Tag Archives: Oxford


Tomorrow is the pre-christian celebration of fertility. Big in Ireland as it is a Celtic tradition and quite big in Oxford where it is called May Morning. Lots of comely maidens and supposedly randy males gathering their nuts in May.

Best place to be at 6am is on Magdalen Bridge to hear the college choristers sing an ode to May dating back to the time of Henry Vlll. Great time for subversion and creating mayhem. Do it.

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Books my mother gave me

It was a chance remark overheard on a train, someone recalling a book given to them by their mother, not one I recognised.

Mine were The Hound of Heaven and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The first has a blue cover and the other a soft leather cover, smooth to the touch. I can feel it now. But wait – they have long since disappeared, shoved into battered cases and pushed under the bed. Or stowed in black plastic sacks and carried from one Earls Court bedsit to another and then lost on the momentous journey that led to married life.

Lost but not gone for they were treasured gifts from my mother to my teenage self in the days before teenagers were invented, categorised as YA, isolated in bookshops  a month and cut off from the chequerboard of poetry.

And so, some years,  I give myself a treat by swearing faithfully to read  a book of poetry a month.

Last time I did this, about ten years ago, I kept my New Year’s Resolution for three or four months and then forgot….

I may do better this year though then again I may not.

I can’t recall how I heard about Portadown poet Sam  Gardiner. Perhaps it was his marvellous witty poem  Protestant Windows for it was this one that made me buy the book – published by Lagan Press in 2000.

Here’s the poem:

Protestant Windows

They come at sunset peddling daylight, two

Salesmen wearing glasses through which they view

His shabby sliding sashes with disdain.

“Wood?” they suppose and feign

Dismay. “Yes, comes from trees.”

And he raises the drawbridge ten degrees,

a hurdle to reservists

but child’s play to frontline evangelists

with news of paradise

in earth ( at this address to be precise)

in whitest white PVC.

“Think of all

the blessings. And if economical

heavenly comfort isn’t what you need,

think of our Earth,” they plead

and their plastic-rimmed, double-glazed eyes glow

with love for generations of window

salesmen as yet unborn.“If I were you,

I’d save  my CO2

For atheists and papists. I doubt

They even know about King Billy.” “Who?” “William lll to you,

Brought sliding sashes to

Britain. Fetched in pure air and sanity.

Without him we’d still be in the dark.

“Sorry, we must go. It’s late,” they say

And beat a retreat to the gate,

And pause. Quick as a flash

He raises an effortlessly sliding sash

For a parting shot. “Plastic heretics!”

He shouts. The window sticks.

He lugs, a sash cord snaps. The window  drops

On his head, where it stops.

Latimer and Ridley know how he feels

As bloodied, martyred for his faith, he reels

Towards eternity,

Where planets, the  latest novelty,

Are looking less and less

Like being a success

If you liked this blog, maybe have a look at my website: http://www.maryrussell.info  – and keep in touch.

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Theatre, talks, Bloomsday – and a bit of music.

Mary Russell

A busy fortnight. Last week, William Dalrymple at Pitt Rivers, talking about the last of the Moghuls. Great evening. I may well become a friend of PR!

Yesterday, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti and Avi Schlaim at St Anthonys discussing Palestine. This evening – and this I am really looking forward to – the Oxford Chavad Society has invited the Provost of Worcester, Jonathan Bate, to give a talk entitled Shakespeare and the Jews. And still on the subject, June 16, I’ll be at the Martello Tower in Dublin’s Sandycove to hear readings from Ulysses by actor Brian Murray followed by wine and some  music by the local ukulele band in Glasthule village.

And finally, on Friday week, I’ll be at the National Theatre ( London) for a revival of that great play by Caryl Churchill – A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Given the dismal political situation in England right now, this…

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Where to have coffee in Oxford.

In fact, there are lots of places to have a pleasant cup of coffee ( or tea) in Oxford but the cafes  listed below are all places I have visited. Plus 1) they are all independently run and 2) not expensive. The average  cost of a cappucino works out at £2:50 and some are less.

First off is the cafe in Oxford’s  Town Hall, in St Aldates.


A modest little cafe tucked away within the Town Hall where they serve buns, croissants, brownies and everyday cheese and ham sandwiches. It’s very central and a good place to drop into to recharge the batteries. Watch out for it on the way to Christchurch Cathedral and for your walk around Christchurch Meadows.2014 OXFORDE CHEST PORTOBELLO GARRYS DO ETC 029

Near Westgate Shopping Centre, is a place I sometimes go to early in the morning and after I’ve been to the gym  – the Art Cafe. You get your coffee downstairs and carry it upstairs. Lots of food on offer here served by very cheery staff. It’s handy if you want to drop in to Oxford’s Central Public Library.


