Category Archives: Oxford: The Perspiring Dream

The Fair Queen and St Giles

Oxford has this week been turned over to the annual St Giles’ Fair. It has been the traditional riot of lights, colour, and smells (some good, some less so)… I always feel that it is such a shame that the fair is not held when the students are in term and can also enjoy it; however given that its history goes back to pre 1200, I guess the fair has precedence over the undergrads!

A couple of interesting snippets about the bonanza of bright lights and booze: I has enjoyed Royal patrons in the past, indeed, when Elisabeth I stayed in Oxford between 3–10 September 1567 she watched the fair from the windows of St John’s College on the east side of St Giles’. I bet she did not go on the dodge’ms though…

Traditionally, anyone with a beershop was allowed to bring barrels of beer to St Giles’ Fair for sale. The great Wikipedia also tells me that another custom was that any householder in St Giles itself could sell beer and spirits during the fair by hanging the bough of a tree over their front door. Next year I am going to make a fortune flogging gin and beer with only the help of a hanging bough!

St Giles' Fair

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Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United lose to Oxford United

On the day Sir Alex Ferguson finally announces his retirement (after collecting a modest 38 trophies during his reign at Old Trafford) I thought I would share this little gem with you.

Sir Alex Ferguson

This is Alex Ferguson in his first away game as manager at Manchester United.

What you might not guess was that Manchester United lost 2-0 to the might of Oxford United at the old Manor Ground! How things have changed!

Alex Ferguson Oxford United

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Guess Who Friday… again…

Yep, you thought I had forgotten, but no… there is just enough time for this week’s round of Guess Who Friday!

And here it is: Answers and guesses by PM or Email please…Guess who March Friday

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Refreshment Sunday

So I have given up beer and cider for Lent… I lasted a whole three days before I broke my abstinence … but that was by ‘accident’ when I drank a beer without remembering that I was supposed to have given it up… It’s been tough since then, but not too bad!

Anyhow, I was amazed to note this atop the page of the closing Evensong hymn yesterday… I should have looked up its meaning, but as it ticked my humour, I took a photograph instead.

Refreshment Sundays

What I would have found out if I had bothered to look it up (let’s be honest… it’s better that I dont actually try to sing the hymns…) is that I could have marched strait out of the church, into the nearest pub, and enjoyed a pint of wonderful beer with the full approbation of all Western Christianity… Refreshment Sundays are times in Lent and Advent when ‘fasts’ are relaxed and all sorts of vow breaking goes on… They are also known as ‘Rose Sundays’ but I have no idea why; however on both Refreshment Sundays, the colour of liturgical vestments and various church paraphernalia are changed to rose.

The good news is that I have researched a bit, and found that the 4th Sunday in Lent is also (perhaps) a Refreshment Sunday…so I only have to wait a couple of weeks more… or just hang on till the end of Lent… its only a few weeks!


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Pointless… to a degree.

Our clever friends across the pond have worked out that not all college degrees are created equal. According to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, your choice of college major substantially affects your employment prospects and earnings. Who would have thought it!

Having spent the last ten years pottering about with Anthropology, Tibetology, and other dark arts, I was AMAZED to learn that my earning potential is limited when compared to those who plumped for Business School or engineering.

Quite the extent of the divide between anything that might be considered an -ology and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is however appalling. At least from my perspective… Topping the list at No. 1, anthropology and archeology represent the worst choice of college major in economic terms. Recent college graduates of the major, those ages 22 to 26, can expect an unemployment rate of 10.5%, well above the national average. When they do land a job, the median salary is just $28,000, compared to a mechanical engineer’s initial earnings of $58,000. Forbes, not well known for their appreciation of the finer points of Anglo-Tibetan relations, commented on the report here.  

Is a four-year college degree (remembering this is an American study) still worth it? Carnevale offers an emphatic “yes,” saying the earnings advantage of a bachelor’s degree over a 45-year career is $1.2 million on average. The advantage of an engineering bachelor’s is a whopping $3 million. However, he warns that if you want to pursue the arts and social sciences, you should either combine the study with a more practical major or go for a graduate degree…. great news if you have a DPhil in Tibetan. Then you are on track to earn a fortune… perhaps that will be the finding of next week’s report?… No? I doubt so too…

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Lawrence of Arabia and the Brough Superior

I know a few of you are Lawrence of Arabia fans, and I am sure most of you know of my obsession with the man and the legend.

