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

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

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

Hugo das Nilpferd
Hugo, das Nilpferd


My father is entirely un-Hugo-like: he is not mauve and (spoiler alert!) has never got stuck in a bath or mistaken a piano for a crocodile. He is also physically compact, dense and muscular, rather like a bantam. In his capacity as Grandted’s eldest child, and supposedly the most comfortable with public speaking, my father gave the eulogy. He described this as a cathartic experience, and no doubt it was; the most striking thing about it for me, however, was how much of what Dad presented to us was new information. How little Grandted talked about himself and his work. Why did my brother and I always call him Grandted, for example? My father provided the answer here, writing as follows:

[Ian] didn’t much fancy G’father, G’pa or G’dad, I think because of his own faintly remembered past (but, I wonder, did he have opportunity to know either of his own grandfathers?). He liked one or both of you (it was probably you, Jess) referring to him as a big Teddy Bear[3] hence the suggested contraction to GrandTed. Naturally [Mother] and I (but mostly me) were tickled at him being ‘taken for GrandTed’, so we perpetuated what was probably, initially, only going to be a passing label.

Why did he use his middle name (Ian) when his first name is Hubert? Both Ian and Ian’s parents were quite clear that he was to be known as Ian, so why bother with Hubert at all? Does my father get his habit of referring to everyone by initials from Ian, or is that all his own?[4] Dad maintains this is an academic habit, and yet none of the academics I work with now seem to have it. Why was Ian so insistent about lunch coinciding with the pips? Even his memorial lunch made note of this:

The date [May 13th] would have amused Ian as he was super-rational rather than superstitious; the time [1230] less so, as at home he insisted firmly that lunch start with the one o’clock time signal.

Ian was a lecturer at the University of Newcastle (or King’s College Durham, as I think it probably was when he first joined) in computing science and maths. My father is a mathematician, and yet it is only in the last few weeks that Dad has actually found and read Ian’s seminal paper[5]; nobody in the family has a copy of his thesis and Dad is the only one who remembers ever discussing it with him.[6]

Ian (right), probably in 1997 celebrating the fortieth birthday of his Department. I found this captioned ‘And at the KDF9 party the drinks were *that* big!’


I’ve discovered recently at choir that one of my fellow tenors and I have no overlap whatsoever in our musical tastes: each announcement of a new piece draws a groan from one and a small cheer from the other, but never the same reaction from both. By contrast, my father and I seem to agree almost universally on our favourite hymns. Dad had several things to say about his father in the eulogy (particularly his formidable reputation as a teacher) that could equally have been said about my father, and that I fully expect to repeat in my own eulogy for my own father in about thirty years. No doubt we will repeat at least one of the hymns too, as I note they included two of our favourites: ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, with its supremely comforting, swirling tune; and ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’. The line I have used as the title for this post is from the third verse of that hymn, which is often sung by female voices only. That verse always reminds me (although these memories are very old and necessarily dim) of Dad handling a pipistrelle he had found in the kitchen: ‘In His hands He gently bears us / Rescues us from all our foes’, which in this case would be the cats.

Another mutual favourite with a fatherly flavour is ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’. Researching it online, I discovered that the words were written long before the tune, in response to both a near-miss on the high seas for William Whiting (who wrote the words) and a conversation some years later with a student of his about to embark for America and frightened of the ocean journey. What a beautiful, mournful tune this hymn has! As with so many hymn tunes, even those associated primarily with one set of words only, the tune has its own name (Melita).[7] Dad and I have played and sung this hymn together many times. My strongest memory of singing this hymn is from a lifeboat service; these are usually held in the summer in Cornwall, and every one I’ve been to has included this hymn. On this occasion, I was with my mother, and we stood on the cliffs at Boscastle to sing various hymns, including ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, much to Mum’s disgust. She didn’t often express hatred of specific things out loud, but if she had been forced to make a list that summer, I think it would have included caraway seeds, the colour blue, my father and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. We followed this with ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’, which we sang with such vigour that a harbour seal who had popped up to see what we were doing decided the sea wasn’t so bad after all and swam off in a tremendous hurry.

‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’ was the final hymn, after prayers for those who had died at sea that year had been read. There was a sizeable crowd on the cliffs, many openly weeping as we sang (‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea’). Father describes it as ‘easy to cry to’, and he’s right: hymns (particular old, familiar ones) have a way of expressing emotions we otherwise might not be able to describe. ‘Praise My Soul’ contains a line that captured Grandted’s funeral well for me, watching Dad wrestle manfully with grief, relief and the eulogy all at once: ‘Praise Him for His grace and favour / To our fathers in distress’.

