Monday, 24 May 2021

Apartheid, Rhodes and Iconic Buildings

I am currently reading a book by Donald Woods with the provocative title Asking for Trouble which is catapulting  me back in time and reminding me of how much I seem to have forgotten. It’s about the vile regime that somehow got elected in South Africa in the 60’s and proceeded to crush the indigenous majority population – the blacks as they called them. In response I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement, went on demos in London (my first exposure to mob violence), boycotted oranges and so on. I even marched into Barclays Bank to loudly declare that I insisted upon closing my account in protest at Barclays DCO involvement in South Africa, only to be told - equally loudly - that I was overdrawn and would have to pay up to close down!


Author: AstacopsisGouldi (CC-SA-4.0)

It may therefore seem odd that I rejoiced at the news that Oxford’s Oriel College had, despite massive pressure and much wavering, decided not to remove the statue of past student Cecil Rhodes from their High Street facing building – a building that Rhodes paid for (surely that should go too). Don’t get me wrong, Rhodes is not to be admired, he did many bad things mostly for material gain or influence and that should not and will not be forgotten – this is a matter of historical fact and the statue should remind us of that.

The building opened in 1911 and there was controversy even then – not against Rhodes but concerning the building itself. Apparently seven attractive houses were demolished to create it and some Oxford residents were not at all pleased with the result.

Rhodes is not alone up there. Below his statue there are seven others and it is likely that they too are not blameless – one was the British Emperor of India! But it is unlikely that any of them except Rhodes has had such an influence over the education of young people from the ex-colonies of Britain. It was through his will that much of his ill-gotten gain was put to good use in establishing the Rhodes Scholarships. I know, I know, a right cannot correct many wrongs, but nor can tearing down a statue change history.

If you are already a subscriber to my Rob’s Oxford Youtube channel then you will know that I’ve recently launched two more videos in the Top Iconic Buildings of Oxford University series. If not, here they are. Have a look by clicking on the thumbnails.





Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Potatoes, Snooker and the Radcliffe Camera

A few of my early potatoes have broken through the parched earth of my vegetable garden. The variety is Rocket for those interested in such things. And for those interested in snooker it is relevant just now because Ronnie O’Sullivan, also known as the Rocket, was knocked out the World Championship at an early stage this year. Ar, there be a lot goin’ on beneath the surface you know. Lovely to see these green sprouts coming up and we don’t have to be too sorry for Ronnie, it seems that he has amassed more than £2m in prize money by wielding his stick at The Crucible. OK, I know snooker’s a minority interest, but, oddly enough, it’s the only sport that interests me. Also, this final has a special Covid significance. It is the first event in front of a full audience after the current lockdown

The pubs are open again, at least some of them and al fresco only. I’ve had great difficulty making a booking here in Stow, but succeeded on one Saturday night to get a table at the Horse and Groom in the village of Oddington. We walked there of course and were a little bit late in arriving. Gosh, it was busy: the servers were running up and down the hilly garden laden with food and drinks. My first pint was ... nectar. Butty Bach from a favourite brewery (Wye Valley). In perfect condition and it was delicious. Food was OK, but a definite side-show for me. After my three pints we began a long moonlit stroll through the fields towards Broadwell, then Stow. I love walking at night on a belly full of beer. Everything: the sky, the trees, the remote Cotswold houses, looks so different – ghostly, colourless, stark.


The videos keep coming. My latest effort is a series on the top iconic buildings of Oxford University. I’ve just released the first one based on that prominent edifice – the Radcliffe Camera – it’s probably the most well known of the many University buildings and is, nowadays, part of the Bodleian Library. I’ve learned now to keep the videos short if possible, this one’s about five minutes and it has a musical backing. As ever it is top and tailed by the resounding strains of the piece that my good friend and great musician Pete Madams composed for my very first Rob’s Oxford video: Tolkien’s Oxford. Thank you Pete, you can hear more of his music with Edwin and the Keepers here. The background music is provided by the excellent Beatrix Forbes and taken from her album Oxford and Beyond. It’s called Full Moon over South Park and is a perfect musical fit for the Radcliffe Camera video: in duration and mood. Thank you Bea - you can hear more of her many and varied compositions here.

There will be more in this iconic series. Both the important Sheldonian Theatre and the scary Examination Schools are near completion.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Stop the world, I want to get off

Forgive me. I have banged on about the decline in spoken British English before – but here I go again. If you are tired of the subject then just play this video which explains that it is all due to lager. Of course it is. Meanwhile, here’s me speaking as if from the past.

