Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year resolutions

  • work less
  • replace broken glass in the greenhouse
  • get a smartphone (maybe)
  • start driving to Stansted on my own
  • work less
  • re-join the fitness club (no, too trivial)
  • put up the second tool panel in the utility room
  • visit Cornwall
  • work less
  • paint the window sills
  • resists temptations of conferences, festivals, juries, and editorial boards
  • drink less coffee
  • update my profile page
  • work less
  • reconcile with the fact that I will be sixty this year

Highlights of 2011

Looking back at the year that is just about to end, I state once again that it has been long. People always say that as you get older years just rush by, but they don't for me. I guess it's because I live an intense life, and each day is full of things.

I have re-read my blog posts for this year and found that I seldom write on actual events of my life, and the posts do not always reflect what is going on with and around me. I will have to rely on my memory (and my diary) to sum up the year.

The central family event was Julia's wedding. Jakob and Therese also got married. And three grandchildren entered the mysterious period of teen.

Some great people have died: Bo Carpelan, Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban. Two close friends from my youth died.

In terms of academic achievements, the year was meagre. No books, a handful of articles, some conference presentations. I didn't make much of my study leave. All the more joy from students, who win awards, get published, go through their vivas and submit their chapters. The PhD group is growing. We have still more applications for next year. There have been some set-backs at work, but that's not a proper subject for a New Year Eve chronicle.

I have travelled less than usual, clever girl, and mostly for work: Norway twice, Sweden, Finland, Germany; but the highlight was naturally the Amazonas. This had been my big dream for many, many years, and I still feel a bit empty when it has come true.

We finally put up my Tiffany lamp. We gave up on malfunctioning dishwasher and bought a new one. I have made some small improvements in the house and great improvements in the garden. I have done some more work on my various dollhouses and room boxes.

I have succumbed to Kindle, and I still love it. I haven't stopped reading printed books, and there is actually not a huge difference.

Julia and Pontus visited twice, Anton and Kory once together and Anton on his own again; and Agnes spent a delightful week with us. We also had more visitors, both colleagues and friends. We had families cat- and house-sitting while we were away. My bed-and-breakfast skills are getting better and better.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas horrors

Christmas is not about peace and quiet and family values. Christmas is a trial, an ordeal, and a matter of anxiety for any family. You start preparing long in advance. You make lists so as not to forget anyone. You swear over all those relatives who have everything. You try to remember what you gave them last year not to give the same again. You try to remember what they gave you last year not to give it back. You decide not to give any presents to adults, only to children. You consult the in-laws not to give the children the same thing from the wish-list. You see some things you really want to give someone and then have to give something to everyone. You try to remember what kind of wrapping paper your in-laws use so as to not use the same. You realise that you won't have time to write all Christmas cards and decide that this year you will just send an email greeting. Then you get lots of cards and feel bad.

If you host the Christmas meal you start worrying a month in advance that your new in-laws won't like your very very special inescapable all-time family favourite salad. You realise that your new in-laws have a completely different schedule for the holidays. That they exchange their presents on Christmas Eve morning/afternoon/evening/Christmas Day morning/evening while everybody knows that it must be done on Christmas Eve morning/afternoon/evening/Christmas Day morning/evening (delete as required). That they open all presents at the same itme, when they must be opened one at a time and admired. That the label should say who the present is from – or just say Merry Christmas from Santa. That wrapping paper should be immediately disposed of in a huge black bin liner, or smoothed out and saved for undefined purpose.

You realise that they decorate the tree together on Christmas Eve morning while in your family it is always decorated on the day before – or perhaps has already been decorated for a week. That they put all their decorations even on a minimal tree and hide it completely under tinsel. That they actually have an artificial tree and believe that a real tree in unecological. They won't tell you, but there will be a tension in the air, or a young innocent child will declare it in the middle of present-sharing.

You realise that your in-laws have their meal punctually at one/two/three/four/five/six and cannot imagine anything else. That they cannot imagine a Christmas meal without homemade meatballs/jellied fish/mashed turnips, and they would have brought their own of they had only known that there won't be any.