[1] I discovered while searching for Ian’s paper online that my uncle Colin has set up a fundraising page to allow donations to Alzheimer’s Research in Ian’s memory.

[2] Nilpferd meaning ‘horse of the Nile’, as opposed to the Greek word hippopotamus, meaning ‘horse of the river’. We shorten it to ‘hippo’, which just means ‘horse’ and therefore makes no sense.

[3] Regular readers might recall that I also refer to my husband as Giant Bear. I can only suggest that Big Ted has a lot to answer for.

[4] My father has, for as long as I have been receiving emails from him, signed them (and indeed all personal communication, including birthday cards) with his initials.

[5] G.S. Rushbrooke and H.I. Scoins, ‘On the theory of fluids’, Proceedings of the Royal Society (January 1953), vol. 216.

[6] To misappropriate Hamlet, we didn’t really know him, Horatio.

[7] Melita is an old name for Malta; Malta was the site of a shipwreck (St. Paul was aboard) described in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27, and so perhaps this is how the hymn-tune acquired its name.

No Means No

One of my jobs when I work in China is to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews with those planning to study arts or social sciences, and I make a point of praising them for answering a question directly, rather than using it is a peg on which to hang their knowledge of a given subject. This is for several reasons:

i. I want to help my students practise some intellectual and verbal discipline;
ii. it isn’t polite to avoid a topic you’ve just been asked to address;
iii. I want them to get used to leaving their comfort zone; and
iv. I have a simple, wholesome appreciation of a direct response to a direct question.

This last applies to other areas of my work, too. For example, consider what an honour and irritation of the first order it must have been to be T.E. Lawrence’s copy-editor for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The introduction to my edition contains the following telling exchange, under the comment, ‘I reprint here a series of questions by the publisher and answers by the author concerning the printing of Revolt in the Desert’:

[publisher] Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
[Lawrence] Good.
[publisher] Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
[Lawrence] She was a splendid beast.
[publisher] Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
[Lawrence] Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.[1]

Worse, over the page we find this:

[publisher] Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.
[Lawrence] Good egg. I call this really ingenious.[2]

I had an interview myself recently, and found myself reflecting as I waited to be called in on how much more comfortable I would have been asking the questions. This is partly because I have had so much more practice in that role, and partly because I am still haunted by the spectres of interviews past. On one occasion (I was a mere stripling of twenty-five ), I was asked, ‘and when do you think you might be taking maternity leave?’ I replied (somewhat tartly) that I could only assume this was a trick question to test my knowledge of employment law and that clearly they didn’t really mean to ask me about my future womb-related plans, because that would be illegal. There was a horrible silence, which I broke by picking up my things and leaving.[3] Today, as I was tidying my desk (thereby unearthing, among other things, the nail scissors, a dozen curtain hooks and several hundred dead shopping lists), I found the notebook I took with me to Shanghai in 2013 and 2014. This included notes from two interviews I conducted with Chinese students, one at either end of the quality spectrum.

Cathy was very unusual, for two reasons. Firstly, she wanted to study Archaeology and Anthropology (the only Chinese student I have ever worked with to choose these subjects). Secondly, she was effortlessly good in interview. My notes give a flavour of the conversation:

– C notes that ‘official history’ is written by the victors and therefore not to be trusted [I asked her where she had read this; ‘I didn’t read it; it’s obvious’, she said]
– Asked to discuss the Rape of Nanjing and how it is described variously by Chinese and Japanese historians. Excellent examples; thoughtful, non-judgemental answer. Pressed on snails in Nanjing Holocaust Museum [see my own thoughts on visiting this museum in Notes from Nanjing and The fish that is black]; responded by drawing a snail to check that she had understood the word correctly and speaking eloquently and thoughtfully for nearly two minutes on why the snail shells could be viewed as poignant rather than macabre.[4]
– Asked to distinguish between Arch and Anth. and demonstrate how old things can still teach us things. Eloquent example using Chinese characters.[5]
– Asked to contrast political systems appropriate to small and large countries. Excellent example comparing China with Sweden. Knew more about European political systems than either of the PPE students interviewed earlier in the day. When asked how she knew so much about it, she said simply, ‘I read’.
– Asked to compare capital punishment as used in modern-day China and as used in an ancient culture. She chose imperial Rome and described the Tarpeian Rock as more appropriate in her opinion than current methods, on the grounds that death was likely to be quick, but that it retained ‘an element of spectacle and therefore fulfilled the state’s aim of deterrent’ (her words!). Asked to name current methods of execution in China, she listed hanging and the firing squad. Unprompted, she then observed that these methods haven’t been used in Europe for several decades and that she felt the way in which a country treats its prisoners is a good benchmark of how civilised it is.  

