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The Village Stocks (and shares)
An update on the pub, an awkward celebrity encounter — and, in honour of the season, a short history of Oxford witches.
We are down in Dorset this week with Joel’s parents for half-term so I’m recording this early — it’s Saturday night, hi! — and scheduling it for Tuesday morning. Feeling altogether on top of my shit, how are you?
I promised an update on the pub and an awkward encounter this week. The two are not unrelated and I intend to deliver. I’m also throwing in a review of the RSC production of Macbeth, which I went to see a couple weeks ago — and which is also not unrelated.
Let’s see if I manage to pull all these bits together in a convincing October-themed tale of enshittification, the macabre and the precious capital of celebrity.
If you need a reminder as to where we are in the tale — which can be summarised as “village tries to buy local pub forced to close by its cashing-out private equity owner” — you can brush up on the background here and here.
So. Community efforts to buy our local pub are continuing apace.
This is the latest news:
We met a pair of fancy chefs and got (briefly) excited because they said all the right things about keeping the pub as a going concern, not just a gastro-pub, and being family-friendly and doing pub quizzes and pulling good pints and community engagement and we all shook hands and felt our prayers had been answered and deliverance was at hand.
Then, the next day they emailed us and said, actually, we’ve changed our minds.
We continued to ask people in the village to pledge to buy shares. Pledges stand just north of 80 grand, which is great but not good enough.
So, we ploughed on with applying for government match-funding. If we get it (and, oh boy, it’s a big if), it would cover 75% of the purchase price of our “community asset” (these days, it’s almost always pubs). The application form was, without exaggeration, about 10,000 words long and so knackering it basically gave me Covid. It’s also depressing because this is the result of government slashing all public funding and services: communities individually begging back money for various projects that may or may not suit political ends to grant.
But it’s done and fingers are firmly crossed. Watch this space.
We also held another awareness-raising event — an apple press, replete with bunting and trailers full of apples and merry children — to get people in the village jazzed up about buying their local pub.
At a committee meeting before the apple press event, my friend Helen reminded us that we need to get a local celebrity on board to tweet or ‘gram and bring some starry clout to the bid.
“Who can we ask? There must be some big names.”
This is the Cotswolds and there are definitely some celebrities hiding in the woodwork — but they’re fairly well-hidden. Someone mentioned a member of a very famous 90s BritPop band who lives nearby. Another, an actress from a soap.
“Jill, you’re a sleb magnet. Next time you run into someone famous, make sure you mention the pub.” She’s alluding to my adventures on a street in Paris with a certain comedian and also the fact that I managed to wangle a selfie with none other than Simon Cowell over the summer when I saw him in a local coffee shop. (He’s a lovely man, by the way.)
Basically, she told me in no uncertain terms that if I saw Simon Cowell again and didn’t lobby him to throw his support behind the pub I would be remiss and it would be my fault if we couldn’t buy the pub.
So I was keenly aware of the pressure to get a ‘sleb on board.
She went on.
“It doesn’t even need to be a celebrity. If we could unearth some famous person or event or something that happened at the pub, that would be brilliant. Like, something interesting and historical. Any local witch burnings?”
Several people chimed in.
“No witches that I know of but there’s always poor Anne Greene.”
“Oh yes, poor Anne Greene.”
“What ‘poor’ Anne Greene?! You mean lucky Anne Greene.”
“What are you all talking about? Who’s Anne Greene?” (That’s me.)
Turns out, Anne Greene was a local woman in the first half of the 17th century. Just 22, she was working at a nearby Manor House as a scullery maid, when she was impregnated by the grandson of the manor.
One of the other committee members tells the whole story.
“She had no idea she was pregnant and was sent out to work in the fields, where she had a miscarriage. She panicked and hid the baby but it was found and she was accused of murder. She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged at Oxford Castle. That was just how it went back then. She asked her friends to hang on her legs to kill her quickly and someone even hit her in the head with a musket while she was hanging to end it even quicker. After about half an hour, they lowered her down and handed her body over to the medical school in the university. The next day, when all the scientific worthies came in to examine her, she was still alive on the dissecting table.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
“Yeah. She was officially pardoned as an act of God and went on to marry and have three children. So, you know, lucky Anne Greene.”
I’ve done a little research and this is a true story. It was written up in awestruck pamphlets at the time, with woodcuts of her hanging and poems written by Oxford undergrads on her miraculous deliverance. One of the undergrads, a student at my college, was none other than a young Christopher Wren.
