Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Best Pubs in Oxford

There are so many great pubs in Oxford, it was hard to choose a favorite among the 8 I reviewed. The Trout (above) has everything I look for in a pub: history, properly stored bitter (beer), real wood fires, cozy nooks, good food, country walk, pleasant outdoor seating and a peacock. Okay, I don’t usually look for peacocks, but this one came looking for me!

Book a table days ahead for dinner at The Trout. Stick to the pub classics like the best fish and chips or special savory pies. My kids adore the wood oven pizza. The hummus etc. plate is good for sharing. Perfect with a pint of Landlord’s. Sitting outside by the river, watching the sun set over Port Meadow, is bliss. You can get a full tea too.

Colin Dexter (creator of the Inspector Morse series) is a fan of The Trout as were other local authors. I’ve never seen Dexter at the pub, but I have passed him on the road while picking up my daughter from school.

The best way to reach The Trout in Wolvercote from Oxford City Center is on your wellies (rubber boots). Take the dog too! Enter Port Meadow from Jericho, and you have a nice 4 mile loop along the Thames/Isis River with The Trout at midway. The Port Meadow side is a muddy, boggy field with horses, cattle, geese, swans and migrating birds for company. It’s gorgeous in a frost or the rare snow.

At the north end of Port Meadow, cut through the car park, take a left on the Godstow Road and cross the bridge. Pass a sheep farm on your left and a community garden on your right. The Trout will be on your left before the next bridge (about 5 minutes).

On the way home, take a left, cross the bridge and turn left onto the Thames towpath by the Godstow Abbey ruins. At the end of the towpath, cross the footbridge back to Jericho. If you don’t have wellies, you can take the towpath both ways.

The less intrepid can take the Number 6 bus from Oxford City Center (near the Randolf Hotel) to Wolvercote Home Close (end of line.) You’ll have a 10 minute walk down Godstow Road. The Trout has a good size car park too, but then you’ll have to watch your drinking. Really! I live in Wolvercote. My English husband chose our house because it was closest to his favorite pub and country walks.

Back in college, Henry and his Oxford mates thought the journey to The Trout was well worth it. Mostly, though, Oxford students are lazy drinkers. They usually head to the college bar or to the closest boozer. Oriel and Christ Church students favor The Bear. Writer that I am, I can’t resist the sign calling itself “an historic pub.”

The Bear is tiny and authentic (1242!) During term time, crowds spill into the road. Wear a special tie only if you are willing to have it clipped for the impressive collection housed in glass cases on the walls and even on the ceiling.

The most classic but hardest to find pub is The Turf Tavern. Check out their website for funny visual directions or you'll never find it. It’s cozy inside and has plenty of outdoor seating in the courtyards. The Turf has been a favorite Oxford watering hole for centuries. It was mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

The Lamb & Flag was also cited in Jude the Obscure. It’s popular with students and is owned by St. John's College. The lamb and flag signify that saint. The visual signs were key in old pubs, serving an illiterate community.

I had an excellent pint of Pewsey Best, and Henry’s half of Spitfire was good too. Okay, I’ll own up. I ordered the Spitfire (half pint as we were visiting 2 pubs) and traded it for the Pewsey because it really was the best. Research, darling.

Great atmosphere at The Lamb and Flag. I wonder if they ever light the enormous fire? It was almost cold enough. April has been miserably grey and bitter with the exception of yesterday. Yes, I know you are wearing T-shirts in NYC. It might get up to 75 here – in mid summer!

Across the busy road is the most literary pub: The Eagle and Child (1650). C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other friends met every Tuesday morning(!) between 1939-1962. “The Inklings” discussed books and their writing. They called the pub affectionately “The Bird and Baby.” Is the sign creepy or what?

On the walls are pictures of the famous writers, a framed letter to the landlord and even a commemorative plaque. Hey, my writer friends and I occasionally meet at Henry and Marty’s for a drink and dessert back home in Brunswick, Maine. We discuss writing, revising and publishing too. When’s the plaque going up?

