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’.

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[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.

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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.

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[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).

Bride And Groom With Ambulance

Regular readers (and/or people who already know me) will be aware that, in a few short weeks, I am going to become Mrs. Giant Bear. I have been doing my due diligence: reading wedding blogs, talking to married friends, and generally trying to make sure that we don’t waste money or time on things we don’t care about.

Some of these decisions were easy: buying or hiring dresses[1] that won’t fit my body or the vision in my head vs. making my dresses; buying real flowers that will require coolness, vases, water and general fuss vs. spending my hen party making flowers from fabric and knitting needles that I can dismantle and make into a quilt afterwards; forcing my favourite women to wear dresses I don’t want to choose and they don’t want to wear vs. not bothering with bridesmaids at all. Photography, however, fell right on the boundary of what we consider to be Wedding Fluff.[2] Every blog I have read carries the same message when it comes to wedding photography: don’t skimp on it. Several posts I have read suggest that you should trim money from absolutely everywhere in your budget before you skimp on the photographer (‘I’d personally get married in my parents’ back garden and wearing a Topshop dress if it meant I’d get amazing photographs of the day).[3] I can see the logic that, barring a house fire, the photographs are one of the few mementos of the day that last forever.[4] However, I just can’t agree that it’s more important to have a good photographer than it is to, say, give your guests a decent dinner. Also, you’ll be there. You’ll be there, all day. Can’t you just remember what it was like? What I want a photographer to do is capture the moments that we might miss, like guests arriving in the church while I’m upstairs cocking up my makeup; people talking or dancing at the reception, which we missed because we were at the other end of the room surreptitiously stuffing each other with cake; photographs of my speech[5], which of course I’ll remember, but from a completely different point of view. In other words, I want to be able to trust him or her to judge for himself or herself which moments, people and objects deserve to be captured, without me having to break the fourth wall to say ‘quick, take a picture of Giant Bear doing a thing. Oh. He’s seen us.’

A good wedding photographer is expensive, I have discovered. Some of them charge more than our entire budget (£5k. I’m still pretty chuffed that we managed to pull off a hen party, a stag do, a honeymoon and a two-day, two-ceremony wedding with over sixty guests for this money). As a freelance, I totally understand why photography costs this much and don’t begrudge the money, but we were looking at spending around £1.5k on something we’re not sure we care about. We simply don’t have £1.5k+ to spend on this (and if we did have an extra £1.5k suddenly injected into our budget, we wouldn’t spend it on a photographer). Giant Bear’s delightful mother Beady Bear saw our dilemma and very kindly offered to pay for a photographer. I said I would like to employ a fellow freelance[6], and so the entire two-day extravaganza is being covered by the delightful Shelley of Diamonds and Doodles, who I could not recommend more highly (check out her blog Pretty Thrifty over the next few weeks as I’m going to be writing a series of guest posts about affordable weddings). Before we chose Shelley, however, we shopped around.

This brings me to the meeting I had yesterday with Terrible Photographer. I conduct similar conversations myself, when a prospective customer[7] makes an enquiry to see if I can help them improve one of the most important things they will ever write: a dissertation, an application form, a PhD thesis, a book. I attempt to build a rapport; if necessary, I offer to provide references or examples of my work and relevant experience; if there is any doubt, I explain exactly what they can and can’t expect from me; and I find out as much as I can about what their expectations are and whether I can meet them before I agree to do the job and provide an estimate of the total cost. I have only been completely freelance for three years (although I’ve had this business for nearly a decade alongside other work), and so I’m prepared to learn from others. Yesterday’s meeting was highly educational. Here are some things I learned from it.

i. Make no effort to persuade your customer to employ you.

Firstly, set the tone. Make it clear to your prospective customer that you are already pretty sure the contract is in the bag, and that your prospective customer can’t wait to pay their deposit (non-refundable). Don’t imply in any way at all that you want this work: that’s needy. Your customer is not nearly as important as, for example, the person that has just called your mobile. This is particularly important if the call is from a family member asking you to pick up milk on the way home, rather than (say) an existing customer. Don’t say ‘I’m with a customer right now’ and cut them off; don’t say ‘do you mind if I take this call?’ before answering it; certainly don’t simply turn your mobile off when you arrive so that you’re not disturbed (are you an animal? What if someone needed to call you about milk!?).

Secondly, don’t bring your A-game: that will only raise unrealistic expectations that you can’t be bothered to meet. Instead, bring a selection of mediocre work, all with a certain sameness about it so that it’s clear you are both incompetent and inflexible. In the case of photographs, why not include a picture of bride and groom where the bride’s eyes are shut, right at the front of your sample album?[8] How about a picture of bride and groom looking uncomfortable, next to a vast and hideous car that appears to be sucking yards of ivory ribbon through its radiator grill and with an ambulance dominating the background? Maybe a series of pictures with important details amputated by the edge of the image, such as the bottom of a bouquet, the top of a stained glass window, or the bride’s fingers? Another useful trick is to include ugly or irrelevant things, as a distraction from the actual people. For example, photographing a set of flower girls in front of a garden fence, in a car-park or nestled into a privet hedge is a simple way to make a wedding look classy. Even in a beautiful church, there is usually a chaotic notice-board or some terrible leaflets in lurid colours that can be positioned behind the bride’s head.

ii. Make sure your customer is clear that you know less than they do.

