Chinese Whispers

Regular readers will recall that I often return from China with thoughts, on voting (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), the Rape of Nanjing (The fish that is black and Notes from Nanjing), insect bites (Bite me), asking and answering questions, both in interviews (No means no) and when drawn from the Embarrassing Questions Box (Please use power wisely, Shake it all about and Open the box) and salmon-skin suits (A small, mysterious corpus). This year (and what a year it has been!), it has taken me rather longer to process my thoughts. Of course, being in any city a few weeks before the G20 carnival comes to town would be interesting. Every journey that involved actually leaving one’s hotel room required the approval of a small man in white gloves and a nondescript blue uniform, sitting at a desk with a bunch of other uniformed and remarkably non-threatening people standing around it. His desk was right by the lift, and one was required to provide one’s room number and passport. The hotel restaurant was on a mezzanine floor only accessible from the lobby, which meant we all had to take our passports to breakfast, and then carry the wretched thing with us at all times. I kept mine inside my copy of Night Watch[1] on the grounds that a whole book was easier to keep track of than a skinny little passport, which meant that like a teenager with a spot, I was constantly running my fingers over the book to check that nothing had changed. Hangzhou itself was looking its best, including the twin globe-shaped hotels, one intended to resemble the moon and therefore lit up with white lights, and the other the sun, lit up with yellow ochre (it looked rather like a pumpkin, but a very splendid one). The waterfront, beautiful lakeside parks and (that peculiarly Chinese thing) musical fountains, were all poised to welcome President Obama, although I note that the first piece of music chosen for the fountains while we were there was ‘Time To Say Goodbye’.

Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Bernard at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Humphrey by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?
Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.
Bernard: Why?
Me: Centuries of oppression.
Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, answers included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant (another mark). This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary and the words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile, nevertheless, collate (‘when you are late because your friend is also late’), compliment, complement and kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question ‘Every year teams from Great Britain participate in a rugby tournament called the Six Nations. One point for each of those nations you can name.’ I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also named ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point because, while the answer was wrong, the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ I’m quite proud of that as an explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. In each of the interviews I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. The most thoughtful answer was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’). In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.


[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim. And Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

Jam tomorrow: a tale of disappointment

In the old days, students wrote or typed their essays, and submitted the results as physical objects.[1] The staff read the essays, marked them, and returned these self-same objects to the students, possibly even meeting them to discuss, clarify or build upon their comments. Vast quantities of paper were sacrificed, but broadly this system seemed to meet the needs of all concerned. Then, at some point in the early noughties, one of the minions (whose only job is to spoon liquid over the twitching body of the Creature) overstepped the boundaries of his job description, and the world of marking was changed forever.

The Creature, whose existence I infer from what I see around me in the university, is the malevolent controlling force that propels the institution along in ever-stupider directions: a vast, grub-like being that lives in the bowels of Senate House, covered with electrodes and feeding on despair. Suggest other explanations if you wish:none of them can explain all the quirks and details satisfactorily. Perhaps the Creature was relaxing after a hard Friday afternoon digesting a junior member of staff from Personnel, who had dared to point out that a three-hour meeting is at least two-and-a-half-hours too long; or perhaps Personnel no longer have meetings, but simply gather into piles to sleep. Either way, I sense that the Creature was itself drowsy and unfocused, luxuriating in the sensation of the fluid moving around its vat, eyes closed, tentacles relaxed. The electrodes that hook it up to (among other things) the university timetabling software were, I fancy, relatively quiet. This lulled the spooning minion into a false sense of security, and he spoke without considering the consequences of his actions.

Balthazar (Buffy, season three). Put tentacles where the arms are, the buttocks at the back and a load of electrodes on each slimy fold, and you have the Creature.

‘Minion,’ mumbled the Creature, who has never troubled to learn the names of those who serve him, ‘do you know how old I am?’

‘Nearly one hundred, Sire,’ replied the minion (let’s call him Gavin). ‘Your centenary is only a few years away. But everybody is living longer these days. I was reading on the internet the other day that–’ A tentacle flopped out of the vat, seizing Gavin by the face and arresting him in the middle of his (no doubt very tedious) sentence. ‘A moment, minion. What is … the internet?’

At the end of the ensuing conversation with the luckless Gavin, the Creature issued a mad decree: that all the world should be taxed that the university couldn’t consider itself modern (modern!) unless all written work was submitted, marked and returned online.[2] As the Creature’s decrees go, this is only mildly mad; my personal favourite is still the edict we had in 2008 to combat the financial crisis by buying cheaper pens. In theory, online submission and marking makes a lot of sense. Certainly it is a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken, but there are obvious advantages. However, in practice it has turned a pleasantly cathartic task into something that makes one chew one’s desk in frustration. The Online Learning Environment (which absolutely nobody refers to as ‘olé!’) is a joyless, counter-intuitive piece of crap. Having clicked through half a dozen screens to get to the blasted essays, each one appears in a window much smaller than one would like. The staff member can then mark up the text by attaching comments (slowly, laboriously) and scrolling through the paragraphs, fingers curled and wizened, all the time remembering that one’s New Year Resolution for the last four years has been to spend less time looking at screens. Marking up in this way isn’t anything like as quick or useful as (say) tracked changes in Word, and very often one simply gives up recording the more minor things. There is also no straightforward way to do detailed work, such as punctuating a sentence or suggesting words that could usefully have been removed from a paragraph, and the autosave doesn’t work properly and periodically tosses one out of the system without warning, like a crotchety bull tossing an inept matador out of the ring (olé!). Having read and marked an essay after a fashion, one is then required to give feedback under a set of meaningless headings, record one’s mark in several places, and then, exhausted, sweaty, and with a lingering sense of doubt that this exercise has achieved anything very much, move onto the next essay. Our marking system was, I suggest, developed by the same moron that put together the online ordering system for purchasing jam jars at my hitherto preferred jam jar emporium.

As I am fond of remarking in fits of false modesty, some can sing; some can dance; and some can make preserves. Happily, I can do all three (simultaneously if required). Making jam, jelly, curd and marmalade is, however, something I can do well. This not just any old jam, jelly, curd and marmalade: these are the finest fruit-based preserves known to man. Late summer is the time to make jam with soft fruit, and the point at which the season turns from autumn to winter is when I make jelly out of hard fruit such as quinces and crabapples.[3] January is for marmalade, because Seville oranges and bergamot (also called Marrakesh lemons, which I prefer as it’s in keeping with Seville oranges) are in season. Marmalade requires three categories of ingredient (fruit, sugar, and liquid) and I like to experiment with all of them. This year, for example, I am attempting three concurrent batches, the first of which contained Seville oranges, lemons, demerara sugar and six pints of ginger tea. One can only eat so much marmalade, and I give a lot of it away. After devouring the smashing orangey bit in the middle, people are often thoughtful enough to return the jars to me, but even so I thought it was high time I bought some more, and ordered forty-five online. That was a week ago, and the third batch of marmalade remains unmade, for reasons that will become apparent in what follows.

Jam jars arrive. The Seville oranges are looking a bit peaky, but I have time to make the marmalade on Saturday while Giant Bear is at a train thing.

Marmalade Tide! Seville orange peel is fairly tough and needs to be cooked down for around an hour, so while it simmered away, I tore open the faintly jingly box. There are my three racks of jars; there are the six ‘fancy’ jars I’ve ordered to give to people who are Extra Special; and there is the delivery note. However, like snake eyes, my jars have no lids.

I manage to scrape together a motley crew of jars and am jolly lucky not to have lost the whole batch. Naturally, I assume this lidlessness is my fault. I am also enraged, assuming that the fucking website has allowed me to order forty-five jars without generating an error message that alerts me to the fact that, while nobody would ever order jars without lids or lids without jars, the wretched things are sold separately, as if a restaurant suddenly started charging extra for plates, glasses and cutlery. I contact the company, apologise for my stupidity and ask them to rush me forty-five lids. They reply that no, the jars and lids are sold as a package: I have in fact done everything right. My lids have been omitted by their system, which understands lids and jars as two separate things (why, since the order does not?). They are very sorry and will have some lids sent out to me with all speed on Monday morning. I say, hilariously, ‘Jam tomorrow!’; am briefly cross that I can’t think of a joke about yesterday’s jam; muse fleeting on the chances that the same person is responsible for my delayed lids and the online marking system; and think nothing more of it.

