‘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.

Getting to the bottom of things

Regular readers will recall that your gentle narrator suffers (the word is chosen with care) from bowel disease (see Busting a gut, Bite me, Home Economics, GAH! Michael Gove! and The loud symbols). I have been laxative about contributing to the blog over the last seven months, after being buried under an avalanche of work from which one arm now feebly waves, soon (I hope) to be followed by the rest of me. These two things may not seem related to each other, but my colitis is caused by work-related stress, which is also called work addiction (see I was flying from the threat of an office life and Exemplum Docet). Thus, I live in a little feedback loop, working at whatever pace I feel I can stand and then accepting whatever reward or punishment my insides see fit to respond with. I am eternally grateful to have the skills to work from home most of the time; a husband who finds my swollen stomach and disreputable underwear (of which more later) quirky and charming; and a toilet right next to my study. Giant Bear has even furnished the upstairs toilet with a comfortable wooden seat, a tasteful selection of bra catalogues and a thing called a Primal Stool that cost £20 but is worth its weight in gold (this is a similar thing: do scroll down to see the unicorn-poo advert). John Keay comments on the internal disorder of George Everest (yes, the mountain is named after him. Also, his name is pronounced ‘Eve-rest’, disturbingly), and notes that his ‘[r]ebellious bowels leant an urgency to the working day’. Yes. Yes, I expect they did.[1]

Bowel disease is misunderstood, difficult to talk about, jolly painful and surprisingly common; and work addiction is just everywhere and awful. While I wait for mountain rescue, therefore, here are some jolly facts about bowel disease and work-related stress.

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

People with small children seem to talk about poo all the time: how often their babies poo; how copious, stinky, firm/loose and frequently produced their babies’ poo is; and how their babies sometimes manage to defecate so heartily that they get poo right the way up their backs in a single movement. I don’t have babies, but having colitis allows me to join in nonetheless.

‘Yup,’ I say, finishing my tea. ‘I’ve done that.’
‘When you were a baby?’ My childbearing friend is momentarily distracted by the menu, or possibly the child. ‘Or do you mean last time you went to China?’

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

My understanding of the strike that junior doctors undertook recently (the first such strike in my lifetime) is that they were protesting against two things in particular, captured (as is so often the case these days) in a hashtag: #notfairnotsafe. This captures two ideas, as follows: one, working longer hours as proposed (for a higher wage, but a lower overall hourly rate) implies that the ridiculous hours and shifts that they already work are not sufficient. Two, working longer hours will exhaust them and make them bad doctors. I don’t understand why there is any discussion to be had about this. We all agree that tired motorists are dangerous. Are exhausted doctors dangerous? YES. OF COURSE THEY ARE: TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. I have lost count of the number of mistakes I have made, documents I have deleted and spreadsheets I have cocked up because I was simply too tired to be competent. With the obvious exception of smug health-cunt Jeremy Hunt (Jim Naughtie has established precedent, so this is fine), nobody is stupid enough to think a tired doctor is a competent doctor, but nobody, in any line of work, should be working so many hours that they are too tired to do their job properly. I used to work four days per week; then, to cover for a colleague, I did two months of five days per week. I would have done better to stay at four days per week, because I was so tired that a. I caught a bug and had to miss two days’ work; and b. forgot to save my database and lost another two days’ work. Net gain: nothing.

   3. Number of times I have soiled myself since being diagnosed: four.

Once *just* after a Departmental meeting; once while sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book and minding my own business; once in China after some questionable fish; and this afternoon. When I went to Dublin for a week a few years ago, I packed twenty-one pairs of knickers by the simple method of counting seven pairs of knickers into the suitcase (‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday’) three times without realising I had done so. Do normal people even *own* twenty-one pairs of knickers? They do not.

  1. Being addicted to work means not being allowed to go cold turkey.

Some addictive substances (drugs, alcohol) are things that we have no physical need of, by which I mean that removing these things from our lives, while extremely difficult, is not damaging, but rather may have considerable health benefits. We may feel the need (physical, physiological, psychological, emotional) for another cigarette (I have written about this elsewhere; see A three-pipe problem), drink, high, win or whatever, but we can live perfectly well without these things, just as we can live without smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex or pornography. The most difficult addictions to deal with, I suggest, are those where cutting the destructive substance or behaviour out of one’s life altogether is not possible. If one is addicted to food or work, for example, one has to find some way of changing that relationship to make it healthy and sustainable: one cannot simply stop eating or working. I don’t think there are many therapists who, confronted with (say) a smoker would suggest that he or she learn to manage his or her relationship with tobacco: the end goal would always and unquestioningly be to give up, totally and forever.

  1. Number of times I have thought, ‘that’s it. I’m going to die on the toilet. Like Elvis, except he had a cheeseburger to keep him company’: three.

Halfway through reading this post, my husband showed me a picture of the thing below (it’s a cheeseburger-shaped anti-stress ball) and said, ‘shall we get one, and keep it in the upstairs toilet?’

52. cheeseburger
‘Not suitable for children under the age of three’


  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

Were I so inclined, I could produce a series of Venn diagrams showing the commonality between my life and that of a woman forty years older than me; let’s call her Daphne. Yesterday’s diagram would show that Jess walked (rapidly, happily) to the train station to catch the same train as Daphne, while Daphne’s great age forced her to make the journey on the bus; Jess has brought a copy of Silent Spring and some knitting to keep her occupied during the journey, while Daphne prefers the Telegraph and crochet; Jess has decided not to bring any food, while Daphne has a packet of mints[2] and so on. Apart from the train itself, the only area of overlap is that both Jess and Daphne will spend a significant part of their day worrying that they are going to disgrace themselves because *there is no toilet at the station*. That’s very annoying, think both Jess and Daphne upon arrival, with enough time to buy their tickets, but not such a long wait that they get cold and cross. The train will be here in a minute, and once we get going I can use the facilities on the train. Imagine the disgust of both our protagonists (Jess says a curse word; Daphne does not, but her lips get very thin) when it turns out that *there is no toilet on the train either*.