This generated a lively discussion about the old village stocks, where people were detained and had rotten fruit and worse chucked on them. Every village in Oxfordshire had stocks — and a whipping post.
It turns out the pub — our pub, the one we are trying to buy — was the site of the former assizes and the magistrates’ courts: basically, the seat of local justice.
From medieval times, it housed the village stocks— which pre-dated the eighteenth century pub building by several hundred years. There is a historical placard marking the exact spot, now overgrown by an exuberant laurel tree.
The last time someone was put in these stocks was back in the 1850s.
It was, of course, a local woman.
Now, the original stocks are long gone. But one of our committee members is a skilled carpenter.
“Why don’t we rebuild the stocks? It would be a good tourist draw for the pub. You know, get your picture taken in the stocks…”
We are all enthusiastic and on board with this idea.
“And anyone who annoys us, we put in the stocks!”
“Who should we put in first?”
Helen is looking at me. I vow to redouble efforts to recruit a local celeb.
But, before that can happen, we have another event to raise awareness about the community bid: the apple press and committee panel Q&A.
It’s the night before and I’m down in Wolvercote, on the edge of Oxford. Right near the nunnery, supposedly haunted by the ghost of Rosamund (which I’ve written about before — remember?) and by the Godstow witch, a centuries-old figure of legend, who was probably just an angry nun, dispossessed by the dissolution of the monasteries (and nunneries) by Henry VIII in the 1530s, and branded a witch.
Port Meadow is peaceful tonight. As peaceful as it can ever be at the Wolvercote end where the noise of the ring road forms a constant backdrop. On the meadow it smells like manure and the red rectangles of a freight train thread noiselessly through the trees on the far side.
Actually, the noise of cars is quite stressful. Wolvercote is such a lovely place, until you realise the sound you hear is the Oxford ring road — and it is unceasing.
It’s like being inside a seashell — which might sound soothing but imagine being trapped in a fucking seashell. That sound palls pretty quickly.
Friday night ahead of a week with four kids. I brace myself, girded with steel.
Saturday is going to be a long, difficult day. There is karate to take one of the kids to, then lunch to make, then the apple press to attend, at which I am part of the committee panel speaking and answering everyone’s questions about the pub purchase.
I gird myself, doubly.
But the next day, the apple press goes smoothly. The day is sunny and calm and perfectly crisp. People show up and we provide apples and answers. There is fresh apple juice, which gives me the runs (hey, you wanted macabre). I like to imagine some were convinced to pledge and the total number of pledges inches steadily upwards.
It’s still not enough.
After the apple press, I went to see Macbeth, put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, alone.
Foolish, given how scary it is and how much of a wuss I am.
I went alone because there was only one ticket left. I asked Joel months ago if he wanted to go and received an answer of sufficient tepidity that I didn’t book anything. Cut to the day before when I realised the production is ending this month and I’ve yet to see it. I went on the website and of course there’s “limited availability” — which just means one lonely ticket every night ‘til they finish.
So off I went alone. No worries, I actually *love* doing stuff on my own. The blessed relief of no children and a moment with my own quiet brain.
Now, Macbeth is my play: I love it. I’ve not heard anything about this production but it’s the RSC and it’s in gorgeous Stratford in a gorgeous theatre with this gorgeous fountain up a winding staircase. How bad can it be?
I’ll tell you: really fucking bad.
It’s billed as a “futuristic dystopian” Macbeth. It’s got hot young actors and on stage orchestral bits. It’s shiny. It’s edgy Gen Z Macbeth.
I hate it immediately.
The witches start off shouty and loud, precisely as they mean to go on, for every single line they speak, at the top of their screaming lungs.
The witches shouldn’t be shouty. They should be whispery; uncertain. Uncertain, because the whole point is that it’s all in Macbeth’s hands, not theirs. They should be eerie and vanish into mists. They should have a cauldron. It’s right there in Shakespeare:
Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.
The witches need a cauldron.
Well, not in this production they don’t. No cauldron, they shout every line and one of them is a man. One of the witches. A man.
Now, fine. I can just about get on board with this, even though the clue is in the name: the weird SISTERS. But, fine, their sex is supposed to be indeterminate, gender-swapping is a key Macbeth theme, Lady Macbeth’s dried up tits, yeah yeah I get it.
You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.
So, ok fine, one of them can have an actual beard and be played by an actual dude. Sure, it removes the whole point that they appear to be women but are in fact evil, monstrous. Like Lady Macbeth, confounding and overturning gender stereotypes. But whatever.