The blindingly simple method Terrible Photographer used to get this across to me was to show me his work. Every image (*every* image) showed people smiling uncertainly down the barrel of the camera, square on, about six feet from the lens. No candid shots, capturing lovely ephemera; no long or short perspective; no zoom; no angles; no shadows, reflections or loving close-ups of interesting details; no action shots. Can’t be bothered to do this in person? No problem: just throw together a shoddy website over lunch, using Comic Sans, Clipart and black pseudo-porn-site backgrounds throughout. Sprinkle liberally with grocers’ apostrophes (making sure that ‘photo’s’ is used as many times as possible) and other extraneous punctuation. Put some phrases in quotation marks for no reason (“Somerset Based!!”) and you’re done.

iii. Is your customer unusual in some way? Make them feel judged. Also, having already made it clear that you’re not terribly competent, bonus points are available if you can imply this is the fault of your customer.

A selection of vignettes from yesterday:

Terrible Photographer: Will it be a big do?
Me: No.
Terrible Photographer: How many people will there be at the ceremony?
Me: Nine.
Terrible Photographer: Ninety?
Me: No. Nine.
Terrible Photographer (curious): Why is it so small?
Me: Because that’s what we want. My parents aren’t coming and I’m not having any bridesmaids, so there will be nine of us.
Terrible Photographer (shaking his head): Not much to photograph there.

Terrible Photographer (coy): I expect you’ll want a picture of Daddy[9] giving you away.
Me (patient. For the moment): As I said earlier, my father isn’t going to be there.
Terrible Photographer (completely lost): Are you being given away, or are you going to just wander in on your own?
Me (who knew women could walk twenty yards unaided? Next we’ll be wanting the vote): Yes. I’m being given away by my friend S.
Terrible Photographer (suddenly understanding): You won’t want a picture of that, then.
Me (baffled): Of course I want a picture of that! Why wouldn’t I want a picture of that?
<embarrassing silence>

Terrible Photographer (pointing at a photograph of a colossal pasty bride, thirteen bridesmaids in identical magenta sacks and four miserable flower girls): I expect you’ll want a picture with all your bridesmaids.
Me (somewhat less patient): As I said earlier, I’m not having any bridesmaids.
Terrible Photographer (taken aback): Oh! What a shame. I think it’s nice for girls to have friends.
Me (icy): I have plenty of friends, thank you. As I said earlier, we simply decided not to have any bridesmaids.
Terrible Photographer (ruminative): What a shame. It’s always nice to get a picture of a pretty bridesmaid.

Me (seizing on the only good photograph I had seen all day, of a bride preparing to throw her bouquet): This is a nice one.
Terrible Photographer: I expect you’ll want a picture of you throwing your bouquet.
Me: TO WHOM?
Terrible Photographer: Your bridesmaids.
Me: I DON’T HAVE ANY BRIDESMAIDS.
Terrible Photographer (not listening): They’ll want to know who’s next for the chop <wink>
Me (past ‘icy’ into a frozen, wind-blasted tundra): Throwing the bouquet is an outdated, sexist tradition; my bouquet is made of knitting needles and weighs nearly three pounds; and the only women present will be Beady Bear and her mother. They have ninety-five years of married life between them and would both be insulted and possibly maimed by having a bundle of knitting needles hefted at them for no reason. The likely outcome is a reproduction of this picture (flipping back through the album to Bride And Groom With Ambulance), except with Giant Bear’s grandmother being loaded into it.
Terrible Photographer (not listening): Ha! That ambulance shot! It’s great, isn’t it?
Me: No.

iv. Only use props of the lowest possible quality.

The album of sample photographs was small, dirty and cheap-looking.[10] The photographs were in loose plastic cases that were slightly too large, so that they slithered about, slanty and in constant danger of falling out. I was also handed a smudgy leaflet with the comment “this is some of my best work” (it included a generic picture of a pretty church on a sunny day, which anybody in possession of eyes and a camera could have taken). The business card demonstrated a clear lack of any sense of proportion. There was a tablet, on which he attempted to show me the same photographs that were in the horrible album (why, when I’ve just looked at them?). In reality, all he showed me was that he was unable to master the ‘swipe’ action: about half the time, instead of flicking onto the next picture, we zoomed in on someone’s ear, while he yelped in distress. I was also given two forms: one had been personalised with our names (or at least variations on our names) and the other was for mystery couple ‘Mark and Catriona’. I was expected to attach a cheque to one of these forms. I declined.


[1] Because I am divorced, we are having a small civil ceremony and then a blessing in church with lots of people and music the following day. The two occasions are completely different and therefore require two entirely different dresses i.e. one with a giraffe, and one without.

[2] A reception line; bridesmaids, page boys and flower girls; an ‘engagement shoot’, whatever that is; getting my hair and/or makeup done by someone other than me; nail polish; fancy shoes (bought ’em on Ebay for £35); and probably a whole bunch of other nonsense I don’t even know about.

[3] Anyone else reminded of CJ (‘I don’t care what it is; I care what it looks like!’) and Sam (‘I care what it is!’) yelling at each other in the West Wing?

[4] We’re going for the marriage itself.

[5] My father can’t be with us, so I’m being given away by S and will be giving the father of the bride speech myself.

[6] The word refers to lone knights wandering about the place on horseback, waiting to be hired by some local dignitary to fight on their behalf i.e. I am free, and I have a lance. Because I’m changing my name shortly, I will also need to change the name of my business and spent some time toying with a new, knight-based logo.

