Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year resolutions

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

Highlights of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 December 2011

What professors do during breaks

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What professors do when they are not being professors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the year

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

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Russell Hoban in memoriam

Another great children's author gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opsis Kalopsis 1989:2

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Best books of 2011

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

Best novel: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Best classic: Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

Best humour: Jennings Goes to school, by Anthony Buckeridge

Best young adult novel: Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

Best picturebook: The Lost Thing, by Shaun Tan

Best nonfiction: The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Famous ladies

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

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

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

Book of the week: The Morville Hours

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

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

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

Friday, 2 December 2011

What professors do in the last week of term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Getting developed

I stayed away from a children's literature reading group today where this wonderful book was to be discussed, because I was hoping to finish a chapter I had so fruitfully worked on during the weekend. Instead, I received a reminder to turn in my homework for a workshop on professional development next Monday.

In my last year in Stockholm, we were all ordered to take a professional development course for PhD supervisors. I didn't know it was my last year in Stockholm, so I had to attend, and then I never finished it and remained undeveloped. (I hope my PhD students haven't noticed).

Now I have been told that I need to take a professional development course in professional development. Every now and then I have to conduct a professional development review with people in my research group, and every now and then I have to be developed by someone else. Anyone in academia will recognise the process. Actually, I think it is quite useful if done properly, but mostly it is just another of those pointless academic routines that take a lot of time and energy and don't lead anywhere. At the last Faculty Board, a brave colleague mentioned that he had been developed twice during his long professonal career and hadn't been better or worse for it, so was it really necessary?

But now it's not just be being developed or me developing someone else, it's me developing my skills of developing others. They promised the homework would take no more than an hour. Maybe you can do it in an hour, but I found myself getting quite absorbed in it, trying to evaluate myself. It took at least three hours of my precious time when I could have been professionally developing (that is, writing my book). Yet I couldn't help it. Am I a good manager? What makes me think I am a good manager? What are my strong sides? What do I need to - well, develop? One of the questions I had to consider was: What do you do if your reviewee bursts into tears? Good question, it has happened to me. Have a tissue ready.

If you take this seriously, I have no training in leadership or management or whatever, and I probably really need to develop my skills. I used to attend workshops on web-based teaching and always learned something useful. So perhaps I will develop on Monday. Unless I am hopessly beyond developmentability.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


If you are anywhere near the academia you are at regular intervals required to submit a report of your recent publications and other relevant activities. You are normally asked to do it annually, but every now and then there is a Big Huge Humongous report that determines everybody's life and, frankly, is highly disruptive. All my UK colleagues have lived in its shadow for a couple of years now; it is discussed at every meeting and generates tons of paperwork, and I am sure it costs National Health Service fortunes in antidepressants and counselling. This time round it is called REF, Research Excellence Framework. Last time it was called something else, but it was before I came to the UK, and in Sweden they haven't yet invented this elaborate torture, but wait, they will soon.

For the uninitiated, you are asked to submit at least four publications since the last Whatever-It-Was-Called that meet the vague and subjective criteria of research quality of international standard. It is said that the journal or publisher makes no difference as long as your publication is of high quality, but who decides what is quality? How can you measure quality of research? Because measuring it what it is all about. There is a ranking list of journals, and if you have a rotten, derivative and boring article in an A* journal (and who gave them the A* if I may ask?) you are better off than if you have a brilliant article in a journal that according to somebody is not of similarly high prestige.

To make it worse, in humanities we tend to write books and chapters in books, and these are not worth anything in such reports. Books and chapters do not feature in databases; they are not measurable in terms of "most downloaded", and there is no software to trace who has quoted whom and how much. No matter how often my vanity is satisfied by seeing my name in somebody's bibliography, it's all just vanity. A couple of years ago I searched myself in the most prestigeous database Web of Science and was very upset, because of all of my 400+ publications, I only found a couple of book reviews in a journal ranked as C (I won't name the journal not to hurt their feelings). From the point of view of this database I have never published anything other than a handful of book reviews that haven't been cited in any other publications. So much for international reputation.

Well, that time I could $£&%!!*&$ Web of Science and submit my impressive list of publications in the old-fashioned way. Not anymore. This year we are required to submit our report electronically, through software that - yes, you've guessed it! - searches Web of Science and picks up all your precious publications. You just need to click and confirm that you are the author. I must say that I firmly denied the authorship of my book reviews, especially since they were published long before the current REF period. 

When I created an account on (a strictly academic network I warmly recommend), it did a search for me and picked up most of the books, including those in Swedish and other languages, and about fifty papers, of which just a couple were inaccurate. The software asked me, very politely, whether I was the author of the publications, which I admitted, in a couple of cases reluctantly. The rest I added manually. The platform updates my stuff and adds buttons where direct links or downloads are available. (It does many other great things, but that's another story). I get about 400 hits a month - I have no idea how it compares with colleagues, but it's definitely more than Web of Science will ever acknowledge.

