Sunday, 30 September 2012

Creative lawn-mowing

Staffan and I have different approaches to lawn-mowing, just as we have different approaches to loading the dishwasher and to other domestic chores. We almost never make a row about such trifles, with the agreement that whoever does it is free to use their own method. Yet Staffan has firm ideas about lawn-mowing that he tries to support with evidence from websites. He likes straight lines. He would like them to go south-north, but our garden is not oriented to his liking. Neither does it have straight lines. Therefore I prefer to follow the natural soft curves of the landscape, watching the irregular island in the middle get smaller. I know this may sound ridiculous, but it is just another expression of my creativity.

 PS The dark ring in the middle of the lawn is not a token of my creativity. Or maybe it is. It was a witch ring, and I exterminated the toadstools and grew new grass.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book of the week: Dodger

 I must admit that I haven't read every single book by Terry Prachett. I first heard about him from none the less than Lloyd Alexander who was super-enthusiastic and even gave me his copy of Reaper Man, and I was hooked. Later I read and reviewed the Diggers trilogy, and at one point I had Monstrous Regiment on my fantasy course syllabus. I absolutley love A Hatful of Sky.

I was first a bit disappointed when I realised that Dodger was not a Discworld novel, but I was immediately gripped by the book which was just as clever and ironic and improbable and you-name-it as every Pratchett book. It so happens that I have recently read quite a number of unrelated books that take place in London, and seeing yet another side of it through Pratchett's eyes was exciting. I learned lots of new words, I was tempted to check facts (all quite unncessarily explained in the afterword), I caught myself doing something I interrogate in my research: getting emotionally engaged with the character. I was truly upset when I finished the book. It's an exceptionally high grade for me.

New beginnings

The new term hasn't started properly yet, but I can definitely tell that it's close. Yesterday was one of those busy days, normal during term time. I went to the office early to print out the manuscript of my new book. I don't know why the editor wanted a hard copy – haven't submitted a hard copy for years. But: if your editor asks for a hard copy, you send a hard copy. I even could send it by internal university mail. I send her a message to warn that the ms was on the way. Got a vacation-message response, followed by a message from her saying that she was in the US and could I please send an electronic copy.

Two supervisions, a visit from a hugely enthusiastic prospective PhD student. Professonal gossip over lunch. More professional gossip in the staff room. Puzzled response to my asnwer about my current research: "I didn't know you were doing psychology". No, I am not doing psychology, I am doing cognitive narratology. Later that afternoon, another colleague: "I have just heard you have switched over to psychology..."

Tons of mail in my pigeonhole, including a belated essay to grade. Cleaning up my email inbox. Throwing away old papers. Teaching team meeting to plan the coming term. College governing body meeting. Swearing-in of new Fellows. College dinner.

Cannot help looking back four years when all this was new and strange.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Coastal walk

On our last day I decided to take a longer walk along the coast, since I now felt confident that I could do it if I just took it easy. I asked Staffan to drop me off in a village some miles away where a trail started. It took me right down from a high cliff to a cove where I could easily imagine that I was the last human being on earth, if I hadn't seen fresh human and dog tracks in the wet sand after the tide. I sat there for some time looking at the surf. I can watch the waves for hours and never get tired of it because it's the most peaceful thing in the world. Yet I didn't allow myself to linger since I had no idea what was waiting for me. It was a very steep path up to the cliffs, but the view was worth it. I started meeting people, in pairs and groups, some with dogs. I made me feel safe. All guidebooks tell you never to walk alone, but do I have a choice? The path climbed up and down and out on rocks, and it was splendid. At one point I had to negotiate a herd of cows, and I also saw wild deer, too far away to get a good picture. I had a picnic with a magnificent view from one of the many strategically placed benches.

