Thursday, 21 October 2010

Tactile pleasures

For over two years, since we have moved here, I have been looking for a place to do some pottery. Like my many other hobbies, such as papermaking or dollhouses, throwing is a late passion, or perhaps latent passion: I had always wanted to do it, but didn't know how to start. Once again, it was my wonderful daughter Julia who inspired me. Some years ago she simply found a studio near to where she lives, booked us into a week course, and there we were. As usual, she was brilliant, and I was worthless. It took me several courses to learn how to wedge and more before I could make something that looked even distantly like a pot. (Julia was by then making elaborate teapots and engobe mugs). I am just not good at it. But I like it. It makes me happy. (It makes me frustrated when a pot collapses, but it's a healthy frustration). As with papermaking and many other things, it cleans your mind. You cannot think about supervisions or deadlines when you are throwing.

Anyway, two long years I have been looking for a place to throw, and all the time it was within reach. I searched the web for vacation courses and weekend courses, and asked friends. I just couldn't believe that Cambridge wouldn't have a pottery place. And finally...! I was telling someone at a party, for umpteenth time, that I was looking for a pottery course, and this someone wondered whether I had asked a certain colleague at the Faculty. One underestimates colleagues. Or perhaps it's my lack of imagination. I think of colleagues as academics. But some of my colleagues are actually artists. So when I asked my artist colleague whether he knew of a place where I could do some throwing, he took me to the Faculty art studio, showed me a Very Lonely Wheel in a corner and said: "It's all yours".

Today I had my first go. I was apprehensive because it had been two years, and I was never good to begin with. But I thought that there was nobody there to judge me and I could sit there as long as I pleased without making anything worth saving and anyway I don't care. I brought a pair of very old jeans and a t-shirt. I changed in the corner by the wheel. There was no one there. Just the huge studio with large windows, and me and my wheel. Now, the only throwing I had ever done was on an electric wheel, and this one wasn't. It's an additional effort to coordinate the foot and the hands. I had thought it would be hopeless. In fact, it went quite fine. Ah, the feeling of clay on your hands! The memory stored in the hands and suddenly pouring out, and you know that something is wrong although not exactly how to make it right. The peace of the huge, empty studio, the humming of the wheel, the clay on hands. I didn't save the two pots I made, but it doesn't matter. It's the process, not the result. I could have stayed there for hours.

It took a long time to clean up the mess. Then I changed back into my professorial attire and left the studio without anyone seeing me. Or so I hope.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Paper pleasures

I wonder whether any girls today play with paper dolls. Why would they when they have Teletubbies or whatever they have these days. Shame because it is such fun with paper dolls. I made some for the oldest granddaughter when she was five and visited in San Diego. She was delighted and packed them carefully to take home to Sweden. She had never seen a paper doll before.

When I was young, every girl with self respect had dozens of paper dolls and boxes upon boxes of clothes. Sometimes dolls could be found inside chocolate bar wrappers, but mostly we would draw them, copy the best from each other and make all those clothes with tabs to fold over the doll. There was scope for imagination! All the clothes that we couldn't even dream of we gave to our paper dolls. We never had problems with keeping us busy on rainy days - long, long time ago, before computers and videos, almost before television (there was one channel, with children's hour at six).

The reason I indulge in these idyllic memories is that one of the dollhouse magazines I bought yesterday has cutouts of Victorian paper dolls. It surely kept me busy this evening. (But I think I deserve it, after a day of personal-statement writing - see my previous post).

Self assessment

I am spending - wasting, as it were - a beautiful autumn Sunday writing an annual report. Of course it's my own fault, I shouldn't have put it off until the very last days, but, frankly, writing annual reports is absolutely the worst part of being an academic, worse even that Quality Assurance and Grade Adjudication put together. And it's not just the regular Faculty audit where all you have to do is move "in press" to "published", "under review" to "in press" and "in preparation" to "under review", plus invent something to put under "in preparation" that you can hopefully move to "under review" next year.

