Thursday, 27 August 2009

Of Alpine Life

I thought I would start off a couple of posts about my alpine trip with a little description of the daily routine at the Chalet. It is odd just how quickly I settled into it. It was a soothing kind of existence, cut off from phone and internet, with time to sit and read and muse, to talk if one wanted to talk, and to walk if one wanted to walk (admittedly I did more of the former than the latter...). The day generally began just before 8 (apart from for those hardier souls who would go off for day-long treks into the mountains, clutching water bottles and a loaf of bread, at six o'clock in the morning). We took it in turn each day to cook the evening meal, in pairs or threes (I was rather relieved when my turn came to be merely Chief Cutter-Upper for someone rather more skilled than I in catering for twelve people), and every morning the day's cooks would knock on the bedroom doors, leaving a jug of hot water to greet their still-sleeping companions. Hearing the knock, my room-mate or I would stumble from our sleeping bags, bring in the water, and then throw open the wooden shutters onto our balcony, admiring our morning view as we brushed our teeth:

It looked beautiful at dusk, too:

The bell would ring for breakfast, and we would all troop downstairs in various states of sleepy-headiness. Some amongst the group were obviously very much Morning People, laughing and chattering away across the bread, grapefruit and (when we had a particularly good cook) freshly baked muffins and cakes. Others groggily reached out wavering hands for the delicious smelling coffee pot, gratefully clutching at the hot cup and attempting to steam some sense into their brains. I was very much of the latter party. I am emphatically not a morning person, and I Don't Do Breakfast. I have been told time and time again how unhealthy this is, but I can't help it - if I try to eat too much, too quickly, in the mornings, the result is Bad Indeed. I used to have a pet hamster when I was younger, who, when she awoke, would stagger around for a few minutes, with her ears clamped flat down against her head, her eyes bleary, until she gradually came to full consciousness and her fluffy little ears would start perking up again. My ears are definitely down in the mornings. Nevertheless, I managed to brighten up enough by the end of breakfast to be cheerful enough when helping with the washing up (we got a very good relay system going of washer-upper, rinser, dryer(s), and putter-awayer) and not be too much of a kill-joy when the early birds amongst us started singing madrigals to speed up the dishes...

After breakfast, I would generally steel myself to face The Shower. This was something I had been rather dreading before I arrived at the Chalet, as in the notes we were told of an 'ingenious' shower arrangement, and I had noted an alarming vagueness on the subject when I tried to press people about what this actually meant. As it turned out, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had feared, although I must say my first shower back in Oxford felt rather luxurious in comparison (not something one would normally say about college accommodation showers!). The shower room was, when the Chalet was originally built, a Turkish Bath. Yes, a Turkish Bath. This, along with the maids and the requirement to wear a tie at dinner, is long gone. Now, there is a system by which one fills two large jugs with hot water, one with cold, climbs up a wooden stepladder, holding said jugs rather precariously, and deposits their contents one by one into a tub which is connected by a long pipe to the shower head. One then leaps under the shower, turns on the connection, and hopes that hair can be washed and body can be scrubbed before a) the water turns cold; or b) runs out entirely; whilst c) also keeping fingers crossed that the damn thing actually worked (it broke down at least three times across the ten days, but luckily one of our party was a brilliant handy-man in a crisis, who at various points ended up on the roof and in the middle of the septic tank ... more about these events another time. Priceless).

After grappling with the shower, which, incidentally, was reached through a door in the main salon so tiny that it suggested the Chalet's first inhabitants to have been hobbits, I would generally return upstairs to air my towels on the balcony and apply my make-up (I had made sure to get one of the few rooms with a mirror - priorities, priorities). The rest of the morning would be spent in the main sitting room - the salon - curled up under my shawl (a beautiful birthday present brought back from Florence by a friend), until the sunshine broke through enough to lure us all out into the garden, where we could sit and admire both the view and the Chalet itself. My room was the one at the far left-hand side of the balcony as you look at the photo below, with a lovely dual aspect across both mountains and garden. The salon is directly underneath.