The bottom line is that my REF report is terribly depressing. For the past four years - and actually for my whole professional career - I haven't published anything worth including in a respected database. How did they give me a chair in Cambridge? Certainly not for my beautiful blue eyes.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Book of the month: A Tale Dark and Grimm

Aren't I lucky to have a great advisor for newly published children's books? What would I do without the fabulous Marilyn Brocklehurst at Norfolk Children's Book Centre? I have praised her several times in this blog, and if you don't know her bookshop, you should! It is impossible these days to keep track of books, and frankly, I don't trust award shortlists, but I do trust Marilyn. So when I found A Tale of Dark and Grimm in my mail the other day, I pushed aside all books piled by my bed and started reading. I would never ever have chosen this book myself, certainly not with this cover.There is another cover which I might have chosen:

I have read a lot of fractured fairy tales and novels based on fairy tales. In fact, one of Marilyn's earlier recommendations was Tender Morsels. And I have just read proofs of my essay on The Witch's Boy that will appear in the next issue of Marvels & Tales (goodness, I have plenty of links today!). I wish I had read Dark and Grimm when I was writing on The Witch Boy, but of course it wasn't published yet. Both The Witch's Boy and Tender Morsels are elegantly crafted in playing games with readers and challenging them to recognise fairy tales they may or may not know. Dark and Grimm is no worse and perhaps better. It has a wonderful metafictional voice. Yet he admits that he hadn't read the "real" Grimms until he was gownup.

Last week I was discussing fairy tales in my undergrad class, and as usual I tried hard to shock them with some versions that they didn't know. This week, I will read to them the beginning of Dark and Grimm. So that they really wake up.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Book of the week: The Willoughbys

The day before yesterday I finished George Elliot's Daniel Deronda which I had never read before. One of those slow reads that I have been enjoying the past few years, savouring every word; although I must admit that until the last fifty pages I wasn't certain who is getting whom, who will die and who will inherit a fortune. It is a much more complex story than Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, that I also re-read recently. It also has the extra dimension of Judaism. Among the books stored on my Kindle I have Adam Bede and The Return of the Native, so we'll see what I choose next. With Kindle, you cannot choose the book by the cover.

Slow reading contributes to the accumulation of "real", printed books on my shelf, many of which are quick reads, and yesterday evening I read one and enjoyed it immensely. I would probably not have read it if it hadn't been chosen for our reading group. The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry. If you are tired of dystopias, vampires, drugs, incest and other pleasures of today's children's literature, this is a book for you. Lowry had written dystopias herself, including The Giver and Gathering Blue, so I wouldn't have expected her to have written a brilliant parody on almost everything, every imaginable convention of children's literature with a glossary in the end, explaining words such as auspicious, ignominous, irascible and obsequious (just to irritate educationalists who claim that young readers hate adjectives), and a bibliography of classical books about orphans. If this isn't an example of the "both" of the eternal dilemma of children's literature - entertainment or education - nothing is. There isn't a sentence, a scene, a character in this book that isn't magnificent.

I thought I was long past getting enthusiastic over a children's book; in fact, I tell myself every now and then that I will never read another children's book again because nobody can invent anything new. But see, how wrong I am. I almost prefer The Willoughbys to Daniel Deronda (which, indientally, illustrates my old observation that general novels have the protagonist's name in the title, while children's book titles feature a group). More like this, please.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Let there be light

Some years ago I gave myself a present. I had previously been satisfied with standard lamps and paper lampshades from IKEA; but as a part of my personal development toward a more liberal attitude to material possessions, I decided I wanted a new light for the dining room. It may make sense to mention that it was the first time ever we had a dining room, when all the children had moved out and what used to be first our  bedroom and then my study could be turned into something as useless in a child-dense household as a dining room. While it was my study, I had a minimalistic office lamp. Now the environment with the oak table and the pretty carved cupboard with china display called for something better. And one day I saw it in a shop window and wondered how I could have done without it. A Tiffany lamp. It was terribly expensive, and it was a whole story to put it up, but it made all the difference. Then I decided I wanted a table lamp to match, and it took ages for the shop to order a matching one, but it added to the glory of my dining room.

I brought the lamps with me, and Staffan changed the plug on the table lamp. The ceiling lamp we couldn't use in the house we rented, so it spent several months in the storage. When we moved to Old School Lane, I carefully unpacked the lamp and was about to ask Staffan to assist me in putting it up in our new dining room when we realised that the fitting was wrong. Not only plugs, but all electric fittings in the UK are different from the rest of the world.