It is not even an annual report. It is a biennial report, summing up my achievements since I came here two years ago. I thought that when I reached the height where I am now, all this would be over and done with. I cannot climb higher (because I don't want to be Head of Faculty, or Head or School, or Second Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor twice removed). I cannot be fired. Let me be. But no, I must write this report, with everything I've done since I came here - I wish I've kept track - with a list of publications, five most important highlighted, two academic referees from Cambridge-acknowledged institutions who must know me well, but not too well, and the worst of all, a personal statement. I am sure there are services on internet that write personal statements for anyone, although I wouldn't quite trust them. But if I could pay somebody, from the pay increment I might get through this painful exercise, to do this for me! I find it tediuos and humiliating. I understand it is necessary - or is it? So many hours, days, perhaps weeks spent every year in academia to write these reports that will be scrutinised by numerous committees, and how many hours and days do I spend writing references for other people going through the same process. Perhaps I would not make a sensational scientific discovery today, Sunday, instead of writing my report. On the other hand, who knows? I am not sure whether it was on a Sunday that Newton was hit on his head by that famous apple, but surely he was sitting and meditating in one of Cambridge's many pretty gardens rather than writing an annual report.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Perfect seeing

The seeing is good tonight. Mind, it is not good sight or good vision. Good seeing is astronomy jargon that I have learned recently and therefore use with the novice's delight. Good seeing means that the air is clear and transparent. Preferably, you should be high up in the mountains. Cambridgeshire has bad seeing by definition. It has nothing to do with your telescope, or your eyesight, and you can have good seeing when it's cloudy. Seeing gets good after it has rained heavily, like today, so that all small particles of pollution have been washed away. My friend Jupiter is high over horizon which makes good seeing. One of its moons is in transit, which means that it moves in front of it. I cannot see it in my telescope, but I can see the other three moons. And I think I can see Uranus. Uranus is very hard to find unless you know where it is, and right now it is very close to Jupiter. There are no other bright stars near Jupiter, and from the star chart, Uranus should be where I can see it. It looks like a star in my scope, much too far away to see a disc. 

To view the Horsehead Nebula you need exceptional seeing. I don't think I will ever get that far.

Fun in town

As I have stated repeatedly, we very seldom go to town, which is solely laziness and lack of imagination. I was glad when Morag suggested that we go our for afternoon tea in town, although Saturday afternoon is perhaps not the best time from the parking perspective. I knew it would be tough and had a wide margin, but it took me about half an hour to get from the side street into the parking structure. At least the cars were moving, albeit slowly, so I knew from previous experience that sooner or later I'll be there. Somebody will eventually leave. It's just the matter of finding that single space in the six-storey structure. I had plenty of time and only two things to do, one of which was to collect the red-dot finder for my telescope from a shop, which went smoothly even though I had lost the receipt. The young man in the shop remembered me (shall I be flattered? He probably remembered that nuisance of an old lady). The second task was a bank and I didn't have much hope of finding an open bank on a Saturday afternoon, but I did.Yet another thing to cross out from the To-Do list.

With still half an hour to spend, I walked slowly around, browsed the market stalls, wandered, completely by chance, into a bookshop, toward the magazine shelf, and bought not just one and not even two but three dollhouse magazines - but I was a good girl and bought no books. Crowds, crowds, vibrant city, gorgeous in the sun that suddenly appeared after a heavy shower.

The eclairs in the tea shop, Pattiserie Valerie, tasted childhood. 

Friday, 15 October 2010

You are the headmaster

"Mother, I don't want to go to school! The teachers are nasty, the kids bully me, the food is horrible. I don't want to go to school!" "But you must - you are the headmaster".

