Bella premunt hostilia

I am in Italy! 

This is for choir tour. We took a flight from Stansted at 6:55 am yesterday morning (here’s a tip: if you ever have the choice of taking a 6:55 am flight, don’t. Unless you are cash-strapped and that is the cheapest flight available, which was the reason we were doing it.) We flew Ryan Air, which reminded me of one of my favorite quotations of all time, by the Irish comedian Dylan Moran: “Anyone who doesn’t believe in God or the Devil has never been properly kissed or flown Ryan Air with a hangover.” No one was hung over, but the landing in Perugia was the ropiest landing in memory, and I fly an awful lot. It felt like a premonition of the casual Italian way of doing things.

I’m writing this in a cafe near the main piazza in Assisi, where we’ve been staying for the last day or so, and don’t have a lot of time, but highlights so far have included: 

-being shouted at by a priest for wearing a sleeveless dress in a church 

-being shouted at by a nun for sitting on the steps of her altar (whoops)

-singing a Durufle motet for an adorable waitress who insisted that we take free limoncello afterwards

-trekking around Assisi trying to find the castle, and failing

-two-euro glasses of red wine in the main piazza last night, while a group of enthusiastic children and adolescents (a Catholic summer school?) and a monk danced to the rhythm of a  pagan-sounding drum in front of what used to be a Roman temple

More later, as and when Internet is available! And pictures to follow. Assisi is a hilltop town and from many points in the city, the pedestrian gets a spectacular view of the Umbrian valley country that stretches below, the brown and green fields, the elegant square farmhouses, the lines of tall spindly trees…


How to have a ball

Get your friend to make your dress. Half Pint invited me up to Yorkshire the week before the ball and, with three days of intensive Victorian-seamstress-style stitching and fitting, made this pretty thing, which goes rather well with the Haworth corset…

ball dress

Drink first. Drinks at Oxford balls are so often watered down that you just don’t want to take the risk. It’s not that you can’t have a good time going on the dodgems completely sober in a full-length gown after eating fish and chips and making a tit of yourself at the photo booth, but it’s harder.

Also, if you do what we did, you have your friends round and go out in the back patio, which is nice and sociable. Then you can knock back some evil, perfect combination of white wine and pink cava and real champagne and creme de cassis (not all in the same glass, for the love of God) for about an hour and a half, and then getting into town, whether it’s by taxi or on foot, is even more exciting.

ball prinks 1


ball prinks 2


ball prinks 3

Eat when you get there. You paid sixty quid for this, you might as well get food out of it. President of Exeter ball committee this year was The Man, whom some of you may remember as my conversation partner at dinner in New College and also as one of the group that went to London to visit Rory Stewart. He organized an Orient Express-themed ball, which meant that the Duchess (on the ball committee in charge of food) got to exercise all possible creativity in terms of food: evocations of London (the aforementioned fish and chips), Munich (delicious but lethal sausages), Paris (ice cream in an MCR which had turned into a street cafe) and Istanbul (no shisha this year–we’re not insured anymore–but Turkish delight!)

Do everything. Again, you paid for it, so do it. We had fish and chips in hall whilst watching a magician/mind-reader (Half Pint was skeptical. I was enthralled. Darcy was amused) and spent much too much time on the dodgems (Hawkeye drives like a manic Italian), then headed off to the black cab photo booth. All seven of us couldn’t possibly fit inside, so we split up: the Dinosaurs (don’t ask–a Williams student and a second-year medic), Darcy and I went in first, followed by Princi, Hawkeye and Casanova (a new addition; I’m afraid he is a Brookes student. Don’t worry, he’s doing a postgrad law degree, so it’s cool.) They had slightly better luck than we did. My skirt, though beautiful, was huge thanks to a layer of netting, and slippery thanks to the natural properties of taffeta. Consequently, I had to sit on Darcy (there was no way three other people and The Dress were going to fit in the back seat of a cab). The first photo was deceptively fine, but the second photo was taken as I slipped off of Darcy’s lap, and I am captured forever with my head thrown back in a bark of helpless laughter, looking slightly chinless, while Darcy looks like a deranged Victorian member of the Carlton Club, and the Dinosaurs are merely trying to cope with the plastic shark which the photo booth manager had thrust upon us. I wish I could post the printout of four pictures that we were given–perhaps I’ll try to scan it. The last two pictures are quite marvelous; in the best one, I’ve found an admiral’s cap from somewhere and look alarmingly like an extra from the port scenes in the first half of Les Mis, while Dinosaur 1 resembles Jay Gatsby (it’s the brilliantined hair), Dinosaur 2 is flashing a cheeky thumbs-up, and Darcy is merely grinning like a maniac. This is precisely the sort of photo I want to remember my friends by: one where we look just as peculiar as we do in real life. [edit: Have obtained a copy. Here it is…]

ball photobooth

Don’t forget the committee. We visited the Duchess, on shift scooping ice cream in the MCR and, although she said she was fine for food and drinks and didn’t need us to bring her anything, it was good to see her. It would have been better to go around with her, of course, but the commem. ball is next year (Exeter turns 700), and that promises to be spectacular indeed.

