A ten-year study of local rodents

For my fifteenth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Arno Karlen’s book Plague’s Progress: A social history of man and disease. This is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with the history of epidemics and pandemics, and how they occur (principally through a disease that is well-established in an animal species jumping the species barrier). It is prescient reading, and so I’ve just whipped through it again in a couple of evenings.[1] Having read and inwardly digested the central message of the book twenty-five years ago (i.e. LOOK OUT), some small part of me coiled itself up to wait, wondering when the next pandemic was going to be. A mere seven years later, the SARS outbreaks occurred, followed by swine ’flu shortly afterwards. The latter prevented me from going to China that year, but otherwise came as no surprise whatsoever. I read a sensible, well-researched book. Based on the evidence, the book predicted a thing; the thing came to pass. Why, then, is the current pandemic such a shock to the system?

One reason, and the idea I want to explore in this post, is the lack of a more meaningful connection between scientific research and policy. Here is a passage from Plague’s Progress in which Karlen explores an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the Four Corners area in 1993:

a New Mexico biologist, Robert Parmenter, had just finished a ten-year study of local rodents. Heavy rain and snow the previous year had caused a rare abundance of piñon nuts and grasshoppers, staples of the deer mouse diet. When the animals’ food supply expands, they have bigger, more frequent litters and their population grows. From May 1992 to May 1993, deer mice had multiplied tenfold. As result, people were exposed far more than usual to the mice and their wastes. Late in the summer of 1993, the mouse population started to fall, and the hantavirus epidemic in humans waned.

Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.172.

Notice four important things here. One, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his funding body) decided that deer mice were interesting – so interesting, in fact, that they were prepared to study the little blighters for a decade. Two, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his research team) noticed the explosion in the deer mouse population. He and his team had probably written at least one paper on the subject, including lots of meticulous stats and several photos of whiskery-faced mice looking both cute and harmless. Three, somebody – quite a few somebodies this time – knew that hantavirus was linked to human/mouse contact and it seems reasonable to suppose that this may even have been one of the reasons these mice were being studied in the first place. Stephen Porter devotes two entire pages of The Great Plague to speculating about rat populations in the 1660s, and while his various suggestions are convincingly argued, he has no rat-based data with which to support them.[2] Similarly, Roy Porter makes it clear in his medical history of humanity that one of the reasons we can’t say anything substantial about the rat populations in plague years is that ‘no-one had any reason to suspect rats’.[3] Karlen makes it very clear in the preceding pages that, in the case of hantavirus, the link to mice was known and the virus was sufficiently well understood that it had been placed into the correct family, alongside Bolivian haemorrhagic fever, which he describes as appearing in 1960 and ‘like the Argentine fever, but even deadlier.’[4] Four, notice how keen we are to pin these diseases down to a specific location in the way we name them. This nasty pox can’t have originated here, in our nice clean homes, we imply, but somewhere else, where people are less clean, less responsible and less white (although we might note in passing that there are infestations and infections, from nits to polio, that thrive on cleanliness). This is an attempt, I think, to shift the blame. Rather than focusing on (say) idiotic, irresponsible behaviour here (e.g. the delivery driver who yesterday tried to hand me his telephone, a thing he literally holds up to his face to make it work), it allows us to focus on there: some unfamiliar, barbaric place, where no doubt they do things differently and more dangerously. It is an attempt to make these diseases sound external, invasive, foreign and other. The obvious examples are of course Spanish ’flu (of which more later), German measles and various names for syphilis.[5] Karlen notes that,

People around the world named it for the nations they thought had infected them; in France it was the Italian disease … the Spanish disease in Holland, the Castilian disease in Portugal, the Polish disease in Russia, the Russian disease in Siberia, the German disease in Poland, the Christian disease in Turkey, the Turkish disease in Persia, and the Portuguese or Chinese disease in Japan. [Syphilis] became the most disowned infection in history.

Karlen, p.124. I am also reminded of Flanders and Swann at the end of the Song of Patriotic Prejudice: ‘it’s not that they’re stubborn or naturally bad/It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad.’

This is a tale as old as plagues themselves. Stephen Porter tells us that,

When the chronicler Henry Knighton described the origins of the Black Death in the 1340s, he noted that it had begun in India, spreading from there to Asia Minor and then infecting the Christian and Jewish populations.

Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), p.1.

Donald Trump’s idiotic label for this latest form of the coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’ is, therefore, entirely of a piece with the racism and othering that has been applied to infectious disease for centuries. However, as the syphilis example shows, the origins of a disease are rarely captured accurately or helpfully in its name. Karlen suggests, with reference to polio, that ‘officials responded … as they often do to puzzling new challenges by refighting their last war’[6] and perhaps we can read the current situation in the light of Brexit and other sources and/or expressions of racial tension around the world. British exceptionalism will not save us, as we blunder off into the night, mumbling ‘keep calm and something something’. I’m also getting pretty tired of the situation being described as a war or in warlike terms, given that what is currently required is calm, compassion and good sense (qualities not usually sought out or rewarded in wartime). Again, I read this as othering: wars are, after all, almost always fought against other nations.

We can find a whole load more racism in the efforts made to fight (by which I mean find someone to blame for) previous outbreaks of various diseases. For example, in her review of John Henderson’s book Florence Under Siege, Erin Maglaque speaks of Jews being ‘locked in the ghetto’ during the 1629 outbreak of the plague in Italy; Roy Porter of Jews being ‘penned up in a wooden building and burnt alive’.[7] In the many polio epidemics in the twentieth century across Europe, doctors, public health officials and parents were basically just guessing at how to prevent and treat the disease, and naturally turned on those they already viewed with hatred and suspicion. Karlen describes

a belief that dirt, and polio, were spread by the poor and foreign-born. Scientists and laymen alike feared that hordes of dirty, ignorant immigrants with primitive hygiene were infecting clean-living society. … polio was rare among poor blacks. Yet official attention stayed fixed on ethnic and racial slums.

Karlen, p.152.

In 1916, there was no test for polio, no vaccine and no effective treatment. There was also no idea of how it spread from one person to another. Polio appeared to strike at random (Karlen describes it as ‘evil lightning’)[8] and thus as well as People From Forn Parts, suspected causes included fomites (objects, door-handles, railings and so forth), dogs, cats, dirt, insects, Jews and swimming. In fact, polio is caused by a virus that occurs naturally in the intestines, and that only becomes troublesome when spread (via the fecal-oral route) into the mouth. In some people it will cause a mild infection; in others, the spinal cord will be affected, leading to lifelong paralysis. This explains why polio thrives in clean, warm places: in dirty homes, children are far more likely to be exposed to the virus at an early age, experience a short illness and thereafter immunity.[9]

To return to my comment that the relationship between research and policy is a problematic one, here is Karlen again, on the aforementioned Bolivian haemorrhagic fever:

When the epidemic peaked, in the mid-sixties, there were a thousand cases a year and hundreds of deaths. In one village, the ecological source of the disease became obvious. Spraying with DDT to prevent malaria had wiped out the village’s cats; mice multiplied, and human illness followed. Destroying the mice ended the epidemic in precisely two weeks, the virus’s incubation time.

Karlen, p.162.

A couple of things leap out at the contemporary reader here, I think. Firstly, we might recall the oft-repeated story of villagers suspecting cats to be carriers of the Black Death and killing them, thereby leaving flea-bearing rats and mice to proliferate in greater numbers. Stephen Porter describes the public health measures suggested by Sir Theodore de Mayerne (the king’s physician) in 1630, which including widening the net of death to include dogs, rats, mice and weasels.[10] Secondly, I notice that the people tasked with killing these creatures are (much like our teachers in certain parts of the gutter press) considered simultaneously vital and expendable here, especially since the dogs, cats and weasels that might have happily wiped out the rats had already been pointlessly executed. If we agree with Mayerne that rats needed to be killed (and from our modern perspective with the knowledge that rats carried the plague-bearing fleas, this seems like a sound idea), then being the person tasked with killing hundreds of hysterical rats seems like one of the crueller and more unusual death sentences: I’ve no idea how medieval rat-catchers killed rats, but I doubt it involved hand sanitizer or PPE. Thirdly, if it was established in the mid-sixties that deer mice could carry disease (and a very unpleasant, often deadly disease for which there was no treatment), why was the hantavirus outbreak in Four Corners thirty years later such a surprise, given that it coincided with a tenfold increase in the deer mouse population?[11] Presumably, alarm bells rang for Dr. Parmenter as he documented the massive increase in the number of deer mice. “Gosh”, he probably said to himself, “all those mice rushing about the place is going to increase the possibility of humans catching hantavirus! Thank goodness my university and/or funding body employed me to monitor their population! I should tell someone!” I imagine he thought more or less exactly that, but there was no Deer Mouse Hotline with a big brown flashing handset and Bakelite mouse-ears. The paper I imagined earlier, probably called something like ‘Piñon nuts and grasshoppers: On the population of deer mouse (Peromyscus sp.) in the Four Corners area’ no doubt exists, but it doesn’t even make it into the references for Karlen’s chapter: the best I could do was a summary of the original paper. I wonder how many people read Parmenter’s paper before the outbreak of hantavirus. I wonder how many of those people understood what it meant for human health. Look up the deer mouse and you will discover almost immediately that it is a reservoir of both hantavirus and Lyme disease, and that Peromyscus is the most commonly-used rodent species used in scientific research. No wonder the hantavirus jumped the species barrier: the power of irony compelled it.

