Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Bank holiday

Bank holidays is a euphemism for anything that might be offensive. It is obviously offensive - for radically different reasons - to call them May Day and Ascension, as they are still called in The Old Country, but there have always been holidays in May, so therefore there are two Bank holidays in May. I don't mind. What we call a rose...

My dear friend Jean celebrated her 60th birthday on Sunday, so we went to her cottage in Herefordshire. The weather was gorgeous, and everybody had fun, as it should be at a birthday party. We stayed at The Green Man Inn in Fownhope, which boasts of being 15th century, and there are perhaps bits of it that old. It was nice anyway, and the man in the reception spoke a very genuine dialect.

In the morning we went to the International Birds of Prey Centre, just a half-hour drive from where we were. Staffan had been there before, about fifteen years ago(when it still was National), and had been talking about it ever since. I have seen other raptor demonstrations, both in Sweden and in San Diego, and it is always amazing. Even so I felt ambivalent. It's fantastic to watch falcons, owls and eagles in flight. But it is horrible to see them roped to their pegs. The broschure describes how happy they are, and how they are exercised every day and get food. But when I saw an eagle trying to fly from his perch, with a three-foot rope holding him back, I almost cried.

The Centre offers "experience days": you can get to know some birds, train them, maybe even fly them. You can choose between falcons, hawks and owls. I know what I want for my 60th birthday.

Friday, 22 May 2009


In the old country, life was simple. I had a group of third-year students ("Part II" in Cantabrigian) whom I supervised; they wrote their papers ("essays"), I approved them; the paper was put on the web for everyone's perusal; the students presented their work in peer-reviewed public defence; I gave them a grade and reported it to the course administrator who typed them into the computer system. In the near future, we would type them in ourselves.

I remember hearing my Anglo-Saxon colleagues complaining about the massive amount of marking and wondering what the problem was.

Now I know.

Our Part II (year three) students submitted their essays (papers), neatly printed out and bound, in a single copy, to the course administrator. We are five markers from the course team. The course administrator sorted the essays randomly in five piles. I went to collect mine, and Morag asked me to collect hers while I was there. I had to sign out our piles, and the administrator was a bit suspicious. Three days later we are all supposed to pass on our marked essays to the next marker. In person. It is absolutely forbidden to use pigeonholes! On a cover sheet, with the student's code instead of name (who are we fooling?), we have to write some comments to justify the mark, which is both a rather enigmatic number and a per cent (that is, each number has a range of ten per cent). I have received my bundle for second marking and managed to resist the temptation of reading the first marker's comments before coming up with my own judgement. I must admit that having the first mark gives you more confidence.

After we are done we are to return the papers - sorry, I mean essays, to the course coordinator, in this case Morag. She will compare the marks and, I guess, calculate the average. If there is a huge disagreement, there will be a third marker.

Meanwhile, the students will also sit an exam which we will mark in the same procedure. Then Morag will calculate the final mark, of which the paper - I mean, essay - weights 30% and the exam the rest. I hope there is software for these intricate compputations. Papers and exams are returned to the course administator together with the report. Then the whole lot goes to the examination board.

The system is foolproof, just and time-consuming. I wonder whether the results would be radically differfent if we all marked our own supervisees' work.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Garden of Eden

There are many things I can do myself about the house, and that I enjoy doing (I am still going around drilling holes and filling other holes that I don't want). There are other things that I cannot do such as plumbing. I tried and failed, so now we are waiting for a plumber to come and fix it. I cannot do electricity, and although Staffan has performed miracles with English plugs neither of us dares putting up ceiling lamps, so we are waiting for an electrician to come and do that. We are also waiting for a gas man to inspect our oven. (I know it sounds like a song by Flanders & Swann).

I have been forced to admit that I cannot trim hedges. They are too big and too many and you need special tools, and I have always told myself that I do gardening for fun and not as a heavy duty. So now we also have a gardener. I stayed home today to meet him because, apart from trimming hedges, I wanted his advice on many enigmas of my garden. Because the climate is different, I am not familiar with half of the plants and trees and shrubs, and those I am familiar with are also different. I don't know whether something coming out of the earth is a weed or a very precious exotic flower. I don't know what must be pruned and when.

The gardener is very young. His name is Luke. He listens patiently to my silly questions. We go around the garden, and more or less everything has to be pruned, trimmed or exterminated. Especially the ivy. The ivy that is so pretty. "Yes, says Luke, you keep something because it looks pretty, and then it smothers everything else".

Suddenly I realise that what's to be done in the garden, the minimum of what's to be done, will demand my full attention seven days a week for months and months. And the temptation to let Luke do the job comes creeping over me, just like it happened with the floors.

We agree that he will come for a whole day, do the hedges and whatever else must be done urgently. He even promises to get rid of the dandelions for me. Unfortunately, he won't have time until two-three weeks from now.

