Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Canadian Care Package, and Walking

This week, a long-awaited box arrived at our flat.  My parents had promised Tim and I a dual birthday box, as our birthdays fall less than a month apart.  It was shipped by ground mail, so it took about a month to arrive.

What we found when we opened the box basically amounted to a Canadian care package.  My parents had sent us two big cannisters of Tim Hortons coffee, for one thing.  In Canada, Tim Hortons is sort of the national coffee and doughnut shop.  On my last university campus, there were an equal number of "Tims" and Starbucks.  This is the coffee Tim and I had been happily brewing every morning for the two years before we moved to the UK.  We also knew it was tastier and stronger than the coffee we had been drinking since we got here.

The first cup, and all the cups that have follow so far, have been glorious.  Funny, how a cup of coffee can remind one so much of home.

We also received University of Saskatchewan socks (our alma mater) and two bags of Hershey's Kisses, which is I believe an American product, but they certainly don't have them over here.  There's also a small bag I have to wait for my birthday to open.  But for now, I will continue to rapturously drink Tim's.

In other news, yesterday was a fine, sunny day, so we decided to make use of our public rights of way and go trekking out into the countryside.  This was extraordinarily easy to manage, as a public footpath begins just down a nearby street.

This also marked our first, and certainly not last, use of an Ordnance Survey Map.  We had to play a bit of the "Is this the path?  Is this the turn-off?" game, but we eventually found our way to the public bridleway we had been heading for.  Our walk among farmer's fields (odd that - not something strangers do at home) was curiously a very English experience, while also reminding me of my many visits to my grandparents' farm, with fields stretching away in every direction and few signs of "civilization."

It must be spring here - look at all the snowdrops!
I've now discovered that the Oxfordshire country website has maps and directions for a great many interesting-looking walks around Oxford, so I suspect we will be doing a fair bit of exploring this spring and summer.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Three Newsy Things

Today's post comes to you in three parts: 1) Great Writers Inspire, an Open Educational Resource Project; 2) the 2012 Oxford University English Graduate Conference; and 3) University College London's English Graduate Conference, which I'll be speaking at!

1)  Great Writers Inspire

I've recently had the good fortune to become a student ambassador for the Great Writers Inspire project, which is based out of the University of Oxford and funded by JISC.  This is an open educational resource highlighting great writers and overall literary themes.  The website (when live) will put together introductory essays, podcasts by Oxford faculty, e-texts, and other resources that can be reused in educational settings.  I think this is a great way to share a love of literature.  At the moment, new content is being released on the blog, where you can find my very first post on why poor, overlooked Anne Bronte is a great writer.

2)  2012 Oxford University English Graduate Conference: Return to the Political: Literary Aesthetics and the Influence of Political Thought

As some of you may know, I'm on the organizing committee for the English Faculty's graduate conference, taking place on June 1st.  The deadline for submission of abstracts is speedily approaching (March 1st), so if you happen to be an English graduate student, please do send along a proposal.  I need to write mine up too...  More information on the lovely website.  If you aren't interested in giving a paper, consider registering to attend the conference: our keynote speaker is Booker-winner Ben Okri and there will be a lively panel discussion around the question of "What is a Classic?".  Plus, graduate student papers, of course.

3)  2012 University College London English Graduate Conference: Intersections

I'm going to be giving another paper at this conference, on March 9th as part of a student panel on Collaboration and Allusion (which begins at 4:30 pm if you are interested in attending).  My paper is called "Homosocial Bonds and Sibling Rivalry in the Collaborative Early Writing of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte."  Thankfully, this material will end up in the first chapter of my thesis as well, so that relieves some of the stress of working up a conference paper.  Also, this means I will get to speak at Senate House, which is a gorgeous and huge early 20th century building, quite close to the British Museum.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

An Accidental Pilgrimage

Today, as the sun was shining and it was a few degrees above zero and looking very springy , Tim and I decided to bite the bullet and trek up to the giant Sainsbury at Kidlington.  It's takes about forty minutes to walk and we'd heard it was mecca for hard-to-find ingredients and bulk goods (this is all related to the state of food shopping in our area, which I should write about in more detail).

