Thursday, 27 December 2007


I just got to the bit about the weevils!

A short note about books

I am in Devon for Christmas and have read my Christmas books from my mother (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, which was good but disappointing given the recent hype about her, like a duller E. F. Benson; and An Infinity of Little Hours, by Nancy Klein Maguire, which was very interesting but curiously conveyed nothing of the character of monasticism as I have encountered it, touching very little on God). On holiday I finished The Syme Papers by Benjamin Markovits, which I eventually started to enjoy (though I noted the page when I got into it and it was p. 217); The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, by David Nobbs, reliably amusing though perhaps only for people who already know the characters; Salamander by Thomas Wharton, which rather overdid the Jeanette Winterson-style magic realism; and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I enjoyed, though I did feel that most of the middle was basically a self-indulgent nostalgia trip for Umberto Eco. So I went into the library -- my parents built this house from scratch, and designed it themselves, and my one contribution was that I insisted we had to have a library, so we do, with high bookshelves all the way round made in pine by a local carpenter, and a chair that folds out into steps for getting at the top shelves -- and went to where I left all my Aubrey and Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian when I lent them to my father. There are more than 20, I think, and I just picked one at random from the middle (The Fortune of War, as it happens), and have been enjoying it immensely. They are wonderfully well written, and very funny in a human sort of way -- I can't remember who said that they were what Jane Austen's sea-faring brothers would have written, but that seems exactly right to me. If you haven't read them already I envy you for the chance to discover them, though there are a substantial number and they may take you some time to get through.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Kostantiniyye part I

Yesterday evening I got back from visiting İstanbul with my friend Fiona who lives in Rome. Here are some thoughts about it.
1. İstanbul has had an excessive number of names: Byzantium, Constantinople, Kostantiniyye, and finally İstanbul, not to mention variants on those. The Vikings referred it as Miklagarðr (which simply means the Big City), and it's still called that in Iceland. It is 125 km in length from the westernmost part in Europe to the easternmost part in Asia. It claims to have been built on seven hills.

2. We decided to try lots of local things. The first one was sahlep, a hot drink made from orchid root and cinnamon, and this turned out to be utterly delicious. You can buy a steaming polystyrene-cup-full of it from street vendors for one lira (45p). Pleased with this success we had different flavours of toffee wound onto a stick; ayran (delicious yogurt drink); sherbert (far too sweet); strange meatballs; and we asked a rabbit to tell our fortune. The rabbit did this by being told our names and then nosing out from a tray a little slip of paper for each of us. Mine said "O! Owner of fortune: You're in straits nowdays but don't worry you will sort out everything and feel happy. It is seen generosity by someone." I feel quite good about that, especially the initial invocation and the final cryptic phrase. We also ordered odd things on menus to see what they were: I had a meal called "Christians of Istanbul", which turned out to be lamb and dried plums baked in pastry. It was very good, and terribly Byzantine, the sort of thing the Palaeologi probably ate before going off to slay some Bulgars. Fiona even went so far as to go to a hamam, though I discovered myself to be just too damn British and went to a bookshop instead. Alas: our new-experience lucky streak came to an end with the ill-advised order of some turnip juice. It was really remarkably foul, and I found it upsetting just to have it on the table while I ate my pide. So we lost heart and never tried the milk pudding flavoured with slightly burnt chicken breast, or boza, a hot alcoholic drink made from chickpeas.

3. Fiona pointed out to me the lack of women in their twenties and thirties; and in the old city people on the streets were mostly men, and it seemed that the only other women about were with their husbands. Of course that's a pretty typical evening at high table; still it was a bit disconcerting.

4. We went down into the massive basilica cistern, which was completely lost until a sixteenth-century French archaeologist noticed that some people in the old city were catching fish through holes in their floors. It has huge arches and lots of reused masonry, including some big gorgon heads on their sides holding up pillars. The water isn't deep but is full of ancient carp. Fiona said that it would be the ideal place for a first date, because there's a cafe there lit by candles; I offer that in case anyone is looking for a first date location in Istanbul.

Happy Christmas!

Hurray, I do like Christmas when it finally happens, after all that tedious long run-up. (Even though I just checked my e-mail and it's all about pills and sales except for a long list of things to do which my boss sent me a couple of hours ago.) Once you get down to midnight mass and the Christmas morning service it's all great. Church at Easter is the best because it celebrates victory over death; Christmas always feels a tad more mixed to me, because you know that the baby will grow up to face terrible things. But it's still a celebration of a strange undeserved gift.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Interviews, some thoughts on them

When interviewing undergraduates it's largely about giving them lots of opportunities, within the relatively short time at one's disposal, to show you their intelligence etc. I've been thinking about job interviews recently, especially since an ex-DoSee told me what a shock she'd found it when doing the milkround to move to a totally different sort of interview, in which they were not interested in you as a person and did not feel any particular need to make you comfortable.

1. Do not lie in interviews. This is partly a moral thing because one shouldn't lie, but really I'm saying it because if you are feeling any need to lie it may indicate that you do not actually want the job; something is making you feel that it is a fake and wrong situation. I have only once lied in an interview. It was when I was an undergraduate and needed a summer job in Cambridge while I worked on my Part II dissertation on a manuscript in Trinity Library. I had an interview at the new Seattle Coffee Company cafe in the Waterstone's book shop (now Cult Clothing). This was at a time when cafes in bookshops were new to Cambridge, and slightly out there; plus it was years before Starbucks came to England, and we were all used to ordering a coffee like this: a large white coffee please, no sugar. Plus I didn't drink coffee at the time. During my interview they gave me a grande iced raspberry mochachino with whipped cream and asked me what I thought. Delicious, I lied. They gave me the job and sent me for training in London where exuberant Americans made us all wear plastic animal noses all day and told us we should always treat every customer as if they were wearing an animal nose. They seemed to think this was shorthand for "as if they were an exciting individual who's fun to be with", whereas really one would react with concerned pity, or perhaps icy courtesy if they looked like a public schoolboy. There was no harm done because it was only a summer job, and I met some interesting people there, and had a very mild flirtation with being cool.
The only other time I was not so much tempted to lie as presented with the opportunity to do so was at an interview for a job at a certain auction house. It was just three days after I had submitted my PhD and I was exhausted; I didn't want the job but an academic I hugely respect as a person had presented me with the advert with such kindly pleasure that I felt I must be wrong about it. As well as the interview we were each one by one set a Latin test, with a pretty nasty bit of St Augustine getting confused about what he is and how he can know what he is, and an original Elizabethan deed which I would guess I aced. Then we had to save our work on the computer provided in a particular folder. Where of course one found in serried ranks the answers of all the people who had already done the test. I did not open any of them, but the whole process filled me with a mild disgust. I'm very sorry for anyone who cheated off my answer on the Augustine, which I said was Anselm. It was not the happiest era of that auction house's life; and if someone were to tell me that candidates who did use other people's work were by no means frowned upon I could probably contain my amazement. They told me I was too academic, which was a polite way of expressing ...something, and then wouldn't pay my travel expenses, which was a bit rubbish of them.

2. Self-confident ebullience is a completely different thing from lying. My interview technique is to imagine myself only better, and then pretend to be that person. It works quite well when I pull it off, which isn't every time.

3. If you're being rude in an interview, again you probably don't really want the job. In one interview I ended up not only doing the set test but writing a long critique of it in the remaining available time, and later in the personal interview I put it to the interviewers that they didn't really know what they wanted. They didn't reply very convincingly, and they didn't give me the job. By that time I had come up with 5 reasons why I was allowed to turn it down if I was offered it. I was right about it, the whole project has been very bad for the blood pressure of everyone involved, and the person who did get the job had a miserable time and got out quickly. It's a shame because it was promising on paper.

4. When on the other side of the fence, i.e. interviewing not being interviewed, the thing that annoys me most is when fellow interviewers start talking without asking questions. I've been at plenty of interviews where the candidate can hardly get a word in edgeways.

5. Back to being interviewed: competencies-based interviewing, where every candidate is asked exactly the same questions and given a numerical mark on each answer which will later be tallied to give a total candidate score, with no opportunity for the interviewer to follow something up or ask about anything specific on the papers, is a dehumanising and unpleasant experience. I'm guessing it must be harder for the interviewer like that too -- can you imagine interviewing sixth-formers that way? It's only happened to me once, for a government employer, but it was wierd, especially since two of the three interviewers were people I count as personal friends. I didn't get the job, which was for the best in all practical ways, though I would have liked to have worked there.

