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. Jaws 2 is not to Jaws as Exorcist II is to The Exorcist, but it’s not far off. Like Exorcist II, Jaws 2 attempts to lull the viewer into a false sense of security by recycling some of the same actors and characters as the original, but frankly that just makes it more painful. 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.

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[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 recipes, 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.

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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.’

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[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.

Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance; or, the Death of Mr. Whiskers

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses the notion of taxonomy to uncover the disintegration of its protagonist’s mind, how his motorcycle fits together and how an understanding of the mechanics of the bike is fundamental to maintaining it correctly. Taxonomy as applied to animals (and those that live in the sea in particular) is often traced back to Aristotle’s Historia Animaliam and the so-called Ladder of Nature as applied to ‘cosmic structure’ in The Timaeus, and certainly we can see two tidy minds at work here.[1] Pirsig is interested in ideas of order and disorder, but I think Zen is also a book about being a competent grown-up and what that means, primarily in relationship to technology. Here, I want to think about what that means in relationship to other people and how we categorise ideas and behaviours in relationships.

The opening pages of Zen consist mainly of Phaedrus describing the relationship his friends John and Sylvia have with technology. The novel describes a fundamental disagreement between Phaedrus, John and Sylvia on how much one should maintain one’s motorcycle (and all other kit, by extension) oneself:

It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right.[2] […] I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would not make a dent in him […] He doesn’t want to hear about it.

Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact, she is even more emphatic. “It’s just a whole other thing,” she says, when in a thoughtful mood. […] They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (London: Bodley Head, 1974), pp.10-12.

I suggest that John and Sylvia don’t want their broken motorcycles to be fixed by a mechanic because they want it ‘done right’, but because they want it done by someone else. Phaedrus gives us another example of a dripping tap. John attempts to fix it and fails. They don’t call a plumber and they don’t ask anyone else for help: they just put up with the drip. To use the terminology of the book, they wish to use technology, but they do not wish to maintain it. They also project the negative feelings that this produces in them (hatred of their own incompetence, say) onto the things they do not wish to maintain, blaming those objects for needing maintenance at all. Quentin Featherston does the same thing in my favourite passage from The Children of Dynmouth:

In the garage, he examined a machine called a Suffolk Punch, a lawnmower than was now exactly ten years old. […] Quentin hated the Suffolk Punch. […] He pulled at the starting device, a coil of plastic-covered wire that snapped obediently back into position after each attempt to engage the engine. […] You could spend all day pulling the plastic-covered coil, the skin coming off your hands, sweat gathering all over you. You could take the plug out and examine it, not knowing what you were looking for. […] You could take it to the kitchen and put it under the grill of the electric cooker in order to get it hot, without knowing why it should be hot.

William Trevor, The Children of Dynmouth (London: Bodley Head, 1976), p.103.

On the following page, we discover that Quentin also hates his car, the washing machine and the radio, each of which require maintenance he doesn’t understand or parts he can’t obtain, and thus each of which fails to work as it should. He takes a plug out of the Suffolk Punch (yes, I was confused too: surely a Suffolk Punch is a horse?) and finds it to have ‘a shell of carbon around the points.’ Naturally, this tells him nothing (‘He never knew if there should be carbon there or not’; Giant Bear, who is much better at dealing with machinery, tells me that no, there should not). In the face of the silent lawnmower, his instinct is to retreat into the shed (a manly space full of Tools For Men) and take up the objects a more competent man might have used to actually fix the problem. We can thus conclude that, in some dim and arm’s length way, Quentin feels that his manhood is being challenged by the lawnmower.

Quentin falls back on the great traditions of Men in Sheds: he wipes the thing with newspaper, considers poking it with ‘a screwdriver or a piece of wire’ and eventually uses a hexagonal spanner to remove the plug, all the time with no earthly idea of what he is doing, hating his own ignorance (and presumably hating the fact that it is taking him so long to make the lawnmower come to life at all, while the lawn remains unmowed), but situating that hatred in the object. In other words, he blames the lawnmower for the fact that it won’t work, rather than reflecting on his own lack of knowledge and making a note to remedy this in the future (ideally, before his next attempt to mow the lawn). Notice that, while I haven’t yet related any of these ideas to sexual relationships, this whole episode is rooted in Quentin’s masculinity (or lack of it; note that he is reduced to fruitlessly taking into his wife’s domain (the kitchen) and putting it under the grill.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and thus am being regularly hassled by an oft-repeated, faux-spontaneous ad for a podcast called GrownUpLand, which is premised upon the idea that being a grown-up is both baffling and dull, and that listeners require help with the identity crisis that Getting Older will inevitably produce in them. The very first episode is entitled ‘What does it take to be a grown-up?’ and the ‘welcome to’ episode includes the quite startling statement that “an out-of-hand dinner party for me consists of cracking into their parents’ port” (surely grown-ups host dinner parties in their own houses? Surely grown-ups buy their own port?) and a listener asking for suggestions of a tattoo he could get specifically to piss his parents off. The response to this is from a Syrian refugee, who suggests that the listener tries being stateless as a way to distract his parents from his tattoo, and so I want to be clear here that, while I have no intention of listening to something I feel about a hundred years too old for, I am not finding fault with this podcast specifically, but rather the broader social trend that it both represents and feeds upon. I reject wholeheartedly the notion that being a grown-up is something we should resist or mourn. I have always been desperate to have as much autonomy as humanly possible. I wanted to own my own home, work hard at a job and earn an income that I could spend exactly as I saw fit (i.e. on food and books). I craved control, and I craved responsibility.

75b
Not the mug for me.

Adulthood, in other words, was something I could not wait for because being a grown-up means taking responsibility for all your decisions. Secondly, I was also pretty sure that being a grown-up meant, in some sense, being concomitantly more capable. I therefore looked to people who were already grown-ups for ideas of what being a competent adult might look like. It may seem that I have wandered away from Pirsig’s novel, but no:

[John and Sylvia] talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about ‘it’ or ‘it all’, as in the sentence ‘There is just no escape from it all’. And if I asked, ‘From what?’, the answer might be ‘The whole thing’, or ‘The whole organised bit’.

Pirsig, Zen, p.16.

John and Sylvia, who own a home and have several children (and thus unquestionably are adults) do not want to be adults. More broadly, the people who protest about ‘having to adult’ or who congratulate themselves on social media for ‘good adulting’ because they managed to feed themselves and put the bins out on the same day do not want to be adults; that’s why they are using ‘adult’ as a verb rather than a noun, as if it is something you do rather than something you are. I do want to be an adult, and I think the tension between those two positions comes from a difference of opinion about what being an adult should involve.

