I didn’t get to meet Roger Bannister…

Sir Roger BannisterBut when I was editing Oxfordshire Life magazine, and the idea was pitched that we included an interview with Sir Roger Bannister to mark his 80th birthday, I jumped at the chance to give readers an insight into his latter years in Oxford.

Meeting your heroes

It’s one of the disadvantages of being the editor, rather than the writer or photographer, that you get stuck in the office pushing paper rather than getting to meet your heroes. Both Justin Bowyer, who pitched the idea, and Paul Wilkinson, the photographer, set up their own successful businesses and keep in touch via social media. Some articles, more than others I’ve commissioned as an editor, have stuck in the mind. This one because I’m a mad-keen sports fan, and because both Justin and Paul were thrilled to have met Sir Roger Bannister, and the announcement of his death on March 3, 2018 made me think of them.

The passing of one of our national sporting greats prompted tributes on all media channels and at the IAAF world indoor athletics championships in Birmingham, plus a celebration of his life. No-one lives forever. You can ask no more than you leave a good mark on the world, and tellingly, Roger Bannister rated the achievements of his professional and academic career at least as highly as his sporting successes. Had he been born in the era of professional athletics, he may have chosen to concentrate on his running for longer, once qualified, pretty much as veterinary student and double worlds medallist Laura Muir plans to do. But athletics was a gentleman’s hobby back in the fifties, and if you had to earn a living it couldn’t be through paid appearances.

3 minutes 59.4 seconds

Iffley Road running track

I smiled when I heard Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram discussing how many thousands of people would say they had been at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6 1954, watching the historic scenes, when the real figure was around 1,200. Many people will be able to say they met him during his 88 years, but not me. But I am glad that Paul and Justin did. Meeting your heroes is one of the privileges of working in our business. Being a hero – well that’s a different story.

© All pictures and text used in this post are subject to copyright by the original authors, photographer and/or the publishing company. Design and layout in Oxfordshire Life by Louise White.

The Mummies Return

In celebration of Rick Mather’s architecture and his visionary work on The Ashmolean, I’m reblogging this: The Mummies Return

Sandra Kessell

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up…

View original post 1,149 more words

The Story Museum in Oxford takes on a new lease of life.

ImageLast week I took my un-literary medic daughter and her friend for a tour of the Story Museum in Oxford. We arrived in true la-la fashion – in the maze of Oxford I couldn’t actually remember where Pembroke Street was, though I knew what it looked like – and after admiring the doorbells (see above), the work of resident artist Ted Dewan, we entered the magic kingdom of fiction, make-believe and all things creative.

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t read, she reads a lot, but her taste runs mostly to medical text books – she also has a medics’ anatomy colouring-in book, but that’s another story. She looks at me as if I’m a little odd when I rhapsodise about fiction. I suppose we need doctors as well as writers.

The Story Museum has found a home in Rochester House, supposedly built on the site of an inn frequented by Samuel Johnson when he was at Pembroke College (you can tell the stories here are going to run and run). It has served as Master’s lodgings and a Royal Mail, for which read GPO if you’re as old or older than I am, sorting office. Behind the main front door is another front door, with a sliding hatch and a circular counter, ideal for popping a head out of, if anyone felt so inclined. Everything about the house is “Just right” as Golidlocks might have said. There are stairs winding endlessly up to proper untouched writers’ garrets in the top of the house, creaky floorboards, wacky blackboards and odd signs on doors – which writer in residence Michael Rosen is keen to keep.

“Only dragons are allowed to smoke in the courtyard” proclaims one notice as we step into the world beyond the main Victorian building to a series of 1930s warehouse-like offices and rooms which flank all sides. One can feel (if one’s not a medic) oneself being pulled into the world of make-believe as posters and card-board cut-outs from the city’s last Alice Day stare out of windows.

“Who or what made the huge holes in the walls?” I ask Cath Nightingale, the museum’s press officer, imagining giant masonry-eating rodents still living in the corridors and roof spaces. The answer is much less poetic. Before taking on the lease, the Story Museum had to be sure the building wasn’t about to fall down and it’s structural engineers’ tests of the steel within the walls that have rendered the plaster and brickwork somewhat patchy here and there.

