12 December 2008

Follow Up

Tonight as I was walking through Clare College (in my opinion the most harmonious and lovely of all the colleges) I heard a man say into his cell phone, "Well, I believe what comes around goes around..."  For some reason this made me think of my last post and laugh.

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10 December 2008


Almost all my adult life, I've mused on the question of whether people who behave badly toward other people, or who make what these days are called "bad choices" actually are unhappier than other people.  My mother firmly believes that people who are mean or unkind, or who behave cruelly to others without caring, are actually sadder than people who do not -- that is, that they carry a sadness they are somehow aware of, and it sort of niggles at them and makes them unhappy, even if they think unhappy is "the way I am," or even if they can't identify the source of the niggling/sorrow.  But I'm not sure that's true. I'm not saying I believe it's not true, but I've known a lot of people who behaved badly, or rudely, or stupidly, towards others, and they don't seem sadder than anybody else.  In fact, sometimes they seem happier - perhaps because they've managed to build up such a successful carapace that they don't notice how they're acting.

A more difficult question, though, is what happens to people who make unwise choices.  I think here, for example, of people who don't take chances.  Now, those people certainly have smaller lives than people who do take chances, which seems sad.  But a part of me is inclined to say that those people are in fact perhaps happier than those who take chances.  If you think, "Well, I could go to the city, or I could stay here on the farm," and you choose to stay on the farm because it's familiar and safe, aren't you happier?  You've stayed somewhere familiar and safe, and you've never run the risk of encountering sorrow in the city.  Sure, your life is empty of what you might have found in the city, but if you think what you have is good, are you really emptier because of what you've possibly missed?

And of course I wonder this most of all with relationship choices.  My best friend told me once that she believed many, if not most, people who were in relationships were in unhappy relationships, or were unhappy in their relationships:  I took this to mean that they had festering issues, or that they'd chosen someone they had later come to dislike, but stayed with them out of fear.  But there are also frequent instances of someone taking the first person they can find, even if that person is not what they would have wanted, and I had a therapist once who told me a study had determined that most people simply end up with someone who lived near them:  what people seem to use as the most deciding factor is propinquity.  I knew someone once who told me that for the last two years he'd been with his ex-girlfriend he'd been angry. And my ex-boyfriend J. told me earlier this year that he was moving in with the woman he'd been seeing for x number of years, and that he supposed they'd become engaged shortly after and then get married, although he "wasn't looking forward to the marriage."  In both of these latter cases, I'd say the relationship (or any future relationships, in case A) were going to be unhappy.  If you aren't looking forward to getting married (and, well, the structure of J's remark suggested to me that he retained serious issues with intimacy), then I don't think your marriage will be particularly happy (although we should cut some slack for the possibility that after you get into it you find you love it).  If you stay in a relationship angry for two years, that suggests you have some difficulty articulating your emotions, not to mention lack the courage to exit a bad relationship, and that suggests you're going to have relationships full of pent-up rage and sorrow, which would seem to suggest you would be unhappy in them (although we should cut some slack for the possibility that you might meet someone you'll be less angry with).

But...what if that's not true?  What if people find some equilibrium, as we all do, and that equilibrium is simply lower?  J. is unhappy to get married, but what if he accepts that getting married is something you do, and he does it, and that unhappiness gets balanced against other things, and gets balanced out?  I would say, "Get yourself some therapy to figure out why you don't want to get married, deal with your problem, and then you'll be happy," but maybe I'd be wrong.  What if Case A simply goes through life ignoring his rage - or dissatisfaction - so that it becomes a kind of dull background that he lives with?  Isn't he then happy?  If your unhappiness is ignored, or if you think of it as something that is your lot, aren't you then happy?  What if all those people who opt for the safe relationship over the potentially fabulous one, and thus never know how fabulous their lives might have been, are happy in their safety? - After all, they'll never know what they're missing.

Most people aren't risk-takers; my therapist told me that, too.  Yet most people are happy.  Are they less happy than risk-takers?  We're all encouraged to become cultured, and intellectually rich, yet the fact is that if you do become cultured and intellectually rich you seriously decrease your circle of possible friends.  This would seem to suggest that the unenlightened are in fact better off than the enlightened.  People who stand up for themselves in relationships, and people who don't want to get married and thus don't, end up alone.  That would seem to suggest that people who keep their mouths shut or accept fundamentally sucky things are happier than those who don't (bear in mind here that I'm not talking about accepting stuff you don't like about your partner and learning to live with it; everyone does and ought to do that.  But marrying someone when you're reluctant to get married strikes me as potentially much more major than accepting your partner's ugly jumpers or hacking cough).

I guess I'm inclined to believe that people who lead limited lives, or repressed lives, are unhappy and know it.  But I believe that because, as a person who doesn't lead a limited or repressed life, and a person who is alone and unhappy, it's in my interest to believe other people are more unhappy than I.  You know, the English complain and whine all the time to each other, but never to the authorities, and I find that unfathomable.  If you don't like a situation, do something to change it in some active way (and if that doesn't work you've earned the right to whinge).  But they certainly like moaning to each other; are they less happy than I, who try to change situations, can't change them, and am angry about it?

Perhaps you have to take the measure of yourself.  Perhaps J. knows he doesn't want to get married, but also knows he doesn't want to be alone, so he accepts that he'll be unhappy in a tiny way but the result will balance it out.  Perhaps Case A knows it would be better if he spoke his anger, but it's more important to him to be with the person, or he also knows he's not the sort of person who can risk speaking negative emotions, so he accepts the unhappiness for the greater contentment.

I was watching Pushing Daisies tonight, and one of the characters said, "You no good to somebody else unless you're good being with just you," and I thought what wise advice that was, and how true (inner resources making the success of the outward-directed person).  But thinking it over it seemed to me that people who are no good at being with just themselves are always with someone else; they're never alone.  So one conclusion would be, They're less lonely. 

I don't know.

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08 December 2008


Today for the first time the frost stayed on the ground all day.  Frost freezes the grass, of course, so when you walk over it it feels crunchy beneath your feet. I love that sensation, and feeling it reminded me (as if I need reminding) of how much I love snow.  When I lived in England all those years ago, the only snowfall we got was a tiny little dusting; I was so disappointed!  Now I'm more savvy about snow in the Southeast of England, so I don't suppose we'll get any at all, and that's fine.  But I still like it, and I can never understand people who don't.

When I was little, one year there was a blizzard in Philadelphia.  Indeed, for a while this blizzard was famous as the most fierce Philadelphia had had (this record has long since been eclipsed).  I remember that the day after the snowfall there was bright sunshine - as there often is the day after a blizzard.  In our backyard, the sun melted the top of the snow into one of those thin smooth sheets of ice that makes the snow even and makes it look solid.  And that's exactly how it looked to me.  I remember going down our long back steps until I reached the top of the snow and stepping on it, expecting it to hold my weight, and sinking down into it up to my waist.  Of course, I was short then, so who knows how high the snow actually was, but at the time that - both the height and the sinking - were astounding to me.  Perhaps that's why I still love snow.

But frost is good, too.  Crunchy.  Yay, frost!

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05 December 2008

American Things

As you know, I prefer England to America.  It will not be surprising for you to learn, then, that I pretty much think the English get things right, and think that most of what one can get in America can be found - perhaps even in a better version - right here.  Sometimes, though, even I must admit that that just isn't true.   So I've decided to devote tonight's long-overdue entry to 

American Stuff I Think They Ought to Have Here

1.  Top of the list has to be ruled 5"x8" pads with stiff backing and a paste top.
For some reason, this most convenient of items is not to be found here.  I can get a pad with a spiral top (a disaster, as the top gets squashed, or its little end catches on stuff in one's bag), but that's really a steno pad; they even call it that.  And not only is  it a steno pad, it's a steno pad without a stiff back, so you have to put it on a surface, or do the old "support it with your hand ineffectually" thing, in order to write on it.  These American memo pads are just the right size for making lists or taking small notes, and the back is stiff enough to facilitate that.  Make them here!  You could just call them 127 x 203mm pads.

2.  Queen Helene Cocoa Butter Creme.  Not only does the name rhyme, but it's the best skin cream I've ever used.  It comes in two versions: thick and lotion-y.  Each is wonderful,
and you can also use the thick one as a deeply moisturising face cream. Here they have Palmer's Cocoa Butter, which smells like brown sugar and is therefore repellent.  It's unnatural to smell like brown sugar!  Queen Helene Cocoa Butter Creme smells deliciously like coconut, or cocoa nuts, and it works a treat.  Fortunately I brought a jar of the thick stuff with me for the winter, but in the summer I was forced to use a variety of inferior skin lotions.  I'm already worried about what I'll do next summer.  Tense times, I'm sure you'll agree.

3.  PaperMate Stick Pens in fine point.  You can get the yellow Bic ones, but those are hexagonal, and the ridges hurt my finger.  Why can't you get the nice round stick pens, either those opaque blue or black ones, or the almost-transparent thicker kind?  It's a mystery. PaperMate, be great: sort this one out!  (see how I made a little rhyme there?)

4.  L'Oreal Nice 'n' Easy Hair Dye #111, Natural Medium Auburn.  To be fair, this was hard to find in the States, too, but at least I could order it on the net.  Here, nothing!  Actually, the hair dye section of drugstores/chemists have always thrown
 me off.  Normally I like the abundance of a good pharmacy, but I always find that section a bit overwhelming.  You go in, and there's a dazzling array of hair colour possibilities:  who knew there were so many shades of brown? And I do mean so many shades, because every company's colours are different, so that the light brown of Revlon is notably different from the light brown of L'Oreal.  And if you use red hair dye the anxiety level is ratcheted up, because the majority of red hair dyes are of the variety that don't even try to look natural:  apparently most women prefer to look as if they've spilled a glass of wine on their heads, or dumped some red Rit dye (I bet they don't have that here, either) in with their hair product.  So I stand there in the dye aisle trying to sort out the sheep from the goats, and it's all a bit much.  But at least in the States I can buy a colour I know, from many years of testing, is the one that works.  Here, no such look.  I'm gearing myself up to try Garnier Nutrisse Copper Brown, but over the Christmas break, so if it all goes horribly awry no one will be here to see (fortunately, I still have two boxes of Nice 'n' Easy, brought from the States.  But, come on - hoarding hair dye?  Has it come to this?).

