Reflections on being back at home

Posted by September Blue Monday, 31 December 2007 1 comments

There's a lot of grumbling I could do about the small town I come from, but I can't fault it for reminding me why I'd never be happy settled down for good in a city.


That photo's from the traditional family Christmas Day walk (featuring also the traditional family Christmas Day short-cut in which my uncle always ends up trying to scale a close-to-vertical footpath as his siblings stand back rolling their eyes, the traditional family Christmas Day moment of panic as somebody realises that several of the children have headed off in a completely separate direction, and the traditional family Christmas Day complaints by by southern relatives that it's so very cold up on the hills, which must by right of ancient tradition be accompanied by copious mockery from the rest of us.)

At the top of that hill, people have been carving their initials into the stone for a long time. This is less interesting when it's anything from the past twenty years or so, especially since this is a small town and the mysterious initials are less mysterious and more 'oh, isn't that Diane's brother's son?', but the oldest ones are worth looking at. 'G M', whoever he was, must have spent a long time on this:

"G M 1908, A C 1945"

But 1908 is nothing compared to the land around it. It's very, very old here. Some of it's old in a pleasantly rustic way, but up on the hills, scattered with standing stones from a long, long time ago, it's beautiful in a way that turns bleak and creepy very fast. Our best local author is Alan Garner, who writes about the landscape as something ancient and magic; if you want a feel for how disturbing this can be, I can't phrase it better than this.

Sun and dial

You should be so lucky

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 30 December 2007 2 comments

A few days after handing in my PhD thesis, when I was still coasting on a wave of euphoria so high I couldn't even feel what should by rights have been a fairly nasty hangover, one of my non-academic friends from long ago got in touch to ask what I was up to. She'd been out of the loop for a while, so I not only explained that I'd finished the thesis but gave her a brief overview of the months leading up to it - last buses home from the university, sleeping in offices, living out of vending machines - just to underline why I was so pleased the thing was done. Yay! I said.

Yay! she said. And then she added: But now that your cushy student life is over, you'll have to get a proper job and join the rest of us poor sods in the real world!

So I shot her. No, I didn't. I don't quite remember what I did, except that I think some of the other people in the office took me for a coffee and spoke to me in calming tones for a while. I'd had the exact same argument with this girl a couple of years before, which is why I was so careful to point out that "Thesis done!" came with a backstory of "...and it was really hard work, before you ask," and in a sense I wasn't even surprised to find out that she hadn't quite got it this time, either. And hey, I got to read books all day, right? I was doing what I loved, right? She has a 9-5 job in an insurance company; why on earth would I complain? Obviously, I must not understand the workings of the Real World. I was lucky.

Okay, this isn't a post on Why Some Of My Friends Are Clueless. Thing is, this attitude isn't exclusive to my friend, nor to the non-academic world. The recent fight in the academic blogosphere over whether junior academics should ever - dear God! - look for jobs at other institutions comes from the same root, with the people in the 'no' camp arguing on the grounds of ingratitude and selfishness on the part of the job-hunters: if you really loved your subject, and if you were really dedicated to your department and your students, you wouldn't care where you lived and worked! You're getting to do a job you love, at a time when there are dozens to hundreds of unemployed academics who'd be so glad to get that job they'd never complain about anything, and you're still not happy? Don't you know how lucky you are?

And we internalise it, because we recognise that there's truth in it - life of the mind! getting paid to do what we love! teaching the next generation! reading books all day! Does life get better than this? - and resolve to appreciate our blessings and not complain about anything but plagiarists, and thus we rise through the ranks, until we're junior staff somewhere with a massive admin workload and bitchy colleagues and far too much teaching of students who just don't care and not enough time left for the research our heads of department are breathing down our necks to make sure we publish, and realise this is not what we thought we were signing up for, and then we snap and decide we hate everything, everything, about our jobs, except obviously we can't complain to the people on the rungs above us, so instead we get drunk at department functions and explain our woes to the PhD students, who nod and look thoughtful and say they're taking our warnings on board, but who are actually thinking - I guarantee you - something like "Oh, diddums, I do thirty hours a week at a retail job I hate, and you've got the job I want, and you complain because you have to go to meetings? Don't you know how lucky you are?" And so it continues.

Lucky or not, we're all going to go insane if we think like this.

I work for the university now, in several different jobs which still don't pay me much combined, but I've done jobs that were harder and paid me less. The lowest-paid was a care assistant, for which I got minimum wage (and because I was under 21 for most of it, not even adult minimum wage) and worked ten- and twelve-hour shifts, split between day and night. It's a hard, important, underappreciated job that deserves to be paid much, much better than it is - God knows how my colleagues were managing to raise families on that kind of money - but it's not the worst job out there, by a long way. I remember Dorothy, an 89-year-old resident, telling me about working in the mills when she was sixteen; 6am to 6pm six days a week, no talking on the job, half an hour for lunch, an hour's walk there and back, and all the pay to her mother at the end of the week. Since me and one of my colleagues had just been grumbling about working the dreaded 1-10pm shift, I was expecting her to follow this with a dressing-down about not knowing we were born, which wouldn't have been out of place. Instead, she said "I'm so glad you girls don't have to work like that any more." There were people (the boss included) who didn't seem so bothered by the terrible wages care assistants got, because it's a vocation, and you wouldn't do it if you didn't love it, but Dorothy and her friends weren't among them; the loudest protests I heard about our pay when I was working there came from former mill girls.

Which isn't to say that academics don't have it much better than care assistants, nor that care assistants don't have it better than 1920s mill girls, nor that 1920s mill girls didn't have it better than 1850s child chimney-sweepers. (People working 9-5 jobs in car insurance come somewhere between 'academics' and 'care assistants', I reckon.) But there isn't a point on that scale at which all complaints become irrelevant.

And yet, this seems to be how we think. As one example: my TA cohort was recently caught up in a pay dispute with the university over a proposed hefty pay cut to our already-measly wages. A lot of people were reluctant to take the protests beyond office grumbling and into actual negotiations, and they weren't entirely unreasonable in that; nobody wants to piss off the department, and some teaching for low pay is better than no teaching at all. Still, most of the reasons given centred around TA work not being a real job, because it's something we're training to do and because it's something we need for our CVs anyway. If we're doing this for the experience, not for the money, we should consider it a favour that the university pays us at all. And they could always give our teaching to somebody else; we should consider ourselves lucky to get any teaching, shouldn't we?

Well, no. Individually, the university is indeed doing me a favour by giving one particular group of first-years to me rather than another TA; collectively, the university benefits far more than we do by giving all those groups of first-years to TAs rather than hiring teaching fellows. We do need the experience, but this doesn't stop it being exploitation. That's what makes it exploitation. And yes, we love the work, and we didn't go into academia for the money, but I'm not asking for a company yacht and a £15k bonus, here. I just want my three jobs to add up to enough to pay the bills. Please.

We do need to accept that we're lucky, that there are people out there doing far worse jobs and living far worse lives than ours. But if we act as if all our good fortune will be snatched away from us the minute we dare to express any discontent with anything, we're only going to be hurting ourselves. It's not a betrayal of everything we stand for if we want to move to another institution, or if we protest a pay cut, or if we point out that sleeping in the office is not exactly the best way to spend a night, and smiling through all of that won't create solidarity with the rest of the world. It'll just drive us crazy, and then we'll snap and start biting students or something.

We do live in the real world. We know that, right?

It's like the world's least interesting, most footnoted reality TV

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 29 December 2007 0 comments

Page 135 of the thesis read-through, and things are looking up. And down. Sort of. I still feel like a complete and utter fool for not catching all the typos, but the thing as a whole is turning out to be a lot more interesting and readable than I remembered it being. (Admittedly, 'readable' always sounds like a backhanded compliment for academic prose.) Maybe all I needed was several months of not reading the damn thing, after all.

And perhaps a bit more time spent in my favourite city bookshop with a coffee, a stack of things I haven't read yet, and unlimited WiFi. That helped.


Even more fear!

Posted by September Blue Friday, 28 December 2007 6 comments

You know how some people can't stand hearing their own voice on an answerphone? How they (we) cower away, hands over ears, squeaking "Do I really sound like that? I don't sound like that, do I?", and refuse to be in the same room if the thing needs to be replayed? I am also like that with my work. When I'm writing, I can revise and rewrite ad infinitum (and if I had a different supervisor, that might not be an exaggeration; I see your stories of supervisors sending Strongly Worded E-mails and raise you my supervisor appearing out of nowhere to shout 'Go back to your desk and write your damn thesis!' at me down corridors), but once it's done, it's done. Gone. Over. I never want to see it again. Re-reading my own work is like operating on my own scalp, without anaesthetic or a mirror.

