Monday, 22 August 2022

A wedding, a book launch, and an invite to party

Having just celebrated my granddaughter’s wedding on our field in the Cotswolds, I would like to invite you to an upcoming party there which might, or might not, take place. But there is a condition.

I have just launched my latest book and it has been entered into the Amazon StoryTeller literary prize competition.  OK it’s extremely unlikely that I will win, after all the number of entries is immense and the prize equally so - a cool £20,000 - but if by some chance I do win, then you could come along to my celebratory party.

My book is a work of fiction and is a major departure for me: I am writing as a woman! I don’t mean that I have had a sex change, no, it’s simply that I am writing from a woman’s point of view and in the first person singular. I am, for this book only, Tracy. Here’s the blurb from the book.

Tracy’s adolescence is unpromising, but following her teenage years she plunges happily into the rewards and challenges of motherhood. Then, her offspring and spouse depart the nest plunging her into an emotional vacuum from which she dreams of escaping to a life in rural Spain. However, the reality of her days in that sun-soaked country rapidly descends into an extended darkening nightmare.

It is inspired by a true story and draws heavily on my own experiences in Spain over the past twenty years or so. One early reader told me that the graphic descriptions of rural Spain were so real that “I believed I was actually there and could almost smell the air”. That was encouraging.

It’s called That Place in the Sun. Clicking here will get you to more details on my website or here to go direct  to the Amazon page where it’s available in paperback or Kindle form. Have a look.

OK, but what about the party? Well, if you buy the book, in paper or digital form, it may well help me get through to the final line up of the Amazon competition and even gain that substantial prize. Just show me that you’ve purchased it and I’ll add you to the guest list. Do a review (good one preferably) and I’ll sit you at the top table!

I know, I know, the prize and the party are as likely as pigs flying – or less given the rapid advances in genetics. But you never know. What have you got to lose? Well, if I lose then there will be no party, but you will still have the book.

Please pass this invitation on – the more who come to this unlikely party the merrier it may be. 

Thursday, 21 July 2022

I surrender: Mother Nature Wins


Visited our village in Spain for a short break recently. We did not take the motor caravan because the ferry to Sant Ander now costs over £1000 - another inflation-based decision. We flew by Ryanair and took buses plus a lift on the final leg from friends who live in La Fresneda.

This meant that I had to walk down to our huerto (large terraced garden and orchard): a distance of about 2 or 3 Km. The irrigation ditch had blocked and surged like a waterfall when I unblocked it which was a bit scary, but all well in the end and the casita that I built in the past seemed OK. However, the terraces below were completely overgrown and some of the fruit trees had died. The brambles are back with a vengeance and the main terrace is bursting with canes.

I did a bit of strimming then gave up. It is hopeless. The idea of having a garden in Spain was sort of romantic, but it’s not at all practical. The soil is rich and the weeds grow splendidly. Constant attention during the growing season is pretty much essential.

So, I will try to relax into the visitor that I actually am. I will try to stoically observe nature taking its course as it invades the three terraces that I gradually transformed into orchards and gardens. The automatic irrigation scheme that I devised over the years will block and dry up. The brambles will choke my fruit trees from below and the irrepressible fig trees will engulf them in impenetrable shade from above and the 70 olive trees down by the river will have a wild time. Hey-ho, life goes on and the experience did result in a book: Rolling Stones in Spain.

Monday, 30 May 2022

A project completed and a splendid day in Oxford

I have spent a great deal of time lately producing a video on CS Lewis’ Oxford, well in fact its a mini series of three covering his arrival at Oxford, his earlier years as a fellow and tutor and then his later years living at The Kiln. Here’s the link to part one.

I admired Lewis through his books long before I knew anything about him, and I admire him still and would have dearly loved to take a pint or two with him in the watering holes of Oxford.

Finishing a project like that is inevitably anticlimactic, but now the series is done I will return to a writing project that has been neglected for some time.

Meanwhile the entertainment scene in Oxford is good, though I think that the lockdown years have subtly and sometimes drastically changed the pub scene here (four of them are still closed, three belonging to colleges). Nevertheless I had a wonderful day following the launch of my CS Lewis series. A tour in the morning then an afternoon spent in Jericho sitting beside the canal appreciating live music from a tethered barge followed by pie and chips and a few pints in the nearby Victoria. All of that was capped by a wonderful open-mike evening of incredibly varied music at another local pub. If only you could cask a day like that, and tap it when needed.

Saturday, 9 April 2022

Rob’s Bookshop moves to Amazon

 Though I’m not writing much nowadays video production continues, as does the amount of guiding. I am soon starting work as a Bodleian Guide (working for the University) which allows access to the beautiful Divinity School, Oxford Uni’s oldest building. That’ll be nice. Not been in there for a few years.

I’ve also just bowed to progress by moving all of my book descriptions onto Amazon rather than doing my own in the robsbookshop website. It had become a pain making changes and most of the info is on Amazon anyway. I’ll keep the website going but mostly point it at Amazon.

