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Archive for November, 2008

Notes


Notes from the Botanic Gardens, November 9 2008

This is the one place in Oxford where I always feel that I am on the inside, looking out.

The river is green, the trees are yellow.

What is it about a garden? All around me are signs of Autumnal decay–a wet and barren landscape, the scratching of leaves against a cold ground. And yet I think that, in the presence of things which have grown, will grow, we can suddenly believe that we, too, grow.—-There in the murky pool we see peace, or hope, or both; our thoughts become un-crowded, we start to believe in the permanence of the trees and the transience of all else. We have a clouded sense of happiness–not perfect, or impure, but unusually tangible.


(I go for a run today. The sky is heavy, the grass has turned a deeper shade of emerald, and the yellow leaves have all fallen from the tree outside the study window. Every season is the most beautiful season, here.)

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My first bonfire night on Wednesday. We walked down the river to the Isis. There was no Guy but there was a bonfire made of old boats, and mulled cider with bits of apple in it, and sparklers, and homemade lentil and chestnut soup served in paper cups. There were fireworks splattering the sky, and the Man and I agreed that our favorite part of the fire was not the flames but the sparks that were drawn up, like red stars fading fast. We wrote our names in the air with the sparklers and when the bonfire had died down and all the men were trying to revive it, I went to the edge of the river. The night was wet and windless, and the water itself stood black and still, so that the reflection of the trees looked almost more real–starker certainly–than the trees themselves. Jerome’s three men (and a dog) may not have paddled down the river in November, but for a moment I could feel them sleeping on the shore here. Then we all went inside again, to warm our hands and lean against the bar.

The fireworks have been going ever since. On my walk home tonight I see them blazing above my street; sitting here in the house, I hear them going off with imperfect but inevitable regularity.

We still battle this cold; blowing our noses, overcome with lethargy and a need for fruit. This morning I woke up and suddenly wanted to make myself toast with honey and bananas, which was something I ate a lot in my first year of university; first I stilled myself because I am not like I was then, but then I thought: we do not have to erase every memory just because it is not the way we are now, and I cut up the banana into slices and placed them on my toast. But we had no honey after all.

***

In the waiting room at the doctor’s the other night, a white-haired woman with a cane broke the English code of silence amongst strangers despite the open book on my knees. First she said she wasn’t here for herself.

“I’m here for a friend,” she said. “She’s got dementia. She can’t take care of herself. I’ve known her oh–eighty, seventy–sixty years, if not seventy. We were very close. It’s horrible to see her like this. I still care for her but her family won’t take any responsibility. It’s all up to me. I am feeling resentful today. Today is my day, for me. I’m having to miss my afternoon rest which I’m all but ordered to take. I could have sat at home and read a book.”

She looked at me. “I suppose you’re too young to have to deal with this. You’re of–another generation.”

I said I was, yes, but that still, I knew people who were struggling with the same thing. She nodded.
“It’s everywhere, isn’t it.”
“Horrible,” I agreed. Then she asked what I was doing here.
“Studying?”
“I’m doing a masters,” I told her. “At Oxford Brookes.”
“I’ve got two grandsons here at Oxford, and another at Oxford Brookes. And my daughters went here, and I was at Oxford as well, you know. And my mother was here! She was here before the War, the First War. She left in 1912 and do you know when she was given a degree?”
I smiled; I did know the answer to this one. “Not for quite some time after, I would imagine,” I said.
“Not until 1928,” she said. “Can you believe that?”

Then she was silent for awhile, and I tried to read about the origins of human creativity but my head felt full and my nose dripped. I coughed into the turtleneck of my jumper.

“My uncle was in the first war,” she said abruptly. “He lied about his age to join up, in 1917? Or 1918. But he died. It always seemed to me that they didn’t know what they were fighting for, then. In the other war at least they had Hitler to rally against, but that first war, it had no–direction.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s been coming up a lot recently,” she said, touching the red poppy pinned to her breast. “All that generation is gone.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And my husband–before we were married. He was in the second war. He joined the Air Force and was there in the Battle of Britain. And it’s strange–I remember that summer. I was at Oxford, you know. And we were throwing our mattresses out of the windows so we could sleep outside, it was that hot–and the men were coming across from Dunkirk. The College authorities must have been worried about us, you know, but they let us do it, they let us put our mattresses outside because they knew what we were going through.”

