News Archive

News archive 2004-2008

HISTORIAN SOLVES PORTRAIT MYSTERY

Not every author can claim that their research into a book has enriched the nation’s artistic heritage but WiO’s Helen Rappaport managed just such a feat while working on her study of the role of women in the Crimean War. The story of what happened is a remarkable one. Five years ago an Oxfordshire art dealer bought a framed print in a car boot sale at Burford. Puzzled to find a signature and the date 1859 on the print’s backing board, he took it out of the frame and discovered that the backing board was actually a painted portrait, with the artist’s signature on the reverse. Without identifying the subject of the portrait, the dealer sold the painting again at a local auction in Shipston-on-Stour.This time it was bought by an art dealer who recognised the medals worn by the sitter as Crimean War decorations and tentatively identified the mystery subject as as Mary Seacole, the Jamaican born woman who cared for British troops during the war despite having been turned down as an official nurse by the war office. In order to confirm the sitter’s identity, the art dealer emailed a photo of the portrait to Helen Rappaport who was at that point researching into the Crimean War for her book.

Helen Rappaport with the Seacole portrait. Click to enlarge.‘As soon as I opened the email and saw the image I almost fell off my chair,’ Helen would later tell the Guardian. ‘I knew immediately it was her.’ She then decided to buy the painting herself and has since generously placed it on extended loan at the National Portrait Gallery.’Every biographer fantasises about finding a lost letter. It is even more extraordinary to find a lost image. There are so few portraits of Mary Seacole – an early pastel from the 1840s, cartoonish images from Punch and the London Illustrated News. And this is such an iconic image, of a proud, dignified, self-possessed woman.’ (For a larger version of Helen with the portrait, click on the thumbnail above.)

The book Helen was working on has now been published by Aurum as No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. To mark its appearance she was interviewed on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour. To read a brief introduction to this interview on the BBC website, click here. To listen to the interview with Helen and her fellow historian Christine Kelly (editor of Mrs Duberly’s War: Journals and Letters from the Crimea, OUP), click here. (To listen to the clip you will need RealPlayer which can be downloaded from the BBC website if you don’t have it already).Helen’s book has recently been reviewed in the Times. By a curious coincidence the author of the best-known biography of Mary Seacole, Jane Robinson, is also a WiO member – and was indeed one of its founder members. To read about Jane’s book, click here. To visit her beautifully designed website, click here.

AN ATHEIST THOUGHT FOR THE DAY

The BBC has long clung to its Reithian heritage by keeping its Thought for the Day slot as the exclusive preserve of religious believers. This has not gone down well with adherents of one of the more miltant faith-groups in the country, by which I mean humanists of the Dawkinist tendency, whose belief in unbelief sometimes seems to give rise to the kind of passionate intensity one associates with more traditional forms of zealotry. Nigel WarburtonIn view of this I am pleased to report that when WiO’s Nigel Warburton recently gave a podcast atheist Thought for the Day on the website of the Scottish Humanist Association, there were no signs of such zealotry. To listen to Nigel’s brief, elegant and engaging meditation on death and the meaning of life, click here.It still seems a little odd, though, that in the devotional material which accompanies these podcasts, a philosopher, of all people, should be making the implicit claim that Socrates was an atheist. For this, surely, is what A. C. Grayling is suggesting when he compares the tradition of religious belief with ‘The far richer and longer-standing humanist tradition, stemming from Socrates to our own day’. The idea that Socrates was an atheist ought surely to be recognised as belonging just as much to the realm of superstition as belief in the Virgin Birth. Plato himself, who was rather more closely acquainted with the Socratic method than A.C. Grayling, certainly thought so, describing the charge that Socrates did not believe in any god as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘absurd’. But then of course there are others who maintain that there is no evidence that Socrates ever existed and that Plato simply made up the words and wisdom he attributed to him. Alas, the problems associated with establishing the foundations of unbelief do not seem to be any simpler than those associated with establishing the foundations of belief . To read Nigel’s thoughts on other matters, go to his lively weblog virtual philosopher. In view of the site’s epigraph (‘If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself’ John Searle), it’s perhaps not surprising that one of his recent posts should have taken issue with Raymond Tallis over his choice of a book to take to his desert island. And he’s surely right. Why on earth would an author who has made his reputation by attacking verbosity and obscurantism in the humanities choose to take with him Heidegger’s Being and Time, which Nigel politely describes as ‘one of the most obscure books of the twentieth century’? It’s true that one of the comments sent in to Nigel takes issue with this view. But Bob, the author of another comment, is not convinced by this expression of dissent:

Nah, I agree with Nigel. And more. Being and Time is unmitigated, incomprehensible pap. It takes nearly a million pages to offer a second-rate pseudo-intellectual opinion that could have been written down on a post-it. The work’s enduring appeal to a small minority of devoted acolytes is a monument to the longevity and the potency afforded by obscurantism and meaninglessness.

It cannot be said that this view is not expressed with a certain élan.


WiO MEMBER GIVEN FREEDOM OF THE CITY

Click here to listen to Philip Pullman's interview with Radio OxfordTo those who ask what Philip Pullman has in common with Field Marshall Haig, Lord Nelson, Clement Attlee, William Morris (the car manufacturer), Sir Richard Doll and Click on the picture to listen to Philip Pullman's interview with Radio OxfordSir Basil Blackwell, the answer is that all have been given the freedom of the City of Oxford – in recognition either of their general distinction or of the importance of their contribution to the life of the city.

