Monday, 26 July 2010

A quintessential weekend

Leaving London for Oxford is proving to be a huge learning curve. On Saturday morning I decided to cycle into town to do our food shopping at the Covered Market. I left the house on my bike and peddled into town as fast as my weak, feeble London legs could peddle. 'How delightful' I mused to myself, and I was halfway to feeling as though I had landed in the middle of a Miss Marple when I was met with a plague of tourists. Not so idyllic. The town was absolutely buzzing with tourists. Everywhere. Now, coming from London I am, of course, used to irritating tourists. But they are easily avoided in London - there is less space in Oxford so we are confined to walk the same streets as the grockles. And I have discovered something, my inner-Londoner has not withered away, she bursts forth as I huff and mutter and barge people out of my way.

Once I had fought my way into the Covered Market I felt that things could only get better. All the fresh fruit and veg, the amazing cheese counter, butchers and delicious cookie shop enticed me in to the relative calm. But I ran into a bit of difficulty. You see, as much as it pains me to admit this - I had absolutely no idea where to start. How much is 100 grams? How do these women around me know what to do? I felt like a complete fraud as I walked around pathetically wondering how much of everything to ask for. And then I realised, I have grown up lacking the skills that were second nature to my grandmother and mother. I am used to going to a supermarket where everything is ready weighed and packaged with a nice price tag stamped onto it. Market shopping is a whole new world.

I rallied myself and dived in. I started with cheese. I bought a wonderful local cheese called Oxford Isis which is absolutely heavenly and very smelly indeed. So far so good - I then bought some strawberries and some delicious figs. It was when I went to the fish counter that all went pear-shaped. I have a weakness for Scallops - which are very expensive but the label had an alright price for 100g so I thought I would treat Mr Bell and myself to a yummy starter. I boldly asked for 100g and was horrified when two scallops were placed in a sorry little bag and handed to me. Mortified, I handed over my cash and fled the scene. TWO SCALLOPS?! I could have snorted them up - so I have learnt that 100g is not very much at all. And I have also learnt that I am not one of the fortunate few who can afford to buy Scallops.

I then gave the butchers a go but feeling as if the word 'novice' was stamped across my forehead I went for the easiest thing to order - four sausages. And then I scuttled away with my hard-won goodies to find my bike amidst a sea of tourists.

Aside from my disastrous first attempt at ordering food by the weight; pootling about the side streets around the college buildings was idyllic in the summer sunshine. I made time to stop for yet another scone at the Vaults & Garden cafe which is my favourite cafe in Oxford. And which is where a couple of Saturday's ago I had the most delicious breakfast of tea and toast (picture above, forgive the poor quality - I took it with my phone). Is there any breakfast more satisfying than simple homemade bread, toasted and slathered with butter and homemade strawberry jam? And for 60p? Heaven. I am going to become a very regular sight in the Vaults cafe as they serve fab tea and I can burrow in and read my book underneath the 13th century vaulted ceiling.

Yesterday I went home to Sussex for our annual family get together at Horn Fair in Ebernoe. I wrote about it in a bit more detail last year here. Four generations of our family were present as it was my six month old niece's first fair - I have been going since I was a baby and I still don't know the rules for Cricket! Perhaps my niece will grasp them more quickly than me! It all seems very slow and is interspersed with a tea break, a lunch break and another tea break. Meanwhile spectators are languishing around with their own thermos flasks and picnics - not really my thing I must say. Don't get me wrong I love a picnic - but not when balls are flying about. But it is somehow wry and a bit subversive of my family to repeatedly sit through this every single year - as only one of my mother's cousin's is into cricket (in a big way) the rest of us couldn't give two figs. But we always clap heartedly when it is required.

Anyway, I am off to battle with Jane Eyre. All your comments from my last post have made me even more determined to conquer the nineteenth century. Wish me luck - I am going in armed with a cup of tea and, oddly, some strawberry jelly.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

I have a confession to make...

The effect of nineteenth century literature upon Kate Winslet?