Then I had a choice of going inland and straight back to Pont or continuing toward Polruan, which I did, toying with the idea of maybe catching a bus or even taking a taxi, but it proved too good to be true. I had a most abominable cup of coffee at a deceptively nice-looking coffee shop in Polruan, sat for a while watching the harbour and the ferry that I had taken the day before yesterday. Then I braced myself for another mile of walk, hoping that the wild beasts would be elsewhere, which they luckily were. Without delays, it took me just thirty-five minutes. I am extremely proud of myself. I know some of my friends will ask: did you go to the famous castles? Art galleries? Gardens? My answer will be: No, I was on a holiday.

Land's End

Certain geographical points have symbolic significance. The East/West/North/Southern-most point, the highest or lowest, boundary between continents, tropic circles, zero meridian. I've been to some of these, including the highest point in Denmark (173 m above sea level), the Southern point of Africa, which against common knowledge is not the Cape of Good Hope, and the Southern point of Crimea, Death Valley and Dead Sea, and the End of the World in Norway. Somehow being in Cornwall and not going to Land's End felt wrong, although looking back I must admit that it wasn't worth much more than the symbolic value. Once again I discovered that my geography is extremely poor – or somebody had stretched out Cornwall when we weren't looking. It is a very, very long way from where we are to Land's End, and I couldn't help thinking about all the classic novels in which the characters go to Penzance for holidays, and it takes them days and days of travel, and once they are there, they stay for months.

We skipped Penzance and everything else on the way because I wanted to take another walk. Land's End visitor centre is just as tacky as guidebooks say. It should be forbidden to build vulgar theme parks on beautiful nature sites. Yet there we were, and Staffan planted himself in the bar while I went on my walk. I have huge problems with coastal walks because there is always another cove and another head beyond whatever point you have reached so the walk can never be completed. The beauty was exceptional, with bizarre rock formations and vast fields of heather. I didn't climb down to the beach because it would have taken at least another hour and I felt bad about Staffan waiting. But I could have walked for hours, because the light changes, the tide comes in, and the coastline is never the same. I took about an hour and a half, stopping at some places to meditate. I can imagine crowds during the season, but today there were very few people, some serious hikers, some slow walkers like myself. It was easy to pretend that I had the whole world for myself.

We had lunch and drove straight back. Five hours driving for an hour-and-a-half walk – I am not sure it makes sense, but at least we have been to a place of symbolic significance. As we were driving and reading road signs and maps I couldn't help recalling our summers in Brittany, many years ago. There, as here, half of the place names began with “Tre” and the other half with “Pol” or “Plou”.

Hall Walk

The National Trust guidebook presents Hall Walk as a well-hidden secret, which apprently is well-known to devoted hikers. The little footbridge right in front of our cottage is a local attraction, going back to William the Conqueror. I am not a well-trained hiker, but I have walked a hundred kilometres in two months in our country park, and after all walking was exactly what I wanted. So in the morning I put on my gym trousers (I feel more confident wearing gym trousers because then people I meet know what I am at), packed a bottle of water, a pear, three maps, binoculars, a cap, a sweater and my phone. We looked at maps and decided that I would meet Staffan in the little harbour village of Polruan, which would be halfway through my circular walk. I figured out that it would take me forty-five minutes to an hour to do this bit, and I was close in my guess, except for unexpected circumstances, to which I will return. Since our cottage and the footbridge is the middle of the walk as it is described, I was a bit anxious about finding my way, but it was exemplarily marked, and I started with a detour to the Church of Lanteglos (love all these Celtic names!) returning to the main trail with stunning views over the creek as the estuary came closer. I had to cross a short stretch of farmland with a warning sign about respecting the grazing animals and avoiding coming between mothers and young, which I thought was fine. What I wasn't prepared for was three horses blocking the path. My mind went immediately to our adventures in the Kruger Park in South Africa where, if elephants or giraffes block your way you cannot do much about it. However, in the Kruger Park, we sat safely – at least it felt so – in a car, while here I was, three huge horses blocking my way, a rock wall on the left and a precipice on the right. I crouched by the wall hoping that the beasts would move, but instead they came closer, grazing three feet from me, with only brambles between us. I waited. They grazed. Since I had my Runkeeper on, I know that I stayed there for fifteen minutes. I tried to climb the wall up to the road, but it was too high. I waited. The beasts grazed. Then they finally moved, still blocking my way, and I considered walking all the way back and taking the main road when I saw a man with a dog coming my way. I acted damsel in distress, asking him in a very humble voice to get me past the monsters. He did. His dog didn't like them either.

