I thought I’d blog about one of my ‘editorial days’ in Oxford, which happen whenever I’m about to embark on planning a new issue of the magazine. Several months downstream from here, it will have swollen into a fully-fledged collection of words and pictures – the next issue of Oxford Today. But right now, it’s a rather more ethereal set of thoughts and ideas.
I start at 9am by meeting with Cleo Hanaway to discuss the digitising of the modern University. Cleo is a Knowledge Exchange Facilitator in the Humanities Division. It sounds bureaucratic, but the University is now so large that having a small crack squad of people whose job it is to network the different pieces of the University, and the University to the outside world, is incredibly important. Just a single coffee later, sitting in the basement of the already — but at that point not quite officially — open Mathematical Institute on Woodstock Road, she had furnished me with several wonderful leads.
I then cycle rapidly across the city to Whitehouse Road, the first right after Folly Bridge. This leads where you probably never went as a student, unless at Pembroke or Corpus. You turn off the road, enter some shrubbery, cross the railway line on a tall footbridge, then cross another bridge spanning a waterway called Hogacre Ditch, finally entering a big, wide grassy expanse that opens to the south as Pembroke cricket ground, to the north as Corpus cricket ground.
At least it used to. Corpus joined another college for a sportsground, reducing maintenance costs by leasing the land, called Hogacre Common, to a Community Interest Company – think social entrepreneurship – which includes within it a nature reserve, a community vegetable garden and the Hog Roast Café. There, I meet Madeleine Ellis-Petersen (Magdalen, 2011), the brains behind the café. I’m not going to give the whole story away here, but I will answer the immediate question burning in your heads, namely: why didn’t Corpus sell the land to a developer and increase its endowment? There are two answers to that. Access problems across Network Rail-owned land, and the fact that it’s a notorious floodplain. In fact, the cricket-pavilion-turned-café is raised a metre, and even has a special flood channel underneath it. For any gardener, eco-idealist, or Fritz Schumacher devotee, this whole project is truly exciting. I think Oxford Today will return!
By 11.30 I am knocking at the door of Oxford Limited, the company that produces the officially sanctioned merchandise sold online and in the shop situated in the High. Hannah Aspey, head of brand and communications, kindly donated the camera bag recently awarded to the winner of the Oxford Today photography competition, so we’ve agreed to discuss forthcoming products. What I didn’t realize was that, beyond the heavily branded sweatshirts beloved of tourists, there is increasingly an attention on virtually non-branded, but very high quality, collaborations with small British producers, similar to the set-up Monocle employs.
Hannah’s job is to curate a collection of items that Oxonians will love. One amazing example of this is a local master woodsman called Richard Shock, who has produced a total of just three wine stoppers using tiny offcuts of wood harvested naturally from the Harcourt Arboretum. Yes, three. I’d willingly bet that none of the buyers will really know what a bargain they’ve got, nor how utterly rare and unique these items are. If you miss the wine stoppers there are a handful of exquisite bowls by Shock, too, but otherwise that’s it. My eye was also caught by some fine, non-branded lambswool knitware on the way for Christmas, and a rather marvelous Oxford bicycle.
A very quick bite of lunch at the Pret a Manger that was once a mobile phone shop and before that a Laura Ashley shop — you remember it, at the north end of Cornmarket — and I was off to Little Clarendon Street and Wellington Square to catch up with the digital editor, Jamie Condliffe. Another coffee later, I cycle up to Headington for my last meeting of the day, with Oxford Today contributor and world-renowned Tolkien expert John Garth. As well as discussing various possible commissions for Oxford Today, we inevitably discuss the state of publishing generally, book projects that might or might not happen, and an agent John knows who won’t talk to any potential author unless they already have a minimum of 250 Twitter followers.
Later, on my return to London, I listen to the great American novelist Jonathan Franzen on Radio 4 discussing his new and deliberately difficult work The Kraus Project, which revels in long footnotes and tests his audience, by reviving a forgotten Viennese satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) and describing social media in mostly negative terms. He speaks of young writers being forced into vulgar self-promotion in the Twittersphere as “weird and compulsive,” and of course running counter to what they should be doing: writing. In this portrait of our times, he wonders whether this “insane cultural moment will spell the end of an essential part of us.” Technology does not enhance what is human; it may even reduce it, he thinks.
I’m not sure he’s (entirely) right but I’m glad there isn’t a universal consensus around these things. I also think that had Twitter existed when I was completing my PhD, my thoughts and my prose might have been rather more concise.