6. The Church of England has this attitude to its clergy; they trust that for every vicar X there is a right job, and for every job Y there is a right vicar. Then in the interview they seek to discern whether vicar X and job Y are the two that fit together. Although it can't be quite like that in the non-vicar world it's still a good attitude to take into a job interview.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Short versus long fiction

I've been trying to read Benjamin Markovits's The Syme Papers, because I loved his Either Side of Winter, and thought Imposture was good too. It's a big book about a modern scholar trying to make his reputation by rescuing that of a nineteenth-century amateur geologist who might have come up with some important ideas before they became mainstream. I'm finding it rather heavy going, even though most of it is set in the British Library's newspaper library at Colindale, which is endearing. (It's an excellent building, full of old art deco style reading lamps and fittings, not through any conscious decision but simply because there has never been the money to replace them.)

In contrast I am also reading Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, which are very short factual pieces he wrote for the news-in-brief column of a French newspaper in 1906. They give a gloomy picture of early twentieth-century France, full of strikes, suicides, violence, and random death. For example:
In Le Havre, a sailor, Scouarnec, threw himself under a locomotive. His intestines were gathered up in a cloth.

A madman from the Arab village of Beni-Ramasses has deserted his family, albeit belatedly since he was tormenting them. He is being sought.

Before jumping into the Seine, where he died, M. Doucrain had written in his notebook "Forgive me Dad. I like you."

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Ménard, snail collector.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Self-knowledge through tidying

If while tidying you come across a big heap of essays, poems, and fiction written when you were a teenager, my advice is to think twice about actually reading them, especially the poems or any blank-verse drama written under the influence of Christopher Fry. (Pause to go "!!!!") It's wierd to be taken back to a time when I felt so very strongly about things; I'm afraid I'm a bit laodicean these days.

The heap includes the A-level English coursework I submitted, consisting of one long essay and two short ones. They were all titles I made up myself. The long essay is on characters from Marlowe; I was mildly obsessed with him as a sixth-former, which reminds me of Wendy Cope's poem about having a crush on A. E. Housman. The two short ones are both creative writing, because I read the A-level regulations, and discovered that they couldn't stop me from doing this. So in one I rewrote the end of Jane Eyre; I clearly remember being in a bad mood that weekend so I made it that Jane got there just in time to see Mr Rochester die cursing her name and then she married StJohn and went to India to work herself to death. In the other I wrote a speech of Satan from Paradise Lost to his followers, reporting his trip to the gates of hell. It was rather fun to do because I inverted sentence structures and put in tons of sustained classical allusions, etc etc. Then I just wrote an essay showing what I had been trying to do with examples from real Milton, explained that I hadn't managed because I was only me and Milton was a genius, and watched the marks roll in!

Anyway, having read a lot of sixth-form essays for interviews recently it's interesting to look at this stuff in that light. (The Marlowe one is the one I sent in for my Cambridge interview, but I rather doubt anyone read it, things being different back then.) I assess my seventeen-year-old self as interesting, probably intelligent, but very annoying, and quite possibly lacking in intellectual stamina. This actually makes me feel quite good about myself, because I have overcome some of my natural flaws -- I have stuck with ASNC for thirteen years even though I am prone to short-lived enthusiasms, and I like to think I've reined in the annoying a bit too. Hurray! Now if my ex-wisdom tooth would just stop hurting...

Monday, 10 December 2007

Related TV idea

I am a wisdom tooth down. I wouldn't recommend it as a way to pass time. The actual extraction wasn't painful, though the creaking and cracking noises and the smell of blood were pretty disgusting, but now it's very achey.

I do miss having rats, because something about the way they have things of their own to get on with is quite consoling when I'm in a bad mood. (Though of course I do have rat tooth envy -- theirs grow back!) In this vein I have come up with a TV idea. It's called "Help me [not Anthea], I'm not infested!" Someone who is the opposite of Anthea Turner -- I'm thinking off the top of my head Sandi Toksvig -- helps people who live in clean unfriendly houses to pick out a pet and the appropriate equipment. The resulting shed hair and scattered squeaky toys on the floor are contrasted with the joy of animal company.

Anyway hooray for cuteoverload, with its rats and cats, and puppies:

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Things I found while tidying part IIa

A handwritten note on a printed correspondence card sent to me in my first year by the man who eventually supervised my PhD. I had failed to go to a 9 o'clock lecture. It says "Your absence this morning was noted!"

Friday, 7 December 2007

Reading books

I finished the Amalgamation Polka. It was good, and I do like that Pynchon style, but it left me strangely unmoved in the long run. I imagine I'll read his next book, though.

Currently I am reading the rather more memorable 'Ulrich Haarbürste's novel of Roy Orbison in clingfilm'. This is the gently charming tale of Ulrich Haarbürste who lives in Düsseldorf with his terrapin Jetta, and who likes very much to wrap Roy Orbison (preferably fully clothed) in clingfilm. I saw it mentioned on the Guardian books page and ordered it with some trepidation, because once from the same source I ordered what sounded like an interesting thriller which just happened to have a lesbian heroine, and when it arrived it turned out to be a "thriller" of another kind in a series devoted to lesbian porn. (It was objectionable on two grounds 1) it was grossly anatomical in places and 2) lesbian porn ought to have few or no men in it and this had loads, but I had stupidly written my name at once in all the books in that amazon parcel so I couldn't really give it to Oxfam because if I did one of my students was pretty much bound to buy it.) I warmly recommend Ulrich Haarbürste's rather touching story, as he finds himself with ever more complex yet convincing reasons why Roy Orbison needs to be wrapped in clingfilm, and only avoids the terrible fate of wrapping Jim Morrison in clingfilm through the kindly interventions of Yul Brynner. By page 47 I stopped counting how many times Roy Orbison had been completely wrapped in clingfilm -- it was 14 that far. Saddest are the times when Roy Orbison needs only partially wrapping in clingfilm, which leaves our hero anxious and ill at ease.

Of course now I've written this the second half of the book will be disgustingly perverted...

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Life is complex

The fragment I saw on Sunday was sold on Tuesday for approaching three hundred thousand pounds to someone who, I'm guessing, already owns a house. I'm glad I got the chance to see it.

Currently upsetting me is the fact that I seem to be agreeing with the American Christian Right in that I don't like Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I console myself with the thought that my objections are on a much more intellectual level than theirs. Luther said "Sin boldly" and I'm more of a fan of intelligent atheism than of that sort of piety which sends people to church every week because it's the done thing. But now it seems like you can get atheistic piety too, which leads to people in the Guardian feting the idea of the Pullman trilogy as an anti-Christian children's book without looking in to what sort of ideas it's really espousing. I don't have any more right to speak for atheists than atheists have for Christians (and I suppose actually I don't have any right to speak for Christians either) but wouldn't atheism ideally not base itself entirely on Christianity, just with all the goods and bads reversed? Pullman's ideas seem like one of the those early gnostic sects where all forbidden things were really mandatory; like the children who have been told never to put beans in their ears, and who then put beans in their ears. At least the Harry Potter books have a morality which doesn't involve God. But I may just be missing the point about the Pullman ones, I suppose. And the American Religious Right's attitude makes me wonder if I should give the books another chance. Oh American Religious Right, will you please shut up! You make us all look like loonies.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Things I have found while tidying part II

1. Loads of old tape cassettes: e.g the Scorpions album Strange World which includes To Be With You In Heaven and Winds of Change, copied for me by the brother of the bloke I had a crush on when I was 14; other tapes I have kept solely because of who made them for me; all going in the bin now, I'm afraid.

2. The filigree hat pin which my Granny gave me so that I could defend myself if necessary on the Tube. I kept it pinned down my coat lapel for a while but got increasingly concerned that I was more likely accidentally to stab myself than any would-be attacker. It was a very Granny thing.

3. My Part I Latin folder with heavily annotated texts in it. I always meant to drop Latin, but somehow I'm still doing it.

4. A typewritten letter from a Dr A. D. B. Poole inviting me to an interview for "Anglo-Saxon" at 15.00 on 7 December 1993 in G3 Great Court, Trinity College. My boss managed to get the itinerary with the 1 dropped off the front of the times so he was expecting everyone two hours later; with hilarious results!

5. A picture of my school form in the first year of secondary school; I look remarkably like Neil from the Young Ones.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

A sense of accomplishment

The silver lining to the dark thunderhead that is having too much to do is that, when you do get a moment, it helps you to seize that moment fluently, and dispatch something which could have taken ages under normal conditions. I wrote the bulk of my book on St Margeret's Gospels longhand either at St Mary's Abbey Malling (where it was a displacement activity for praying and Thinking Hard about Things) or in the pews of the medieval church of Edington, where the services are so popular during the Festival of Music in the Liturgy that you have to turn up about ninety minutes early if you want somewhere to sit. This dead time seemed like such a gift that it became strangely easy to write. Today has been my first day of my own work in ages because of flat-clearing panic, and I managed to go down to London and spend an hour transcribing an important fragment as well as finishing off my book on calendars. Hurray! No doubt there are still some things wrong with it, but the editor has shown no desire to read it, so at least he won't be demanding tedious revisions. It should be out in the spring, apparently, though I'm not quite sure I actually believe that.

