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 of around fifty hours, 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 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.

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 erupt out of nowhere like puffballs, 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 even 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 very 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. We may literally have to drop everything. 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, rather than the blind leading the blind, this is often the exhausted counselling the exhausted. I suggest that balancing 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 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 makes headlines (as it 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, since 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 with 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 literally 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.

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 essays about how much they love cake and how well-suited they are to eating it, for which they are rewarded with crumbs. On no account is anyone to be given an appropriate amount of cake at any time.

74b
Obelix as professor, from Asterix and Cleopatra (words by René Goscinny, pictures by Albert Uderzo). I quote this here because: a) Asterix is not used nearly enough as an explanatory device; b) Asterix and Cleopatra contains some of the best word-related jokes, 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 payments 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 corona virus, 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, perpetuating workaholism in the next generation, teaching without breaks and pushing through office hours on adrenalin and no lunch as if this were reasonable. 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. They are thoughtful citizens and have many interests outside those they choose to research. Imagine the contribution they could make to society if they had the time and energy to get involved in their 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 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 two 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 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 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 are 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 mousetraps in an ealier post and I stand by it: unnecessarily 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.

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.

The loud symbols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[1] Best Book Title Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] <ting>

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

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

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

Bride And Groom With Ambulance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iii. Is your customer unusual in some way? Make them feel judged. Bonus points are available if you can also imply that your incompetence is due to the aforementioned unusualness.

A selection of vignettes from yesterday:

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

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

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

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

iv. Only use props of the lowest possible quality.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The man doctor will see you now’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Did you see what I did there?

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

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

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

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

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

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use adjectives to describe stuff and nouns to name stuff and stop pissing about.

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

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

Chicklit

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

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

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

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

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

The uncharitable goat

The idea for this post came from a fabulous[1] Coope, Boyes and Simpson[2] song, ‘Unison in Harmony’. There are a couple of versions of this song on YouTube, but the quality of the recording does not do them justice.[3] You’ll just have to buy their albums, which you can do at No Masters. If you’re lucky you even get a little thank you note from Jim (Boyes) with your CD (I love this. You don’t get that when you buy a Steps album. Or perhaps you do, to make up for the fact that you now own a Steps album). I have been thinking about the function of music in a church context. As I understand it, the sacrifice of praise is the idea that we no longer sacrifice animals for God, but instead sacrifice our time, energy and thought in making music that glorifies Him in His infinite variety. Not only is this a lot less messy (and more meaningful) than setting fire to pigeons or similar, for me it is the fundamental expression of faith. Even that isn’t strong enough: I believe that music and religion are the same thing. I should point out that Coope, Boyes and Simpson don’t share my faith[4] and that’s just fine. I think, however, that we do agree on this point: what we sing is what we are.[5]

Elbert Hubbard says this:

Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.[6]

I think this can usefully be applied here. The blessing often includes asking God to pour Himself out, but I suggest that this is already happening. I also suggest that Hubbard’s idea that thought can be transformative also describes something that is already happening. If you accept my premise that music and religion are one and the same, then what is happening during the process of making that music is that God is pouring Himself through your instrument (or your voice, or your limbs) and out into the world as sound, so that you overflow with music and assorted holiness. The music is literally transformative: the musicians become His instruments, simultaneously praising God and conducting Him outwards through themselves. It isn’t simply telling God that He is brilliant; He doesn’t need to hear that, and certainly not from the likes of us. It is so much more, and so much more important, than that.

However. I must at this point admit to two personal failings. Firstly, I am only able to apply this to music that I like. Music that I like = religion. Music that I don’t like = not religion, and therefore (by my logic above), not music. Secondly, Duke Ellington[7] said there were two kinds of music (good and bad), and I like both. I like Run DMC (gangsters), Duran Duran (WTF?), Spandau Ballet (terrible lyrics), Huey Lewis and the News (favourite band of Patrick Bateman) and the B52s (the chap basically can’t sing at all). I like ‘Show Me The Way’ (some of the stupidest lyrics ever written[8]) and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls (really sexist) and ‘The Look Of Love’. This last is obviously not the Dusty Springfield song, but the stupendously silly song of the same name by ABC. Click on the link to watch the preposterous video, complete with an Alpenhorn, a guy eating spaghetti while Martin Fry bellows in his ear, followed by an altercation with a Punch and Judy crocodile. And I don’t like it: I fucking love it. This merely scratches the surface of my total lack of taste when it comes to music, so I hope you’ll see that a song has to be truly awful for me to dislike it. And yet, I’m struggling to choose just one example of a song that I hate from the hundreds available. This is bad, bad stuff. Oooh, it’s bad. Take ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine (I include the link so that you can judge for yourself, but for the sake of your own sanity I beg you not to read the comments underneath the video as they will make your brain bleed). As Mitchell and Webb’s snooker commentators might say, oh and that’s a bad hymn (it actually pains me to describe it as a hymn. I think the correct term is ‘worship song’, but that’s even more horrible). It has everything: ghastly lyrics, a disjointed verse tune that puts the emphasis in the wrong places, a stubbornly unsingable chorus and a load of unnecessary clapping. Although my problem obviously isn’t just with Graham Kendrick (who wrote this sentimental drivel, and so much else), but rather with all of that kind of rubbish, nevertheless I’m at a loss to tell you just how much I dislike his work and everything it stands for. It is bland, wet, waffle-ridden, predictable, simplistic, derivative braindead nonsense. It’s lame and ridiculous and embarrassing, and entirely inadequate as a response to any of the things I believe God has done.

