Advent 10: East Oxford Snow Day

IMG_6531Obligatory festive stomp to South Park. Remaining undergraduates have bought up Tesco’s baking trays for sledges; small dogs in dog-Barbours circle. One northern slope has been designated best for sledging; a husky howls and then barrels off into the flurry.

Subsequent festive stomp round the St Mary & St John Churchyard: lucky wife gets to join me on never-ending quest to locate grave of grocer’s wife who murdered entire family in 1909. Enormous teenage snowball fight develops on western side of graveyard.

IMG_6538Make chilly progress down Manzil Way. Pass the East Oxford Health Centre, surely the only health centre in Britain with its own kebab shop on the ground floor. Behind the mosque, the Asian Cultural Centre is running a Christmas Mina Bazaar which, although much incommoded by snow, includes many small Asian children in Christmas jumpers, colouring in pictures of festive trees and snowmen. For £1.50, eat enormous bowl of chana chaat; try to answer organisers’ question ‘Is it spicy enough?’ without tears. Promise to come back for the Women’s Festival in March. Downstairs, see the burned-out oven from Mrs Smith’s Oxford Community Soup Kitchen; the oven exploded some weeks ago after twenty-five years of service – for a video about Icolyn Smith’s soup kitchen, watch the video below.

Back on Cowley Road, one of the unclassifiable quasi-hardware stores is selling plastic sledges for £12 each. A slowly-cruising, very ancient car boasts a snowman on the actual bonnet. A boy in football-strip pyjamas has been locked out of his shared house, to the great joy of onlookers and indeed his housemates. A snow-plough gritting van zooms down the road towards Cowley centre, plough well above the ground and no grit spraying.

IMG_6539When we return to the front of the flats, a group of boys is building a snowman on a sledge, complete with hat and wine bottle. They are ecstatic to be noticed. The snowman’s name is Inigo, after a friend who is apparently ‘a bit of a wino’ and ‘has been to Siberia’. When I ask if they’re students (they are implausibly pink-cheeked and wholesome), they say ‘Yes’ and ‘Well, sort of’, then confess to being sixth-formers at a local school (the snowman’s name should indicate which). They pose with alacrity for photographs and would probably do so for hours.

Tomorrow it’s library times to read about severed heads and painted faces (oh yeah), but until then, enjoy a much more serene version of snow-based fun with this gorgeous song from the best Christmas film not to feature Muppets, White Christmas (1954): ‘Snow!’.

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Advent 9: Oxford Gospel

ogc-poster-xmas2017-a3_final-730x1024I am newly-returned from the festive shebang that was Christmas With The Oxford Gospel Choir, starring wife, >70 singers, and, crucially, two seven-year-old bellringers plucked from the audience to jingle away with such intensity that the evening became a Richard Curtis film (cheerily so, not Emma Thompson vs. adultery) and I became Christmassy mulled tears.

I should say TV’s Own Oxford Gospel Choir, since their Events Choir were recently finalists of Songs of Praise’s BBC Gospel Choir of the Year, and here’s a clip of their second performance! Solo by the incredible Lizzie Butler.

If you’re local to Oxford and keen to sing gospel music, I should stress that – despite the programme’s tone, it’s not a religious/evangelical choir (or I wouldn’t endorse it): the members are of all faiths and none. They perform at a wide range of events, from charity fundraisers and weddings to Oxford Pride and the Christmas Lights Festival. As a bonus, here’s a link to one of their star soloists, the staggeringly talented Helen Ploix (primarily, in our house, of ‘Is Helen going to sing How I Got Over? in this concert? If not, WHY NOT?’ fame, why does every concert not include this) – check out her version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So. 

The evening was fantastically festive. On the way home, wife and I discovered that the doomed tapas bar opposite our flat is now inexplicably a doomed Sri Lankan restaurant, and now we’re eating Pringles and recapping Strictly. Truly, the spirit of Christmas is nigh.

