Downton Abbey has, since 2010, been praised for its costumed elegance and all-encompassing entertainment value, but also criticised for its leisurely pace, its futile storylines and its blasé approach to the details of history. For some, it is an emotionally gripping period romp, but for others it is nothing more than a soap opera dressed up in First World War garb. Its plots are often silly, and its dialogue sillier to an audience accustomed to a more liberal society, and after the crushing special that ‘ruined Christmas’, and the departure of two of the series’ shining lights in Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown-Findlay, season four felt lethargic and directionless. Episodes passed without any moments of note, and while the stakes were raised for some, most of it failed to live up to the energy of the World War One stories of earlier years. It even had some yearning for the time the dastardly Thomas kidnapped and then rescued Lord Grantham’s dog – a dramatic highlight indeed.
But Julian Fellowes and his team were not to be undone.
Though it opened to disappointingly low viewing figures, season five restored some of the impetus to the Abbey, with plotlines both upstairs and downstairs, old and new, bringing new movement when everything was grinding to a halt. There was, of course, the usual assortment of trivial strands and wasted characters; Daisy’s struggling with maths got off to a slow start, the Barrow-Baxter conflict still lacked the weight it requires and even Edith’s secret child, a plot line which ought to carry more interest than the rest, felt like filler more than anything else. But elsewhere, other characters were in their elements. Maggie Smith, ever-mischievous and eternally feisty, took her scheming to new heights in her attempts to stay high in the pecking order, dragging Penelope Wilton, who is rather too dry on her own, up with her. Branson (Allen Leech), or Tom, if you would prefer, was embroiled in more controversy over his relationship with the strong and opinionated schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, whose praise of the new Labour Prime Minister sent shockwaves across an already tense dinner table.
And then there was the fire. Like all great Downton moments, it had such a momentous potential, and could have sent the lives of all into disarray. Still, it ended up satisfyingly easy to resolve, and only damaging a single room (but not without ruining a couple of reputations in the process). And typically, Thomas was there to save not only the day, but also his own skin. For such an obviously evil guy, he has a despicably charmed life.
All the usual components of a Downton series were present. The threatening – or exciting, depending on who you ask – prospect of change was ever-present, waved in the audience’s faces in the political debate, the shifts in power or more simply in Daisy’s pondering of the future. That Lord Grantham is shocked whenever there is a challenge to his stately way of life is remarkable, given how often it happens, and it would be a surprise if there were no more before Christmas. Another staple, the silly dialogue, remained as entertaining as ever. The season opener’s winner had to be Michelle Dockery’s ‘I’m going upstairs to take off my hat’. There were also the facial expressions, ranging from the shocked and disgusted, courtesy of Hugh Bonneville and Jim Carter, to the shrewdly suspicious from Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and Lady Mary couldn’t miss out on an opportunity to take a sharp verbal jab at her sister.
But it would only be Downton if something truly banal snatched the limelight from a more orthodox source of excitement. And it delivered in style as Molesley (Kevin Doyle) tried to fight the aging process to disastrously conspicuous results. Like the Dowager Countess, Molesley needs no help to create some comedy, but while hers is based on her savage tongue and cutting put-downs, his rest solely on a unique buffoonery.
With a new lease of life, Downton Abbey must answer some of its questions before it asks any more.
What exactly has Bates done? Will Mary settle on one man from her ever fluctuating pool of suitors? What happened to that Gregson chap in Germany? And will Lady Rose find something useful to do, or will she remain a nuisance forever?
The solutions could be exciting, or criminally tedious, but only time will tell. Until then, we can expect more raised eyebrows, more wonderful costumes and more ludicrous side stories in the meandering towards resolution. We can only hope that the drama of the series opener is sustained, and that everything stays at Matthew Crawley-era levels of entertainment, rather than lapsing into the pointless and forgettable. Fellowes has at his fingertips great potential both in terms of plot and in terms of actors (Anna Chancellor was brilliant in the opener, but Richard E. Grant could take things to new heights). Whether he takes full advantage of it remains to be seen.
‘And yet, steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the middle ages, who will deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us closer to the true goal of all us, to the ideal, to perfection…?’
