Port Meadow

Back in September I was lucky enough to spend two weeks work experience with the wonderful Loftus Audio. I had a great couple of weeks, and learnt loads.

I now make pretty good coffee. But more importantly I got to help out on a couple of shows. Me and My Mobile, with Dom Joly, was particularly interesting, and gave me an excuse to explore the BBC and Science Museum Archives.

What I’m most proud of though is a 15 minute piece called ‘Port Meadow’, which I wrote, recorded and produced. Loftus encouraged me to make a short program about something I love, and Port Meadow seemed the obvious choice. It’s a pretty special place, and only five minutes from where I live in Oxford. I was also intrigued to know more about it. So I put on my girlfriend’s wellys (I’d left mine in The North), picked up the mini disc recorder and headed off to find a story…

I owe a big thank you to everyone I talked to. And Loftus were great, lending me the equipment and holding my hand through all the editing. The sound levels aren’t quite right yet, but I’m pretty chuffed so far.

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Ross Sutherland Review

Ross Sutherland, performance poet and sell-out Edinburgh Fringe veteran ★★★★

10 Nov. 2010

Ross Sutherland managed to combine both English and Computer Science into a degree. Which, having watched his show at the Moser Theatre, isn’t surprising. For he is a master at connecting the seemingly unrelated. He finds meaning where there was never meant to be any. Described as a “performance poet” at an event organised by Oxford University Poetry Society, Sutherland billed the evening as part “pseudo academic” and part “pseudo entertainment”. And for a show that somehow combined poetry reading, stand up comedy and a lecture, it was all interesting, funny and poetic.

He started the evening by describing the process of forcing classic poems through the translation software ‘Babel Fish’. His actions were justified as “all I wanted was a robot friend to help me write poetry”. But what appeared an interesting, if flippant, thought experiment produced not only poetry, but a fascinating conclusion. Sutherland found meaning in the arbitrary throughout the performance, making it all important and relevant.

The main part of the set was taken from his sell-out Edinburgh show The Three Stigmata of Pacman about his fight to write a future he likes. If the Trojan War can now be associated with Trojan Condoms, and Tony Blair can rewrite the war with Iraq, why couldn’t he create a future free from dystopic Daily Mail headlines? With a bin and an attempt to systematically change the words to Little Red Riding Hood, he combined authenticity with a magical fairy tale.

This was accompanied by a stunning visual display, made up of news clips, cartoons and newspaper. But it was Sutherland’s language that really brought the show alive. His poetry appeared from nowhere, combining beat poetry, rap and the 19th Century novel. It erupted into the narrative, injecting pace. He told the story of being refused alcohol in Spar in five different ways, each more absurd than the previous. He described how people in his home town “trade antique chairs at each other”. Poetry and punch lines fell into his narrative.

It was the combination of arts on show that was most impressive. Yet, as Sutherland was well aware, he needed the audience on his side. Every now and again the criss-crossing of genres was slightly too much. Bemusement or slight confusion stopped a joke achieving its full potential. Sometimes the multi-layered performance seemed slightly out of synch. Yet the audience managed to laugh and applaud in most the right places.

Sutherland is not the best of poets, nor the best of comics. But he is excellent at both. He tells a fantastic story, combining seemingly irrelevant events. And though sometimes this combination is simply weird, he’ll always manage to reassure you about the future.

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Andrew Lawrence Review

Andrew Lawrence: Too Ugly for Television ★★★

8th November 2010

In his own words, Andrew Lawrence is “quite angry about things”. To call him a misanthrope, however, would be a mistake. Partly because he threatened any reviewer who used the m-word with the repeated force-feeding of their article. More importantly though, he doesn’t really seem to hate people. Particularly not the North Wall Arts Centre audience.

In fact, he seemed unable to insult them. When an audience member told Lawrence that he had “a problem with his face”, the stand up seemed slightly at a loss. Fair enough, an oncologist is a difficult career to criticise, but rapport with the audience was slightly lacking. The standing ovation he received may have been due to his scatological-based threats. Or it may have been out of “patronising politeness and mild encouragement” as Lawrence feared. Whatever the cause was, it was undeserved.

This is not to say that Lawrence was unfunny. Just that some of his jokes seemed a bit familiar. Too much of his bile was wasted on teenagers, queues and babies. The self-hating “ginger prick” comments were somewhat unoriginal too. Which was a shame, for Lawrence in full verbal flight was impressive. When his insults were heartfelt there was a poetry in his performance. The rhyme, rhythm and alliteration was fantastic. “Five frankly fuckable fifteen year olds frolicking” brought deserved laughter throughout the audience. And the more vehement his routine, the higher and quicker the words were spat out.