5.  Chocolate Double Stuf Oreos.  Sainsbury's carries regular Oreos, but apparently not
Double Stuf, and certainly not Chocolate Double Stuf. I see from a bit of a cruise round the net that Oreos were introduced in the UK in May of this year, but there were concerns that their taste would not appeal to the British palate as much as the Bourbon cream biscuit.  Now as it happens Bourbon creams are one of my favourite biscuits, and they do resemble the chocolate Oreo:  imagine a single stuff Oreo with a drier and less highly sugared biscuit and cream.  The best way to eat Bourbon cream is, in fact, much like the best way to eat an Oreo:  pop off the top biscuit (although in the case of a Bourbon you have to do this with a bit of tooth levering, as it often sticks, and you risk leaving a chunk of biscuit behind), then scrape off the cream using your teeth, or a finger, or (if desperate) a knife.  Eat the bottom biscuit.  Eat the cream.  I do love Bourbons, and I'm sure that if I lived here for long enough I'd eat them instead of Oreos, but at the moment my palate is American enough to miss the grainy lard sweetness of the Oreo chocolate filling.  Woe!

6. Exceptionally cute cats.  Don't get me wrong:  English cats are cute.  They can even be very cute.  But the cats I've seen here so far are predominantly what I would call snub-faced, or
moosh-faced:  the snout is crowded in, and the face tends to be
round rather than slightly elongated.  I like a cat with an elegant, slightly sleek face, and I miss that (although what I like best are those slightly square snouts.- but those also give a shape I find lacking in most of the Cantabridgian cats I've seen).  Mind, I did see such a cat sitting on my nanny's wall the other day, so there is hope.


Yes!  Cat perfection.
(or should I say...
wait for it... purrfection)
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22 November 2008


I think people who hang out with members of only one gender are weird.  I don't care if they're gay or straight, and if the gender is their own or the other - there's just something odd to me about people who are only friends with members of one gender.  Or rather, it says to me that there's something odd about the person.

That probably says something odd about me.

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17 November 2008

Flotsam and Jetsam

I'm just about to nip down to Marks and Spencer to exchange some knickers (I know:  story of my life), but for some reason I am moved to write.  It's been cloudy and overcast here, and also quite chilly, and perhaps this weather has made me inclined to post more than usual:  it's the sort of weather in which you want to cuddle up with someone and chat aimlessly, so I'm doing that with and to my computer screen.

For some reason over the past couple of days I've been remembering something utterly random and passing someone told me about a year ago.  We were talking about some movie we'd both seen long ago, and they told me they'd seen it on TV, when drunk, after coming home from a night out.  Because they hadn't been of driving age all those years ago, I was curious as to how they'd got in to the city and then home (not of an age to drive:  picked up by an older friend? Took the bus?  Took the train? It was a pointless question, but not all questions we ask are important, right?).  They took the train. Now, where this person lived at the time you had to take the train over a suspension bridge over the sea to get in to or out from a night out.  And even though the information about coming home on the train was the least interesting part of the story, that image has stuck with me for almost a year, now: a single person, late at night, travelling on the train as it passes over the bridge over the sea.  I suppose it's the romance of the vision that appeals to me - the train cutting through the glittering dark silence, with the people wrapped inside its own lit interior - but I don't think just romance would make such a strong impression.  Perhaps it was also that I was provided with a glimpse of the way the person was before I knew them, which I always feel is somehow giving me access to a secret. Ah, well, who knows?

Funnily, though, today remembering that image made me also remember a shirt owned by the same person.  It was a very nice shirt.  I only saw them wear it once, but I guess sometimes it only takes one showing for you to like something.  It was a black shirt with stripes on it,
thinnish stripes in blue and green.  And, although I didn't notice until later, black and blue and green were also the colours that made up this person's eye colour.  I don't know whether subconsciously that's why I liked it, or whether I liked it without noticing that, and then when I noticed the eye colour later I had a "Hey!" moment, but in any case now when I remember that shirt I remember that it was all the colours of the person's eyes, as if those colours had been tidied away from each other and laid out in smooth stripes on a flat surface (the background turning into a stripe when the other strands were placed on top of it):  as if the person's eyes were pouring themselves down their torso.  I liked that shirt, anyway, but to like it more because it seems to extract something of the person's physicality into itself...there ought to be a figure of speech for that.


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16 November 2008

In Which I Talk about Sex (and a Bit More)

In one of the James Bond novels the narrator offers a brief rumination about pain.  He says, to paraphrase, that the human body forgets the physical sensations of pain very quickly:  you can remember that you were in pain, and that it was very painful, but you cannot remember (which means, I suppose, recreate) the sensations of pain, or the sensation of their actual painfulness, for very long.  I think the same is true of sex.  I'd say you get about two days, but let's call it a week just be certain.  That's how long you can recreate the actual sensations of sex, the physical experience of its pleasure.  After that, you can remember that you had sex, and that you liked it very much indeed, but you've got no sensation to tide you over.  And that, I think, is why when people long for sex, or fear they'll never have it again, they do so with such yearning and despair: because you've got no sensation memory to buoy you up.

And now we move naturally from sex to...David Tennant (of course we do). And, since I love
pictures of David Tennant, let's have a picture to go with the topic, shall we? I wanted to pick one in which he just looks nice, because tonight's Topic with Relation to David Tennant is, in fact, niceness.

So, not very long ago (as you will know if you read some of these blog entries) I was involved with a man.  And then I wasn't.  Well, that's a story that's old in the world, and as tedious to those involved as to those watching or reading it, so let's skip the whys and wherefores and get to the point. Which is, after it was all over and people were trying to be helpful, one thing they did to be helpful - and, indeed, one thing I did myself - was to see if there was something about this person that was, perhaps, applicable to other people, so that when I was done mourning and ready to go on, I would be able to get some larger meaning or use by looking for that attribute in other people.  So a number of people asked me why I'd liked the person, or what had attracted me to him.  And my answer was always, "...He was nice."  Which is true.  Of course what first drew my eye was how he looked, and what first made me make contact with him was that he said something really smart to me, but the reason why I stuck to him was because...he was nice.

Nice doesn't mean kind, or thoughtful, or remembering your birthday or holding doors open (although all those things are good, and devoutly to be wished in a boyfriend).  And nice doesn't mean anything weak or derogatory, although it is usually a weak word, and often used in a derogatory sense.  I think the best definition of it that I could offer is that nice means accepting people as they are, and genuinely engaging with them as they are.  The thing that was so great about this person was that he never flinched.  I told him some stuff that I'd never told other people - not terrible stuff, in fact quite mild stuff by most people's measurement, I suppose, but stuff that I was shy of revealing, or that I felt put my self on the line in some way - and not only did he never snicker, or hold it against me, but he never acted as if it were anything out of the ordinary way of information.  He didn't denigrate any of my worries or weirdnesses; he just treated them as if they were normal:  treated them as not very important, in a good way.  And he did nice things without making a song and dance about it.  He brought me presents for no reason, but he didn't seem to expect anything for them; it was as if he just did it for the pleasure of it.  The sense I got was that he wasn't trying to be that person; he just was that person:  nice.

Now, I don't know, but whenever I see David Tennant interacting with the public as himself, he seems that way, too.  It's as if it's no big deal to him to do what makes other people happy, and as if quite a lot of things that other people might find odd or worth being at least a little bit obnoxious about are things that he's willing to throw himself into - no skin off his nose, as my dad would say (see this clip from the Graham Norton show, where the situation actually starts at 8:05 of this clip).  It could all be faked, or it could be true but he's still a terrible person in private, but his public persona suggests simply that....he is nice.

I think nice is under-rated.  Or maybe it's just under-rated with reference to me.  Everybody thinks people want to be thought incredible, or put on a pedestal, or...or...what? Lauded.  And I think people do want that, in a way.  I mean, everyone wants to think that the person they're with thinks they're special.  But I know that I, at least, want most of all just to be accepted.  Or maybe it would be better to say, "liked," because that allows for the presents as well as the matter-of-fact reaction to odd stuff.  Bringing someone a present in a matter-of-course way, or letting them ruffle your hair, as David Tennant does here (at 2:50 - incidentally, I find it interesting that he seems to like wearing all three pieces of three-piece suits), suggests that you have in some way absorbed them into the part of your life where you don't think, aren't fussed about them, where you relate to them rather than are at one remove from them.  It's hard to explain, or maybe you already see what I mean.  I think it's that I think, really, that that quieter connection is much more real, and much more an expression of how the person values you and other people, than any kind of frenzy of love.  David Tennant's saying, "Sure, go on, ruffle my hair" suggests that he doesn't view his fans as weird - that he thinks of them as people.  ARGH. I said it was hard to explain.  But I think most people really don't do this:  they don't know how to let other people in, or they're afraid to do so.  So "nice" equals "connective" for me.

So I guess the lesson here is that I value quiet acceptance over big adoration.  God, I really am British.

You know, I sometimes think that I'm going to do everything I can to get famous in a sensible way, JUST so I can hang out with David Tennant once.

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15 November 2008


In my life many weird things have happened to me.  I have been insulted by The Bitterest Man in the World, and I believe insulted as an attempt to indicate sexual interest - so one weird thing, plus one thing that's weird when you're over 12.  I have had a pass made at me by a man at least 30 years my senior.  I have been insulted by the reader of my book, but recommended to the press nonetheless.  I have sat next to an executive of my favourite make-up brand on a train by complete coincidence.  I have had sex with someone 13 years younger than I, who has then pathologically avoided me - again, two for the price of one, there.  I think we can agree that these are weird things:  not things that would never happen, but things you might expect never to have happen to you, or things that are out of the ordinary.

