Kitty Watching

Today, between sentences, I watched our neighbourhood tortoiseshell patrol our street. He likes to keep an eye one things. He strolls in and out of the little yards, and sits on the low walls. Whenever anyone walks past, he trots along with them for a little way. When I came back from the library, he was waiting, and accompanied me to my door, purring like a tractor. He wouldn’t stay still, but I think he knew how dashing he looked among the leaves.

He snuck in as I maneuvered the bike through the door. He explored all the corners, but we barred him from the food cupboard and the basement. He didn’t get any tuna, because he is fat and glossy, unlike my old friend Mr Cat, who clearly needed it. He wouldn’t stop purring, and curled on the couch. We put him outside.

But we hope he comes back.

Four Seasons in One Day

That’s one of my favourite songs. And it about sums it up at the moment. I don’t suppose this kind of work is really conducive to emotional stability. Grumpy/ hopeful/ exasperated/ contented/ miserable/ excited. None seems to last for more than half an hour. But I sit with the computer and the words anyway. I cannot believe that in just over a week I will be heading towards the Southern Hemisphere. The thought doesn’t seem to connect with my life here at all, even though it is quite wonderful, and I felt so happy after I booked my ticket to London last night. Quite a lot to get done before then, but I’ve set my word count quotas per day, and I’m sticking to them so far. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a draft of my final chapter before I leave. It’s slow going but satisfying.

I’d like to take some photos of the November trees and the November sky, but I never seem to get the right angle. Black on grey. A few scraggly yellow leaves hanging on in places. They are beautiful in their own way, the bare trees against the bare sky. Today the sky cleared for a few hours and I watched the trees frame the strange deep blue of dusk at four in the afternoon.

Earliest memories meme

Pinched from Jabberwocky.

My earliest memory is wrapping myself in a blanket and rolling around the floor while my Mum nursed my little brother. I must have been about three. I think even at the time I was aware it was pretty silly.

Because my earliest memory is a little boring, here are a couple more. I also remember learning to read – my Mum stuck words all over the house. And I remember being absolutely thrilled when I first read without moving my mouth.

Ariel from Jabberwocky’s first memories are of two books she made, so here are the first two books I made. No idea how old I was, maybe five, and they’re pretty spiffy productions so I must have had a little help. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and drawing the pictures. The first is about a birthday party, in the shape of a birthday cake. The second is my favourite. It was called The Stegosaurus Twins, and it was about, er, stegosaurus twins. It was in the shape of a stegosaurus, and I covered the front cover with tiny dots to simulate the texture of its skin. The stegosaurus twins were lonely because all the other dinosaurs had died and they had nowhere to live. A brother and a sister (human ones) discover and befriend them. Then it’s the stegosaurus twins’ birthday, and their present is, guess what: lots of trees. (So they have a forest to live in.)

Here’s a stegosaurus.

This idea of doubles (twins, friends, orphans) is quite intriguing. Ariel’s story relates to it in a way, as does a novel-in-progress Penni blogs about at Inside a Dog.

I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and, by the sounds of it, birthdays too. I remember writing an invitation to my birthday party to one of my favourite cousins.
‘Mum, how do you spell Richard?’
‘Just how it sounds.’
Dear Witcheard….

He remembers too. Unfortunately my spelling hasn’t improved significantly since then; thank God for spell-check.

I’m not tagging anyone, so help yourself it you feel like it! Let me know if you do it and I’ll come and have a look. The rules of the meme are:

1. Describe your earliest memory where the memory is clear, and where “clear” means you can depict at least three details;
2. Give an estimate of your age at the time;
3. Tag five other bloggers with this meme. (Or, do as I’m doing and just extend an open invitation)


I have decided to tag some people after all: Penni, because she writes so well about children, Fifi, because I’m sure she’ll come up with something magical, Mikhela, because her imminently appearing little ones will be forming their own first memories soon enough, Highly Eccentric, because (I think) it’s her birthday, and Richard, just for fun. And even if you’re not doing this meme, what’s your earliest memory? Go on, tell me…

Virtual Hikes and other Exciting Adventures

I had decided to console myself for my valiant decision to go to the library instead of hiking in the dales by posting a virtual hike – photos of my favourite walk ever. But the website which housed the photos has disappeared! Only one remains, pictured above. That day, the hills were frosted, icicles glistened on the gates and the puddles were as hard and bright as glass. And if it’s that pretty at the bottom of the hills, just think what it looked like from the top! A different shade of crystallized grass or rock or slope or sky everywhere you looked. One of those days when the landscape is music that you walk through.

