Wednesday, 30 May 2007


About eight or nine years ago I formulated my two ambitions: to work three days a week, and have a dog. To these I am now adding a third: to spend substantially less of my time listening to middle-aged men talking crap.

This post is in extreme danger of being taken down shortly when I think better of it...

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

He bullied Albertine

I'm reading a book in which a character says about Proust:
I think he would've been a better writer if every day for about a month someone had walked into his room, stood smiling over his bed for a minute, and then punched him in the stomach.

Miranda July

This is the best book promotion site so far:

Oak apple day

Also I forgot, it's oak apple day. I know that in Devon, therefore, my father will be wearing a small branch of oak on his jacket all day. It's not that he has any particular loyalty to the Stuarts -- he's not a Tory in that sense -- but he just seizes any chance to be close to trees. (And if he can embarrass my mother at the same time that's a small bonus.)


I hate very much going to the dentist. It's not the threat of pain, it's the moral issue -- the guilt that I may have squandered the teeth I was given -- so I find check-ups much more frightening than if I actually have to go back for any work.

However my check-up this morning went well and I am happy. My dentist does this thing where she repeatedly jabs my gums with a sharp instrument to see if she can get them to bleed, and if she can't she gives me grudging respect. I won again today -- an auspicious start to the week!

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Mad dogs

I've always liked William Dalrymple's writing, especially From the Holy Mountain, but his latest book, The Last Mughal, is really unusually good. I bet bits of it are making their way into John Julius Norwich's commonplace books; nobody did eccentric like nineteenth-century colonial governor and army types. (The Flashman papers are great at bringing this out, by the way.) For example, John Nicholson, who hated all Indians and Afghanistanis, and had little if any sense of judicial procedure. According to Dalrymple, one note he wrote to the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab simply reads:
Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I have just shot a man who came to kill me. Your Obedient Servant, John Nicholson.
Somehow he inspired an Indian religious sect called the "Nikal Seyn", which apparently means "let the army come out" in Urdu. They saw him as an incarnation of Vishnu, and he had them flogged if they chanted in his presence. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 allowed him to give full rein to his grim impulses, entering a mess tent in Jalandhar where his fellow officers were awaiting their overdue meal with the words "I am sorry, gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks".

The Mughal court was similarly interesting -- exotic (at least to me), rather than eccentric. The early signs of the disintegration of Hindu–Muslim relations are sad. How much influence has eighteenth-century Medina had on the modern world? I don't know anything about it, but I'm guessing it's a lot.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


Bertrand Russell said that he had never been so unhappy that he would not have been cheered in an appreciable measure by the sudden offer of a chocolate cream. If you don't mind being thought of as eccentric (frankly, for many of us Cambridge types it's too late to worry about that) then try suddenly giving chocolate creams to people and you'll find that he is not alone in this. But the low calorie, web-based version is, which I can never look at without feeling better. (Thanks Sarah for telling me about it some months ago!) Also good are the LOLcats at I love LOLcat pidgin.

Of course Bertrand Russell was a grade-A loony most of whose children and grandchildren went mad or killed themselves. So not all good.

PS Q: are swearing children funny?

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Sermon and analysis

The Boutwood sermon on Sunday was preached by the Reverend Mother Angela Tilby, who has recently become the vicar of St Benet's, the church next door. I've never heard her on Thought for the Day, because I don't listen to that, but I quickly got the point that she is an excellent thing. I loved her story of swearing at motorists while overcome by road rage, for example.

Once she'd got the usual comments on romantic love over -- why do all high-church preachers have to talk about romantic love all the time? -- she said interesting stuff about psycho-analysis. In Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet, which I prefer to the better-known Alexandria Quartet because it's less stuffy, there's an immensely appealing description of analysis from the early days of its development -- it makes me want to go and find an intelligent analyst and plunge into years of intensive work. It sounds like a spiritual experience, which was Angela Tilby's point, but it also seems like the one-sidedness of it would make it a problematic metaphor in this context. And of course most of us, definitely including me, could bear to think less about ourselves not more. I would have liked to have asked her, but I didn't get a chance to talk to her afterwards.

Durrell is good at making dodgy things sound more than attractive, almost essentially right and necessary. His descriptions of gnostic death cults in the Avignon Quintet are very appealing.