Jam Jar Emporium: What kind of jars do you want?
Me: I don’t want jars. I have fucktons of jars. I want lids. GIVE ME LIDS!
Jam Jar Emporium: Great! Glad to hear you’ve got jars!
Me: The order number and the fact that I want some lids are in the subject line of the email.
Jam Jar Emporium: Super! [Is it?] What kind of lids do you want?
Me: I want lids that will fit my jars. I don’t care about the colour or pattern. [I was so cross that I almost quoted Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat]. Any lids will do.
Jam Jar Emporium: What colour do you want?
Me: I literally don’t care.
Jam Jar Emporium: Right, but what colour do you want?
Me: Fine. Blue, please.
Jam Jar Emporium: We’re sold out of blue.

Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier. A nice man on a motorbike arrives with a jiffy bag that makes the right noise when I shake it, with my name and ‘OMITTED!’ scrawled on the outside in black biro. Recklessly, after dinner I email the Jam Jar Emporium idiot to say that my lids have arrived, and I prepare three pounds of fruit (Marrakesh lemons, limes and a couple of tangerines to bring it up to the required weight). The limes are teeny-tiny and full of pips, so this takes ages, but none of them have actually gone over, and it’s jolly satisfying to see it all bubbling away together. I’ve decided to make this batch with weak Earl Grey as the liquid, since Marrakesh lemons are what give Earl Grey its lovely smell, and for sugar I’m using honey. As I add it to the pan, I have the brilliant idea of immediately cleaning, de-labelling and sterilising the honey jars and pouring the brand new marmalade back into them. Accordingly, I sterilise these eight jars, plus another eight jars from the box. I count out the brand new lids, which are a fetching red with spots. Much like a heroine in DH Lawrence, the marmalade reaches its crisis eventually, and I ladle it into the jars. This is the moment at which I discover that the new lids are too fucking small.

Me: These lids won’t do.
Jam Jar Emporium: Don’t you like the colour?
Me: The colour is, as we have established, a matter of indifference to me. They won’t do because they are too fucking small.
Jam Jar Emporium: Are you sure?[4]
Me: Please find attached a picture showing both lid and jar.
Jam Jar Emporium: Oh dear. I think we may have sent you the wrong size.
Jam Jar Emporium: What size jars did you order?
Me [again, the order number is in the subject line of the email, so surely you can just look it up, but whatever]: 12oz.
Jam Jar Emporium: What’s that in kg?
Me: About 340g [I knew this from doing the conversion when buying the honey], but everything on your website is in imperial.[5]
Jam Jar Emporium: Nope. I’ve just searched for 340g jars and we don’t do those.
Me: You do do those. I have forty-five of them in my kitchen. You just call them 12oz jars, which is what they are. Again, however, I must remind you that it is the lids that I require. Do you do the lids for them?
Jam Jar Emporium: You’d assume so, wouldn’t you?

Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier (again). This is less reassuring than it was last time, but the email comes from the boss of the fool I have been dealing with and so I remain foolishly hopeful. This ebbs away as the day drags on, partly because of Trump’s inauguration, and partly because I don’t think motorcycle couriers deliver jiffy-bags of jam jar lids after nightfall.[6]

It’s 5.30pm, and I am still lidless. This morning’s email from Incompetents R Us suggests I make the marmalade anyway and put clingfilm over the lids of my jars (because jars that have been filled with boiling sugar remain cool to the touch and the clingfilm definitely wouldn’t melt). I recall that, except for walking the dog (I don’t want to be borked to death), I have been unable to leave the house during the day all week for fear of missing one lid-bearing courier or another. The house, myself and the remaining three pounds of blood oranges are still in a state of tension, as, like Adrian Mole waiting for the giro, we continue to wait for the lids. If only I had some marking to do to pass the time.


[1] Other options are available, of course, such as not handing in work at all. I was once confronted by an angry student who had been awarded a mark of zero for failing to hand in an essay (and ‘awarded’ is surely the right word here). The student felt that a suitable way to persuade me to change his mark of zero was to yell at the other staff in the room, and then assault me with a quick burst of Cicero-like rhetoric. Under the impression that I was a. interested and b. allowed to make those kinds of decisions (I was neither), he looked me straight in the boob, and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Since I had created and then managed the student database for a year, I knew exactly who he was: I knew his name, mediocre A-Levels and unit choices, and yet I am still assailed by the nagging feeling that this wasn’t what he meant. Happily, not only did the mark of zero stand (because of course it did, despite a telephone call from his father, who turned out to be a minor civil servant and only too happy to take our side when I explained how little work his son was doing), but the student failed a load of exams the following summer and thus removed himself from the university forever, like a tick falling off a cow. Thus perish all mine enemies, saith the Lord.

[2] Why on earth would we want universities, of all things, to be modern?

[3] This year’s crabapple and apple jelly, which I made on Christmas Eve, was a corker. As described in a previous post (see Eve’s Pudding), it is sunset in a jar.

[4] AM I SURE. As if the reply was going to be, ‘actually, I’m not very sure. It’s so hard to tell the different between Things That Are Big Enough and Things That Are Definitely Too Small To Be Useful, isn’t it?’ No woman of thirty-six has ever said this.

[5] This is because making preserves is easy if you do it in imperial. Marmalade, for example, is a fundamentally imperial thing: three pounds of citrus fruit + six pounds of sugar + six pints of water.

[6] Although if they did, that’s a stand-alone early Buffy episode right there: the perfect excuse to get vulnerable jam-making ladies to open their doors to strangers after dark. The episode (and courier company?) would be called Nighthawk; Americans don’t watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, but one might include a sprinkling of hilarious references that only British viewers would understand e.g. Giles wearing a policeman’s uniform, rehearsing Pirates of Penzance, perhaps (‘Good moaning!’); an Italian exchange student shouting ‘The byowtiful lie-dee!’ at Cordelia; everyone stuffing cheese into their ears so they don’t have to hear Xander’s attempts at cafe chantant, and so on. The couriers would be dishy, leather-clad and apologetic, and then BAM! As per The Fly, fruit and sugar trigger these apparently nice young men to reveal beaks and talons and all the vulnerable jam-making ladies would be horribly pecked to death and/or partially eaten and smeared with jam. Then Willow decides to make marmalade for some reason (a school project, say), orders some jam jars that are ‘accidentally’ sent without lids, terribly sorry miss, we’ll rush them to you by courier – and thus our story unfolds.

Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be conveniently and unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it.

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman, we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![6]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[7] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.


[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[7] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.

Dog Days

Even though it is only an hour from home, Bath is our weekend away destination of choice. We like to stay in the same hotel, visit our favourite restaurants, and cycle through the various bookshops in what we agree is the optimal order. We finish with Topping & Company, which describes itself (entirely accurately) as ‘a haven for book-lovers’. There are shelves that go all the way to the ceiling, complete with library staircases. There are little nooks and crannies where one can enjoy one’s free cup of tea entirely surrounded by books. There is a large, impressive and constantly changing natural history section, which I am gradually transferring to our house one book at a time. It is a magical, life-enhancing and (for us) life-changing place, because on one of our trips, a member of staff at Topping & Co. brought her teeny-tiny Jack Russell to work. The dog’s name was Lettice; she let me play fetch with her for a good ten minutes; and she is the original Tiny Book Hound. Here is what has happened since then in our quest to acquire a hound of our own.

