well, it’s true.”
“All I’m saying is that it isn’t necessary.” He checks the jar of marmalade. “See? It doesn’t say ‘refrigerate after opening'”
“It’s British. Of course it doesn’t; nothing ever does.” I can’t tell if I sound righteous or jealous; briefly, I picture a world in which my kitchen actions are not dictated by the words printed on cans and jars–free, free! Oh, you lucky Brits.
“That’s not true.”
“Well, apart from milk.”
“And hummus!” he says.
“Oh! You’re right. And hummus.”

And where can we go from here? We crawl into the lounge and watch the day, which hasn’t yet decided if it wants to be cloudy-miserable or only partially so. We have been recovering from illness all week, and are giddy with it. Wellness is in reach, but we haven’t yet reached it. We listen to Radio 4 and put aside our culinary differences for a bit. There’s a special on street food; in South Korea, we learn, street vendors have composed a song to promote their craft, as they fear their kind are endangered by a government that sees a vendor-free country. “We’re human too,” is one of the lines; the music sounds like a boisterous, march-like carousel tune.

The sun continues to play games with the window; it’s shining through now, now it’s not, now it is. It’s a kind of seasonal hide-and-seek: here’s spring, in all its hot glory; now where’s it gone?

Last night we heard fireworks going off; they sounded so close, so random, that they could have been gunshots, or thunder, so we opened our window and peered out; across the street we could see green bursts reflected in a dark window.

Cloudy again. The marmalade is still out on the table.

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I think we sometimes don’t use our cities (or towns, or environments, even) enough. But here it is: when you’re utterly broke, suddenly, as shop doors shut fast in your face, something else opens itself up to you, something infinately more mutable than that infrastructure which requires coinage in exchange for patronage. No wonder artists are so oft referred to as “starving”. Really maybe it is the other way round: as in, they are artists because they are poor, not poor because they are artists living in a cold, hard, businessman’s world.

And while they will likely not be poor forever, once the spaces in which they inhabit have conspiratorioally revealed their (free) secrets, they will never go back to being not-artists, even if, in their newfound comfort, they cease to create, in the conventional way that artists do.

And maybe we are all artists, us who live in urban areas, wan with rent-worry; us privilaged youth whose poverty is so relative, so (hopefully) fleeting. We are space-artists: innovative out of necessity, rewarded for our troubles by the warmth of golden sandstone walls at our backs in Radcliffe Square and the luxury of watching people. We decorate the city with our lithe bodies strewn in bathing-suited beauty across the parks in sunshine, with the elegant folds of our legs as we perch on stone steps to have a sandwhich and a can of cider before the sun dips behind the last Oxford college and affords us a darkness under which to hide.

“We always seem to have money for the pub,” he says wonderingly one hot May night. I joke that it’s because this is the only thing that can give us comfort in these dark, broke times, but we both know this isn’t true–everything gives us comfort, just as everything weighs us down. The relative poverty of youth: living to the rhythms of payday, of bills, of knowing without a shadow of a doubt that it is temporary and that we should enjoy it, in our weird way, whilst we can, because while there is shrouded glamour in a bit of leanness, there is little poetry in being always able to afford…

(oh yes, I do say this to comfort myself, a little–but also because it is true)

And in the meantime, we use the city–we’re not just passing through–it’s ours. Not rich, indeed!

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A Funny Springtime Web

Today, I am overwhelmed by coincidence, and the sense that in its own weird little way, the world sometimes tries to say things–I don’t know what they mean, exactly, but there they are. First I am in the basement at work smelling of dust and sweat, looking at things that seem very old, and then I am reminded of all the unlikeliness in the world, and maybe, when I come back upstairs, I look a little shocked, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ll just ride it off to the cramped heat downstairs and anyway, it’s springtime now, and people are allowed to be a little crazy.

At home there is the biggest spider I think I have ever seen in my life tucked in one of the folds at the top of the curtains. I can’t reach it, but even if I could I’m not sure what I would do. I am afraid of it and fascinated by it; I neither want to disturb it nor do I especially want the threat of it hanging over me every time I enter the room. Still, it adds a strange thrill to the mundane.

So because of the spider, instead of sinking into the couch, I go out into the garden and chase the sun down the concrete path towards the vegetable patches; in my swimsuit, I sit on a backless red chair and read my book. I read up until the point when Antonia Quirke and Jonathon Marr have finally started speaking again and am so happy I start grinning, because from the way she writes it, they’re good together. People who are good together like that deserve to be together. Wait, I want to amend that: they need to be together. For not just their sake, but for everyone’s.

