Snowed In

I managed to get stuck in England this weekend – and once again was able to enjoy snow in Oxford… despite the fact that it took me 10 hours to get back to Paris on Sunday, Saturday was a most enjoyable day to be a weather refugee. Snowmen constructed, snowballs were thrown, and port and mince pies were served in the Middle Common Room at Teddy Hall.

Stornoway: Beachcomber’s Windowsill

It must be time to check in with Stornoway again. At the end of May they released their first full-length album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill on 4AD. Which is nice.

For those who already own Stornoway’s independently released EPs, many of the songs will already be familiar, but new standout tracks like Fuel Up and I Saw You Blink make this album well worth picking up. Alexis Petridis at The Grauniad liked it, in any case.

Here’s the band playing “unplugged” in the fernery in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens. They may not be the most innovative group out there, but they’re still probably my favourite British band right now. And I think I want one of those squeezy portable harmoniums…

Glimpses of London

Some pictures of a hot and humid  Sunday afternoon spent in London before catching the Eurostar back to Paris….

Two hours on the grass in Hyde Park with the Sunday papers!

The New Zealand War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner

Horse riders get a special high-up button to cross the traffic at Hyde Park Corner

I hadn’t visited Parliament for years. Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster is most impressive… !

The Clocktower and the statue of Boudica (the original British rebel) stand by Westminster Bridge

Oxford State of Mind


Summer in Oxford: a rock band plays to the cows in Port Meadow

Over the weekend I was back in Oxford to catch up with some friends. While I don’t miss England that much, I do miss Oxford and its mix of grand architecture, rural landscapes and casual intellectualism.

While I was walking around town, I took some video of life on the river and in Christ Church Meadow. Hopefully it gives an impression of a lazy summer weekend in the most beautiful town in England.

The song I’ve used as soundtrack is “Summer’s Here” by Zim Grady, a band from Abingdon.

Return to Stornoway

I’ve only heard Stornoway play live once: it was midnight in a rain-soaked field last year just off the M40 near Aylesbury or Thame or somewhere. In any case, it was dark and wet. There were 15 people in the crowd and the band was almost drowned out by the rave tent next door. It was hardly an auspicious evening.

But something about their music must have stuck: possibly the strong melodies and their ability to look and sound like a folk-rock band without being a folk-rock band. I came home, bought all their mp3s (all eight of them), wrote a blog post, and now their song Here Comes the Blackout is one of my top-played tunes on last.fm.

So having followed the band for over a year now, it’s gratifying to see they’re building some solid buzz: they played Glastonbury this year, became the first rock band ever to play a concert in the Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (oh to have seen that gig!), and most recently appeared on Later with Jools Holland:

Although they’re not signed and have no album out yet, their song Zorbing is already an anthem on the Oxford scene. It’s a piece of music which typifies Stornoway’s approach: apparently ramshackle, amiably round-vowelled, but cleverly structured and very catchy. It’ll be interesting to see what 2010 brings for these chaps.

England – a week of it

Seven days spent back in England was a reminder of everything left behind across the Channel – good friends, bad weather, great pubs and fantastic Indian restaurants. Here are a few highlights:

On our way from the Royal Academy to the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery, my aunt and I bumped into the band of the Welsh Guards toddling up the Mall. For a few minutes, I was a real tourist.

A couple of nights in Birmingham were enough to visit the legendary Punjab Paradise on Ladypool Road and attend my Business School’s “Summer” Ball at the Botanic Gardens, where the evening was cold enough for the peacocks’ breath to steam.

Oxford remains one of my favourite places in the world. A weekend was happily spent catching up with friends, eating fish, browsing old books at Blackwell‘s and being amazed once again by New College’s choir. The sun emerged long enough on Sunday for a sandwich picnic in the University Parks. It was like being home again.

A final whirlwind day in London, (tapas lunch in Angel, meetings in Old Street and a sneaky visit to the Parthenon Marbles which I had never seen before), was capped off by an unexpected view of sunset over the Upper Pool of the Thames from a pub in Bermondsey. The city looked like it was on fire, and the pints were less than 2 quid.

