Monday, July 20, 2009

Hampshire and Oxford

Roz at Autumn Cottage

Sunday, July 12
A four cat day, which is a good day. My friend Roz came to pick me up at the Swamp promptly at nine AM, and drove me to her lovely cottage about a half an hour away in the pretty Hampshire countryside. I know Roz through the list "Armchair Travelling," and I fell in love with her two baby kittens though only knowing them online. Pippin and Lily were litter mates, identical with sweet little faces, only different in color, one silver, one gold. Here they are, as they were (photo by Roz):

Lily was killed by a car, but I wanted to visit Pip, whose auntie I am (why am I starting to sound increasingly like an old cat lady? I suspect that battle is lost), and their other cat, Lissie. Today this was accomplished, and I also met Roz's sweet husband Alec and saw the fabled Autumn Cottage, subject of her beautiful blog that I've followed for so long. Amazing that the place, the people, and the cats, alive in my imagination, have now come really alive in person.

Pippin in Maturity


Me, Roz and Lissie

Outdoors cats

The biggest revelation to me was the stunning difference between "indoor" and "outdoor" cats. Living all my life in New York or Los Angeles, I'd only known indoor cats, and had never seen real English outdoor cats in action before. To see gold Pippin and black and white part-Persian Lissie running across the lawn, climbing trees, and digging in the garden, was something entirely new for me. It really is the most gorgeous life you can imagine for a cat; they seem far more outdoorsy and bold than our girls. Fearless. The cats are brought in every night, but the fact is that in 30 years six cats have been lost on the road outside Autumn Cottage. So the English/American outdoors/indoor cat debate has plenty of fuel. I played with the cats to my heart's content, and much enjoyed seeing all Roz's antiques and pretty things as well.

We had a packed afternoon. Roz drove me through several villages associated with Jane Austen, such as Kintbury. Austen visited Kintbury often; her sister Cassandra's ill-fated fiance Tom Fowle was son of the Rector there, and the church still looks much as it did in Jane Austen's day. We also stopped in Hungerford to see antiques shops and the canal - very pretty in the July sunshine. Jane Austen knew Hungerford well and wrote to Cassandra, "If there were but a coach from Hungerford to Chawton!" Not surprising, if it was as good a shopping town then as now. The antiques were scrumptious and Roz presented me with something I've long fancied - a lacquer tray whose design was entirely composed of real butterfly wings.

After that, we collected Alec and went to their local pub for a most lavish Sunday lunch: ham hocks pate with cream pease, truly fine roast beef with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding (they had bream), followed by armagnac parfait with strawberries. Wow. Then Alec did me the great kindness (after my experiences on London trains) of driving me to my next stop, Oxford. I am starting though to be aware that it's hard to be first lady in company when one's clothing supply is so scant and grubby, toward the end of a trip when the suitcase is crammed with books and you're moving far too fast to do laundry.

Me at Kintbury Church

At the Hungerford canal, picture by Roz

Alec and Roz

It was lovely to arrive at the home of my friend Jean, whom I've known since she organized a halcyon Jane Austen conference at St. Hilda's College back in the early 1980s. She and Tony haven't changed and are as lovely as ever, but her son Antony was a toddler when we first met and now he's 25. We chatted for awhile, and then my Piffle friend Elizabeth (nom Miss Layton) came to collect me for an hour - she lives ten minutes away, in a pretty 18th century stone house of her own in a little stone village, and we played with her two cats, a black 10-year-old big gentle boy called Tom, and a 2-year old with white socks, called Socks. The latter was shy like Martial and jumped up on the stone wall and watched us suspiciously from very high. How outdoor cats do love their life! When we pulled up to the village square where she lives, we were greeted by Tom, who came right from her door up to the car - walking as freely there as a human. It takes you aback! Elizabeth drove me back and Jean, Tony, Antony and I settled down to my second delicious Sunday English roast beef dinner of the day - and I'm of the opinion that you can't get too many of them!

Elizabeth and cat

Outdoor cat on wall


Jean and I spent a leisurely morning chatting and me catching up on my internet, after my days of deprivation. Then we took the bus into Oxford, and as arranged, met Simon in the Bodleian shop as he came out from his library work day at 5. We recognized each other instantly! Jean wanted to meet Simon because I'd introduced her to his blog (the popular Stuck-in-a-Book), and I thought I might need her to translate Oxonian, but she took herself off shortly, and Simon and I proceeded over to Cafe Nero at Blackwells, where between the door and the cafe we picked up 3 books for 2 (I got a new volume of Diana Mosley's essays, and an early Colette memoir, and he acquired what he calls "a lovely Hesperus edition of Katherine Mansfield's In a German Pension, which I've read but don't own," though I didn't notice at the time because we were chatting too much. Capuccino and tea and chat at the cafe, and then we reckoned it was time for dinner. We wandered over to the Nosebag which was perfect. It wasn't crowded and we had a lovely seat upstairs overlooking the Oxford scene; I had beautiful Tasmanian lamb curry and rice pilau and salad, and he had red pepper and lentil lasagne with enormous salad - the food was really fresh and lovely. We spent from 5 to 9 PM talking and eating (some time after the dinner I suggested a cream tea for dessert, scones and jam and clotted cream, and Simon most kindly fell in with it). We talked energetically about books and Doves and writing and degrees and libraries and families and driving and Jane Austen and Oxford. I rather missed the bus back, and Simon, who has just gained his driving license, bravely and nobly offered to *drive* me back to Jean's house on Cumnor Hill in his roommate's car! So we walked to his house in a quiet corner of Oxford, in the lovely silver and pink twilight. As Big Tom started to toll, Simon noted that we were right near Dorothy L. Sayers' birthplace. So we crossed the street and there it was: an ancient stone building on a side street, with the blue plaque saying she was a Scholar and Writer, just as she would approve. I cannot tell you how moving it was, seeing that and hearing the bell solemnly tolling. After that, Simon drove me back with impeccable skill, the first Dove driven.