As you can guess, then, re-reading my entire PhD thesis as viva preparation is not my idea of fun.

The agony is of several types. First, there is the stabbing pain experienced when spotting a typo, or a messed-up reference, or a 'p.???' next to a quotation, or on at least one occasion an actual missing word and how the hell did I not notice that?, knowing that my examiners will see exactly the same thing and that there is nothing I can do to fix it, short of sneaking into their offices with Tipp-Ex, which let's just pretend is ethically beneath me. I knew this was coming, and numbed myself to it with Twiglets and several episodes of The Armando Iannucci Show to reward myself with when the pain gets too bad.

Second is the growing realisation, radiating across my soul like the tendrils of a migraine, that I cannot actually write. This isn't true, really - my academic prose style might not be anything to lead troops into battle with, but it is, she says humbly, usually somewhere around 'decent' - but re-reading brings all the flaws to the front. All the flaws. Every single awkward sentence construction from pages 1 to 36 is now scratched in letters of fire on the thin, trembling membrane of my self-esteem, and I only stopped there because I couldn't bear to read any further.

Third is a nagging ache, threatening to explode into something terrible. Re-reading, you see, means reading my entire thesis from front cover to back, in that order. And I, um... I haven't actually done this before. Obviously, I've read and re-read all of it, at different points, and obviously I've done some thinking about how various chapters fitted together, and obviously I've re-read the second half of chapter 3 with the new conclusions from chapter 2 in mind, and so on, but I've never actually read through the whole thing as an entity in its own right. Yes, maybe this would have been a good idea, but, listen, the only time when I had the whole thing together to read was at 4.30am on the night before the submission deadline, and I was very, very tired and had not yet entered the weirdly euphoric state I ended up in for most of the next day, and also I was busy with more immediate matters like making my footnotes not be in 2-point font (about which, screw you, Word) and trying to nestle enough office chairs together to sleep on and getting images in the right order for my appendix and working out a battle strategy for a fight over the printer the next day, which never actually happened, as it turned out, but had the potential to be fairly draining if it had, and anyway, by that time it would have been too late to do anything substantial even if I had read the whole thesis cover-to-cover, right? Right.

Or wrong. Whatever. It's too late, now, and if I find any massive structural problems at this point, even Tipp-Ex and a skeleton key won't help me get them past the examiners.

Apple and me: a history

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 27 December 2007 2 comments

Macintosh II (er, 1990)? - My first love. No, well - my third love, if we're counting Fiona B., who at age 7 I decided I was going to marry and live with forever in a small cottage in the woods - we'd even picked out the cottage, I tell you truth - and Oliver P., whose mother still has in her possession a letter I wrote to him the year before that, which states that he's the best boy in the whole world, asks him to marry me, and ends 'PS This is a love letter'. Yes, now you laugh, but did subtle ever get any of you anywhere? Exactly. Anyway! My mother started doing some work from home when I was nine or so, and her work sent a massive, creamy-beigeish-grey behemoth home with her, and thus it was that my soul was contracted to Apple from a young and tender age. It had black-and-white games (Glypha! Crystal Quest!). It had seven different alert sounds. It was The Future.

(Also: I just looked Crystal Quest up on Wikipedia to see if anybody ever completed it, and found out that it was one of the first games to appear on Windows Vista in 2007. The Mac-vs-PC jokes write themselves, I tell you.)

Performa 6800 (1995-ish) - Oh, so advanced. Or so we thought at the time ("it's like a CD player, but in the computer! And it's even got a fake-LCD screen!"), but I am loath to mock the technological limitations of the past in case my grandchildren one day read this blog and laugh at me for failing to predict the combination microwave-teleporter-videophones they'll all be carrying in their pockets. I loved this computer when it arrived; I loved it when it got old, and slow, and my parents bought a new one and let me take it to university, where it sat on a desk in my bedroom and ignored my flatmates saying things like "three-gig hard drive? Serial ports? What does it run on, coal?" because it was mine and it was precious to me. And because I'd customised all the sound effects, so error alerts were Lando Calrissian saying "I've got a bad feeling about this" and the startup sound was Han Solo telling you that no mystical energy force controlled his destiny. I think Jawas also featured somewhere. Oh, shush.

iMac (2001) - My baby, my only, my sweet (until I can afford a laptop, when it'll retire gently and spend the rest of its career telling those young iPods to get off its lawn). It's getting on a bit now - it couldn't find its hard drive the other day, which caused some consternation - and it can't run, well, anything, at least not anything created in the past three years, but it's loved and cherished as much as it ever was. This is the computer I used to kiss goodnight (to the resigned bewilderment of my at-the-time boyfriend); this is the computer I talked down from a kernel panic with murmurs and coos (and fsck, but I'm sure it was the sweet talk that did it). It's smooth, it's shiny, it's covered in flowers, and I take great delight in telling haughty why-don't-you-get-a-real-computer commentators that I chose it for the colour scheme alone.

iPod (2002) - The hard drive finally gave in six weeks ago, but until then, the iPod was virtually indestructible. It's been dropped, dropped again, dropped onto cobbles at high speed, dropped in water, covered in milk, left in a pub, lost behind a TV cabinet, and the battery never even faltered. For some reason, though, it never would play Bruce Springsteen's 'Jersey Girl' without skipping around like crazy, no matter what version I copied across, not once in all those years.

iPod Shuffle (2007) - As presented by my Masters-in-Biology brother:
"That's tiny. You could eat that."
"Why would you want to eat it?"
"You could put it right in your mouth and eat it. It's bite-sized."
"Don't eat my iPod."
"In one go. You could eat it."
"But don't."
"But you could."
"But don't."

Fancy-Pants New Shiny Silver Keyboard (2007) - It's not the keyboard I'm unimpressed with, as such, it's the having to buy a new keyboard just because I spilt coffee over the old one. Which, following some rapid cleaning and slow drying out, I thought I'd got away with, until a few days later when it suddenly decided it didn't like any key but 2. But it really liked 2. "2222" it typed in the Google address bar. "222222222222222." And on and on, ad infinitum, until I finally gave in and found an Apple store and paid Apple yet more money I don't have for a clunky silver laptop-style thing that claims not to work in 10.3.9. (Which it does, btw.) I did get to play with the iPhone in the shop, though. "And," as I pointed out to Laz, "at least I got that online application form done before I got the new keyboard."
"Yeah," she said. "But you filled it out entirely with 222222222222222."
Future search committees: really, you do want to hire me. Just look beyond the semiotic.

iPod Touch (2007) - So wonderful, I'm not even a teensy little bit annoyed I paid £50 for a Shuffle I no longer need six weeks beforehand. Nor am I annoyed about the old iPod clunking to a halt, or the coffee casualty of my last keyboard, or Apple removing 'iPod Download' from iTunes and claiming it was an upgrade, or the removal of the Dogcow from print setup screens far and wide. I forgive Apple everything.

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New baby

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 26 December 2007 1 comments

This time on Christmas Eve, I was grumbling about Christmas being a paean to capitalism and how little I loved that.

This time on Christmas Eve, I was sharing head-shaking, eye-rolling confusion with one of my old friends about a mutual pal who's done that annoying girl thing of ditching all her female friends the second she got a serious boyfriend.

This time on Christmas Eve, when asked, I said that all I wanted for Christmas was my PhD.

But no more.

I have embraced the consumerist ethic, condensed into small, shiny objects nobody really needs. I have become, I fear, that girl who relegates friends and family to Plan B once the new love raises its head. And what I have now means so much more to me than a PhD ever could.

In short: I don't need you any more, world. I have an iPod Touch now.

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Of all the trees that are in the wood...

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 25 December 2007 0 comments

Of all the trees that are in the wood

As before, plus:

'So Much Wine' (The Handsome Family) - I can't believe I forgot this one, as any song that begins 'I had nothing to say on Christmas day, when you threw all your clothes in the snow' deserves pride of place on anybody's Christmas album. It's got that Del Amitri-esque trick of balancing lyrics of relentless despair with a chirpy tune, too ('Listen to me, butterfly: there is only so much wine you can drink in one life, but it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass'), which would surely fit somebody's Christmas, but I was just listening to it while reading a blog post on the MLA convention, which gave it a whole new twist. Good luck, brave souls.