Maybe the sixteenth century audience shock at women being evil has worn off?
Maybe that point doesn’t matter, if you think women already are evil and monstrous?
But then Duncan appears. And Duncan is no longer King, but Queen Duncan.
Queen Duncan, murdered in her bed.
Lady Banquo, and her child, stabbed to bits. (Banquo is a woman too, did I mention?)
Now to be really clear I have no issue — none at all — with gender-swapping actors/actresses. Men can play women and women, men. That is not my gripe.
My gripe is that you can’t change the actual fucking characters! You can have a female actress play King Duncan — but you can’t change King Duncan to a woman, a murdered Queen, a completely different character, without completely changing the nature of the play. It’s just not Macbeth anymore. It’s Macbeth, a man murdering a woman, with all the added context and baggage that carries.
I’m not the only one to have spotted this is an issue.
In their review, the FT review called it a “nasty misogynistic streak”, a theme that could be explored more.
I would go further: it is misogynistic to kill Queen (not King) Duncan and not explore it further. To substitute the death of a woman at the hands of a man, without comment, without acknowledgement that this is a different beast — is fundamentally flawed. It takes an unspoken assumption that the murders are interchangeable, without the need for explanation or acknowledgement. It denies that male violence against women is remarkable in any way. This production says: it is all just violence.
So I’m sitting there chewing my lip, getting less and less pleased.
And then, the porter scene.
It’s the porter scene that finally bends me over and has its filthy way with me. Makes clear this production is not for me.
Colourful lights and circus music. Actual Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey style. An MC in a top hat, twirling a cane, steps out up to a mic and addresses the audience: “ladies and gentleman, I give you the Porter, winner of Best Porter at the Edinburgh Fringe 1590.”
Roars from the audience. The whole scene has been rewritten “for a modern audience.” To make it very clear that this is “the funny scene”, we have a top hat and an open-mic stand-up Edinburgh-fucking-Fringe moment in The Scottish Play.
I am undone.
When even the RSC — the RSC! — has to signpost humour like this for a modern audience too lazy to engage with the original piece, where can you go for quality? Where can you go if you just want the original piece, in all its difficulty and complexity?
It’s Roald Dahl scrubbed clean. It’s classics rewritten so no one even knows what the original looks like anymore. It’s the enshittification of my village pub.
Where can you go if you don’t want enshittified Shakespeare?
You cannot divorce a play like Macbeth — or any work of art — from the context in which it was created and the gender commentary it was making relative to its time.
You cannot make the central murder Macbeth and his wife plotting to kill a Queen rather than a King — without entirely changing the play’s narrative arc and obfuscating in a dangerous way the unique violence of men killing women.
I marvel at the hubris of a director, and a writer, who take it upon themselves to rewrite Shakespeare.
I don’t want a futuristic dystopian reworking of Macbeth for a Blair Witched Hunger Games audience.
I just want Macbeth, as it was fucking written by fucking Shakespeare.
Apparently, at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, that is no longer possible. I despair.
As I left (walked out early), I shared my thoughts with a not-unsympathetic female steward.
“That’s so interesting,” she said. “You’re not the first to say that.”
“Yeah, a week ago I had another woman, elderly lady. I had to ask if she was ok, you know we’re supposed to ask just in case. And she snapped at me because I guess she had been asked the whole way down by everyone if she was ok. And she said: ‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just don’t like it. Is that alright?’ And we talked a bit more and she said it was her play, her favourite, the one she grew up with and she thought they were butchering it.”
I agreed they were.
The steward is thoughtful.
“Well, it’s subjective, obviously. Some people, young people mostly, say they love it, that it’s the first time they’ve “got” Shakespeare. That it really spoke to them. It’s Marmite, this play, people love it or hate it.”
I said I get it, that makes sense. It’s Shakespeare, sensationalised. All subtlety squashed and everything signposted in, literally, neon lights. It’s Macbeth for Dummies.
I told her I had to leave.
But, I said:
“It’s a shame to miss Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, that’s my favourite bit. I’m sorry to miss it but I honestly can’t bear to sit through the whole rest of this production ‘til the end.”
She looked sideways at me and said, conspiratorially:
“They’re not trees, you know.”
“Birnam Wood. In this production, they’re not trees.”
“What do you mean they’re not trees?”
She looks embarrassed.
“Yeah, they’re not trees.”
“I … don’t understand. Birnam Wood isn’t trees? How can a wood not be trees?”
