The Filthy Comma

Notes from Nanjing

The following notes (relating to my time in Nanjing in 2009) were found in an old notebook, unearthed this week while I tidied my office.

Day 1, in the airport (Frankfurt)
The smoothest landing coming into Frankfurt that I have ever experienced (I almost slept through it). Going through security I had to remove the 99p bottle of water I had bought in Bristol and drink it before I was allowed into another dingy booth. The German security people thought this frightfully funny and laughed like very efficient drains. I couldn’t see the joke, but perhaps it had been an unusually boring day (or perhaps the national stereotype is inaccurate, and the Germans are a nation of childlike, humorous people). Security in Britain resulted in my incredibly dangerous sun-cream and deadly deodorant being confiscated. The man was unmoved by my argument that sun-cream is too thick to be considered a liquid as such; he was also unable to explain how placing the deodorant in a plastic bag rendered it harmless. As soon as they let me through, of course, I was free to stock up on other, more sinister fluids at the duty-free Superdrug.

I rode the travelator, but this turned out to be a lot less fun on my own. Now I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time (which, so far, I don’t much like), sitting on a comfy chair by a weird bakery (pastry the size of your head, madam? How about if we encrust it with unidentifiable purple crap?), from whence ‘Tainted Love’ is blasting out. The bakery also serves beer (because this is Germany and there is a probably a law about it) and a Chinese man, who might even be on my onward flight, is wearing a purple cardigan that almost matches the pastries, visibly more relaxed than when he arrived and with three empty steins in front of him. Opposite me, a woman is reading the most German newspaper in the world: an edition of Das Bild, with the headline ‘HITLER IN BERLIN SCHATZ STOLLEN’ and a picture of a naked women crouching over a Bratwurst in the middle of a field. The TV cycles ads for HDTV on mobile ‘phones, urging us to watch CNN on a screen the size of a golf-ball. Don’t they see how they undermine their own sales pitch by telling us this via a screen nine feet long?

Day Six, Nanjing
Signs I Have Seen: ‘Dagoba’ as a misspelling of ‘pagoda’ (‘we can’t possibly repel a Buddha of that magnitude’) and a sign in the hotel clamping down on guerrilla sewing cells (‘No Smocking’).

Day Ten, Nanjing Holocaust Museum
P [Chinese colleague] suggested that we [myself, colleague James, and John, the husband of our American colleague] might visit a museum together on our day off, which we thought sounded like a fun and educational way to spend the day. The taxi pulled up outside an enormous building with a statue of a weeping woman on the pavement beside it. This should have told us that ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ were the wrong words entirely.

The signs in the holocaust museum, commemorating the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, are confused about how many people were killed – it might be 30,000 (all the students in Bristol), or it might be ten times as many (the entire population of Bristol). Either number is plausible in a city of so many millions of souls.

First there are piles of dusty bones in fish-tanks (almost all adult femurs. They do not look real). Then we move into a darkened room with illuminated glass boxes around the walls. The signs, as I say, are curiously uninformative. There is no mention of the thousands of (actual) rapes perpetrated by Japanese during the (metaphorical) rape of the city itself and I wonder if this is because they simply don’t ‘count’ in the face of so many murders. P seems largely unmoved, and I think James and John are more surprised at being taken on a fun day out at a holocaust museum than anything else. I am comparing this room with Pit 1 in Xi’an. The terracotta warriors marching away in perfect silence are creepy after a while; one keeps expecting them to step forward (all of them, all at once). They don’t, of course.

In the centre of the room is a partially excavated mass grave. Not a reconstruction, but an actual mass grave. The skeletons lie where they fell in 1937. There is a skull with no jaw. There are numerous children. There are couples huddled into each other’s arms. There are several with nails driven through their joints, bright orange with rust. The earth is grey and the bones are brown, and the whole thing is lit up with festive fairy-lights. The colour of each light indicates the gender and estimated age of each victim. There is no explanation offered anywhere of what the Japanese hoped to achieve or why the Chinese did not fight back, and that lack of narrative makes the museum feel pointless and not like a museum at all. Nobody is trying to educate me. No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task. I turn to P to check that he is OK; the whole thing is utterly bewildering and I think I might cry out of sheer frustration. P is fine and takes my question as more P-centric than I intended. He was not there, he says, and there is a reason that he was not there. So, he is OK. I was not there either, and I’m now even less sure why it bothers me so much (and him so little). All of the bones look like children to me and the illuminated panels give more gory details of impaling, bayonets and possible drowning, as the site of the grave appears to have been a shallow pond. This is based on the discovery of snail shells, some of which are on display, rather than the testimony of survivors. Were there any survivors? The Japanese escaped with their lives, I assume? Or, perhaps, some of the Chinese were allowed to live, or some escaped, or were too ashamed to say that they surrendered their weapons on request, but did nothing to reclaim them when they saw what was going to happen. This is what P tells me, when I ask how a force of a few thousand soldiers from a small country can invade a much larger country, march through the middle of the land (Nanjing is not a coastal city) and murder thousands of people in broad daylight. Did the Japanese have superior weaponry, I ask? No, says P. They are better mentally. What does that mean? When the Japanese tell them to put down their guns, they do it, he says. And when the killing started, I asked? P shrugs and I have learnt nothing today.

Day Twelve, Nanjing
Today a student told me that he wanted to broaden his ‘horizontals’ by investing in the ‘stocking market’. I said, ‘I hope your plan holds up’ and nobody laughed. I miss home.

No Means No

One of my jobs when I work in China is to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews with those planning to study arts or social sciences, and I make a point of praising them for answering a question directly, rather than using it is a peg on which to hang their knowledge of a given subject. This is for several reasons:

i. I want to help my students stay on topic and practise some intellectual and verbal discipline;
ii. it isn’t polite to avoid talking about something when you’ve just been asked to do so;
iii. I want them to become more relaxed about leaving their comfort zone; and
iv. I have a simple, wholesome appreciation of the purity of a direct response to a direct question.

This last applies to other areas of my work, too. For example, consider what an honour and irritation of the first order it must have been to be T.E. Lawrence’s copy-editor for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The introduction to my edition contains the following telling exchange, under the comment, ‘I reprint here a series of questions by the publisher and answers by the author concerning the printing of Revolt in the Desert’:

[publisher] Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
[Lawrence] Good.
[publisher] Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
[Lawrence] She was a splendid beast.
[publisher] Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
[Lawrence] Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.[1]

Even worse, over the page we find this:

[publisher] Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.
[Lawrence] Good egg. I call this really ingenious.[2]

I had an interview myself recently, and found myself reflecting as I waited to be called in on how much more comfortable I would have been asking the questions rather than answering them. This is partly because I have had so much more practice in that role, and partly because I am still haunted by the spectres of interviews past. On one occasion (I was a mere stripling of twenty-five ), I was asked, ‘and when do you think you might be taking maternity leave?’ I replied (somewhat tartly) that this was clearly a trick question to test my knowledge of employment law and that clearly they didn’t really mean to ask me about my future womb-related plans, because that would be illegal. There was a horrible silence, which I broke by picking up my things and leaving.[3] Today, as I was tidying my desk (thereby unearthing, among other things, the nail scissors, a dozen curtain hooks and several hundred dead shopping lists), I found the notebook I took with me to Shanghai in 2013 and 2014. This included notes from two interviews I had conducted, one at either end of the quality spectrum.

Cathy was very unusual, for two reasons. Firstly, she wanted to study Archaeology and Anthropology (the only Chinese student I have ever worked with to choose these subjects). Secondly, she was effortlessly good in interview. My notes give a flavour of the conversation:

C notes that ‘official history’ is written by the victors and therefore not to be trusted [I asked her where she had read this; ‘I didn’t read it; it’s obvious’, she said]
- Asked to discuss the Rape of Nanjing and how it is described variously by Chinese and Japanese historians. Excellent examples; thoughtful, non-judgemental answer. Pressed on snails in Nanjing Holocaust Museum [see my own thoughts on visiting this museum in 'Notes from Nanjing']; responded by drawing a snail to check that she had understood the word correctly and speaking eloquently and thoughtfully for nearly two minutes on why the snail shells could be viewed as poignant rather than macabre.[4]
- Asked to distinguish between Arch and Anth. and demonstrate how old things can still teach us things. Eloquent example using Chinese characters.[5]
- Asked to contrast political systems appropriate to small and large countries. Excellent example comparing China with Sweden. Knew more about European political systems than either of the PPE students. When asked how she knew so much about it, she said simply, ‘I read’.
- Asked to compare capital punishment as used in modern-day China and as used in an ancient culture. She chose imperial Rome and described the Tarpeian Rock as more appropriate in her opinion than current methods, on the grounds that death was likely to be quick, but that it retained ‘an element of spectacle and therefore fulfilled the state’s aim of deterrent’ (her words!). Asked to name current methods of execution in China, she listed hanging and the firing squad. Unprompted, she then observed that these methods haven’t been used in Europe for several decades and that she felt the way in which a country treats its prisoners is a good benchmark of how civilised it is.  