My usual train trip is around 50 minutes, and fortunately there *are* facilities at the other end. But, really: good grief. There is a person at the station (sometimes two!) to sell tickets to the Great Unwashed *and* a model railway shop. There must, therefore, be at least one toilet. Giant Bear tells me that there *is* a toilet, but that in order to use it, Daphne and I would have to queue up and then yell through the ticket window that we’d like to borrow the key, please. There is also nowhere for the staff on the train to relieve themselves; at least the ticket inspector can walk from carriage to carriage to distract himself (and maybe do a little poo in the corridor where nobody will notice), but no such luck for the driver. John Pudney said the following about toilets at train stations seventy years ago, much of which still holds today:

For the ordinary run of early railroad passengers, there were no arrangements whatever; and patience was the only necessity. At early morning stops, men were wont to salute the sunrise, as decorously as they might, at the ends of platforms, while women stood in earnest conversation here and there, their long skirts providing cover even though the platform itself offered little by way of camouflage.[3]

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

While I think it could be argued that we have a society with a dysfunctional attitude to many addictive substances and behaviours (food, alcohol and sex spring to mind), the attitude to work goes beyond that into stark raving mad. We all talk about our ‘busy’ lives: it is entirely normal for women in particular to babble on about ‘juggling’ all the things we have to do, on top of earning a living, which somehow takes up far more time and energy than it should. I am no longer surprised to receive (and send) emails at 6am or 11pm; nobody expresses surprise when it becomes clear that I work weekends; and while I was at the university, I once went into the office on Boxing Day and *I wasn’t the only person in the Department*.

  1. Bowel disease has ruined the following words forever: movement, regular, irrigation, stool. On the plus side, Andrew Motion is now a funny name.
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again.

There is swelling (sometimes soft; sometimes tight and hard like a tyre). There is diarrhoea (bright yellow, mostly liquid and excitingly explosive). There is dehydration (headaches, itchy eyes), horrible stomach cramps, massive hair loss, brittle nails, tiredness that mere sleep cannot touch, and endless medical humiliations (pooing into little trays; enemas; strangers inserting Things into one’s special area in the name of Science). There are ruined clothes, from which the physical stains can be removed, but which I can never bring myself to wear again.[4] Finally, there is the terror that every tremor and gurgle in the abdominal region may be about to burst forth into the Bog of Eternal Stench, punctuating yet another day with what can only be described as arse-sneezes: hot, gritty crap that pebble-dashes the inside of the toilet in a splatter pattern strikingly reminiscent of the vomit one sees on the pavements outside student residences, except that this is yellow, streaked with blood and mucus, smells like the devil’s farmyard and CAME OUT OF MY ARSE.

These are the times when the unconditional love (and relaxed attitude to nudity) of an understanding and patient partner is better than all the peppermint oil and herbal tea in the world. Here is a little story I call ‘Disappointment’: the other day, Giant Bear came home from work, and without explanation, silently removed his shoes, tie, waistcoat, braces, shirt, trousers, socks and, with a certain sense of inevitability, his pants. Why, good evening, darling, I thought, ceasing to stir the dinner for a moment, and trying to remember if my own underwear was a. the kind that can be flung aside in a sexy fashion; b. not that kind, but at least stain-free and vaguely respectable; or c. in such a state that I’d have to bundle it up in my jeans and then attempt to kick both carefully into a dark corner. Just as I was about to spoil the moment by talking, my husband had a jolly good look at his pants, turned them round and put them back on again. ‘Had them on back to front all day’, he observed, and went upstairs to get dressed.

[1] John Keay, The Great Arc (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.146.

[2] To alleviate what George Sherston calls a ‘railway-tasting mouth’. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), p.299.

[3] John Pudney, The Smallest Room (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p.75.

[4] Just as I am no longer able to eat English mustard because gaaaaaah.

A ‘small, mysterious corpus’

In her excellent book Ex Libris[1] Anne Fadiman writes about what she calls her ‘Odd Shelf’, which she defines as follows:

On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of … ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub.[2]

Fadiman’s own Odd Shelf is about polar exploration, a subject close to my own heart (for absolutely no reason whatever: I have no desire to visit such places and hate being cold), and I remain confident that we both own copies of F.A. Worsley’s book Shackleton’s Boat Journey and Scott’s Last Expedition (Captain Scott’s journals, recovered from beside his frozen body; see The fish that is black for Scott’s description of watching killer whales attempting to tip his dogs into the water). My own Odd Shelf is somewhat broader, and contains works on exploration of all kinds (see Why Don’t You Do Right?). These are books about men (and a few hardy women) who ‘went out to explore new lands or with toil and self-sacrifice fitted themselves to be champions … the conquerors of the great peaks.'[3]

My explorer books begin with Exquemelin, Bernal Diaz and Zarate chronicling the conquest of South America, continuing with nineteenth- and twentieth-century works by Mary Kingsley and Laurens Van Der Post, mid-century books by T.E. Lawrence (see No means no for Lawrence’s unhelpful responses to his long-suffering proofreader), Peter Fleming, Elspeth Huxley and Thor Heyerdahl, and finally modern writers such as Peter Hessler and Mariusz Wilk. I also have a book by Ian Hibell, a relative on Giant Bear’s side, called Into the Remote Places. This is an account of Ian’s journeys, cycling across various continents. Like Shackleton and Scott, Ian died in pursuit of exploration after being knocked off his bicycle while cycling across Greece; and, like Shackleton and Scott, Ian struggled to explain his need to explore:

I couldn’t explain to them the lure of travelling. You went to a place to get something, they reasoned.[4]

His Sudanese hosts are, I think, meaning a physical ‘something’; Ian might have agreed with them had they meant something less tangible. There is no real consensus on why or how exploration is necessary, or exactly what one is in search of. R.B. Robertson reports a group of whalers discussing their hero Shackleton (Mansell was present when Shackleton’s party arrived in Stromness, having been given up for dead), and again there is no consensus:

… we talked of Antarctic explorers, and the motives that take men down to that terrifying white desert, not once, but time and time again, to dedicate a large part of their lives to its ghastly waters, often to die there.

‘The motives of some of them are only too obvious,’ Gyle said. ‘Personal glory, kudos or ever material gain … others are real scientists who reckon that the knowledge they gain of the last unknown part of the earth is worth the agony of getting it … [and] there’s always a handful of man like Shackleton who keep coming down here as it were for the fun of it … they find … real comradeship. That’s a human relationship second only to sexual love, and a thousand times rarer.'[5]

Gyle may be right here in some instances, but many of the explorers in my collection travel alone, and are profoundly isolated even when surrounded by people. Robertson’s whalers suggest other theories: the unnamed Norwegian bosun argues that Antarctic explorers go south to get away from ‘up there’, and Davison suggests that, ‘Antarctica’s the only part of the world left where it’s still possible to look over a hill without knowing for certain what you’re going to find on the other side.’ Mansell, in some ways the hero of Robertson’s book Of Whales and Men, dismisses all these ideas. His explanation is, for me, the most convincing, and again refers to an intangible ‘something’:

‘Shackletons, and [the] best kind of explorer … come here because they know there is something else, that man can feel but not quite understand in this world. And they get closer to that thing – that fourth man who march[ed] with Shackleton across South Georgia[6] – when they are down there than anywhere else in world. This island [South Georgia], Zuther Notion [this is how Robertson renders Mansell’s pronunciation of ‘Southern Ocean’], Antarctic continent – all haunted places …  [Shackleton and men like him] keep coming back to discover – haunted by what?’[7]

There are some issues with defining one’s Odd Shelf. Firstly, I differ from Fadiman in that I think I probably own too many volumes on the subject of exploration to describe it as a ‘shelf’; secondly, I read explorer books because I find them interesting as studies of human nature, rather than because they describe activities I wish to participate in. Fadiman’s essays ‘The Odd Shelf’ and ‘The Literary Glutton’ describe various trips she has made to the Arctic and Antarctic, whereas I have no wish to actually go to fifteenth-century Peru or similar. Finally, I think there is a difference between amassing literature on or in a particular area, and collecting porn: after Orwell, her second example of an Odd Shelf is that belonging to Philip Larkin, who nobody will be surprised to learn had ‘an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking.'[8]

I do, however, single out a few books for special status. These are books that I have worked on, contributed to, or am mentioned in. It is, at the time of writing, a fairly small collection, as follows: Pilgrimage (written by my godfather, and dedicated to his godchildren); Edith the Fair: The Visionary of Walsingham by the late Dr. Bill Flint (I copy-edited the book, provided the index and contributed much of the transliteration of the Pynson Ballad in chapter 3);[9] two histories of Hertfordshire and an academic book about the philosophy of evolution, all of which I compiled indexes for; and Salmon by Prof. Peter Coates. My cameo here is in the acknowledgements, on a list of people ‘keen to talk salmon with me’. In my case, this consisted of providing Peter with photocopies of the relevant pages of Mr Philips, a marvellous book by John Lanchester in which Mr. Philips spends a diverting afternoon watching salmon-based pornography (it wouldn’t have been to Larkin’s taste, I fancy)[10] and a photograph of a salmon-skin suit I took at an exhibition of ancient textiles from the autonomous regions of China while in Shanghai (he failed to use this, the fule).

Shanghai, March '08 - 07
Salmon-skin suit, Shanghai museum, taken March 2008

The latest addition to this shelf is Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which I proofread for my friend and colleague, Tom Sperlinger.[11] I have written elsewhere about how we might assess the quality of a book[12] (see The search for perfection) and indeed why one might write or read a book at all. Speaking purely for myself, I write for an audience of one. On the back of Stella Gibbons’s Ticky (a very silly book that I thoroughly enjoyed on the train the other week, muffling my giggles between the pages in the hope of suggesting to the other passengers that I was suffering from a surfeit of sneezing rather than gin), she says, ‘I wrote it to please myself’. Tom is more speculative; he says simply, ‘I try to tell the story of the semester I spent at Al-Quds’. His book also engages with another topic I have explored in other posts: that of why we read (see House of Holes, among other posts). In chapter 5, which is built around Daniel Pennac’s ‘Bill of Rights’ for readers (the first item is ‘the right not to read’), Tom speaks of his struggle to get his students to read more:

Haytham was not the only student who often did not do the reading. Some of the students were taking six or seven classes at the same time and claimed they had too much preparatory work to do. Others saw the reading as peripheral; they wanted to come to class, write down the answers, and prepare themselves for the exam.[13]