A very generous anonymous donor put up the £2.5 million necessary to buy a 130-year lease from Merton College and suddenly, along with a vast quantity of pigeon guano, a set of keys that would have impressed a Victorian chatelaine was handed over. Other effects have been found in the building and put to good use by avid collector, inventor and artist Ted Dewan, who has set up a workshop full of the kind of things you’d forgotten existed.

A programme of clean-ups and running repairs has been started to restore the buildings to some kind of new life after the years of neglect and decay. Some parts remain appropriately spooky, others, cosy, warm and inviting. Some have an airy spaciousness, others have a dark intimacy. The Bodleian Library’s presses have found a home here, and print workshops are already being run on site. The Creation Theatre is using the space for rehearsals, prior to its next season.

With little twists of creativity and running commentaries from visiting writers present at every turn, the building is not only a receptacle of fiction but a giver of stories and ideas to its visitors. If it inspires a new generation of authors to rival Philip Pullman, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll the money spent on the building will be an investment. If it offers children a run of imagination and riot of fancy in a world populated by exams, hoops to jump through and prescribed teaching, who cares whether they go on to be writers or doctors? As long as they let their parents accompany them, everyone will gain.

The Story Museum is scheduled to open fully in 2014. You can find more about it and the building programme here http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/the-story-museum/aboutus/ourbuilding/Rochester-House

The Mummies Return

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up the existing galleries, ousted the shop from the former Ruskin Gallery, repositioned cabinets (rather counter-inuitively) into the walls – and gives visitors more floor space and circulation room, making the whole welcoming and airy and – as architect Rick Mather puts it – an exhibition without dead ends.

As someone who visits the Ashmolean regularly I confess, I used to skip past these galleries and so had no idea they were home to the Shrine of Taharqa – the only pharaonic building in Britain. A gift to the University of Oxford from the rulers of Sudan as thanks for the work done preserving the country’s decaying sites and treasures, it arrived in 1936 like something from an Indiana Jones film, in 150 packing cases. Since it had to be assembled on metres-deep foundations it couldn’t be moved during the renovations and the exhibition is centred around it. But I’d never noticed this sandstone edifice before. Stripping black paint off glass bricks in the vaulted ceiling above it has allowed what looks like natural daylight to flood through to highlight its shape and throw its carvings into relief. In fact, it’s a trick of the eye – fluorescent lights have been installed over the glass because the courtyard beyond will be the subject of revamp Phase Three.

Shrine (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Patrick Berning of Rick Mather Architects explained that choosing the lighting had been another key element of ensuring the galleries evoke the exhibits’ homelands in the Nile Valley – bathed in sunlight and dappled by moonlight.

Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh ‘Jed’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Think Ancient Egypt and you can’t help but think mummies – and, possibly dry, dusty sarcophagi with ghoulish contents. I used to be scared by the exposed mummy in my home city’s museum at Norwich Castle and I was unimpressed as a small child when my school entered the Ancient Egypt frenzy and friends queued around the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition (though I’ve never forgotten how to spell the name).
These are things that become etched into the memory, but as the Ashmolean’s Assistant Keeper Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, emphasises with schoolboy-like zeal, far from being obsessed with death the ancient Egyptians wanted to celebrate life and much of what is on show does just that. Liam has the kind of earnest enthusiasm for his subject that causes journalists to throng around him as he explains each display case’s contents and he’s touchingly concerned that another of the key exhibits, the mummy of ‘Jed’ has been found to be missing his heart – vital for weighing in the balance on reckoning day.

Bringing these mummies back into the museum’s centre and treating them with the reverence they would have been afforded at death has been a labour of love by the museum’s world-renowned conservators. Using innovative and inventive methods, they have prepared both the familiar pieces and some that have never before been seen by the public. New cases featuring micro-climates within allow coffins, portraits and artefacts to be displayed in fascinating detail, while modern scans have helped unravel the stories of the people beneath the wraps.