We had enough of other concerns, such as kitchen and bathroom, heating, plumbing and gas leaks. Every now and then we would have electicians in the house to do all kinds of jobs, and we would show them the tiffany lamp and ask whether they could change the fittings. Invariably, they confirmed that it was "doable", and invariably, they never came back and did not answer their phone. Until today. Two and a half years after we have moved in, my tiffany lamp is up, smiling happily at its little cousin on the table.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A busy week

It so happened that this week was tightly packed with academic events. It started last Saturday with the Open Day at our research centre, in which I wasn't involved in (because our brilliant students did all the work), but attended and was excited about. The purpose of a Open Day is to recruit students. When we had an Open Day last spring, I think most people came to listen to our guest speaker, Michael Rosen; although we did recruit three masters students to the current course. This time, I believe that most people came because they were interested in the course (not that the guest speaker was less attractive). There were some people who had come from as far away as Manchester and York because they were curious about the course, and I hope we'll get their applications soon. They will find out in due time that the course is not all about cupcakes.

On Sunday, my dear friend Lydia came to visit. This was an improvisation, but I couldn't help telling her that there was a children's literature symposium on Monday and she was welcome to join. This symposium grew out of two colleagues, from Sweden and Denmark, independently of each other, wishing to come to Cambridge and bring their PhD students to meet our students. I didn't mind as long as they paid for themselves (I wish I had money to be generous!). We had long deliberations about this, and finally I suggested that both groups come at the same time. I was a bit uneasy whether our students would think it was a good idea and would be prepared to have a whole-day workshop, but they did. Good students, always ready to work harder. Then it took ages to find a date that would suit everyone, which I know from experience never ever happens, so eventually the Danish colleague said: "We are coming on November 7, and whoever likes can join us". Which was the only clever solution. Then the whole thing started expanding. When I was in Glasgow last month, my friend Jean Webb told me cheerfully: "See you soon!" How soon, I wondered. Well, she was coming to my Scandinavian symposium and bringing three students. Hmmm, thanks for telling me. I also had a guest lecture planned, since half a year ago, on November 9. Unfortunately, this speaker, Elina Druker, could not come on Monday, but with Lydia and all other people it turned out impressively international anyway. The presentations were good, the discussion stimulating, and the lunch horrible - I will never use our Faculty caterers again. But then we had a party at my place, with nice food provided by Skott Bed & Breakfast, and I think everybody was happy. Lydia earned her keep at Skott B&B by helping clean the kitchen.

But it wasn't over yet. Nina, my Danish colleague, had thought that it would be a pity, once we were there, not to have another event with senior scholars, so she organised it (I just booked a room), and it was truly a most gratifying professional experience. When do we have the luxury of sitting down for two hours, talking about profound issues of our discipline! That was a joy. Then we had a quick lunch - at the Hall, so it was a huge improvement on the previous day - and the guests left, and I had two meetings, while I was obliged to ask a student to take care of our next visitor who arrived at the time of my second meeting. When I finally got out of the meeting - I was chairing it, so I couldn't leave before it was finished -  I took Elina to an exhibition by a Homerton colleague, and then to Formal Hall.

Are you still with me? Because I am not done yet. Yesterday we did some standard Cambridge sightseeing in the morning and early afternoon, and then Elina gave her fascinating talk on ABC books, and I did remember to bring nuts and olives for the post-sem refreshments, which I am myself amazed at, so much other stuff I had to have in mind.

And finally today I did the class moved from last week when I had my eye surgery. Believe it or not, I was terribly apprehensive about this class. I had only met them once, on the first day when the whole teaching team popped in and waved and said Hello, see you soon in class. I have blogged about my horror of the first encounter with a new class, and in this case they had already met my brilliant colleagues, and how could I ever be as good, and they just wouldn't turn up, and they wouldn't have prepared for the class, and they would think me boring... They did turn up, and they were well prepared and talkative and responsive, and I was really, really pleased with this class and only did half of what I had planned to do, which I always view as a successful class.

So here I am, Thursday evening of a very busy and hightly stimulating week, and I am trying not to think about all the zillions of things that had accumulated while I was having fun. I am going to take a day off tomorrow.

Friday, 4 November 2011


We all have our various nightmares, and something that isn't a big deal for one can be horrifying for someone else. I am mortally scared of anything coming close to my eyes and would probably do anything under threat of torture. I cannot watch a movie in which something is done to someone's eyes, and I can hardly read about it. The most terrifying scene of anything I have seen in movies is from Star Wars in which Anakin is getting his black mask on. The shot is from his point of view, and we have a full sense that the mask is being put on us, coming closer and closer to cover our face. In my mind, this scene has inexplicably - or maybe not - connected with something my father once told me. When he was three years old, he had a complicated ear surgery and had general anaesthesia. They didn't tell him what they were going to do, and when the mask came he thought they were going to suffocate him.