Thirdly, there is the reference to spraying (spraying, for God’s sake) with DDT, again, in the mid-sixties. Why in God’s name was anyone doing anything with DDT in the mid-sixties, given that Silent Spring was published in 1962? Silent Spring, in glassy, beautifully controlled prose, did not so much debunk the indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides as hack it to pieces and hurl the mangled remains onto a fire, much as Damiens the regicide is dismembered in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish. Rachel Carson builds her (absolutely watertight) case with great skill and persuasion. One is both frightened and utterly convinced well before the end of the first chapter. Why, then, does Ernest Shackleton describe the book as ‘brilliant and controversial’? What could possibly be controversial about warning both the public and the policy-makers that substances being merrily used to hose down homes, gardens, people and crops were highly poisonous to both man and beast? The answer is, of course, that it was more convenient to pretend that it wasn’t so. This, too, is as old as time: Maglaque notes that in early modern Bologna ‘officials had forbidden people to discuss the peste, as it they feared you could summon death with a word’ (nope: that’s Candyman).

Silent Spring is riddled with the lack of connection between research and policy (or perhaps the failure of policy-makers to take research seriously). For example, in Chapter 8 we meet Professor George Wallace and his grad student John Mehner, who was doing a PhD on robins in 1954. Much like Dr. Robert Parmenter and the deer mice, Mehner was uniquely well-placed to comment on the almost total lack of young robins after the elm trees in which the robins lived were sprayed with DDT. DDT is incredibly poisonous to both worms and the things that eat worms (including robins: Wallace reports mortality of 86-88%); and even small doses of DDT destroy the reproductive capacity of those that survive, creating eggs that refuse to hatch at all, or eggs with shells so thin that they either break prematurely or cause the baby birds to bake to death under the warm bodies of their brooding parents. The Cranbrook Institute of Science (Michigan)

asked in 1956 that all birds though to be victims of DDT poisoning be turned in to the institute for examination. … Within a few weeks the deep-freeze facilities of the institute were taxed to capacity, so that other specimens had to be refused … sixty-three different species were included among the specimens examined at the institute.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964), p.89.

One of the many criticisms levelled at doctoral research is that one spends four years researching and writing something that eight people will read and only five will care about (a criticism that is not without validity). In this case, however, Carson goes out of her way to make it clear that people did care about the dead robins, noting that citizens ‘show a keener understanding of the dangers and inconsistencies of spraying than do the officials who order it to be done.’[12] In other words, while the good people of Michigan might not have found the time to read Mehner’s thesis, they were certainly interested in the dead birds piling up in their gardens (‘one woman calling the institute reported twelve robins lying dead on her lawn as she spoke’) and they also knew that the appropriate thing to do with that information was to pass it on to a scientist.[13] Not every thesis is as carefully situated in the wider context as it might be, but as we can see from the quotation above, it was perfectly clear that the problem was not robin-specific, and that none of the researchers working on it thought it was.

Karlen says, ‘[u]nderstanding ecology means not just sympathy for whales and owls but an appreciation of the entire biota, from humans to weeds to the smallest microscopic parasite’.[14] Similarly, Shackleton writes in the Introduction to Silent Spring that the book is ‘not merely about poisons; it is about ecology or the relation of plants and animals to their environment and to one another.’[15] The remainder of Carson’s exposition of the DDT/robins example in Michigan is as follows:

The robins, then, are only one part of the chain of devastation linked to the spraying of the elms, even as the elm programme is only one of the multitudinous spray programmes that cover our land with poisons.

Carson, pp.89-90.

She lays out over the next few pages the various species, from spruce beetles to screech owls, poisoned and rendered infertile by the spraying of elms against Dutch elm disease. Finally, we reach the devastating conclusion:

Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms … a drought year brought conditions especially favourable to the beetle [that carries a fungus that is the ultimate cause of Dutch elm disease] and the mortality of elms went up 1000%.

Carson, p.94.

Carson then outlines how, with patience and rigour, scientists in New York established a programme of destroying infected trees and ‘beetle-breeding material’ that actually fucking worked, cost far less than spraying with DDT and didn’t kill anything other than the beetles. Three hundred years earlier, as the plague spread across Europe, Maglaque notes that Florentine officials ‘wrote anxiously to their colleagues in Milan, Verona, Venice, in the hope that studying the pattern of contagion would help them protect their city.’ It’s almost as if information is our best weapon against death and destruction, everyone.

If early modern Italians knew that knowledge was power, my question is this: why do we no longer believe this? If we no longer believe this, what the fuck is the point of research? What is the point of universities? Universities generate knowledge and pass it on. That is the whole reason they exist. Universities are often unclear about their own objectives, including what their top priorities should be: you may notice that institutions in the Russell Group like to describe themselves as ‘research intensive’, but whenever we ask for money, it is the young minds in our care that we wheel out, rather than the latest ugly capital building project or pointless HR initiative that has actually soaked up the funding. Nevertheless, for our purposes here, I am going to take universities at their word that research is somewhere near the top of a list of Things We Do. It seems clear to me that, as outlined above, relevant research is being done. Yet the information – important information, that took work and time to acquire – is frequently ignored, misunderstood, twisted or minimised. Karlen spends most of his introduction explaining the difficulty he had in getting his book published at all:

Almost twenty years ago [i.e. in 1975, for fuck’s sake], I told friends that I was thinking of writing a book about why so many new diseases were emerging. Most of my friends were puzzled. A few asked if I meant Legionnaire’s disease and Lyme disease, both of which had lately appeared. I said yes, those and many others … No publisher was interested. I was told this could only interest specialists.

Karlen, p.2.

I cannot grasp why a funding body would think it a good use of time and money to send someone out into the field to study mice for ten years without a coherent understanding of when and how that research might be valuable – and it could have been extremely valuable to the 32 people that died horribly in the Four Corners hantavirus outbreak, a disease with a mortality rate of 60%. Karlen is acutely aware of the need to research this stuff, learning from the past as we go (surely the task of both researchers and policy-makers). He has much to say here about influenza pandemics, primarily those in 1889 and 1918 (there were several earlier ones). The numbers are quite staggering. Here’s Karlen on the 1889 outbreak, which was ‘the first to move with the speed of trains and steamships, [and which] killed 250,000 people in Europe alone.’[16] Compare those figures to these from 1918. Humanity appeared to have learnt precisely zero about how to prevent or treat influenza in the intervening thirty years:

Influenza deaths reported in the United States numbered 550,000, ten times the nation’s death toll in World War I. Many cases went unreported; the real total may be as many as 650,000. One can only guess at how many died in such badly ravaged countries as India. The global mortality, usually given as 20 million, may have been 30 or even 40 million. World War I killed 15 million people in four years; flu killed perhaps twice that number in six months. Even bubonic plague did not kill so many people so fast.

Karlen, p.144.

Notice that the Black Death is well-known to every schoolchild, even though a) influenza killed far more people; and b) influenza is far more likely to kill somebody known to that schoolchild than bubonic plague. Stephen Porter touches on the same idea, noting in the final pages of his book on the Great Plague of 1665-6 that

[t]he physical manifestations of plague [i.e. buboes, blotches under the skin, vomiting, delusions etc.] and the high levels of mortality among those infected made it one of the most feared of diseases, attracting attention in a way that other large-scale killers, such as influenza, did not.

Stephen Porter, p.130.

Karlen recognises this, but I think what he’s really upset about here is the same thing that is bothering me: the failure of policy-makers to plan for the next epidemic.

[This was] was one of the worst disasters in history and it holds puzzles for virologists and historians today. Their questions are more than academic. If another such virus should emerge – and many researchers expect it will – we may be little better equipped to fight it than people were in 1918 … The 1918 flu pandemic continues to recede from memory. Curiously, medicine was not blamed for failing to prevent 50 million deaths from flu and typhus in the world’s last huge pre-AIDS pandemics…. It seems that, in the 1920s, the country saw its present and future not in the unsolved, lethal forces of typhus and flu but in the rescue of children from infectious diseases.

Karlen, p.144 and p.147. The rescue he is talking about involved huskies dashing across Alaska to deliver diptheria antitoxin in 1925.

Now we come full circle, to the current pandemic (again, by way of early modern Italy). Here is Arno Karlen again, and again I remind the reader that he was writing twenty-five years ago:

in the middle of the fourteenth century came the worst disaster in human history, the second bubonic plague pandemic, the Black Death. It had the usual precursor, a Malthusian crisis of rising population, strained resources and environmental change.

Karlen, p.86.

Note that phrase, ‘the usual precursor’. It should not be remotely surprising that fucking about with nature and squandering resources leads to new and exciting ways to die. Maglaque notes that ‘Florentines flouted the quarantine in ways that were both petty and risky … [they] understood the dangers, but gambled with their lives anyway: out of boredom, desire, habit, grief.’ Unlike Venice, where one in three people died from the plague, and Milan where it was nearly one in two, in seventeenth-century Florence, one in eight people died from the plague. The quarantine measures undertaken in Florence that saved so many lives are recognisable as what we now call ‘lockdown’, a term we have all started using as if it has been part of our vocabulary for years (see also ‘prorogation’). Medical advice is usually kindly meant and generously given, but that wasn’t always the case, and the public were just as reluctant to do as they were asked in early modern Florence as they are now in contemporary Britain.