Jean in Oxford

Me and Simon

Cafe Nero at Blackwells

The Nosebag

Dear Peter & Paul & Cats,

One of the most exhausting days of my life, I think, but WHAT FUN!

Jean put me on the train for London this morning - took me by bus to rail station, placed cappucino in my hand, directed me to right track, helped carry bags. What a friend! The ride was pretty and pleasant, I spoke to you during it (seems 24 hours ago not 12!). Reached Paddington, and as I had very heavy bags, I took my first London taxi of the trip to my b & b, the George Hotel in Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury. Dumped bags at hotel; my room wasn't open yet. Then I started walking to the London Review of Books cake shop (really the most enticing name for an establishment I've ever heard) which is right near the British Museum, but I was waylaid by the Judd bookshop (nice little shop that the last time I was here, Bevis ran across the road to it at light speed) and bought Peter a gaelic poetry anthology and me a book too. (Paul will get chocolate.) Reached the shop and there were the Doves (members of the Dove Grey Readers list, which started out centering around Persephone Books) - Barbara, Curzon, Clare, Julie - at a pretty, quiet, sunny table. The "Dovefest" was champagne-like in its delightfulness. Barbara made it so special for me by creating a hilariously impressive sign to put on the table that announced that it was a book signing by Diana Birchall, who'd just arrived from Santa Monica! And she *had* brought my three books to sign - what joy! She also gave me the loveliest book about literary trails, a really beautiful well done one with maps and pictures and descriptions. We had quiche and salad, scones and tea. After much talk we strolled over to the Persephone shop, and enjoyed ourselves there, talking to the owner/author, Nicola Beauman.

Book browsing at the Persephone shop, picture by Barbara

Beautiful sign, by Barbara

Sayers house, picture by Barbara

Ate it all. Picture by Barbara.

After this, I was getting tired, and Barbara walked me back to the hotel, where I checked in and rested a little. Then I walked to Euston Cross, took tube to Paddington station, and met my artist/writer friend Jane Odiwe at Cafe Nero on Platform 1, as arranged. Jane gave me the most beautiful gift, a painting she'd done for me specially of the Eltons!

"Why does he not try Bath?" "-Indeed he should." Painting of the Eltons by Jane Odiwe

Jane helped me buy my ticket and we took the train to Reading, talking all the way, where I was to give a talk to the Thames Valley Writers Circle. We were met at the station by a very kind short story writer, Dick, who drove us to the hall where my talk was to be given. About 50 people and dear Jean had come from Oxford, along with some other members of the Oxford Writers Group! I did my "Thirty Years in Hollywood Story Departments" talk, with excursions into my Winnie biography and Austen books, and they received me so warmly and kindly! People from the Oxford group hoped I'd come to them again, and goodness I'd love to. After the interval there were questions, about an hour of them, which really is a good reception. The organizer, writer Elizabeth Berk, drove me and Jean and Jane to train station, and she stopped to show us the ruined Abbey and gate house, where in 1785 Jane Austen went to school, her teacher being the wooden-legged Mrs. La Tournelle. Very late train back, change at Paddington, back at 11:30, but got tandoori chicken from the Indian restaurant around the corner, and am eating on my bed listening to the rain and writing to you! So nice to have internet.

With Elizabeth Berk at my talk

Jean, me, and Jane at Reading Abbey

Cousins across the sea - our Pindar, and Roz's Pippin

Peter, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed what you wrote about the little cats! Nobody writes about them better than you. I just loved it when you described how little Pindy's dignity was a bit miffed at being carried away from my clothes, and how she licked her silvery tail; and I love you calling Catullus an sprite and Martial an imp.

Lots of love - got a date with V. Woolf tomorrow!



Barbara said...

Dear Diana
This is part of what I wrote to Sherry when she asked how last Tuesday went ...
"I think by the Wednesday I would probably have opted to lie in and put Charleston on the top of my list for the next time (and rope Barbara in to come along and help with arrangements and split costs ;-) ). She travelled from Oxford to the hotel, then joined us and spent the afternoon with us. Went back to hotel about 4.15 to leave again at 5 to take the train at 5.45 from Paddington to Reading and give a talk. Came back and then to be up about 7 - 7.30 next day. I feel exhausted at the thought and i pack lots in to my days sometimes."
Well, I am glad you did what you did and that towards the end of your trip you didn't seem to be flagging despite a headache. Well done!

Diana Birchall said...

Believe me, Barbara, the pace seemed just as incredible and undoable to me as it must have appeared to you! I don't do anything remotely like that at home, either. But, I felt I had no choice. I don't know when I'll be back, maybe not for a few years, if ever, or if I'll be able then to do the things I wanted to do now. A trip like that is a huge and increasingly rare undertaking for me and I had to utilize every single minute to the max, and waste nothing. Time to sit still back at home (and I am!). One thing's for sure, every night when I was in England I slept like the dead!

Ellen said...

I thought the photos were very good, especially of the cathedrale looking block. You caught England of your (and my) dreams in this and others.