Saturday, December 24, 2005

One More Sleep!

It's Christmas eve, so we've been for our annual horribly early trip to M&S to get turkey and 'things' for the meat eaters. This year the M&S 7.30 opening time in Solihull was trumped by the 6am start at Sainsbury's Marshall Lake. So we set off just after 6 to get such things as carrots and olives, came home to put those away, and then joined the madding crowd in Poplar Way.

Now the house is filled with church members who have come for coffee and mince pies. So I'm hiding in the study, retreating into the safety of my blog.

Even with my bleary eyes, and the prospect of a long day (singing solos at the crib service at Solihull at 3, and the Shirley midnight communion), I'm still over excited because it's just one more sleep!!!

Friday, December 23, 2005


I've actually figured out how to make a post on this blog at home. I'm at a bit of a loose end because of my 'cleaner in the house' guilt. At college, I always go out on the morning when the bedder does our rooms, because I hate that lazy feeling of having someone tidy up for you.

Yesterday I made over 60 mince pies for the 'open house' tomorrow. That's where I put on my domestic goddess apron. Because I make my own (suet free) mincemeat and my own pastry. I could be quite smug about it if I wanted to. But I won't. Honest.

There are other things that I'm not entitled to be smug about. I wrote most of my novel for NaNoWriMo in November, but haven't been disciplined enough to finish off the final few chapters yet this month. I progressed a bit further yesterday, but I keep on distracting myself with the whole present wrapping and festive cheerfulness thing.

I even went out carol singing on Weds, with a group from Solihull Methodist church. We had NCH carol sheets, new this year, which had not been proofread. This meant that the inhabitants of the quiet suburban streets we visited learnt, for example, that Christ was 'Born himself a woman'. Hmmm. Adds a whole new aspect to the dual nature of Christ...

Friday, December 16, 2005

I *am* a princess

Well I had a princess moment in Borders this morning. I'd ordered a grande Earl Grey tea (with just one tea bag please: have you ever had two bags in a single cup bleurgh), and after paying, I asked for some soya milk to go in the tea. The girl behind the counter got it but proceeded to tell me that she would let me off from paying for it this time because she had already rung up the transaction.
Now I know that you don't have to pay for soya milk in tea; it only costs extra when it's the basis of the whole drink (as in a cappuccino or a latte). So I told her so. And she told me I was wrong. Which I wasn't. So I told her I wasn't. And it nearly turned into a contretemps.
It left me feeling a bit battered and bruised. I should know better than to enter into debate with shop assistants at this time of year: I've had Christmas jobs in shops and the last thing you want is for people to tell you that, actually, they know the rules of your organisation better than you do.
But I did know better and I can't bear being told that I'm wrong!

What is she trying to say?

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My Christmas present from Ruth...
(in case you can't read it, the words say 'I'm a princess')

Time passing

I posted the other day about the strange necessity of summing up a year in a Christmas card: how can we convey the ways in which time has changed us?
This morning I've been rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and found the following line, which expresses just what I have been feeling:
'A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden.' (SGGK 498-99)
The Everyman edition translates it thus: 'A year passes very quickly, and never gives back the same; the beginning is very seldom like the end.'
I couldn't (and didn't) say it better myself!

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I posted all my cards this morning, and two parcels to friends who live far away so I'm feeling extremely virtuous. Trouble is that all these Christmas preparations are making it hard to concentrate on Lee Paterson's "What Man Artow": Authorial Self-Definition in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee. I'd much rather plan out the presents I'm going to give to my family.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

525600 minutes

As the cast ask in Rent, how do you measure a year?
I haven't done one of those infamous round robin letters, but I am putting little notes in my cards as I write them. Most of the cards are quite small, forcing me to encapsulate an entire 12 months into a couple of sentences. Do I simply say what I'm doing now ("I've started an MPhil in Medieval Literature")? Should I mention my graduation? Or is it impossible that any such message could really convey the ups and downs of the past year: the friendships made and those that have slipped away; the anxieties and the excitements. There are highlights in books I've read, films I've watched and plays I have seen. In fact this Saturday's performance of Canterbury Tales will probably be something else that I'll remember as part of 2005.
I suppose it is inescapable that twelve months or 525600 seconds will change us, and that is something that can only be expressed in some form of contact more personal than a simple message in a Christmas card.

Christmas *is* coming

I bought a couple of cheap Christmas CDs this morning so I can write my cards now! Actual work will have to wait...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My Mini Christmas

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Christmas is coming...