[7] I hate the word ‘client’. I suspect it’s the word prostitutes use when they’re being polite.

[8] Me: The bride’s eyes are shut in this one.

Terrible Photographer: Really?
Me: Yes.
Terrible Photographer: I hadn’t noticed.
Me (inside my head): WHAT?

[9] After a moment, I realised he meant my father. Dad hasn’t been addressed or referred to as ‘Daddy’ for at least thirty years. He probably cringed at that exact moment in the middle of the night in Beijing and woke up, confused and sweaty.

[10] “You get one of these, free of charge!” Free? Or is it simply factored into a payment that has already been made? Also, wow, really? I get a small, dirty and cheap-looking album of my very own? I can barely contain myself.

‘The man doctor will see you now’

I love Woman’s Hour. It’s a super program, full of thoughtful, passionate women talking about things that actually matter. I admit that there is sometimes an almost audible grinding of gears as they segue from (say) an interview about women being stoned to death in Iran for adultery to (say) an earnest discussion of whether the maxi dress is back, but otherwise this is good radio. Today, however, the phrase ‘women politicians’ issued from the speaker and I can’t let that go.

‘Woman’ is a noun. ‘Women’ is a noun. Nouns. Not adjectives. NOUNS. The adjectival form is, strictly speaking, ‘womanly’ and I’d pay good money to hear someone refer to, I don’t know, Theresa May, as a ‘womanly politician’ (‘she’s womanly, by which I mean it’s legitimate for us to talk about her shoes rather than her policies’). We should not be saying or writing ‘women doctors, ‘women politicians’ or ‘woman presidential candidate’, but ‘doctors’, ‘politicians’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’, because in none of those cases is the gender of the person concerned remotely relevant to what they are doing (even in Hillary Clinton’s case, this is true: she may be remarkable in part for what she is doing for women and the way we are perceived, but she would still be a remarkable politician if she were male, especially with regard to her work on Chinese stoves, of all things).[1] Therefore the word ‘woman’ is not only grammatically dubious but redundant. If one is speaking or writing about a situation in which gender is relevant (e.g. a discussion of whether ladies will be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England, or whether all the excellent women should simply splinter off and form our own church, leaving the sexist rump to arrange their own Goddamn flowers), then one should say ‘female bishops’.

As with so much in grammar, it’s largely a matter of opinion as to whether it’s acceptable to use ‘woman’ as what we call an apposite noun i.e. a noun that is used to modify, identify or explain another noun. The argument goes that, firstly, using ‘woman’ as an adjective (‘woman bishop’) changes the modified noun (‘bishop’) more than using ‘female’ would, and therefore the ‘woman-ness’ of the bishop in question is emphasised. Secondly, ‘woman’ only ever denotes adult female[2] humans, whereas ‘female’ could refer to anything from a whale to a statue, and therefore using ‘woman’ is more respectful.

I think both these arguments are nonsense. Firstly, I think that emphasising the gender of the bishop (or the doctor, or the pilot, or whatever) is simply a way of folding sexism into the grammar, as one might fold an unnecessary flavouring into an otherwise pleasant cake. It’s a way of saying, ‘hark at me! A woman pilot! A pilot who is also a woman! HOW CAN THIS BE?’ See, for example, the splendid old-fashioned chauvinism of She’ll Never Get Off The Ground by Robert J. Serling,[3] a novel that makes its intentions clear in the subtitle: A novel about a woman airline pilot …?![4]. The awkwardness of the language (and no-one can tell me that ‘woman airline pilot’ trips off the tongue) echoes the awkwardness that we are supposed to feel about the whole concept (see also ‘midhusband’ and ‘male nurse’). Secondly, I suppose it might be argued that being referred to as ‘female’ is degrading because the same word could equally be applied to a cow wandering vacantly round a field, a spider with half her mate sticking out of her mouth or a dog that’s licking itself, and so it can, and I don’t think that matters at all. What does matter is that ‘female’ cannot be used to denote something intended for use by females e.g. ‘female toilet’. This implies that the toilet itself has gender, which of course it doesn’t. The toilet is not female, any more than a skirt or a bra or a tampon is female; toilets, skirts, bras and tampons are, mostly, for the use of females.[5] I suspect that this horrible phrase is used to avoid the knotty question of how to punctuate the possessive plural (Ladies’ Toilet, the toilet for ladies). If you don’t know how to punctuate a possessive plural, wouldn’t it be better to ask someone with a basic education how to do it, rather than choose a different word to misuse as a workaround? Females objecting to being called ‘female’ is so stupid that I almost can’t be bothered to refute it. ‘Female’ is a perfectly good word. It’s not remotely offensive (or, if it is, it’s a lot less offensive when applied to a woman that it is when applied to a toilet).