An indeterminate number of days leading up to Sunday. We are agreed that we’d like to get a Tiny Book Hound of our own (I try ‘Small Questing Beast’, but even in the privacy of my head this doesn’t catch on). We have a lot to offer a dog, we reason: there is the garden, full of exciting smells and insects; there is the fact that as a freelance I am home almost all day, almost every day; there are my morning walks, which always feel a bit silly without a dog; there is Giant Bear’s ability to charm any small dog simply by picking it up and rubbing its tummy (they usually fall asleep); there the dogs next door to hate and bark at; and there are trips on the boat, surely the most fun an adventurous dog could ask for (although see Tales from the canal-bank).

It’s emotionally draining just looking at the pictures and descriptions on the internet. Because of the nature of rescue animals, there are rarely more than two decent pictures and very few actual details about the dogs, all of whom seem to have irritatingly whimsical names (Trixie, Smudge, Buster etc.); I’ve given all the dogs pseudonyms so as not to embarrass or identify the shelter, but also because the names they have right now are objectively horrible. Some shelters provide little videos of the dogs running fetchingly across a field (i.e. they look good doing it, and also are probably actually fetching something), with emotive piano music in the background. I keep waiting for one of the dogs to lift its leg as the music swells into a key-change (that’s the dog for us, I think), but none of them do.

Sunday. Resolved to get a small, garden- and boat-friendly dog (i.e. one that can be lifted into the boat and/or whisked out of the canal with ease), we also agree that we don’t want to house-train a puppy, and we can’t afford an old dog with health problems. We drive to the shelter. The kennels are large, the volunteers lovely and the dogs exactly as you expect: a mishmash of breeds, ages and circumstances. They all represent a person who has let them down in one way or another and I am embarrassed by how open and eager they are when one crouches in front of their kennel: they trot up, sniffing, ears up, ready to fall in love all over again. It is both humbling and horrible.

There is a huge black Newfoundland flopped in the shade like a discarded rug. There are two collies, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, with curtains over the front of their kennels to stop them barking (I find this out the hard way). There is a black terrier I’m going to call Springs, a tiny thing able to leap up almost to my eye level, straight up in the air like a jump jet. There are two of the dogs we picked out on the website. One I’m going to call Fig because she’s small and dark, about half the size she looked in her picture, friendly and big-eyed, but Not Our Dog (and reserved by someone else). The other is a very clearly a Very Large Dog in a very small body, and jolly cross about the whole thing. He needs an over-sized name like Jupiter, and he barks his Big Dog bark (I’ve no idea how he’s making that sound; it must take enormous amounts of energy) and jumps and hurls himself against the wire and eventually we give up trying to soothe him and move on.

Then there are two dogs we like immediately, in adjacent kennels. One is a puppy. One is clearly much older (we think at least ten; he turns out to be eight and to have lived with a smoker). We decide we don’t care and ask to meet both of them. Both are lovely, but (of course) we like the older one, about whom the shelter has no information whatever because he arrived twenty minutes before we did. The puppy is handsome, floppy of ear and large of paw, but he isn’t our Tiny Book Hound. The other one is. Tiny Book Hound is a Jack Russell, black-and-white like a cow, and with a black patch over either eye like an absent-minded pirate. He has absurd ginger eyebrows, terrible smokers’ teeth, a tail far too big for his body, and the obligatory stupid name. And we love him. We take him into the garden with one of the volunteers, and he jumps up at Giant Bear, and I see the exact moment when Giant Bear decides this is our dog. Tiny Book Hound romps around the garden like a much younger dog, front legs stiff like a piglet, barking incessantly in his whisky voice and pausing only to do numerous wees and then an almighty, leg-trembling poo. The dogs nextdoor to us at home (see Curtain-twitching) bark constantly, including in the middle of the night and whenever I have a deadline, and I loathe them for it. The barking of the other dogs at the shelter sets my teeth on edge; Springs has a yap that pierces my head like a knitting needle; Jupiter is deafening. How is it, then, that the thing I like most about Tiny Book Hound is his hoarse pensioner bark? It reminds us both of a radio play we heard on the way back from the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), featuring an elderly gentleman with dementia who was able to think perfectly clearly, but struggled to say much more than ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ We say ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ to each other; the dog barks more urgently (‘Yes! Exactly! BELGIUM! BELGIUM!’). We go back to reception and are asked which dogs we have met. The puppy, and the old one with the terrible teeth, we say. Oh, the puppy! they say. What a popular boy he is today! Isn’t he adorable? Isn’t he handsome? Yes, we say. We’d like the other one, please.

Monday. Drove for an hour to get to the shelter in order to walk the Tiny Book Hound and fill out the paperwork to adopt him; twice on the way there, I catch myself humming the only Perry Como song I know all the words to.[1] Tiny Book Hound can’t be walked because he’s too unsettled and needs to spend as much time as possible in his kennel, so I try not to be disappointed that I’ve given up my entire afternoon for two long drives in the rain and no walk, and talk soothingly to him through the bars. He barks his lovely bark (‘Belgium! BELGIUM!’), wags his whole rear end and shows me his appalling teeth. I think he remembers me and is pleased to see me again (possibly because he thinks this means he’s going in the garden, but who cares), but he is cranky, dashing back and forth in his kennel and barking at nothing. I try to take a photograph of him through the bars to show the rest of the family, but the results are so depressing (bars, confused hound) that I delete them all.

I am told that he is in disgrace after growling at the vet this morning. The shelter lady says she thinks an anal thermometer might have been involved. ‘Don’t blame him, myself,’ she says, pursing her lips in what I take to be an (unconscious) imitation of a dog’s bottom. I say, ‘I love this dog. Tell me what I have to do to take him home with me.’ I fill out a three-page form and answer questions about our experience of dog-ownership and try to look and sound responsible on behalf of both of us. They agree that he’s a good fit for us and are thrilled to have someone take an interest in him so quickly: ‘The old ones can be hard to shift’, I’m told, which just breaks my heart. While I’m filling out our form, a fourteen-year-old cat is brought in (a ‘lifer’ according to the reception lady), who is being handed in by a widower because his wife used to feed the cat and he can’t cope. While I’m struggling with the idea of how miserable a person has to be to feel unable to open a tin every two days, I notice that Tiny Book Hound is listed on the board in reception with an even sillier name than before. The reception lady agrees it’s a stupid name that doesn’t suit him, and agrees we can change it provided we keep the vowel sounds the same. ‘What about Chico?’ she says. This is not an improvement, and we agree later that our first act as his new owners will be to change his name to something that doesn’t make him sound like a Mexican popstar. It’s such a stupid name that the shelter people – people who deal with dogs called Buddy and Sparkle and Taco every day – are bamboozled by it, and this iteration on the board is the third variation we’ve seen. I learn more about him, including that his previous owner died of something smoking-related, and that he (Tiny Book Hound) doesn’t like dog treats. ‘We’re trying him out on a load of different ones, but so far he hates them all’, I’m told. Much like me with the other children at nursery. What a discerning hound.

The volunteer I’m with explains to me why I can’t take him out for a walk, and I’m crouching in front of his kennel, listening to what she’s saying about the vet and whether the dog needs a chest x-ray; and then, while she’s in the middle of a sentence, Tiny Book Hound stops barking, puts his ears back and gives me a look that just says mate, let’s get out of here. I totally fit in your handbag. Honestly, I almost stuffed him under my arm and ran.

[1] Glendora is a desperately creepy song about a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, including the last verse in which he stands helplessly in an alley-way while Glendora is dismembered by the shop staff: ‘She lost her wig, she lost her arms / And when they got through she lost all of her charms / Oh, Glendora! What did they do to you?’ I’ve also heard a version in which he rescues her various parts from a bin, declaring ‘I’ve got my girl, I’ve got some glue / We’ll be together when I get through / Oh, Glendora! I’m gonna restore-a you!’ They don’t write ’em like that anymore.

Tales from the canal-bank

It is a great loss to me (and, I venture to suggest, the world) that I don’t run a creative writing class. If I did, however, this week I would be asking my students to pick one of the following items, all of which I have observed at one time or another on, in or in the vicinity of a canal, and use it as the starting point for a short story.