Then the doctor called her in.

And I thought: to a shell-shocked soldier the blasts of fireworks or the cracking of the bonfire might mean something very different than it means to the rest of us.

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I think this is brilliant. But I have two questions:

  1. What happens if a child has extremely ticklish feet?
  2. Could this new method of discipline actually lead to an ironic rise in bad behavior? (Cheaper than the local day spa, anyway)

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I’m amused (and maybe even a little incensed) by the recent spate of columns, features, and everything in between about how to deal in the current economic crisis. Timely they may be, and maybe even necessary; but they are also, in large part, overwrought and insincere.

Overwrought: “If, for the fashion-forward, instead of Prada and Primark it’s now all about feel-good car-boot sales, charity shops, free-cycling and frock exchanges, for the rest of us it is an hour in Tesco fossicking for the two-for-ones and the nearly-past-their-sell-by reductions, putting £20 worth of petrol in the car instead of filling the tank…growing herbs on the windowsill, making lots of shepherd’s pies…and saying ‘no!’ (possibly for the very first time) to the kids when they demand stuff at the checkout…so not only is it exactly how it bloody well ought to be but it is all the better for being without smug self-righteousness or a gleeful need to be somehow au courant with ‘recession chic’.”

This is Observer columnist Kathryn Flett’s version of a now very familiar tune: the “oh-my-gosh-they-tell-me-the-economy-is-failing-so-now-I’m-going-to-panic-and-buy-less-stuff” song. But Flett’s own amazement should have tipped her off to something: “as I ambled from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and down Regent Street,” she writes, “I was faintly astonished, given that the financial blight formerly known as The Crunch is now officially The Recession, to find that instead of tumbleweed and stumblebums the Street was heaving with shoppers, laden with bags, wearing the glazed expression of hardened consumers in search of their fix.”

Insincere: What exactly is there to be astonished about, I wonder? In the Sunday Times Style magazine, editors suggest a “skinted” (i.e. “affordable” version) of a £7,000+ designer cocktail dress which costs a mere £50 from a popular high street shop. This is an increasingly common phenomenon–“credit crunch friendly” shopping advice–but let me ask you this: is £50 really affordable, if all is going to shit like they say it is? Do we really have any right to express shock at our fellow consumers, who flit in and out of the Oxford Street shops as readily as they did “before” (as if there was a before; as if poverty was not always a vague and distant threat, as if the mentality that Flett describes is not merely the same state of mind that the young and strugglign are in always)? I don’t think we do; even if Vogue is handing out suggestions on how to live an affordably fashionable life, instead of merely a fashionable one, it’s still Vogue, and we’re still human.

We’re seduced, you see–as Flett alludes to–by the idea of recession (wartime chic, growing our own onions, snuggled in a sparsely furnished lounge with nothing but our own fires to keep us warm in the darkening winter). The Sunday Times Style magazine, this sunday, features “The Joy of Thrift: India Knight’s Brilliant New Book on the Glory of Make Do and Mend” on its cover, with an impossibly beautiful blonde in a 1950s-era outfit, pretending to knit; but is this actually what we want to do? Of course it isn’t, as Colin McDowell rather ironically points out in the same magazine: “Clearly the way forward now is austerity,” writes McDowell. “Thrift shops and dress agencies immediately come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: one of fashion’s golden rules states that all the most God-awful garments in the world are destined eventually to sink to the thrift-shop clothes rail, which is fashion’s equivalent of Skid Row. Avoid. Just as definitely, do not go into that murky world called home dressmaking or–even darker-alterations. And under no circumstances start to knit.”

We could translate McDowell’s paragraph thus: “Clearly the way forward now is austerity–pretend austerity. Thrift shops may come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: there is no real need to be actually austere, so for God’s sake stay as far away from the charity shop, the sewing machine, and the knitting needles as possible. A failure to do so will mark you out as unfashionable and, even more horrifically, genuinely strapped for cash; so do your bit and head on down to the affordable high street shops.”