Advent Day 8: Project Shoebox Oxford

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Shoeboxes: all packed, and waiting to be distribtued

I spent some of this evening in Headington, helping to pack shoeboxes for Project Shoebox Oxford. This brilliant initiative assembles donated toiletries, cosmetics, small gifts and confectionery into decorated shoeboxes to be given to people in need. I went along in the expectation I’d be packing gifts for women in domestic violence shelters, but in fact there were also boxes for men, children, and babies. Most of the boxes go to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services, but the shoebox gifts also help Simon House, the Gatehouse, and Asylum Welcome, the subject of an earlier Advent post. Simon House is a 52-bed, mixed-gender hostel for local rough sleepers and the vulnerably housed – which is due to be ‘decommissioned’ in April 2018, because, hey, it’s not like homelessness is getting worse every night in the city centre, or anything. The Gatehouse is perhaps Oxford’s best-known homeless initiative; a drop-in cafe for homeless people over the age of 25, at St Giles’ Hall on the Woodstock Road.

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Box for a girl aged 6-9

Volunteer packers are given a list and then go ‘shopping’ through the huge numbers of donations for the essentials, which (from memory) include toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, face wash, flannel, soap, lotion, comb and hairbrush, sanitary products, hair products, cosmetics and makeup remover, and sweets  [ETA: after writing this, I found there were guidelines here]. Those covered, you fill up the box with treats and whatever you think would surprise and please the recipient. Finally, you write and enclose a Christmas card, seal your box with an elastic band, and label it.

 

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At this point, I was obsessed.

What really charmed me was the excellent quality of most of the donations. Of course, value or own-brand products are all many people can afford to give, and everything helps, but it was really exciting to put together an amazing box with treats from e.g. Kiehl’s or Clarins for a woman in a refuge, or to give the kind of colourful Body Shop and Soap & Glory I still used to enjoy to a seven-year-old girl. There were Braintree Bamboo Socks, Ted Baker body sprays, several hundred nail varnishes, and all sorts of pieces of jewellery and toys.

 

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FLATLAY. AESTHETIC. EAT YOUR HEART OUT, SELFRIDGE HAMPERS. 

Project Shoebox Oxford’s ‘Packing Parties’ are running this weekend and into next week, with the first batch of boxes going to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services soon. Party listings are here, and the location is easy to find on New High Street, Headington. Tea, coffee, custard creams, and technically also some fruit are much in evidence. There is still a HUGE amount of stuff to pack, so do come along if you can! Goods can also be brought to the party and put straight into boxes. Based on my limited experience of tonight, I can offer a few quick tips…

 

Particularly useful/we seemed to keep running short of:

  • Face wipes and makeup remover (I cannot overstate how desirable these became, I haven’t searched for anything so assiduously since Beanie Baby-collecting  in the late 1990s).
  • Sanitary products in sizes/absorbencies less than super/max (for modesty/privacy, it’s quite nice to have a little purse or similar to keep these in)
  • Combs and hairbrushes, see specifically the ecstatic joy of locating the latter
  • Hair bands/slides
  • Socks
  • Small gifts/jewellery
  • Stationery, especially for children (see also: crayons)
  • Small children’s books
  • Shampoo/conditioner in sizes of 350 ml or less (larger ones make the boxes very heavy, take up room, and are difficult to store. Bigger ones already donated will go to other charities).

There were, conversely, VAST amounts of body lotion, moisturiser, hand cream, nail varnish, and soap.

For safety reasons which require little imagination, charities ask people to avoid giving sharp or glass items, e.g. mirrors, tweezers, reading glasses, razors, or scissors. They also have to refuse alcohol, or items with sexual imagery on the packaging. Cosmetics are hugely popular, but avoid foundation, concealer, or other products which depend on the lady in question being a certain skin colour (Project Shoebox Oxford will put together a grab bag, though, for refuge residents to sift through themselves, but it’s not a shoebox item per se). It should go without saying (AND YET), but used/opened products are no good at all, look at your life and your choices if you think otherwise. Glittery/messy/unwrapped products can also wreak havoc.

Many thanks to my lovely colleague Catherine Redford, whose support of Project Shoebox first alerted me to said project’s existence. If you can’t make it to a party, but would like to support Project Shoebox Oxford, you can donate money online here. I hope that everyone who receives a box is helped and pleased by it, and that all the recipients are in their own homes, facing much brighter futures, by this time next year.