We might relate some of these ideas to relationships, and particularly sexual relationships (those with so-called ‘adult’ content, perhaps). I expected my ability to look after myself to keep pace with the level of independence I was granted, and I have consistently suggested to students with questions about relationships and sex that feeling ready for a relationship or a particular sexual experience should prompt self-reflection about the relevant relationship skills and notions of consent. If you feel ready to ask that nice woman on the bus to have coffee with you, you should also be asking yourself whether you feel ready for her to say “no, but thanks for asking”.[3] In other words, if you are big enough to ask for something, you should also be big enough to be denied it, and to take that denial in a calm, grown-up fashion.[4] I felt adulthood would be a time of feeling competent, including within relationships. Surely, I thought, one of the reasons Young People were actively discouraged from sex and other Adult Activities was that we/they were judged to be too immature to do them properly. Such things are for people who are older and therefore by definition more competent, but of course people do not necessarily become more competent as they age. GrownUpLand rests on the idea that we reach peak competence well below the threshold that would allow us to have fully functioning adult lives, and then we just continue to age, becoming steadily more baffled by the bewildering, boring tasks maturity requires us to perform.

Esther Perel’s book about sex in long-term relationships Mating in Captivity also makes a link between adulthood and dullness. Where Pirsig divides schools of thought into ‘romantic’ and ‘classical’, Perel uses the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘realist’:

The romantics refuse a life without passion; they swear that they’ll never give up on true love. […] Every time desire does wane, they conclude that love is gone. If eros is in decline, love must be on its deathbed. They mourn the loss of excitement and fear settling down.

At the opposite extreme are the realists. They say that enduring love is more important than hot sex, and that passion makes people do stupid things. It’s dangerous, it creates havoc, and it’s a weak foundation for marriage. In the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “Passion is for teenagers and foreigners.” For the realists, maturity prevails.

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss (London: HarperCollins, 2007), p.3.

In other words, as we grow older, we also become disappointed, sad and boring. As Hilary Mantel has it in an early novel, ‘You feel, surely there’s more to life than this. But there isn’t, and it [the feeling] passes off.’ No wonder we need cheery podcasts to help us navigate these dreary waters. Perel notices how popular culture tries to prepare us for this decline. She says, ‘the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love’ and argues that this is the natural result of believing that ‘[d]iminishing desire is inescapable’.[5] Louis de Bernières writes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that ‘Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away’[6], a sentiment I could not disagree with more.

So, while passion might initiate a relationship, it cannot sustain it. Rather, the passion, phoenix-like, must be destroyed so that the couple can then sift through the ashes of their eroticism to see what is left (“oh look, darling – years of arguing about the washing-machine! And is that your elderly mother under that bit of charred pillowcase?”). Add to this how our culture continually positions both love and lust as things that are fundamentally for young people with firm bodies and no responsibilities, and the link between maturity and sexless, passionless boredom is complete. Of course we no longer have sex with each other![7] We’re old! Nobody wants to have sex with old people, including other old people! Evenings that used to be taken up with frantic, tender sex are now to be given over to discussion of the compost bin. Knickers will be flung into the laundry basket rather than over the bannisters. Sofas upon which we once clasped one another with vigour and intent are now places to sit calmly, discussing the relative health of our house plants and planning the euthanasia of our parents.

As a society, we fetishize youth, and we fetishize novelty. Rather than patiently seeking new ways to explore a relationship with one another as it grows deeper and richer with the passing of time, we are, therefore, led to believe that a relationship (and certainly a marriage) will inevitably hit problems that the couple will be unable to solve, and demand compromises they are reluctant to make. One will, then, be faced with the following options: living alone; a revolving door of new partners, each one re-booting one’s sense of desire; or staying with the same boring old person: partly because by the time you realise how miserable you both are, disentangling yourselves will be both complex and expensive; and partly because that’s what adults do (‘[y]ou are expected to tough it out and grow up’).[8] Thus are we sold the myth that the longer a relationship lasts, the duller it will be; a myth, moreoever, that many of the relationships we find ourselves in and that we see around us may appear to confirm.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I suggest that the passage of time is not the cause of this decline, but rather poor relationship skills and unhelpful, normalised expectations. I include here both expectations that are too high (expecting to feel the same butterflies in your stomach when your husband of ten years comes home from work on a wet Wednesday as you did on your first date when you had known each other for five minutes) and too low (thinking that the aforementioned lack of butterflies means that you no longer fancy your husband and that this is Just What Happens). Here is my theory, combining some of Perel’s ideas with Pirsig’s notion of an ‘intellectual scalpel’ and the Aristotelian notion that there is power in both taxonomy and calling each thing by its right name, as Pasternak has it. The activities that constitute a relationship (any relationship) can be divided into two categories, which I’m going to call Joy and Maintenance. Joy refers to the intrinsic i.e. things you choose to do within the relationship, with each other, purely because you enjoy them. Here we might include dating (whatever that means for you); sexual encounters; conversation about things that interest you; any other activities and hobbies that you do simply for pleasure. Maintenance refers to the extrinsic i.e. things you have to do in order for your lives to function and that involve some sort of engagement with the outside world. Here the list might be paying bills, going to work, doing housework and so forth (see Iron Get Hot Now for the division of labour favoured in the Filthy Comma/Giant Bear household). I’m using the word ‘maintenance’ because of Zen, but also because it carries connotations of necessity and regularity that I think are helpful here. However, we might just as easily use ‘admin’ (or, if we really can’t go five minutes without repurposing perfectly good words, ‘adulting’). The activities I am filing under Joy don’t necessarily always fill us with joy, and there are of course some activities (e.g. a family wedding) that could go either way. Similarly, admin doesn’t have to be dull. I am dividing Joy from Maintenance in terms of intention, then, rather than whether it turns out to be enjoyable. This is emphatically not ‘joy=joyful; maintenance=dull’, but rather ‘joy=things that are intended to be fun; maintenance=things that are necessary’. We don’t have to have sex: we choose to do so, because it is intended to be fun. Even if you spend the afternoon having sex that is, for some reason not enjoyable (e.g. wasp), sex is still classed under Joy. Similarly, we have to go to work: we agree to do so because it is administratively necessary. Thus, even if you enjoy your job enormously (and I sincerely hope that you do), it is still classed under Maintenance.