I had a minor surgery on my eyelid yesterday, and apart from my general anxiety it also turned out that they put a cloth over my face, with a little hole for the eye. I was Anakin with a mask on my face. Through the hole, I could see strong white light. Something came through the hole.

It took no more than ten minutes. I didn't feel anything. Except utter horror.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 5

The memories of my deported family brought forward other reminiscences. A couple of times in the early '90s I went to Russia for various children's literature events where I would meet children's writers from all over the world. At one of these gatherings I met Otfried Preussler. He used to be a special favourite, one of those whose books I and my friends read when we were quite grownup and loved: The Little Witch, The Little Ghost, The Little Water-Sprite. The Little Witch was in Russian called The Little Baba-Yaga. Thinking back, I am not sure whether it was a lucky translation. But the books were wonderful. Remember, we didn't have access to much of the Western children's literature, so the many stories about nice witches and scared ghosts were not known to us, therefore Preussler's books felt so different and fresh, and they were humorous and witty and lacked the didacticism we were fed up with. The little Baba-Yaga was a bit like Pippi Longstocking, whom we didn't know either before we were grownup. We used to read the books aloud for each other.

As a grownup, I certainly prefer The Satanic Mill, but that's another story.

Imagine how thrilled I was to meet this great writer. Children's literature gatherings are always lively social events, so there were long dinners with plenty of strong beverages, and at some point I was sitting beside Preussler who started talking Russian to me. Perfect Russian. He had learned it in a Russian POW camp. To that, I could only reply by telling the story of my German family, stating that there was presumably little difference between POW camps and labour camps for deported Germans.

After which we started singing German songs. First children's songs, crying and laughing in turns. But after another shot of vodka, we went over to dirty songs. That a nice well-behaved Russian girl resident in Sweden knew German dirty songs might have come as a surprise, but by that time nothing mattered beside our common cultural heritage.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Simple joys

Julia and her, I always want to say boyfriend, but he is actually her husband, came to visit for two days. Or rather Pontus came for two days, and she joined him 24 hours later. They were supposed to come together, but she was invited to participate in a fancy TV show, who wanted her so much that they paid her airfare, which must have been atrocious two days in advance. We enjoyed the company of our son-in-law for a whole day. Usually Julia does all the talking, so this time I felt I got to know him better. It also coincided with our new fireplace which we inaugurated in the evening. Nothing like a good fire to get a conversation going.

Then Staffan and Pontus went to Stansted to pick up Julia, but it was very late and I went to bed, so I saw her first in the morning. I hadn't met her since her wedding. She hasn't changed much, or perhaps she is still more happy and harmonious.

We hadn't planned any activities, but I suggested that we might go and see the Vermeer exhibition at Fitzwilliam, and if they hadn't seen the Tintin movie, I could perhaps be persuaded. We had a long lazy discussion during the prolonged breakfast and decided that what we really wanted to do was some serious shopping. They are both dedicated antique shoppers and great fun to shop with. After some deliberations we agreed on Ely, because it has a regular flea and craft market on Saturdays, a street of charity shops, a street of antique shops and three floors of antiques in an old factory building. So for once, I was in Ely and didn't go to the cathedral, except for tea, because at my favourite teashop, The Fire Engine, lunch was over and tea didn't even contemplate starting yet (this sounds like a quote from Winnie-the-Pooh, and it is meant to).

We began with the market because it usually closes by two, and the first thing Julia saw were two tea cups from the Botanic Garden series, that I had been looking for, since Staffan had recently broken one just as he had developed a particular fondness of them. So I bought those, and as I had paid Julia also saw a matching teabag saucer, which I bought, and some other items I didn't. Then we went on browsing, and my favourite stand with keyrings and other trash wasn't there, and I lost them, but finally found them at the stand with Swedish glasswear, in a vivid discussion with the seller on the various qualities of Swedish glass design. They bought two candlesticks and got £2 discount for the conversation.

Then we combed through the charity shops which didn't yield anything this time, and through some antique shops, where I found a matching plastic armchair for my 1:24 scale roombox at the incredible price of £1. The shopkeeper had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned 1:24. It must have been an unusual item among her china shepherdesses and silver spoons.

But the serious shopping was still waiting, and we had our cream tea in the Cathedral teashop, to keep us going. It wasn't anywhere in the vicinity of The Fire Engine, but you cannot have everything.

