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July 2021 meeting cancelled

We had hoped to make our meeting on 12 July the first one face-to-face in Radley Church since March 2020. Unfortunately, this is now not possible as the Prime Minister announced yesterday that the remaining coronavirus restrictions will remain until 19 July and the speaker is unable to give his talk virtually by Zoom.

We very much hope to be able to resume our programme of speaker meetings in September.
See the Events Calendar for details

June 2021 meeting: Spitfires over Oxfordshire

On 14 June Nic Vanderpeet, learning and outreach officer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock, described the wartime reconnaissance missions of the Spitfires based in Oxfordshire.

Reginald Mitchell (1895 – 1937) of Supermarine Aviation, Southampton, designed the Spitfire as an evolution from the firm’s successful seaplanes. After the flight of the prototype in March 1936, the test pilot commented ‘Don’t change a thing.’

The Spitfires in Oxfordshire were deployed in training and reconnaissance roles, based at RAF Benson, RAF & USAAF Mount Farm (around what is now Berinsfield), and RAF Bicester. The planes were equipped with stereoscopic cameras. Teams including many women, notably the famous Constance Babington Smith, identified features on the photographs in interpretation centres at Nuneham House and Medmenham (nearby in Buckinghamshire).

Key intelligence included sightings of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, the construction of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, confirmation of the damage done by Allied bombing raids, and reconnaissance of the territory inland from the D-day beaches.

John Hugh Saffery, based at RAF Benson, recorded the hazards of flying at high altitude, including extreme cold and lack of oxygen. On YouTube, you can find a short film Spitfire 944 in which US pilot John Blyth describes his experiences at Mount Farm, including a crash landing. At ncap.org.uk the National Collection of Aerial Photography is available online.

Reports of earlier meetings

May 2021 meeting: The Oxford of Inspector Morse

On 10 May Alastair Lack explored the characters of Inspector Morse and his colleague Sergeant Lewis, as depicted in Colin Dexter’s books and three television series.

On holiday in Wales in the early 1970s, reading a poor detective novel, Colin Dexter exclaimed that he could do better. ‘Why don’t you?’ his wife replied. The result was Last Bus to Woodstock, published in 1975 to immediate success, and followed by 12 further Morse novels.

Colin Dexter’s favourite poet was A E Housman. Morse’s early life recalls Housman’s: unhappy in love at Oxford, dropping out without a degree, and initially taking an unsuitable job. Morse becomes a brilliant but wayward detective, still unhappy in love, devoted to opera and real ale. Lewis is the perfect foil: stolid, happily married, and almost always paying for the ale.

The novels make the most of their settings in and near Oxford, for example including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s appearance in Dr Faustus at the Playhouse in 1966, as well as pubs in and around Oxford.

From 1987 to 2000 Morse and Lewis appeared in the famous and popular television series based on the novels, and then in further episodes written by gifted scriptwriters. Colin Dexter wanted to cast John Thaw as Morse – an inspired choice – and Kevin Whately was perfectly cast as Lewis. The scripts used Morse and Lewis’s sessions in famous Oxford pubs to recapitulate – for viewers’ benefit – the complex story so far, and to explain their next steps.

After a long day of arduous filming, Thaw in particular disliked being recognized in Oxford pubs, and preferred the relative seclusion of the Randolph Hotel, in what was later named the Morse Bar.

It is estimated that almost 19 million people watched the episode Twilight of the Gods in 1993. The cast included John Gielgud, as Chancellor of the University.

In 1999 Colin Dexter published what he firmly declared to be the last Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, in which Morse dies of a heart attack. This was televised in 2000, and was the 33rd episode. Thaw himself died in 2002. Whately went on to star in a new series, Lewis (without Morse) which also ran for 33 episodes. From 2012 a young Morse has appeared in a third series, Endeavour.

Answering the many questions after his talk, Alastair Lack confirmed that Colin Dexter had often appeared in Morse in cameo roles, including, most unusually, a speaking part as the Bishop of Oxford; and that Morse was often seen parking his famous Jaguar car outside Brasenose College but then, in the next shot, appearing in a different college.

Reports of earlier meetings

April 2021 meeting: Pagans and Puritans – the story of May morning in Oxford

On 12 April Tim Healey explained how pagans and puritans have shaped the celebration of May morning in Oxford. See Tim’s website, May Morning Oxford, for photos and details of recent events on 1 May in Oxford.

Magdalen College choir launches the day at 6 am by singing, from the top of the tower (or, in 2020, online), the Hymnus Eucharisticus. This was (until the current plague forbade it) followed by morris dancing in the streets, and then general shenanigans in the pubs and elsewhere. Historically, the hymn is relatively recent, the dancing is ancient, and the shenanigans go back thousands of years.

The custom of ‘bringing in the May’ (hawthorn blossom) has distant origins in the Celtic festival of Beltane and Roman celebrations of Flora, goddess of the spring. In 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University forbade ‘… all dancing in masks or with disorderly noises, and all processions of men wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not.’

