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.

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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.

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.

Advent Calendar Day 3: Asylum Welcome

awlogoIn church this morning, in lieu of a sermon, there was an interview with John Fenning of Asylum Welcome, about the charity’s work with Syrian refugees in Oxford. Since September 2015, seventeen refugee families have been settled in Oxford (here is a Jan 2017 story about one of them), with the help of the charity and its supporters (among them the University Church). They come with nothing, often via other countries including Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. John’s job concentrates especially on working with the families in their first few weeks in Britain. He collects from the airport, helps make their accommodation more homely, takes them to GP appointments, tries to make sure their benefits come…reasonably swiftly… and sorts out school places. In the longer term, the charity supports community initiatives which put Oxford’s Syrians in touch with each other – with the growing numbers of Syrians, one especially important project is a Syrian Women’s Group, which meets every week. All of the refugees have experienced trauma; some, of course, have PTSD.

John stressed that although there is (as he diplomatically put it) a range of feelings about/responses to the presence of refugees in the UK, Oxford’s Syrian refugees have generally been made extremely welcome by their immediate neighbours. He also emphasised the benefits to Oxford of having a growing Syrian community. Many refugees are former business owners keen to continue their entrepreneurship in the UK (we already have several successful Syrian-run ventures in East Oxford); they bring amazing food, arts, and craftsmanship; they are incredibly hospitable. Among the new community is a talented poet, Amina Abou Kerech, who won this year’s Betjeman Prize for Poetry.

If you’d like to mark the first Sunday in Advent by donating to Asylum Welcome, you can do so here. The charity provides a huge range of services, including a food bank (see below), weekly lunch club, recycled bicycles, haircuts and work clothes, employment assistance, and specific schemes for young people, detainees, and families.

Advent Calendar 2017: Day One!

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I last fashioned a blog advent calendar approximately 300 years ago, with a modicum of planning and pretensions to festive continuity. This year, I’m emerging from eight weeks of twenty-four tutorials, twelve lectures, five seminars, and one short-trade-book-coming-out-in-January (of which more soon!), to a weekend’s pause before we enter the frenetically flapjack-fuelled Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, aka Admissions. If anyone finds this because they’re facing university interviews over the next fortnight – especially anyone hastening to the deer park + river + gargoyles palooza – hello, best of luck, we’re all rooting for you and I do remember what it was like. I genuinely love admissions, what with my Dream Team Co-Interviewer (whose daily etymologies are the purest thing on Twitter), the v. many bright young candidates, and the flapjacks.

Given the above, what could be better than committing to a daily bout of Advent blogpost goodness? Treat that question as rhetorical. I miss blogging, I like December, and nestled in the ensuing chaos of YouTubed Muppets and disturbing Scandiwegian frost-folk will be a genuine attempt to mark and benefit from Advent, the loveliest season of the year (even if the Thames Valley climate soon drives me to a reversed balaclava). I might borrow from other Advent preparation blogs, I will certainly bang on about my preferred charitable causes (poverty, homelessness, gender and sexual equality), and in extremis I might even be driven to cook (or, as my wife suggests, “write about how [I] hated all the wrapping paper [she] bought, then admitted it wasn’t so bad”).

When trying to find a theme for this post, I noted that it is the patronal feast of St Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewellers – which makes it a good day to buy something sparkly. Or even FIVE GOLD RINGS (…segue…). The best and most bizarre YouTube video available shows Montserrat Caballe and a dozen peaky, toothy choirboys weeshing us a Merry Chreestmas from Beaulieu Palace House for the edification of one old man and some shoulderpads. For what initially seems like a more orthodox alternative, let Wells Cathedral coax you into the festive season.

Stick around? Happy Advent!

 

Advent Calendar Day 9: Hamlet!

Marcellus:
[…]Some say that ever, ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Horatio:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
[…]

Hamlet, I.1.181-188.

2009 filmed version of the RSC production of Hamlet dir. Greg Doran; I.1. Peter de Jersey as Horatio; Keith Osborn as Marcellus; Ewen Cummins as Barnardo; Robert Curtis as Francisco.

Copyright RSC / Illuminations / BBC.

(when I worked in FOH for the stage version of this production, Keith Osborn and Peter de Jersey’s delivery of these lines were one of my favourite moments in the play – it was the mixture of chill and comfort)

n.b. I am not suggesting anyone should have A Very Hamlet Christmas. It would not end well.