Philip, who was one of the earliest members of WiO, was awarded his honour at a ceremony which took place in the Town Hall on 24 January 2007. Impressive though it may have been, this ceremony perhaps did not quite match up to that which took place on 22 July 1802 when Lord Nelson, having been mobbed on his arrival in Oxford, was presented with a silver gilt box recently valued by Sotheby’s at between £60,000 and £80,000. Philip, however, is delighted with the handwritten scroll he received from the council and has said that he will hang it on the wall of his study.There are, it would seem, only four other living recipients of the honour. They are his fellow Oxford writer Colin Dexter, Nelson Mandela, Roger Bannister and Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Philip, who hosted a WiO drinks and digressions gathering shortly after he received the award, said: “I am immensely gratified that the city I’ve made my home has found my work worth rewarding.” Lord Mayor Jim Campbell, who reportedly gave a brilliant address at the evening ceremony, said: “Oxford has an astonishingly rich tradition of children’s story telling and Philip Pullman is a worthy successor to Lewis Carroll and C S Lewis. We are pleased to be able to confer the freedom of the city on someone who has given so much enjoyment to children, and adults, all over the world.” To listen to Philip’s interview with Radio Oxford, and to find out about progress in the filming of the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and why Philip believes that war-time rationing should be re-introduced, click here.

(To listen to the interview you will need RealPlayer which can be downloaded from the BBC website if you don’t have it already).

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If you have been waiting to hear what happened to WiO’s three runners in the book trade’s Christmas Grand National (see stories below), we can now announce that the winner was Rob Bailey’s Rude World by a short head – nay a whisker – coming home just ahead of Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare, with Sam Jordison’s Bad Dates finishing in third place. (Bear in mind that there are more than 2 million rankings in Amazon’s lists so Sam’s book still rates as a best seller.)

Congratulations to all the runners and riders and a Happy Christmas to all our readers.

The full details follow:

1 Rob Bailey, Rude World, ranked 2,538
2 Pauline Kiernan, Filthy Shakespeare, ranked 2,546
3 Sam Jordison, Bad Dates, ranked 24, 219

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DATELINE 9 December 2006

It’s happened. Of course the Amazon rankings are unreliable and should not be used for any serious purpose. But, after Pauline was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row yesterday evening, the race was transformed. It may well be that Lawson did, in his mild-mannered way, put Pauline on the spot, and seemed not entirely convinced by some of her readings. But even so she has now shot into the lead – by Amazon’s reckoning at least. Here’s how things stand at the moment at 13.44 on Saturday 9 December:

1 Pauline Kiernan, Filthy Shakespeare, ranked 806
2 Rob Bailey, Rude World, ranked 1,389
3 Sam Jordison, Bad Dates, ranked 2,735

Next update around 20 December.

DATELINE 22 NOV 2006

It remains to be seen whether the website editor, having put his shirt on Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare to romp home ahead of WiO’s two other runners in this year’s book trade Grand National (see story below) is going to have to eat his hat. But as they appproach Beecher’s Brook for the first time it has to be said that it is Rob Bailey with Rude World who is way ahead of the rest of the field. This is on the (completely unscientific) basis of using Amazon’s sales rank figures to calculate the overall race positions. For what it’s worth the Amazon ranks on 22 November 2006 were as follows:

1 Rob Bailey, Rude World ranked 1,192
2 Sam Jordison, Bad Dates, ranked 12,158
3 Pauline Kiernan, Filthy Shakespeare, ranked 20,920

This would seem to place Rob almost 20,000 lengths ahead of Pauline. But it’s early days and we know that Rob and Sam have form. This means that Pauline is almost bound to close that gap as the race progresses. We’ll see. Next update around 10 December. Original story follows.

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click for larger cover imageIt has become something of a custom for the WiO website to suggest to its readers a Christmas book written by one of its own members. Autumn may seem rather early to broach such a subject but some news is so good that it is best broken sooner rather than later. In a strong field of WiO authors who specialise in such books, including Sam Jordison (of Crap Towns fame) and Rob Bailey (author of Rude Britain), there is now a third contender – Pauline Kiernan with her new book Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. Pauline is not only WiO’s social secretary, she is also a Shakespeare scholar. Until now she has focused on on some of the more serious aspects of his work and is the author of Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama and Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe. But she has long been fascinated by the more bawdy side of the bard and puzzled by how little awareness there is, even in some literary circles, of his obscene wordplay and his risqué double-entendres. Meditating on this during one of those projectless, poverty-stricken times most writers suffer at some stage in their career, she came up with what may well prove to be one of the most brilliant ideas in the recent history of publishing. Why not write a racy and eminently filthy book about Shakespeare with a sound scholarly base, aimed at the Christmas market? It was clearly an idea which needed an agent. Pauline, like most scholarly writers, didn’t have one but this was where Writers in Oxford came into its own and she was able to pick the brain of fellow members Sam Jordison and Julie Summers. By a roundabout route, in which a crucial role was played by Julie’s agent Catherine Clarke (of Felicity Bryan Literary Agency here in Oxford), Pauline ended up being published by Quercus and represented by Sam Jordison’s agent, Susan Smith of MBA (who also represents Rob Bailey). Smith, who has a penchant for off-beat projects, and combines this with a keen eye for the commercial, was able to secure an impressive advance for her unknown client. The publisher who saw the book’s potential, Quercus, is itself relatively unknown. Started only last year by Orion’s founder, Anthony Cheetham, it is run by Mark Smith, another old Orion hand, and Christopher Potter, formerly of Fourth Estate.Quercus is the Latin word for oak and the choice of this name perhaps reflects Cheetham’s ambition to build his new publishing acorn into a £50m business by 2011. Pauline’s book may well make a significant contribution to his doing so. As the MBA website puts it:

It is amazing how little attention has been given to Shakespeare’s vulgar, lewd, downright filthy puns. His plays and poems are stuffed with the kind of double entendres and obscene wordplay that would make our most risqué stand-up comics blush. His more outrageous sexual puns have been all but invisible in editions of his plays and performances which has meant that in the four hundred years since they were written the world has been deprived of one of the most glorious and important aspects of his work. Until now.