Contrast this with the weakest student from 2014. He was so terrible that I’m not going to use his name: let’s just call him Bozo. He wanted to study Music (‘I want to sing like Michael Bublé. I may need to study for long time to achieve this dream.’ You’re right, Bozo. Singing like Michael Bublé is an unattainable ambition). As my notes make clear, his week began inauspiciously (‘I have had to wake this student several times during lectures. He is reluctant to show his Personal Statement to any of the staff, because, I assume, this would make it clear how little he has done, and how many times he needs to be told to do something before he does it’) and came to the ignominious conclusion that ‘[i]f [Bozo] succeeds in attending a good university, it will be down to the work put in by people other than himself.’ I was, therefore, not looking forward to interviewing him.

I usually try to put students at their ease by (initially) asking them about things they know about. This was not a success, because, as I wrote in my notes,

[Bozo] knows very little about his subject. I tried to focus on vocal music because he doesn’t play an instrument (!). He made numerous factual errors … [for example] when asked to describe the differences between European and Chinese opera, he stated that Chinese opera is ‘more sadder’ and characterised European opera as inherently comedic (!?). I asked him to name an example of a European opera that he would describe as a comedy. He named Carmen (!!), which he thought was written in Latin (!!!).[6] He also expressed an interest in American opera but could not name a single opera, composer or singer.[7] He did better with an exercise about composing for an unusual ensemble, although he didn’t know what a ’cello is, how it is played or what it sounds like. To crown it all, when asked how he might go about composing and/or arranging a piece of unaccompanied vocal music to help singers keep in tune, he said he would simply add a piano <facedesk>.

We had several more false dawns, each of which made me die a little inside. In desperation I asked him to talk about the only piece of music he had mentioned specifically in his PS, Mozart’s first clarinet quintet (K581). What follows demonstrates why I described this student in my final reports as ‘the weakest and laziest student I have ever had the misfortune to teach’ (and also, in a very strange context, that while ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’).

Me: You mention polyphony in your PS.
Bozo (laconic): Yes.
Me: Can you tell me what polyphony is?
Bozo: Yes.
Me (after a short pause): Can you tell me what polyphony is right now?
Bozo: No.
Me (mystified): Why not?
Bozo (reassuringly): Because I forgot.
Me: I see.[8] Well, since you’re intending to specialise in vocal music, can you tell me anything about vocal polyphony?[9]
Bozo (sorrowful): No.


[1] T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 18-19.

[2] One has little difficulty imagining what the copy-editor called it. Ibid., p. 20.

[3] There was also the time when I fluffed a really easy question (‘what is your ideal job?’ The correct answer is clearly, ‘This one, of course!’) because I was too busy trying not to say ‘I want to be Colin Sell’.

[4] This question referred to the Nanjing Holocaust Museum, which is built on top of a mass grave from the Rape of Nanjing massacres. Some of the victims were thrown into a pond (where those that were not already dead then drowned, or suffocated under the weight of other bodies), and one of the museum exhibits consists of the shells of pond-snails excavated when the grave was discovered.

[5] This involved drawing the ancient characters for ‘wife’ (looks very like a woman kneeling) and ‘slave’ (the same figure, but with a male-looking figure holding her by the hair). ‘This tells us much about their society’, she observed. No kidding, Cathy.

[6] I don’t wish to imply that an experimental production of Carmen in which all the characters enjoy fulfilling relationships and nobody dies, proclaiming their joy in starry-eyed, resolutely major-key Latin wouldn’t be worth seeing.

[7] Bozo (confident): American operas are my favourite.
Me (an offbeat answer, certainly, but one can name enough American composers who have written operas for this to be a plausible answer rather than a random guess e.g. Gershwin, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley. Maybe he’s going to name John Adams, and we’ll talk about Nixon in China and this morning will not have been a complete waste of time): What an interesting answer. Can you name a particular American opera that you like?
Bozo (looked doubtful)
Me (wheedling): Or maybe a singer?
Bozo (confident once more): Michael Bublé is my favourite American singer.
Me: He’s not an opera singer. And he’s Canadian.
Bozo: That’s just your opinion.

[8] I really didn’t.