2014 OXFORDE CHEST PORTOBELLO GARRYS DO ETC 027                        Here’s what’s on offer though there’s lots  more inside.

And if you’re a cyclist ( who isn’t in Oxford? ) you might like to head for Zappi’s on St Michael’s Street. Downstairs, it’s a bike shop, upstairs it’s a cafe.


You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see St Michael’s Methodist Church at the end of the street with


Cornmarket at the other end of the street. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached here.

On a Sunday morning, the street is packed with cyclists decked out in their lycra, ready to speed off into the countryside.

The  next place isn’t strictly a coffee house but I just can’t leave it out. It’s where people using the Bodleian Library come with their thermos flasks and little plastic lunch boxes to have a break from  reading. You have to swipe your reader’s ticket to get in. Totally lacking in style or atmosphere (apart from the entrance, of course) it’s a sort of workman’s caff for Bodleian Library people, if you can imagine that. ( Off the main room is a special room for the librarians, equipped, it is whispered, with an electric kettle and a microwave oven.) 2014 OXFORDE CHEST PORTOBELLO GARRYS DO ETC 042

Here’s the entrance to this august place.  And because I took these pictures last winter, I’ve included the Bodley Christmas tree.


Finally, and I know I’m cheating here as the sign relates to  the Christmas Market on Dublin’s Stephen’s Green, I’ve included a billboard that speaks for itself, though you’d have to be in Dublin to test its veracity. But, as we say, in coffee veritas. Or something like that.


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My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( http://www.maryrussell.info) .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home http://www.maryrussell.info which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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The Turner Prize 2014 disappointment

I first went to the Turner Prize Winner exhibition the year Damian Hirst won and it was brilliant. His take on isolation ( the dots) and separation ( mother and offspring at birth) got me thinking. Separation is something we  all experience and have to deal with.His bisecting of a cow, of course, drew criticism. He was trying to shock, people said. Maybe he was, shock us into thinking about this most primal moment when we are expelled from our mothers’ bodies into  an unforgiving world where we experience cold, hunger and instability. Shocking.

But this year’s exhibition did nothing to reach into the void. The winner is Irish-born Duncan Campbell who expounded his theories about capitalism in a leaden dull way. Videos dominated, accompanied by a monotone commentary. The commentary was sometimes too fast to understand and the superimposed text illegible. Marxist theories were offered which, unless you knew something of Marxist equations, meant nothing.Most Marxists I know are incapable of dialogue and deal only in monologues in which there is no space allowed for an outside contribution. This was no exception.

One theory offered was about the way in which icons are commercialised to the point at which they no longer stand for their original statement. But for Christ’s sake, anyone who has been around for a few years already knows that the ban the bomb sign or the black and white keffiyeh worn by Yasser Arafat have been reproduced as fasion items which have no connection to their original political statement. Are the judges of the Turner Prize that far removed from life that they themselves were unaware of this?

Campbell states that museums have now become, not simply the guardians but the owners of foreign artifacts. This comes from the refusal of the  British Museum to give him access to artifacts from Benin so that he had to use reproduced images of them rather than filming them for his video.

But Africa, the victim of colonialism and thereby relieved of its cultural treasures, is the easy option. Why did he not look closer to home. Not exotic enough, perhaps. Had he taken a trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, he would have come across plenty of illuminated manuscripts, from Ireland, which have been “acquired” by the Bodleian.

And so the viewer is left with the impression that Duncan Campbell has been living in an ivory tower where his politics have gone unchallenged. Think the Young Ones – remember them – and you get the idea.

No, the prizewinners exhibition has been a disappointment. Worse, it is boring.

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Read any good bags lately? Check out your book shop bag….

I’ve occasionally bought books and found the bags they come in have something  witty to say. Below are a few – from bookshops in Dublin, Oxford, Johannesburg and New York. They’ve been stuck up on my kitchen  wall for quite a while – which will explain some of the crinkles.


bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 001


And  from Waterstones:                                                             bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 002

And again….                                                                                bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 003

Next up: bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 004  This reads: Some books are deservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.

Next up                                                                  bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 013

A heartfelt one: “Poetry is living proof that rhyme doesn’t pay.” This was from a bookshop in Johannesburg.


bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 014

and this is the back of that bookshop bag from JoBurg – Exclusive Books.


And then there’s  this bookshop in New York – with  its baseball cap message:

bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 006 Yep, that’s 8 miles of books.

And finally, my favourite:

bookshop bags mantlepiece AIRBB 005  Happy reading

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