What the fuck is it then?
“Oh, it’s supposed to be all futuristic and dystopian so they’re people, but covered in rubbish and, you know, rubber tyres and stuff.”
I nearly fell over.
“Rubber tyres? Birnam Wood is… rubber tyres?”
“Yes, rubber tyres and other rubbish.”
Rubbish. Just like this production.
“Thank you. I’m convinced.”
So, I walked out of Macbeth. Queen Duncan, shouty witches that aren’t witches and Birnam Wood doesn’t come to Dunsinane.
Birnam Wood is rubber tyres.
Macbeth isn’t slaughtered by an army disguised as trees. He’s just subsumed in a rising tide of rubbish.
Macbeth is: enshittified.
So, actually, I can think of no more fitting end for this production.
The next day I had to
escape the children go grocery shopping.
Head still swirling with Macbeth disappointment and the enshittification of pubs and plays, I’m pulling a smoothie out of the cooler when an elderly gentleman in dark glasses and Chelsea boots sidles over. In a tone of offering me Class As, he tells me to get a different brand.
“Get this one. Much better, you know. I told them they simply must stock it.”
No idea who this guy is but he seems self-important, if not actually important.
I take the recommended smoothie and joke that I might have to follow him round the shop so he can make other recommendations.
He chuckles but moves away, lest I actually follow him, and turns to hail a tall dark-haired guy with a certain stance that suggests he too might be self-important, if not actually important.
Old Mr Chelsea Boots greets Tall Man, with a name that I remember from the committee meeting.
It’s the guy from the very famous 90s BritPop band that Helen mentioned.
I wouldn’t have known him if I’d walked into him, but a quick Google confirms. It’s him.
The two men greet each other.
“Bloody good cheese counter here.”
Well, I’ve made Helen a solemn promise that I’ll try to enlist any local ‘slebs I see into supporting the pub purchase.
But I dither.
I just know I’m going to embarrass myself. I know this won’t work. But I also know I can never face Helen again if I don’t try.
The cashier is ringing me up. Mr BritPop is turning to leave.
I leg it across the store.
“Hi, excuse me, yes, I’m doing this.” Basically just talking myself into it, out loud in real time. “I’m so sorry. We are trying to buy our local pub and wondered if you might be interested in supporting us?”
He has already half-turned away before the end of my sentence.
“No, no owning a pub. Not a good thing for me.”
Obvious insinuation: he went through rehab.
Fuck, this is awful. I smile and apologise and say “worth a try” and retreat, cheeks aflame, to the cashier.
Back at home, I was pretty upset about it .
Joel was delighted he hadn’t been there.
“God, that’s awful. That’s so awkward and embarrassing.”
“I didn’t know! I only twigged it was him because the old dude said his name. I wouldn’t have even known what he looks like! I know nothing about him. Fuck, do you think he thinks I did it on purpose?”
“What?! This is so much worse. I feel fucking awful.”
“Yeah, I mean how often do you get asked if you want to buy a pub if you’re famously a recovering alcoholic?”
“But I didn’t know!”
“Well, he’ll assume you knew because you knew who he was, so ...”
“But I didn’t!”
My sister calls me.
“Why are you crying?”
I tell her.
“Are you kidding me? He sounds like a dick. He could have just been like, oh well, I don’t drink but happy to support, or whatever.”
“No, but he will have thought I knew everything about him.”
“What, and you were just doing it to take the piss?”
“Yes, he’ll have thought that.”
“Oh yeah, because that’s a normal human reaction. Get over it. Listen, I called for another reason.”
“Can you look at and maybe edit this blurb I just sent you?”
“Don’t say Blur to me.”
I had a look and we tweaked some words.
“Thanks,” she said. “I really appreciate it. And, hey, listen, don’t even worry about it. I promise. Just relax, focus on chilling out and the rest of the weekend will pass in a … Blur.”
“No, I mean it. Just take some time for yourself this weekend, you know, go for a walk, get outside in the Parklife…”
“I hate you.”
“Maybe have some Coffee and TV.”
“You are the worst.”
“Do you think he lives in a house, a very big house in the country?”
The moral of this story is clear.
If you’re going to accost ‘slebs and try to get them to support your mad pub-buying endeavours, do your research first — and perhaps don’t ask the post-rehab ones, at the risk of being witch-hunted out of your local Co-op.
Since we hovered (even momentarily) around topic, here’s my selfie from last summer with the very kind and very normal Simon Cowell.