 After that, I soon reached my destination and saw Staffan who wasn't a bit worried about me, since he knows that I am a champion in getting lost. You have no idea what a bliss a cup of horrible instant coffee is after being trapped on a path with dangerous beasts. Then we had more coffee and eventually lunch in a pub with internet. (The only reason I needed to have internet access was that I had a submit a bid to a reseach council that I could not have done before we left. There was nothing urgent otherwise).

From Polruan I had to take a ferry across the estuary to Fowey (pronouced “Foy”; don't ask me how Polruan is pronounced). The ferry was just a tiny motor boat that took twelve passengers. There has been a ferry at this place for a thousand years. Fowey is a lively little town full of shops and pubs. I didn't stay long because I had another ferry to catch and another walk. The other ferry is a car ferry that also takes foot passengers across the Fowey river to Bodinnick, another little village, from where I walked and climbed and walked back to Pont, which means, reasonably, bridge and where we live. I don't know whether this bit of the walk is more popular or whether I did the first half too early in the morning, but there were lots of people, mostly my age and older, all happily walking and climbing. It was low water when I came down, and I felt completely and absolutely happy.

I missed my father. He would have loved this walk.

Last minute escape

It's less than two weeks until term starts, and I have finished a book. I am completely exhausted, and I have a mad term in front of me, since I will be on study leave in Lent, and all my teaching is this coming term. I know that I have no self-discipline to stop myself from working, therefore I must go away.

Staffan and I are not good at planning holidays in advance. Unless it is a desert safari or an Amazonas cruise which have to be planned in advance, we improvise. Until last weekend we weren't even sure whether we would be able to go, and when we started tentatively, we were immediately in disagreement. I suggested Lake District, while Staffan suggested France. In fact, he suggested Alsace before he figured out that it would take us three days to get there. I suggested Lake District because my idea of a holiday right now was a long walk every day, preferably in an aesthetically enjoyable environment. Staffan did a web search finding lovely places for £400 a night, and although I enjoy luxury every now and then, I prefer spending my money on more pleasurable things than just a place to sleep. By serendipity, there was a National Trust broschure lying in the hall, which I was about to throw away, but a feature on Lake District caught my attention, and I gave it Staffan without any further thought. He found a web address to NT holiday cottages and spent some hours talking to various people in the booking office, since it was too late to book online. For some reason, he started looking for places in Cornwall. I saw in my mind endless beaches, which says how poor my geography is. Everything he inquired about, based on enticing names such as Captain's Quarters, was not suprisingly, rented out, so I told him just to ask what was available, anywhere. After more lengthy phone calls we had a cottage waiting for us in a place, like in Roald Dahl'd BFG, beyond the last page of the atlas. I had no time to do my homework because I had to finish all urgent matters before we went since the description of the place said “mobile access restricted”, implying that internet access was non-existent.

Off we went on Wednesday morning, and although Staffan had told me that it was 500 kilometres from Cambridge to Cornwall it somehow didn't get into my mind. We have this distorted image of “the little island”, and in the first place everything south of London is around the corner, so it is hard to imagine that Cornwall is as far away as Scotland. Or as far away as from Stockholm to Denmark.

I don't know what I had expected, but when we finally drove down what felt a narrow cow path to the little cottage by a tidal creek, I felt at once that I had come to the right place. My mobile phone had no signal. We were cut off from civilisation.