I should really go to work after that, or at least sit down and write the review I have been trying to write for the past few day. Instead, I put on my gardening gloves and attack the ivy. Now I know: dandelions are child's play. Even brambles are easy as compared to ivy. As I cut myself into a large conifere completely overgrown by ivy, Staffan comes out with a phone. It's Luke. He is coming on Saturday. I think he has reconsidered his priorities.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Unnecessary things

Today we bought a coat stand. You may say that a coat stand is not the most important thing when there are so many other things in a new house to fix, but it is important. It is something the guests see first, and it is also something you use every day. In the old country, we had inherited clothes racks with the house and never changed them. I tried when we had major repairs, but Staffan said they were perfectly fine, and I guess I had other battles to fight then. So we lived over twenty five years with exceedingly ugly clothes racks that we got used to and took no notice of. I wonder what our guests thought.

At Water Street we had no hallway, so I put up hooks for our winter clothes by the front door, but I didn't have my power tool then, so the hooks soon fell down, and I didn't bother to put them up again. We had our coats thrown over a stool.

Any piece of furniture is subject to negotiations, and sometimes we end up with a compromise, that is, something neither of us particularly likes. But I don't want any temporary solutions this time. There is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.

We go to a store that we have passed by many times, and lo! there is a coat stand in the window, exactly the kind I want, like we had when I was a child, with curved athlers for hats. And apparently Staffan also had one in his childhood home. We look at each other, then at the price tag and back to each other, and nod.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A trip to Ely

Many years ago, in my previous-previous life, there was a book exhibition in Moscow organized by the British Council, an exhibition of children's books. Since English books at large and especially children's books were hard to find, I spent day after day there, not just browsing through books but actually reading them. That's how I first read Tom's Midnight Garden - crouched by the exhibit case, with my winter coat on, oblivious of the noise around. Tom's Midnight Garden is one of the best books in the world. One of the central scenes takes place in Ely (when I read the book in Moscow, I had no idea where Ely was and still less that I would one day see it). The two characters come to Ely skating on the river, the year of the Big Frost. And that's how it goes:

"From the river... Ely's tower plays a game with the traveller. Hatty and Tom skated and skated, and for a long time the tower seemed to let them come no nearer, but performed a mysterious movement instead, now to one side, now to the other, now ahead, according to the windings of the river."

We do not come to Ely by the river, but the road winds too, and the tower plays its game just as Philippa Pearce describes it.

We come to Ely to write poetry and draw. It's part of the collaboration between our children's literature masters and the students at Anglia Ruskin University doing children's books illustration. I can neither draw nor write poetry, but I think it is a marvelous idea. Just let myself be engulfed by the colossal building, take time to look at details, read the inscriptions, touch, listen, smell... Yes, smell the strong smell of lilies, the only flower I am violently allergic to. Brought abruptly back to earth by the smell. My poem is inspired by the flower arrangement instead of the 900-year-old walls.

The art students say thay cannot write, and the literature students say they cannot draw. In the end, everyone has done both, and after a genuine English tea with scones we share our work. I can't remember when I had an inspirational day like this.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

In front of the gate

Yesterday I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I was invited to the annual dinner at St John's, an event called Ante portam latinam, St John's Day. Invitation card specification: "Black tie, academic dress, doctors wear scarlet". I only own one evening dress, and I am not allowed to wear scarlet, because I don't have a degree from Cambridge. But a combination of evening dress and academic gown was enough for me. That is, untill I saw all those other people in scarlet. I guess I have seen pictures, but to see it in real life... The preprandials were served in Master's Garden, one of those esoteric spaces that common mortals have no access to (a simple tour of St John's is impressive enough). The male dominance was tangible, and the average age high. And the splendour beyond anything imaginable. Not least in the dining hall, and there was a proper grace, not the short version, and there was a choir. Table conversation was radiant, the six course meal exquisite, the wine selection refined. Coffee was served in Combination Room, with a separate table placement. To say I was awed would be the understatement of the century. Now I feel I've had a real taste of Cambridge. Or is it just a game?

Monday, 4 May 2009

A whole new world

For nine months we have lived without television. When we came to Water Street we found a letter addressed to "The new occupant" with a polite, but firm request to pay the tv licence. When we didn't, a phone call followed, Staffan explaining that we didn't have a tv. They threatened to send controllers, whereupon Staffan wondered whether these would like coffee or tea. After that, we were left in peace.

I am not a tv watcher and have never been. News, sport, serials - none of this is of any interest for me. I admit it's a serious mental defficiency. A movie every now and then, nature programs, but if there aren't any I don't miss them. We had tv in California, and I don't remember ever watching it.