No matter. Dedicated student that I am, I went to the library. At lunch time, as the cafe at uni was closed, I wandered into town and stumbled upon a German Christmas market. Not quite the same as being in Germany, but almost. I indulged in garlic mushrooms and fried potatoes and Glühwein (mulled wine), and bought some ridiculously overpriced domino stones. They were worth it. (These small cubes of soft gingerbread, fruit jelly and marzipan covered in dark chocolate are seriously wonderful. I’ve already eaten all the ones I brought back from Berlin.) I always thought the German word for mulled wine was a bit weird, sounding, as it does, like glue-wine, but actually the ‘glüh’ means ‘glow’. So it’s glowing wine. Which is exactly what it does, in your cold hands and in your belly. I then floated back to uni in a mulled wine haze for another two hours of photocopying and traipsing up and down stairs, accidentally causing an avalanche of over-stacked books-for-reshelving. All in a day’s work.

Teaching structure

I only have two writing workshops left to teach, and I’ve been wondering how helpful they actually are. They must at least be a bit helpful, because (most of the time) the students turn up, and it’s entirely voluntary. Because of the workshop format, we don’t have time to give a lot of one on one attention, which would probably actually be the most useful thing. We talk about structural ideas and grammatical rules, and look at examples. Next week we’ll discuss how to approach exam questions, and hopefully in the last week the students will bring along some of their own essay plans, which we’ll be able to look at with the group.

I know it’s been helpful for my own writing to read through some of the student writing guides, and think about how to best communicate some of the ideas to my students. This week we talked about structure: introducing an idea, pushing it along, and arriving somewhere. John Peck and Martin Coyle’s The Student’s Guide to Writing explains this idea really well, comparing writing an essay to describing a scientific experiment. My students were initially a bit confused about this idea, thinking it too prescriptive. The idea isn’t to pretend your essay is an experiment, however, it’s just to get you thinking clearly about what each section of your essay is doing. Peck and Coyle then talk about taking it further, or, as they put it: ‘set it up, push it along, then push your luck.’ Their point is that if you introduce the topic, and develop it clearly, it’s often nice to introduce a new element or angle about two thirds of the way through, to push it up to a new level.

I really like this idea because I can see that’s what the most interesting essays and articles do. Writing that does that is exciting to read. I’ve always found it difficult to pin down a mass of swirling ideas into a linear form. I’m too impatient to get to the point. One of the things I’ve had to learn in writing my thesis has been to slow down, to give ideas time and space to develop. To set up the basic points of my argument clearly before diving into the new stuff. Otherwise I end up mistaking vague, unsubstantiated statements for poetry.

So… This might end up helping me more than it’s helping them. But hopefully it’s also helping me to help them better. And I think in the end writing’s a bit like riding a bike. You can talk about it all you like, but it’s not till you jump on that you start to get somewhere.


I first went to Berlin ten years ago, on a whirlwind backpacker bus tour with my mum. It was love at first sight. It snowed and snowed. The city was covered in cranes and big fat blue and pink pipes. We did an incredible walking tour and went to checkpoint charlie one evening. I bravely caught a bus out to the Die Brucke museum only to discover it was closed. We saw the Reichstag. The new dome hadn’t been finished yet, so, like everything else in the city, it was still in the throws of reconstruction. My high school history classes came flooding back to me (admittedly they were only a year old). I couldn’t believe it was the same building that burnt down when Hitler came into power. There was something strange and beautiful about Berlin, it seemed the centre of history: old and new, broken and healing.

So when, two years later, I got the chance to spend a month there, I didn’t take much convincing (I took a bit of convincing, because I was very shy). I went with a group of students about to embark on honours in European Studies, and our charismatic head of department. The idea was to learn German. They’d all done some before, but for me it was torture: I’d never even heard of cases and declensions, and my impatient beginner’s teacher would only condescend to explain them to me in German. I also have a stammer, which makes speaking new languages difficult. I didn’t get far. And I was intensely homesick. At the age of twenty, I was quite convinced I knew the meaning of the universe, and was scared of anything, or anyone that questioned this, which the people I was with, and the city itself, certainly did. Nevertheless, Berlin continued to work its magic. We had a guided tour of Daniel Liebeskind’s incredible building for the Jewish Museum, before it had any exhibits in it. It was like being inside a sculpture of silence and horror and hope. We had a tour of a Russian prison by two men who’d been wrongly imprisoned there for years. And I discovered the Pergamon museum, with its reconstructed Babylonian gate, which still affects me in a way I can’t quite explain.