The epigraph to Silent Spring is a quotation from Albert Schweitzer, which reads ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’[17] I normally flinch at that use of ‘Man’ to refer to all of humanity, but in this case I think perhaps Rachel Carson intends us to read the gender as it stands. Virginia Woolf argues in Three Guineas (another controlled, raging piece of non-fiction) that one of the reasons the world continually lurches from crisis to crisis (she’s speaking specifically about warfare, but again I think the point stands) is that women aren’t at the decision-making table. Female politicians in the UK have been conspicuous by their absence since the pandemic began (so much so that Woman’s Hour recently asked where on earth they all were). I wonder if somebody somewhere decided that the general public would find it reassuring to see a load of exhausted men running the country, as if all the Men Who Always Sound Tired in The Archers had quietly conducted a coup d’etat.[18]

Jacinda Ardern has implemented public health measures that have so far not so much flattened the curve as crushed it altogether: at the time of writing, the offical death-toll from coronavirus in New Zealand is one. In Britain, nearly a thousand people died (again, officially) yesterday alone. Let’s recall here the criticism of Hillary Clinton as ‘too prepared’; Elizabeth Warren’s famously meticulous and detailed plans, including one that she released to combat coronavirus in fucking January; and Stacey Abrams being shut out of the governorship of Georgia in favour of Brian Kemp. Kemp is a late entrant in the competition our male leaders seem to be having right now as to Who Can Be The Most Like Larry Vaughn (the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws), but Kemp might be ahead by a nose since he did just literally open some beaches. You may have missed Boris Johnson declaring Larry Vaughn to be the hero of Jaws and in the article I’ve linked to the writer urges us all to watch Jaws 2[19], in which Larry Vaughn is still mayor and still doesn’t believe in sharks. That’s not what happens in the original story, however: Peter Benchley’s Larry Vaughn is devastated by the deaths that are the result of his own hubris, losing weight, his fortune and his self-respect in rapid succession and eventually crawling quietly out of town a broken man. However, you shouldn’t watch Jaws 2. It’s terrible. I also urge you not to watch Jaws 3-D or Jaws 4: The Revenge or Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws or Sharknado or Sharknado 2: The Second One or Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No or Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens or Sharknado 5: Global Swarming or Sharknado 6: The Last Sharknado or Deep Blue Sea or Deep Blue Sea 2 or Three-Headed Shark Attack or Five-headed Shark Attack or Six-Headed Shark Attack or Bait 3-D[20] or The Reef or Frenzy or Shark Night 3-D or 47 Metres Down or The Shallows or The Meg or Piranha Sharks or Toxic Shark or Jurassic Shark or Sand Sharks or Sky Sharks or Avalanche Sharks or Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast or Ghost Shark or Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws or any of the other fucking moronic Jaws rip-offs in this strangely crowded sub-sub-sub-genre. If you want to watch a film with a shark in it, try Jaws (spoiler alert: it’s not really about the shark).

It may seem that I have wandered off the point into a shark-infested backwater, but if you actually watch any of these films (and again, I don’t recommend that you do), you will see a set of familiar, tired stereotypes that are relevant here. Men, filled with rage and violence, but allowed in these oddly specific circumstances to unleash that rage and violence upon sharks, symbols of everything men both admire and fear. Women (by which I mean bikini-clad twenty-five-year-olds without surnames), screaming, taking their clothes off and falling into water for no good reason. Each of these braindead films has led in its own tiny, stupid way to the endangering of every species of shark; Peter Benchley spent much of his life attempting to undo the harm that he felt Jaws had done, but of course Jaws wasn’t the problem. These sub-Jaws films show sharks as huge, terrifying, voracious and unstoppable by any sensible means: generic serial killers, perpetually armed and with no tedious psychology to worry about. Just as the indiscriminate spraying of DDT to save a few elm trees as described above was a massive, disproportionate and destructive over-reaction, notice how these unfeasibly large film-sharks can only be killed by some kind of hastily improvised, highly unlikely and ultra-violent means: electrocution (Jaws 2), nuclear explosion (The Meg) or whatever (any and all of the Sharknado films). In short, we are back to the warfare metaphors I mentioned above, improvisation rather than planning, and narrow, shallow roles for women.

Why do we keep electing mediocre white men? Because so much of our culture tells us that mediocre white men are the answer to every problem. Why do we keep making excuses for them (see Brexit, pursued by a bear)? It’s as if the crew of a starship were offered a choice of Janeway or a semi-sentient potato to captain them through a series of unknown crises, and choose potato after potato because Janeway isn’t ‘likeable’. We could so easily have elected leaders that would been up to dealing with the pandemic. It’s neither fanciful nor unfair to say that our leaders could and should have made informed, well-researched contingency plans for this scenario: the fin has been slicing through the water for centuries. My colleague Prof. Gary Foster has been banging on about pandemics for decades, both in lectures and on Twitter. Literally everyone who studies infectious diseases knew this was coming. All their students knew this was coming. Arno Karlen knew this was coming and so did I. Our leaders did not.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] This meant taking a holiday from Clive James’s massive tome Cultural Amnesia, a book I have now been reading for several weeks. Even here, I have found ideas relevant to our current situation, including this rather lovely echo of social distancing in James’s essay on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: ‘Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as ‘the right distance.’’ Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time (London: Picador, 2012), p.380.

[2] Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), pp.126-127.

[3] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p.125

[4] Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.162.

[5] Fracastorius was both the first physician to describe the disease and the first poet to write about it in any detail. He did this with great enthusiasm in the poem Syphilis suve morbus gallicus (‘Syphilis, or the French disease’).

[6] Karlen, p.151.

[7] Erin Maglaque, ‘Inclined to Putrefaction’, London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 4, 20th February 2020; Roy Porter, p.125. Porter notes that Jews were also accused to poisoning wells, an accusation levelled at ethnic Koreans in the aftermath of the 1923 Kantō earthquake in Japan. In reality, the wells were cloudy because of the turbidity caused by the earthquake, but as in the plague example, apparently any excuse to turn on one’s neighbours will do.

[8] Karlen, p.149.

[9] We think of polio as a child’s disease because distressing images of small children in iron lungs and callipers were used to raise money for treatment and research (such as in the March of Dimes campaign), but polio is in fact more likely to be dangerous in adults. Michael Flanders, for example, contracted polio as a healthy twenty-one year-old.

[10] Stephen Porter, p.15. Elsewhere in the book, Porter mentions pigs being killed rather than allowed to wander the streets, a medieval attitude to feral hogs that was new to me and that puts an interesting slant on those charming videos of boar roaming through deserted Italian streets.

[11] Peromyscus (‘the booted mouse’ in Greek) refers to the pattern of fur, in which the underside and feet are a pale colour, while the rest of the mouse is darker, giving the impression that the mouse is wearing boots (or possibly socks to modern eyes).

[12] Carson, p.93.

[13] Carson, p.89.

[14] Karlen, p.229.

[15] Ernest Shackleton, introduction to Silent Spring, p.xiii.

[16] Karlen, p.86.

[17] Carson, p.vi.

[18] Clearly, the only character in The Archers remotely qualified to act as benign dictator was Nigel. I’ve always hated The Archers, but ever since Nigel was pointlessly hurled to his death, nothing beyond the first three bars is tolerated in this house.

[19] Yes, I did completely ruin my YouTube search history adding in all those trailers for you. I regret nothing.

[20] Don’t waste your time on Bait (by which I mean the 2012 Australian horror film about a shark in a flooded supermarket). You might, however, enjoy Bait (by which I mean the 2019 film about Cornish fisherman finally having enough of all the fucking second-homers), even though it doesn’t have any sharks in it.

Strike rate; or, why I haven’t written to the Highways Authority

At the time of writing, we have just experienced Britain’s longest and most comprehensive strike in higher education. It isn’t making even a dent on the news and while that is obviously partly because of the killer virus sweeping the globe, the strike last autumn, which was almost as large and did not coincide with a pandemic, was also barely covered. During that earlier strike, I switched on the radio on a strike day hoping to hear (say) an articulate, smart and dedicated UCU rep being interviewed on the picket line, laying out calmly and clearly the various, entirely reasonable grievances of striking staff. Instead, I caught an outside broadcast from, if memory serves, St. Anne’s College Oxford.[1] The interviewer repeatedly exclaimed how vital both research and university education are to the economy (this is how we spot a Tory, my children: they have no metric other than money). Neither the strike nor any of the issues that prompted it were even hinted at.

A strike and a pandemic (whether they run concurrently or not) are both slightly strange for someone like me: a part-time academic only required to leave the house for teaching commitments once a week, with a chronic illness and a business to run from home in what is effectively pre-emptive self-isolation. This second period of industrial action has been particularly odd because I received an email from a non-striking[2] colleague[3] in HR to tell me that my teaching job, which I have done on a series of temporary contracts for the last seven years, has been made into a permanent role. I’ve been partially or wholly self-employed by my lovely little micro-business since 2005, and I’m very successful. Unlike roughly 60% of small businesses, mine did not fail in its first five years; I’ve managed to hit upon something that accommodates most of the physical and mental issues that my condition comes with; and the mortgage broker was entirely satisfied with both my accounting and the long-term viability of the business. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate the feeling of relief that comes with a guaranteed income, holiday pay and sick leave (things I have been without for over a decade). I sat alone in my office and whispered, “I can get the roof done.” Then I high-fived the dog[4], sent private messages to understanding friends and studiously maintained the digital picket line by not saying anything about it in public.