On a few of the days, about half the party went out for a day-long walk, but generally speaking, everyone would spend at least the morning lounging around reading - either for work or pleasure - and the walking would commence in the afternoon. A lunch of the evening before's left-overs, along with ham, bread, cheese, and fruit would make an enjoyable break in the middle of the day. By this time the sun would be in full flame, and I would merrily skip upstairs, exchange my trousers for a little skirt, slather on the sunscreen, and while away another few hours reading in the sun, until the heat got too much for my head, and I was forced to retreat back into the cool of the salon, taking up residence once more on one of the sofas, and sipping copious amounts of tea.

On a couple of afternoons I did actually venture out for A Proper Walk, which consisted of me and a couple of other non-walkers huffing and puffing like little steam trains in the background while the others strode off into the distance, but I must admit that The Boots did their job and saw me across some rocky terrain to greet some beautiful views:

Most evenings, however, I would forgo any more strenuous activities in favour of the relatively gentle twenty minute stroll up to Le Prairion Hotel - or The Pav, as it is fondly known to the Chaletites. Those people who had been out walking for the day or afternoon would generally find their way back here before returning to the Chalet for a shower and dinner, and the Chaletites who had remained at base camp all day would usually make the trip up to the top for a pre-dinner stretch of the legs, and a bottle or two of the local Beer of Choice:

Personally I have never been able to like beer, however pretty the bottle, so stuck to Kir for my evening tipple - and sipping my delicious drink whilst admiring a double rainbow across the mountains is something that will stay with me for a very long time. This is where we would generally sit of an evening:

Looking out towards Mont Blanc (although the summit itself is hidden):

After this we would wend our way back down the mountain path to the Chalet, to enjoy whatever delights our wonderful cooks had concocted for us (and to see whether they had managed to find any inspired ways to use up the forty wheels of cheese left for us by the Univ chalet party...), before we decamped to the salon for some candle-lit conviviality before bed.

Tomorrow, I will blog a little about Books at the Chalet - both mine, and others... I shall leave you with a few words on the subject from Sir W's 1600 essay 'Of the Obseruation, and the Vse of Things', and you may be relieved to hear that, although the toilet system at the Chalet was somewhat primitive (ahem), we never quite had to resort to this:

'All kinde of bookes are profitable, except printed Bawdery; they abuse youth: but Pamphlets, and lying Stories, and News, and two penny Poets I would knowe them, but beware of beeing familiar with them. My custome is to read these, and presently to make vse of them, for they lie in my priuy, and when I come thither, and haue occasion to imploy it, I read them, halfe a side at once is my ordinary, which when I haue read, I vse in that kind, that waste paper is most subiect to, but to a cleanlier profit.'

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Of Many Happy Returns

Just a brief post today to announce that I Am Back - and still all in one piece, having managed to avoid rolling down the mountain side, falling out of the cable car, or withering away from high heel withdrawal symptoms. The trip to the Chalet des Anglais was simply fantastic, and I will be using the next two or three blog entries to talk about it in detail, as there is far to much to share in one post. Suffice to say at the moment that I am a complete convert to alpine living and have even been persuaded that I may be able to try skiing in the area next year. Miracles, as they say, do happen!

For now, I will just share a picture of the delicious and wonderful birthday cake which my chalet companions baked for me - no mean achievement in the somewhat temperamental ovens:

It was certainly a birthday to remember, much of it spent lazing away in the brilliant sunshine (we were tremendously lucky with the weather across the entire trip) on the chalet's 'croquet lawn' (unfortunately now somewhat trampled by wild boar...) with a book (and I only have Good Things to report about my reading choices). There was plenty of pleasant conversation and much laughter, and an excellent birthday dinner after a pre-dinner Kir (or three) sipped whilst looking out toward the sunset over the mountains. Bliss!