But on a lighter note, slightly, here is the Pet Shop Boys' song about the Blair/Bush relationship, "I'm with Stupid", with a video by David Walliams and Matt Lucas. I like this song.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The horror!

So if you didn't believe me about Kalamazoo you can read about it for yourself here. The medium reinforces the message on this one... I left before the medievalists' disco, myself, I'm not stupid.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Human behaviour

I mustn't be ruled by my increasing mustographeaphobia, because I actually had a nice realisation this afternoon. It was about someone of whom I have been thoroughly scared in my whole time in this particular institution. Other people also have been very daunted by her and felt her to be unfriendly. Today I became convinced that, however things may have progressed over time, she started out as intimidated by it all. She made a passing reference this afternoon to interview candidates as scary people, when most people would put the fear gradient the other way round. I think perhaps she just has not realised that she has been here long enough now to count as part of the establishment -- when she first got here just being female would have been a pretty ground-breaking activity on her part. Her prickliness must at least have started out as a reserved manner combined with an unwillingness to lay herself open to attack. And that is very very understandable to anyone who goes to the sort of meetings we have here.

I'm not saying that understanding this makes it suddenly OK. If someone's unfriendly, they're unfriendly whatever the reason, and we all have a tiring duty to be alert for other people's vulnerabilities and to avoid upsetting them. I suppose the reason it cheered me up so much is that it's better to think of someone as reacting through excessive dauntedness than through ill-will. But also I think it struck me so strongly because it's something I really have trouble with too. I realised in my third-year seminars that sometimes it is selfish to be scared of people, but that realisation didn't make me any better at not being scared. Then in my first PhD year a new American post-grad whom I hardly knew from Adam sat down opposite me in the pub and demanded to know if I had a problem with her. I had come across as unfriendly to the point of deliberate rudeness entirely unwittingly, and I would guess that that has happened on other occasions to people less willing to be confrontational in pubs. (It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. And she seemed to think that after we had got it all out in the open we could be friends, whereas of course that was absolutely impossible for me.) We mostly see ourselves as the oppressors, not the oppressed, and think we are acting on the defensive not the offensive. (Which maybe leads me back to my mustographeaphobia... but if I start trying to make too many allowances my head hurts.)

Appeal for help

I don't really know any Greek, beyond the first few words of St John's Gospel. Can anyone help me with a proper clinical label for the problem blighting my recent trips to the porters' lodge, viz a crippling fear of envelopes marked Confidential? A bash at the online Liddell and Scott makes me want to say mustographeaphobia, I guess spelt μυστογραφεαφοβια. Which is probably about as accurate as most of these terms...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

I want icecream

What is not sustainable 1.1

I have been back since this afternoon and already I'm firefighting. It's nearly eleven and I haven't had time to start any of the things I really needed to get done this evening. I wonder if leaving this city is the only solution.

Pointless displacement activity post about M&S

Well I'm back in Cambridge, and dealing with the crushing panic arising from all the things which need doing RIGHT NOW by blogging instead. I don't have anything much to say, alas. I shall just offer this thought:
Why oh why oh why does Marks and Spencer, every time I find something there I really like, immediately discontinue it? This has happened with
1. very flat chocolate-chip muffins (like muffin tops à la Seinfeld) which were designed to fit in a toaster so you could get that just-out-of-the-oven, melted-chocolate-chips experience. They were great!
2. individual low-fat trifles made of layers of chocolate mousse and chocolate custard, with a jaffa cake inbetween them which had gone all soggy. These were absolute genius. I did wonder if they were removed because they didn't have as little fat in as they claimed...
3. smoked-haddock fish cakes. They had gruyere sauce in them which went all oozy. The salmon ones aren't as good.
And countless other items which I have now forgotten. Get it together, M&S! I know it's not just me who had this experience, because when I used to work there it made the customers angry.
Tunbridge Wells

PS that place-name reminds me of another recent annoying experience; I was reading about an irreplaceable historical manuscript which was ruined by the BL, and a certain Adrian Gilbert of Tonbridge posted a comment wondering if the Christian manuscripts of the BL are safe now that so many veiled women work there. Obviously this is the comment of an a-grade a-hole, but further to that the ruined manuscript was the 300-year old diary of a Jacobite. Who would deliberately sabotage that? A disgruntled Whig? Get it together, Adrian Gilbert of Tonbridge! Do you even live in a world where every person is a complex and unpredicatable individual?