"Just ‘ere I wanna say somethin’ about when I wuz a boy growin’ up in the Wes’ Coun’ry. Na’uraly I wan’id tuh soun’ like t’other kids. O’ course them were the days when a guy was summut tha’ you burned on bonfire night and curay’in was summut they did in museums. It’d always bin tha’ way. ‘Course we knew we spoke bad. Tha’ ol’ vicar now, ‘e was posh, full uv ‘aitches an’ a bit short on ar’s. Still we’m quite the fashion now in twenny-twenny-one. Anybody for electrocution lessons on ‘ow to speak proper like? I alwuz wannid tuh be a teacher."

If you do not know what I am talking about, then ‘listen up’. However, if like me you waste valuable time shouting corrections at the unreceptive TV or radio, then you probably already know what my beef is.

“It’s Brighton not Brigh’un. Was not wuz. Twenty not twenny. Us not uz. Been is the past participle of the verb to be, not bin. It’s Britain not Bri’un”

“They can’t hear you, you know,” says my long-suffering wife, long sufferingly.

“That’s not the point,” I explain pointlessly. “I’ve got to get this out of my system.”

I then start to explain, as I sadly watch her leave the room, that following my poor start in the world of diction I commenced a long career in communication – both tele and not. OK, so an apprenticeship in telephone engineering is hardly the route to becoming a BBC news presenter, but there was, and still is, a connection between my emerging need and desire to make myself understood and my career: still is.

By the by, I have no desire whatever to speak like the queen or the other, so called, aristocrats and I do take a great delight in regional accents and those who can mimic them. In truth I do not like the glottal stop characterised by the Cockneys, but I would defend to the death their particular right to drop ‘t’s partway through a word if they must. My surname by the way is Walters and it must never be pronounced Wau’ers.

Speech is all about communication and understanding and, I would also add, demands a fairly direct relation between what is written (despite the vagaries of the English language) and what is said – except for the Chinese. Language must evolve of course, just as we and the circumstances in which we live evolve. But my beef is about deterioration, not evolution. Slovenliness rather than clarity.

Why do people do it? Just to irritate people like me – no that is surely an egocentric thought. In fact I think that there are three reasons for it, maybe more, The first is clearly emulation, just as I as a boy wanted to speak like the other kids even though my father was a foreigner (he was Welsh!). Many of the fashionable substitutions are imports from the USA and are by that route irresistible for some – witness the way that ‘guy’ has replaced our many rich and varied alternatives. The other is the drive of inclusiveness: a desire to show sympathy or comradeship with the oppressed minorities perhaps. And the third possibility is song lyrics: a subtle and persuasive input to a mind opened by the song and singer.

Well, that’s got that off my chest. Better now? Not really. Wha’ abou’ me men’al ‘elth? Just keep on taking the medicine (real ale) and shouting at the TV Rob. I have to go out to feed the chickens now. I’ll have a word with them, the only word that they understand – corn.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Adam Smith and Howard Marks

The sun’s been out, I’ve planted 20 more trees and the green shoots of possible guiding opportunities in Oxford are appearing. I’ve also launched another Oxford pub video, and I’ve had my second Covid jab. How do I feel? Calm, a little nervous.



No reaction yet to the jab, but the prospect of guiding reminds me that I have not refreshed that immense store of Oxford facts and stories which allows me to conduct tours to my own satisfaction and hopefully to that of visitors. Why not revise it all you might ask? Well for a start it is too much and secondly the links between the various colleges, university buildings, people, events, and so on are crucial to a good tour. However, there is one bonus of the Covid interregnum, I have advanced my knowledge, and respect for, Adam Smith.

Most of my tours begin outside the college of Balliol, the second oldest of the thirty-nine. I usually relate the fascinating tale of its foundation and then talk about a selection of famous men who have studied there: one of those is the fourth, and our current, Prime Minister; another is Adam Smith who held a graduate scholarship there in the 1740s. Most visitors seem to recognise the title of Smith’s second book, The Wealth of Nations, which is often claimed to be the first to tackle the subject of economics. I am now much more aware of his first book which he thought it his best: this one addresses the tricky subject of moral philosophy. Both books are hard reads and I freely confess that I have not read them. But I have read about them and nowadays virtually attend seminars provided by the Adam Smith Institute which often refer to them.