So it's been months (again) since my last post. Now I'm sitting in a warm room in a very cold Cambridge, feeling vaguely Christmassy (due to the pile of Christmas cards next to me that I need to write) but not properly there yet. That's really because I'm still here, and still working. As an undergrad, I was able to go home at the very beginning of December, and get into the swing of yuletide merriment through little rituals like making my own mincemeat or listening to Christmas music.
I tried to write my cards last night. But couldn't. Not without a Christmas album on the CD player. And preferably the AES Tring/Royal Philharmonic Christmas album as well. I have no Christmas CDs here, and no DVDs to play while I write cards and wrap presents. So it just doesn't feel right.
Instead I'm filling my time with 'my' manuscript (SJC G.25), a coursework essay, a PhD proposal, a presentation on Melibee, a presentation on the Vernon manuscript and, as perfect procrastination, updating my website and writing this blog.
Oh. And I did do my laundry this morning as well...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

about funding

It's hard to become an academic in the UK. There are plenty of excellent postgraduate courses around. But for arts and humanities subjects, the question is not whether one has been accepted onto a course but whether one can get funding. The Arts and Humanities Research Council can fund only a quarter of the applications it receives. So for me, and for many of my friends, progression to the next stage of an academic career depends not upon ability but upon money.
Of course one could argue that the AHRC provide a filter for ability. However experience has shown me just how random the allocation can be. Students with firsts are turned down; others with 2.1s receive money.
I admit that my perspective on this is tinged with the bitterness of rejection. And I'm lucky because I've been able to get money together for my MPhil this year. But my dream of continuing to work at Cambridge for my PhD next year seems very distant when the pot of money is so limited.
In the USA, a place at graduate school is usually fully funded. So I've put in applications to some American colleges. The programmes are excellent there, but I admit that I would not have considered applying overseas were it not for the fact that I may find myself in the position of being unable to pay for a PhD in the UK.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Tomorrow the English Faculty holds its induction for new graduate students. So life as a grad. student will get under way. Thursday even promises actual classes!
In the midst of all this newness, it was refreshing to meet up with two friends today. I'd not seen either since before graduation. In their company, I began to feel more like me. It's odd really: self definition relies so much on other people. Alone, it's easy to lose grasp of what 'me-ness' essentially is.
In Borders, sitting once again with a Starbucks mug in my hand, laughing at an anecdote, the months since July began to dissolve away and I *belonged* again here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Out of hibernation

Exams took over... then plans for graduation... then I was at home and not using this computer. So my blog has been static for over 4 months.
But I'm back in Cam now, so there's no more excuse for silence. This week I'll start my MPhil in medieval lit. I suppose that makes me a grown up graduate student. Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Roving eyes

Gentleman. O, the noble conflict that 'twixt joy and sorrow was fought in Paulina. She had one eye declined for the loss of her husband, another elevated that the oracle was fulfilled. (Winter's Tale, 5.2)

Claudius. Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in wedding,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife. (Hamlet, 1.2)

Claudius's 'noble conflict 'twixt joy and sorrow' is not really noble; even in this early stage in the play, we suspect that his 'dropping eye' is not causing him too much bother. Paulina's conflict is, though, more troublesome. Her sadness pervades the ostensibly comic ending of the play, reminding us that some things are lost irrevocably: Hermione will never regain the chance to watch her daughter grow through childhood; Mamillius remains dead. Yet the Gentleman suggests more than simply an underlying sadness to the reunion of Perdita and Leontes. Rather, as one eye is elevated as the other declines, we must imagine an absolute co-existence of the two states of joy and sorrow. This paradox is enormous; even the image of roving eyes, used by both the Gentleman and Claudius, is an impossibility. Surely this image prompts us to ask whether the comic resolutions of marriage or reunion are possible or even desirable in the face of tragedy.
Edgar's narration of Gloucester's death suggests that the meeting of these two emotions is, indeed, unsustainable:

But his flawed heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and sorrow,
Burst smilingly. (King Lear, 5.3)

Thursday, May 05, 2005


This morning I finished Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It's taken me a long time to read (although I *have* been reading one or two other things in the meantime) but I certainly enjoyed it. I read The Name of the Rose after reading Eco's brilliant book on translation Mouse or Rat. However, the person who recommended Mouse or Rat to me, did so with the caveat that 'it's fabulous... not like his novels'.
With Pendulum, I feel now as though I'd like to read the whole novel again, to try to understand Eco's exploration of 'the Plan' more fully. Because what he does is simultaneously show the arbitrariness of theories imposed on the past (Dan Brown would have learned a lot from Eco, but probably would then have sold far fewer novels) and to create a real tension about the fulfillment of the ideas that his protagonists have either created or exposed. Can we be sure where or whether fact exists?
This ambiguity is at the centre of the novel and perhaps explains my desire to reread: after all, the reason that conspiracy theories emerge is (in part) humanity's deep need to 'explain' everything. If, like practically every other person in the country, you have read The Da Vinci Code, reading Pendulum will show you the echoes of Eco in Dan Brown [even though these echoes are, no doubt, unwitting - I'm not implying any sort of plagiarism, just thematic similarity]. Eco's work explores many of the ideas that emerge in Brown's narrative - the very ideas which lead people to say 'I know it's badly written, but don't you think it's interesting that...?' - but more profoundly, and more challengingly.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

