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 it becomes a legitimate topic for discussion in class. A few pages on, Tom quotes Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes learning to read by the glow of a light just outside the door of his prison cell (the second time I read the book, having read it the first time as a proofreader, this moment reminded me of Chris Packham on this year’s Springwatch describing how he had read by the light of a glow-worm), and the hunger Malcolm X had for reading. Contrast that with my train journey home from Bristol after Tom’s reading: I was the only person in the carriage with a book. I would have been perfectly happy to chat (as often happens when I knit on trains), but the other passengers were all either looking at their ’phones or simply staring into space. There was no conversation, and apart from my own muffled laughter, the carriage was devoid of the sound of meaningful human interaction (the various mechanical beeps of the various mechanical devices don’t count). My chosen book was the aforementioned Ticky, which, in the quiet, conversationless train (and on the way home from an evening spent discussing a book), suggested a superbly ironic reason for which one might choose to read: to avoid conversation.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom Paulin and John Berger loved it, too.

[13] Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015), p. 45.

[14] Stella Gibbons, Ticky (Guernsey: Alan Sutton, 1943), pp. 162-163. I have concluded that Bore Upon the Jutes, which Dr. Pressure is so keen to read, must have sprung from the imagination of Gibbons, as the first hit when put into Google is the quotation I have just given.

[15] Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet, p. 46.

Iron Get Hot Now

Giant Bear and I have a jolly sensible arrangement when it comes to housework, dividing the tasks between us based on a combination of practical considerations and personal preferences. Our division of labour was recently endorsed by Woman’s Hour, no less: they had an online calculator thingy, which weighted the various tasks based on whether you enjoyed doing them, how often they needed doing, how gross they were, how many hours of paid work and childcare each partner did (both of these bought one out of a certain amount of housework, so to speak) and so forth. This gave each partner a score, the important thing being not the raw number, but how it differed from the score of one’s partner.[1] Depressingly, according to the programme that accompanied the online calculator thingy, the majority of housework is still distributed along gender lines i.e. lots of men in heterosexual relationships simply don’t do any (or if they do, they describe it as ‘helping’).[2]

One thing that isn’t taken into account in either our own discussions of housework or public discourse, however, is the additional burden of Inanimate Object Rage carried by the partner who does the majority of the housework. Hell hath no fury like Inanimate Object Rage. If a pet, partner or friend continually frustrates, ignores or forgets you, there is suitable socially-acceptable recourse: reasoned discussion, shouting if required, and possibly mild violence involving a rolled-up newspaper. Inanimate Object Rage, however, has no such acceptable means of expression. Smack, kick or threaten the cause of your rage, and it merely sits there, unmoved and less willing to do the job it was purchased for than ever.[3] Consider trying to hoick a mattress upstairs; cardboard boxes that obligingly fold flat and tidy until you attempt to do something outlandish like pile them against a wall or put them in the car; shelves that stay up until you put something on them; drawers that don’t draw; can-openers that don’t open cans, but give you a sore hand and no lunch. These are all infuriating in their various ways, but are as nothing to the Inanimate Object Rage induced by having to use a tool that simply isn’t up to the job on a weekly (nay, daily) basis. Gather closer to the firelight, children. I am speaking of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex).

Ironing is one of my jobs. Artificial fibres make me sweat terribly and Giant Bear has to wear a suit and concomitantly smart shirt for work. To keep on top of all the ensuing cotton, I do at least half an hour of ironing every day, with the radio for company. Purchasing a new iron, therefore, is not a trivial task, and we put considerable time and thought into our choice. The appeal of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) was threefold: one, the extra-long flex, which we hoped would be both practical when ironing and able to double as a weapon if it became necessary to strangle a burglar; two, the ceramic plate, which according to the instruction manual was going to be so silky-smooth and whisper-quiet that ironing would become an experience verging on the erotic; and three, the promise of gushing steam on demand, moister, hotter and in greater quantities than ever before.[4]

My hopes, thus raised to unattainable levels, were cruelly yet gradually dashed. The iron disintegrated gently over time, like a lemon in a compost heap. This started simply enough, with a reluctance to get up to temperature, a slow but persistent leak, and a peevish disinclination to produce steam on request. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of my Amazon review, the steady pace at which the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) deteriorated was, in many ways, the most distressing thing about it. It worked tolerably until it was just too late to send it back to Amazon (yes, I have learnt my lesson and will never be buying anything from Amazon again). As this moment passed, some kind of shrill alarum that only the iron could hear sounded, at which point it seemed to feel that it was perfectly acceptable to refuse to make any steam at all, and to ooze unexpectedly and messily onto the clothes like an infected eye. A week later, even when turned up to the highest setting (three blobs next to the terrifying, cryptic label ‘LINEN’) and full of water, the ceramic plate could be described as tepid at best.

My time was not totally wasted, however. I learnt two important things about the Amazon reviewing system: one, it isn’t possible to give no stars (I tried my best); and two, there are rules about the type and number of swearwords that can be used in a review (see also Some bad words on the topic of swearing more generally).[5] The word ‘crap’, for example (as might be used in the phrase ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHY WON’T YOU WORK YOU PIECE OF CRAP?’), is allowed, as is its somehow weaker sibling ‘crappy’; indeed, all the one-star reviews of this iron (and there are several) contain variations on this word. Any heartier Anglo-Saxon, however, is frowned upon, and will result in an email that begins,

We were unable [they mean ‘unwilling’, but whatever] to publish your Amazon review of your recently-purchased RUSSELL HOBBS 18617 EASY PLUG AND WIND IRON (WITH EXTRA-LONG FLEX) because it violated our policy on obscenities.

This comes from the keyboard of someone who has never debated with themselves whether breaking all one’s toes from kicking an object repeatedly might, when seen in the wider context of emotional release, still constitute a win. I surmise that this is a person who has either a partner or a parent to protect them from the twin burdens of housework and Inanimate Object Rage.