Now, I own more things than I will ever need, and I left so many things behind when we moved from Sweden that it feels to start gathering things again, but there is one object that I have coveted for a long time: nesting tables. There are usually dozens of sets in antique shops, but so far I hadn't seen any that I definitely liked and that would fit with the rest of my interior. I had told the kids that I was looking for nesting tables, so they were not at least impressed when I pointed to a set which was just the one I wanted. Mind, I had been looking for the last three years. They were searching for barometers and old tools, but eventually bought a magazine rack (yes, they managed to fit it into their suitcase), a Chinese abacus and a fancy handbag. As I say, it's fun shopping with them. The abacus will look fabulous beside the iPad.

Then we went home and celebrated the purchases drinking wine on the patio. It was a wonderful warm arfternoon, still light, since we hadn't yet switched to winter time. They left this morning. We hadn't seen the exhibition or done any other intellectual stuff. 

Professional and personal

Last week, at a formal dinner in Homerton I met a group of colleagues from Kazakhstan. Most people won't even know where it is. Our Faculty is running a project with Kazakhstan to enlighten this poor primitive nation. At least that's what their idiom suggests: "We will teach them..." (rather than, for instance, " we will exchange experience"). But this is another story.

A Cambridge colleague introduced me, also suggesting that I spoke Russian. Another blunder: they do have a language of their own in Kazakhstan, apart from speaking Russian and English and Turkish and possibly some other language. In fact, their English was excellent. But since my Russian was mentioned, subsequent questions were inevitable, and I had to admit that I was born in Moscow, and yes, I have been to Kazakhstan, more precisely to Qustanai, and the reason was that my familty was deported there. The Cambridge colleagues stared in horror. The Kazakh colleagues got agitated. What sort of deportees? (there were dozens of nationalities among them). Germans? Oh we love Germans, they are so nice, and they did so much for our education and culture, opened schools and theatres and were so friendly. Any relatives left? No, I had to say, everybody repatriated to Germany in the '90s. Kazakh colleague: Yes, we miss them. In my school, I was the only Kazakh pupil, all the rest we Germans.

The Cambridge colleagues grew more and more perplexed. Not only was their knowledge of geography insufficient, but their knowledge of 20th century history outside the UK was non-existent. I explained briefly, without any graphic details. They stared at me with awe. I doubt that they understood.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Books about books

I have just returned from a workshop in Glasgow, the first of a series, with the title "Reading fictions". The title is a bit misleading, but the subject was children's books in which a book or several books or reading in general play a significant role. One of the participants claimed that all children's books (and perhaps all books) are about the power and joy of reading, in which case there isn't much to discuss. But we tried to be more specific than that, to see how books are introduced within other books, and what readers can make out of it. There were many interesting things that we identified, for instance, the idea of books and reading as something forbidden, something to hide from others. I won't go into detail because it was just a very preliminary discussion, but, as with many similar focused topics, once you have started searching for them in literature you cannot help finding them everywhere. A participant pointed out that we hardly remembered Richmal Crompton's William as an avid reader, whereupon she read a longish quote about William hiding in the attic with his favourite snacks and a book. My own reflection is that we hardly remember Tom Sawyer as an avid reader, but all the games he plays with his friends are based on books.

Among the books we discussed yesterday was The Book Thief, quite a predictable example when you think of it. Some of my favourite examples are:

The neverending story, by Michael Ende. The protagonist steals a book from a bookshop and reads it until he is literally drawn into the story.

Seven-day magic, by Edward Eager. The children take a book from a library and it turns out to be magic, however for a week only since they must return it to the library.

Elidor, by Alan Garner. The children find a magical book in which they are portrayed. (Garner also has The Stone Book)

The dark is rising, by Susan Cooper. Another magical book.

Not to forget Harry Potter and all the important books encountered there - and I guess we don't think of Harry as an avid reader.

There are scores of books in which other books are mentioned or alluded to, and I have always wondered (and occasionally written about) whether authors are trying to legitimise their own position ("I am in good company"), or guide the readers ("That's the way you should understand my story - it is based on..."), or invite readers to share their own superiority ("Have you read and recognised all titles mentioned?"). All writers do this, from Bridge to Terabithia to Twilight. Sometimes they mention "the assistant pigkeeper", and if you get the allusion, good for you, and if not - you still know it must be a book. Books that Jerusha Abbot realises she has not read. The book that the three March sisters use to set up their own trials.

