Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Life in Cold Comfort Farm

The road into our village in winter.

One of my favourite books is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and having recently moved to the countryside I can certainly see where her inspiration came from! There is a tumbledown farmyard along our lane and as I pass it every morning I sometimes expect Adam Lambsbreath to come around the corner with Feckless or Aimless in tow.

Our village is owned by Oxford University which acquired it in the 1940s after the death of the landowner who lived in the 'big house'. This means that there has been no building or housing development for around 100 years - I think the village hall was one of the last buildings that was built in the 1920s. As I walk to the shop (little more than a front room in a cottage) or to the pub, I feel as though I am being transported back in time. It is completely feudal as we all pay rent to the university as none of the houses are ever sold.

There are only around 50 households in the village but, despite the small population, there is a thriving community and lots of village parties and events. Moving to a village after living in London for almost a decade was a daunting prospect but we have struck lucky in that we are only 3 miles from Oxford and the village community is made up of a strong and friendly bunch of people.

When I read articles about the decline of rural communities, I look around at ours and think how lucky we are that we didn't move somewhere that is home to commuters and second homeowners. Having said that, I can see how easily things would change for us if the shop ever disappeared as it really is the hub - all information is gathered via the shop. And believe me when I say that nothing is sacred. Everyone really does know everything!

There are some things that I am still struggling to get used to but life in the country is actually never quiet! If it isn't the wildlife, it's people knocking on your door for a chat. And the other day I opened our front door to find an array of fresh vegetables and salad leaves that a neighbour had grown in their garden. It's moments like that when I wonder if I have landed in the middle of a Miss Marple novel!

And yes, there are definitely moments when I have been in the midst of Cold Comfort Farm - a whole different breed of eccentricity resides in the country. So imagine my delight when I discovered that Vintage Classics are publishing a batch of novels by Stella Gibbons. I am really looking forward to getting my hands on Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and also Conference at Cold Comfort Farm. The others that look really interesting are Starlight and Westwood - I 'may as well' bung those into the order as well. Oh dear, well at least I have that free veg to eat!

Friday, 29 April 2011

A Right Royal Knees Up!

Well, the day of the Royal Wedding is upon us. Will she be wearing 'cream' or 'ivory'? Satin, lace or silk? Without meaning to sound too 'bah humbug' about the whole thing I have been bored to tears by the media incessantly reporting pointless gossip regarding the 'fairytale romance'. Isn't that what they said about Charles and Diana? If that's a fairytale then Disney has a whole load of script edits to make. Of course I wish them well, but it would be wonderful if the media could actually report on more pressing issues such as the major referendum that is about to take place.

Despite my miserable old git attitude I still appreciate a bit of pomp so I will be watching the ceremony and in the true style of a seasoned hypocrite I will probably be gossiping with my friends about the various outfits of the guests. Our village is having a party at the Village Hall and we all have to take a dish to contribute to the supper. I'm ready-armed with my shop bought quiche - well, you can take the girl out of London....

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Spring Awakening

Blossom in our garden

Well, the inadvertant blog break is now over! Lots has been going on but first I will update you on the World Book Night shenanigans. I decided to give my books out at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. I roped my friend in and we floated through the corridors of the hospital giving books out to doctors, nurses, patients and visitors. It was surprising how many people said no and were immediately suspicious of what we were up to, expecting a catch. However, one woman in particular was so pleased to have received a free book that she said I had 'made her night'. Meeting her alone made the whole experience worth it as she explained that she never bought books and didn't really know how to use the library. I gave her a copy for her nephew as well as she said that he liked history and so she thought he might like Dissolution. I will definitely take part next year. In the meantime, schemes likes bookcrossing and bookmooch are a great way to pass on the literary love!

Since World Book Night I have been dipping in and out of various books and waiting for spring to arrive in the village. Moving to the country has unleashed an obsession with seasons and the weather as I never noticed them so much in London.