[9] I say ‘specialise’, but that implies he had other options. He didn’t, because, ‘I have also learn saxophone for maybe eighteen months’ isn’t going to cut it at university level. Also, his only Associated Board examination was Grade 5 Theory. He was astonished to hear that this was not the highest grade available.


I have worked from home for a number of years, and one of the wonderful things about it is that one becomes plugged into the little routines and rhythms of assorted public service personnel (bin-men, post-people, local Jehovah’s witnesses), and the people and animals that live in the area. For example, the post-people all (separately) congratulated me on my wedding to Giant Bear as they delivered wedding presents in the run-up to the day(s). Similarly, I have learned not to mind that our local hedgehog, who has entered into the spirit of my ‘I’ll leave snails out for you if you eat them all’ game with great good humour and appetite, also feels the need to leave black, stringy poo on the lawn as a token of his esteem.[1]

As for our neighbours, for most of my time in Bristol I had an uneasy relationship with the West Highland terrier across the road. He belonged to an elderly lady, and seemed to have two purposes in life: to bark at the postman (and bite him if at all possible); and to sit in the window of the spare bedroom and stare at me while I worked. I was also treated once or twice a week to the sight of an enormous dog-fox sauntering through the garden and, more often than not, doing an enormous poo in the vegetable garden to show how comfortable he was. He was so comfortable, in fact, that I myself (pegging out washing, say) was no obstacle to his commute through the garden; he simply glanced at me and went about his business.[2] Here in sunny Bridgwater, our immediate neighbours, who have the best house on the street (it’s end terrace and has a parking space) have recently left their home and been replaced by (we think) one of their children, plus partner and two horrible, constantly barking dogs. They bark at everything: me, our washing and other dogs, or course, but also the sky, the wind and each other. I also can’t help but notice that the people across the back (i.e. their garden sort of backs onto our garden) have recently replaced their entire garden wall. This impacted my sitting-outside-in-the-sun time in a fairly serious way, as follows:

July 8th. Based on what I can hear from my sunny spot, the builder being employed by our neighbour has a job description that consists of the following items. One, he is required to play Radio One at full blast *all day*, regardless of whether he is actually doing anything.[3] Two, when taking his (enormous, endless, gaping) breaks, he is required to discuss his personal life at the top of his voice on his mobile with anyone who will listen. Bonus points will be awarded for using the phrase ‘mate, I was so wasted!’ as many times as possible.

July 12th. Not only do I have to endure Radio 1 turned up to eleven *all day* and his shouty telephone conversations (‘mate! I was so wasted! I had NO IDEA where all that paint came from!’), but now he’s decided to sing along, including to songs he doesn’t know.[4] He doesn’t switch the radio off when he takes breaks (even when our neighbour can see him. I spotted her today watching him through the window with her arms folded, while he combed his hair, talked to his friends and had a thorough scratch. She wasn’t happy).

July 13th. Blessed, quiet, builder-less Sunday! He didn’t seem to do much beyond eating a colossal sandwich and taking his top off half a dozen times yesterday, so I’m going to quote Flanders and Swann with impunity: On Saturday and Sunday / They do no work at all.’

July 14th. So far this morning, the bricks remained shrouded in quiet mist. He clearly hasn’t finished, but maybe (since it’s a weekday) he won’t be starting until, say, 2pm?

July 16th. It’s 8.30pm on a quiet summer evening. SHCLONK. SHCLONK. SHCLONK. The builder has *just* started up his cement mixer. I draw four conclusions from this. One, he’s not a builder. No builder works at 8.30pm on a Wednesday. Therefore, two, he must actually be the owner of the house and the lady that glares at him when he downs tools is his partner. Furthermore, three, she probably hates him almost as much as I do. Finally, four, it’s just as well I didn’t ring the doorbell to complain about the noise and ask if she was aware of just how little work he was doing.[5]


[1] I tolerate this on the basis that the poo poses no threat to my plants.

[2] I can only conclude that there is something about the way I choose and arrange plants that says ‘feel free to crap here, local carnivores!’

