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.