You worry that you haven't cleaned your house well enough for their keen eyes, that you haven't got special Christmas curtains, tablecloth and napkins, that they would have brought their special Christmas plates if they have only known...

You realise that they never watch your favourite Christmas programme, but have their own that they cannot live without. That they think that mulled wine is wrong for Christmas, but how can you image Christmas without Christmas pudding? That they always go to Evensong on Christmas Eve, right when your family watches the indispensable tv-programme, which, God forbid! cannot be recorded and wacthed later. That they sing their carols rather than listening to that wonderful CD. That they go to visit great-Aunt Drusilla on Christmas Day morning. That they have their special songs they sing over their herring, and you don't know the words. That they spend all Christmas Day doing a jigsaw puzzle. That they go for a walk even when it's freezing cold. That they feel offended when Father withdraws after the meal for his traditional Christmas nap. That the youngest child, and not the oldest female lights the candles. That the father of the family, and not the youngest child dives under the tree to share out presents. That you don't count how many presents you have got and compare to your sibling. That you don't open all presents on Christmas Eve morning so that half of the family have no presents under the tree. Sorry, I seem to have gone full circle.

For many years we tried to escape the anxieties of Christmas by going away. However, before going away we still had to invite the rest of the family to exchange presents and have a meal, and the whole nightmare was just shifted a week earlier.

You are bitter, upset and disappointed. You know that the way Christmas was celebrated in your family when you were a child is the only right way. That is, if your family celebrated Christmas at all.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


I posted a casual note on Facebook today, saying that an article had been accepted for publication. Within an hour, I had over twenty "likes". I am not sure how to interpret it. Had friends given up hope that I would ever be accepted? (No, I think they were sincerely enthusiastic).

I have several times written in this blog about being rejected and about other obstacles and disappointments in an academic career, so I will for once write about the joy of being accepted. You may think that after thirty plus years another accepted article would not matter that much, but it does. Anyway, this article does. Some articles matter more than other articles.

These days I mostly write on request, and book chapters rather than articles. It has happened to me that an article or chapter written on request got rejected, but it doesn't happen often because after all if they asked you they probably want your contribution. So it isn't a big surprise to have your work accepted, it's just a matter of doing it on time and to the best of your abilities, and being prepared to make some revisions, particularly if the editor is good. There is no article so perfect that it cannot be improved by advice from a good editor. A good editor is a blessing. A bad editor is a nightmare... err, I was going to be positive today.

When you are asked to contribute to a volume or a journal it is likely within your area of expertise. You are asked because the editor knows your work and wants you to do more of the same. It is flattering, but not necessarily challenging. I don't blame editors: they know what I have published, but not what I am currently doing secretly at my writing desk. Oftentimes I offer to write something slightly different, something looking forward rather than backward. Frequently I do a conference paper which I then revise for publication. But it does happen that you are invited to write something unexpected which makes you wonder: Why me? Can I really do it? How exciting!

I am enthusiastic about the accepted article because it matters a lot. Frankly, I don't remember when an article mattered that much, except for the first dozen or so, which all mattered a lot. This article matters because it is a new territory for me. Because I am not sure whether I am doing the right thing. Now I know that I am. It's very good for self-esteem that after thirty plus years I can come up with something new that at least two colleagues who don't know who the author is think worth publishing.

The bottom line is that no matter how many articles you have published there will always be this special one that makes you feel proud.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

What professors do during breaks

It is now holiday period, aka research period. The new term starts on January 16, and I don't have to go to work until then. However, I need to plan carefully how to make the most of my time. Some things are inevitable. I have to grade a pile of essays by Jan 9, and I have to read through a certain number of colleagues' collected works by Jan 19. The latter is part of the Faculty research assessment, and I really don't understand why it has to be done during the holiday season. But alas! this is not negotiable.