Day 7: What Christmas Looks Like…

…in London! And yes, I’m now participating in the beloved Advent tradition of being a day late. Last night we went to the Heal’s Christmas Party at their Tottenham Court Road store. Highlights included…

Pop Choir! these exceptionally life-affirming ladies and gentlemen produced an excellent choral sound with a mix of carols, jazz, and Disney (I have realised that I would join the hell out of a Disney choir), despite the appalling acoustics of being halfway up a staircase (Wife, hissing: How are they miked?).

Soul Food Studio! We painted baubles with the fantastic Amanda Russell, in the ideal ratio of effort and skill (on our part, little) to DEEPLY gratifying instant results, i.e. A Bauble Which Has Been Painted. This was better than the other workshop in which I participated, where a nice but terrifying woman made us paint squares and learn colour theory for 40 minutes before I rebelled and ran away (supposedly this was a Christmas Card workshop. I wanted to use some nice brushes to paint ‘Merry Christmas’ on A5 cardboard, but instead I had to Make Two Sorts Of Green. The only upside was meeting the joyous Chantelle, East Dulwich resident and mature student whose shi tzu just had an eye removed by a Surrey veterinarian. If you’re reading this, Chantelle, you’re a hoot, and I hope your daughter gets famous soon). I heartily recommend all projects connected with Amanda, who says encouraging things and tells you your wonky chalk paints are great. Her blog is great too. I really want to make these decorations.

A Lot Of Free Booze! Every year, Heal’s plies its Christmas customers with mulled wine, marmalade vodka, Prosecco and gin in addition to the wassail, on the (accurate) premise that boozed-up, jingle-belled people are more likely to shout Feliz Navidad and spend £££ on baubles (or “baubz”, as I was calling them after two drinks). Works every time. 10% off, the smallest plausible discount, was plastered on labels around the walls, and what a jolly good idea that seemed.

A Strangely Brilliant House Party In A Shop! Heal’s is renowned for selling really beautiful and expensive furniture. At the Heal’s Christmas Party, you are allowed to take a flagon of free booze, several of your friends, and drape yourselves over said furniture, shoes still on, with said flagon of mulled something slung coasterless onto a coffee table the same price as a small car. Feliz Navidad, again. I cannot imagine the losses in stock stained by free samples of marmalade vodka and rhubarb compote brandy/the sea salt chocolate hazelnuts ground irrevocably into 1,000-thread cotton. God knows what happens in the Sleep Suite.

So, there you have it. The Heal’s Christmas Party. Baubz. Same time next year?

Advent Calendar Day 6: Cats and Christmas Trees

Photo credit David Precious, under CC 2.0 licence, see Flickr

(Photo credit David Precious, via flickr)

I was going to tell you about this awesome poem about Serbia and the Annunciation and, I don’t know, man’s inhumanity to man, but after a trillion interviews, chicken Kiev, and a vintage episode of Silent Witness, that kind of Quality Content is beyond me. So you get to enjoy my carefully-curated edit of videos of cats being little bastards with Christmas trees.

All the best cats (inc. the late Daisy, 50% Queen Victoria, 50% Henry VIII, a short-legged tortoiseshell who never shut up) cannot be trusted with a Christmas tree. If you’re not pulling yards of tinsel from their throat, they’re shredding parcels, chasing baubles, or sitting twelve feet from a swaying disaster, wearing an insolent expression that demands of you: WHAT? 

Cats can’t be left with the tree overnight, and they hide under the sofa just when you want to shut them in the kitchen. They want to do terrible things to the angel. They are vandals and hooligans and I hope you vicariously enjoy this roundup of destruction. Before we start, you should definitely check out the HuffPo’s ’15 Cats Who Have Zero Respect For Christmas Trees’, which has some amazing videos of its own.

  1. A brisk compilation of seriously terrible behaviour.

 

2. Cats who get THEMSELVES stuck in trees and are then INEXPLICABLY FURIOUS about it.

 

3. And, best of all, internet superstars Cole and Marmalade (still going strong in 2017) offer you their Guide To Christmas, better than any aspirational TV show.