This brilliant giftbook contains 100 of Shakespeare’s most shocking, tantalisingly-coded sexual subtexts, ranging from Wanking to Dildos (with other sections too rude to pass the censor on this site), all of them accompanied by fascinating, little-known details about sex and sexuality in Shakespeare’s day. Find out what he was REALLY saying to his audience. Read this book, and you will never see our major literary icon in quite the same light again!

Or, as Quercus itself puts it:

Despite the richness of Shakespeare’s sexual language (his work includes no fewer than 150 puns for female genitals, and 180 for male genitalia), scant attention has been paid to it till now. Filthy Shakespeare offers 100 examples of the Bard at his bawdiest, arranged under 25 sexual categories from cuckold to cunnilingus and from scrotum to semen. Each filthy passage is ‘translated’ into modern English and the hidden sexual meanings of the words explained in a glossary.

In a lively and rumbustious introduction, author Pauline Kiernan shows how Shakespeare’s predilection for rude punning had its roots in the social and political reality of Elizabethan England, where the brutal facts of life were often described by figures of speech to distance or disguise them, and where the network of government spies meant that covert communication was, for some, a matter of life and death. Filthy Shakespeare is not just the quirkiest, dirtiest and funniest gift book of the year, it also offers fascinating and surprising insights into the richness and complexity of Shakespeare’s world and Shakespeare’s language.

As the author of the alleged ‘quirkiest, dirtiest and funniest gift book of the year’ Pauline thus finds herself a prime contender in the book trade’s equivalent of the Grand National – the annual race to establish which gift book will top the Christmas bestseller charts. At the starting gate already are two other WiO contenders who, on the basis of of their past form, must be well up in the list of favourites. Sam Jordison is following up the success of Crap Towns, Crap Towns 2 and The Joy of Sects with a new book, Bad Dates, which is a compilation of stories about what happens when romantic assignations go wrong (see Sam’s website).Meanwhile Rob Bailey, who was keen to produce Rude Britain 2, has been persuaded by his publisher to go global and will soon be publishing Rude World (see Rob’s website).Rob and Sam do not only have the advantage of their past form, they also are likely to have more than a head’s start on their fellow WiO member. For Pauline’s book was only commissioned in April and she and her publishers are currently working around the clock to catch the Christmas market. Which of these three runners will be best-placed at the end of the race? Come to that, is any one of them likely to emerge the overall winner? Will it be one of the favourites? Or might it be the dark horse in the race – who in this case is also the dark lady? No doubt protocol demands that the WiO website editor should remain impartial in the face of such great questions as these, involving as they do the talents and future fortune of three of his fellow members. But the said editor has never been good at protocol. Besides which he likes, particularly at Grand National time, to have a flutter.Of course there are some who would go for the favourites, noting, perhaps, that Bailey and Jordison seem to have a certain populist edge. But remember 2003, when the winner of the book trade’s Grand National was no more populist than Marie-Antoinette. That year, it will be recalled, it was Lynne Truss’s treatise on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, that romped home far ahead of the rest of the field. It is partly with this in mind that your website editor, while raising his hat respectfully – and indeed admiringly – to Messrs Jordison and Bailey, is prepared to take the shirt from his back and put it on Filthy Shakespeare to win. Of course he bets blind since the books have not yet appeared. But you do not have to ride a horse before you back it and he is prepared to take the risk.

As is always the case with the Grand National, a live commentary on the race will be provided. Come back in November to read how the runners and riders are shaping up as they approach Beecher’s Brook for the first time. And in the meantime, if you want to order Pauline’s book in advance, her local bookshop in Charlbury, Evenlode Books, is taking orders now and will give you a generous 10% discount not only on Pauline’s book but on Rob’s or Sam’s, or indeed on any other book you care to order. This is not a special offer because Jon Carpenter, the green publisher who runs both Evenlode Books and Jon Carpenter Publishing, always gives 10% discount to all his customers not only on all the books he stocks but also on all (or almost all) the books they order specially. In view of the fact that Evenlode Books must be one of the smallest bookshops in England, let alone in Oxfordshire, the latter point is important. Of course it may mean you have to go a little out of your way to pick up your orders, but Charlbury, if you don’t know it, is well worth a visit in itself, as is its excellent museum. And small, of course, is beautiful.To order Pauline’s book (or Rob’s or Sam’s), phone Jon Carpenter on 01608 819117 or email email hidden; JavaScript is required. All copies of Pauline’s book will be signed by her.

And may the best horse win.

(For those who do not live in the Oxfordshire area, it is, of course possible to order the book online. To go to the relevant page of one Pauline’s other local booksellers, Blackwell’s, click here.)

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Sir Peter Stothard in his library at home
Our speaker at the Plough Inn in Wolvercote towards the end of April was the former editor of the Times and the current editor of the TLS, Sir Peter Stothard. For a one-time editor of the Thunderer, his delivery was quiet and interestingly hesitant, but this actually made him a particularly engaging speaker.