The best tirades were saved for Police Officers and Kellogg’s. Both of which wound into an absurd, furious finish. For Lawrence was best when properly cross. His mantra was ‘life is unfair’. But rather than whinging he found comedy in everything thrown at him. Jokes about digging up his dead girlfriend’s corpse for ID, and his unsuitability for Childline, were well delivered and well received. It was a shame though that they were followed by underwhelming observations.

It was this that stopped the show from being any better than good. Great jokes were followed by well worn comedic paths that didn’t allow Lawrence to really let his language loose. The show did fly-by though; and there was something to smile about for most of the ninety minutes. But the material held him back somewhat. To get more than three stars he had to be crosser. The problem was, Too Ugly for TV just wasn’t angry enough.

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Rad Cam Occupation

Seventy students occupied the Radcliffe Camera overnight in protest against proposed public sector cuts.

The protestors, from Universities and Colleges throughout the city, stormed the iconic library at 1.30 pm on Wednesday. This followed a march through the centre of Oxford.

After encircling the Rad Cam, dozens of protestors climbed the railings and rushed past the small number of police and security officials. No attempt was made to stop the students entering the building. One girl sustained injuries by falling off the railings, and was taken to hospital by ambulance.

More protestors, many wearing masks, joined them with food, blankets and a sound system. Almost 150 students convened in the lower level of the Rad Cam for a meeting. The students released a statement on the Occupied Oxford website declaring that; “We – students and residents of Oxford – are occupying the Radcliffe Camera because we oppose all public sector cuts. We stand in solidarity with those who are affected by the cuts and those who are resisting them.”

Protestors were allowed to enter and leave the Rad Cam for the first hour of the occupation. Around 30 police officers surrounded the building, checking the students, staff and protesters who left the library. A small number of students stayed in the Rad Cam to work.

In celebration of their success the protestors had a rave, dancing on tables and ladders. Throughout the sit-in they received a series of lectures and talks on the topic of protests. Workshops and poetry readings carried on throughout the evening too. The occupation was declared a “teach-in” by the Oxford Free Education campaign.
During the afternoon the protestors received messages of solidarity from the NUT National Executive and the Oxford Anti-Cuts Alliance. A small number of academics declared their support for the protestor’s actions.

Library staff remained in the building to care for the books and the historic site. A senior member of staff commented that they were frustrated, though not unsympathetic.

“It’s a library,” the senior staff member pointed out. “This is stopping students from studying, but I can completely understand why people feel so strongly about it. It’s a really important issue. There isn’t really any anger from the library staff”.

The response to the Rad Cam occupation was divided throughout Oxford. A graduate student at Oxford University said that he, “wouldn’t mind working alongside the protesters. Ultimately, I’m happy to sacrifice a day’s work for the cause.”And a photography student from Cherwell Valley College believed that the Rad Cam was the right place to protest: “This gets the message across. We all think it is completely wrong that we have been stabbed in the back.”

Others didn’t agree though. Doug Hale from Ruskin College, said; “I think it detracts from the message we are trying to get across, even though it shows the anger that some of the students feel towards the current situation.”

When asked why students were able to occupy the Rad Cam Police Inspector Abu-Rish said; “Our primary role is to facilitate peaceful protests.”

“If people are climbing over metal railings, the last thing we want to do is start taking hold of them so they may fall and cause injury.” He said that although occupation of the Camera was “civil trespass”, there were no plans to evict or arrest the protesters,“as long as they were peacefully demonstrating and protesting.”

A spokesperson from the University Press Office reiterated this cautious message; “The University of Oxford supports freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. This naturally includes protest about government spending plans for higher education. However, this is an unlawful occupation and one that is causing considerable inconvenience and disruption for students wishing to pursue their studies.”

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Brutal is beautiful.

Most Oxford Colleges bare a concrete scar. It sits protruding, unsympathetic to its surroundings. It may look like a car park, a prison, or, in the words of Bill Bryson, “a toaster with windows”, but it’ll be there. As Bryson asks “what mad seizure gripped…architects and college authorities in the 1960s and 1970s?”

Even the name of this unloved architecture is ugly. ‘Brutalism’. Derived from “Breton brut”-French for “raw concrete”-the name sounds as soulless as the style. The buildings can be impractical to live in, supposedly ugly to look at. Voice of the people, Prince Charles, described them as “a monstrous carbuncle.”

