Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Girl Guides, New Zealand Gems and Soviet Economics: it's the BBC Afternoon Bookclub in August

Still a bit dazed and not quite with it after my recent holiday (hoorah!) it was that time of the month again for the BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub - one of the books reviewed being possibly my favourite of the year so far.

As always, you can listen again on BBC iPlayer here (until the end of August). Fast-forward to about 1 hour 5 minutes, and hear me work myself up into a lather about the following five fine books...

The Art Room (HB, £11.99, Frances Lincoln)

Juli Beattie and Arabella Warner have created an inspirational book which - through 12 remarkable projects - encourages kids to turn everyday items into works of art. Both of these Oxford-based authors are renowned for working with kids and getting them creative in many different areas, and Juli Beattie was the founder of The Art Room, a charity which uses art to help children who have problems with mainstream education. This books helps raise funds for the charity - but it's also a lot of fun for kids of all ages looking to make their own mini-masterpieces.

The 10pm Question (HB, £10.99, Templar Publishing) by Kate Di Goldi
Frankie Parsons is a twelve-year-old child who worries constantly. He worries about his family, his health, other people’s health, and a hundred other things big and small – and only his Ma can sort them out for him. Or so Frankie thinks. But when Frankie and his best friend Gigs meet new girl Sydney, his regular, carefully controlled world starts to unravel – and starts to reveal a family secret. What could have been a hackneyed idea becomes a wonderfully life-affirming coming of age novel in the hands of the talented New Zealand author Kate Di Goldi. This sweet coming of age novel deserves comparisons with “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night time” – not least because it can be enjoyed by children 10+, and adults too.

How The Girl Guides Won The War by Janie Hampton (HB, £20, Harper Press)
In this, the 100th anniversary year of the Girl Guides, Janie Hampton (who won huge plaudits for 'The Austerity Olympics') has written an engaging and utterly fascinating history of the Girl Guide movement, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played by the Girl Guides during the Second World War. Like the best social history, this book is sprinkled with anecdotes, photographs (and even recipes) but never loses sight of the bigger picture: the girl guide movement and its role in the wider context of the development of women’s rights.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (HB, £16.99, Faber & Faber)
This is utterly fantastic, and it's easily a contender for my book of the year. For a very short period of time in the late 50s - released from the terror of Stalin, bouyed by the successes of Sputnik - the Soviet Union seemed poised on the edge of a Utopia of plenty, driven by the outputs of the 'planned economy'. Francis Spufford brings this period of Soviet history brilliantly to life, by writing a not-quite-fictionalised series of vignettes about life under the planned state. It's audacious and succeeds brilliantly. In addition - and quite unexpectedly - it makes us consider about our own materialistic drive, and whether there might other ways forward for society to improve everyone's quality of life...

Eep by Joke van Leeuwen (PB, £6.99, Gecko Press)
This is simply children's book perfection, by the sublime Dutch author and illustrator Joke van Leeuwen. Warren and Tina - desperate for a child - come across a strange little creature, very like a child, but with wings. They adopt it, but are shocked when 'Eep' disappears to fly to warmer climes. As they set off in search of their 'offspring', a chance series of encounters with a variety of different parents begins to teach them how all children are different - and how everyone needs a bit of space now and then to be themselves.

P.S. The latest newsletter is now online, with some exciting news about events coming up in September and October...

Friday, August 06, 2010

Pevsner, Pepys and the Mystery of the Disappearing Balcony: a Pevsner Walk around Abingdon

Back at the start of July - according to our own breathless publicity - we organised a 'unique and one-off' walk around Abingdon in the company of Dr Simon Bradley, editor of the new revised 'Buildings of Britain' series, updates of the original Pevsner guides from the 50s and 60s.

The walk was a huge success - in fact, it was more than that. Thanks to a combination of a knowledgable and passionate guide, gorgeous weather, generous volunteer help, the magical buildings we visited and event a few serendipitous elements (including a choir and bell-ringers) - it was genuinely one of the best events we've ever organised. Nicki and I are usually too keyed-up, and in full-on control-freak mode when we run events to enjoy them fully, but in this case we both had a relaxing enjoyable time.

Anyway, a lovely event. But as we limited the numbers to 50, there were lots of disappointed people. In fact, we had a waiting list of more than 50 who couldn't attend. So, as soon as the event was over, we hastily - and shamelessly - talked everyone (including Dr Bradley) to return to Abingdon and run a Pevsner walk "the second". It took place last Monday, and - if anything - was even better than the first.

Starting in the Mostly Books courtyard garden, Dr Bradley quickly introduced himself, the walk and - importantly - the Pevsner guides. These are legendary amongst those that are passionate about this country's architecture, but the full story of the workaholic German emigreƩ polymath - Dr Nikolaus Pevsner - was one we had to wait for until the end of the walk, brilliantly summarised by Dr Bradley over wine and strawberries in the Abbey Buildings.