I receive automatic emails from various auction houses whenever any Lawrence related tat comes up for sale (yes, I am that sad) and received the latest one only yesterday. A sale of autographs in Hayes, Middlesex is offering a cheque made out by Lawrence to Martins Bank Limited and made payable to Mr. George Brough for the sum of £11-3-0., and caught my eye.

First, the bad news. It’s valued at between £600 – £800, placing it firmly out of my league, and it is only a piece of paper. You can bid on the auction here.

However, interestingly the cheque is signed ‘ J H Ross.’ Lawrence was a total recluse; he flirted with notoriety and fame, but found it painful and shameful. In order to rid himself from the American journalist Lowell Thomas’s colourful and romantic depictions of ‘Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraft man in August 1922 under the name John Hume Ross, at RAF Uxbridge. He was soon exposed and, in February 1923, was forced out of the RAF. He changed his name to T. E. Shaw and joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally readmitted him in August 1925.

Throughout his life Lawrence was a keen motorcyclist, and, at different times, owned eight Brough Superior motorcycles. These beasts (and look them up… they are beautiful monsters) were either provided to Lawrence by George Brough, or he purchased them at a reduced price in a sort of early celebrity endorsement. (It is possible that the cheque carries a red ink bank cancellation through the signature as it was rejected by Brough.)

The date on the cheque is 11th June 1929, and as any TEL fan will tell you, this was the year that he purchased the bike that he called George VI (UL 656), it was his seventh Brough. A Brough typically cost about £150 new (more than an average sized house in those days) so this was either a part payment, or a token sum for the machine. Inicidentaly, Brough only produced 139 bikes in that year, but was already flirting with the idea of manufacturing cars as well as bikes. This cheque would have been for the SS100 (Super Sports), powered by the twin-cam KTOR JAP V twin (J. A. Prestwich of Tottenham) These were fast bits of kit; in 1927 George Brough achieved a record 130 mph on the SS100 and in 1928 Brough broke his own record with 130.6 mph. In 1932 Ronald Storey achieved 81,08 for the standing half-mile at Brighton, and in 1939 Noel Pope secured an all time Brooklands track record lap time of 124.51 mph on an SS100.

But it was all to end in tragedy. At the age of 46, two months after leaving the Army, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his eight Brough in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later on 19 May 1935. His final Brough is still preserved in the Imperial War Museum.


Filed under Oxford: The Perspiring Dream, Technology, Timology

Bunga Bunga! Archbishops and Archpranksters

There are few things in life more satisfying than when a really good prank comes off… one of those that require a little planning, brass, and normally take a gentle rise out of the pompous old guard. If you have not read it then The Spiritual Quest of Francis Wagstaffe of a masterpiece of this genre written by a dear friend of mine David Johnson (you might know him as the drunk vicar…)

Wagstaffe wrote to prominent people, mostly Anglican bishops, but also others including  Ted Hughes, Roy Jenkins, Cilla Black, Rocco Forte, Stella Rimington, and Melvyn Bragg as well as organisations including the Royal Air Force, the Royal Artillery, the BBC, British Rail, Madame Tussauds, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Russian Embassy. In each and every case these bastions of British society are fooled and ridiculed by Wagstaffe. 

In the earlier letters he poses as a purveyor of Cumberland sausages and former prep school proprietor who is seeking guidance on the Christian faith, and in the later letters he poses as His Grace the Most Reverend the Archbishop of the Old Northern Catholick Church of the East Riding Mar Francis II Metropolitan and Primate, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Saint John of Beverly (1st Class).

The Spiritual Quest of Francis Wagstaffe supported St Peter’s Young Homeless Support Centre in Highfields, and is still available here on Amazon. If you want the book to hold its value, dont allow David to sign it… the unsigned editions are much rarer, and mercifully now beyond the edict of the Bishop of Northampton…

Anyway, where was I… Oh yes, pranks. I only discovered the infamous ‘Dreadnought hoax’ a few days ago, and it’s a real gem… the pride and top brass of the Royal Navy were taken in hook, line, and sinker by a certain  Horace de Vere Cole and some of his more famous friends of the Bloomsbury Group.

 The hoax was devoid by Cole who tricked the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, the warship HMS Dreadnought, to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals. It must be hard to imagine a battleship more impressive than The Dreadnought; Her entry into service in 1906 represented such a marked advance in naval technology that her name came to be associated with an entire generation of battleships, the “dreadnoughts”, as well as the class of ships named after her, while the generation of ships she made obsolete became known as “pre-dreadnoughts”. It was quite literally, and if you can forgive the pun, a ‘sea change’ in naval technology. She was the RN’s new darling, the pride of the fleet, as well as being the most awesome piece of technology on the planet.

All the more amazing was that Cole and five friends—writer Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), her brother Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and artist Duncan Grant—who disguised themselves with skin darkeners and turbans, were welcomed abroad the mighty ship as visiting dignitaries.

On 7 February 1910 the hoax was set in motion. Cole organised for an accomplice to send a telegram to HMS Dreadnought which was then moored in Portland, Dorset. The message said that the ship must be prepared for the visit of a group of princes from Abyssinia and was purportedly signed by Foreign Office Under-secretary Sir Charles Hardinge.

Cole with his entourage went to Paddington station where Cole claimed that he was “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the UK Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth; the stationmaster arranged a VIP coach. In Weymouth, the navy welcomed the princes with an honour guard. However an Abyssinian flag could not be found. In a piece of marvellous logic the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar’s national anthem. Oddly nobody objected, and the party was piped aboard the mightly warship. 

The group inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation, they communicated in a gibberish of words drawn from Latin and Greek; they asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers. An officer familiar with both Cole and Virginia Stephen failed to recognise either.

When the prank was uncovered in London, the ringleader Cole contacted the press and sent a photo of the “princes” to the Daily Mirror. The group’s pacifist views were considered a source of embarrassment, and the Royal Navy briefly became an object of ridicule. The Navy later demanded that Cole be arrested. However, Cole and his compatriots had not broken any law… just rather dented the pride of Him Majesty’s Royal Navy.

During the visit to Dreadnought, the visitors had repeatedly shown amazement or appreciation by exclaiming, “Bunga! Bunga!” When the real Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II, visited England some time later, he was chased by children shouting “Bunga! Bunga!”. Silvio Berlusconi would have be proud.

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Is this the way to Amarillo?

Last night on the bus going home I was prating about on Googlemaps… It just about passes the time when you are too tired to sleep, and have forgotten your headphones…

I have made an amazing and important discovery. Tony Chirstie was obviously a total fool… Amarillo is really only just round the corner from Home… in fact there are only two turnings involved… how can he possibly need to keep stopping and asking for directions? I think there is a conspiracy going on there, and I shall investigate further…

For those of you who have no idea what I am going on about follow this link… but beware its horribly catchy… well catchy and horrible.

This one is marginally better if only because it raised millions for charity… somehow… what must the world make of us?… loonies!

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Tragic Timing: Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Titanic Quimby

What with all this centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and build up the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee there seems to be very little said about any other historic anniversaries or commemorations of late. So I thought I would amend that for you… especially as I have been neglecting my blog again for a few weeks. This post is all about important events that were overshadowed by other, perhaps more important events.

Anyway, on the 16th of April 1912 the delightfully named Miss Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She took off from Dover en route to Calais and made the flight in 59 minutes, landing about 25 miles from Calais on a beach in Hardelot-Plage.

Harriet (and I am sure she would not have minded me calling her ‘Harriet’… she seems that sort of girl) was quite a remarkable creature. Born in 1875 she was an early American aviator and a movie screenwriter… an obvious combination? In 1911 she was awarded a U.S. pilot’s certificate by the Aero Club of America, at the same time becoming the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. (I have a crush on her already.) Despite all this flying about she also found time to author seven screenplays that were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. Her image, in her distinctive purple flying suit, graced billboards and magazines across the pond.