Is it just me who admits the agony of the first week of classes, are everybody just pretending? This first decisive hour of meeting a new bunch of students: will they like me? Will they respect me? Will I be exposed as a bluff who doesn't really know all those things I claim to know (apparently a very common feeling, even among the most confident public figures)? Will they notice that I missed my hairdresser appointment and my hair looks like a crow's nest (and will they notice next week that I have had a haircut)? Are they scrutinising my jacket rather than listening to my explications? Do they think my ear-rings are ridiculous? Do they wish they had never chosen this class? Do they feel my anxiety? Do they realise how vulnerable I am? Are they irritated by my gesticulation (get something to hold on to)? Are they disturbed by my accent? What if I start talking to them in a wrong language (has happened)? Monolingual people have no idea how tiresome it is to speak a foreign language all the time, even if you've done it for forty years. Still more two foreign languages. Do they hate my jokes (never try to make a joke in a foreign language)? Are they making fun of me when I am not looking? Are they just being polite, suppresing the desire to shoot pencils at me? Are they relieved when we finish?

The week is over. Whatever I've done wrong, whatever the impression the students now have of me makes no difference. You either win or lose, nothing in between. So the agony is gone.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


Last Monday I went to London - not to look at the Queen, but to give a talk at Roehampton university. The first time I didn't get to Roehampton was many years ago when I was invited to give a talk, but it turned out that there was a general strike on that day, so the university was closed. I spent the day with Kim Reynolds. I had not met Kim before, and we had arranged the talk over email. In fact, she invited me to stay with her in Lewes where she lived then. I remember I thought: "This person invites a total stranger to stay with her - I like it!"

I flew to Gatwick and stayed the first night at an airport hotel because I was going to Cardiff early in the morning (I missed my train and never gave that talk, but that's another story). I got back from Cardiff well over midnight and wondered how I would get in touch with Kim: it was long before mobile phones. Very early in the morning, earlier than I wished to be awake, there was a phone call, and Kim arranged for us to meet in a cafe by National Theatre. I was a bit perplexed by the choice of meeting place, but why not (since then, I've been to this cafe several times, it's really nice). Again, we had not met, but we figured out who we were, had our coffee, went to the Museum of Childhood and then took the train to Lewes. It was so absurd that it was wonderful. It is a long journey from London to Lewes. The train was full to the brim, so we couldn't even talk. It was late when we arrived, but it was a perfect evening. Very early in the morning Kim had to go to London after she had directed me to the local bookstore where I spent some time before I caught my train to Clapham Junction where I changed for Reading. I had never changed so many trains in so few days.

About that other story: I missed my morning train from Gatwick to Reading, where I was to change for Cardiff, because the hotel reception gave me wrong information. The railway officer advised me to take a train to London Victoria, underground to Paddington, train to Reading and perhaps catch the train I was originally supposed to take. It was madness, but sort of a challenge. Of course I didn't catch that train. Since it was long before mobile phones I had no chance to call Cardiff to say I would possibly be late. I had no time to stop and call from a phone booth. Well, I missed that talk, but I had some great time in Cardiff, only it turned out that the train I was to take back to Reading to change to Clapham Junction... are you still with me? - well, that train didn't stop at Reading, so it was all the way to London, Paddinston, underground, Victoria, Clapham Junction. I was younger then, too.

I finally got to Reading which was why I came to the UK in the first place, and it felt good to know that there would be some days before I had to get on the train again.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Two books of two weeks

I have now read two more YA books that Marilyn recommended at the conference last month and that I am sure I would never have discovered on my own. In fact, both covers would have efficiently put me off, even though I see how they might be attractive for the target audience.

After I had read a page and a half of Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, I knew I would enjoy every page of it, no matter the subject. It was so beautifully written. And the subject is still darker than Forbidden. The book starts with incest and rape, and you just wonder where it can go from there. Yet there is no explicit language; but it is told in a way that makes you understand what is happening and how abominable it is. Multiple narrators and multiple perspective, and you never quite know who is speaking. Many intertwined stories to keep track of. Subtle boundaries between dream and reality (and the reality itself is unreal), ambivalent human-animal metamorphosis, and all the time you think: all right, this is the ending, what is going to happen on the remaining 200 pages? And, when you have reconciled with the idea that the ultimate ending will be conventional, everything is suddenly put upside down again. A book full of surprises. A book full of allusions. A masterpiece all the way through.