On a fundamental level, I object to the idea that I am being simultaneously encouraged to give my view on a product and prevented from deploying words invented for just such a scenario. The idea of allowing the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) to go un-reviewed, and therefore my aching thumb, throbbing temples and soggy, crumpled clothes unavenged, however, was even less acceptable. I am a professional copy-editor (among other things), and therefore must be able to compose a review that still conveys the full force of my displeasure without the saltiness so helpfully supplied by swearwords. Looking upon it as a professional challenge, I therefore removed all the profanity from my review. The word ‘fucking’, for example, was replaced with ‘stupid’ (‘the water reservoir is extremely awkward to fill and you have to keep tilting the stupid thing back and forth to see if it has reached the ‘maximum’ mark. Also, as one might read in an uncharitable review of a disappointing mail-order bride, there were no jugs included and the hole was extremely small’). A complicated analogy involving a surprised banshee and several sex-based obscenities was replaced with a milder, more everyday metaphor, implying that the anguished squeaking sounds produced by the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) when asked to produce its much-vaunted ‘steam shot’ were akin to those I emit myself, when, under greater pressure than usual from my faulty and capricious bowel, I suffer the private agony of constipation. I also rewrote the section on the ceramic plate, in order to describe the Iron Get Hot Now indicator as a ‘lying weasel’, rather than ‘a deceitful fuck of an orange light’.[6]

Happily, the final section in which I evaluated the instruction manual and the extra year under guarantee (one receives this in exchange for a lifetime’s supply of spam) required no changes at all. The instruction manual contained a series of dire warnings regarding the horrors that might ensue from allowing this diabolical object into your home, which I share with you now in a spirit of public safety. Firstly, one should never leave the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) on when not in use. This was conveyed through a jolly drawing of a house with flames belching hysterically from the upstairs windows. Secondly, the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) should never be left with water in it. Water! In an iron! Were you raised in a bag!?[7] Thirdly, raising more questions than it answers, we are advised that children under the age of eight ‘must be supervised at all times when ironing’.[8] Similarly, keep an eye on freely roaming pets, as they can become tangled in the Extra-Long Flex; the manual remains silent on how it might be that nobody would notice the cord stealthily winding itself around the neck of an incautious cat or similar until it was too late. Finally, towards the end of the manual we find something for people whose level of laziness oscillates wildly. Too lazy to take your shirt off, yet somehow not too lazy to iron your shirt at all? This manual was written for you, my intermittently industrious friend, by someone who feels that the overlap between the kind of person who would attempt to iron clothes that had not yet been vacated and the kind of person likely to read an instruction manual from cover to cover is almost total:

Don’t iron clothes while they are actually on yourself or another person!

Wise words. Here are some even wiser ones: don’t buy this fucking iron.



[1] I scored 28, Giant Bear 27.5. Viva la sposi!

[2] Man in Post Office (to the rest of the world in general, seeking approval/sympathy): She didn’t tell me she doesn’t do ironing until after we were married!
Woman in Post Office: You didn’t tell me you don’t do ironing, either.
Man in Post Office (incredulous): ME! Why would I do ironing? I’m a man!
Woman in Post Office (witheringly): You don’t do ironing with your Man Parts.

[3] My friend As Many Tattoos As She Likes say this is called ‘resistentialism’, a concept that posits everyday objects and the people that use them as in a state of perpetual conflict. See M.R. James’s short story ‘The Malice of Inanimate Objects’, Paul F. Jennings’s ‘Report on Resistentialism‘ in the Spectator, and of course Pratchett’s goddess of things that stick in drawers, Anoia.

[4] I am reminded of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character Krysta Now from Southland Tales, who has the only decent line in the whole film.

[5] I refer you also to Dr. Adam Rutherford’s review of A.N. Wilson’s book Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, which Amazon wouldn’t publish because it contained the word ‘batshit’. Also, just to dispel any notion that ‘batshit’ is an unfair description of this book, at the time of writing it has thirty-five one-star reviews on Amazon, including the one I’ve linked to by Dr. Rutherford, and an equally damning one from respected historian of science Dr. John van Whye under the headline ‘The worst biography of Darwin ever written’.

[6] A proper Iron Get Hot Now light comes on when the iron is heating up, and then turns off again when the iron is up to temperature. This is weaselly distinguished from the deceitful fuck of an orange light on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex), which goes on and off whenever it feels like it *for no raisin*. That’s stoatally different.

[7] That’s interrobang! Let’s rotate the board!

[8] Otherwise, they might collapse mid-sheet from a combination of insufficiently nourishing gruel and ironing at eye level (see footnote 3, Please use power wisely), thereby leaving your ironing undone and the iron itself dangerously liable to explode and set the upper storey of your house on fire. Nine-year-olds are fine, though.

‘I was flying from the threat of an office life’

One of the joys of working for myself is that I spend so much more time with my books. We dedicated much of last Saturday to purchasing second-hand books[1] and much of Sunday to making space for them by removing other books. The result is a leaner, tidier book collection, and the reclamation of an entire shelf. Some of the books that will be leaving the house are those that we have, somehow, acquired two copies of: The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection), the complete works of Tennyson and Alan Hollinghurst’s Stranger’s Child were all in this category. Others have been read, and found wanting, such as The Ginger Man (a dreary book about dreary people), Fingersmith (enough with the plot twists! Enough, I say! I no longer care who any of you are!) and The Story of O (<snore><retch><snore>). Still others have been mined for information that was useful at the time, but for which we have no further need (e.g. many deadly music-related tomes left over from Giant Bear’s degree).

There is a final category of books bought on a whim, and which must be reassessed on a case-by-case basis when one is feeling less frivolous. This group includes some of the more obscure works in our collection, such as Anatole France’s book Penguin Island[2] and G.K. Chesterton’s absurdist anarchist novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which I was forced to read on the Eurostar after the only other book I had packed was stolen. A thief of questionable motive picked through my handbag, spurning my purse, passport and tickets to Shanghai[3] in favour of my beige hardback copy of Stella Benson’s bonkers satirical allegory I Pose, which I was a mere sixty pages or so into. The novel contains only two real characters, the Gardener and the Suffragette (Stella Benson was one or the other at various points in her life) and I have been unable to replace it, making this one of only two books that I have left unfinished through circumstance rather than choice.[4] He or she also stole my bookmark.