The teaching Tom describes here is very different from my own foreign teaching experiences. I don’t teach literature to my Chinese students, but if I did, and if, as part of that teaching, I told them all to read a book or a short story, my sense is that the vast majority would read it (and several would read it more than once); specifically, I wonder what my (overwhelmingly eager and respectful) Chinese students would make of this chapter, and of the students’ reluctance to do what their teacher has asked. In his Q&A after reading from Romeo and Juliet in Palestine at Waterstones a few weeks ago, Tom described the intimacy of the classroom, and how there are things that can be said in that context that wouldn’t (couldn’t?) be said in any other setting. This chimes more closely with my own experiences in China, particularly with reference to sex education (see Open the Box, Some bad words, Please use power wisely and Shake it all about). This sense that the students aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, however, is something that I have only had in a few isolated cases (see No means no): Tom is describing a widespread mutiny, in which so many of the students aren’t doing the reading that discussion of their reasoning is a legitimate topic for discussion in class. A few pages on, Tom quotes Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes learning to read by the glow of a light just outside the door of his prison cell (the second time I read the book, having read it the first time as a proofreader, this moment reminded me of Chris Packham on this year’s Springwatch describing how he had read by the light of a glow-worm), and the hunger Malcolm X had for reading. Contrast that with my train journey home from Bristol after Tom’s reading: I was the only person in the carriage with a book. I would have been perfectly happy to chat (as often happens when I knit on trains), but the other passengers were all either looking at their ’phones or simply staring into space. There was no conversation, and apart from my own muffled laughter, the carriage was devoid of the sound of meaningful human interaction (the various mechanical beeps of the various mechanical devices don’t count). My chosen book was the aforementioned Ticky, which, in the quiet, conversationless train (and on the way home from an evening spent discussing a book), suggested a superbly ironic reason for which one might choose to read: to avoid conversation.

‘… hand me Bore Upon the Jutes – no, no, that is a Circassian grammar. Bore Upon the Jutes is what I require – no – now you have given me Notes on Early Saxon Religious Musical Pipes [see An unparalleled display of shawms] – I asked for BOREBORE UPON THE JUTES.’
‘I think you are lying upon it, Papa, there is a book just under your pillow?’
‘Oh – ah? is there? – yes, exactly so: I thank you. Well, no doubt you have your morning duties to perform. You may look in upon me again immediately before luncheon.’ … Doctor Pressure held Bore upside down and pretended to read.[14]

Naturally, my frequent train journeys are occasions on which reading is a wonderful way to fill time that would be otherwise wasted, but of course I don’t simply read to fill time or to avoid conversation with one’s fellow passengers (it seems so much simpler to just ask them to be quiet). I read because, among other things (and to misappropriate Nagel for a second time: see The fish that is black), I simply can’t imagine what it is like not to read (or not to want to read).

Nabokov used to encourage his students at Berkeley to read and re-read, as part of a search for detail. In a discussion of why we read, Nabokov might have answered that one reason for doing so is to cultivate the ability to find ‘bigness’ in that which is small. In the Q&A after Tom’s reading, I commented that, were I allowed to teach literature to my Chinese students, there would undoubtedly be a long list of forbidden books handed down from On High, and asked Tom if he would have felt comfortable giving the students The Merchant of Venice rather than Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (I was also thinking of one of Tom’s students, who comments that ‘she stopped reading a book if she did not like the way it made her think’).[15] He replied that yes, that would have been fine, and other colleagues at Al-Quds were teaching The Merchant of Venice. On each of my trips to China, I have considered it my moral duty to take something dangerous to read, in the hope of being (at the very least) accosted at breakfast with the question ‘why are you reading that?’ So far, Alan Hollinghurst’s tale of drug-taking and gay sex in sheds The Spell, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Well of Loneliness, and The Joy Luck Club have all failed to get a rise out of anybody. I suspect this is because one has to have actually read these books to know that they are ‘dangerous’, but this is still very disappointing.

One of Tom’s courses at the university is called ‘Dangerous Books’, and the course description includes this sentence: ‘Why might a work of literature be considered dangerous?’ One answer is, of course, the circumstances in which one reads it (see The search for perfection). This year, my chosen Dangerous Book to flourish at breakfast is also an explorer book: Seven Years in Tibet. While Nabokov might argue that the devil is in the detail, in this case I think Margaret Atwood has it right in The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘context is all’.


[1] Her book The Spirit Catches You and Fall Down should be required reading (the right not to read notwithstanding) for anyone considering medicine as a profession.

[2] Anne Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 21.

[3] Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (London: The Reprint Society, 1953), translated from the German by Richard Graves and with an introduction by fellow explorer Peter Fleming, p. 11.

[4] Ian Hibell and Clinton Trowbridge, Into the Remote Places (London: Robson Books, 1984), p. 96.

[5] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 60.

[6] The ‘fourth man’ refers to the conviction, held by Shackleton and both of his companions Worsley and Crean, that as the three of them trekked across South Georgia, ‘we were four, not three’ (Shackleton’s words, as quoted by Robertson, p. 62). As Robertson tells us (p. 55) as part of a discussion about how little poetry (plenty of prose) has been written about Antarctica, the one outlier is a cameo by the fourth man in ‘The Wasteland’.

[7] Robertson, Of Whales and Men, p. 61.

[8] Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, Ex Libris, p. 21. While re-reading ‘My Odd Shelf’, I discovered a postcard pushed between the pages at the start of the essay ‘True Womanhood’ (pp. 45-53). Fadiman describes reading The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World (as opposed to the follow-up volume, A Book of Instruction for Women Floating Aimlessly In Outer Space) by the Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, and intended to convey the take-home message that ‘Woman’s entire existence, in order to be a sources of happiness to others as well as to herself, must be one self-sacrifice’ (Fadiman, p. 47). Fadiman’s response is to compile a list of the virtues O’Reilly values most, and ask her husband to give her marks out of ten in each category (p. 51). The postcard, which shows van Gogh’s Le nuit étoilée, Arles on the picture side, has Fadiman’s list and my marks from Garden Naturalist written on it, from just after our eleventh wedding anniversary. Naturally, the only sensible course of action was to yell at Giant Bear to run upstairs immediately and provide his own scores, which proved to be three marks lower overall. My main failing is apparently in the category ‘Avoidance of impure literature, engravings, paintings and statuary’, in which both husbands have given me a resounding zero.