We begin with items found floating in the water. Pearson’s Canal Companion suggests that canal flotsam is not entirely savoury, and he’s not wrong.[1] Here’s an arresting image from a passage on Langley Maltings (Titford Canal):

The water, too, seemed cleaner, as clear as a see-through blouse; though the contents of the canal bed thus revealed were not quite so desirable as the analogy suggests.[2]

Item one is a dead seagull, frozen in a position that, in conjunction with a set of humming overhead power lines, suggested it had been electrocuted (or, at the very least, greatly surprised) before flopping into the filthy water, wings forever stiffly raised mid-flap – but there could be so many other explanations, each ripe with Adventure and Plot. Item two is a whole, unpeeled and (apart from being in the canal) apparently sound onion, which reminded my husband of a lettuce (also whole, and also apparently fine) he once saw in the canal, forlornly bobbing along singing a song. This one almost makes sense, since lettuce is 100% useless (see Home Economics), but surely one knows that at the point of purchase? One doesn’t buy a lettuce in good faith and then, a few hours later, suddenly experience the stunning epiphany, crashing over one in a chilly wave of horror, that lettuce has nothing of value to contribute to the kitchen.[3] ‘Begone, lying vegetable!’ cried no-one ever, hurling the wretched thing out into the void:[4] one knows before one wastes one’s hard-earned cash that lettuce is Not Food in any meaningful way. A discarded onion, which could have formed the base of innumerable meals, makes no sense. Was it a missile in a heated domestic argument? Did it jump? Was it pushed? Endless possibilities unfold before us.

A flock of filthy philanderers begging for burnt bacon bits

Our third floating item is a sex toy, last seen gently drifting towards Dudley like the world’s nastiest message in a bottle.[5] From a distance, it appeared to be common or garden white goods, such as I regularly see from the towpath on my morning walk, which also happens to be along a canal. On closer inspection, it appeared that an enraged sex fiend had chopped a plastic women into sections and then discarded what one would have thought was the most useful part, which resolutely refused to sink. This should not surprise anyone who has thrown things into a canal: Giant Bear and I have learnt from experience that the more embarrassing the item, the less likely it is to sink. In our case, two strings of high sausages haunted us for an entire evening. We couldn’t fling them into the undergrowth on the bank in case a dog ate them and was horribly poisoned; in our food bin they would have made the boat stink; and putting them back in the fridge seemed equally mad. We had just moored in an absolutely beautiful spot, as close as we could get to one of the moorings from our honeymoon. As we opened the canal-side hatch, a kingfisher zipped into view, settled on a branch just long enough for both of us to cry, ‘A kingfisher!’ and then was gone again. In other words, it was a moment both idyllic and restful, spoilt by having to work out what on earth to have for dinner now that there were no viable sausages. Finally, we were tired from a long day of locks (me) and boat-driving (Giant Bear), and simply didn’t have the patience to wander up and down the towpath in search of another bin. There seemed no satisfactory solution (“and the canal is full of shit anyway”, we reasoned, recalling several of the items already mentioned), so into the canal with you, where, oh fantastic, you are producing enough noxious gases to float about accusingly for several hours. Fish appear and take a few exploratory nibbles; moorhens peck at you, but you’re far too gross even for things that live in a canal cheek-by-jowl with electrocuted seagulls and discarded sexual aids. Other boats charge past (rather than on tick-over, as they should be), but, how wonderful, you bob up in the wake, battered and intestinal, but undaunted, reminiscent of an unfeasibly lavish greyish-pinkish bowel movement and definitely no closer to sinking. You catch on an overhanging bramble for a few excitingly yucky minutes, but then drift brazenly back into the centre of the canal for all to see. Overnight, mercifully, you vanish, but we are both convinced that you are not gone, but lurking, in the reeds or under the boat, like some mottled sausage-y sea-serpent.

Item four is a rat I have seen many times on the canal at home, who has learnt that a local gentleman in his twilight years likes to sit in a certain spot and feed the pigeons. Pigeons are messy eaters and leave more than enough for a ratty breakfast. This particular rat has been known to wear a little Lucozade bottle-top on his head (I assume it was sticky the first time he encountered it), and thus is known as Lucozade Hat Rat. I venture that this is a rat with a rich and varied existence, with the whole canal to explore (graffiti under bridges! Discarded toasters! That guy who is always in a tremendous hurry and smells of hash!) and his rakish head-gear to distinguish him from what must be literally thousands of other rats in the local area. An updated Tales from the Riverbank featuring Lucozade Hat Rat is just as likely to become a quirky bestseller as any of the things that actually do become quirky bestsellers.

Item five is non-floating, but no less poignant for it: a tableau of a depressed-looking ginger horse with a sore foot (back right), languishing alone in a benettled field. In the foreground, a partially-sucked mint humbug sits on a fencepost, quietly melting in the August sunshine. Was it offered to the horse, mumbled and then rejected? Was it left by a kind passer-by for him to take at his convenience? Perhaps the horse sees and smells the sweet, but his sore foot prevents him limping over to the fencepost to claim it and he is horribly tantalised by its tempting brown-and-fawn stripes. Perhaps he is faking a sore foot in the hope of blackmailing kind passers-by into leaving him mints, which he hoovers up quietly at night, surefooted and sneaky in the darkness. Perhaps the horse hates mints; perhaps he hates passers-by, too. Here, one might pause to give some thought to the protagonist of one’s canal-based tale. There is always the option of taking a cue from Tarka the Otter, Watership Down et al. and basing a story around (say) a family of ducklings, a deceitful horse or indeed a seagull tragically cut off in his prime. There was, for example, that time I rescued a mouse in imminent danger of drowning in the boiling floodwaters of a nearby lock. Surely he returned to his nest that evening and regaled Mrs Mouse with a tall tale of raging waters, foul smells, mysterious engine noises and then –lo!– a stick-based miracle? Or one might choose to write a terrifying horror story, starring one of the many dogs that haunt the canal, a surprising number of which can’t cope with locks, boats, other dogs or Being Outside. Think of the terrors these animals have to endure. The Unattainable Sausages! The Place That Was Dark And Barking Made No Difference! Everything Is Floaty And Weird! ARF! ARF! This year we met a couple with a large boxer, which the chap cheerfully informed me was ruining their holiday. ‘If we go into a lock and leave her on board, she howls, shakes and pees on the floor,’ he said in an almost incomprehensible Birmingham accent, shaking her lead belligerently; she ignored this, continuing to focus all her energies on Barking At The Canal. ‘If we take her off the boat, she tangles her lead around my legs while I’m doing the lock. She’s welcome to drown anytime she likes.’

Students with some knowledge of canals might choose to show off their mastery of canal-related terminology (windlass, cill, pound, winding hole etc.), and model their prose style upon that of Pearson’s Canal Companion, which is certainly idiosyncratic. Consider, for example, Pearson’s description of Holt Fleet on the River Severn (‘A rash of caravan parks and shanty-like chalets mar otherwise unspoilt riverside meadows for everyone but their proud owners’);[6] or the following comment on the Birmingham Canal Navigation:

So what do you think of it so far? […] Are you under its spell, or are you under psychoanalysis, still hyperventilating from its fulminating blend of inspirational industrial heritage and sheer downright ugliness?[7]

One could do worse that to cast a canal gnome as the hero of our tale. The Canal and River Trust volunteers as they are more properly known are easily identified via their blue polo shirts and bright orange life-jackets; they are almost always wiry middle-aged men with Midlands accents (‘Orroight?’), knowledgeable, charming and name-badged. One exchanges the same pieces of information with all canal gnomes: where have you come from; where are you going; yes, it is a pretty boat; yes, it is a nice-sounding engine; yes, my husband is driving it jolly well; yes, the water is low/high today; yes, the ‘missus’ has certainly drawn the short straw, walking miles in the lovely countryside along the towpath and pausing only to open and close locks, rather than standing still for hours in a cloud of diesel smoke and taking responsibility for anything bad that might happen to the boat; and what a beautiful/awful day it is. Canal gnomes help with locks whether one likes it or not, and admire Giant Bear’s driving, but more importantly for our purposes here, I bet they’ve seen it all: dead sheep the size of mattresses; enormously fat boaters bending the lock beams with their monstrous buttocks; broken paddles, lost windlasses, abandoned dogs; tipsy lone boaters leaving their vessels to fend for themselves while they man the lock; fisticuffs between anglers, boaters, walkers and kayakers all scrapping over the same stretch of duck-infested water; narrowboats grounded, overturned, sunk and on fire.[8]