Giant Bear is a co-conspirator in my need to collect books that, at first glance, may not have much appeal. For example, this Christmas I received exactly what I had asked for: a copy of No Easy Way by Elspeth Huxley. Elspeth Huxley wrote one of my favourite books (The Flame Trees of Thika) and, along with Karen Blixen and Laurens van der Post, is responsible for my love affair with Africa-based non-fiction. Unwrapping it on Christmas Day, I enthused to the assembled family that this was just what I wanted. ‘It’s a history of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association!’ I exclaimed (surely more than enough explanation?). The physical book itself is instantly engaging: the front and back inside covers contain maps, as every good book should, and at the bottom of the contents page is the following intriguing note:

The title No Easy Way was the winning entry in a competition which attracted over six hundred suggestions. The winner was Mrs. Dan Long of Thomson’s Falls.

Also in the ‘purchased for the flimsiest of reasons’ category is Corduroy by Adrian Bell, another beige hardback, and which I bought because I was secretly hoping it might be a history of the trouser. Adrian Bell is the father of Martin Bell (foreign correspondent) and Anthea Bell (translator of the Asterix books); he was also a crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph, and I see from Wikipedia that when he was asked to compile his first crossword he had less than ten days to do so and had never actually solved a crossword himself. None of this means he can write a book, of course, but the opening lines of Corduroy saved it from the Capacious Tote Bag of Death:

I was upon the fringe of Suffolk, a county rich in agricultural detail, missed by my untutored eye. It was but scenery to me: nor had I an inkling of what more it might become. Farming, to my mind, was as yet the townsman’s glib catalogue of creatures and a symbol of escape. The true friendliness of the scene before me lay beneath ardours of which I knew nothing.

I was flying from the threat of an office life. I was twenty years old and the year was 1920.[5]

I say ‘death’, but of course all the books found wanting (and/or unwanted) will be going to the second-hand bookshop already mentioned, where no doubt somebody will love them; this is not death as a long and quiet night, then, but a brief flicker between incarnations. Some, however, really are deceased. Regular readers will recall that I admitted to weeping sentimental tears over the corpse of my original copy of The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection). I couldn’t bear to put it on the compost heap or in the recycling, so in the end it went into the woodburner. On the subject of book-burning, I quote the following relevant passage from my novel (see also Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). This is taken from chapter 23, which is called ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ for reasons that need not detain us here. I quote it because in real life, I reserve a fiery death for books that are too precious to compost, whereas in my novel, it is only the most hated volumes that perish this way:

Father amused himself greatly by building a bonfire at the bottom of the garden (now the vegetable patch) and burning the more objectionable books like a Nazi. Titles burnt at the stake included the following:

i. City of God. Father has never forgiven St Augustine for the Angles/angels debacle.

ii. The complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Anything with elves, wizards or other imaginary creatures, countries or languages had better watch out when Father is in a book-burning mood. Not even The Hobbit was spared.

iii. Several hundred miscellaneous science fiction paperbacks. Father sorted the wheat from the chaff by declaring that anything with a lightly-clad alien female, a sky with too many moons and/or any kind of interplanetary craft on the cover was doomed. Despite passing this initial test, Fahrenheit 451 was on the endangered list for some time. However, ultimately it was spared due to the weight of irony pressing on Father’s soul. I imagine this in the form of God with His holy thumb pressed against Father’s eyeballs, like the creepy doctor in The House of Sleep. However, this assumes that Father keeps his soul in his eyeballs (more likely bobbing gently in a jar in the shed, or pressed between the pages of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

iv. The Thornbirds. This was condemned to death by unanimous vote. Mother was reluctant at first, because of Richard Chamberlain. He’s obviously as gay as the day is long, but it didn’t seem quite the right moment to say so (esp. as she would probably have said ‘you know, at this time of year the days are getting shorter again, aren’t they?’ Wretched woman). As an elegy, Father read aloud the bit where the father and son die in a bush-fire, in a small, sarcastic coming-together of fathers and flames. If any of us had needed a final nudge, the utterly stupid moment when the son is crushed by a giant pig would have done it.

Looking through my records, it has been several months since I last added anything of substance to my own attempt at a quirky book that someone might take home with them on a whim. However, the more time that elapses between me and my own escape from the threat of an office life, the more likely that is to change.


[1] ‘In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen times as delicious as one pound of caviar.’ Anne Fadiman, ‘Secondhand Prose’, in Ex Libris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 148.

[2] For the benefit of any readers assuming (as I did, in my ignorance of Anatole France and all his works) that this title is metaphorical in some way, I should explain that it really is about penguins, until page 39 when the archangel Raphael turns them into people. This is not an unqualified success and the penguins are disconcerted by their new shape (‘They were inclined to look sideways’).

[3] My purse contained multiple currencies (I was on my way from Britain to China by way of Belgium and France), and yet mere money still failed to hold his or her attention.

[4] The other is Absalom! Absalom!, which was the only casualty in a freak handbag-based yoghurt explosion and had to be thrown away.

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

The loud symbols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder’ with ‘I watched a murder’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally (but, importantly, not physically) involved in what he or she observes. 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. Compare this to the translator’s note in my edition of Discipline and Punish (p. ix) on how the Englist title for Foucault’s Surveiller et punir has been arrived at, in particular the thoughts of the translator Alan Sheridan’s on the infinitive ‘surveiller’:

the verb ‘surveiller’ has no adequate English equivalent. Our noun ‘surveillance’ has an altogether too restricted and technical use. Jeremy Bentham used the term ‘inspect’ – which Foucault translates as ‘surveiller’ – but the range of connotations does not correspond. ‘Supervise’ is perhaps closest of all, but again the word has different associations. ‘Observe’ is rather too neutral, though Foucault is aware of the aggression involved in any one-sided observation. In the end, Foucault himself suggested Discipline and Punish, which relates closely to the book’s structure.

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.

[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).

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.

Why Don’t You Do Right?