[9] Dr. Flint died unexpectedly while the book was still in production and although we never met, I remember him very fondly for our first telephone call, in which I explained that, while I was delighted to take his book on, I was also about to be taking two weeks off in order to get married and have a honeymoon. There was a brief pause and a sloshing noise, followed by Bill announcing to me that, having known me for less than thirty seconds, he was ‘breaking out the gin’ in celebration of my upcoming nuptials. Thus did we warm to each other enormously.

[10] I had expected the university photocopier to spontaneously combust, but of course it only does that when one has an important meeting to go to and/or is wearing a long-sleeved top in a pale colour. Salmon was Peter’s contribution to a series of books, each on a different animal, to which the excellent Helen MacDonald (of H is for Hawk fame) contributed Falcon.

[11] Regular readers will notice that I haven’t bothered with my traditional faintly insulting pseudonym for Tom; this is because I want to link to a place where you can see all the details of Tom’s book, which is available for the outrageously modest sum of £9.99 (obviously don’t buy it from Amazon, though. Fuck those guys. I link to it merely to show that Tom has hit the big time: get it here instead). This would naturally make a nonsense of a pseudonym, had I bothered to come up with one (it would have been Voice For Radio, thanks so much for asking).

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom ‘It’s So Anodyne’ Paulin and John Berger loved it, too.

[13] Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015), p. 45.

[14] Stella Gibbons, Ticky (Guernsey: Alan Sutton, 1943), pp. 162-163. I have concluded that Bore Upon the Jutes, which Dr. Pressure is so keen to read, must have sprung from the imagination of Gibbons, as the first hit when put into Google is the quotation I have just given.

[15] Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet, p. 46.

‘I was flying from the threat of an office life’

One of the joys of working for myself is that I spend so much more time with my books. We dedicated much of last Saturday to purchasing second-hand books[1] and much of Sunday to making space for them by removing other books. The result is a leaner, tidier book collection, and the reclamation of an entire shelf. Some of the books that will be leaving the house are those that we have, somehow, acquired two copies of: The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection), the complete works of Tennyson and Alan Hollinghurst’s Stranger’s Child were all in this category. Others have been read, and found wanting, such as The Ginger Man (a dreary book about dreary people), Fingersmith (enough with the plot twists! Enough, I say! I no longer care who any of you are!) and The Story of O (<snore>). Still others have been mined for information that was useful at the time, but for which we have no further need, mainly deadly music-related tomes left over from Giant Bear’s degree.

There is a final category of books bought on a whim, and which must be reassessed on a case-by-case basis when one is feeling less frivolous. This group includes some of the more obscure works in our collection, such as Anatole France’s book Penguin Island[2] and G.K. Chesterton’s absurdist anarchist novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which I was forced to read on the Eurostar after the only other book I had packed was stolen. A thief of questionable motive picked through my handbag, spurning my purse, passport and ’plane tickets to Shanghai[3] in favour of my beige hardback copy of Stella Benson’s bonkers satirical allegory I Pose, which I was a mere sixty pages or so into. The novel contains only two real characters, the Gardener and the Suffragette (Stella Benson was one or the other at various points in her life) and I have been unable to replace it, making this one of only two books that I have left unfinished through circumstance rather than choice.[4] He or she also stole my bookmark.

Giant Bear is a co-conspirator in my need to collect books that, at first glance, may not have much appeal. For example, this Christmas I received exactly what I had asked for: a copy of No Easy Way by Elspeth Huxley. Elspeth Huxley wrote one of my favourite books (The Flame Trees of Thika) and, along with Karen Blixen and Laurens van der Post, is responsible for my love affair with Africa-based non-fiction. Unwrapping it on Christmas Day, I enthused to the assembled family that this was just what I wanted. ‘It’s a history of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association!’ I said (surely more than enough explanation?). The physical book itself is instantly engaging: the front and back inside covers contain maps, as every good book should, and at the bottom of the contents page is the following intriguing note:

The title No Easy Way was the winning entry in a competition which attracted over six hundred suggestions. The winner was Mrs. Dan Long of Thomson’s Falls.

Also in the ‘purchased for the flimsiest of reasons’ category is Corduroy by Adrian Bell, another beige hardback, and which I bought because I was secretly hoping it might be a history of the trouser. Adrian Bell is the father of Martin Bell (foreign correspondent) and Anthea Bell (translator of the Asterix books); he was also a crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph, and I see from Wikipedia that when he was asked to compile his first crossword he had less than ten days to do so and had never actually solved a crossword himself. None of this means he can write a book, of course, but the opening lines of Corduroy saved it from the Capacious Tote Bag of Death:

I was upon the fringe of Suffolk, a county rich in agricultural detail, missed by my untutored eye. It was but scenery to me: nor had I an inkling of what more it might become. Farming, to my mind, was as yet the townsman’s glib catalogue of creatures and a symbol of escape. The true friendliness of the scene before me lay beneath ardours of which I knew nothing.

I was flying from the threat of an office life. I was twenty years old and the year was 1920.