I’m one of the most junior academics in my Dept., which is as it should be: I’m part-time, which excuses me from all the most onerous senior admin roles; I became ill at exactly the point my first husband was supposed to start supporting me financially through my doctoral studies; and I certainly can’t afford to take four years off work to do a PhD now. I have thus spent the twelve years since my diagnosis slowly and painfully coming to terms with the fact that (a) I can’t be a fulltime academic, or indeed a fulltime anything; (b) my ability to get promoted through the ranks is necessarily limited and realistically lecturer (where I am now) is as high as I can go; and (c) I can’t afford for my (hitherto) hand-to-mouth, insecure university job to be my main source of earning power (and thus I can’t justify significant investment in it). That sounds frustrating, but I’m very content in my work. It’s so important to be satisfied with the job that you do, including what you get paid and how you feel about promotion. I resent the hell out of the horrible, predictable interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” because it implies that the job you are doing right now (or indeed the job you are being interviewed for right now) won’t do and isn’t your main focus. I am happier and more productive when I am fully present in the job I already have.[5] I have a similar issue with the notion of social mobility: while I’m all for people trying to do well for themselves, as I said above I’m wary of anything that measures value in purely economic terms.

I manage the household finances with frugality and care. Helped by the fact that I don’t have to pay into a pension (because I probably won’t live long enough to collect it), we are comfortable. In other words, I am perfectly happy to be one of the most junior academics in my Dept. In addition to the reasons given above, this is partly because I am also one of the most highly paid academics in my department.

Here’s how I know. Firstly, I did not spend four years doing a PhD, for which I would have had to pay fees whilst earning very little and getting further into debt. Instead, I spent that time earning, supporting my first husband through his PhD, quietly paying off our student debt while he (because STEM) received a grant. Secondly, I keep careful track of all the hours I work, because that’s what self-employed people do. This means that working beyond my contracted hours is a conscious choice that costs me money. Obviously working beyond contracted hours costs most people money, but we behave as if this isn’t the case because we can’t quantify it easily or accurately. Those of us that pay ourselves a particular rate per hour, however, know exactly and immediately how much we could have earned in (say) the two hours we spent stuck in traffic. Sometimes I work beyond my contracted hours at very busy points in the academic year, but this balances out across the piece pretty well. I am paid to work 56 hours a month and my spreadsheet tells me that last year I averaged almost exactly that (although this is somewhat skewed by the fact that I was very ill in August, a month in which I did nine hours of university work, averaged four hours of sleep a night and lost a stone in ten days). In a typical week, I do around fourteen hours for the university and around sixteen hours for myself, averaging a total of thirty working hours per week. This is not normal in academia. Junior staff often work multiple fractional contracts, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about because I have only two jobs, each of which is (now) stable and (now) long-term. What I mean is that a thirty-hour week (i.e. around 0.8FTE in most normal jobs) is nowhere near the norm in higher education. Most academics work ‘fulltime’ and I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that I don’t mean a normal working week of 35-40 hours, but rather a regular weekly workload well over this, doing work that is complex, emotionally demanding and against tight and inflexible deadlines.

Before I became ill, I routinely worked a 45-hour week in various academic support roles, with a significant commute at either end of every working day. I worked evenings. I worked weekends. My first husband studied and worked at the same university, as did most of our friends. I had no boundaries between work and rest (or Work and Not Work, as T. H. White’s ants might have it) and neither did most of the people I knew. I’ve got very much better at policing those boundaries, but people are still astonishingly bad at respecting them. I have written before about the time I went to work on Boxing Day and wasn’t the only person in the building (and neither of us was surprised). I’m no longer physically or mentally able to work like that and most working days now involve no more than four or five hours of work. A teaching day, with its two-hour commute each way and five hours of back-to-back lectures, meetings and office hours, knocks the stuffing out me. Regular readers may recall that I work far longer days when in China, but that’s because a) I have nothing else to do besides work; b) I ride the mighty steed of jet lag as far as it will carry me; and c) I take a full week off to sit in the garden when I get back.

Thirdly, when I say I’m one of the most highly paid academics in my Dept., I’m talking about an hourly rate after tax, not an annual or monthly salary. Here’s an exercise I invite you to undertake, particularly if you work in higher education: without looking at any of the relevant figures, write down what you would like to get paid as an hourly rate (this is something every self-employed person has to do, although of course we do look at the relevant figures). Now work out what you actually get paid as an hourly rate. Be honest about the hours you actually work in a typical week and how much tax you pay. Now compare the two figures.

In the interest of both context and full disclosure (see a relevant post on pay by Plashing Vole), in the current tax year I have paid myself £23.50 per hour as an editor and indexer. My university work pays me a few pence less (it wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise). I put my prices up at the end of each tax year in April, in line with inflation and after looking sideways at the mortgage. The professors in my Dept. are on jolly decent money, but they are working far, far more hours that I am and are expected to do a whole load of boring shit that I’m too junior for. Professorial salaries at my institution start at £60k pa, which means most professors in my Dept. are paying 40% tax on a substantial part of their salary. If they are also working around fifty hours per week, even the most senior professors are taking home around £25 per hour. This means that I’m earning only slightly less (again, in hourly terms) and my workload is far more manageable. It also means that everyone between me and the top-end professors is earning significantly less than I am in hourly terms. Indeed, there are many conceivable scenarios in which a promotion might leave one noticeably worse off, on many levels.

My business allows me to practice a workplace model in which I increase my hourly rate and decrease my hours. For example, if I am asked to produce an index in a week (rather than the three weeks it would usually take), and if I can be arsed to take that job on, I can charge a rush rate to reflect the fact that I will have to turn away other work, perhaps delay jobs already booked and work far more hours in a day than I would really like (and which will then require me to take time off when the job is done). Having planned a week in which I expected to spread my usual thirty hours over the whole seven days, I might then find myself working into the night on a complicated text for four days in a row to meet an inflexible deadline. We do this in academia all the time (marking exams, for example), but we don’t have enough control over our workload to balance this out once the deadline has passed. Having produced an index in no time at all on rush rates, if I’ve planned my work properly, I can take some time off to recover without it costing me any money when compared to a normal week. Based on this principle, my plan for the future of my business is, therefore, not to gradually increase my rates as I become more experienced, competent and highly trained and continue to work the same hours, but to gradually increase my rates and work less: to be content with what I earn and what I do. Rather than the reward for work being more money, in other words, the reward will be the same amount of money – an amount of money that I already know to be sufficient for comfortable subsistence – and less work. This is a deeply counter-intuitive model for a workaholic and I don’t pretend to be implementing it as well as I would like, but nevertheless that is the endgame and one that I wish more of my colleagues had the control and flexibilty to implement. Labor are meno, chaps (we can all work less).

Now imagine if higher education was run like that. Imagine if a promotion meant an increase in responsibility, an absolutely rigid workload model in which everyone worked strictly to contract, and an increase in pay as an hourly rate. I would favour a model in which a member of staff who found they were regularly unable to do their work in the stipulated hours was not penalised by just being expected to do the work anyway, for no extra money and in their own time (as happens now), but one in which their line manager was asked to treat the mismatch between paid hours and the length of time required to do the job as a matter of urgency. When these things are left to individuals, the most conscientious – the best citizens, if you will, who take on the horrible roles that nobody else wants, and who genuinely feel obligated to do them well – will work whatever hours are required.

The kinds of roles and tasks that I’m talking about can bloom out of nowhere like fungi, and they fall disproportionately onto women and/or more junior staff, for obvious reasons that we needn’t rehearse here. Pastoral care, for example, is not spread evenly across academic staff, even if students are allocated to staff in an equitable way: any member of staff perceived as too frightening, too senior, too unsympathetic or brusque, or simply too difficult to run to earth (e.g. someone with a teaching or admin role that means they are rarely in their office; someone whose research involves regular periods away from the university; someone whose office is difficult to find or access) is likely to get off more lightly here.[6] A student with serious pastoral care needs not only takes up a huge amount of time and energy, but may also need to be prioritised above other pressing matters (without warning and at any time of the day or night) if we are concerned that they may be a danger to themselves and others. This is as it should be in the sense that we should love our students; we should want to support them as best we can; and we should see it as a privilege to be able to help them, when we can help them. However, be under no illusion: this work takes its toll. It is often triggering and always exhausting. Moreover, when academics support students, this is often the exhausted counselling the exhausted. I suggest figuring out how to balance one’s unpredictable, draining work – work that must be done properly, if we are to serve each other and our students well – cannot be left to the conscience of each individual academic. One of the most psychologically destructive aspects of overwork is that we do it to ourselves (or, rather, we feel that we are doing it to ourselves). Suicide, illness and self-harm among students make headlines (as they should), but we hear a lot less about the poor physical and mental health of the staff trying to support them and how this relates to the quality and quantity of the support we are able to provide.

I admit that in the model I am proposing there would be an uncomfortably Foucauldian level of scrutiny in terms of keeping track of one’s hours; we would all have to spend more time with our line managers, wrestling our jobs into submission (clearly HR can’t be trusted with this even though it is literally their whole job); and the senior staff would all pay less tax. However, I think these downsides would be more than outweighed by two things. Firstly, HR clearly wouldn’t be needed anymore and thus the whole department could be removed, saving heaps o’ cash and lowering the general cuntishness in the university by a noticeable margin. Secondly, imagine the lightness, joy and productivity of a healthy workload. Rest. Energy. Reading. Giving our best to our students and to each other. Cooking. Eating slowly. Sex. Sleep. Imagine how many books you could read if you worked thirty-five hours a week, at a sensible pace, like a normal person. Imagine how many books you could write. Or, to apply the principle of ‘less but better’ more strictly, imagine if you read and wrote the same number of books and papers as you do now, but gave them the care, time and attention they deserve. Imagine the care, time and attention we could give our colleagues and our most vulnerable students. It would save relationships. I would save lives.