Consider French grammar for a moment. David Sedaris says the following:

Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male, and indecisiveness female … I was told that if something is unpleasant, it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache and Rollerblade.[6]

The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate one) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. The same applies in Spanish (and no doubt many other languages that I’m not familiar with). This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should. This is a battle worth fighting: women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not.[7]

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. This is the default position of both society and the English language: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish.[9] This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly.[10]


[1] Notice how her opponents can’t stop reminding you that she’s a woman. Why is that important? Because political leaders are men, Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary McAleese, Aung San Suu Kyî, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon notwithstanding, we assume. I should also point out that strong female politicians are now such a commonplace that, while I admit I checked a couple of spellings, I didn’t have any trouble in coming up with this list off the top of my head. Rather than attack Clinton’s policies, her opponents attack what they consider to be her weak spot (her gender), and they do it in a way that would be beneath a group of sexist teenagers, most recently with badges that read ‘KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing’. What can one say about a group of people so profoundly childish, other than ‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T VOTE THESE PEOPLE INTO PUBLIC OFFICE!’?

[2] Did you see what I did there?

[3] Mr. Serling is also the author of The President’s Plane is Missing, which was presumably being flown by a woman who wanted to stop off on the way to Washington to purchase a pair of tights and some lipstick. It appears at number 13 in a diverting list of terrible book titles, which also includes the ‘Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ at number 25, a title that has grammatical problems all of its own in the dangling modifier is-it-being-used-as-a-noun-or-an-adjective? confusion created by the placement of the word ‘Lesbian’. Are these stories about horses for lesbians, stories about horses and lesbians, or stories about lesbian horses? (‘Strangely Brown Beauty’s nostrils flared. She certainly hadn’t expected to be entered at Aintree’).

[4] The incredulous suspension points and interrobang (compound question mark/exclamation mark) also won Most Insulting Use of Punctuation 1967.

[5] One sees this on Ebay every day: ‘Woman’s dress, size 16’ says the heading. As opposed to …?

[6] And Professor John Raven. A role model for small, as yet un-heteronormatived/gender-role’d children if ever I saw one.

[7] He’s quite right: the French word for vagina (le vagin) is masculine, despite a. coming from a feminine Latin root and b. OH COME ON. David Sedaris (2000), ‘Make That a Double’, from Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, Abacus), p. 188.

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use an adjective as an adjective and a noun as a noun and stop pissing me off.

[9] Thereby reinforcing the idea that a woman attempting to also be a doctor is something to be exclaimed over.

[10] I hope we can all enjoy the clash of stereotypes here: a man can be a doctor, but if he’s unwell he doesn’t have to go and consult a doctor until parts of his body start turning black and withering away.

Open the Box

Regular readers may have noticed that I went a bit quiet for a minute there. That’s because I’ve been away working in China, The Land That Internet Freedom Forgot.[1] This is a world where creepy men in grey suits (I assume. It may be women in full evening dress) read everyone’s email; ban works of art, arrest people at random, commandeer other countries and destroy their language and culture; where you can be shot or hanged for being a drug dealer or a homosexual; where forced abortions are commonplace, and sexism and lack of religious freedom are givens; and where psychiatry and organ transplants are used as weapons of political oppression. However, before we all get too depressed, China is also a country where, every year, and for reasons that I fail to fully comprehend, the best and brightest students are sent overseas when they are at their most impressionable, to learn skills like independent thought, and the value of questioning assumptions. In other words, it is a country that can change.

China is also a country without Facebook or YouTube, and it has a very restricted blogosphere. While they struggle to deal with being denied instant access to the inane thoughts of everyone they know fifty times a day, Chinese teenagers can comfort themselves with cultural whatnots such as congee (prawn porridge for breakfast), toilets that one is forced to crouch over as if someone is about to strike one vigorously on the crown, and baths that are so short and so wide that I, at less than five foot seven, can only get my entire body under the water by filling the bath to the brim and then executing a sort of walk-like-an-Egyptian pose, in which I cannot reach the soap, the taps or any part of my body that might require washing. There are several interesting things to say about my most recent trip, but I will confine myself to just two for the moment. First of all, as well as several days with my beloved Father, I spent the bulk of the time working with A-level students. They come from all over China and are trying to determine whether they want to apply to universities in the UK, and if so, how to go about it. Therefore, I was in China on business. I must have been, because I had a business visa, I flew business class (but didn’t pay for it. Oh yeah!), I gave out a ton of business cards and I worked like a dog for four days.[2] Secondly, there were a lot of students. Usually there are thirty or so. This year, there were seventy-eight. SEVENTY. EIGHT. It was an overwhelming experience, something akin to being rolled in catnip and then released into a room of kittens. Normally I would put time and effort into learning all thirty names, but this year that proved to be a task that was quite beyond me. It did, however, lead me to thinking about the names that the students choose for themselves.

We have already given some consideration to the names of things (see Eve’s Pudding), including foodstuffs, babies and small towns. Consider now the names of Chinese students, which generally they choose for themselves in their early teens. It is one of my more interesting tasks to talk to students who may have chosen a name that they may come to regret when they arrive in the UK, and see if they can be persuaded that, say, Desmond Dong isn’t a name they want hanging around their neck like the proverbial albatross for the next three years. This year, my only failure was a girl called Eagle, who declined to change her name (on my list of alternative suggestions were Robin, Linnet, Ava, Jemima and Elsa.[3] I also had Ganymede, which I admit is a little fanciful and perhaps on reflection not a great improvement). Anyhow, she wasn’t having it. “It’s a perfectly good word,” I said, “just a bit unusual as a Christian name. Maybe you could choose another bird?” She thought for a bit and said, “I like ducks. Can I call myself Duck?”

