Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Oxford and Headington - In search of Lord Elton

“Take your jacket off”, hissed the lady to her husband as we all sat on the top deck of the bus, “it's warm”.

Lord Elton's BookShe was right too. The weather gods finally remembered that it was summer and produced a cracking day with blue sky, fluffy clouds and no rain. Mind you, I suspect that it might have been a sight of a workman wandering around wearing his hi-vis jacket as a belt that made her realise that perhaps winter clothes could be dispensed with as much as the sunshine blazing through the glass.

My trip to Oxford came about because of a book bought in Douglas indoor market. “It Occurs to me” is a compilation of three series of broadcast talks made by Lord Elton in the late 1930's on the radio. I have a thing for books of essays and these are particularly good and very readable. Like all good writers he dwells on the minutiae of life but often refers to his time in the World War 1 where he spent years as a guest of the Turkish army as a prisoner of war. Read today there is a strong, unintended, poignancy to the words as we all know what happened a couple of years after publication.

Born Godfrey Elton, the historian was elevated to become Lord Elton of Headington in 1934 (see his Wikipedia entry for a little more information). Having enjoyed the book I felt the need to have a mooch around Headington itself. Once a separate town to the north of Oxford, the two have largely joined but a thriving centre still exists and I've been through it many times on my way to a rather good model shop just outside the main shopping area.

My objective was to try and track down some more books by Elton, especially his autobiography “Among Others”. A trawl of second hand bookshops would surely turn something up ? Well no - there are no bookshops in Headington. In fact around a third of the shops are run by charities. Still, I'm told by experts in the field charity shops in posh areas are often worth a browse thanks to a better quality of donations. Oxfam seemed to have cornered the market in anything other than trashy paperback and unsurprisingly they didn't have anything – I suppose I need to resort to Amazon's famous long tail after all.

Headington BarclaysThe shopping centre looks to have been largely rebuilt in the 1930's with what must have been some quite attractive buildings. Years of terrible planning and modern alterations haven't done them any favours but the echoes are still there. A modern development for “key workers” (those who work in locksmiths ?) stands out but not in a bad way. Presumably someone had made the architect put some effort in rather than lob up another grey box. The 1960's underpass is probably the brightest thing on the high street, decorated by kids (or painters with very limited artistic skill) showing a dream high street on the pebble-dashed walls. I assume getting “da kiz” to paint the walls officially persuades them no to do it under their own steam at night. How well this will work is debatable. At least one family are doing their best to raise the next generation of delinquents – challenged in a charity shop as to why one of the kids wasn't at school (and running around the shop) they replied, “Well, we er, got started a bit behind this morning”. The Daily Mail (no you don't get a web link, do you think I really want to sully my blog with one) would have had a field day and for once I'm not sure I'd blame them. At one point I thought they were following me as the tribe (2 parents, 1 spawn, 1 in-line double buggy) seemed appear about 20 seconds after I entered any shop.

Oxford will always be home to Inspector Morse for me. It's one of the few TV shows I can actually watch repeatedly, in fact it's the only TV series box-set I own. As an aside, is there a major ecological crisis looming with box sets of Friends and Ali McBeal on VHS ? Every second hand store has at least one and in desperation it usually has a price ticket of 50p on it. And dust. Will processing plants have to be built to deal with this menace ? Perhaps they could be brought together in one place so astronauts have something other than the Great Wall of China to look at...

Anyway, the Oxford to Headington road seemed to be one of the favoured locations in Morse. It's straight, not too busy and green. Ideal conditions for a vintage Jaguar obviously. Just into the city another location pops up and seemed worth a visit – Waterfields Booksellers. The sort of proper shop that sells antiquarian books rather than second hand ones. I'm too scared to go in these sort of place most of the time. My reading tastes tend not to suit their stock nor their prices. This time though my hunt was for a real author. The owner started with a check in Debrets (every home should have a copy) to get Lord Eltons details (I had forgotten his first name) and then checked the history section. Two volumes appeared, both heavy scholarly works which seemed suspiciously late to me as they covered history up to 1968. A quick flick through revealed them to be deadly dull pieces of academe rather than a text for the casual reader so I passed.

Oxford puntsFrom my vantage point on the top deck as we passed into the city I'd spotted a photograph that cried out to be taken of some punts tied up on the river. It was only a couple of minutes stroll back from the shop. The shot was grabbed before some oiks (nice word, sadly out of use) in a posh pedalo entered the frame. From there though a short stroll would bring me to an old model shop that I'd passed on the bus but hadn't intended to visit. There were a couple of interesting things in the window and I could grab a picture to feature on my other blog, and the weather was still nice, and on the way back there would be a chance of an ice cream by the river.

Oxford Models is what I call a proper model shop - open for 35 year and it shows. The window is full of goodies to tempt the passer by. Entering the shop aeroplanes and helicopters hung from the ceiling. Stock sat higgledy piggledy on the shelves. Little sign of organisation was apparent so rooting around like a pig for a truffle was the only option. Magic.

When I entered the shop the owner was chatting to a sales rep. I dug through boxes and shelves for a while then remembered something I needed for a model (don't worry, no technical stuff here, don your anorak and go to the other blog for that) so once they finished I asked since my exploration hadn't unearthed anything useful. Sadly the shop specialised in aircraft rather than boat parts and I was unlucky. Still we got talking.

And talking.

The phone went and after he'd finished we carried on talking.

Oxford model centreA French student and his American girlfriend came in carrying tennis equipment. He was interested in building plastic kits of aircraft and the conversation meandered through subjects as diverse as Lockerbie, metal fatigue in Comet airliners and local sports landmarks – the first 4 minute mile was run close by. The French guy, who is learning to fly, tried to buy an altimeter sat on the shelf behind the counter but discovered £15 wasn't a good starting point for negotiations on a WW2 flight instrument. However I learned why you have two of them in a plane so I suppose it was useful. They left without buying anything but this didn't seem to matter.

We chatted more.

Another customer came in for balsa cement and left satisfied having been persuaded that the foreign version is better than that sold in the UK. The later has had all the cellulose removed for safety and consequently doesn't stick or smell properly.

Yet more chat. The shops oldest customer joined us for a while. He wasn't looking for anything, it's the sort of place you can just drop in for a chinwag as I was discovering.
Finally two more guys wandered in looking for serious model helicopters. Rather then push on with the hard sell the conversation started on motorbikes as, unless they both had a leather and helmets fetish, that's how they had arrived. A motorcyclist and owner of several vintage machines our host happily chatted about them. After 20 minutes of this I wandered out again, nearly three hours after I went in. Oh and a steamboat kit better off or over a hundred quid worse off depending on how you view it.

With little of the afternoon left I wandered back into town, eschewing the ice cream I'd planned on, and headed for the covered market. Once upon a time this would have been a real indoor market selling food to the local population. Nowadays the food tends toward the delicatessen, although at Christmas it is the place to go for your giant turkey, goose, deer or ostrich. Most of the shops are aimed fairly and squarely at the tourist market of high class shoppers. As such the whole thing has become a bit too gentrified and is better viewed as a shopping centre with bags of atmosphere. Oh, and it has appeared in a Morse or two as well TV fans.

No sign of Lord Elton though.

More pics in Flickr

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