Finally, there is the genre of our putative short story to consider. I suggest that canals are under-used locations in murder mysteries. Susan Hill uses a riverbank in her Lafferton detective novels, and my own humble murder mystery is set a few feet from a tow-path (and speaks of more than one suspicious death that may or may not have taken place in that general area); however, neither of us, or indeed any other mystery writer I’m aware of, has (as yet) made full use of the possibilities offered by a canal tunnel. Canal tunnels are dark, noisy, completely unlit except by the lights of passing boats, and sometimes have narrow walkways on one side, which cry out as places to dump a body (possibly of a person; possibly a large female boxer with a lead wrapped around her neck). The murderer would, naturally, be found out several days later, however. Experience has shown that when he or she least expected it and was peacefully feeding bacon to a passing paddling of perverts, the bloated corpse would loom out of the brown water, bump (softly, sausage-like) against his or her boat and then refuse to sink.


[1] The humble duck turns out to be a depraved sexual predator upon further investigation. Mallards have explosive corkscrew penises, covered with spikes and almost as long again as their bodies. Their preferred method of sexual advance is to quack madly, ambush a female duck and grab her by the neck before deploying their terrifying weapon.

[2] J.M. Pearson, Pearson’s Canal Companion: Black Country Canals, Stourport Ring, Birmingham Canal Navigations (Central Waterways Supplies, Rugby, sixth edition 2003), p. 23.

[3] I don’t even put it in a BLT anymore; avocado, cucumber or more bacon are far better options.

[4] This is actually a jolly satisfying part of being on a narrowboat. Washing up is so much more fun when crumbs etc. can be simply tipped out of the window for waterfowl to squabble over. Thus does one make instructive discoveries, such as that ducks don’t like mushrooms.

[5] Pearson writes that ‘there is about the Dudley Canals an independence of style and spirit’, but I don’t think discarded plastic pelvises were what he had in mind. Pearson’s Canal Companion, p. 63.

[6] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 36.

[7] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 17.

[8] One of the boats a lock or so ahead of us got stuck on the cill (the lip at either end of the lock that the gates seal against) and partially grounded while they waited for the rising water to lift them away from it. We worked this out eventually, but there is no standardised system of hand gestures between boaters, and so one bellows emptily above the noise of boat engines and the rushing of mighty waters. I’ve often wondered why the canal gnomes haven’t yet given their minds to devising a system of approved hand gestures to convey a range of common messages to other boats, such as ‘Help help I’m aground’, ‘Do you have an up-to-date copy of Pearson’s Canal Companion?’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You stole our lock. Prepare to die!’

Brexit, pursued by a bear

Once, when it was time for the clocks to go back, I got up on the kick-step, took the Departmental office clock down and changed the time. As I was getting off the kick-step, I twisted my ankle very slightly. Noticing my limp later in the day, my boss asked me how I acquired it. ‘Ah’, I was told, ‘No. You either have to call someone from maintenance to get up on the kick-step and change the clock. If you want to do it yourself, you have to go on the Ladder Awareness course.’ Further conversation established that i. this wasn’t a joke; ii. I was only being let off filling out the Accident At Work form because neither of us could be bothered with the resulting paperwork (my ankle was fine the next day); and iii. I simply couldn’t bring myself to call maintenance twice a year every year to ask them to adjust a fucking clock.

The Ladder Awareness course was astonishing: that it existed at all; that it was three hours long; and that it contained only one take-home message, which was that when ascending a ladder, kick-step or other elevating device, we should under no circumstances wear high heels and tight skirts. The people in the room were as follows: the earnest chap teaching us, who was wearing a pair of those slightly shiny trousers that make a noise like a tent being unzipped when the legs brush together, and eight Departmental administrators, including myself. The other seven were middle-aged, dressed in sensible shoes and called Doreen. We sat in stony silence as he paced around, trousers threatening to burst into flame, occasionally gesturing at a tiny bit of truncated ladder propped pointlessly against the wall. Later, we each climbed up and down it to demonstrate that yes, we could go up and down two steps without injuring ourselves. Yes, we are now fully aware of ladders. Yes, we can all successfully complete your tedious quiz, the first question of which was ‘When a task that requires someone to go up a ladder needs to be performed, is it acceptable to ask a student to do it? Yes/No’.[1] Yes, we promise to forgo our usual attire of stripper heels and mini-skirts. Yes, we would like to fill out a feedback questionnaire. The first question on the feedback questionnaire is what I want to apply to the EU referendum: ‘On a scale of one to five, how much have you learnt today?’

Firstly, some voters[2] seem to have learnt that their vote made a difference to the overall result. This blows my mind. First of all, everybody’s vote made a difference to the overall result. In a general election, it could be argued that my vote for the Green candidate in a staunchly Conservative constituency didn’t matter, because the majority of people in my constituency voted such that my vote had precisely zero influence on the final result. In a single-issue referendum, however, every single damn vote matters, regardless of how or where you voted. Secondly, I know everyone is either very angry or very smug (or, in the case of multi-tasking racists, both) and I don’t want to make that worse by calling people names. However, I can’t help feeling that everyone currently experiencing voter’s remorse has only themselves to blame.[3] What can you possibly say to someone who waits until the day after the vote to frantically Google ‘Jesus Christ, what the fuck is the EU?’, or who really, truly believes that Boris Johnson (who was sacked by a national newspaper for making stuff up) is an honest chap, or that the Sun is an impartial source of balanced and nuanced information?[4] I cannot comfort someone who muttered ‘good point’ when Nigel Farage urged us to take back control from people who haven’t been elected, when Nigel Farage isn’t even an MP.[5] The protest vote argument is the most laughable: if you voted Leave as a protest vote and now wish you hadn’t, what you are really saying is ‘I thought responsible voters would save me from myself.’ I have absolutely no sympathy for those currently wailing, ‘How could I possibly have known that a vote for Leave could lead to an overall majority of Leave votes?’ If you didn’t think anyone would take your vote seriously, why did you vote at all? Do you even understand what voting is?

It’s important to teach people (the hard way if necessary) that yes, your vote does matter and yes, you need to do your research and at least some thinking before you decide how to vote, rather than simply turning your existing prejudices and fears over in your mind. That sounds like it’s aimed at Leave voters, but of course it isn’t: since we have a secret ballot it could apply to anyone, and any vote. I also think there is something very dubious about the idea of re-running referenda/elections etc. until we get the ‘right’ result (especially as they aren’t actually legally binding). For one thing, political campaigns are really boring: the last four months have seemed interminable, with two lacklustre campaigns mangling the issues, until everyone just throws up their hands and says, ‘fine, yes, alright, a chew toy that has seen better days can be Prime Minister! I honestly don’t care anymore – just stop going on about it!’ Personally, I’m furious so much of my time has been wasted. I thought hard about my vote and I listened to the views of people that know more than me i.e. even more Radio 4 than usual (including, God help me, two editions of Moneybox). My carefully-considered vote counted the same as the vote of someone who rolled out of bed and put a cross in a box because he once had a Polish builder he didn’t care for. It counted the same as the vote of the person who called me a ‘liberal wanker’ on Facebook this afternoon after I commented that he must be very proud to have voted for the winning side (his stated reason for doing so was that he was fed up with Brussels ‘interfering with bananas’). It counted the same as the vote of the person who described me as a ‘xenophobe’ because I pointed out that voting Leave meant voting alongside racists, and that I thought that was very dangerous. I chose the word ‘alongside’ very carefully (more carefully than he chose the word ‘xenophobe’, anyhow), and was still misunderstood. On Twitter this morning, I saw this: ‘Of course not all Leavers are racists. That would be a terrible thought. But all racists now think 52% of the population agree with them’ (I was going to amend this slightly with square brackets, because 52% of the people that voted voted Leave, not 52% of the total population, but on reflection I’m going to let it stand because I think 52% of the population is probably closer to what the aforementioned racists actually think). If you’re experiencing voter’s remorse, understand this: when you cast your vote, there isn’t a free-text box where you get to explain why you voted the way you did. That means we can’t differentiate between people who voted Leave as a protest of some kind, people who voted Leave because they have legitimate concerns about the EU, and people who voted Leave because they’re racist. Similarly, we can’t differentiate between people who voted Remain despite David Cameron and George Osborne urging them to do so, and people who voted Remain because they think Cameron is a fine statesman and that, despite appearances, Osborne is not at all a human weasel.[6] A cross in a box is not nuanced information. You may wish to convey something complex with your vote; you may even believe that you’re doing so, but that’s not how voting works. You were asked, clearly and specifically, about Britain’s membership of the EU. Answer the question you were actually asked, moron.