[3] The man’s work-rate was quite astonishingly low. There was one afternoon when I was proofreading a paper with the window open (despite the noise, it was too hot to work with it closed) and he did literally no work at all. He read the Daily Express from cover to cover; he arranged his sacks of sand into a nice neat line; he sang along to a considerable number of terrible songs. He experimented with different ways he could attach his T-shirt to his person other than actually wearing it. He drank two entire thermos flasks of tea (it was far too hot for tea. Maybe it was Pimms). He did not, at any point, add any bricks to the wall, make any concrete, measure, check or reinforce anything. The most active thing he did all day, in fact, was to ring his friend and bellow, ‘mate! I’m KNACKERED! Yeah, been working on that wall all day! Yeah, I did have a good night. Mate! I was so wasted! I nearly swallowed that umbrella!’ I assume he is referring to one of those teeny-weeny papery umbrellas that decorate the poorer class of cocktails, but really, who knows. It may be a golf umbrella that he took a shine to in the middle of the night, and which (through the coquettish angle at which it placed itself in relation to, say, a picnic bench) indicated to him that attempting to remove it from its base and make it part of his person would be a diverting way to spend twenty minutes. I’m imagining him bloated and cross-looking, jaw bones ominously wobbly, much as a boa constrictor looks mid-marmot. His witless friends might even have stood around him in a rough circle chanting ‘CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!’, checking their watches to see if it was time for him to take his shirt off yet and pouring Morrison’s Basics cider over each other.

[4] He even attempted the perilous cliff-face that is Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan. It wasn’t a success.

[5] At the time of writing, it is early September and the wall remains unfinished, activity having ceased several weeks ago. The wall is also, disturbingly, two different heights, in that the end nearest the house has a row of little terracotta hats on it, indicating what the finished wall should look like and how tall it should be; the end furthest from the house is significantly higher and has no hats. There is also no space for a gate (I’m pretty sure there used to be a gate). I can’t decide whether it is more likely that he realised one day that it was two feet higher at one end than the other and/or that he had run out of terracotta hats and, overburdened by the evidence of his own incompetence, simply gave up; or that his disgusted partner has thrown both him and his indecently loud radio out, preferring to live in asymmetric quiet.

An unparalleled display of shawms

A cursory glance at the walls of a friend’s room, house or other similar display of personal effects is likely to contain pictures of them in Foreign Parts. An unscientific trawl through Facebook pages today included pictures of friends and acquaintances riding elephants, posing on or near the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or in one way or another recording their presence in some country than isn’t Britain. I leave aside the wider (but not very interesting) question of why people put so many photographs of themselves on Facebook at all. One friend of mine has over three thousand photographs of himself on his Facebook account, a large number of which show him in semi-darkness, gurning in a desperate, out-of-focus sort of way, with no caption or explanation as to where he is or what he might be doing beyond the cryptic album titles (‘Mobile uploads’; ‘Found on memory stick’; ‘untitled’). Instead, I want to consider why it is that anybody travels to another country if they don’t have to i.e. the phenomenon that is the foreign holiday.[1]

I like a city break as much as the next man, but if I’m honest I can’t stand more than four or five days in (say) Copenhagen before I start to feel like a leech and a fraud.[2] I feel like a leech because here I am, spending my own hard-earned money on nothing but my own pleasure: taking myself to art galleries, museums and parks, eating out three times a day, speaking another language (extremely poorly and only when I need to order food) and generally wandering about Looking At Stuff. I feel like a fraud because I know I can’t really afford to do this. One of the best days Garden Naturalist and I ever had on a city break was during a trip to Brussels, when we went to the Museum of Musical Instruments. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much (beyond an unparalleled display of shawms and medieval bagpipery) is that it cost us very little. By accident, we had arrived on the one day of the month when entry to the museum happens to be free, thereby saving ourselves ten euros or so. This, in turn, made us feel that we could afford to eat in the museum restaurant, which is on the roof and has a spectacular view across the city. While doing so, we heard an announcement that there was about to be a (free) performance downstairs of a trio, playing dulcimer, piano and double bass, starting about five minutes after we expected to finish our lunch. We watched the entire performance, sitting on the steps up to the exhibition of proto-oboes. The three middle-aged musicians were astonishing, particularly the dulcimer player (an instrument I had never seen played before).

Dreary photograph; their playing wasn’t.

Thus, we were kept amused, educated and busy for most of a day, paying only for food. Most city breaks, however (and I’m thinking particularly of places like Vienna) are ruinously expensive if one isn’t careful, which in turn (for me) produces pressure to be squeezing as much fun or edification as possible out of the experience at all times. This has become even more the case since going freelance fulltime, because I now know exactly how many hours it has taken me to earn whatever sum I have just dropped on a boat trip up the Seine or whatever.