Everyone doing less work per person (so to speak) would mean that there would be a load of work left over, of course, but I suggest that much of that work has absolutely zero value and could simply be abandoned (as the coming months of ‘lockdown’, whatever that means, will no doubt remind us). However, for everything left over that does have value, I draw your attention to the fact that every academic has a precarity story, by which I mean a harrowing tale about a lengthy period in the wilderness, usually immediately after getting their PhD: working multiple jobs; teaching anything that moved; writing lectures, job applications and teaching material (almost all for lectures, jobs and seminars that they didn’t get to do); and watching their peers and colleagues fall away. Academia is merciless. It will rip your throat out the moment your arms get tired. I’ve written elsewhere about being a functioning workaholic, but almost everyone in academia is a functioning workaholic. Indeed, I’m not sure it’s possible to work in academia without being a functioning workaholic. Overwork and work addiction are completely normalised. That’s why so many talented, dedicated colleagues, undergrads and postgrads fall away, through ill health caused or exacerbated by punishing hours and stress, or through realising that they have other, more attractive options. That attrition may sound like survival of the fittest, but of course the selection pressures at work here aren’t the natural external forces of a hostile terrain or scarce food resources, winnowing out those least suited to the environment for the long-term health of the species. It isn’t the best and brightest that are left, but those of us who have already invested too much to walk away; those who can’t do anything else; those who can’t bear to do anything else; those who are institutionalised; those who got lucky; those whose bodies and brains and relationships hold up the best. Meanwhile, into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Why not spread the work out across more people, then? There is clearly no shortage of workers or work, but a shortage of proper jobs (and, I suggest, leadership). The current model is that of a person who, upon ordering a reasonably-sized piece of cake that they are planning to savour is instead strapped into a chair and force-fed an entire cake. Every so often the person doing the force-feeding whips the cake away for no reason and yells into their face that they aren’t eating it right eat it better eat it faster eat it eat it eat it you bastard EAT IT. Nearby, half a dozen other people who are quietly starving to death (and who have both expended considerable energy, time and money to even get through the door of this cruel and unusual cafe) write endless, hopelessly elegant receipes, with lengthy prefaces detailing how much they love cake and how well-suited they are to cooking and eating it, as well as generally telling other people how fucking amazing cake is. For these tasks, they are rewarded with crumbs. On no account is anyone to be given an appropriate amount of cake at any time.

74b
Obelix as professor, from Asterix and Cleopatra (words by René Goscinny, pictures by Albert Uderzo). I quote this here because: a) Asterix is not used nearly enough as an explanatory device; b) Asterix and Cleopatra contains some of the best word-related jokes of all the Asterix books, thus illustrating the briliance of both the writing and the translation, as mentioned in an earlier post; and c) Albert Uderzo died, aged 92, while I was editing this post. I note that, since exhaustion is my topic here, several of the articles about his death quote Uderzo’s son-in-law as saying, “[h]e had been very tired for several weeks”.

As well as being one of the highest (hourly) earners, I think I might be the only person in my Dept. with a manageable workload. Again, let us be mindful of the fact that this has been achieved by a combination of bloody-mindedness and chance. It certainly wasn’t via a sensible, transparent and evidence-based process that takes into account the number of hours an academic needs to work in order to be both happy and productive (the kind of process that one might have thought, I don’t know, some department with responsibility for staff wellbeing and working conditions might have developed, if they weren’t too busy being cunts). Since we have already established that many staff (including professors) are apparently content to be paid £25ph, I see no reason why a workload model couldn’t be established (or at least tried, for fuck’s sake) that, alongside the collossal sums freed up by not bothering with an HR department ever again, released enough money to employ some of those talented, committed people currently languishing on multiple fractional contracts, chasing fees and expenses for months and not getting paid at all over the summer. And when I say ‘employ’, I mean properly: with a contract, for years at a time, on decent money that they receive promptly and spread evenly throughout the year, to deliver courses that they have had the time and support to develop well in advance.

As I said above, I’m wary of conflating value with money and my intention isn’t to suggest that senior lecturers, readers and new professors don’t have value, or are in some way stupid or wrong for working so many hours that they reduce their hourly rate below my own. Rather, my point is that annual salaries are meaningless numbers unless they are accompanied by information about the hours worked, the intensity or complexity of the work, the time spent training and preparing to do that work, the money and time spent commuting to a particular place, the emotional labour and stress the role might entail and finally the aesthetic labour of dressing yourself appropriately (another burden that weighs far more heavily on women, even in a sector where tweed and corduroy are considered what my mother used to call ‘smot’). None of those things appear in the job description, and most of them (unlike the annual salary, at least in theory) are not up for negotiation.

To borrow the language of coronavirus, then, the stress of working in higher education does not simply ‘move through the population’, removing the weak, the stupid, the obscure and the lazy. It chews everybody up. Once we have been spat out again, we are then expected to act as role models for our students, teaching without breaks, pushing through office hours on adrenalin and no lunch, and perpetuating workaholism in the next generation. We do everything in a rush, on flights and trains, late at night or early in the morning, and often at the very last minute. With my editing hat on, I have yet to be asked to proofread an application for a job, research money or additional funding that isn’t right up against the deadline. That might not sound like much, but think about who academics are. We are conscientious, bookish, earnest people. We got where we are by paying attention and doing as we were asked. Missing a deadline is something most academics had never done until they became senior staff and found that the good habits we tell students to practice (planning carefully, not allowing oneself to be surprised by a deadline, seeking help as appropriate) simply aren’t possible. That bothers us. We feel we have failed. We feel haunted. We feel guilty. We might even feel stupid.

There are also ramifications of our enormous workload and feelings of inadequacy for the rest of our lives, and indeed the community as a whole. Academics are organised, passionate people. We are thoughtful citizens and have many interests outside those we choose to teach and/or research. Imagine the contribution we could make to society if we had the time and energy to get involved in our communities. Consider also the burden of admin (non-work-related admin) that falls upon the partners and families of academics. I have written elsewhere about how important it is to a romantic relationship that both partners are able to do their share of admin to a reasonable level (again, simply not possible for those described above with the fifty-hour working weeks). I’ve literally no idea how any of my colleagues manage to spend time with their children, or indeed how they found the energy to produce a family at all.

Recall also from an earlier post (Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance) how boring-yet-important many of those life admin tasks are. Anne Helen Petersen speaks of  ‘errand paralysis’, arguing that when we expend too much mental energy on simply staying on top of our work, we have nothing left for tasks further down the food-chain, tasks that are then done badly or not at all. She’s right. I’ve had ‘write to Highways Authority about garden wall’ on my to-do list for nearly four months. It would probably take fifteen minutes or so to re-read the relevant paperwork, write the email and file the correspondence in a sensible place – certainly far, far less time than I have spent writing this post. It isn’t the case, then, that I don’t have time to do that boring-yet-important little job. Rather, I don’t have the energy with which to do that job – whatever finite amount of energy I have has been spent on things that are more important, more interesting and more rewarding.[7] And yet, the list of undone things still reproaches me. The full inbox. The endless to-do list. The unwashed plates and unhoovered floors. The half-decorated rooms; half-finished knitting projects; half-abandoned, buttonless dresses. Those last few items are not ‘work’, but they still reproach me, along with all the books unread, films unseen, plays unwitnessed. I don’t feel good about the fact that I haven’t written to the Highways Authority about our garden wall. I feel sloppy. I feel ashamed. I feel less of an adult. There is something deeply wrong with a working culture (and indeed a society) in which ‘busy’ is virtuous, and ‘disorganised’ is a symptom of moral deficiency, because, like the annual salary described above, those labels are meaningless out of context. Also, I’m not disorganised: I know exactly where the paperwork is, who I need to contact and what I’m going to say. I just haven’t got to it yet. There are too many other things in my life that are more important, and I only have so much energy to expend on them. There is no logical reason for me, a competent, responsible person, to feel bad about sensibly prioritising other things ahead of this boring-yet-important little job – and yet I do feel bad.

As I’ve written in another post (in which I argued that love is finite and that one only has so much love to expend on others, and therefore must necessarily make painful choices), one can’t simply pour oneself out endlessly. However, without a healthy workload and concomitantly healthy, proportionate attitude to what is actually possible, agreed upon and shared by all the people involved, neither can one learn not to mind that one can’t do everything. As the Confession has it, ‘we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.’

___________________________________________________________________________________

[1] I put the radio on without thinking, which meant I got the seething self-congratulatory cess-pool of drivel that is the Today programme, rather than the adult perspective of the World Service, the joy and energy of Radio 6 or the light and space of Radio 3.