The evening took the form of an interview conducted by WiO’s Robin Laurance, who had himself worked at the Times. The subjects included the thirty days which Peter Stothard spent following Tony Blair at the outset of the Iraq war, and the question of how far a newspaper editor could afford to go against the views of his readers – not very far in the view of Sir Peter, who cited the case of Suez and the Observer under David Astor. Although he evidently felt that Astor’s decision to oppose the war was the right one, he pointed out that it had stretched the relationship between the newspaper and its readers almost to breaking point. In responding to Robin’s version of the desert-island question: ‘Which two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, would you take to your island?’ Sir Peter, an avid book collector with thousands of volumes in his own library (see photograph above), seemed filled with an elegaic sense of prospective loss. A classicist, he opted in the end for the Odes of Horace and the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This edition was one he particularly admired. ‘Nowadays,’ he said, ‘I rarely write anything without consulting it.’ But the highlight of the evening came when he was asked what the difference was between the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. He leaned forward with the slightly startled air of a naturalist who has been asked to explain the difference between a giraffe and a hippopotamus. ‘I would have thought it was obvious just by looking at them,’ he said. He went on to say that the LRB, an excellent thing in its way, was written by a very few people, many of whom knew one another, and almost all of whom believed the same thing. In contrast the TLS was guided in its choice of books to review by thousands of people the world over, and it used the services of many hundreds of contributors, whose views were different and in many cases unpredictable. And there was one thing the TLS did a great deal, which the LRB did only to a very small extent – review books. ‘We must review a hundred times as many books as the LRB,’ he said, ‘ . . . no, it’s probably more than that.’ During the course of an excellent evening it emerged that Peter Stothard currently writes a blog for the Times. To read it, click here.

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Donna Dickenson, WiO membership secretary. Click to enlarge. Click here to listen to Donna's Woman's Hour interviewOn top of the world
is where WiO membership secretary Donna Dickenson is standing this Spring (see photograph, left). This is because, in her role as a moral philosopher and a prominent thinker about medical ethics, she is this year’s recipient of the Spinoza Lens Award. This international award specifically recognises those who further public debate on ethical issues and past winners include Edward Said and Tzvetan Todorov. The award will be presented to Donna by the Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, at a ceremony on 28 April 2006 in the Amstelkerk in Amsterdam.For Rita Carter’s profile of Donna in the Spring edition of The Oxford Writer, click here To listen to Donna herself being interviewed on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, click here and wait a minute or so.

(To listen to the clip you will need RealPlayer which can be downloaded from the BBC website if you don’t have it already). For more about the award, vist the Spinoza Lens website and click on the Union Jack for an English version of the site.

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Click here for book detailsAlthough it is sometimes assumed that Writers in Oxford is merely a local organisation, it is in fact highly cosmopolitan, extending its influence over most of the known world.Well, it does have one member who currently resides in Egypt. Robert Twigger, however, recently returned from his exile, briefly at least, in order to launch his new book about how he crossed the Rocky Mountains in a birchbark canoe.

To read more about the book, click on the jacket above. To read ‘Bear necessities’, an article based on the book and originally published in The Oxford Writer, click here.

The book itself begins with a dream of travel:

The canoe was not silver coloured like a silver birch but light golden brown. It sat on a vast expanse of water. The water was still and double sided, reaching down into its depths through the mirror image of the boat, the trees and the sky.

To read the whole of the first chapter, ‘Pitt Rivers Dreaming’, about how a reverie of travel turned into a reality, click here to go to Robert’s website. Then hover over the arrow on the right-hand side to scroll down the page.

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The WiO website always does its best to suggest a Christmas book written by one of its own members. Last year’s choice was Stephen Law’s The Xmas Files: The Philosophy of Christmas. This year’s seasonal suggestion is not quite so lofty in tone but it’s by another new member, Rob Bailey. The fact that Rob’s photograph features in the current edition of the newsletter made it easier for the website editor to track him down at this Rob Bailey, author of 'Rude Britain'year’s Christmas party (which, for those members who missed it, was terrific – book now for next year!). It transpired that, although he started out as a psychologist, he is now the author of one of this Christmas’s bookshop hits, Rude Britain.

Published by Boxtree (the Pan Macmillan imprint reponsible for Crap Towns and the Joy of Sects, both written by another recent WiO recruit, Sam Jordison), Rude Britain seems set to do just as well. Rob says that he hopes it will now really take off in the run-up to Christmas. Since he reports that the book is already selling at the rate of a thousand a week it would seem that he does not have a lot to worry about.The book itself is a photographic and etymological essay which features a hundred British place names which sound rude but aren’t necessarily so. For more details visit the website which Rob and his co-author Ed Hurst have set up to promote the book. Or click here for a gallery of photographs.

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WHAT IS THE LINK between a WiO member, a Hollywood star of the 1930s and the technology behind the mobile phone? To find the full answer to this question and how the link led to fame and fortune for the member in question (or at least a trip across the Atlantic) you need only read the lastest edition of the newsletter. But for those who don’t have a copy to hand, here is a visual clue:

Hedy Lamarr

Click on the photo to find out (a little) more. Or click here to read the lead story in the current newsletter online.

STOP PRESS: Rob’s book has now been published under the imprint of Booksurge, a part of Amazon.

