Sunday, 20 November 2011

Vera Brittain

Amongst the thousands of Alumna Somerville has produced since its inception, there can be seen a steady stream of writers who have gone on to win fame and inspire generations of readers.

It is, perhaps, worth remarking upon the fact that very few of them have chosen to portray the college in their fictional work. Dorothy L Sayers is well known for creating a thinly veiled Somerville in her ‘Gaudy Night’, but Vera Brittain also used the college in her first novel ‘The Dark Tide.’

During the war, Somerville’s buildings had been requisitioned by the War office and its students found themselves removed to a small corner of Oriel – although mat students (Brittain included) chose to suspend their studies in favour of assisting the war effort by nursing or other full time occupations. The return to post war Oxford was a shock to those who had been away, and tested by the experiences thrust upon them.

College life, with its formalities, must have seemed archaic and the world of The Dark Tide uses its first section to cast a piercing light on the lives of the returning post war undergraduates. There is a caustic tone to Brittain’s portrayal of college life; the students gathering in very cliquey sets, behaving in a way that does not reflect the empowerment that women achieved through the war, and Virginia (a character who reflects much of who Vera Brittain was at that time) finds it hard to accept their attitude, and eschews ‘fitting in’ in favour of hard work.

In a modern world, which is used to criticism and satire, it will perhaps surprise the reader to learn how much controversy the novel created. The powers that be, who recognised themselves in the pages of Brittain’s novel, did not find the portrayal flattering and were so outraged that they declared the book to be banned from the college. I am inclined to think that were an alumnae to fictionalise the college now (perhaps a humorous take on when we started admitting men) the reaction would be far more measured. Times have, of course, changed greatly, and perhaps the work was seen as belittling the achievements of women who had only so recently won the right to be awarded the degree for which they had studied.

Even at this early stage in her career, Vera Brittain clearly had a lot to say about the forces which drive a woman to make the choices that will shape her life. ‘The Dark Tide’s’ central characters are polar opposites who are eventually united by their share in a mistake that affects both their lives.

Brittain’s prose is not particularly poetic, choosing instead to tell the story in what might seem (to a modern reader) to be an unsympathetic tone. The First World War had a great effect on Brittain, as is evidenced in her other works and the direction her life took from then on, and it is plain that this effect is at work on her writing here.

I’m reluctant to end on a bleak note, and happily Vera Brittain’s own history gives us a ray of sunshine. However unhappy the novel is and whatever the opinion of her college, the book must have given some a glimpse of the real woman behind it, for – as Vera herself explains – her first ever fan mail was from a man who, after a year or so of courtship, became her husband. The rest, as they say, is history!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Painting with words

Knowing I was going to write about ‘An Equal Stillness’ as I read it, there were naturally all kinds of opening lines forming in my mind as I turned the pages, How surprised I was to find them all chased away by the simple act of reading one sentence and finding all my preconceptions about the narrative voice shattered. Not who I was expecting at all!

Which, I suppose, serves very well to emphasise the point I had intended starting with: that with a supposed seven plot lines available to a writer, it is difficult to find something fresh and captivating. That Francesca Kay manages it is clear.

To write fictional biography about well known people is a technique I admire, but to do it with a totally imagined character is intriguing and compelling. Jennet Mallow is a painter and so into the form of words there comes a need to describe her paintings – that art form one turns to when language fails in its evocable power.

It’s a quiet book, somehow almost sensuous in its descriptions: the life and work of a woman laid out, with all its imperfections, failures, successes and small moments spread out. I rarely listen to music as I read, fearing a distraction from an overloud, or wordy, piece; but this book seemed to demand a classical accompaniment: the notes seeping into my appreciation of the words and helping me see the paintings that were described. The melding of these art forms just seemed to be right on this occasion.

It’s a wonderful novel: one that will haunt with its themes of love and loss, even as we strive to imagine the paintings that are the central point of the work. Understated is the word that springs to mind when trying to describe the feeling of the novel. There are no big explosions of emotion, and that is surprising – particularly for a first novel. Francesca Kay seems to have found her voice from the outset and draws her readers into this small, but creative, world she has created.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Remembrance through song

I've been pondering which poem to use for Remembrance weekend, and was having a difficult time choosing, and then I heard this song:

So happy remembrance weekend everyone.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Courage in the face of adversity

I never buy the weekend papers, but if I'm ever in a coffee shop or other places that leaves them lying about for people to pick at should the mood take them, I will always make a bee line for the Times Magazine.

For there is one particular article within it's pages which never fails to inspire and move me, because it is the ongoing tale of one woman's courage and her triumph (however small) over a tragic accident that has shaped her life, perhaps forever.