I did, however, manage to persuade a boy called Ding Dong to change his name, although I will admit I wavered a little on this one because I could hear Leslie Phillips saying it in my head (he changed his name to Ben, after Big Ben. This makes me very happy). Another boy changed his name to Ben (this time after Gentle Ben), on the grounds that one, his Chinese name (Da Xióng) means ‘big bear’[4] and two, his chosen name was Marmaduke. Another boy told me that his chosen name was Noah because his Chinese name means something along the lines of ‘big boat that sits on the water alone’. These are the names I like best: the ones where the name can become a talking point with other students in Freshers’ Week; where the student has a genuine reason for choosing their name; and where the name says something positive about them, rather than a terrible pun that they don’t understand and can’t defend themselves against.[5] One of the girls this year arrived with the chosen name Panda. This is a tricky one, I think. Sometimes the really idiosyncratic names are charming, endearing and original (viz. students from previous years named Vanilla, Rock, Young, Bee and Song, all of whom kept those names and all of whom had no trouble with them). Sometimes, however, the students sound like they were given their name by a lazy racist (‘No, no. Lots of British people are called Tiananmen Slitty-Eye. Enjoy your time at university, you tiny yellow idiot’). Moreover, thanks to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian, British people are temporarily knowledgeable about the habits of giant pandas, and their sexual habits (or lack of them) in particular.[6] Panda was a shy, unassuming creature and I couldn’t bring myself to explain all of my reservations to her. Instead, I simply suggested that maybe Pandora would be marginally better (I had other suggestions, but that was the one she liked best).

As well as choosing a new name based on nothing at all, the students are also expected to navigate a brand new culture with no information whatsoever. In particular, they have not received any sex education. The legal age at which they can get married, the students tell me, is twenty-two for men and twenty for women. The students were also under the impression that these ages are also the ages of consent, but in fact the Chinese staff explained that the age of consent is fourteen for both genders. Therefore, these students are at something of a disadvantage when they arrive in the UK, and so we have attempted to address this with the Embarrassing Questions Box.[7] The idea is that the students may have questions that they want and need answers to, but that they are too embarrassed to ask in front of everyone else, or that perhaps they don’t feel they have the command of English to ask. The Embarrassing Questions Box is usually requisitioned from the local photocopying room, and it lives at the front of the lecture theatre throughout the week. The students write their embarrassing questions on slips of paper and put them into the Box. Lindy West writes as follows of a ‘mother-daughter puberty class’, whatever that is:

There was a part of Growing Up Female where everyone was supposed to write their most embarrassing questions on little note cards and the pube instructor would answer them anonymously in front of the class.

Ladies and gentlemen, for our purposes here, I am that pube instructor.[8] On our last evening in China, I and my male colleague K (and, in previous years, my dear father) take the questions out of the box and answer them as honestly as we can. I wish with all my heart that I had thought of asking the newly-named Pandora to open the Box for us.

The first question out of the Box this year was ‘How can I get a boyfriend like K?’. K is a six-foot-five fluent Mandarin speaker from Belfast with a Cambridge degree and a moustache, so I was tempted to reply that I’d certainly never met anyone like him and that they would just have to work it out; K’s response was to say simply ‘the Box is not a dating agency’ and go onto a question about laundry. Other gems from previous years have included ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (no); ‘Is it illegal to be a flasher?’ (yes, but more importantly, why are you asking?); ‘What should I do if a homosexual sits next to me on public transport?’ (I’ve no idea how you’d be able to tell simply from the way he or she sat down, but the polite thing to do would be to wish him or her a cheery good morning); and variations on the theme of ‘How can you tell if someone wants to have sex with you?’ (I believe my answer was, ‘if you can’t tell, you probably shouldn’t be doing it’). Having dealt with the Embarrassing Questions in a plenary setting, we then divide the students into two single-sex groups, and I have some time with the girls while the male member of staff has some time with the boys, to follow up anything that may have come out of the Box (hope, for example). Having done this, we swap over, and the male member of staff has some time with the girls and I have some time with the boys. The Chinese staff cram themselves into these sessions at the back, giggling to each other behind their hands. It is not to be missed.

This year, the questions from the girls were very practical: can you explain European bra sizes, will I be met at the airport, can I learn to drive, will British people be able to understand my accent, and so on. The questions from the boys were all about sex. Every single one. We were using the staff room while the girls had the lecture theatre, and the boys were sprawled on the floor, over the sofas and lounging about against the walls, laughing and digging each other in the ribs. There were the usual questions about repelling the advances of homosexual men, who are of course well known for hitting fruitlessly on heterosexual Asian teenagers; anxiety about British girls being voracious sexual predators and/or fawn-like in their skittishness; and of course dating etiquette, in the form of questions about how much they should spend on gifts and meals and so on (plus a question from a student called Jerry, who thought he might be too fat to get a girlfriend and wondered what I thought. I wanted to give him a hug). I was able to respond to a question about whether British girls like facial hair by explaining that the thing on K’s face was a moustache, and that the wispy, sad butterfly things some of them were sporting on their top lips were in fact embarrassing and pointless and akin to donning a sandwich board reading ‘I DON’T HAVE ANY TESTOSTERONE’ (pleasingly, two of them turned up to the final morning session having removed the offending hair overnight). Towards the end of the session, however, the boys surpassed themselves, with my favourite Embarrassing Question ever. It came from Kim (a nervous kid with a stammer), who prefaced his question by saying ‘I’m r-r-r-really embarrassed about this.’ I had already explained to them that, after ten years of university work and student problems, I was completely unshockable and they should make the most of the opportunity to ask whatever they wanted. ‘That’s alright, Kim,’ I said encouragingly, ‘You’re among friends.’