I am a wolf in sheep's clothing; a traitor in the midst - I claim to be well read and I claim to love literature however, there is something I have to confess. I loathe nineteenth century literature. I despise the rambling and, seemingly, endless descriptive passages of not very much happening. I am a modernist through and through - give me someone's interior monologue any day. Stream of Consciousness and I'm there, gripped. Modernist literature explores the very core of the human condition - it strips away the faff and exposes the raw, bloody nerve endings that are relationships, humanity, society etc etc (I could go on with my rant about the merits of modernism but will cease).

Anyway, I am conscious of the fact that I can't write off a whole movement within the literary canon. I have tried to get on with the Victorians, believe me I have but I failed every time I opened anything containing a corset. Now, this is where it really gets to confession time - I am an English graduate who has never read an Austen. I got part way through Pride and Prejudice and decided that, frankly, life is way too short so I put it down; that lame experience put me off her other books. This is odd considering I like the TV and film adaptations but perhaps that is because they are mental chewing gum and I like to effortlessly watch the condensed versions of the novels where an end is in sight (cue massive backlash from all ye nineteenth century lovers).

There is one exception to my issue with the nineteenth century and it comes in the glorious form of Hardy. I adore Thomas Hardy BUT he is a modernist born before his time so that gets around that issue. Jude the Obscure is a work of sheer, unparalleled genius. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of the greatest feminist works that English literature has ever seen - Hardy is truly a modern man. I have read and re-read Tess, my copy is falling apart and I still weep when she tells Angel the truth. Angel betrays her everytime through his boyish ignorance and if you look in the dictionary for the word 'hypocrite' his name is EMBLAZONED there. Well, in my copy anyway.

And I enjoy the gothic, so devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights (gothic-ish) with relish. So, I can dance around the edges of nineteenth century literature but I can't seem to plunge in. I tried Eliot, but dear lord does she prattle on. I made it through about seven pages of Adam Bede (dire) and I got a bit further through Middlemarch but it was doomed from the start as my mind slowly started to grasp at the twentieth century and I succumbed to a Rosamund Lehmann.

I am now going to embark upon another attempt to crack the nut that is Austen and the wider nineteenth century offering. So, I have got Jane Eyre in my bag ready and waiting to be opened. I will then (provided I can drag my way through it) tackle Austen. I refuse to let this beat me, I will read Emma all the way through. Even if I have to go and overdose on some Forster or Fitzgerald immediately after. I admit, I am dubious as to this whole enterprise but I am willing to read it from cover to cover and then we shall see if I have been converted.

Monday, 19 July 2010

To Bed With Grand Music - Book Review

It has taken me five cups of tea to ponder this book and reach any sort of conclusion as to what I think of it. I was left totally bemused and one of my first thoughts was 'this isn't the wartime that my granny remembers so fondly'. You know the sort of thing, dashing young officers asking girls to dance whilst only expecting a peck on the cheek goodbye at the end of the night. This novel suggests very different wartime behaviour.

The novel opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband, Graham; a portent of what is to come. Deborah promises Graham that she will remain faithful to him as he is being posted to Cairo. Graham, however is a little more hesitant as he knows he cannot do without sex for three or four years. Instead, he promises not to fall in love with anyone else. Deborah is horrified that he cannot commit to her and eventually gets him to concede to be faithful.

As soon as Graham has left, Deborah tries to turn her attention to their baby son, Timmy. However, it soon transpires that Deborah is not interested in being a housewife and even less interested in being a mother. The weeks go on and Deborah leaves Timmy more and more in the care of her housekeeper, Mrs Chalmers. When Deborah's mother arrives for a visit, she can see that Deborah is bored and upsetting Timmy as a result. She suggests that Deborah try to find a job. In fact, Deborah's mother is well aware that her daughter is not suited to the roles of wife and mother so she actively encourages Deborah to go to London in search of something to occupy her time whilst Graham is away.

When Deborah visits her friend, Madeleine, in London she is swept away by the freedom and glamour of Madeleine's life. Instead of search for a job Deborah goes for dinner with Madeleine and two male friends, and she ends up in bed with one of the men. Deborah's fall into infidelity is swift and seemingly without a thought for Graham or Timmy. Until the morning after when she skulks home and promises herself that she will stay in the country and look after Timmy until Graham's return.