Melanie Reid is a columnist with a difference. Over a year ago now, she fell from a horse and broke her neck and back, sustaining terrible spinal damage. I have no idea what she wrote about before this happened, but now her weekly article details her struggle to overcome the damage. There is no forced cheerfulness to her writing. If she's had a terrible week, then by god you know about it; if she is frustrated by the system or by what is happening in the outside world, then she does not shy away from revealing her feelings. Equally, though, she shares the small triumphs and the happy family times that she experiences.

This past Saturday's piece (15th October 2011) was one of the triumphant ones. There is movement to report - tiny, but significant - and her tone is upbeat throughout the article, even though the message she gives on the pace of this improvement is bleak to a reader. 'The received wisdom' (she writes) 'on nerve regrowth is that, if you're going to get any - and not everyone will - it will happen at a rate of about one millimetre a day. Which is about one inch per month. Which puts my feet at least five years away from my neck.'

That's staggering. And the fact she keeps on writing through all the pitfalls and setbacks is equally so.

My one regret is that with the Times requiring a subscription for its website, I can't go and look up all the back issues I have missed. I hope, one day, that someone will think to collate them into a book, for they really are inspirational, and not something people should miss. Now, if all the copies of the magazine disappear from the coffee shops of Oxford, I'll know why!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has always been something of an enigma to me - in fact sometimes he seems like a riddle wrapped in an enigma. His films are an acquired taste, and sometimes appear to have no discernible plot, but there is always the direction of his camera which draws the eye and pulls one into the film regardless of whether or not Allen has anything to say. It is rare in this era of blockbusters to find someone who makes films purely for the love he has of the process.

Allen has always been regarded as the portrayer of New York, with his works being love letters to that city. Now, with his latest film 'Midnight in Paris' he appears to have transferred his affections and sets about showing his audience how truly beautiful the capital city of France is - especially in the rain.

This is a film with a message which doesn't truly present itself until almost the end. At first you are simply presented with an American couple about to be married, the man a Hollywood script writer with desires to be a 'proper' writer. Here he is, in this beautiful and inspiring city only to find himself stifled by his fiancee and her pedantic friend (played brilliantly by Michael Sheen) who appears to be an 'expert' on everything.

Only when, slightly drunk and declining to go dancing, he stumbles off into a nighttime Paris and is 'picked up' bu a vintage car full of champagne quaffing revelers does the adventure begin. For suddenly, as the clock strikes midnight, this man finds himself thrust quite unexpectedly and implausibly into 1920s Paris keeping company with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Dali. This midnight era becomes a refuge for him, as his relationship with his fiancee breaks down and he becomes drawn to a beautiful woman (captivatingly played by Marion Cotillard) the muse of Picasso and who is in thrall to an earlier 'golden era'.

And here is the central theme of the film: this artistic yearning for a lost time which has come through the years to inspire and enthrall. For Gil, it is the 1920s, for Adriana, the woman he is falling in love with, it is the belle epoch. As with the 1920s, this earlier time opens itself to these tow, and there they are in the Moulin Rouge, deep in conversation with Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, who declare the Renaissance to be the golden era. Enthralled by what she has seen, Adriana decides to stay in her ideal time, but Gil cannot bear to leave the 20s behind. Returning to modern day Paris, he loses the woman he loves, but gains the determination to change his life.

This idea of an era holding special significance for people except those that live in it is fascinating. I cannot imagine anyone sighing with desire to live in 2011 and calling it a golden age - but given time it will surely happen. It is an impossible dream - to go back and experience life as one's role models and heroes have done and yet Woody Allen makes it happen. And he treats the dream with such a cavalier attitude - shrugging his shoulders at almost every scene, seeming to say 'well, you've met the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway, why not T.S.Eliot, why not Dunja Barnes or Matisse, and hey! meeting Man Ray is perfectly possible in this best of all possible worlds!

I hesitate to say this is Woody Allen's best work, because I've not seen everything he's done, but I think this has to be my favourite!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Poem of the week

On such a windy day as this, who better to turn to than a Bronte .....


by: Anne Bronte (1820-1849)

MY soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder to-day!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Water Sports

There's something in the water .... quite literally!

For those of you in the UK, you may have noticed that quite a few celebrities have been getting wet recently. Ronan Keating and Pamela Stephenson (amongst others) swam the Irish Channel (dodging a fair few jellyfish along the way), and David Walliams is currently achieving heroic things, swimming the entire length of the Thames.