Life After Death gallery © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Head of Conservation Mark Norman – who still can’t believe he and his staff were granted such a wonderful space to work in – the top-floor overlooking-the-city state-of-the-art north-facing studios housed in the newly built part of the Ashmolean – later explains the museum’s policy of respect and honour for any human remains in its possession. Taking us on a tour of those conservation studios (an oasis of calm now all the exhibits are back in position) he considers that the museum would never put an exposed body – for example a crouched burial – on show – and would be highly sensitive even to acquiring such a item for the museum’s collection.

The new galleries are an opportunity to exhibit world-renowned artefacts in a world-class place – but what’s on show still represents only 4 per cent of what the Ashmolean has, although Mark Norman is at pains to explain that much of what is behind the scenes would only be of interest to scholars and experts – shards and fragments – a bead, a tile, a shred of fabric, for example. Nevertheless, it’s such vast reserves that make the Ashmolean’s collections of early Egyptian material one of the most significant in the world outside Cairo.

That said, the museum as a whole is now Britain’s most visited outside London and Dr Brown (speaking candidly at lunch) said that if you think education should be free – and he does – ensuring that entry remains free is paramount to encouraging people’s knowledge. Wooed from the National Gallery, where he was Chief Curator, he is backed by a team of like-minded experts and visionaries – people like Project Director Henry Kim and Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker. Dr Brown thinks big and thinks the museum and the University, of which it is part, were lucky that the remodelling process started when financial confidence was high and funds could be secured. The current economic gloom may account for museum’s ongoing appeal – somewhere to visit on a wet Saturday rather than a trawl around the shops, perhaps.

Dr Brown always liked the way people popped into the National between train journeys or to see one or two things on their way to somewhere else and that’s something he’s been successful in translating into the cosmopolitan, but small, city of Oxford.

The Ashmolean’s newest galleries won’t appeal to everyone – there will always be naysayers who will dislike the smart-phone-like information guides and headsets and will gripe about the price of a coffee in the basement café (the top-floor dining room is invariably packed at lunchtime, so clearly no-one minds the prices there). But as my son – then aged 12 – remarked when the Ashmolean re-opened in 2009, entry is free and they do have to make their money somewhere. The profit from these ventures last year was £3 million and a large amount of that was creamed off and put back into running the museum, Dr Brown revealed while eating a sandwich. You can always take your own sarnies with you and sit on a bench somewhere quiet to save cash. Visiting the Ashmolean needn’t cost more than the price of a bus ticket – and that can’t be bad in these times of austerity.

Favourite things:

Min statue (3300BC)
Carved silkstone figure 3600-3500BC
Clay lion (2686-2175BC)
Protective amulets (on loan from Queen’s College)
Painted wood portraits
Artist Angela Palmer’s re-creation of a young child on 111 glass slides

Ashmolean Mummy Boy by Angela Palmer © Richard Holttum

Don’t miss

The Master Drawings exhibition 25th May-18th August 2013

For more information about the Ashmolean Museum and all its exhibits visit www.ashmolean.org or tel: 01865 278000.
Admission is free, donations are welcome.

*Please note images here have been used with the permission of The Ashmolean Museum Press Office & The University of Oxford.

Give World Book Night a Chance

It’s a little earnest, this post, but heartfelt, nonetheless.

Three weeks ago I was delighted to learn my application to be a World Book Night giver had been successful.

I’ve copied below the text I understood to be the essence of WBN, which all donors were asked to read before they undertook to be a giver and I’ve underlined the section I considered most relevant as I filed my application and stated why I’d like to be part of this big giveaway.

From today, 2 December 2010, members of the public are invited to apply to be one of the 20,000 givers of 48 copies of their favourite book chosen from a carefully selected list of 25 titles. Most givers are expected to be passionate readers who will take pleasure in recommending a book they love to other readers. However, World Book Night will also encourage givers to pass the books on to others who either may be reluctant readers or who are part of communities with less access to books, bookshops and libraries. 960,000 books will be distributed by givers and a further 40,000 will be distributed by WBN to people who might not otherwise be able to participate.