The opening chapters of a relationship usually consist almost entirely of Joy. We go on dates; we make meeting for a coffee last four hours; we have sexual encounters; we meet each other’s friends. We spend time together because we want to spend time together. There is very little admin to be done, beyond arranging to be in the same place at the same time, and so we are using our partner’s ability to Be Good At Fun Stuff as the primary criterion for choosing to continue the relationship. We probably have very little idea whether they are any good at admin yet, because each partner is taking care of their own stuff. I suggest that my hypothetical couple (let’s call them Sandy and Lee so that they can be any gender) and all their friends would find it perfectly reasonable for the relationship to come to an end because there was a problem with the Joy: the sex was patchy or they didn’t like the same books, say. These friends would not, I suggest, be as supportive if Lee ended the relationship on the grounds that Sandy refuses to carry a wallet, doesn’t understand how to use an iron and can’t be trusted to pick up dinner on the way home, but that’s not going to happen in these early stages, because Lee doesn’t know any of that yet. Notice that the first set of examples suggests people living in their own spaces, pursuing their own goals and spending time together as and when they can fit it around their other activities, while the second set suggests a couple sharing a living space, a fridge and probably a joint account. This is because the balance between Joy and Maintenance shifts, subtly but inexorably, the longer a relationship goes on.

In the early stages, then, Sandy and Lee simply enjoy each other. Lee, who is a generous lover, never forgets a birthday and bakes the best ginger cake Sandy has ever eaten, won’t later leave the relationship because Sandy ceases to be fun. Sandy hasn’t ceased to be fun. Sandy has simply continued to suck at admin. Similarly, in the early stages of the relationship, Lee found it endearing that Sandy continually confuses June with July, doesn’t keep a diary and can’t understand money, because at that point what kept Lee in the relationship was the fact that Sandy is funny, gentle and covered in freckles – but Lee will care about these things very much once they move in together and buy a cat. Both Sandy and Lee love Mr. Whiskers, and Mr. Whiskers appears to love them both equally. It is, however, mostly Sandy that plays with Mr. Whiskers and buys him endless treats and toys (Joy), while mostly Lee takes him to the vet, buys the catfood and feeds him (Maintenance).

Being bad at Maintenance kills relationships. It kills them far more often and more thoroughly than being bad at Joy, because the likelihood that someone who is bad at Joy will be in a relationship for more than a few weeks is so low. The admin gradually ramps up as the lives of Sandy and Lee become more tightly entwined, as does the need for the admin to be done promptly and well. Lee gradually does more and more of the admin because Sandy isn’t any good at it, and by the time Sandy remembers a regular admin task needs to be done (putting out the recycling, say), Lee has often already done it, promptly and efficiently, but resentfully.[9] They might try to manage this by each choosing discrete areas of responsibility, but Sandy (who really sucks at admin) can’t seem to do their tasks without being reminded several times by Lee, who is now forced into a role of not doing the admin, but project managing the admin. Lee and Sandy might even phrase this to each other in terms of maturity (“it’s like living with a student”; “it’s like living with my mother”). What ends the relationship, therefore, is not a lack of Joy, but rather a gradual, cumulative preponderance of undone Maintenance. This culminates in an awful week-long row about whose fault it is that neither of them took the keys round to the neighbours so that the neighbours could feed the cat while Sandy and Lee were on holiday. The final, relationship-ending row will appear to be about the emaciated cat, whose pathetic little face will haunt them both for years, but will in fact be about Sandy’s tacit expectation that Lee should take responsibility for admin because Sandy is horrible at it, and Lee’s resentment that Sandy leaves all the admin to Lee. “You didn’t love Mr. Whiskers at all,” they hiss at each other.

My point here is that you have to be with someone for a decent length of time, and probably move in together, before you have any idea of whether they are any good at admin. This is, therefore, a leap in the dark, and most likely a leap that one will make only when one has already reached a certain level of emotional commitment. This emotional commitment makes it tempting to just put up with shitty admin (or to tell oneself that one’s partner is bound to get the hang of it sooner or later, etc.), rather than facing the fact that being bad at Maintenance kills relationships and the fact that your partner doesn’t do the ironing without being reminded three times is a much bigger problem than it might appear. This may be a useful point at which to return to the label ‘maintenance’. Admin is boring, but it maintains the relationship. Bricks are boring, but they keep a house up; bread can be boring, but it doesn’t half hold a sandwich together. By the time Lee fully realises how much Sandy sucks at maintenance, they have been together for three years and living together for two. It feels far, far too late (and far, far too petty) to say, “Sandy, I really can’t stay in this relationship unless you treat the washing up with the seriousness it deserves”, and so Lee doesn’t say it. Instead, a new era of tense, repetitive, mean little arguments ensues, revolving around chores that neither partner particularly wants to do, but which are necessary for the household to function. This is what people mean by ‘the little things’, but these things are not little: they are dull. The relationship circles these tedious issues like water trying to drain past a clogged plughole. There is never quite enough energy to dislodge the metaphorical slice of onion or mushy rice, but neither is there a sincere attempt to really scrutinise how those things got there in the first place (spoiler alert: poor admin).

What makes a relationship work in the long-term, therefore (I suggest) is both people in the relationship working hard at both Joy and Maintenance. Consider Perel’s other book The State of Affairs and Chapter 10 of Mating in Captivity, in which she argues (among other things) that infidelity arises partly out of asking too much of a single person, expecting our chosen partner to fulfil all of our needs: ‘once we have found “the one”, we will need no one else’.[10] Asking one person to be all things to you is unfair, isolating and likely to lead to disappointment, as well as probably causing the partners to spend far more time together than the relationship can stand, making them both bored and frustrated with each other and craving change. The way the relationship is being run is what is creating the boredom, but it is easy to see why both people involved might mistakenly draw the conclusion that it is their partner they need to change, rather than their behaviour. Perel says,

the disenchanted opt for divorce or affairs not because they question the institution [of marriage], but because they think they chose the wrong person. […] Next time they’ll choose better.

Perel, Mating, p.179.

I also suggest that an affair may also seem appealing because, much like the start of a new relationship, an affair is light on maintenance and heavy on joy. That’s the whole point of an affair: spontaneous, short-lived and passionate, we expect it to burn itself out before any maintenance is required.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Lee and Sandy’s relationship, when they spent their time having sex, talking and enjoying their shared love of West German cinema. The time they spent on admin (if any) revolved around who would replenish the KY jelly, what time Sandy would pick Lee up so they could go away for the weekend and whose flat they would be staying at that night. All those tasks are certainly admin, but they all also hold an erotic charge: Joyful Maintenance, if you will. Let’s now run the tape forward to a few days before Sandy and Lee take their ill-fated holiday: a holiday they are taking specifically because “we never see each other”, and which they set off on with light hearts, casually locking the cat in the house with the spare keys (each under the impression that the main set have been left with the neighbours by the other) and waving goodbye to Mr. Whiskers from the back seat of the taxi. At this point, their lives now involve a tremendous quantity of admin, generated by the fact that they now share a home and a cat. There is also a qualitative difference from the admin they did as single people, and in the early stages of their relationship. Lee is paying their bills, ironing their clothes and checking the cat for ticks; Sandy is taking out the bins, cooking hurried dinners and trying to remember why Lee thought it was important for Sandy to balance the chequebook for the joint account. The admin is not sexy anymore. Moreover, because Sandy sucks at admin, and because neither Sandy nor Lee has figured out a way to address the fact that Sandy sucks at admin, the admin is taking up a lot more space in their lives than it needs to. In other words, rather than being able to get the Maintenance out of the way early on and then get onto some Joy (as we might see in the first conversation below), Joy is squeezed out.