I am also getting into the water and doing my bit for charity. I am swimming the channel, and although I'm doing it in stages, I feel quite inspired! Plus, of course, this way I won't drown, swallow a load of industrial waste, or get hit by a tanker in the shipping lanes!

The channel is 22 miles, and the pool I'm doing this in is 25 meters. This means that a mile is equal to 64 lengths, and I need to do 1416 in total! So far, I've done 264 lengths.

As I mentioned, I am doing this for charity (Comic Relief and Molly's Library - set up by students of Somerville, which provides books and education to children and adults in Cape Coast, in Ghana), so if anyone would like to sponsor me, then please go here.

Wish me luck!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Poem of the week

There is an awful lot being written this week about the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Centre. I'm doing my best to avoid most of it - there seems to be a lot of sensationalist articles, and the rest of it just stirs up memories.

I remember precisely what I was doing when I heard about it (walking into a classroom for a lesson, wondering what the class of juniors was still doing there, and why three teachers were crowded around a tv) and in fact I think I even saw the plane hit the second tower. I watched a lot of news coverage that evening, and many of the images stuck in my mind.

Needing an outlet, I wrote a poem. Then, over the following week, I wrote about 30 more. As my tribute to this anniversary, I'd like to share two of them with you.

The nightmare (13.09.01)

Who has a nightmare at nine in the morning?

Who has a nightmare when they are fully awake?

This is a nightmare that actually happened.

This is a nightmare that does not go away.

People jumping out of buildings,

Bodies falling on the ground.

Towers creaking, falling to the floor

Only these sounds, nothing more.

Nightmare people roam the street.

Deathly pale, unnaturally white.

This is a nightmare that starts with morning,

But does not finish with the night.

Searching (13.09.01)

Searching though the ruins

Can anyone be found?

Searching through the ruins,

The dead mobiles sound.

People wander in the streets,

Wander on and on

Searching for their loved ones -

Their loved ones long gone.

The searches come to nothing

Cries of woe are heard.

The dead are gone and buried

The searched for never found.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The chicken or the egg

It's an age old question a book worm/film buff often finds themselves grappling with - which should come first: the book or the film?
It's a conundrum that has divided opinion since the first film adaptation was made (and it was probably a silent Shakespeare play or Jane Austen novel) and which shows no sign of being settled in the near future.

I am, for the most part, firmly in the camp of 'book comes first' (although I did need to see the films of The Lord of the Rings before the books made any sense), which is why I spent three evenings tearing my way through 'One Day' before the film came out.
It's a charming concept for a plot line - following Emma and Dexter through twenty years of friendship on the same day every year. They don't necessarily have to be in the same room, or indeed see each other at all, but it is clear that each feels the others' presence keenly.

I could have quite easily read the entire thing in one hit, but it's a bit too depressing to do so comfortably. Dexter is not the nicest of characters and seems intent on ruining his own life. As he spirals out of control into an alcoholic haze, the reader struggles to find any sympathy to give him at all. Indeed his only redeeming feature seems to be Emma, and even she appears determined to waste the talent she has at first. As one star falls the other begins to rise, and it's debatable whether they ever truly end up parallel.

The film sticks very closely to the book, which is inevitable, as there's not much point in any real deviation. If you've read the book, of course, you are aware of how the story will end, and I think that in this case - with such a focused plot line - it has a negative impact for the viewer. Of course, the same effect would be had if the film were viewed first.

Anne Hathaway, as Emma, has come under a lot of negative criticism for her portrayal, or rather her accent has ..... I didn't think it was that bad: yes - she is supposed to be Yorkshire, and that wasn't in much evidence, but there were some nice moments in the Scottish section, where she had a slight Scottish lilt.

Anyway - coming back to the point: I don't think in the case of 'One Day' it really matters whether you read the book or see the film first, because they are both so true to each other ..... There are many instances, though, that a book can greatly enhance the film. I recently discovered that one of my favourite Ingrid Bergman films 'Goodbye Again' was in fact based on a novel by Francoise Sagan - 'Aimez Vous Bhrams ...'. The way that young woman wrote about love and how the need for it causes those in its grip to act in the most foolish and destructive of ways is truly remarkable, and I greatly prefer the book.

There's never going to be a definitive answer to this question, because it shifts with every new adaptation.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Poem of the week

Taken from 'The Rattle Bag', edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

'Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part'

By Michael Drayton

Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part -
Nay, I have done: you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seem in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes, -
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightest him yet recover.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

When I was doing my MA in Life Writing (the study of biography and autobiography) at the University of East Anglia a few years ago, one of the set texts on the Autobiography module was Rebecca West's 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon'.