I say ‘death’, but of course all the books found wanting (and/or unwanted) will be going to the second-hand bookshop already mentioned, where no doubt somebody will love them; this is not death as a long and quiet night, then, but a brief flicker between incarnations. Some, however, really are deceased. Regular readers will recall that I admitted to weeping sentimental tears over the corpse of my original copy of The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection). I couldn’t bear to put it on the compost heap or in the recycling, so in the end it went into the woodburner. On the subject of book-burning, I quote the following relevant passage from my novel (see also Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). This is taken from chapter 23, which is called ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ for reasons that need not detain us here. I quote it because in real life, I reserve a fiery death for books that are too precious to compost, whereas in my novel, it is only the most hated volumes that perish this way:

Father amused himself greatly by building a bonfire at the bottom of the garden (now the vegetable patch) and burning the more objectionable books like a Nazi. Titles burnt at the stake included the following:

i. City of God. Father has never forgiven St Augustine for the Angles/angels debacle.

ii. The complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Anything with elves, wizards or other imaginary creatures, countries or languages had better watch out when Father is in a book-burning mood. Not even The Hobbit was spared.

iii. Several hundred miscellaneous science fiction paperbacks. Father sorted the wheat from the chaff by declaring that anything with a lightly-clad alien female, a sky with too many moons and/or any kind of interplanetary craft on the cover was doomed. Despite passing this initial test, Fahrenheit 451 was on the endangered list for some time. However, ultimately it was spared due to the weight of irony pressing on Father’s soul. I imagine this in the form of God with His holy thumb pressed against Father’s eyeballs, like the creepy doctor in The House of Sleep. However, this assumes that Father keeps his soul in his eyeballs (more likely bobbing gently in a jar in the shed, or pressed between the pages of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

iv. The Thornbirds. This was condemned to death by unanimous vote. Mother was reluctant at first, because of Richard Chamberlain. He’s obviously as gay as the day is long, but it didn’t seem quite the right moment to say so (esp. as she would probably have said ‘you know, at this time of year the days are getting shorter again, aren’t they?’ Wretched woman). As an elegy, Father read aloud the bit where the father and son die in a bush-fire, in a small, sarcastic coming-together of fathers and flames. If any of us had needed a final nudge, the utterly stupid moment when the son is crushed by a giant pig would have done it.

Looking through my records, it has been several months since I last added anything of substance to my own attempt at a quirky book that someone might take home with them on a whim. However, the more time that elapses between me and my own escape from the threat of an office life, the more likely that is to change.


[1] ‘In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen times as delicious as one pound of caviar.’ Anne Fadiman, ‘Secondhand Prose’, in Ex Libris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 148.

[2] For the benefit of any readers assuming (as I did, in my ignorance of Anatole France and all his works) that this title is metaphorical in some way, I should explain that it really is about penguins, until page 39 when the archangel Raphael turns them into people. This is not an unqualified success and the penguins are disconcerted by their new shape (‘They were inclined to look sideways’).

[3] My purse contained multiple currencies (I was on my way from Britain to China by way of Belgium and France), and yet mere money still failed to hold his or her attention.

[4] The other is Absalom! Absalom!, which was the only casualty in a freak handbag-based yoghurt explosion and had to be thrown away.

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see Owl Chess and Strigiphobia). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically; the fiction is also arranged this way, which means that The House At Pooh Corner lives between Arthur Miller’s solitary novel The Misfits and two volumes of erotica by Alberto Moravia. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with Scott’s Last Expedition on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the metaphorical diabetic wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like (say) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8]

Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’.

Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder; I saw him die’ with ‘I watched a murder; I watched him die’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Agatha Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally (but not physically) involved in what he or she observes. Finally, it seems clear that even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ won’t do.

Some readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘hono[u]r.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they are (and/or deserve to be) centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie, and if there are penalties for leaving the group. Three, it may give them a sense of power: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Four, they may genuinely think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion, and that what you do is more important than why you do it. Five, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t even think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).

The fish that is black

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

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

Notice how the final position of the elephants’ corpses appears to make a statement about what was important to each animal; we can find the same idea in Silent Spring, in the chapter ‘And No Birds Sing’ where Rachel Carson describes the spring of 1960 in the UK and a ‘deluge of reports of dead birds’. The relevant part here is a quotation from a gamekeeper, who comments, ‘It is bad to see pairs of partridges that have died together’. What I want to consider in this post is fundamental attribution error, and the idea that animals have an understanding of family.

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

Secondly, it seems to me that anthropomorphizing animals demeans both animals and humans. Clearly many species besides humans have a profound concept of which individuals besides themselves are worth protecting at their own risk, but these concepts and the behaviours that flow from them vary enormously. A mother lapwing will fake a broken wing to draw a hawk away from her babies, but in my own garden I have found the pathetic, wrinkly evidence of blackbird parents ceasing to feed a baby that has fallen out of their own nest, even though it is only a few feet away and has survived the fall. Animal societies, physiologies and means of expression are so different from our own that I think it is unhelpful and confusing to talk about animals as if they are people, and as if they experience the same emotions that we do. Richard Perry puts it well, describing the response of a Gigas squid (now usually referred to as a Humboldt squid) when hooked with a fishing gaff, which is  a long pole with a hook or nail in the end, used when the fish is too heavy or strong to lift with a conventional pole. He writes:

it discharged a cloud of ink as its normal reflex reaction to fear (or whatever may be a cephalopod’s equivalent of that emotion)[2]

