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.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Things I want

I want this very much
and I can think of many uses for this:

Some thoughts the next day:
The chair looks rather uncomfortable to sit on, but I still want the bike -- it's a party on wheels!

Monday, 24 September 2007


Some people at lunch told me that gravity might be some sort of wave.


In the middle of the night I suddenly realised that I don't understand gravity. It blew my mind! I had always thought that I did. I do see that if I drop a pen it will accelerate at 32 metres per second per second, etc. What I do not get is why. Supposing I had a pen on a table, with a piece of string on it, and I tugged on the string. The pen would move, and that's OK. Those forces, which we used to resolve mathematically in Mechanics at school, would act through the string, because its molecules stick together, and I can't claim to understand the forces that hold molecules together, but at least it's a small-scale local action, so I don't feel so bad about not getting it. But, say, the moon, all that way up in space, where we are lead to believe there really isn't much stuff about -- how on earth is gravity acting on that? Or the tides that feel the moon's gravity; what is happening to those water molecules to make them move? It's not a wave or a particle, is it? How does it travel through a vacuum?

I feel pretty good about this. I don't know why, but sometimes its quite pleasant to realise that you don't have a clue what is going on around you, however much you kid yourself that you do. Probably the answer is that I don't understand what's going on with the string either, I just think that I do.

Anyhoo, not understanding gravity is probably one of those things I learnt at school and then forgot. I have been rereading some excellent novels, and it's because of those I was thinking about gravity at all. This is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy. I strongly recommend them; no one else can convey the excitement of scientific discovery so well. They are set in the second half of the seventeenth century and the start of the eighteenth, and are about the things Newton and Leibniz etc were coming up with, political changes in England, and slavery. But they are more readable than that sounds, especially the bits about Half-Cocked Jack, king of the Vagabonds. These books would be famous and win big awards except that they are labelled 'Science Fiction'. This isn't the case at all, except that they do have science in. The closest thing I can think of is Pynchon's Mason and Dixon; and far stranger things happen in the latter, like the passionate mechanical duck.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Good things: an update

Some more good things have come to my attention:
1. OneNote. It makes me happy, and I haven't even started using the tagging features yet. As was the arrangement of a new folder, some highlighters and some pads of very nice paper to my GCSEs, so computer note-taking programs are to my adult life, i.e. a vital propaedeutic. This one is the best so far.

2. Shakedown by the Freemasons -- a two-disc mix of their own songs and their remixes of other people's. Since it is now not worth listening to anything that Beyonce has recorded until the Freemasons have redone it I thought I'd check this out. It is very good. It's at just the level of energy I need to crunch charters. Did you know that the Old English place-name element hamm means 'land hemmed in by water or marsh; wet land hemmed in by higher ground; river meadow; cultivated plot on the edge of woodland or moor'? I do. But the Freemasons have been helping me to bear it.

3. I went to a nice symposium on Monday, and I think it helped me to refine what is necessary for a conference, etc, to be that rare thing, enjoyable, and an impetus towards scholarship, rather than making you want to give it all up and become an accountant. The vital ingredient is best expressed by the concept "convention". Think of trekkies dressing up in their enthusiasm as Spock or Picard. Now you want the same sort of thing but with academics. Instead of pointy ears or velour jumpsuits à la Zapp Brannigan, you need people who are truly interested in their subject in a borderline obsessive way. The sense that they are among the only other people in the world who care as much as they do, and who will not judge them for this, should fill them with a sense of gratitude and relief which does much to break the ice. (Anglo-Saxonists are the geeks of medievalists, and charter scholars are the geeks of Anglo-Saxon history.) They also need to be nice people. And they need to be so interested that status becomes an irrelevancy, and no one cares about looking stupid when there are interesting queries to be followed. I finished my paper on Monday by asking the people there (it helps that I knew every one of them, Anglo-Saxon charters being a small world) three questions, which produced some very interesting lines of enquiry for me to follow up. Now if only I could justify doing following them, instead of dissecting Anglo-Saxon charter boundaries.

