Sunday, March 29, 2020

dreaming of a pint, balance, blaring banners, support groups, as positively as possible

Out of the bitter wind, the sun was hot. Sitting at the top of the garden, sipping a bottled beer, was great - lovely to be outside for a bit - but I miss draught. Sounds like it will be quite a while before pints can be enjoyed again. There are times when staying home is fun but other times when the enormity of what is happening is almost overwhelming.

Though I do wonder at the value of publishing daily shifts in modelling in the papers as headlines. In the Saturday Times some messages were relatively upbeat, in the Sunday Times, unremittingly bleak. Only deep into this evening's latest cataclysmic article, do you find a voice of balance that says we won't know the effect of the current measures for two weeks. Hopefully it will show that the drastic steps are working. As with news generally, subtleties of interpretation and argument get lost beneath blaring banners. And surely buoying people up, then dragging them under again risks having a negative impact on national mental health.

Amazing, though, the support groups springing up, whether in the village for those self-isolating, or online, such as Writers in Oxford keeping local authors in touch.

And if the evidence of behaviour in the village is typical, everyone is taking staying at home and social distancing very seriously. People doing their best and trying to keep going as best they can, and as positively as possible.

Friday, March 27, 2020


Today, when I opened the Times, turning as so often to the obituaries, I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith.

Alan had been at Stowe School with my father and was a much loved family friend. When Dad turned 80, ten years ago, it was Alan he phoned. Alan was, I think, a defining, understatedly strong, calm and clear sighted presence in Dad's often troubled life.

I remember going to the Aldermaston Pottery for the first time and how charmed I was by it. A still point at the centre of the turning world, if that isn't too obvious a metaphor.

When I wrote my second novel, Invisible, I set part of the story in a fictional reimagining of the pottery, which had closed by that time, and named the local pub, The Caiger. Which I think Alan liked when he read the book. For Sarah, one of the two narrators, the world of the pottery represents all that is good, in contrast to her manipulative and destructive father.

I have a memory of Alan and his partner Charlotte coming to lunch five years ago. Although it was early autumn, the sun was Mediterranean and we sat and ate and drank and told old stories at the top of the garden.

Below is a review of Alan's book Pottery, People and Time, which I wrote for the Oxford Times in 1995.

The photo above shows a favourite mug from the pottery - Alan's trademark Owl Mug. Although I have some more elaborate pieces - and the work of the pottery features in museum collections throughout the world - it is this simple mug that I treasure.

Goodbye Alan.


For the well-being of our society 

Pottery, People and Time:
A Workshop in Action
Alan Caiger-Smith (Richard Dennis, £28)

In this splendidly enlightening and enlightened book Alan Caiger-Smith draws on more than 40 years' experience as a potter and as the founder of a world-famous collaborative workshop.

He explores particular aspects of the Aldermaston Pottery through a carefully structured - though never pedantically formal - sequence of essays (illustrated with photographs).

Academic, technical and philosophical chapters alternate with vivid character sketches and wonderful descriptions of the actual throwing, decorating and firing of tin-glaze and lustre.

There is, for example, an exhilaratingly searing evocation of a wood-firing, a process involving great stamina and skill. A thousand pieces are painstakingly packed into the kilns and, from 4 o'clock in the morning, the temperature is steadily raised throughout the day to the critical 1060C.

Alan Caiger-Smith has a gift for not only imparting information but inspiring through the communication of his enthusiasm for, and love of, his craft.

He is also very candid about all the things that go wrong. One of the most moving chapters, 'Waste', is about discovering that a firing has failed and several months' work has been lost. Through the power of his writing we experience the feelings of despair, the self-doubt, the gradual process of recovery and the summoning-up of the courage to start all over again.

The inclusion of both high and low points is entirely consistent with his holistic view of the potter's life. This was fundamental to the co-operative structure at Aldermaston and a central theme of this book.

What made that pottery remarkable in managerial terms was his decision to reject specialisation and teach each person proficiency in all the skills.

In doing so he put quality of life and the creative environment before maximisation of profit and relentless expansion. The pottery's work won international renown and, perhaps most importantly, some 36 of his potters went on to set up their own studio-workshops.

This book will certainly fascinate anyone already interested in pottery, including those brave enough to consider setting up a collaborative workshop, but its appeal will be much broader.

It is about people and the fulfilment they can be taught to derive from their jobs and how businesses might be run successfully on these principles in the future. It is about the importance of craftsmen and artists, and what they produce, to the well-being of society.