(By the way, I should really point out that when I say I have too much to do I mean that I have more to do than I myself feel able to handle, but it's nothing compared to what some people in this intense university manage. I have no idea how people do it when they have other commitments -- let alone children, even a partner seems like a sort of unaffordable digression of resources to me these days. Cambridge has "I don't know how she/he does it" disease.)

Anyway it's been a while since I said anything about books. My advice is, read things by Antal Szerb: the Pendragon Legend is good, and so is Oliver VII, but the first is funnier so better. He died in a concentration camp in 1945, but has only recently been available in translation, I think largely due to the Pushkin Press, which is usually just a tad too worthy for me. The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia is very good in a respectable sci-fi, Neil Gaiman kind of way; it has some excellent rats in it, which always endears a book to me. I'm reading the Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright; it's very good so far but amazingly Pynchon-y, with a hint of Thomas Guane. Consider this sentence:
One clear summer day, utterly absorbed in following the track of some clawed, padded animal the consequences of a possible encounter with he had not given a single thought, Liberty happened by chance to notice, sprouting in the shadow of a large rock, a strange bushy plant of no recognizable species, a heap of gray, stringy tendrils and leaves that seemed, as he approached, to be exhibiting a slight quivering movement curious on such a windless afternoon.
Either he'll continue to pull it off and it'll be a great book, or I'll start to find it really annoying.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Fridges and hubris

I chose a new fridge last week. I decided that it had to have: an A energy rating; a reversible door because the space is next to a wall; and an ice compartment/little freezer. I found one that fitted all these requirements! My mother bought the thing as an advance birthday present for next summer because she doesn't seem to have registered the fact that I have an income these days. (Yesterday was a landmark day because she let me buy her a meal; it was only a plate of pasta from Clowns, and she has been making constant references to it all weekend, but it's still a start.) My mother is quite like me except that she's practical, sociable, and unafraid of hard work, so she changed the door for me. And at this point we discovered that once the door was changed round the ice compartment could no longer be opened, unless the fridge door was open to about 120 degrees, which we can't do because of the afore-mentioned wall. (And wouldn't it be bad for energy anyway? Who opens their fridge door right back on itself?) The specifications of the fridge had failed to mention that the ice compartment and reversible door was an either/or situation so my mother and I have wasted large parts of the day phoning up people who gave us the phone numbers of other people, instead of palming my junk off on charity shops.

So: does this inability on my part to choose the right fridge bode badly for the much harder decision to come about students? Or will it just be one of those things where the ostensibly easy task, choosing a fridge, turns out in fact to have been the more difficult of the two? I'm lucky that the person I co-interview with has decades of experience and is not only very good at discerning for himself, but also at interviewing in a way which helps the student display their best qualities to me, too. He let me in, but made me get 3 As, which wasn't the standard offer at the time, and this just goes to show his impeccable judgement; I was worth a bit of a risk but not too much. (The risk was I wanted to switch from science to humanities, my grades were OK.) I suppose I could ask him next time I need to buy a fridge, though I have a feeling that his skillset is very specialised for survival in a fellowship environment.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

The consolation of philosophy

I have to have a wisdom tooth removed. I don't think my dentist has quite understood that I am an enormous coward, and I don't deal well with pain. I'm not one of those smiles-bravely types. I make everyone around me's life a misery and mope about being melodramatically defeated.

But I am being soothed from this thought by looking at a manuscript in the library. It's a tenth-century book of the sort of stuff intellectuals liked at that period: Book IV (De arte dialectica) of Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii; pseudo-Augustine's Categoriae decem, translated from Aristotle; pseudo-Apuleius's Liber peri hermeneias; Boethius's translation of Porphyry's Isagoge in Categorias Aristoteles, plus some more Boethius; Alcuin, De dialectica; and pseudo-Augustine, Dialectica. (I have entitled the whole manuscript "Philosophical works by Martianus Capella, Aristotle, Boethius, and others"; suggestions on whether I should have got the word "dialectic" in there would be welcome.) I have learnt, among other things, that to be a human is to be risibile, because even if you're not laughing right then you might laugh at some point; while to be a horse is to be hinnibile. Horses don't laugh, and people don't whinny. I used to whinny and pretend to be a horse on my way to Brownies causing my mother much embarrassment; I think Boethius wouldn't have approved either.

What's really engaging my attention however is the script. (Though I ought just to be checking the foliation and recording incipits and explicits.) It's Caroline minuscule; but it is absolutely packed with Insular and late Celtic abbreviations: including two ticks above a t for tra; the Insular secundum, autem, enim, and even per; bird-shaped v with o above for uero; and N with a bar through for nam, which is supposed to be specifically Welsh (though I would take that with a pinch of salt, personally). It was certainly in England at the end of the eleventh century or start of the twelfth, when its opening page was rewritten with a nice initial, probably at Canterbury, and it may be identifiable with a manuscript which Leland saw at Malmesbury in the 1530s. But whether it was written in England or on the Continent remains unclear; people have noted the huge number of Insular abbreviations, but I don't think anyone has really looked properly at their overwhelmingly Celtic, especially late Celtic (= post-850ish) character. Although the Irish, for example, hung on to Insular script for a ridiculous length of time (I think it was finally given up in 1952), my theory is that a better understanding of Caroline minuscule in England would depend heavily on sorting out the Celtic dimension, and the idiosyncratic abbreviations would be a way into this. I made a tentative start on saying this for an article for the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain which I wrote in 2003, and I do wish they'd hurry up and print it because while it's in limbo I feel like I can't quite move on. People often look at Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent; but Anglo-Saxon England and the Celtic-speaking world have tended to be studied in very different sorts of university course, Celtic studies versus History/English, and I'm very lucky to have had an education which has pointed out the importance of that other side of things. It's not a good idea to characterise nations, as Thomas Browne pointed out, but one does get the sense with the Irish and other Celtic-speaking peoples in the early to mid-Middle Ages that there was a tendency to an intense intellectual curiosity. Also they had this concept of self-exile from their homeland as a particular way of serving God, like being a hermit but abroad instead of in the wilderness. Even though things Caroline didn't stick back home, I'd bet the movement of Celtic-speaking peoples was a big catalyst for change in England; like the Irish who taught St Dunstan at Glastonbury, and Iorwerth the Welshman at Winchester. Hurray for palaeography! It beats dentistry in the paper, rock, scissors of life.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

A seventeen-year-old is fundamentally unlike a fridge

If a sixth-former were a fridge I would be very good at evaluating its energy rating, number of shelves, size of ice compartment, and whether it has a bottle rack. I can immediately discard a fridge with a B energy rating and nowhere to put things on the back of the door. But sixth-formers are unlike fridges and in even the most statistically-based descriptions of them individual bits of interestingness shine through. Meeting them makes this even more complex. One possibility would be to think of sixth-formers as fridges; this might make me more efficient at ranking them, to the benefit of both institution and myself, and possibly even the sixth-formers. However I feel it would be morally wrong.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Things I have found out

This is quite good: a guide to recycling in Cambridge. It tells you how to get rid of a computer, for example, and who will collect old furniture. I need to get rid of my old desktop.

Cambridge was founded on seven hills: Castle Hill, Pound Hill, Honey Hill, Market Hill, Peas Hill, St Andrew's Hill, and Senate House Hill. Bath was founded on seven hills too, but the internet won't tell me what they are, and I can only remember Lansdowne Hill, where my Mum grew up. I asked her what they were once but she snorted and said it was Classicising nonsense, or words to that effect anyway. Probably not those words.

Watching items that you're selling on ebay clock up watchers and eventually bids is as compelling as bidding on and watching items you want to buy, only with the money gradient in the right direction. I am scouring my flat for more stuff to put on. I've sold one batch of icons and now I'm on to some more special ones, so I have more capacity to be disappointed.

The excellent Cavy Rescue "Recycle-a-rodent" website allows one to sponsor a rat, which has relieved some of my pent-up rat yearnings. If you prefer your rats heroic, or are particularly fond of minesweeper, you can adopt a HeroRat which is actually out there doing good for humanity in return for squashed banana. Rats are great, and I miss having them about. Statistically there's one around here somewhere, but it hasn't made contact so it's just not the same.

Graham Linehan's blog is quite good. The post about Conservapedia is pretty startling.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Clever Channel 4!

Hurray! According to the Guide, Matthew Collings is back this evening, talking about art. Does he still say gently clever things with a soft intonation? Nobody knows.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Beowulf: the monsters and the critics

Tolkien wrote a famous article by that title, in which he argued that Beowulf should be read as literature, instead of just quarried for old forms by philologists. He had a metaphor about someone who built a tower, and how years later people took it apart to see where the rocks came from and how they had been put together; but from the top of the tower the builder had been able to see the sea. Another famous article on Beowulf, by the great Anglo-Saxonist Kenneth Sisam, starts "Often, far from libraries, I have read Beowulf for pleasure". I went to see the film Beowulf in 3D last night, and something about the way it took massive liberties with the original reminded me just what a brilliant poem it is.