Coates’ tribute to Oxford is a fitting one, but a romantic flight of thought that is rarely felt outside of the state of slight inebriation located somewhere between one’s first and second pint. The waypoint, between the dull and dutiful concerns of sobriety and the earthier kebab and companionship aims of true drunkenness, is arguably the only moment at which one can truly appreciate the significance and beauty of our home. It’s certainly a realistic possibility in a city of nearly one hundred public houses and inns – one that two school friends and second year PPEists, at Brasenose and Wadham respectively, intend to investigate with the utmost thoroughness. Having fairly exhausted the ale-based possibilities of their own city, they came up with the singular ambition of having at least one pint (or in Hugh’s case, the occasional half) in every pub in Oxford.
Armed with Brakspear’s guide to the city’s pubs and a newly minted student loan, they made a fair crack at the job last year (despite occasionally being waylaid in Purple Turtle). Fearing that their newly found ale-wisdom may be perceived at best as pointless, and at worst as a sad Nigel Farage tribute act, this term they will be writing a review of a pub each week. Aiming both to highlight some of Oxford’s little known gems to the new crop of Freshers and to tempt older hands away from the respectively pecuniary and spatially challenging King’s Arms and Turf Tavern, they will be heading out to the outskirts of the city and even into a surprise rural location. Despite the mellowing effects of Oxford’s foaming pints, the reviewers will be sharp when necessary; they show no fear of the brewery-industrial cabal dominating the town’s beer market. From Cowley to Carthax, Jericho to Jesus, Hugh and Jack are stumbling forth on a quest, an adventure that they want you to follow – otherwise they’re just two students getting pissed, aren’t they?
Do you have a particular pub that you think is underappreciated by our bright young undergraduates? Or an inn hopelessly overrated? If so, please do let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone fancy a pint?
At what point does an essay crisis verge on an existential one? At 2am to be precise. But fear not, freshers! I have some tips that will help you get through the inevitable first essay crisis and how to avoid another one. Get your coffee ready. It’s about to get serious. An essay crisis can be defined as the moment when you realise that you are quite possibly having a mental breakdown and most definitely screwed. Perhaps your deadline is tomorrow and you realise that you have read nothing on your reading list. Maybe it’s that morning and you still haven’t read anything – at this point hang your head in shame. Questions run through your mind such as ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Why didn’t I start earlier?’, ‘Is Bruce Jenner secretly a woman?’. (Seriously, it happens.) Once you have procrastinated through those blissful first stages of denial, confronted the rhetorical questions and realised that Facebook stalking missions should be aborted at all costs, take a deep breath and prepare for the next stage… cramming. Get your shoes on. It’s time to head to the library.
Once you have cycled/walked/cried your way there it is important to understand that time is of the essence. Distractions are for the weak. You are strong. Bod card at the ready, you swipe your way into the Rad Cam, negotiate rows of unfriendly hipsters, and get out your reading list whilst secretly wishing your look was more ‘vintage’ than ‘desperate and need a wash’. But remain calm; they can probably smell fear. Once seated, turn to the back of the book. This is where the index is and the reason you will survive the next 24 hours. Look through and find topics or key words essential to your essay. It also helps to do a small Wikipedia of the subject before you begin any heaving reading, as this will give you a general idea of what the hell you’re supposed to be talking about. Turn off your phone, WiFi connection and put away anything else that could disturb your focus.
Now it’s time to cram, cram, cram! However be sensible about the amount of reading you can physically do. There are a lot of words in the world and you can’t read ‘em all. It’s now 2am, or what I like to call ‘scary time’. This is when you must be at your strongest. The introduction has now been written and you need to stick to the vague argument of your essay and run with it as if you were fleeing sharking second years in Wahoo. I find inspirational songs such as Elton John’s ‘I’m still standing’ helpful at this moment. Do not break down. Remember that you deserve to be here and you can do this. Make your paragraphs short and snappy; since at this time they could enter into the realm of nonsensical and hysterical.
Your body may have turned into one big coffee bean but as soon as dawn breaks, it will all be over. The conclusion is the hardest part. If all else fails turn philosophical, making it so evasive and wordy that your tutors bow down to your intellectual superiority. Or just sum up your argument and throw in an opinion, just to spice things up a bit. Add in your references and then you are ready to launch yourself into a coma. If by now your pants are slightly soiled by the prospect of an essay crisis, bear in mind that it is not always inevitable. Here are some tips to help you avoid having one:
1. Start early – once you have received your reading list, select six to eight things to read which most interest you and check them out of the library asap.
