Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Decline and Rise

Evelyn Waugh did not have an overly happy time when he first went down from university. Funds were not overly available, and there were a succession of half hearted attempts to find a direction in life which culminated with a period as a schoolmaster in Wales which culminated in an attempted suicide.

His personal life was also far from secure. After Richard Pares had been spirited away by those who saw clearly his academic potential (and the threat posed to his reaching it by the company he kept), Waugh had fallen into company with Alastair Graham. Somewhat indulged by Graham's mother, the friendship/relationship/affair prospered for a while, and included a period where they shared a caravan on the fringe of Otmoor.....

....which brings us onto the Abingdon Arms, in Beckley. It was in the grounds of this pub, with its commanding views over Otmoor, that the caravan stood. Even after the affair with Graham broke up it continued to be a place that Waugh returned to - he spent the honeymoon of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner here, and, in much the same way as he would do later in life with Chagford, adopted the pub as a literary retreat. It is believed that he wrote parts of Decline and Fall here, along with elements of other works of the period.

I've always had a soft spot for the Abingdon Arms - tucked away down a narrow lane it is one of those places where time feels like it has been standing still for a few decades. The food and beer hasn't been bad either. However, it has changed hands with alarming frequency over the years - possibly because being so tucked away means it has struggled for passing trade or impulse visitors. Recently it closed completely, and there were fears that it was going to become just another former pub (Oxford has depressingly many of these), whose attractive building will make a fine house for someone with the requisite amount of money.

To their credit, the local community organised themselves to fight this possibility and now we read in the Oxford Mail that their proposals (and more importantly money) have been accepted. The Abingdon Arms is moving into community ownership, and so this little piece of the literary landscape is saved for another wave of people to draw inspiration from its beautiful surroundings.

The caravan's long gone though.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The old elemental forces...

Sometimes you see a programme on television that ticks so many boxes you can practically see the commissioners delight when they first saw the pitch. It's exactly what the public wants, here's your cheque, go away and make it.

Sometimes something gets made and you think "ok, well it was a brave risk" when it doesn't quite work.

Then there's Penda's Fen.

Looking at it from 40-odd years on, it's difficult to fathom exactly how Pebble Mill got away with making it. David Rudkin's sprawling, soaringly ambitious entry into the Play for Today canon is *so* far beyond the run of the mill that you wonder who was braver - Rudkin for writing it or the BBC for not holding him back.

As a narrative I've always felt that it shares a kindred spirit with O Lucky Man! It's not a satire, but it is bitingly, howlingly angry. Angry about all sorts of things - conservation, organised religion, sexuality, myth, the government, the establishment, the education system; very little escapes Rudkin's attention.

The plot is slight - a teenage boy is forced to confront his emerging sexuality in an almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. As the film progresses, his rigid certainties (he's quite an unpleasant chap anyway) are one by one stripped away through a series of occult/mythic encounters - from the ghost of Elgar through angels, demons to the hillside denouement meeting with the spirit of King Penda himself. Penda was the last pagan king of England and stands for all the things that the hero starts out despising - the unruly, untidy, impure and non-conformist.

Beautifully shot in Worcestershire, Penda's Fen gets under the skin of the English sensibility and questions who the English are. It's quite an intense experience, blending cinematic pastoralism with Hammer horror. The effects are clearly dated, but I think are none the less unsettling with the patina of naivete which the passage of time has given them. Some scenes (one in particular) are so horrific that they remain burned into my mind years after I first saw them.

Overall it's a difficult, troubling film, that asks difficult troubling questions. Play for Today ranged widely in its styles, and the subjects that it tackled, but with Penda's Fen I think it reached a high water mark for experimental television. There's just no way that it would have been made today - it's difficult enough to believe that they made it then!

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Where the Iron Heart of England....

Growing up in Birmingham (or at least going to school there) as I did, you quickly got used to the fact that most of the rest of the country tried to act like the city didn't exist.

Birmingham was perennially the "flyover" city - on the way to everywhere, but a place that people knew nothing about, except New Street Station, Spaghetti Junction, and *that* accent. I say that accent, what most people think is the Birmingham accent is actually that of the Black Country. Birmingham's is a wee bit softer. Paul Anderson, as Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders, nails it.