Morris dancing was first documented in England at the Goldsmiths’ feast in 1448. By the 16th century, it was widespread in many villages. At Maytime, there was often a cheery complicity between the parish church authorities, the gentry, and the revellers. But the Puritans were horrified, and in 1589 had the constable of Banbury ‘take down all Maypoles … and repress and put down all Whitsun ales, May games and morris dances and utterly forbid any wakes or fairs …’ In 1648 the Oxford diarist Anthony Wood recorded ‘zealous persecuting of the young people that followed May-Games, by breaking of Garlands, taking away fiddles from Musicians, dispersing Morrice-Dancers, and by not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat or stuck up at any door, esteeming it a superstition or rather an heathenish custom.’

Jollification returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and in 1695 Wood recorded that at Magdalen ‘the choral ministers … do, according to an ancient custom, salute Flora every year on the first of May, at four in the morning, with vocal music of several parts.’

In the 18th century, the performance still had a secular character: ‘a merry Concert of both Vocal and Instrumental Music … lasting almost 2 hours.’ Then, according to Dr Routh, President of Magdalen from 1791, one wet May morning the choir just sang the Hymnus Eucharisticus.  It was mercifully short, and, being the college Grace, needed no rehearsal.

In Victorian times, a famous painting by Holman Hunt, and Henry Taunt’s photographs and postcards made May morning in Oxford widely known. From 1923 university, town, and (for a while) police morris ‘sides’ have danced in the streets, inviting the famous ‘sides’ from Headington, Abingdon and Bampton to join them, and afterwards enjoying a well-aled morris breakfast in St Edmund Hall. Sides often include a ‘Jack in the Green’, a dancer completely encased in foliage.

In the lively questions and comments after Tim Healey’s talk, Christine Wootton mentioned the vicar’s report of Radley’s May celebrations in 1895. Young Mark Villebois was Jack in the Green. ‘After silently enduring the heat for some time, he at last broke loose from his leafy dungeon, and saved his life.’

May Day celebrations at Radley, 1894
May Day celebrations at Radley, 1894
May Day at Radley, date unknown

Reports of earlier meetings

March 2021 meeting: Living the Lexicon – James Murray and the OED

On 8 March Simon Wenham presented James Murray’s work on the creation of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now known as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Murray was born in 1837 in Denholm, in the Scottish Borders. From childhood he was fascinated by words and languages, but his father, a tailor, could not afford to keep him at school beyond age 14. At 17, he became a teacher at Hawick Grammar School. In 1862 he married Maggie Scott. In 1864 their baby daughter died of tuberculosis, and Maggie also contracted it. They were advised to escape the Scottish winters, and chose to move to London. However, soon Maggie also died. In 1867 Murray married Ada Ruthven. Murray’s friend Alexander Graham Bell was best man. Murray prized (but did not use) his wedding present of a telephone.

Murray had taken a job in a bank, but continued to study languages, and in 1868 joined the Philological Society. Under the enthusiastic but ineffectual editorship of Frederick Furnival, the Society was amassing material for a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The plan was to record the evolving meanings of every English word from Anglo Saxon to modern times, illustrated by copious quotations, sent in on paper slips by volunteer readers. Progress was slow and chaotic.

In 1878 Furnival persuaded Oxford University Press to take on publishing the Dictionary, and to appoint Murray as editor. He was then a teacher at Mill Hill School, north London. A formal agreement was signed in 1879: the project was expected to take 10 years. Murray had a corrugated iron shed built in the school grounds as a ‘scriptorium’ to house and organize the quotation slips. Murray was said to work a 77 hour week: 20 hours teaching, and 57 in the scriptorium, with a small team of assistants, and a torrent of quotation slips sent in by volunteer readers.

The first ‘fascicle’ (instalment) was published in 1884. It covered A to ant. Many subscribers could reasonably wonder whether they would live to receive the whole dictionary. At the Press’s insistence, Murray recruited more assistants, and moved to Oxford, at 78 Banbury Road, where he installed an enlarged scriptorium. The editorial team was expanded, and fascicles continued to appear regularly, but still slowly.

One of the most effective volunteer contributors was William Chester Minor, who (Murray eventually learnt) was imprisoned in Broadmoor asylum after having been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. This story became a book by Simon Winchester and, in 2019, a film (mis)titled The Professor and the Madman.

As a (congregationalist) non-conformist, Murray was not fully accepted by the University establishment. Benjamin Jowett befriended him, but no college offered him a fellowship, and he was awarded an honorary D Litt only in 1914.

By 1914, the project had reached Sh. Murray died in 1915 and is buried in Wolvercote cemetery. Murray’s co-editors completed the work in 1928. In 1933 the dictionary was reprinted in 12 huge volumes with a supplement, and rebranded the Oxford English Dictionary. The latest version is now available online, and under continuous revision.

Reports of earlier meetings