While I’m utterly horrified at the result, the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and the legitimisation of racism, I’m also very dubious about the idea of a second referendum. Yes, there is voter’s remorse, but there also seem to be many people becoming even more certain of the position they already hold, and even more contemptuous of the other side. If we were to have a second referendum in (say) two months, would the country bear the collective weight of being so unutterably bored and divided all over again? A second referendum would be no more legally binding than the first, because referenda are not the same as laws. For us to leave the EU, both Houses of Parliament still have to vote on the relevant legislation, a situation not dissimilar to our regretful protest voter hoping someone more responsible (Parliament? Really?) is going to ride to the rescue. And yet, it’s also very important that we don’t tolerate misinformation and lies, particularly in political campaigns that actually matter. Does that also mean we shouldn’t wear the results of votes in which the public were misled? Some of the misinformation was clearly very misleading and very persuasive. For example, the figure of £350 million per week being ‘sent’ to the EU quoted by the Leave campaign has been debunked many times (I also question the use of the word ‘send’: I don’t ‘send’ dinner from my kitchen to my house, since one is inside the other). Now that Leave has won, and the falling pound has wiped several times that amount off the value of the UK economy, we get to see IDS et al. saying, as nonchalantly as they can, ‘aha, yes, well, I never actually used that figure’. Rode around on the bloody bus, though, didn’t you?

Secondly, here’s something else I learnt from the referendum result, and it really pains me to say it: Michael Gove was right when he said people had ‘had enough of experts’. Mervyn King said in an interview on The World at One that he thought people didn’t want to be told what the former head of the Bank of England thought about Britain leaving the EU, but rather wanted some proper facts and figures so they could make up their own minds. He then refused to give his view either way, saying it would take at least two hours to give a properly balanced answer (‘Please’, I begged the radio, ‘give him two hours of airtime to do that, then!’). The following, from a book that has nothing whatever to do with politics, captures it nicely:

We are obviously going to present our view, but our overriding desire is to engage you via the evidence in a debate that is very much ongoing across several research communities, rather than simply convince you that we are right.[7]

People should make up their own minds, and they should listen to expert views while they do so, and then form their own view on the basis of the information presented to them and the expertise of the person presenting it. This is surely the fallacy at the root of all celebrity endorsement. Mervyn King’s view of the EU is important, well-informed and maybe even interesting (and I stand by all of those descriptors even though I don’t know what his view is). Can the same be said of David Beckham?[8] Moreover, seeking expert views is something we do as a matter of routine. We seek other people’s opinions when we buy anything from a house to a compost bin; we read and write reviews (see Iron Get Hot Now); we Google everything from individuals to cities. Seeking advice from people who know more than you do is a sensible, commonplace act. For example, if I was asked to (say) write an essay on economics, the first thing I would do is read the work of some economists. I’ve picked economics because a. I know very little about it; and b. it’s a discipline in which it is normal for experts to disagree violently with one another. Therefore, I would approach each expert view with a critical eye, thinking all the time about forming my own view, but also aware that I was becoming more informed as I went along, and therefore more qualified to express that view with confidence. I’m not arguing here that people who haven’t bothered to inform themselves about a given subject shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it; rather, I’m pointing out the cognitive dissonance in Gove’s position. He is suggesting that, because there were economists who failed to predict the crash in 2008, it is reasonable to ignore all economists. He is suggesting that it is legitimate to make uninformed decisions. If that’s what voting is, we don’t need four months of dreary campaigning: we just go into the booth, pretend we are characters in Yellow Submarine and pick YES or NO on general principle. I have even seen a couple of people stating defensively on social media that they ‘didn’t listen’ to any of the referendum coverage (how? It has been day and night for all of eternity) and voted based on ‘what I thought was right’. These are people who are actually proud of how uninformed they are, and how little opportunity they allowed themselves to have their views challenged, shaped or finessed by people who know more than they do, including people who agree with them.

How I rejoiced when Farage failed (again) to win a seat at the last general election! A terrible overall result, but at least Farage is going to go away and shut up, I thought. No such luck.

Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage


Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage says and does appalling things as a matter of routine. See, for example, his statement (above) that ‘we won it without a bullet being fired’, which I would have thought was the minimum requirement, and, oh yes, there were those bullets that killed Jo Cox MP on the same day as Farage’s hateful pseudo-Nazi ‘breaking point’ poster was unveiled, something he described as an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence. For other people, one comment like that would be the end of their career. Trump, Gove, Johnson and Farage get away with it because they aren’t appealing to people’s thoughts, but their feelings. Farage tells people who already agree with him yes, the ‘feelings’ you have are totally valid: membership of the EU does somehow make your local hospital a bit crappier, your policemen scarcer, your child’s school crowded with Poles and Syrians and your road bumpy and full of pot-holes. It seems to me that whether or not there is a causal link between the EU and your local woes, your feelings on the subject are really neither here nor there until you have some actual data. What Farage et al. have achieved is to state out loud, in public that the data is neither here nor there, and feelings are everything. Are people like Farage and Trump[9] very clever, then, or are the people that listen to them very stupid? The point is that the question is irrelevant: they don’t need to be clever. They just need to be slightly cleverer than the people who think they agree with them. Farage has run for election to the House of Commons seven times, and every time he has been unsuccessful. This shows that he doesn’t need to be right; he doesn’t even need to be elected. He just needs to sound absolutely certain that he’s both.

The third and final thing I have learned from the referendum is that I have no idea why people vote the way they do. We ask people to vote, but as I pointed out earlier, we don’t ask them why they are voting the way they are (and as I’ll argue below, I’m not sure people can articulate why with any great accuracy). Further, because we don’t know why people voted the way they did, the data we do have can be interpreted and/or manipulated in any number of ways. For example, we can point to the suggestion that more educated people tended to vote Remain, and conclude that ‘being educated causes you to vote Remain’, but that’s not a strong inference. It may be that people with a degree are more likely to have met large numbers of young, well-educated, articulate and charming foreigners during their time at university (I certainly did), and therefore think of ‘migrants’ in completely different terms to someone living on a council estate in central Leeds surrounded by people speaking Foreign. It could also suggest any number of other things. My father pointed out that many people in his age group appear to have voted Leave, but that doesn’t mean their age was the cause of them doing so. This morning, Radio 4 reported on ‘David Cameron’s analysis of the referendum data’ and really, I’m dying to know: what analysis? What data? The people may have spoken, but I think mainly what we said was, ‘wait. What? WHAT?’