I have a bad habit of attempting to influence the reading habits of my students, both covertly and overtly. For example, a recent seminar on footnotes and referencing used examples drawn exclusively from the explorer geek section of my non-fiction library, specifically Thor Heyerdahl, Alan Moorehead and Peter Fleming.[1] In an attempt to encourage my students to improve their writing and reading habits, I also recommended some of my favourite non-fiction titles to them. These included Annie Dillard’s dreamy book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which should be compulsory reading material for everyone entering medicine or any related profession; and The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks.[2]

The Fatal Englishman has a number of proofreading and editing errors that make it professionally distracting to read: for example, there are several plurals rendered possessive with the grocer’s apostrophe, particularly in the middle section on Richard Hillary, and several instances of inelegant repetition that one would have expected a sensible copy-editor to quietly remove, as an alert waitress might sweep crumbs off a table before allowing the next patron to choose a seat.[3] It is also a great pity that the publisher’s budget did not run to printing the plates of Kit Wood’s art in colour, to complement and possibly illuminate Faulks’s careful analysis of Wood’s narrow colour palette in his later work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book, beautifully written in many places and showing a sensitive, concise and deft handling of the three young men that make up its subject that other biographers would do well to emulate; I very seldom read biographies because they are so often dreary, with events filtered by what the biographer is able to substantiate rather than what is actually interesting. I can’t get on with Faulks’s fiction, but this venture into non-fiction speaks to me. Faulks outlines his purpose as follows:

The stories of young people who delight parents and friends with their talents have a concentrated significance in their beginnings, and in their premature ends there is a natural poignancy that brutally epitomises the disappointment that is also common but less evident in longer, duller lives.[4]

The book contains three brief but detailed accounts of promising young men who died early and tragic deaths: Kit Wood, an artist who died at his own hand after many years of opium abuse; Richard Hillary, a pilot and writer, killed in a ’plane crash; and Jeremy Wolfenden.

Wolfenden’s profession and death are less clear-cut than those of the other two. The lives of Hillary and Wood both seemed to me to be dominated by their respective passions. The account of Kit Wood’s life makes it clear that he was driven by an overwhelming need to convey his artistic vision; similarly, Hillary seems to have been as much consumed by flames as he was by his own internal need to fly and to write about it. Both men, it seems to me, died as a consequence of being unable to balance the needs of their calling with their own physical frailty. Wolfenden, by contrast, is a clear example of someone unable to realise his talents in a meaningful way for reasons that seem to slither about the more one attempts to grasp them. He eventually slid into journalism and then espionage, apparently for lack of anything better to do; his death occurred in mysterious circumstances, but was probably a result of alcohol abuse one way or another. Again, drinking seems to have been something he did out of a sort of languid pointlessness, as if the idea that something more challenging or rewarding might exist had been scotched in early childhood. Although I find Wood and Hillary more compelling than Wolfenden (isn’t passion always more compelling than lassitude?), it’s Wolfenden that has given me the idea for this post.

Faulks makes the following observation: ‘None of the four Wolfenden children ‘achieved’ anything in the sense their father would have understood. This would not matter if they had seemed happier or more fulfilled in other ways.’[5] Faulks makes it clear that Jeremy Wolfenden was superbly gifted, so why didn’t he achieve more? Why didn’t he write a dazzling novel, play or collection of poetry? Why didn’t he stun the world of journalism, politics or indeed anyone outside the immediate circle of his acquaintance with his brain and wit? This inability to convert one’s gifts into socially-acceptable and comprehensible success is something I have noticed in my own life, and those of my friends. Two of the cleverest people I know, for example (S and H), have both struggled to realise their gifts. Both went to Cambridge and got first-class degrees. At the time of writing, S is in the final stages of a PhD, but had many years in the wilderness prior to re-entering the sanctuary of academia, and H, the brightest physicist of her cohort, is an accountant. My Chinese students are under the impression that a first from Cambridge will open the world to them like a picture book, but that hasn’t been the case here. For myself, being top of the class for most of my school career (in my chosen subject, at least) converted into feeling thoroughly baffled for much of my time at university as to really, exactly what it was I was being asked to do; finishing university with no real idea of what I wanted to do in exchange for money; wandering into a career in university administration that ruined my health; and now working for myself, happily and regularly, but below the income tax threshold. I could easily name another half-dozen friends with similar stories of academic success that then fails to convert into anything very much. What the hell happened to all of us?[6]

My theory is that school and university don’t (and in their present structure, can’t) do the job they appear to set out to do. It isn’t that academia fails students, or that academic success is meaningless, or even that academic success only means something in an academic context (although all of these statements have some truth in them). It’s also not that academic success doesn’t convert into professional or personal success, as clearly for many people it does. I think it’s that, very often, academic success fails to convert into what one has been led to expect. Faulks quotes Wolfenden’s friend Colin Falck as follows: ‘[Wolfenden’s] inability to find a way to live and be happy seemed not so much a personal failure as somehow a failure of all the English structures and systems that had produced him.’[7] This has the ring of truth to it, as does the whole of Faulks’s account of Wolfenden’s largely wasted gifts and opportunities: he simply didn’t know what to do with them, and neither did any of his teachers. He was being prepared for something, but nobody knew what.

Other reading (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in particular: see Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance) suggests that participating in any form of education or training that one has not chosen to participate in is wasted time.[8] The point I want to suggest here is slightly different: I wonder if education or training where the point of what you are learning has not been made abundantly clear is a waste of time? In my own teaching, I am very careful to explain to my students at the beginning of each session why they need to know what I’m about to tell them and how they should expect it to be useful to them. For example, in a seminar about the correct way to footnote an essay, I might explain the consequences of not footnoting correctly; I might then suggest some points in the essay-writing process at which they should engage with the process of citing primary and secondary literature in a way that will meet the relevant requirements; and I might also point them towards useful online resources, encourage them to make helpful notes of their own, and provide a condensed ‘crib sheet’ of the take-home messages. We are all very clear what the point of us being in a room together is, and why whatever we are learning is important.

One of the groups I teach currently is a class studying a foundation year prior to university: they are also very clear what the value of university study is and why they want to pursue it. I’m not sure that’s true of school, however, in terms of either individual lessons or the wider concept. Personally, I feel pretty cheated that working hard at school and university and jumping through all the hoops I was asked to jump through hasn’t resulted in heaps o’ cash.[9] That’s not because I feel I ‘deserve’ those things, but simply because that’s what I was lead to expect in exchange for all that work and conformity. The chain of logic that linked ‘working hard now’ to ‘heaps o’ cash’ was never clearly articulated, however, which leaves me wondering whether I misunderstood what we were doing. Did I simply fill in the blanks, in the absence of any real explanation?