Sitting in the Inklings’ corner is Henry, my best drinking buddy. He knows from pubs. The Brakspear (local Oxford brew) was divine and the Adnams Broadside was good. Add a packet of crisps (potato chips) and you’re sorted.

Looking for a big, easy to find pub? Go to The Kings Arms, smack at the end of Broad Street near my favorite bookstore, Blackwell’s. It draws a lot of tourists and students. The food isn’t so great, and I find the high ceilings lend a cavernous feel. Smokers on the outside benches and traffic fumes waft inside.

For you Oxford locals, this is all old hat, so I’ll name a couple of favorites more off the beaten track. Perhaps the most obscure good pub in Oxford is The Plough on Wolvercote Green. Take the Number 6 bus, get off at Wolvercote School, walk straight past the school and down the hill.

The Plough is on a meadow by the Oxford Canal with limited parking. You can also walk a couple miles to it from Oxford Center along the canal towpath. There is pleasant outside seating in the meadow (for those of you with dogs,) also an adjacent playground. It feels like a country village pub.

Sit in “the library” at The Plough. There's a working fire (gas), huge bay windows and lots of books. My daughter enjoyed reading J.H. Williams’s In Quest of a Mermaid (1960) while waiting for her kids’ menu dinner. My teenaged son loves the fresh chicken burgers. The food is really good value. I once had a delicious ostrich steak special, and they prepare fresh side vegetables.

The Plough’s food is not as tasty as The Trout’s, but you can always get a table and it’s much cheaper. Go there if The Trout is full or just for more peace and quiet. The Abbot Ale was mighty fine and the service very friendly. The Plough and The Trout are the best pubs for families or for a meal.

Avoid the two other pubs in Wolvercote by the end of the bus line. The Red Lion has bad food and lots of loud kids playing in the bouncy castle. Give The White Hart a miss unless you fancy a wide-screen TV playing the football (soccer.) Don’t confuse it with The White Hart in Wytham which is good for a pint, although the food isn’t as good as it used to be.

Closer in to Oxford Center is The Rose and Crown on North Parade. It is a 20 minute walk from Oxford Center and a good value for okay meals. I hear the ale is kept really well but didn’t sample it as I was working after lunch. Yes, I’m still revising my novel, S.A.D. I'll be back for a pint of Old Hooky, a local brew and favorite of mine.

The pink color both inside and outside was cheerful, and I saw more women at The Rose and Crown than at the other pubs. What I love about English pubs, is that they are friendly places for women and even families, not at all like American bars.

The English beer is cask temperature so you can really taste it (like fine red wine.) Lager is light, and bitter is darker. My favorite bitters are medium amber colored, smooth and rich like Hobgoblin. It shouldn’t be cloudy, too hoppy or sour – that happens when improperly stored or too old.

Riverside at The Trout for sundowners.

Pubs are often the social hubs of villages, but sadly many are going out of business due to the cheap cost of beer in supermarkets, high taxes on pub beer, stiff penalties on drunk driving (that bit is good!) and perhaps the recent smoking ban passed last summer [as reported in The Week April 18.] I for one much prefer pubs since the smoking ban – I’m going much more frequently now. You can expect several pub scenes in my English novel, Not Cricket (A Match for Eve).

If you know of other good pubs in Oxford, please add a comment below. Click on the “pubs” label to read more reviews. Cheers!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Japanese Influence on French Gardens

I didn’t intend for a Japanese theme to my long weekend in France. For vacation my daughter asked to visit her old buddy from Maine who had moved to the Parisian suburbs. I’ve always wanted to see Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and our host, Elizabeth Webb, suggested the Albert-Kahn Gardens (above) in the outskirts of Paris.

In the 1880’s Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny. It was there that he painted his famous lily pads. Although Monet never visited Japan, he collected beautiful Japanese woodblock prints which are displayed in his house and well worth a visit on their own. Local carpenters recreated the Japanese bridge.