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: Yes, and I put it away in the wardrobe when I got home.
Lee: Thanks for doing that. Shall we watch a film tonight? <civilised conversation ensues about the work of Werner Herzog>

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: SHIT THE BINS.
Lee: You forgot?
Sandy: Yes.
Lee: Again?
Sandy: I had a really hectic day.
Lee: I reminded you twice.
Sandy: I know. I’m really sorry.
Lee: Why the fuck do I have to do everything? <argument ensues, with both Sandy and Lee thinking throughout how much they fucking hate dry-cleaning and how they would each happily eat an entire suit with a knife and fork if it meant they never had to argue about the dry-cleaning ever again>

In such an atmosphere, it’s not difficult to imagine Lee having an affair, finding a thrill in the irresponsibility of putting the relationship at risk after being forced to take on far more responsibility than Lee really wanted. Affairs do include some admin, of course (those lies don’t just write themselves), but crucially the admin has become sexy again. For someone like Lee who is good at admin, the kick Lee gets out of having an illicit relationship at all is supported by the smaller (but in some ways more powerful) kick Lee gets from successfully concealing the affair. Sandy will never notice, Lee thinks. This just goes to show how little Sandy knows me, etc.

It’s also not difficult to imagine Sandy having an affair, with (say) a colleague, easily fitted around Sandy’s already chaotic schedule without Lee noticing. In fact, although Lee is more discontented with the situation than Sandy, it’s Sandy who is more likely to stray in some ways. For one thing, Lee is too busy. For another, as Perel says, ‘excessive monitoring’ (which may well be how Sandy interprets Lee’s constant reminders) can push a person into ‘transgressions that establish psychological distance from an overbearing relationship. […] Trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance.’ [11] Sandy finds an attractive new colleague ‘less anal’ than Lee and revels in naughty takeaways and flirting over the photocopier while working late. Sandy turns this new colleague over in their mind, paying even less attention to admin while in the grip of various fantasy encounters. Sandy’s new colleague doesn’t know Sandy is in a relationship, partly because Sandy never seems to run any of the errands one might expect to see done by someone in a long-term relationship (do your fucking admin, Sandy!), and partly because Sandy and Lee are spending so little time together at home, which is now less a shared home and more of a backdrop to their latest admin-based row. Sandy’s situation quickly escalates into flirtatious emails, groping in corridors and eventually hurried, partially-dressed sex in a slovenly flat. When these things are over, Sandy simply says, “see you tomorrow” and leaves, without anyone nagging about defrosting the freezer or demanding an update on the cat’s bowel movements. Perel says, describing a harassed wife, ‘[she] can feel like a woman again; her lover knows nothing about the broken Lego set or the plumber who failed to show up for the second time.’[12] When Sandy gets home, Lee asks why Sandy is putting work ahead of their relationship and lists the tasks Lee has had to do in Sandy’s absence. “You never spend any time with me or Mr. Whiskers,” Lee might say. Lee is no fun anymore, Sandy thinks. This just goes to show how little Lee knows me.

Chris Kraus’s baffling, tedious book I Love Dick is relevant here. I’ve read the whole thing twice and still haven’t the slightest idea whether it is an elaborate joke that I simply don’t find funny, or 250 pages of navel-gazing drivel. I find so little in it that I recognise as feminist that my first assumption was that the blurb was also a joke. Emily Gould wrote in the Guardian that ‘Everyone is right: this is the most important book about men and women written in the last century’, so I am clearly in a very small minority when I say that it feels to me like an utterly unimportant book about self-absorbed people whose relationships I didn’t care about (although I note that at least two people have taken the time to write ‘self-reflective wank’ and ‘GET IN THE SEA’ in the comments on Gould’s article). Maybe it has something to say about men and women more broadly, but for me the three central characters are so bizarre (and yet so dull) that I don’t feel able to extrapolate any of their behaviours, and certainly wouldn’t consider them typical or representative (not of anyone I know, anyhow). According to the blurb on the back, this is ‘the most important feminist novel of the past two decades’, but I hated it with the fire of a thousand suns and since I only want to use it to illustrate a brief point here, I really can’t bring myself to read it a third time solely to unpack why I found it so unbearable. For my immediate purposes, let’s just consider the notion that it rests upon, which is that an affair is inherently interesting.[13] We know Kraus thinks this is so because literally nothing else happens: the entire book is just three people in a love triangle talking to each other about the fact that they are in a love triangle. Kraus has a whole book of things to say about an affair that takes a hundred pages to get past first base, at which point the marriage is over and so technically not an affair anyway. Chris and Sylvère (the central married couple) have an extraordinary amount to say to each other, too (‘Was the conceptual fuck merely the first step? For the next few hours [HOURS], Chris and Sylvère discuss this’).[14] I Love Dick relies on the idea that an affair (any affair, including a conceptual one i.e. one that will have bored the arse off the reader long before the people in question get round to having sex)[15] is exciting, daring and endlessly interesting, but the affair the book describes is none of those things. The three people involved find themselves in a love triangle not because of a sudden, thrilling passion or a meaningful and completing sense of wholeness, but because all three of them lack relationship skills, self-awareness and boundaries. They certainly have no idea what it is they hope to get out of either relationship, other than a breath-takingly self-indulgent book (‘We never have any fun together,’ she [Chris] sighed into the phone. Sylvere replied gruffly: ‘Oh. Fun. Is that what it’s supposed to be about?’).[16]

None of these affairs make sense, particularly when we remind ourselves that the problem Sandy and Lee have with each other is not sexual, but administrative. What they have created by matching their committed relationship with an affair is a yin-and-yang matching set of relationships. The relationship Sandy and Lee have with each other is now almost entirely admin. Boring, boring admin. Perel quotes D.H. Lawrence at the start of Mating in Captivity, speaking of ‘the great cage of our domesticity’, and it is the meshing together of Sandy’s life with Lee’s, the crushing burden of cumulative admin and Sandy’s inability to do their share that locks the two of them together, making them feel old, bored and boring.[17] This side of the ying-yang circle is leavened with a tiny spot of joy that reminds them they are still fond of each other and therefore just about keeps the pilot light flickering. On the other side, the relationships they each have with their respective lovers are almost entirely joy. Sexy, sexy joy. This keeps them apart, both literally and metaphorically, concealing their ‘other’ lives and allowing them to explore who they can be with another person: someone who feels dirty and conflicted, certainly, but also someone who feels young, interesting and desirable. This side of the circle is marked with a tiny spot of admin that is just enough to keep each affair concealed. Thus Sandy and Lee have achieved balance of a sort, and this is why (and how) so many affairs drag on for years. Having sex with another person is still counterintuitive, given that the sex Sandy and Lee still have occasionally with each other is still good, but that’s not why they are having sex with each other anymore, and that’s not why they’re having affairs.