I remain bemused as to why exactly it was on the reading list, for at 1,150 pages, it is a massive tome. As it was set halfway through the module, I also found it impossible to finish if I was going to read the other texts as well. Somehow, though, I managed to write an essay on it. I don't think it was very good.

The book still fascinated me though. Part travelogue of Rebecca West's journeys through Yugoslavia and part social history of how the country came into being and what shaped it's people, it is truly an epic read.

I've decided that the time has come for me to finish it (I seem to be reading a lot of books on or by strong women at the moment), and therefore I plan to take you on the journey with me. I've no fixed plan on how this will take shape (I'm not entirely sure Rebecca West did either when she sat down to write ....) but hopefully it will give insight into what is a powerful book about a powerful and enthralling country.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Appreciating the little things

There's so much in the news about the darker, depressing side of life at the moment. The riots in London and further north have got everyone (whether it be the professional journalists, or just people on facebook) in a negative frame of mind.

Here's the chance to turn that around. Partly inspired by a piece in the Washington Post, I have decided to think about why today was a good day ....

1. It was sunny
2. We had an email from an alumni that reinforced why our students think we rock.
3. A friend came for lunch

Why was today good for you?

Poem of the week

I thought I'd reinstate the poetry posts, and in honour of my previous post about Somerville, here is a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, one time preacher at St Aloysius, the church next door to the college.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Oxford can be a strange place. The University is, without a doubt, famous and draws many people to visit it's streets each year,* but it's identity is very much in the hands of the person describing it. Is it town or gown? Is it a place of great learning, or an old market town that has grown with the years? It is many things to many people.
I have always been conscious of the University part of the town, although until I went away to University, the colleges always seemed to be separate from me. I never went in them - indeed I hardly ever wanted to. They were just courtyards with briefly glimpsed gardens and I was quite content with that. I gradually started to move inside the warm stone of the outer walls: A series of concerts at The Queen's College, the literary festival at Christ Church, showing visitors Merton, but it wasn't until 2009 that the two sides of Oxford finally merged into each other. In 2009, I went to work for Somerville College.

The history of Oxford colleges is long and complicated. Balliol, Merton and University College were the first founded (and dispute amongst themselves over which came first) and thus a long tradition was established, finishing with Kellogg in 1990 (although Green and Templeton merged in 2008). Quite a few colleges have rivalries - I was told during my induction that the rivalry between Balliol and Trinity (who stand back to back) is particularly intense, and there are frequent proofs of this in the university papers and other little battles (apparently Balliol's tortoise, who was born the year Queen Victoria died, was stolen by Trinity at one point ....)

So, leaving these fascinating rivalries to one side, I shall take you back to a time when Oxford as a place of education was the haunt only of men. It wasn't that long ago, either. In the early 1870s, the wives of the dons** (and their daughters, and indeed women's suffrage campaigners as a whole) were getting restless. They wanted the chance to study the things their husbands taught, and believed themselves perfectly capable of study (contrary to popular opinion at the time). Things came to a head, after almost a decade of classes and public lectures, in 1878 when the proposal to form a permanent hall of study for women was agreed and Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) came into existence.

Yes, I know, this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the college I intended talking about, but believe me, the reference to LMH is entirely relevant to the way in which Somerville came to exist, because out of LMH's restrictions, we were born. LMH (named after Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII's mother)) was opened to the daughters of Protestant families only. A group of men and women (including T.H. Green and Mary Ward (Thomas Arnold's daughter)), who had long since campaigned for women to be allowed to study at Oxford, were opposed to this restriction, believing that if education was to be offered to women in the first place, there ought to be no restrictions placed on eligibility. To this end, in 1879, with the spirit of non-denominationalism and openness being the driving force behind its inception, Somerville was founded and moved into a property on the Woodstock Road.

The name of the college is an interesting choice, as rather than choosing a religious link (Trinity, St John's, Jesus) or powerful benefactor (Balliol, Wadham, Merton), the college was named after a renowned female scientist, who had died in 1872, Mary Somerville. An ideal role model for the higher education of women, Mary had taught herself science from her brother's textbooks, her father believing that the female frame was not robust enough to cope with the demands of learning. She proved him wrong, without a doubt, and was so well respected that her book 'The Mechanics of the Heavens' was used as a textbook in Cambridge 50 years before the college was even thought of.

The life of of an Oxford female undergraduate was not without its trials. Although officially allowed to attend the University, they were only permitted to attend lectures when accompanied by a another female student or chaperone. It was not until 1920 that women were permitted to actually take the degree for which they had studied so hard. Another restriction has actually served Somerville quite well: for when women were first admitted to the University, they were not permitted to use the facility of the Bodleian at all (whether they had chaperones or not). This meant that the college was required to make its own arrangements and the library is now the second largest, with over 120,000 titles. It's also stunningly beautiful, which helps!