but I shall see

Rereading King Lear last night (no, I didn't feel moved, as Keats did, to write a sonnet), I started to think about the blinding of Gloucester. For me, this has always been the key to the tragedy. I saw a production of the play in 2002 at the Almeida. It was a play I had not read (going back to my childhood prejudice against Shakespeare: "Why doesn't he write happy endings?"), and, deliberately, I chose not to read it before the performance.
So the blinding of Gloucester was profoundly shocking to me. It remains a scene that I physically find difficult to read. Like the impulse to pull my arm away from a blood test, I pull my eyes away from the page.
Last night, I think I reached a more clear idea as to why this is at the centre of the play. It's not just the eye/sight imagery which builds from the very first scene or, as I decided and wrote two years ago for the Shakespeare paper, that sight is unmediated humanity and is thus opposed to the artificiality of speech, i.e. Lear needs to learn to trust his basic senses, to trust that he is loved and can love, rather than requiring proof through speech. The emotional truth (as represented in the play by sight) and speech's shifty potential reach a symbiosis in Edgar's closing words: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
But now I've got another idea!!! And it relates to the 'comedy = tragedy + time' equation. The primary/immediate motive for Gloucester's blinding is his defiant line to Cornwall: 'but I shall see/ The winged vengeance overtake such children'. By blinding him, Cornwall symbolically denies this future to him. He stops time from being able to turn the tragedy of the present into a comic future since Gloucester will be unable to look back. Somehow, we need (or I need) the possibility of the future in order to make the tragedy bearable. Cornwall's actions make Lear unbearable not because Gloucester is denied future through death, but because he has to go on living, to enter a bleak future in which his scarred and bloody eyes deny him (and us) hope.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sunshine, sunshine, happy day

Revising is so much more fun when the sun is out, and I can sit on the balcony in a straw hat and sunglasses.

Two of my papers collided today in Helen Cooper's inaugural lecture: she discussed the ways in which the Chaucerian concept of tragedy (as articulated by the monk) remains at the heart of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. The _Mirror for Magistrates_ retrod the path of Lydgate's _Fall of Princes_, and was incredibly popular right through the sixteenth century.

Helen also pointed to Shakespeare's relationship with Chaucer and other Medieval poets including Gower, which became more clear in his maturity [cf prologues to _Two Noble Kinsmen_ and to _Pericles_]. The continuity from Mystery Cycles to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was a theme of the talk that particularly interested me: it implicitly supports my view that it is important to study the verbal texture of the cycle plays. The relationship that Helen plots between cycle and Shakespeare suggests that we cannot draw a line which says that plays written before this year are not worth reading for their language, and those which come after are a rich stock which helped make English the language it is today.

All this writing about language is partly a transference exercise: my 'essix retainers' arrived from the orthodontist today. I have to wear them full time for 2 weeks and it's not terribly easy to talk with them in...

Thursday, April 28, 2005


This week I'm writing on time and tragedy. My starting point will be _The Winter's Tale_: the sixteen year interlude enforces a comedic ending on what has been (so far) a wholly tragic play. This then raises the question of whether verb tenses can make tragedy comedy...
I have various hospital anecdotes which are guaranteed to make people laugh: picture the man picking invisible flowers from the air in the hospital chapel, with one leg raised in an inverted arabesque. Or the girl, furtively looking round, checking the agency nurse is not watching, then slipping a slice of peanut butter on toast down her knickers so she doesn't have to eat it. In the present tense, in the room with those people, my acute awareness of the desperation of the man and girls' respective mental states make these experiences anything but funny. Several years away from the situation, I can tell these anecdotes as funny stories. So could Paulina tell the story of Leontes' irrational jealousy as a funny tale because time has passed and it is no longer threatening and frightening? There are obvious caveats: the little boy who dies and will not be 'resurrected' as Hermione is; Paulina's own lost husband. Although as anecdotes go, 'exit, pursued by a bear' sounds quite funny to me.
I don't know whether any of these thoughts will make it into my essay. I'll probably stick to comparisons with King Lear, and look at the difference in Oedipus from Tyrannus to Colonnus.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Blogging seems fun. So I'm going to write one. You might think this is an elaborate procrastination exercise: my finals are just four weeks' away. I couldn't possibly comment.

It's the first day of term. Actually, since this is Cambridge, that statement isn't fully accurate. Yesterday was the first day of full term; lectures start tomorrow. I had a supervision today so it feels like term to me.

My dissertations were handed in yesterday, so I get to spend the next four weeks in a fug of Chaucer, Tragedy and Practical Criticism. Excellent :-)