I stated in my “pitch” to the organisers (every potential WBN giver had to do this) that I wanted to give my books to refugees and/or asylum seekers living in my locality. Buying new books, for me, is better than any other form of shopping – clothes, food, shoes, jewellery, anything – and anyone giving me a book for my birthday will be elevated in my estimation – regardless of the book, regardless of the content, regardless, even, of whether or not I already have a copy on my increasingly groaning bookshelves. I hoped to pass on or renew that yet-to-be-read anticipation to people who might love reading but for whom a new book is, or has become, a luxury or to people for whom reading is a forgotten or undiscovered pleasure. I recognise the loss of reading material would have been the least of their worries as they fled from war, famine or persecution, but while sanctuary, food and shelter are primary needs, friendship and understanding are fundamental to well-being and books are gifts of the heart. Without wishing to appear patronising, ignorant or seeking to stereotype, books are an opportunity to escape real world troubles and slip into another place, even if it’s only for a chapter or two.

To be honest, I was dismayed to learn that some givers are viewing March 5th 2011 as an occasion to treat their mates to a freebie. As far as I understood it, World Book Night was never about giving readers a chance to donate the books they were allocated to readers who could easily buy their own copies and who may already support writers and booksellers. There have been some gloom-mongers, sellers and writers alike, who have moaned about WBN being a blow to book sales, but you could just as easily go and picket your local secondhand book shop or village fete book stall for all the same reasons. Or do writers receive a second royalty on a £1 book bought on a hot summer’s day by a sandalled reader slurping on a £2 ice-cream? Given Susan Hill‘s recent rants, I suspect not.

In line with my original pitch and the news that I’d been selected as a giver, I’ve been in touch with relevant Oxford charities to find suitable places to donate my 48 copies of Sarah Waters‘s brilliant writing. Whilst being sensitive about the content of Fingersmith, it’s less graphic, in my opinion, than say, The Finkler Question and less disturbing than Never Let Me Go.

I’m hopeful that someone enlightened is administrating these charities, someone who will see 48 free books for their group as a gift of friendship from a sincere book lover to a recipient (or 48) who would get a great deal of pleasure from the gift. I want these books to go to people who would not, in their current circumstance, walk into their local bookshop and buy a brand-new, world-class novel. Perhaps their uncertain status means they can’t yet join a library, perhaps they don’t have the money to buy books, new or secondhand, perhaps they don’t have the confidence to try – perhaps though, they’d really like to.

I’m hopeful that in future years, when those same recipients are settled here (assuming their cases are approved) and have become part of our society, one that has, over many centuries, been created from different cultures, races, creeds and religions, that they will have their own book collections, will be members of their local library and will be buying and passing on books themselves.

That’s not to discount the pleasure a middle class, middle income reader would get from the gift of a World Book Night book. But giving to the converted was never part of this deal, I thought. Encouraging a whole new community of readers was always at its heart.


Oxford Women’s Festival

Simple Acts

Eleven minutes with Brian Conley

Multi-talented award-winning Brian Conley tells Sandra Kessell why he’s having a hard time keeping track of his lip gloss now he’s starring as Edna Turnblad in the sell-out musical Hairspray.

I can hear Brian Conley’s booming voice and deep throaty chortle from way across the Milton Keynes Theatre foyer. The actor, comedian, West End star, chat show host, singer and all-round performer is “on” for this interview and before we’ve even shaken hands he’s showing me (and the show’s publicity team) his recently re-done tattoo, gauging our shocked reaction and laughing – his trademark dimples dipping in and out of his cheeks – as he sits down and waits for me to compose myself and deliver the first question.

    • Why do you live in Buckinghamshire? I’ve lived there for 18 years. I love it because you’re not a million miles from town, and it’s quite central for me, I’m on the A40 and I can get where I want to get easily. Being here is nice, Milton Keynes is local so I can get home easily. I can’t see myself ever moving away. My girls love it, they go to school in Uxbridge, where they’re very happy.
    • Were you born locally? No, I was born in Paddington General Hospital and lived in Kilburn, then moved to Watford, then Rickmansworth – I’ve kept coming out. I’m too common to live in Buckinghamshire really. When I very first bought my house, the local Conservative person rang the bell and when I went to the door he said to me: ‘Are your parents in?’ I said: ‘No, this is my house,’ and the bloke went: ‘Really?’ as if I wasn’t capable of owning a nice house. I bet he thought I was some sort of burglar.
    • Does it take you more time to take your show make-up off than to get home from here? Taking it off is not a problem, getting it on – well, they’ve got in the show report thing that it takes two hours. I don’t know where they got that from – it takes me about 30 minutes – though I don’t put it on myself, the make-up lady does that. Michael [Ball] does his own, but I can’t. I just think they do a better job than me. I guess it will take me about an hour to get home, I’ve not done it yet.