I enjoyed the film too. It was silly and excellent. They came up with a tediously modern explanation for who Grendel was, but really great works can cope with that sort of thing. They skipped lots of brilliant stuff like the fight at Finnsburh, which is a story told as a digression, hinting at a sad fate for Queen Wealtheow and her sons. But any film adaptation of a book has to simplify hugely. And the animation thing, which was supposed to make the people and the monsters look like they were in the same world, worked for me. On the down side the references to religion were tediously naff; Christianity didn't get that far north until centuries later. (The tenth-century king Harald Bluetooth claimed to have made Denmark Christian; his work as a unifier is why the wireless communication specification is named after him.) And I did regret the loss of the dignified pagans portrayed in the poem; they may deprive the neighbours of their mead-benches, but in the poem they're still sensible and trying to do what's right, unlike the sottish Hrothgar in the film.

Anyway I shall dig out one of my glossed editions of Beowulf and reread it. Go Beowulf! Slay that monstah! (Possibly the film was meant as a coded message to Brad Pitt from the friends of Jennifer Aniston.)

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

There are no rats in my home

I'm feeling sad today because I had to have my little rat Yaffle put to sleep. It was definitely time. At least now I don't have to worry about when to make the decision, and it's good that she doesn't have to cope with all the cleaning and redecorating stuff I'm doing; still, Confucius might have said "There is nothing as bitter as the convenient death of a loved one." Someone must have said that at some point.

In a spirit of appeal to the world I offer you this proof that if we all tried harder we could just get along. (Best watched with sound off.)

Monday, 19 November 2007

Found things

I have found various things so far while cleaning:

1) the cap for my USB flash drive. Yay!

2) 60 euro cents and about 80 pence in British.

3) some information about the International Planned Parenthood Federation, about which I had completely forgotten. I requested it because of something I found out about donkeys. Donkeys are wonderful things, and to stand near one will automatically improve your quality of life. (Unless it bites or kicks you, but that's not that likely.) However, donkey charities are the best supported in the UK, apparently, and those who rescue donkeys have no need to scrape together the cash to do so. I'm glad for the donkeys! But there are other charities doing excellent stuff who are hit by image problems. In particular, contraception, which seems to me like one of the best ideas ever, is such a controversial topic to some people that charities which support it miss out on huge tranches of potential income. The International Planned Parenthood Federation works to educate about contraception and distribute it, and also to reduce the number of unsafe abortions carried out in the world. My aunt is a reproductive health doctor and she says that something like 2 out of every 5 pregnancies in the UK is aborted. I hold no brief for foetuses, and am not at all sure what to think about them, so I'm going to leave that issue to one side; but look at it solely from the point of view of the women involved. That's a vast number of women going through a nasty physical and really horrible emotional experience. (A friend described her abortion to me in horrendous detail once as we went round a Titian exhibition, with all those Flayed Marsayes and Rape of Lucreces -- I hadn't asked but in humanity I pretty much had to let her tell me.) Better contraception, and more of it, I say! In the meantime the IPPF allows one to donate online.

4) A sermon I wrote a long time ago. A couple of times the chaplain suggested I should preach, and I always demurred, rightly I think. But I did once have an idea for a sermon so I wrote it down. It was about the problems with the secular view of self-respect.

5) The service sheet from the funeral of Jeremy Maule, a great scholar and teacher, who died in 1998. It was the first Cambridge funeral I went to, with the choir singing the nunc dimittis around the coffin under Trinity Great Gate. He had had a few weeks' notice of his death and had planned the obsequies himself, with hymns and readings from Donne; they were distinctly uncomfortable, as of someone who did not want to die. This was appropriate. He was only in his early forties. Just to be selfish for a moment, I imagine my life would be different if he had lived, because he was very supportive of my wanting to branch out into early modern stuff.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The angel in the house

I have a lot of admiration for people who keep houses clean and tidy. It's not one of my virtues. At the moment, as I start piling up things to get rid of, doing anything in my flat is like one of those slidey puzzle games: I have to move large numbers of things in sequence in order to get at any one particular cupboard. The water here is so hard that even Cillit Bang! (hardcore remix here) won't remove the encrusted limescale on my bath and instead I have to scrape it off flake by painstaking flake with nylon pan scrapers from Lakeland.

I looked on the internet for ways to clean grouting, and someone recommended a mixture of bleach and baking soda. This alarmed me, because it sounds like one of those home-made bomb recipes. And if you put the wrong cleaning products together you can produce chlorine gas -- apparently people do die from mixing toilet cleaners, though I think it has to be bleach and something acidic, which baking soda isn't. I know that baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and wikipedia tells me that's NaHCO3. I would consider myself well-educated if I could predict whether that would be a safe thing to mix with chlorine bleach. But I have no idea, and therefore I am not.

Tomorrow my mother is coming up, and because she had a scientific education she may know the answer. But I'm afraid she'll be so annoyed by the messiness of my flat that she'll be in no mood for speculations. Even my dad was shocked at it when he was last here, and this is a man who developed a proper forest floor ecosystem in his study while writing a book on trees by just dropping herbarium specimens when he was done with them. (Eventually my mother passive-aggressively bought him a new carpet for his birthday.)

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Seed of the One who Roars on High

1. Someone who lives near my parents is a professional fireworks display man, and he arranged for the village to get a cheap, late, display composed of all the fireworks which had failed to go off in the displays he'd already done for Guy Fawkes' night. Presumably unexploded fireworks are a perk/hazard of the job. My mother seemed to think this quite reasonable, but wouldn't it be tremendously dangerous? The fireworks factory in the nearest small town exploded a couple of years ago. It was amazingly lucky that no one was killed; the caretaker broke his leg, I think, and lots of people were bruised from being blown off their feet, and that was it. The explosion was more than usually dramatic and could be seen for some miles.

2. I visited Bologna university last summer to see the friend with whom I will be working when I go out there next year. Her department is in a fifteenth-century palazzo, just up the hill from an amazing complex of early medieval churches. She showed me the loos, which are divided not into two but three: men's, ladies', and professors'.

3. Anglo-Saxon charters are sometimes great. When King Athelstan decided to give Wootton Bassett to the church of Malmesbury he started like this:
The insolent fortune of this deceiving age, not worthy of love because of the milky whiteness of unfading lilies but hateful because of the bitterness steeped in gall of corruption that is to be lamented, bitingly tears to pieces the sons of stinking flesh in the vale of tears by raving wildly with its poisonous jaws, which, although it may be attractive to the unfortunate by its pleasing manner, yet shamelessly is it declining downwards to the depths of Acherontic Cocytus [i.e., Hell], unless the Seed of the One Who Roars on High [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] should assist. And so, because that ruined thing [i.e., fortune] is going mortally into decay through its failing, one must hasten with the utmost effort to the pleasant fields of indescribable happiness, where the angelic tongues of hymn-singing jubilation and the scents of verdant roses flowing with honey of incalculable sweetness are captured by the good and blessed nostrils and the sweetnesses of musical instruments heard by the ears.
In case you care, here is the Latin:
Fortuna fallentis seculi procax, non lacteo inmarcessibilium liliorum candore amabilis, sed fellita eiulande corruptionis amaritudine odibilis, fetentis filios ualle in lacrimarum carnis rictibus debachando uenenosis mordaciter dilaceret. Que quamuis arridendo sit infelicibus attractabilis Acherontici tamen ad yma Cociti ni satus alti subueniat boantis, impudenter est decursibus, et ideo ipsa ruinosa deficiendo tanaliter dilabitur, summopere festinandum est ad amena indicibilis leticie arua, ubi angelica ymnidice iubilationis organa mellifluaque uernantium rosarum odoramina a bonis beatisque naribus inestimabiliter dulcia capiuntur, sineque calce auribus cliuipparum suauia audiuntur.
Go King Athelstan! One of England's greatest kings. One of his others has a great anathema clause which sentences the infringer to being beaten about the head by devils with frying pans.

Monday, 12 November 2007

What's Italian for yay?

I'm going to Bologna for six months! I've got an Early Career Research Fellowship thing at the University there. This is good. I will miss 4OD and the Literary Review (maybe I can get the latter sent out to me) but everything else is a plus. There are some gorgeous old churches there and they really know what to do with a dead pig.

I only have a couple of months to empty and redecorate my flat though, which will be challenging in terms of possessions. I think most of my poetry books will have to go to Oxfam, and most of my collection of icons will have to go on ebay. My parents have offered me some space in their garage, but academic books need to be somewhere less mousy. I had a preliminary attempt at clearing out a bit at the weekend, filling eight bin bags with totally useless items. The record for expiry date so far is October 1998, on some cough medicine. But it does sort of validate my slobby lifestyle, because instead of regularly clearing up over the past ten years, now I can do it all in one go. I remember this about moving; it's much easier to throw things out when the alternative is physically carrying them somewhere.