[2] You’re right: I needn’t have said it. Of course there were non-striking staff in HR. There shouldn’t have been, mark you. Human Resources ought to be more exercised than anyone about our clunky tools, wasted time, suicidal students and inadequate pensions, as well as the gender, race and class pay gaps, the perils of staff/student relationships, poor pastoral care and all the other stressors that those working and/or learning in higher education are beset with. HR ought to be leading the charge. HR ought to be jumping up and down with rage, all day every day. They aren’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[3] Again, you’re right: ‘colleague’ is the wrong word to describe the parasite that clings to the neck of higher education. As I explained above, HR staff have a duty of care to ensure we are able to carry out our jobs as best we can. They don’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[4] Be under no illusion that there was corresponding, supportive high-fiving going in HR. HR fucking hate me and the dick move of sneaking this piece of information out during industrial action is merely the latest skirmish in a war of attrition, currently approaching the end of its second decade. Of course they informed me of this at a time when I couldn’t celebrate it in public. Of course they did. They’re cunts.

[5] I’ve been promoted beyond my competence before and for anyone with a shred of self-awareness it is a deeply uncomfortable experience, for both the person it happens to and those who have to work with them.

[6] Staff with a reputation for being inappropriate with students are also unlikely to be asked to do their share of pastoral care. The students might discuss this amongst themselves, or it may be quietly agreed among the other staff that Professor Handsy needs to be kept away from the kids. Yes, of course Professor Handsy should have been sacked the minute they first laid a sweaty hand on an undergraduate knee, but that’s not how HR in higher education works. That’s not how any of this works. I likened HR to a mousetrap in an earlier post and I stand by it: cruel, ugly and out-dated.

[7] I have spent time today outside sawing wood so that I can light the Aga later and cook a roast and I’ve spent time trying to express the ideas I’ve laid out here. I don’t get paid for either of those tasks and could easily have made the argument that I would have done better to spend the whole day pushing on with paid work, and it’s a powerful argument – exactly the kind of argument that, when taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that I will never be able to justify spending fifteen minutes writing to the Highways Authority about our wall.

The kindness of strangers

We have all read, heard or (God forbid) been on the receiving end of the unsolicited opinions of people we don’t know. Friends speak of strangers criticising their parenting, language and propensity to smile, and every woman has many a horrible story about a rude man on a bus, a building site or driving a white van, yelling out what his boner thinks of our clothes, body or willingness to engage in some kind of sexual act. Last year, for example, a man told me to ‘cheer up’ on my way to the station. I said, ‘I’m going to my father’s funeral. Good day, sir.’[1]

Good day sir
The Hound does not like to be interrupted when deciding which rock to rescue from the incoming tide

Today, the woman next to me on the train (who hadn’t reserved a seat) was challenged by another woman under the impression that it was her seat (it wasn’t; she was in the wrong carriage). Starting at polite and moving through icily civil into something more glacial and yet still perfectly within the bounds of normal verbal intercourse, they stood, one in the aisle, one semi-crouched over the seat like a water-skier, and argued all the way to Reading about whose seat it was. Given that neither had the seat number on her ticket and there were plenty of other empty seats, the whole thing was highly unnecessary, but somehow backing down in the face of a stranger was unacceptable to them both. Are strangers terrifying, rude and unpredictable, or, as per a cushion in the window of my local florist, ‘friends you haven’t met yet’? What is the etiquette (if any) of such encounters? How does one challenge questionable behaviour[2] appropriately, without becoming the man that told my friend Other Proofreader she was a bad parent because she wouldn’t let her toddlers play with a flock of crazed geese? Should we all just keep our opinions to ourselves, or are there times when interacting with people we don’t know is desirable or necessary? Here are some encounters with strangers that readers might like to chew over.

Indestructible

A few weeks ago, while waiting for a train, I noticed a man sitting on a bench finish his coffee and put the disposable cup (a cup that will live for a thousand years and therefore is anything but ‘disposable’) back on the bench. Then he got up and took out his ’phone, his business with the Captain Scarlet of cups concluded. My paternal grandmother liked to hand litter to the litterer, saying ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean to drop this’ or similar, but there are things a kind-looking old lady can get away with that I simply can’t. Once, my grandmother (accompanied by me and my brother, both under the age of ten at the time) did this to a skinhead on the Metro. He said he was very sorry, tucked his Twix wrapper into his leather jacket and they reminisced about the local swimming baths for the rest of the trip.

Choose Your Own Adventure

On a boiling hot day last summer, a woman got onto my (very crowded) train home with a small child, and sat opposite me. The small child ate a biscuit with reasonable competence, and then asked her mother whether it was time to get off the train yet. Her mother explained patiently that they had to go four stops. The child considered this and asked if she could have another biscuit to pass the time; she could, provided she didn’t make too much mess. Could she read her book too? She could, provided she didn’t get crumbs between the pages or ‘annoy the lady opposite’ (me; it was a large book that took up much of the table). The small child then wedged herself happily by the window, took up as much of the table as she liked, ate her biscuit and, muttering to herself, read her book (upside down, but perhaps Julio Cortazar[3] has written a book for children that can be read that way). As the mother caught my eye to check I wasn’t bothered by her daughter reading (very much the opposite), I said quietly, ‘she’s ever so well-behaved for such a little one. Well done.’ Her mother responded by bursting into tears. She then apologised profusely and told me that, earlier that day they had been visiting her sister in hospital and a man she didn’t know had marched across the ward to tell her that, in his expert opinion, her daughter was eating so loudly that it was upsetting whoever it was he was there to visit, and furthermore children shouldn’t be allowed in hospitals (except when they are terminally ill, presumably). The poor woman was so upset by this piece of rudeness that she had been ‘in a state’ all day. ‘Angry, or upset?’ I said. She thought for a moment and said, ‘angry. I’d like to see him eat a packet of Quavers quietly.’

Julia Roberts Saves The Day With Her Face

I had been teaching in Nanjing (see Notes from Nanjing).[4] The work was done, and I had travelled back to Shanghai on an afternoon train, in plenty of time to catch my flight home the following morning. I was supposed to be met at the station by somebody called Tabitha, who would then chaperone me and all my stuff back to the hotel. It was a typical Chinese afternoon: very hot, humidity hovering around 80% so that the air appears to have both flavour and texture (neither pleasant), and hordes of people in all directions, all busy and with somewhere to go. This was in the days before I owned a mobile ’phone, so I did as instructed and, balanced precariously on my suitcase, waited for Tabitha to arrive.

Tabitha did not arrive. After ten minutes, I did a quick inventory of my situation. Yes, I was definitely at the right station; yes, I was at the right entrance; yes, I was visible with my bright red suitcase and bright white skin; no, I did not have any Chinese money left (my metro ticket to the airport the following day was already purchased and tucked into my passport); no, I did not have any bottled water or food; and yes, I was exhausted from teaching twelve hours per day for ten days straight. Predictably, after nearly forty minutes of the heat and humidity, I fell off my suitcase in a dead faint onto the concrete.

I was revived by an elderly Chinese man carefully flicking water onto my face. He turned out to be manning the little drinks kiosk by the station entrance, and the water in question came from one of the bottles he had probably expected to sell. He spoke no English and although the Mandarin words for ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’ are among the few words I know in that language, he turned out to speak another dialect (I assume Shanghainese). Thus, we communicated entirely in sign language, while simultaneously speaking aloud in our respective languages. He expressed concern that I had hit my head (I hadn’t, but I had cut my hand badly on the concrete); I explained this and he responded by tenderly rinsing my hand and wrapping it in a paper napkin. I expressed gratitude (gratitude! Entirely inadequate), and he patted my good hand, while indicating that I should look in the pocket of my dress. This turned out to contain my passport, with the train ticket to the airport still sticking out of it, which I had been clutching convulsively. We parted the best of friends, my hand bleeding quietly through the damp napkin onto another (unopened) bottle of water that he simply insisted I take. Having had a drink and a sit down, of course I realised that I was perfectly capable of remembering the route to the hotel, without Tabitha and with all my luggage, navigating by the enormous poster of Julia Roberts that was helpfully positioned on an important junction. The walk took maybe twenty minutes; on arrival in the hotel, my hand was disinfected and bandaged by one of the hotel staff, while yet another anonymous benefactor carried my case (he was a guest in the hotel; the bellboys were preoccupied with an enormous party of enormous Americans). This delightful man, who again spoke neither English nor Mandarin, disappeared at the door of my room where I was receiving first aid from the receptionist, reappearing a few moments later with a plastic cup of ice-cubes to reduce the swelling. Again, my thanks were conveyed through much gesturing, smiling and pressing of (sore) hands, since the bilingual receptionist also didn’t speak his dialect.

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Again

Contrast this thoughtful, selfless behaviour with a final incident, again in Shanghai. On my first night in the hotel, I woke from a fitful, jetlagged doze to the unmistakable sounds of enthusiastic sexual congress. It was so loud that I thought at first they must be rutting against the door of my room. I opened the door to find an empty corridor, and my colleague (who was in an adjacent room) standing in her own doorway, similarly discombobulated. Raising our voices above the shrieking, we debated which of the doors opposite we should bang on (with our fists) so that we could ask them in our best loud, slow English to shut the fuck up. There were two doors opposite, mirroring our own. Which room would the housekeeping staff be picking their way through in disbelief the following morning? It was impossible to tell.[5] Pressing our ears to the doors was a. gross and b. uninformative. While the room that did not contain our shouty friends could easily have been empty, the possibility of waking some other poor soul at 2am, particularly if s/he had up until that moment been successfully sleeping through the row, and particularly if s/he did not speak English, seemed unacceptable. What on earth were they doing to each other? There were certainly points when the gentleman seemed to be in considerable pain[6] and others when the sounds suggested they were literally eating each other.[7] Having said that, we ruled out all forms of oral sex, since both their mouths were still very much available for being yelled out of, although some more muffled noises suggested that, as Billy Joel has it, everyone goes south every now and then. Happily, while we were discussing the matter, some sort of conclusion was reached by at least one of the invisible couple, so hurray for everyone and we can all have a little sleep now.