The problem was always that Birmingham was good at too many things. The workshop of the world, or city of a thousand trades, never had one identity around which its reputation could coalesce. It was never the capital of coal, the city of steel or cottonopolis. That's not to say that it lacked major employers, between them Cadbury, Austin and the BSA employed enough for a small city by themselves. Just that it was always the city of artisans - which it remains today in areas like the Jewellery Quarter.

And because it was good at too many things, it was a target for the Luftwaffe. Birmingham suffered in the war, and then suffered after the war when the city fathers decided to remake Birmingham in the image of Detroit. Britain's motown. This perhaps reached it's apex in the promotional film Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. I'm not making this up, look on YouTube. Allegedly Kojak phoned in his performance from a studio, and never visited the city he extolled. Remember that as you hear him wax lyrical about the disco dancing competition in Cannon Hill Park...

By the 1990s it was rather battered, bloody but unbowed. The outdoor escalators of the Bull Ring were mildewed, the Electric Cinema (Britain's oldest) was reduced to showing the more "interesting" end of the cinemascape, and New Street station was a dark, cavernous hole in the ground. There had been the odd attempt to break out of the grimness, Symphony Hall was a triumph, and a great setting for Simon Rattle's CBSO before he took himself off to Berlin. Then there was the ICC, with it's bridge that wasn't quite wide enough (allegedly), and the turn of the century development of Brindley Place.

Personally, I think fortunes turned with the publication of Jonathan Coe's hymn to Birmingham, The Rotters Club. I'm not sure why that should be, but I went off to university and devoured Coe's depiction of the 1970s, and a school I knew very well, then came back to discover that the city had finally had the rockets put under it. The new Bullring may be a temple of shopping, but it is a supremely intelligent. light and airy bit of architecture. Selfridges is like something that has landed from another planet. The good thing throughout is that the bombs and the 60s planners made a lot of central Birmingham a blank canvas for architectural experimentation. You don't have to like the new buildings, but these days it's rare that anything worthwhile has been demolished to create the space for them.

This trend is likely to continue. Railway enthusiasts mourn the loss of the Euston arch, and the other buildings of the great terminus of the London and Birmingham railway. Well HS2, if it ever gets built is going to breathe new life into the terminus at the other end. Curzon Street still stands, isolated in the wasteland of an abandoned marshalling yard. If you go and look round it on the rare open days you find a building comparable to the best Georgian industrial architecture of the nation's dockyards. Stone faced, sweeping stairs, light and airy, Curzon Street is an unlikely and forgotten survivor and it's about time more was made of it.

Of course, there have been casualties along the way. The 1930s saw the start of the trend of civic vandalism with the destruction of Barry and Pugin's King Edward's School in New Street (although these days, I suppose, King Edward's House which replaced it is worthy of a preservation order itself). It was by the time of demolition utterly unfit as a school building (the school itself relocated very successfully to Edgbaston) but you can't help but feel that they wouldn't demolish it now.

More recently we've seen the destruction of the Central Library, which wasn't to everyone's taste but stood as an example of the best brutalism you're likely to see. I even supported those who wanted to list it as a warning to the future if it would save the damn thing but it wasn't to be.

Birmingham now stands on the threshold of a new age. The West Midlands region, with it's own mayor is waiting in the wings, and this should be the opportunity for Brummies to seize back control of their destiny.

They're a quiet lot, the people of Birmingham, but they know what they're doing. They don't need the glitz and glamour of the brash northern upstarts like Manchester or Leeds to know who they are and where they're going. The Second City is back.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Notes from Moseley

And so we roar back into life with a look at rugby union. It seems appropriate to begin with a note on Joost Van Der Westhuizen, who died earlier today aged 45. That's no age at all. I don't suppose anyone who saw it will forget the immense tackle he put in on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup Final - helping the Springboks on their way to a famous victory.

At a time when there's more money in the global game than ever before, stories are beginning to break in the press that the fans have known were coming for years. Rugby below the premiership in the UK is suffering. Championship and National One rugby has been an entertaining "product" for years, but it doesn't get the crowds that the spectacle deserves. It's not hard to see why when so much of the money in the sport is kept at the Premiership level. London Welsh tried valiantly to beat the system, winning the principle of fair funding, but much good it did them  - their liquidation was announced the other week. Now we read in the press that the great and good are considering introducing a promotion playoff between the team finishing top of National One, and the side that comes bottom of the Championship - and so drawbridges go up, players lose hope, and fans lose interest.