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Click this jacket to listen to the BBC interviewClick here to listen to the BBC interview

IF YOU MISSED WiO chair Julie Summers talking about her new book on Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, don’t despair. Click on the book jacket, wait a minute or so and you can listen to the whole of the interview directly from this page. (You will need RealPlayer which can be downloaded from the BBC website if you don’t have it already). For more about the book, click here to visit Julie’s own website

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T. E. Lawrence in his Oxford University Officer Training Corps uniform in 1910 - around the time he lived in the Polstead Road bungalow
T. E. LAWRENCE’S connection with Oxford is well enough known, but the details of his early life here are less clear in most people’s minds. WiO members who attended the Drinks and Digressions gathering in Polstead Road in the autumn of 2004 had the opportunity to see for themselves the tiny bungalow in which Lawrence lived during the time he was an undergraduate at Oxford from 1908 to 1910. To do so, it was only necessary to peer over the garden wall of the member who was our host on the evening in question. Members who missed that gathering (or anyone else for that matter) may take a virtual peep over the wall by clicking here. The Lawrence family had in fact moved to 2 Polstead Road in 1896, when Ned (T. E.) Lawrence was seven or eight years old. The bungalow was built in the autumn of 1908 to house the nineteen-year-old undergraduate as he began his second year studying history at Jesus College. He is pictured here in 1910 wearing the uniform of the recently founded Oxford University Officer Training Corps

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In February 2005 the editorship of The Oxford Writer passed to Edward Fenton. Edward has worked as a writer and editor for over 20 years. His novel Scorched Earth won the Sinclair Prize for Fiction (judged by a panel of five Booker judges), and he has also written for the BBC (Radios 1, 3 and 4) and Chrysalis TV. One of his other projects, Angel Magick, was staged in the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 1998 BBC proms season. He specialises in rescuing diaries of historical note and publishing or re-publishing them under his imprint Day Books. Several of his titles have featured in the ‘Books of the Year’ lists of novelists such as Iain Sinclair and Martin Amis. His fascinating website documents the results of this unusual publishing enterprise. To read his story of the encounter between Carol Thatcher and anarcho-punk rocker Vi Subversa (illustrated with a classic black-and-white period photograph), click here.

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The lead review in the Guardian Review of 18 July 2004 was by WiO’s Rebecca Abrams. Praising Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, she writes: ‘Gerhardt’s book is a much-needed corrective to writers such as Steven Pinker, who have made too great a claim for the role of inherited genes. Instead, in line with Antonio Damasio and Daniel Goleman, she shows that you can’t slide a knife between the heart and the brain. . . Why Love Matters is hugely important. It should be mandatory reading for all parents, teachers and politicians. More … FOOTNOTE (added March 2007) Sue Gerhardt recently joined Writers in Oxford. To visit the website for the book click on the jacket.

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The burning question of the day, however, is whether Lynne Truss has, as she claims, written a zero-tolerance guide to punctuation, or whether, as Harvard literature professor Louis Menand suggests, Truss is so uninterested in the actual rules of punctuation that she even names the ones she flouts.’

To read Menand’s New Yorker review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, click here.

THE AUSTERITY OLYMPICS

6 November 2008

Radio 5 has just announced that Janie Hampton’s ‘The Austerity Olympics’ is on the short list of six for the William Hill sports book of the year. 1st prize is to be announced on 24 November.

CHRISTMAS BOOK FAIR
6 November 2008

Writers in Oxford will be holding a Christmas Book Fair to showcase the work of local authors to the public, at the Corner Club (formerly the QI Club), Turl Street, on Saturday, 22 November, from 10.30 to 5.00.

Members will be on hand to sign books and to meet their readers, and there will be a series of talks throughout the day (watch this space for more details).

Members who wish to take part should contact Cherry Mosteshar (contact information in the Members’ Area of the website).

BREAKING UP BLUES
30 July 2008

Denise Cullington’s new book is described by her publisher as ‘an indispensable, practical self-help book for those going through break-up and divorce’. This may not in itself sound promising, conjuring up as it does visions of the bland and shallow advice dispensed in so many how-to-be-happy-and-lead-a-fuller-life books.

But Breaking Up Blues looks to be rather more interesting than the thumbnail description makes it sound. Denise herself, who is one of WiO’s newer members, is not in fact a self-help guru. She began her career as clinical psychologist and subsequently trained at the Tavistock and the Institute of Psychoanalysis to become a psychotherapist. And her publisher is Routledge Mental Health (who also publish WiO’s Sue Gerhardt). They have done an excellent job on their website, providing both an audio interview with Denise and a downloadable chapter.

Denise explains to me that one of the things she tries to do is look at how so many couples who split up end by breaking more than their relationships. They often do so because, by becoming locked into ‘battle mode’, they fail to recognise the many positive aspects of the relationships they are leaving. In seeking to wage war against their former partners, they can all too easily end by damaging their own self-esteem and their own capacity to make relationships. As she writes in her book:

Rage helps you feel powerful. Blame helps you feel innocent of any fault of your own – but blame and rage can whip you, and your former partner, into a cycle of attack and counterattack which – without a deliberate and determined decision to stop – can keep on going, with all its resultant damage.

Denise will, no doubt, have more to say about this and related matters when she is intervied by Woman’s Hour. The interview was scheduled to take place today (Wednesday 30 July). But, when I ring her to find out why there is no mention of it on the BBC website, she explains that Woman’s Hour have rescheduled. Instead of slotting a discussion of her book in with two or three other items, they will be devoting a full hour to it in September. This is clearly excellent news.

For those who can’t wait, just click (or double-click) on the audio player below to listen to the interview which Routledge conducted with their own author about the book which Dorothy Rowe describes as ‘A wise and practical book for managing heartbreak and change’.

Or, better still, resist the urge to go to Amazon (for the reasons given here) and buy the book from your nearest independent bookseller:

Breaking Up Blues: A Guide to Survival and Growth
by Denise Cullington, Routledge, 2008

MORE BREAKING UP BLUES
30 July 2008

Maeve Bayton, who is sometimes known as ‘East Oxford’s Queen of the Blues’, is not a member of Writers in Oxford on the strength of her talents as a guitarist, harmonica-player and singer song-writer. But, judging by the quality of the songs on her own-label CD, Maeve: Blues and Ballads, she might well be. In fact she belongs to WiO because she is a sociologist and has written a book about women musicians: Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music, (OUP, 1998).