ball ella

Delays expected

Hey chickadees, I know I haven’t finished the barbeque posts (the sharp-eyed ones among you have been demanding to know when “The men who played with fire, part two” will be happening), and believe me, there is even more excitement upon which to report (London! Horses! Men in big hats!), but at the moment I’m writing a portfolio which will be marked as part of Finals, which means that until it’s done, there’s not much time to write anything else. The due date is noon, Thursday after next, so after that, we’ll have all the time in the world. (That’s not true. Just wait until you hear what I have to read over the summer. But there’ll be enough time to write.) Something may get posted before then, if the work seems to be going well–which, so far, I think it is–but until then, mes enfants, no promises. 

Wish me luck!

Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Being nothing if not determined, I got the family to go to Carter’s Mountain (or, rather, my mum took up the cause with remarkable dedication) yesterday, and it was exactly how I remembered it. The mountain stands between town and the expanse of plain leading towards Richmond and the Tidewater region of Virginia; depending on where you stand, you can see for miles in either direction. We went down the slope to the east, past cabins and shacks where the orchard workers live (possibly the owners too? Never sure) and through rows of trees bearing Jonagold apples. They’re a hybrid—a mixture of Golden Delicious and Jonathan varieties. There was very little to pick there; we went back up the slope again after we had twenty or so and picked from the much more lush Golden Delicious trees. I love the way the tops of the trees look from up by the apple sheds: like a green dark sea. (The order of the adjectives there is correct. It’s not dark green; it’s green, and dark.) The Jonagolds, despite there not being many of them, were big, and the Golden Delicious very sweet. I haven’t been an apple-eater for long—in fact, I avoided them studiously up until the beginning of this summer—and the sheer sweetness of some varieties is still kind of a shock to me. There was a young retriever under the trees, munching away (on fallen fruit, of course) and looking very happy. We had a picnic on the slope overlooking the city and pointed out landmarks to each other. The anatomy of Charlottesville is so clear from that height. You get an idea of how it all fits together that disappears suddenly once you’re back on the ground. Small, isolated mountains, like islands, stood between us and home.

We bought cider from the shop afterwards, and knobbly gourds with stripes and protrusions of various colors and sizes. They’re simultaneously grotesque and gorgeous. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do with the apples, though. If I weren’t leaving so soon I might try to make pie with them, but none of the recipes I have are basic enough for my inexperience. Still, it was very lovely and nostalgic. We used to take field trips up there in elementary school. Goodness knows what sort of educational value it was supposed to have had.

Victims of typewriters

(Today’s title comes from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Edith and the Kingpin.’ One of the things I love about Joni Mitchell is the way she writes about everything. It’s one of the qualities I admire most in poets, too. You could call it catholicity of vision. Or you could call it the ability to make art out of whatever you bump into. Either way, it’s amazing to watch. Tina Turner did a cover of it a couple of years back. ‘His eyes hold Edith/His left hand holds his right/What does that hand desire/That he grips it so tight’—the way Tina sings it…fit.)

I feel like a victim of a typewriter what with the Canterbury Tales vac essay that I want to finish before I leave, and I leave on Tuesday so OH GOLLY FOUR DAYS, but this is normal ridiculousness. It is not difficult to write an essay in four days, I’ve done it in four hours and so have most of the people I know, so this is nothing.

Anyway, yes, leaving in four days, and before I started having to worry about packing, I went and did the most important thing (because I can prioritize like a pro), which was to get my hair redone. Yes indeed—rockin’ the pre-Raphaelites again. Or as much as I can, not being a redhead. I’m not sure it took quite so intensely this time around, but I’m not in the habit of doing things to my hair, so I’ll just have to wait and see.

Curlygirl returns!

Meanwhile I have promised myself I’m going to get to the apple orchard on Carter’s Mountain before I leave—can’t resist the childhood memories of getting stuck up trees and looking down onto the spread of the city below and drinking hot cider and wearing those ridiculous sweaters our parents made us wear in the late nineties.

Ooh, here’s a neat fact that I’ll leave you with: the day I’m flying back to England is the first birthday of this blog. Isn’t that a nice example of the universe at work? Happy birthday, blog! (No presents, please…)

Rarely pure, never simple

There are some people who wear clothes naturally. Clothes fit them. They fit clothes. Clothes look as normal as their skin. They were meant to be together. I am not one of those people.