'When The Water Gets Cold And Freezes On The Lake' (Herman Dune) - Herman Dune are a French band my brother's crazy about, but I could take them or leave them, this song excepted. Good breakup songs are difficult to pull off this simply ('I love the smell of your hair and the blue of your eyes / But you're far too complicated, and you tell a lot of lies'), and the return to a freezing lake as a point of resolution is something sharp. This should be the other bookend of a mix CD that begins with Joni Mitchell's 'River'.

'Christmas In Washington' (Steve Earle) - which has very little to do with Christmas or winter or anything related, really, but earns its way onto every such playlist simply by virtue of being really, really good.

'Through December' (Laura Viers) - Haunting, mournful, sounds like the concept of 'bleak' set to music, but it's gorgeous. (On a related note, I had this playing on repeat when I was marking my last batch of undergraduate essays.)

'Christmas In Nevada' (Willard Grant Conspiracy) - I can't, by any rhetorical charades, make the lyrics here look like anything festive, but I can say that it's so musically upbeat that by the time the singer hits 'I'll take my pay and buy a gun / Steal a car and hope it runs / Find a place to make my name', it's up there with 'God bless us, every one!'

I fear the viva (Bedtime Story Edition!)

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 22 December 2007 5 comments

For the non-British readers out there, I think 'viva' translates to 'dissertation defence' ('-se,' fine, fine) in other parts of the world. Or, at least, I used to think so. Since then, I have read a cheery piece on Preparing For Your Dissertation Defense that included, in all seriousness, the suggestion that you bring homemade cookies for the panel, and while I'm mostly sure that the author just has some very eccentric views on the whole process, part of me is convinced that you people on the other side of the Atlantic have found a portal into some cozy parallel universe in which academia is actually fun, and that the viva-equivalents in that universe cannot be compared to the trial by fire we have in this one.

Or, I don't know, maybe we just have different customs surrounding these things. But, seriously: cookies? Taking cookies to your viva here would be like taking a scarf you'd knitted yourself to your court hearing ("just for you, your honour!")

Anyway, so, the viva. I am afraid of the viva. I am very afraid of the viva, and the day creeps closer, and my fear grows. Instead of curling up into a corner and gibbering to myself, then, I'll tell you all a story about the last experience I had with these things. Are you sitting comfortably? Excellent. (People who know me in real life: you've heard this already, so feel free to get back to the present-wrapping I'm sure you're avoiding.)

My department has a version of the viva which falls at the end of your first year of PhD study. It doesn't grant you a PhD, but it does bump you up to 'PhD candidate'. This process has a reputation of being an hour or two of sheer, sheer terror, and the reputation is not undeserved. They are tough. They are very tough. They tear you and your work into itty, bitty shreds, and then sit, stopwatches in hand, while you assemble a papier-mache version of the Sistine Chapel from the remains. You are not there to have fun. You are not their colleague. You are their prey.

In practice, mine was nowhere near the terrifying experience I was expecting, but that's immaterial for now. What's important, or what was important to me at the time and remains important for this part of the story so if you'll just bear with me a while longer thank you very much, is that I was sure it would be. This is back when I was scared of discussing my work in public, terrified of presenting conference papers. I was a nervous wreck for days leading up to this, and I'd also promised myself that if they failed me - if they even sent me back for revisions - I'd give up the PhD and quit academia for good. And I meant it.

I walked into the room, trying not to shake too obviously. Intimidating Professor #1 told me to take a seat and 'make [my]self comfortable', which the tiny part of my brain not shrieking 'OH GOD OH GOD THEY'RE GOING TO LAUGH ME OUT OF THE ROOM' found darkly funny. Intimidating Professor #2 explained the process, Intimidating Professor #1 pulled out a heavily-annotated copy of the piece of work I'd submitted, along with a list of what I'm guessing were questions or concerns and which at any rate filled an entire page in his tiny handwriting, and declared that we'd begin.

I could feel my heart beat in the back of my throat.

Intimidating Professor #1, he of the reputation of roasting students alive at such events, he that I once heard someone at a conference compare to Torquemada, asked his first question.

And this should be the bit where it all goes right, and where I tell you about how sweet it felt when I realised I could answer his question, after all, and that I could get through this, and that I could too be an academic! Reach for those stars! But what actually happened is that he asked the question, I said "Well -," and the entire building plunged into darkness.

A fuse had blown, it turns out. And it was a December morning, when there's not much in the way of natural light. And the Intimidating Professors had closed the blinds before I came in, just in case - I'm speculating here, but I may not be far from the truth - one of the other students tried to give me hints via Semaphore from across the courtyard.

And there I sat, in the darkness, with the weight of Intimidating Professor #1's question hanging over my head, thinking "Huh. Well, this can't be a good omen."

The story has a happy ending, though; I passed with flying colours, decided to stay in academia after all, etc. etc. And people have cheered me up about the impending viva by pointing out that I probably won't get a repeat experience of The Day The Sun Died.

(Except, though, I'm fairly sure that helped. Because while the Intimidating Professors were fiddling around with the blinds and looking around in baffled confusion and discussing what the problem was, I was thinking up an answer to IP#1's question. Maybe my supporters are right, and the electrics won't fail and it won't happen again, anyway. But there might be tough questions. And so I'm going to plant a friend by a fuse-box, just in case.)

Dear Man Strolling Casually Beneath My Window,

It's December. Is this really the right kind of weather for a kilt-with-bare-legs-and-sandals combination?



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Out for a walk

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 19 December 2007 2 comments

My supervisor e-mailed me today with a list of things I should do to prepare for my viva. What I wanted to do was run away to sea, but we don't have a sea, and so instead I took my camera and walked down to the river to spend a few hours in the fresh air.


It didn't feel too much like winter (defined in via a two-stage process: a) how far away from your front door you can get before realising you forgot your gloves, and b) whether or not you can be bothered with the effort of walking all the way back up 61 steps to get them once you do), at least until I got out of the shelter of the buildings and down to the river, at which point it was suddenly very cold indeed. But it was a good walk, with just me and a man walking his dog and a few bemittened children stamping on frozen puddles in the whole world.

Green leaves

Here's what puzzled me, though. I haven't walked that way for years, and at one point on the riverbank, there was a new council sign bolted to the railings saying "In the interests of safety, no golf allowed." Hmm. There was a fair-sized stretch of grass and trees, but it was very lumpy grass and quite a lot of trees, and golf doesn't seem like the sort of game you can play just anywhere. Admittedly, my experience with the sport is limited to waitressing in a golf club one summer, but I would've thought you needed a golf course. Or at least some holes in the ground, into which golf balls can be hit.

Also, it's possible that the members of the club where I worked were doing it wrong, but golf never came across to me as the kind of game that needed safety warnings, except a) to spectators ("FORE!") and b) in the event of thunderstorms, because golf apparently addles the part of the brain that warns the rest of us not to stand outside holding a large metal pole in the air when there's lightning. (I am not joking. People needed repeated warning about this.)

Also, even assuming there is some small kind of Extreme Golf that a) can be played in areas that do not resemble a golf course and b) is a danger to public safety, has this really been a common enough problem for the council to put up a warning sign? Well, yes, apparently. Yes, it has.

There weren't any golfers out today, though. All was peaceful.

Tree by the river


Posted by September Blue Monday, 17 December 2007 2 comments

One of my students plagiarised their* last assignment, and I have no way of proving it. Curses.

All right, in fairness: it's possible the student wrote the assignment themselves, and this is why Google, Turnitin, and a search of everything relevant in the university library have failed to turn up anything incriminating. And here, we must tread carefully, lest we end up as The Bad Guy in future stories of the academic wunderkind whose idiot tutors refused to believe in their genius and hauled them in on plagiarism charges, and it was then, as they will describe it in their bestselling memoir Those Who Can't - Teach!, that they learned the sad truth about how universities are staffed by angry, bitter, jealous, dried-up old has-beens who exist only to crush the life out of creative young minds.

Don't think I haven't thought this through.

So, yes, it's possible that the work is their own. I won't deny that. But it's also possible that Mercury is inhabited entirely by tigers, and I'd give that possibility better odds. I've taught this kid; I've read stuff written by this kid before. It reads nothing, nothing, like this. And it doesn't help that the student in question has attended no lectures, missed the maximum allowable number of tutorials, did none of the reading as far as I could ever determine, and has a history of plagiarism already. Still, I can't prove it; I can't even call the student in for a meeting about it, which would be the usual Plan B, since it's the end of semester and students have all left campus now; and I need to give a final grade. And department regulations are clear on this: innocent until proven guilty.