Friday, 9 November 2007


I had this dream the other night that a race of super-intelligent and compassionate aliens shaped like large green slugs grew so worried about Britney Spears' mental state that they sent an ambassador to earth to befriend her and help her get back on the rails. It all worked really well and she got her children back and became a UN ambassador or something. But even without extra-terrestrial intervention, and with neither hair nor pants, Britney seems unable to mess up the music. Her new album, Blackout, is great, although she didn't chose any of the mentalist titles she had offered for fans to vote on on her website. Toy Soldier is probably the next single. (It's not, alas, a cover of the Martika hit which was the first seven inch I ever bought.) But there are loads of excellent songs on it. I like them more when they're rap-like rather than too R'n'B, but they're very good, and I'm not usually that keen on R'n'B. Poor old Britney; I do hope she sorts her life out.

Most of us rein it in

I've just discovered It's very funny if a tad depressing... I particularly like this note.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

This and that

1. My current new toy is a graphics tablet. It's good for my RSI, and the handwriting recognition is impressive; it can cope with my terrible cursive scrawl, and seems to recognise names used elsewhere. I'm not the neatest writer, unless I'm really trying. It occurred to me that this could be a solution to the problem of the handwriting of students who type all their work, possibly including their lecture notes, but still have to write exams long-hand. If they used a graphics tablet instead of typing then when they got into the exam room they would at least have had plenty of practice at writing to a certain standard.

2. I was fed up with Calvin Harris but he made quite a good video for that sofa advert song.

3. The photocopier in my faculty can now e-mail things to you as pdfs instead of spewing them out on paper. This is a fantastic thing. I tried it out with a lovely letter I had just got from the Politest Man in the World, and now I don't have to worry about losing it. I have visions of spending all my weekends there for the next year or so, copying the articles which take up 67 inches on my shelves, not including a couple of years of unfiled stuff.

4. I would advise you not to read Ken Follett's Pillars of the World. It made me very nostalgic at first because, when I was a daunted twelve-year-old at my grandparents' house surrounded by loud extrovert relatives I would rifle the shelves and end up reading exactly this sort of well-constructed, engaging trash. I read it to the end to find out what happened, but it made me feel a bit car-sick. Also, it has that rather dirty sexuality which is big in those sorts of books -- lots of rapes. All in all, it's on a par with Jeffrey Archer, and should be avoided.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Historical loonies

I've just finished a fantastic book about millenarianism, The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. There were some excellent mad sects in the High Middle Ages who tried, in various creative ways, to usher in the kingdom of a thousand years which would precede the end of the world. I particularly liked one young man called Eon, Eudes in French, who claimed that the "eundem" in "per eundem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum" referred to him, and that therefore all Latin prayers ended "through Eon Jesus Christ our Lord". Later he decided that he was also the "eum" in "per eum qui venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos et seculum per ignem", and that Eon was the one who would come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. He died in the custody of the archbishop of Rouen, but not before gathering many disciples, several of whom ended at the stake, and generally causing chaos.

The topos of the ruler who didn't really die but is actually living as a wandering hermit and will come again is a familiar one; there were legends that Harold II survived Hastings, for example, and the idea that Edward II wasn't killed with that memorably gruesome poker but survived for decades as a wandering holy man is still current today. I was pleased to learn that not only were there several convincing imposters who claimed to be Frederick II, the stupor mundi, but that one of them, who mustered surprising international support but eventually betrayed himself and was burnt at the stake, even had his own imposter who claimed to be him raised from dead after three days -- a sort of pseudo-pseudo-Frederick. They killed that one too.

But the anabaptists rule when it comes to eschatalogical lunacy. The story of the kingdom of Münster is a sort of nightmare of odd but not completely unreasonable ideas slipping away into outright insane terror. Through a series of mad lurches they ended up ruled by a king called Jan Bockelszoon, whose first act as leader Cohn describes thus:
"Early in May he ran naked through the town in a frenzy and then fell into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days".
He instituted polygamy, from Old Testament examples, and made it illegal for women of marriageable age not to be married to another anabaptist. (Bockelszoon had fifteen wives at one point.) Women were executed for refusing to comply with this, and also for arguing with their new co-wives. He renamed the days of the week, and became a sort of Caligula, demanding strange shows of loyalty from his subjects, who were starving from a complete siege of the city by the ejected bishop. Eventually someone managed to let the bishop's army in, and a massacre followed. Bockelszoon and two others were tortured to death with red hot pincers, and their bodies hung in cages from a church tower in the city centre. The cages are still there, apparently, but the bodies were taken down after about fifty years. The whole episode was included by Luther Blisset in his book Q, which is quite readable; the author(s) claimed to have taken the name of Luther Blisset, a 70s footballer, as a pseudonym to conceal their identity as four Italian professors of semiotics, though the image of four Italian professors of semiotics choosing to get together to co-write an English novel about the North European reformation strikes me as the less likely of the two options. Still it's on Wikipedia so it's either true or someone's been reading too much Borges.


I've noticed this wierd thing when I get bad colds: at first, as my symptoms are just developing, I feel a bit ill and really miserable; then, when I'm fully unwell I feel physically much worse but get this sudden flush of feeling actually rather cheerful. Yesterday my cold was just starting and I was really very down; today I'm much more obviously unwell and I'm in an unusually good mood. Previously I've always assumed the grumpiness is because of how annoying it is to know you're coming down with something, and I've attributed the cheerfulness to the effect of people being nice to you once it's obvious you're ill, but I wonder whether there's more to it than that. Though it seems odd that a disease should make you happy. I suppose recreational drugs are mild poisons, so maybe it's like that.

Thursday, 1 November 2007


From the BBC's website:
"London's police force broke health and safety laws over the shooting dead of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes."

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Diverse things, mostly happy

1. Soulwax, aka 2 Many DJs, have an album out called "Most of the remixes...". (The ellipsis represents the rest of a very long title.) The first CD is the Soulwax remixes; and the second CD is those same remixes in a continuous 2 Many DJs mix. If you don't have the only commercially-released 2 Many DJs CD, As Heard on Radio Soulwax Vol. 2, you should try it as it is great, as long as you like your electropop loud and a bit angry. I went to the Hague a few years ago for the first actual holiday I had had since I graduated, and wandered the beach at Scheveningen at dawn listening to it so loudly it probably damaged my ears forever. It does have quite a lot of swearing in it though, so you have to be in an aggressive mood. Anyhoo this new 2 Many DJs CD has a fantastic rock-guitary mix of Kylie's Can't Get You Out Of My Head, and is generally great. Vol. 2 is the only Radio Soulwax CD they released -- I read somewhere that getting all the permissions was a huge headache, so they decided not to do it again, but you often see bootlegs of the other volumes on ebay.

2. Two friends of mine have had baby girls in the last week. One of the mothers is one of my oldest friends from school. Congratulations, and hello Eleanor and Liselotte!

3. Isn't the internet great? Here is an excellent letter a kid wrote from camp, and here is a blog devoted to moustaches, by someone who is clearly gearing up to release a small Christmas stocking-type book... But I particularly like a gadget I found for igoogle which gives the phase of the moon. At the moment it is waning gibbous, at 64% apparently.

4. Britney's new album is very good, apparently. I have it on order. Go Britney!

5. My little rat, Yaffle, looks all set to make it into November, which I would not have predicted a week ago. She likes to sit under my chin and make happy teeth-chattering noises.

6. Technology is great, but lo-fi is good too. When I dug out that image of Scheveningen, from my first camera phone, I thought that actually its basic nature has a charm lost by better quality equipment. It's the same with early photographs; I saw a program on BBC4 when I couldn't sleep about the early years of photography, and the way the Brownie camera turned images into patches of black and greys was actually very effective and made me want to get a Brownie of my own.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Quite old books

In the sort of stuff I work on there are a lot of monumental books from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. This is especially true for liturgy. If I had been born a hundred years earlier and a reasonably well-off man I would have loved to have been a canon of an Anglican cathedral, working away at things antiquarian with a tremendous knowledge of Latin behind me and an innate sense of how ritual works. (As it is ritual is alien to me and such Latin as I have is very hard-won.) These people were serious scholars, even if strictly speaking they were amateurs. Their works were often printed by subscription, and have to be ordered in Rare Books rooms or tracked down in some Cambridge college where they moulder in a basement, part of an unloved bequest of theological volumes by a pious reverend to his alma mater.