On the video front I’ve just passed the 500 subscriber mark for my Rob’s Oxford channel which is great. Only another 500 and I will have reached one of the criteria to be paid by YouTube based on the number of clicks generated! However, you also have to accumulate 10,000 hours of watch time per year as well and I don’t think that I will ever get there. Still it’s creative and the occasional plaudit and the satisfaction of creating videos keeps me going OK.

I’ve just recently launched another one. It’s called Oxford University: top university in the world. It explains how the ratings are done by the Times Higher Education team and gives a glimpse of the most prominent buildings in Oxford. Have a look here.


Monday, 21 March 2022

Ukraine and Shame


I did start to write a blog entitled  ‘Why make YouTube videos when you get nothing for them?’ but then I watched a programme of videos entitled ‘Voices of Ukraine’ on TV and my subject seemed utterly trivial against the background of the callous death, injury and destruction rained on  a country that has nothing to deserve such inhuman treatment. Ukraine is being viciously destroyed by the massive and seemingly impassive might of Russia simply because it wishes to be free and democratic.

Like so many we have given money to the Red Cross and sent essential goods via local people who have arranged transport, but it is not enough. I feel ashamed and wish that I could do more.

So we carry on, despite the awful reality of men women and children losing their homes their lives and their livelihoods. I do not pretend for a moment that I have some clever solution to this unwarranted attack by a corrupt and incredibly powerful neighbour. Of course not. But to write about my own petty concerns immediately after watching the terror invoked by the crushing forces of a megastate invading a blameless neighbouring country seems a betrayal to the innocents who are dying, being maimed, and terrified into evacuation by this unforgivable tyrant.

Since writing the rant above, Margaret and I have registered our house at Stow on the Wold with the Homes for Ukraine scheme so I feel less ashamed, and hence able to tell you that I have launched a new video. It is about a bunch of Oxford scholars of the 17th century who changed our world and is entitled The Invisible College of Oxford University. It includes the tale of a woman who survived hanging, a dog that had its spleen removed and a student struck by lightning. Have a look.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

Paris and Barcelona by train


For some years I have wanted to visit Paris, but not for the usual reasons. On our many trips through France to and fro to the house in La Fresneda, Spain I have looked longingly at the large blob on the map and copped out, I just could not face driving the motor caravan into that madness. So we took the train.

There were two churches on my must see list, the most important was Saint Denis. Through guiding I have developed a strong interest in architecture and the Basilica of Saint Denis is generally regarded as the birthplace of Gothic. Its western frontage was a little disappointing (Romanesque), but the nave, crossing and choir are truly inspiring and very gothic: vast pointed windows plus rib vaulting everywhere and externally the eastern end boasts what must be some of the earliest flying buttresses. What’s more most of the French Royals are buried there including the guillotined Louis XVI and his famed queen, Marie Antoinette.

My other long term ambition was to visit Sainte Chapelle, partly because I have been telling visitors for years that it is the inspiration for Exeter College’s 19th century chapel. It did not disappoint. Though not as grand as Saint Denis its Rayonnant Gothic windows are superlative in design, colour and depiction - and all so lovingly restored.

The train journey from Paris to Barcelona takes about six hours and becomes more interesting the further south one goes. We had the luck to have seats on the upper floor of the train and saw parts of France which we knew quite well, but from a very different aspect. The city was warmer and brighter of course, but we missed the Parisian buildings even though we were staying just around the corner from Sagrada Familia. Most memorable, apart from visiting our grandson Robin, was a trip to Tibidado a high hill topped by a church from which you can see the entirety of that great Spanish city and the Med.

Then, home again for some decent food and drink. And to the horrible news of Putin’s attack on the free people of Ukraine.


Friday, 4 February 2022

Guiding, lectures and prime ministers


Things are returning to normal in Oxford. I’m doing some guiding and had a wonderful tour recently with two couples and a mother and son. They were soooo interested and fun, and that is like an infusion of adrenaline to a flagging guide. After we parted on a mutual high one of them turned back and asked me if I would be offended if he offered me a tip! How sweet. I gave him a book. There hasn’t been a lot of work over January, but that one tour makes it all worthwhile. Trip Advisor ought to have a section for reviews of audiences – would that work?

Also had a little glut of lectures, including one at the Maths Institute by Tim Harford (‘More or Less’) who gave an interesting talk on randomness with some mention of my ex-neighbour Brian Eno and was then followed by music (hence reminding me that I am not Bach fan).

Then I attended two lectures in one evening with a quick dash between distant locations on my bike. The first was on colour perception where I learned that women and men are different. The genes for determining colour pigmentation in the eyes’ receptors are carried on the X chromosome and as you know women have two of these and we poor men have just one. Y is that? Hence women can and often do have the capability of greater colour discrimination in the red and green area. Seems we are about the same for blue, but clearly men and women do see the world differently.

The second lecture on that same evening was on science and religion with a surprising, for me, bias towards the latter. It ended with a seemingly serious discussion on whether animals have souls, a discussion based, presumably, on the presumption that humans do!