Yet it was never supposed to be this way. The buildings of the 60s and 70s signalled a fresh start for post-war Britain, to new beginnings and a break from the past. Fellows at St John’s commissioned a “frankly contemporary” building which makes “no concessions”. There was an atmosphere for change, and brutalist buildings were where that change could be lived.

At the same time the University attempted to open its doors to more people. It introduced the maintenance grant. The newly built Wolfson College provided flats for married couples, whilst its hall was built without a High Table. New buildings were added to old quads. The more rooms that could be built, the more people could study. But in a medieval city, with little space to build upon, this was never going to be easy.

The Psychology and Zoology building on South Parks Road was a potential answer. Sir Leslie Martin, the architect, had studied how to achieve the most space possible from a constrained site. Yet the building was attacked as a glass and concrete monstrosity.

The Psychology and Zoology Building on South Parks Road.

If you ever walk past it though, just stop. Look at it. We all know it looks like a car park, but really, just look at it. It seems to float. Despite its sheer brute size, it sits weightless, upon glass. The walkways connecting the two buildings give a glimpse into the infrastructure. We see how it works, how the people inside it work. And though it towers, imposing and arresting, it does not threaten us. It is majestic.

The same can be said of the St Cross building. Comprised of the Law and English faculties, it slots together in a playful cubist jigsaw. Each block is separated, independent, highlighted by black anodized aluminium. It’s all linked, part of something greater. Corridors and steps lead to corners that promise views, hidden away for you alone. Step outside and walk away. Turn around. The building is still there, but it only peeks its head up. It hides behind others, not arrogantly imposing itself, but aware of its own presence, its own size and scale. Its own importance.

St Catz echoes this grandeur. Arne Jacobsen, the architect, designed everything from the landscape to the cutlery. The angular lines of the site bring a seriousness and a simplicity. Everything is arranged perfectly. It is planned, organised, deliberate. The geometric design is coherent. It makes sense. At the centre of the site sits the quad, yet unlike a traditional design, hedge-lined walks wander off to other buildings.

St Catz.

Throughout the town brutalist buildings provide a twist on tradition. More importantly though, they fit in. They stand proud, built in the same self confidence as the colleges. As though they’re meant to be there. Look closely and you notice a subtle beauty disguised by a plane of concrete. The shapes. Arrows, fans, rectangles, honeycombs. Each with a structure you can see.

These buildings are honest. They show what they are made of and what they were made for. Yet inevitably, a building that embodies change will be criticised. All Souls was attacked in 1710 for its newfangled “Gothick” towers which ruined the Oxford skyline. In 1886 Keble was considered revolutionary for combining a Fair Isle sweater with a public lavatory. Tastes change, and All Souls is now postcard Oxford. It took time, but it’s recognised as beautiful. And if plans go ahead, buildings such as Somerville’s Vaughan may never be given this opportunity.

With the redevelopment of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter site, various brutalist buildings will be replaced with modern equivalents. The English Faculty will move out of the St Cross Building. Somerville will build accommodation on the new site. And the intricate concrete skeleton of Vaughan building will be knocked down. Once Oxford Colleges drag themselves out of debt, there is the risk that the only way to expand will be at the expense of a brutalist building.
Luckily though, a number of them are protected. Christ Church’s Blue Boar quad is a Grade II* listed building due to the unique nature of its architecture. St Hugh’s Kenyon is listed in recognition of its plethora of south facing windows. The importance and individuality of these buildings has been recognised. And as such, they are difficult to demolish.

Taste is starting to change too. London’s Brunswick Centre is now posh enough to house a Waitrose. Sheffield’s Park Hill estate is being regenerated with the help of English Heritage. Birmingham’s Rotunda, a huge cylinder of concrete and glass has been prettified with apartments. Which sold out in three hours. Brutalism is popular again. And it is the University’s place to make sure that it is recognised as so in Oxford.

The Rotunda in Birmingham.

Lest we forget, these buildings can be impractical. They do leak, their boilers do break, their windows can be too big or too small. But they’re beautiful, and an embodiment of an important time in Oxford’s history. It is not a period of the past that should be airbrushed. To knock them down would be a crime. And not the first offence: the 50s saw stunning Victorian buildings flattened in the name of progress. To do the same to the buildings of the 60s and 70s would be to bulldoze blindly with the same architectural arrogance.

Without these concrete monstrosities, many of the current students wouldn’t be at Oxford. Those bedrooms were needed.

Change is inevitable though, and should be welcomed. Whilst preserving its older buildings the University must continue to engage in contemporary architectural debate. Just like Prince Charles.

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