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Archive for the ‘Oxford’ Category

I’m a Cool Girl Now

Not often, but sometimes, it occurs to me that I am very, incredibly, out of touch with the rest of the world.  It has always been thus, but living in Oxford makes it easy to forget that once I was a geeky Converse-clad girl with a bad hairdo. (I am now a geeky Converse-clad girl with a better hairdo. And sometimes I wear boots.)  My life has become something completely ridiculous, in a rather wonderful way.  Take this, for instance: one of the highlights of my existence is the rush I get when I swipe my card at the Bodleian and open my bag so that they can check to make sure that I’m not trying to smuggle a bottle of water in and walk up the stairs and smell the books.  And there are all these other people there! Doing the same thing! Loving the books! And outside (this is the best bit) there are a bunch of tourists who can’t come inside.  It’s a perverse (and very British) revenge of the nerds; and I’M PART OF THE CLUB!  I actually have a special walking to-and-from the library swagger.  Just so that everyone will know that I belong. (Sometimes, but not often, I even manage to swagger without tripping over my own feet.)

 

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Literary Death Match Oxford

miranda ward with drawing by baudade

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.

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We tell ghost stories on the way home.  It’s dark; Port Meadow is black, the river is silver and still.  We have bike lights and a parafin lantern.  A mist covers the ground, as if we’re wading through it.  I can see my breath, feel the tingle of my fingers. 

Earlier we walked the other direction.  It was early afternoon, light, grey, the trees bent over the water.  The dog picked up impractical sticks and we sipped from a small bottle of whiskey.  Amazing how quickly we could be palpably outside the city.  Smelling woodsmoke from narrowboats and surrounded by green and brown; the golden stones of Oxford had dissolved, the spires dissapeared behind a puffy cloud.  My wellies rubbed raw a spot on my foot, the same spot on the same foot that had been rubbed raw so many times before.  We came to a crumbling nunnery; now just a field walled in, the outline of a church.  We ate apples at the pub and drank wine waiting for our lunch. 

Now we tell ghost stories but there’s nothing eerie about this stillness.  The eerie part is re-entering the city, coming suddenly to a well-lit bridge, passing parked cars, pubs, restaurants, cashpoints, closed shops, kebab vans.  It’s crowded, though there aren’t many people out tonight. 

Meanwhile, I’ll get back into blogging, but my time seems to be consumed at the moment by a thousand little things–working, writing, eating, sleeping, cleaning, running, planning.  Strolling along the river.  Stay tuned.

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I’ve never spent the very end of August in Oxford.  I’ve been either in Boston or Paris, which makes my life sound more glamorous than it probably ever will be.  Last year, on a budget and a bad ankle (his, not mine–an untimely football injury), we spent an impoverished weekend in the Latin Quarter counting centimes and drinking bottles of table wine whilst supine in grassy patches.  The year before that I spent a tearful hour at Heathrow before parting from a new love, and when I arrived at Logan International my bags were duly unpacked by a brassy lady who opened my Moleskine and wanted to know what all the writing was about, and then she repacked them in a halfhearted manner, and then I spent the night in an empty apartment, and every day after the city got colder and colder.

But today I wake to find that the sun is shining and though it’s still, according to the calendar, summertime, it smells like Autumn outside.  I wear a leather jacket and a jumper and for the first time in months the wind as I cycle cuts through the denim of my trousers and I find myself hoping that at the end of my commute will be central heating and a hot cup of coffee.  But there is neither, of course, because it is summer, and because I am late and therefore not able to offer myself the luxury of hot fresh coffee.  Still, when I cross the road for lunch in the afternoon I find it still smells of Autumn.  I want cashmere, and cocoa.  When I get home in the evening to find the Man trimming the trees out front, I say hello but what I really want most of all is to crawl under the duvet and not leave for hours.  Which is how he finds me when he comes back inside: a lump underneath a dirty suede blanket.  He sits beside me and asks me to the pub.  But it takes effort, and argument, before I can be persuaded to leave that place.  Half of me is in love with the autumnal smell, the smell of decay and wood fires; the other half can’t help but think that there weren’t enough days in Summer and now I’ll have to wait another year to wear my dresses without tights.

Still, I’m on the edge of something.  I’m more than three-quarters into a book which is both miraculous and inevitable.  Only a few months ago I spoke of September as my unwritten deadline; the time at which all the pieces of my life would fall into place as if by magic.  And in a way they have, though nothing really has changed, or happened, since then.  If I don’t think too specifically about anything, it all makes sense.  And I think I’ll leave it like that–like the in-between season we’re in–for now.