However, these days there is an idea that information wants to be free. Copyright prevents this for recent books, and in some areas of study this means that the most modern editions and the vital monographs cannot be made available, and most of what is on the web has been seriously superceded. But if you want to know about, say, the Bosworth Psalter, then the last word is Bishop and Gasquet's monograph of 1908. And because they are both long-dead, and there's a copy in a North American library, you can now get it all in pdf form. (Here is the link but the file is huge.) This is going to save me so much time, although I will miss the Divinity Faculty copy, which no one but me ever borrows, and which has original letters from Edmund Bishop bound in the front. Bishop was a brilliant liturgist; there aren't many liturgists about these days, and there's not really anyone to match him. His work on the Bosworth Psalter is a little marred by the fact that he thought that Arundel 155 (the Eadwig Gospels) was written after the Norman Conquest, but this makes less difference than you'd imagine to its overall usefulness, and wasn't such a very stupid thing to think. (It is my half-serious intention, if ever asked to contribute to a festschrift for David Dumville, my PhD supervisor, to argue that "Eadwig Basan" is a chimaera, and that the work attributed to him does in fact date from the third quarter of the eleventh century.)

Saturday, 27 October 2007

What I love and hate about where I live

Hate: the teenager upstairs plays loud music a lot.
Love: he seems to have the same taste as me (pounding pounding techno music, although it might be his mum I suppose), so sometimes I just turn off my own music and listen to his.
Love: the block of flats has some odd architectural features at low level and is therefore often in use by teenagers who are doing the whole free-running, le parcour thing. Sometimes to get to my front door I go past people walking along on their hands as if it's a normal thing to do, which is pretty cool.
Hate: drunk people on the street shouting at two in the morning.
Love: maybe it's because I'm half asleep, but the things they shout often seem to have an expletive-heavy poetry to them. Last night "She makes me feel like I'm f**king nothing!" yelled in total anguish suggested a whole backstory.
Hate: occasionally it gets out of hand and I have to call the police. There was a man beating up a woman a couple of months back, which was pretty nasty: it was also very painful to hear him yelling his reasons as people tried to hold him back. "I f**king bought her a house, I f**king bought her a car, and she's f**cking screwing my best friend!" which may sound hackneyed when you read it, but was cried with conviction, and is really horrible to think about seriously.
Love: nice old ladies to say hi to in the street, although I can never remember their names. They're happy to take in parcels, for example.
Hate: although sometimes I do get caught up in these annoying dramas of complaining, and even if the Champion of the Thames is often a bit noisy, it's an excellent local pub and needs bearing with.
Love: the Champion of the Thames and the Radegund, proper old British pubs. The Champion has a whole cast of characters, and the Radegund has the Dame Vera Lynn appreciation society.
Hate: not so sure about the King Street Run, which spills its baby goths out onto the pavement, provoking mixed irritation and pity in me as I try to bike past them and their mini snakebite-and-black-fuelled dramas.
Love: hearing the Hash Street Harriers run from the Radegund on Monday evenings, baying here here! like hounds.
Love: Clowns cafe, and the people who run it shouting "Ciao!" at me as I go past. The fat man is always in the window.
Hate: cars bombing down at stupid speeds. About a month ago one of them just caught a bicyclist sending him flying, and he screamed horribly and passed out on the pavement. I called an ambulance but I didn't go down because there were other people there. I don't know how it turned out. We need a sleeping policeman.
Love: the friendly newsagent, Julian the interesting hairdresser, the gallery down the road that deals mostly in Gwen Raverat. Also great to be so close to Midsummer Common, Jesus Green, and Christ's Pieces. Love reading a good book review at 9.45 on a weekday evening and owning the book quarter of an hour later.

America is a long way away from here

Supposing you contacted everyone who bought a Back-Up a couple of years later with a customer service form -- that would make a short story.

Well, that could never go wrong

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Research assessed

Because I was employed after a certain date I'm only allowed to put 2 things in the RAE, but I also have to write a 300-word blurb about myself. It's a pain, and I'd rather just put in 4 items frankly. It's amazing how much it puts you on the back foot, looking at everything through the eyes of some unknown, critical assessor. But after a bit I stopped thinking of it that way and just remembered actually doing some of this stuff -- times when I've come to understand something better, or discovered some overlooked Anglo-Saxon fragment, or reconstructed an interesting story. Very minor things on any scale, but evidence to myself that I'm a thinking being, and alive.

I don't know if that indicates the same sort of gaping hole in the psyche so evident in actors, who have to be looked at to show they exist. It may well do, but I still feel quite good about it. It's pleasant that even something like the RAE can have positive side-products.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Ballet is funny

I know it's very immature but watching men ballet dance makes me giggle. There's something on BBC1 at the moment with film of the Bolshoi ballet classes, with all these huge men leaping about fluttering their legs, landing with huge thumps.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Some disparate thoughts

1. I saw an episode of the Tudors. It wasn't great and the liberties with history were annoying. I was trying to remember what actually happened with Henry's sisters, for example. Now I want very much to write a trashy TV series about the Stuarts, maybe about Prince Henry, the oldest son of James I and VI. You wouldn't have to invent much to have some racy bits which Charlie Brooker could comment on wittily on Screenwipe. James himself was an intellectual and a fool, who literally drooled on his favourites, the obnxious Carr and the long-legged Villiers. Frances Howard (see right) was involved in two major scandals during the early seventeenth century, a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation, and the famous Overbury poisoning trial. (Prosecuting at the latter Sir Edward Coke said 'the heinousness of it hath made the King's eyes shed tears and his bowels to yearn'.) And they really did wear their necklines that low -- maybe the lowest necklines in history. Yay!

2. Dave the TV channel is showing those brilliant old Ray Mears World of Survival programs where he goes and lives with people in his thoughtful manner. Also they're showing Whose Line is it Anyway? which I used to watch as a teenager. It's not that good, but it's giving me proustian memory rushes about a whole era.

3. Maybe I should get a cockatoo. It seems like we share tastes in music -- I do have this on my ipod.

Friday, 19 October 2007


I tried out OneNote (nice blogcast demo here) before I bought it, and to get a free trial I had to answer lots of questions from Microsoft. Many were like techie versions of the ones you used to get in teen girl magazines surveys. Would your friends describe you as someone who likes new technology? Would your friends see you as a good person to ask for advice about new software? I went for a strong yes for the first, and neither yes or no for the second. I do like my gadgets. The good thing about these meetings with Americans (once I've got past the addition of what you might call 'grace' or 'otiose' syllables to words for emphasis in a way reminiscent of Homer's 'saxamaphone') is that I meet people there who are interested in similar stuff. This morning one of them said that if Zotero had been around a couple of years ago he thought they wouldn't have had to design a bibliography tool for the project. Many people are saying it's better than EndNote. It's free and open-source, is currently on version 1.0, and works as an add-on to Firefox 2.0 and above. You can get it here, and here is a useful screencast of the sort of stuff it does.

I've added Zotero to my installation of Firefox, and had a go at importing my EndNote library, which has nearly three and half thousand items in it. It took a few tweaks to make it work, but now it's there. I'm feeling a bit half-hearted about it really, which isn't like me. It's very satisfying to make Zotero suck references off a webpage, but I think it's going to appeal most to people who don't already have some sort of reference manager. Having a reference manager is great, though it does take some investment to move on to one when you start. (Putting my charters project's bibliography on to EndNote gave me my RSI.) Also, when you pull things off even a reputable webpage you end up with data like keywords and publisher which you don't want and mess up the consistency of your library. The things I would need in order to migrate to Zotero permanently are:
1. support for using your library on more than one computer, as well as offline. At the moment you can only keep it on a pen drive if you install Firefox portable on the drive and access the web from that. Apparently this feature is coming in Zotero 2.0, but no one's saying when that will be, and I assume it could be anything up to another year. (Thunderbird portable is great, by the way, so much better than using hermes webmail when travelling.)
2. customisable reference fields like in Endnote; I need one called label, which links in to my charters database, and fuels a whole website
3. customisable styles -- in Endnote it's as easy to write a custom XML export as to write a standard bibliographical style, in fact easier. Zotero promises customisable styles but even then they will be stored in XML, which suggests that open and close angle brackets will be a problem
4. a stable unique ID no for each record (EndNote doesn't have this; its ID nos are unique but occasionally change)

I think I'll stay with EndNote but try Zotero for a bit as a tool for grabbing new works I need to check. I compile one section of the annual bibliography for a journal, and I also need to keep tabs of new and forthcoming books for my charters project. This is the only aspect of my work where I get a good part of my bibliographical information from the web rather than print, through browsing publishers' websites and consulting online bibliographical tools, and it seems like web-interaction is Zotero's strong point. So I'll see how it goes with that.