Today, however, one of the most disconcerting weird things I've ever had happen, happened.  In fact, I'd rank it in my top four, along with being insulted by TBMITW, the being avoided, and the experience in which a one-night stand 6,000 miles away from me turned into a six-month connection.  And here it is.  At lunch I sat across from a man I scarcely know; I just know he's a Romanticist, which is why I sat across from him.  I was telling him about Hunger, and I told him, in essence, the paragraph below about my confusion over the film's purpose.  I said, "Was it trying to say Bobby Sands should be admired?  Well, I already knew that.  Was it trying to saying Margaret Thatcher was repellent?  Well, I already knew that, too."  And he said, in a sort of musing tone, "Your politics sound very much like mine."  The weird thing about this was that that's normally a statement you would make in your head, I think.  I got evaluated to my face!  Does this guy have no inner monologue?  

In addition, I think I may have inadvertently been asked out on a date by him.  I thought he said a bunch of people were going to see Terence Davies's Of Time and the City, and did I want to go? Well, I do want to go, and I would like going with a group (a friend-making exercise, doncha know).  But this afternoon when the arrangement e-mail came it sounded as if it was going to be just the two of us ("we can go see...").  Of course, even that isn't an indication that it's a date, but it does increase the odds.  If this is a date, it will make the second inadvertent-date-asking I've experienced in the past month, and - although I'm grateful - in a general way I'd like to say, I think it should be clear if you are asking someone on a date.  Last time I got, "Are you going to that one-day conference on Victorianism?" (only considerably later did I deduce that this was a date-y salvo.)  I know asking is hard, but I think askers should go with the following rubric:  

Boldest:  "Would you like to [go to] xxxx with me?"  or 
Mid-level Bold:  "Maybe after everyone goes to xxxx, you and I could go [for coffee, or whatever]?"
Timid:  "Are you going to xxxx? Maybe we could go together?"   
I think this would clear up a lot of mystery for askees, and could lead to a lot less sorrow for askers ("Wait - that was a date?  I thought we were just walking to a conference together!").

It's a bit of a shame, because inadvertent-date-asker #1 was, although totally inappropriate in a variety of ways, quite an attractive fellow, but since made unavailable.  Whereas possibly-inadvertent-date-asker #2 is, frankly, not an attractive fellow to me (although much more appropriate).  

Well, not to fear, love-life fans!  I'll keep you posted.

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14 November 2008


Let me start by getting something out of the way:  I just saw Joe Spivak, the Christian (usually known as "cute Joe") sitting on the stairs quite drunk.  Joe Spivak seemed so much like the sort of person who never got drunk:  he is the definition of "clean-cut." So I was slightly taken aback.


I just came back from seeing Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about Bobby Sands.  I really didn't know what to make of it.  The film begins not with Sands but with a prison guard at the Maze going to work:  he has to check under his car for bombs, and the film also at least suggests (without quite making it certain, at least to me) that he finds his job gruelling and torturous. So it seems to be seeking to show that the prisoners were not the only ones who suffered (indeed, since this guard later gets shot in the head whilst visiting his mother in a nursing home, and since at its end the film informs viewers that 16 guards were killed during the dirty protests, that seeking is pretty clear).

At the same time, most of the film is taken up with the actions of the prisoners -- first the prisoners generally, then Bobby Sands specifically.  The last 45 minutes or so are simply a visual record of watching Sands starve to death (it's not pleasant.  It's a lot less pleasant than you imagine it to be, however unpleasant you imagine it to be).  So the implication, at least in terms of time meted out to each side, is that McQueen -- or let's say, the film, in order to avoid the author/text fallacy -- is on the prisoners' side.

Yet there's little sense of direction in the film, little sense of focus or purpose.  I found myself thinking that if it were in French, or Swedish, it would simply be called an art film and put in a very small niche.  The portion in which Sands dies is the closest thing to cinema verite I've ever seen.  Since I presume that McQueen's goal is not simply to lay before us a number of scenes of torture and brutality, followed by a detailed rendering of a man dying by starvation, I did find myself wondering what I was supposed to take from the film.  That the British were terrible to the IRA prisoners in the Maze?  Surely that's a given.  That the IRA were murderers and brutalists who destroyed lives?  Surely that's also a given?  That Margaret Thatcher was a vile egotist?  Also a given.  Perhaps that in these times when America detains people it calls terrorists and mistreats them, here there is a fable for our times?  I hope that's not the message, because the parallels between the two situations are minimal indeed, and
because such a subtext was in no way made apparent.  If the message was meant to be that Bobby Sands decided to sacrifice himself out of a saintly impulse (since he gives a speech to that effect), that message seems somewhat teleological (that is, Bobby Sands became a secular saint after he died; therefore he meant to be a secular saint when he undertook to die, which - in this reading, I suppose - makes him even more of a saint), and also somewhat poorly given with all the reflections on the losses to the other side that come at the beginning.

So I was puzzled, and somewhat troubled (no pun intended).  And I realised about three-quarters of the way through the film that I was puzzled by the larger situation, too.  I don't believe the IRA should have killed, or bombed, or tortured.  But I also don't believe the British belonged (or, I sometimes think, belong) in Ireland.  I don't think the correct response to that is violence, but it's pretty clear the ballot box wasn't going to work.  Furthermore, I do believe that by refusing to negotiate or to grant concessions the British government effectively prolonged the IRA's terror campaign, so it is possible to argue that in a certain way the government contributed to the torture and murder of its own citizens.  So I don't know where I come down, or what I believe.  Or even what I think.  

Maybe that was the point of the film.  I discover from a brief cruise round the web that Steve McQueen is primarily an artist, so perhaps his goal was simply to provoke complex thought, rather than to support any side.  But then I'm left feeling that I don't want that from a film.  But then I'm left thinking that as a person committed to considerate thought, I ought to.  And so, yet again, I don't know what to think.

I went on my own.  I semi-tried to get someone to come with me, but now I'm glad no one came.  Although I did want someone to talk about it with afterward, it's a film you could only go to with someone you knew well, or someone you were intimate with and so hoped to know well, and hoped would know you well.  And I don't have anyone here like that - not even a friend of that level of intimacy (yet?).  It's funny:  the only person I could imagine might have wanted to come to it with me was my ex-boyfriend J., because he was Irish and we saw tons of Irish films together, but even he I'm not sure about.  I think he would have viewed it as an art film, and I think our experiences of it would have been radically incommensurate.  In any case, it's best that I went alone, at least in this situation.

Odd film.

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11 November 2008


This morning I heard that my book on Byron has been accepted by the press I sent it to!  This is very good news:  it means, in essence, that I'll be keeping the job I have, or that, if I want another job, I have a pretty good chance of getting one.  So it's an enormous relief. And I'm very pleased. 

Here is a giant picture of Lord Byron to mark the event.  My friend J. loves this picture.

I promised to have a finished version to them by next May - which is, incidentally, one and a half years before they demand it - and that means that it'll be out by early 2010.  Now, I know this seems like forever, but I remember when I had an article accepted in 2005 for publication in 2007; that seemed like forever to wait, but then I forgot about it, and all of a sudden it was 2007. So the time lag doesn't bother me.

It was nice, and fun, to e-mail everyone in the States to tell them the news, and it was nice to tell people here, too.  And I don't want to complain (which means I'm about to).  But of course I couldn't help feeling, as I felt when I got the fellowship to come here, and when I had my birthday, that it would be so much better if I'd had a boyfriend/partner to share it with.  People are pleased, and my parents and closest friends are proud, but no one was going to give me a proper kiss, or take me out for a proper dinner, or have commemorative sex with me -- or even really understand how important this is, and love me and celebrate accordingly.  And I know it's silly, because of course lots of people were lovely (and S. said, "You'll see:  now on your way to the gym you'll run into David Tennant, and it will be a perfect day," and my friend T. said,  "I'm so proud of you -- we'll have to have champagne when I see you!"), but you only get one first book, and I would have liked to have that be a milestone that became part of a relationship's shared memory ("Remember when you heard about the book, and we went to Brown's for a bellini that weekend?"  "Remember how pleased you were when you got the first book accepted?").  And now I'll only be someone who has a first book - that milestone will become part of my story, and it will make me impressive to some, but it will never be a thing shared.  What I'd like most of all, of course, is to e-mail the person I was involved with but am no more and tell him - share it with him and know that he was sharing it - but I would also have to tell him not to e-mail me back, because I don't want him in my life if he's not my person (what Tom Stoppard enchantingly calls, "my chap"), and then it would just look, and perhaps be, pathetic. But then I suppose this whole paragraph, this determination to be sad when something wonderful has just happened to me, is pathetic.

Anyway, who can say?  Maybe I'll have someone by the time it comes out.  Which, to be fair, is the milestone that will really matter to me.

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06 November 2008

People Who Write in Library Books Should Have Their Hands Cut Off

As you will see from my Book of the Day thingy, I have recently read The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis.  Here is one conclusion I have drawn from reading this book, then thinking about it in connection with Amis's Lucky Jim:  Kingsley Amis hated women.  As far as I can determine, for him the best kind of woman was a dumb woman, both in the sense of stupid and in the sense of silent.

Well, that's hardly hot news on the literature circuit.  Kingsley Amis was also a serial philanderer, and he was an Englishman in the 1950s - or perhaps I should say a man in the 1950s - when women were essentially there to serve stuff (including themselves) to men.  

But since I've been in England I've had cause to read a lot of the comments that people are allowed to attach to online newspaper articles, and since quite a number of those articles are about 
relationships or gender issues, I have read quite a lot of men's opinions on these issues (by means of their comments).  And these men hate women, too.  They repeat all the tired cliches about how getting married saps your strength, about how women don't want sex, or dole it out sparingly, and about how they make your life a misery once you're involved with them.  I always thought American men were bad about women, and frankly thought English men were at least fractionally better, so I'm not quite sure what to make of this.  Lying in bed the other night I was trying to sort out who hated women more (and thus, of course, to some extent trying to figure out in which country I'd be better off).  Do the English hate women?  Do the Americans hate women?  And finally the conclusion I was forced to come to, after examining as broad a range of evidence as you can manage when you're lying in bed at night with only your mind to help you out, was that everyone hates women.  Including quite a lot of women themselves.