If you would like to browse through selected pages, click to go to the Questia online version (where you can read the opening and the first page of every chapter free).

But if you are simply curious to know why the title ‘East Oxford’s Queen of the Blues’ scarcely does Maeve justice, click (or double-click) below to listen to one of her songs, ‘Willow’:

And don’t be misled by the close resemblance between the audio player here and the one for Denise’s interview. The interview is indeed hosted elsewhere by odeo. But Maeve’s song ‘Willow’ is, in its online incarnation at least, a Writers in Oxford exclusive. You hear it here first!

If it whets your appetite, however, you can listen to more of Maeve’s songs on her MySpace page. Don’t miss ‘Letting You Go’, which should perhaps be adopted as the theme song for Denise Cullington’s book (see above). Or the song which Maeve wrote in what she calls her ‘Victoria Wood moment’, ‘Inappropriate Boyfriend’.

‘THIS BOOK IS GOING TO BE A BESTSELLER’
15 July 2008

It’s late in the day to point out that you could have heard WiO’s Helen Rappaport talking about her new book Ekaterinburg: The last Days of the Romanovs on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week on 26 May. But not too late since you can still listen to the programme on the BBC website. Click here and follow the ‘listen again’ link in the centre of the page. (If you want to fast-forward to Helen’s spot, it starts at around 33 minutes.)

It was not Andrew Marr, however, who prophesied that Helen’s book ‘is going to be a bestseller’. These words were written by Susan Hill. For the full story, which also provides a fresh perspective on Amazon’s recent dispute with the publisher Hachette, read my longer piece, Ekaterinburg: Susan Hill, Amazon and the Woodstock Bookshop’.

FRANK EGERTON TAKES THE CHAIR
10 June 2008

As Julie Summers takes a well-earned rest after an outstanding three years at the helm of WiO, Frank Egerton is taking over the chair from her.

Frank will be well-known to all but the newer members of WiO as a former editor of The Oxford Writer. He is a novelist and a freelance journalist who has reviewed fiction for the Times, the TLS, and the Spectator. (His latest review for the Times was of Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg.). He is also the librarian at the Latin American Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford and a teacher of creative writing.

His first novel, The Lock, came out in paperback in 2003 and he has recently finished a second novel, Invisible. The influences on his writing are many and various, as he reveals in the course of an Arvon Foundation interview:

One of my defining influences was Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. I remember reading the TLS review of it in Chippenham library, ordering the novel from the bookshop in Chipping Sodbury, collecting it a fortnight later and reading it in a sitting. I took my dog for a walk afterwards, my head buzzing, and autumn colours had never looked so vivid, life had never felt so fresh. Not that I was entirely easy about the story — there are some very disturbing bits in it — but I was amazed by the power of the writing. Reading McEwan’s book didn’t make me want to write like him but it made me determined to write . . .

I’ve been influenced by writers such as Thomas Nashe, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), John Cowper Powys (Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance), Angus Wilson, Barbara Pym, John Wain, Beryl Bainbridge, Patrick Gale, William Rivière and Arturo Pérez-Reverte (The Queen of the South has to be one of the most compelling novels ever!).

For more about Frank’s writing, read the full Arvon Foundation interview or visit his website.

TWO NEW BOOKS AND A WEBSITE
9 April 2008

Julie Summers - 'Stranger in the houseThe news from the Oxford Literary Festival is that WiO chair Julie Summers delivered an excellent talk about her biography of Sandy Irvine, Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine, which has just been republished by RippingYarns.com. It’s an eventful publishing season for Julie, however, since later this year Simon and Schuster will be bringing out her new book, Stranger in the House.

As Julie writes in the Introduction: ‘The idea for Stranger in the House came to me on a train journey from Oxford to London. I had not long published The Colonel of Tamarkan and the final chapter, when I described the difficult adjustment to post-war life experienced by the colonel when he came back from the Far East in 1945, had struck a chord with many people who wrote to thank me for tackling the thorny topic of returning heroes. I thought about what it must have been like to welcome home a man who had been away for years, who had experienced the horrors of war and who was now expected to get on with life, to build a career, to take up with a family he hardly knew any more and to live in a country ravaged by years of war and rationing. But what about the women? How did they cope? What kind of adjustment did they have to make? How many of these women had any understanding at all of what was coming next?’ Her book will deal with these and many other questions.


Not content with two books, Julie has also just launched a striking new website, designed by Andy Ballingall. The site didn’t come into being until after the completion of the greatly expanded version of ‘To blog or not to blog: a guide to blogs and writers’ websites’. This is why it’s mentioned there only in passing. But WiO member Megan Kerr is surely right when she describes it as ‘visually beautiful’.


THE GOD QUESTION

16 March 2008

Stephen Law is the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He has published several books, including The Philosophy Gym, and recently hosted a splendid Drinks and Digressions gathering for his fellow WiO members. Soon, on 3 April 2008, he will lead a discussion – ‘There is no God!’ – at what used to be called The QI club and what now, after a change of ownership, goes under the name of The Corner Club. The event is part of Oxfringe 2008 which is is ‘dedicated to promoting upcoming literary, dramatic, comic, artistic and musical talent.’ For booking details, click here.

