I’m no longer just your average blogger/wannabe writer. I am now the official runner-up of Oxford’s very first Literary Death Match.
Oxford’s very first what now? Literary Death Match. Half crazy, half brilliant (isn’t anything worth doing a little bit of both?), cooked up by Opium Magazine‘s Todd Zuniga, the ultimate goal of the Literary Death Match is “to showcase literature as a brilliant, unstoppable medium”. I’m willing to get behind that.
And get behind it I did. Along with fellow competitors Megan Kerr, George Chopping, and Jake Wallis Simons, I read an 8-minute long piece of writing to a friendly audience and a panel of judges, including award-winning poet Kate Clanchy, author and Idler editor Dan Kieran, and songwriter extraordinaire Ben Walker, at Oxford’s Corner Club. The lovely and talented Badaude, meanwhile, did a series of live sketches (including the one I’m holding at the top of this post!), and Xander did his producing thing.
After our readings, the wonderful Mr. Chopping and I were selected to go head-to-head in the final competition: a grueling game of musical chairs. Yes, musical chairs. With teams pulled from the audience, we danced round and round a series of chairs to the sound of Ben’s guitar. My team put up a good fight, but ultimately the hard-earned medal (and yes, there really is a medal) went to George (whose reading was, as always, superb).
It felt nice to be surrounded by so many talented, supportive friends and strangers. In particular, all the contestants deserve appreciation. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, reading aloud–even more so when the setting is competitive. But the mood was relaxed and gentle and the room was full of talent. Hopefully this was only the first of many Literary Death Matches in Oxford. In the meantime, I’m clinging to my title with pride and brushing up on my musical chairs tactics.
And, for the official LDM Oxford write up, visit this page…
For a few nice images of the evening, check out Garrett’s photos…
Finally, here’s what I read. Some of you may recognize it as being related to my posts on Devon and Dorset from September…
Fish, Chips, and Fossils
We head south, past Stonehenge, into Wiltshire, then Devon. Like Withnail and I, I think, only with slightly less booze, and a girl in the back seat, and two guitars, and several laptops, and lots of sunshine.
It’s slow going near the standing stones but otherwise we make good time, and by late afternoon we’ve started to move through villages with funny names—this is how you know you’ve reached somewhere rural, when every place becomes a pun.
We decide we’re lucky not to live in Chard, which is as bland as its vegetable equivalent, though the sunlight renders it almost poignant. We drive through Lower Sea Fields, pass car dealerships and pubs, a petrol station simply called “POWER”, a street called “The Street.” We say how glad we are to live in Oxford, with its literary ghosts, its haunting spires; but then, we’re trying to escape, aren’t we? We’re young and running away from jobs we hate. We think a few days near the coast, away from the ghosts and the spires, will fix us. The Musician, the Man, and me. We’ve found a couple in an East Devon village with a cabin for rent. We think a cabin sounds quaint.
In Musbury, we turn up into the hills, onto a single-track road lined with hedges and gates. We’re met by our hostess, who wears fishnets under her shorts, tells us she’s celebrating 35 years of marriage tonight, and shows us how to turn the hot water on. On the bookshelves are various slim, brightly-coloured volumes with titles like, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Missionary and How I Fell In Love With The Church and Out Of Love With Communism. A sign near the toilet forbids us to do various things. Do not dye your hair. Do not bleach your hair. Do not smoke. Do not flush tampons down the toilet. Do not deep-fat fry anything.
We buy pasta and red wine for dinner at the village shop, and then that honing device buried within the heart of every British male switches on and we’re heading towards the pub.
“How do you know the pub is that way?” I say.
“It just is,” my companions tell me.
They’re right, of course. And inside it is a miracle; it is 1956, minus the fog of cigarette smoke. We sit outside in the sun watching the pub sign swing on an evening wind.
We linger until the light wanes. Heading back up the hill to the cabin, we pass a cat lying in a lane, watching with intense concentration what appears to be an enormous pile of horseshit. We take a photo of the cat watching the horseshit.
In the morning I wake and sit on the swing in the garden. A few apples drop down behind me. There is a curious braying in the distance, like children or cows. Then, gradually, the sound of hooves, and a bugle. The hunt glides past. Over the hedge we see bowler hats. We hear a man shouting “Wendy! Wendy! Come HERE, Wendy!”