And also characters who are illiterate and still happy. Pippi Longstocking has all kinds of exciting things in her house, but not a single book. Charlie Bucket has no books. Mary Lennox receives book parcels, but remains indifferent and prefers to be in the garden. The Moomins have no books (although Moomnpappa writes one). What are the authors trying to tell us? I cannot imagine that Astrid Lindgren was against literacy.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

long long time ago in another life

I learned this morning that a very good friend from my pre-previous life had died. Apparently, he was celebrating his 65th birthday with a group of former fellow students, fell over the stairs while leaving the restaurant and died instantly. While this is the kind of death I envy, it is still very sad, and he could have lived many years yet. Although I am not sure he really wanted to.

He was my first husband's best friend, and they were highly ceremonial toward each other, as part of the game, calling each other "milord" and such. They had long philosophical conversations, and my husband explained to me that as a woman I would never ever comprehend the depth of their minds. Yet when we divorced, Alik remained my friend and gladly shared his mind with me. We attempted to have a relationship, stated it wouldn't work and decided that being good friends was more gratifying. He had an exquisite taste. Back in the old days in Moscow when there was little choice in flowers he would bring me iris and cyclamen (had orchids been available I am sure they would be his favourite). He managed to find the most incredible wines and the most exotic cake. He found the only place in Moscow where they served hot chocolate. And he liked skating - we would go skating every now and then, and I have vivid memories of snowflakes dancing in the light of coloured lamps over the skating rink. Grown-up people - we loved it. He would come to my birthday parties and occasionally New Year parties, but he preferred to meet me alone, over a good homemade meal and a bottle of wine.

When I moved to Sweden, the first ten years I was incredibly stupid and invited all friends to come and see me at once. It was crowded, chaotic and never allowed any time to talk. So eventually I learned to see friends one at a time, portioning out my precious hours in Moscow, inevitably favouring some over others. Alik lived in a far-away suburb, it was an adventure to get there, and we had a tendency to sit up late, so I would often stay overnight. He had become a grumpy old bachelor, complaining over the world, over people, and his own miserable life. He would prepare a meal, and after the meal he would smoke a pipe. We would catch up on the past years' experience. I know it's a banal simile, but it was like a time bubble.

Knowing his taste for good food, I tried to invite him to the newly emerging gourmet restaurants in Moscow. He said he couldn't afford to invite me and would never accept that a woman paid for his meal. But he appreciated good tobacco that I brought from Sweden.

I also tried to invite him to visit me in Stockholm, and he said he didn't want to come as a poor relative. He had only been abroad once, in Belgium.

By the way, he was an outstanding philosopher and sociologist. He worked at the Institute for International Working-class Movement, which was, in those old days, the hub for the best philosophers in Russia.

At my father's funeral, after a couple of glasses he tried to explain to those present that they underestimated my father who was the greatest intellectual he had ever met. 

During my last visit to Moscow, for my school reunion, I didn't tell anyone that I was there, because I just couldn't cope with it, but I called Alik, told him that I would be in Moscow for a day and a half and wondered whether he was free to see me. We had a four-hour-long lunch in a Persian restaurant. He paid the bill.

Honestly, just a couple of days ago I told myself that I should call Alik to see how he was. He didn't use email or still less facebook, so we were out of touch.

And now it's too late.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 4

I have been extensively quoted in The New Yorker. I am very proud of it. I would have been proud of being quoted in The New Yorker on any occasion, but I am honoured to be mentioned as Norton Juster's choice of comment on The Phantom Tollbooth. I am certainly in good company in this anniversaty edition - just look at the names mentioned as "esteemed authors, educators, and artists" (I guess I qualify as an educator for this occasion).

Norton has been a very good friend for many years now, which is a huge privilege, and the story of our friendship is worth telling. When I lived in Amherst, Massachussets, in 1993, I heard from my university colleagues, who knew I was one of those crazy child lit people, that Amherst was famous for its children's authors, and among the many great names there was Norton Juster. I had read The Phantom Tollbooth many years before, in Russia, and I had even tried to translate it. So I thought maybe I could try to meet the author. Amherst authors were easily approachable and appeared on many social and academic occasions, but I was told that Mr Juster was a bit of an hermit. He only lived three blocks from my university appartment, but after this warning, I really didn't want to hang outside his house. I wrote him a letter, explaining who I was and why I'd like to meet him. He phoned me very soon and invited me to come over to his place, "after dinner", a transparent hint about the brevity of the granted interview.

I went over, at about eight, and suddenly, as it sometimes happens, it was past midnight, and we hadn't yet told each other everything we had to tell, so Norton said: "Next time you must come for dinner". And I did, and at that dinner I also met Eric Carle, another local author; and I went over several times, for dinners and coffees and teas. When I was leaving, I called Norton to say goodbye, which made him really anxious. "You must come over one last time, he said, I must give you my special watermelon jam to take home!"