What is the point of an education? Is it to prepare one specifically for a profession chosen in one’s teenage years? If that’s the case, I think a much stronger argument could be made for dropping subjects that have nothing to do with one’s proposed career much earlier in the process, to focus in on what is actually relevant. Similarly, one might put far greater effort into introducing young people to a more varied array of careers. Or is school there to prepare one for life in general? If that’s the case, then surely the opposite approach should be taken, giving each student a broad base of subject knowledge and skills, on the grounds that many of these will be relevant both in and out of the workplace.[10] If one attempted to retrofit this idea, a quick examination of a randomly-chosen sample of schools shows that some schools take the focused approach and some the broad. In other words, they don’t know either.

Muriel Spark explores the etymology of the word ‘education’ (through the mouth of Miss Jean Brodie) as follows: ‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me, education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.'[11] She goes on to make a distinction between this drawing out of what is already there, as though one were extracting metal from a mine or rubber from a rubber tree (I’ve used those examples because duco also gives us the word ‘ductile’), the raw material then being fashioned into something useful at a later day, and the alternative method. This is represented in the novel by the choice that the girls have to make between ‘Classical’ and ‘Modern’ education, and by Miss McKay, Miss Brodie’s headmistress. She characterises the non-Brodie alternative as intrusion, ‘from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust’, as through one were stuffing a goose.[12] It should be noted, however, that for all her grand talk of Latin, Miss Jean Brodie does no such drawing out, but is just as keen to push her views onto and into her students as anyone else (‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’ ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’ ‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’)[13]

If Miss Jean Brodie is correct about the true nature of education (and, in the absence of any other input, let’s assume that she is), then it seems to me there are three possible conclusions that can be drawn. One: that education should consist of drawing out something that is already there, but in this country and this age of league tables and exams, it is no such thing and we should use some other word to describe it (or, perhaps, because teachers are frail humans, it cannot be done objectively and one’s teacher will always be an intruder to some extent). Two: that the raw material of education is the students themselves, and therefore an unsatisfactory education should lead the student to consider his or her own contribution to the education and any concomitant lack of satisfaction. Or finally, three: the mismatch identified in the first conclusion leads students to draw some things out of themselves, but not others. The drawing out of the internal something-or-other is piecemeal, fragmented, ill-conceived and mismanaged: partly because teachers are under enormous pressure to do n things that have nothing whatever to do with why they want to teach in the first place, but also because none of the people involved are clear what it is they are supposed to be doing. In other words, we’re not bad: we’re just drawn that way.


[1] So as to set a good example for my students, I’m going to cite this post properly. I know this is the internet and people can just look stuff up for themselves, but that’s not the point) Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958. English translation made from the original Norwegian under the personal supervision of the author); Alan Moorehead, The White Nile (London: Penguin Books, 1962); Peter Fleming, News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 1936). For some reason Aku-Aku is not as well-known as The Kontiki Expedition (almost always stripped of its gripping explanatory subtitle, ‘across the Pacific by raft’) by the same author, but what it lacks in stories about sharks being hoiked out of the Pacific, continent-crossing vegetables and drowned parrots it makes up in tales of midnight meetings in underground caves, civil wars with the two sides delineated by a preference for the degree of stretching performed on one’s earlobes, and the final explanation of how the massive Easter Island statues were raised on end.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974); Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (London: Vintage Books, 1997).

[3] I must admit that I’m never sure whether it should be grocers’ apostrophe (to indicate that there are lots of grocers, who all make this error), or grocer’s apostrophe as I’ve rendered it here (to include the error that it describes).


[5] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 321.

[6] I chose the title for this post as a reference to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, partly because Bob Hoskins died this week, and partly because I think it reflects some of my frustration with this topic. You can also enjoy Jessica Rabbit singing the whole song with this phrase in context (voiced by the divine Kathleen Turner when speaking, and by Amy Irving when singing).

[7] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 323.

[8] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values (London: The Bodley Head, 1974).

[9] Again, I stress that I have a fulfilling job and enough money to subsist on comfortably enough, but this has only come about after years of stress and soul-searching.

[10] One would also want to see more practical stuff included in the curricula. For example, I use maths to do my accounts, budget our finances and fill out my tax return, all of which could have been included in the maths GCSE (in place of, say, algebra). Or perhaps I am making an argument for two streams of education: one teaching academic content (critical path analysis; French verbs; sonata form; close reading of Chaucer) and one teaching practical or more obviously applied content (comparing mortgage rates; conversational French; sight-reading; really understanding the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’). Both seem equally attractive to me, but they are certainly not equally useful in terms of what I am more likely to reach for on a regular basis. The ‘academic’ stream seems analogous to a complex, beautiful and seldom-used piece of kitchen equipment (an egg harp, say, ‘so specialised as to become practically useless’, as Thomas Richards writes of gadgets on display at the Great Exhibition): perfect for the job it does and that job only, perhaps even a job that it would be impossible to perform to such a degree with any other kitchen tool. The ‘applied’ stream seems more like, say, a good sharp knife: pretty good at most jobs, and used most days to prepare most meals. Shouldn’t a well-equipped kitchen contain both?

[11] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 1961), p. 36. She repeats some of this on p. 45.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 11

A room of one’s own

The room that I used as a study at the house in Bristol faced across the road, and the angle of the window meant that, when the sun was shining, I had to draw the curtains to see what I was doing. The space that I am currently using as a study in my new flat is in what I am calling The Big Room. It is, in fact, three rooms, in that I am using one end of it (the end with the serving hatch[1]) as a dining room; the other end (the end with the view of the sea) as a sitting room; and part of the dining table as my office. Soon, a New Desk will arrive, and I will move my office-related things into the imaginatively-named Small Room, with its view of the other side of the street. This room is currently filled with books, the remaining packing, and approximately forty empty cardboard boxes, which form three co-dependent, silently tottery Towers of Babel.