I have to make some progress on the book I am writing. If I make considerable progress on the book by mid-January I won't feel anxious about it anymore since I will have two more research periods before the deadline. The thing is, I'd much rather be working on a different book, but I must finish the first book because I have a contract. I may get a contract for the second book soon, and then I am in real trouble. Which means I really, really need to make good progress on the first book. For the second book, I am writing a number of papers that will hopefully develop into chapters. I need to keep the first and the second book separate because they are on different topics. It is difficult to keep two projects separate because they interfere with each other. It takes me at least a day to get into an ongoing project so I cannot afford jumping between the two.

I need to read through the pile of books I have been pushing aside for a while. Most of the books are related to the second project and therefore interfere with the first project. I need to read and re-read some books for the first project. (Are you still with me?) These options are negotiable, and I need to negotiate with myself. I can withdraw papers and cancel conferences. I don't have to sign the second contract. In fact, I can withdraw the first project, but my reputation will suffer. So I'd better make some progress...

I now know better than ever that I won't have time for research during full term. I need to plan. I don't want to plan. People who envy professors because they have long breaks are missing the point.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What professors do when they are not being professors

Believe me or not, but every now and then I take a break. Usually it happens when I have a visit, and that's exactly what happened last week. My dear childhood friend Alyona came to see me. We talk on Skype often and thus keep in touch, but some time ago we stated with amazement that we hadn't met for two long years.

I had carefully prepared for the visit by attending to all urgent business and putting off everything that was even slightly less urgent. I did check my email in case anyone wanted to give me the Nobel Prize (nobody did) but short of that I was away from the academic world.

Alyona had visited me twice before, and some years ago we spent ten days in London together, making all the tourist things so there is not much we haven't seen and done in London, and we had exhausted most of the options in and around Cambridge during her previous visits. Thus the first day we went to see the Vermeer exhibition and walked around in town. I had a concert ticket and we tried to get another one, but it was sold out. We were not tremendiously upset because by the time we came home we really didn't want to go anywhere again. We sat by the fire and had tea and talked.

The next day we went first to our local garden centre and got a Christmas tree, because I thought that, since she happened to be around almost at the right time, we could put up the tree a bit earlier this year. While we were at it, we bought some pansies for the garden, only we never got round to planting them (I did it after she had left). Instead we went to Ely and the market, and we got a Botanic Garden cake stand from the same lady I had bought two cups before. She didn't remember me but pretended she did and gave me £1 discount. I had been looking for a cake stand, but hadn't seen any that I liked. Just another useless object. It is perfectly fine to put cakes on an ordinary plate. Or is it?

The Fire Engine teashop was booked up again, but we went to another place that I like and had tea; and then we spent quite a long time in the big antique shop without any particular ideas in mind, but playing our favourite game: guessing what different objects are for. Do you know what "a single rose vessel" is? I do now. We bought it. We didn't go into the Cathedral at all.

The next day, which was a Sunday, and therefore I wanted to get away from Christmas crowds, we went to Royston. Now, Royston does not feature in guidebooks as a huge tourist attraction, and I wouldn't know about its existence if London trains didn't stop there every now and then. But Royston is the home of what boasts to be the largest dollhouse shop in Europe and therefore a great temptation which I have been fighting for the past two years. The thing is, I don't really want anything from there because I have stated once and for all that things I make are better and more imaginative, and yet... Anyway, we spent about two hours driving around on motorways and small roads, and once again I thought that a smartphone with GPS might be a good thing to put on Christmas wish list. Fortunately, Alyona is just like me in this respect. But we didn't give up and eventually found the d-d shop and even managed not to buy that much, except that I discovered that a revolution has occurred in dollhouse making, but this is another story. Back home, we made a miniature Victorian wine table and almost made a cake stand, and it was definitely a memorable day.

I didn't want to go to London, but I felt that Alyona did, so on Monday we went, but we didn't even try to see the da Vinci exhibition. Instead, we went to the British Museum where you always make a discovery. Mine was this time the colour schemes of Philipp Otto Runge, which I am sure I had seen before, but you need a little impulse to really notice something. Then we wandered through the Egyptian rooms, fascinating as ever; then we took a walk to Covent Garden and browsed through the market and went into the newly opened Moomin Store, and then I suddenly remembered the Transport Museum. I had been there before, with a grandchild who is passionate about trains, but I realised that I had recently read so many 19th-century English novels where they ride horse-and-carriage, omnibus and the railroad, and indeed the display made much more sense after this reading. I can warmly recommend this museum, but stay away from the cafeteria!

