Thursday, 28 July 2011

Literary Endeavours

Oxford may be full of literary links, but there's one that rules supreme. No, not C.S. Lewis, despite my many blogs on his garden. Not even Tolkein, his drinking mate in the Bird and Baby (memorably misheard by one of my friends as the Burning Baby, which really seems unrelatable to its official title of The Eagle and Child), famously meeting place of the Inklings for over 20 years. And certainly not Pullman, like Tolkein my fellow Exonian (and, incidentally, Will Self).

No, the one that reigns supreme also has connections to Exeter College. It was a location in the final book in a very long series, or to be more accurate, in the television adaptation of the final book. That's right. Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse casts his long shadow over so many Oxford locations it's hard to escape his influence. Walking over Port Meadow today, to Wolvercote, and then back along the canal, my friend and I constantly expected to round a corner and find another murder victim awaiting the tender ministrations of Morse or Lewis. ("It's always the joggers that find them," my friend said darkly.) It's the bucolic idylls, the domestic suburbs and the academic Cotswold stone colleges that make the detective series what it is. They colour the tourist's eye view of Oxford (I always point out the Randolph Hotel to visiting friends, which has been the scene of more arrests, murders, and murder victims' last nights than any one place has a right to). On my single trip up the tower of the university church, I looked over the dreaming spires and found myself reminded of the aerial setting shots that provide the local colour for the adaptations.

I'll miss being in this city, despite taking so long to become used to it, and even, horrors, to become fond of it. But when I'm in the countryside, ensconced in my tiny thatched cottage, I'll be able to put on a dvd and find myself right back in Oxford, solving murders and remembering walks on sunny July afternoons, chatting aimlessly about research and academics and rugby and ducks, not being pounced on by murderers.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A bloat of hippopotamuses

"You haven't posted anything recently." Apparently my mother doesn't think the pressing matter of 100000 words to be written for my thesis is much of an excuse. And luckily while in the car this lunchtime the return of Radio 4's Questions Questions gave me a subject to pontificate on.

One of their listeners had rung up to ask about the source of the strange collective nouns for birds (a 'descent' of woodpeckers, for example). Tracked to the British Library, the Boke of St Albans, printed in 1486, had a compendium of collective nouns, including the skulk of foxes and the rather delightful 'rascal of boys'. The consensus seems to be that the author was making them up as he went along, and so whoever wrote the Boke, came up with most of the weird ones we still use today, and some that we don't. A 'knee of pheasants' anyone? Apparently related to the Norman French for 'nest'.

Interestingly the modern 'deceit of lapwings' was recorded in the Boke as a 'desert of lapwings' - apparently referring to the lapwing's habit of leaving its nest when it spots a predator, and feigning an injury some distance away to decoy the predator away from its chicks. At some point a misunderstanding of the etymology of 'desert' as coming from 'to desert' transferred the phrase to one which refers to the trick the lapwing is playing.

This all turned out to be strikingly relevant to the thoughts I'd been having at the weekend. Lying in bed, awake at 4am because of the (extremely loud) peacocks who live at Ellingham Hall, where I was staying for the wedding of my lovely friends David and Felicity, I was contemplating transferring the noun 'murder' from crows to peacocks. But on reflection, I think a 'throttle' of peacocks* is closer to the action that was crossing my mind.

* Of course, the Boke got there first. A 'muster' of peacocks is the canonical term, although there's a rival faction promoting 'an ostentation.'