I do not like working at my dining table. The chair was not designed to be occupied for long periods of time and the table is too narrow to accommodate everything I like to have to hand when I work (calculator, invoice book, nice pen[2], nasty pen[3], cup of tea, in tray[4], out tray[5], filing tray, pending tray and a stamp that says ‘I DON’T HAVE TIME TO READ THIS CRAP’)[6]. Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on having a room of  one’s own and an independent income (people so often forget that she made it clear that both of these things were necessary in order to write) are relevant here: I do have a room of my own, where I think I can work quietly and well, but no space for the desk that I also don’t have and certainly nothing approaching an independent income.

My study at the house in Bristol was at its best as a place to work when the weather was bad. There was no glare from the sun, and the large window overlooked the road, allowing me to observe the weather from a place that was warm, dry and smug-making. ‘Look at all those people commuting to work,’ I used to think to myself, watching cars slither about in the snow, or buses surging up the hill carrying grey-faced people to jobs that they clearly hated, or hail pinging off the glass as my neighbours struggled into their cars, coats clutched around their faces. ‘Working for myself is the best thing ever,’ I concluded, toasting the unfortunate commuters with a cup of strawberry tea. The Big Room has an enormous bay window[7] that looks out over the sea. Between the flat and the sea is the esplanade, affording me an unparalleled view of fat people spending their holidays walking unsteadily up and down the sea front, shouting at their chubby, unfortunately-named children[8]. Today, the sea is brown and fretful, the colour of hot chocolate from an airport vending machine, flecked with creamy froth and full of sand. The wind is whistling around my building in a strange, mournful harmony and the ropes for the flags on Britain’s shortest but very patriotic pier are twanging noisily against the flagpoles. The wind is strong enough to cause the Victorian lampposts to jiggle alarmingly from side to side and every so often a wave breaks so vigorously that it sprays up over the sea wall, across the esplanade and into the road. Seagulls, of which there are thousands, seem to enjoy hanging in the air as if attached to a badly-made mobile, more or less on a level with my bay window, not going anywhere in particular, just bobbing up and down in a ragged line, apparently for lack of anything to peck. In other words, the view from my new window is a constantly changing, constantly interesting thing. It is considerably more interesting than my current piece of paid work (proofreading The Dullest Thesis In The World), which makes it even more important that I get into the Small Room with its far less distracting view with all speed.

[1] A *serving hatch*. It has two adorably tiny white doors with handles and is my favourite thing in the flat.

[2] For writing invoices to other people.

[3] For writing notes to myself.

[4] Labelled ‘Entrée’.

[5] Labelled ‘Outré’. It’s important to remember that I don’t share an office anymore, and therefore can be exactly as unfunny as I like.

[6] M bought me this and I kept it in my desk at the university for years. I lost count of the number of times I reached for it, thought hard about words like ‘unprofessional conduct’, ‘starving to death’ and ‘final demand’, and pushed the drawer back in again. Now that I can use it whenever I like, the only occasion on which I have actually *wanted* to use it was to stamp an email I received from the university. The only reason I didn’t stamp it was that I would have had to print it out in order to do so, and I pay for my own printer cartridges these days. Instead, I gave my laptop the finger.

[7] Seriously. It’s about six feet across and four feet deep. You could get a sofa in it.

[8] ‘Caven! What did I tell you about poking that seagull with your icecream? And give Kee-Antee back her chips!’. I want to say that I invented this horrible spelling (as if ‘Chianti’ wasn’t awful enough as a name for a podgy five-year-old girl in a T-shirt with a princess on it), but I’m afraid she was also wearing a pink rucksack with her horrifying name printed on it in silver letters.

Bite me

The students that I work with in China are not always reliable correspondents once I have returned to my natal shore, but some of them stay in touch and become friends. Those that do so all comment when they visit me in Britain that I ‘look different’. This is for two reasons: firstly, my Chinese students have never seen me without enormous hair (the humidity of the Asian summer is not kind to curly-haired women: in Britain, I can actually fit my head through doorways); and secondly, they have never seen me without insect bites.[1]

These are not any old insect bites, dear reader. All is quiet for the first few days after I land in the People’s Republic, and I am lulled into a false sense of security. Just as I have convinced myself that this time might be different, diverse alarums are sounded, and insects voracious and poisonous fall upon me with inaudible screams of delight.[2] Nothing can stop the onslaught: repellents are useless, as are long sleeves (they simply bite straight through). Low visibility holds them back for mere seconds, as per a trip to Qingdao a few years ago during which the entire city was shrouded in fog for twenty-four-hour periods at a time and I was bitten so badly that I could hardly walk for blisters and bandages. Somehow, I, an animal designed to find prey via the eyes, could barely make out the local Communist Party headquarters[3], but a bunch of tiny airborne creatures with microscopic brains and compound eyes managed to find something much smaller and easier to chew without any trouble at all.

The bites fall into three distinct categories. Firstly, there are big red ones, probably caused by mosquitoes. This year, two of these bites either side of my elbow developed into hard red patches that were so painful and so firm that I was unable to bend my arm. The patches also enlarged at an alarming rate, such that my carefully-drawn biro line had already been passed by an ironic red tide by the time I had finished drawing it. One of the Chinese staff was kind enough to buy me some kind of eucalyptus gel that came in a tiny white tub with a picture of a Swiss maid on the top, and this not only solved the problem and allowed me to stop gibbering about cellulitis, but made my room smell pleasantly of menthol. Secondly, there are small red ones with a tiny blister at the centre, which are ant bites. We screened Passport To Pimlico[4] for the students in a darkened lecture hall at one of Shanghai’s many universities, and somebody helpfully left the door open. Attracted by the flickering lights and quietly sweating cinema audience, stealthy ant attack ensued. These bites stream with tissue fluid almost constantly, rendering one’s legs itchy, sticky and totally unshaveable. This may sound like mere vanity, but allow me to remind you that a. I am rather proud of my legs, and never more so when in a foreign country as the sole representative of my race; b. it was far too hot for trousers and anyway I hadn’t packed any (nor would I have been able to buy anything that would have come close to fitting me); and c. I was in Asia and therefore already the hairiest woman for thousands of miles.[5] Finally, there are enormous orange blisters, which are spider bites.