* Singular 'they' is fairly common in informal British English, and I have no idea why we don't all accept its use in every situation. (It comes in particularly handy for describing one's students in gender-neutral non-identifying ways on one's blog, for instance.) What's the point of backflipping through awkward neologisms just to reinvent the wheel?

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The Christmas playlist, v.1.0.3

Posted by September Blue 0 comments

'River' (Joni Mitchell)
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' (Jewel)
'O Come O Come Emmanuel (Sufjan Stevens)
'Sixteen Maybe Less' (Iron & Wine/Calexico)
'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear' (Sixpence None the Richer)
'7 O'Clock News/Silent Night' (Simon and Garfunkel)
'Carol of the Bells' (Vienna Boys' Choir)
'Merry Xmas Everyone' (Noel Gallagher)
'Mary's Boy Child' (Sissel Kyrkjebø)
'Let It Be' (Joan Baez)
'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' (most of the Rat Pack, apparently)

Re: 'Let It Be' - no, no, I know it's not. But it's on there anyway, mostly because I love how forcefully she sings 'There will be no sorrow', as if it's an order.

Sex for shoes

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 16 December 2007 4 comments

From one of the women's glossy magazines in our staffroom, on an article titled 'Inside the Male Mind'. Item no.2: Men forget anniversaries because, (insert essentialist evo-psych babble here). Followed by:

How to handle it
Next time there's a special date looming make yourself more of a goal. Mori research recently discovered that although 38% of men in stable relationships want sex three or more times a week, only nine per cent get it - a statistic you could well capitalise on! "The part of the brain responsive to sex hormones is two-and-a-half times larger in men than in women, so make it obvious what reward he'll be getting at the end of the evening," explains counsellor Suzie Hayman. "Then suggest he buys you some sexy shoes or eveningwear for the big day and he'll feel like he has control over the situation with an end-goal he values."

Words fail.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 14 December 2007 0 comments

(Once a Week, Nov.8, 1862)

Dreams are the accompaniment of both idleness and work. They "come through the multitude of business," and occupy the lazy brain; they are associated with the sluggard and the enthusiast; they are honoured as challens of supernatural advice, and blamed as the offspring of sheer sensuality. We dream with our eyes open as well as shut - by day as well as by night. But the phenomena of dreams have defied scientific experiments and metaphysical inquiries. Now and then it seems as if some law were discovered, but the experimenter is soon baulked. You fancy you can account for a dream, but you can't make one. It may sometimes be analysed, but I believe has never been composed. You do not know how it will turn out. Impress your mind strongly with this and that set of ideas, and lo, the whole slips out of the place where you put it, and another occupies your sleeping thoughts. You can't cook a dream. The skilful speaker can count, with tolerable certainty, upon producing an impression something like that which he wishes upon the waking mind; but, when we sleep, we move out of the reach of his persuasive machinery. But although we cannot construct a dream, or order it beforehand, it may sometimes be directed while in progress with ludicrous effect. Many accounts are published of the way in which the thoughts of a dreamer, once fairly committed to the dream may be effected. He is played with helplessly. An encyclopaedia will give anecdotes and references to books about dreaming, in which most absurd results have been obtained by dictating to the sleeper. A man has been made to dive from his bed under the persuasion that he was in the water, and being pursued by a shark. With far the most of us - indeed, with very few exceptions, - the land of dreams is a strange independent land, and our sleeping life unaccountably cut off from the real world.

Words may waken, but they seldom influence us. We hear, and do not understand; there is a break between the minds of the speaker and the sleeper; the sounds are not interpreted by the brain. This is the more curious, as many persons talk in their sleep; the tongue obeys the thought, although the ear wll not convey it, except, as I have said, in very rare instances. Perhaps the most curious thing connected with dreams is that experience does not correct them. People who, when their eyes are open, go about quietly on the face of the earth ordering their carriages, paying their cab-fare, or trudging in the dust, fly in their dreams. Some people lead not only a distinct but a continued life in their dreams. They take the thread up, for several consecutive nights, with a consciousness that they are dreaming. Most dreams, however, are distinct. They may be repeated, but are without connection.


I will not, however, dwell over our sleeping dreams; but I must say, by the way, that I pity the man who does not know when he is "dropping off." The consciousness of standing on the threshold of sleep when you are at liberty to indulge in it, is delicious. You are awake and not awake. The dream god has his hand upon you, though he has not yet led you away. You feel his magic presence, and the gentle dissolution of your waking thoughts under his touch. To you it is a private setting of the day. The sun goes his own road and at his own time, but you sink into a twilight of your own. You do not really "fall" off, nor is it a steady descending slide into the night; the border land is broken, and you don't reach the level plain of sleep without some retrospective glimpses of the weary track along which you have passed. I pity the man who tumbles into his bed and sprawls away into a dream before the bed-curtains have done swinging at the shock of his plunge. No, it is far better to wait a minute at the palace-gate and let the proper ministers close your eyes and carry you in with irresistible but kindly touch.

A man who bursts into the mysterious land, like a mad bull through a hedge, with a snore for a bellow, deserves to have a nightmare let loose at him, and be ridden out of the palace of dreams with a shriek.

A sense of perspective

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 13 December 2007 0 comments

My neighbour is crying.

I don't know her. They're a couple, around my age; I've nodded at her on the stairs once or twice, and I once helped him talk a panicking, fluttering pigeon out of the hallway. I know their names, because the numbering system in our building gets hazy on our floor and we often end up with each other's post. But I don't know her, and I don't know him, and I can't exactly go round at two in the morning and ask if everything's okay.

(I mean, I could. If it was panic rather than distress, maybe. But as with people crying in public, there's no helpful way to interfere, and I lean towards the idea that any time 2am sees you sobbing in the living room, you want the world to leave you alone anyway.)

I'm marking student work, and getting more and more annoyed by how many times I've written 'Follow the stylesheet!' in the past three hours. I'd worked myself into a whole lather of rage about it, when the eighth student in a row failed to do the one simple thing I explained to them four times in class, etc, etc, you know how it goes. It's annoying. It's really, really annoying. And tiring, and infuriating, and wrath-inducing, in cumulative amounts, with every time I write the same. damn. thing in the margins.

But whatever my neighbour's going through sounds worse.

I don't care so much about my essays any more. I hope she's all right.

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It's not you, it's me.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 6 December 2007 5 comments

A student ambles up to the lending desk with a book. I check out the book and hand it back to him. He nods, puts his card back in his wallet, and then, looking as if he's suddenly remembered something, beams broadly at me. "Have a nice life!" he says.

Some questions come to mind.

1. Was it... was it something I said, O mysterious student? I mean, I know it was just a 24-hour loan, but I thought you knew that, too. Maybe you wanted something more? Were you hoping for a semester-long thing? Um. Gosh. Well, this is awkward.

2. While I have, I think, used the 'have a nice life' line myself a few times in my not-entirely-praiseworthy past, it typically comes with a more dramatic buildup. Shouldn't there be some kind of argument here? Hurling of crockery? Throwing of wedding ring into river while country rock chords crescendo in the background? All I did was smile and tell him when the book was due back. I feel a little wronged.

3. We're never going to see that book again, are we?


Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 5 December 2007 1 comments

A few people in my department have been warning me recently about teaching fellowships. "They'll exploit you!" is the refrain. "Get one as a temporary thing while you're looking for a Lecturer A post, but watch out, because they'll really exploit you!"

I'm torn.

See, on one hand, they're right. Teaching fellowships carry a heavy, heavy teaching load. I know this already, but it's sweet and good of them to warn me. They want me to do well; they want me to go into the job market with my eyes wide open. They care, and this is good.

On the other hand, 'exploit' is a funny word coming from the people who currently pay me TA rates.

I have learnt to nod, smile, thank them, and then rapidly change the subject. It goes down better than what I want to say, which is, yes, teaching fellowships are exploitative, but, people, they are salaried posts, and I've just spent the past semester writing lectures for advanced classes on what works out as the same pay I got for babysitting when I was fifteen. And babysitters, unlike your TAs, typically get access to the fridge.

People expect more of you when you have naturally curly hair.*

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 4 December 2007 0 comments

And so, I had this dream in which I discovered my hair was actually a wig, and I phoned my mother, and she said that it was a 'permanent wig' I'd had for the past twenty-five years, because some kind of fungal infection had turned all my hair green. "But it can't be a wig," I said, "it grows!" and she explained that permanent wigs draw up nutrients from the scalp to do that. Annoyed, I told her I wanted it removed, and she sighed, very impatient, and said that I could if I wanted, but I should be aware that my actual hair colour was a very fair red, and did I really think that would look good on me? Which I didn't. But then again, if this was a wig, I'd never be able to accept compliments on 'my' hair ever again now I knew I hadn't grown it myself. And all the time, part of me whispered "but you knew it was a wig, really. Your hair is too nice to be your own."