Just a little way into our walk, we happened upon the Wolvercote Cemetery, which has a small stone church in the middle and then stretches away in every direction, divided up based on religion.  It is still in use and many gravesites had fresh flowers laid over them.

Something twigged in my mind.  I asked Tim, "Isn't this where Tolkien is buried?"

So it was.  I had known Tolkien was buried in a cemetery north of the city, but hadn't taken the trouble to track it down.  One of Tolkien's Oxford houses - where he wrote The Hobbit and a lot of The Lord of the Rings - is about a fifteen minute walk from us and we had gone by there over the Christmas break.  In we went, setting out in search of the Roman Cathoic section of the cemetery.  Helpfully, the path to the grave was well-signed.

There it was, just a ways off the track.  Edith Tolkien listed a Luthien and John Ronald Reuel himself listed as her Beren, after the elf and human lovers in Tolkien's greatest love story in The Silmarillion.  People had left flowers, medals, and one small thank you note on a torn square of notebook paper.  Of course, I didn't have my camera; I'll have to take a picture another day - the site is really very close to our house.  It's lovely and peaceful, with watchful trees and benches.  It would make a lovely place to read on a summer's day.

And that's how I made my unintentional pilgrimage to the Master's grave.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Spring Has Sprung?

Yes, this is another post about the weather here in Britain.  Now that our very brief period of "cold" and severe cold warnings and two brief snow events has passed, the weather is now back up to a warmish 10 degrees centigrade, which means I can go back to wearing my spring/fall coat.

It really feels like spring, though.  The trees are starting to bud.  There's new growth on shrubs and hedges and sedums.  Young green shoots are blasting out of the ground.  Snowdrops are blooming at Mansfield (my college).  This is all very surreal and frankly feels slightly wrong.  This is stuff that should be happening in April.  The date we use at home as the day when the snow really must be gone is my Dad's birthday, April 20th (incidentally, also Hitler's birthday).  And trust me, we've cut it pretty close on many years.  (Also, this does not mean that the snow can't come back again.  I remember having snow during our 7th grade camping trip at the beginning of May, for instance).

So, spring in February, anyone?

P.S.  I've just completed the introduction and chapter plan for the first chapter of my thesis/transfer paper.  I feel reasonably good about my plan, though I know I need to do some more reading in order to execute it properly.  In any case, right now, I'm just happy it's done.

P.P.S.  At my college today, we were graced with a visit from Booker short-listed author Hisham Matar.  Everyone had received a copy of his book, In the Country of Men, and many, many had read and thought about it.  A great initiative to encourage lifelong reading and thinking and engagement with the humanities in general.  I'm so glad my college made this happen.  Hisham Matar himself is a really thoughtful writer, who in one session earlier today, graciously answered many questions on his book, writing, and publishing by Mansfield's literature students.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

A Fabulous Oxford Friday

Friday was a great day.  I gave a paper at the graduate-run Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Culture Forum on Africa, empire, and masculinity in Charlotte and Branwell Bronte's early writing.  There was a small group in attendance, but they asked really interesting question after that stretched my thinking and also gave me a great opportunity to talk about some of the other cool things I've learned in my research but that I couldn't fit into the paper.  One fellow was doing part-time study and had come along on his day off - I really hope my talk was worthwhile!

In the evening, Tim and I took in the free panel discussion ending Vanessa Redgrave's stint as Visiting Humanitas Professor of Drama.  The panel was on politics and the theatre, which was an interesting take on the never-ending arguments about the value of the humanities in general.  Also on the panel were Ralph Fiennes (who I blame for landing me here in the first place, as his Heathcliff in the 1992 Wuthering Heights adaptation sent me after the book and made me want to write an M.A. thesis that would give me an excuse to quote his awesome speeches), Michael Billington (Guardian drama critic), and Simon Stephens (playwright).

The panel also gave me an excellent opportunity to show Tim the Examination Schools, which is a beautiful, beautiful building, with lovely wood and marble work.  I jokingly said I wouldn't mind writing exams in such a gorgeous building, but I suspect that, in reality, this would not be true.