Inside it is cool and the spider is still there and I feel light, like I know something I didn’t when I woke up in morning. Is this what snooping feels like? No–this is what convergence feels like.

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A Saturday

We did our garden yesterday. We have seedlings, and buds of lettuce, and herbs in pots by the door to the kitchen. We mowed the lawn. Everything looks prim, and ready for growth. We planted potatoes in a newly dug patch by the compost bin, and a rhubarb (which looks shockingly like a large piece of bark, I’ve discovered, in its root form), and shallots and garlic and peas which will, if all goes according to plan, twine themselves with the neighbor’s fence and climb happily all summer long.

In the afternoon (it was a really warm and lovely day) we stood and admired our handiwork. The boy’s parents were out, helping, as his father said, “the botanically challenged,” so we made tea and stood in the sunlight.

Around five I had a moment of complete and utter happiness. Churchbells were ringing somewhere close by, and the neighbors were having a barbecue. We could smell the warm must of the smoke, and the way it had drifted over our garden made everything seem a little hazy, a little dreamy. I could hear them; someone opened a bottle of champagne. I could hear kids in the street giving off little kid-shouts. The grass was green and our mowing the lawn had apparently attracted every robin on Hurst St., so that the proud little birds were perched on our fence and I swear I could see them smiling. Bliss, bliss, bliss. Later, George came over with a few bottles of delicious cider. We sat outside in our new garden smelling the neighbors’ smoke and soaking up the evening warmth.

By 1 AM, however, the neighbors’ revelry was less poetic. They had turned on some kind of horrible thumpy-thumpy techno music and, with their front door open, it was easily loud enough to be heard in all its glorious disgustingness from every room in our house. I felt sorry for the next-door-neighbors, who were even closer to ground zero. The party had spilled out into the street. There are mostly students here, but families, too, especially across the street, where I sometimes see children peeking out windows and testing the boundaries of their neighborhood by creeping just outside their front gates. We lay awake wondering if we should do something about the noise; and more importantly, if we did, what would it say about us? That we’re old, stodgy, grumpy? That we do not tolerate others’ ability to have fun while we want to sleep? Or that we stand up for our beliefs, regardless of how torn we are about it? We drifted at first into an uneasy sleep; then heavily we dreamt, and at some point over the course of the night, the thumping stopped.

And this morning I happened, quite accidentally, upon a quote by E.B. White: “People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust.”

But enough. We have blueberry pancakes and bloody marys to consume; and a warm garden that will bear us sustenance someday soon to spend the sunday in.

…an addendum, a few hours on.  upon venturing outside this morning, we discover that someone has literally been sick all over our front gate; it has dripped down and formed a crusty pool just outside our walkway.  we SHOULD have put an end to the revelry; it mayn’t have stopped the vomit disaster, but at least we would have felt that we got THEM too…

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“But, look suppose people could be in the country in five minutes walk, and had few wants; almost no furniture for instance and no servants, and studied (the difficult) arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted: then I think one might hope civilization had really begun.”
William Morris

We ended up in London again the other day. I feel it almost always happens that way: we do not plan to go to London, we do not make our day around the journey, we simply meet, after work, and are suddenly on a train speeding into the city. Maybe because of this I invariably arrive and feel I have left a part of myself back in Oxford–slower than the train, it straggles behind and tries to catch up with us as we crisscross the underground world of tunnels and subway cars and escalators that are so tall they make you dizzy, but it never quite does. So things like not being able to find a bin for my coffee cup in Paddington Station set me off on a tirade. I watch the woman on the platform while we wait for a Circle Line train with the thick blonde hair and the impeccable suit and the tall heels and the leather laptop bag. It’s a Thursday night; I picture her, young still, going home and having a bath and thinking about work and waking up and doing it all again, and before she knows it she’ll be old. She depresses me deeply; I do not envy her her life, though she looks perfectly happy and as she listens to a message on her phone her pretty lips broaden into an enormous grin. I think: poor woman.