In other news, I think I'm getting worried about my viva. Can you tell?
* - For the uninitiated...

Music Mondays: The Weakerthans, 'Pamphleteer'

Posted by September Blue Monday, 3 December 2007 0 comments

[Part 1 of an occasional series.]

There's this movement you pick up when you spend too much time in cities. Duck your head - just a little - step sideways, turn your hands palms-in, and keep walking. "Would you like -" No. "Do you have time -" No. "Did you know -" No, and I don't want to, and please don't tell me, just let me get past you without acknowledging that you were ever there. It's not personal; it's just that I have somewhere to be, and I don't have time to stop and decide whether or not to care.

If the Weakerthans' 'Pamphleteer' was what it claims to be, a song about a lonely soul handing out pamphlets for a cause nobody's interested in and reflecting on a lost love while he does it, I'd like it less than I do now. It's sweet enough, and it's a clever conceit, weaving phrases of manifestos and protest songs into a hymn of unrequited love: 'Why do I still see you in every mirrored window, in all that I could never overcome?' When he trails off with 'I am your pamphleteer, I'm your pamphleteer,' you know it's not just the city he's singing to. Still... the power of those lines is lessened somewhat when they're is turned into a faux-profound backdrop for yet another "She's not interested in me - :(" song, surely? I'm not going to argue 'Pamphleteer' describes the history of socialism, or that it's making some grand, detached, post-post-modern comment about the material it's using, but then it's not a love song, either. More than anything, it's a song about that little sidestep dodge on a busy city street.

It would be difficult to argue that the Weakerthans are cheapening the history of left-wing protest, for a start. Lead singer John K. Samson, formerly of anarcho-punk band Propaghandi, co-founded the not-for-profit collective publishing company Arbeiter Ring; they've sung 'Solidarity Forever' on stage before, and while their own songs aren't as blatantly political as Propaghandi's, you can still feel it there. Winnipeg's Golden Boy statue becomes a 'Golden Business Boy' in 'One Great City!', crowing out his love for the town while his wrecking ball smashes it apart. (Of course, it's Winnipeg - all cities are Winnipeg in Weakerthans songs - but equally of course, it's every other city too. I heard them sing this live in England to a crowd that turned the refrain of 'I hate Winnipeg' into 'I hate Manchester', and it fit so well you couldn't even see the join.)

And if 'Pamphleteer' does shrink the political into the personal, it at least does so beautifully. You wonder how a figure eloquent enough to describe the 'rhetoric and treason of saying that I'll miss you', or present himself as a 'spectre haunting Albert Street', can be so helplessly, awkwardly silent in the face of whoever he's singing to. (I don't think any lines ever written sum up awkward as well as these ones do: 'How I don't know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you; how you don't know where you should look, so you look at my hands.') The grand, swooping chords don't clash with the quiet, half-abashed tune under the voice, but blend into it. When the fragments of protest songs and slogans turn up, there's no way to parse them neatly and keep them separate from the pamphleteer's own voice: 'Sing oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one like me remembering the way it could have been.' The lyrics in the liner put the line from 'Solidarity Forever' in quotation marks - 'Sing, "Oh, what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one" like me remembering...' - but that doesn't seem quite right, either. Really, what this needs is a quotation mark that fades out on a gradient. Weakerthans album liners never put line breaks in the lyrics; probably that's why.

It's the 'Solidarity Forever' line that makes it for me. This isn't a song about hopeless causes, or about one individual's romantic woes appropriating a history of political struggle. If it's unclear whether pouring out one's heart to someone who doesn't want it is a metaphor for pressing a heartfelt pamphlet to someone's chest and watching it flutter ungrasped to the ground, or vice versa, then maybe it's supposed to be. What matters is the absence of connection, the isolation, the weakness of being just one when 'just one' counts as nothing at all. If there's any kind of political principle underlying this, it's that nobody can feel like a whole person without someone else caring enough to champion whatever they care about. And that sounds like a fine one to me.

And on the subject of open correspondence:

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 29 November 2007 0 comments

My students would like it to be known that the debate over realism between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson is both more entertaining, 'and maybe more accurate', if you add a silent 'p.s. - Your mother' to the end of every relevant piece.

Cover letters

Posted by September Blue 0 comments

Dear Hiring Panel of Wonderful People who are a Credit to the Profession and no doubt Lovely In and Of Themselves As Human Beings Too:

I would like that job you are advertising. Please.

My PhD, which is nearly completed - no.

My PhD, which was completed in - no. No, that's a lie.

I have almost completed a PhD in - no. Never say 'almost'. 'Almost' means 'not.'

My PhD, which is finished in the sense that I have written it and given it to the examiners, and there is nothing more I can do, people, I swear, but I haven't had the viva yet so I don't count as 'passed', but I SWEAR to you I will, I swear, I swear....

My new flatmate

Posted by September Blue Monday, 26 November 2007 0 comments

Above the kitchen table, where I do most of my teaching-related work:

James Dean

Because when you're buried in undergraduate essays, you need to look up to a sight that'll numb the pain.

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Posted by September Blue Sunday, 25 November 2007 2 comments

Best out-of-context snippet of academic prose this month, yes/no?

To an accumulation of misfortunes within regular stanza length, another line,and misfortune, are added.

I've been reading it and re-reading it for eight minutes. I'm hypnotised. Maybe the flu* has something to do with that, but I maintain there's a strange and fragile beauty in this line.

ETA: WAIT, no. This one wins the much more prestigious 'holy hell, did I just READ that?' award:

[A] spirited Negro version of Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight from Texas is not injured as a ballad because the narrative is turned, according to a common habit with the coloured race, into direct discourse.

...well. That'll stop you falling asleep at work, flu or no flu.

* - It's probably a cold, but I'm upgrading it to flu for the sympathy vote and to stress the fact that I have been ill for a week. I do not get ill for a week. One of the benefits of spending half my childhood in hospitals was developing the immune system of a Cylon, for heaven's sake. I really resent this, and so 'flu' it is.

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I have:

- Chaired a conference panel right after dropping an overhead projector on my thumb (which went numb, then purple, then burst into agonising fiery pain). Kept everyone to time, thought up a question to ask the question-less speaker at the end of the session, and waited until the audience had left the room before slumping against the wall and sobbing.

- Made it from one side of the arts building to the other in 43 seconds with a data projector under my arm.

- Was once in the position of standing in front of the Most Annoying Man on the Planet in the audience after a fancy-pants speaker's talk, and answered his "You MUST let me ask the next question! It is IMPERATIVE that everyone else in this audience hears it!" with a polite "I'm sorry, but Professor Hotshot only has time for three questions," rather than bopping him on the forehead with my microphone.

- Found something constructive to say about a student essay which turned into a paean for a twentieth-century dictator somewhere around page 2.

- Dealt with several delegates' enquiries at a conference evening venue, when I was in the middle of a hugely messy pseudo-breakup with someone. (Literally 'in the middle'. They tapped me on the shoulder.)

- Got Maintenance to fix the large gap in the moveable panelling in one of my classroom walls, which was at one point so big that me and the History guy teaching in the next room could (and did) wave to each other at the start of each class. You think this isn't so impressive? You don't know Maintenance.

- Fixed the stapler. Fixed the other stapler. Fixed the printer. Kicked the photocopier into abashed obedience. Searched for lost wedding rings at a conference, keeping a straight face throughout. Accidentally burnt a hole in a reference list and then put out the embers with the palm of my hand, either because I'm that stupid or because I care that much. Peeled lecherous academics off scared-looking postgraduate students, peeled lecherous postgraduate students off scared-looking academics, and dragged a howling drunk Masters student down a department corridor and into a taxi in the early hours of one morning. Showed Ivy League boys how to dance. Learnt how to stop hating my research. Not gone insane.

This is best done with a parable.

There was once, in some entirely fictional department in some entirely fictional university, at the end of a long, dark corridor, an office with 'Teaching Assistants' on the door (printed, incidentally, on a sign so old that I don't think the font used even exists any more). This office had several desks. 'Several' is the word here.

TAs who were also PhD students still working on their theses used the office, but only for their scheduled office hours. It was, after all, a cold, dark place, and PhD students had their own desks in a much nicer office down the corridor. TAs only relocated there permanently once their PhDs were finished, in what we'll generously call the 'gap stage' between the end of the PhD and the start of the first job that pays you enough to live off.