Like his fellow philosopher, WiO’s Nigel Warburton, Stephen is not, so far as I know, an adherent of what has previously been referred to on this page as ‘one of the more militant faith-groups in the country’, namely atheists of the Dawkinist tendency. But I can’t resist making the suggestion that background reading for Stephen’s talk ought perhaps to include John Gray’s essay, The atheist delusion, in the current edition of the Guardian Review. Gray, who is apparently an unbeliever himself, takes issue with some of his fellow infidels for the religious zeal with which they crusade against the religion from whose chains they implicitly claim emancipation. Among those he has in mind are Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and WiO’s Philip Pullman, whose Northern Lights trilogy Gray describes as a ‘subtly allusive multi-layered allegory’ which is ‘deeply indebted to the faith it attacks’.

What has emerged in recent years, notes Gray, is a new version of an ‘evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times’:

As in the past this is a type of atheism that mirrors the faith it rejects . . . Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

The full text of John Gray’s essay can be read in the current edition of the Guardian Review or online here.


HOW MANY ARE YOU?

13 March 2008

Rita Carter’s Multiplicity has now been published by Little Brown on both sides of the Atlantic. Her new book follows her immensely successful and widely praised Mapping the Mind and her later book Consciousness.
… Boldly subtitled ‘The New Science of Personality’, Multiplicity puts forward the view that we all have multiple personalities – that we are many rather than one. Indeed, she suggests that new research into the brain indicates that our occasional feelings of split personality are just part of being human.
… Some time ago Rita was interviewed about her book on Woman’s Hour by Jenni Murray. To read the introduction to this interview on the BBC Radio 4 website, click here. To listen to the interview, click here.

ANNUS HORRIBILIS?
2 December 2007

That time of year has arrived when members of Writers and Oxford (and others) need to be pointed towards the ideal WiO Christmas present. This year I’m pleased to say there are three strong candidates. The first is by Sam Jordison who now writes a regular blog for Guardian Unlimited. His latest Christmas offering, coming fast on the heels of Crap Towns, The Joy of Sects and last year’s Bad Dates, is Annus Horribilis: A Chronicle of Comic Mishaps wherein all manner of amusing disasters are collected for our entertainment. It’s perhaps worth noting that Sam’s book has been given five stars on the Amazon website in the only reader’s review to have appeared so far. And the name of the reviewer? It so happens that it is one S. Jordison of Oxford, UK. But let there be no accusations that Sam has omitted to declare his interest:

Obviously, I’m going to give my own book five stars.

Shameless, I know.

At least, I guess, I did it under my own name.

And I am quite fond of this one, if that’s any mitigation.

And, er, if it gives you as much pleasure as it’s given me, it’s a sure fire winner . . . .

Eloise MillarWhat’s even more remarkable is that the book Amazon currently recommends as the Perfect Partner to purchase with Sam’s book is the novel Wednesday’s Child (Virago) by Eloise Millar. Quite why Amazon should have selected this remains a mystery. Do they know that Eloise is Sam’s girlfriend? Perhaps Amazon have been reading Sam’s Guardian list of ten recommended books where ‘location is everything’. For there at number 10 we find none other than Eloise’s novel. But for those who might wish to point the finger it should be said that there’s no whiff of impropriety here either. Once again, Sam is scrupulous in declaring his interest:

10. Eloise Millar – Wednesday’s Child
Of course, I’m biased, because I live with the author, but the descriptions of Oxford’s Blackbird Leys estate in this promising debut are bang on the money (or lack of it). Run out and buy 10 copies – then she’ll be able to get me that Italian espresso maker I’ve been craving.

As scandals about the funding of political parties and disguised donations swirl around the country, what can one say but this: “Transparency, thy name is Sam Jordison. Step forward! Gordon Brown needs you.” It seems a fitting occasion in any case for me to declare my own (entirely disinterested) admiration for the entry on Oxford which, to the surprise of many, was included in Sam’s best-selling Crap Towns. When I asked Sam if it would be possible to reprint the piece on this website he sent me the text by return. It transpired that this too was written by Eloise Millar. Given that Eloise is herself a member of WiO it is therefore all the more fitting that her piece should appear on this website. To read her fierce and unusual view of what is so frequently regarded as an idyllic English city, click here.


If comic disasters are not to your taste it’s worth bearing in mind the second contender in this year’s WiO Christmas stakes. Why not get a copy of Classical Music’s Strangest Concerts & Characters, by WiO members Brian Levison and Frances Farrer? It is packed with stories, all strange in different ways, and all true. There is even a tale about the Argentinean cellist Ennio Bolognini taking a Great Dane to a recording studio and tying it to his chair leg. He had won the dog while gambling the previous night. The dog began to explore the studio as Bolognini was playing Massenet. As the cellist continued playing Massenet with his chair being pulled this way and that, he was followed by a technician with a microphone looking increasingly desperate. Modest as ever, neither Brian nor Frances has yet awarded the book an Amazon 5-star review but perhaps they will now take a leaf out of Sam’s book.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas, however, without another rude book by WiO’s Rob Bailey. I do seem to recall that last time I talked to Rob at one of WiO’s summer parties he declared his intention to have a book-free year so that he could concentrate on his day-job as a clinical psychologist. But maybe that was last year. Or maybe he was prevailed upon to change his mind by a cheque-book-waving publisher. Wherever the truth may lie, the fact is that this Christmas sees the publication of a successor to Rob’s two previous forays into the territory, Rude Britain and Rude World. The new book is called, Rude UK. You can read Rob’s own tongue-in-cheek piece about the book in today’s Independent on Sunday.

THE FORGOTTEN GENIUS?

2 December 2007

There is no known connection between Writers in Oxford and John Cowper Powys or his new biographer Morine Krissdóttir. But, as has been noted previously on this page, WiO has never been provincial in its outlook. It therefore seems fitting occasionally to feature items here of more general literary interest.