I miss it all already, but after my ten days of beautiful scenery and alpine tranquility, mixed with some surprisingly good chalet cooking and a healthy (?) enjoyment of chalet wine, all topped off with some wonderful books and conversation, I feel rejuvenated; and have left my temporary home to come back to Oxford ready 'for the entertaining of all fortunes', as Sir W describes in his 1600 essay 'Of Aduise':

'I would allow a man to keepe the house no longer then till hee be able to flie, vntill his mind and body are able to carrie themselues without falling, not vntil hee bee past reeling, and staggering, for that abilitie we neuer haue: but in this time let bookes, and Aduise rectifie, and prepare vs fit for the entertaining of all fortunes.'

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Of Becoming A Chalet Girl

Today is the day! My friend and I have a taxi coming to collect us at 4pm to take us to Oxford railway station, where we'll meet another friend, and travel on together to London. Then it's a skip along the tube line to St Pancras International to catch the Eurostar, and the holiday will really begin! We change trains at Paris, and then settle onto our transport for the rest of the journey - a sleeper train down through France to St-Gervais-les-Bains. I have never been on a sleeper train before so am wildly excited. We arrive tomorrow morning, just after nine, when we'll jump onto a cable car and make our way up into the mountains towards our final destination: Le Chalet des Anglais:

The chalet is part owned by three Oxford colleges - New College, University College, and Balliol. Every summer each of them takes two groups of students - a mixture of undergrads and graduates (a couple of Fellows go too) - for breaks of about ten days. This year, I'm going on the first of the New College trips. I have always thought the chalet trips sounded romantic, like an old-fashioned reading party from days of yore. And yet, I've never braved one of them before. Partly because of the rather basic conditions - there is no electricity, and what is described as an 'ingenious' shower arrangement in the pre-trip notes ... although I think that's probably all rather fun once you get used to it, and I'm hoping to dredge up some memories from the many camping trips I went on as a child to remind myself that Getting Back To Nature can actually be great fun. At least here I'll have a proper bed, and hopefully the chalet won't get blown down in the night, as happened on one particularly memorable campsite... But the main reason I've never dared venture into the Alps before is because I Have Vertigo. And I'm going to spend ten days on a mountain. Hmm. When I say I have vertigo, I mean it - I can't sit anywhere but the stalls at the theatre, I cling onto people for dear life and shut my eyes if I have to cross a bridge over the Thames, and I regularly freak out at unexpected drops and stairwells. I'm fine if I'm behind glass (I was able to go up almost to the top of the Rockefeller Center on a recent trip to New York, as long as I stayed behind the massive picture windows and didn't actually venture out onto the roof), so the cable car doesn't faze me, but afterwards... Therefore, I am more than a little nervous about the idea of being up a mountain for over a week. But I have been assured by people who know me, know my vertigo, and know the chalet, that I Will Be Fine, that the slopes around the chalet are actually very gentle and wooded, and as long as I don't trot off along particular walks with a precipice at the end of them, All Will Be Well. Hmm, we'll see! I'm hoping perhaps it will at least offer a kind of immersion therapy, and who knows, perhaps I'll come back a changed woman, singing the praises of alpine life. Or a gibbering wreck.

We go for ten days, and there'll be about twelve of us there. A couple of people I know very well, some just to say hello to, and the rest not at all, so it should be an interesting experience. Hopefully I won't end the ten days with a deep desire to throw them all (or myself) off the side of the mountain - at least I have all my lovely new books to read if I need to escape for a while! There are also going to be several alumni staying at a hotel a short distance away (a hotel! At least I can run away there if the need for creature comforts becomes too much to bear!), as this year is the 100th anniversary of the chalet itself, and several old members have been invited to join the party. I'm looking forward to meeting them, and to hearing how things have changed (or not) in the past decades. Apparently one of these guests is a great bibliophile, and has an amazingly extensive collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century rare books, some of which he is (brave man) going to bring with him. The undergraduate tutor who taught me for the Early Modern period is also going to be one of the party, and is going to bring some of his collection too - so it looks like I won't get too many withdrawal symptoms from dusty old books while I'm away, although I can see myself becoming absolutely green with envy as they show off their treasures! 