Advent Calendar Day 5: Christina Rossetti

The fifth day of Advent belongs to poet Christina Rossetti, born on 5th December 1830. She has been much on my mind today, as admissions season continues. Back in 2004, when I was interviewing at Oriel, Christina Rossetti was one of two women nineteenth-century poets of whom I’d actually heard (the other was Emily Dickinson), and she crops up with candidates – especially women – today.

image_largeThis week, I have also been spending my evenings at Keble, whose chapel is home to ‘The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting, whose Christ has the face and head of Christina herself; her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and Millais.

‘The Light of the World’ was one of relatively few paintings that I could identify before university, partly because one of our schoolteachers was sufficiently obsessed to give an annual assembly on the picture, and partly because the PRB were amply exhibited in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (I also knew some other paintings, e.g. Guernica and some Van Gogh, and – less usefully – such items of folk art as The Really Big Pigs at Compton Verney).

Keble Chapel is sublime. No other college chapel changes so much with the weather. In sunshine, the mosaics glitter like a Children’s Illustrated Bible, and during a thunderstorm, it turns into Byzantium.

Christina Rossetti’s best-known poetic contribution to Christmas is ‘In The Bleak Mid-Winter’ (1872) now a much-loved carol that I remember learning in primary school, with appropriately mordaunt sigh-singing on snow on snow, snow on snooow throughout December. It’s the carol that springs horribly to mind when I witness homelessness exposed to a ‘frosty wind’ and ‘earth stood hard as iron’.

Rossetti’s other Christmas poem, though, is ‘Christmas Eve’ (undated pre-1886). I love it and it’s reproduced below.

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

I love this poem for holding in tension the tragic framing of the Christmas story, seen here as chillness, coldness and poverty  – with the joy of the season of Christ’s birth. I struggle with the joyless snobbery of some Christian commentaries on Advent. No, it’s not Christmas yet, yes Advent is penitential, and if the ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas is ‘depressing’, it’s perhaps rather less depressing than e.g. the ongoing sexual abuse scandals, the existence of Trump, and the rollout of Universal Credit. The world and the winter are cold and dark, and I am both doggedly Anglican and fond of tinsel. There are, it seems to me, so many more Christian things to do in December than grumble about secularised Advent: donate to your foodbank, bother your MP, chat to your neighbour, support a charity that helps those most vulnerable to the inequalities Christmas highlights. Light some lights and eat some chocolate. If you share the chocolate that is basically A Moral Good too.

2 December: O Christmas Tree

IMG_6475.JPGChristmas-tree-decorating is joyous, technical, and highly ritualised. DEPTH. PRIORITY. THE FANNING OF BRANCHES. My preferred aesthetic is somewhere between Liberty’s of London and the Disneyland Hotel (two spiritual homes). Growing up (I say this like I am now (a) tall, and (b) different), my favourite decorations included the gorgeous wooden and china ones my mother had bought at Literal Disneyland while on tour with the RSC . They’re everything. Less admirably, my other favourite decorations also included (and include) a strange fox in a hatbox, and a resin badger now missing one foot, both chosen by self when under seven. I “compromise” about their inclusion each year by putting them in a moderately secluded position and daring anyone to challenge me.

Wife & self & parents decorated the Stratford Tree last weekend; tonight, after a symposium on the Medical Humanities, Strictly, and an excellent chicken Kiev, wife & self did the Oxford Tree. My mum gave us selfie props. The result, as you’ll see, is like a gayer Abigail’s Party with the entire cast in need of haircuts. The pictured cocktail, the Festive Unicorn, is now a tradition. Because I have Pinterest aspirations but cannot sew or cook, my version of Christmas catering is to infuse lethal alcohol from gin, fruit, and Kilner jars. I am in a harrowing psychological war with our friend Ben in the field of Festive Prep, but since he has an actual label-maker for his homemade jam, I’ve lost. Two years ago, while tree-decorating, I cured Emily’s flu by switching her from Lemsip to Homemade Raspberry Vodka. Think on, and Happy 2nd December.

P.S. Here is our tree-decorating-playlist. It’s not groundbreaking but its inclusion makes me feel like An Influencer. Last Christmas is on there an integer number of times because it’s the greatest Christmas pop song ever written.