‘Can you t-t-tell us everything you know about s-s-s-sex?’ he said. In the sudden tense silence, I glanced up at the clock. There were ten minutes to go. I cleared my throat.

‘I’ll need a volunteer,’ I said.

———————————————————————————————-

[1] Or indeed most kinds of freedom. I can write that without fear because they don’t have WordPress in China, natch.

[2] Yes, dear readers. This *does* mean that I finally have a job I am actually good at, that I enjoy, that pays me very well, and that doesn’t involve me spending time with people I can’t stand. The university can sink hissing into the sea for all I care (see Exemplum Docet).

[3] Ava is derived from the Latin word avis, meaning bird; Jemima is the Hebrew word for dove; and Elsa is the Anglo-Saxon word for swan, Fact Fans.

[4] I found out afterwards that da xióng can also mean ‘elephant’, yet another quirk of Mandarin that suggests a bunch of baffling underlying assumptions (‘What shall we call that massive grey thing over there? I can’t help noticing that it doesn’t have any fur and couldn’t possibly climb a tree.’ Zhou scratched his head. ‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘You make good points, Li, but if I’m honest, lack of fur and tree-climbing abilities aside, it reminds me of a massive bear. Let’s just call it that until we think of something better.’ Li shrugged. ‘Fair enough,’ he said).

[5] In previous years, it has been my privilege to rename numerous students, including a very shy girl whose chosen name was, tragically, Swallow Wang.

[6] Yang Guang means ‘sunshine’ and Tian Tian means ‘sweetie’. In other words, even the pandas have better names than some of my students. The word panda itself is not Mandarin (given that da means big or giant, I had somewhat naively assumed that pan meant bear), but probably derives from the Nepali ponya, which means eater of bamboo. Since giant pandas are not native to Nepal, we must assume that this word originally applied to the red panda only (should we assume from this that the red panda came to the attention of the Western world first? Not sure). The red panda and the giant panda, then, are united by their love of bamboo, but are in fact not closely related. The giant panda is a bear, while the red panda is a raccoon. Mandarin calls the red panda hon ho (fire fox), and has various terms for the giant panda, my favourite of which brings us back to where we started: zhú xióng, bamboo bear.

[7] I found this wonderful example of co-evolution in 2014, which I append here to show what a useful tool the Box can be.

[8] Lindy West, ‘Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, A Person Who Is Not A complete Freak’, in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (London: Quercus), p. 27f. Brilliantly, she goes on: ‘I don’t remember what my question was, but I do remember that when I went up to put it in the pile, I recognized my mom’s handwriting on the top card. ‘Please talk about inverted nipples’ it said, succinctly.’

‘Did he bang her back doors in?’

My thanks to my dear friend Gossamer Beynon for supplying the title to this post, which was her response to the revelation that I had spent the day writing a sex scene. Like Jake Thackray before he sings ‘The Lodger’, I must warn you that this next post is dirty. Don’t look so surprised, dear reader. It’s not called the filthy comma for nothing.

Those of you that read my blog regularly will know that I’m writing a novel (see House of Holes, Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). And you probably also know that, for reasons entirely germane to the plot, my novel contains several sex scenes. Actually, that’s a lie: it contains several sex scenes, but at least one of these is entirely gratuitous. Chapter five, for example, involves some outdoor hanky-panky that is only there (indeed, the whole chapter is only there) to allow me to make a terrible joke at the end of it. It isn’t even a proper joke, but that most offensive of humour’s offspring, a pune or play on words (see Laugh as we always laughed / At the little jokes we enjoyed together). In fact, said pune (and I cannot over-emphasize the feebleness of it) takes the place of any kind of emotional climax or proper plot. I make no apology for this, because it’s my book and I can do what I like, Goddamnit. If I want flying unicorns to break through the sky in the middle of an otherwise dull set-piece at a children’s sports day and start running people through with their horns, I’ll damn well do it.[1] Anyhow, in the process of writing the aforementioned sex scenes, I have come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with me as a writer, and possibly as a person, in that I don’t see why it should be difficult to write about sex. Can’t one just follow the oft-quoted advice ‘write what you know’, and then fill in the gaps by, I don’t know, making stuff up? I’ve noticed that many otherwise talented writers seem to lose their way here.[2] For example, I don’t like John Updike’s books very much, but he can write when he wants to (Rebecca’s death in RabbitRun, for example, is gut-wrenching work). When it comes to sex, however, he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. In Couples, he writes the following, apparently with no sense of irony: “[she] let him gather himself into his groin and hurl himself painlessly into the dilated middle amplitudes of herself”. If that doesn’t work for you, how about some sexy geometry: “suddenly, she felt to be all circles, circles that could be parted to yield more circles.” Not doing the trick, you say? Maybe something a bit less cryptic will get us all in the mood: “Birds chirped beyond the rainbow rim of the circular wet tangency holding him secure. Her hand, feathery, established another tangency, located its core.” Shut up! That’s why.