When one thinks of Oxford colleges, the immediate images that come to mind involve cloisters, students in black gowns, Morse and Harry Potter. If you were to stop the average person on the street, they might term the place 'stuffy'. This is an image that Somerville works hard to refute. Openness is one of the predominant characteristics of the College - not for us the secret cloisters known only to the special few, or the grass so revered it is not to be stepped on. Somerville's lawns once played host to tennis games and a donkey, and are now the ideal place in Summer for tutorials. Like many colleges, the site was requisitioned during both wars, and soldiers (including Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves) recuperated beneath the shady trees on the main quad. Our location has been considered awkward (although not being bang in the centre has its positives, being therefore less on the tourist trail) but it complements our ethos, as whilst we are rich in history, we also rub shoulders with the vibrant communities of Jericho and Little Clarendon Street. Cardinal Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins preached on our doorstep (we are, ironically for our non-denominational standpoint, next door to the Catholic church) whilst our back gate leads directly to the bohemian bookshops and cinema that help keep a studious soul fresh and lively.

Somerville has always been a welcoming place, and in 1994 it finally opened its doors to men. Admittedly rather late in this aspect of Oxford history (the first women were admitted to previously all male colleges in 1974, and LMH celebrated its centenary by going co-educational), we made up for it by admitting pretty much equal numbers of men and women from the beginning. Being told on the potential pitfalls men could bring, the college was advised that men would eat more food and break more furniture. Perhaps that's why the bike shed was turned into a gym!

Like any other college, we are proud of our students and alumni, always wanting to know where they are, and what they've done. Ever since the college's inception it has produced ground breaking and pioneering women who have helped prepare the way for their successors. Cornelia Sorabji was not only the first female barrister in India, but she was also the first woman to read Law at Oxford (although admitted to read English, she impressed the dons and managed to persuade them to let her change her course); Dorothy Hodgkin (student and later tutor) became the first British woman to win the Nobel prize for science; Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime ministers of their respective countries; Philippa Foot (Philosophy Fellow) was instrumental in setting up Oxfam; Shirley Williams followed in her mother's footsteps and honed her keen intellect within our walls.

Our artistic talent is prestigious too, for we can boast of many fine writers, including Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Forster, Dorothy L. Sayers, Penelope Fitzgerald, Matthew Skelton and Kate Williams. Our male alumni are beginning to make a name for themselves, and already we can talk of an MP in Surrey East, an HR manager of Innocent Drinks, a playwright and a past winner of University challenge (who is also the first male student to have become a Somerville Fellow).

Much of my information comes from a book written by our former librarian (and Somervillian) Pauline Adams, 'Somerville for Women'. It's a truly rich source, and coupled with her trademark wit, makes for lively and interesting reading. On the rare occasions when the office is quiet enough for me to dip in to it, I have found some great pieces of information, which occasionally get dropped into the tours I do. For instance, it took four years for the chapel to be agreed upon and built, because the alumna who gave the money wanted it to be called Christ's House, which went against our non-denominational outlook, and once that was sorted out, there were further discussions on where it would be, and who would build it. Somervillians have never been known for being easy!

I could ramble on in this way for ages, sharing stories of the past, which have become an inspiration for the present. Every day I learn of new alumni to boast about (like the woman who was ordained in 1917 and became a congregational minister in the East End) or another story which fires my imagination (Dame Janet Vaughan (then Principal of College) requesting all the students here to have wine at dinner when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister). Everything I learn helps to prove what a truly inspirational place Somerville is, and makes me want to share it with a wider audience.

*It is heavy tourist season at the moment .... you can tell, because the people that actually live here are walking in the road, the pavement being monopolised by a sea of well meaning, but very slow walking persons who stop every few seconds to take a photo. I shouldn't criticise - I do the same in Florence.
** That's tutors to those not familiar with Oxford jargon

Monday, 8 August 2011

Chasing history down the road

I've recently returned from France, where I've been visiting a friend who I used to live with during my MA year in Norwich. She lives in a wonderful house, which has a minstrel's gallery and wooden beams everywhere, in the Saint Dizant are of the Bordeaux region which used to be part of the Duchy of Aquitaine.

By happenstance I have picked up an old biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine before leaving (written by Marion Meade, published in 1977), so suddenly found myself in the confusing position of travelling through modern day towns and villages, whilst reading about their medieval counterparts at the same time.