I imagined Sandy and Lee fighting for a week or so before Lee finally leaves, and that’s because I’m assuming it is during the fight about whose fault it is that the cat has died that one of them will let slip they have been having an affair. This will be devastating to the other party, primarily because of the breach of trust implied by sexual monogamy (joy-related trust, if you will). My argument here is that being trusted with the cat’s life (and failing to take care of it i.e. maintenance-related trust) feels very different to being trusted not to have sex with another person. However, in terms of how small acts of fidelity and care add up over time (or, conversely, how failing to carry out similar small acts of maintenance wear away at a relationship over time), I think they are equivalent. There is more than one way to betray your partner. As before, note that the revelation that one’s partner has been having sex with a co-worker is a socially acceptable reason for ending a relationship, while that same partner forgetting to drop off the keys with a neighbour or repeatedly going into the overdraft is not. This is partly because we have the vocabulary with which to describe sexual infidelity: ‘Sandy was having an affair’, as opposed to ‘Sandy wasn’t any good at relationship maintenance’, which then has to be explained and backed up with a dozen relevant examples before the long-suffering friend listening to this story is prepared to venture an opinion on whether Lee was right to leave.

My own view is that individual affairs can be interesting, both for the people involved in them and for those reading about fictional characters, but only if those people and/or characters are also interesting. For example, The Once and Future King does a beautiful job of showing all three points of a love triangle, in such a delicate and balanced way that a reader can hold sympathy for all three of them in their heart at the same time. That is because the three people involved are all complex, thoughtful and interesting. Each of them feels the pain of their situation and each of them both regrets it and feels powerless to resist it. Arthur even manages to feel sorry for his unfaithful wife and best friend, both of whom he continues to love with great sincerity and gentleness. He goes out of his way to preserve the fiction that he does not know they are betraying him, just as they work hard to keep it from him – not because they dread being found out, but because they do not wish to hurt him. T.H. White’s handling of the currents of emotion between the three of them is extraordinary and exquisite. Meanwhile in I Love Dick, if ever a character begs to be cheated on, it is pretentious, entitled, patronising Sylvère. Wordsworth speaks of the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’[18] and of course he is talking about interactions in general rather than sexual intercourse, but truly, an affair is a deeply dreary response to a relationship being in a tough spot, particularly if the people involved are themselves dull as shit. There is something profoundly bratty about an affair. Childlike, we demand to have the mutually exclusive, and to be the mutually exclusive: spouse and lover, old and young, adult and adulterous. ‘Unfaithful spouse’ ought to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It is a commonplace. An affair resolves nothing. It is both the coward’s way out and no way out at all.

As I said, it doesn’t have to be this way. Relationship skills, patience, realistic expectations and being fucking grown-ups can, I suggest, allow us to flourish. As Wordsworth has it later on in the same poem, taking this stuff seriously can make it possible, ‘Through all the years of this our life, to lead / From joy to joy.’

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

[1] Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p.277. See pp.101-104 for a discussion of Aristotle’s influence on Linnaeus and Cuvier, among others.

[2] It’s important to note that a few pages later, Phaedrus makes it clear that in fact many of the mechanics both he and John deal with are anything but competent.

[3] Or, more specifically, anything other than “yippee!”. If you feel ready to ask your partner to strike you vigorously across the buttocks with a copy of Middlemarch (say), you should also be prepared for responses spanning the full range from “yippee!” through “may I suggest a hardback copy of Robert Coover’s weird-arse novel Spanking the Maid as a more appropriate choice?” to “get out of my house”. See also Shake it all about for some further thoughts on the teaching of consent and the use of the phrase “no, but thanks for asking”.

[4] “Take it like a man”, as we used to say before we were fully aware of how patriarchy tells men that the word “no” is something they should only expect to hear from women who haven’t yet got with the programme.

[5] Perel, Mating, pp.201 and 3.

[6] I don’t have a page number for this because (i) it is in my mind after hearing the surrounding passage read at a wedding rather than because I read it in a book; and (ii) I don’t have a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in the house because I’m not in a ladies-only book group from the mid-1990s.

[7] ‘Because they [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction’. Oh, do fuck off. Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997), p.6.

[8] Perel, Mating, p.3.

[9] Giant Bear and I regularly use the phrase ‘Shit the bins!’ as a shorthand for “I’ve just realised that I didn’t do a boring admin task I was supposed to be responsible for! On an unrelated matter, I now need to leave the room!”

[10] Perel, Mating, p.179.

[11] Perel, Mating, p.190.

[12] Perel, Mating, p.183.

[13] I have deliberately not offered a definition of what constitutes an affair, either from my own point of view or for Lee and Sandy. Chris and Sylvère agree that Chris failing to have sex with Dick constitutes an affair (this is the ‘Conceptual Fuck’ mentioned above), but whatever your definition of infidelity might be, I doubt that an evening of watching a video of someone dressed as Johnny Cash and then falling asleep on their sofa bed next to your own spouse would count.

[14] Kraus, Dick, p.6.

[15] Is this like the ‘zipless fuck’ in Fear of Flying (which I also really hated)? I don’t care enough about either book to find out.

[16] Kraus, Dick, p.74.

[17] D.H. Lawrence, ‘Wild Things in Captivity’, line 7, as quoted in Perel, p.ix.

[18] William Wordsworth, ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, line 132. Incomplete citation because as a general rule I don’t care for Wordsworth and won’t have him in the house. He also speaks of ‘The coarser pleasures of my boyish days / And their glad animal movements’, but let’s assume he means hiking.

Sorry not sorry (or, neither a borrower nor a lender be)

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. This is because I agree with Stewart Lee that, whatever the merits of JK Rowling’s work (and no doubt there are many), fundamentally the Harry Potter books are children’s books. I am not a child, nor do I have any children to read them to. The first book was published when I was already too old for it; I was at an age when, among other things, Alias Grace, Knowledge of Angels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Rites of Passage, Lolita and Jane Eyre were more satisfying to me. I also read the whole of Wordsworth’s Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads. I loathe Wordsworth from the depths of my soul, and yet I read the whole of the Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads, and then I read Lyrical Ballads itself and all the other stuff we were required to read for A-level English Literature, because we were asked to do so.[1] As you’ll see in a moment, a troubling sense of misplaced obligation looms large in my reading choices the moment other people get involved in them.