I spent the morning packing my borrowed rucksack, which now seems to weigh as much as a small car. Luckily the walk from the cable car to the chalet is, I am told, a very gentle fifteen minute downhill stroll ... I am hoping this is not one of those fifteen minute strolls that turns out to be an hour's hard hike... Still, despite the thought of this, and of having to wear The Boots for ten days solid, I am actually now getting really tremendously excited about the whole affair. New College has the reputation for being the most relaxed and fun-loving of the three college trips (well, of course!) - probably due to the fact that they order in vast quantities of wine at the beginning of the stay... While I am away I shall also be turning 23 - it will certainly be a birthday like I've never experienced before. I wonder if I'll get a cake?

Obviously I won't have internet access while I am away, so the blog will resume normal service once I'm back - hopefully with some suitably frivolous alpine frolics to share. In the meantime, despite my nerves about my forthcoming adventure, I will leave you - as Sir W sweetly put it in his 1600 essay 'Of Affection' - with

'a pacient farewell, without disturbance or feare.'

Au revoir!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Of Provisions

Today has been spent running around Oxford making arrangements and sorting out a few last necessities for my trip to the Alps, which begins tomorrow. I realise that I have been mentioning this little jaunt without actually explaining why I - a girl who enjoys her home comforts perhaps more than most - am taking myself off to a chalet on the mountain slopes, miles away from the nearest hairdryer. I shall explain properly tomorrow before I leave, but suffice to say at the moment that I am now equipped with everything one could possibly need to fend off any type of biting creature you care to mention, enough plasters to soothe the blisters of a small army, and, thanks to skirmishofwit, the means to make sure that a little bit of girly luxury finds its way into the chalet at shower time:

Most importantly of all, however, I have enough books to keep me occupied for ten days up a mountain. I shall have company of course - I am not quite hare-brained enough to disappear into the hills alone - and I plan to spend some of my time strolling gently along the less arduous of the mountain tracks, admiring the alpine flowers and commenting on the view while my more adventurous companions strike off up the glacier. Mainly, however, I can't wait to have ten days cut off from emails and telephone calls, away from my studies, to sit down undisturbed and simply read.

I read all the time while I am in Oxford, of course, but most of this is for work - the literature of Sir W's time, rather than my own, or the arguments of critics. I genuinely enjoy this reading (or most of it, at least...), but I miss having the time to read for enjoyment alone. I always have at least one non-work book on the go, for reading over lunch, or before I go to bed, but I am almost giddy at the thought of having ten whole days to really indulge myself with books which are purely for fun. I am hugely thankful that I seem to have escaped the curse which afflicts some English students - of losing the ability to read 'for fun', and attacking each and every novel as if required to write a 20,000 word paper on it afterwards. I still get every bit as much enjoyment out of a good old-fashioned murder mystery or regency romance as I ever did before, and so, although I shall be taking a little 'work' reading with me, this holiday is really a chance for a proper break, to be immersed in a few books not written by men who died four hundred years ago...

In case the photograph is a little hard to make out, my reading selection comprises the following: The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff; The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter; Mariana by Monica Dickens; The Calligrapher by Edward Docx; Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor; and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

The Calligrapher is my collection's wild card - I had never heard of it, but when I saw it in the bookshop today I was immediately lured in by the blurb on the back, unable to resist a book which is about 'a world-class calligrapher and a serial seducer', who is transcribing Donne's Songs and Sonnets for a wealthy patron when an indiscretion catches up with him. It sounds like it should be suitably enjoyable froth, and as John Donne was a good friend of Sir W, it even has a tangental relation to work...! The other books are all ones I've been wanting to read for a while. Forever Amber I've been curious about ever since I read about bad girls reading it surreptitiously as a banned book in the Chalet School series of my childhood, and it looks like a great romp. Angela Carter has been recommended to me so many times, I've decided I simply must try her, and besides, how could I resist such a gorgeous cover? (Incidentally, anyone else interested in Carter should pay a visit to this review of The Magic Toyshop at Verity's Virago Venture, and also the guest posting there on the same topic by Paperback Reader, both of which further fueled my desire to become acquainted with Carter's work).