4. This is good too. Achoo!

Saturday, 15 September 2007

A year

I like to keep track of where the genetic responsibility lies for my flaws (I came up with my virtues myself out of straw) -- for example if I worry too much that's from my mother, and if I don't worry enough, that's my dad. When I am contentious and difficult, and have to top other people's stories out of some horrible compulsion, and lie for absolutely no reason at all about completely random things, that's the irrepressible genes of my granny. It's exactly a year since she died, and I keep forgetting that she's dead because it just seems so unlike her. I think you always get that sort of forgetful thing when someone close to you dies, although my experience is thankfully limited (two grandfathers, a grandmother, and six dogs), but when I forgot about my grandfathers' being dead I would remember with a horrible thump like missing the last stair, and when I remember that granny's dead I just feel stupid for forgetting -- not exactly sad, though I do sometimes miss her. I think she had had enough; she used to say "It's no fun being old, Becky", and she was ninety-two and a half to the day when she died. (Hanging on in a coma for the last few days to hit that round figure was a characteristic act. She was always competitive even when there wasn't really anyone to compete against.)

When I was small I loved her but was also scared of her. She did things like use my beloved stuffed toy Snuffly Puppy as a pillow on the beach, and she expected us to muck in when traffic wardens needed charming. (I found this traumatic.) Sometimes she lied unexpectedly and to no purpose -- when my brother was about eight he got stung by a bee from my grandad's hives, and my granny told him to put toothpaste on it, and when it didn't work she admitted she'd just said it as a joke. She liked to cheat at games, and even if she was sticking to the rules she played tough. I like to remember her and grandad playing scrabble; in my memory granny is smiling with wicked satisfaction because she has just put down an impossible word which she will defend to the hilt, and my grandad is almost helpless from laughing so hard at her chutzpah. Every year at tax time they would have the same problem; granny believed it was a human right akin to fresh water that every wife should have some money somewhere which her husband didn't know about. Grandad didn't object to this per se, but if a wife wasn't going to do her own taxes he needed to know enough to declare it on the forms. Granny had to pretend she wanted to declare it like a respectable citizen but didn't at all really. Later she would do strange convoluted things to try to lessen the inheritance tax impact of her death. "I don't want Nigel Lawson getting his hands on my money, Becky!" she would declare to me with passion. (Or whoever was chancellor of the exchequer at the time.) I would say "You'll outlive Nigel Lawson, granny", which really did seem likely back then. My grandad was a surgeon and had a practice on Harley Street (charging in guineas) so that's where most of their money came from, but granny came from a family which had once been pretty well off. When she was a child it looked like she wouldn't be working for her living, but then when she was 12 a solicitor ran off with all their money, which was a lucky escape for her as it meant she got to be a nurse and bully people around. (Grandad was the surgeon on her ward in the war -- he said he realised he had to marry her when she learned how to forge his signature.) Still she had a little money of her own, and she had earned more at boarding school by investing in the markets. Her father, whom she only saw once every three years because her parents were half the world away in Argentina, would send her small sums and advice about the stock market.

My grandad used to think he would outlive her, but he didn't want to do so by more than about six months, just enough time to get their papers in order. In the end she outlived him by over nine years, which no one would have predicted, because for my whole life she had been having operations, complicated by the fact that she was allergic to general anaesthetic, for hip problems and knee problems and all sorts of things. I worried about her so much when I was a child. But she was an old-style tough old bird. I can't imagine how my grandad would have got on without her. She found it hard without him, but moved to Salisbury where her oldest son is a surgeon, and lived in a flat near the cathedral. She went out every day without fail in her buggy, which she liked to drive at a speed which forced grandchildren to trot behind her like dalmatians following a carriage. She was known on the streets of the city, and people would very sensibly move out of her way. All the staff at Waitrose knew her and would help her with her shopping -- which mostly consisted of reduced things near their sell-by date. I never understood her ability to get on with people just like that; she was like someone out of an advert, as if the blitz had never ended and everyone was still mucking in together. Sometimes she would go down to the railway station and sit on the platform for ages, just watching the people getting off trains or catching them. I think she was a bit lonely. I tried to phone her frequently but her hearing aid didn't always work which made communication difficult, and people would have her to stay, but she had a fierce determination not to be too dependent on anyone else so didn't like to spend too long away from her flat. And I didn't like to visit her there because parts of it smelt so bad that I literally couldn't be there for long without retching; she wasn't very housewifely.