We had bought off-peak train tickets, so when we were finished with taxis and buses we still had three hours to kill and went to V&A. Yes, I know, three museums in a day is way too much, but you can always find something new to see at V&A or revisit an old favourite. And we played the "what-is-it" game again. I notice that I am more interested in material culture these days than in painting.

Speaking of which, we spent Alyona's last day in Cambridge shopping. She had to get some Christmas presents to take home, and I had saved my shopping to do it with her. If you have followed my blog for a while you know how much I hated shopping for my daughter's wedding, and although I had much more prosaic goals thsi time, I surely needed support. We had great luck and found a variety of tops on sale; I tried on eight and bought four of them, so it was time and money well spent.

Somewhere along the road we decorated the tree. During all these days we kept chatting as usual, and for once I feel that we have covered most of urgent issues, such as husbands, mothers, children, career, illness, ageing and lost illusions; although we have already Skyped and emailed about all the important things we had forgotten.

When I emerged from this time-out I felt that I had been away for years.

Book of the year

I was too quick to proclaim the best books of 2011. In fact, this is the best book of the year. Autofiction, metafiction, whatever, I don't care. It's witty, intricately crafted, powerfully engaging, self-ironic, reader-friendly and everything you want from a contemporary piece of prose. If you read Swedish - grab it! If not you'll have to wait until it is translated. Poor you.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Russell Hoban in memoriam

Another great children's author gone.

This is what I wrote in 1989.
The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

A large number of modern children's classics have recently been reprinted, which is more than welcome. Among them, The Mouse and His Child is far from a self-evident title. This book appears sparsely on recommendation lists and in textbooks. It must be one of the most underestimated masterpieces of children's literature.

There may be many reasons for this. The best-known and constantly reprinted books by Russell Hoban are his nice, simple picturebooks about the badger girl Frances. When you see another title mentioning nice animals, you may think that this is another book in the same style. But this is not the case. It is a long, sad, not to say tragic story about toys that are exposed to the fate of all toys when they get broken. If this book had not been published and marketed as a children's book, it would have become one of the greatest works of existentialism.

The plot is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," which I, strangely enough, have not seen any critic mention. The two toy mice have to go through many painful trials, through anxiety and sorrow, slavery and humiliation, actually through physical disintegration. They meet friends and enemies, but - as in real life, no villains are totally evil, and no friend is totally good and nice. The characters in the book are colorful and unique: the greedy slave-driver Manny, the unreliable Frog, the cunning thinker Muskrat, the self-centered poet Serpentina. The toys meet with much treachery and evil, but also loyalty and unselfish courage. During their adventures and bitter defeat the two mice sustain their longing for a home and their childish hope for a happy ending. It is not a coincidence that the mouse child is stronger in spirit than the father, and he never loses faith.

Hoban is a incredibly skillful writer. All details and events in the book are interconnected in a way that we normally associate with great mainstream novels. To let an empty can of dog food be the central symbol of the story would be daring even in an adult novel. The chapter about the Crows' Art Experimental Theater Group ought to be a universal classic.

The ending is happy in a way, at least from a young reader's viewpoint. Adult readers cannot but notice its deep tragic undertones. Nothing will ever be the same again - the toys can never become new again, just as humans cannot become young again.

The book is multidimensional and can be read at many different levels. As an exciting and moving fairy tale for the youngest. Or as a philosophical fable for teenagers and adults. It is possible that it will not be appreciated by children who believe that they have grown out of fairy tales, while they instead have not grown into them. In any case, children who will read Hoban's book perhaps need some help from adults. The book presents grateful material for discussions of essential life questions. What is beyond the last visible dog?