Last night, which was not Friday and therefore doesn't quite fit the title of this post, we finally watched Bringing Up Baby.  About time - it's hilarious.  Also, we started on and watched almost all of the second season of Blackadder.  Unfortunately, now we are almost done, which is sad.

Saturday, 11 February 2012


I first learned of Margo Lanagan's existence when her previous novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award in 2009.  I picked up the book from the library, started it, and eventually put it down again.  The beginning of the book is horrifying and bleak, as many a review commented at the time, and I wasn't in quite the mood for it then.  Having read Lanagan's newest book The Brides of Rollrock Island (just released at the beginning of the month), I'm definitely going to have to try Tender Morsels again and track down Lanagan's earlier fantasy short story collections.

The Brides of Rollrock Island, originally published in novella form as Sea Hearts, contains a version of the Celtic selkie myth - women who rise out of the bodies of seals to marry men on land, but who, if they put their seal coats back on will return to the sea once more - and it's a heartbreakingly beautiful novel about persecution and revenge, love, betrayal, and sacrifice.  The conflict - the bringing of the sea wives to Rollrock Island by the witch Misskaella - plays out over three generations or so, which reminded my Bronte-saturated mind of Wuthering Heights.

Structurally, this book is interesting because it makes use of so many viewpoints.  The sea witch Misskaella, who would technically be cast in the role of the villain, narrates for an extended period of time, and as a reader, I sympathized with her and was saddened to discover what becomes of her later in the book.  I was happy to follow each new voice and curious to figure out how they fit into the story, as each new section creates a not unpleasant shift and jar in the narrative - the reader needs to keep their wits about them.  The reader never has direct access to the sea wives' minds, but their sons and husbands tease out their love for their families on land and their grief for the loss of their seal-selves, their seal-children, and their home beneath the waves.

The novel ends with loss and sacrifice and also catharsis, all of which made me highly teary-eyed.  As a richly poetic and atmospheric novel, this book is perhaps not your traditional page-turner, but the story and the characters held me so tightly that I had to stay up until 3 in the morning to finish, to find out what happened to the sea wives, their husbands, their children, and the witch who had set everything in motion.  Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

It's a Damp Cold

Before Tim and I moved to the UK, people we knew kept warning us that though it would not be as cold in Oxford was it was at home (Oxford's record low is -17ish; Saskatoon gets down to -40 at least once every winter), we shouldn't be too cocky because it was a "damp cold".

I think I've finally figured out what this means.  For a long time, it just wasn't cold at all.  I think it was 11 on New Years Day.  We went for a huge walk around Summertown.  However, that was the tail end of a very mild Christmas season I learned.

Now, I think we still haven't had a day when it didn't eventually rise to the freezing point or above and it certainly doesn't get very cold at night.  The only time I feel cold outside is when I'm cycling back home from central Oxford and my fingers get rather cold.  Once my face felt slightly frozen.  However, once I get inside, I feel this deep-seated, in-my-bones cold that doesn't go away for a good half hour or so.  I suspect this is the damp cold and that it is best combatted with hot chocolate and/or tea.

This never happens at home, where one simply freezes and burns and goes numb on the outside.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Life in Britain: The Weather Redux, or It Finally Snowed!

Well, last night, amidst weather warnings and what seemed like rather alarmist reporting on the BBC and the Guardian, it finally snowed in Oxford.  Proper snow, not just some sleet mixed in with rain.  The forecast called for 5-10 cm overall.

Despite the severe cold and snow warnings, Tim and I wandered down to Tesco to pick up some groceries.  What a lovely walk.  Nice, fluffy, wet snowflakes, no ice on the sidewalk.  The grass on people's lawns was just about covered by that time and cars were pretty well coated.  It finally felt like Christmas - in February.

And now, as I look out onto our park here, I see that in the night, someone attempted to make a snowman, but didn't quite manage to get bottom and top two segments together - shucks, and that the snow is already melting!  So sad.  On the other hand, I'm pretty sure British, or at least English, drivers will be having trouble with the icy roads (heck, the first snow in Saskatoon is always a wake up call for drivers too), so perhaps it's best if the white stuff leaves soon.