Clothes have never fit me. Not since I was twelve, anyway, and I don’t remember much before that. They are not put on; they are tugged, pulled, cajoled, sworn at, adjusted, pushed, pressed, frowned at, endured, changed. Clothing never feels like it is a part of me. Camouflage, maybe; a result of socialization, certainly. (I may feel weird in them, but I’d feel even weirder wandering around naked. At the very least, you’ll get arrested for not wearing clothes, so I do.) But in general they are my enemies. They play mean tricks. They look fine at eight in the morning, and by three (or, more often, eleven) it has all devolved and I look like Quasimodo’s maiden aunt, or like your kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Finkowitz, or like Helga the cowherd; take your pick.

Vogue photography: Way, way beyond my fashion capacity.^

This is why I have never done style in any conscious way. I mean, I’ve done my best to buy things that are reasonably nice, but actually trying…What is the point? Stylish clothes are not designed for people like me. Stylish clothes are designed for people who have got their shit together. I am almost okay with this.

If you ever actually see me in real life, it’s possible that the above few paragraphs have confused you. It is true that my necklines are not always, shall we say, family-friendly. It is also true that, while discussing what to wear to a formal dinner last term, I was asked, “Do you even own anything knee-length?” What fewer people understand is that it’s all a con show. The razzle-dazzle. Legerdemain (legerdecorps?). Look at me here, look at me here; don’t look there. No one needs to go there. The fact that I have a substantial rack and don’t mind running the risk of a cold in February to display it means that the rest of me can escape unobserved. Or that’s the theory. It’s something to consider, anyway—that what’s revealed might not be the point, at all.


No better nor a long-tailed sheep

I read twenty-two books last month. That’s got to be a record.

Astrophil and Stella, by Sir Philip Sidney. The first love sonnet sequence in Elizabethan literature. Astrophil gets progressively more discouraged, depressed, dark and demented.

The Old Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. Pastoral romance. Sidney had no interest in the paragraph whatsoever. Or indeed in the full stop.

The New Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. Because the Old one wasn’t good enough, I guess. Nine hundred pages long and considerably more full of epic gore.

The Defense of Poesie, by Sir Philip Sidney. I think we should have kept calling poetry “poesie.”

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the National Book Award this year. About claims racing (horses, not cars.) Dusty and criminal and sexy and very good.

The Shepherd’s Calendar, by Edmund Spenser. Shepherds have hard lives. They’re always either falling in love or losing all of their sheep. Sometimes they even engage in religious debates with an allegorical embodiment of Catholicism, which is pretty rough.

Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry, by Isabel Rivers. Does what it says on the tin.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. My boss and I had a forceful disagreement about it and I realized I should probably read something before I criticize it. It could be an important book, but its importance depends on what its readership does with it, and it’s not forceful enough to make anyone do anything.

Elizabeth I, by Kathryn Lasky, and Mary Queen of Scots, by Kathryn Lasky. Scholastic used to publish this great kids’ series that was meant to be the diaries of all these famous princesses. I learned most of my history before high school from them. I read them when I get stressed out. Topical, eh?

Amoretti and Epithalamion, by Edmund Spenser. Basically like Astrophil and Stella, only our hero gets the girl in the end. (Although, Amoretti and Epithalamion aren’t their names; Amoretti are the sonnets (“little loves”) and the Epithalamion is the wedding song at the end.)

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Winner of the Booker Prize two years ago. I read it then, but I wanted to read it again—it’s about Henry VIII’s Great Matter (the divorce, obvs.) Hilary Mantel is undoubtedly one of the best authors I’ve ever read.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Not (as per my tutor’s instructions) just the dirty ones. The prose tales are unbelievably long.

A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle. The sequel to A Wrinkle In Time. I think L’Engle’s unjustly neglected these days. Why? She’s a genius.

Metamorphoses, by Ovid. Sex and violence, basically. I mean, it’s brilliant, but that’s it in a nutshell. Gods, too. Sex, violence and divinity.

–The first three books in the Song of the Lioness quartet, by Tamora Pierce. More books I read when I’m stressed out. Feminist fantasy from the mid-‘80s about a girl who becomes a knight. Responsible for most of my childhood make-believe games.

The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. Everything you’ve ever heard, and more. By “more” I mean “awesome”, which you probably haven’t heard. But it turns out it’s a rip-roaring yarn. It just happens to also be a thousand-page religious and political allegory, at least one-fifth of which is about the Dutch Wars. In detail.

Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, by David Norbrook. You get three guesses.

Virgil’s Eclogues, translated by David Ferry. By “translated” they really mean “eccentrically and inaccurately interpreted.” I find it difficult to believe that Virgil actually wrote a line that translates as “Put up or shut up.” Try again.

The Complete Poems and Translations of Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was a naughty, naughty boy. That is all I have to say. Except that he was also hilarious.

The Fry Chronicles, an Autobiography, by Stephen Fry: see below!