Similarly, notice how quick everyone was the morning after the 2015 general election to tell us that Labour had failed to engage their core vote; that David Cameron energised somebody or other by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket; that the polling was misleading (remember that, before it disappeared into the maelstrom of news with barely a ripple?), and so forth. When the general election in 2010 resulted in a hung parliament and then eventually a coalition, journalists informed us ruefully that, ‘the people have spoken’, forgetting that ‘I’d like a hung parliament, please’ wasn’t on the ballot paper. In the 2015 general election, within a few hours of the result Labour politicians were giving interviews about what Labour had done wrong and what they needed to do differently, when they simply didn’t have sufficiently sophisticated data to know any of that. They spoke as if their ideas were self-evident, and yet somehow not self-evident enough to have occurred to them before the election. The Conservatives responded to UKIP’s pre-election campaign by attempting to appease potential UKIP voters, banging on about immigration even more than usual, and promising the referendum we’ve just had. However, I think it’s worth noting that UKIP won one seat in the last election, and 3.9 million votes. The Green Party also have one MP, and around 1.1 million votes, which is very nearly as many as the number of votes for the SNP (1.4 million, resulting in 56 seats). Nobody responded to the Green vote by saying ‘crumbs, we simply must include more environmental measures to appeal to all the people that voted Green!’ and there is absolutely no suggestion that we should take the Lib Dems or their voters seriously (2.5 million votes and eight seats). I think this is because the Tory party (and the dominant voices in the media) chose to interpret these data as ‘we simply must talk more about immigration and the EU’ and shuffled to the right in order to engage the 3.9 million UKIP voters, when they could just as easily have interpreted these data as ‘we simply must talk more about the environment and social issues’ and shuffled to the left in order to engage the 3.6 million Green and Lib Dem voters. I suggest that, much like the voters, politicians use data to confirm what they already think, to justify decisions they have already made, and to stay in their comfort zone. It seems that the two main parties are more interested in reinforcing the existing views of ‘their'(?) existing voters, rather than gaining new ones. Also, I conclude that Tories don’t care very much about the environment or social issues (and are very bad at pretending they care about these things); they do care about immigration and the EU, and so here we are.

Going through old teaching notes from Shanghai, I find the following comment on a mock interview for PPE:

Caroline comments that she thinks Russian voters expect masculinity from their political leaders. She illustrated this point by quoting a Russian friend, who said, ‘I saw him [Putin] with his shirt off on a horse once and I liked it.[10]

Google ‘Putin on a horse’ and you will get 394,000 hits. And yet, I’m sure that if that same Russian friend was asked by (say) a journalist why she voted for Putin, she’d say something politically relevant (about foreign policy or whatever) so that she didn’t sound like a moron.

Maybe Putin started by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket as per Cameron, and the horse is thinking, ‘well, that escalated quickly’.


Do we actually have any reliable data that tells us why people vote the way they do? I like to get my information from the radio, and thus recycle newspapers, leaflets and copies of The Watchtower that come through the door without reading them. During elections and/or referenda, I only answer the door to the postman, because I work from home and don’t have time to debate politics with the local BNP candidate (actual example. The conversation ended with me telling him to fuck off back where he came from). The point is that I’ve literally no idea if that’s typical. I’ve seen several friends on social media who were very active in the Remain campaign saying that they wish they had done more, but would it have made a difference? We behave as if leaflets, picking off voters one by one on the doorstep, interminable interviews on TV and radio, newspaper opinion pieces and sharing thoughtful videos and statements on social media are persuasive. Are they, or do they merely confirm the views people already have? Also, I think I know what caused me to vote Remain, but do I really? I think I voted Remain because I don’t like being lied to, and I felt the Leave campaign was lying to people; because I love Europe and think other Europeans should know that; because I think, given our history of empire and war-mongering, we should take more (way, way more) refugees than we actually do; because, much as I dislike doing things that make David Cameron and George Osborne more powerful and smug, I dislike that less than doing things that make non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage more powerful and smug; and finally because it seemed to me that a vote to leave was also a vote for the break-up of the United Kingdom, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland on the table. If I was asked to give my reasons for voting as I did, that’s what I’d say, but it may be that my real unspoken reason is that I was at school with people like Boris Johnson (by which I mean financially comfortable, male and mediocre) and resented their assumption that they were entitled to rule the world. For many of these people, this sense of entitlement was so strong that they didn’t bother with trivia like homework or preparation, an attitude we can see in everything Boris Johnson has ever done. Look at his face. Read his terrible columnHe doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do next. According to his Wikipedia entry, Boris Johnson lost his wedding ring an hour after getting married and, for all his spoutings about immigration, was born in New York and has US citizenship. I suggest that this is not a man who thinks things through. Contrast the panicky, ‘tired’, bumbling Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, currently zipping around Europe being a sensible, calm leader, who actually had the sense and humility to make a fucking plan.

In my upper sixth year, my Cantonese boyfriend was chosen as Head Boy, and I remember being told (by someone who clearly thought he, a white, blond rugby player of very little brain, would have been a better choice) that my bright, kind, thoughtful and hard-working boyfriend shouldn’t be allowed to be Head Boy, because he only represented the Chinese students. When I pointed out that there were more Chinese students than there were girls, i.e. they were a sizeable minority, I was told there was no need for a Head Girl, precisely because we were in the minority. Note that the objection was not ‘I’d be a better Head Boy because x’ or ‘I wish I’d competed better’, but ‘this shouldn’t be allowed’ i.e. the system had delivered a result he didn’t like.[11] Note also the cognitive dissonance: if you choose a Cantonese representative from a mixed gender, mixed race (i.e. white/Cantonese) group, he only represents the Cantonese males. If you accept that premise (and I don’t think you should), the suggested solution is ‘let’s pick someone who represents only the white males in the group. That leaves both the Cantonese in the group and the girls in the group unrepresented, but fuck minorities’. Let’s be clear: the group the aforementioned blond rugby player wanted to protect from the perils of under-representation was privileged white guys. Boris Johnson reminds me strongly of this boy, and I struggle to think of anything that might persuade me to vote alongside (or for) Boris Johnson.

If we really want politics to become more responsive, more informed, more interesting and less territorial, we all need to be more honest about our own motivations, and clearer about what actually persuades people. I think it is very easy to hurl ourselves furiously into activity: attacking/comforting immigrants; campaigning for this or that; signing petitions for this or that; seeking to apportion blame, and so forth. However, I suggest that we might want to spend some time considering which activities make the best use of our energy before we leave the stage. Brexeunt.

[1] The correct answer is ‘no’, Fact Fans, because students aren’t insured to get up on the kick-step, and can’t attend the (vital) Ladder Awareness course.

[2] Of course I understand that not everyone who is currently experiencing voter’s remorse voted Leave; I’m using a Leave voter as an example purely because the majority of voter’s remorse appears to be on that side.

[3] A report I read today put the number of people declaring themselves to have voted the ‘wrong’ way at just over 1.5 million, including people from both sides.

[4] Even if one had thought for several decades that the Sun was marvellous, surely the recent coverage of the Hillsborough enquiry would have given pause for thought?

[5] Farage has been an MEP for some time, but is not and has never been an MP. Therefore, since he is so keen that everyone knows who is elected and who is not, I think we should refer to him in public discourse as ‘non-MP Nigel Farage’. As I have argued elsewhere (see Punch drunk), I feel similarly about how we refer to convicted rapists in public life (as in, ‘Today, convicted rapist Mike Tyson unveiled his new range of men’s underwear. Nobody cared and he was later seen weeping quietly in a car park’) because a. rapists are, overwhelmingly, multiple offenders who show little remorse for or understanding of their crimes, and therefore this would be a public service, designed to make everyone safer; and b. we need to counterbalance the message that rapists can get away with it if they appear to be upstanding members of society, particularly if they are good at sports. We help them believe this is the case by protesting that they ‘always seemed nice’ when the crimes come to light, and then forgetting their crimes incredibly quickly. If it’s legitimate to remind an entire Trump rally that Mike Tyson used to be a champion boxer, it’s also legitimate to remind those people that, around the same time, he raped an eighteen-year-old, lied about it in court and was sentenced to ten years but only served three. He later wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t rape anyone and then blamed the victim for going to his hotel room in the first place, a stance that Donald Trump recently recapitulated. Then everyone forgot about any of this because SPORTS.

