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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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Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.

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So, I’m in Dublin.  It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog (let’s be honest: it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything, period).  I did write a post a few nights ago.  It was all about how I walked by a big semi-detached house on the Iffley Road on my way to the pub and heard a weird screaming noise that could have either been someone in pain, or someone having sex, or else a fox experiencing some kind of excitement.  The post was witty, it was hilarious, it was beautiful and brilliant.  And it got mysteriously deleted.  So I’d like to say that I’m suffering some sort of WordPress-induced post-traumatic stress syndrome; but mostly, I’m just lazy, and a little busy.

And now I’m in Dublin.  We’re staying in an almost-swanky 70s concrete-block hotel.  It’s huge; I mean, it takes us ten minutes just to get to the elevators from our room.  We got a good deal on the place, and I’m not going to lie: I like it better than the funky hostel alternative.  It makes me feel more adult.  We get free shampoo!  The duvet is fluffy and white! There’s internet access and instant coffee!  The lobby has one of those über-shiny faux-marble floors!  Mostly it means that I can fart in bed and walk around naked without worrying what other people might think of me.

It’s weird, being here.  I keep having to remind myself that I’m in another country, that I travelled to get here.  There’s no jet-lag or language barrier, no fog of exhaustion; no sense, really, that I’ve left one place and arrived in another.  It’s almost like being in an alternate-universe version of Britain (apologies to the Man for stealing his analogy)–the same markers (chain restaurants, high street shops, uniformed schoolkids, semi-chic businesspeople) but everything slightly, gently, almost imperceptibly different.

The pubs.  The pubs are beautiful; they’re warm and packed and full of life and beautiful, bright-eyed Irish girls, old men with red cheeks.  They’re also almost horrifically expensive, which proves, I suppose, the determination of the drinking culture here–in a country less devoted to its cups, the 5 euro pints would surely drive drinkers either underground or to other pursuits.

It’s nice to be in a city, a real city.  In Oxford we’re spoiled by beauty, and in London overwhelmed by the sheer scale of things.  But here I’m reminded of Boston, which is manageable but bustling, charming but grimy.  Walking through St. Stephen’s Green I feel I could easily be in the public gardens next to the Boston Common.

In other news, it’s mostly been cloudy, or almost-cloudy, a few rare shafts of sunlight turning the trees to gold.  I’m glad.  In my mind Dublin is a cloudy city; always a little cold, a little grey, so that the warmth of a pub is necessary after a long day’s wandering.  If a thin mist wants to fall, all the better.  As I’m writing this, of course, the sun has come out, cast a glorious light over the dark brown stones, and I’m tempted to revise my opinion: it’s a city made to be seen in yellow evening light.  But I won’t, because then I think of Joyce’s Dubliners, “The Dead”, the winter chill, the darkness after the party, the drizzle and snow.

Anyway, more later.  If I spend the entire trip holed up in internet cafés I won’t get to see the city.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part five.  Ish.  The River Cottage Autumn Fair is over, but our adventures in Devon (and occasionally Dorset) continue…

Wednesday—Seaton & Beer

Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe the town of Seaton.  It’s comatose.  And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981.  A fact eerily alluded to in the handwritten “RIP Seaton” signs plastered about town.  There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a Costcutter and a Boots.  There are a few pubs, letters missing from their signs.  There are more fish and chip restaurants than anything else.  The colours are garish and the lettering almost universally ugly.

We decide the only thing to do be done is to have fish and chips in the wind on the beach, so we head to the seafront.  At “Frydays” (which advertises, as well as its various awards, that it’s on Google maps), we order cod and chips and then wait, watching 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.

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We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall.  The beach is open and bland; the sea, pale and windswept, is beautiful, and a few swimmers bob near the shore.  My fish drips with grease and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless senior citizens).  Vinegar, mayonnaise, the smell of sea salt in the air and the heat of the sun on our faces.  Surely this is a quintessential English experience.  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.  To the left and right, nothing but a stony beach; and handsome cliffs glinting in the sunlight, and a green-and-blue ocean full of fish but peaceful to the naked eye.