Contrast this with the weakest student from 2014. He was so terrible that I’m not going to use his name: let’s just call him Bozo. He wanted to study Music (‘I want to sing like Michael Bublé. I may need to study for long time to achieve this dream.’ You’re right, Bozo. Singing like Michael Bublé is an unattainable ambition). As my notes make clear, his week began inauspiciously (‘I have had to wake this student several times during lectures. He is reluctant to show his Personal Statement to any of the staff, because, I assume, this would make it clear how little he has done, and how many times he needs to be told to do something before he does it’) and came to the ignominious conclusion that ‘[i]f [Bozo] succeeds in attending a good university, it will be down to the work put in by people other than himself.’ I was, therefore, not looking forward to interviewing him.

I usually try to put students at their ease by (initially) asking them about things they know about. This was not a success, because, as I wrote in my notes,

[Bozo] knows very little about his subject. I tried to focus on vocal music because he doesn’t play an instrument (!). He made numerous factual errors … [for example] when asked to describe the differences between European and Chinese opera, he stated that Chinese opera is ‘more sadder’ and characterised European opera as inherently comedic (!?). I asked him to name an example of a European opera that he would describe as a comedy. He named Carmen (!!), which he thought was written in Latin (!!!).[6] He also expressed an interest in American opera but could not name a single opera, composer or singer.[7] He did better with an exercise about composing for an unusual ensemble, although he didn’t know what a ’cello is, how it is played or what it sounds like. To crown it all, when asked how he might go about composing and/or arranging a piece of unaccompanied vocal music to help singers keep in tune, he said he would simply add a piano <facedesk>.

We had several more false dawns, each of which made me die a little inside. In desperation I asked him to talk about the only piece of music he had mentioned specifically in his PS, Mozart’s first clarinet quintet (K581). What follows demonstrates why I described this student in my final reports as ‘the weakest and laziest student I have ever had the misfortune to teach’ (and also, in a very strange context, that while ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’).

Me: You mention polyphony in your PS.
Bozo (laconic): Yes.
Me: Can you tell me what polyphony is?
Bozo: Yes.
Me (after a short pause): Can you tell me what polyphony is right now?
Bozo: No.
Me (mystified): Why not?
Bozo (reassuringly): Because I forgot.
Me: I see.[8] Well, since you’re intending to specialise in vocal music, can you tell me anything about vocal polyphony?[9]
Bozo (sorrowful): No.

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[1] T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 18-19.

[2] One has little difficulty imagining what the copy-editor called it. Ibid., p. 20.

[3] There was also the time when I fluffed a really easy question (‘what is your ideal job?’ The correct answer is clearly, ‘This one, of course!’) because I was too busy trying not to say ‘I want to be Colin Sell’.

[4] This question referred to the Nanjing Holocaust Museum, which is built on top of a mass grave from the Rape of Nanjing massacres. Some of the victims were thrown into a pond (where those that were not already dead then drowned, or suffocated under the weight of other bodies), and one of the museum exhibits consists of the shells of pond-snails excavated when the grave was discovered.

[5] This involved drawing the ancient characters for ‘wife’ (looks very like a woman kneeling) and ‘slave’ (the same figure, but with a male-looking figure holding her by the hair). ‘This tells us much about their society’, she observed. No kidding, Cathy.

[6]  I don’t wish to imply that an experimental production of Carmen in which all the characters enjoy fulfilling relationships and nobody dies, proclaiming their joy in starry-eyed, resolutely major-key Latin wouldn’t be worth seeing.

[7] Bozo (confident): American operas are my favourite.
Me (an offbeat answer, certainly, but one can name enough American composers who have written operas for this to be a plausible answer rather than a random guess e.g. Gershwin, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley. Maybe he’s going to name John Adams, and we’ll talk about Nixon in China and this morning will not have been a complete waste of time): What an interesting answer. Can you name a particular American opera that you like?
Bozo (looked doubtful)
Me (wheedling): Or maybe a singer?
Bozo (confident once more): Michael Bublé is my favourite American singer.
Me: He’s not an opera singer. And he’s Canadian.
Bozo: That’s just your opinion.
Me: NO IT’S NOT.

[8] I really didn’t.

[9] I say ‘specialise’, but that implies he had other options. He didn’t, because other than singing, ‘I have also learn saxophone for maybe eighteen months’ isn’t going to cut it at university level. Also, his only Associated Board examination was Grade 5 Theory. He was astonished to hear that this was not the highest grade available.

Indecisive Cake

I grew up in rural north Cornwall, on the outskirts of a tiny village, with no pub, shop or post office, but a medieval church, a village green, and an abundance of cows, foxes and old people. From time to time, we would make an expedition to what passed for civilisation, so as to purchase shoes, duck food and other necessities. Our destination of choice was, occasionally, Launceston (pronounced ‘Lahnsun’), where I could get my hair cut in a place called Tangles for £4.50, my mother could buy some curtain fabric she didn’t need, and my father could take us all to the Mad Hatter’s café on Church Street for coffee when being in a conurbation of more than twenty houses got too overwhelming.

I mention this because the Mad Hatter’s café (and the cake menu in particular) has passed into family folklore. The café itself is still there, complete with a hundred-strong teapot collection and Alice in Wonderland décor, but it has changed hands and sadly no longer retains its original menu. In the early ’nineties, this included a bewildering list of homemade cakes, all displayed temptingly under glass. If a customer found himself unable (me) or unwilling (Father) to choose just one kind of cake, he could order Indecisive Cake, which consisted of a trinity of slightly smaller pieces of cake (unless they were ‘getting towards the end’ of a cake, in which you got extra), chosen at random by the proprietor. I don’t think we ever ordered anything else.

On the subject of indecision, I read The Mandelbaum Gate recently, which quotes the Book of Revelation in a way that seems relevant. The same passage featured in a service my beloved choir sang in over the summer, at Lincoln Cathedral. In The Mandelbaum Gate, Revelation is quoted as follows:

‘Do you know,’ said this passionate spinster in a cold and terrifying voice, ‘a passage in the Book of the Apocalypse that applies to your point of view?’

‘I’m afraid the Apocalypse is beyond me,’ Freddy said. ‘I’ve never had the faintest clue what it is all about. I can cope with the Gospels, at least some parts, but –’

‘It goes like this,’ she said, enunciating her words slowly, almost like a chant: ‘I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.’

Freddy did not reply. People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one. It was quite absurd.[1]

It seems to me that religion, religious ceremonies and religious texts, while obviously holding value in and of themselves in terms of structured, collective connection with the Almighty, the consolations and comforts of routine, beautiful words, expressive music and the company of friends, also have a practical purpose that is often overlooked: that of providing direction and assistance with the problems of one’s daily life. Freddy’s assertion that ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one’ is, to me, absurd. What is scripture for, other than to be spoken to other people? This passage from Revelation, for example, has wide application. For one thing, it describes beautifully (and succinctly) the problem of indecision, writ both large and small, and the impatience experienced by the more decisive observer. Had we been able to call it to mind, it would have been a wonderful thing to quote to each other in the Mad Hatter’s café. ‘Father!’ I might have said, ‘I know of my doings and find myself neither lemon drizzle nor coffee and walnut; I would I wert one or the other.’ ‘Fear not, my child,’ he might have replied, flourishing the menu. ‘For lo! Behold the wonder that is Indecisive Cake!’

We moved to Cornwall just as the village church was entering what Anglicans charmingly refers to as an interregnum i.e. a compulsory pause between vicars.[2] [3] This meant that the parish passed into a sort of Indecisive Cake period of its own: instead of one vicar conducting all the services, we had several celebrants of various flavours, chosen at random by a higher power.[4] They were mostly aged, well-meaning retired vicars who could be relied upon to read the notices clearly and stay calm in the face of my father playing the tune for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as we all opened our books to sing ‘Love Divine’ or similar. Two stand out in my memory at either end of the quality spectrum, rather like the angel/devil figures so often used in cartoons to illustrate moral conflict. On the angel shoulder was the late lamented Peter Coster; on the other, a man who we always referred to as the Hobgoblin.[5] Peter Coster was a lay reader of great gentleness and charm. He gave thoughtful, well-constructed sermons about whatever topic had taken his attention that week, and kept to a length and subject appropriate to a tiny congregation of elderly villagers. On the other shoulder, the Hobgoblin was somewhat stronger meat. I think the period I’m talking about here pre-dated Eddie Izzard’s ‘cake or death’ routine, but either way the Hobgoblin did not conform to the notion that you can’t have strong points of view in the Church of England.

