I am now six weeks into my new job. For the next five years, I shall be Fellow in English at Christ Church at the University of Oxford, teaching literature 1550–1760 to undergraduates, and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate work on drama from the Renaissance to the present day. My colleagues’ friendliness belies the buildings’ grandeur, afternoon tea is served daily, it’s the sole Oxford college with its own art room, and the students like play-readings and crisps. For the past four years, my contract has been full-time research with a significant, although intermittent, amount of BA and Master’s teaching across the last four-and-a-half-centuries of Anglophone literature – this is definitely more intense. But teaching the third-year Shakespeare paper alongside the second-year Renaissance paper is rich and rewarding. One reason is that the intensity of tutorial teaching gives tutor and students alike the luxury of focusing on the process and skill of writing as much as on literature. Although Oxford terms can often combine the worst of sprints and marathons, I’m trying to find spaces to help already strong writers develop their written style – and structures – as quickly as possible. Essays are, after all, attempts and experiments, and tutorial teaching allows them to be just that.
The other reason it’s so rewarding is the obvious one: the literature. I was always going to love reading and discussing essays on the drama of this period (i.e. the reason I’m an academic), whether it’s realising why A Woman Killed With Kindness should be read alongside Coriolanus, or getting excited about all the different ways you can die from an Early Modern painting. At the same time, though, it’s been great to work again on John Donne, and Anne Locke, and Thomas Southwell, among others.
Of course, I’m on my second cold in six weeks, I really need a haircut, and my face is falling off. I have, however, overspent on a Christmas tree for my office (there was an even pricier one with two-tone branches. I mourn it). Only two weeks left til Oxmas.
A few weeks ago I had great fun recording an episode of the Women In Oxford’s History podcast on the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and the suffrage movement in Oxford. It’s a story of torchlit processions, Woodstock Road drawing rooms, police brutality, and terrorism.
Wilding Davison is best known as the suffragette who died after stepping in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby. This podcast was a chance to tell the story of Emily’s life, rather than her death, and how the struggle for suffrage disrupted Oxford’s dreaming spires.
The Women in Oxford’s History podcast explores women’s contributions to the life and history of the city: Wilding Davison was a finalist (and Chaucer fangirl) at St Hugh’s College. St Hugh’s was founded – as we discussed – as an affordable alternative to Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall for the first generation of women university students. Fun fact: Whittard’s on the High Street was once a W.S.P.U. suffrage shop!
Obligatory 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.
Make 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.
When 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!’.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
This 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.
In 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.
Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.
The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.
The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people withtheInstagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, GardenDistrict,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).
But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.