Despite being too old for a children’s book (and seventeen is far, far too old to be reading a children’s book. If you’re experimenting with sex, recreational drugs and Christianity by day, reading about a pre-pubescent wizard by night is downright perverted), several of my coevals apparently forgot that we were all very nearly grown-ups about to be unleashed upon the world of higher education. I was badgered regularly by a friend who had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and thought I should do the same. No, I said. There are far too many grown-up books I’d rather read. He said, you don’t want to read it because it’s too long. No, I said. I’ve read War and Peace, Life and Fate and The Name of the Rose. I’ve read all the books in The Fortunes of War sequence and all of A Dance to the Music of Time.[2] I like big books, and I cannot lie. He said, I haven’t heard of any of those books. Oh dear, I said. I should shut up about books if I were you. Well, he said, as the point of the conversation thundered by him like a hungry Megalosaurus, if you like big books, you’ll like Harry Potter and the Pottery of Harr. No, I said. I’m too old for it. I will find it childish, which is not a fair criticism to make of a children’s book, but I will feel that way nonetheless because I’m not a child. He said, don’t be silly. You’ve already decided to hate it. No, I said. I’ve already decided that I’m a grown-up, and this book is not for grown-ups. He said, there’s nothing wrong with adults reading children’s books. No, I said. There’s everything wrong with adults reading children’s books, unless you are reading them to a child. It reduces your attention span. It removes your ability to respond to intellectual challenges, long sentences and complex ideas. Reading is one of the great pleasures of human existence, and you are trying to take that away from me by making me a read a book that cannot possibly satisfy me and was never intended to. If I had read it as a child and had happy memories that might be re-captured by re-reading it (as one might expect from re-reading 101 Dalmations, The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, or, in a fit of irony, The Borrowers), fine, but I didn’t read it as a child and I don’t want to read it now.

He said, you’re a terrible snob. You don’t like it because it’s popular. You don’t read magazines because you think they’re sexist, and now you think you’re above reading anything popular. Fuck off, I said. First of all, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I can’t dislike a book I haven’t read; I’m simply not going to read it. Secondly, I do read magazines (by which I meant Vagina Monthly, the only non-sexist magazine available in the late 1990s, which I had to buy from the cornershop in my head). Thirdly, I read popular stuff all the time. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories last winter.[3] I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies. I read (and re-read) about 80% of the novels of (famously best-selling author) Dick Francis. I’ve read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and he’s wildly popular.[4] He said, stop using books I haven’t heard of as examples. No, I said. I will use whatever examples I like in this conversation, which you initiated. You like this book because it’s literally the only book you’ve read for pleasure in your life. You’re not recommending Harry Potter and the Whatever of Meh to me because you enjoyed reading that book or because you think I’ll enjoy reading that book. You’re recommending it to me because it gave you an experience of reading that was actually fun, and that’s rare for you because you don’t read, and I’m happy for you that you finally had a good reading experience, but I don’t think it is specific to this book and I am not reading this book or any other just because you think I should. You don’t read. You know nothing about books. I do read and I know about books, and I can choose a book for myself without any help from you.

This dreary ding-dong went on for four years, long after we had left school. Eventually, I hit upon a solution, which I recommend to anyone who finds their friends boorishly and dogmatically trying to make them read a book they have no interest in; it’s brutal, but they won’t ever force a book on you again. I said, fine. I will read your children’s book. You will lend it to me, and I will read it. In exchange, I will lend you a grown-up’s book of roughly equivalent length, and you will read that. He said, fine. Thus did two people who claimed to like each other conspire in and commit to a pointless exercise in a shared spirit of self-righteousness and spite.

Let me be clear: I absolutely did not want to read Harry Potter and the Demple of Toom, but I always read any book that has been loaned to me right to the end.[5] This is because, firstly, if someone lends me a book, I assume that they are doing so specifically because they think I will derive pleasure from the reading thereof. Secondly, I am attempting to show that I expect my friends to be able to choose a book that is not drivel. Being given or loaned a book should be a rewarding, fruitful exercise, in which I discover writers new to me, carefully curated by thoughtful, well-read friends and relatives. For example, I recently read The Diary and Letters of Etty Hillesum, which was a gift from a friend. Not only did this book introduce me to Rilke, but every page was thoughtful, clever and sad, and I would not have read it otherwise. Thirdly and finally, if the book turns out to be drivel after all, it’s important to be able to enumerate clearly and precisely the many and various ways in which it was drivel, so that the friend in question understands just how wrong they are and never lends me any drivel again. This requires me to read right to the end, possibly taking notes. This is the only reason I have read all thousand-odd pages of The Executioner’s Song, one of the dreariest experiences of my life. I therefore prepared to read every last paragraph of Hairy Pooter and the Total Insect Fail and posted a book to my then friend. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of our friendship (inseparable at school and in touch regularly throughout university and beyond, we no longer have anything to do with each other). A week went by and nothing arrived for me, so I emailed him. Where is that children’s book you were going to forcibly lend me? I said. He said, Ah. Well. Yes. The book you forced upon me arrived [notice how quickly he forgot the whole thing started with him forcing his book upon me], and I tried to read it.

The book I chose for my former friend was Bleak House. Dickens certainly has flaws (questionable attitudes to women; sentences longer than life itself; caricature as a default position; a total inability to let a moral lesson go unremarked, and so on), but let’s take a moment to recall the gloriously dank opening[6] of Bleak House. It is, famously, one of the great beginnings in literature (see Nothing but a Hound Dog for other spiffy opening lines), with its marvellous description of the suffocating fogs of the Thames: ‘Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ My favourite lines are these (only partly because they include a dinosaur):

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

This splendid, sarcastic, swirling plug-hole of an opening[7] is also one of the reasons I chose Bleak House for my moronic former friend, reasoning that even if he felt he had to skip (say) some of Mrs. Jellyby’s twitterings later on, at least the first few pages would give him his second experience of Reading For Pleasure and he’d be into fun things like Plot and Character Development before he knew it. Yes, he would think to himself. A book. A big, fat, complicated book: suitable for a mature mind, demanding both concentration and engagement. A cast of thousands, full of ideas, intrigue, humour and mystery, plus a chap that spontaneously combusts and a load of funny names. A book indeed.

You tried to read it? I yelped at the screen, where his email crouched, embarrassed by its own existence. YOU’RE AN ADULT! I typed, pounding the keyboard much as a Megalosaurus might tenderise an intriguing meal by stomping it to death. You’re studying politics and philosophy! You’re reading lengthy, dry books full of complex ideas every day of the week! You tried to read it? Yes, he said. I tried. I managed ten pages before I lost the will to live. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t concentrate on sentences that long. I couldn’t remember who anyone was. I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.