One with the walk. It was out of the bookshop, turn right, up Stert Street to the Abbey Gateway, between the Guildhall and St Nicolas Church. As Pevsner himself said "'99 out of 100 people nowadays do not look at buildings at all unless by special effort… Those who care to embark on expeditions of their own will find that looking at houses can be entertainment as well as an object lesson, a family well as a treasure hunt.".

Dr Bradley used this small corner of Abingdon to illustrate the vast number of styles and changes that can exist in buildings - the stories these changes tell, and the detective work that often needs to be done to uncover how a building has changed. In the picture above, the 'panel' in the abbey gateway wall used to be the window of a Porter's Lodge, and when the lodge was removed and the window bricked up, the inside roof was repaired in the older style.

Above the Abbey Arch for example is a catholic statue of Mary, notable for surviving the Reformation...

...and the side wall of St Nicolas Church, for example, was rebuilt after its damage during a riot in the town.

The upper-half of the Guildhall is in a Georgian style, simply built on top of the older building - and the curious 'dangling' (I think Dr Bradley used the term 'naive') columns is actually because there used to be a balcony here - and why it disappeared is something of a mystery.

It was then across the road and down East St Helen Street, to the back of County Hall (Abingdon Museum). Pevsner didn't mince his words about this building in 1966: "Of the free-standing town halls of England with open ground floors this is the grandest". Here is a shot of the back of the museum from the air, courtesy of the Friends of Abingdon Museum:

There are plenty of buildings up and down England with a claim to be linked with Sir Christopher Wren, but the evidence for this building is strong. Built by Christopher Kempster, a stonemason and architect who worked with Wren on St Paul's Cathedral, the building has technology - particular in its windows and floor - that was state-of-the-art for the time (1680).

(In fact, if you stand under the hall arches and look up, the rather medieval-looking wooden roof is a later addition hiding the more modern floor.)

What Dr Bradley did point out - and the reason for coming round the back of the building - is that the back stairwell is a 'bolt-on' probably drafted at a later stage. I've certainly never noticed it, but when you are up close it's a remarkable clash of styles, with half-hearted attempts to blend in with what may have been an original design by Wren (and obvious from the aerial shot above).

We then headed down East St Helen Street to St Helen's Church:
It's the second widest church in England (with 5 aisles), demonstrating the wealth and status that Abingdon once had, and home to an impressive medieval painted panelled ceiling that I am ashamed to say I never knew existed.
We split into two groups - one group stayed to admire the church, the other visited the Long Alley Almshouses, and possibly the most remarkable place on the walk, the Christ's Hospital Hall.

The Long Alley Almshouse are run by Christ's Hospital, Oxfordshire's oldest charity which traces its origins back to an ancient chantry, The Guild of Our Lady, in 1247 (possibly older).

An impressive porch contains paintings by Oxford painter Sampson Strong:

(here's a link to a painting of Thomas Wolsely by Sampson Strong - but of the Almshouse paintings, this is my favourite. The language seems very contemporary somehow: "God is well pleased"...)

No photos are allows inside Hospital Hall, a compact but dazzling Jacobean hall, complete with a row of tudor sandbuckets along one wall. By the door is a poor box, into which Samuel Pepys placed 2s, 6d on his visit here in June 1668 (David Rayner's fabulous 'Abingdon Walks' website includes a Pepys walk for the interested).

Then it was back up East St Helen's Street to the Guildhall, and a brief look across to the Old Gaol...
...although I was more interested in this arts-and-crafts style chimney breast, outside the Roysse Room, designed by the architect Harry Redfern, who achieved fame as the chief architect of the New Model Inn, part of the state-owned brewery set-ups around important munition centres during the First World war (again, never heard about this - an absolutely fascinating part of British wartime history).

Finally, into Thames Street, up the steps through the Unicorn Theatre - and then into the Checker, part of the surviving Abbey Buildings, for refreshments in the Long Gallery. The Friends of Abingdon did an amazing job of serving up strawberries and cream, and wine, whilst Dr Bradley talked about the room and answered questions.
All that remained was for Dr Bradley's obligatory pose with the bookseller, clutching copies of the new Berkshire edition of the Buildings of England guide (it's official name):
("But Abingdon isn't in Berkshire." you say. Ah, but it was, and Yale have (somewhat controversially) stuck to the original country boundaries used by Pevsner himself, which pleased a number of people who still remember the stalinist re-assignment of north-Berkshire to Oxfordshire in the 1970s, and which still rankles).

Our thanks to Dr Bradley, to the Friends of Abingdon (particularly Hester Hand and Jenny Berrell), to Michael Matthews and the other trustees of Christ's Hospital, and to Linda Barker and the wardens at St Helen's Church who opened it up especially for us. Plenty of other people helped out on the evening - our sincere thanks to them, because it wouldn't have been half the event if it hadn't been for the help they offered.

Both events were superb - as I say, two of the best of events we've ever organised and I would love to think we could do something heritage-wise every year...