There are monuments in Berlin which speak of wordless sadness and terror. And there are new buildings, shining, all of glass, like secular cathedrals. And there are spindly trees like black feathers – to me it is a winter city. And – cocktail bars, and bakeries on every corner, and a large, calm river, and a spirit about the place that just delights me.

No Apologies

Evolutionary Biology PhD student, bewildered and amused: Do you have conferences in English literature?

My Dad’s cousin (I kid you not): Medieval literature? That sounds really boring.

Smug undergraduate Erasmus student from Switzerland, studying atmospheric chemistry: Oh. English Literature. Heh. I do something, er – quite different to that.

Another Evolutionary Biology PhD student (they’re the worst) two years ago: didn’t stop laughing for weeks after I told him my thesis topic. And he was studying worms.

But I have decided to apologize for my thesis topic no longer. Now when people ask me what I’m doing, I wait till I have their attention, and say slowly and clearly: ‘Australian Medievalism.’ And I look them in the eye.

Henry the eighth I am I am

Well, apart from the somewhat more than frustrating fact that my favourite person is too far away for my liking, things are going quite well around here. The thesis is progressing in its own inimitable way. Which means: sometimes fluently, sometimes excruciatingly. But it grows. Revising my latest chapter sometimes feels like putting gilded roofs onto a beautiful castle, and sometimes like attempting complicated surgery. The body of the chapter lies sprawled before me, broken and bloody, as I try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing to it.

When it all gets a bit too much, I do a bit of this:

I’ve been working on this for years, on and off, and I’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve nearly finished Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, but there’s another four wives, as well as the border adorned with Tudor roses, and all the back-stitch and French knots and beads (yes!) to go on at the end. But there is something immensely calming about working on such a long term project. Especially as it involves no major decisions or structural problems. I follow the chart to the letter, and it comes together! I’ve worked on this cross-stitch in York, Leeds, Norway, Austria and Germany. The threads bind my life together.

This kind of thing reminds me of both my grandmas. My mum’s mum knits and makes bobbin lace. She also used to make lots of clothes for us, and several wedding dresses! (We’ve been informed homemade wedding dresses are no longer on the menu – fair enough too.) My dad’s mum has painted and dressed hundreds of china dolls, made many lovely teddy bears, embroidered huge tapestries, and now makes the most amazing quilts. As a young girl, I loved nothing better than sitting with one or other of them, tapestries or bobbin cushions on our laps, watching tennis on tv into the wee hours.

At about the age of fifteen, I decided craft was a waste of time, as I was an artist. Now I suspect the distinction between art and craft is not quite so clear. Even what I would regard as art involves a fair bit of craft – skill, and attention, and time. And, counted cross-stitches aside, much of what is called craft is actually art anyway. It’s nice to have it to turn to. I like the richness of the threads, the motion of the needle piercing cloth.

Opera North

Opera North doesn’t have much in common with the Angel of the North except its name, and the fact that it’s located in Northern England. But the name is wonderful. Rugged and transcendent at the same time. Tonight I saw a production of The Fortunes of King Croesus, by the long forgotten German composer Reinhard Keiser. Apparently he influenced Handel. This was an English translation, and it was super. It’s a love story and a pride-comes-before-a-fall story, set against a backdrop of war. The props and sets were great – little golden fighter-planes in the first half, and a huge golden broken plane wing in the second half, spanning the stage. The five pound student ticket almost made up for the fact that I was seated next to all the other cheap-skate students, checking their mobile phones and unwrapping crinkly sweets.

The Grand Opera House is just amazing – red and green and gilded gold with chandeliers… It’s just been refurbished, and the seats are comfy now. It was fun to be there. It reminded me of another time, three and a half years ago, when something rather lovely happened. And the music was transporting. I’d forgotten what it can do to you. It actually transported me slightly too far, as I wasn’t concentrating as I rode home and nearly caused an accident. But all is well. I’m still smiling.

Comfort and vanity

Today I bought what is, quite possibly, the most wonderful scarf in the entire world. It’s pink and turquoise and cream and purple and lime green. It’s very long. It reminds me of a picture book I read as a child, about a girl who cannot stop knitting. She knits so many colourful squares that eventually they have to build a circus out of them. My scarf’s a bit like that.

And a bit like this.

Oh. And I had a haircut.

Dappled Things

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I couldn’t help myself. Not with all these autumn leaves, and the marbled light of the Lake District. I love the alliteration of this poem, and its strangeness. And sometimes my days seem dappled – how easy it is to switch from sadness to joy, from hope to tedium and back again. Not so much as I used to, ten years ago. Now it is easier to accept my days as dappled. These differing emotions are not so much interwoven, as flecked.