Sunday, 25 September 2011

Looking for roots

I have just visited my historical Heimat. The branch of my family that I know best and that I have always identified with came from Schwabia. We know nothing about them; they could have been peasants, wine mechants or craftsmen. Maybe they lived in one of these magnificent houses. Most likely, not. My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, in 1753. What his parents did in Gdansk is unknown. Perhaps they moved to seek their fortune; perhaps the father was the youngest son who did not inherit his father's business. We know that this ancestor of mine, Paul Tietz, came to Russia in 1788, on foot and with a violin as his only possession. (the latter is perhaps a family legend, but a later ancestor mentioned the violin in his memoirs, so somewhere it did exist). Paul was one among many Germans on their way to the Holy Land. Somehow they got stuck in Northern Caucasus and settled there, becoming farmers, millers, and wine merchants. My great-great-grandfather - and this is no longer a legend - owned a mill and quite a lot of land. My great-grandfather, the youngest brother of three... it would be termpting to say that he inherited a cat and eventually married a princess, but the three brothers were in full agreement and worked the mill togehther, although my great-grandfather also loved arts and supported young artists and musicians. He didn't marry a princess, but my great-grandmother, the daughter of another German settler.

I won't dwell on what happened to them after the Catastrophe; instead I'll go back to Tubingen where I should have felt that I belonged. I didn't. If I had known more I might have gone to the city museum; I might have visited archives; I should have looked for headstones in the cemetery.

I envy people who can with confidence say: "This is where I come from". People from the USA, Canada, Australia, who go Europe to find places where their roots are. People in Sweden who can idenitify the little village where the parish church books have dates of births, weddings and funerals. People whose families lived in the same place for generation after generation.

My family, this branch that I feel I come from, were nomads. I can trace their wanderings through Europe, Russia, Transcaucasus, Middle East. Some ended up in Australia. Today, most of their descendants have returned to Germany, after more than two hundred years. They have found their roots.

Friday, 23 September 2011

What is a book without words, Alice thought

In conference sessions today, I learned about wordless picturebooks, almost wordless picturebooks and quasi-wordless picturebooks.

I am at a conference on picturebooks, so I am not surprised that people show tons of pictures. Some try to show three hundred pictures in thirty minutes. It's a relief to hear a paper not accompanied by a single image. A pictureless paper. A paper containing words. As a compromise, an almost pictureless paper, with plenty of good, solid words.

I find it a bit of a problem with picturebook conferences. Of course a picture says more than a thousand words, but I am not sure that showing three hundred pictures can substitute for well-posed scholarly argument. At a conference on musicology, would people play music and let it speak for itself? Or at a film conference, show a movie? Maybe that's exactly what they do. I don't know how to deal with it. We are all passionate about our material and eager to share our favourites and new discoveries with our colleagues. But again, had it been a poetry conference, would any of us simply recite poems? (as a matter of fact, yes, some of us would).

I am fascinated by the scores of images I've seen these days, but as I return to my room and try to take a few notes for future contemplation I cannot help feeling that I have been to a huge exhibition with brief catalogue entries. It is very tempting to hide behind pictures, and I am sure I am doing it myself.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Professional (and inevitably personal) memories

I have a visitor this weekend who brings a long chain of memories. We met first time at the IRSCL conference in Paris in 1991, which is, it occurs to me now, exactly twenty years ago. I had read the paper, which was circulated in advance, and was interested in the topic and made a mental note that I must go and listen to this paper and get to know the person, who also was from a university where I knew somebody (a good conversation opener: "You must know XX...") By that time I was almost a veteran of IRSCL, was running for the Board and knew quite a few people. It was that kind of conference I strongly dislike, where people stay in different hotels, the sessions are at two venues, and there are no organised meals. One day some people of the old Board and the incoming Board we sitting in a pavement cafe at lunchtime, and I saw this colleague walking past with the expression on her face that I recognised from my own previous experience: Here I am, I don't know anybody, nobody knows me, everybody knows everybody else, and they all go out for lunch together while I am all on my own... So of course I called and invited her to join us. We have been good friends ever since.

In fact, two years later, when I was running for President and was looking around for new Board members I told myself: This is a person I think I could work with. The election committee asked her, and she said yes. So we worked close together on the Board, which implied Board meeeting twice a year here and there and everywhere over the globe, including Stockholm, Pretoria, San Diego and York, UK; and of course we also met at other conventions, and then worked within the Nordic Network, and - now I cannot keep it anonymous anymore, we wrote a book together. But this is another story.

I have already written about my separation anxiety from IRSCL, but these days I am overwhelmed by the memories, and I hope the present IRSCL Board has just a much fun as we had all those years ago in the Ice Age.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Shakespeare, Discworld and other old friends

This weekend I am attending a conference on Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not my primary research object, and I wouldn't have gone to this conference if it had been elsewhere, but since it is on my own campus I am attending it and even giving a paper. The theme of the conference is "Sources and Adaptations" which can include absolutely anything. However, in one discussion we agreed it was quite remarkable that when we say "Shakespeare adaptations" we mean adaptations of Shakespeare's texts by later writers or performers, but not Shakespeare's adaptations of previous work, aka pinching.

The session in which this discussion occurred was on Terry Pratchett's Discworld. It was great. The two plenaries I have attended were fabulous, one by Michael Rosen, the other by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. I didn't go to academic plenaries. I didn't go to many other sessions either. It is tempting, when you are on your own campus, to sneak away to your office and mark some theses that have miraculously invaded my pigeonhole again.

