Monday, September 15, 2008

Horse sense

It sounds like the ultimate in British academia, but it’s actually a tiny village five miles from the sea in bucolic Dorset, an English county named after a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback. The village is called Oxbridge, and it’s so small it doesn’t have a pub, a Post Office or even a phone box, and you had to stand by a window on the top floor to get mobile access. All this is to explain why we’ve been offline for a week. OK, so you didn’t notice.
We were in this 17th century cottage – which is a bit of a misnomer because although it has a thatched roof, it’s not exactly a humble Hardy-esque hovel. It’s got an Aga kitchen, a walk-in fireplace on which you could spit-roast an ox and a lounge the size of a basketball court.
The surrounding countryside is fantastic for walking – subject to two major drawbacks: one, it rained all week; and two, after our English summer the surrounding fields were quagmires. We did venture out once but got lost, then spotted a carved wooden sign saying “Oxbridge 1m.”. We finally emerged at the other end two hours later, after I had slipped backwards into Wellie-deep, willie-deep mud and been dragged out by the DG at the other end of her umbrella. Our attempt to avoid the rest of the path led to our getting lost again in soggy fields of malevolent, face-slapping corn, to finish up at exactly the same mud-bath as before.
What? Of course we're going back next summer.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Getting back on the horse

Now I understand how Captain Scott felt when he got to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had been there already and was on his way home. The book I’ve been researching and writing for the past four years just came out. But it doesn't have my name on it.
It’s the writer’s nightmare – that someone else is working on exactly the same subject as you and that their book will come out a few months before yours. (I published my first article touching on this subject in April 1999.) You watch the archives and borrowings of relevant books from the libraries to see if anyone else is taking out the same ones, and it seemed that nobody was: that’s because they’d already had them years before.
It’s by Carol Burnell and it’s called Divided Affections: The Extraordinary Life of Maria Cosway, Celebrity Artist and it’s published by Column House, Lausanne. She has been working on it for, not four, but twelve, years, and it shows. I almost wished I could say it was badly written and sloppily researched, but it’s scrupulously researched, lovingly written and beautifully illustrated. I haven’t finished reading it yet but it’s clearly a tour de force and will be the definitive work on Cosway herself, and leading figures in late 18th century European art and politics - and of course Cosway and Jefferson.
Ah well – you know what they say when you’re thrown by a horse.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The secret is out

You heard it here first. We said it on May 19, 2006, again on June 2, 2006, May 25, 2007 and again on June 3, 2008. (That’s not an editorial “we” – or even a Nintendo one – it’s “we” as in the DG and I). You will already have realised that this is about our second favouritest town in England – even if most of it isn’t: Hay-on-Wye.
Hay is in the news lately. There's this survey they do every year to find the happiest town in the country. This year the first place, at the top of the short list of 273, is none other than Hay-on-Wye in the county of Wopsy – whoops, I think that should be Powys. Good news and bad, of course: good that its qualities have been recognised at last, but bad in that this is probably the end of Hay as we know it. It was OK hidden in the total obscurity of the RW blog, but BBC1 did a feature on it the other morning and now its fame has spread throughout the whole English-speaking world and the USA. Things will never be the same.

This is to warn you about Hay. Don’t even think of going there – they speak a funny language with a consonant-to-vowel ratio of a thousand to one. It never stops raining; the spring lamb chops are inedible and nobody speaks to you – they’ve all got their noses stuck in books.
Don’t take my word for it, listen to Boubacar TourĂ©. Who is Boubacar TourĂ©? you ask. Only president of the Timbuktu Twinning Association, that’s who. Hay is twinned with Timbuktu. Why? Because every town in Britain is twinned with somewhere; because it provides excuses for exotic trips for overworked local councillors; and because, at least according to the twinocrats, both towns are interested in books and they’re both on rivers. But old Boubacar tells it like it is. He said on a recent visit to Hay that there are also some differences. "We have sand, Hay has mud and trees and it's cold," he said.
Hay for the hayseeds.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Jumping to Occlusions

Dear Tony,
You remember your speech at the Labour Party conference in September 1999 - when you promised “everybody will have easy access to an NHS dentist within the next two years”? The BBC headed it “NHS Dentistry for All” and there was rejoicing throughout the land, especially among pensioners.
I did have an NHS dentist at the time, whom I'd been with for many years. Then he retired, and overnight his practice went 100% private. At the same time, by an amazing coincidence, my teeth suddenly jumped from a six-monthly check and clean to an urgent programme of occlusions, extractions, root canal treatment and preventative orthodontry. Cleaning became "Dental Hygiene".
I couldn't understand how you would treble the number of dentists in just two years, so I thought I’d check your progress. Finding an NHS dentist at all was difficult, but we eventually found one. And they could see me - in two months’ time. Not exactly “easy access”, Tone.
Well, the two months were up yesterday. “Oh, yes, we can do this on the NHS. But you’ll get metal fillings and it will take at least eight weeks – or you can go private, give me £1,070 and I’ll do it whenever you like“.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it”.
“Sure, that’ll be £16.20”.
“But you haven’t done anything”.
Look, Tone, I don’t expect you to do anything about NHS dentistry. I realise you’re busy these days, what with the speeches; having to sort out your mess in Iraq - all those bereaved parents; bringing peace to Palestine, consulting to Corporate America; Emeritus Professoring; keeping the EU from finding out what happened at BAE, and acquiring new mansions, so I don’t expect you to do anything - any more than I expected it in '99. I just thought you'd like to be kept you up to date, and I can't do it tomorrow - I'll be at the dentist's.