With this in mind, Kathryn Flett’s concluding paragraph seems suddenly thin. What exactly is wrong, we wonder, with “feel-good boot sales” and charity shops? Why shouldn’t we feel good–and how is this worse than frequenting the ethically dubious Tesco and putting–you poor thing–just £20 of petrol in the car? Surely recycling items is not only “recession chic” but actually necessary. In her own panic, Flett seems to have forgotten that we have another crisis on as well; and a less glamerous one at that, for there is no chic precedent for an environmental emergency.

I’m tempted to say we should combine our crises: if we’re so concerned about pinching pennies, why not put our money where it really matters and nowhere else? Why not visit Oxfam occasionally, instead of Topshop or New Look? The beauty of fashion, I’ve always thought, is that it is what we make it, and nothing else–if “recession chic” is in, then let’s use it. Why not grow herbs on the windowsill–and potatoes in the garden, and onions and lettuce, and then invite our friends over to sip wine and warm the house? Why feel that we can’t spend an extra few pounds on local, fresh foodstuffs, that we have suddenly to be slaves to Tesco and Asda just because the politicans tell us that money is in short supply and Wall Street has fallen?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as shopping–happy as the next Young Thing, and yes, I like my clothes. A few months ago I made a silent challenge to myself: to buy no clothing except underwear and stockings new; and it’s working remarkably well. I probably won’t cease consuming altogether–I’m too young, perhaps, too insecure–but I’ll happily forgo an extra pint at the pub or this seasons’ It-Outfit if it actually means something. We simply can’t afford empty gestures anymore.

Read Full Post »

I’m amused (and maybe even a little incensed) by the recent spate of columns, features, and everything in between about how to deal in the current economic crisis. Timely they may be, and maybe even necessary; but they are also, in large part, overwrought and insincere.

Overwrought: “If, for the fashion-forward, instead of Prada and Primark it’s now all about feel-good car-boot sales, charity shops, free-cycling and frock exchanges, for the rest of us it is an hour in Tesco fossicking for the two-for-ones and the nearly-past-their-sell-by reductions, putting £20 worth of petrol in the car instead of filling the tank…growing herbs on the windowsill, making lots of shepherd’s pies…and saying ‘no!’ (possibly for the very first time) to the kids when they demand stuff at the checkout…so not only is it exactly how it bloody well ought to be but it is all the better for being without smug self-righteousness or a gleeful need to be somehow au courant with ‘recession chic’.”

This is Observer columnist Kathryn Flett’s version of a now very familiar tune: the “oh-my-gosh-they-tell-me-the-economy-is-failing-so-now-I’m-going-to-panic-and-buy-less-stuff” song. But Flett’s own amazement should have tipped her off to something: “as I ambled from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and down Regent Street,” she writes, “I was faintly astonished, given that the financial blight formerly known as The Crunch is now officially The Recession, to find that instead of tumbleweed and stumblebums the Street was heaving with shoppers, laden with bags, wearing the glazed expression of hardened consumers in search of their fix.”

Insincere: What exactly is there to be astonished about, I wonder? In the Sunday Times Style magazine, editors suggest a “skinted” (i.e. “affordable” version) of a £7,000+ designer cocktail dress which costs a mere £50 from a popular high street shop. This is an increasingly common phenomenon–“credit crunch friendly” shopping advice–but let me ask you this: is £50 really affordable, if all is going to shit like they say it is? Do we really have any right to express shock at our fellow consumers, who flit in and out of the Oxford Street shops as readily as they did “before” (as if there was a before; as if poverty was not always a vague and distant threat, as if the mentality that Flett describes is not merely the same state of mind that the young and strugglign are in always)? I don’t think we do; even if Vogue is handing out suggestions on how to live an affordably fashionable life, instead of merely a fashionable one, it’s still Vogue, and we’re still human.