Last year for my birthday I got a ballet DVD that included a performance of Roland Petit's Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.  This ballet, which is in fact extremely good (you can see it here in shortened form, with Baryshnikov) and has terrific music, was created in 1946, and is the ultimate existentialist ballet:  young artist in garret dances dance of gloom and torture whilst waiting for his hotsy-totsy girlfriend; girlfriend appears and they have sex, ballet style (although she clearly gives him a blow job), and after she teases and generally abuses him she sets up a noose and leaves.  He, tortured, kills himself, and Death appears to lead him solemnly over the rooftops.  Only when Death takes off its mask and places it on the young man, Death is revealed to be - you guessed it - his girlfriend.

So, you know, I'm not crazy about works of art that show me that women equal death, but it's not really surprising that someone would be antediluvian in 1946. Later that summer, however, I was teaching a lesson in my writing class about interpreting literature, and I used a Cure song as my example, having the students first read it, then listen to it, then watch the video.  The song is "Lullaby," and in its final verse, when the singer is at his peak of fear, he says, "I feel like I'm being eaten by a thousand million shivering furry holes."  The director decided to recreate this line on film as Robert Smith being eaten by one giant furry hole:  he's swallowed up progressively by what is clearly a giant vagina.

That video was made in 1989.  1989.  That's 53 years of me having to listen while men tell me I'm not just deadly; I'm Death -- and there's another 1000 years before that.  And now there's been nearly another 20 after.  And I just think, Is this how you want to be, men?  Is this who you are?  What is the problem?  Women love you.  We fix you hot meals; we listen when you tell us your problems; we procreate your species; we take care of you when you're sick; we give you blow jobs even in ballets, for heaven's sake.  We think you're smart and clever, and most of us are not in the business of treating you with contempt, to the best of my knowledge.  Jesus, you can't wait to get us on our backs (or our knees), so what is the problem?  And I know what the deal is:  sexual desire is scary; love looks weak; revealing your problems or your sickness or your desire for a blow job is a confession of weakness; and, frankly, menstruation is kind of yucky, and I could see how it would freak you out.  But, you know what?  Get over it.  I LOVE men.  I LOVE you.  I respect you and have faith in you and find you deeply interesting. And my half of the species and I are quite interesting, too.  So I just wish that somehow what appears to be a deeply ingrained hatred, which I suspect comes down to fear, could be worked through.  If I have that much respect for you, maybe you could try to rustle some up for me, too?

(Because to me, at least, it raises the possibility that men are cowards, and I would hate that to be true.  I so much want to keep thinking well of you.)

Oh, the title?  It has nothing to do with today's post.  It's just a fact.

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04 November 2008

Alienating Americans

There are a number of things I haven't got any better at as I've got older, but near the top of the list must surely be Liking Americans When in Britain.  To be fair, I don't like most Americans when I'm in America, and I certainly don't like America itself.  But I have always felt a particular antipathy towards people from the US when I encounter them in Britain.  I don't go to (or come to) England so I can be an American in England:  I go to (or come to) England so I can erase my American-ness and become part of this nation and culture.  Americans in England, it seems to me, largely want to talk to you about the mysteries of England, or about the ways the British/English are alien to them (I recognise this as a vast generalisation), and since my goal is to penetrate those mysteries and eradicate them to the extent I'm able, I don't really have any interest in having that conversation.

This reflection was brought on, unsurprisingly, by an encounter I just had with an American boy who came up to the room where I was watching TV to set up for an election party.  He asked me if I was going to be watching the election results, and when I said, "No," he very pleasantly asked me why, and I said, "Because, to be honest, I don't care."  I don't think I said it harshly, but that is what I said.  The air in the room made it very plain that he didn't like that.  I did explain why, and I think my explanation was fair and valid:  I don't live in America at the moment, so the politics there is of limited interest to me; the election hoo-ha has been going on in one form or another for 18 months in America, and for a year I lived there with it, so I'm electioned out; and, finally, I just think the conclusion is foregone - I believed Obama would win from the moment he became a candidate. 

This boy said, "I've never heard anyone say that about this election.  About the last election, yes."  But the funny thing is, I was all into the last election, and I really did care.  I yearned for John Kerry to be President (and I suppose what might also come into play here is that, although I sure as hell don't want John McCain to be president, I have misgivings about Obama, too).  And it seemed to me that if he was elected it would be a real demonstration of difference: people would have the option to re-elect George Bush, and they wouldn't, and that would certainly send a clear message about what they wanted and did not want. But this election can't be a statement about Bush - it can be a statement about Republicanism, which will be good in its way, but it can't be the round condemnation of Bush that he deserves.  If you want to see a guy get slapped, there's little excitement in watching his cousin get slapped while he walks off stage.  That seems to me a reasonably good metaphor for what will happen in this election, so, although I hope Obama wins and believe he will, I have no visceral attachment to this process.

Also, and finally, getting the results of an election is a long process, and barring an event like Florida in 2000 quite drawn out and without anything that could be considered a central event or climax.  When I wake up tomorrow the election will be won, and who won will be the climax - I don't need to stay up all night to reach that moment. (of course, as I write this, I suddenly feel that I would like to stay up to see that moment.  But only that moment. So maybe I could get up at 6 to check.)

I suppose I sounded snotty and aloof to this boy, and I'm sorry about that.  But mostly I'm sorry because he had someone with him whom I actually do like - a pleasant English young man who does American literature and who has been quite nice to me (although I suspect that's in part because he loves all things American [which he pretty clearly does], and I am a thing American).  And I'd hate to have him think ill of me because his friend tells him I seem snotty.

Still, when you get down to it, I just don't care for Americans in Britain that much.  Even if I am one myself.  If I am.  But how would I know if I was, if I didn't believe it already?

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02 November 2008

Hello we'en

So now I've been away after what feels like forever, and it's quite hard to start up again. Hmm...

First I guess I should say that I finished a first draft of my novel tonight.  This sounds more exciting than it is.  The person who might become my agent if I can produce a novel draft that satisfies him told me that the old version (239 pages) was too short for him to sell, as it was really just novella length.  As I typed this version I added 30 pages, which is pretty good going, in my opinion, especially as the old version was in Arial and this one is in Times New Roman. Still, it's not long enough to be a novel.  I figure I need 300 pages of typescript at least to manage that. That means that over the next two weeks I somehow have to add 40 pages.  I would judge this to be medium hard, but nonetheless it means that a finished first draft (essentially an old draft plus about 40 pages, if you include ongoing revisions) is not much to get excited about.

In other news, I went to the Hallowe'en party here.  I went as a nurse. Which is to say I bought
a vinyl nurse's outfit from Ann Summers (the sex shop that appears on main streets all over the UK), stuffed some socks down the sides of my bra to make things look better, and went out to the disco and danced like a fiend (if you can imagine this dress with a woman inside who's wearing it without such obvious, um, intent, and without the stockings and little hat, that would be how I looked.  Only not brunette). What can I say?  I love dancing.  Also, I've always wanted to wear a vinyl dress.  Well, a rubber dress, really.  When I was doing my junior year abroad, there was a girl at the college I went to named Lucy Colbridge.  Lucy Colbridge was very beautiful, and not unaware of it:  she had long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a great body (incidentally, she also had a very handsome brother name Chris, who was perhaps the nicest man alive.  He was also very handsome. Obviously, they were a blessed family.  He is now  a successful lawyer and,

amazingly, you can see a picture of him here). When that college had its Hallowe'en party, Lucy Colbridge came in a red rubber dress and just stood at the bar (hers was shinier than the one on the left, and I remember it as strapless).  In about four seconds, she had a crowd of men around her.  I don't think it was just the men that made me want a rubber dress, though:  it was also that the dress said, "I have enough confidence to be wearing this dress.  And I know I look spectacular in it!"  So I wanted, I think, not just to wear the dress, but to feel that I was spectacular enough to wear it.  And this year, because I've lost so much weight and kept it off, and because I'm far from home, I at last felt worthy of a rubber dress.  Then it turned out that rubber dresses cost about $200!!!  So I decided on a vinyl nurse's outfit.  And here's a thing:  for the very first time, I noticed men looking at my breasts.  It was quite interesting, and also enjoyable.  But I could see how if it happened your whole life it would be neither.  Still, it's interesting to know that forty pounds' worth of vinyl and a judiciously placed pair of socks can get you quite a bit of attention.  And I also noticed, as I was once told, years ago, by my then- best friend, that I actually look nice with larger breasts.  Still, the ongoing lack of sag outweighs the ephemeral advantages of large knockers.

(Incidentally, in case you were wondering, you have to dust yourself with cornstarch or talcum powder before you can even get a rubber dress on.  Otherwise it will just scrape against your skin and never slide on.  Lucy Colbridge told me that.)

Oh, and it turns out the cute guy is Catholic -- deeply Catholic.  It's a pity, 'cause he is cute, and also nice.  On the other hand, he seems a bit mathematiciany:  slightly oblivious to the world. Except the Catholic world, of course.  Ha ha.

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23 October 2008

Follow Up

You know, I think I would go so far as to call him a cute guy.

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21 October 2008

This One Was Supposed to Be Light-Hearted

There's an attractive man here who is actually around my own age; I met him on Saturday.  I wouldn't go so far as to call him a cute guy, but he's certainly attractive enough to while away some time with.  So today, which was the first day after Saturday that I was at college for lunch, I put some rouge and some mascara before  I went to the refectory.  And of course he didn't show up!  How irritating.  I probably would have put the rouge on anyway, since I'm so pasty pale, but it's still irritating to feel that I acted out of my ordinary pointlessly.  Moral: don't put on mascara on the off-chance that a cute guy might show up.  Boy, that's one to take to your grave.