Mariana and The Fortnight in September are two more to add to my steadily growing collection from the wonderful Persephone Books; and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sounds delightful, and right up my street. I am also just now cogitating about which audio books to upload to my ipod (apparently, although the chalet is without electricity, there is a hotel a little distance away where I can charge both my camera and my ipod, so I can listen away unimpeded, and unfortunately have no excuse for returning from holiday without photographic evidence of me in walking boots carting a rucksack around, as the excuse that 'the battery ran out before I had chance' just isn't going to wash...).

And although I shall be deserting him for a little while, I can rest confident in the knowledge that Sir W would approve of my 'reading holiday', being himself a true book lover - his admission here in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring' is one of the reasons I am sure he and I would get on:

'I am determined to speake of bookes next, to whom, if you wold not say I were too bookish, I shuld giue the first place of all thinges here.'

Monday, 10 August 2009

Of Combining Necessity and Frivolity

I read this article today, which claims that Heels are Out and Flats are In. Perhaps, perhaps, but although I like a pretty ballet pump as much as the next girl, I'm not sure that the trend for blockish, boyish loafers is one that I'll be following. I am, without a doubt, a heels girl, and wear them practically every day. Today, however, was an exception, for this was the day for breaking in The Walking Boots. I must admit that I've been putting this off ever since I bought them - wearing them at a secluded chalet I accept as a grim necessity, but wearing them around town is another thing entirely. But as we leave for France on Thursday evening, I realised that unless I want to spend next weekend hobbling around like an injured goat, the time, as they say, had come. As a consequence, I have spent today feeling rather as if I had a couple of car tyres strapped to my feet. I admit that The Boots coped admirably with the infamous cobbles around Radcliffe Square, and one might think that this would endear them to me, so often have I complained about the difficulties of crossing this little patch in my usual footwear. It did make me feel that I will no doubt be glad of them when skipping around the rocky mountaintops (can one skip in car tyres, I wonder?), but otherwise, all I felt was a perverse craving for my heels, despite their tempestuous relationship with the cobblestones. Call me masochistic if you will...

I felt so glum after a few hours clomping around like this that I decided to remind myself that I was still a girl by treating myself to a couple of feminine fripperies as far removed from The Boots as possible. I was given this beautiful bracelet by skirmishofwit as a birthday gift at the weekend...

... so how was I to resist when I slipped into Aspire and found these lovely earrings which will match it so well?

After cheering myself with this little purchase, I made my way to M&S to buy supplies for my evening meal, and while I was there I popped into the lingerie section where I picked up a delightful little set in pink and purple silk. I may have to confine my outer garb to The Boots and their ilk while I am at the chalet, following Sir W's advice here - taken from the 1600 essay 'Of Fantasticknesse':

'For Clothes, he that shunnes singularity (for from singularity comes eyther Disdaine, or Enuy), let his Attire be conformable to Custome, and change with Company.' 

But at least I can bask in the satisfaction of knowing that underneath, at least, frivolity reigns supreme!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Of Presents and Pimm's

Last night I enjoyed a wonderful early birthday meal at the lovely Al-Shami Lebanese Restaurant, tucked away down one of the many winding streets of Jericho. The food was delicious, and got off to an unusual start with huge platters of raw vegetables (something common to many Lebanese restaurants), which added a brilliant splash of colour to the table:

I felt extremely healthy nibbling away at this selection, although I fear that any potential vitamin benefits would have been washed away by the red wine... I always love catching up with old friends over a leisurely meal, and of course birthday dinners have the added bonus of including some very nice presents as a side dish!