Monday, 14 May 2007


I missed Eurovision -- I suppose that while it was happening I was travelling across Lake Michigan. I had an instant message while I was killing time at O'Hare from a friend saying it had been great. He wouldn't tell me who had won, though. (Maybe he'd forgotten -- he sounded like he'd had a good evening.) But he said that the UK did very badly. I like it when the UK does badly at Eurovision. This is how it should be. Here is some proper Scandinavian pop:

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Stranded in Michigan with 3200 medievalists!!1!

Well, I put up a post about Kalamazoo and then took it down again because of (rare for me) qualms that if you don't have anything nice to say you shouldn't say anything at all. The town itself is not so very bad, but I'm not fond of conferences, and this is really the über-conference. Hopefully I can get away with not going again ever.

One disturbing thing was meeting a professor who has been working on the same project as me for a while, the project that misguidedly paid for me to go to "the 'Zoo". Apart from e-mails we were both cc'ed in on, the first communication I had from him was to tell me that he'd had a dream about me. Ah, I thought, reaching for my I-Spy Spotters' Guide to Academics, an Elderly Amiable Lunatic. (You don't get many points for those.) But when I met him he turned out to be relatively young and good-looking -- he really must be at least in his late forties, but he looks younger. Which made me rethink the whole thing and find it rather creepy. I don't know if it's OK to be prejudiced against the attractive? A troubling moral question there. My personal feeling is that they get away with things so much that it's actually an act of cosmic justice to give them a hard time.

Anyhoo I'm back at Chicago O'Hare airport waiting for my flight to London, so it's all nearly safely over. The rats are in Devon, amusing themselves in various ways -- Muesli managed to convince my poor mother that she was at death's door, but then was fine the next day. I've got nearly three hours to kill. 4oD doesn't work overseas (booooo...) but luckily I have discovered a rich vein of Peter Cook on YouTube. Back in 1990 he did a series of twelve short Christmas things as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (of teaching ravens to fly underwater fame). It's called A Life in Pieces, and here is episode one.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

No, after you...

Actually I'm quite pleased to be leaving Chicago as the courtesy is beginning to take it out of me. I've had to ratchet my politeness level up from Big City through Cambridge Supermarket and Faculty Building right up to At Church in Devon with my Mum. This involves not going within about fifteen inches of anyone without apologising, even on the subway, even if it involves having to find a new route to get somewhere, and it also requires saying hello and, later, goodbye to people in elevators. I just bought a banana after airport security; the lady at the till saw I was struggling with lots of stuff and carefully packed my bagel and my water and various bits and pieces into a neat package with handles and extra napkins, and handed it to me with glee. Now I'm sat at the gate listening to some flight attendants swapping stories about passengers who were particularly charming or nice to them. Next time in the U.S. I'm going to New York.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Land of the free

So here I am back in the US of, renewing my acquaintance with non-dairy creamer. Apart from the non-dairy creamer I've been surprised by how easy America is to like. It's only my second visit. Last summer I went to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but this time I'm in the Mid-West, specifically Chicago and then Kalamazoo. In California I was struck by how hotel staff and waiters seemed to find it a really interesting challenge to help people, in the same way that if a reader asks me about an Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the Parker I enjoy answering their questions as best I can, or setting them on the right track. In San Francisco I asked for advice about shops that opened early so I could get breakfast and some lunch to take on a full-day whale-watching trip, and without even asking the hotel owner arranged for me to have a wake-up call, early breakfast and packed lunch, for no extra charge.

I've only been in the Mid-West for a short time but the service seems a bit less exuberant here, though there's still an urge to please which leads to some odd exchanges. I got the passcode for the wifi service over the phone, and when I'd written it all down I asked the man if any of the letters should be capitals, and he said I could capitalise them all if I wanted. Which is liberty for you, I suppose -- too many choices.

Also I like the way that here in Chicago people seem to have a sense of personal space at least equal to mine, and politeness about door opening and passing in narrow spaces at a full cripplingly-English level. When I speak they react to my accent with a mixture of affection and pity, which I love, because in my day-to-day interactions a mixture of affection and pity is exactly what I'm aiming for. Hurray for Chicago! If only it weren't so humid...

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Cheap thrills

But I've cheered myself up by buying Tone-Loc songs on iTunes for a total of £1.58. It's great living in the future.