2. Research your topic on the internet to give yourself a general overview of the topic and to help to focus your reading.
3. Give yourself a target of reading two to three pieces each day and make notes on a computer, as typing is much faster than handwriting.
4. When tackling a book remember: index, index, index. No one reads a book cover to cover.
5. Pick books or articles that have two opposing views. This will give a good basis for an argument and challenge you to think in an alternative way, making your essay much more interesting.
6. Plan well. Spending time on your plan will make the writing process less arduous and soul destroying.
7. Try and write over two days or give yourself a day to write your essay. I find starting the introduction and first paragraph the evening before the day before the essay is due really helpful as it breaks up the writing process and keeps you and your tutor interested in your essay.
If however, you are finding yourself in a never-ending cycle of essay crises, pat yourself on the back. You are now an official Oxford student.
It was at the most innocuous of events, a birthday party in central London where, at around 1am and a little tipsy, I (quite literally) ran into a guest at the party who would change the course of my summer. The topic of the Middle East came up and this relative stranger told me that he had done some volunteer work with a local charity in Nablus, Palestine. I found myself telling him that I had always wanted to visit the region; a comment which, while true, was made more in passing than with any genuine gusto.
Fast-forward two months and here I am, writing this from the office of Human Supporters Association, an NGO that gives trauma counselling to children in Nablus as well as teaching them languages and school subjects. Getting here was certainly not easy. On the five – hour flight, I made best friends with Daniela, a Romanian pathologist working in Tel Aviv who insisted on giving me my first few shekels, force-feeding me biscuits, and telling me that I was the craziest person she had ever met for wanting to go to the West Bank rather than stay in Israel.
As we parted ways at Ben Gurion airport, she left me with a jovial “Welcome to Tel Aviv!” Five minutes later, I was sat in a cramped room being interrogated by a man who looked far too much like Seth Rogan to be as stern as he was. Call it caution, call it racial profiling, call it whatever you want, but if you try to come into Israel with an Arabic surname, albeit with a British passport, you’re going to be questioned for a very, very long time. Later, when I had settled into the guest-house in Nablus, some of the volunteers were shocked I had told Seth the truth about my volunteering in the West Bank, and I discovered that lying is, unfortunately, the quickest way into the region.
After three hours at the airport, I was given my passport and allowed to leave, only to advance 50 metres before a woman came up to me and asked me how I was with an incredibly welcoming smile. “Surely she can’t be flirting”, I thought to myself, considering I was pale as a sheet and smelled like stale biscuits. Suddenly she made a move towards me. I closed my eyes puckered my lips in anticipation but, as it turned out, I was being detained yet again by a plain clothes police officer who wanted to search my bag for drugs. By the time I got to the hostel in Tel Aviv, it was nearly midnight. I was knackered, missed Daniela as if she were my own mother, vowed never to watch Knocked Up again, and slept with my bag for a pillow. I reached Nablus hassle-free the next day, entering the northern West Bank via Jerusalem. I was picked up from the city centre by Samara, a local volunteer who also runs the guest-house. I dropped my bags off, grabbed a long-needed shower and set off to explore… or rather that’s what I would have done if I didn’t collapse in bed until evening.
Nablus is located in a valley in betweentwo mountains. On my first night a couple of French volunteers took me up one of these, Mount Gerizim, to see the Samaritan village. There are only 700 Samaritans in the world and the village we went to houses half of them. This small Abrahamic religion has faced persecution from Jews and Muslims for thousands of years, and it is prohibited for Palestinians to enter the village. Walls are definitely a main feature in the West Bank and Israeli soldiers, Palestinian people and Samaritans are all kept very separate. Indeed, Israeli citizens are not even allowed to come into the Palestinian Territories.