But this actually does raise a knottier issue (see?  this is why it's called "This One Was Supposed to Be Light-Hearted").  This man is reasonably sexy, and pleasant enough, but I already know that he's not someone I'd want to get involved with.  And, really, I am looking for someone to get involved with.  It's always been a puzzle to me how to negotiate that difficulty: that is, the difficulty of having immediate sexual desires even as you have long-term emotional desires.  If I want to have sex, that want is quite separate from my wanting to have a partner -- that is, it would be nice to be having sex with a long-term partner, but the fact that I don't have a potential such person around doesn't stop my desire to have sex.  What do you do?  Do you just sit on your sexual feelings, or deal with them yourself, until you find a partner?  That seems a waste of those feelings, to me, and thus in fact seems quite sad.  Or do you have sex with someone you don't really want to be with, which not only throws up all sorts of problems (such as, how do you tell them that?  do you?  how do you extract yourself in some way after the necessarily brief relationship has run its course?), but also is rather sad in its way, because it would be nicer if the sex came with an attachment that was more than simple physical desire.

My best friend told me once that thought is considered by some scientists to be an epiphenomenon, and it's complexities like this that make me believe it.  If I didn't have a consciousness/thought, I'd have no desire for emotional or intellectual connection, and when I wanted to have sex I'd just have it (and probably pretty much enjoy it all the time, since intellectual stimulation or the need to articulate preferences wouldn't be an issue).  But thought and intellect make me want partnership as well as sex.  And what's more, they give me the ability to trouble myself with these thoughts in the first place.  Thanks, nature.

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18 October 2008

Now Could I Drink Hot Milk

It's 11:30 and I'm all tucked up in bed, with a cup of tea beside me, wearing the  black and 
white dress I bought from Next yesterday.  The dress is a bit iffy, as it's got short sleeves and a scoop neck, but I teamed it with a black ballet cardigan, and it looks quite good (of course, since I'm in bed I shouldn't be wearing either dress or cardigan, but they were so comfy that I couldn't be fussed).

Speaking of ballet, I took my first class for four months on Thursday.  It took place in a room that has a cement floor, overlaid with wood parquet, and when you add no classes for four months to jumping on cement floor, you have extreme calf pain. The class was okay.  I've since found one run by the University Ballet Society, so I'm going to try that next week, also, and see which one I prefer.  Well, I'm going to do that if my calves will
allow me to.

This past week was a busy week.  I went to my first Cambridge talk - funnily enough, given by a man who's an acadend of mine, but about whose talk I knew nothing until I was informed by someone I was having lunch with.  In fact, the lunch itself was an event, as it was with someone I'd only met in passing, a really, really lovely woman who invited me to lunch as soon as I e-mailed her (and the lunch was great).  I went to the talk despite the fact that I'd heard it before, and in a way it's a good thing I did go, as it was about Byron and thus allowed me to make a few comments without looking clueless.  Afterward, I went out with the people who were going out for dinner, and we had one of my favourite kinds of dinners:  the kind where everybody has just enough to drink to be relaxed and rather more intimate than they'd usually be at first dinner, but doesn't drink enough to be scary or embarrassing drunk.  I had a great time; I hope it repeats itself at some point.

There are two more talks this week, and who knows what delights await me there?  One of them even involves the London Monster, a subject about which I read a book last Thanksgiving, I think, (although it may have been New Year's), and which, although it can't quite achieve "interesting" manages "pretty interesting."  The talk won't be about the Monster; actually, it'll be about satirical prints, with the Monster as lead-in.  Oooo!

This week was also a big week because it was the week that I was...interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education!  That's right, academic journalism fans, I was questioned over international telephone, er, signals about the authorship of Frankenstein and why it matters.  I believe I acquitted myself reasonably well.  At least, I didn't say anything embarrassing, or anything obviously controversial, and I don't think I said anything that will result in my never getting a job again.  I did say a couple of things off the record (as we academic celebrities in training say), but when I think of what I said on the record I'm not ashamed.  And the reporter was also interviewing Charles Robinson and Susan Wolfson, so at the very least my jejune remarks will gain some lustre from the company they keep.  The article will be out near Hallowe'en, and I'm sure I'll provide a link.  I only got interviewed, incidentally, because I posted a feisty message on the Romanticism listserv when the complete fool who believes Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein, John Lauritsen, wrote in for about the eighth time in four years to remind us all that Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and I just couldn't take it any more.  I did keep telling the reporter that I was by no means an expert on the book.

And finally, the week was also a big week because I bought a book I'd been admiring in Waterstone's for the past two weeks.  This little gem is called Pop Charts, and it is, in fact, a collection of pop charts - but not the kind of pop charts you think.  Here are two, for example:

And the whole book is like that.  As is always the way with these kinds of things, a few are duds. But, as is almost never the way with these kinds of things, most are very funny indeed. 

And now, suddenly, I'm exhausted.  So I'm off to bed.  Tomorrow I catsit for my nanny (sort out the grammar on that one!).

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15 October 2008

Cockneys of London, Muscadins of Paris...

...listen to me:  if you are involved in a relationship with one of your students, you are involved in a bad relationship.  If you are involved with one of your undergraduate students, or with one of your former undergraduate students who remains an undergraduate, or with an undergraduate student who was not yours but is still an undergraduate, and you yourself are a member of the professoriate, you are involved in a relationship that is really bad news.  If you are the possessor of a Ph.D. and the person you are seeing is at your college or university and is not yet the possessor of a B.A., you need to take a serious, long look at that relationship, consider its relative inequalities and power structure (however immaterial those may seem to you), and ask yourself if it is right or fair or would seem psychologically sensible if the person involved were not you.  Because, I assure you, the answer to those questions will be no.


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08 October 2008

Settling In

So yesterday was the first day of term.  It was also the day of the first meeting arranged by the Visitors and Newcomers Group.  I am, obviously, a Visitor and Newcomer, so despite the fact that I had grave misgivings (I've never been a visitor and newcomer who hangs around with other visitors and newcomers.  That seems to me to defeat the purpose of being a visitor, and it leaves one permanently a newcomer), I went; after all, if you're trying to make friends and settle, you should go everywhere where you might make friends.

So who was there?  Me and...many Asians!  And a goodly number of women with babies (plus two men with babies.  You rock, sirs!).  Plus the whole thing was run by women in late middle age to early old age.  The thing is, though, on my way there I pretty much figured the chance of this meeting's throwing me into a depression was about 90%,  so I was prepared when it threw me into a depression.

First of all, as my friend L. will tell you, I'm not a fan of groups, and I particularly don't like groups of women.  I was excluded by a lot of groups as a child, so now groups always seem to me to be a vehicle for exclusion.  Plus, looking at all these women organisers I thought what I always think when I see single women of that age these days:  Oh, God, is that how I'm going to end up?  Because what you see in these situations is women whose husbands have died or who are divorced.  Women who join things and get involved in a community with zest and good will. And so the impression one is left with, which is to some extent an accurate impression, is that all women are either divorced or left behind, and then you have to throw yourself into community activity to give you something to do.  But I don't give a shit about the community in that way - I don't want to help out visitors or lead tours of interesting things near where I live or give potlucks or lead a book group (can you see that?  "Now, let's take a look at The Eve of St. Agnes.  Is hiding in a closet and watching someone undress sexually acceptable, or is it just pervy?").  I don't want to be a doughty dowager whose husband died, or a woman who wears those weird Eileen-Fisheresque clothes and really enjoys her baking group:  I want to be a woman whose elderly and somewhat cantakerous husband is alive, or a woman who, frankly, gets fucked and has an intimate conversation with someone she loves on a regular basis.  But you go to these sorts of things and the impression you get is that in about five years that chance will be gone for me.

And I love babies, but I don't have one, nor do I want one.  

Plus, on a less emotional note, as is always true when I come to stay in England, I'm not really a visitor or newcomer.  I know what the weather is like; by this stage I know everywhere to get a cake in Cambridge; I know who David Tennant is and have been to the Hamlet.  I don't mean I know everything there is to know, but I'm on a weird cusp where I know too much to be a smooth fit with the visitors, but not enough to be a smooth fit with the residents.

So all in all the V&N thing was a downer.  I've decided to give them one more chance, because the next meeting involves a presentation on Cambridge gowns, something I'm interested in all on my own.  This suggests that it might be a better bet.

Fortunately, however, the day got better.  After the meeting I went over to the library to do some photocopying, and also to have lunch.  In the tea room, which is also the lunch room, I encountered a mature student named Nicola, who was reading a Spenser article.  I introduced myself and asked if I could join her (I'm getting quite good at this, although I loathe doing it), and we had a very nice conversation.  When we left, she introduced me to her tutor, who was sitting across the room.  Upon hearing the name of my college, this woman asked me if I knew the English fellow, which I do not, and said he might ask me to teach!  She said this off her own whack!  Of course, I'd love to do some teaching, so I shall lie in wait for this man.  And just meeting this woman, who was jolly and open, made me feel better.  As did meeting the mature student.  Oh, and although the lunch wasn't that great, dessert was a jam and sponge pudding with custard that was absolutely sublime.  I don't know whether the sponge was deliciously buttery or the custard was deliciously creamy, but something in there gave it all a rich taste of warming fat.

I then spent the afternoon wandering about, buttoning and unbuttoning. Around about 3 I was filled with a burning need to have a vanilla slice (a Napoleon, my American friends). I love many things about Cambridge, but I'd say its major drawback is that vanilla slices are thin on the ground. As far as I know, only one place does them, and it closes at 3 (but then, I am a visitor and newcomer, so there could be more places, ones I don't yet know about).  I had to be content with a piece of chocolate chunk cake from the infamous Caffe Nero.  It has real chocolate chunks in its frosting, which is a plus, but even that couldn't really make up for the absence of a vanilla slice.