Sacred music for evensong, Christmas, Holy Week and other such purposes aside, even if one just focuses on hymns for Sunday morning, we have ‘O Praise Ye The Lord’ and ‘For All The Saints’ and ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’ and ‘Abide With Me’ and ‘Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven’ and ‘Love Divine’ and a hundred others: proper hymns with proper words that everyone can belt out without embarrassment. I include atheists here because I think everyone likes a good[9] hymn. I think even people who don’t believe that God exists would like to think that, if He did, He would be the kind of God those hymns describe (‘His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form/And dark is His path on the wings of the storm’. Now that’s religion). Proper old-fashioned gospel would also be fine, of course, and entirely appropriate as a sacrifice of praise. But not wanky, whiney rubbish, bleated out over the rainbow-encrusted strap of a badly-tuned guitar, probably sung with eyes squeezed shut (sincerity or shame? Nobody knows), while in the background a motley assortment of instruments twang and hoob and blart their way through, I don’t know, ‘Meekness and Majesty’, in never-before-seen combinations of flute, trumpet, viola, ukulele, tom-toms and a tambourine no-one knows how to use or when to put down. It’s terribly well-meaning[10], but does it really take the place of a goat breathing its last?I think even a goat earmarked for destruction would feel a little bit cheated to be spared death and immolation in favour of three horrible verses of, say, ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ (does ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ even have three verses? I don’t care enough to check). Here is a link to a particularly hateful version of the song for those of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with it; the sub-gospel pseudo-improvisation over the chorus just after the completely gratuitous key-change is mind-blowingly horrible. I suggest you get out your cigarette lighter for the final chorus (so as to have something to stuff into your ears if it all gets too much). Oh, I could not hate this song more; I can feel my skin prickling into a rash as the nauseatingly soppy chorus approaches, which, in case you’ve not managed to listen as far as the chorus (and who could blame you?) has the following words:

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord.

Doesn’t it make you want to vomit out of sheer frustration? It’s just not good enough to say ‘You’re the best’ to God. You’re the best? He made the sea and sky and you and me and everything else, and then, for reasons we cannot possibly grasp fully, He died for you, Kendrick. Take it seriously.

This kind of thing leaves me trapped between the Scylla of judgementalism (‘I really hated that. Were you playing the descant on a glockenspiel?’) and the Charybdis of hypocrisy (‘That bit on the glockenspiel was awesome! Can I jam with you guys?’). I’m ashamed to say that I would rather be judgemental than politely hypocritical. I am the uncharitable goat.


[1] What am I saying? They’re all fabulous.

[2] For my money the best vocal group in the UK. As well as being phenomenally talented, they are also tremendously humble, nice chaps. I met them at a vocal workshop at Queensbury Festival 2009 and came over all unnecessary. Garden Naturalist says I’m allowed to divorce him for one of them if I so wish, as (in his words), he’d do the same if he had the opportunity.

[3] Instead, here’s their amazing cover of ‘Now Is the Cool Of The Day.

[4] I base this assertion on another line from ‘Unison in Harmony’: ‘hearts on fire but/no Messiah’, which I believe they also wrote.

[5] These people, for example, are idiots. The lyrics make Jesus sound like a predatory caretaker: ‘Once I tried to run / I tried to run and hide / But Jesus came and found and He touched me down inside’ <face/desk>. Even small children can see through such nonsense, as you can see from this completely wonderful parody.

[6] Seymour quotes a much longer passage and has some interesting things to say in this post.

[7] I’ve heard this quotation attributed to Stevie Wonder as well, and I’ve also heard Ray Charles repeat it with the caveat ‘I don’t know who said this, but I agree’. I think Duke Ellington is the most likely originator.

[8] This is also in total defiance of High Fidelity and what it has to say about Peter Frampton (that’s mainly focused on ‘Baby I Love Your Way‘, but who cares – I love that song too).

[9] The words ‘good’ and ‘God’ come from the same root, and effectively mean the same thing: ‘good’ just means ‘of God’, so there is no excuse for hymns to be anything other than ‘good’.

[10] Of course when done by people under the age of twelve this is utterly charming and therefore I like it and therefore it is music and holy. The nativity play at church this year featured just such a random ensemble of violin, trombone, piano and percussion, and it was adorable.