The flower beds were as cheerful as Monet’s green-shuttered pink house. The formal grid design of the upper gardens were distinctly French. The bulbs were planted by color type and carefully balanced. The blocks of bright color were reminiscent of the multicolored rooms inside: a sun yellow dining room with 56 Japanese prints, a pastel blue parlor and an azure blue tiled kitchen and many others. It felt more like an artist’s palette than a decorating scheme. I loved it.

The daffodils were fading, but the tulips were out in full force with the blooming fruit trees. The bright colors softened the regimented symmetry.

The lower garden with its serpentine of water, arched bridge, weeping willows and thick groves of waving bamboo felt understated and Japanese. All it seemed to miss was a teahouse to view the splendor. My favorite gardens are in Kyoto where every blossom or stone is carefully chosen, all working together in asymmetric harmony.

But even in Monet’s Japanese-style garden, the colorful plantings, blooming in reckless abandon, felt more extravagantly western . The pansies glowed in the sunlight as did the azaleas. In pockets of peaceful contemplation, I could appreciate how this garden became Monet’s muse.

I was sorry to miss the irises, roses and lilies pads but not the crowds that accompany them. Over a half million visitors come annually to the Giverny gardens that are only open April to October.

We had lunch at the Museum of American Art’s Terra Café. We ordered crostinis with an interesting fruit and vegetable salad and an excellent raspberry tart for dessert. My ten-year-old daughter enjoyed the American style kid’s menu. The service was fast, and the dining room, open to the gardens, was very pleasant.

If Monet’s Giverny is one of the most famous French gardens, the Albert-Kahn Gardens are the most obscure. Albert Kahn was a wealthy banker who dreamt of world peace. The museum houses his early photography collection, but it was closed for renovation. The gardens were designed to reflect his vision of internationalism. Kahn had traveled to Japan in 1909 on business.

The Japanese garden was too busy with layered stones, thick plantings and multi-level vistas to be Asian. There was a gaudy hill of solid azaleas with a spiraling path. It had an almost Disney theme park feel to it, but of course that made it all the more appealing to the children, who raced up the paths and skipped along the stepping stones. There was a delightful, playful quality to the garden.

The huge carp were genuinely Japanese. My daughter and I shared a Zen moment watching scattered rain drops falling on the pond, creating concentric rings. I’d love to return for a tea ceremony in the teahouse.

By the time we made it to the English garden, it was (appropriately enough) raining quite hard. It wasn’t the best example of English gardening, but daffodils blooming along a stream did bring to mind London parks.

We loved the rough, hilly paths winding through a conifer forest. The pines smelled fragrant in the rain and reminded us of hikes in Maine, although it was meant to invoke the Vosges Mountains of Kahn’s childhood. There was even an American meadow but not much was blooming.

It was a bit of a shock to come upon the traditional French garden after the wild forest. Early in the season, one could see how the crab apple trees were twisted and bent into geometric shapes and pinned like torture victims on a rack. Although all the gardens were artificial, it was only in the French garden that one felt keenly aware of man’s hand in shaping nature to his design.

The Albert-Kahn Museum and Gardens
14, rue du Port
92100 Boulogne-Billancourt
Tel: 01 55 19 28 00
Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-7 or 8pm
Metro: Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud (ligne 10)
€1.5 (free for under 12)

For dinner we continued the japonais theme. Elizabeth’s friend Akiko claims that Kunitoraya is the most authentic Japanese restaurant in Paris. It’s a simple noodle shop, and it did indeed feel like I was back in Tokyo.

In Japan restaurants tend to specialize in only one type of food so there are noodle shops, sushi restaurants, yakitori grills, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and even restaurants serving just breaded fried pork cutlets. There are no “Japanese restaurants” in Japan – that’s a western export. As are large servings of meat or deeply battered tempura. Real Japanese tempura comes lightly battered and isn’t greasy so you can really taste the fresh vegetables.

Kunitoraya sells only noodles and a few rice dishes. My daughter ordered plain noodles in broth, and the rest of us had Kamaten-Udon (€15). We watched them prepare our meal from the noodle bar. All the staff appeared to be Japanese as were half of the clients – always a good sign.