With the job market being the way it is, and with university finances being the way they were, the department's TA numbers crept higher. The desks in the TA office filled up, and other people's office hours involved a carefully-choreographed pantomime of eyebrow signals and coffee breaks when a student turned up.

Desks in the PhD office needed to be Officially Assigned to new students, and thus students at the other end of their PhD life - preparing for the viva, making post-viva corrections - had to be dislodged. Where to put them? The department did not want any of its young to go deskless, but space was short, and, well, they were still students, so - ah! Most of them teach, don't they? And even if they don't, there's loads of space in that TA office! Problem solved.

Except for the evictees, who turned up, box-files in hand, to discover that a) there were indeed several desks in the TA office, and b) 'several' meant 'four', and those four were full.

The department meant well. It's just that they didn't have much cause to take the long walk down the dismal corridor to the less-than-pleasant TA office themselves. Why would you, unless you're a TA or a student looking for one? The currents of academic promotion had long since carried them away to better rooms on nicer corridors and the TA office had become in their minds a grand and limitless place, with desks for all and ample shelving. It's not as good as having your own office, of course - they knew that much - but beggars can't be choosers, and so when TAs and end-stage PhD students began sentences with "But I don't have a desk," they smiled in a collective, avuncular way and reminded their young charges that there was "always the TA office." Really, they meant well. They just didn't know that by 'no desks', the students meant 'no desks, anywhere, including the less desirable ones in the TA office, which we would still take, because they're better than no desks at all.'

And all of this is what went through my head during the three versions, I am not kidding, of the following conversation which I found myself having this week:

DR. HELPFUL (in various guises): So, how's the job hunt going?
ME: Eh. Miserable. There's been nothing advertised for weeks.
DR. HELPFUL: Well, you know what you should do? You should start applying for temporary one-year posts. And you should start looking for jobs all over the country, not just in the places you want to live.

No, see, when I said no jobs...

"So you have a job? Well, I have FOUR."

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 20 November 2007 0 comments

There is a post about the Many Woes of Being the Lowest Rung on the Academic Ladder* coming up (c'mon, you know the blogosphere needs another one). Consider this a trailer. Voiceover: "Somewhere, in the gutters of academia..."

SCENE: Library desk, late at night.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Don't they ever let you two go home?

DR K: If they're not watching the doors.

ME: We're only here until ten.

DR K: They appreciate us really. In a non-financial sense.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Surely you've got enough experience for a promotion now.

DR K: It's worse than you think. I've actually got a PhD.

ME: I only have a Masters, so I get the computer with the broken keyboard.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Well, they should let you be lecturers!

ME: Yes! Yes, they should!

DR K: To be fair, this is a lecture I'm writing now. For which I'm getting paid - oh wait, I'm not.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: You need fresh air and sunshine, both of you. Like they used to do with pit ponies. You should get taken out to gambol on the grass once a year.

ME: I like this idea.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Maybe they can let you have a day off for the London Olympics.

DR K: If we're still doing this in 2012, I am actually going to kill myself.

(* - 'Being the rung', not 'being on the rung'. Those on the rung step on us. It is the way of things.)

Some fights aren't worth having.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 15 November 2007 2 comments

At a university library, somewhere near you...

"I need to renew three books -"

"Okay -"

"- because my essay's due in next week, and I can't come in on Monday because I'm in London then, so it's those three that are due back tomorrow, I think it's tomorrow, it was after the lecture last week that I picked them up, and I returned the other ones already so I don't need those."

Interrupting patrons is frowned upon, even when there's a large queue growing behind them and all of them would thank you for cutting in with "You had me at 'renew'!", so it's best to smile. Scan card, load record, renew books, all in one smooth movement. (I'm good at this now.) "They're yours until next Thursday."

"What about the one I took out today?"

That one's a week loan too, which means it's also due back next Thursday. So I say "That one's a week loan too, which means it's also due back next Thursday." One of these late shifts, my mind-meld with the computer will become complete.

"Can I renew that?"

"Yes, if you still need it by next week."

"Can I renew it now?"

"But... it's already due back next week, and it's only a week loan -"

"Can't you just renew it like you did with the other ones?"

"I can't give it to you for longer than a week at a time."

"No, renew it." (With a silent "you moron.")

"They're all due back next Thursday, I really can't -"

"What if I'm not here then?"

"I'm sorry, I'm confused. I thought you wanted the other books until next Thursday?" (With a silent "If you're not here, our tears will flood the sorting shelves, but your books will still be late.")

"I did! I don't understand why you can't just renew this one too."

"But it's due back - Wait, see." I hit a couple of keys and turn the monitor screen towards her. All I was doing was bringing her record back up on the screen, but she must have heard the clack of the keyboard as the sound of surrender, because as I point out that all the week loans are due back next Thursday, this one included:

"Ah! So you did renew it." And she looks at me with the kind of exasperation that would like to let me know what a long, long day it's been, and that if she wasn't such a kind spirit she'd have Words To Say about this kind of behaviour.

I've been here for eleven hours. I only had fifteen minutes for lunch. My indignation can't even be bothered to get to its feet. So I look chastised, and say "Yes. Yes, I did."

She leaves satisfied.

Exiled to a Land of No Internet

Posted by September Blue Monday, 12 November 2007 0 comments

My phone line gets activated in nine days, not that I'm counting or anything, and I am left scrabbling for brief moments of internet access at work in between marking student assignments (the joy, the bliss, the occasional showers of apostrophes). My new home is an 1890s top-floor flat, complete with ridiculously high ceilings, gently undulating floorboards, tree shadows that creep across the windows at night, and a thing with feathers that perches in my chimney and scared the living hell out of me when it made its presence known a few days ago. I love it, love it, love it. And this is handy, since after carrying all my books up 61 steps to get them into the place, I am never moving house again.

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Posted by September Blue Saturday, 3 November 2007 0 comments

(Century, August 1889)

Within the memory of many of us the practice of giving small sums of money to servants was so uncommon in this country as to be accounted altogether a foreign custom. If the recipient of such an attention happened to be a full-blooded American, the chances were that his response would be marked by anything but a sense of gratitude; and the servant of foreign birth, if he had been in this country long enough to breathe in the inspiration of this environment, was apt to look at the incident from an equally American standpoint. There is little need that any one, in the height of this summer season, should take the troubleto point out in detail the changes which mark the present system. There is no longer an American sentiment on the subject. As employers drift into the policy of estimating and relying upon tips as a partial substitute for their wage-list, there is no longer any place in the service for him who will not be tipped. Two of the three parties in interest, the employer and the guest, have conspired to get rid of the servant of the old school, and therefore it is that the third party, the servant, whether native or foreign-born, is much condemned to have the itching palm.

While this is, as you can gather, a piece about the evils of tipping, it's also of interest for what it says about class systems, ideas of (paid) work, the proper attitude and social position of servants, and questions like "How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?"

The most evident injury of the new system is on its social side, in the feeling of insecurity and injustice which it has brought into a large part of our social life. The born American never used to have any of the grudges against his richer neighbor in wihch so much of the revolutionary feeling of other countries has its roots. He saw nothing unnatural in the notion that consumers should be graded into classes according to their ability and willingness to pay, and that each class should get what it paid for. If his neighbor, who paid twice or thrice as much as he, got hotel accomodations which were proportionately better than his, he had no feeling of personal wrong; he enjoyed his own contentedly, in the devout belief that the time was coming when he should be able to pay for and enjoy that which would be more to his liking. His confidence in his own future made him a believer that, even in such a matter as hotel privileges, he could ask in the long run no better test than open competition and the market price. The tipping system has changed his whole position. The grades of accomodations are no longer fixed by competition alone, but surreptitiously and by corrupting the servants. The ordinary guest must still pay the rates which are proper for his own scale of accomodation, but in addition to that he must now compete with his richer neighbor in tipping the servants, or else he will not get even the accomodations for which he pays. In other words, he must pay higher rates in order that his richer neighbor may perpetuate a system under which he may decrease his rates by bargaining in part with the servants instead of with the employers. Is it any wonder that the new system brings about a chronic discontent which used to be unknown?

More below the fold.
The corruptible servant can and will sell his services below their real value, for he is selling that which does not really belong to him, but to his employer, or to the guest whom he is neglecting because of a refusal to tip: whatever the price he gets, it is so much clear gain to him. So the larcenous servant can afford to sell napkins or tea-spoons much below their market price. So the negro laborer at the South can afford to sell to the cross-roads storekeeper the stolen cotton or the farm products at a lower price than the lawful owner could have accepted. Public opinion makes the position of the "fence" or the collusive storekeeper unpleasant; why should it deal any more tenderly with teh man who tips? The only point in his favour is that he is ignorant of the full extent of his evil work; and to balance this is the fact that he is willing, for the sake of present ease, to bribe a servant to appropriate to him what belongs to neither of them, but to compel employers to recognize this as a system of licensed spoilation, and to drive other guests into doing even as he does.