For obvious reasons I don't know many people at this conference, and I can once again state that the gender balance is different from children's literature conferences. I made some acquaintances at the conference dinner yesterday. I asked one of them if she were a Shakespeare scholar. No, she said, she just needed a reason to come to Cambridge. She had found some soap opera with a balcony scene.

My paper is in one of seven parallel sessions, and the audience is small. Just before we start, a very professiorial-looking man enters the room and says, quite audibly, to the other presenter: "I don't care about the first paper, but I'll come and listen to you". Very encouraging. If I were the moderator, I would have switched the order of papers, just for spite (I did it once when I moderated a session, to prevent people from coming and going). At the very end of the discussion, someone in the audience asks: "By the way, what is children's literature? Is it books with simple language?"

Nobody at the conference seems to have heard of the book Shakespeare's Brain. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 3

In 1991 I was spending three weeks as a guest lecturer at the University of Reading. My good friend and colleague Tony Watkins mentioned, among many other exciting things going on, that there was a writer in residence, "not a very famous one, but he has written some good historical novels". Sadly, I had to leave in the middle of my visit due to family circumstances, so I never got to meet the historical novelist, who, some years later, became famous for something else.

In February 2005, the Swedish Embassy in London gave a reception for all British nominees for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. The embassy employees were perplexed. "What is it about children's literature? We invited these people, and they all came!" Yes, they all came, Diana Wynne Jones and Shirley Hughes and John Burningham and Philip Pullman and all cream of the cream of British children's literature. They all said it was a great honour to have been nominated. I shook hands with them, I said how delighted I was to meet them. I was delighted to meet them. I was especially delighted to meet someone I knew was getting the award, but of course I wasn't allowed even to hint. Yet I did. I said: "I hope to see you in Stockholm soon". I did, three months later, at the award ceremony.

Yesterday, at the Philippa Pearce memorial lecture, I asked my dear friend Morag for a special privilege: could she ask the Author to sign a book for my granddaughter. There was a signing session, but since my book was pre-signed, I jumped the line to collect it and say a quick thank you. The Author looked up from the piles of books he was signing and said: "Good to see you. Was it in Stockholm I saw you last?" "No, I said, it was in Oxford. Also known as the Other Place". The Author smiled.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Pinched from my daughter's blog, pinched from someone else. Some of the questions are obviously asked – and supposed to be answered – by a very young person, but most of them feel quite relevant. So here we go:
Do you normally arrive on time?
Yes, usually well ahead of time.
Are you in good shape?
Not really, haven't been to a gym for ages, but work regularly in the garden if it counts
When did you last have your picture taken?
At a farewell party with our visiting scholars
How do you feel right now?
Hungry, looking forward to dinner
Most common colour of your clothes?
Can you cook?
Yes, and love it. But my husband does most of the cooking
What are you studying right now
Cognitive science, on post-professorial level
Are photos of you any good?
When and why did you cry last time?
At my daughter's wedding, for obvious reasons
Was it embarrassing to answer the previous question?
Not at all
Did you have a good evening yesterday?
Yes, after a nice dinner I spent an hour and a half talking to my childhood friend on the phone (I mean on the phone, landline, Stone Age-wise)
Your favourite morning beverage?
Freshly pressed orange juice
Are you useful?
I think so
Did you ever have a job?
That's a tricky one; but I think, yes, quite a few times
Are you shy?
I have several social phobias, which is a more clinical way of saying "shy"
When did you get up this morning?
Half past seven
What TV game did you play last?
Machinarium, but perhaps it's a computer game, not a TV game
Which TV game is your favourite?
Actually, I don't play games
How much does it take you to get drunk?
Depends on how you define “drunk”
Have you ever been sick in public?
Yes, but not because I was drunk, but because I was motion-sick.
I sleep...
...with my window open
What was the most recent thing you said?
“I'll just check my email...”
Did you go to a festival last summer?
Yes, Shakespeare festival.
Who do you phone when you are angry or upset?
My husband
What would you need right now?
A seminar with my graduate students
Have you got pretty shoes?
I only wear Ecco shoes, and believe me or not, some of them are pretty
What was the first thing you said this morning?
“No!” (as a reply to my husband's “Good morning”)
Did you sleep in your own bed last night?
Yes. I am not going to a conference for another two weeks
Did anyone else sleep in your bed last night?
My husband and my cat
Have you got a driving licence?
Yes, since twenty-five years (got it late). Once also had a Californian licence, but it has expired
Are you alone now?
No, I have my husband, my cat, my flowers and a greenfinch at the bird feeder
What are you looking forward to this week?
A talk by Philip Pullman

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Three years in the system

Today is exactly three years since I started my employment in Cambridge. This is what I wrote three years ago. I do remember the feeling of being new, but it is strange to think back to the time when everything was new. I am still the new girl at school though; I am sure if you asked my colleagues how long I've been around they'd say, a year maybe. There are some people who were employed after me, but not many, because I had just about squeezed in before all hires stopped. There are dozens of people who have left and will be leaving by the end of this month. Nobody is replaced so everybody will have to work harder. We have a new Head of Faculty. We are getting a new Faculty Secretary. Fortunately, I can so far keep my own secretary who is amazing.

I am looking forward to the new academic year. My first PhD student is in her last year. I am getting three or four new PhD students. I am involved in dozens of committees and working groups, but I now can say no to still more committees or choose the most interesting or the least boring committees. I have learned the jargon - or so I think. At least I know that a paper is a course and an essay is a paper.

I am not in my office today because, although I am the new girl, I am a grownup girl and know that I don't have to be in my office all the time.