Of course, the problems started when the game went professional - the RFU lost control very early on, and put the leading clubs in the driving seat. Some prospered, others, like Moseley and Coventry, got themselves into enormous trouble trying to keep up. And so we've ended up in a place where the top clubs have bought their spots around the table, leaving the others doomed to spend eternity hanging round the fringes, grateful for the scraps.

Nevertheless, Moseley vs Rosslyn Park on Saturday afternoon was as entertaining as you'd expect, with a blizzard of tries from Mose's Ed Sheldon, more yellow cards than you can shake a stick at, and enough entertainment to send the crowd home happy. But as you stand in the clubhouse at Billesley Common, it's difficult not to feel that the place is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Names like Teague, Webster, Finlan, Doble, Jeavons, Everest, Warren. Names from a time when the country looked at Mose vs Cov as the England trials game; when sides feared to come to the Reddings.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Thankfully, there are supporters who have kept the faith with Moseley, and that there is rugby to watch at all is little short of astonishing after the lows the club experienced - losing the Reddings, a period on the pitches at Birmingham University, and the early infrastructure-light days on the Common. But to kick on Moseley needs investment. Birmingham needs Moseley. It shouldn't be difficult, but it never seems to happen.

Us fans just have to keep the faith and hope something will turn up.

Up the red and black

Monday, 23 June 2014

The King's Arms, Oxford

Very few people that actually live in Oxford will be unaware of this place - it sorts of squats broodingly on the corner of Holywell Street,  with the crowds thronging the pavement benches either side of the main door. When I was a student I spent far too much time in the place (I'm sure between us we must have paid the landlord's wages several times over), but then, after graduation, it rather fell back down the list of priorities.

Back in the late 2000s, I suppose what it did well was to jam in as many students as possible and fleece them very effectively. It was also the pub most tolerant in the city centre to the blowing of hunting horns, throwing of paper aeroplanes, and the general cavorting of the Oxford student at his most obnoxious.

The other day I went in there and discovered that it has had something of a refit - the worst of the wall stains have gone, and the mirror over the fireplace in the office has finally been replaced, getting on for 10 years after the Bullingdon managed to break it. But the refurb has been pretty tastefully done (to the usual pub-refit-by-numbers template), all slate coloured wall paint and exposed brickwork behind the bar. I must admit that when I heard the builders were coming in a couple of weeks ago I was most worried about the future of the back bar and office but, apart from the removal of several layers of grime, and the collected tobacco residue of a couple of centuries from the ceiling, it's actually emerged relatively unscathed as a cleaner brighter version of its old self. Worth a look.

The beer is Young's, so it's about as good as can be expected. Tribute remains on as a permanent guest (which it has been since I started going in there in 2006) which is good as there's only so much Special you would want to drink in your life. The menu is much smaller than it used to be, but seems to be a bit tighter. Although no stranger to the tourist dollar the kitchen seems to have raised its sights a little higher than the bowls of chili which were the staple in former years. I had a pretty decent venison and chestnut suet pudding, which actually appeared to contain some meat and wasn't quite the level of ping food I'd been expecting.

There's a wave of gentrification sweeping through Oxford's pubs at the moment. The Goose at Gloucester Green, which used to be an utter dive, has been reincarnated as the much more upmarket Red Lion, the Gloucester Arms as the White Rabbit is doing excellent food, and the regenerated St Aldates Tavern is a small-plate revelation. The knock on from this is that some of the more established pubs (whether gastro or drinker) are really having to raise their game, and it looks like Youngs are at long last getting wise to it.

The KA is what it is, it's just now a much better version of what it is. I don't think I'll leave it another couple of years before I go again.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Binsey Treacle Well

In the post on Port Meadow, I mentioned the Binsey Treacle Well.  This led to an interesting conversation in the Rusty Bicycle, as to what a treacle well is, and why they haven't heard of it.  Turns out everyone knows the story of Rosamund the Fair and Henry II at Godstow Nunnery (I love Oxford), so we'll park that one for a while, and concentrate on the black stuff.

I remember when I first heard of the well my thoughts immediately turned to visions of The Goodies, in the episode where they open a clotted cream mine in Cornwall.  Surely, in Binsey, I was going to be confronted by a gushing torrent of thick gunge, like the outfall from some Asiatic factory with dubious health and safety practices.  Sadly, the reality is it's a damp hole in the ground - there isn't even a lion's mouth for the fluid to come out of.   However, the background is only slightly less prosaic than my over-active imagination.