Is Wendy his wife or his hound, we wonder? We ponder this for some time, over coffee and bacon. Wendy is probably the name of both his wife and his hound, we decide.
We set off for a local festival. We’re greeted by a cider tent and a queue six miles long. We join the queue, which isn’t moving, and has, as far as we can tell, no actual purpose. From our vantage point halfway up a hill, we can see that the line of humans simply peters out.
“What are we queuing for?” someone—a novice—asks.
“I don’t know,” someone else says cheerily. Nobody moves.
Presently we decide we’ve queued pointlessly for long enough, so we stroll through the gates. At the centre of everything is a red-and-white striped tea tent, serving cream teas, home-made jams, and complimentary cordial. A few suicidal bees dive into the jam; isn’t it a bit early for that? I ask them. But parents are already sucking on their cups of cider, and infants are writhing and laughing, and one particularly excited little girl is simply running around in circles like a puppy chasing her own tail, so why not, I think.
My attention is arrested by the “Border Collie and Duck Display” near the tea tent; we watch for awhile as a lithe young border collie attempts to guide a gaggle of very upright black ducks into a wooden cage and fails. We watch the ferret races. Or at least, we watch one ferret make its lazy way to the end of a very short course while the other two sniff around at the starting gate and refuse to move. We join another queue for lunch (this is the great English pastime!). “No, you can’t just push to the front darling…” one mother tells her hungry toddler. “…we’re British.”
The next day we go hunting for fossils. Past the endless stream of caravan parks in Charmouth, we reach a rocky section of the Jurassic Coast renowned for its ammonites. They’re common as pebbles, all the signs and brochures promise. You’ll be stumbling over them.
But we don’t stumble over anything. We sift through the rocks; we scrape them with our feet and sometimes, to make ourselves feel as if we’re doing something, we actually pick up a rock and split it open against another rock, then sadly discard both halves. I find what might be Fool’s Gold, what might be a tiny ammonite, and a smooth amber-coloured rock that feels good in the palm of my hand.
On our last full day, we drive again to the coast. We start with Seaton. Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe Seaton. It’s comatose. And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981. Handwritten signs saying “RIP Seaton” are plastered on windows all around town. There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a grocery store and a chemist. There are two pubs, both on the verge of falling over. And there are 495 fish and chip restaurants.
So we decide we’ll have fish and chips in the wind on the beach. At “Fry-days”, we order and then watch the diners slowly finishing lunch. We are the youngest people in the room by at least 50 years, and everyone appears to have ordered the exact same thing: cod and chips, followed by weak, sugary tea. They all chew at a glacial pace; one woman nods off midway through a bite of peas, is startled back to sentience by her husband’s warbled plea for the vinegar.
We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall so that we don’t have to look at the town itself. From here it’s almost beautiful: the beach is open and bland; the sea pale and windswept. My fish drips with oil and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless).
After, we lie back exhausted on the stony beach, as if it’s been a great effort just to consume so much fat. I wash my hands in the sea. Our minds are heavy with sleep and our hearts drooping with a strange kind of sorrow for this dying town, and its dying population.
We make our way back to the car via a few shops. One sells jewelry, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles, old beer mats. I buy an edition of Browning’s poetry, a collection of essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926. We find a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys’ School.
We don’t hold out much hope for neighboring Beer. Surely the novelty of the town will merely be in the name–but we feel we must go, anyhow, so that we can make all the requisite puns, so that we can say to our friends when we return that we had a beer in Beer, ha ha ha.
Beer turns out to be a handsome village tucked into a hillside, with a steep ramp leading down to a beach teeming with fishermen and boats. We buy two fresh plaice and spend a few minutes making plaice jokes (”looks like we’ll need plaice mats tonight,” I say).
We have a cup of tea in a garden overlooking the sea, and remember our awkward youths. We were uncomfortable, geeky kids: black painted nails, Doc Martens, computer games. I recall with some chagrin a photograph of my 14-year-old self, in fishnet tights and dyed-maroon hair, staring seriously into the camera on the Fourth of July.
We drive back through Axminster. The sky is ripe for stars. The Chinese restaurant gives off a sickly glow and the pubs with their heavy lidded eyes yawn, dispel a lonely customer, take an even lonelier one in. Ah, these half-dead English towns, I think. These beautiful, tender, half-dead English towns.