We make our way back to the car via a few shops.  One sells jewelery, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles.  I buy an edition of Browning’s poetry, English Essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926.  Ben finds a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys’ School.  Then we move on to the record shop–“Soundbytes”–which also sells cassettes, video tapes, DVDs, and an odd assortment of useless objects (statuettes, old beer mats).  I wonder aloud if it’s coincidence that all the shops also sell wooden canes outside.

We don’t hold out much hope for 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, so that we can laugh at all the signs (“Beer Social Club” etc).

Surprising, then, that Beer turns out to be lovely, 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 watch a pair of fishermen lug a dead conger eel the size of a sumo wrestler from their boat.  They dump it in a bucket, where its milky flesh is still apparent, and carry the bucket (struggling with the weight) down the beach, to an apparently random spot, where they dump the eel out and, watched by a gaggle of curious children, begin to gut the thing.

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We have a few beers 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.

The sun sets slowly over Beer; we make a few more plaice puns.  How far we’ve come, I think, half-ironically.  How far we’ve come.

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Strolling the busy streets of Musbury.  Ben looking tipsy and Xander looking authoritative.  Neither was either.

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Did I mention the band that opened for Ben was called “Itchy and Scratchy”?

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Ben Walker vs. the River Cottage Chickens

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A real, live, authentic River Cottage Chicken.

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Geeks.

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The man himself, Mr. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

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Down time with Xander and Ben.

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He was a big hit with the kids.

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Oh you know.  Just hanging out.

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This handsome fennel-seed salami caused Ben a great deal of distress, and Xander and me a great deal of amusement.

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Heading back to the cabin.

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We’ve seen some fairly spectacular sunsets.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part four.  Ish.  The River Cottage Autumn Fair is over, but our adventures in Devon (and occasionally Dorset) continue…

Monday—Lyme Regis

On our stroll towards the Cobb we pass no fewer than seven old ladies doing the crossword.  Their husbands take naps under enormous straw hats.  Mostly they are all still in their cars, parked mysteriously close to the beach, doors open like an obstacle course.

Amongst the middle aged women, there seems to be an unwritten dress code: striped shirt, white linen trousers.  The men wear stiff nylon shorts and sandals and waddle, as if uncomfortable with the idea of dressing for leisure.  We are quite possibly the only people between the ages of 20 and 35 here.  The teenagers suckle on melted ice creams and try to look as cool as they can (skinny jeans, jaded jawlines) in the wake of their embarrassing families; the toddlers toddle, the babies yelp, the kids patiently hold hookfuls of rainbow-coloured fish up so their mums can take a photograph.

On the Cobb, Xander and I stroll arm-in-arm like a Victorian couple along the uneven stone while Ben takes a nap on a memorial bench.  The boats have names like Bilbo Baggins (which is a big hit with the crowds, who walk past it and laugh the name of the hobbit again and again) or Charlotte Claire.  The wind gives us both a flushed-cheeked, messy-haired look that Jack Wills models everywhere would envy.

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We lunch at the delicious Town Mill Bakery, where coffee and free WiFi sucks us in and we overhear a University-bound boy, his voice thick with an exotic cold, recount his gap-year adventures to the eager waitress.  A bit later, I take a stroll round the town, wander into a bookshop.  As I’m flipping through Scouts in Bondage, a man rushes in, demanding to know where he might find books by Wilfred Owen.

The woman behind the counter, sleek-haired and elegantly composed over a book of her own, looks up.  “Sorry?” she says.

“Owen, Wilfred Owen,” the man says.  The mission sounds urgent.

“That would be in the poetry section,” she tells him.  He looks helpless, so she gets up and leads him to a corner in the room, shifts aside a few boxes and some sort of wooden tribal mask obfuscating the “J-P” section of the shelf.  Meanwhile, I giggle over Willie’s Great Adventure.

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We go hunting for fossils.  Past the endless stream of caravan parks in Charmouth, we reach a rocky section of the Jurassic Coast renowned, Xander tells us, for its fossils.  They’re as common as pebbles, he says.  We’ll be stumbling over them.