There’s no denying I’m a bloke dressed up as a woman

    • Who or what have you used for inspiration for your role as Edna Turnblad? When I saw Michael do it I thought, ‘This is great!’ but then I thought, ‘How am I going to do it?’ But listening to Harvey Fierstein, who was the original  Edna on Broadway, and who has got a deeper, more gravelly voice than me, was my inspiration – and Divine – [who played the role in the 1988 film version] – that’s my way of playing it – a bit more grotesque. But when friends come to see me I really do camp it up. My feminine side comes out. I love it when they come backstage and say, ‘You’re so – feminine.’ That’s about the way you hold your bag, you take shorter footsteps, the way you stand – all those things I think about when I’m out there. There’s no denying I’m a bloke dressed up as a woman – a lot of the comedy in the show comes from that, and there’s a lot of confusion when he, she, is on the phone and they think they’re talking to the father of the house and when me and Les [Dennis] kiss, the audience are laughing because they know it’s two blokes kissing. You’re playing the scenes in a little family unit – your love for Wilbur has got to come across and your unbelievable love for your daughter Tracy has got to come across.
    • So, what about Milton Keynes – do you love it or do you get lost in it? I’ve never been here [the town centre] before, but I don’t think there’s enough roundabouts. The last time I was in Milton Keynes I saw Robbie Williams at The Bowl with 80,000 people. I’d like to do that – then I could do one big night – it would be great, wouldn’t it? Steve Martin does a whole routine about that, doing a big concert one night a year – hehehehehe.

I don’t drink – I know that’s hard to believe

  • But what would you do with your time off then? Because you seem to be busy all the time. Well, you know, I tick over. What’s lucky about this show – well I don’t know if it’s more luck than judgement, is that me, Michael [Ball] and Starkey [Michael Starke] are sharing this role. I’ve got some nice time off in the summer, though I’ve doing the couple of weeks in August in Plymouth, but I’m taking the whole family down and we’re going to have a little holiday down there – being a dad is very important to me. Half the things I do because my girls would be proud of me – I loved doing Chitty Chitty Bang! Bang! [playing Caractacus Potts] and this, Hairspray, if you’ve got young girls, is the best show you could ever take them to see. Lucy, she’s eight, Amy’s 13 – they’re perfect ages – they wear tee-shirts saying ‘My Dad’s Edna.’
  • Do you socialise in Buckinghamshire and go to local pubs and restaurants locally? Yeah – well I don’t drink – I know that’s hard to believe – but there’s good food around and lots of places to have fun in Buckinghamshire. I love Cliveden – it’s a lovely place to stay – although we don’t live that far away – I’ve stayed there a couple of times. And we had our wedding reception at Pinewood Studios – we only realised afterwards that we could have been married there.
  • Where’s your favourite view? One of my favourite views is from the back of Cliveden looking out on to the beautiful lawn and then seeing the Thames. And in Bray – there are some lovely places in Bray [though that’s Berkshire] and where they filmed Vicar of Dibley [Turville] – you can get some wonderful fish and chips there.
  • And when you’re not entertaining other people what are you doing? Doing the school run – being a dad – at the moment watching the football. This year is taken up doing this and my own show – The Best of Brian Conley – going away on holiday – we got stuck away in Cyprus for a lot longer than we were supposed to because of the volcano – we ended up being away for nearly a month. I haven’t got major hobbies but I’ve always enjoyed being a dad and being with my girls.  That’s one of the best things about your job – isn’t it? Yeah – though one of the worst things is you work when other people are off, often bank holidays, weekends, you know. I love it when my kids come back stage, though one time they were in the dressing room and – how many dads say this to their girls – I had to ask, ‘Which one of you has been using Daddy’s lipgloss?’ Hehehehehe.
  • If you weren’t an entertainer what would you be, then? I don’t know – I’ve always done this – I’ve never had a proper job – I suppose I would be a second hand car dealer with the gift of the gab. Maybe in my younger day I would’ve done that. Maybe now I’d be a bloomin’ recluse.
  • No! Hehehehehe.