As you can probably predict, Deborah does not stay in the country and await her husbands' return. Instead she moves in with Madeleine and embarks upon a wartime career of working her way around the male members of the armed forces in return for gifts, expensive nights out and, ultimately, excitement.

There are moments during which Deborah has doubts and wonders about her behaviour, but these are swiftly cast aside with self-justification and a total failure to realise the fact that she has become, in essence, a prostitute. Her male friends pass her around each other; she obviously gains a reputation as being available. She acquires jewels, stockings, make up, expensive dinners at fancy restaurants, perfume and a myriad of other gifts which are her payment.

Deborah is a character that I totally despised. It wasn't so much her behaviour as her refusal to think realistically about her actions and their consequences. She is a weak personality, easily led astray by Madeleine and seemingly incapable of refusing temptation. Towards the end of her novel her relationship with her son is redundant as he clings on to Mrs Chalmers for love and attention. And instead of thinking proactively about Graham's impending return she just turns away and pursues her current course, which in the light of peace takes her into the arms of businessmen as the armed forces are all returning home.

I disliked Deborah immensely - the very fact that at the end of the novel she showed no remorse, just resentment that her life would inevitably return to its pre-war state, only made me dislike her even more. Deborah's desire for Madeleine's life is farcical as we clearly realise that Madeleine is envious of Deborah's husband and baby. Instead of realising this and appreciating her life, Deborah pursues a life of glamour and hedonism with an underlying streak of bitterness about her marriage and child.

To Bed With Grand Music is a great read as it strips all sense of nostalgia from your thoughts of the second world war. Instead you realise that human nature was, of course, the same and people took advantage of the unique circumstances to please themselves.

In direct contrast to the portrayal of war by Marghanita Laski, I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called Time Warp Wives. Now, this was a piece of trash tv that I slumped in front of last week but it was quite an interesting programme as some modern women are retreating into the past to escape modern life. The majority of women featured in this programme had decided to live in the 1940s and 1950s; before women's liberation one might add. Anyway, they are under the impression that manners were impeccable, there were no social problems and every woman was faithful and dutiful to her husband. Perhaps they should all read To Bed With Grand Music to cure their ailment of acute nostalgia.

These women are totally delusional but it is interesting that they all revert to fantasy to avoid the pressures of modern life. What they don't seem to realise though is that throughout history 'modern life' has always been stressful, uncertain and, crucially, perceived to be worse than any period that has gone before. Deborah escaped her life into a fantasy that cannot be sustained - as have the women on the tv programme. I think I would rather face up to the grit of everyday life - even if that means I have to forget about sepia wartime dances leading to a mere peck on the cheek.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Too many books

I write this not quite sitting in the kitchen sink but nearly, as I have had to find a bit of space to settle amidst all the boxes, strewn furniture and general chaos. We have, at long last, moved to Oxford. The bell will now chime from a different tower and hopefully more frequently than it has been of late!

All my fantasies about sitting by the river in the warm summer sun are so far coming true as the weather has been wonderful. We have spent evenings strolling along the canal and looking for tucked away pubs in search for a quiet drink.

Moving has highlighted to me how bad my book obsession has become as my arms are now extremely sore from all the lifting and struggling with box after box of precious cargo. In light of the pain, nay agony, that I am now in I have made a dramatic decision. I am not buying any more books in 2010 and from now on I am giving books away after I have read them - unless they are absolutely vital, of course. Hopefully this will solve some of my current storage problems as well!

Over the past few weeks my whole life has been about moving so I am looking forward to having more time to myself to explore Oxford and get some reading done. I don't really theme my reading but I thought that over the next couple of weeks I might read novels with an Oxford connection - so, I asked some literary types and they suggested some great books. I have already read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy which I loved so I think that I will re-read them to refresh my memory (provided that I can find the box that they are in!). I loved Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land (which I wrote about here) and Verity recommended one of her other novels, High Table, which I will borrow from the library. I adore Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night which is also set in Oxford so that might be another re-read possibility. I would be grateful for any recommendations for good Oxfordian novels.

Of course, the grand-daddy of Oxford novels has to be Brideshead Revisited. I adore Evelyn Waugh and I adore him even more for his great friendship with Nancy Mitford; an idol of mine and not just because she kept a white chicken in her Paris apartment, well almost.