The next night, however, this performance repeated itself. What a performance it was: the whole thing was carried out at a volume that generously included the entire floor in the glory that was their love. These deafening exclamations did not constitute clever conversation, but rather the universal language of grunts, groans and, on some occasions, bat-like squeaks that threatened to burst the eardrums. No information likely to surprise the interlocutor was being conveyed; moreover, there was simply no need for them to yell at the top of their lungs for the sake of each other: this was entirely for us, their public. My experience of jetlag is that the first night one just can’t sleep and it is foolish to try; the third night is hell on a stick; but on the second night, I am usually so tired that I sleep straight through. Not on this occasion, though, thanks to Mr and Mrs Shrieky McFuck across the corridor. The following morning, exhausted and grim, I complained at the reception desk. I explained that I didn’t know which room the noise was coming from, but that I had narrowed it down to two. Could the hotel staff make enquiries? They said they would, but it often happens in China that staff are much happier to say they will do a thing than to actually do a thing. The third night I was so tired that I slept through the screaming heebie-jeebies, although my poor colleague assured me over a breakfast that yes, there had definitely been some.

On our last day in the hotel, we queued to check out, bags piled around us, worn out from a long and trying week, but carefree in our waistband-less dresses for the flight home and slightly giddy at the idea of seeing our respective husbands again. Other guests stood about in a disorganised gaggle (the Chinese simply have no idea how to queue). Then, a perfectly ordinary-looking couple in their early thirties were called forward to the desk, and as they dragged their luggage forward, the woman banged her suitcase painfully against her ankle. Ah! she exclaimed, in a voice we knew. What to do? Without any of the relevant words in Mandarin at our command (sleep, deprivation, bastards and dear God sprang to mind), we could do nothing but glare at these hated strangers with a single malevolent eye until they folded themselves into a taxi and left. There wasn’t even a passing streetcar to push them under.

—————————————————————————————————————–

[1] I was actually going to work and my father fully intends to live well into his nineties, but fuck that guy and his ‘arrange your face so that it is acceptable to me’ bullshit.

[2] For example, shortly after the Brexit referendum, I was forced to intervene in an altercation between three racist Welshmen and a teenage girl (of heritage that I guess was Indian). This was on a train in the middle of Somerset, on a Wednesday afternoon, for fuck’s sake, and in the circumstances I felt justified in being as rude as I’ve ever been to a group of strangers.

[3] I refer to Cortazar’s hyper-novel Hopscotch, which consists of numbered sections rather than paragraphs, and can be read in a number of different configurations. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure book that is also Proper Literature.

[4] See also any of my many China-related posts by clicking on ‘China’ in the word cloud or in the list of categories.

[5] Not because the doors had knockers that always told the truth or always lied, but because these people were simply so loud that the doors became irrelevant.

[6] Perhaps he was having a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack?

[7] It all depends upon your appetite.

Things to make and do with a fake P45

Theresa May is, in my view, a cold, mean woman and a poor Prime Minister. However, she is also (on the balance of probability) a person, doing an important and difficult job, not very well. I think she knows she’s not doing it very well, because I’ve also done jobs that were, in their local context at least, important and difficult, and at which I was poor. I understand that haunted, gaunt look on Theresa May’s face and her unsteady voice: these are the features of someone who knows they suck at their job.

Do you know what I did when I realised I was in a job I wasn’t any good at? I quit, and let someone more competent take over. Theresa May seems to feel that she has to stay in post, maybe because the alternatives are just too awful too contemplate. This week someone at the Conservative Party Conference actually said on live radio that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.[1] I know people have been saying that for years, but this fool said it after the British Foreign Secretary made light of civil war in Libya and and after he recited the opening lines of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in the Shwedagon Pagoda (the holiest Buddhist site in Yangon).[2] Imagine the fuss if a Burmese diplomat spontaneously recited a poem in his native language, protesting about the hundred-odd years of British occupation perhaps and maybe including a bunch of sexually inappropriate suggestions, while visiting Westminster Abbey on behalf of his nation. Imagine also, if you will, how politics in Britain might change if we all stopped pretending that an Oxford education (or a tendency to make jokes in Latin, or a liking for Eton and governesses, or a total lack of respect for other cultures) makes a person special, clever or eccentric. Boris Johnson does a good impression of a Very Clever person, but doesn’t have the wit or humility to acknowledge that he is deeply mediocre. The same applies to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man so clearly convinced of his own sense of entitlement that I sometimes comfort myself in the small hours by imagining bizarre deaths that might befall him (see also evil sock-puppet Michael Gove). Since I first wrote this blog post, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has managed to (yet again) say the wrong thing about a British woman currently in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges, suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘teaching journalism’. No, she wasn’t. She was on holiday. The Iranian government are now using this information to support fresh charges and there is every chance her sentence will be extended. If you go to the Independent article I’ve linked to above, for the next few days you can hear disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP for yourself, defending Boris Johnson’s ‘slip of the tongue’ and suggesting that people shouldn’t ‘overreact’.

If, while taking money to do a job I was terrible at, someone had handed me a fake P45 (even in jest), I’d have seen it as fair comment. If, however, one has confidence in one’s ability and knows that one is just taking some time to find one’s feet, then being handed a fake P45 in public isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Much as I dislike Theresa May’s policies, I hate to see a woman (any woman, but a woman in public life particularly) miss an opportunity to humiliate a man who is trying to humiliate her. Here, then, are some things to make and do with a fake P45:

i. Take fake P45; crack weak joke; finish speech; cry about it later in conference venue toilets. Listen to moron who does your old job being interviewed on evening radio describe breath-takingly inadequate security as ‘disappointing’ and respond to the question ‘what if he had been carrying acid?’ with ‘well, he wasn’t.’[3] Google ‘acid attack’; ponder own mortality; cry some more in Downing Street toilet.

ii. Ignore man attempting to hand you fake P45. Pause speech only to say, ‘If that man isn’t removed immediately, I’m going to make whoever is in charge of security come up here and explain to the class how this person was allowed to get within touching distance of the Prime Minister.’ Wait in stony silence for security to remove P45 Man. Finish speech.

iii. Take fake P45, screw it into a ball and bounce it off P45 Man’s face. Dust hands. Finish speech.

iv. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and announce that you are firing your current bodyguard. Point out that P45 Man could have been carrying acid, and show you’re capable of going off script and familiar with your own legislation by reiterating the new regulations being brought in to make acid attacks more difficult, thus both protecting the victims of acid attacks and pissing off Amber Rudd, who already announced them.[4] Have epiphany that Amber Rudd is a moron and fire her too.

v. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and explain that this P45 has reached you by mistake, and was intended for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, this has just reminded you that Boris Johnson deserves to be fired, right now on live television, because of, among other things, the hateful thing he just said about the civil war in Libya and his tone-deaf impromptu poetry recital in Yangon. Note that you are not going to fire him, however, because the whole Brexit fiasco is at least partly his fault, and you expect him to help clear up the mess he has made. Explain that foreign wars are not opportunities for British businesses to exploit, and that representing one’s nation requires one to have some idea of history, context and courtesy. Declare that Johnson will, therefore, not be going on any further foreign trips until he has demonstrated to your satisfaction that he can leave the country without embarrassing it. Apologise unreservedly to the people of Libya and Myanmar. Finish speech.

vi. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Announce, in coldest, most menacing tone, ‘It’s a fake P45, everyone. Let me show you what I think of that.’ Tear it into bite-sized pieces and eat it. Take your time over this. Freestyle rest of speech, announcing whatever the fuck you like. Never worry about leadership challenges ever again. Bonus: any subsequent throat problems can be blamed on the fact that you literally just ate that fucker’s joke.

vii. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Commenting that you intend to treat this gesture with the dignity it deserves, fold fake P45 into jaunty hat. Put hat on. As P45 Man is removed by security, remove hat and fold it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Accidentally’ release paper aeroplane into the crowded auditorium in such a way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is fatally wounded in the eye and bleeds out as you finish your speech. When prompted in post-speech interviews to comment on this tragic and yet deeply satisfying end, describe the incident as ‘disappointing’.

___________________________________________

[1] Until the end of October, you can listen to this buffoon for yourself on PM via iPlayer (starts just before the 18-minute mark), but the burden of his song is that Boris Johnson appeals to young people (?), whom it is hoped will learn to ‘aspire to the Conservative way of life’ (??).

[2] ‘The Road to Mandalay’ is Kipling in full colonial fig, speaking from the point of view of a retired soldier reflecting on his time in Burma (as it was then). It refers to Yangon throughout as Rangoon (as it was known under British colonial rule), describes the Buddha (again, I remind the reader that Boris Johnson was in a Buddhist temple) as ‘an ’eathen idol’, and a ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd’, and suggests that the soldier persuaded a Burmese girl to stop ‘a-wasting Christian kisses’ on the Buddha’s statue by kissing her himself. Fortunately, the British ambassador was able to intervene before Boris had got much further than the fourth line (‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’, which is quite bad enough). I suggest that the British ambassador shouldn’t have to educate the Foreign Secretary as to how to be a diplomat, or to point out that they’re in a Buddhist temple (it’s huge and covered in gold). For such a thoroughly educated man, he is extraordinarily ignorant.