But we don’t stumble over any.  We sift through the rocks; Xander scrapes them with his feet and sometimes picks up a likely candidate and splits it open against another rock, then sadly discards both halves.  A man in a wool hat with a pipe protruding from his mouth examines the face of the cliff with great interest, but makes no motion to touch it, and stays still for so long I wonder if he is actually a lifelike statue erected to commemorate the thousands of visitors who have peered at things here.  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.  Ben finds a grey stone which is most definitely not a fossil and then sits cross-legged in the middle of the beach.  Xander points out various impressions—this one looks like a fern, he says—and, with his particularly luxuriant beard, reminds me of a 19th century naturalist in 21st century clothing.

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Back in the car park, our attention is arrested by a tiny shop selling vintage clothing of a certain flamboyant variety.  Ben tries on a glittery silver jacket, too short in the arms, to the great delight of the old ladies behind the counter, who titter and cackle as he dances to “At the Hop”.

Then we get back into the car and head to Whitchurch Canonicorum*.

*I could not possibly have made any of this up; but I especially could not have made the name “Whitchurch Canonicorum” up.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part three.

Sunday

10.05            In the car.  My legs encased in heavy denier black stockings.  I say, “like sausages”; Xander says, “not like sausages.”  Again the day cannot decide if it’s hot or cold, and I will, as the hours pass, often remove and then replace these heavy denier black stockings.

10.39            Xander consumes an enormous, delicious, dripping bacon-and-egg bap.  I salivate and steal bites, and feel my own breakfast of sugary cereal to have been woefully inadequate.

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11.07            Hugh rolls through the fair in his red truck, closely followed by that chip-shop smell which inevitably says, “I’m saving the world.”  Hi Ben, he says.  Hi Hugh, Ben says, mid-song.  Everybody watches him glide down the hill, and then the toddlers re-commence their dancing, the babies their smiling and shouting, the adults their various whiling-away-the-hours-till-cider-time activities.  The more hardcore, of course, already have a pint in hand.

12.56            A spider-bite.  An idle thought of serpents and adders.  A bluebottle on my blue dress.  I read British Poetry Sine 1945, my legs gathering warmth from the sun.  Half-seen smiles unmet like mist/maybe the touch of a hand/resembles dew.  The hungry insects have turned a leaf to lace.  Thin mums with McClaren prams promenade back and forth on the grass and girls bare their shoulders, their skinny bra straps showing, and children swing their hips to the music.  A brother and sister wrestle in a pool of shade.  If they were any older it would be inappropriate.

13.41            I hum to myself.  Is singing merely an act of vanity?  Well, if it is, then long live vanity!  I also sit in a field above the festival site.  It’s part of the extended nature walk; this is clever of them (that magic “them” who organized it all), for there is nothing one needs more at a festival, even a pleasant and tame one like this, than the chance, occasionally, to escape from the masses and lie in an open meadow with no one else about.

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13.52            I return to the festival site.  Xander and I share a scone, with jam and cream.  God bless strawberry jam and all the different varieties…A wasp tries to commit suicide in the jam, but fails and flies away.

14.15            We watch the ferret races.  Which really means this: 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.

15.19            A nap in the grass.  Sun, wind, and the occasional smell of sulfur, which I later learn is actually sewage being filtered through nearby reeds.

17.02            They’re taking down the festival now.

17.08            A twelve-year-old girl wearing muddy white socks tells Ben he smells, and can I borrow your guitar?  Her friend takes Ben’s business card.  “Why do you hate mornings?” she wants to know.  We can’t think of a decent answer, though “Em’s homemade cider” comes to mind.

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18.33            In Axminster and environs, we come across no fewer than six banks and no open shops.  One restaurant also sells DVDs; it’s called Route 66: True American Spirit.  We see almost no one else about, and the shelves of the petrol station we dip into are bare.  The Chinese takeout 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.

18.49            We stop for a pair of very fat turkeys, who cross the lane at a pace somewhere between glacial and leisurely.  Through a gap in the hedge I see a rope swing, a rusty fence.  We pass a blacksmith’s cabin.  I stare at the pink of my own fingers as they squeeze the pen and concentrate.

18.51             Now a horseback rider on her phone passes us by.  (I mean that she is both on her phone and on her horse).  And the hedges open up to reveal a sky ripe for stars.  I feel the cardboard blue of my notebook under my thumb.

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