Thanks to everyone who let me sleep on their couch, and to all the friends who found time to say hello. Sorry I couldn’t see more people – but I’ll be back sometime…

Boys’ Lives

Image: Ben Harris-Roxas (Creative Commons)

On a recommendation, I recently ploughed through Robert McCammon‘s Boy’s Life. McCammon is not normally the sort of author that appeals to me, (not being a big fan of horror/fantasy). However Boy’s Life really worked. I loved its uncomplicated melding of magic and mundanity, its vivid descriptive tone and unforced evocation of life in smalltown Alabama in the 1960s.

Ostensibly a murder mystery, Boy’s Life is really a collection of episodes in the life of Cory, a 12 year-old kid who is discovering his calling as a storyteller. The book never loses this sense of wonder, slipping with ease between tales of summer days on the baseball diamond and back-yard conversations with ghosts. Cory’s Zephyr is a Harper Lee-style smalltown, refracted through a funhouse mirror: ineffectual sheriffs, snarling Klansmen and shotgun-wielding junk collectors share the stage with a ferocious river monster, flying dogs, an ancient voodoo witch and (of course) a dinosaur.

The suspense is occasionally stunning: some events in the novel are so completely unexpected that they strike with near-physical force.   Sometimes it seems that McCammon can’t resolve or propel the narrative forward without summoning hideous dei ex machina at the last minute. But this is barely a failing: it is in these moments of crisis that McCammon’s writing is strongest.

As a semi-autobiographical novel of a child growing into the world and confronting the gift and necessity of writing, Boy’s Life bears some comparison to David Mitchell‘s Black Swan Green.   Mitchell’s story of a year in the life of Worcestershire lad Jason Taylor is darker and more tightly-woven. But in both novels the boys’ imaginative universe is a small town, populated by near-mythical characters, presented against a backdrop of real-world outside events (in Zephyr it’s the civil rights movement and Vietnam; in Black Swan Green it’s 1980s Thatcherism and the Falklands War).

In an endearingly English way, Black Swan Green thrives on loose ends, ambiguity and Jason’s unease with his role in the world. The novel orbits around a dissolving marriage and inevitable divorce.

By contrast, Cory rides roughshod into danger and mystery, calls things as he sees them and seems implausibly unperturbed by frequent physical injuries. Boy’s Life possesses an almost conservative concern for family unity, culminating in a clunky epilogue in which the narrator returns to Zephyr 25 years later and we discover what’s happened to the main characters in the interim (basically: college, wedlock and socially respectable jobs).

Black Swan Green is, as a piece of art, more far subtle and definitely more interesting (I own an autographed hardback copy, ’nuff said). But Boy’s Life is immediately satisfying: a heartfelt romp through boyhood. In its best moments it’s dizzyingly good. Just watch out for dinosaurs.


Image: whateverthing (Creative Commons)

Five Things I’ll Miss About the UK

Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

I could talk about all the wonderful people I’ve met in England who I’ll miss when I leave, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it? One must control one’s emotions and remain self-deprecating in all social situations, including when blogging.

So here are five of the best THINGS about the UK that have made my time here unique and enjoyable.  Who knows, maybe I’ll miss these things so much that I’ll come back?

BBC Radio 4 – the best English-language spoken word radio station in the world? Some people accuse Radio 4 of being too white, middle-class, and biased towards the Home Counties.  But nowhere else can you hear John Humphries mercilessly grill  Gordon Brown, follow Sandi Toksvig up the Amazon or get advice on which side of the house to plant your camellia bushes.  Oh, and every night at 7pm Tom Archer will be worrying about feeding his cows.

Ale PintBeer – more specifically, ale and bitter, which I learned to love through many visits to venerable Oxford establishments such as The Turf and the Lamb and Flag. People must be truly mad to buy Amstel or Fosters when in Oxford. To drink lager in historic and well-oiled pubs such as these would surely be sacrilege. Bottoms up!