Staffan had driven all the way and was tired, but I went out for the first exploration, climbing up the steep bank of the creek. The trail was well marked, but I didn't want to walk too far without knowing where it would take me so I went back and sat on the stone steps by the creek watching a flock of ducks. In front of my eyes, the tide turned. There is nothing more peaceful than watching the tide come in, and it had been a very long time since I did it last. And I had never watched a tidal creek. I could have sat there for hours, only I had to get out pretty quickly since the tide was coming in fast. We had come at the lowest water. It was soon high. I felt incredibly happy.

The cottage had heaps of maps, guidebooks and walk descriptions. I read them all before I went to bed.

Mohun: low and high water

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book of the week: Four children and it

I don't like sequels to famous books written by other writers. I dislike them so much that I have written a academic essay about them: sequels to Anne of Green Gables and Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh. If course, it being an academic essay, I cannot just say that it's rubbish or wrong or morally unacceptable, but must provide solid academic argument. Which I hope I do.

If I were writing this essay today, I would use Jacqueline Wilson's sequel to Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It as an example of a hugely successful endeavour. Can it possibly be because Jacqueline Wilson is such a brilliant writer?

I won't give you any spoilers, because if you, like myself, love Five Children and It, you will start smiling already on the first page.

If you haven't read Five Children and It, you must read it first because otherwise you miss the point. So now, you have two book tips for the price of onw.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Final straight

If you have never written an academic book... but if you are an academic you may have written a thesis or an essay, and if you are not there may be some other activity you will recognise in my agony. I have almost finished a book. It was a very difficult book to write, and I am quite pleased with it - at least for the moment, which might change by tomorrow. Almost finished means that the chapters and even the Introduction and Conclusion are done, but what remains is the boring yet important details such as bibliography and punctuation. For this particular book, I have annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter, which is more work than just a straightforward list of references. Everything mentioned in chapters must also go to the general bibliography at the end of the book, in correct format. (Don't tell me that there is software for this. I have seen student bibliographies generated by software). 

I have made life hard for myself by having lots of special features in this book, such as boxes and quotes. Most quotes come naturally, but when you need just this one little quote it can take hours. I know exactly where I've put it, and I can't find it. The only reasonable solution: delete.

Deleting is inevitable at this stage, and only I will ever know what has never made it into the book. What was hiding behind the notes to myself: Develop! Expand! Explain! With the deadline threatening, I cannot afford developing, so deleting is the option. There is a life after a book.

And of course I am eating my words: how many times have I told students to do everything correct from the beginning! So why I am now sitting hour after hour moving fullstops and commas inside the quotation marks?

Friday, 7 September 2012


Cambridge is a very attractive place for academic visitors. I get at least one inquiry a week about coming to us as a visiting scholar. Most of them are of the kind: "Dear Professor, I deeply admire your work and would like to collaborate. My subject is microbiology". Then you know that they have sent the same message to five thousand random email addresses. Some are: "Dear Professor, I am impressed by the quality of research at your institution. My subject is second-language acquisition in rural school in South Georgia". Then I know that they have possibly read the Faculty web page and seen my name as Chair. In fact, they are right in approaching me as Chair. I forward them to colleagues for whom language acquisition in South Georgia may be a matter of life and death. I leave it to them to make a decision, but as Chair, I have to approve the decision before it goes futher to Research Committee. We only can host a limited number visitors at any given time, and we want the best ones. It is, however, not always easy to know who is the best unless you know the person or their work. I once made a mistake of supporting an application from a young colleague who looked good on paper. When she arrived, her English was non-existent, but I thought she would apply herself and improve it. She didn't come to seminars or other events. Halfway through the year, I invited her to lunch to hear how she was doing. She was doing fine. She was enjoying herself. What she was working on? She hadn't come to Cambridge to work! I remember when I was a visitring professor in San Diego the Department Head had to validate my visa after six months to confirm that I was actually doing what I had claimed to be doing.

Most visitors are interesting and contribute a lot. They add their own perspective and question our ethnocentric views. One visitor, after a long animated discussion of a brilliant newly published young adult novel, suddnely said: "I have only read the first fifty pages, and I think it is a very bad book. I didn't understand anything". It was a bit embarrassing, but at least she was candid.