I must admit that my expectations of basic amenities in Nablus were low, and of government provisions for its people even lower. I discovered, however, that everyone is entitled to free healthcare and schooling. In fact, almost every teenager I’ve met has wanted to go to the local An Najah University and continue their education. As one local French teacher at the charity told me, “Les enfants de Nablus rêvent de deux choses: etudier et voyager.” There are very few people under the poverty line and no beggars on the streets, which locals tell me is because the Koran obligates all Muslims to give to those poorer than themselves on a regular basis, especially during Ramadan. The Koran says a lot of other things, many hotly debated between Muslims, but, on this point at least, the quasi-Robin Hood effect has created one of the safest street cultures I have experienced anywhere.
There’s a lot to see in Nablus, especially the old city, which is an array of narrow cobbled streets full of markets and shops specialising in the three things this city is renowned for: soaps, sweets and handicraft. Even though it’s less warm now, everything takes place out on the street, which makes the place visually astounding. In the centre of the city is the main marketplace where I go for my lunch-break. You don’t even really have to order in the restaurants, you just sort of nod at the man behind the counter and he produces something delicious, cheap, and inevitably smelling of oregano.
One night, I was taken to one of the oldest cafes in Palestine, Hamouz. It has survived 120 years of Turkish, British and Israeli occupation and has been passed down through the Hamouz family. On entering, I was greeted by the current Hamouz (no-one knows his first name), who showed me photos of him as a child serving tea to the British army. What comes as a shock is that many of these cafes are for men only. I was told that that this discrimination is not indicative of a wider culture of sexism in Palestine; it is instead a relic of a bygone era that is quickly fading as the new generation starts to take precedence.
Amid the exuberant and loud buzz in cafes such as Hamouz can be found small enclaves, shrouded in smoke, where pairs of men will sit for hours playing chess. At work, too, lunch-breaks in the office are often quiet affairs interrupted only every halfhour or so by the sound of a king falling over. One of my supervisors tells me wistfully that the Palestinians understand chess better than any other race because they are forced to spend their lives living four steps ahead of their oppressors.
The generosity of the Palestinians is unmatched, especially considering the distress they go through on such a frequent basis. Just two days before I arrived here, Ali, a volunteer paramedic, saw someone shot through the chest just outside where I work. Another volunteer saw one of his brothers go to jail in Israel for 13 years for siding with Arafat in the 1982 Lebanon War. The other night, as we were heading out, two volunteers got the news that someone they grew up with had just been killed in Syria after having his hand chopped off. This conflict is grizzly business and the resilience of these Palestinians, and their ability to smile after the very personal grief they’ve suffered, is admirable. Since arriving, I haven’t stopped thanking drunk me for arranging this volunteer work. You need to be careful out here, and at times very patient, but I thoroughly recommend Nablus to those interested in understanding more about Palestine’s long and troubled history.
As light coaxes the scene into visibility, a man drags himself across the front of the stage. Behind him is an enormous extension of plastic, part-dangling placenta, part-distorted womb, part-shackling net. One is reminded of Atlas and the earth that it is his destiny to shoulder. Inside the plastic is a body. Soon we will realise that it is the man’s dead mother, and that it is he who has killed her.
So opens the triennial Oxford Greek Play, which brings the final part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides (otherwise known as The Furies) to the Oxford Playhouse. Entirely in ancient Greek, with English subtitles, the Oxford Greek Play has a well-deserved reputation for extreme difficulty in conception and for excellence in realisation. The Furies, directed by Arabella Currie, does not disappoint.
The play is a masterful rendering of Aeschylus, with an innovative artistic interpretation that enables the language—the evocative revival of which is the whole point of the Oxford Greek Play—to kindle forcefully a sense of the power and range of its meaning.
Orestes has killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon, murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover upon his glorious victory return from Troy. The Furies want vengeance and have sworn to plague Orestes beyond the grave for having murdered his kin. While The Oresteia is famous for its exploration of justice, what this production brings out is its artistry.
Currie’s play makes manifest the horror of Orestes’ experience, showcasing the sheer range of the resources of drama with obvious commitment, passion and talent. The hideousness of the Furies, for instance, is evident in every aspect: their shrieks, their movement, their number, their pleas and accusations and curses, even their song.
