Category Archives: Oxford: The Perspiring Dream

Menus and Options…

Menus can be difficult things. Sitting in our local pub at the weekend, Becky and I were astounded by the total nonsense they had cluttered their menu with; so many superfluous words, ‘quirky’ descriptions of pub grub staples, and wildly inappropriate (and probably misleading… but we did not actually eat there) terminology for a menu. I like having a good grumble about these things as much as the next boozer bound miserable old codger, but I thought I would do some research into the ‘theory’ of menus. It transpires it is something of a science.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a firm adherent to the school of thought of using many words when one would do nicely, but something about a pie being described as “friendly” gets my hackles up. Nor indeed could a limp lump of chicken, fried to within an inch of its very existence in a greasy pub kitchen in Oxford, best be described as “Authentic”, and please don’t get me started on why burgers have to be served on a stray roof tile or plywood plinth. And breathe.

Anyhow, in a really informative article in New York Magazine, William Poundstone dissects the marketing tricks built into menus—for example, how something as simple as typography can drive you toward or away from that £39 steak, and explains puzzles, anchors, stars, and plowhorses. So now we know. It’s well worth a read, but sadly wont stop your “sun drenched, dressing drizzled, superfood, hand pulled, artisanal, 120% corn fead beef patty” (aka the beef burger) arriving on a Ford Escort’s hubcap, or rusty garden trowel.

trowel plate

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The malady of malapropism

A good friend of mine is constantly on the lookout for incorrect grammar and idiotic use of idiom. So much so it has become something of a sport for me to try to squeeze in as many malapropisms as possible during dialogue, sending him into fits of frustration and incandescent rage. It is fun, there is little else to amuse us in Oxford, and I enjoy upsetting his apple tart.

So, if you ride a tantrum bicycle, keep a fire distinguisher handy, always read the destructions, suffer pigments of your imagination, are the very pineapple of politeness, or have spread dysentery among the ranks, you might enjoy this list of common mistakes. It peaked my interest.

intensive porpoise


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The Maharaja and the Monarch

A good friend of mine, San Cowan, has just published a brilliant article about a visit to the UK by The Nepalese Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana in 1908. His research is first rate, and the article describes how the Maharaja forged close ties in the UK, especially the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Curzon was Chancellor of Oxford at the time of the meeting, and The Bodleian was recipient of a substantial number of texts thanks to the intervention of the Maharaja. These are used to this day.


A full copy of Sam’s article can be found here.

SS Chandra Group

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Bloodhound and the Traffic Wardens

Despite this being parked on Keble Road this afternoon, I did not see one Traffic Warden proffering their usual friendly Penalty Notices. Still with a top speed in excess of 1000mph (no, that’s not a typo) catching Bloodhound might be an issue. Until it reaches to a corner…





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Turning to Turner

You may recall a few months ago I found the site where Turner painted his famous Fighting Temeraire.
Turner PlaqueI have always admired Turner’s paintings, and often wondered what he was like as a person as I amble past his former home on St John’s Street, just round the corner from my home. I had him down as a tall angular figure, probably dressed in green velvet, obsessive about colours and light, and who was prone to periods of mania and melancholy.

So I was naturally keen to see Mike Leigh’s new biography of the eccentric painter current topping the UK’s box offices. In an interview on the Kermode and Mayo radio show (if you dont subscribe, you have no idea what you are missing…) Leigh described how he had tried to recreate the life and person of the painter from diaries, letters, and had paid close attention to his recorded mannerisms and eccentricities. Leigh has described Turner as “a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter,” explaining, “I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.”

Timothy Spall is unsurprisingly brilliant in the titular role. He appears is thoroughly convincing as a character, and portrays his mannerisms, cadence, and gruff exterior magnificently. My only criticism might be that he sometimes edges close to an almost Churchillian impression of Turner, and waddles more like the penguin from Batman than might be strictly necessary.

The film naturally features some stunning locations including Petworth House, Welsh Hills, Dutch landscapes and Kingsand stands in as a more picturesque Margate. The cast supports Spall well, but he is rarely off screen, and it has received rave reviews… even an Oscar tip for Best Actor and Director. One is left with a feeling of unease owing to his relationship, and I for one could not make up my mind if I liked Leigh’s Turner, or thought him abhorrent. I am not sure it should be watched as a biographical depiction of the great artist, more an opportunity to spend time in his world. There is little actual plot, but the narrative wanders along pleasantly, and you do get a good impression of the world in which he lived and worked. And if that makes us appreciate and understand his works all the more, it can be no bad thing.

Spall as Turner

And “Hello to Jason Isaacs.”