Adam Smith is sometimes portrayed as the founder of capitalism and economic man (an amoral being driven entirely by selfish motives). In fact he propounds the benefits of free trade to all and a moral approach to self interest which recognises the benefits of social cooperation and the need to be ‘loved and loveable’.

However, if I tried to explain this on a tour I would lose half my audience on political grounds and the other half through boredom. Instead I must switch to Howard Marks, also of Balliol, and Oxford’s most famous drug dealer. Howard was loveable (to some) and he also believed in free trade: specifically in the supply of cannabis. Howard is one of the subjects of my own book entitled the Rogues of Oxford where entry depends on assessment as: charmer, womaniser, drinker, liar, entertainer, corruptor, adventurer and creator. I did not consider Adam Smith for that book, or the very first Adam.

 


Friday, 19 March 2021

Videos, Books and Pubs

 


It’s interesting to compare making videos with writing books. There are similarities of course, particularly in non-fiction where having decided on a subject you begin to assemble the bits and bobs from which your ‘masterpiece’ will be created. For a book that’s the facts and photos that you need to build your book upon and it is much the same for videos, with the addition of clips – bits of videos from elsewhere. The web is a great source for both, but also provides a dangerous temptation to use other people’s work. Actually I’m mostly happy for other creators to use my stuff as long as they ask and they attribute, and I also find that many independents are more than willing to reciprocate. Problem is that the web is cluttered up with agencies such as Getty Images who tempt you in with bogus ‘royalty free’ offers and do not even water mark their stuff to prevent accidental use, and then set their vultures on you. Sigh!

Of course the mechanics of producing a book or a film are quite different, though both involve quite a lot of keyboard bashing: via word processors for books, and video editors for films.  Funny really, but the latter reminds me of my programming days. It’s not exactly technical, but it is quite complex and can be frustrating. I use Shotcut which is free: it’s created by enthusiasts. It has more capabilities than I have yet mastered and can be quite frustrating. It crashes, just like computer programs did in my heyday. And, of course, there’s no one to complain to when things don’t work. Fortunately there exists an enthusiastic bunch of users who are often willing to help when you do get stuck. 

Word processors handle words, formats and such. A video editor handles that plus sound and video via filters, timelines, keyframes and so on. There is also a fundamental difference between them. A word processor deals with a serial flow of words, the video editor has to deal with videos, images, sounds and more in parallel, that takes a heck of lot more computer power. It’s comparable in complexity to building a road versus all of the buildings, bridges, street lighting and services that lie alongside it. But hey, it’s creative. Some people are really good at it. I just get by.

And that’s a prompt to introduce my latest output: two more pubs. The Turf is one of the most popular in Oxford, especially with visitors. It is a hidden wonder crouching beside the old city wall and is the repository of many intriguing stories. The Wheatsheaf, the pub that I nearly took on some years ago, is central Oxford’s key remaining live music venue and even has a pool table. It is under threat: an application has been made to convert it to student accommodation! A fight is going on to save it. As I write I am anxiously awaiting my ‘Save the Sheaf’ T-shirt and hope that my video might help a little in the battle.

  

 

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Zooming into pubs and more

Well it seems a while since I’ve blogged and a lot has happened on the covid front where there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel for the UK at least. I am amazed at the rate of roll out of vaccinations. By the way I find the word covid quite inappropriate for this scourge that has invaded our world, it has a warmth to it that conveys the wrong impression entirely whereas syphilis, pneumonia, pox (big or small), SARS and the black death are all names that seem redolent of their effect.

And now there are signs of spring in the garden. Margaret has all sorts of flowers popping up and my broad beans are peaking through. Meanwhile the chickens are looking more sprightly. I’ve got them working over my vegetable garden prior to seeding and they are doing a grand job. They’re laying plenty of eggs too. I’ve never known such productivity – hybrid vigour I suppose. Other creatures are also sensing the coming of spring. From my office window I can see the little lambs leaping about in the field next to ours: so white, so tiny, so lively. And this morning I witnessed a male wood pigeon trying to make out with a female.

Meanwhile I’m getting on with stuff. Did my first commercial Zoom talk the other day on a subject which is near to my heart: Pubs of Oxford. It went well I think, though I certainly miss the immediate feedback of a live audience. Whilst developing that talk I’ve also made two videos on the same topic. The first, which is an introduction, was great fun to make. I asked a number of people what their favourite pub was and they provided short video answers which I’ve linked together. It’s great fun, have a look.