<Dates refer to 2010> Brian Conley plays Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at Milton Keynes Theatre from September 20 to October 9 (tel: 0844 871 7652) and at Oxford New Theatre from October 12 to October 23 (tel: 0844 847 1585). See http://www.hairspraythetour.com for more details.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

I love the new Ashmolean, that’s to say – the same familiar old Ashmolean, but with a multi-million pound new interior following last year’s 10-month redevelopment. It’s been money well spent, since visitor numbers have soared and even the most recalcitrant 12-year-old was wowed by the exhibits there this summer. And he has opinions he could fill a weekly newspaper column with and turn of phrase to melt off your eyebrows, to boot. Left to his own devices, he was particularly taken by the displays of artefacts from India and made a point of showing off his finds to us before we had lunch in the chic downstairs café. The prices there are not cheap, but as my son commented, entry is free and they have to make some money somewhere.

Oxford as a whole is a city of amazing culture and creativity, but the trouble with being surrounded by the many intellectuals living and working within its boundaries is their way, deliberate or inadvertent, of making you feel you’ve wasted your life if you’ve pursued the less than cerebral. As a journalist I tend to glean a little about a lot of things from those who have made their mark on the world. My job has been to specialise in nothing and to record other people’s stories.

Yesterday James and I attended the preview of  The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy the first major art exhibition at The Ashmolean’s temporary exhibition gallery, one of the nation’s newest and most important.

Monna Vanna, (Belcolore) 1866. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Oil on canvas. ©Tate, Britain

Pondering what I knew about the Pre-Raphaelites as we travelled into Oxford, I came up with the following:

  • They had strong Oxford connections.
  • They painted florid pictures of women in pouty poses.
  • They had over-long and elaborate names.
  • A former volunteer at The Ashmolean left some important paintings (see below) to the museum on her death, though you’d be unwise to believe reports she was ignorant of the significance of her bequest.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Music, 1877. Oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fearing my own ignorance would be glaring in the face of experts, I was relieved by my husband’s assurance at the door (later confirmed by the curator Colin Harrison), that the Pre-Raphaelites had chosen a misleading title for their movement and that perhaps the best-known of their number, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the son of an Italian exile, never visited his fatherland. He also swapped his names around to make himself appear more interesting.

What surprised and pleased me most, however, was the inclusion of so many simple pen and ink drawings in the exhibition.

View of the Palazzo Grimani to the Palazzo Bembo, Venice, 1870. John Ruskin (1819-1900) Pencil and watercolour on paper. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

There are sketches of Italian architectural details, since some of the brotherhood did travel, studies in pencil and half-finished compositions.

Il Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 1867. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Watercolour on paper, laid on panel. ©V&A Images
Florence from Bellosguardo, 1863. John Brett (1831-1902). Oil on canvas. © Tate, London.

There are landscapes in watercolour and portraits in coloured chalks, precise reproductions of mosaics and images to delight the eye and lift the heart. I found my pre-conceptions about The Pre-Raphaelites turned upside-down. There’s so much more on display than the popular portraits that had danced in my head on hearing the title of the exhibition, though for fans, these are on show too.

Viewing Jacob and Rachel, by William Dyce, made me appreciate the skill and dedication of the artists, each brush stroke is visible in minute detail, each hair carefully placed.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, 1857. William Dyce (1806-1864). Oil on canvas. © Private collection

The painstaking accuracy of Frank Randal’s faithful reproductions of Byzantine mosaics is nothing less than extraordinary.