Lewis Carroll of course has a treacle well in Alice in Wonderland, so I'm in good company, but this is "treacle" in its medieval usage of balm, or unguent.  Essentially, it's a spring with purported healing powers which miraculously sprang forth in response to the prayers of St Frideswide. Oxford, of course, is a city of odd saints - Ebbe, Frideswide, Aldate, etc.  The city patron is the second of these, Frideswide, who was once the subject of one of the finest, shortest sermons I've ever heard.

Picture the scene; a dessicated church in the centre of Oxford, Mattins drawing to a close on St Frideswide's Day and an equally dessicated vicar mouting the pulpit.  The thin, crackly reed of his voice begins:

"Very little is known of St Frideswide. She lived. And, we may infer from her canonisation, she was good. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen."

Anyway, I digress. Referring to Westwood and Simpson's Lore of the Land, we discover that Frideswide had established a religious community in Oxford in about 700AD, under the protection of her father, who was the local potentate.  On her father's death, a chap called Algar of Leicester decided it would be rather a good scheme to be married to Frideswide, so pitched up and offered to do the decent thing.  Upon being rebuffed he decided that kidnap was the next best option, and essentially made a lunge for her, whereupon our city's patron took to her heels Tam Lin style and made a run for it.

Crashing through the swamps to the west of the city, she ended up on the then island of Beltona (modern Binsey) where she found sanctuary, had a bit of a pray, and brought forth the healing waters.  Following Frideswide's death, the well at Binsey became an important site of pilgrimage - at one point there were over 20 hostels at Seacourt (now a glamorous park and ride destination) to cope with the throng.  It was all a bit like the ghats in Calcutta (on a smaller and noticeably less Indian scale, obviously), with people coming to avail themselves of the miraculous cure.

Post reformation, it all went rather quiet, until in 1874 the local vicar decided to do a bit of "restoration." As with most things the Victorians touched, this bears about as much relation to what had been there before as the Olympic Park in London does to the pre-blitz East End. Now, it's slightly off the beaten track, but it's worth a look, if you ever find yourself in The Perch with  20 minutes to kill.  You can cheat, and used google to find out what you're supposed to be looking for, but I'm not going to put up a picture, so you can do a bit of proper exploring if you want!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Save Port Meadow

Let's get very local for a minute.  For those of you unfamiliar with Oxford, Port Meadow is an area of common land to the north west of the city centre, which runs from the village of Wolvercote down the Woodstock road to the suburb of Jericho.  Horses and cattle graze on it, the Thames runs through it, and there are a host of small things to go and look at - the Treacle Well at Binsey, for example, or the nunnery at Godstow, from where Rosamund Clifford sallied out to be courted by Henry II.

It's a green lung for the north of the city.  When I lived in Jericho it was basically my back garden - we picnicked on it, swam in the river on hot summer evenings after work, or drifted up to the Trout at Wolvercote or the Perch at Binsey to spend the day with the newspapers.

But one of the chief attractions has always been the views of Oxford.  They're not as spectacular as those from South Park, or Boar's Hill, but there was a panorama of the dreaming spires - the Tower of the Winds, PhilJim, St Barnabas, St Mary the Virgin, the Rad Cam, the Engineering Science Building (the last one may be a joke).

Jericho, however, is full.  What had once been a small densely populated district of workers in the prinitng house of the OUP decayed to the extent that it was nearly demolished in the 1960s.  Students brought it back to life, and then refugees from London arrived to raise their children.  It's all got a bit glitzy, and pricey.  The City Council, wanting to reduce some of the pressure on the housing stock in Oxford, has mandated both Oxford University and Brookes to reduce the numbers of their students living in private rented accommodation in the city.

Which brings us to Roger Dudman Way.  The university has erected a number of accommodation blocks along the railway line and canal from the west end of Walton Well Road.  In some ways, this is exactly what is needed - getting large numbers of students out of the private sector and freeing up housing for local people.  Unfortunately it's also obliterated the views from Port Meadow, and raidcally changed the character of that end of Oxford.  Debate rages in the local press (this is Oxford, city of lost causes and green ink), about how far what has been built reflects accurately what the city council was shown in the drawings, but the fact remains that somewhere along the line someone has got it wrong.

There's a petition live now to call the whole thing in and get it altered.  No one wants the blocks demolished, but the top two stories could, and arguably ought, to be removed.

you can sign it here: