WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.

YEARNING FOR “STRONG BEER”…

…and the bitterness of life without hand-drawn bitter

The “lock-down” started to really get to me about a week ago. It actually hit quite suddenly, as we stepped out on a balmy April evening for our “permitted” once-daily ration of exercise, and I had an overwhelming desire to walk down into the centre of Oxford, to The Bear Inn for a pint of beer. It was the impossibility of enjoying that simplest, most basic of pleasures which hurt in a way more serious deprivations had failed to register.

Sure, I miss things like travelling, and meeting up with friends, and I miss terribly our Spanish finca. Yet, none of these “misses”, and many more “misses” besides brought home the severity of the restrictive regulations than not being able to go for pint on a whim.

One of the persistent observations made of current British public opinion, justly or not, is that it reveals a country that has become timid and which is governed by fear. Some observers have remarked how the recent Victory in Europe Day commemorations, rather than jolt our collective backbone, merely resulted in a mass national wallowing in sentimental nostalgia. And in the midst of all of this, as I struggle to make up my own mind about the accuracy of these opinions, my craving for a hand-drawn pint of bitter reminded me of a little poem I learned at school. The poem, “Strong Beer”, by Robert Graves is particularly apposite to my current condition, for not only does it imply a link between courage, and lovers of good ale, but also the fact that it was written when he was a student at Oxford, and was perhaps inspired by a session at the same “beerhouse” I so longed to visit the other evening. The poem could have been written for this very crisis.

In all seriousness, I do believe, that the prompt reopening of our pubs and taverns is essential for the intellectual and physical health of the nation. One only has to consider the many great advances in the arts and in the sciences which were achieved with the help of a refreshing pint or two in the pubs of places like Oxford (e.g. King James Bible – at The Bear), Cambridge (e.g. DNA at The Eagle) and London (e.g. Penicillin at the Fountains Abbey), to appreciate the urgency of restoring hand-drawn ale to the national palette ASAP. Judging by his poem, if Robert Graves were still alive, he would agree most strongly…

A pint of HSB (Horndean Special Bitter – by George Gale and Company) – possibly the very “brown beer” of the poem? A masterpiece of a beer in any event, on a table at The Bear Inn.

STRONG BEER

A poem by Robert Graves

“What do you think
The bravest drink
Under the sky?”
“Strong beer,” said I.

“There’s a place for everything,
Everything, anything,
There’s a place for everything
Where it ought to be:
For a chicken, the hen’s wing;
For poison, the bee’s sting;
For almond-blossom, Spring;
A beerhouse for me.”

“There’s a prize for every one
Every one, any one,
There’s a prize for every one,
Whoever he may be:
Crags for the mountaineer,
Flags for the Fusilier,
For English poets, beer!
Strong beer for me!”

“Tell us, now, how and when
We may find the bravest men?”
“A sure test, an easy test:
Those that drink beer are the best,
Brown beer strongly brewed,
English drink and English food.”

Oh, never choose as Gideon chose
By the cold well, but rather those
Who look on beer when it is brown,
Smack their lips and gulp it down.
Leave the lads who tamely drink
With Gideon by the water brink,
But search the benches of the Plough,
The Tun, the Sun, the Spotted Cow,
For jolly rascal lads who pray,
Pewter in hand, at close of day,
“Teach me to live that I may fear
The grave as little as my beer.”
Beer pumps at The Bear Inn – Oxford’s oldest pub, dating back to 1242. It’s a tiny warren of a place with a subsequently small, but high quality selection of beers, including the superlative HSB. Long since the days when Graves would have drunk here, The Bear was taken over by the London brewers, Fuller’s, and hence, this selection on offer. No bad thing though, as all of Fuller’s beers are extremely good, with their very strong ESB almost as delicious as its Gales neighbour.

DREAM-IN’SPIRE-ATION

OXFORD VIEWED from my IPHONE

One of the silver linings to our current regime of semi-internment is our daily walk around our local park, and our subsequent reacquaintance with one of world’s genuinely iconic (a much overused and abused term) urban views. Fortunately for us, our local green space is South Park (no relation to its animated Colorado namesake) and the view it offers is over the venerable and elegant city of Oxford and its famous “dreaming spires”*.

*…And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening…

From the poem Thyrsis, by Mathew Arnold, 1865

From the highest point in the park, just before sunset; the steeply sloping greensward foreground, leading gently yet intently to the gleaming city and shimmering spires and towers of the middle-distance; with the hazy cobalt-tinted Cotswold hills rising in the west; the visual effect has a kind of confidant and – in these anxious times – reassuring drama about it.

It is almost as if, this most famous of university cities, with all its generations of accumulated human wisdom, represents a salutary counterpoint to the current narrative of our apparent ephemeral humanity.

Whether or not these rather flat iPhone generated images can give even the slightest impression of this heartening scene is another matter altogether, but I do hope so.

THIS GREEN (AND GOLD), STILL PLEASANT LAND…

At the risk of breaking my rule of keeping this blog strictly apolitical, I feel the need to point out that these images date from December 10th – just two days before the recent UK general election.

It isn’t giving much away (especially to those who know me), to state that the weeks and days leading up to the election were among the most nerve-wracking and traumatic I have experienced in my life. Conversely, the moment the exit poll was announced, was one of such joyous and euphoric relief as I can recall.

Yet, at the time of the walk in my local Oxford park when I encountered these sublime scenes, I was so convinced by the narrowing of the opinion polls and the broadcast media mood-music that the election result would mean us having to pack up and leave England for good, it was as if the fates of nature were tormenting me with what I would be losing.

Looking at them now however, the images seem to offer the hope of new dawn for this remarkable little country that once again feels like my green and still pleasant home.

WALKING AWAY – or the ephemeral nature of being

The image of someone walking away into the distance has stirred my artistic sensibilities since early adulthood. I’ve returned to the subject photographically and in paint pretty regularly since about 1979, from when the first picture presented here dates (Astrud at Tel Hai).

Several of these pictures are of loved ones, past and current, walking into a variety of landscapes, urban and open, and I guess that with them in particular, powerful feelings of vulnerability, both as a partners and individuals are aroused.

Two of the photos here have special poignancy: The one of my mother Hannah with my grandfather Harry was taken on a stroll in my home town of Edgware in the early 80’s when they both still had many years to live. I took the photo on my old Cannonette camera by accident. I was meaning to line up a shot of the lake we were passing when I must have clicked the shutter too early. It was only when the film came back from the developers that I saw the photo, and even then I instantly realised that it was a happy accident in that it had somehow captured the essence of them and their relationship in a way that no face-on portrait ever could have matched. The fact they are both now dead has made this image increasingly precious to me as the years have passed. The picture of my wife Dido walking her old and frail father into his house in Little Rock is even more poignant in that it represents the last photo of them ever taken together. About an hour later we returned to the airport, never to see him again.

All the pictures here, even those of total strangers, like the chap on Hampstead Heath, have a quiet melancholia about them in that they share a sense of our human transience.

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PADUA – Stone and Water

Padua is most famous in the anglophone world at least for being the setting for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but its true importance lies in its role as one of the oldest and most important university cities in the world.

Arguably, the home of modern western medicine – indisputably the cradle of modern pathology – with strong associations to the likes of Galileo and Copernicus it’s legacy as a historic centre of scientific learning is only surpassed by Cambridge. (This is particularly interesting when one realises that Padua University emerged from Bologna University in a way very similar to the way Cambridge emerged from Oxford – at about the same time.)

However, as a warning to the prospective visitor to Padua, it should be noted that for all it’s academic glories (and a couple of fabulous artworks by Giotto and Donatello) it falls far short of most of its city neighbours so far as things like charm and gastronomy are concerned. Nevertheless, like all Italian towns, it finds a way to smile back when one points a camera at it.

Presented here are a series of enhanced photographic images through which I make an attempt to transmit the feeling of a stroll through Padua’s  cobbled streets and along her narrow waterways…