Anyhoo, in the meantime here is some crumping:

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Containing multitudes

I do realise that I have a double-standard. The use of "relevancy" where "relevance" would do irritates me from Americans, but from some early modern author I doubt I would object to it. (Although in our meetings today we had "consultating group" which wouldn't do from either.) For example, I relish John Bale talking about "Antichristes noyful cattel" but if an American used "noyful" as an intense form of "annoying" I would be noyed. Maybe in future centuries people will gleefully quote George Bush-isms; they will probably seem appealingly evocative of a strange era.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Seventeenth-century bile

Thomas Hobbes claimed, wrongly, that he had squared the circle, and engaged in a dispute with John Wallis at Oxford about it. Here he is writing angrily to Wallis and his colleague Seth Ward about it:
So go your wayes, you Uncivil Ecclesiasticks, Inhuman Divines, Dedoctors of morality, Unasinous Colleagues, Egregious pair of Isaachars, most wretched Vindices and Indices Academiatrum.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A small thought I had about Charlie Brooker

I think Charlie Brooker is great. This is embarrassing because it's the twenty-first century, and I feel like I shouldn't really think anyone is great.


I'm not very good in meetings. I rarely enjoy them, and there's always a bit about two-thirds of the way through where I lose all attention span and fidget like a twelve-year-old. And my politeness levels dip to a point at which I start to like myself significantly less. Anyway today's was at least productive, I think, and at one point a contributor said that there were time constraints so that a certain discussion had to be "conclusionary". I think he meant conclusive, but I liked the idea of a word halfway between conclusive and illusionary.

Then I went to a lecture by Eamon Duffy. He quoted a lot of excellent phrases from the sixteenth century. Robert Parson SJ criticised the Marian reforms as "huddled and shuffled up with negligence". Bonner published a book of "profitable and necessary doctrine". And young Lady Jane Grey, in the Tower awaiting her death, heard of the conversion to Catholicism of her personal chaplain, and lamented that someone who had been her friend was now "unshamefast paramour of Antichrist".

At Easter 1554 everyone was examined before they could take communion. They had to believe in the Real Presence; reject the idea of justification by faith alone; and acknowledge the supremacy of the pope. If they had any heretical books they had to bring them in to the bishop to be burned. 470 people were examined in London, of whom 3 ended up condemned as heretics and burnt at the stake. I couldn't answer those questions. I'm not 100% sure about the real presence, but I think I don't believe in it. I'm really not keen on the authority of the pope. I'm certain that I believe in justification by faith alone -- in fact I need to ask a Catholic what the opposing point of view is, and whether it's still a Catholic doctrine. But would I have ended up being burnt? I don't know. I hate to say it, but I expect I would have recanted. It's horrendous to think of it.

In Elizabeth's time one of the bishops (a proto-Tebbit) wanted to ask people whether they would support England or a papal army, if a papal army invaded England. He was stopped from doing it, but I rather suspect many English Catholics would have liked the chance to swear loyalty to England.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Valuable social service

I decided not to review any more books unless I basically liked them, which was a decision I took on selfish grounds. Many people say that reviews of bad books pointing out their flaws are an important service to the scholarly community, and I can't really argue with that. Here is a certain eminent professor in selfless mode:
Somehow it's making me think twice about being late with the book revisions I owe him...

Friday, 12 October 2007


When I was very little I used to make muddy-mud pies, and my grandad would help me. It's the wrong time of year now, and I'm not in Devon, but I would like to try to make one of these:
The Japanese always do these things more elegantly.

Thursday, 11 October 2007


Alium = garleec! More such revelations available here.

But the revelations here are better.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007


1. They've put Christmas lights outside my window. Christmas lights! They're not on at least. But a) it's October and b) I resent the way my street is being increasingly roped into the whole town centre thing. It's not town centre. It's interesting and slightly detached. It's the place where the parades assemble to get their brazilian drum rhythms going before launching themselves on the stage of the city proper.
2. Rats don't live very long, and I'm not in a position to get a long-term pet.
3. This postal strike!
4. I just read an annoyingly bad book. I've refused to review it because I've got a policy.
5. I still have stuff to do for my book. People are being very helpful though.
6. Just to finish on something cheerful, here is a nice place, with my dog Elly waiting at the gate, and probably buzzards overhead making whistly noises:

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Some thoughts I had recently

1. Benjamin Markovits can really write. Imposture is quite good, though a bit uneasy in tone. But Either Side of Winter is strikingly well-written.

2. Chris Morris's role as modern prophet or, if you will, Cassandra, continues. The RSPCA have a somewhat ill-judged advert aimed at the Young People, based on X-Factor style phone-ins. It's compellingly reminiscent of BrassEye's Animals episode (which you can currently download for free on 4OD); for example, it has Simon Cowell saying about some dog being dumped in a ditch "It's one of the worst things I've ever heard" before admitting at the end "These aren't real cases". Also, doesn't the channel 4 retrospective on More 4 remind you of The Day Today's Attitudes Night?

3. Charlie Brooker says Mykola Pawluk is a man. I used to imagine the interesting life of Mykola Pawluk when I was a teenager, and think maybe I could do something like that, and the fact that he's a man shouldn't make a difference but somehow does. Bad me.

4. I read Anne Somerset's Unnatural Murder, about the Overbury poisoning case at the court of James I. It goes into a bit too much detail about the actual events of Overbury's death, which seem pretty unrecoverable at this distance, but there's some very interesting stuff about the court of James I. I hadn't realised that Cotton, antiquarian hero, was so compromised by it all, helping Carr to alter the dates on letters, and using his fantastic library to draft a historically-correct pardon for Carr to try to charm the king into signing. Also the fact that the queen and the archbishop of Canterbury were involved in dangling young beautiful Villiers before the king's eyes in the hope that he would displace the obnoxious Carr as favourite is a bit disconcerting. They got more than they bargained for, obviously.

5. More4's Selling Houses is watchable in a grim sort of way. It's about houses which haven't sold though they've been on the market for a while. It involves a pretty unpleasant man sneering at people's decorating taste -- there's some odd decorating taste on display -- and then getting them together with their estate agent and demanding why he or she hadn't pointed out how vile their house looks. Then they paint it all magnolia and sell it for fifty grand less than the asking price.

6. The Living With Teenagers column in the Family section of the Guardian is getting to the stage where one want to do or say something to the mother. The last episode was about her younger son (who is still 16 or 17, not a child) getting in late on a Saturday evening, drunk. Now admittedly he is a bit young to be getting sick-drunk, but she puts him to bed, stays up late worrying about him, and finishes the column with a triumphant bit about how looking after teenagers is like looking after toddlers. Now I never got really drunk, more than just tipsy, until I had left home and come to university (and in the past week many similarly nicely brought-up timid rule-abiding kids have had the same experience here). But I am still certain that the correct way for parents to deal with this sort of thing is a) at the time total British denial. If any comment has to be made it should be along the lines of "I'm sorry you're unwell, would you like an aspirin?". Then if it has been blatant b) the next day a scorching telling off of the have-some-respect-for-your-parents'-house type. They're not toddlers. They deserve some space and respect, and their obnoxiousness should be acknowledged where necessary. Toddlers can't help throwing up and it would be terrible to tell them off for it; teenagers are proto-adults and to act as if they're not responsible for their own actions is to do them an awful disservice which must make them want to smash things and behave even more badly. (There was a girl like that at my church, a few years younger than me, whose parents were the wettest people you can imagine and kept forgiving her as if nothing she did mattered; she got angrier and angrier and eventually pregnant at fifteen.) This boy made a total fool of himself, and his mother acts as if that's no problem and she takes it for granted that he's a fool, and then she doesn't get why he swears at her. Still it's easy for me to say this; I have no teenagers and never will.

7. I'm still loving OneNote and am now using it for all my random notes, which is bad for my RSI and means I can't access them on any computer other than my laptop. Heigh ho.

Thursday, 4 October 2007


Since I had to be in London anyway yesterday, I managed to get to the Royal Academy's Antiquaries show. It had some nice stuff in it, but you had to know about these things already to get it, I think. It failed to catch what seems to me the wonderful thing about them, their eccentric attitudes and readiness to have a go. Humfrey Wanley, Harley's librarian, gleefully recorded in his diary nights on the town drinking booksellers under the table to get manuscripts at better prices. Bateman, 'The Barrow Knight', kept a tame clergyman who wrote up his rather ad hoc digs in verse. ('His eyes upon the barrow bent are / as if piercing to the earth's very centre.') There was a brief rather dismissive reference to John Dee, who is really an extremely interesting figure, and whose intelligence shouldn't be underestimated, even if he did spend a lot of time trying to talk to angels.