And that omits the most important of all: their words. For it is the achievement in language in this production that especially compels attention. In one of the earlier scenes, Clytemnestra exhorts the sleeping Furies to avenge her death. Frightfully she urges them to curse and quell her son. Her emphatic insistence on the way that Orestes is ‘laughing at you’ awakens the Eumenides, forcing them into a response that is already for them a kind of torture, recalling them to their fate as ‘daughters of the night’, foul and frenzied beings that are neither human nor god, and fit only for the most inhuman and ungodly vengeance.
Quite how consummate has been Currie’s direction and how complete her attention to the production is indicated by the link between Clytemnestra’s reference to the ‘tightest net’ of guilt, from which she claims Orestes has escaped, and the image with which the play begins. The mention of ‘net’ recalls the visual imprint marked in the opening scene, that of Orestes dragging his mother’s corpse in plastic behind him. It is clear that the net is something he has not escaped, whether or not the Furies continue to follow him. This makes the mother’s relishing of the prospect of her son’s punishment all the more awful: ‘I am Clytemnestra, calling to you’, she shrieks at the Furies. And, worse: ‘What are you for, except to do evil?’
The torturous imagery of the language is told in good characters as well as bad. Apollo, wonderfully played by Jack Taylor, wreaks cursing words on the Furies that are almost as devastating as those they hail on Orestes. He is merciless, objurgating them even for their presence amidst ‘prophetic walls’, which ‘it is wrong for you to touch’, as they belong only in the hell-place where ‘murder is justice’. He tells them to ‘vomit those clots you slurp from slaughter’. Let no one accuse Aeschylus of writing only didactically.
Instructive though the interrogation of justice certainly is, above all it is language that holds the key to those who adhere to or deviate from it. Hearing the Greek and seeing the English, words from two and a half millennia ago, only makes this clearer. While the Furies chant a death-song over their victim, revelling in its ‘frenzying, maddening, mind-sickening’ qualities, Apollo advocates the ‘ice cold thrust of the public whip’.
It is Athena who is able to conciliate Apollo and clear Orestes; most importantly, though, it is she who can bring a justice to the Furies that is also merciful. The building of music at the end and a slow shifting of the set from red to white present strikingly the creation of a new order of justice. The reign of the Furies, whose ‘hymn [is] to bind the soul lyreless, man-withering’, is at an end, along with the horrors of their language. Currie makes this point even more forcefully by having the voices of the Furies change along with their demeanour at the play’s close.
This is an astonishing feat. You don’t need to know Aeschylus. You don’t need to know Greek. Just go and see this year’s Oxford Greek Play.
The Furies runs at The Oxford Playhouse until 18th October
Cosmo Girls are something of a significant cultural reference – the magazine is a byword across both sides of the Atlantic for the handbag bible of the sophisticated, glossy-haired, power-suited career girl. She knows what she wants, and how she wants to get it. From Elle Woods’s declaration post-case win in Legally Blonde (any Cosmo Girl knows her perm technology, right?) to the “Cosmo Dream” (great clothes, great sex, great job, great friends, great cocktails), Cosmopolitan is synonymous with the fashionable independent woman and her world. But that’s not to forget it’s also a high-production glossy magazine (and website): busy, driven by hard work, and a dedicated team of editors, stylists, creatives and journalists. Luckily for OxStu Fashion, Rosie Mullender – Cosmo UK’s Fashion Features Editor, and the woman responsible for overseeing the magazine’s journalistic content – was kind enough to take the time out and answer some questions I had about her career at one of the most famous magazines in the world.
You’re Features Editor at one of the most widely-read women’s magazines in the UK. What kind of responsibilities does that job entail – not just in terms of workload and managing staff, but in terms of knowing your readership?
I’ve been here for seven years, and getting to know readers inside-out is something that comes with time. The letters, emails and comments we get shape how we come up with ideas for the magazine. As well as less tangible things like understanding what our readers want, we spend our days looking at ideas from PRs and journalists, writing copy for the magazine and website, editing, fielding queries and doing random things like asking people in the street questions, compiling polls and testing sportswear. It’s certainly varied!
During your working day, what kind of work might you typically do? How does your job take you outside of the office?
I could be doing any of the above – but my day mainly comprises responding to emails, commissioning, writing and editing copy, and coming up with new feature ideas. I often have meetings outside the office with people such as PRs, and we go to plenty of events, such as the recent Girl Summit, awards ceremonies, or film screenings.