Opsis Kalopsis 1989:2

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Best books of 2011

This time of year, all media write about best books of the year. Here is my choice. Note: not the best books published in 2011, but the best books I read in 2011

Best novel: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Best classic: Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

Best humour: Jennings Goes to school, by Anthony Buckeridge

Best young adult novel: Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

Best picturebook: The Lost Thing, by Shaun Tan

Best nonfiction: The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

Best reference: The dictionary of imaginary places, by Alberto Manguel et al

Best literary criticism: Why do we care about literary characters? by Blakey Vermeule

Best on children's literature: Children's Literature: A very short introduction, by Kimberley Reynolds.

Best book I have contributed to: The Phantom Tollbooth, 50th anniversary edition, by Norton Juster

Best dollhouse book: The Authentic Georgian Dolls' Houses, by Brian Long

Best unexpected: Mathematics: A very short introduction, by Timothy Gowers

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Famous ladies

A very long time ago, two lives ago, the most famous paiting in the world was exhibited in Moscow. Mona Lisa of course. There were horror stories about queues, and it was in summer when my mother, who knew the ins and outs of Moscow museums, was away on holiday. We were a gang of friends eager to see one of the wonders of the world, so we got up very early one day and went to the museum to stand in line. There were about three million people who had the same idea; in fact, people would queue throughout the night. The ticket office opened at ten, by which time there were perhaps as many people behind us as in front of us, which is always inspiring. Queuing has its own rules, and with very long queues, peole have to take sanitary and nutritious breaks. I don't know how other people coped, but we would take turns to go home every now and then since we all lived close to the museum. There was no risk of missing the entrance since clever people had calculated how many metres of the queue would reasonably get through in an hour. However, by six in the evening, our area of the queue started getting nervous. The museum closed at eight. The line behind us began to disperse, except for the most persistent who determined to stay overnight. At a quarter to eight we had our coveted tickets, were admitted to the museum, run through narrow corridors like cattle, run past the painting hidden behind three layers of bullet-proof glass, and that was it.

Many years later, when I was in Paris, I considered going to the Louvre and see the lady properly, but in fact I didn't really feel like it. Besides, I had by then encountered my true love. Lady with an Ermine didn't cause half a much fuss in Moscow. There were reasonable queues, but once you were there, you were allowed to stay as much as you liked, which I did. And I came back. And came back again. Some years later I was in Krakow, the home of the Lady, and I even have a photo of me in front of it. Then it came to Stockholm.

It is now in London, and I was stupid enough to believe that I could go and see it whenever I wanted. But all advance tickets are sold, and the website warns that the queues may be three hours long. For someone who has queued twelve hours to run past Mona Lisa it doesn't sound too bad. My childhood friend is coming to visit next week, and I think we'll go to see Lady with an Ermine. We usually chat aroung the clock when we meet, so we can just as well chat while we queue.

Book of the week: The Morville Hours

I am always glad when a friend recommends a book that I would have never discovered on my own. Why on earth would I pay attention to the title The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden? Well by chance perhaps, searching for something on gardenin, but I don't think I would believe that the book was something for me. But a friend whose opinon I value has recommended it, and it had been on my Shelfari list for ages before I discovered, last week, that it was available on Kindle and bought it. Kindle is dangerous, much too easy to buy. 

I don't know how to characterise the book - perhaps I have never read anything lke it. I don't read a lot of nonfiction (except for professional literature), and this isn't pure nonfiction either. It's autobiography, popular history, popular everything - a bit like Bryson's A short history of everything - a bit of this and a piece of that, classic mythology and Christian saints; painting and geology, gardening manual and family story. It is superficially about making a garden, and I feel envious when I read that she planted 600 yew trees. Not that I would have space for them, but planting trees presupposes that you expect to see them grow. It becomes clear eventually that the garden took her twenty years to complete, full-time. I feel more envious because I do not have the necessary twenty years, and the trees I planted twenty years ago are left behind (she writes about it as well). 

What I enjoyed most is her elegant writing, the neatness with which she weaves in all the scores upon scores of side stories, known and less known facts, sensitive personal memories and poetry quotations and philosophical reflections. I never expected to enjoy a nonfiction book for the quality of prose. And you don't have to love gardening to enjoy it.

