School’s out

I felt a bit sad after my class today. It really has been lovely being involved with these students in this way. The relationship between teachers and students is a unique one. I have been a student for most of my life (eek – eight years of university education), so it is nice to see the other side of the coin. It’s been such a privilege to watch them thinking, and to see them bring their own unique thought patterns and experiences to the classes. They’re so young and enthusiastic, and it’s pretty cool that so many people choose to do English degrees.

It’s been a learning experience as well, and I know there are things I can improve. I think next time I should make more of an effort to write things on the white board, for example – especially when I want to keep certain concepts in play. One of my clearest memories of my own undergraduate tutorials was about structuralism, and the tutor wrote lists on the white board of light/dark, man/woman etc. Discussion was flowing fairly smoothly in my class by the end, and most of them were talking to each other rather than just to me, and bouncing off each other’s ideas. Not quite all of them did, however, and I wonder if some more small group work would have helped a couple of them to integrate better. I hardly used small groups at all this time because it seemed to work so well without it. (I started to go into more detail there but thought better of it…)

Anyway they were absolutely great and it’s sad to see them go. One of the new lecturers in the department was saying the other day that academics always complain about having to squeeze research into the cracks between other commitments, but he felt that up till this year he’s always had to squeeze teaching into the cracks, and he’s loving being able to concentrate on it for a change. I definitely squeezed teaching into the cracks this semester, and it was necessary to do so. But I’m glad I was able to do it.

Speaking of Green…

Yep, it’s pretty green round here right now. A sort of scraggly, mossy green – not all the trees have leaves yet – but it’s beginning to fill in. Every time I go to the park near my house, some small thing is different.

Time feels like it’s passing so quickly at the moment. I fight a battle with my chapter every day, and at the end of each day it feels like it’s defeated me, but I make a new assault each morning with fresh ammunition. And I’m gaining ground.

I teach my last class tomorrow. Then I just have to mark the essays, and I’m done.

And – I’m beginning to think about leaving. At the end of June, I’m moving to Norway. I’ll still be back here now and again until I hand in my thesis, but I won’t have a base here any more. I’m looking forward to it, but there’ll be things I miss, all the same. I’ve been based in the UK for nearly five years now. Maybe it’s time for a change.

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

Happy birthday Mum!

It’s Mum’s birthday tomorrow. Which is almost today even in this part of the world, so it must be well on the way in Australia. I haven’t sent her anything, but maybe she’ll accept a slice of cake and a pitcher of Pimms in three weeks time – if the weather’s up to it! That’s her, in New Zealand, taking off…

More pictures here. We knew she’d love the view of the mountains from above just as much as we do. And here we both are, on a boat, about to discover a cave of the most amazing glow worms. Like galaxies underground. It was her idea to go. She’s good like that.

Sending you much love! Here’s to many more adventures, very soon….

Yet another writing metaphor

Today, the current chapter feels like trying to put up a big tent – the sort of tent you need at least two people for – by yourself. You just get one pole propped up when all the others tumble down. And then the wind picks up and blows the canopy away. And then you can’t find the tent pegs. It’s driving me balmy.

Writing a PhD

is like climbing a mountain. Only you have to build the mountain as you go, from handfuls of rubble. You have to poke at it until it sticks, and holds, and you can climb up to the next bit. But how satisfying it is, after weeks and weeks of gathering rubble and packing it together, to climb up on top of it and see further than you could before.

Reading Webb

Reading Francis Webb’s poems is an extremely odd experience. Practically any Australian poet will tell you he was Australia’s greatest poet, but Australian poets aside, hardly anyone knows about him. He was born in Adelaide in 1925 and died in 1973. And the poems are – well – strange. They are densely constructed and glitter like quartz. Sometimes they are startlingly beautiful. Sometimes they don’t seem to make sense, but you still have the feeling they know what they’re doing. It’s slow going, trying to write about them.

One of the problems is the words don’t stick in your head. I remember when, as an undergrad, I wrote an essay on T.S. Eliot, I memorised huge chunks of Four Quartets without even trying, and it sang in my head as I walked along. This doesn’t happen with Webb. When you look for a line you have remembered and want to quote, it can take you ages to find it, because it’s not at all obvious where it might be. And if you’re not careful, even if you look in the right place you won’t notice it. Maybe this just means I’ve done enough for the day.

I like him a lot, though he puzzles me. I’ll tell you more later…

England again

Back in beautiful Yorkshire. Leaving wasn’t such a wrench this time, because M came with me for three days. He had some work to do here (as did I), but we had time for a drive in the countryside, a seriously good pub lunch in Grassington, and an afternoon in dear old York. Felt a bit of nostalgia, as we so loved living there, but . . . onwards and upwards, I suppose.

I bought an embroidery kit of a section of the Bayeux tapestry, just in case I ever finish Henry. Should get me through the next long Norwegian winter! We also made a good start on decluttering my room, and took a carload of stuff to the tip/recycling. I don’t like throwing away stuff, it all seems haloed in memories.

I taught on Tuesday, and it was great. We were looking at medieval lyric poetry, which they said they didn’t like as much as Chaucer and the other stuff we’ve done. I asked them to come prepared to talk about one of the poems in their selection. They all did brilliantly, and their introductions sparked animated discussion, and we all (me included) came away with a much deeper understanding of the poems. Classes like that make it all worth it.

The countryside is spotted with tiny gorgeous ungainly lambs, jumping and wobbling about. I didn’t get a picture of them, but just remembering them makes me smile. The daffodils are starting to die off, but there’s still enough of them crowding roadsides and river banks to brighten the landscape.