There is, moreover, a political side to the evil which is generally overlooked. The Romans held that it was beneath the dignity of a free man to take money in return for personal services; and the Roman law of contracts was very seriously modified by the persistence of the idea down to the latest times. Circumstances seem to show that there was some truth in the notion; and yet we must have personal service, and it must be paid for, in default of slavery - the infinitely worse alternative which governed the ancient world. So long as the employer stood between guest and servant, taking the guest's money and therewith paying the servant, the connection between guest and servant was so indirect as to obviate many of the evils which the Roman instinctively feared, and the somewhat aggressive independence of the American servant did the rest. The system of tipping, bringing in a direct but surreptitious money connection between guest and servant, cannot but result in a steady degeneration of the servant's moral fiber. It gives the servant a mercenary mode of thought which is unhappily too familiar to most men to need much specification here. The worst of all results is that it corrupts the servant's whole conception of duty; duty is no longer something to which he is bound, but something which someone else is bound to bribe him to do. When such a conception of duty is daily borne in upon the heart and practice of a circle of servants, which is steadily extending from the employees of hotels to those of railroads, steamboats, and every conceivable variety of personal service, and when all these men are not only servants but voters, how can it be expected that we shall leave a man a virile conception of his duty as a voter while we corrupt him as a servant? He will not bring you a glass of water at a hotel table, or handle your luggage on a steamer, without an extra gratuity; why should he vote even for the ticket of his own party unless he is tipped for his trouble? How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?

It is said that there is no remedy. There is none which will take effect without effort, but sincere and persistent effort could find a remedy. Some of our clubs have already found that the social evil of tipping, the sense of insecurity and inequality which it introduces among the members, is not "clubbable." They therefore pay the servants honest wages, and make the offer of any further tip or gratuity an offence against the club. Let us extend the club feeling and find in it the remedy. It was in the hotels that the evil first began its vicious course, and in them the remedy must find its beginning. It would not be a difficult matter for a hotel to announce in its advertisments, in its offices, and on its bills of fare, that its servants are paid full wages, that any of them accepting tips will be dismissed at the end of the week, and that the guest is requested not to tempt the servant by offering him gratuities. Only a few cases of vigorous enforcement would be needed. The results would be profitable to the employers, and pleasant to the guests who do not tip, and to those who are coerced into tipping. They would of course be unpleasant to those few who wish to tip; but these are just the social pests who underlie the whole system and who deserve no consideration.

We know of at least one hotel where the non-tipping plan was tried, we believe, with considerable success.

How to avoid humiliation

Posted by September Blue Friday, 26 October 2007 1 comments

1. Do not be a long-haired cat.
(1a. Actually, do not be the offspring of somebody's fancy pedigree long-haired cat and a smooth-talking tom from the mill down the road.)

2. If you must be a long-haired cat, avoid climbing through hedges backwards, running through leaf-piles, and chasing small squeaking rodents through dark and cobwebby places, all of which will get stuff tangled in your coat.

3. If this is unavoidable, at least limit yourself to 3 hours a day of things which will leave you with large clumps of matted fur.

4. If that proves unavoidable as well, at least don't go on a massive getting-stuff-stuck-in-your-fur spree for several weeks while you're being looked after by neighbours who are afraid of the manic yowling clawing biting rage demon that you suddenly decided to turn into when they tried to brush you.

5. Avoid the vet. Avoid, avoid, avoid. This can be best done by disappearing into an alternate dimension when the cat carrier appears.

6. If your plans are quashed by trickery involving distraction with small pieces of ham, attempt to get yourself banished for life from the vet's by launching yourself at the first person you see in a surgical-looking outfit when you are removed from the carrier, claws flying.

7. If you are foiled in this by a hand holding the scruff of your neck, wail piteously so as to suggest you are being beaten. Last-ditch attempt that probably won't work, but it's got to be worth a try, right?

8. Because otherwise, you will end up looking like this:


9. And nobody wants that.

10. Still, at least your brother still loves you.


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I wouldn't usually suggest looking to John Ruskin for the basics of a non-sexist education system. But here we are today, wise and enlightened and knowing so much better than People Back Then did etc. etc. and whatever else we tell ourselves, and here we are still dividing up reading lists for 14-year-olds into girl books and boy books.

You can see the list of suggestions from the teaching resource site here (it's a PDF file). Girls get, among other things, Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, H. E. Bates's The Darling Buds of May, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones, and a bunch of Joanne Harris novels (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine). Boys get Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Nevil Shute's A Town like Alice, Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.


Okay, this isn't about demanding that children adhere to strict gender roles. This is just about letting them read things they'd be interested in. Right? After all, young teenagers are very adept at segregating themselves into single-sex friendship groups without adult involvement, and the gap between what male students and female students are achieving at GCSE level (and most other levels of primary and secondary education) is a real one. It's only been a real one since the 1970s, but I am led to believe this is just extra extra evidence of how it owes its existence to irreconcilable biological differences first ingrained in our ancestors several million years ago. (Okay, to be fair - the argument is actually that the post-1970 education system has been 'feminised' and now favours female traits like empathy. Why yes, my A-level Chemistry classes were all about writing essays on how it feels to be potassium chloride.) Girls are just interested in different things, and there's nothing we can and nothing we should do about it.

I don't believe that, but let's go with it for a moment anyway. Assume that the suggested-reading list is entirely descriptive, not prescriptive, and that it merely reflects what fourteen-year-olds are more likely to be interested in.

I read Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice when I was 14, and loved it, literally, to pieces - my paperback copy fell apart in my hands during one of the many re-reads. Loved it enough to roll my eyes at the English teacher who said "Oh, because it's a love story?". Loved it enough to nearly miss a "Boarding NOW, no REALLY!" call at an airport last year, after finding another copy in a secondhand bookshop in the conference town. Loved it that much.

It's not perfect. It was written in 1950, and there are lines that remind you of that in a particularly uncomfortable way, the kind of lines that would, if the book was a party and all the lines were guests, leave you not only walking away from them without reply but discussing them in hushed tones to other guests at other parties for years afterwards. But it's great, and it's the only book on either of those lists that I loved because I was a 14-year-old girl, rather than independently of the fact.

It's about a young British woman living in occupied Malaya during the Second World War, part of a group of women and children marched around the island for years at a time because there aren't any prison camps for them. She survives, negotiates a deal with the elders of a tiny mountain village, and spends the rest of the war working in the rice-fields in exchange for the party's food and shelter. After the war, she moves back to England, learns she's inherited a large sum of money from an elderly relative, moves to the Australian outback to find the POW she met in Malaya, and uses her inheritance to make the tiny, depressed town he comes from into a place where people could live and work. And the book's narrated by the lawyer who still holds her inheritance in trust, because the relative who died didn't believe women were responsible enough to handle their own finances until at least the age of 35.

So. Do you think it's in the 'For Boys' list because the designer of that list gave it to a representative sample of male and female students, carefully weighed their responses against a backdrop of gender expectations and stereotypes, and decided accordingly; or because someone, somewhere, went "Oh, this one's about war. War's a boy thing"?

So to return to Ruskin, who wrote Sesame and Lilies fifty years before compulsory secondary education in England and Wales was even introduced:

Keep the modern magazine and novel out of your girl's way: turn her loose into the old library every wet day, and let her alone [...] Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

We've come so far.

1) Lean back in your chair. Right back. Your shoulderblades should be almost touching.

2) Raise your arms, elbows bent, hands just above your head.

3) Now start flailing. Mostly from the elbows, but these should be moving in slight circles so that you can get some good flailing in from the shoulders down as well.

4) Drop your head back and open your mouth in a soundless wail.

5) You are now demonstrating, exactly, how the retired dean I was sitting next to at the wedding ended this sentence: "Well, that must have been very..."

What he was describing came in response to something I'd said, which was an answer in itself (and if you're thinking there's something a bit strange about this sentence, bear in mind that I don't have to write my PhD any more and so I'm relearning the basics of 'conversation', as I believe it's called) to him asking me if I'd finished the thesis before teaching started. Wouldn't that have been a good idea? But no, I didn't, so there was an overlap of a few weeks between the start of teaching and the end of my thesis, which isn't even The End because I still have to go through the viva, which is best illustrated by the 'end' of every Mario game where you climb all the way up through the castle and then still have to beat the final boss. And that's not until next year, so I'm not exactly finished, except in the sense of having run out of extra lives, hit-points, energy, motivation and all reserves of strength, because in that sense I'm very much finished.