Sadly however she (as Freddie Mercury would have said) flew “too close to the sun. ” Soon after her crossing of the English Channel  Harriet flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. She flew out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor at about 3000 feet, and then returned and circled the airfield. William Willard, the organizer of the event, was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1,500 feet the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both William and Harriet were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths, while the plane “glided down and lodged itself in the mud.”

But I am getting ahead of myself; the reason why you have never even heard of Harriet Quimby is that her epic crossing of the Channel occurred on the day that news that the RMS Titanic was lost reached London. The news papers were filled with lists of passengers and details of the crossing… the news frenzy lasted a month as news of survivors and their graphic descriptions of the band playing hymns on deck while the graceful iron queen slipped into the icy waters filed the pages. You might even say it has lasted a century.

The second tragic confluence that springs to mind occurred on the 22nd of November 1963. In the space of little over an hour we lost three great men… While the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and ran ‘specials’ and the world mourned the untimely loss of President John F. Kennedy we also lost two of our foremost men of letters.  JFK was assassinated at 12:30 and pronounced dead at 13:00 CST. (That makes his time of death probably about 18:32 GMT.) On the very same day Aldous Huxley died at 17:21 and CS Lewis died at 17:32. 

All three men profoundly changed their corners of the world, and were truly outstanding in the field. All three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life, and this has resulted in often bizarre novels and plays speculating what would have happened when they all met at the Pearly Gates.

One thing I do know, is that I bet they were surprised to meet each other there. I bet they also had great fun with each others silly name combinations… Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Quimby? 

But this is all a bit morbid… I promise more light-hearted distraction soon.

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Total Crap: Oxford’s New ‘Toilet Tzar’

Oxford seems to have a case of verbal diarrhoea regarding the state of its public toilets. And, as ever with the dreaming spires, delusions of grandeur about something so simple its toilets. The Oxford Mail has been exceptionally vocal on this point, and is under the impression that the good citizens of the city, and the manifold tourists that visit us, value us for nothing more than our facilities of ablution and cleanliness of the crapper.

The bigwigs on the City Council have all gone potty (forgive the toilet humour… it’s inevitable!) Councillor John Tanner must constitute a priceless gift for local journalists, comedians, and his own opposition, especially for his reported utterances such as “I would like people to come to Oxford to use our toilets” and “It is an international toilet. People come from all over the world to use the Gloucester Green toilets.

I just love the idea that tourists from every corner of the world, from Saigon to Swindon, swarm to Oxford not to swoon at the spires, nor marvel at the majestic, almost Disneyesque, fantasy world university, but simply to gawp at the Gloucester Green toilets. I wonder how many visitors from, say, Beijing, Councillor Tanner imagines go home with photographs of themselves posing in front of the public loos in Headington, when compared to the number before the Rad Cam. Hmm… and we elect these people… let alone pay them?

And what is worse is that these people do not even help themselves… in 2008, the City Council closed the toilets on St Giles, slap bang in the middle of town, over health and safety fears. Despite people taking the piss since 1895 (yes 1895!) the council said people caught short risked being run over while crossing the road.

To cap all this madness off, Oxford is now the proud possessor of a ‘Toilet Tzar.’ I am not kidding… The Oxford Mail’s very own ‘Man About Town’ and features editor Jeremy Smith has been appointed the city’s new “toilet tsar,” and proposes fresh flowers, paperback novels, and framed newspaper front pages to brighten our civic bathrooms.

I for one can’t tell if its April Fool’s Day already, or if the whole world has gone round the (U) bend…

But I declare an interest: I lived next door to a public toilet for a couple of years until it was shut in about 2010… it was basically used by drug dealers (I saw numerous junkies stretchered out of there, cold and blue) and taxi drivers. More disgusting was that when the loo was locked at 5pm each afternoon the taxi drivers would piss through the locked gate, or even round the corner in next door’s garden. It’s now used as a council bin store… and if that is not enough to give you an image of the salubrious surroundings, you can always pop into Councillor Tanner’s bookshop and florists at Gloucester Green. I would hold your breath, and hold ‘it’ in!

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