M left this morning, early. So now, time to concentrate…

Making Spaces

When I wrote the mini-post Making Things a few days back, I had really intended to reflect upon all the other things we’ve been making. Chapters and muffins and chocolate puddings aside, we have been making spaces. Or, more precisely, making spaces for making things.

The magpies have made a rather impressive nest, toiling away through sleet and snow.

As well as programming a program to turn data into colourful graphs, Michael has made a collaboration room. His workplace is stuffed full of uncomfortable meeting rooms, but had no space to do collaborative work on research projects, or analyze dvds from experiments, or discuss plans in an informal environment. So he fixed it. To get everyone on side, he made some 3D models of the proposed room. These are seriously cool, and you can move about in them and populate them with people. Here are some stills:

In order to make the space for making things, he had to make some virtual space first. And when they said, yes, okay, that does sound sensible, we drove up to Ikea and spent the weekend putting it together. Now look at it!

All the meeting rooms have names from Norse mythology. This room’s called ├ůsgard right now, but he thinks it needs a new name: Ginnungagap.

We also bought a new bookshelf for my office, to prepare for the influx of books and other bits when I move in here properly in July. Yes there are some similarities between the two spaces: we likes what we likes. It’s a bit messy at the moment but it will be great when populated with my books and my creatures. The futon is at the other end of the room. There are also wardrobes stuffed full of kites and paragliders. I think I will be able to finish my phd in this space.

Today my blog is one year old. This is a space for making things too. And for collecting seasons from three continents. It has been all I wished for and more.

Also today, a long way away, my gorgeous cousin married his gorgeous girl. We ate pizza in their honour (rumour has it seriously good pizza was to be served at their reception). I was sad to miss it, and wish them all the best! A good day for all.

Of Elves and Rings

A very long time ago, I read The Hobbit. I was hooked from the start, and when I got to the second half, where it suddenly becomes darker and tragic and achingly old, I was somewhat more than hooked. I went to find the school librarian. Look, I said, it says there’s another one, it says there’s a sequel. Where is it? You’re too young, she said.

A few years later, we were moving to the country. We put everything in boxes. Some hadn’t even been unpacked from our last move. On the top of one of them, I found the book – an enormous dusty paperback, fatter than a Bible. I might just keep hold of this one, I said.

I didn’t like it in the country to begin with. But I liked the elves. I read it slowly, the year I turned twelve. When it started falling apart, I covered it in plastic. I remember so clearly reaching the end of it as I sat in my parents’ threadbare armchair on a quiet afternoon. ‘”Well, I’m back,” he said.’ No, I thought, no, you can’t be. And the book in my lap transformed from a thing of magic to a heavy lump of soft, worn paper.

After that, I read it again and again. The last time was in the holidays after I graduated from High School. I read it in three days straight, and appreciated the battle scenes for the first time. I was afraid I loved it more than God.

In recent years, I have become somewhat ashamed of my youthful Tolkien fixation. I went to a session on him at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds a couple of years back, and it was dreadful. Laboured re-hashings of the way Tolkien based his monsters and everything else on medieval sources. (Yes this actually is interesting I suppose, but not when it’s already been talked about to death. More interesting is why, and what are the implications of his choices…) The unconcealed eagerness in the eyes of the Tolkien enthusiasts made me feel a little ill. They were talking about his creations as though they actually exist.

But we watched the movies again recently. And I thought – I’m glad he wrote that story. And I’m glad they made those films. Even if the elves aren’t quite as beautiful as I had imagined.

ps. Tolkien taught at Leeds, you know. Yep, my university. Even if he didn’t like it much, and scurried back down to Oxford as often as he could.


General consensus says that my small but devoted readership must be sick to death of Halden photos by now. Especially as they are, according to general consensus, all a variation of about two and a half views. Well, it’s a small town. A small town with a river and a harbour and a fortress, which is all a small town needs and more. And at least this one’s colourful, right?

I made up for my muffin-flop on Tuesday by making yesterday what was, without a doubt, the yummiest veggie-chilli in the whole world. Diced, fried carrots, kidney beans (half of them squashed), peas and char grilled red peppers. Or capsicums, as we say in the land of sun. Mixed up with tomatoes and spices and garlic. Oh my.

And I made brownies from a recipe on the cocoa box. I thought maybe if I used a Norwegian recipe the Norwegian ingredients and measurements would contribute to my success. Well, it was a success, but more like a cake than brownies. Still.

I just got back from my first bike ride of the season. Today it was ten degrees! Almost tropical! The enthusiastic donning of my sunglasses turned out to be unnecessary. But so, thankfully, were the gloves. I stuffed them all into the pockets of my fleece, and zoomed along though 30k of hills and lakes and pine forests. The light was milky, and so were the lakes. Some had patches of ice, but they were melting fast.

I love my bike. It’s sleek and powerful, and changes gear with the flick of a finger. Not like the clunky thing I get about on in Leeds, which requires the handles to be twisted and held in place to change gear – difficult when they’re slippery with rain. No, cycling here is something else. Plus there are hardly any potholes and buses and drunk pedestrians.

Anyway, I got back around 6:30 and the man was no where to be seen. There was a note, saying he’d got a dinner invite for 6. Now, in over a year, we’ve only ever had two dinner invites, and they were on the same night. Sigh. At least I have my brownie cake.


Today I gave into a serious cake craving and made some of these. Bleh. Horrible things. Tasted like sour Yorkshire pudding. Not that I have anything against Yorkshire pudding, in its proper context.

In other news, writing is going well. Sitting at the desk all day, one sentence at a time, begins to make headway in the end. In the evenings we’ve been watching lots of Inspector Morse, including the final tragic episode that left us still feeling sad the morning after. And my cousin is the only person I know who’d resign his job as an April fools’ trick.