As I journeyed down straight Roman roads, through miles of vineyards and fields of sunflowers, it was so easy to be able to settle into the countryside and imagine how it must have been for that twice crowned woman to have travelled around defending the Aquitaine's interests from the acquisitive Louis VII or Henry II and how she set off on crusade, riding through the very countryside I was seeing. I had the line from The Lion in Winter (fantastic film, staring Katharine Hepburn) running through my head: 'I made Louis take me on Crusade. I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn... but the troops were dazzled.' Not historically correct perhaps (she allegedly only rode from Paris bare breasted) but it's that kind of image that history has handed down - Eleanor the rebel!

Another thing that she and her family have given history - more tangible and therefore more real - are some spectacular churches. I had forgotten how much I love the spectacle of the great caverns these early churches truly were - no doubt fearfully cold, but a more imposing and awe inducing symbol of God it would be hard to imagine. In both Saintes and Bordeaux, one is faced with some truly stunning Romanesque and early Gothic pieces of architecture and in Talmont there is a beautiful Church set perilously atop a rock, which looks like it could topple into the sea at any moment. It was here, on a hunting trip shortly after his marriage, that Louis VII almost lost his life when a recalcitrant baron who refused to pay homage to his new overlord (those Aquitaines were a proud bunch - in the end only Eleanor would be able to control them) took some of his party hostage and forced Louis to fight for his life. How different would history have been then?!

There were, of course, vast parts of Eleanor's life that have been lost to time, because she was 'just' the wife of the king, and therefore undeserving of attention for part of the time. The fact that she was able to keep her mettle and prove her worth when it was needed is testament to her strength of character. It does present a problem for the biograoher, however, who has to resort to the 'this is what she must have felt' line of authorship whenever the facts get a bit hazy.

It was a lovely break - just what was needed to recharge the batteries after a very long term and I've come home with my head full of ideas for new reading themes. Oh, and I want to live here please ....

Friday, 5 August 2011

Getting your money's worth

When you work in higher education, you become highly attuned to everything written on the subject. As the A levels release date comes ever closer, I can be sure of one thing: that when they are released, newspapers will claim three things: A levels are getting easier, it's becoming more expensive to study at university and Oxbridge are discriminating against state schools.
I don't know enough about the first to be able to comment properly, and I would likely go into rant mode if I were to try and discuss the third (although it's not true, by the way!); but the second observation is one that i can talk about - here goes!

It is no secret that university fees are going up astronomically. From 2012, many universities will be allowed to charge £9,000 for their degrees, and although many are putting support packages in place to provide for students who would otherwise struggle with this financial burden, the question still remains on how universities will be able to prove their courses are worth the money. Much has been said on teaching quality, research and lecture time for students, but one vital aspect appears - to my mind - to have been completely omitted from the discussion.
When I was at university (I did my undergrad at Keele and my MA at UEA in Norwich) my mother impressed upon me the need to visit the careers centre. I hardly ever did, for the very simple reason that they were rubbish. The staff never seemed very helpful and their layouts were ill organised and confusing. When i first started my current job in the academic office at Somerville College - part of Oxford University - I was invited, as part of my induction programme, to visit the University's Career service. What I saw there amazed and impressed me.
Real thought has gone into the layout of the rooms, so that a student can be guided through the various stages of thinking about and applying for jobs, so there's a section where one can get guidance on preparing a CV and covering letter, and once that's sorted, another section dedicated to every type of career - some I'd not even thought about. Of course the prestige of an Oxford education holds its own special significance and there are lots of summer internships available for those who are part way through their degrees. Each college has its own dedicated rep from the careers service who can come out and give help and advice to those who who are about to set foot into 'real life'. So much is offered and it truly is a great asset for the University.

The point I am trying to make (without letting my passion run away with me) is that with employment being as hard to obtain as it currently is, and with more and more companies requiring university education from their employees, the careers service is quickly becoming one of the more vital aspects of university life. To my mind, money should be invested in this service at every university, because the more help our students get, the quicker they grab hold of a job that pays well, then the better able universities will be to prove that spending the money was worth it, thereby ensuring higher education can continue for the next generation.

Hmmm .... I think I let my passion run away with my meaning! I'm slightly worried that I'm sounding snobby or elitist here, and I certainly don't mean to. I am more than aware that higher education is not for everyone - I certainly never agreed with the Labour party policy of a target of 50% in higher education. It always seemed to be such an arbitrary figure and something that might end up forcing those better suited to apprenticeships or vocational courses into a form of education that did not suit them.