For anyone who may have lost faith in the art of reviewing there is a piece in the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement which should in itself be sufficient to restore that faith. The review in question is by Margaret Drabble and its subject is the new biography of Powys, Descents of Memory. For those, and there must be many, who have never heard of Powys, it is perhaps the words of George Steiner which best convey the measure of the esteem in which he is held by some of those who have. John Cowper Powys’ works are, Steiner wrote in the New Yorker, ‘the only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared to the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky … with an immensity to which only Blake could provide a parallel in English literature’.It is not only his novels of which this could be said. For Powys’s own autobiography is, as Drabble puts it, ‘one of the most astonishingly frank … since that of Rousseau.’ Her wonderful review does much to explain both the stature of Powys and the reasons why he has been so neglected. But it also manages, as good reviews should, not to eclipse the book under consideration but to focus the reader’s curiosity, and what might be called their ‘reading-appetite’ on it. I, for one, am won over. With all due respect to my fellow WiO members, Jordison, Levison, Farrer and Bailey, I now know which book it is I most want to find in my Christmas stocking.

LITERASCRIBE – A WiO BOOKS BLOG

9 October 2007

Lorna FergussonWhen one of Lorna Fergusson’s creative writing students recommended that she should start a blog she was initially tentative. Quite apart from anything else, how would a technophobe like her ever manage to set one up? But there were also obvious advantages to consider. Ever since her first novel, The Chase, had been published by Bloomsbury, she had often thought about starting a website but had been put off in part by the expense. Websites, she observes, can all too easily end up ‘costing a fortune’. One of the great advantages of setting up a blog, as her student had impressed upon her, was that it was free. The other great advantage, as she was soon to discover, was that it was surprisingly easy. Half-an-hour after she sat down at her computer that evening her very own blog, literascribe, was up and running. ‘I take the view that if I can do it,’ she says, ‘anyone can do it.’ If now, after several months, Lorna is still blogging, it is because she finds she enjoys the particular kind of writing that this new medium allows. In the first place she can use it to communicate her love of books and of the business of writing: ‘Hell for me would be a desert island with no books – in fact anywhere with no books!’. But it’s also because she finds it a good way to keep in touch with the students she used to teach and her literary friends.

This is not all:

The next reason is the reason one has for any kind of writing – it’s communication of thought, idea, opinion, feeling. It’s finding your voice, making your mark. It’s saying ‘Here I am’. It is, as someone said, egosurfing (the term for Googling your own name – hands up all those of you who’ve done it. Yes, you at the back – that includes you). It’s expression of your own individuality in the hope that someone out there will hear and respond. Of course, now that blogging is so incredibly popular, you’re calling out your name in a huge stadium of competing voices (‘I’m Spartacus!’ ‘No, I’m Spartacus!’) – how can you be heard? Well, initially you’re heard by one or two, and if you’re lucky, they tell one or two others who listen in, and so on and so on.

One of the many attractions of literascribe is that, in addition to doing all this, it also has a story to tell. The plot of this particular story is one which many writers are familiar with. It is not so much The Chase as The Wait – the long agonising wait for publishers to make up their mind about your latest book. In Lorna’s case her new book is a departure, for she has written a children’s novel which, as every reader of her blog knows, is now in the hands of her agent and doing the rounds of various publishers. The great question is what is going to happen next? As with all good plots the only way to find out is to keep on reading. And the only way to do that is to follow in the footsteps of the WiO website and add literascribe to your list of favourites.

TREVOR MOSTYN, REUTERS AND GREEN COLLEGE

9 October 2007

Click for Trevor Mostyn's websiteReaders of this website, or of the Oxford Writer, may well recall Trevor Mostyn’s account of his visit to Belarus which was published here two years ago. That mission was undertaken on behalf of English PEN’s Writers in Prison committee of which he is the vice chairman. More recently, Trevor has taken on another role in Oxford itself. After a long career as a journalist, publisher and consultant in the Arab world, Iran and India, he has been appointed to run the Journalist Fellowship Programme at The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. One of his principal roles is to organise a programme of lunchtime seminars at Green College, the Institute’s home. The first of these seminars took place on Wednesday 10 October when the Israeli historian Illan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, gave a stimulating talk entitled ‘The Self-Censored Watch Dog: The Israeli Media and the Palestine Conflict’. For the full programme of future talks, click here. For Trevor Mostyn’s new website, click here.

STEVEN PINKER AND WiO

9 October 2007

No, Steven Pinker has not recently been accepted as a member of Writers in Oxford. But since the review pages are abuzz with news of his most recent book, The Stuff of Thought, it seems appropriate that this website should bring you a distinctive Oxford view of his latest achievement as seen through the eyes of WiO’s Rita Carter.Rita, a science writer who specialises in books about the human brain, is the author of the bestselling guide to neuroscience, Mapping the Mind. Last week she reviewed Pinker’s latest book for the Daily Mail. TheClick for Rita Carter's website reference she makes in her review to Pinker’s rock-star good looks is by now, as she intimates, uncontroversial. However, this is perhaps a suitable occasion to recall that Pinker is not the only scientist to sport ‘cascading curls’. Those who think otherwise have failed to study one of the most significant scientific associations of all time. I speak of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. In the words of the club’s website:

The project was first announced in mini-AIR 2001-02. The initial list, assembled by a subcommittee comprised of seven members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was meant as a nucleating seed, from which a larger list could grow. The first member, chosen by acclamation, was psychologist Steven Pinker, whose hair has long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study. From that lone, Pinkerian seed, there has grown a spreading chestnut, black, blond, and red-haired membership tree, which you can see below and on the other LFHCfS web pages

To go to the annals of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, click here. For Rita Carter’s website, click here.