    Comedy – Like beer, comedy makes life in Britain tolerable.   The best British comedy and humour relies on self-deprecation, wit and a dose of surreal silliness, and there is so much of it to enjoy in the UK.  Personal favourites include Peep Show, the ubiquitous Paul Merton, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Private Eye and of course I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

    Choral music – I wrote about the long English tradition of choral singing in a recent post.  Even if most English people don’t realise it, English choirs are the envy of the world. Whether you believe the theology behind it or not, sung Evensong must be one of the greatest pieces of English art ever devised.

    Sandwich shops – Nowhere else in the world has sandwich shops quite like Britain. I’m not talking about Subway, Greggs or Pret. I mean the little independent shops squeezed into alleyways off high streets, where a husband and wife team (or their Polish assistant) will customise your favourite tuna and sweetcorn sandwich while you wait. Personal favourites include A Patch of Blue in Calne, Wiltshire and the Oxford Sandwich Co in the Covered Markets.

    Ice

    For many parts of the UK, it’s been the coldest week for 30 years. In Birmingham temperatures got down to minus 9. The canals are still frozen and the geese and ducks in Cannon Hill Park are struggling to find a patch of water to swim in.

    I wish I could have been in Oxford this week – Port Meadow froze and people were skating on it! Percy at Oxford Daily Photo has posted some photos and some nice images have been uploaded to Flickr by Isisbridge and robbie_shade.

    Saving Morris Dancing

    In the news this week: The Morris Ring (England’s national association of morris dancers) is worried that Morris Dancing will die out. Apparently there aren’t enough young people wanting to join Morris sides around England, and in 20 years time “there will be no Morrismen left.”  The dancers think that youngsters are embarrassed to be seen walking around with bells on their ankles, leaping about with handkerchiefs and hanging out with 50 year-olds.  Well… yeah, OK.

    I have one suggestion for saving morris dancing: make morris dancing a competitive inter-school event.  You can laugh if you want, but it might just work. I think of an example from New Zealand. Every year, the Auckland Secondary Schools Polyfest brings together students from across Auckland to perform Maori and Pacific Island dance and music.  It’s held in a stadium over three days, and thousands of people turn out. There’s food and market stalls.  Schools enter performance groups in competition, the contest is fierce, and resultant quality of performance is often amazing.

    I’m sure that people will complain about full curriculums, a lack of teacher time, and the plethora of other school activities that fill up pupils’ days.  But there are numerous benefits:

    • daily exercise for Albion’s famously rubenesque youths
    • building teamwork and school pride
    • creating awareness of local history
    • providing links between younger and older people (a relationship that in the UK seems particularly dysfunctional)
    • claiming back pride in English traditions from the BNP and the Daily Fail

    The Morris Ring needs to stop moaning and get a little creative.  It’s just a matter of packaging the concept in the right way. Some gutsy morris side should get a sound system and dance at the Notting Hill Carnival.

    The competition element is key, it seems to me. If getting kids interested in Morris traditions seems a challenge, why not look at combining traditional elements of Morris with breakdancing, or rap? Or martial arts?  If people are worried that about diluting or destroying traditional practice, then create ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ disciplines.

    But if a school competition doesn’t work, it’s worth trying the other ultimate motivator: beer. Morris dancing is often preceded or followed by a trip to the pub (or the dancing happens at the pub). This makes it a pastime that is eminently suited to the English temperament – and pubs aren’t going out of fashion with the young, at least last time I looked.

    The fact that morris dancing has even survived in such health into the 21st Century is a small miracle.  It’s one of the few traditions in the UK that is identifiably English (ie. it’s not Scottish, Welsh or Irish).  Living in Oxford for several years, one got use to seeing morris sides from all over the country dancing in the streets for the Folk Festival or on May Morning.  It’s worth finding a way of keeping  morris alive and relevant.

    And if anyone thinks morris dancing ain’t funky, check this out: