the filthy comma

vaguely word-related since 2011

Punch drunk

It’s pretty irritating watching treasured childhood memories being chewed up and spat out. We have the new Jurassic Park movie next year, hoping to make us forget that there have already been two grim sequels; recent films of Paddington Bear, Tintin and the Narnia books; there is even talk of a sequel to Labyrinth, for God’s sake. As if re-booting Thundercats in 2011 wasn’t bad enough, somebody re-made Willo the Wisp and thought it would still work without Kenneth Williams doing all the voices. Absolutely nothing is sacred and I am weary of hearing about such projects and not knowing whether to be pleased that there is a little more sauce in the pot, or frightened that the sauce will be poisonous crap. I put this trend down to three things. One, the people who decide what gets made into a film have no ideas of their own, and no idea how to address their own lack of creativity. Two, they are roughly my age and watched the same programmes as I did when they were small. Three, they are bastards. Soon, all pretence at concealment will be abandoned and men dressed as the Clangers will simply break down my front door, go straight to the shelf of children’s books and defecate right onto the pages.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, much like a parade of mournful and bloody Shakespearean ghosts, celebrities from my childhood continue to be unmasked as sex offenders. I used to tell people about the time my mother got Rolf Harris to open our new school nursery (true story. My brother I got signed photographs of that week’s Cartoon Time illustrations); now I feel dirty if I catch myself humming ‘Sun Arise’. Who next? Floella Benjamin? Gordon Kay? Professor Yaffle?

Consider the historical allegations of child abuse that have been in the news recently, going back to incidents that took place thirty or forty years ago. Jinny suggests in The Waves that we should decorate our Christmas trees ‘with facts, and again with facts’. We haven’t decorated our tree or indeed any of the house yet (in true Advent fashion, we are watching and waiting), but for those of you with trees already up, here is an undecorative and completely non-fact-like fact: according to an interview with a battered woman on Woman’s Hour earlier this year, some instances of domestic violence are not categorised as domestic violence, sexual assault, GBH or ABH, but common assault. This is a category that would also include something like a drunken altercation with a stranger outside a nightclub. Actual or grievous bodily harm charges can be made at any time, but an allegation of common assault has to be made within six months of the assault in question. That means that if a woman reporting her partner for domestic abuse is told that her allegations fall into this category, she has to report a specific incident (not years or decades of abuse, but a particular occasion), within six months of that incident. If one thinks for a moment about how long it may take such a woman to be in a position to make such an allegation without placing herself and her children in further danger, this does not seem reasonable.

Imagine a woman who suffers a single incidence of child abuse in her teenage years (at the hands of a family friend, in his car after a lift home from netball practice, let’s say). Now imagine that next door to our teenage netball player is a family, consisting of a middle-aged wife, two small children and an abusive husband. The predatory family friend can be prosecuted at any time. The message that family friend should take away from the many recent high profile cases is that he is never safe: his (now adult) victim can go to the police at any time, and while the traditional barrier of women not being believed is a significant hurdle, he can see for himself that successful prosecutions can and do follow. By contrast, the abusive husband might well get away with a smorgasbord of horrible behaviour for just as many decades, without any negative consequences for him whatsoever, thinking to himself (with some justification, it seems) that his chances of being imprisoned or even arrested are small.

This is for many reasons, two of which I want to think about here. One, the crimes of the abusive husband are not very interesting to the police and the general public. Operation Yewtree is a nationwide witch-hunt against child abusers, but I find it hard to believe that any future government is likely to give the same prominence and resources to a similar campaign to root out the perpetrators of domestic violence. Two, it is much more difficult for abused wives and girlfriends to report this kind of crime. It has been a source of tremendous irritation to me to hear people speak about the women who have alleged mistreatment and rape at the hands of Bill Cosby being criticised for not coming forward sooner. First of all, several of them did so and were ignored; and second, what we should be asking is why women don’t feel able to go public with this information sooner, and then doing something to fix that. Third, maybe women don’t come forward sooner because they expect to be criticised and ignored. Maybe there are other women who would very much like to come forward and report their abusers, who don’t do so when they witness the victim-blaming of women who do. If it’s OK for cases of child abuse to be investigated (successfully! Even in cases when the perpetrator has died!) decades after the fact, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to all victims of sexual crimes? Why do we laugh at Mr. Punch slapping his ugly old wife around, but not when he smacks the baby? Why do we offer ‘he was drunk’ as an excuse for a handsy colleague, but ‘she was drunk’ as an accusation? Why is it OK to abuse a woman, but not a girl?

What I want to explore here is why is it that we are so much more shocked by (and interested in) the sexual abuse of children and teenagers than the sexual abuse of grown-ups. There have been many examples in recent months of people talking about domestic violence and rape in ways that make me terribly angry, and I can’t be bothered to list them all here. Victims of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence do not need to be told how to behave, or what they could have done to avoid the abuse, or why whatever it was that happened to them a. didn’t happen b. wasn’t that bad or c. is probably mostly their fault. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of victim-blaming does interest me (see A bit like the rubella jab). I wonder if part of the problem is simply that we can all imagine (or remember) what it’s like to be angry with a spouse, and so find it easier to relate to the idea of being violent towards someone who may have been annoying in a low-level sort of way for many years: changing the channel without asking, ignoring our haircuts and consistently leaving the seat up. We find it much harder to imagine molesting a thirteen-year-old in a twilit car after a netball match. However, I think that is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of domestic violence. The women (and men) who are victims of domestic violence do not get a frustrated, end-of-tether smack and then an immediate, shame-faced apology, as my husband would get if I ever raised my hand to him (assuming that his habit of leaving piles of receipts and small change randomly around the house as a sort of low-grade money-based spoor got too much for me). In such a situation, my husband and I would have reached a point where we needed to have a conversation about his annoying habit and my short fuse, which (while possibly heated) would be in the wider context of a loving relationship. The victims of domestic violence are not in any such context. They get their bones (and spirits) broken, over and over again, by someone they used to love and trust; maybe someone they have children with, and maybe who also abuses his children, or beats their mother in front of them; maybe someone they are financially dependent upon; probably someone they cannot avoid, placate or escape; certainly someone they don’t feel able to reason with. Maybe they even still love the person that is hurting them, in a hopeless sort of way.

It seems to me that there are four possible explanations as to why the media prioritises child abuse over domestic abuse. Firstly, child abuse is more visually appealing, because children are more visually appealing. A news editor can print a photograph of our netball player: a frail, coltish girl with a pained expression, looking wistfully into the camera. This can appear above a vaguely titillating story and a much smaller picture of the same woman at the time of the interview. This will sell far more newspapers than, say, pictures of a fifty-year old woman with a broken nose with three decades of physical and emotional abuse to talk about. Secondly, child abuse is clear cut: child vs. molester. The child cannot possibly have encouraged the abuse and is legally unable to consent, so we can be 100% outraged with the molester. Our response can be visceral and sincere, but above all, it can be simple. We don’t feel this way about a thirty-year marriage, because marriage is complex and involves two grown-up people. I think an abusive marriage is pretty clear-cut, actually, but because we have no frame of reference other than our own, non-abusive relationships, it’s tempting to assume that the conflict within other relationships must be like conflict within our own relationship: complex, nuanced, with blame on both sides.

Thirdly, leading on from the supposedly murkier subject of blame within an abusive marriage, I wonder if the third and most disturbing explanation for the way in which society turns away from victims of domestic abuse is that it is too easy to identify with. We’ve all been furious with a partner at one time or another, and maybe even wanted to strike them. I wonder if maybe some people then sublimate that desire into a pattern of behaviour that makes their partner feel that everything wrong in the relationship is their fault (and therefore it’s OK to be abusive towards that person in a non-specific, unprovoked fashion, because they’re bound to deserve it one way or another). It’s not such a stretch from there to striking that person next time we lose our temper. Instinctively, we turn away from our darker impulses when we see them in ourselves, and when we see them in others. In other words, there is never going to be a situation when it’s OK for a grown-up man to molest a teenager, but we don’t find it such a large logical leap to imagine a scenario when it might be acceptable for a grown-up to strike another grown-up. Add to this the culture of victim-blaming I mentioned earlier, and we may find it easy to believe that a thirteen-year-old was unable to resist her attacker (just as she is unable to consent), but may find it harder to believe of an older, larger and more experienced woman.[1] Surely, we say from a position of no information whatsoever, she must have had options?[2] Thus it becomes easier to say ‘poor little thing’ about the netball player, and ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ about the battered wife.

Fourthly, we have the commodification of youth, and of formative sexual experiences. Recall our coltish netball player: one reason that her story is shocking that we feel she ‘deserves’ a ‘normal’ introduction to sexual relationships. However, as I hope every student I have ever taught would immediately point out, that statement doesn’t mean anything until you define the central terms. What do we mean by ‘deserve’? What do we mean by ‘normal’? What do we mean by ‘sexual relationships’? Moreover, why is this girl entitled to a happy, safe, supportive relationship when her neighbour is not? I am not trying to set up a simplistic dichotomy of victims of child abuse have it easy vs. battered wives don’t, because I don’t think comparative victimhood helps anybody (although this kind of relativism is something you will see in the media all the time): my point is that as a society we are far less upset by (and a lot less sympathetic towards) adult victims of abuse than we are towards children or teenagers. I don’t want to say ‘young women are real women, because they fit the ideal that women are supposed to conform to more closely’ vs. ‘older, less attractive women are not really people at all’, but, beyond my tentative suggestions above, I can’t come up with anything better. Would we feel different about Punch and Judy if Judy were younger or prettier? I think it would.

It is, thankfully, possible to move on from child abuse and live a normal life. It’s certainly possible to deal with (have therapy for, think constructively about, understand and move on from) a single incident, or even years of repeated abuse. Not everyone is able to do this, but many people can and do. Women (and men) do this all the time. I wonder how easy it is to move on (emotionally, but financially, practically, and physically) from an abusive marriage. Remember again that such women may have children that don’t know what a non-abusive relationship looks like; that the violent husband is likely to never face arrest, trial or prison for his crimes; and that the ties that bind our battered wife to her abuser are numerous and strong. She may also have her own internal conflicts to deal with. Perhaps she struggles with the concept of divorce for religious reasons; perhaps her children are too young to understand their father’s behaviour and will hold her responsible for removing him from their lives (more victim-blaming); perhaps nobody else knows about the abuse and she will be subject to many well-meaning but ill-informed interventions. Perhaps she also feels a sense of guilt and shame at the situation she finds herself in. I have written elsewhere about my own extremely amicable divorce (see Delete as appropriate). We were both very clear that there was no question of either of us being ‘to blame’ for the end of the relationship. Nevertheless, we both still had to listen to other people’s opinions on the subject; we had also, throughout the long dark patches of our marriage, felt compelled to conceal how bad things were from almost everybody. I stress again that neither of us had anything to be ashamed of, and yet we both felt the need to behave as if the failure of our marriage represented some profound personal disgrace.

There has been a great deal of muddying the waters with speculation and focus on the perpetrators. For example, we can’t talk in an informed way about Bill Cosby and the (at the time of writing) seventeen women who have made accusations against him, because he hasn’t been tried in a court of law, and so we are left wading about in a load of hearsay and weak inferences (e.g. ‘Janice Dickinson doesn’t seem credible because she’s kind of a bitch; Beverly Johnson does, because she seems nicer’ is about the level we’re at, when we should be asking why the word of one man is being trusted over that of nearly twenty women. Here’s an idea: let’s prosecute him for his crimes, and then we’d know beyond reasonable doubt whether he did them or not. Once that’s done, let’s have a conversation about it). I don’t find it difficult to believe or ‘side with’ these women, because I can’t name a single woman who became rich and successful by accusing a male celebrity of rape. I can name several male celebrities who have done just fine with all sorts of accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour hanging around their necks (Roman Polanski, Francois Mitterand, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Francois Hollande, Michael Jackson, John Prescott, Paddy Ashdown, David Mellor). In some cases it even did them good: I don’t think there’s any doubt that many people felt John Major’s extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie made him more interesting. I can even name one or two men who have served time and yet still somehow manage to go on with their lives, such as convicted rapist Mike Tyson and convicted rapist Ched Evans.

I mention Ched Evans here because his case confuses the issue, by (again) placing the focus on the rapist rather than the victim. Just as in The Accused the emphasis is placed on the consequences of a prison sentence for the lives and careers of rapists (the poor little rapists!), I find it hard to stomach the sentiment that ‘Ched Evans has been punished and should be allowed to go back to work.’ He continues to deny committing the crime at all and remains completely unrepentant. That matters because a. even small children are told to say sorry when they do something wrong; b. it suggests that prison has had little meaningful effect, which means c. he’s likely to do it again.

We divide those who commit sexual crimes against children (paedophiles) from those who commit sexual crimes against grown-ups (common or garden rapists). The first group are subjects of horror. We can see from the pattern of crimes committed by (say) Jimmy Savile, that such people tend to obsessively repeat their crimes, are always dangerous to those around them, have few if any scruples about who they will prey upon, and that (partly because of the horror with which other people regard such crimes), they often choose to murder their victims as a means of protecting themselves, rather than choosing to stop. The second group are treated in a completely different way, even though they are not demonstrably different (safer, less awful somehow). In the US, statistics show that convicted rapists commit an average of five or six rapes in their lifetimes. What I mean here is that, on average, a man convicted of his first rape is likely to be convicted of another five or six rapes after that, but of course once we consider the shocking rates of reporting and prosecution, the likely total of rapes he actually commits is probably best calculated in dozens.[3] It is, therefore, vital that when such a person is released back into the community, he expresses some kind of contrition, and demonstrates that he has considered and changed his behaviour.

Here is what I am driving at: dividing sexual predators into two groups based on the demographics of their victims and saying that one group is more dangerous or depraved than the other is itself extremely dangerous. Choose a sexual predator at random and examine his behaviour. The pattern is usually as follows: he starts small (cat-calling, flashing); he makes insinuations and threats that become less and less empty; he moves on to threatening and groping women he can access easily, such as girlfriends, sisters, daughters, neighbours, colleagues; his behaviour and his crimes escalate in direct proportion to what he thinks he can get away with, and he continues to assault whomever he can for as long as he can. He stops only when he is compelled to stop.

Finally, the woman Ched Evans raped was nineteen years old at the time of the crime. Nobody would be saying ‘he’s served his time’ if his victim had been nine.


[1] This is relevant to the situation I discussed recently (see ‘The fish that is black’), where it seemed reasonable to some people that a woman who is scalped by a killer whale is at least partially to blame because she wore her hair long, rather than blaming (say) the people who employed her and others to get into the water with an animal twice the size of any other orca in captivity and known to have killed two people. The first thing that was actually said about this death was that the whale seized her by the hair (swiftly debunked via video footage), including in an interview with someone who had never met the dead woman (her name was Dawn Brancheau) who stated that she would have been the first to say ‘she got it wrong’.

[2] I’m not making this up: it was suggested to a woman claiming that Bill Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him that she should have bitten him in the penis. This is how you know we are through the looking-glass: refraining from savaging somebody’s genitals can be described as equivalent to ‘yes, darling, I’d love to. Remind me how you like it.’

[3] DOZENS <goes for a lie down>.

The fish that is black

I wrote recently about visiting Nanjing Holocaust Museum in 2009 (see ‘Notes from Nanjing’). Today I found the following snippet in one of my many ‘Thoughts and Notes’ documents, jotted down in a dentist’s waiting room and later typed up:

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Boune Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.[1] 

Notice how the final position of the elephants’ corpses makes a statement about what was important to each animal. What I want to consider here is the inference that animals have an understanding of family.

I don’t mean to insult elephants by suggesting that their understanding of family is the same as my human understanding, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that, just as these elephants seem to have divided into two groups (those that fled, and those that didn’t), people might divide along similar lines. Not every person (or elephant) behaves heroically in such a situation, and may not be surrounded by family members at the time. Furthermore, not everyone places family members (people one has not chosen to be associated with) above all others. It seems to me that, for every elderly skeleton in Nanjing shielding another that he or she believed to be his or her kin, there is probably another skeleton belonging to someone who died trying to protect someone of no blood relation at all (maybe someone they didn’t even know). Returning to the dividing line mentioned earlier, for each of these skeletons, then, I think there is likely to be a further skeleton on the edge of the mass grave crawling over the others in an attempt to save him or herself, who may have been in a crowd of strangers, or who saw his/her relative/friend being shot or maimed, but did not feel moved to risk his/her own life further by intervening. In other words, I think the human concept of family and how we juxtapose that against the concepts of friends and strangers, is more fluid and layered than it is in the animal world. Consider, for example, how many people dislike or have limited contact with their closest relations, or feel a sense of dread or foreboding when their closest relations visit. This feeling of dread can coexist with being deeply attached to the relatives concerned, because it isn’t an expression of not loving those people, but of a whole host of other intertwined issues. I find it unlikely that elephants have such fine-grained, complex feelings towards their parents, children and siblings, given that a. they are elephants; and b. elephants typically live in large, matriarchal groups constructed along family lines. It seems more probable that such interactions and feelings are simpler and more straightforward for elephants.

Secondly, it seems to me that anthropomorphizing animals demeans both animals and humans. Clearly many species besides humans have a profound concept of which individuals besides themselves are worth protecting at their own risk, but these concepts and the behaviours that flow from them vary enormously. A mother lapwing will fake a broken wing to draw a hawk away from her babies, but in my own garden I have found the pathetic, wrinkly evidence of blackbird parents ceasing to feed a baby that has fallen out of their own nest, even though it is only a few feet away and has survived the fall unharmed. Animal societies, physiologies and means of expression are so different from our own that I think it is unhelpful and confusing to talk about animals as if they are people, and as if they experience the same emotions that we do.

I watched Blackfish for the first time last week (or, rather, I watched it, went to bed, woke up the next day and immediately watched it again). There is much discussion of the family bonds within groups of orcas: each pod has something analogous to its own language, and adult orcas live with their mothers for their entire lives (their lifespans are comparable to human lifespans, so this is not trivial). The concept of family is, therefore, deeply important to these animals; if anything, the film suggests that it is far more important than it is to humans, who can learn to speak another language if they so desire; can leave and join other family groups (indeed, are often expected to do so); and can often dictate the intensity and duration of family relationships.

It seems to me that attributing human emotions to a domesticated animal such as a pet dog makes some limited sense. Dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for thousands of years, and they have been bred to be docile, aesthetically pleasing and able to remember their name and a set of commands. Orcas do not live alongside people and could easily go their whole lives without seeing a single human being. Moreover, they have spent thousands of years evolving into things that are good at killing and eating stuff. Although the sections of Blackfish that show various killer whales lunging at or attempting to drown people who were interacting with them peacefully a moment ago are shocking, in some ways the most troubling footage (to me) was that which showed some of the same people interacting with the orcas with great affection and talking about the bond that they feel they have with the animals. I found the question of whether that bond was real profoundly disturbing.

The trainers speak to the orcas as if they are enormous dogs, because they don’t know what else to do. The film makes a good case for the whales being psychologically traumatised, bored, grief-stricken, confused and repeatedly under- and over-stimulated, but we aren’t killer whales and (to mangle Hegel) can have only a very limited understanding of what it is like to be a wild killer whale. Naturally, we turn to things that we do understand: other people, and other animals. The sequences showing mother orcas grieving when their offspring are permanently removed from them are heart-breaking, but I feel that how moving it is depends on the frame of reference being used. Rather than comparing the mother orcas to human mothers, the people making the decisions to separate them from their babies continue to view the orcas as enormous dogs. Domestic dogs don’t much like having their puppies taken away from them, but they seem to bounce back from it fairly quickly, and the expectation seems to be that the mother orca should do the same. However, using a human mother as the gold standard of emotional connection wouldn’t be any better (e.g. removing the young orca when it reached sexual maturity, say, and then expecting the mother orca to think this gave her more time for herself). Indeed, since the orca mother and baby are being separated by humans, the idea of judging the intensity of their grief in human terms at the same time as humans are inducing that grief feels pretty queasy. Orcas live alongside their mothers their entire lives. We don’t.

Something else I have been turning over in my mind since watching the film is whether the three people killed by the largest killer whale in the film (a male called Tillikum) were also in some way the victims of our tendency to misunderstand animals by projecting human emotions onto them. Several of the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish speak of how mortified they are at the nonsense they used to say about the whales performing ‘because they want to’. Seeing the killer whales doing various complex tricks is impressive only if you consider it remarkable that the killer whale is doing as it was asked rather than killing and eating stuff. Plainly these creatures are easily strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to leap out of the water and touch a ball with their nose or whatever, and the fact that they do so should not surprise us. They are also strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to kill and eat the trainers if they so choose, and the fact that they do this should not surprise us either. The film makes it clear that there have been many, many near misses: in other words, the truly remarkable thing is that there haven’t been more fatalities. While most of the people featured in the film who worked with the killer whales are shocked and upset that Tillikum has behaved badly (i.e. killed and partially eaten people), there is very little surprise expressed at the people who behave badly: those who capture and kill orcas in the wild; whoever it was that thought buying an orca who is only for sale in the first place because he killed someone was a good idea; those who didn’t bother to tell any of the people working with Tillikum that he had killed a person, during a live show, in front of an audience; those who wrote the nonsense that the staff at Seaworld uttered in good faith; and those who attempted to blame the three victims for their deaths. It is interesting to see Tillikum picked out as ‘a bad whale’ (in contrast with all the other ‘good’ whales) on the one hand, and on the other the faceless mass of venal, callous, stupid, reckless or greedy people. It is as if we believe that whales are fundamentally good and people are fundamentally not.[2]

