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.
'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. In 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
To 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 Sir 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).
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
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.
It 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.)
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.
On 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.
Although 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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
To read Menand's New Yorker review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, click here.
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.'