I can't think of a decent way of wrapping up this post without getting overly passionate (and as I've just engaged in a heated discussion with my parents' next door neighbour about whether or not any arts degree is worth while - she thought not, and managed to term my entire 4 years at University as a 'Mickey Mouse degree' - I'd best not start ranting.) My main point is, as I'm sure you'll all have gathered, is that Oxford's careers service rocks, and other universities would be well served by using some of the £9,000 fees to improve theirs. It's the way forward - you heard it here first!

Black dog days

It's not a subject that people like to discuss that much - depression that is. we have instead developed a variety of euphemisms by which to express the feeling. In my opinion, Winston Churchill used the best one - terming it as being visited by the black dog, which absolutely manages to conjure up the bleak feelings one is subject to, whilst simultaneously allowing for the levity of spirit that can still be obtained when a bout of depression hits.
As I was wandering through Gatwick recently, on my way to France (on which more in a later post) I felt compelled to browse the airport bookshop and was drawn to a book with a silhouette of a large dog resplendent in top hat and cigar on its front cover.
'Mr Chartwell' by Rebecca Hunt is about the black dog that so torments Churchill. Alternating between scenes with the great man (about to retire - at 89 no less) and a young woman - Esther - whose husband killed himself two years before and whose life is about to become intertwined with Churchill's, the novel is a stark and poetic look at the subtlety with which depression can impress itself and the force of will that is required to overcome.
Mr Chartwell is, at the root of all, a dog. A very large Labrador, he trails in his wake all the chaos and destruction for which that breed is known. Esther may think she is just having to cope with the mess her canine 'lodger' creates, but in actual fact Mr Chartwell is slowly tapping away at her resolve, hoping to create a chink by which he can ingratiate himself and bring her into his depressive fold.
When Esther is called to be Churchill's secretary for the day, to help him write his retirement speech, the two sides of the story are drawn together and the battle to save Esther from Mr Chartwell's clutches begins in earnest. Churchill is portrayed brilliantly in this little gem. It is so easy to caricature the man that everyone is so familiar with; to reduce him to a cigar and profound words. In a way, this is what happens, but you get such a sense of who he is and what he has struggled with throughout his life that his essence shines through.
It's an uplifting book, for all its somber subject, and is well worth spending a few quiet hours with. For all I keep saying I don't need and more books, I'm very glad I succumbed this time!

More on the Churchill trail:
I've always thought him interesting and now, I think, would be the time to delve into his life. Heaven only knows that I have enough to keep me occupied - the massive biography by Martin Gilbert notwithstanding, I've got biographies of his parents and wife, as well as his letters to Clemmie. Perhaps I should start there .... there's the Cabinet war rooms to visit too, and Chartwell itself. Lucky I've got some holiday coming up, eh?!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Purple, White and Green

Women's suffrage and Cricket? Can there be two more disparate topics upon which to found the basis of a novel? Probably not, yet that is what Anthony Quinn in 'Half of the Human Race' uses to frame his beautifully simple tale.

I admit to being drawn in initially by the cover, with its striking suffragette colours, but the desire to learn more about a subject that has always been at the edge of my consciousness, but about which I know little, caused me to pluck it from the pile last Saturday.

It's got a tremendously wide scope - starting in 1911 and moving at great pace towards the war and beyond. Hearing that, one might be forgiven for thinking it could be heavy handed and ponderous, but instead the action moves quickly and simply, with Quinn never allowing us to become bogged down in pity which can be at a readers' elbow whenever the tragic events of those four years are mentioned.
This chaotic world, in which the tennants of the Victorian era are slowly being broken down, is home to Constance and Will, the two central characters whose commitment to their causes mean that they end up hurting each other, but are simply unable to sever the link between them. Love, trust and friendship are the themes Quinn works with and in the end the reader is left acknowledging the seismic shift that has happened to the world between 1911 and 1920. It's a truly fascinating period of history to document and read about, and will inspire and enthrall readers of all ages.

P.S. In one of those serendipitous (is that a word? It is now) moments, I was in Blackwells today and stumbled across a book with almost the same cover as above .... 'The Ascent of Woman; A History of the Suffrage movement'. Needless to state, I bought it and look forward to reading more.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Back in business (sort of)

It's been a long six months, and I have found myself battling a lot of things - none of which made me want to sit down and blog.

The goalposts of my life seem to have shifted. What was the point, I found myself asking, of writing these things down, when so many people do it much better than I, and with much greater depth? I was, however, loath to give up the thing entirely and close down that section of my life. I like to write about what is interesting, and even though I'm a lone voice, that doesn't mean I should cause it to stop me expressing my thoughts.