[3] Amber Rudd didn’t even manage to use the question as an opportunity to talk about the legislation she had just announced (again, you can listen to her excuse of an interview via iPlayer for the next few days, from 20 minutes 45 onwards). She could so easily have said, ‘I can’t comment on the specifics of this security breach, but I’m glad you mentioned acid attacks. Acid attacks are very serious, and I just announced a bunch of regulations that will make it harder for people to carry them out.’ It also suggests that Amber Rudd doesn’t understand hypotheticals. What if Jacob Rees-Mogg was run over by a float at gay pride? What if his face was eaten by owls? What if he choked on a quill pen? What if he was smothered in vellum? What if he was wounded in a freak paper aeroplane accident? Well, he wasn’t. So far, Amber Rudd. So far.

[4] The majority of the new acid regulations are pretty sensible and supported by the research, but the age restriction (it will no longer be legal for those under the age of eighteen to purchase acid) gave me pause, because it’s so bloody Tory. They court the youth vote with all that stuff about student loans and home ownership, but they don’t understand them (see above for the ‘young people like Boris’ bullshit), and they can’t help but show their fundamental fear and hatred of young people (see Bing-bong!).

‘Dearer than eye-sight’

 

Right now, I’m supposed to be starting an MA in crime fiction.[1] I say ‘supposed to be’ because we’ve had to spend my MA Savings Pot on the Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog), who has been an unwilling participant in a very slow and unnecessarily realistic folk production of King Lear. I offer an account of his recent medical issues as a partial explanation for both my lack of MA-starting and the fact that I haven’t posted anything on the blog since the general election.

I am terribly squeamish about bad things happening to my eyes, and the eyes of those I love. The scene in Quantum of Solace where the guy has his eyes poked out just before his neck is broken was (just about) short enough that the wave of nausea wasn’t enough to make me actually throw up; the subsequent neck-breaking was an act of mercy for both him and me. When I was a student, I skipped the Dept. trip to see Oedipus Rex because I thought there was a good chance I’d reintroduce everyone to my lunch, if not prompted by the sight of eyeless Oedipus itself then certainly by anticipation of the same. Any production of King Lear (other than the one going on in the Oval Office right now, of course, which doesn’t induce nausea so much as despair)[2] forces me to remind myself that it’s not real; it says something for the power of the suspension of disbelief that this is necessary. Recently, I was proofreading a thesis about ‘in yer face’ theatre, a nihilistic modern genre that includes graphic depictions of sex and violence. Most of the seminal (fnar fnar) works were, unsurprisingly, written in the 1990s, and the thesis included a long and detailed analysis of, among other things, at least one character being blinded: his eyes are literally sucked out of his head by another character. You’d think a vacuum cleaner would be a useful capitalist symbol to reach for here, but no: he uses his mouth, like those Greek fishermen that bite octopodes in the brain.[3] I’m a professional, so I read it and marked it up, including correcting the horrible word ‘enucleation’, which is the technical medical term for removing an eye.[4] Having marked it up, I then had to go and have a little lie down and think about something (anything) else.

Knowing somehow that he would be enacting my greatest fear (apart from sharks, but fuck sharks for now. No doubt they’ll get their turn, the toothy bastards), the Hound developed a bulgy eye. It wasn’t clear for several weeks what the problem was, but in the meantime he got bulgier and bulgier, until his eye was right outside the skull, held in by nothing more than two very stretched eyelids and hope. Remember Delacroix’s death in The Green Mile when he goes into the electric chair and his eyes pop out of his head on strings? It was like that, but as if the botched execution happened to Mr. Jingles (i.e. someone who didn’t in any way deserve it), in slow motion and (mercifully) without the burning smell. At one point, under the impression that our numerous trips to the vet were for some other purpose, the Hound put his paw on my knee and simply held his blind, swollen eye out to me, as if to say, I mean, look at this thing. It’s fucked. DO SOMETHING.

July 1st
‘This dog’s eye is possessed. Please send £2 a month.’

He must have been in terrible pain, and according to the vet, likely to have been suffering from nasal and auditory hallucinations from the pressure on his brain and his sinuses; certainly he spent a lot of time barking, apparently at Pain itself. After exhaustive testing and a load of dental work (his teeth were also popping out of his head. Rats leaving a sinking ship), it emerged that he had some form of growth in what is called the ‘cone’ i.e. the space immediately behind the eyeball. The eyeball has a number of blood vessels strung off the back of it, rather like one of those 1970s plant-pot-holder thingies people used to hang in their stairwells. The blood vessels form a cone; at the point of the cone they meet the optic nerve, which then joins the optic nerve from the other eye in a y-shape, and off we all go to the brain. It was, therefore, impossible to remove the Thing without also removing his right eye: the two things were simply too deeply bound up in each other.

The Hound’s Thing (I’m not saying ‘tumour’ because it turned out not to be cancer, and I think the reader might feel the word ‘tumour’ implied that it *was* cancerous) was not the potato-shaped blob one might imagine, but a gnarly, sprawling, many-limbed affair. Moreover, it was growing so fast that his good eye (the left) was starting to turn inwards as the optic nerve reached the limits of its flexibility. Having removed both Thing and eye, the vet described it as ‘crunchy’ and noted that at least three (but probably seven) of the twelve teeth the Hound had lost in the preceding weeks had become loose because the Thing had grown down into the top of his gums and literally pushed them out by the roots, from the inside. It had then inserted a tentacle into each hole to allow it to go on growing: during the enucleation operation, each tendril had to be physically manipulated back up into the skull before the whole Thing could be removed from the Hound’s skull, through his eye socket. When my (amazing, patient) parents-in-law and I went to collect him, the Hound was noticeably lighter than the previous day. ‘He’s lost weight’, I commented to the veterinary nurse. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘He’s lost about 500g [8% of his body weight, dear reader]. That’s partly because he’s missed several meals so we can operate, partly because he threw up his dinner, and partly because the tumour weighed nearly 300g.’ The vet confirmed this, saying that if he had scrunched the nasty Thing into a ball, it would have been nearly the size of a satsuma i.e. only slightly smaller than the Hound’s entire brain. ‘It was so astonishing when I finally got it out that I was going to take a photograph and email it to you. Then I realised it would give you nightmares,’ the vet observed. He’s not wrong.

Peco (or Pequod, as I sometimes call him now that he looks even more like a pirate) has bounced back from the whole ordeal magnificently. He only walks into things now and again, and has become comically bad at judging distances; like all dogs, having fallen down or tripped over nothing, he immediately behaves as if no such thing just happened and cheerfully goes on with whatever he was doing. He also asks for cuddles far more readily. This includes being picked up and (very slowly, so that he doesn’t get dizzy) waltzed around the room, ideally to I Only Have Eye(s) For You, by the end of which he has usually dozed off. One of the vets we took him to advised us to have him put down ‘because he won’t have much of a life with one eye’, clearly not understanding how completely spoilt this dog is (also, the Hound had just bitten him savagely on the hand). The Hound sleeps in our bed, washes in our bath (which he adores, especially if you spray the shower-head right into his tiny face) and sits on our sofa. He goes on holiday with us; we pick up his poo; and I spend more time with him than with any other living creature. This evening, his dinner was giblets fried in butter, following by all the stringy bits of the roast chicken too good for the stock, all of which he ate at great speed and with little grunts of satisfaction. He is one-eyed, velvety-soft and very contented. We could not love him more.


[1] It’s this one (the only such MA in the country). I know, right? The most (academic kind of) fun ever. Fun With Essays, if you will.

[2] I’m not even joking. Did you know Trump literally makes his aides go around the room and say something nice about him before they start meetings? Come, which of you shall we say doth love us most?

[3] Octopuses would be fine, because octopus is a Greek word extracted into English and thus is both English and Greek. We can, therefore, form the plural according to either language, but personally I think English plurals on Greek words are ugly, and thus prefer ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is just a piece of pseudo-learned nonsense and should not be used in any circumstances: it’s a Latin plural that assumes ‘octopus’ must be a Latin word because octo is common to both languages, and thus has tried to make a Latin plural on a Greek/English word. Here’s a nice lady from Mirriam-Webster to back me up.

[4] My customer had, rather touchingly, spelt it ‘enucleartion’, which I feel out to be the term for removing an extraneous eye that one only has from being exposed to large amounts of radiation, like the many-eyed fish in Springfield.

‘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: (spoiler alert!) he is not mauve and, to my knowledge, 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 at Grandted’s funeral. 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 one o’clock 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]

HIS
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, that I fully expect to repeat in my own eulogy for my own father in about thirty years, and that I hope could and will be said about me when the time comes. 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 the latter 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 understandably nervous of the ocean voyage. 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 the most memorable occasion, I was with my mother, and we stood on the cliffs at Boscastle to sing a variety of 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, spending time with me and 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 at the lifeboat service, after the names of and 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’). My father, who never cries[8], 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.

[8] What, never? No, never? What, never? Well … hardly ever!

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?’
‘Nope’.

  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 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 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 exclaimed (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.[5]

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.

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[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.

[5] Adrian Bell, Corduroy (London: Cobden Sanderson, 1930), p. 5

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 have sufficient knowledge of English to 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).