A weekend in Oxford

A wet weekend looking at houses in Oxford, where we lived for a while 30 years ago.

open top bus SD tree Osney Oxford 118.JPG

The city feels prosperous and welcoming. The Westgate shopping centre has at last been rebuilt. There’s a roof terrace with views over the snowy rooftops and spires.

from roof terrace Westgate centre Oxford 118.JPG

Memories, of course. We used to have to sit outside pubs in cold January because we had a child with us – now the pubs are full of young parents. The food has got better. Our best meal was at the SoJo Chinese restaurant; I’d forgotten the joys of sesame toasts.

sesame toasts SoJo Chinese restaurant Oxford 118.JPG

Near where we used to live, the corner shop used to stock one kind of white wine and one of red. The shop’s still there, the wine selection has grown a bit.

Lots of bookshops, laundrettes, hairdressers, Indian restaurants. A proud Syrian cut my hair in what I should probably consider a Prince William cut. Barbers in the UK are reasonably priced – this cost a tenner (one of those nasty plastic ten pound notes).

House prices in Oxford are absurd. But not quite as absurd as we’d thought.

Strasbourg, near the European Parliament, in the rain

I spent the day here at the Parliament. We’re waiting keenly for tomorrow’s vote on our proposal for a revised energy efficiency directive, as well as on renewable energy and “governance”.

I went out for a walk at lunchtime in a park nearby and liked this view, on the way back, of the trees and the street in the rain.


As I came closer to the person walking towards me she said Look! Turn round!

There was a rainbow.


(I was glad, of course,

Why do we love rainbows like this?

The only time I have been shown dolphins, it was the same.)


John Julius Norwich on a Venetian family

“[In 1171] Vitale Michiel [Doge of Venice]… took his fleet to Chios… Plague broke out in the overcrowded ships and spread with terrible speed. By early spring thousands were dead.

(Footnote: Among them, so the story goes, perished all the surviving male members of the Giustiniani family – except one, a young monk in the monastery of S. Nicolò di Lido. Rather than allow so distinguished a line to die out, the Pope granted him temporary release from his vows. He left the monastery, married the Doge’s daughter and did what was expected of him; then, his posterity assured, he returned to the monastery. His wife waited for the children to grow up; later she too took the veil.)”

(John Julius Norwich, A history of Venice, 1982)


P1050445.JPG(Abbey of St Wandrille, Normandy, from a letter of Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1948)

Richard Thaler and Geoff Dyer on things that can’t exist


(chair saving a parking space, Levkas, Greece, 2017)


“During what amounted to a job interview at the University of Chicago for a position at what is now called the Booth School of Business, I had a lunch meeting with several of the finance faculty members. As we left the business school to walk over to the faculty club where we would have lunch, I spotted a twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, right outside the building. Naturally I picked it up, and then everyone started laughing. We were laughing because we all realized the irony of this situation. There is an old joke that says a Chicago economist would not bother to pick up a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk because if it were real, someone would already have snagged it.” – Richard Thaler, Misbehaving (2015)


(In Los Angeles) “We parked. We were always parking, either parking or driving around looking for a parking space or getting our parking ticket validated, never confident about the procedure, worried that we had parked in some place that looked like a parking space but wasn’t. Often the mere fact that a parking space was available suggested that it was not a parking space: if it had been a parking space it would already have been taken and would not have existed.” – Geoff Dyer, The ballad of Jimmy Garrison, in White Sands (2016)



(Italian restaurant, Oxford before the referendum, 2016)

In what possible way could airports be considered inferior to actual cities, nowadays? (Olga Tokarczuk)

mcr airport man 1002Manchester airport, 2002

“Once they were in the outskirts, supplementing cities, like train stations. But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that today they have a whole identity of their own. Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports, as workplaces and places to sleep…

In what possible way could airports be considered inferior to actual cities, nowadays? They hold conference centres, interesting art exhibits, festivals and product launches. They have gardens and promenades; they instruct: at Amsterdam’s Schiphol you can see excellent copies of Rembrandt, and there is an airport in Asia that has a museum of religion – a fabulous idea.”

(from Flights, 2007, tr. Jennifer Croft 2017)




Minsk airport, 2016


Vienna airport, 2016


Brussels airport, 2016

For dogs, cities are better places than airports, I think.


Language: How irregular verbs may come to be

Our party this new year includes a baby/toddler, nearly 15 months old, who is learning to talk.

It seems to me that the words his parents, and all we adults, use to him fall into two groups. They are nouns (“uncle”, “bus”) or descriptions of the state of things (“well done”, “peep-o”).

Our baby repeats these words and learns. But they don’t fully meet his needs. What he wants to use language for, above all, is to tell us what to do.

For that he needs imperative verbs. We’re not giving them to him, so he’s making his own, re-using our “description of the state of things” words.

Sometimes this isn’t immediately obvious. “Up”, we say, as we lift him up. “Up”, he says, when he wants to be lifted. “More”, we say, as we offer him more food. “More”, he shouts, when he wants some.

But then, more inventively: we say “all done” when an activity is over. “All done”, he says, when the activity that is going on – lying on his back to have his nappy changed – is something that he wants to end.

And most strikingly: “bye bye”, we say, equal stress on each syllable, as we are leaving or as someone else is leaving. Last night, distressed by someone leaving who he didn’t want to go, he cried out “bye bye”, the second syllable stressed, to instruct her to come back. Again and again.

I think:

1) Because we are not teaching him imperatives, our baby is making them for himself. He is creating language (including by altering the pronunciation of a word he has been taught – “bye bye” – as he gives it a new meaning).

2) This is pretty exciting.

3) He makes his imperatives out of words that have meanings close to the meaning he wants to express. But because he knows few words, the grammatical and semantic relationships between the word he uses and the concept he wants to express cannot be the same each time. So the imperative verbs that he creates are irregular.

4) I imagine that all kids do this and always have done. If so, and if languages grow partly through this kind of invention, such inventions becoming institutionalised, this might be a way in which irregularities get baked into language.

wireless ordering cafe Tartu 815

(Service, Drink, Bill, Cancel: a device using different parts of speech to give orders at a bar in Tartu, Estonia, 2015.)