Even the weather this weekend has been in a celebratory mood, and Oxford's been revelling in glorious hot sunshine. I've been able to indulge properly with a couple of long, lazy afternoons lounging outside at the pub with friends, a pitcher of Pimm's on the table beside us. Pimm's is one of my favourite things about summer in England, especially when it's made properly - with lashings of fruit and mint and plenty of ice. There's only one fly - or rather, wasp - in the ointment. Or, with my luck, several wasps. Unfortunately, the stripy little fiends enjoy a summery tipple just as much as I do, and I must confess that even a perfectly made glass of Pimm's can somewhat lose its appeal when you've just watched a wasp take a bath in it. As a consequence on these occasions, the table becomes something of a battleground. I'm not a particularly helpful member of the defence force, usually only managing to swat the air ineffectually in one wasp's general direction as I try simultaneously to ward off another who's after a juicy chunk of strawberry bobbing at the top of my glass. Luckily, I have some better co-ordinated friends who variously squish, drown, or decapitate the enemy in order to avoid any unwelcome added extras floating among the cucumber...

My weekend's exertions have left me in need of an early night, but first I should point out a new addition to my Oxford restaurant list: Al-Andulas in Little Clarendon Street. This is an absolutely fantastic little tapas bar which I went to for the first time this evening. I love the type of meal where you can pick and choose from lots of different little dishes, and I've walked past this place on many occasions, and have been wanting to try it for a while. It certainly didn't disappoint, and I'll definitely be returning again very soon!

Sir W was no stranger to Spanish cuisine: his father, Sir Charles Cornwallis, was based in Madrid as the resident ambassador to Spain from 1605 to 1609, and Sir W visited him there. I'm not sure that tapas would have been on the menu, but the analogy Sir W draws in the extract below suggests that he too would have approved of the 'few dishes well dressed' that I so much enjoyed this evening. This comes from the 1601 essay 'Of Silence and Secrecie'; Sir W has been contrasting different oratorical styles, and has concluded that it is definitely quality, rather than quantity, that matters:

'it is ... as it is betweene a few dishes well dressed and a great feast. The sparing speaker giues you that which is wholesome and ouerburdens not your memory with superfluitie; the wording Orator is like our English feasts, where the stomack must winne way to the second course, with bearing the burthen of the first, & when he comes to it, hath lost the bettering himselfe by it, through the heauinesse of his first receipt.'

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Of Excuses and Cocktails

First up, apologies for the lack of post yesterday - not very good to miss one on my very first week blogging! Oops. Yesterday became rather hectic, and the little window I had plugged in to write the entry got taken up by an unexpected invitation to join friends for cocktails at Quod ... and as you may gather from my sidebar, I can rarely bring myself to turn down a cocktail. And the guys at Quod do a mean Margarita: nice and sharp and a good dusting of salt round the rim, just the way I like them!

Unfortunately, today's post is also a short one, as I have friends arriving very soon and am currently running around like a mad thing trying to get everything in order. Tonight I'm having a pre-birthday meal at the wonderful Al-Shami. I am going to be away on my alpine adventures on my actual birthday, so I am having to bring the celebrations forward a little. Not that I mind - spreading out birthdays for as long as possible is something I enjoy all too much! There might be some more cocktails on the cards tonight, too, as the restaurant is rather conveniently situated close to my favourite Oxford cocktail bar: Raouls... 

Although I'll be trying not to over-indulge too much - I don't want to suffer the same sort of indignities as dear little Sir W, who tells us in 'Of Vanitie' (1601) that:

'I haue tasted of more then I haue digested: for at twenty yeares old, I vomited a great deale that I drunke at 19.'

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Of Being Tempted To Exercise

Anyone who knows me, knows that Exercise and I are not exactly soul mates. When I was younger, I was - amazingly - actually pretty sporty: I swam, played badminton, went horse-riding, and even learned how to do backwards somersaults on the trampoline. Heady days indeed. And how long ago they seem! After I became ill with M.E. at the age of fourteen, exercise was out of the question - for a long while I barely had enough energy to move from bed to the sofa. To be fair, a lot of the activities had stopped earlier ... but my illness really put the kibosh on any that remained. Thankfully, since I started university, my health has (touch wood), basically been fine, but even though I'd now count myself as pretty well completely recovered, somehow I've never quite managed to recapture that childhood enthusiasm for sporting activities... 