Fundamentally, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that travel in and of itself makes one a better or more interesting person. As Alistair Cooke says, ‘I don’t know who first said that travel broadens the mind, but he might have added the warning that the broader the mind, the thinner it gets.'[3] With the exception of the Louvre, I have been to all the major museums in Paris. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, but I struggle with the notion that anyone other than myself has been enriched by this (and even more with the idea of articulating exactly how I feel I have been enriched). A longer, less intense trip produces the same, nagging sense of ‘unentitlement’. My first trip to China was in 2008 and Garden Naturalist and I saved up around £2,000 to pay for three weeks of holiday, visiting Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, we had an amazing time, visiting most of the places and things that you visit when you go to Xi’an (terracotta warriors, hot springs, towers, street fountains), Beijing (Great Wall) and Shanghai (the Bund and, for me, the textile museum). I’m sure we were both enriched by the experience in some ill-defined way, and the trip certainly achieved its other two stated objectives: to spend time with my father; and to get me away from Britain altogether, so that I could recover from the horrible job I had just quit, while at the same time being totally inaccessible to any of the people I no longer worked with who might want to ask me questions or persuade me to come back to work on a temporary basis.[4] The ‘enrichment’, however, I find an elusive concept. The idea of planning either a city break-type trip, or a longer visit to one particular place, feels enormously self-indulgent. Yes, I would have a wonderful time, in exchange for my hard-earned cash. I would learn a lot and meet people and look at foreign whatnots and eat foreign food. Good for me. Is that really a good use of that money? Is travel simply to broaden one’s mind (and I am not at all sure that it has been proved that travel achieves this) legitimate?

The conclusion I have come to is that I am unsuited to holidays abroad in which the ‘seeing the sights’ part is longer than three or four days. It makes me uncomfortable (almost itchy). Holidays in my own country don’t make me uncomfortable, and I think this is because having the language means I can be less of a parasite: I can buy food and cook for myself, read signs and notices and navigate accordingly. This in turn makes it easier to feel that I am (temporarily) ‘living in’ whichever place I am visiting, rather than clamping myself to it like a limpet for a few days, sucking out £500-worth of pleasure, and then going home again. My annual trip to China, for example, typically consists of four or five days of fun-time (this overlaps with ‘recovering from jetlag’ time), followed by a week of hard work. This balance suits me: I work incredibly hard for a week (and am paid accordingly), and so feel I have earned the fun-time that precedes it. When people ask me why I’m in/going to China, I say ‘I’m here to work’. That feels legitimate: I am here to be enriched by the experience, certainly, but my primary purpose is to give something to, or do something for, the country I am visiting at that moment.

Giant Bear and I have just returned from our honeymoon, which consisted of three days in Cornwall and a week in a narrowboat on the Worcester-Birmingham canal. We had incredible weather, more like Corfu in summer than Britain in April: clear, burnished blue skies that allowed us to do honeymooner things like walking hand-in-hand on the beach and pointing out each other’s sunburn. It never occurred to us to have a foreign honeymoon, but if we had, I don’t think I would have felt able (allowed?) to enjoy it fully. Other considerations aside, Britain is really very beautiful and I don’t feel I have explored even a tenth of what home has to offer. I have also come the wider conclusion that perhaps mind-broadening comes from what you do, who you are with and what you bring to the encounter, rather than where the encounter takes place. This is similar to my thoughts on education expressed in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), in that I remain unconvinced that simply sitting through an education produces anything worthwhile: you need to know why you are there, and what you are supposed to be getting out of it. I think the same thing has to apply to foreign travel: it is simply so costly, both environmentally and financially. If I’m not sure what the object of the exercise is, as I remember saying to an unnamed and slightly creepy man in a pub many years ago who offered to buy me a drink, I think I’d rather have the cash.


[1] Or, as Edwin Starr might have phrased it, ‘Travel! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

[2] I considered calling this post ‘The fraudulent leech’ as a sort of companion piece to The uncharitable goat, but decided on balance that this might have been misleading.

[3] Alistair Cooke (1979), The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times (London: The Bodley Head), from the Letter entitled ‘The Hawk and the Gorilla’, first broadcast 2nd June 1978, p. 286.

[4] I discovered later than it took several months for them to appoint a replacement – they hadn’t even drafted an advert by the time I left, even though I gave three months’ notice.