There is always a reason to be in London; we are never there just because we are there. This time it was the launch party for the QI issue of The Idler magazine, so perhaps it was only appropriate that I did not envy the working woman (“The Idler is a bi-annual, book-shaped magazine that campaigns against the work ethic”). The invitation promised a “May Day Riot” on “London’s Clerkenwell Green”, and all we knew about the festivities is that there would be a pig roasting. I vaguely pictured a vast and lush city park, where civilized folk in elegant cocktail attire sipped champagne from plastic flutes and ate their pork with knives and forks. It had been raining heavy this morning but now things had cleared up; it was warm, even. We took the tube to Farringdon and made our way towards the Green…

…which was not, as it happens, green in the slightest. It sits on a small slope, surrounded by pubs but otherwise in what seems to be a limbo part of London, where tall bank-like buildings and underpasses and boulevards cut you off from the rest of the city. Rather than being a grassy park, the Clerkenwell Green is in fact just a concrete space in a concrete city; but on this evening it is chock full of people eating roast pork and sipping beer out of plastic cups. The pork sits smoking furiously while the guests, a number of whom are in Renaissance garb, line up with slices of white bread and then stand to the side slurping up the applesauce-and-pig sandwiches.

At first I am delighted: we go to the pub on the corner and get cider and rejoin the party, which has spilled out into the streets. The Renaissance people are playing strange instruments which made a thin, almost whiny sound, and dancing in circles near the pig. My love tries to tell me something; “Shh,” I say. “I’m having a surreal moment.”

Then it starts to drizzle, and people start leaving the Green, and the charm of it all wears off, a little. Badaude is there, wearing a chic black blazer and looking, I think, very city-cool; we stand chatting on the fringes of the Green, where the Renaissance people (Renaissance-ites? Renaissance-ers?) have produced an enormous dragon head to add to their strange, swaying little dances until she says, “can we move closer to the pig? I’m getting cold,” and I have to agree that the warmth I felt emerging from the tube has all but disappeared. My hair is getting damp and it occurs to me that the only reason I am enjoying this is because of juxtapositions: the community pig roast in one of the world’s most major cities.

So my love and I decide to try the pub where the party has, for the most part, moved on to. It is around the corner, across from a church, whose lone spire dominates the sky at this hour. It is also crowded; I mean seriously, profoundly crowded. I literally fight my way through a thicket of people, using my elbows to prevent them from collapsing in on me, but am informed by the bartender that they don’t take cards, so my cashless love and I are resigned to finding a cash point in this strange city.

We make a large, fifteen-minute circuit around the Green, which takes us all the way back to the tube stop. We find no banks, no nothing–until at long last, a lonely little cashpoint in a crumbling bit of wall which promises to charge us £1.50 for the use of its services. Desperate, we collapse upon the machine like pigs to the trough. I say, “Why is it that whatever you need in this city–an open bar, a bit of food, some cash–is never anywhere near where you are?” And he says, “I think it’s because, despite it’s size–London still has a village mentality.”

I think he couldn’t be more right. As we get back to the pub, which has, if possible, become even more densely populated, we join a crowd of people milling about outside. One of them is saying, “…and I thought, if it weren’t for the noise and the smell, we needn’t have been in London at all!”

It’s true. We could have been roasting that pig out in the sticks; we could have, except. Except for that nagging feeling of stress and doubt deep in the pit of my belly: discomfort of a strange sort. Is this how city-people feel all the time, I wonder? Is this why New Yorkers are so notoriously rude? I certainly become ruder in the city. When the Oxford Tube driver stops the coach somewhere near Notting Hill, slamming on his breaks just beside a rubbish bin on the sidewalk (must be the only one in the whole damn city, I think) and tells me that I can either throw my pasty away or wait for the next damn ride back home, because he isn’t moving another inch until that hot food is removed from his bus, because it smells bad, I get up, stand on the steps of the coach, and toss the pasty (one bite in, it hurts to throw it away) into the bin. “Oh,” I say. “You poor, poor thing.” And then I don’t even give him the courtesy of listening to his response, I am so rude. I would never do a thing like that if I wasn’t in the city. I am only rude because I the bit of me I think got left behind in Oxford in the rush was the bit of me that keeps me sane.

So London is really just a huge conglomeration of smaller areas with a village mentality. Everyone thinks their village is the only one; and everyone knows the rules of that village, but the rules change when you cross lines. It oughtn’t have seemed incongruous at all, that illicit city pig-roast, those strange Renaissance dancers (who set up shop outside the pub and played tunes standing atop wooden crates), the lack of anything necessary, like a cashpoint near a pub that takes nothing but cash. Upstairs in the pub, as the crowd thins out, we sit and say that we are so glad we are struggling with our money because we are happier that way; we say it, and it’s true. I’d rather the uncertainty than be that woman on the platform looking all smoothed out and prim, who knows the rhythm of her life so well that it has ceased to sound interesting–I’d rather the civility of enjoying life and finding out what I really want.

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