Even when I was younger, I was never a fan of team sport (well, I played netball for a while, but I think that was just because I liked the little pleated skirt you got to wear), and I have to confess to skipping the descriptions of hockey matches and tennis tournaments in the school stories of my childhood. All that whacking sticks around in the mud never quite appealed, and I think I just have an innate horror of anything requiring a gum-shield. Even quidditch never fired my imagination - I always thought that the beginning of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire would have been vastly improved by a fat red pen slicing through 90% of the description of the World Cup.

I did, however, go for a while to pilates classes, and then did a term of yoga in my third year as an undergrad, which I actually really enjoyed. Unfortunately, when the enthusiastic American friend who came to yoga with me went back across the pond, I never quite made it to classes on my own the following year. But I've been thinking recently that with the amount of time I spend sitting hunched over a desk, if I don't want to end up a wizened old woman with a hump by the time I'm 30, I should probably do something about it. And recently I came across an excellent added incentive in this divine yoga mat and kit bag. The line has just been introduced by the wonderful oGorgeous:

Now, this is really my kind of exercise bag! The bags came to my attention thanks to a feature on the fabulous style and lifestyle blog Modish, and they come in various designs, although the one with the bow (rather aptly called Fashionista) is far and away my favourite. It would go so nicely with my current handbag... If anything is going to inspire me to find a new yoga class, this is it!

And as Sir W, in his essay 'Of Life, and the Fashions of Life' (1600) reminds me, when I enjoy Good Food as much as I do, a little exercise once in a while may not be such a bad thing...

'I am afraid our much Eating, and little Exercise, is the cause of this our lowe flying, and heauinesse: our many Crudities send vp dull heauy vapours, that makes vs like better of a bed, then of a saddle.'

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Of Boots

I make no secret of the fact that I Love Shoes. I have a healthy collection of footwear (some people would say it is so healthy that it could do with being struck by a pandemic and shrinking to half the size. But they would be wrong. Or at least mean-spirited). Boots - both ankle and knee-length - form an important part of this section of my wardrobe. I generally get through at least a couple of pairs every winter, I wear them so much - with dresses, over jeans. Now, normally, buying a new pair of boots would be a joyous event for me. I love going through the different styles, trying to find something a bit different - this past year my favourite pair were some lovely high heeled black ruched leather ones with little buttons all down the side: rather Victoriana inspired. Sadly the Oxford cobbles (you can tell this city was built for men) have done their worst and I rather doubt that the boots will live to see another winter. 

Today, however, I had to buy boots of a rather different kind. In just over a week, I am going on a trip that will take me out of my comfort zone, going to stay for ten days in a chalet in the French Alps somewhere near Mont Blanc (there will be a lot more about this nearer the time!). As I have practically zilch in the way of Practical Clothing, this has entailed some major shopping. This afternoon, came The Walking Boots.

Not quite my usual look, but hopefully they'll stop me skidding down the mountain tracks... Although, according to the Rules of Alpine Life as gleaned from Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books (which I read avidly at a very impressionable age) a minor accident is actually to be encouraged, as it allows the handsome doctor who just happens to be hiking nearby at the time to rush over with some brandy and a supportive arm - from which it is but a short step to marriage, eleven children, and a dog.

Hmm, on second thoughts, perhaps I'll just carry my own hip-flask (filled with whisky, rather than brandy) to use in such an emergency, and send the doctor on his way...

And even if I do find my footwear at the chalet rather boring, I can always remember these words from Sir W, which come from the 1600 essay, 'Of Censuring':

'I hate the dulnesse of my owne feete, and my horses, when I trauel, and cherish the nimblenesse of my thoughtes, which can flie ouer the world in an afternoone.'

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Of Libraries

I spent last week wrestling with a bad cold, which kept me at home for a few days, feeling very sorry for myself and unable to do anything more strenuous than drink even more tea than usual and watch copious amounts of The Wire - to which I am a fairly late, but extremely enthusiastic, convert. I am into season 4 now and after having watched all 12 episodes of series 3 over a couple of days, I am trying to ration myself so I don't get through the last two seasons too quickly. This is proving difficult. I am also already faint with excitement at the idea of seeing Dominic West (aka McNulty) at the Donmar Warehouse this winter. Someone pass the smelling salts...