In the evening was the introductory reception for new fellows at my college, followed by my first formal dinner.  I put on my semi-formal dress, which was fractionally too small in the
hips (despite a week's dieting before the jam sponge eating), and a very attractive pair of bright red shoes I purchased from Marks and Spencer earlier this year.  The reception was very pleasant.  I knew a person there (a woman, incidentally), so I hung out with her and her friend and asked whispered questions.  One of those whispered questions was, "Why is everyone so old?"  Because everyone really was. With five to ten notable exceptions in a room filled with perhaps 75 people, everyone was well into his or her 60s. The answer is, because in order to be a fellow, unless you're a visiting one, you have to have done something very impressive or important, and usually people who've got to that stage are old.  Fair enough. And the little vegetarian dumplings were delicious.

After the reception (where, by the way, some man who was not old, but I would guess was somewhere between 47 and 55, kept staring at me but didn't come over) came the dinner.  The dinner was ALSO filled with old people.  (Please don't get me wrong:  I have no problem with elderly people.  It's just that since I've arrived in Cambridge almost everywhere I go seems to offer the same participatory group:  me and a bunch of pensioners.  Going to the cinema?  Me and a bunch of pensioners.  Going shopping?  Me and a bunch of pensioners.  Actually, writing it down I can see that this might be because Cambridge is quite a nice place to which to retire, and also because pensioners tend to be out and about on weekdays.)  Overall, however, it cheered me up from the morning.  For one thing, there were many married women there, and they were with their husbands.  And those husbands seemed to love them.  Good.  For another thing, the women were interesting, and they knew how to make something more than very small small talk.  At the V&N meeting, everyone was there for a purpose - to offer you information, to welcome you to Cambridge, to meet other V&N's - but here people were there for the purpose of having dinner and chatting, so the chat was, while still small, much more interesting.  I would say it reached the level of medium talk.

The dinner itself works in three parts.  The first part is the starter, the main course, and what  I would call the dessert but what my college calls the sweet (alas, prune and Armagnac tart.  Very dry.  Quite disappointing, as dessert [sweet, whatever] is my favourite course, and most eagerly anticipated, so when it's not good it's sort of a double blow).  Then everyone decamps to another room to stand up and have tea or coffee.  Then those who remain go back to the first room to have fruit and port (which is called dessert - at first I thought it would include cheese, so I was very excited.  But it did not.  There were grapes, though, and I do like a good grape).  By the time we got to dessert, everyone who appeared to be what my friend S.M. would call, "at the same position I am on my life timeline" was gone, and the only real young person was a man down the other end of the table. Up at my end were a bunch of elderly gentlemen.  Now, it is one of the mysteries of my life that elderly gentlemen love me.  And these elderly gentlemen were no exception.  Nicely, across the table from me were a couple of people close to my age, although they seemed to be proper grown-ups, so I was able to talk to some people more like me, as well as to the elderly gentleman.

I feel that there must be people in their late thirties and early forties lurking somewhere around here.  I'm not exactly sure why I feel this, since evidence shows me that there in fact no people in their late thirties and early forties lurking around here, and that there are no single people in this age range anywhere in Cambridge (I never see any.  Unless they look freakishly young or freakishly old, and thus I'm mistaking them for much younger or much older people). There's a tea for new fellows next Saturday, arranged so we can meet the senior members, so perhaps more people in this age range will show up then - or perhaps I'll see the proper grown-ups again.  Oh, and hopefully my neighbours will be there, and although my neighbours are elderly they're very nice, and very lively, and I like them very much.

Tomorrow night I'm off to a literature event, a lecture by an eminent theorist.  I've contacted the person who runs the Romanticism lecture series and arranged to say hello to him there. I wouldn't say I have high hopes for this event as a friend-making venue - I've learnt not to have high hopes of this at any venue anymore - but it does seem like the sort of place where I could conceivably encounter at least a couple of likeable people who are interested in what I'm interested in. And I finally had some cards made! So I can actually just hand over a card, instead of scrabbling around for a pen and a bit of paper.  AND I know what I'm going to wear.  So things are looking good.

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06 October 2008


Term starts here tomorrow, which means the streets are crowded with students.  What do they look like?  Well, I'd have to say they look...privileged.  Perhaps this is because it's Cambridge, so the people who come here are the best and brightest, or perhaps because it's England, and thus cool, so they've already put on their fall clothes, and people tend to look a little better-dressed in fall clothes.  Or perhaps it's because none of the loathesome habits of American student dressing seems to have permeated here:  no one wears tracksuit bottoms, or thongs, or baseball caps, or any of those things that make even the smartest look dumb.  And the women wear far less make-up.  Actually, that's quite interesting in its way.  By the time they get to about 30, English women just don't look as good as American women; it's really true.  But at this age they are much more naturally pretty, or perhaps just much more willing to trust to their natural prettiness.  So they wear much less make-up, and thus look fresher, younger, and prettier.

Anyway, the past few days have been rather slow.  I've stopped academic work for a bit, and I've been revising my novel.  This is hard work.  Uck.  On the other hand, it means I do a lot more writing.  In fact, thinking about this yesterday and today I calculated that between writing e-mail, writing letters, working on either the novel or the book, and writing this, I must write about 15,000 words a week.  Sometimes I sit in my room here and realise that although I've communicated with many people that day, I've actually only spoken to two.  It's weird.  Not bad, but weird.

Anyway, over the past week or so my days have involved a lot of travelling into and out of Cambridge to do little things -- what Byron would have called "buttoning and unbuttoning."  I got some business cards, but I didn't like the finished product, so the place re-did them.  I tried to buy a skirt, and a short sweater dress.  I tried to buy a hat.  I had to do some grocery shopping.  I needed to check and see if some books I'd ordered had come in.  I needed to buy some postcard stock to draw on and send to a friend:  buttoning and unbuttoning.  As a result, I've been following the same route into and out of Cambridge centre for the past seven days, and I've noticed one striking item.  I'd noticed it before, but only after seeing it every day for a chunk of time did I really notice it in all its vileness.  I would say it is perhaps the ugliest thing I've seen in my life.  Here it is:

Yeah, baby!  This is the Corpus Christi clock.  It's a new clock that's been placed in a glass case fronting the street outside Corpus Christi college.  They're proud of it!  They put it up where everyone can see it!  And see it they do.  People stop and stand in a little group -- there's always one out there -- silent.  They are stunned by its horribleness, and the reason I know this is because when I have said to them, "Isn't it hideous?"  they all say, "Oh, yeah."

This clock (which is huge -- probably six feet tall) was designed, paid for, and donated by a man who also gave the college money for a library.   He is a graduate of the college.  That thing on the top is a grasshopper (or as I like to call it, a grasshopper-fish-beast, although it is in fact a mixture of grasshopper, lizard, and stag beetle, named by its designer a "chronophage," or time eater).  As the clock pendulum swings back and forth, the blue lights you can see flash and flutter and settle, indicating the minute and the passing minutes, and the grasshopper's legs move back and forth, so it looks like he's galloping.  His jaw opens and closes.  In fact, the whole clock is a celebration of the grasshopper escapement, invented by John Harrison, the "humble Yorkshire carpenter" (so says Wikipedia) who also codified longitude.  The grasshopper escapement is a tiny hinge device that allows clock gears to turn without lubrication or adjustment, and thus its invention made possible both the watch and more accurate time-keeping.  Huzzah!  John Harrison.  But not so to the clock.  This is one of those items that is so ugly, and so useless, that it dazzles.  Did I mention that its only right once every five minutes? 

It makes me think of that moment in When Harry Met Sally when Carrie Fisher says to Bruno Kirby about his wagon-wheel coffee table, "It's so awful there's no way to even explain to you how awful it is."  That's exactly how awful it is.  It's speechlessly awful.

In any case, the one part of it that is not awful is the inscription underneath, which the picture doesn't show and which no one ever mentions.  It is, "Mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius," which comes from 1 John and roughly translates, "The world passes, and also its desire."  In its strictest sense "concupiscentia" means "greed," but as the English word concupiscence (lust or lascivious sexual desire) suggests, it more elastically means "fleshly desire."  I think I'd translate this passage, "The world passes away, and so do its earthly desires."  Until I finally looked the phrase up on the internet the "Eius" threw me:  I thought it referred to the grasshopper.  But now it makes sense, and even without religion the sentiment seems interesting.  And compared to the clock that surmounts it, it's veritable pearl of Latin beauty.

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02 October 2008


Thing I love about Cambridge No. 5,766:

The Cambridge University Library is what you might call a unique building.  That means you look at it and think, Why would anyone who wasn't Albert Speer design that 
building, and why would anyone build it?  It's very wackiness, however, gives it a curious charm.
This has nothing, though, on the charm of what is housed within.  For Cambridge has what is definitely a unique book cataloguing system.  The books are arranged by year.  That's right: although given subject areas are separated (so that science is not with English), after that the books are filed according to year of publication.  And by size:  all the small books go in one area; all the regular books in another; all the oversized in another.  And they're not filed by title, or sub-topic, or author's name, after that.  To be honest, I can't quite figure out how they're filed after that.  My theory is that it's by month of publication, but I don't think that can be it, because when you get up to the new century (i.e., now) books from 2006 will often be next to books from 2003.  So at some stage the month theory stops working, and apparently the year system breaks down, too.  

Even this system, though, pales in the face of the cataloguing for the English faculty library (which is a kind of sub-library, located in the faculty building, filled with books only about English and American literature).  There, the books are arranged first alphabetically by area, and then by period, with the alphabet line and the timeline rising from the basement to the top floor.  So all the books on American literature are in the basement (because they are A), and all the books on British literature (which includes all literature that isn't American) are on the first floor and above, with books on contemporary literature located in the heavens on the top floor.