Friday, 4 May 2007

What is wrong with this place 1.1

What's wrong with Cambridge is that it offers you so very many opportunities to feel fundamentally unsuited for the things you are doing. I've just been shortlisting for a job in which several of the things I found attractive about candidates were the things which automatically ruled them out in the minds of people who know much more about it than me. That's frequently my experience when interviewing prospective undergraduates as well.

I was even completely out of my depth on the Soft Furnishings Committee. Reread that sentence: soft furnishings; out of my depth.

Also did you know that the United Reformed Church is not in communion with the Church of England? Half my family is URC and half CofE, and I worship in both churches interchangeably -- how on earth did I not know that? And for what possible reason could they not be in communion? The world is bizarre. Not the least bizarre part of it; Cambridge.


Little Lilian died in the night. I'm feeling a bit bad because I was quite relieved to find her dead this morning -- I think I would have had to have taken her to the vet to be put to sleep this evening or tomorrow morning. She's been on her way out all week, and last night she refused a delicious treat, although she still made happy noises when I tickled her behind the ears, bless her. It's been very odd watching her be so frail because for most of her life she was all lithe and agile, one of my handsomest rats, very strong and bouncy. And extremely cheeky -- she would eat treats quickly and then rejoin the back of the queue, and she was also very quick to nibble the things I had thought it would be safe to put down just for ten seconds.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Reckless piety

Roy Hattersley on John Wesley and women:
Charismatic preachers have always attracted admirers. Not all of them have either enjoyed or encouraged infatuation with Wesley's reckless piety. He remained, into old age, dangerously susceptible to every woman who seemed to admire him. His misfortune was that he felt only able to express his emotions in the form of uplifting moral advice.

"His misfortune" -- I would have said, his luck.

More likely, not luck but self-control. Hurray for not having to read about Wesley behaving badly with women! I think Hattersley is a little harsh on him -- there's really no reason why it was discreditable of Wesley to write to young women with uplifting moral advice.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Today's notes

Today it's Archbishop Wulfstan's Handbook (190). I note that next to the section de fornicatione clericorum et sanctimonalium, on the fornication of clerks and nuns, a medieval hand has written Sancta Maria ora pro nobis -- which is quite sad, I think.

Archbishop Parker has joyfully underlined the bit in Ælfric's letter about teaching people the gospel propria lingua, in their own language, but he won't have enjoyed so much the parts about how priests should not get married.

In a contemporary hand, e.g. very soon after the Norman Conquest, a scribe has copied the penitential decrees concerning those who fought at the Battle of Hastings. No matter which side you were on you did one year's penance for everyone you killed in battle, and forty days for everyone you wounded. If you were a priest or a monk you might be given extra penance by your bishop or abbot. Archers, who didn't know how many people they might have killed or wounded, had to do three periods of forty days' penance. The tariff went up if you did any of these things after the consecration of William the Conqueror, rather than in battle. It's an interesting attitude to war, that everyone who killed or wounded had to cleanse themselves afterwards, no matter whether they fought on the winning side -- very different from our modern way of dealing with it, which is victory parades on one side, war-crimes tribunals on the other.

Strangely warmed

I've been reading a biography of John Wesley. I've always been fond of the Methodists, so I thought I should find out more about how it all started. Recently there's been a lot of talk of the Methodists coming back into the Church of England -- the two denominations signed a covenant in 2003. I've often heard it talked of gloomily, but actually everyone knows how much John Wesley, and even more so his brother Charles, would have been pleased by this idea.

What's surprising me in reading this biography is what the exact things were which caused the separation in the first place. These seem to be that the Methodists wanted a) lay preachers b) regular communion c) extempore prayers. At the time the Church of England was still very much a respectable profession, rather than a calling, and it was rather de trop to have any strong feelings about God. (These days it's a rather unrespectable calling, which frankly I rejoice at.) Today lay preachers are very frequently found -- anyone might be preaching at my parents' church, and even I have been asked to preach in chapel here, though I declined on the grounds that I didn't have anything to say. In terms of regular communion the Church of England has rather overtaken the Protestant churches -- weekly communion is the norm, and our chapel provides daily communion during term-time. And if you tried to suggest to the Church of England that they should only use prayers which were read aloud exactly from a printed book I doubt you'd get very far.

So it's rather pleasant than otherwise to think of the Methodists becoming part of the Church of England again. They've always been a sensible and hearty bunch.