Since then, I have visited Norton several times in Amherst; we also met in San Diego when we lived there, and some years ago Norton and his wife Jeanne visited Stockholm. Staffan took them to see a famous 13th century church; Norton took a glance at it and said: "That's not 13th century". With authority - he is an architect. Although when they had walked around a bit, he had to admit that some parts of the church were indeed 13th century. Staffan's honour was saved.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Never have I felt so lonely...

In my diary for today I have a pink post-it with an arrow pointed to noon, saying "Nobel prize". At noon I rolled out of a three-hour long meeting, running to the dining hall to grab some lunch before the next meeting, back-to-back with a third meeting, and then a private and confidential conversation with a colleague, and then a student coming in for a chat, and after he was gone I saw the pink post-it. It was almost half past six, empty corridor and no one to shout to: "Yes!". Except for Mary Anne in the office next door, bless her! - I most humbly asked her to share my joy and have a sip of wine.

If Staffan had been at home, he would have met me with champagne and the best cut-glass crockery (and he would have probably phoned and emailed me fifteen times by now). But he is in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and I assume that someone on that boat listened to the radio, and the whole boat has been celebrating ever since.

Of course Miso is an incredibly intelligent cat, but I am not sure she appreciates poetry. So I will now go to bed and read Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel Prize winner, to myself.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Reflections on solitude

For several months this old blog post has been steadily on the list of five most visited pages. I wonder why. It is a most inconspicuous, unspectacular blog post without even a punchline. It has a boring tag that doesn't say anything. It follows upon another blog post in which I explain the difference between loneliness and solitude, and which has no visitors at all.

Desert island picturebooks

A new challenge from Philip Nel, and the first element of the challenge is spelling. (For the unitiated, it is a neverending battle).

Like Philip, I know "Top ten" etc is highly subjective; in fact, I am involved in a research project on exactly this matter, but that's another story. I think I must also make a difference between books that I cannot live without (desert island books) and books that I would recommend to a novice. I can live without Peter Rabbit, but I wouldn't omit it from a reading list.

Actually, I am not sure I would take picturebooks to a desert island. They are too short. I'd take ten books of 800 pages each. (A friend once asked, when we were playing this game, whether Collected Works of Shakespeare counted as one book).

However, if I were to choose ten indispensible picturbooks (in fact, I did once choose ten indispensible picturebooks, in my book on picturebooks, but it was ten years ago, and books ahv changed and I have changed), there wouldn't be a single common denominator with Philip's books - so that we can swim from island to island and exchange, making it twenty between ourselves.

Here we go.

1. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak. The picturebook. Predictable, I know, but I cannot imagine how you can talk about picturebooks without starting there. Every time I re-read it, I find something new. Every time I approach it with a new tool, it just opens into new dimensions. In other words, if I am only allowed one picturebook on my island, that's it.

2. The Tunnel, Anthony Browne. Everything you want from a picturebook is there: simple story and complex narrative, clever and emotional, all kinds of complex relationships, incredibly rich imagery, irony and self-irony. Profound book.

3. Pancakes for Findus, Sven Nordqvist. It's my favourite Findus and Pettson book, but all of them are equally brilliant. Witty, clever, rich in details, warm, but never losing the complexity of relationships.

4. Little Blue and Little Yellow, Leo Lionni. Amazing what you can do with characters who do not even have faces.

5, Granpa, John Burningham. Piercing story in which words stop when they no longer can express the feelings.

6. The Red Tree, Shaun Tan. Could be The Lost Thing too, but The Red Tree is deeper in meaning, emotional appeal and visual language.

7. Who will comfort Toffle? Tove Jansson. Again, a hard choice between her books, but this is my favourite. Brilliant visual language, and such a magnificent story.

8. Me and my Cat, Satoshi Kitamura. Just to be original - everybody else will choose Lily Takes a Walk. Excellent illustration of how words and images work together.

9. Visit of Little Death, Kitty Crowther. In tough competition, the best picturebook about death. Even better than Granpa.

10. OK, I give in. The Cat in the Hat. Loved it long before I knew what a picturebook was.

Welcome to my island.

And if you want to know more about my favourite books, visit my bookshelf.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Banned books, revisited

It's the last day of Banned Books Week, and I have once again been thinking about censorship. I am against all kinds of censorship, in any form, yet cancelling an author's school visit because some stupid parent thinks one of her books is offensive is somewhat different from banning 90% of world literature on loose grounds.