The first spider bite I ever got was while walking in Nanjing Park with my dear father and his then girlfriend (now his wife, happily). I had been unwell for a few days with my usual gut-related issues (see Busting a gut) and so the ensuing faintness and enforced sitting down did not strike any of us as special. Later that day, however, The Blister started to appear on my ankle. It grew steadily and by the time I had reached Bristol[6], it was the size and colour of an egg yolk. The following year, my cornucopia of suppurating wounds included two more spider bites, one of which was right next to a scar on the top of my foot[7] and therefore unable to swell into its usual dome, instead forming a sort of kidney shape, uncannily like a giant orange-flavoured jellybean. This bite split during an invigorating sprint through Shanghai Pudong airport in a failed attempt to catch our ’plane home. An unbelievable quantity of liquid ensued, followed by Garden Naturalist applying iodine to the wound (iodine! Sweet merciful Jesus!). Having missed the flight, we were then put up in an unbelievably crappy hotel overnight, where we passed the time by counting (thirty-one), categorising (as above) and dressing my bites.

On my most recent trip to China, my inevitable spider bite was in a rather more awkward spot than usual: the back of my ankle, just above the edge of my shoe. The work is exhausting, the days are long, and the humidity and jet-lag suck any remaining energy out of all staff and students. Imagine my delight, then, on being informed that the last day of teaching was going to be crowned by a fancy dinner with a load of important people who might be able to offer me more work. The fancy dinner was in the usual multistorey building with a deeply unprepossessing exterior and stupendously luxurious interior, and while we waited for our dinner of pigeon heads and unidentified bits of lobster, we were encouraged to hob-nob by drinking cups of green tea and lounging about on a set of what I will describe as loveseats. My chosen loveseat was far too low for me and getting up out of it to walk to the massive circular dining table was an awkward manoeuvre. It was so awkward, in fact, that as I stood up I scraped the back of my ankle against the (razor-sharp) edge of the loveseat, not bursting the blister but rather slicing it off in a single gelatinous piece. This was so exquisitely painful that it numbed my vocal cords and I didn’t even squeak, but scuttled over to the table and sat down, where my ankle then proceeded to bleed gently into my shoe for the entire meal. On returning to the hotel, I soaked my bloody foot in the bath (it had also swelled up and was completely stuck to and in the shoe by all the bleeding, a bit like a window that has been painted shut), removed both shoes, threw them in the bin and asked room service to bring me bandages and disinfectant in the middle of the night.

I notice that Facebook is under the impression that I might like to spend my hard-earned money on a ‘lipstain’ (whatever that is) called Just Bitten. I’m not sure what I have done to give Facebook the impression that I am interested in a. being bitten or b. buying makeup, but apparently this product will make my lips ‘extra kissable’. One can only hope that women unwise enough to purchase something on the grounds that it comes in the form of an ‘adorable chubby crayon’[8] do not wake in the night to find tiny spiders pouring out of the tube and scuttling over their faces (for more spider-related horrors, see Eight legs bad).

[1] Or in anything other than smart clothes, or in a country where I don’t lose a half a stone every week through sweating.

[2] How do you know there are screams of delight if you can’t hear them, you ask? Because the glee with which I am attacked cannot possibly be expressed any other way. I imagine them whizzing through the air, shouting across to each other like swallows when the gnat harvest is unusually plentiful (‘Wheeeeee! Gnats! Fuck, yeah! Gnaaaaaaaaaaaats!’) at a pitch that might have been described by Flanders and Swann in ‘High Fidelity’ (‘All the highest notes, neither sharp nor flat/The ear can’t hear as high as that/Still, I ought to please any passing bat/With my high fidelity!’).

[3] A building remarkably like a khaki-coloured fridge.

[4] Partly to teach them about British culture, partly to give me something to ask the PPE students about. I asked one of them in a practice interview if she thought that Passport to Pimlico showed that small states were inevitably pushed around by big states, and she replied, ‘no. I thought it showed that the French can’t be trusted.’

[5] Next year, I will be maxidressed to the hilt <swish>

[6] Bristol! Cool, damp, rainy Bristol! Land of friends, gardens, songbirds, pasta and cheese!

[7] The residue of an encounter with a slippery patio and a bicycle chain, recorded in my diary (see Broken Dishes).

[8] Many things are both adorable and chubby (dormice, for example. Man, those things are cute. The one in the picture I have linked to is called Dozey and may be the cutest thing alive), but I venture to suggest that such things are not usually inanimate, or indeed likely to be found in one’s handbag.

Open the Box

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

China is also a country without Facebook or YouTube, and it has a very restricted blogosphere. While they struggle to deal with being denied instant access to the inane thoughts of everyone they know fifty times a day, Chinese teenagers can comfort themselves with cultural whatnots such as congee (prawn porridge for breakfast), toilets that one is forced to crouch over as if someone is about to strike one vigorously on the crown, and baths that are so short and so wide that I, at less than five foot seven, can only get my entire body under the water by filling the bath to the brim and then executing a sort of walk-like-an-Egyptian pose, in which I cannot reach the soap, the taps or any part of my body that might require washing. There are several interesting things to say about my most recent trip, but I will confine myself to just two for the moment. First of all, as well as several days with my beloved Father, I spent the bulk of the time working with A-level students. They come from all over China and are trying to determine whether they want to apply to universities in the UK, and if so, how to go about it. Therefore, I was in China on business. I must have been, because I had a business visa, I flew business class (but didn’t pay for it FUCK NO), I gave out a ton of business cards and I worked like a dog for four days.[2] Secondly, there were a lot of students. Usually there are thirty or so. This year, there were seventy-eight. SEVENTY. EIGHT. It was an overwhelming experience, something akin to being rolled in catnip and then released into a room of kittens. Normally I would put time and effort into learning all thirty names, but this year that proved to be a task that was quite beyond me. It did, however, lead me to thinking about the names that the students choose for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll need a volunteer,’ I said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you been eating all the big nuts again?’