Frank Egerton

The Oxford Times, Friday, October 20 1995

Thursday, March 26, 2020

last central oxford photo, rewley road swing bridge, handy metaphor, weird lockdown

This was the last photo I took in central Oxford before the libraries closed and everyone started working from home. It shows the Rewley Road Swing Bridge, which was built in 1850-1 and closed to goods trains in 1984. Now a scheduled monument. A stretch of railway track going nowhere... A handy metaphor for the current situation, perhaps, but also an aesthetically and texturally fascinating structure, that sometimes gets overgrown, then suddenly reappears when someone arranges for it to be tidied up, as now.

Lockdown is weird. Working from home is OK from the point of view of tech but you keep noticing things that need doing round the house that didn't seem so important when you were heading for the bus each day.

It's also the case that we've been saying for ages that it would great if we both worked from home and could really enjoy actually living in the village - but not like this!

Hope everyone keeps safe.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

glorious day, eerily quiet streets, pubs shut up, blackthorn in flower and leaf, baking sun

Glorious day.

Not too difficult to practice social distancing when dog walking because there were few people out. Eerily quite, the streets deserted and the pubs shut up.

Some trees and bushes coming into leaf and flower - including blackthorn, pictured, seen on Sandford's Piece.

Baking sun in the shelter of the garden by late afternoon.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

long walk, drafty but no draught, spring gifts, moving to digital, weird times

I went on a long walk with our dog across the fields surrounding the village this morning and the early afternoon.

No draught pint as a reward today, nor for the foreseeable future.

Later, perhaps, a bottled beer at the top of the garden, which is sheltered from the keen wind. And the sun may still be out.

Beautiful spring sunshine. Lot of flowers out too in the fields, the hedgerows and the Millennium wood. Above, photos of celandine, cherry blossom and violet - but there were so many more to see. Gifts.

Meanwhile, work moving to digital. This weekend's MSt residence, as mentioned last time, virtual.

Weird times, weird times.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

lovely walk, church of st margaret of antioch, anniversary

Lovely walk along Binsey Lane to the church of St Margaret of Antioch where we were married, to mark a significant wedding anniversary. A sublime place.

Monday, March 16, 2020

family, clematis armandii, swift, we have to, signpost, we have to, frogs

A gorgeously happy visit to family at the weekend. Where the clematis armandii was in full flower!

Quite swift journeys there and back, because of the crisis.

Life will never... Well, never say never. We have to get through this - though I realise that's easy for me to say.

Over recent weeks I've been so thankful for the newly refreshed walk to work. Soon everything's going to be new - but not clearly marked.

Learnt this afternoon that this coming weekend's MSt residence has switched to virtual, which won't of course be the same as face-to-face but nevertheless should work well.

We have to get through this.

As the photo of the signpost shows, this morning there was beautiful sunshine. Hopefully we have turned towards spring. The frogs in the pond certainly think so - first clumps of spawn seen yesterday when we got home!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

library saturday, flooding, abraham-isaac-jacob!, weekend!

One of my Oxford library Saturdays. Got to the top of the Woodstock Road early and walked the Oxford canal. Intended to cross Port Meadow to Bossoms boatyard and follow the Thames towpath to the railway bridge, only it was flooded. Quick backtrack. I thought the floods would have subsided. Shows how much water's been coming down river.

But before then, not long after Wolvercote Green, I came across Abraham-Isaac-Jacob in its freshest spring colours! So pleased to see this because I was afraid it might have been grubbed up during the laying of the new all-weather surface. But there it was - less plant than last year, but that was May. It'll be interesting to see whether it becomes more abundant. Also wonder whether its early appearance is due to stress or the season - some say the year is early, what with few frosts, a mild late winter and the downpours.

Now heading to Witney for a late lunch at the Hollybush with J.

Pleased it's the end of the week. Quite a week, it's been. Now, the start of the weekend!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

welcome to mtns!, marsh marigolds, rewarding and fascinating meetings, windswept

Welcome to morethoughtsnstuff!

In the ditches alongside the Clanfield end of Calcroft Lane (aka The Gated Road) the marsh marigolds are in flower. The first ones appeared a fortnight ago but those plants were submerged for a time. Today, the yellow flowers and green leaves shone!

justthoughtsnstuff concluded on the 20th February, its tenth birthday, but thoughtsnstuff don't stop!

Loved working with my Undergraduate Diploma long fiction students on Friday! Such rewarding and fascinating meetings!

This morning's cycle ride was the most windswept yet - challenging, with almost pedalling-at-a-standstill gusts going out and exhilarating whooshing suges forward along Calcroft Lane and the Clanfield road home.

March coming in like a lion - let's hope for a lamb!