I explained to our friends that you have to slurp the long, slippery noodles, the louder the more polite. The thick wheat noodles (udon) were the best I’ve had outside Japan as was the tempura. They came with a warm dipping sauce to which you add fresh ginger, toasted sesame seeds, chopped scallions and a raw quail’s egg (that had to be a French addition – it usually would be a raw chicken’s egg.)

Kunitoraya was in the Asian district that included many Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants. It was at 39 Rue Ste. Anne near Rue des Petits Champs and is open every day from 11:30am to 10:00pm. Great place for an early, inexpensive dinner with kids. You can sit at the bar or in the cave like basement at a table.

I rounded off the evening with a French motif: fine wine and cheese back home with my friends. It was a fun weekend of dual cultures. Like quails eggs on udon, France and Japan are a good pairing.

This post was part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Click on the link to see what else was blooming around the world on April 15th.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Oxford Literary Festival 2008

It was not without irony that Lionel Shriver announced that she would be the first to read “smut” aloud in Christ Church Library. At The Oxford Literary Festival Shriver read two sexually explicit but intellectually charged passages from her latest novel, The Post-Birthday World. Shriver takes a bold stab at what people really think about when making love. As she said, there is a limit to the number of physical combinations of which part goes where. Lionel didn’t blush once, her enunciation was as faultless and subtly nuanced as the most seasoned actress. The stage was set with leather-bound books housed in oak below ornate moldings, an ivory tower out the window.

It made me want to go back and reread her book; I blogged about PBW last May. A review in the Guardian (spoiler alert) claimed this work was her most autobiographical. Shriver left a long term relationship for the love of a jazz musician. Like her heroine and like me, Shriver is an expat American living in England. We were both dressed in black t-shirts and jeans, unlike anyone else in the silver-haired, tweedy audience. I confess to feeling comfort at hearing an American accent again, like finding an old friend.

The PBW has been called chick lit although it tackles deep issues such as the inspiration for creativity and even the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is still quite a change from the disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her Orange Prize winner was about a school shooter. A hand count showed that I was one of the few that had read her latest; most were Kevin fans and women.

I asked how she managed to defy genre typing and what her next project would be. Shriver was wary of “the women’s fiction pigeon hole” as she cherishes her male readers too. Her claim was that women read more books then men and are just as happy to read broadly. She did admit that her agent was nervous about her next novel: a reflection on the American healthcare system written in a male voice. As long as Shriver continues to write beautifully and honestly about controversial subjects, I believe her audience will only grow.

The Oxford Literary Festival lasts an entire week and is housed in Christ Church which many may recognize from Brideshead Revisited. The events were well worth the £7.50 admission just for the venue alone. I attended one where I sat at high table in Hall. If the space looks familiar, it was the model for the Hogwart’s dining hall in Harry Potter.

Even the entrance to the Hall and other conference rooms was beyond grand.

Of course nothing at the venerable college was accessible, so the panel I attended on "Disability in Writing" was housed across the street. The chair was the academic Tom Shakespeare. Susan Clow, manager of In the Picture spoke first about the importance of including disabled children in mainstream children’s picture books. It’s a more representational vision of reality, and inclusion sends the important message that the disabled are not invisible. Her website has many good tips for illustrators.

Susan Clow, Tom Shakespeare, Mark Haddon and Lois Keith

Novelist Lois Keith listed 3 approaches to avoid when writing about the disabled:
  1. “I wouldn’t wish disability on my worst enemy.”
  2. “He threw his wheelchair out the window to walk again.” (eg Colin in The Secret Garden)
  3. "Show the disabled character watching passively in the corner." (eg sweet Beth in Little Women)

The main draw of the panel was author Mark Haddon. A sharp-eyed reader will note that the chapters in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are all in prime numbers. Not once in the narrative is it spelled out that the engaging narrator with a number fixation has Asperger’s Syndrome. Haddon’s only regret was that the publisher added that information to the jacket blurb. His novel invites you to see the world through autistic eyes, but it is not a book about disability per se.

The Curious Incident is one of the best young adult books I’ve read; my son at age twelve loved it too. Encouraged by Haddon, I have included a disabled character in my novel S.A.D..