Things that make me happy, part 2

  1. A good laundry day. Not a merely blusterous day, but one that is pleasingly warm and windy (much like my dear father post-Christmas pudding), and which causes the laundry to dry swiftly and evenly. A perfect laundry day is warm even first thing in the morning, so that I can peg it out in my pyjamas.
  2. Herbs. Especially the invasive, dominant ones, like mint and lemon balm. I like the cut of their jib.
  3. Wrens. The Latin name is Troglodytes troglodytes, so called because of their habit of venturing into small, cave-like apertures in search of food. In a hard winter, songbirds suffer and die, and none more so than the wren. This is because other songbirds will leave their nests and travel to warmer areas, or places where food is more abundant and shelter easier to come by. Wrens, however, are so territorial that they refuse to leave their tiny nests and, much like those people one reads about who refuse to leave their homes when threatened by floods, volcanoes or mudslides, prefer to die at home. Both the whimsical Latin name and homebody instinct are admirable, but I also like wrens because they behave as if they are unaware of how small they are. There is a pair living in my garden somewhere, and if one is foolish enough to place one’s deckchair too close to the nest, the male will perch on a nearby fencepost and shout (there is no other word for it) until one gives up and goes inside. I quite like the sound and can happily read through it, but he doesn’t care: he will stand there yelling ‘SPINK! SPINK SPINK! SPINK!’ for an hour or more, tail sticking straight up in the air in case I look at him in a funny way.
  4. Printed fabric. I like the stuff that I have plans for best (i.e. that which I anticipate wearing in one form or another), but just as folds and slices of delicious texture and colour, fabric is an endless source of pleasure. I am in the middle of altering a coffee-coloured dress printed with blue sailing boats, which involves replacing the straps, which are too short; replacing the pockets; taking the whole thing in at the front so it looks less like a massive nautical sack; and finally adding some kind of sash to hide the ugly seam across my middle, which is also too high. This requires two scrummy blue prints, one pale blue with little white lighthouses, and the other navy[1] with little anchors on it. I also have something in a seagull print in case either of these fail. Fabric stash win.

Reading back through this list, I notice that these are all things I can see from where I eat my breakfast. Breakfast is an odd time in the LiteracyWhore household. I have recently taken up fasting twice a week, which means skipping breakfast altogether and having a tiny lunch[2]. I haven’t, however, been able to give up sitting at the dining table in my favourite room in the house, with a cup of tea and a view over the garden. I am about to give up my lovely dining room, house and garden, and move out of the city that has been home for fifteen years, into a lovely flat, with a view of the sea and a nonapedal lighthouse. I will, therefore, be eating breakfast (or not eating breakfast, but sitting at the table nonetheless) in a new place, and expect a new list of things that make me happy (see Things That Make Me Happy) to emerge in due course[3]. Here are some more things that make me happy, this time independent of breakfast: change. Friends. Tea. Coloured-headed pins. Understanding and support and lack of judgement, from people that know me, and from people that don’t. My blue glass coasters. The freedom to follow my instincts and trust myself. Stripey socks with spotty shoes. Moving out (and on) at my own speed. Purging my clothes and possessions, while also purging my soul. Deconstructing everything I thought I knew about love, and starting all over again from nothing, only to find that it isn’t nothing, but everything.


[1] Navy! Did you see what I did there?

[2] There’s a lot more to it than that, but those are the headlines. Today’s lunch: Ryvita and cottage cheese.

[3] Presumably including living alone for the first time in my life and not being pecked in the face by gulls.

Joining the dots

Recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to find (or, if that were not possible, to write) some suitable poetry to be set to music, for a song cycle by my very talented friend J. The writing process was a cross between making a collage and reading an over-complicated map, the various steps of which I’d like to share.

I discovered Bill Callahan this year (I know. What have I been doing with my time?). Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle just blows me away every time I hear it. It also provided numerous little flashes of inspiration for this project, including the overarching idea of common-ness. The first line of the first song is this: ‘I started out in search of ordinary things’. This, and S posting a marvellously understated poem on his blog, gave me the starting point. The first poem I chose, therefore, was his poem Common Things’, which you can find on his blog.

‘Common’ is a lovely word. It has layers of meaning (communal; shared; vulgar; frequent; abundant; green space) and my next idea was to have four poems with the word ‘common’ in the title. Another line from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I started telling the story/without knowing the end’) and a vague memory of the poem I finally tracked down on the interblag, ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ by the delightfully named Ivor Gurney, gave me the final poem in the song cycle, the idea being that I would do rather the opposite of the lyric and tell the story knowing exactly what the end was, but not knowing how to get there. My task, therefore, was to write two more poems to go between ‘Common Things’ and ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ to make a story.

It seemed to me that ‘Common Things’ suggested a relationship that held the seeds of its own destruction: the speaker wanting to be closer than closer, or perhaps closer than his or her partner might permit him or her to be, were they aware that such a thing was what was desired. It also seemed to me that not everyone would welcome so much intimacy, and that perhaps this yes-but-no-ness might eventually kill a relationship stone dead, leaving the rejected partner (female, I decided in this case) enraged and bitter. This in turn reminded me of Genesis 29, v11 & 17 (‘And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept … Leah was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful’) and supplied the name of the Other Woman. Here is the result, which in a burst of wordplay I called ‘Common Law’:

Our books held each other like hands:
One mine, one yours,
Piled into boxes,
Right and left.