I have a small orange book with ‘Single Cash’ printed on the outside, presumably sold by the Post Office or similar for the purposes of keeping one’s accounts. My parents bought this book in the 1970s and used it to record guests to their house, who liked what, who drank what, what they ate and how successful it was. They devised a star-based system, *** denoting ‘excellent’, ** for ‘good’, * for ‘boring’ and a terse horizontal line to indicate ‘don’t do it again’. Most of the handwriting belongs to my mother, but occasionally my father has added a note in his characteristically tiny hand, so that one can get a sense of them as a couple as well as the occasion they describe.[1] For example, on May 5th, 1978 the guests were Denis and Jan and my parents served a menu so redolent of the time that the date is superfluous: vichyssoise, onion and paté quiche, three-cheese quiche and salad, followed by banana and ginger mousse. My mother comments underneath as follows:

Jan ate very little [and] didn’t drink much. Jan does not like banana or ginger (or us!). Denis does. Not a successful evening.

My father has added at a later date, “nor, indeed, was the return match, 15.7.78”). I wonder if it is telling that the banana and ginger mousse is the only item on the menu to receive three stars? This evening was two years before I was born, so I have no idea who Denis and Jan were or how my parents knew them (although I note that they are not invited again, except when the group is very much larger). They sound rather like the sort of couple described by Basil Boothroyd in the opening pages of Lets Stay Married, who appear stable and sane with no more than the usual trivial irritations and discontents, and who then suddenly divorce in a blaze of acrimony and are never seen again, except from a distance with their new and horrible partners.

If you are married, or divorced, or contemplating either state, allow me to suggest that you purchase a copy of this excellent book without delay. We got our copy from a charity shop for a pound, and it bears the tender inscription ‘To Alan, lots of love from Wendy, Christmas 1967’. The book was first published in 1967, so I think the devoted and wise Wendy may have even purchased it new, and it opens with a chapter pondering firstly how it is that the couple in the book (Mr. and Mrs. A) have managed to stay joined together when all around them are being put asunder[2], and secondly the etiquette of managing the severed halves of such couples when they form new partnerships. I would provide a short summary of the rest of the book, which Mr A. begins on page 18, but he never reaches the end of the paragraph (‘I seem to have lost the thread of this bit, having been sent out in the middle of it to put a bucket over the rhubarb’). The rest of the book continues in a similar vein: the content is somewhat fractured with the two spouses talking at cross-purposes more often than not, my favourite example of which is as follows:

‘I see Fred’s divorcing that what’s-her-name,’ I shall be saying to my own wife of surprisingly long standing – ‘you know, we had them here that evening we never showed the movies. What was her name?’
   ‘He called her Pooh-Pooh.’
   ‘No, he didn’t. He called her Chunkyboots. She called him Pooh-Pooh.’
   ‘Have you been eating all the big nuts again?’
   ‘Apparently she had this habit of cracking her knuckles in the pictures. Shake the tin. They come to the top.’
   ‘Oh, yes. There’s a recipe here for something called Rabbit Basket. You scoop out the inside of a small brown loaf.’
   ‘She didn’t defend it. But she claimed that Fred used to whistle while she was telling him her dreams, so they gave her the custody of the furniture. Why brown?’
   ‘It says here you can clean suede shoes with tallow and breadcrumbs.’
   ‘You could use the scoopings out of the loaf.’
   ‘What loaf?’

Lets Stay Married was another of our bath-time reads (see To wield a lordly loofah), and one of our most successful choices[3], along with Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About.[4] Highlights include a not-quite-argument in chapter one over a closely- and ineptly-fought game of scrabble in which Mr. A is so disconcerted by his wife’s casual revelation that she bumped into Freda Whackstraw at the hairdresser earlier that day that he puts down the word SCONGE[5] and muses that ‘[i]f the house caught fire it would be nice’; a chapter entitled ‘How Much Are The Tranquilisers?’; and Mr. A’s quite brilliant defence of a spectacularly unsuccessful shopping trip on which he has failed to buy the correct window mop and picked up a beef pie when Mrs. A had ordered chicken:

Some men, I know, would regard my attitude as weak, contemptible and a betrayal of our great sex. I’d like to make the point, just for the record, that I’m as capable as the next man of breaking a window mop over my wife’s head. A pie too, if pushed. All I say is, what have you got at the end of it all? No mop, no pie, no wife.

The pièce de resistance, however, is the index. I am training to become an indexer at the moment and the greatest pitfall to overcome must surely be the temptation to try to be funny at the wrong moment. A short extract only must suffice for the whole, and so I give you edited highlights of the entries beginning with the letter ‘c’:

Carriage lamps, wife’s earrings likened to, p. 39
Coconut, recommended demeanour when sawing, p.31
Colour-blindness, cross-allegations of, p. 44
Commercials, new saucepans in, p. 129
Convict, squirrel mistaken for, p. 30
Cooking, hazards of electric, p. 69
Cucumber, return of faulty, p. 63

I venture to suggest that there are few marriages (or indeed indexes) that could survive either partner being packed off to a recalcitrant greengrocer with a cucumber that has failed to live up to expectations.

[1] 21st Dec 1978: Mother comments that Father “enjoyed himself”; Father responds by writing “Hic!” underneath in shaky pencil.

[2] This happens for a variety of reasons. Take Julie and Haunch Benison, who (in Mrs. A’s view) break up because ‘he used to dry his rugger shorts stretched on the legs of the ironing board, and when she tried to collapse it they somehow messed up the mechanism and it sat down at one end like a cow and laddered her stockings’; or Viv and Vic Cripps further down the same page, whose divorce revolves around Viv swatting a wasp with Vic’s cummerbund.

[3] My only quibble is Mrs. A’s tolerance for domestic violence on page 105: ‘my advice to a girl who wants to save her marriage is wear long sleeves for a week, or dark glasses if an eye is affected.’ Literacystrumpet does not condone this view; see Punch Drunk for my thoughts on this thorny subject).

[4] Like Bleak House, this tested our funny voices to the limit, containing as it does a German, a Welshman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, a man of indeterminate Asian origin who talks like an advert (‘Hi, guy! 24/7, yeah? Nazim here!’) and a couple of mysterious Chinese characters who (mercifully) don’t have much direct speech.

[5] ‘Sconge’ isn’t a word, you say? I think you will find it in free usage in the Literacystrumpet/Garden Naturalist household, along with the eternally useful phrase ‘were you raised in a bag?’, also from Lets Stay Married.