Some of the exhibition works have been lent to the museum by the likes of composer and collector Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, others, not seen by the public for more than 150 years, have been lent by anonymous private collectors, yet more are on loan from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim at the Ravenna Museum of Art earlier in the year, so, as the Ashmolean’s Director, Dr Christopher Brown, pointed out, by being generous to the public, some people have been looking at a bare patch on their wall since February.

Tree of Life, 1888. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. © V&A Images

If you have an hour or so to spare between now and December 5th, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. Entry to the museum itself is free, an exhibition gallery ticket costs £8 (£6 to concessions).

James and I were sorry not to be able to go on the tour of Oxford Colleges, but we had to do the school run. If you get a chance to visit them, there are other Pre-Raphaelite treasures in Oxford, notably the stained glass windows in St Edmund Hall, Christ Church Cathedral and Manchester College Chapel, the tapestries at various other locations and Keble College Chapel’s famous painting by Holman Hunt – The Light on the World. The murals and ceiling in Oxford Union’s Debating Hall are legendary. Watch out too for related events in Oxford, including lectures, talks and tours, music, drawing masterclasses and Italian films.

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford. OX1 2PH. www.ashmolean.org.

Please note: The use of images is strictly with prior permission from the Ashmolean Museum Press Office, University of Oxford.

Curiouser and curiouser

I’ve had a very weird writing experience today. Having agreed to write with Roma Tearne, who has a residency at Blackwell Bookshop in Oxford this week, we compared our first chapters this afternoon over her kitchen table.

Last night as I wrote my chapter, which will be chapter 2 in her “Between The Lines” publication, I worried that since neither of us had a clue what the other was writing anything could happen and the book might read like an explosion in an imagination factory. We hadn’t collaborated at all on the subject matter. She had set no themes, suggested no plot and made no pointers. As I logged on to my MacBook I wondered how on earth the two chapters would look side-by-side.

Over a lunch of bought baguettes with novelist Ali Shaw and a friend of Roma’s called Ned, who had turned up on her doorstep out of the blue, we each drew out the first page of our 1600-words of manuscript. My mouth fell open and I looked into Roma’s eyes as she read aloud. There was  common thread, there were similarities in our thoughts, we had even, get this, both mentioned buns! Feeling slightly spooked by the experience I dashed off to Blackwell’s to see what was going on in the shop so I could document my thoughts on the Blackwell Blogsite (see the link to the right of this posting).

On returning to Roma’s house to pick up my car she beckoned me in through her front door. The weirdness wasn’t lost on her either. We decided it’s chemistry that has caused this coincidence. And the fact that we’ve discussed other things since we first met about three months ago, when I interviewed Roma for a magazine.

Tonight Roma’s going to take my character and run with her in Chapter 3, I’m going to take hers and develop him into Chapter 4.

So I’m going to keep this blog brief and get on with the other writing. I’ve got a day job as well which I’m trying to ignore this week, besides my other role as Mummy, so it feels very busy as well as hugely exciting. At the weekend I’m heading off to Bath for a break. I think I’m going to need it. My mind is whirring.

And we’re off

I’m looking forward to an exciting time guest blogging at Roma Tearne’s residency site at Blackwell Bookshops for the next couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean I won’t be here as well, you never know I might manage both. If you want to see what’s scheduled click here or use the blog links on the right of this page.

Thoughts on writing, not writing

It’s almost a year since I was made redundant from my job as a magazine editor, but don’t cry for me, my dear reader, the truth is, I never loved it. It took several phone calls and a meeting to convince me to switch from freelance writing to taking up a red pen again and after a couple of months I found myself telling my bosses I was resigning, though I allowed myself to be persuaded to sit back down in my chair and give it another whirl. The 18 months I spent in the job reinforced something I already knew about myself, that I’m much happier dreaming up and creating articles than editing them and that I get a real buzz out of capturing someone’s essence and putting it into words, giving readers a glimpse into another life – oh and that I love seeing my byline on an article I’ve slaved over (and I slave over every one). I find the job of magazine editor akin to wearing a strait jacket while trying to trampoline – not impossible, but a bit tricky and much easier if you don’t have your hands tied behind your back by falling revenue and rising advertisers’ demands.