Thus, gentle reader, Harry Potter and the Mansplainer’s Tome never arrived, so the moment passed and I never read it. I am not sorry at all.

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[1] Based on the quality of the discussion that followed, the rest of the class didn’t feel the same sense of obligation. We never quite forgave each other for this mutual misunderstanding.

[2] I had even, God help me, waded through a considerable quantity of The Golden Bough, but I didn’t say so in case he asked me what it was about.

[3] I recommend this most highly, particularly if the winter is a pea-souper-ish one. One story per night, read last thing before bed in front of a roaring fire, with a hot, bitter cocoa to hand and a sleeping Hound on one’s lap, puts one in a splendid mood.

[4] He might have argued that, say, Truckers is clearly and explicitly aimed at younger readers (and no doubt he would have done, had he been familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett). He might have argued that all fantasy writing is for kids (it’s not, but no doubt he would have tried, had he known anything about the fantasy genre). He might have argued that the division between ‘children’s literature’ and ‘adult literature’ is a social construct, as meaningless to two people in their late teens as all the other divisions between ‘for kids’ and ‘not for kids’, but he didn’t make any of these points. Notice how his argument is limited at every turn by his total lack of reading and yet he continued to consider himself in a position to lecture me about books I should put in front of my face and into my brain for four entire years.

[5] I was a ravenous but less omnivorous reader at the time, confining myself almost exclusively to fiction, and I certainly hadn’t read or heard of Daniel Pennac’s Bill of Rights for readers. Had we known it, I was defending the first article (the right not to read), while my former friend was in some ways defending the last (the right to not defend your tastes). See both A ‘small mysterious corpus’ and Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp. 49-51 for a discussion of Pennac’s Bill.

[6] Fellow subscribers might also recognise this as a quotation from Vagina Monthly.

[7] See above. It was a bumper issue, with an unusually generous centrefold and an excellent crossword (down clues only).

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’.

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[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!).

Chinese Whispers

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

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

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

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

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

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

eqb1
Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

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

eqb4
‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ Naturally one doesn’t actually deserve love, but it is given freely anyway, and that is precisely what makes it so wonderful. I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’).

P1030506
The students gave us T-shirts as gifts at the end of the week (among other things), suitably vandalised with messages and caricatures, including this one.

In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

eqb2


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

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

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

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

Jam tomorrow: a tale of disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

[5] This is because preserve recipes are fundamentally imperial. Marmalade: three pounds of citrus fruit + six pounds of sugar + six pints of liquid. Lemon curd: three lemons + 9oz sugar + 4.5 oz butter + three eggs.

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

Brexit, pursued by a bear

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

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

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

It’s important to teach people (the hard way if necessary) that yes, your vote does matter and yes, you need to do your research and at least some thinking before you decide how to vote, rather than simply turning your existing prejudices and fears over in your mind. That sounds like it’s aimed at Leave voters, but of course it isn’t: since we have a secret ballot it could apply to anyone, and any vote. I also think there is something very dubious about the idea of re-running referenda/elections etc. until we get the ‘right’ result (especially as they aren’t actually legally binding and therefore this whole sorry mess is entirely unnecessary). For one thing, political campaigns are really boring: the last four months have seemed interminable, with two lacklustre campaigns mangling the issues, until everyone just throws up their hands and says, ‘fine, yes, alright! I honestly don’t care anymore – just stop going on about it!’ Personally, I’m furious so much of my time has been wasted. I thought hard about my vote and I listened to the views of people that know more than me i.e. even more Radio 4 than usual (including, God help me, two episodes of Moneybox). My carefully-considered vote counted the same as the vote of someone who rolled out of bed and put a cross in a box because he once had a Polish builder he didn’t care for. It counted the same as the vote of the person who called me a ‘liberal wanker’ on Facebook this afternoon after I commented that he must be very proud to have voted for the winning side (his stated reason for doing so was that he was fed up with Brussels ‘interfering with bananas’). It counted the same as the vote of the person who described me as a ‘xenophobe’ because I pointed out that voting Leave meant voting alongside racists, and that I thought that was very dangerous. I chose the word ‘alongside’ very carefully (more carefully than he chose the word ‘xenophobe’, anyhow), and was still misunderstood. On Twitter this morning, I saw this: ‘Of course not all Leavers are racists. That would be a terrible thought. But all racists now think 52% of the population agree with them’. I was going to amend this slightly with square brackets, because 52% of the people that voted voted Leave, not 52% of the total population, but on reflection I’m going to let it stand because I think 52% of the population is probably closer to what the aforementioned racists actually think. Finally, notice how quickly we have divided into two opposing camps (Leave and Remain), each with their own stereotypes and ideas about the other. These groups are not about carefully thought-out positions or a wish to persuade those who disagree with one, but rather what Edward Said calls ‘short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate, whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange.’[6]

If you’re experiencing voter’s remorse, understand this: when you cast your vote, there isn’t a free-text box where you get to explain why you voted the way you did. That means we can’t differentiate between people who voted Leave as a protest of some kind, people who voted Leave because they have legitimate concerns about the EU, and people who voted Leave because they’re racist. Similarly, we can’t differentiate between people who voted Remain despite David Cameron and George Osborne urging them to do so, and people who voted Remain because they think Cameron is a fine statesman and that, despite appearances, Osborne is not at all a human weasel.[7] A cross in a box is not nuanced information. You may wish to convey something complex with your vote; you may even believe that you’re doing so, but that’s not how voting works. You were asked, clearly and specifically, about Britain’s membership of the EU. Answer the question you were actually asked, moron.

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

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

We are obviously going to present our view, but our overriding desire is to engage you via the evidence in a debate that is very much ongoing across several research communities, rather than simply convince you that we are right.[8]

People should make up their own minds, and they should listen to expert views while they do so, and then form their own view on the basis of the information presented to them and the expertise of the person presenting it. This is surely the fallacy at the root of all celebrity endorsement. Mervyn King’s view of the EU is important, well-informed and maybe even interesting, and I stand by all of those descriptors even though I don’t know what his view is. Can the same be said of David Beckham?[9] Moreover, seeking expert views is something we do as a matter of routine. We seek other people’s opinions when we buy anything from a house to a compost bin; we read and write reviews (see Iron Get Hot Now); we Google everything from individuals to cities. Seeking advice from people who know more than you do is a sensible, commonplace act. For example, if I was asked to (say) write an essay on economics, the first thing I would do is read the work of some economists. I’ve picked economics because a. I know very little about it; and b. it’s a discipline in which it is normal for experts to disagree violently with one another. Therefore, I would approach each expert view with a critical eye, thinking all the time about forming my own view, but also aware that I was becoming more informed as I went along, and therefore more qualified to express that view with confidence. I’m not arguing here that people who haven’t bothered to inform themselves about a given subject shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it; rather, I’m pointing out the cognitive dissonance in Gove’s position. He is suggesting that, because there were economists who failed to predict the crash in 2008, it is reasonable to ignore all economists. He is suggesting that it is legitimate to make uninformed decisions. If that’s what voting is, we don’t need four months of dreary campaigning: we just go into the booth, pretend we are characters in Yellow Submarine and pick YES or NO on general principle. I have even seen a couple of people stating defensively on social media that they ‘didn’t listen’ to any of the referendum coverage (how? It has been day and night for all of eternity) and voted based on ‘what I thought was right’. These are people who are actually proud of how uninformed they are, and how little opportunity they allowed themselves to have their views challenged, shaped or finessed by people who know more than they do, including people who agree with them.