How does the job of Features Editor differ from that of Fashion Editor, or other editorial positions more generally?
Each department deals with a different section of the magazine – we have beauty, fashion, picture, art, web and subs teams, each headed up by a director and / or editor. The features team deals with articles such as careers, reports, confidence and confessions – everything except fashion and beauty. Every department works very differently, but as a team we work together to create the final product.
A lot of people believe that working at a magazine is a glamorous job (courtesy, no doubt, of films like The Devil Wears Prada). To what extent is this an accurate representation of the kind of job you do?
I’d say it is glamorous to an extent, but not in the way it’s portrayed in films! We’re not all clad in designer gear, nibbling salads. But we DO get plenty of free doughnuts…A lot of people except the office to be full of bickering and sniping, but you’ve never met a friendlier team – everyone supports each other and works together. We do have our glam moments – interviewing celebrities, attending premieres and parties and getting to delve in the beauty cupboard – but we’re the same as our readers, just with a job we’re very very lucky to have! And, of course, we work very hard too.
What is the most exciting thing about your job, and what is the most difficult?
The most exciting thing is that every day is different. When you land an exclusive interview or read the new issue when it lands on your desk, the buzz is unbeatable. There’s always stress – tight deadlines, rescuing features which threaten to fall apart, last-minute changes – but because we’re trying to help women enjoy their lives it’s always going to be more satisfying than stressful.
How often do you have to make sure your content is different to that of other magazines? Are you aware of “trends” that arise across the features sections of magazines during the same months? Do you have to actively pursue eliminating content that might come up in another magazine / how easy is it to access the “Cosmo voice” in your pieces?
We try to be as unique as possible. Of course, you’ll sometimes have crossover with other magazines – for example, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month most women’s magazines will cover it in some way. The trick is to identify what makes our reader different to the others and why she comes to us rather than anyone else, and make sure we’re giving her what she wants. There’s always a new way to write something that’s been covered by others, whether that’s visually, or with a new twist, giving it a strong Cosmo voice. But generally, we try to be unique by being ahead of the curve and constantly coming up with fresh ideas. Our ears are always open for what women are interested in and talking about.
As Features Editor, you write yourself but you also have other writers writing for your section. How do you choose pieces for an issue of Cosmo – do you commission a writer, or will a writer approach you for an idea? And how do you make sure that your writers / pieces have the right tone for your magazine?
We write most things in-house, but get hundreds of pitches from freelance writers too. If we choose one of their ideas, especially if it’s a writer who is new to Cosmo, we’ll send them articles in the tone we’re looking for as guidance and write a detailed brief. We also have some writers with different specialities to hand who have written for us before and know our style, who we will turn to if we need something specific written for us.
How did you come to be in your career – did you always want to be a Features Editor, or did you pursue another career first?
I always wanted to work in magazines, and Cosmo was always my favourite. But after doing an English degree and three years of work experience I thought I’d never make it, so I started to pursue a career in publishing – I’d just started a new job when I got my big break at a news agency in Bristol as a features writer, and it went on from there.
Did you have to overcome any difficulties to reach this point in your career? How did you manage to do this?
I had to be very very persistent and it was very hard work. After three years of working in a petrol station and doing unpaid work experience, at one point going seven weeks without a day off, I still hadn’t managed to get an entry-level job, and was losing hope. I was lucky that my last-gasp attempt lead to a job, but I really wanted it, and was prepared to put the work in to get it. I’ve also had jobs I haven’t enjoyed much, but told myself that all experiences make you a better journalist in the long run – and luckily I was right!
What advice would you give to anybody trying to pursue a career as a Features Editor / journalist, and why would you recommend this career?
I’d heartily recommend it, because it’s exciting and varied, but I’d also say this: don’t expect lots of money, be prepared to work VERY hard, make sure you really want to do it before you start (it’s SO competitive), and if this doesn’t put you off, don’t give up. I’d also tell aspiring journalists not to confuse writing about yourself with being a journalist – very very few make a career from ‘confessional’ journalism – if you want to make it, you need hard journalism skills, being willing to chase leads, attend court cases, and conduct tough, emotional interviews. We’re not all Carrie Bradshaw, sadly…