I love both these cataloguing systems.  Each of them has its own logic.  Divide it into American and British, then divide it by period, then subdivide within each period by author.  That makes sense. Divide by year.  That way, if you can't remember what a book is called, or who its author is, but you can remember its year, or vaguely its year (and I do frequently remember this), you can just go to the year bay and look till you find it.  Sure - why not?  (although my theory about the year system is that it was started back when 25 books were published per year and that seemed an astronomical amount - no one could conceive that it would ever rise to 2,000, and by the time it did the cataloguing system was "the way we do it.")

And I think I may also like these systems because they force me just to open my heart to them. Apparently one of the last people my university sent on a fellowship to Cambridge was quite snotty and horrible because she thought the way things were done was often foolish - and, more importantly, was irritated by the supposed foolishness.  But my feeling is rather that if you're able to work with it, just accept it. You want to catalogue your books by year?  Well, that's just as plausible as by author name, I guess.  More importantly, once I know they're catalogued by year, I can work with it.  Sure, why not?

So I am enchanted by the Cambridge book cataloguing system.

I'd have to say there are two things that my Sure, why not?-ness doesn't work with, though.  The first is bicycle helmets.  Almost no one here wears a helmet, so I spend all my time thinking, "Put on a helmet!"  I want to hand them all copies of the awful, awful court transcript my dad sent me of the "testimony" of a man brain-damaged after falling off his bike without a helmet, which convinced me to wear one.  And in a university town!  Of course, I feel that way in America, too, so perhaps that doesn't count.  That leaves me with one thing:  popcorn.  The cinemas do salty popcorn (as well as sweet, which I think is gross, so I don't eat it), but there's none of the warm grease Americans know as popcorn butter. Let me tell ya, people, popcorn unclothed is dryyyy. So I do wish they would bring over the buttered-popcorn concept.

Having said that, I'll also say that this week I did some rare-book-buying.  The town seems to have two rare book stores, but I've only been into one so far.  That one has good stuff in the window, which is mostly why I go in.  Anyway, last week they had in the window what is now in my room:  a tiny 1847 Book of Common Prayer, and its accompanying book of lessons.  I would estimate them at about 3.5 inches by 2 inches (roughly quadragesimo-octavo, for my textual studies-loving friends).  Here is a picture of them next to my mouse:

Is it me, or are those books mighty cute?

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27 September 2008

In Which I Giggle

Yesterday I went up to Manchester.  It's England's second city, fact fans!  I didn't go there for 
that, though; I went to visit a friend. Nonetheless, let me take a moment to say that Manchester has some stupendous Victorian buildings.  Of which you can see one there on the left.

Anyhoo, I went up to see my friend.  And we got into a conversation, as you do, about the general state of our lives.  I said to him that I'm
 pretty happy, "except for being single.  I didn't envision myself being single at this point in my life."  And he said, "Yes, but that's remediable. You can fix that.  It's not like you're missing a leg."  Which struck me as extremely funny.  On the train home, laughing over it made me think of something M. said to me in Paris, when I told him how sad and worried I was about losing the person with whom I've just had a definitive break.  He interrupted me and said (imagine this in a French accent),  "No offence, Emily, but this guy doesn't sound like so much.  He's tense; he's tired all the time; he doesn't have a good job; he's always worried:  if you asked me, did I want to meet this guy? I'd say no." This also made me laugh.  And they both made me laugh for the same reason.  When you're in something, or when you have friends who have watched you go through it, that something always seems so important, so heavy.  Both these remarks took such a practical view, and such a correct one, that the situation suddenly looked completely different.  I had my eyes opened. After all, it's not like I'm missing a leg, and what I am missing doesn't really sound so great, after all.

Incidentally, isn't it sad about Paul Newman?  Now there was a through-and-through Stand-Up Guy.  The world is emptier for the loss of him.

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24 September 2008

In Which I Go to Paris, Visit Friends, See the Sublime Divine Comedy, and Learn a Delightful New Phrase, So the Entry is a Long One (oh, matron!)

For the last four days I've been in Paris, whence I returned yesterday.  I was originally going to see The Divine Comedy, but then the show sold out.  I wanted to see my friend M. and his family, though, so I decided to go anyway, then queue for a ticket to the band.

First of all, let me say that the Parisians definitely know how to design a public space.  This is the front of Gare du Nord train station, where I arrived and from where I left:

To me that station says, "Travel is a serious and special undertaking."  There's none of that tired smallness you sometimes encounter in American train stations, or even the relative austerity that you get.  As you walk around Paris you realise that the French government and French church never designed a public space that they didn't then cover with elaborate decoration.  Travel, government, church-going, culture:  all these are occasions of importance and grandeur, and reasons for celebrating, to the French.  And I concur.  Here is the Paris Opera, which M. loves, but which even I think is a bit much:  to me, it looks like an overdecorated cake:

And, in the tradition of my fascination with the tops of English buildings, on the right is an apartment building edifice that one could only find in France.  Whereas on the left is one, from maybe 50 yards away, that you could just as easily find in New York.

Anyway, because I was somewhat in a tizzy from leaving for Paris relatively soon after arriving in Cambridge, and returning two days before I go to Manchester for the day, which is itself two days before I change rooms, I forgot certain items, chief among them my guidebook and my map. This meant that my activities in Paris were somewhat limited, as I refused to buy a new guidebook (the one I have is an Eyewitness Guide, and - heads up:  product placement - absolutely fabulous, but rather pricey) and kept forgetting to buy a map.  So I went to the Louvre.  Fortunately, it happens that my very favourite Paris sight is at the Louvre:

I love that pyramid!  In this case, I really don't know why.  

Inside the Louvre, too, I found some things to enjoy.  This painting, which I love because of the absolute clarity of its representation, as well as the extraordinary eerie light in the back (also, those are some dead people in the foreground, and I always find dead people interesting):

This monument, which has been one of my favourite pieces of art since I saw it the last time I was in Paris:

And this painting of the three Graces.  Being rather overly gifted in the bottom department myself, I am always heartened to see paintings that seem to appreciate the ample female posterior.  This one makes no bones about that preference (as it were), and rightly so, say I:

But let us not kid ourselves.  Paintings are pleasant; architecture can make the mind and heart soar; but it's The Divine Comedy that's the meat of this entry...

Having no ticket, I queued up outside the venue at 5:30.  In front of me there was a first small and then large knot of Divine Comedy obsessives.  They had come over from England to see the band, and they seemed to follow him for every concert.  Wow, it's like people who follow the Dead, except they follow the Comedy (which is better, I suppose).  Now, I've never understood this.  I frankly admit that I'm an obsessive person, and I frankly admit that I like repetition. But it seems to me that this kind of obsessive repetitive viewing of one band in concert would destroy, rather than enhance, the experience.  Surely part of what makes a concert exciting is the sense of delight that you're seeing this band, this band the seeing of which is a special event. On any given tour the set list doesn't change that much, and to some degree the banter is honed as the tour progresses.  Each show will be different, and there will be spontaneity, of course, but it doesn't seem to me that the difference and the spontaneity would be sufficient to outweigh the repetition of other elements.  It seems to me that you would move pretty quickly from, "Oh, there's The Cure!" to "Oh, there's The Cure...," and to me that destroys something. But perhaps that's what followers like.  You become blasé, you become knowing, and so you become in the know, one of the elite.

In any case, there they all were.  But they already had tickets.  I and the 25 or so people behind me did not. It was tense, I confess.  It turns out, though, that in France venues are required to keep a certain percentage of tickets back, precisely to sell on the day to those who show up hoping.  Huzzah!  for socialism and egalité!  I got in to see The Divine Comedy!

Now, I need to explain at this stage that I've actually already seen them once.  In 2001, which I think might have been the last time the DC were a band proper, they recorded an album
called Regeneration.  This is an anomalous album. Apparently, the rest of the band got tired of the suits and the arch lyrics (doesn't he look arch even just in that photo there?), and in an attempt to stretch and to appease them Neil Hannon...what?...agreed to (?) a very different sort of cd, one that was much more earnest and down-to-earth.  This is probably my least favourite DC cd, although it does include the song "Eye of the Needle," in which Hannon waits in church for God to speak to him 

(They say that you'll hear him
If you're really listening 
And pray for that feeling of Grace.
Well, that's what I'm doing; 
Why doesn't he answer?
I've prayed 'til I'm blue in the face)

and observes his fellow worshippers in a wonderful quatrain: 

The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German,
Completely at odds with the theme of the sermon;
And all through communion I stare at the people,
Squeezing themselves through the eye of the needle.

In any case, in support of this cd Neil Hannon did a "one man and his guitar" tour (I believe the band had disbanded at this stage). In the States, where I saw him, he came as support to Ben Folds.  No one gave one tiny damn who he was; they were there to see Ben Folds.  I, however, gave many large damns who he was, stood at the very front, and stored the whole experience up, because I thought it would be my only time.  And I think it was because I thought it would be my only time, and because it was such a distinctive experience for me, that I expected this gig to be the same:  somehow I got it into my head that it would be Neil Hannon and his guitar, t-shirt and jeans and longish hair.

It was nothing like that.  First of all, Neil Hannon dressed nothing like that.  Indeed, he dressed in a manner so absolutely bizarre that I don't believe I could have imagined it.  I don't mean he dressed like David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust; rather, he dressed exactly like your fourth grade teacher, if your fourth grade teacher had dressed like a geek.  He wore:  a pink shirt and a tie with black and silver horizontal stripes.  Over that he wore a navy blue cardigan - just let me repeat that: a cardigan.  Over that he wore a corduroy sport jacket.  Yes, a shirt and tie, a cardigan, and a sport coat.  He wore chino-cut trousers in what appeared to be some sort of rayon or polyester mix (because they were soft rather than stiff), and leather-soled dress shoes. Oh, and sunglasses.  I'm willing to believe that this outfit was some kind of ironic statement, but I'm mostly willing to believe it because I cannot imagine any pop singer who would wear that outfit onstage unironically (and because of the sunglasses, which were quite cool).  Still, most outfits of this type that are ironic include drainpipe trousers or drainpipe jeans, not what I and my friend Terrence Tucker would have to call slacks.  But perhaps it was that kind of irony that's so cutting edge that it's deadly serious to those who don't know it's ironic.  And to be fair, when he came on stage he said, "Ah, C&A," and it did look exactly like the sort of outfit you'd buy at C&A.  And Paris does have one of the last few C&A's, so maybe he bought it there for nostalgia value.  Still, my mind was boggled. And yours will be, too!