I attended the panel on Japanese Historical Fiction just for fun. I’ve always enjoyed reading novels about Japan. One of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. My husband teaches Japanese Politics, and my sister-in-law is Japanese.

Ellis Avery was worried that a 21st century American couldn’t understand what it felt like to be a 19th century Japanese girl. I applaud her choice of narrator: an American orphan, adopted by a Japanese family as a servant. The Teahouse Fire is as beautifully choreographed and unrushed as a tea ceremony. What drives the narrative is the complex relationship between the fictional maid, Aurelia, and a real historical figure, her mistress. Shin Yukako rescued the tea ceremony from obscurity in a rapidly modernizing Meiji Japan, just opening to the west.

What is striking about Avery’s story is that it reads like a Japanese novel. It reminds me of Mori Ogai’s The Wild Geese which is set in the same time period and is one my favorite novels. In both we see the attention to detail, the importance of family tradition, the theme of unrequited love and even the slow pace. What enlivens the narrative in Teahouse is a distinctly American feminist perspective, including a lesbian romance. It’s an unusual mix, but it works. I’m missing her voice since finishing the book.

I don’t have as much to say about Lesley Downer’s The Last Concubine because I haven’t read it. Like Avery's novel, it is set in 19th century Japan. Although Downer lived in Japan for 15 years, the only Japanese women she said she could relate to were geisha. She characterized the rest as married at 24, had kids, were gossipy, didn’t know men (even their husbands) and didn’t work. That isn’t the Japan that I know.

At the end of the readings, Avery delighted the audience by passing out Japanese sweets and conducting a tea ceremony. Avery has studied the art of Japanese tea for years. She held her arms as if wearing a kimono and moved with measured grace. Downer was an obliging guest, her role as ritualized.

On Avery’s website I discovered that we share the same literary agent, Jean Naggar. I introduced myself to Avery and her partner, Sharon Marcus; both teach at Columbia University. Oddly enough, they already knew me. They had googled “best tea in Oxford,” found my blog and enjoyed a decent cup of tea and lunch at The Rose. Professor Marcus studies 19th century women journals and said my blog reminded her of the travel journals from that time. Isn’t cyberspace a small world?

Another panel I attended was “Blogging the Classics” which debated book review blogging vs. newspaper literary criticism.

John Carey, John Mullan, Lynne Hatwell and Mark Thwaite

Mark Thwaite, founder of and a librarian by profession, spoke on the value of book blogging as giving recognition to good but unusual titles. He listed 7 words that should be avoided when reviewing:
  1. poignant
  2. compelling
  3. intriguing
  4. astute
  5. craft
  6. muse
  7. lyrical
Uh oh, have I used them all? Thwaite posts a list of about 80 English book bloggers on his website at BritLitBlogs. Too bad there isn’t an American equivalent of this directory. Thwaite pointed out that there are a lot of blogs out there - well over 100 million tracked by Technorati alone. Diversity is a given.

Lynne Hatwell from dovegreyreader was an engaging speaker: modest, funny and forthright. Blogging about books is the way to share her passion. Her blog is a bit like mine, a mixture of reading and personal narrative. It’s more about how she feels about the books than a critical review. She lives in Devon and is a healthcare visitor who did a literature degree in her free time.

The panel’s literary critic was Professor John Mullan. Mullan said his academic training allows him to understand literature better than a layperson. He may know books, but it didn’t sound like the professor was that familiar with blogs. He spoke of people raving, hostility and chaos in cyberspace. The moderator and Sunday Times chief reviewer, John Carey praised the diversity in blogging, but Mullan didn’t recognize its value beyond entertainment.

Near the close of the festival, came the biggest surprise: 3 inches of snow! My kids made a snowman with grape hyacinth hair. Port Meadow looked like a holiday card complete with swans. I felt like I had conjured the storm as I was writing a new cross-country skiing scene for S.A.D. and was having a hard time remembering a Maine winter. I actually got the idea under a flurry of cherry blossoms. My revisions are well inspired thanks to the literary festival and the April snow.