Our harmonies were rich as singing
There are no echoes, but only a pause.
We go on,
Our names floating above us
Dark water separated from light.

Our bond was weak.
Whatever it was that held us together,
You broke it with words:
She –
I –
Her name is Rachel.

There is no ring
For me to fling
In your face.

Made for your mother,
But meant for me,
Her gift burns in the wardrobe
Terrible and white.

W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’ begins with a man cooking alone in his kitchen, which in turn reminded me of the final poem in our sequence and all its domestic imagery around the man living his solitary life (it’s not clear to me if he is contented or not). The third poem, then, needed to offer some suggestion of narrative between the ending of the relationship in the second poem and the ending-up-alone of the fourth poem. It seemed to me that he might try out life with Rachel, and that maybe it would turn out to be like most relationships: not particularly interesting, intense, loving or sad, but quietly, stupidly dull, particularly when contrasted with its fiery beginnings.

Going deeper into Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle yielded the extended bird metaphor in ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ and ‘Too Many Birds In One Tree. My favourite thing about these two songs is the juxtaposition between the words and the music. ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ has the unsettling cantering percussion and weird strings, even when the lyrics are telling what sounds like a rather inconsequential story about an eagle and his avian friends. ‘Too Many Birds in One Tree’ does a similar thing, but the other way around, with gentle music and Callahan’s soothing tones as he sings, in an off-hand sort of way, about the jolly fact that ‘the sky is full of black and screaming’. It’s alright children, he seems to say. It’s the Last Days and we’re just waiting for the chap with the trumpet, but in the meantime, here’s some cocoa and a cuddle. All the birds flapping about, some more lines from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I used to be darker/Then I got lighter/Then I got dark again’) and ‘Since’ gave me the three main recurring themes of the third (and, in some ways, final) poem. ‘Jim Cain’ also contains the devastatingly good line ‘something too big to be seen/was passing over and over me’, and after banging these together in my brain for a while, I came up with the idea of lights passing over a person in a dark space: the lights of cars and buses passing over a man alone in a darkened hallway, in this case. The light and darkness and light again reminds him of a time when light and shadow had passed over him, when driving down a long road with trees either side caused the sunshine to flash on and off as the sun started to set.  The title is from Macbeth, Act 3, scene 2: ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’ and I was also thinking of Isaiah 55, v. 11-12: ‘it shall not return unto me void … you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,’ and that roaring noise trees make when you drive past them at speed. Since writing this poem, I discovered (in France, of all places) that there were some tree-lined roads where the speed limit had to be changed after people were found to have epileptic fits while driving. This turned out to be due to the trees being spaced a certain distance apart, which, when coupled with driving at some specific speed (in metric, naturally), caused the light coming between them to flicker: a suitable metaphor for the past if ever I heard one.

Good Things Of Day

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Sun and shade and sun again,
Trees that roared and clapped their hands
Darkness whipping about your face,
You shouted about happiness.

The sunset sang golden from your ear
Clouds of starlings passed over, on their way to the sea,
Specks of rushy night, numerous as stars.
My passenger and I and night falling:
You, as you were then.

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Dark and bright and dark again.
The lights are yellow, the walls
A colour I did not choose.
A voice from upstairs calls me,
And I go up
Without the thing I came down for.

Things that make me happy

I’ve just found a list of things scrawled on a post-it note. It is entitled ‘Things That Make Me Happy’ and the first thing on the list is the opening sequence of Baywatch. I don’t think it’s possible to explain Baywatch to the uninitiated, so see for yourselves what I’m talking about. The other items on my list were as follows: Glenn Miller; assorted sacred music (‘esp. Verdi’ I have added later in another colour); My Family and Other Animals, which I must have read thirty times and never get bored of; Bill Callahan’s song Jim Cain; kilner jars and the things in them; an old passport photograph of my father, now sadly lost in the mists of time (the photograph, not Father. Father was allowed out unsupervised to take passport photographs in a booth, and I can only assume that the flash took him by surprise as he appears to be recoiling from the screen as if he has been kicked on the shin, affording the camera an unparalleled view of the inside of his nostrils); and finally, ‘the food Giant Bear keeps in his pockets’, which can be anything from cough-sweets to pies.