We’re seduced, you see–as Flett alludes to–by the idea of recession (wartime chic, growing our own onions, snuggled in a sparsely furnished lounge with nothing but our own fires to keep us warm in the darkening winter). The Sunday Times Style magazine, this sunday, features “The Joy of Thrift: India Knight’s Brilliant New Book on the Glory of Make Do and Mend” on its cover, with an impossibly beautiful blonde in a 1950s-era outfit, pretending to knit; but is this actually what we want to do? Of course it isn’t, as Colin McDowell rather ironically points out in the same magazine: “Clearly the way forward now is austerity,” writes McDowell. “Thrift shops and dress agencies immediately come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: one of fashion’s golden rules states that all the most God-awful garments in the world are destined eventually to sink to the thrift-shop clothes rail, which is fashion’s equivalent of Skid Row. Avoid. Just as definitely, do not go into that murky world called home dressmaking or–even darker-alterations. And under no circumstances start to knit.”

We could translate McDowell’s paragraph thus: “Clearly the way forward now is austerity–pretend austerity. Thrift shops may come to mind, but it is wise to remember this: there is no real need to be actually austere, so for God’s sake stay as far away from the charity shop, the sewing machine, and the knitting needles as possible. A failure to do so will mark you out as unfashionable and, even more horrifically, genuinely strapped for cash; so do your bit and head on down to the affordable high street shops.”

With this in mind, Kathryn Flett’s concluding paragraph seems suddenly thin. What exactly is wrong, we wonder, with “feel-good boot sales” and charity shops? Why shouldn’t we feel good–and how is this worse than frequenting the ethically dubious Tesco and putting–you poor thing–just £20 of petrol in the car? Surely recycling items is not only “recession chic” but actually necessary. In her own panic, Flett seems to have forgotten that we have another crisis on as well; and a less glamerous one at that, for there is no chic precedent for an environmental emergency.

I’m tempted to say we should combine our crises: if we’re so concerned about pinching pennies, why not put our money where it really matters and nowhere else? Why not visit Oxfam occasionally, instead of Topshop or New Look? The beauty of fashion, I’ve always thought, is that it is what we make it, and nothing else–if “recession chic” is in, then let’s use it. Why not grow herbs on the windowsill–and potatoes in the garden, and onions and lettuce, and then invite our friends over to sip wine and warm the house? Why feel that we can’t spend an extra few pounds on local, fresh foodstuffs, that we have suddenly to be slaves to Tesco and Asda just because the politicans tell us that money is in short supply and Wall Street has fallen?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as shopping–happy as the next Young Thing, and yes, I like my clothes. A few months ago I made a silent challenge to myself: to buy no clothing except underwear and stockings new; and it’s working remarkably well. I probably won’t cease consuming altogether–I’m too young, perhaps, too insecure–but I’ll happily forgo an extra pint at the pub or this seasons’ It-Outfit if it actually means something. We simply can’t afford empty gestures anymore.

Read Full Post »

Things at the Moment

I have a lot to write about, but no impetus to do it. I’m suffering from a miserable cold and though they’ve finished work on the house little things still seem to be out of place: my bicycle is naked without its basket, the mirrors are still not up, we have more laundry than seems humanly possible for two people to have. We spent a few days out in the country, both of us coughing and groaning, feeding pigs and then sitting close to the fire catching up on our television-watching (as we don’t have one, every time we’re in a place with a TV, we become a bit scary). I appear to be useless at the moment; all I can manage is to suck on Strepsils, feel sorry for myself, flip through the Observer, watch snippets of Lord of the Rings (why that, I couldn’t tell you).

It’s been rainy and cold lately, but in general, the city has taken on a hue of almost heartbreaking beauty: late autumn, and though dark falls early, to catch the sunlight glinting off the windows is a reaffirming experience.

I’m formulating new ideas on literature and politics (more to come), aided by a quick and almost careless line in Joyce’s The Dead: “He wanted to say that literature was above politics” as well as by various more overt articles. I’m rearranging books and looking forward to making the house nice again. I’m listening to music and buying all my winter clothing secondhand. Next week is election day; so I remember four years ago, being in Boston and walking in a chill November fog to Copley Square where thousands were rallying for John Kerry. I remember going to sleep with the nation still undecided and waking up to dissapointment, and having to change my outfit because I was irrationally afraid that people would think I supported George Bush because I was wearing cowboy boots. Our own minds are very strange sometimes.

Also, my first Guy Fawkes night coming up. It’s going to be a very political week.

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