I watched Blackfish for the first time last week (or, rather, I watched it, went to bed, woke up the next day and immediately watched it again).[3] There is much discussion of the family bonds within groups of orcas: each pod has something analogous to its own language, and adult orcas live with their mothers for their entire lives (their lifespans are comparable to human lifespans, so this is not trivial). The concept of family is, therefore, deeply important to these animals; if anything, the film suggests that it is far more important than it is to humans, who can learn to speak another language if they so desire; can leave and join other family groups (indeed, are often expected to do so); and can often dictate the intensity and duration of family relationships. These are murky waters, therefore; as Aristotle says in his thoughts ‘On Respiration’, ‘Among water-animals, the cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity.'[4]

It seems to me that attributing human emotions to a domesticated animal such as a pet dog makes some limited sense. Dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for thousands of years, and they have been bred by humans to please humans: to be docile, aesthetically pleasing and able to remember their name and a set of commands. Dogs and people, in other words, have a long-standing relationship with (and understanding of) each other that cannot be applied to orcas. Orcas are wild animals that live in the open ocean in vast territories, and could easily go their whole lives without seeing a single human being; as Alan Bauch says in Dolphin, ‘dolphins are totally aquatic animals whose environment necessarily prevents the kind of companionship – and even mutual knowledge – that humans share, say, with dogs’.[5] Moreover, while dogs have spent thousands of years evolving and/or being bred to be obedient and useful companions, orcas have spent thousands of years evolving into things that are good at killing and eating stuff. See, for example, Scott’s Last Expedition:

I was a little late on the scene this morning, and thereby witnessed a most extraordinary scene. Some six or seven killer whales, old and young, were skirting the fast floe edge ahead of the ship … Close to the water’s edge lay the wire stern rope of the shop and our two Esquimaux dogs were tethered to this … the next moment the whole floe under [Ponting] and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments … Whale after whale rose under the ice … [the whales’] huge and hideous heads shot vertically into the air through the cracks which they had made … there cannot be a doubt that they looked up to see what had happened to Ponting and the dogs.[6]

Similarly, in his account of a whaling expedition in the 1950s Of Whales and Men, R.B. Robertson finds himself repelled by orcas, referring to them as ‘the most voracious thing in the Southern Ocean’. His tone when describing orcas is larded with disgust in a way that his description of the butchering (‘flensing’ and ‘lemming’ are the technical terms) of a blue whale is not:

Five killer whales … with … evil black-and-white snouts broken by malignant fang-filled cavities rising occasionally above the water, advanced upon the meal [the guts of the dead whale]. Only hyenas on land and vultures in the air can convey the same sense of remorseless ill-will against all creation that killer whales convey as they slowly approach their loathsome victuals.[7]

The only way in which I think making a comparison with dogs may work is that even dogs can become vicious, unpredictable creatures that will attack a person that has never wronged them if that dog has been abused and traumatised thoroughly enough. This can even be true in a scenario where an abused dog has been rescued and re-homed with a family that love it and attempt to correct or compensate for that trauma. Although the sections of Blackfish that show various killer whales lunging at or attempting to drown people who were interacting with them peacefully a moment ago are shocking, in some ways the most troubling footage (to me) was that which showed some of the same people interacting with the orcas with great affection and talking about the bond that they feel they have with the animals. I found the question of whether that bond was real profoundly disturbing.

The trainers speak to the orcas as if they are enormous dogs, and I think this is because they don’t know what else to do. The film makes a powerful case for the whales being psychologically traumatised, bored, grief-stricken, confused and repeatedly under- and over-stimulated, but we aren’t orcas, don’t live in the sea, and (to misappropriate Nagel) can have only a very limited understanding of what it is like to be a wild orca, or what makes an orca an orca (or what makes a killer whale into a whale that kills).[8] In their recent book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, biologists Whitehead and Rendell put it like this:

For whales and dolphins, living in an utterly different habitat, at the end of a very long, effectively independent evolutionary trajectory, taking what humans do as an ideal seems profoundly wrong.[9]

Naturally, and as with other ideas outside our immediate experience (see Punch drunk), we turn to things that we do understand: other people, and other animals. The sequences showing mother orcas grieving when their offspring are permanently removed from them are heart-breaking, but I feel that how moving it is depends on the frame of reference. Rather than comparing the mother orcas to human mothers, the people making the decisions to separate them from their babies continue to view the orcas as enormous dogs. Domestic dogs don’t much like having their puppies taken away from them, but if it is done at the right point they seem to bounce back from it fairly quickly, and the expectation seems to be that the mother orca should do the same. However, using a human mother as the gold standard of emotional connection wouldn’t be any better (e.g. removing the young orca when it reached sexual maturity, say, and then expecting the mother orca to think this gave her more time for herself). Indeed, since the orca mother and baby are being separated by humans, the idea of judging the intensity of their grief in human terms at the same time as humans are inducing that grief feels pretty queasy. In the wild, orcas live alongside their mothers for their entire lives. We don’t.

Something else I have been turning over in my mind since watching the film is whether the three people killed by the largest killer whale in the film (a male called Tilikum) were also in some way the victims of our tendency to misunderstand animals by projecting human emotions onto them. Several of the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish speak of how mortified they are at the nonsense they used to say about the whales performing ‘because they want to’. Seeing the killer whales doing various complex tricks is impressive only if you consider it remarkable that the killer whale is doing as it was asked rather than killing and eating stuff. Plainly these creatures are easily strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to leap out of the water and touch a ball with their nose or whatever, and the fact that they do so should not surprise us: they are able, receive a fish-based reward for performing such as task, and have absolutely nothing else to do. They are also strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to kill and eat the trainers if they so choose, and the fact that they do this should not surprise us either.