But I digress. Feeling much more myself now, I spent yesterday working at home, as I have also been doing this morning, but after lunch, Duke Humfrey beckons me to return to him. Duke Humfrey's is the rare books and manuscripts reading room of the Bodleian Library - the main library for the university. Duke Humfrey himself is long dead and buried, as one of the librarians recently had to explain to a phone caller - 'No, madam, I'm not actually Duke Humfrey...' - but his library lives on. It's a beautiful workspace, and although some of my friends complain that it is too dark and gloomy for their tastes, I find it atmospheric:

A lot of the material I have to consult for my research needs to be looked at here anyway, but even when I'm looking at more modern books, I tend to have them sent here, simply because I like it so much and find it a soothing and inspiring space to work. In truth, I am simply a sucker for anything old and pretty! By now, Duke H feels like something of a home from home: I am familiar with the librarians there, and the man on the gate who records people's entrances and exits is now able to greet me by name and write down the number on my university card (or Bod card, as it's generally known) from memory. This was a little unnerving at first, although not as unnerving as the moment when I was in M&S picking up some food, when I was pounced upon by one of the Duke H librarians. He told me that my books needed renewing and would I like him to do it for me when he got back? I accepted his offer gratefully, surprised but rather smug that I had been able to renew my books and buy my evening meal at the same time!

I recognise the other 'regulars' now, too, the ones who tramp up and down clutching sheafs of papers and muttering distractedly to themselves, or who sit staring intently at an old tome in complete silence - sometimes I wonder whether they've been there so long that they've forgotten to breathe - when suddenly they'll exclaim delightedly 'HA!!' and frantically scribble something down. These moments of ecstatic discovery never seem to happen to me, but seeing them occur to other people gives me some degree of hope! When I pause from my work, I sometimes find myself wondering who these people are, and what they're working on - are they historians or literary scholars, visitors from universities abroad or from just down the road? What is it that interests them so passionately, as they come day after day? What sort of people are they? Would I like them if we spoke together? Sometimes I can get quite carried away with this - I am terrible for constructing little imaginary histories for people I see - I do it in cafes too, trying to work out the relationships between people and wondering what their lives are like. People-watching in a cafe with a cup of coffee and something sweet is one of my favourite activities. It seems that my old friend Sir W was also inclined to make guesses about the people he encountered, although, as he describes here, sometimes it's better not to investigate whether the reality lives up to your imaginations! Today's extract comes from the essay 'Of Discourse', first published in 1600:

'In this time my eyes wandering to finde a handsome cause of Interruption, meete with a felow in blacke, backe again they come with their Intelligence and tel me they haue found a Scholler. I goe to this Vessell, and thirsting after some good licour, hastily pierce it, when there issueth medicines, or Lawe-tearmes: alas, it is either a Surgeon, or an Atturney, my expectation hath broken her neck. Well, these are places to grow fat in, not wise. Let vs trauell someplace else.'

Monday, 3 August 2009

Of Beginnings

Having dithered about whether or not to start a blog for some time, the lure of having yet another type of procrastination eventually won out. Or, rather, I thought it would be good training for me (and my thesis) to be forced to write a little something everyday, even if that something is also a great opportunity to actually write something that isn't at all academic... And I can't help feeling that the subject of my dissertation, the charming yet feckless young essayist Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (who was 22 - the same age I am now - when his essays were published), would have approved. After all, his anecdotal and meandering essays on subjects ranging from love to books are in some ways forerunners to today's blogosphere! 

In a nod to Sir W, I am going to sign off all my posts with a short extract or sentence from his writing, while his essays also give me my blog post title format - 'Of...' I am beginning with the opening sentence of one of my very favourites of his essays, the charming 'Of Sleepe' (first published in 1600). I must admit that Sir W's sentiments here could quite easily be taken for my own!

'My custome is about this time of day to sleepe, to auoide which now, I choose to write: so, if this be a drowsie stile, and sleepily done, yet if it be not worse then sleepe, I goe not backward, for it serues in sleeps room.'