With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that I will be better served if I don't try to compete. I should not restrict myself to books, for I will never manage to be ahead of the game and read the latest releases to inform you all of. I simply cannot afford it! Henceforth, I will attempt to put across my views on theatre, education, books - basically the world I see. Hopefully you'll still want to read (if you do), but even if not I'll have found a voice - which can be no bad thing.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


How is everyone? Has January been a good month for you, or are you glad it's almost over? Have you managed to read much this year? Do you like dogs? Does the buying of books fill you with any special pleasure? Have you taken a moment to wonder why I've not written anything so far that does not end with a question mark?

Are you one of those people who can go for a walk without an apparent destination? Does having time to read and drink coffee matter to you? What is your favourite manifestation of punctuation? How many mugs do you own? Have you heard of Padgett Powell? What are your favourite kind of flowers? Do you find split ends heartbreaking? Do you write a diary? Do you enjoy reading those that have been published? Are all these questions getting you down? What is your favourite piece of classical music? Do you think Bette Davis deserved a slap?

Do you wish I'd get to the point? Do you enjoy sunrise or sunset more? Do you think a book composed entirely of questions can be termed a novel? Do you read much fanfiction? Does a crisp white shirt do it for you? Can you credit the fact that I still buy books, even though I have enough unread to last me for over eight years? Is a pearl necklace somehow calming? Have I confused you? Would you ever start a war, if you could? Do you like the concept of royalty? Do you think Lawrence Olivier or Kenneth Brannah was better at Shakespeare? Can you conceive of a world without dogs? Should I stop now, or carry on indefinitely? Should you read 'The Interrogative Mood'? Do you need me to tell you yes or no?

Do you mind if I put a stop to this now and read something with no questions whatsoever? Will you seek out the book?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year's Reformations

I should start this post by apologising for my extended absence. 2010 was an interesting year, but not one I could really write about. The last few months have pretty much been consumed by work - in part a way of ignoring other things that were going on about me. From September I barely had tme to read, and what I did manage seemed hardly worth talking about. I've never been one for the newest reads, and so I seemed to lose my reason for blogging in the face of so many other voices.

In view of tidying things up, here's a list of what I read in 2010

Barbery, Muriel The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Barker, Pat Life Class
Byatt, A.S. The Children's Book
Chevallier, Tracy Remarkable Creatures
Christie, Agathe Murder in Mesopotamia
Christie, Agathe Dumb Witness
Christie, Agathe The Moving Finger
Collins, Wilkie The Moonstone
Collins, Wilkie The Woman in White
De Santis, Pablo The Paris Enigma
Dexter, Colin The Way Through the Woods
Du Maurier, Daphne Mary Anne
Du Maurier, Daphne The House on the Strand
Dunant, Sarah Sacred Hearts
Gaiman, Niel The Graveyard Book
Grossmith, George and Wheedon Diary of a Nobody
Hardy, Thomas Jude the Obscure
Holt, Tom Who's Afraid of Beowolf?
Holt, Tom My Hero
HRH Princess Michael of Kent The Serpent and the Moon
Kingsolver, Barbara The Poisonwood Bible
Lake, Deryan The King's Women
Laurens, Stephanie The Ideal Bride
Maitland, Sarah A Book of Silence
Mantel, Hilary Wolf Hall
McCall Smith, Alexander The Sunday Philosophy Club
Morton, Kate The House at Riverton
Morton, Kate The Distant Hours
Murdoch, Iris The Bell
Picardie, Justine Coco Chanel
Smith, P. Robert Up a tree at night in a park with a hedgehog
Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit
Beerbohm, Max Zuleika Dobson
Green, Grahame Travels with my Aunt
Barbery, Muriel The Gourmet
Gregory, Philippa The White Queen

I started the new year in a very familiar way - by reading. However, I chose a non-fiction book. You may be able to tell from the list above that 2010 was dominated by fiction, and on leaving the house this morning I made a grab for 'Venice' by Peter Ackroyd. I've made small inroads into it, and am already fascinated by the way it weaves around the many layers of history - much like the city's many canals.

It's also made me make a decision about how I go about reading, and talking about it all. Whilst I may not comment on the newest things out there, I believe I can still take you all on a journey. We'll start in Venice, but after that who knows? I may take you to India or Greece; back in time to the Plantaganet era, or whisk you off into war torn London. There are a lot of strong women out there, and we might get accquainted with the Georgian Duchess of Devonshire, or perhaps her Tudor ancestor. Thomas Hardy might welcome us to his part of England, and Rasputin might issue a warning from the Russian Steppes.

Do not expect me to stand still this year - I'm broadening my horizons and I suggest you come along for the ride!