So, since May 2009, when my husband graciously offered to support me while I really put my mind to getting a novel published, my efforts have concentrated on shifting my axis, though I haven’t given up the day job of freelance journalism completely and I still love meeting and interviewing people however big or small their story. Entering the world of fiction writing isn’t a matter of sitting at your computer and issuing forth. You’ve got to work out what you want to say, make it coherent and interesting and then, the big ask, get it looked at. As anyone who has ever submitted their beloved manuscript to a series of agents will know, this last is a heart-in-mouth process and the point I am at, currently, after I found myself the subject of a pincer movement between the BBC’s George Alagiah and my husband, who were talking to a literary agent at an Oxford Literary Festival event last month, while I went in search of an orange juice. Before I knew it, on my return, I was being quizzed by the three of them, and though the result was what I’d been hoping for, an invitation to send what I’ve written to the agency, I was most uncomfortable selling myself and became very hot and flustered in the process. I’ve stood and fronted magazine events before an audience of hundreds, I’ve written for readerships of tens of thousands, but there’s nothing quite like being put on the spot about yourself.

So here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 12 months. It’s no use bleating that the bookshelves are punctuated with celebrity dross not worthy of comparison with your own precious offering if you’re not prepared to back it up. Getting your work into a bookshop is as much about what else you’re selling as how well you can write. Start looking for ways of sticking your toe through the door as a first mission I’d advise, in parallel to finishing your manuscript, because you obviously you can’t say you’re a novelist if you don’t deliver 100,000 words. And don’t forget what getting a book published really means – that you want other people to sell it on your behalf and the reading public to buy and enjoy what you’ve written.

My voyage of discovery in this new sphere continues. I’ve learned that there are days when I’d rather clean out the chicken house than do the thing I’m supposed to love, ie writing; that perspiration is 99 per cent of the job (and I’m not sure genius comes into my inspiration, Mr Edison); that I’m not by any means the world’s next Dickens or A.S Byatt, but I do want people to get a buzz from reading my book, or books if I’m lucky enough to make it as a bona fide novelist; that there are hundreds if not thousands of people just like me, all waving their manuscripts madly; that I have to find a way to the top of the agent’s pile, especially given that he or she is likely to have another 50 brown envelopes that week to trawl through. And lastly, that I have to sell, sell, sell myself and my skills.

To look at it from another point of view, an agent has to make a living from my book too, and I’m asking him or her to stake his or her literary reputation on it to sell it to a publisher, after which, booksellers need to like it, and the reading public have to want to pay hard-earned cash for it. I’m realising the enormity of what I’m trying to do here.

If you’re an aspiring writer, your ego might be bigger than mine: you might think you’re brilliant, your lover might tell you he or she is your number one fan, your adoring mother might pledge to buy a copy – well here’s the bad news, that’s only two sales… From where I’m sitting, no longer in the editor’s chair, I can see that half an agent’s job is to discover the zeitgeist and source what’s in season, not this year, but next and the year after – which is why they’re all at the London Book Fair this week. I was due to be there too, along with another aspiring novelist and friend, who has published many successful business books but wants to switch her focus to fiction. She’s been an inspiration, giving me confidence and telling me to wear any rejection slips as badges of honour. However, she finds herself taking the long route home from Denmark and was last heard of in France, no thanks to all UK airports being closed by volcanic ash. As a result we’ve decided to postpone our 2010 fact-finding mission.

Next week brings me new excitement. I’m going to be observing and writing about novelist and artist Roma Tearne’s residency at Blackwell Bookshops in Oxford, something born out of a recent interview I did with her. It promises to be a rollercoaster of a ride with Roma at the helm, since she really is a one-woman dynamo. I’m not sure what she eats for breakfast, but I think I’ll start on the same regime. My thoughts will be posted on Blackwell’s blog throughout the next fortnight and I’ll be linking my blog to the Blackwell site just as soon as it’s up and running.

In the meantime, wish me luck as I plunge on into the unknown and await the agent’s verdict on my manuscript – my fingernails are down to the quick.

I should add that I contributed to a book that came out this month – not fiction but food. Here’s the link to the publisher punkpublishing

Taste Britain
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