I don’t think it should be any more difficult to write about making love than it should be to write about making spaghetti bolognaise. I should say at this point that I really hate the phrase ‘making love’ and I’ve only used it here because the repetition of ‘making’ illustrates my point. I also hate its weasel of a sister, ‘lovemaking’. Why does this word exist? Nobody would say ‘foodmaking’ or ‘furnituremaking’, and even the perfectly acceptable term ‘dressmaking’ has the grace to shuffle its feet. I’ve been married to Garden Naturalist for nearly twelve years, and I’m pretty sure we have never done anything together that either of us would be comfortable to describe as ‘lovemaking’.[3] To return to the analogy, however: everyone knows how to make spaghetti bolognese and everyone has their own way of doing it, and everyone likes to think that they’re pretty good at making spaghetti bolognese. Could most people write a reasonable account of how to make spaghetti bolognese? I think they probably could. Would it be interesting to read? If they knew how to write, yes it would, and writing about sex should be absolutely no different. I use the spaghetti bolognaise analogy, incidentally, because my book contains two accounts of making spaghetti bolognaise, and a third reference to a memorable spaghetti bolognese cooked several years earlier.[4] I didn’t find any of these cooking-and-eating (foodmaking?) scenes hard to write. I didn’t find any of the sex scenes hard to write. And yet there are courses advertised in the back of the LRB where you can go to learn how to do this properly, presumably along with a bunch of other people with earnest faces, ambitions that outstrip their talent and suitcases of moleskin notebooks filled with euphemisms for the word ‘penis’. What’s wrong with everyone?[5]

As research for this post, I read some of last year’s nominations for the Bad Sex Award, which was given to David Guterson for his book Ed King, a reworking of the Oedipus Rex story. The Guardian published some extracts from this supposedly bad sex, and I have to disagree. It seems to me that the mind can sometimes wander, making associations that can’t be shared with one’s partner (or at least, not at the time), and that therefore can make one feel strangely alone, even in the most intimate moment. This simultaneous oneness and twoness is part of the wonder of sex, and he captures some of that for me in this beautifully deadpan line: “what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse”. There’s an honesty to this that I like (also, ‘adroitly’ is a great word). I also liked the extract from On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. It got the Bad Sex Award equivalent of Highly Commended at a flower show and goes like this:

… we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young, in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last, and we breathed each other in, and in those moments both knew we would marry each other after all, and not a word needed to be spoken about it.

This is fine, isn’t it? I think it’s rather beautiful. Compare it, for example, to the work of fellow nominee Christos Tsiolkas, who apparently felt the need to write the following in his novel Dead Europe:

She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.

The protagonist then proceeds to bite his lady-love in the thigh, sending her into a frenzy of something or other. If that doesn’t put you off sex (and compost) forever, I don’t know what will. Oh, yes I do: the rest of the extract, which makes these three sentences look tender and romantic. I’ve linked to it in the interests of allowing you to make up your own mind, but for the love of God don’t read this rubbish on a full stomach, or while you have a mouthful of tea (although you will probably want to swill your mouth out afterwards[6]), or when you’re at work, or when you’re tipsy, sober, in company, alone or conscious. Unbelievably, this is not just because the sex is gross: the writing is equally horrifying.[7] In Sebastian Barry’s defence, he has no gross-out ‘my eyes’ moments, no baffling infantile terms for body parts, no eyebrow-raising gymnastics, no perpetuation of myths from writers who should know better and no far-fetched variations on, you know, just having sex, that are only possible in the fantasy world that the writer has been compelled to create, such as a man with one mind but thirty-eight bodies.[8] Of the nominations, I think both Tsiolkas and Lee Child (The Affair) have both produced writing that is far, far worse than the eventual winner. Just as I can remember Des O’Connor declaring ‘I want to sing’ and Eric Morecambe replying ‘I want to marry Raquel Welch, but some things are just not possible’, Lee Child wants to write. Unfortunately, he constructs his lamentable prose from trunctated fragments rather than actual sentences and continually states the obvious, as in the first three ‘sentences’ of the extract below, the second and third of which are entirely redundant. This sort of useful-to-crap ratio has no place when writing about sex, or indeed anything else. Here is his woeful attempt, which sounds even worse when read aloud:

We were both thirty-six years old. All grown up. Not teenagers. We didn’t rush. We didn’t fumble. We took our time, and what a time it was. Maybe the best ever [anyone else having a flashback to Patricia Hewitt declaring the NHS had had its best year ever? Just me?] … It was a great kiss … We kept that first kiss going for whole minutes. Five of them, or maybe ten … We were very good at it.[9]

A particularly horrible sub-genre of bad writing about sex is bad writing about sex that involves animals. Anyone who has read the Duncton Wood books (any of them will do; they’re all basically the same) will have explicit sex between moles burned into their memory.[10] I can’t bear to quote any to you, mainly because this would mean the following things would have to happen. One, I would have to make a special trip to the library. Given that my house is basically a library with some beds and a kitchen, this is not a good use of my time. Two, the librarian would form a very low opinion of me, which I don’t deserve. Three, those of you lucky enough to have escaped William Horwood and all his works so far would no longer be safe, and it would be my fault. Finally and fourthly, I’d actually have to read some more of this rubbish, having sworn never so to do. If you haven’t read any of these books, please take it on trust that they are a conjunction of horrible writing and horrible sex. I know that a lack of realism is an unfair criticism to make of a series about the belief systems and pseudo-shamanistic culture of telepathic moles, but I’m going to make it anyway when it comes to the sex scenes. Surely, moles simply just bump into each other in a tunnel when they’re on their way to somewhere else? Having ascertained the gender of the other mole, and therefore determined that sex may be on the cards rather than a fight to the death, it seems most likely to me that the two moles, unable to turn around or really see anything, probably indulge in a quick bit of uncomfortable soil-based nooky in complete darkness, after which they continue on their way. I doubt very much that moles gasp the mole equivalent of ‘more!’ in passionate tones to each other (does anyone? Answers on a postcard). They’re moles. If ever there was an animal whose lifecycle made the phrase ‘nasty, brutish and short’ frighteningly real, it is the mole. In the context of writing a good sex scene, I suggest that these should not be our watchwords.