Compare these photos to the one above.  Neil, do you want a job teaching English literature at the university level fifty years ago?  

(I have a suspicion about the sunglasses.  About five years ago I experienced a sudden problem with glare; I started finding certain light glaring that I never had before.  I think this might be one of the first permutations of eye-aging.  I thought perhaps he was starting to experience the same problem - he's two years younger than I - and with stage lights it would be particularly blinding.  So perhaps... )

Also, he was short.  He was so small that I briefly thought he was the same size as me, but because I just can't believe that any man my age who hasn't been deprived of nutrition would be 5'2" (157 cm, my European friends), I finally decided that he must be somewhere between 5'4" and 5'6".  But he looked so small.  For me, at least, it's very rare to see an adult about whom I think, That person is short.  Like, really, properly, short.  But Neil Hannon looked like that. Not that I cared.  He could have been 4'11" and I would have adored him, because his size became an utter irrelevancy in the presence of his completely delightful selfhood (which we'll get to).

Okay, so how else was it different?  Well, there was a band.  Of course, I knew there would be a band, but I didn't realise, somehow, the difference a band would make.  The sound was much louder, and fuller, and thus the presence of the experience was much more immediate and much stronger.  I had been there when it was Neil Hannon and his guitar, but this time I was there.  Ah! I thought when he came on stage and they started playing, Here he is!  (And for just a minute I understood what propels those people to follow the Comedy:  it's the moment when he comes on stage and you think, That's what he looks like.  But for me that moment would cease to appear after I'd seen him four or five times in quick succession.) And again and again as they played, when they did a song I knew and loved, I would think, This is it!  This is it! In all its fullness and completion, as vivid and present as it is on the cd. (of course I didn't think that last sentence, but that's what the feeling was, translated into words.)

And not only was there a band that supplied this feeling, but it was a band the male members of which seemed to have been selected solely for my viewing pleasure.  All of them were pale men with dark or dark and greying hair, with those long narrow noses that delight me (being as they are second only to the slightly too long, vaguely hooked ones.  Such a one as Neil Hannon has himself, in fact).  Cheers, Neil!


Small but distinct version of pianist

And, after all that - or with all that - he was a delight.  First of all, he tried to speak in French the whole time. Indeed, he spoke in French most of the time.  But he spoke French with the accent and intonation of someone who has learned phrases from a book, or perhaps by imitating someone else four or five times.  This is to say, he spoke. Like.....................this, and as if the French words were English words (so that, for example, "d'accord," which should be pronounced with the final d silent and the final r fading into the back of the throat, he pronounced "dacore").  I by no means have a French accent, or much vocabulary, but having spent a day and a half in France, listening to French people, it was very very funny to hear this Anglo-Irish pronunciation.  Particularly once I began to suspect that he had it all written out in the looseleaf binder on the music stand in front of him, to which he referred devotedly, and particularly because when he messed up he would screw up his face and go, "Oh, [under his breath] fuck!"

So what did he play?  Well, he played many French songs.  One of these was the French Eurovision entry for 1965, "Poupee de cire, Poupee de son," which won that year, and which was written by Serge Gainsbourg.  He also performed another Serge Gainsbourg song (in this clip you can hear his terrible accent), a Francoise Hardy song, "Joe Le Taxi,
" by Vanessa Paradis (this is the version from the second night, which displays his charm better, and has a nice surprise at the end),  "Les Playboys," by Jacques Dutronc, and a Georges Brassens song, "Les copains d'abord."
Your science teacher rocks out to 
un chanson

Yes, yes, I hear you say, but what did he play of his own? Ah, well...He played an unexpected one, "If," but that was quite late in the performance.  He played "National Express" (my least favourite DC song), but that was the encore.  He played "The Summerhouse," an early one, but not as early as "When the Lights Go out All Over Europe," from Promenade, which he also played.  From his more recent songs, he chose "A Lady of a Certain Age," which I think is one of his saddest.  It's about an elderly woman who's had a life that should have been wonderful and fulfilling but instead, the tone makes clear, was empty and disappointing.  She now lives in the South of France, and each verse ends with the lines, 

And if a nice young man would buy you a drink, 
You'd say with a conspiratorial wink, 
"You would think that I was ----three," 
And he'd say, "No, you couldn't be" 

but in each verse the age is ten years younger (first 70 [which makes the rhyme], then 63, then 53), and the intonation of the young man's utterance changes, so that the first time he say, "No!  You couldn't be!"  and the last time, "No.  You couldn't be."  It's a sobering descent.

He also sang "Becoming More Like Alfie," which is the first DC song I ever fell in love with.  I was introduced to The Divine Comedy in the best way possible:  by a person I loved.  I read an article about Promenade, bought the cd, didn't like it, and years later my then-boyfriend bought Casanova (a lyrically richer album), and when I said, "I don't like the Divine Comedy," he put it on, and I was silenced.  "Something for the Weekend" (which, alas, was not played in Paris) was the very first song, and it was funny, and clever, and had a surprise ending.  It also has a wonderful beginning, with two girls giggling, and a wonderful middle, with Neil Hannon saying in a louche purr, "Oh, come on!  You know you want to..."  You wouldn't think it could get better than that, but "Becoming More Like Alfie" is even better, beginning as it does with a sample of Michael Caine, and including one of the weirdest lyrics ever penned:  "Everybody know that no means 
yes, / Just like glasses come free on the NHS." ???? I've loved the song ever since I first heard it, and this summer I suddenly loved it much more, because listening to it one day I had one of those strange moments where you really hear a lyric for the first time, after having heard it a thousand thousand times before.  In this case, what I heard was:

Once there was a time when a kind word could be enough,
And once there was a time when I could blindfold myself with love;
But now, now I'm resigned to the kind of life I'd reserved
For other guys, less smart than I:
You know, the kind who will always end up with the girls...

I had just been disappointed in love for apparently arbitrary reasons myself, and listening to those lines I suddenly realised concretely for the first time that men, too, have the experience of watching someone inferior walk away with the sexual prize, of raging over why the less deserving nonetheless get the brass ring.  It was also the first time I noticed that the lyric was an admission that Hannon, at least, had been willing to accept crumbs off a table and to hang on in one-sided desire.  Both of these were experiences I had associated solely with women, and more specifically with myself, so it was illuminating and humbling to find them connected to men.

He also sang, "Our Mutual Friend."  Perhaps best of all, he finished as he always finishes, with "Tonight We Fly" (sorry about the Spanish subtitles in this clip, but I love the sweet smile he gives in the beginning, and I do think this is the best performance on youtube). This is a song of such grace and loveliness that I do believe it's my favourite Divine Comedy song.  Perhaps I like it because, I suspect without knowing it, it contains a reference to Le Diable Boiteux, an eighteenth-century French novel in which a devil leads a man on a night flight over Paris, lifting the roofs off the houses to show the sin within - this novel, and the character, mentioned in a Byron letter in reference to himself.  Perhaps I love it because of its soaringly beautiful melody. I think I do love it for the latter reason, but mostly I think I love it because it contains a very hard to master list of all the different people "we" see (and I love lists, and things that are hard to master [oh, matron!]), and because of its lovely, poignant lyrics,

Tonight we fly 
Over the chimney-tops, skylights, and slates,
Looking into all your lives 
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find.

I know it's silly, I know it is, but I've been so unhappy lately that I couldn't help feeling those lines deeply, thinking to myself, It is, it is so hard to find.  Why?  You would think it would be a simple matter.  

Even more than those lines, however, I love the final ones:

And when we die
Will we be that disappointed or sad
If heaven doesn't exist?
What will we have missed?
This life is the best we ever had.

First of all I like them because, although Hannon is often pointed to as an atheist, this suggests that he is rather an agnostic, a position I find much more intellectually admirable, admitting as it does that one just can't know (the opening lines of "Eye of the Needle," above, suggest this too).  But that's not really why I like them.  I really like them because always at the end of the final line I think to myself, Yes.  That's true.  Life is wonderful, and there could be none better. God love you, Neil Hannon, you make me an optimist!

And yet despite all these transports and delights and wonders (which they truly were), the best moment of the evening was not musical at all.  It came when he forgot which song he was supposed to perform next and, turning away from the microphone, he said (apparently to his pianist):  "I'm all of a fluster."  I suspect he did mean this to be heard, so I also suspect that this is not an expression Neil Hannon uses in everyday life, but, God, I hope it is! It's so self-parodic that it cannot but be charming.  I laughed and laughed over it, and am laughing over it still.  I have decided to use it all the time.

So there you are.  The Divine Comedy made my trip to Paris.  It was, as Neil Hannon himself would say, a joy.  

And wait!  Who is this standing in front of the Louvre pyramid...?

A Brief Paean to Music Itself

Sometimes I think about how lucky I am.  When I think about that, I think about my career, my skin, the fact that lots of people like me, the fact that I have thick hair... I never think about music.  But sometimes when I listen to music, I think, I am so lucky to love music this much.   What a gift I have in music like The Divine Comedy's, like New Order's, like The KLF's!  I occasionally play that game, If You Could Only Take Books or Music to a Desert Island, Which Would You Take?  and the answer is always:  music.  Literature is good; it's interesting, and sometimes it transports and amazes.  But very very good music always does that, and instantly.  It grabs you by the stomach or the air in your lungs and pulls you up and out, putting in your mouth nameless marvels that just defy the ability of utterance.  It makes you promises that it keeps, but that you can't explain to anyone else.  How lucky am I to have that?

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