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Surprised by Joy. C.S. Lewis.

Barfield believed that the imagination plays a very important part in how we know. He rejected the model that science is the only way to truth, to acquiring truth. He felt that the imagination was laid behind even the work of science. It gave meaning to propositions. And so he felt that Lewis was missing out in his whole approach to reality on what made knowledge possible.

I was suddenly compelled to read the Hippolytus of Euripides.

“Oh God, bring me to the sea’s end
To the Hesperides, sisters of evening,
Who sing alone in their islands
Where the golden apples grow,
And the Lord of Oceans guards the way
From all who would sail
Into their night-blue harbors —
Let me escape to the rim of the world
Where the tremendous firmament meets
The earth, and Atlas holds the universe
In his palms.
For there, in the palace of Zeus,
Wells of ambrosia pour through the chambers,
While the sacred earth lavishes life
And Time adds his years
Only to heaven’s happiness”

… I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days. I was overwhelmed. I called it Joy.

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Oxford and the BBC

The BBC news site this morning features an article asking if Oxford’s application process has become more transparent. It comes as Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, is moving on after eight years in the hot seat. The article focuses on the Outreach work conducted by the University, and even goes so far as to claim that, “Admissions to the University of Oxford have become a symbol of social mobility.” I am not sure everyone would be so bold. You can read the full article here.

This is not the place to add fuel to the long running debate (but I note the BBC could not refuse the opportunity to re-post photos of poor old Laura Spence). However the headline and copy editor might want to go back to University. “Does university“?

BBC Oxford

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Runners and Writers

This week’s ramblings might seem at first disparate and irrelevant, but I assure you that this is only slightly the case… this blog, as you might have gathered, is often about links between things; not so much isolated interesting facts and snippets, but the tangleweb that connects them and us. If you wanted interesting facts, open an encyclopaedia, but it’s the connexions between things, the invisible covalent bonds of distraction that I find more stimulating.

This week I have been dipping into the BBC’s archive of Rev, a TV sitcom about a Church of England priest, played by Tom Hollander, and his inner city London church. The dialogue is excellent, and the characters feature an all too familiar line up of worthies, wastrels, and worshipers. The priest and his long suffering wife negotiate the machinations of the Archdeacon, mixed emotions of the lay reader, monetary meltdown of the parish, and even the manipulation of the local teacher’s breasts by the priest. There is even a cameo by Liam Neeson as God. It’s a gritty, humorous, and real portrayal of a “socially disunited” parish, and well worth a watch.

The church in question is know in the comedy as St Saviour in the Marshes, and is supposed to be in Hackney, East London. It is however actually filmed in St Leonard’s Parish Church in Shoreditch, located at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road. The church was immortalised in the ancient nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ by the line, “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch“.

Most of the church dates from 1740, but the original sections could date from Saxon times. St Leonard’s has strong links with the theater, indeed it is the resting place for many a Tudor playwright and board creeper. Many believe Shakespeare may have worshipped there, and even that it might have inspired scenes in Romeo and Juliet. That is if you believe a word that The Gurinad tells you.

St leonards

Some have speculated that large portions of the medieval church demolished in the 1720’s would have been familiar to Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries. The chances are that the ruins survive intact beneath the present church and surrounding land. However, due to cost and the technical difficulties of investigating beneath and around a listed building used for worship, no work has been carried out. But recently Professor Maurizio Seracini has proposed using non-invasive techniques to investigate the church and the surrounding area.

I first came across Seracini when I was working for a philantropist some years ago, and Seracini was conducting 3D analysis research into the lost Leonardo da Vinci mural The Battle of Anghiari, at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It is hoped that this tine he may unearth finds similar to those from a 2012 nearby dig that found remains of The Curtain Theater, where Romeo and Juliet and Henry V were first performed.

But there is a third connection here… This week also saw the 60th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile. On Thursday 6th May 1954 the 25-year-old medical student became the first person to break through the four-minute barrier, a feat that has only been achieved by 1,337 people since… fewer than have climbed to the summit of Everest. Sir Roger, now 85 years of age and suffering Parkinson’s disease, is still a friendly face around Oxford, and is beloved by the University and City. The radio commentary for the day remains an evocative classic:

Result of event eight: one mile. First, RG Bannister of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new track record, British record, European record, Commonwealth record and world record – Three minutes and …” the rest was drowned out by the cheering.