I’ve also made one on what may soon become a lost pub. It’s the Lamb and Flag, now threatened with closure. On the lighter side that video relates one of my favourite pub jokes (more of those to come). See it here.

I’m also doing a Zoom talk based on my book: The Battle FOR Stow.  That book traced the march made by the Royalist forces in their attempt to reach Oxford and save King Charles I. The march ended in the Battle of Stow and marked the end of the first phase of that crucial 17th century civil war. My book was all about the march (which I repeated 363 years later) together with the battles that take place in Stow-on-the-Wold in the 21st Century. I’ve also just finished reading a fascinating book on the Glorious Revolution which followed the death of Charles I’s son, also Charles and the escape to France by Charles II's brother and successor James II. In a way that revolution was a follow through of the civil war and probably launched Britain on its path towards genuine democracy, empire and the industrial revolution.

 

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Covid and the Oldest Colleges of Oxford

 

Had my first covid jab on the last day of January. My wife had hers the day before and it made her quite ill which was a bit worrying (for both of us), but it was certainly not going to deter me. The whole thing was amazingly well organised with off-duty fire officers managing the car park. Other volunteers checked us in and handed out hand steriliser. The enthusiastic doctor then talked me and another chap through the process and grilled us on various topics to ensure that we were fit recipients. He was great, given that he’d probably done it all a hundred times before that day.

I hardly noticed the jab, felt like a little thump that’s all, and the whole thing took little more than five minutes. I was then told to sit in the car for another five minutes “just in case”. So there I sat in the red mini dwarfed by the urban tractors on each side of me. Still we’re all equal before covid.

As the evening wore on I became aware of stuff that had been slipped into my blood stream. I felt light-headed, then the opposite, and just generally odd. Meanwhile Margaret had pretty well recovered.

Next morning I felt a little dull but generally OK. The central heating system failed to come on so I fixed that. I fed the chickens, (they are in semi lockdown for fear of bird flu) collected the eggs, did my usual circuit of exercising: weights, wobble board, punch bag, darts and skipping. All seemed well so I set to work on the video I’m near to finishing.

But I was not right, I had a mild headache, pains in different parts of my body, felt so cold that I had to wear a heavy coat, and had this general sense of not being myself. And of course the work did not go well. Video editing is not an easy task and I made many silly mistakes.

By the third day I was fine and these minor side effects were clearly
dwarfed by the magnitude of the pandemic and the prospect of immunity for all. I am unaccountably proud that the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine was so quickly designed, tested and manufactured in such vast quantities. And I am awed by the rate and scope of roll out in my country. I was nearly the ten millionth recipient I think.

Despite Covid, my work goes on. I have finished that video! It’s a quick streak through the ten oldest colleges of Oxford. It was fun to make but had its usual ups and down: problems with the editor, the presenter, the designer and the scriptwriter. Yeah, that’s me. Have a look, just click here, or on the thumbnail below.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Walking in the Cotswold Hills and videos of Margaret and Benazir

I do enjoy a good long walk, but just now they do not end as I would wish. In this month of January I’ve done two – both alone for obvious reason. There was snow on the ground as I set off for the first, heading in the direction of Wyck Rissington. The weather was great, cold but sunny, but I was tricked. Some four miles into the walk it began to snow, and it got worse. As planned I turned to the north across a ridge in the Cotswolds in order to make a long loop back to my home but the snow became so heavy I had to eat my packed lunch in some farmer’s open sided barn. I took a less ambitious route towards the pretty but soulless village of Icomb and on my way there tripped over a root and fell heavily into the mud – and laughed as I lay there!

The second walk, just two days ago, also started in brilliant sunshine. However it did not snow, but the sun was soon obscured by heavy cloud and the temperature dropped quickly. I did another loop this time passing close to the lovely Slaughter villages and then arrived at one of my most loved spots at the base of Stow hill: Hyde Mill. There I got into conversation with the owners (socially distanced of course) and what did we talk about? Why vaccinations of course.

So, why don’t these walk end as I would wish. Quite simple – the pubs are closed. I enjoy nothing better than stumbling foot weary into a good pub and quenching my thirst on a well-deserved pint of real ale. Roll on the jab.

Walking aside, I’ve been busy. Two new videos are now live on Rob’s Oxford channel which completes the series on Women World Leaders Educated at Oxford. The additions are Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto, both interesting ladies with fascinating lives and a shared alma mater.

Here are the thumbnails, as they are called on YouTube. Have a look via the channel and please subscribe. Every little helps.