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

Farage
Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage

Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage says and does appalling things as a matter of routine. See, for example, his statement (above) that ‘we won it without a bullet being fired’, which I would have thought was the minimum requirement, and, oh yes, there were those bullets that killed Jo Cox MP on the same day as Farage’s hateful pseudo-Nazi ‘breaking point’ poster was unveiled, something he described as an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence. For other people, one comment like that would be the end of their career. Trump, Gove, Johnson, non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage and the like get away with it because they aren’t appealing to people’s thoughts, but their feelings. Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage tells people who already agree with him that yes, the ‘feelings’ you have are totally valid: membership of the EU does somehow make your local hospital a bit crappier, your policemen scarcer, your child’s school crowded with African refugees and your road bumpy and full of pot-holes. It seems to me that whether or not there is a causal link between the EU and your local woes, your ‘feelings’ on the subject are really neither here nor there until you have some actual data. What non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage et al. have achieved is to state out loud, in public that the data is neither here nor there, and feelings are everything. Are people like Trump,[10] Gove, Johnson and non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage very clever, then, or are the people that listen to them very stupid? The answer is, I think, neither. They don’t need to be very clever, or even clever. They just need to be slightly cleverer than the people who think they agree with them. Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage has run for election to the House of Commons seven times, and every time he has been unsuccessful. This shows that he doesn’t need to be right, and he doesn’t need to be elected; he doesn’t even need to be important. He just needs to sound absolutely certain that he’s all three.

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

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

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

Caroline comments that she thinks Russian voters expect masculinity from their political leaders. She illustrated this point by quoting a Russian friend, who said, ‘I saw him [Putin] with his shirt off on a horse once and I liked it.[11]

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

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

Do we actually have any reliable data that tells us why people vote the way they do? I like to get my information from the radio, and recycle newspapers, leaflets and copies of The Watchtower that come through the door without reading them. During elections and/or referenda, I only answer the door to the postman, because I work from home and don’t have time to debate politics with the local BNP candidate (actual example. The conversation ended with me telling him to fuck off back to wherever he came from, as described in Bing-bong!). The point is that I’ve literally no idea if that’s typical. I’ve seen several friends on social media who were very active in the Remain campaign saying that they wish they had done more, but would it have made a difference? We behave as if leaflets, picking off voters one by one on the doorstep, interminable interviews on TV and radio, newspaper opinion pieces and sharing thoughtful videos and statements on social media are persuasive. Are they, or do they merely confirm the views people already have? Also, I think I know what caused me to vote Remain, but do I really? I think I voted Remain because I don’t like being lied to, and I felt the Leave campaign was lying to people; because I love Europe and think other Europeans should know that; because I think, given our history of empire and war-mongering, we should take more (way, way more) refugees than we actually do; because, much as I dislike doing things that make David Cameron and George Osborne more powerful and smug, I dislike that less than doing things that make non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage more powerful and smug; and finally because it seemed to me that a vote to leave was also a vote for the break-up of the United Kingdom. If I was asked to give my reasons for voting as I did, that’s what I’d say, but it may be that my real unspoken reason is that I was at school with people like Boris Johnson (by which I mean financially comfortable, male and mediocre) and I resent the assumption that people like this are entitled to rule the world. For many of these people, this sense of entitlement was so strong that they didn’t bother with trivia like homework or preparation, an attitude we can see in everything Boris Johnson has ever done. Look at his face. Read his terrible columnHe doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do next, and yet he is still doing it. According to his Wikipedia entry, Boris Johnson lost his wedding ring an hour after getting married and, for all his spoutings about immigration, was born in New York and has US citizenship. I suggest that this is not a man who thinks things through in a spirit of humility and self-reflection , but rather what Said calls ‘a distinguished, powerful man who feels himself to be representative of all that is best in his nation’s history’.[12] Contrast the panicky, ‘tired’, bumbling Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, currently zipping around Europe being a sensible, calm leader, who actually had the sense and humility to make a fucking plan.

In my upper sixth year, my Cantonese boyfriend was chosen as Head Boy, and I was told (by someone who clearly thought he, a white, blond rugby player of very little brain, would have been a better choice) that my bright, kind, thoughtful and hard-working boyfriend shouldn’t be allowed to be Head Boy, because he only represented the Chinese students. When I pointed out that there were more Chinese students than there were girls, i.e. they were a sizeable minority, I was told there was no need for a Head Girl either, precisely because we were in the minority. Note that the objection was not ‘I’d be a better Head Boy because x’ or ‘I wish I’d competed better’, but ‘this shouldn’t be allowed’ i.e. the system had delivered a result he didn’t like.[13] Note also the cognitive dissonance: if you choose a male Cantonese representative from a group that contains a considerable range of genders and races, he only represents the Cantonese males. If you accept that premise (and I don’t think you should), the suggested solution can be glossed one of two ways: either (a) ‘a white male represents everyone in the group, regardless of whether they are white or male themselves’; or (b) ‘a white male only represents the white males in the group. That leaves both the Cantonese and the girls in the group unrepresented, but fuck minorities’. Let’s be clear: the group the aforementioned blond rugby player wanted to protect from the perils of under-representation was privileged white guys. The more he continues to double down on his own terrible choices and opinions, the more Boris Johnson reminds me of this boy, and I struggle to think of anything that might persuade me to vote alongside (or for) Boris Johnson.

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin: London, 1978), p.xvii.

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

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

[9] I don’t care what David Beckham thinks because I see no evidence that he knows any more about the EU than I do. John Barnes, however, is the child of immigrants and had several very interesting things to say after Gove misrepresented what he said about the possible consequences for British football of leaving the EU.

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

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

[12] Said, Orientalism, p.34.

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

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

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

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

Hugo das Nilpferd
Hugo, das Nilpferd

My father is entirely un-Hugo-like: (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!

A ‘small, mysterious corpus’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom 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.