Kevin Brooks' iBoy also starts with rape. I don't mind as long as it is not “a book about rape”, which it isn't. Actually its aboutness (fascinating jargon, isn't it) is irrelevant. But it is of being human, in the best sense of the notion. Crafted skilfully as a thriller – I literally couldn't put it away, kept reading well beyond midnight, which is exceptionally rare with me. Making use of something indispensible for today's young readers (three years from now, its sci-fi premise may either feel outdated or a horrifying truth). Posing all the BIG questions recognisable from YA fiction, but in a new angle. The question that kept coming to me was: How is the author going to manage the ending? I was disappointed because it was too neat for the unendurable tension of the story. Yes, I know all about not leaving young readers without hope, but it felt too easy. The BIG questions are not resolved.

Still, reading two excellent books within two weeks is more than I can remember.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

To be continued

So J. K. has confirmed something that most of us know: it is possible to write sequels to completed sagas. And not only sequels, but prequels, sidequels and all other quels that have become so tremendously popular.

Some time before the publication of the ultimate Harry Potter volume, the largest Swedish daily asked me to comment upon the speculations whether Rowling intended to let Harry die. Ostensibly she had said that it was right to kill off the protagonist, so that nobody could write a sequel.

As if this had ever stopped literary thieves.

But it is surely more appropriate for Rowling to supply the missing bits herself. For instance, a book, or preferably several, about Harry's life before he learned that he was a wizard. Nice books about his everyday adventures with the abominable cousin. There is perhaps less suspense in everyday events than in Harry's breath-taking escapades at Hogwarts, but that should not be a problem for a skilful writer like Rowling, and genuine fans want to know everything about their idol. If it is possible to publish Scarlett's Childhood for Gone with the Wind fans, why not Harry's Childhood?

A series of at least five books can tell us about Harry's parents, especially his father's pranks of which we have seen glimpses throughout the saga. Details about his friendship and rivalry with Harry's teachers will certainly be appreciated by many readers. In this series, the erotic aspect can be developed that was lacking in the original books. Further, both Dumbledore and Snape justify a multivolume narrative.

Hermione, Ron and Ginny can have their own series each, and the Weasley twins will be popular, as literary twins always are. Unfortunately, Mergione's Mission and Sen Awesley's Twelve Deeds have already been written by an inventive Russian team, but otherwise the sky is the limit. Moreover, Hermione has the magic hourglass that allows her to be simultaneously in two places, so she can have twice as many volumes as Ron. If Harry borrows the hourglass, his seven years in school can be described all over again, in a parallel dimension.

Harry Potter's Cook Book and Harry Potter's Feng Shui will sell well, and so will The Secret Diary of Harry Potter, Aged 13 and ¾, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Muggle.

But the best pursuit is of course the fates of Harry's children. It turns out that just before his demise Voldemort secretly fathered a daughter who twenty years later seeks revenge. The gender aspect will give this series of twelve books a fresh and modern tone.
If this sounds too much for a lifetime, there are many models of ghost writer teams producing five books every month. These should preferably be well educated and versed in myths as well as world literature to satisfy the expectations set up by Rowling's ingenious allusions. A lucrative field for redundant professors of literature.

PS All ideas in this blog post are copyright-protected and on offer for the highest bid. Proposals below six digits will not be considered.

Skip religion and get some honey

Yesterday was season's first Fellow's dinner at Homerton College where also new Fellows were sworn in. When I was sworn in exactly a year ago, there was a little card from which I had to read my oath. It was concluded by "...a place of knowledge, learning and research". It turned out some months later that this card was irretrievably lost, and for subsequent swearing in, a new card was produced, with a text from Statutes, with the concluding formula read as "knowledge, learning, religion and research". I remember saying to someone by my side that I was glad religion wasn't mentioned when I was sworn in. Apparently, I wasn't the only one to react. At yesterday's ceremony, the Principal said to the new Fellows: "The oath mentions religion - if you are uncofmortable with it, skip it".

On the table, alongside glasses of champagne there were jars of honey produced on the premises by our fantastic biology Fellow, for sale at a reasonable price.