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.

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

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 with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ 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.

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).

Oxford: Refugees Are Welcome Here!

IMG_3297
This afternoon, about 2,000 people gathered by Oxford University’s Sheldonian building for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees, showing that refugees are welcome in Oxford.

The demonstration was chaired by Mark Lynas. A speaker from Oxfam, Dr Hojjat Ramzy of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, Asylum Welcome, Emmaus Oxford and other charities spoke, as well as current and former asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The head of Oxford City Council confirmed that Oxford would be welcoming refugee families, and called on the government to make funds available to expedite the process.

A speaker from UNISON called attention to the need to force the government to build more houses and abandon the racist policies which all parties espoused in the run-up to the last IMG_3294general election, before publicising the national day of action next Saturday. The author Mark Haddon called on Britain to “be more German”, after crowds in Munich applauded refugees arriving at their railway station.

If you want to help the refugees – including those already in the UK, who are not allowed either to work or claim benefits – the consensus among the charities was that there are three preferred things to donate at this stage:

ACCOMMODATION, either as a host to Syrian refugees or as a foster parent to unaccomIMG_3303panied refugee children. A representative from the charity Homes For Good spoke about how his organisation is enabling people to become foster parents to Syrian refugee children who will shortly arrive in this country. For more information, go here. If you could offer a spare bedroom to an adult refugee or a refugee family, Oxford City of Sanctuary wants to hear from you.

MONEY. Donating goods is excellent but, like all the major charities campaigning for financial aid (MSF | Red Cross | Save The Children | Oxfam etc.), Emmaus Oxford is requesting cash donations so they can bulk-buy goods to take to Calais at the end of this month. Asylum Welcome, who run all kinds of schemes in Oxford from English lessons to youth clubs, are also desperately in need of funds.

SKILLS. If you can teach English or translate, both the Oxford Syrian Refugee Helpline and Oxfordshire’s Asylum Welcome need your help. It seems to me that every other Oxford resident has a TEFL certificate mouldering or sparkling away in their CV – stronger English language skills make negotiating life as a refugee in the UK easier and less daunting, helping families integrate and access the resources they need. Could you give a couple of free lessons a week?

Support Syrian refugees: a follow-up

This post is in addition to yesterday’s post about how to help the Syrian refugees at Calais by donating items in Oxford. Here are some more resources and information about ways to help, including a few more regional links:

  • This Amazon wishlist helps you buy items specifically requested by those working with refugee groups. This crowdfunding account raises money for those in ‘The Jungle’, the Calais refugee camp.
  • The big charities are also soliciting donations – try MSF, who are doing migrant search and rescue in the Mediterranean sea, Save The Children, who are campaigning for the children of Syria, or the British Red Cross. You can donate at any of their websites.
  • By the end of September, there will be over 26,000 unaccompanied children in European refugee camps. This petition urges David Cameron to allow 3,000 of them (number suggested by Save The Children) to be fostered in the UK, as Jewish children were following the Kindertransport before World War II.
  • Warwickshire residents (and presumably also Oxford residents) can donate to Emmaus Oxford, who are leading a donation trip to refugees at Calais at the end of September, and they’re seeking the following items: trainers/outdoor shoes, non-perishable food, cooking equiptment, waterproof coats, tents, sleeping bags, torches/solar lights, kindling, underwear, roll-up mats, sanitary and hygiene products, water containers, bicycles. Email sandychamberlain [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk for more information.
  • Glasgow residents can donate clothes and other items here.
  • Folkestone United are collecting items for Calais from the local area, as well as donations.
  • Attend and donate money at a solidarity event showing that refugees are welcome in your city – there’s one this Sunday in Oxford‘s city centre. On 12 September, there will be a London Day of Action for Refugees. Similar organising meetings are also being held in other cities, including Norwich.
  • Keep supporting local outposts of UK charities. I’ve seen complaints and concerns that mass donations to refugee charities will take away from UK charities helping British people. This is a very difficult time of year for Brits on low incomes: the summer holidays have meant an income gap as free school meals became unavailable, and the early cold weather is bringing the “food or fuel” question forward early. However, there are three really important points to make here!
  1. The refugees need specific items like men’s clothes, kitchen equiptment and tarpaulins. If you don’t have these, why not buy them from charity shops and donate them? Double win!
  2. I’ve seen a lot of people asking how to donate things that certain groups like CalAid don’t currently need, like baby wipes, nappies and tampons. This is a really good idea! Don’t put these back in the cupboard, get in touch with your local food bank, women’s refuge or homeless shelter! Oxford Baby Baskets are making up packs for new mums and mums-to-be in Oxford, including refugees.
  3. Lots of Syrian refugees will shortly be British residents (thank God). And they’re going to need our charity shops, food banks, shelters and drop-in centres to be in fighting form, not least because – let’s face it – the government strategy for helping people once they arrive is probably going to be abysmal. Supporting your local charity shop, food bank or shelter is a way to support refugees (and always has been).

If you have other links about drop-off points for donations to help the Syrian refugees, charities taking aid to Syrian refugees, or events along the lines of Refugees Welcome, please post them here – and share this post, if you can!

Oxford: drop off donations and help the Syrian refugees at Calais

This post is aimed at Oxford residents who want to help the Syrian refugees by sending supplies to refugees at Calais. I’m making it in hopes of reaching an audience beyond Facebook! An Oxford group is taking donations down to CalAid’s London drop-off point on 20 September. The list below (which I’ve taken from the Facebook group) tells you what supplies the refugee camp at Calais does need and what they don’t currently, need.

NEEDED

  • Trainers, Hiking Boots & Wellies: only sizes UK 7-9, EU 41-43
  • Tents (covers, tarpaulin)
  • Jackets: sizes S, M only
  • Travelling Bags
  • Socks
  • Candles or any other lighting
  • Belts
  • Tracksuit trousers
  • Blankets
  • Jeans (sizes 28 to 32)
  • Smartphones with SIM cards
  • Sleeping bags
  • Soap and shampoo
  • Toothbrushes
  • Toothpaste
  • Plastic bags
  • Woolly hats
  • Pants
  • Pots
  • Pans

NOT NEEDED RIGHT NOW

  • Women’s clothes or shoes
  • Children’s clothes or shoes
  • Jumpers or sweaters
  • Nappies, baby wipes etc.
  • Tampons or other feminine hygiene products

NOT NEEDED

  • Sheets or pillows
  • Suits
  • Formal shoes

Donors are asked to sort their donations by type, so they can be easily stored & distributed to the refugees once the donations arrive in Calais. I’d also suggest using your imagination slightly on the above categories – remember that children need different-sized toothbrushes and types of toothpaste, ditto shampoo. Picture trying to look after your dentures in a refugee camp (other suggestions welcome!). Bulk-buy offers are also your friends (Boots has 3 for 2 on shampoo, and a lot of offers on dental products; many places will also be having kitchenware sales as the university terms approach).

In Oxford, donations can be left at the Turl Street Kitchen (I went there this lunchtime — ask a staff member to show you where you leave your things), Oxfork, the Magdalen Arms, and the Star pub (21 Rectory Road, East Oxford). The Facebook group gives contact names for additional drop-off points at Brookes uni, Kidlington, South Oxford Community Centre and South Oxford Farmers’ Market.

More information can be found on Facebook, or at the CalAid website. Cash donations to CalAid, used to help the refugees, can also be made (from anywhere, obiously) via JustGiving. Please share this post!