As often in these blogs I am announcing a new video. This one is entitled: Why does OxfordUniversity produce so many UK prime ministers? It’s something I have puzzled over for many years so I thought I would have a go at it. It includes a working prime minister pump located in the Radcliffe Camera which is quite fun.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

On covid, darts and tunnels

Covid is still dragging me down a bit but I am back to jogging and working out. I have however noticed that my dart scores have dropped abysmally. After exercising in my garage I throw three hands of darts at the board hanging there in the hope that it will maintain my hand-to-eye co-ordination or something, plus I like throwing darts. I keep a record but hardly need that to show that I am scoring a pathetic number of 25 or bulls just now. Is this a long covid symptom? I hope not.

However, I have managed to complete another video. Oxford divides into Town and Gown and has done from the very early days of the University (circa 1200, when Oxford was a town). This new video is about secret tunnels beneath the University (Gown) whereas the last one which went a tiny bit viral (locally) was about a secret tunnel beneath the city streets (Town). They were both fun to research and compose, but the Gown one has allowed me to introduce a beer swilling hobbit into my creative efforts and also to attempt a little irony. Have a look sometime.



Sunday, 26 December 2021

A Covid Christmas

 It’s Boxing Day 2021 and, suffering severe cold symptoms and more, I took the lateral flow test for Covid.

It had been a good week. Our Christmases of the past were great, really great. The family flocked to our house in the Cotswolds where we ate and drank a lot, but also in my battle to make Christmas special I wrote a special play, organised games, performed some simple magic tricks, organised a family quiz and so on. One year we actually held a farting competition around a special pole which had to be gripped whilst performing. I can’t remember who won – because that was not the point of any of this stuff. It was all about making Christmas special and participatory - the television was solidly off.

But that was all in the past. Nowadays the children are dotted around the world and have their own Christmases to organise, and we are alone in this many-bedroomed house in the Cotswolds. What’s more I wasn’t too well.

The build up had been great though. Singing around the piano in an Oxford pub, a day’s walking with a good friend followed by many satisfying real ales, a small party for Oxford neighbours after we all took Covid tests. Then a wander around the Oxford pubs finishing at my local. And finally, more music and even dancing in a couple of bars in Stow on the Wold. Yes, we were triple jabbed and carefree. I was so busy I had to curtail my usual pre-Christmas fast.

Cold symptoms came on a few days before Christmas and by the Eve of that great celebration (which is also my wife’s birthday) I was not firing on all cylinders, or, to be more up-to-date, some of my fuel cells were flagging. On the day itself I felt pretty rotten and, though we had a fine meal and played a few rounds of Nine Men’s Morris (a new game to me), it was mostly a sedentary day terminated by watching an excellent film called Once. Not at all like Christmases past. 

There was no respite in my symptoms on Boxing day so I took another lateral flow test, my third in less that a week, and after the usual fifteen minute wait, there was the second red line – faint but definite. So we are now isolated as are many others. Cancellations have been sent for the trip to our pregnant granddaughter in London and to a couple who were coming to stay with us, and the PCR tests have been ordered - they should arrive tomorrow. Covid has locked us down again. Happy 2022!


Thursday, 9 December 2021

Tours, Tunnels, and the Revolution

After the lock downs I’ve done OK for guiding in the past few months, but it looks like I’ve finished now for this year. Just a few years ago I was seriously thinking of giving it up – but I do enjoy the interaction with the general public (when they enjoy my tours, that is).

Somehow, the ghost tour, which I haven’t done for some years, has turned up again. A bloke called Bill stole the market with a dramatic show (he is an actor) which included burning books, magic shop knife tricks and such. He was really good I’m told, but his act was not my style. This year my current pimp asked me to conduct a few tours and I found that I quite enjoyed them. Nowadays I do not take them too seriously and most of the visitors seem to respond to that – and I do usually succeed in making them jump and sometimes scream at one darkish location. It’s difficult to find darkness in central Oxford nowadays.

Conveniently the tours end at a pub, The Royal Blenheim, so I have to down a few pints there to assuage my dry throat. This place has become Oxford’s main real ale pub in the centre and, amazingly, does not serve food. The only downside is that it does have those multiple screens displaying videos of men chasing a ball around a field, but I try to ignore them. Meanwhile two pubs which are very relevant to my other specialist tour at present (Tolkien and Lewis) remain closed. They are the Eagle and Child and the Lamb and Flag. Both are owned by St John’s College and I’m glad to say there is now hope for the latter’s reopening in February.

Do you remember the rise of the Middle Class Revolution some years ago? It’s leader and possibly only member, was asked when the revolution would begin and solemnly told the interviewer, “When I’ve finished decorating the front room, of course.” I’ve been a little like that fictional man for some months, but the bathroom renovation is now complete – so watch this space.

Though views of my videos took a nose dive at the beginning of October (I peaked at 222 views per day then overnight that dropped to 40 for no apparent reason) I’m not entirely, gutted. I’m told that the YouTube algorithm does that to you sometimes, so I’m carrying on but with shorter videos. The latest in my Oxford Insights collection takes you beneath the streets of the city through a long ‘secret’ tunnel. It’s fun, have a look.

Might squeeze in another blog before Christmas, but if not have a good one. By the way did you notice the minor use of the Oxford comma in the title? Here’s a good example of why it’s often essential. “This blog is dedicated to my parents, Karl Marx and Adam Smith.”