What I want to know more about is a) how this antiquarian pursuit of knowledge related to the pursuit of that other sort of knowledge, natural history, which eventually became science. There were a few reports on things antiquarian to the Royal Society, especially Stonehenge, with its astrological connections, but on the whole the Royal Society had a more mathematical tenor. One place where they seem to overlap is in the opening of tombs; antiquarians liked to make observations about the bodies of the long-dead. (This reminded me of the excellent story that Thomas Love Peacock told about his old friend Bentham:
When experiments were being made with Mr Bentham's body after his death Mr James Mill [philosopher and father of John Stuart] had one day ... told him that there exuded from Mr Bentham's head a kind of oil, which was almost unfreezable, and which he conceived might be used for the oiling of chronometers which were going into high latitudes. 'The less you say about that, Mill,' said Peacock, 'the better it will be for you, because if the fact once became known, just as we see now in the newspapers that a fine bear is to be killed for his grease, we shall be having advertisements to the effect that a fine philosopher is to be killed for his oil.'
from Eurekas and Euphorias, ed. Gratzer)

The second thing, or b), that I want to know is whether there was any political distinction between the pursuers of these two different kinds of knowledge. One thinks of antiquarians as naturally Tory -- certainly Lord Harley was -- and of the proto-scientists as Whigs. (The motto of the Royal Society was nullius in uerba, which seems pretty Whiggish to me.) But is this accurate? I'm guessing it's a gross over-simplification which my head came up with, but I don't know where to find the book which tells me how wrong I am, and how much more subtle and interesting it really was.

I think that Newton saw a lot of his knowledge as a rediscovery; he believed in the wisdom of Solomon. So to know more about Solomon would logically help one to understand the world. There's an excellent book I read somewhere set in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, where the cutting-edge scientists are the archaeologists who recover lost technology: a great scientific discovery is made by digging up artefacts which increase understanding of how things worked; and to find some tattered scraps of an old textbook is the dream of all scientists and their funding bodies. (I think it might have been in the brilliant Hungry Cities series by Philip Reeve. The first one, Mortal Engines, has this excellent first sentence:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.)

I suppose it was a bit like that in the Middle Ages, when they started to get their hands on translations of old Greek authors.

Anyway if you can suggest reading to elucidate the relationship between those two types of knowledge, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and also whether this related to how people felt about the Stuarts, I'd be grateful.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Ezra Pound

I had a tiring day, and even if I hadn't I'm not ever likely to want to read a two-volume biography of Ezra Pound. This is why the Literary Review is great. It makes culture sound interesting, and because of that I am a more well-educated person. Here is the first paragraph of Peter McDonald's review of the Pound book:

One of modern poetry's great symbolic and prophetic moments came in 1912, when Ezra Pound challenged Lascelles Abercrombie to a duel. Upset at the literary shenanigans of younger writers (as well as some old enough to have known better), Abercrombie had called for a return to Wordsworth; incensed, Pound issued his challenge, announcing to his intended victim that 'Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace'. Offered a choice of weapons (and knowing that Pound was a practised, if eccentric, fencer), Abercrombie suggested that the two poets should bombard each other with unsold copies of their own books. As an image for what was to come -- the struggle between tradition and innovation in the context of an enduring lack of public interest in poetry of either shade -- the comic resolution of this quarrel could hardly be bettered.

Also, I had never heard the definition of Romanticism as "spilt religion", attributed to T. E. Hulme.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Ow brain ow

Well, I've just finished writing a book. Actually I know that I haven't really finished it, but I was supposed to finish it yesterday, and I have a ton of things which I scheduled for early October which I now need to get on with, and I've been working on it almost non-stop since ten this morning, so what has happened is that as I have progressed on it today my brain has turned slowly into cheese, and the ratio of x to y, where x is how finished the work is and y is how well my head is working, has increased until it reached z, which is the threshold at which I am prepared to send the work to the editor. So I have now pdfed it and e-mailed it off to him. Tomorrow I have to write an intellectually challenging e-mail to someone about it, which will probably result in more stuff to do. (I'm the one who will be challenged, by the way, not him, that's the problem.) It's a loose definition of finished, but then, I need to clutch at straws right now. The cheese my brain has turned in to is not edam, or even gouda, but stilton, crumbly and squidgy and on the borderline of vile.

I haven't entirely been helped by living on Pub Crawl Street. Every year at this time (and to a lesser extent in January, and then again in June) it becomes swamped with herds of well-brought up youths, bonding together through that heady combination, alcohol and desperation. They are whooping as I type. Many of the males have dressed across gender roles, but not in a lifestyle choice kind of way, rather in a sort of golly how hilarious, I'm wearing fishnet tights! sort of way. And it's no more use getting annoyed with them than with a puppy that peed on the carpet -- I can't even think about them for long without getting worried for them, in their extreme youth. I'm rather glad not to be involved with students this year -- for one thing it means I don't have to be fretful about the start of October (brain-cheesing deadlines aside), but mostly it's because I don't have to worry about them. I worry about the students more than is practical. It's a type of egotism really; I still can't quite believe I got through it all without quitting or spontaneously combusting. Probably they'll all be fine. Certainly they'll have unrivalled opportunities to learn interesting things.

Anyhoo I ought to go to bed to be fresh for tomorrow, when instead of ignoring the things I ought to be writing for the things I have to be writing while thinking wistfully of the things I want to be writing, I can do go straight to the things I ought to be writing, and maybe even things I want to be writing in the evening. Hurray! Life is OK, actually.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The ante-penultimate day

Here's what I'm going to miss about being a fellow. (I've been thinking about it for a while and you can consider this the definitive list.)
1. being allowed to park my bike in the archway at the front of college. I'm not being frivolous, this is really going to be a blow, because it's very useful. I suppose I'll have to leave it on the pavement, or take it round the back. Bet I forget lots of times and heave my bike up the stairs only to have to heave it down again sheepishly. (Though I don't really know how sheep heave.)
2. walking on the grass -- which is actually only nice in summer, so as long as we get a good bit of rain I won't mind in the least.
3. chatting with other fellows. In fact I will still do this because I'm still allowed to go into lunch and dinner while I'm working for the college, and even after that to a lesser extent.
4. the food, bad though it is for me. But see above.
5. when people ask me what I do saying I'm a fellow is a handy way of dodging the question, like when people say is it Miss or Mrs and I say it's Dr actually. 'Fellow' is a wonderfully vague term, and could mean almost anything.
6. being able to invite people into dinner was a great way of being sociable and hospitable without having to tidy up, cook stuff, or otherwise do any work at all
7. also, going in to dinner gave me an excuse to wear earrings

Here's what I won't miss:
1. the feeling of being part of the establishment. It means you have to be terribly nice to people who are feeling like outsiders, and this is hard work. Now I can be the outsider, which is a more comfortable way to live.
2. the meetings. This deserves several subheadings: a) they take ages b) they make me uncomfortable when I have to make decisions about stuff I don't really know about on very short notice with people pushing in a particular direction. (It's rare for me to leave these meetings without the word "complicit" buzzing round my head.) c) people get angry sometimes, and rude, and d) this is very low-quality anger/rudeness. If you're going to be rude you can go one of two ways: gratuitous insult; or crafted insult. Gratuitous insult is just naff unless it's all-out HBO style, but to my knowledge no one has as yet called anyone, say, a mother-pig-****ing ****-****er at any of these meetings. Which I suppose is for the best. Really, crafted insults are the way to go. In the Old Norse sagas people would from time to time break into poetry, incredibly dense riddling poetry, usually when they'd just killed Thor Longbeard and wanted to announce this fact to his assembled cousins. By the time the cousins or whatnot had worked this out, and were reaching for their axes yelling 'did he just say what I think he said? Garrr!' the poet/killer had disappeared into the swirling blizzard. That is how to insult people. Think, for example, of Jean Harlow and Brigitte Bardot. They did not get on! One time JH introduced BB to someone, mispronouncing her surname as Bardott. 'No dear', said BB, 'the t is silent, as in Harlow'. Of course, better still would if be everyone could just get along.
3. I did my BA, MPhil, and PhD at Trinity; but the time I felt most involved in the college was when I was a college servant, as they call them in those parts. I worked in the Wren for a while, and felt at last like I actually belonged in the place, I suppose because I was doing something useful. It'll be interesting to see if it's the same here.
4. things marked confidential, often with large attachments, either in my inbox or my pigeonhole. My working rule for the future is: if there are reasons why some people can't be told something then I don't want to know it either. It's never something nice, e.g. we're going to have a surprise birthday party.
5. being a research fellow has been rather bad for my research. I can see how it would work really well, if you were a full-time stipendiary research fellow, to have a few committee-type responsibilities and to be roped in to some teaching and other studenty stuff -- it would help keep your feet on the ground and give you some CV experience of academic things. But if, like me, you work full-time on research projects that other people decided should be done (and frankly the term 'research' is not the right one, these are projects which draw on the same skills as those you use to do research, but are mostly just mechanical looking for bibliography and entering it into a system, and will in the future be done much more thoroughly by robots), then it's not a good idea. If you don't have much spare time/brain energy to start with then losing some more of it has a very big impact. Hopefully I can get back to some proper work at the weekends. I feel a need to write something a bit fun, too.

The problem is that this list is uneven enough to make it sound like the fellowship has been a bit of a waste of time, which certainly isn't true. The best bits about it have been a) meeting interesting people and b) getting an in to the library's collections; but I'll certainly still be associatd with the library for a while, and I'm hoping the people I've met won't shun me either. So I've enjoyed it very much, and I will miss it a bit, but luckily for me I will still feel the benefits.