Recently, in the old country, Anton seduced me into Lovefilm and set up a list of movies he insisted I must see. From his selection I disliked perhaps one or two. He knows me well. But he is a filmmaker, and the quality of our old tv didn't satisfy him. We bought that set just before flat tv came, so it was outdated almost from start. It had a large screen, which meant it was also huge in itself. When Staffan had bought it and taken it home, we lifted it to put it on the stand and dropped it. In such cases you are glad you've taken insurance.

Anyroad, when Anton was here he investigated the market and told me exactly what I wanted. HD and BR and all those fancy things that are indispensible if you want to watch Planet Earth the way it is supposed to be watched. Since today is bank holiday all shops open earlier, and we went as early as possible to avoid crowds (ha-ha!). My strategy when buying things I don't understand is pretending to be still more stupid than I am, so I told the charming young sales assistant that somebody had chosen a package for me. In fact, I was still more stupid than I pretended to be because I hadn't even written down the make. I just said: "You have this offer for so and so much". She had incredible patience. Apparently had dealt with dumb customers before. She explained the difference between this and that. She answered my repeated imbecile questions. Staffan told her I was a professor. I am afraid she now has a very low opinion of professors. But two hours later and a substantial sum of money poorer we came home with our purchases. I had asked whether a stupid person like me would be able to connect the tv, and she ensured me that I would. So I did.

I am proud of myself. Anyone can hold inaugural lectures, but I have never ever in my life connected a tv or connected a player to a tv. The kids once showed me which button to push to play a movie, and every now and then I had to phone them because I had forgotten. But after a few attempts, where I had to make choices the meaning of which was all Greek to me, I managed to get all the 89 channels (why 89?), and I managed to identify the HDMI sockets (no idea what that means either, but both Anton and the salesgirl told me it was what I wanted) and make the tv and the player communicate.

Tonight I will watch a movie.

Sunday, 3 May 2009


I worked in the back garden today, pruning the shrubs and generally trying to make it look like a garden rather than a jungle. When I wanted to show Staffan the view from what is now slowly becoming my study, I saw an intruder lying just at the spot that I had cleared. Staffan fetched Miso who produced some miserable tones and went away, pretending that she wasn't at all interested. The black cat stayed where he was, even when I went out through one of our many secret back doors. Obviously this is his territory.

Catching up

I feel I cannot just let it go, so here is the account. Last Wednesday, I had my inaugural lecture. A peak toward which my life had developed the past weeks, although I was pretending to be focused on the move and the new house. The inaugural lecture was my first big public appearance in Cambridge. Showing the colours. I cannot say I was nervous, but apprehensive. I had invited colleagues from all over the UK, knowing well that most of them wouldn't be able to come, but some did, and some that really mattered a lot to me.

Not least, Julia and Anton came. Staffan picked them up at Stansted last Tuesday, while I was at work, and by the time I came home they have been sufficiently impressed by the house. Yet instead of a quiet family evening I had to talk to the press. The university PR person had sent out a press release, and suddenly I was a Very Interesting Person. My topic is something that most people can relate to (which is why I had chosen it). Something most people understand - or think they do. BBC Today wanted me in the studio at 7 am the next day, but luckily called later to say that they had to cover swine flu instead. At that point, I was glad I didn't have to get up at dawn.

I didn't go to work until afternoon hoping people would understand. The day was excruciatingly long, but as usual, when it started it was over quickly. The auditorium was full, the questions sensible and everybody seemed happy. Some colleagues were impressed when they realised that the Swedish embassy was duly repesented. Most were impressed by the press coverage. Anyway, if anybody had regreted that they'd hired me, they have a good reason to be pleased now.

After the official reception at the Faculty we invited some friends home (apologizing for the mess, which by that time was almost negligible), blending people from different parts of my life, and again it seemed that everybody was enjoying themselves.

Next day Anton had to leave and Staffan took him to the airport, while Julia and I went to London on a mother/daughter bonding trip. First we went to some very special makeup store of which I had never heard, where Julia met a young shop assistant whom she had seen on YouTube (I was impressed). Then we turned cultural and went to Victoria and Albert, where we wanted to see an exhibition about hats, but missed it and instead studied carefully British 16th century furniture. I was especially pleased to have seen the Great Bed of Ware (because I am writing a little piece on beds in children's literature and have done some research). Then we saw the musical Wicked that was magnificent. We weren't back home until half past midnight.

On Friday we went to Anglesea Abbey, one of our local attractions. We had decided to be even more cultural and go to Evensong at King's Chapel, but Julia fell asleep, which perhaps was just as well. And yesterday we strolled around in the city, just the way we did she was here last, only it was a wonderful summer day, everything was open and full of people. And life just felt great.

Now the feast is over. Back to work! (But it stil feels great).

Friday, 1 May 2009

Words, words...

I lack words to describe it, so will just let someone else to do so.