Saturday, 30 May 2009

Sad things

1. My dad's pheasant chicks were killed by a cat. He sounded very sad about it. He's been trying to breed from them for ages and finally they hatched two cute little chicks, and the previously tame male pheasant went aggressive in a touching sort of way. There are too many cats where they live; since another four moved in next door the effect on birds has been noticeable. Some dogs are bird dogs, like setters and spaniels, while some are mammal dogs, like terriers and hounds. Our dog Elly would go crazy for birds, which she hardly ever caught, but confronted with my pet rats would just look at me doubtfully as if to say "you do know you have rats on you?" Some cats prefer mammals, but I don't know how you tell in advance. There are ridiculously vast numbers of rabbits and no small number of rats around my parents' village, but the cats just go for the finches.

2. A festschrift has recently come out for an Anglo-Saxon legal historian who died, only in his 50s, a few years ago. It is oddly candid; I've never before seen a festschrift which includes a memoir of life with the deceased festee written by his estranged ex-wife. This particular man was an example of how academia can go wrong. He got an All Souls prize fellowship straight out of his undergraduate degree, and never finished his PhD; he didn't manage to produce anything of book length until a few years before his death, although he did write some very good articles. But he could never get over being terribly clever at Eton, and then terribly clever at Balliol. He wanted to be clearly acknowledged as the cleverest all the time and the more he succeeded the more he felt he had to achieve not to fail, and the more it was impossible for anyone to praise him enough. There was a surprising amount of generosity towards him in academic circles; I suppose he was enough of a mess to arouse more pity than anything in most people, and perhaps it was also because his alcoholism led him to behave so very badly that it was clear he was seriously ill. I disliked him and feared him, myself: I didn't realise at the time why he was so unpleasant to me on the rare occasions when he was forced to notice my existence. Apparently he was convinced that there were conspiracies against him, the major one emanating from Cambridge, and specifically from my DoS/ex boss, who was I hope unaware of this, being a genuinely nice person. He would have seen anything I achieved as reflecting well on this particular teacher, and in that way damaging to himself. I'm not sure that understanding makes it OK though; I used to dread occasions where I knew he'd be present. I remember vividly my relief when he didn't turn up to the charters symposium in September 2004, which turned to mild feelings of guilt when I found out that he wasn't there because he had been engaged in his fatal alcoholic binge. Still, reading the festschrift it did strike me hard what a terrible waste the whole thing was. Saddest of all was the description of how, even as he was being consumed by this stupid insecurity, he was trying to cope with the same condition in his famously horrible Peterhouse father, by dedicating his work to him and frequently talking of his debt to him in print. Bubble egos, huge but hollow, are sadly common in academic circles.

3. I read a guardian article about how more and more divorces are said to involve some sort of digital infidelity. (Complete non-news, obviously -- it's like a story saying more people are using the internet than ten years ago.) It had some links to websites which help people arrange affairs, and perhaps foolishly (especially given that I was on my work computer at the time) I clicked through. The site had a big banner at the top offering to introduce me to lonely and unsatisfied housewives in the Cambridge area. I was a little freaked out that it immediately knew I was in Cambridge, but also annoyed that it assumed that I was a man, a predatory unwilling-to-travel man who he is sure he can satisfy housewives. If I had been a lonely and unsatisfied housewife looking for a site to use I'm sure that description would have felt like an unflattering mirror and put me off, and assuming that they have more male than female users anyway it seems short-sighted of them to do this. Of course another possibility, given that my work IP address is shared with the whole college (for wikipedia purposes, at least), is that someone from college had been using the site and told them he was a man in the Cambridge area. Anyway, I had this sudden protective urge to find out who these lonely and unsatisfied housewives were, collect them into some large feminist group, and turn their minds to other means of expression and fulfilment. I'm not 100% sure what that would have been, but I guess it would have involved sneaking around the city at night leaving clay figurines like those of Gormley's Field for the British Isles in unlikely places.

4. Let's all cheer up now!

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