Friday, 2 December 2011

What professors do in the last week of term

I have repeatedly commented on the brevity of Cambridge terms: Michaelmas has just sbout started, and incredibly, today is the last day of term, and some students have already left. Last week of term is stressful because all students submit their essays at the same time, and some of them seem to only have discovered on Monday that the essays were due on Friday at 4pm (which in Cambridge means Friday 4 pm, not 4:01pm) and of course they panic, and of course I have to balance between threat and reassurance.

So the week has been stressful. After a relaxing weekend, with some gardening (yes, last weekend of November!) and some baking, I had huge plans for Monday, to do some work of my own, but -surprise! - essays came tumbling into my email box, and good ones may take an hour to read, while poor ones, that need lots of comments, may take anything up to five-six hours. But most of my precious time on Monday went to writing various administrative reports, which, believe me or not, was a useful exercise, although completely exhausting.

On Tuesday I had a registration viva, which means that a PhD student goes over from probation to regular PhD status. For my part, it involved reading a 20,000-word document finding all possible faults in it in a way that would be helpful for the student. It is a very stimulating task, especially since there are two assessors, and you have a chance to discuss with a colleague the strength and weakness of the project. There was no doubt that the student would pass.

Then I had a supervision session with one of those desperate students who still hadn't produced much of the essay due on Friday at 4pm; and after that my favourite class on picturebooks, the one in which I pour a pile of books on the table and let the students explore. There is always something new I learn from them, and this time I learned two new things about a book I have taught for the past ten years, whitten about a dozen times and thought I knew inside out. I enjoyed the class - I hope the students did too. After the class, since it was the last class of term, we had tea and cakes with the students, but there was still some business to be done, yet another desperate student who was about to submit her PhD proposal and needed help, right then. The day was concluded by a seminar on Caribbean poetry, with recitals, music and almost dancing. It can be argued that it's not really work, and yet...

On Wednesday, I was on strike. I think, first time ever. Somehow I had always missed strike actions. But this time we had cancelled classes, supervisions, meetings, a research seminar and an end-of-term party, most of which would have been pleasurable things, so it wasn't a easy decision to make. But I believe in solidarity. And I really and honestly did not work that day.

Which of course made Thursday a nightmare. For instance, I had been wondering over a mystical event in my diary next week, with a vague memory of having promised to do something for somebody, and fortunately this somebody emailed me a reminder on Wednesday evening, so I had to prepare that. I had also realised that I needed to apply for my next study leave, in Lent 2013, NOW! Which takes some time, because you have to collect signatures of all course managers stating that you are not indispensible. Then, as usual, when you least expect it, a copy-edited article that you have given up on for the last year, comes and needs immediate attention; and another copy-edited article that does not need any attention but still needs to be opened and read through. Another desperate student draft, a bunch of reference letters, a telephone interview for The Guardian on why today's children like books about idyllic past. And a very, very long conversation over lunch, which is, as I have explained many times, a significant part of my job. The day concluded with a social event for all PhD students in my academic group, which to my joy was highly appreciated, and people stayed for much longer than I had expected and seemed to have fun talking to each other.

Today, Friday, another student draft in the morning; research team meeting - very fruitful; more references and applications, written report from Tuesday's viva, a colleague's book launch, some more admin. And the highlight of the week: the Jacqueline Wilson Award Ceremony. Last year, Jacqueline Wilson could not attend the ceremony because of a snow storm. Today I was anticipating railway strikes, floods, earthquakes - but she arrived safely, and all went well, and the winner was radiant, and the current masters students watched enviously, but one of them will get the award next year.

That was the last week of term. On Monday, there will be a pile of essays to grade in my pigeonhole; a meeting with my Head of Faculty; more applications and references; College Governing Body Meeting and dinner. Tuesday: meeting with a visitor from South Africa and Faculty Academic Staff meeting; Wednesday, a workshop; about a hundred accumulated emails to reply to (as of today; by Monday there will be more). First round of general Faculty assessment; academic group long-term strategy statement; a research grant apllication, quality assessement, moderation meetings. So much for short terms and long breaks. Happy holidays!