I am revisiting Iris Murdoch at the moment as I went to a talk about her at the local library in Woodstock. I am also in the grip of reading Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life which I bought after hearing her talk at the Southbank Centre. More on all this soon!

So a hotchpotch couple of months drifting along watching the leaves unfurl and the sun gaining strength. Below is a picture of our cottage surrounded by new green.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

World Book Night - the Countdown

So, I have collected my 48 copies of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom from Blackwell's in Oxford and now I have 2 days to finalise my plans for giving them away on Saturday night during the first ever World Book Night. Somehow, 48 books don't seem enough as I have a rather long shortlist of ideas to choose from!

Oxford is an internationally renowned city of learning and academia but what has struck me since moving here is just how much poverty and associated lack of opportunity there is in some parts of the city. It is certainly not all dreaming spires. Oxford is saturated in books, from the wonderful Bodleian Library to all the fantastically stocked local libraries, it would seem that we should be the most literate and well-read city in Britain. However, according to the National Literacy Trust, one in six adults in the UK has a literacy rate that is lower than the level expected of an eleven year old. That means that there are a great many people in Oxford who struggle with literacy. For someone who takes their own literacy for granted, the figure from the National Literacy Trust is shocking. I am not suggesting that handing out 48 books will somehow have any impact upon this issue - but whilst deciding where to hand out my books these thoughts have been at the back of my mind.

I am in the fortunate position to be able to say that books are not a luxury for me. Rather, I view them as a necessity! I don't have to choose between food and books. But for many people, especially in these difficult times, these choices will be made more and more. Public libraries become sacred spaces during economic difficulty - all of us need to save the pennies, some more than others, so a library offers a place in which we can all access any text, for free. As I have already mentioned, many local libraries in Oxfordshire will be forced to close due to funding cuts from the local government. I just want to know, where will people be able to get their books from when they can't afford to buy them? Why is access to the printed word viewed as a luxury? I don't know.

I do know that World Book Night is a fantastic scheme - whilst it is only one night, it is one night during which anyone could end up holding a book that they may never have held otherwise. Whether, it's someone who gets a book that they just would never have chosen or someone who doesn't have the money to spend on books for themselves it doesn't matter. For one night the whole country will become like a library - totally egalitarian as to who takes the books home.

I will keep you posted as to exactly where and when I will be handing the books out. Is anyone else a World Book Night Giver? What are your plans? For the rest of you, are you hoping to bag a freebie?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Window Haunting

One of my favourite things to do is to scurry and lurk, scurry and lurk past people's windows. I walk fast down a chosen street and then, invariably the glimpse of an interior induces me to dawdle as I peek into the lives of the inhabitants.

It's partly the reason why I love the autumn so much, as for months my prying will have been hindered by the fact that I was in plain view. The onset of early darkness aids my hobby as I am covered by its velvet complicity.

Virginia Woolf writes wonderfully about windows in Street Haunting;
"high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish-yellow light - windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars - lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace."

But , Woolf reminds us that we must be careful not to dig 'deeper than the eye approves' and I remember this when I am walking past people's houses, watching them sit down to supper or slumped in front of the TV or admiring their bookshelves. A glimpse is all I need to imagine their lives. As I was walking home the other evening I approached my own house and glimpsed how it might look from a fellow street haunters perspective. So I took a photo - which is above. I wonder what Woolf would have made of it?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

I'm a World Book Night Giver!

I woke up this morning to a lovely email from the organisers of World Book Night. I have been selected to be a ‘giver’ which means that on Saturday 5 March I will be distributing 48 copies of C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution to people in Oxford as a celebration of literature, literacy, reading and the value of the written word. It is doubly exciting as it’s the night before my birthday so I can combine this bookish escapade with my birthday celebrations!

As yet, I am undecided as to where exactly I will be giving the books. There are so many ideas to choose from. Should I give them out at one of the many homeless shelters or hospices? Or, should I use this as an opportunity to join forces with those who are campaigning against the closure of 50% of the local libraries in Oxfordshire?