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Morning Monks

My morning commute down the Iffley Road seems to coincide with the morning migration of two monks, in full brown robes and leather sandals.  I see them almost every day, and invariably they are carrying matching red nylon rucksacks.  The juxtaposition never fails to delight me.  It’s like the sort of thing that Pico Iyer describes in The Lady and the Monk: an incongruity, an overlap of times and cultures.  No doubt they also have iPods tucked into their pockets and are chatting about grocery shopping, or Big Brother, or traffic; no doubt their lives are as mundane as mine or yours, but minus the rucksacks, they may as well be strolling through the Middle Ages.

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Anatomy of Worry

I’ve had a panic-feeling brewing in my chest of late.  I forget that I’m still susceptible to this kind of worry, that knowing better doesn’t actually make it better.

I received two emails yesteray, rejecting a few proposals I’d sent off.  I almost felt crushed, except that I was so happy that the editors had even taken the time to respond to my queries I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d made some sort of perverse progress.  In celebration, and indeed mourning, I decided to take the long way home.  I cycled through Port Meadow, surprised as always by the city dissapearing before my eyes.  There were kids on bridges, leaping into the brown Thames.  A trio of boys with an old bicycle attached to a rope, pedalling at high speed towards the river, over a hump, flying a few glorious feet through the air, splashing and sinking.

I cycled along the river pathway until I reached a nature reserve, somewhere between the Osney lock and Folly Bridge.  To my left, the canal, the narrowboats with their potted plants, their sun-worn owners puffing smoke from deckchairs on the shore; to my right, the train tracks, the industrial detritus on the outskirts of a city: but in the nature reserve, nothing but green.  I walked my bike in a circle through the heat.  I passed only a man with a walking stick, and a sunbathing couple.  Nothing to suggest my location (maybe I’d dreamt all this up); except the rush of a train, sometimes.  Except the bells ringing out four o’clock from a church tower. 

Maybe I’d been out in the sun too long; but as I cycled down my street at long last, almost an hour later, I started to feel truly strange; for though the day was only an ordinary one, though I’d been to work in the moring, eaten in the cafeteria as usual, had my two cups of coffee, I was returning home from the wrong direction.  Do you know what this is like?  Every day you cycle down Hurst Street from the James Street end, and now you’re cycling down Hurst Street from the Magdalen Road end.  All the things you usually see and do on your commute (passing the Radcliffe Camera, gazing through the gates at All Souls thinking how cold, how unfriendly, yet how much you’d like someday to be allowed past the gates; crossing Magdalen Bridge, hearing bells if you’re lucky; struggling up the Iffley Road, the relief of turning finally into residential turf) erased.  I did it deliberately, to shake myself out of a rhythm I think I had ceased to enjoy, to make myself see my world anew, but as soon as I’d arrived home I wondered if I’d been too ambitious, if I’d done something too drastic, if my spirit would recover its balance, if the vertigo would fade.

Later I tried to nap upstairs with the window open, but the dry air made my lungs feel scratchy and the heat went to my head, gave it strange thoughts.  By evening I worried I was getting ill, and then I realized I was making myself ill by worrying, and then I worried that I wouldn’t be able to control anything, and felt even iller.  Then I tried to be reasonable and count the worries, but this is harder to do than it sounds and I wound up just making dinner and sitting half-asleep on the couch with the Man, which was the most comforting thing of all. 

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But having said all that, having laid it in melodramatic stone, I must also say this: it’s a more productive breed of worry than I’ve often experienced in the past.  I see progress in rejection and comfort in simple things (food, company); I can stay my mind from straying too far into the future.  I can even, though the thought is still in its fragile infancy, consider that I may need to make some major thematic and contextual revisions to the book which will require hard work and strength of heart but which will ultimately make it a far better (more readable, more marketable, and indeed, more authentic) piece of writing.  More on this, I’m sure, to come.

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The days of late have been English-hot.  We sit outside in the daytime and my dreams at night are infused with the images from other people’s stories.  Climbers on snowy Oxford rooftops.  A weather balloon in Padua.  African pelicans.  I wear my panama hat even indoors because it reaffirms the season.  This is the hat I bought to go to Morocco, I say, because once it was just a ladies’ hat in Marks and Spencer but the second I laid eyes upon it, two years ago almost, it became part of the journey.  A traveller’s portable shade.

Yesterday we fixed my bicycle, swept the entrance to the house, pulled weeds up, had an impromptu barbecue.  In the jungle of knee-high, hip-high grass that’s blossomed in our garden, frogs leaped from blade to blade and the smoke dissapeared into the dusky blue.  From the garden pathway, looking away from the house, towards the sun dipping, the trees heavy with their summer leaves, this might be anywhere.  This might be miles away, no, worlds away from anywhere else.  An island of green and smoke; a paradise for the dispossessed.  Very Heart of Darkness, I say, only cheerier.

We still haven’t unpacked from Wales, though we’ve been back a week.  As if it’s summer now, so that’s okay.  Seasonal lethargy, the usual wanderlust of these months.

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