That brings me on to another very human habit, which is the desire to categorise, just as I did at the start of this post by dividing the elephants into two groups. It seems to me that the managers of Seaworld who continued to allow the whale trainers to work with Tillikum and other whales that were known to be dangerous took the view that these were fundamentally ‘good’ whales who had behaved badly on some isolated occasions. As Blackfish goes on, it seems that those same managers change their minds, and take the view (after Tillikum has killed for a third time) that he is a ‘bad’ whale. However, it doesn’t make sense to make a statement about the fundamental nature of a species or one particular individual whale, based on the behaviour of the few animals that can be observed splashing crowds of tourists from a blue concrete tank. The question ‘is Tillikum a bad whale?’ doesn’t make sense, because we have no way of defining the central terms.[3] We cannot explain what we mean by ‘a bad whale’. If we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that has killed people’ (including two people that worked with that whale and probably felt deeply attached to him), then yes, Tillikum is a bad whale, but the list of other ‘bad’ whales that had given it a jolly good go was extensive and harrowing. Moreover, all of these ‘bad’ whales are likely to have been ‘good’ whales in their natural context, where their skills at killing and eating stuff would be useful and necessary. In some sense, we might even say that these ‘bad’ whales are more fundamentally ‘whale-like’ than the ‘good’ whales that don’t make any effort to kill and eat stuff. Furthermore, if we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that could or would kill a person if he got the chance’ then we are left adrift in a sea of things that can’t be determined. We can’t determine why an orca kills a person or whether he feels anything in particular before or after the event. We can’t determine whether he does this because he has the opportunity or whether it is part of his whale-like nature, although it is worth saying that there has never been any record of a person being killed by an orca in the wild. Tillikum has killed three people, but I don’t know if we even can use that to make statements about the fundamental makeup of Tillikum (‘Tillikum is a bad whale’) any more than we can use it to make statements about the fundamental makeup of orcas as a whole (‘all orcas are bad whales’). Blackfish makes a compelling case that captivity traumatises whales such that they may be more likely to unexpectedly turn on their trainers and attempt to kill and eat them, and therefore we might feel more comfortable with the statements ‘all orcas in captivity are psychological traumatised, and therefore will eventually become bad whales’, but again we can’t be sure whether this is part of their fundamental nature or caused by circumstance. Fundamental attribution error suggests that the circumstances a person finds himself in contribute more to his actions that the fundamentals of his character, but I think it would be a mistake to apply that with any certain to Tillikum, because he’s not a person. It seems that the best we can do is to say ‘orcas are very good at killing and eating stuff. Therefore being in a confined watery space with an orca is not safe’, which is surely something we could have worked out without anyone having to die.

Tillikum now lives in a tank on his own, much like many people who have killed multiple times. As I’ve said, words that humans use to describe human concepts aren’t very meaningful when applied to whales and whale concepts, but if a whale can be said to be lonely, then given all that I’ve said about the duration of the family bonds that they have with each other, he probably feels something that we might describe as loneliness. I suggest, however, that the difficulty of thinking about this particular whale is that using our own emotions as a frame of reference is inadequate, and using no frame of reference at all gives us no purchase. While the read-across between the massacred elephants in Cameroon and the rape of Nanjing is tempting and obvious, in both instances I struggle to state with any confidence that I understand how any of the people or animals involved felt, or how I might behave in the same situation. I wrote about my visit to Nanjing that ‘No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task’. Here, I feel that a thoughtful and nuanced attempt to make sense of the deaths of the three people killed by Tillikum has been made, but I still don’t feel that I understand.


[1] Brian Christy, National Geographic, October 2012.

[2] I know orcas are technically dolphins rather than whales, but the term ‘killer whale’ is so loaded with meaning here that I’m using the word ‘whale’ rather more loosely than I would otherwise.

[3] I will leave aside the unanswerable question of whether an animal used to swimming hundreds of miles a day in a family group, and evolved to use its size, strength and intelligence to kill and eat stuff can continue to be considered a whale if it lives in a tank a few yards across away from all its relatives and is fed fish by hand from a bucket.

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 telephones, 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.


[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.

[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.


[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.’ 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.


[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’.


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]


[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.


[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.’


[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.


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