In the country where I was born, the list of banned books would fill a library in itself. Just some examples:

The Bible was banned because "religion is the opium of the people" (Marx). All other religious books were banned for the same reason. All books by Western philosophers not featured in Lenin's article "Three sources and three constituents of Marxism" were banned. All books by Russian philosophers who did not subscribe to Marxism were banned.
All books by Russian emigrees were banned because they were enemies of the people. All books by relatives of the emigrees were banned. All books by Russian writers repressed by the regime were banned. The Russian literary martyrology - writers murdered, sent to labour camps, famished to death - carries at least 2,500 names, whose only crime was their words. All books by relatives of the repressed were banned. All books by people who protested against repressions were banned. All books that even vaguely alluded to the Great Terror were banned. All books that even vaguely expressed sympathy with characters representing the opponents of communism were banned. All books by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky were banned because his country had sent him to exile. 

All foreign books that did not portray class struggle were banned. Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past were banned bacause they did not portray the inhuman conditions of the working class under capitalism. For whom the Bell Tolls was banned because it portrayed the Spanish civil war that did not exist according to Soviet history books.  All books by foreign writers who had made the tiniest utterance questioning the country of the victorious communism were banned. All books that did not show life as it should be according to the communist worldview were banned.

All books that had the slightest allusion to human reproduction were banned. That doesn't leave much of world literature.

Still, I repeat: I am firmly against ALL forms of censorship. Including cancelling a school visit.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Someone to remember

I am reading a biography of a person whom I admire and whom I have had the privilege of knowing. Many, many years ago in my previous life, Staffan and I were interpreting at a meeting between Russian and Nordic theatre people. We were doing it as a favour to colleagues, without payment, and as anyone who has ever interpreted knows, it is easier to interpet from your mother tongue to a foreign language, so I was interpreting from Russian into Swedish, and Staffan from Swedish into Russian. After a while, a formidable woman in her sixties interrupted quite rudely: "Why don't you do it the other way round?" I was deeply offended, and Staffan phoned the culprit the day after and gave her third degree. This was how we first met the legendary Vivica Bandler. The result of the encounter was that Staffan and Vivica wrote a musical together. I was rather jealous of Vivica at the time because I didn't see much of Staffan for weeks, and he seemed to be having fun. I was consulted about a couple of Russian details that Vivica dismissed as theatrically insignificant.

We were both invited to Vivica's seventieth birthday in Helsinki, which was a parade of cultural celebrities. It started with drinks in the theatre where she had been director and producer, continuied with a splendid dinner in her magnificent mansion, and when Staffan and I, around 2 am, prepared to leave, Vivica said: "So early? We are going back to the theatre for nibbles!"

A couple of years later Vivica called me and asked whether I would like to translate a play. As her biographer points out - a well-known fact to all who have ever met her - "nobody could say no to her on the phone". She was organising a Finnish theatre festival in Moscow, and she wanted one play to be done in Russian, with two actors of Russian ancestry. The play guested Stockholm, and Vivica took me to see it twice before I started the translation. It was a challenge, because the actors' Russian was nursery talk, while the play used modern, colloquial, not to say explicit idiom which they found totally alien.

 We flew to Moscow, me joining them in Helsinki. Nobody met us when we emerged through passport control and customs. Vivica was angry. In fact she was furious. Vivica furious was a sight. An hour later, she was paged. Our hosts were waiting for her in the VIP room. I didn't see much of her during the festival week because she was a Very Important Guest and I was just a translator (as well as a prompter, since the actors kept losing their swearwords). Yet it was fun to be part of her entourage. At one point, she was asked whether she had been to Russia before. "Yes, she said, in 1943". The hosts were awed. "During the war?" "Yes, Vivica confirmed, when little Finland tried to invade the Soviet Union". This was Vivica's typical sarcasm, possibly lost on the hosts. She had served in women's auxilliary forces at the front.  

Regrettably, after that we lost touch and only met occasionally. It was with deep sorrow Staffan and I read about her death in 2004. The biography I am reading brings back many details I have heard and some that I have witnessed about this truly remarkable person.

If you wonder why you would bother about a stranger, many people know her well as Vifslan (Bob in English) in Tove Jansson's Moomin books.

Five hundred silly texts

This is my five-hundredth blog post. To commemorate it, I have changed the design. I feel very ambivalent toward this change. I have got used to my page, plain and dull, exactly the way Julia created it three years ago, with a cheerful comment: "You can change it later". Well, after three years, I have.

I don't quite understand why people keep changing their profile pictures on Facebook, especially when they set in pictures of their children, cats or favourite cakes. A picture should reasonably show what you look like. I am terribly conventional. Anyway, the new pucture is taken by Elise Walck, and it is the best picture anyone has taken of me in many, many years. I am one of those people who always turn out horrid in pictures, yawning, gaping, cross-eyed, unkempt. But this picture shows what I really look like. I think.

I have stopped blogging a couple of times, but there was always someone who encouraged me to go on. So I go on. Watch out for blog post number 501.

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