The fall-out from her death is still felt. Of her three children my father is the least like her, and therefore the most reasonable; but all three are her executors, and the other two are driving him mad with their strange demands and ability to take offence at slight nuances (while not noticing at all the nuances in their own statements). She left basically her flat and maybe a few shares, but it still hasn't been put on the market, and my father's brother and sister are currently not talking to each other, or to my father. They are both offended with my father for the same reason; he told each of them that they were both as bad as the other, and neither can cope with being compared with their heinous sibling. Granny used to enjoy a good fight, and I suppose her oldest children grieve for her in an appropriate style. I miss her because of what great fun she could be, in an utterly impossible way. I'm looking forward to being like her when I'm old, but am quite anxious not to succumb to this until I'm at least retired...

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

There there

Isn't it nice not being a teenager any more?
It's like Diana died all over again.

More on unread books

I have never read Ulysses; I tried about ten years ago and got stuck about a third of the way through. I couldn't get into Don Quixote at all, though I know many people love it. I still have the end of the last of nine volumes of Pepys' diaries to finish -- the problem is that towards the end he's getting all important in the naval administration and he writes about that instead of about arguments with his wife, plays he saw, purges he took or the women whom he groped (the last in a mixture of French and Spanish).

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Alas the unread books

I've reluctantly had to give up the reading for writing for the time being -- or rather, the books I've been reading recently have mostly had titles like "How to Think Like Your Editor" (because I'm considering putting in a book proposal) and "Using Microsoft Office Word 2007" (because I want to get to grips with Quick Styles, and if possible customise the Ribbon, though that's probably beyond me). But I did read The Devils by Dostoyevsky, which is rather difficult because hardly anything happens for most of it. The edition I had printed as an appendix "Stavrogin's Confession", which apparently was too shocking to be included at the time. (Like Tess of the d'Urberville's seduction.) It was this excised chapter which made sense of the whole thing for me, so if you want to read the book make sure you get a copy which includes it. I read Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits, which reminded me strongly of Rose Tremain, which is of course a good thing. I also read Cooking with Fernet Branca, which is quite fun, and I bought a Turkish phrasebook for my Christmas trip to Istanbul. Opening it at random I found this: Beni sadece seks için kullanıyorsun, which means "You're just using me for sex". The rest of the sex section includes Yavaş ol!, "Easy tiger!", and Endişelenme ben hallederim, "Don't worry I'll do it myself". Great stuff. It had seemed to me that the bad chat-up lines section of phrase books, which always used to be called "At the disco" or some such, had gone out of fashion of late, and I blamed it on the whole AIDS thing, but I suppose AIDS isn't the terrifying death sentence it once was, or maybe it's just Turkey. I'm going with a pretty blonde friend, so I'd probably better memorise some protective swear words...

Thursday, 6 September 2007

I liked that, said Offa, sing it again!

Today at lunch I sat next to one of the most eminent poets alive today. He was brought in by an aged retired bishop who has his own interesting past. I like this about old people; they demonstrate the power of personality versus first impressions. I had met this man before so I felt emboldened to tell him that I had enjoyed his poetry, which I have, but then I completely failed to follow through with an intelligent remark about it. At one time he used a lot of Anglo-Saxon stuff and I ought really to have been able to say something about that. This is what I don't like about old people; I always feel like I'm failing to live up to their standards. He seemed a nice chap though, and told me stuff about Milton.


Though there is a slightly unholy collaboration with Starbucks here.