Some visitors are overambitious and want to sit in every class. Normally I have nothing against it, but on some occasions, when I only had a very small group, a visitor can be disruptive, and I had to say, sorry, no. Some visitors are preoccupied with their own research, and I have to chase them. We usually ask a visitor to do a seminar if they want. Some are very eager, some reluctant. Some make friends, some don't. Some bring their families. Some make the most of their time in the UK and go all over the place to conferences.

When a visitor arrives, there are a number of formalities, such as getting office keys, email account and library card. Some visitors manage all by themselves, some need assistance. Some need a lot of assistance. Not because they are stupid, but because the system is so complicated. I remember only too well how it felt four years ago when I was new.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Parallel life

By the way, please visit my new blog.

Teacher's pride

Many years ago, in my previous life, somebody up there decided that universities needed to be managed like industry and business, and my whole department was sent to a worskhop where we learned that students were our customers and that we were delivering services. I don't think anyone was persuaded, but one question raised at that workshop was extended customer support. Did we know what happened to our students after they had taken their degree? Did we advertise our degree as having high employability? My colleagues looked at each other and at the workshop leaders and said that they had no idea. I couldn't let this just go by, so I waved my hand and said that I knew very well what happened to my students. They were all over the place: in publishing houses, research libraries, Swedish Children's Book Institute, Swedish Institute for Cultural Affairs, newspapers and cultural magazines, radio and TV, book award juries, and some had become successful children's writers. My colleagues stared at me. Apparently, we hadn't taught the same students.

I remembered this today when I saw a former student who has become a prominent figure at a major children's publisher. One of those things that make this job worth while.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

First day of school

Today is the first of September, which in my childhood was, and as far as I know still is in Russia, the first day of school. The scene of so many children's books: dramatic, full of hope and fear. Suddenly, when I think back, I realise that I missed on it. I never experienced the first day of school, except vicariously, through literature. My mother believed that school was unavoidable evil and the longer you could avoid it the better. There was a trend at the time so send kids to school as late as possible, which was fatal since you were then the oldest in your class, and that's just as good a reason to be bullied as any other. By seven, when school normally started in Russia, I could read fluently and had already self-published my Collected Works of prose, poetry and drama – in tiny booklets made of typewriter sheets that I pinched from my parents, neatly printed and illustrated. For some reason though my mother and my best friend's mother decided to keep us away from school for another year, and we came back from holiday ten days into September. It turned out that my friend's mother had changed her mind, and there was my best friend, a schoolgirl in uniform, with a school bag full of books, notebooks and pencils, and I, a nobody. Fortunately, my parents realised what a disaster it would have been and managed to get me into the same school. It wasn't easy because it was a very popular school, and there were already forty-five pupils in every class in my year (yes, you heard correctly, forty-five kids and one teacher). I can imagine that my grandfather promised the principal to donate a discarded piano from Moscow Conservatory of which he was Vice Chancellor; and I also remember that my mother gave lectures in art history to final-year pupils. That was quite normal in Russia.

So, hastily, I was equipped with a uniform, a school bag, pencils, pens, pen wipers (does anyone remember what pen wipers were?), and was dispatched off to school. Somebody must have taken me the first day, but I don't remember who it was, possibly the maid. And there I was, luckily with another newcomer, a boy, with whom I shared a desk at the far end of the classroom. The desk had an inkwell with horrible, diluted violet ink that tilted dangerously. Everything was slightly dangerous and unfamiliar: bells, breaks, lunch, stand up when called. My best friend sat in the front and already knew all the rules.

I don't think I was bullied more for starting late than I would have been otherwise. Throughout primary school I was kept at home once a week, ostensibly because of my poor health. You aren't popular for such things. I was also a top student, with straight As and all prizes at the end of each year. I wore glasses. I played the piano. I was bad at sports. I loved primary school because I had the most wonderful teacher in the world. In secondary, life became harder, but I emerged from it and have done quite well since then. And who knows what my life would have been if I did start school on the first of September like everybody else.