I don’t think I ever knew his real name, and in any case the Hobgoblin suited him much better.[6] Top hat notwithstanding, he looked remarkably like the Hobgoblin from Finn Family Moomintroll, with a vigorous beard and dark, menacing eyebrows. The original Swedish title of Finn Family Moomintroll is Trollkarlens Hatt.[7] Trollkarlen (even less recognisable in the Finnish, Taikuri) means ‘Magician’ and the Swedish title (literally ‘The Magician’s Hat’) refers to the Hobgoblin’s search for his magical, transformative top hat. Our Hobgoblin (who may or may not have flown through the air on a panther and may or may not have mislaid the King’s Ruby) had spent some considerable time in the Holy Land, and treated us to wild, distinctly-made-up-sounding declarations, declaimed in Hebrew (?) with outstretched arms and blazing eyes.[8] Presumably some of these were blessings and Biblical quotations, but how were we to know? He could just as easily have been translating the parish magazine on the spot. One might modify Freddy’s sentiment accordingly: ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one in a language one does not understand’.

It is reasonable to expect a congregation of Cornish pensioners to find the Hobgoblin somewhat off-putting, with his outbursts of Hebrew and mad sermons (some violently anti-Semitic, some only mildly so). I remember one in particular based around the Book of Revelation (possibly even chapter 3, as quoted above), which was almost entirely unintelligible as, channelling Amos Starkadder, he bellowed at us that my parents, myself (I was fourteen or so at the time) and a handful of septuagenarians were sinners of the first order and should turn aside from the path of fornication before we were gobbled up by the Beast. We took our tongue-lashing in what I assumed was a bewildered silence, but as Father quietly fed a voluntary through the mangle of the tiny, ancient organ to indicate that the Hobgoblin could, if he so wished, sweep magnificently down the aisle and into the vestry, trailing his spotless vestments in a white, cleansing wave behind him, it became apparent that perhaps he knew his flock rather better than I did. He emerged from the vestry, divested (de-vested?) of his vestments, to shake hands with us as we obediently returned our tiny hymnbooks to the bookcase, and was greeted by Rex, one of the oldest and most Cornish people I have ever known, with a deep bass voice and a handshake of such age-defying vigour that exchanging the peace with him was fraught with danger (‘Peace be with WHAT THE HELL?’). Grasping his hand (the Hobgoblin didn’t flinch as his knuckles were ground into finger paté) and looking him straight in the eye, Rex rumbled, ‘Nice sermon, vicar.’

I don’t know how to apply the Indecisive Cake metaphor to this situation. Should one assume that, were Rex ordering vicar-cake, he would be content to dine on Mad Ranty Sponge every Sunday? Or is it more likely that, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the random vicar-selector was bound to match up with the theological preferences of one of the shuffled inhabitants of the village sooner or later? I’m talking here about style rather than content – I don’t think for a moment that our tiny hamlet was a hotbed of Jew-hating fornicators (although there may have been one or two), but rather that perhaps the Hobgoblin’s fire-and-brimstone style is an example of what the passage from Revelation is driving at: being cold or hot, rather than lukewarm. I take this to mean, in some sense, having the courage of one’s convictions to either be what one is, or to choose what one will be, however distasteful this might appear to others. The Hobgoblin, regardless of what he actually said, did at least fit one set of ideas about what religion ought to be: passionate, taken seriously, and declaimed without shame or self-consciousness. I said earlier that I didn’t feel his Sodom and Gomorrah sermons had much overlap with the needs of his parishioners, but perhaps that isn’t right. Perhaps from time to time, one feels the need for someone who knows whether they are cold or hot. Cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other.

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[1] Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate (London: The Reprint Society, 1965), page 16. Biblical Quotation from the King James translation, Book of Revelation, chapter 3. As I noted in a previous post (see ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’), one should always give one’s sources.

[2] When I say we moved to Cornwall, we actually did. We sold our house in the Thames Valley and moved to Cornwall. I mention this because people sometimes assume that the house in Cornwall was a second home, and that therefore we were contributing in some way to the gradual evisceration of our community. We weren’t: we lived there. This assumption used to annoy my father so much that sometimes he would bellow at dithering tourists, ‘get out of my way! I’m a LOCAL!’

[3] I don’t know why the church uses this word. Since it refers to a sort of lull, between the acts rather than between kings (and one rarely meets a kingly vicar), ‘intermission’ might be a better term.

[4] The Rural Dean, according to Father, although I think it’s clear he was merely the Lord’s instrument (as are we all).

[5] Discussion with Father revealed that he always assumed Peter spelled his surname ‘Coster’ as in costermonger, and I always assumed ‘Costa’. I have used ‘Coster’ here as a. Father is more likely to have seen it written down and b. this makes the whole name closer to Paternoster, which pleases me greatly.

[6] Father comments as follows: ‘None of us knew the Hobgoblin’s name except the senior churchwarden, who didn’t share as if we might be contaminated.’

[7] Tove Jansson, while Finnish, wrote her books in Swedish.

[8] The first time he did this, I whispered to my mother (both of us cowering in the pews, unable to look away), ‘is he speaking in tongues?’

Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together

I went to the funeral of my driving instructor this week. We lost touch after I moved back to Bristol, so I had to infer that her death (which was very sudden) was caused by a heart attack, based on the fact that we were asked to donate to the British Heart Foundation in lieu of sending flowers, and also from the fact that the eulogy made no mention of any kind of illness, long or short. It took me four attempts to pass my driving test and so many lessons that I lost count. My poor night vision and basic lack of spatial awareness were the main problems, plus the fact that I hate driving.[1] However, as long as nobody asks me to park quickly or well, and provided I don’t have to explain how a roundabout is supposed to work, I am a borderline competent driver.[2] The fact that I can drive at all is entirely down to her.

I drove to her funeral, and found that this meant passing through Somerset on the very roads we had driven along together, nearly eight years ago. I had decided to try to think about her as I drove, but found that the memories arose easily and unbidden. I am not a patient teacher, but she was. Between lessons, she turned over in her mind things that might help me overcome my faults as a driver; she would clap excitedly and say ‘I’ve thought of a new pune or play on words that will help you remember this!’[3] For example, crawling right up to a give-way line was referred to as ‘creep-and-peep’; ‘I thought you crept and pept very well that time’, she would say, giggling at her own joke. She encouraged me to learn from the mistakes of other drivers, tapping the dashboard and pointing to cars parked too close to each other or motorists trapped forlornly in yellow cross-hatched boxes at traffic lights. ‘Can you spot their deliberate mistake?’ she would say, completely deadpan. ‘It’s very considerate of them to do that right in front of a learner. How generous!’ She knew how much I hated roundabouts, which, combined with my fear of stalling, tended to make me drive them too quickly. As we approached a mini-roundabout, she would exclaim in my ear (with ‘rind’ pronounced as in bacon rind), ‘rind the rind-a-bite!’ to remind me to do it properly. When I finally passed my test, it was administered by a chap who tests driving instructors themselves, and only does the odd driving test to keep his hand in, so when she saw him get into the car with me she was certain (she told me afterwards) I was going to fail for a fourth time. When I came bouncing across the car park, I told her I had driven a two-lane roundabout correctly before I told her that I had, finally, at the age of twenty-seven, passed my driving test. She always insisted on driving home after I had failed a test, and this triumphal drive (with her at the wheel again, so as not to jinx it) was punctuated with her exclaiming every so often, in tones of great satisfaction, ‘I’m so pleased about that roundabout!’

I drove well all the way to the church, and then did a bit of my trademark wonky parking, nestling right up to the next car on the right so that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s side until I had done half-a-dozen wriggles, firmly convinced that all I was doing was driving half-out of the bay at an angle and then reversing back in without improving the situation. I suspect that one of the reasons my parking has never improved is that my driving instructor used to find my total incompetence in this area very funny, and would often sit in the passenger seat, bubbling up with giggles while she tried to think of something encouraging to say, what I always thought of as the car’s buttocks sticking out into traffic, the nose buried in a hedge. Her funeral was exactly what you would expect: church packed to the rafters, service heartfelt, well-meaning and short. As well as flowers, the undertakers placed her rooftop driving instructor box on the coffin. I have no fear of death itself, but coffins scare the bejesus out of me.[4] However, I found that seeing this old familiar thing meant that I was able to look at the coffin without difficulty. The vast majority of the congregation were clearly not church-goers.[5] This became abundantly clear when the vicar suggested we close the prayers by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Since nobody else knew them (and couldn’t read them from the order of service, apparently), he (and I) also recited the words of the nunc dimittis as the coffin was carried out of the building.

All day, I was reminded of how I felt when my former mother-in-law died, also of a heart attack (see The day after New Year’s Day) and we drove through wintry Sussex to the crematorium: numb, sad, and old. I remember a time in my mid-twenties when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married and I was spending every weekend of every summer rushing off to some marquee or other; now I’m at the age where I have more funerals to go to than weddings. The two women were also similar characters in many ways: warm, generous, reliable, capable, focused on their families. My former mother-in-law was outlived by her own nonagenarian mother, and so was my driving instructor. Her mother, a bright and sensible woman in her eighties, did the first reading, which was that lovely poem by Henry Scott Holland that begins ‘Death is nothing at all’.[6] She read it beautifully, in a tone that seemed to both accept the finality of death and dismiss it as trivia. After the funeral I spent some time driving around more of the places we used for lessons. I even drove along minor roads to the next town over, joining the motorway a junction further down than I would otherwise do and making myself late for dinner, so that I could paddle about in the past a little longer.

At the time of her death, she was, unbelievably, fifty-six. As I drove home, thinking about this, and how each funeral I go to makes me feel a little older, I remembered how old I had felt when I took my theory test (everyone else was an acne-spattered seventeen-year-old). I pulled out on the motorway into the middle lane, to escape a lorry that had been driving a few inches from my rear bumper, and remembered what she used to say when a truck drove too close to us during a lesson. ‘I expect that truck driver wants to get in the back seat,’ she would say, before wriggling her shoulders and saying firmly, ‘but I’m far too old for that.’ I don’t think there is such a thing as being too young to die, since young people die all the time, and often in ways that are far more drawn out and horrible than an unexpected heart attack. Nevertheless, I feel too young to have buried these two women, both younger than my mother, and who both seemed to have a lot more time ahead of them. Henry Scott Holland’s poem goes on, ‘I have only slipped away to the next room’, and perhaps that is the point: if death really is nothing at all, and all we are doing is opening a connecting door (as we might do in order to fetch something quietly from another room at a party, not wanting to interrupt the conversation), we cannot be surprised when death enters, unannounced, and locks the door behind it.

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[1] I hate driving because I’m not good at it. The fact that I’m not good at it makes me hate it, and so we circle around, trapped on an eternal gyratory system of mediocrity.

[2] She once brought toy cars to a lesson in an attempt to show me how I could turn right safely at a roundabout, but I think there must be some kind of ziggle-zaggle in my brain where roundabouts are concerned: the explanation rolls in, and then tumbles right out again, making a lot of noise as it goes, but ultimately leaving nothing behind it but empty space.

[3] A pune or play on words is, of course, a reference to Pratchett, which I am delighted to say is something that I taught her.

[4] The correct term for this is taphophobia, from the Greek taphos, meaning grave. It manifests itself primarily as an inability to look directly at a coffin. I’ve made it very clear to Giant Bear that I want to be buried in a cardboard box under a tree.

[5] The girl sitting in front of me, for example, had decided that an appropriate thing to wear to a funeral was a top through which her entire bra was visible.

[6] The third verse begins with the lines I have used for the title of this post: ‘Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together. / Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me. / Let my name be ever the household word / that it always was. / Let it be spoken without effect, / without the trace of a shadow on it’.

Curtain-twitching

I have worked from home for a number of years, and one of the wonderful things about it is that one becomes plugged into the little routines and rhythms of assorted public service personnel (bin-men, post-people, local Jehovah’s witnesses), and the people and animals that live in the area. For example, the post-people all (separately) congratulated me on my wedding to Giant Bear as they delivered wedding presents in the run-up to the day(s). Similarly, I have learned not to mind that our local hedgehog, who has entered into the spirit of my ‘I’ll leave snails out for you if you eat them all’ game with great good humour and appetite, also feels the need to leave black, stringy poo on the lawn as a token of his esteem.[1]

As for our neighbours, for most of my time in Bristol I had an uneasy relationship with the West Highland terrier across the road. He belonged to an elderly lady, and seemed to have two purposes in life: to bark at the postman (and bite him if at all possible); and to sit in the window of the spare bedroom and stare at me while I worked. I was also treated once or twice a week to the sight of an enormous dog-fox sauntering through the garden and, more often than not, doing an enormous poo in the vegetable garden to show how comfortable he was. He was so comfortable, in fact, that I myself (pegging out washing, say) was no obstacle to his commute through the garden; he simply glanced at me and went about his business.[2] Here in sunny Bridgwater, I can’t help but notice that the people across the back (i.e. their garden sort of backs onto our garden) have recently replaced their entire garden wall. This impacted my sitting-outside-in-the-sun time in a fairly serious way, as follows:

July 8th. Based on what I can hear from my sunny spot, the builder being employed by our neighbour has a job description that consists of the following items. One, he is required to play Radio One at full blast *all day*, regardless of whether he is actually doing anything.[3] Two, when taking his (enormous, endless, gaping) breaks, he is required to discuss his personal life at the top of his voice on his mobile with anyone who will listen. Bonus points will be awarded for using the terrifying phrase ‘mate, I was so wasted! I thought I was going to pass out before she woke up’.

July 12th. Not only do I have to endure Radio 1 turned up to eleven *all day* and his shouty telephone conversations (‘mate! I was so wasted! I had NO IDEA where all that paint came from!’), but now he’s decided to sing along, including to songs he doesn’t know.[4] He doesn’t switch the radio off when he takes breaks (even when our neighbour can see him. I spotted her today watching him through the window with her arms folded, while he combed his hair, talked to his friends and had a thorough scratch. She wasn’t happy).

July 13th. Blessed, quiet, builder-less Sunday! He didn’t seem to do much beyond eating a colossal sandwich and taking his top off half a dozen times yesterday, so I’m going to quote Flanders and Swann with impunity: ‘On Saturday and Sunday / They do no work at all.’

July 14th. So far this morning, the bricks remained shrouded in quiet mist. He clearly hasn’t finished, but maybe (since it’s a weekday) he won’t be starting until, say, 2pm?

July 16th. It’s 8.30pm on a quiet summer evening. SHCLONK. SHCLONK. SHCLONK. The builder has *just* started up his cement mixer. I draw four conclusions from this. One, he’s not a builder. No builder works at 8.30pm on a Wednesday. Therefore, two, he must actually be the owner of the house and the lady that glares at him when he downs tools is his partner. Furthermore, three, she probably hates him almost as much as I do. Finally, four, it’s just as well I didn’t ring the doorbell to complain about the noise and ask if she was aware of just how little work he was doing.[5]

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[1] I tolerate this on the basis that the poo poses no threat to my plants.

[2] I can only conclude that there is something about the way I choose and arrange plants that says ‘feel free to crap here, local carnivores!’

[3] The man’s work-rate was quite astonishingly low. There was one afternoon when I was proofreading a paper with the window open (despite the noise, it was too hot to work with it closed) and he did literally no work at all. He read the Daily Express from cover to cover; he arranged his sacks of sand into a nice neat line; he sang along to a considerable number of terrible songs. He experimented with different ways he could attach his T-shirt to his person other than actually wearing it. He drank two entire thermos flasks of tea (it was far too hot for tea. Maybe it was Pimms). He did not, at any point, add any bricks to the wall, make any concrete, measure, check or reinforce anything. The most active thing he did all day, in fact, was to ring his friend and bellow, ‘mate! I’m KNACKERED! Yeah, been working on that wall all day! Yeah, I did have a good night. Mate! I was so wasted! I nearly swallowed that umbrella!’ I assume he is referring to one of those teeny-weeny papery umbrellas that decorate the poorer class of cocktails, but really, who knows. It may be a golf umbrella that he took a shine to in the middle of the night, and which (through the coquettish angle at which it placed itself in relation to, say, a picnic bench) indicated to him that attempting to remove it from its base and make it part of his person would be a diverting way to spend twenty minutes. I’m imagining him bloated and cross-looking, jaw bones ominously wobbly, much as a boa constrictor looks mid-marmot. His witless friends might even have stood around him in a rough circle chanting ‘Chug! Chug! Chug!’, checking their watches to see if it was time for him to take his shirt off yet and pouring Morrison’s Basics cider over each other.

[4] He even attempted the perilous cliff-face that is ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan. It wasn’t a success.

[5] At the time of writing, it is early September and the wall remains unfinished, activity having ceased several weeks ago. The wall is also, disturbingly, two different heights, in that the end nearest the house has a row of little terracotta hats on it, indicating what the finished wall should look like and how tall it should be; the end furthest from the house is significantly higher and has no hats. There is also no space for a gate (I’m pretty sure there used to be a gate). I can’t decide whether it is more likely that he realised one day that it was two feet higher at one end than the other and/or that he had run out of terracotta hats and, overburdened by the evidence of his own incompetence, simply gave up; or that his disgusted partner has thrown both him and his indecently loud radio out, preferring to live in asymmetric quiet.

Some bad words

Sexism and gender bias in China is extraordinary, widespread, insidious. It hides in plain sight. For example, female students are allowed to study medicine, but they ‘can’t’ become surgeons. I have been told every year, by students and staff, that this is because women are ‘not strong enough’ for surgery, as if surgeons were still expected to spend their days sawing the femurs of un-sedated soldiers in half with the nearest edged tool. As is so often the case, a question that they don’t know the answer to is met with silence and a blank look. ‘What about keyhole surgery?’ Blank look. ‘What about surgery on soft tissues, like abdominal surgery or caesarean sections?’ Blank look. ‘We have female surgeons in Britain. Do you think they are less competent than the male surgeons?’ Blank look. I also had to intervene in a conversation between two students (one male, one female), both intending to study engineering. The girl (Jane) was brighter than the boy (Eric) and I had encouraged her to consider studying Engineering Maths at Bristol, a five-year course with a very small cohort and some very special students. Jane and I were looking at the syllabus on her laptop, which included a picture of two rather dashing male students in serious conversation with a not-very-dashing male professor. Eric leaned over and pointed at the screen. ‘You not apply that,’ he said. ‘That for men.’

Three years ago, I introduced the idea of showing the kids a British film at the Chinese summer school. My original intention was to supply material for the practice interviews. Accordingly, the film we showed them was Passport to Pimlico, as I’ve described before (see Bite Me). Last year, and with gender issues in mind, I chose The Full Monty (recall Gary saying to his fellow unemployed former steelworkers: ‘a few years and men won’t exist, except at the zoo … not needed no more, are we? What can lasses not do?’). This is the perfect film to show Chinese students who are trying to learn about British culture. There are regional accents, a non-London (and non-Oxbridge) setting, social issues such as unemployment and broken families, changing gender relations and lots and lots of swearing.

Several things have stayed with me from the 2013 film night. First of all, the students laughing at some of the same things that would amuse a British audience, such as Gary and Dave discussing Gary’s plan to steal a jacket to wear to a funeral (Dave: what colour?; Gary: orange), which I thought might actually damage some of the students, they were laughing so hard (partly at the joke, but also I think partly out of sheer pleasure that their knowledge of both English language and culture was good enough that they understood the joke). There are also things that are much funnier to a Chinese audience because of their love of physical comedy and slapstick (Nathan dropping the steel girder in the canal, leaving Gary and Dave trapped on an abandoned car, which then starts to sink). Secondly, I was asked to pause the film at the point when Dave rescues Lomper from his car, in which Lomper is attempting to kill himself via a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. The students asked me to pause the film because they hadn’t understood what was going on (‘his car won’t go like that!’ one of them said agitatedly. ‘He will choke!’ said another). I explained that he was trying to kill himself, my words falling into a suddenly silent room.

Thirdly, the response of the students to the homosexual relationship between Lomper and Guy. The film is exquisitely restrained in how it deals with this: we see the two of them mostly naked and panting, I admit, but they are mostly naked (as are all our heroes at that point) because they have been raided by the police while practicing their striptease, and they are panting because they have fled the scene and then climbed in through a first-floor window. Later, we see them holding hands at the funeral of Lomper’s mother, and that’s it. The kids, who I will remind you live in a country where homosexuality is illegal (and which can be punishable by death in some circumstances), greeted the sight of Lomper and Guy holding hands at the graveside with a spontaneous oh! of recognition and sudden understanding. I think they were genuinely touched (one commented to me afterwards ‘just like married couple. I never see that’). If I may channel Jane Elliott for a moment, kids aren’t born with prejudices. They learn them, and anything that can be learned can be unlearned.

Fourthly, again the power of the Embarrassing Questions Box asserted itself (see ‘Please use power wisely‘), in that when I was trying to decide which film to show, I leafed through some of the questions from the 2012 Box, and came across this one: ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (see ‘Open the Box’). Accordingly, as the film loaded, I explained that what they were about to see was going to include a lot of swearwords, and that I wanted them to jot down as many as they could, to see whether they could identify swearwords simply from the context and tone in which they were used. At the end of the film, the kids listed the words they had written down.[1] We classified the words into nouns, adjectives and verbs as we went along, to help the students use the words grammatically. They even picked up some of the more unusual naughty words, like ‘chuff’, which I don’t think gets used much south of Watford. One student then raised his hand and told me seriously that he had written ‘pick-and-mix’ and was pretty sure it was a noun. ‘Did anyone else have pick-and-mix?’ I asked, at which point two more students put up their hands (one held up his notebook as evidence, like they do on Countdown). ‘Dave said it,’ one of the students explained, absolutely straight-faced. ‘He says, ‘that fucking pick-and-mix was driving me crazy.’ He probably means his manager, or colleague, is a pick-and-mix.’ For the rest of the week, the students could (very occasionally) be heard using the phrase ‘pick-and-mix’ to each other in exactly this way, and then dissolving into giggles.

Fifthly and finally, the discussion after the film about gender relations has stayed with me. Recall that Dave is made redundant, while his wife continues to work fulltime, and this creates ‘female’ behaviour in Dave, such as comfort eating and anxiety about his weight (much of this takes place in that most masculine of strongholds, his shed). ‘Dave clearly thinks that a husband should earn more than a wife,’ I said, ‘and that part of a husband’s function is to earn money. How many of you agree?’ The class of thirty was split, roughly 50/50, but not along gender lines as you might expect: five of the twelve girls expected a husband to earn more than his wife and thought it was part of a man’s role to have a job and earn money. Again, as with the surgeon example above, the reason give was that ‘men are stronger’. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘If men are stronger, shouldn’t they do more housework? Hoovering, for example. Hoovers are pretty heavy, aren’t they?’ One of the girls said, ‘yes. Men should do more housework.’ I was about to ask her a follow-up question (‘more than women, or more than they currently do?’) when she added, ‘unless they earn enough to employ a maid.’

Several years ago at the summer school, I took six male students into a room on their own and shut the door. This was in order to ameliorate the face problem that they would have had if I had chosen to say what I had to say to them in front of all the other students (and staff), an option that I personally would have preferred at that point.[2] The students that come on the summer school are supposed to be very bright, very motivated and able to speak, write and understand English concomitant with their ambition to study at a British university. While I don’t flatter myself that I am anything like as accomplished a teacher as the incomparable Jane Elliott, I model my teaching style on hers, in that I tend to hold a conversation with the class as a whole. These six students, who had sat right at the front of class every day, had not joined in that conversation once. When students send me a complete, finished PS, I keep the good ones intact, to use as source material for future years. I only ever keep a mediocre or poor PS as a series of anonymous quotations to use in a PS workshop, where I show the students examples of both good and bad personal statements and ask them to critique what they are shown (which, in turn, I hope, teaches them to apply the same thinking to their own work). Of the six students I am talking about, two had not submitted a draft to me at all; two had ‘finished’, in the sense that what they had written was unlikely to improve; and two were still ‘working’ on what they had written.[3] One of these personal statements has disappeared forever into the mists of time, while the other exists as a single slide in the workshop I mentioned above.[4]

I hope that quick summary conveys this simple fact: these were not strong students. They were not bright or motivated, and as I was wondering how to help them, I realised that there were two interlocking problems. One was that they lacked the third quality I listed above (good English). This also explained why they were sitting right at the front of class, where they might be able to do some lip-reading. The other was that they were all boys, with markedly lower grades than the other students, as if I had been teaching a top set and one of the tables had been quietly switched for a table from set three or four. In other words, these boys had not earned their places, but nevertheless somebody other than them had decided they should be present. When I asked the Chinese staff about these students, they were all open about the fact that the students’ parents (in four cases they used the word ‘father’) had demanded that their sons be included.[5] These six students were clearly not to blame, so they all had some time with me discussing some universities that might actually be interested in making them offers, and they all had what the other students had at the end of the week (a more or less finished application, a list of universities and courses, and a realistic idea of what they could expect), as well as the very clear message (from me, to their parents) that I was Not Amused and they should not expect such a tactic to work in Britain.

If one removed these six students from the cohort that year, the gender balance was equal: twelve girls, twelve boys. I couldn’t help wondering whether the three girls who had been excluded were as bright, and as likely to be dismissed, as Jane.

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[1] It was a bit like a very smutty game of Boggle: the kid that initiated the discussion shouted ‘BASTARD!’ at the top of his voice and then looked horribly embarrassed.

[2] Because I was under the (mistaken) impression that the students were deliberately wasting my time and therefore needed to be told off (and that it couldn’t hurt the other students to hear me doing so).

[3] I’d like to put ‘still’ in single quotation marks too here: they never started an activity that I would have described as ‘work’, and therefore ‘still’ isn’t any more accurate than ‘working’.

[4] The student had attempted to convey his love of his chosen subject (Architecture) by beginning his personal statement with the arresting sentence, ‘A boy like look lots of buildings every day’.

[5] I didn’t get a straight answer to the follow-up question, ‘did money change hands?’, annoyingly, but it would be entirely consistent with what I know of Chinese culture and the way in which parents in particular can be utterly ruthless.

‘Please use power wisely’

This year’s trip to China was a little like Men in Black: shorter than one might expect, but packed with incident. There were the usual strange little vignettes that stay embedded in the mind like burrs in a sock: the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch advertising Dunlop tires via an exchange of eloquent glances with someone I think we were supposed to infer was his butler; the comment from Chinese friends and colleagues that my new husband ‘look like Brunel’ (because of his sideburns, rather than his propensity to wear a stovepipe hat); snippets of conversation, overheard or relayed later (my colleague K, giving interview feedback to an un-named Chinese student: You speak extremely slowly. Chinese student: I … disagree). Of course there were also the wonderful malapropisms, urging me to leave my ‘privates’ in the smaller of the two laundry bags, ‘keep hand on your package and prepare get off with other passengers’ on the airport shuttle bus, and reminding me to switch the lights and air conditioning in my room off at night (not like at home, where I recklessly leave both on until 3am), so that the hotel could ‘use power wisely’.

Looking through my reports on the individual students, I am struck by how some of them spring into sharp focus immediately, while others have already faded into the background, never to be recalled. Here is a sentence from my report on a student called Jack: ‘this was the only student whose name I never managed to get right, because he is so quiet (I want to describe him as ‘anonymous’ because that is almost literally true). Even now, I would only be able to pick him out of the group by a process of elimination, by which I mean lining up all the students and naming the other twenty-seven first.’[1] People who haven’t visited China sometimes comment that it must be difficult to tell the students apart because they all have the same hair colour, the same eye colour and a small number of haircuts arbitrarily divided between them.[2] I find these similarities cause the differences in facial features, voices, body language and other mannerisms to stand out more. Moreover, everyone having black or brown eyes isn’t the same as everyone having the same black or brown eyes. This year I met a student called Chengxi with the most extraordinary bloom to the irises of her eyes. It was almost pale blue in colour and formed a sort of ghostly corona around the pupil. Similarly, a student last year named Terry stands out for having unusually curly hair (curly for a Chinese, that is), with a noticeable sprinkling of thick white strands, which he told me were caused by pollution. Jack notwithstanding, I rarely have trouble remembering the students’ names or telling them apart, even this year when we had students called Lavender (who reminded me of a girl from two years ago called Sunny) and Ruby (who reminded me very strongly of a student from last year called Lavender). Those that stand out in the mind most clearly, however, are the strong students, and the unusual students.

The students do presentations about their subject area on the final day, for which I arrange them into groups. The presentation can take any form they like, last no more than five minutes, and describe why their subject or subjects are relevant, useful and important. One group decided to create a diagram, filling a six-foot-long whiteboard in such a way as to show what contribution each of them would make (once qualified) to building and maintaining a new town. Lavender (town planner) drew two maps, one showing empty, riverine countryside, and the other plans for houses, shops, public buildings, roads and bridges. Ann (architect) drew a beautifully-realised architect’s diagram of a public library, in perfect perspective and without a ruler. Pauline (civil engineer) sketched Golden Gate Bridge (instantly recognisable and also without help from anything with a straight edge) as a symbolic gesture (‘it mean I do this sort of thing’, she explained). Finally, Rain (who, wonderfully, wants to be an environmental engineer, which is why I allowed her to keep her name just as it is) drew a diagram of the chemical reactions involved in cleaning the river water to make it drinkable. Better than all of that (and, of course, the real object of the exercise), they had enjoyed animated discussion of exactly where the dividing lines lay between their different disciplines; I overheard Pauline saying to Ann (with some heat, which I guess is why she switched to English), ‘Engineer do bridge! Architect do building!’ When I asked the girls whether they would like to live in the town they had designed, they all said yes immediately. Lavender explained that the whole idea behind the design of the town was community. The banks of the river running through the town were to be divided into allotments; the river was to be filled with carp to keep the water clean, and the fish were to be fed by the people who lived nearby, creating a sense of ownership and civic pride (a phrase she learned during the week and was delighted to say back to me). Moreover, they had built in tourist attractions, one of which was Ann’s library, and a large park to encourage people to mingle with their fellow citizens as well as those from outside. I hope I don’t need to point out that this is somewhat different from the last few thousand years of Chinese foreign and domestic policy.

Finally, their town contained only one building taller than two storeys (the pentagonal clock tower of Ann’s library). I found this quite startling, as all the students come from vast Chinese cities of millions of people living in high-rise buildings. ‘Why have you done that?’ I asked, directing the question to all of them since it seemed to have been a joint decision. The answer was that this would ‘allow people to see right across town’, in the hope that they would get to know each other. The clock tower was to have a clock on each side ‘so people not need wear watch, but can watch library’ (the accidental pun made them all giggle, in that charming, childlike Chinese way, behind an upheld hand, but with the smile poking out either side). Rain added, ‘Yes. If people go up the library tower, they can see people in the town. And also, they can wave!’ She waved cheerily. ‘Like this!’[3] ‘It sounds like a very friendly place’, I said. Lavender responded that another reason for keeping the buildings low to the ground was to make it easier for drivers and tourists to find their way, and the street-lighting more efficient. ‘We want to use power wisely,’ she told me, ‘like it says on the power unit in the hotel.’

There were several other students that struck me as both strong and unusual this year. When you consider that they come from a country where uniformity is almost always considered a good thing, it becomes all the more impressive to meet students that have no intention of being uniform. As usual (and  as I have written before: see Open the Box), the Embarrassing Questions Box proved a useful tool for encouraging students to think about broader cultural issues. One question read: ‘Which is more important to British man? Real love, or sex?’ Having agreed that it depended on the man in question, later on that day I asked the boys to vote on which they thought was most important in a relationship. Intriguingly, real love and sex received the same number of votes each, with one abstention. I noticed particularly that none of the boys (except Daniel, the student who abstained) had any trouble deciding which they preferred. Daniel was strikingly reminiscent of Oddjob, minus the lethal hat, plus glasses and a T-shirt declaring vegetarianism to be the way forward. He explained to me very seriously that although he wasn’t vegetarian, he liked the T-shirt because the pictures of vegetables were arranged in neat rows, ‘like vegetable patch grow on my chest’ (this in turn made me wonder whether the girls had got the idea for their riverbank allotments from Daniel’s T-shirt, or whether the idea had arrived by some other route). Daniel is a large, soft-spoken boy, cautious of expressing an opinion he hasn’t had time to think through. I asked him why he abstained, and he replied, ‘I need to try both options before I decide’. I said, ‘With the same girl?’ He said, ‘Ideally, yes’.

Another student stopped me as I wandered around the room with the Box in search of questions, and said that he had been thinking about the purpose of the Box and its symbolic power (‘what Box mean’). He said, ‘the Box know everything. If we don’t know something, we should ask the Box. He is very wise.’ He thought for a moment, his face screwed up. ‘Also, perhaps it is a she-Box. I am not sure. But the Box knows everything, so it must know if it is a he or a she.’ I put the Box on his desk. ‘Do you remember me explaining earlier in the week that knowledge is power?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Yes. Box powerful.’ The Box, as I described in an earlier post (see Open the Box), is nothing more than a cardboard container, previously home to reams of paper, and with (on this occasion) ‘Embarrassing Box’ scrawled across it. It doesn’t look very powerful, but of course he was right: like any deceptively simple, well-designed item, the Box is powerful.

‘Do you have a question for the Box?’ I said. He tore a page from his notebook, wrote feverishly for a second and dropped it in the Box. It read, ‘Dear Box, Please use power wisely.’

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[1] I’m ashamed to say that, although the reports appear alphabetised by first name in the final document, I had to write this one last so as to be absolutely sure.

[2] France used to have a list of approved names for new babies. Is there a similar list of approved haircuts in PRC?

[3] That all four girls were happy to live in the town they had designed reminded me that I, the creator of the Box, am obliged to answer the questions that are put into it. It also recalled a conversation had I overheard as we were removing our baggage from the overhead lockers in preparation for leaving the ’plane in Shanghai:

Stubbly American (rueful): Hell is a place where everyone who designed a shoddy product has to use it.
Scottish guy (laughing): I agree. Like the bastard that invented the ironing board.
Stubbly American (lifting down his case from the overheard rack): Right! Ironing boards, man! Or this piece-of-shit case I have to use!
Scottish guy (sympathetic): Did you design it yourself?
Stubbly American (hangs head): Yes.

The lucky seven meme

The rules of the Lucky Seven Meme say that one is supposed to go to page 7 or 77 of one’s current manuscript; go to line seven; and then post on your blog the next seven lines or sentences. I’ve already done this once (see Seven for a secret never to be told) a couple of years ago when I hadn’t had the blog very long, but I’ve done so much work on the book in the intervening period (including indulging myself by spending the whole of this afternoon writing), that I thought it might be fun to repeat the exercise with two new paragraphs, which appear below.

For the first quotation from page 7 (chapter 1), I’ve included two more sentences for free so that the paragraph remains whole. The novel has two narrators, and these words are from Jayne. Her mother is referring to the way in which cats produce multiple litters of kittens throughout the year, if allowed to do so (she is quoting from Doris Lessing’s thoughtful and idiosyncratic book Particularly Cats). For the second passage, the lasso happened to fall neatly around an intact paragraph from page 77 (the beginning of chapter 8), which comes from the other narrator, Alice (Jayne’s teenaged daughter). It’s striking to me the coincidence of subject matter between these two passages.

(page 7)

“You can have Marmite with that,” she snapped as I reached for the jam. “But not jam. Your sister has already finished the jar I was saving for the sponge.” She snatched the jam away and nestled it against her tea. “They have dozens, four or five times a year if you let them, five or six to a litter, over and over.” She jabbed at the book. “It says here that in the wild–” she waved her hand at the wretched square of grass outside the window “–cats lose at least half their litters to birds of prey. It says here–” and here she traced her man’s hand’s finger under the line that interested her “–a litter of six kittens in a warm basket in a town house can be seen, perhaps, as eagle and hawk fodder in the wrong place.” I sat quietly, transfixed by the grasping talons crashing silently out of the sky, crushing the furry ribcage, plucking out the eyes, gobbling up the heart. Mother snorted. “Perhaps,” she repeated.

(page 77)

Father likes us to go walking as a family. This usually takes place by the river (or, on bad days, in the river, such as when Hugh has accidentally flung a glove into the water with an expansive but wild gesture and must slither down the bank to retrieve it). Hugh and I walk together like normal people; Father strides on ahead with an imaginary dog; Mother generally lags behind. Hugh and I rather enjoy these attempts at family unity and use the time to exchange thoughts and ideas. We might discuss, for example, the domestication of animals.

A bit like the rubella jab

Many important things happened this week. Two of them were as follows: Dr Maya Angelou died, and a mentally unstable racist and misogynist shot some women.

Straight away, I’ve reduced both those things in terms of detail, impact and nuance: I haven’t explained who Maya Angelou was, how she died or why it’s important. Similarly, ‘shot some women’ ignores the numbers involved (could be four; could be forty), ignores the men who died (there were actually more male victims than female) and didn’t name any of the people involved. It’s that tendency to reduce complex stories to a few words, how that causes us to lose accuracy and detail, and how that in turn compromises our ability to have a sensible debate prompted by events, that I want to talk about here.

First of all, let’s un-collapse the two statements above, starting with Dr Maya Angelou, who died this week aged eighty-six. As one might expect from someone with many talents and a long life, she made substantial contributions to many fields in many different ways. She was a dancer and actor, but also a director, playwright, scriptwriter and composer. She wrote the script and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia. Her script was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and Georgia was the first film ever made with a script by an African-American woman. She was a political activist: she knew both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, was consulted by several presidents, and believed in (and campaigned for) marital equality. She was a journalist, writing for The African Review and the Ghanaian Times and editing The Arab Observer (living and teaching in Africa while she did so). She was professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. She won three Grammy awards. She spoke six languages. I’m also making sure to use the prefix ‘Dr’ lots of times because I have read that she placed a great premium on politeness and formality. Dr Angelou was best known as a writer and poet, of course, and in particular for her first and best-known collection I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first poem of hers I ever encountered was ‘And Still I Rise’, which was part of my GCSE anthology. Modern technology allows us to hear her reciting her own work, and it’s a rather more compelling experience than reading it aloud line by line in a classroom. She recites from memory, as if the words have just come to her as she is sitting there (with the possible exception of the late Clive Merrison[1], she also has the best laugh I’ve ever heard). Dr. Angelou died quietly in her sleep, and her death is important because it causes us to reflect upon her life, and why that is important.

The ‘mentally unstable racist and misogynist’ I referred to above is Elliot Rodger. His online rants make it clear that he hated women for rejecting him sexually, and that he hated men for having access to sex that he didn’t. He killed four men and two women. Their names are as follows: Cheng Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang and Christopher Martinez. The women were Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. You will notice that the first three men I named have Asian names (they were Rodger’s two roommates and a friend of theirs), and hence my use of the word ‘racist’ because in this case the two different prejudices are intertwined: Rodger described Asians as ‘repulsive’ and attributed some of his own failure with women to his racial background (he was half-Asian), before then stabbing three Asian men for being more sexually successful than he was. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but see above where I said he was ‘mentally unstable’. I don’t think I need to prove that Rodger was mentally unstable, because that’s at a tangent to what I want to say, and also because it seems clear from what has come from Rodger himself that some of the cogs were rattling around in the box. I also don’t think I need to justify my use of the word ‘misogynist’, because he just killed six people to make himself feel better about his lack of sexual success. However, if proof were needed, here is a sentence from his ‘manifesto’:

Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.

I’ve read some comments online from people proud of their own ability to do maths, who say that a man who kills four men because they can get sex and he can’t isn’t a misogynist if he only kills two women. That’s nonsense. First of all, these are clearly primarily opportunistic killings, since he didn’t actually know either of the women and only two of the men. Neither of the women had rejected him and it seems that none of the men ‘stole’ women from him. Secondly, a person who thinks men are entitled to sex is a misogynist, regardless of who they then choose to take their ensuing rage out on. Plenty of good men are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence and misogyny, sometimes literally. The boyfriends, husbands and friends of women who are the intended targets are also at risk, and it doesn’t make sense to say that *only women* who are hurt by men who want to treat women as possessions are the victims of misogyny. These four men were killed because of the racist and misogynist beliefs of Elliot Rodger, and his mental fragility, and how easy it is to get hold of knives and guns. In the wake of these murders (and Elliot Rodger’s suicide), there has been a lot of discussion, online and elsewhere, about violence towards women (#Yesallwomen; #Notallmen and so forth). I don’t use Twitter so I’m not going to comment on that specifically. Instead, what I want to think about here is why we can’t seem to have more nuanced, grown-up discussions.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s death has lead to a proliferation of inspirational quotes (some taken from her work, some not). She was unquestionably an inspiring woman and her work is eminently quotable, but I find this reductionist. It’s straight out of the Oprah Winfrey school of therapy, where the things that help you deal with your problems are not reflection, friends and getting professional help, but pithy sentences printed on the sleeves of coffee cups (I know Maya Angelou was Oprah Winfrey’s friend and mentor, but I think the point still stands). Try Googling ‘Maya Angelou’ and you will find that ‘Maya Angelou quotes’ appears above ‘Maya Angelou poems’, for example. I don’t think this is an adequate way to mark the life of such a person.

I think that in this tendency to want (or need) to reduce complex things to simple labels, we can also see some of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist. There is no simple answer or single change that will prevent violence against women (and men), because the people that commit these crimes, large and small, do so for their own particular reasons. Each case needs to be examined carefully, not lumped together with others that seem similar so that we can declare that violent films (or heavy metal, or poor parenting, or Rush Limbaugh)[2] are the sole cause of everything we’ve chosen to put in that category. One of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist, for example, is that even good, decent men and good, decent women struggle to eradicate it from their own thoughts and behaviour, and one of the reasons they struggle to do so is that we have such bland, blanket labels to work with: OK and Not OK.

For example, I read a post from a confused man this morning saying that he always asks him wife’s permission before they have sex, and was this OK? Responses (all from women) ranged from ‘of course. It’s called consent’ to ‘of course not. Sex is something you do together.’ I honestly can’t provide a yes/no answer to this question, and I think that’s part of the problem: not every question has (or should have) a yes/no answer. If that particular man and his wife think it’s important that he asks permission, and if that is part of how he shows that he respects her, good for them. It could also so easily be part of a commodification of sex, in which the man is only allowed to ‘purchase’ a certain amount of sex from the woman when she says it’s in stock (and after he’s ‘paid’ for it in some way, perhaps). We also don’t know whether the consent she’s giving is meaningful (we don’t know if she’s allowed to change her mind, or whether he pesters or coerces her). I don’t like the idea that I’m doing my husband a favour by having sex with him, or that he needs to ask my permission (but I don’t need to ask his?). Here’s a simpler, more everyday example: a man opening a door for a woman can be a kind, polite and respectful act *or* it can be patronising, mocking and old-fashioned. You have to be there in order to see how it was done, what the context was and who the people involved were, so that you could judge for yourself.

What I’m driving at here is that of course there are some behaviours that go straight in the ‘don’t ever do that’ pile, but I think there is also a huge grey area, in which men and women blunder about, trying to figure out if they’re being offensive/offended or not. The fact that the grey area exists, and that both men and women seem confused about what is OK and what is not, gives misogynists a place to hide. It allows them to say ‘feminists can’t make up their minds’ and to complain about how difficult it is to be a modern man. When they are told off for doing/saying something unacceptable, they get to say that they don’t know what the rules are and so can’t be blamed for breaking them. That’s not good enough. We need to be able to have a more nuanced (and more balanced) discussion of these issues so that people can’t make that excuse. Yes, all women know real misogyny when we experience it. We need to learn to identify it when we are told about it, too. We need to educate men and women to understand that the context, nuance and the intention of what was done or said is what makes it acceptable or not. Nothing else (*nothing* else) is relevant: not clothing, not drunkenness, not marriage, not age, not culture, not previous behaviour.

This morning, I have read an enormous number of stories from women talking about their own experiences of rape, sexual assault and misogyny, and they’re all appalling, as is the sheer number of them, and how many of these women received further abuse from people they confided in, including from other women. The lack of nuance in some of the responses to these stories is deeply depressing, lumping them all together so that a blanket statement can be made, about how men or women (or parents, or the police) should change their behaviour to make things better. That isn’t going to work, not because the changes being suggested are facile (although a lot of them are. 8pm curfew in university towns, anyone?), but because the nuances of the different stories have been lost. You would not lump together all the sick people in a hospital and give them all the same advice (‘eat more fruit’, say). Similarly, the celebrities who have been in the news recently (Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall, DLT, Max Clifford and so forth) and their systematic abuse of vulnerable girls and women are just as appalling as (but also very different from) family members that abuse younger relatives, or vicars/teachers/scout masters who take advantage of the children in their care, or husbands that beat their wives and children, or burglars that rape frightened old women, or creepy colleagues that feel entitled to touch you up whenever you are unwise enough to make yourself a cup of tea. I’ve just grouped four male celebrities of similar age and habits together for the purposes of making a point, but if you examine those cases individually, they are all different from each other again. Just as you need different methods and tools to clean crap off different surfaces, we need different methods to tackle these different manifestations of the same thing. Just as we can do better than to reduce Maya Angelou to a single sound-bite, we can do better than to simply advise women to dress conservatively and carry pepper spray. So many of the stories I have read in which women *did* report what had happened to them described being met with ‘slut-shaming’ i.e. questions about their clothing and behaviour. This isn’t just misogyny reflecting back on itself, but part of the search for a quick, simple fix that will make everything better without anybody having to do any proper thinking. As long as there are men (and women) who think that women owe men some sex, and that they signal this through the way in which they walk, dress, flirt or stand (rather than what they say), the sense of entitlement and confusion that Elliot Rodger felt will continue.

Alan Alda likens misogyny to disease (specifically polio), and asks why we can eradicate one but not the other (why indeed?), and it’s a compelling analogy. Misogyny is like an illness that some people have chronically and cripplingly, but that makes almost everyone cough or sneeze from time to time. Feminism needs to be something that men buy into, and that they feel included in. Feminism doesn’t say that men are animals that need to get themselves under control. Feminism says that men are people, and women are people, and everyone deserves respect. Feminism actually does men the courtesy of expecting them to be civilised. If I may over-stretch the medical analogy, it feels to me sometimes that feminism is a bit like the rubella jab: only women are entitled to it, and only the ones that were at school that day.

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[1] Merrison is my favourite Sherlock Holmes in sound only (although of course I also love Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett and the rather wonderful Richard Roxborough, who played Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles a few years ago that I don’t think has been bettered). Clive Merrison’s diction and tone are perfection, with the (surprisingly dirty) laugh the cherry on the cake.

[2] Rush Limbaugh thinks the Hunger Games are to blame for these murders, because Rodger’s father works on the series and the series involves people killing other people. If I kill some people this afternoon and leave a YouTube video saying that my reasons for doing so are important, nuanced and relevant to any subsequent discussion, is my father’s tendency to bark ‘that’s irrelevant’ at people relevant?

An unparalleled display of shawms

A cursory glance at the walls of a friend’s room, house or other similar display of personal effects is likely to contain pictures of them in Foreign Parts. An unscientific trawl through Facebook pages today included pictures of friends and acquaintances riding elephants, posing on or near the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or in one way or another recording their presence in some country than isn’t Britain. I leave aside the wider (but not very interesting) question of why people put so many photographs of themselves on Facebook at all. One friend of mine has over three thousand photographs of himself on his Facebook account, a large number of which show him in semi-darkness, gurning in a desperate, out-of-focus sort of way, with no caption or explanation as to where he is or what he might be doing beyond the cryptic album titles (‘Mobile uploads'; ‘Found on memory stick'; ‘untitled’). Instead, I want to consider why it is that anybody travels to another country if they don’t have to i.e. the phenomenon that is the foreign holiday.[i]

I like a city break as much as the next man, but if I’m honest I can’t stand more than four or five days in (say) Copenhagen before I start to feel like a leech and a fraud.[ii] I feel like a leech because here I am, spending my own hard-earned money on nothing but my own pleasure: taking myself to art galleries, museums and parks, eating out three times a day, speaking another language (extremely poorly and only when I need to order food) and generally wandering about Looking At Stuff. I feel like a fraud because I know I can’t really afford to do this. One of the best days Garden Naturalist and I ever had on a city break was during a trip to Brussels, when we went to the Museum of Musical Instruments. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much (beyond an unparalleled display of shawms and medieval bagpipery) is that it cost us very little. By accident, we had arrived on the one day of the month when entry to the museum happens to be free, thereby saving ourselves ten euros or so. This, in turn, made us feel that we could afford to eat in the museum restaurant, which is on the roof and has a spectacular view across the city. While doing so, we heard an announcement that there was about to be a (free) performance downstairs of a trio, playing dulcimer, piano and double bass, starting about five minutes after we expected to finish our lunch. We watched the entire performance, sitting on the steps up to the exhibition of proto-oboes. The three middle-aged musicians were astonishing, particularly the dulcimer player (an instrument I had never seen played before).

Dulcimer

Thus, we were kept amused, educated and busy for most of a day, paying only for food. Most city breaks, however (and I’m thinking particularly of cities like Vienna) are ruinously expensive if one isn’t careful, which in turn (for me) produces pressure to be squeezing as much fun or edification as possible out of the experience at all times. This has become even more the case since going freelance fulltime, because I now know exactly how many hours it has taken me to earn whatever sum I have just dropped on a boat trip up the Seine or whatever.

Fundamentally, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that travel in and of itself makes one a better or more interesting person. With the exception of the Louvre, I have been to all the major museums in Paris. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, but I struggle with the notion that anyone other than myself has been enriched by this (and even more with the idea of articulating exactly how I feel I have been enriched). A longer, less intense trip produces the same, nagging sense of ‘unentitlement’. My first trip to China was in 2008 and Garden Naturalist and I saved up around £2,000 to pay for three weeks of holiday, visiting Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, we had an amazing time, visiting most of the places and things that you visit when you go to Xi’an (terracotta warriors, hot springs, towers, street fountains), Beijing (Great Wall) and Shanghai (the Bund and, for me, the textile museum). I’m sure we were both enriched by the experience in some ill-defined way, and the trip certainly achieved its other two stated objectives: to spend time with my father; and to get me away from Britain altogether, so that I could recover from the horrible job I had just quit, while at the same time being totally inaccessible to any of the people I no longer worked with who might want to ask me questions or persuade me to come back to work on a temporary basis.[iii] The ‘enrichment’, however, I find an elusive concept. The idea of planning either a city break-type trip, or a longer visit to one particular place, feels enormously self-indulgent. Yes, I would have a wonderful time, in exchange for my hard-earned cash. I would learn a lot and meet people and look at foreign whatnots and eat foreign food. Good for me. Is that really a good use of that money? Is travel simply to broaden one’s mind (and I am not at all sure that it has been proved that travel achieves this) legitimate?

The conclusion I have come to is that I am unsuited to holidays abroad in which the ‘seeing the sights’ part is longer than three or four days. It makes me uncomfortable (almost itchy). Holidays in my own country don’t make me uncomfortable, and I think this is because having the language means I can be less of a parasite: I can buy food and cook for myself, read signs and notices and navigate accordingly. This in turn makes it easier to feel that I am (temporarily) ‘living in’ whichever place I am visiting, rather than clamping myself to it like a limpet for a few days, sucking out £500-worth of pleasure, and then going home again. My annual trip to China, for example, typically consists of four or five days of fun-time (this overlaps with ‘recovering from jetlag’ time), followed by a week of hard work. This balance suits me: I work incredibly hard for a week (and am paid accordingly), and so feel I have earned the fun-time that precedes it. When people ask me why I’m in/going to China, I say ‘I’m here to work’. That feels legitimate: I am here to be enriched by the experience, certainly, but my primary purpose is to give something to, or do something for, the country I am visiting at that moment.

Giant Bear and I have just returned from our honeymoon, which consisted of three days in Cornwall and a week in a narrowboat on the Worcester-Birmingham canal. We had incredible weather, more like Corfu in summer than Britain in April: clear, burnished blue skies that allowed us to do honeymooner things like walking hand-in-hand on the beach and pointing out each other’s sunburn. It never occurred to us to have a foreign honeymoon, but if we had, I don’t think I would have felt able (allowed?) to enjoy it fully. Other considerations aside, Britain is really very beautiful and I don’t feel I have explored even a tenth of what home has to offer. I have also come the wider conclusion that perhaps mind-broadening comes from what you do, who you are with and what you bring to the encounter, rather than where the encounter takes place. This is similar to my thoughts on education expressed in a previous post, in that I remain unconvinced that simply sitting through an education produces anything worthwhile: you need to know why you are there, and what you are supposed to be getting out of it. I think the same thing has to apply to foreign travel: it is simply so costly, both environmentally and financially. If I’m not sure what the object of the exercise is, as I remember saying to an unnamed and slightly creepy man in a pub many years ago who offered to buy me a drink, I think I’d rather have the cash.

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[i] Or, as Edwin Starr might have phrased it, ‘Travel! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

[ii] I considered calling this post ‘The fraudulent leech’ as a sort of companion piece to The uncharitable goat, but decided on balance that this might have been misleading.

[iii] I discovered later than it took several months for them to appoint a replacement – they hadn’t even drafted an advert by the time I left, even though I gave three months’ notice.

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