I don’t want to get political especially as this is not about politics; rather, it’s about ethics and ideology. The devaluation of local libraries as a resource for local communities is, in my opinion, unethical. Libraries are not just places for people to borrow books from. They are centres for community groups to meet, for people to access the internet and places for people to explore ideas and learn.

There has been much campaigning across Oxford against the proposed funding cuts and closures. I wrote to my local MP who wrote back, which I was grateful for, however she spelt my name incorrectly. She has since written to keep me updated as to what she is ‘doing’ about the cuts; spelling my name incorrectly again. Now, I could go on a rant about this slapdash illiteracy. I won’t, but I would like to point out that perhaps she should go to her local library and borrow a book on both manners and spelling.

The author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman, wrote a fantastic piece about the cuts which you can read here. He lives in Oxford and has been at the forefront of the campaign.

To be part of World Book Night is an honour and so exciting. I will keep you updated as to what I plan to do with the books. Any ideas are more than welcome! And if you are a ‘giver’ in Oxford, let me know and we could combine forces!

Monday, 31 January 2011

A favourite...

Chalk Paths, 1935. © Estate of Eric Ravilious

Just a quick post today after a hefty break (all will become clear!) - I went home to Sussex for the weekend and as I was ambling around the Southdowns with my friend I thought of Eric Ravilious and how much I love his work. Today, The Persephone Post has featured one of his images - it's funny how you think of something after a long time and then it crops up elsewhere as a secondary reminder!!

I loved the old slam door trains - there was nothing quite like the feeling of speeding through the countryside with the window pushed down to the bottom whilst the warm summer air blew in your face. Somehow, I don't think Brief Encounter could have happened on our electric, aeroplane style trains!

Train Landscape, 1939 © Estate of Eric Ravilious

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ringing the changes

The village in snow
It is, once again, a long time since I posted anything. Indeed, since I have written anything at all either online or in notebooks or on scraps of paper that I often look at and think, "what?!" I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and New Year.

So much has happened that I am going to have to speed through or else it will be March and I will still be catching up on December. A week before Christmas Mr Bell and I braved the blizzards and moved house for the second time in a year. Due to the snow we were delayed by four days and caused quite a stir in the village as we ended up being towed in as our van had got completely stuck. In the midst of our frenzied move we went down to Sussex for a lovely family Christmas but we were fairly dazed at this point so everything was a bit of a blur and we never got around to putting up any of our decorations. It felt a bit of a shock to go to mum's and see a Christmas tree as I didn't have time to get obsessively Christmassy (which I usually do). Anyway, I gorged myself on Christmas lunch and had lots of cuddles with my very cute eleven month old niece.

Tonight is the first time we have connection to the internet (long story) and we are still sorting out the utilities (tedious) BUT every morning I wake up to my lovely tabby cat nosing his way into my consciousness as he demands his breakfast and the views from our windows change from day to day depending on the light which reminds me why we moved in the first place. For the past six months we have been without our beloved tabby cat as we couldn't find anywhere in the centre of Oxford to rent that would accept a cat. Ironically, London seems to be more amenable to animals! Anyway, we had to send him to my best friend who lives in Sussex so he has had a six month sabbatical from us, enjoying himself no end and being thoroughly spoilt. We didn't cope so well in his absence. Soft as we are, we never got used to being without him so despite the mad move it has been totally worth it.

So now we are country dwellers. A whole new experience and, so far, an interesting one. We are still a cycle ride from the city centre so we are not too isolated, before you start imagining an hour's hike to the nearest shop, but it is quiet enough that we have more peace, we have a lot more space and it is fun to experience such a contrast from the flat in London that we crammed ourselves into.

In terms of reading, moving house doesn't aid literary pursuits so there has been a bit of a drought. I am currently reading The Group by Mary McCarthy and The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch which are getting me through the dry spell. My only resolution for 2011 is to be a more diligent blogger as things have lapsed of late!