New ipods.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Sensible rats

One of the pleasures of having pets, friends, and presumably children, is giving them things you know they will like and watching their enjoyment. Spotting the first cobnuts on sale at the market or ordering rat treats at the excellent gives me a thrill. But if I give my rats the wrong thing they know how to tell me; the offered item is neatly dropped and they give me a piercing stare. Come on, they seem to say, you can do better than that. Usually what they want is a yogurt drop or one of these 'treat-ums' (aka rat crack):
But they also seem to know what's good for them. When they were on antibiotics about two months ago they were initially unenthused, until after one or two days they seemed to have realised that the medicine was doing them good, and they would eagerly wait by the bars every evening for their dose. On Monday evening they were a bit out of sorts and wouldn't take any treats at all; they kept staring at me intensely, and I couldn't get rid of the feeling that they wanted medicine. Yesterday they were worse, and today they look quite bad. I got a repeat prescription, and although they didn't want any treats at all, they flung themselves at the medicine with glee. People might think that I'm anthropomorphising here but I really think they were asking for the medicine because they felt ill. If they hadn't asked I wouldn't have phoned to arrange the repeat prescription, and by the time I had thought of it for myself today it would have meant one more day they had to wait for it. They are amazing animals for training me; all the rats I've kept have been able to convey what they want to me and I'm never quite sure how the first link came in my brain. One of those now long dead used to sit on my hand and lean according to which way she wanted to be carried. If I took her to the right place she would hop off, and if I didn't she'd just keep leaning and gesturing where she wanted to go. In the previous cage I had they used to ask to come out by sitting by a cage door which was almost never used; the door I always opened to get them out was by their favourite relaxing post. So although the logical thing would have been for them to sit by the door through which I let them out, they seemed to realise that this might have confused me because I could have thought they were just relaxing there. Instead they would go to the door which was out of the way, where the message was unambiguous.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Nekhlyudov considers matrimony

In favour of marrying Missy in particular ... was, to begin with, that she came of good family ... and secondly, there was the fact that she thought more highly of him than of any other man she knew, which, as he saw things, meant that she understood him. And this understanding of him, that is, her recognition of his superior worth, was proof to Nekhlyudov of her good sense and sound judgement.

Tolstoy, Resurrection, chapter 4

Why can't we all just get along?

I read an interesting book about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims and the first fifty years of New England. We don't get the mythology over here to the same extent, but it's still rather surprising to discover that the picture-book version of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the 'Indians' sharing a meal together and being generally thankful for it, is actually quite accurate. The event does seem worth celebrating, in its own way -- the Pilgrims were occasionally a bit rubbish, but on the whole both groups of people at this date acted in ways that seem to suggest that it might be possible for people all just to get along. Alas within fifty years it had completely broken down, there was a terrible war with mass killings and horrendous atrocities on both sides, and the English in particular became very racially motivated, incapable of seeing differences between different tribes, and generally fulfilling all the vague impressions I had in my mind of the appalling behaviour of the early American colonists to the native people. It's interesting that this book tries, like so many, to throw a 'lessons-from-history' spin on it at the end and make it all relevant to the war on terror etc, with limited success. I suppose that people reading a hundred years from now will notice this in many books from our time, and find it poignant, though they of course will know how it ends.

I also read Resurrection by Tolstoy. It's about a young nobleman who is called to serve jury duty. In the defendant, a prostitute accused of murdering and robbing a client, he recognises the girl he seduced and abandoned ten years before. The book is bitterly satirical in places; it's very good, but I can't help but feel I should have read it when I was eighteen and ardent. It's interesting seeing the contrast with Dostoyevsky's portrayal of prison life in The House of the Dead; it seems to me like Tolstoy is always more concerned with theory, and Dostoyevsky with people. Obviously that's a very broad generalisation, but I think that's why I usually prefer Dostoyevsky.

Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser is quite good, and interesting because the stories are interesting. It does read as if it has been a little clumsily edited down from a much longer work, though . It doesn't give much credence to the accusations of black masses and poisoning against Madame de Montespan, and doesn't give that sense of the sheer mass hysteria of Louis XIV's court which you get from other accounts. Probably she's right. I didn't know that Athenaîs continued to have the status of maîtresse en titre long after she and the King were no longer having any sort of physical relationship; and even after Madame de Maintenon had started sleeping with him on the grounds that if she didn't then he'd just get it somewhere else, and that that would interfere with her project to reform him.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke is an excellent collection of short stories, some relating to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I love the one with Anthony a Wood in it, and also the excellent Bess of Hardwick, who always seemed a bit uncanny in her housewifely social advancement. Corpus Christi features in one of them; a greedy and conceited fellow gets in trouble in a remote parish.

And for some light relief I read the third Temeraire book, Black Powder War. I enjoyed it as much as the previous ones. It's like baby Patrick O'Brian; it's what the midshipmen would be reading. I should think even Maturin wouldn't spurn it in lighter moments -- perhaps while recovering from a broken leg, or if deprived of his supply of coca leaves.