However the BBC has today been running a story claiming that Sir Roger might not have been the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes. Apparantly, as long ago as 1770 a certain James Parrott was wagered 15 Guineas that he could not run a mile in under four and a half minutes. The BBC paints wonderful picture of the race, describing how “with money on the line, it’s likely that umpires on both sides carefully checked the watches, locked them in a box to prevent tampering, and placed them in a horse-drawn carriage that would make sure they reached the finish line ahead of the runner.“ And that finishing line, was none other than the gates of St Leonard’s Parish Church in Shoreditch.

The result was reported in the Sporting Magazine of 1794: “1770 May 9th, James Parrott, a coster-monger, ran the length of Old St, viz. from the Charterhouse- wall in Goswell Street, to Shoreditch Church gates, (which is a measured mile) in four minutes.”

It’s the first known report of a four-minute mile. I wonder if he saw Liam Neeson on the way?

4 Minute mile

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My Amazing Find: The Ark of the Covenant

I have some serious and important news to share with you all:

I have found the final resting place of The Ark of the Covenant.

Ark For those of you who are not Biblical scholars, the Ark of the Covenant is the chest described in the Book of Exodus as containing the Tablets of Stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. The Biblical account relates that about a year after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Ark was created according to the pattern given to Moses by God when Israel was encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Israelite armies carried the Ark on their campaigns hidden under a large veil made of skins and blue cloth, always carefully concealed, even from the eyes of the priests and the Levites who carried it. It was captured for some time by the Philistines, before King David re-captured it, and it was placed in King Solomon’s Temple. In 597 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple, and the Ark has never been seen again.

Of course that was until the Nazis found it, leading to the entirely factual account given in the documentary, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see it clearly shown here and on the promotional poster for the documentary.nazis and the ark

At the end of the epic account the Ark is shown being wheeled carefully away for “study” by “experts” in a large warehouse in belonging to the US Government. But I have found it.

Indianna Jones The Americans obviously gave it to the University of Oxford for research, as it is now in Christ Church Cathedral, as my photo below clearly shows. Obviously I did not lift the sacred covering, in the knowledge and fear of the fate of Uzzah (see here if you know not of which I speak…) but I am sure it is the Ark. I wonder if the University know that they still have it?

Ark of the Covenant and Tim

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Rest and Roof Restoration

A little glimmer of good news for you all in this miserable weather; the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is set to reopen its doors to the public on Saturday 15 February.

The museum has been closed for a full 14 month restoration project on its fabulous roof which should prevent the glass-tiled roof of the museum from leaking rainwater into the courts below. The £2 million roofing work involved more than 8,500 glass tiles being individually removed, cleaned and resealed with a mastic silicone. Where necessary, replacement glass tiles have been handmade to match the Victorian originals. While all this has been going on the museum staff have been able to complete successful conservation work on a number of whale skeletons, which were lowered from their position above the court, treated for the first time in over 100 years, and then raised again in a new configuration. Additional lighting has also been installed throughout the public areas of the museum, including specially designed rings of LEDs attached to the underside of the building’s original gas-lamp fittings. They have even got round to opening a small cafe run by Morten’s (who basically run all the other cafes in Oxford…)

If you have not been to the museum, you really must go… I describe it as a Cathedral to Nature, something Sir Henry Acland, The Regius Professor of Medicine, would have agreed with. He initiated the construction of the museum between 1855 and 1860, to bring together all the aspects of science around a central display area. In 1858, Acland gave a lecture on the museum, setting forth the reason for the building’s construction. He believed that the University  should  offer a chance to learn of the natural world and obtain the “knowledge of the great material design of which the Supreme Master-Worker has made us a constituent part“. This idea, of Nature as the Second Book of God, was common in the 19th century. The museum was funded through the sale of Bibles by the University, and also houses the Pitt Rivers Museum through a rabbit hole door at the rear… In 19th-century thinking, it was very important to separate objects made by the hand of God (natural history) from objects made by the hand of man (anthropology). But more on that, and the Pitt Rivers on another occasion.

The museum was built between 1885 and 1886, and is a stunning piece of Victorian architecture. It consists of a large square court with a glass roof, supported by cast iron pillars, which divide the court into three aisles. Cloistered arcades run around the ground and first floor of the building, with stone columns each made from a different British stone. The ornamentation of the stonework and iron pillars incorporates natural forms such as leaves and branches, combining the Pre-Raphaelite style with the scientific role of the building. Interestingly, Irish stone carvers O’Shea and Whelan were employed to create lively freehand carvings in the Gothic manner. When funding dried up they offered to work unpaid, but were accused by members of theUniversity Congregation of “defacing” the building by adding unauthorised work. According to Acland, they responded by caricaturing the Congregation as parrots and owls in the carving over the building’s entrance. I hope the new roof makes them easier to spot!



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