The film makes it clear that there have been many, many near misses: in other words, the truly remarkable thing is that there haven’t been more fatalities. While most of the people featured in the film who worked with the killer whales are shocked and upset that Tilikum has behaved badly (i.e. killed and partially eaten people), there is very little surprise expressed at the people who behave badly: those who capture and kill orcas in the wild; whoever it was that thought buying an orca who is only for sale in the first place because he killed someone was a good idea; those who didn’t bother to tell any of the people working with Tilikum that he had killed a person, during a live show, in front of an audience; those who wrote the nonsense that the staff at Seaworld uttered in good faith; and those who attempted to blame the three victims for their deaths. It is interesting to see Tilikum picked out as ‘a bad whale’ (contrasted with all the other ‘good’ whales) on the one hand, and on the other the faceless mass of venal, callous, stupid, reckless or greedy people. It is as if we believe that whales are fundamentally good and people are fundamentally not.[10]

That brings me on to another very human habit, which is the desire to categorise, just as I did at the start of this post by dividing the elephants into two groups. It seems to me that the managers of Seaworld who continued to allow the whale trainers to work with Tilikum and other whales known to be dangerous took the view that these were fundamentally ‘good’ whales who had behaved badly on some isolated occasions. As Blackfish goes on, it seems that those same managers change their minds, and take the view (after Tilikum has killed and partially eaten his third person) that he is a ‘bad’ whale. However, it doesn’t make sense to make a statement about the fundamental nature of a species (or an individual whale) based on the behaviour of the few animals that can be observed splashing crowds of tourists from a blue concrete tank. The question ‘is Tilikum a bad whale?’ doesn’t make sense, because we have no way of defining the central terms.[11] We cannot explain what we mean by ‘a bad whale’. If we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that has killed people’ (including two people that worked with him and probably felt deeply attached to him), then yes, Tilikum is a bad whale, but the list of other ‘bad’ whales that had given killing and eating a person a jolly good go was extensive and harrowing: he is by no means the only ‘bad’ whale; there are degrees of ‘badness’; and ‘goodness’ has not been established as the norm. Moreover, all of these ‘bad’ whales are likely to have been ‘good’ whales in their natural context, where their skills at killing and eating stuff would be useful and necessary. We might even say that these ‘bad’ whales are more fundamentally ‘whale-like’ than the ‘good’ whales that don’t make as much effort to kill and eat stuff. Furthermore, if we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that could or would kill a person if he got the chance’ then we are left adrift in a sea of things that can’t be determined. We can’t determine why an orca kills a person or whether he thinks or feels anything in particular before or after doing so. We can’t determine whether he does this because he is peckish; whether he simply sees the opportunity; or whether it is part of his whale-like nature, although it is worth saying (as is said in the film) that there has never been any record of a person being killed by an orca in the wild. Tilikum has killed three people, but I don’t know if we can even use that to make statements about the fundamental nature of Tilikum (‘Tilikum is a bad whale’) any more than we can use it to make statements about the fundamental make-up of orcas as a whole (‘all orcas are bad whales’). Blackfish makes a compelling case that captivity traumatises whales both physically and psychologically, such that they may be far more likely to unexpectedly turn on their trainers and attempt to kill and eat them than previously thought, and therefore we might feel more comfortable with the statement ‘all orcas in captivity are psychologically traumatised, and therefore will eventually become bad whales’, but again we can’t be sure whether this is part of their fundamental nature brought out by captivity, or whether this is purely caused by circumstance. Fundamental attribution error suggests that the circumstances a person finds himself in contribute more to his actions that the fundamentals of his character, but we cannot apply that with any certainty to Tilikum, because he’s not a person. It seems that the best we can do is to say ‘orcas are very good at killing and eating stuff. Therefore being in a confined watery space with a traumatised orca is not safe’, which is surely a conclusion we could have reached without anyone having to die.

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


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

[2] Richard Perry, The Unknown Ocean (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 165.

[3] Blackfish is, of course, a term for an orca or killer whale. Interestingly, Richard Perry uses the same word to refer to pilot whales, which Bauch describes with the charming name ‘pothead whales’.

[4] Aristotle also suggests that dolphins snore, but leaves aside the tantalising question of how he knows this.

[5] Alan Bauch, Dolphin (London: Reaktion Books), p. 7. This is from an excellent series on animals, which includes Falcon by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame (see footnote below), and Salmon by Peter Coates (see A ‘small, mysterious corpus’).

[6] Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in his journal, published as Scott’s Last Expedition (London: The Folio Society, 1964), p. 56. Readers will be pleased to learn that both Ponting and the two dogs were unharmed, escaping purely by chance.

[7] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 115. Robertson then describes a crew member shooting one of the orcas dead, ‘drilled neatly behind the eye’, which is explained by another sailor as an expression of ‘loathing quite out of proportion to the damage they do to him and his bonus’ (pp. 116-117), referring to the orcas’ habit of eating the tongues of the dead whales. The comparison with hyenas and vultures is instructive, however, as both these creatures, however unpleasant we may find them, provide a very useful service. Would we prefer that the entrails of the fourteen dead blue whales simply float around the Southern Ocean forever?

[8] ‘Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch?’ Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (Falkirk: Jonathan Cape, 2014), pp. 64-65.

[9] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 27.

[10] I know orcas are dolphins rather than whales (see Bauch, pp. 61-62), but the term ‘killer whale’ is so loaded with meaning here that I’m using the word ‘whale’ rather more loosely than I would otherwise.

[11] I will leave aside the unanswerable question of whether an animal used to swimming hundreds of miles a day in a family group, and evolved to use its size, strength and intelligence to kill and eat stuff can continue to be considered a whale if it lives in a tank a few yards across, away from all its relatives, unable to hunt, and receiving food by hand from a bucket in exchange for swimming about in an amusing way.

Notes from Nanjing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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