[1] As yet, there are no flying unicorns, no children’s sports days and absolutely no dull set-pieces, but you take my point. I may be a little bit drunk on power.

[2] There is also the opposite problem, of course. In Atonement (a book I really hated), the only decent writing concerns an aborted attempt to have sex in a library.

[3] I couldn’t possibly use either of these terms to describe anything I might want to do myself: they’re so terribly po-faced. Who are these people that take sex so seriously? Have they never whacked their partner in the face with a belt-buckle, twanged a bra across the sitting-room or otherwise ruined the moment with a badly-timed question (‘Did you remember to lock the back door? That’s not a euphemism, darling; I mean our actual back door.’)?

[4] Not two different spaghetti bologneses, but the same spaghetti bolognese made twice, because there are two chapter twenty-twos for reasons that needn’t detain us here (although see above about me being drunk on power).

[5] I’ll tell you something else for nothing: simply stringing a load of sub-standard sex scenes together like mucky beads on the tenuous, twanging thread you are choosing to call a plot also does not constitute a novel. Fifty Shades of GreyI’m looking at you.

[6] That’s what she said.

[7] Exhibit A: the inexcusable phrase ‘her moist meat’. Even worse is the following: ‘Her body convulsed, shuddered, trembled once more, and then fell to stillness.’ Thank goodness that’s over, thinks the reader. Clearly, we have reached some kind of end-point here (or rather, she has) and can all move on with our lives. But no. Tsiolkas has further observations to make, viz. the next sentence: “She had come”. REALLY? D’YOU THINK?

[8] Thanks for that, Peter F. Hamilton. Thanks for your completely terrible book, which I’m not even going to name. Have you written others? Lets hope not.

[9] ‘We were very good at it’? Is he kidding? In my capacity as a totally unpublished writer with a half-finished novel, a literature degree and nothing more than a load of opinions derived from reading that can be described as scatalogical at best, may I give you a tip, Mr. Child? Show, don’t tell. That is all.

[10] This is not to say that sex involving animals can’t be done well, however. Both Stephen Fry and Alberto Moravia have written well-realised sex scenes involving people getting it on with horses and/or ponies, and Gerald Durrell writes movingly in The Whispering Land about the mating of sea-lions (with each other, I hasten to add). I’m not sure I would describe any of these accounts as especially lubricious, but at least they don’t expect me to believe that moles are tiny rodent sex-fiends.

Chicklit

The following extract is from Jezebel.com and you can and should read the whole article here. It’s what I will describe as a book review (for lack of a better term) by Lindy West of Field Guide to Chicks of the United States by the brilliantly-named Joe Bovino. Again, I urge you to read the article (and this one from Dame Magazine, in which Joe Donatelli lists twelve kinds of women that won’t be having sex with Joe Bovino). However, to sum up the book: for a mere $27, you too can own an illustrated list of stereotypes. You know how bird guides show pictures of various species you might hope to encounter while crouching forlornly in a hedge clutching a pair of binoculars? And you know how they then supply useful information about what they eat, how they breed, how to identify their calls, what their offspring look like and how you can tell them apart? That’s what this is, but the pictures are cartoons of women, and the ‘facts’ are about women and oh my God the whole thing is an actual, honest-to-God straight swap: take birds out, put women in. I’M NOT JOKING. THIS IS A REAL THING. Helpfully, Bovino has come up with new, super-offensive names for all the different ‘species’, which I can’t bear to repeat. The worst one is the ‘Peace of Ass’, the natural habitat of whom is a yoga studio, so I guess that’s my category (see Busting a gut). This is the level of brain-deadening stupidity we’re dealing with here.

Lindy West says pretty much everything there is to say about this piece of sexist racist mindless tosh, but with my professional hat on (it’s green and woolly, with an important-looking strap to hold my big red pen), I just wanted to add that, like West, I would be only too delighted to offer my copy-editing services for free. I’ll also proof it, index it (‘Women, unrealistically hot, passim’), typeset it, bind it and design the dust jacket (provided I don’t have to copy it, distribute it or read it). West finishes the review as follows:

‘… I took it upon myself to offer some pro bono editing services! Here’s a sample paragraph, with my notes:

Two-page species profiles on each chick are the key to the guide. Each profile includes a ¾ page illustration of each chick, as well as its species name, common name, group (regional, ethnic, other) name, and its most distinguishing physical characteristics, song, behavioral tendencies, mating patterns, (chick) magnets, location, and habitat. It also includes a behavioral trait chart, promiscuity index, and color-coded range map. And there are even a few (whoa! and fetch!) tips for guys in the field.

‘Weirdly, by the time I got done editing the whole book, all that was left was the word Field. So pre-order Field, everyone! It’s about … a field, I guess. Best book ever.’