[6] Me: Is there a box for ‘I’m voting to remain, but I also want it to be understood that this should not be taken as an endorsement of Cameron and George Osborne in any way, because fuck those guys’?
Official Polling Station Man: You’re the fourth person to make that joke today.
Me: It’s not a joke.
Official Polling Station Man: I’ll get the Special Pencil.

[7] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015), p. 9.

[8] I don’t care what David Beckham thinks because I see no evidence that he knows any more about the EU than I do. John Barnes, however, who is from an immigrant background and therefore has a different perspective from mine, had several very interesting things to say after Gove misrepresented what he said about the possible consequences for British football of leaving the EU.

[9] Want to cheer yourself up with something Donald Trump-related? This Chrome extension automatically replaces the words ‘Donald Trump’ with an unflattering description from Jezebel. It really did make me feel slightly less depressed about geopolitics.

[10] Me: why do you think this vision of Russian ‘masculinity’ doesn’t include chest hair?
Caroline <shrugging>: People are stupid.

[11] The system was simply that the staff chose a Head Boy and Head Girl from the senior prefects, who they thought would be good. I think we might have been asked for our views, but there was certainly no campaigning or hustings etc.

‘Fatherlike He tends and spares us / All our fears and hopes He knows’

My grandfather died a few weeks ago, aged eighty-eight. My three other grandparents have been gone a long time: my mother’s parents died nearly thirty years ago, within a few months of each other despite being nine years apart in age (I have written about their wedding as described in my grandmother’s diary: see In praise of the handwritten word); and my paternal grandmother died when I was doing my A-levels (I missed her funeral because of them). My grandfather has also, in many ways, been absent for some time, his mind having gone on ahead, if I can put it like that.[1]

I find it very difficult to think about Grandted in isolation. Thinking about my grandfather also means thinking about my father, who is so like (and yet so unlike) him. For example, my father cares enormously about his physical fitness, whereas my grandfather was overweight for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, Grandted, with his few remaining teeth and enormous bulk, reminded me of Hugo das Nilpferd, the eponymous hippopotamus hero from a wunderbucher that we had read to us as children; we never learnt to read it for ourselves as neither of us had much of an ear for German, so all my memories of the book consist of the illustrations only, showing Hugo, huge and mauve, in various predicaments.[2]

Hugo das Nilpferd
Hugo, das Nilpferd


My father is entirely un-Hugo-like: he is not mauve and (spoiler alert!) has never got stuck in a bath or mistaken a piano for a crocodile. He is also physically compact, dense and muscular, rather like a bantam. In his capacity as Grandted’s eldest child, and supposedly the most comfortable with public speaking, my father gave the eulogy. He described this as a cathartic experience, and no doubt it was; the most striking thing about it for me, however, was how much of what Dad presented to us was new information. How little Grandted talked about himself and his work. Why did my brother and I always call him Grandted, for example? My father provided the answer here, writing as follows:

[Ian] didn’t much fancy G’father, G’pa or G’dad, I think because of his own faintly remembered past (but, I wonder, did he have opportunity to know either of his own grandfathers?). He liked one or both of you (it was probably you, Jess) referring to him as a big Teddy Bear[3] hence the suggested contraction to GrandTed. Naturally [Mother] and I (but mostly me) were tickled at him being ‘taken for GrandTed’, so we perpetuated what was probably, initially, only going to be a passing label.

Why did he use his middle name (Ian) when his first name is Hubert? Both Ian and Ian’s parents were quite clear that he was to be known as Ian, so why bother with Hubert at all? Does my father get his habit of referring to everyone by initials from Ian, or is that all his own?[4] Dad maintains this is an academic habit, and yet none of the academics I work with now seem to have it. Why was Ian so insistent about lunch coinciding with the pips? Even his memorial lunch made note of this:

The date [May 13th] would have amused Ian as he was super-rational rather than superstitious; the time [1230] less so, as at home he insisted firmly that lunch start with the one o’clock time signal.

Ian was a lecturer at the University of Newcastle (or King’s College Durham, as I think it probably was when he first joined) in computing science and maths. My father is a mathematician, and yet it is only in the last few weeks that Dad has actually found and read Ian’s seminal paper[5]; nobody in the family has a copy of his thesis and Dad is the only one who remembers ever discussing it with him.[6]

Ian (right), probably in 1997 celebrating the fortieth birthday of his Department. I found this captioned ‘And at the KDF9 party the drinks were *that* big!’


I’ve discovered recently at choir that one of my fellow tenors and I have no overlap whatsoever in our musical tastes: each announcement of a new piece draws a groan from one and a small cheer from the other, but never the same reaction from both. By contrast, my father and I seem to agree almost universally on our favourite hymns. Dad had several things to say about his father in the eulogy (particularly his formidable reputation as a teacher) that could equally have been said about my father, and that I fully expect to repeat in my own eulogy for my own father in about thirty years. No doubt we will repeat at least one of the hymns too, as I note they included two of our favourites: ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, with its supremely comforting, swirling tune; and ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’. The line I have used as the title for this post is from the third verse of that hymn, which is often sung by female voices only. That verse always reminds me (although these memories are very old and necessarily dim) of Dad handling a pipistrelle he had found in the kitchen: ‘In His hands He gently bears us / Rescues us from all our foes’, which in this case would be the cats.

Another mutual favourite with a fatherly flavour is ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’. Researching it online, I discovered that the words were written long before the tune, in response to both a near-miss on the high seas for William Whiting (who wrote the words) and a conversation some years later with a student of his about to embark for America and frightened of the ocean journey. What a beautiful, mournful tune this hymn has! As with so many hymn tunes, even those associated primarily with one set of words only, the tune has its own name (Melita).[7] Dad and I have played and sung this hymn together many times. My strongest memory of singing this hymn is from a lifeboat service; these are usually held in the summer in Cornwall, and every one I’ve been to has included this hymn. On this occasion, I was with my mother, and we stood on the cliffs at Boscastle to sing various hymns, including ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, much to Mum’s disgust. She didn’t often express hatred of specific things out loud, but if she had been forced to make a list that summer, I think it would have included caraway seeds, the colour blue, my father and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. We followed this with ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’, which we sang with such vigour that a harbour seal who had popped up to see what we were doing decided the sea wasn’t so bad after all and swam off in a tremendous hurry.

‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’ was the final hymn, after prayers for those who had died at sea that year had been read. There was a sizeable crowd on the cliffs, many openly weeping as we sang (‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea’). Father describes it as ‘easy to cry to’, and he’s right: hymns (particular old, familiar ones) have a way of expressing emotions we otherwise might not be able to describe. ‘Praise My Soul’ contains a line that captured Grandted’s funeral well for me, watching Dad wrestle manfully with grief, relief and the eulogy all at once: ‘Praise Him for His grace and favour / To our fathers in distress’.

[1] I discovered while searching for Ian’s paper online that my uncle Colin has set up a fundraising page to allow donations to Alzheimer’s Research in Ian’s memory.

[2] Nilpferd meaning ‘horse of the Nile’, as opposed to the Greek word hippopotamus, meaning ‘horse of the river’. We shorten it to ‘hippo’, which just means ‘horse’ and therefore makes no sense.

[3] Regular readers might recall that I also refer to my husband as Giant Bear. I can only suggest that Big Ted has a lot to answer for.

[4] My father has, for as long as I have been receiving emails from him, signed them (and indeed all personal communication, including birthday cards) with his initials.

[5] G.S. Rushbrooke and H.I. Scoins, ‘On the theory of fluids’, Proceedings of the Royal Society (January 1953), vol. 216.

[6] To misappropriate Hamlet, we didn’t really know him, Horatio.

[7] Melita is an old name for Malta; Malta was the site of a shipwreck (St. Paul was aboard) described in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27, and so perhaps this is how the hymn-tune acquired its name.