And his description was exactly right.

So anyway, yes. I'm not done. I'm not 'Doctor'. I'm not passed, not even maybe-passed. But a few weeks ago, I handed a stack of paper bound in plastic over to the kind souls at Registry, and this should count for something. I was going to add some advice here, but there are only three things I have learnt that are of any value to anyone in the last stage of their PhDs:

a) If you need to sleep in your office, and you might well need to sleep in your office, don't curl up in your chair. It is almost impossible to curl up in swivel chairs with no arms, for one thing, and there's nowhere to put your head. I did this and woke up half an hour later with my scalp completely numb from where the plastic on the chair-back had cut off the circulation, and I do not advise this as an experience that will do you any good. Instead, sleep by making a little nest out of swivel-chairs in a corner of your office. You can adjust them to different heights for pillows and arm-rests and so on, and - here's the best bit - when you move, they all move with you. Advanced sleep technology, available for free just ten feet from your desk!

b) Everyone will tell you that finishing your thesis and handing it over to Registry is an anticlimax. Since they've got a point, the best way to counter this effect is to immediately go and get very, very drunk. You can reflect on your life and your academic career later on.

c) If there is any way on this earth you can avoid doing so, don't start teaching on two new courses a few weeks before you need to hand in your thesis.

Well, huh.

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 20 October 2007 0 comments

In seven hours time, I will be sitting in some scratched and lumpy chair at an airport, wearing my best going-to-weddings outfit, responding to increasingly anxious 'Do you have your passport? Are you SURE you have your passport?' text messages from my mother (it's irritating, but she's got a point - I wouldn't trust me to remember it either), and... making last-minute corrections to an article. Question my dedication now, academia!

(Okay, usually I'd plan to do this and then not, but the article is to be finished and sent off ASAP on pain of pain from the supervisor. So.)

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Genius. GENIUS.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 18 October 2007 3 comments

My current flatmate and mover of boxes of heavy things, Dr K, is getting married soon. (Aww.) And so Dr K has a wedding list, the product of six hours spent staring at spoons in the kitchen department of John Lewis, or so I am told, although six hours? Spoons? Hmm. Anyway. So we were looking at his wedding list, and wondering about the general absence of Look, Here's Some Stuff I Need for all those other times in people's lives when they need stuff. No 'I'm Moving House And Suddenly Need Furniture' lists. No 'I Got Divorced And Need To Furnish My New Place' lists.

But you know when a list would come in even more handy?

We're picturing the posters now. "Jilted? Gutted? Lost your CDs? Post a list on!" For anything and everything you lost custody of when a relationship went wrong. Nicely-designed cards with list numbers to hand out to friends who ask if there's anything they can do to help, 10% commission on sales for the site owners - I'm telling you, it's brilliant.

(Featured on my list would be: a guitar, a Chinese hamster, Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and this really nifty blue jacket from M&S. No spoons.)

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Generation gap

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 17 October 2007 1 comments

Generation gap

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Scaring the hell out of the next generation

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 14 October 2007 0 comments

I slapped a book out of someone's hands last week. It was for her own good.

I'll explain.

Since the earliest days of academia, from the very first time one of our distant ancestors threw a rock at an auroch and another of our distant ancestors decided it would be a really good idea to write eighty thousand words about the deeper cultural significance of that moment ('"God Gave (Au)rock And Roll To Us": The Slipperiness of the Signifier in/on Contemporary Shamanic Communities of Thag's Mountain'), there have been books written about the process of becoming a scholar. Some of these books are better than others.(1) I promised one of my Masters-student friends my copy of one of the more useful books on writing a PhD in exchange for her putting in a good word for me with her landlord, and she, in her innocence, picked up a different book on the subject and said "Oooh, this one?", and, well, drastic measures were called for.

I'm not going to name the book in question, lest the authors send packs of rogue postgrad students round to send me to sleep with the Special Collections material, or something.(2) I will say in the book's defence, too, that it's not all page after page of unhelpful and terrifying tales of angst and woe suitable only for wallpapering the TA room. There's even some fairly good advice in here. But, well, put it this way: The Thorn Birds probably has some valuable insights on farming in rural Australia in the (early? mid? SEE MY POINT?) twentieth century, but all anybody remembers is the thing with the priest and that bit with the wildfire where somebody got burnt to death and then somebody else went to find him and got gored to death with the wild pig.

I give you Exhibit A: the preface to the revised edition, which addresses previous reviewer's complaints that the book was too depressing. Acknowledging the point, the authors 'reiterate' ('re'? ha) the many positive aspects of being a PhD student:

The joys of doing research are considerable, and anyone in a position to carry out research is indeed privileged. Feelings of exploration, excitement, challenge, involvement and passion are frequent and are commented on in this book. The enormous feeling of achievement on the award of the degree lasts for many throughout their whole lives. Clearly the process is very rewarding otherwise so many would not have carried it through to the end.

Despite the promises of future comments, that's pretty much it for the entire book as far as looking on the bright side goes, but leave that aside for a moment. Dwell, instead, upon the odd passive voice elbowing its way into the sentences. These 'feelings', it seems, are autonomous entities that come and go in a puzzling, unpredictable manner, flapping by like migrating geese. Quick, it's a feeling of involvement! Catch it before it gets away!

I don't think the whole book should be positive, of course. It's only fair to send new PhD students into the system having some rudimentary idea of what the system holds in store for them, like that time Indiana Jones took his dad's manual with him to find the Holy Grail, and knew exactly where to step so the floor wouldn't collapse and knives wouldn't fly at his head. Impostor syndrome loses a lot of its strength when you realise that you're not the only one feeling like a fraud. So sentences like this, I suppose, are fair enough:

[New postgraduates] come into the university or college knowing precisely who they are: successful and intelligent holders of well-earned qualifications. It is not long before they lose their initial confidence and begin to question their own self-image.

Or at least, would be fair enough if they weren't followed by case studies like this one:

Sophia came to Britain on a government scholarship from a country that has little tradition of empirical research in her field. She was allocated to a supervisor who had good practical experience but who had not in fact done any research himself. She worked away by herself, with occasional comments from him that he thought a particular section very interesting. But he had badly underestimated the nature of a PhD. When she submitted her thesis, the external examiner said that, in his opinion, it was so completely inadequate that there was no point in having the oral examination or in allowing a resubmission. She returned to her country sadder, if not wiser.

No description of any way Sophia could have avoided that. No description of the kind of systems universities put in place to make sure it's not just you and your supervisor who know what you're doing. No comforting tales of Sophia leaving Britain with a huge smile saying that at least the scenery was pretty, or of her getting a non-academic job she's perfectly happy with. Nothing but "[s]he returned to her country sadder, if not wiser." Sophia is this book's equivalent of that man in The Thorn Birds who got gored to death by a pig, if The Thorn Birds claimed to be a helpful guide to rural farming.

Tony's story isn't any cheerier, but is (arguably, arguably) a lot more fun:

[Tony and his supervisor] saw each other less and less because Tony felt that they were talking at cross-purposes. After four months they ceased to have any meetings; after six months Tony was observed rushing into a lecture room to avoid his supervisor whom he saw coming towards him along the corridor. He never submitted his thesis.

Maybe he's still in that lecture room.

Not all research students end up as sobbing heaps on outbound flights or Gollum-like creatures scurrying behind the OHP every time a class comes into the room, and the book does attempt to provide some kind of balance. Consider Bradley, presented as a success story after describing himself as 'utterly alone, but I don't feel isolated':

Bradley explained that he needed to feel that he had rounded off a schedule of work in the three years and that it was this inner drive that had kept him going. At first he had 'gravitated into research because I couldn't think what else to do'. By the third year he said that his 'natural inclination' to do anything other than work hard on his research and complete the thesis had become much less pressing.

Wait wait wait now. What, exactly, is Bradley finding 'much less pressing' these days? Talking to other people? Sleeping? Eating? Somebody take Bradley a sandwich, ASAP! (And take a bucket of fish-heads for Tony while you're there - he doesn't like the natural light much, but we think he comes out to prowl at night.)

The book is aimed at science students (although it thinks it's not), resulting in a bunch of not-exactly-universal practical advice regarding working in a laboratory and collecting data. It advises PhD students to learn how to do research by watching their supervisors, too, which isn't much use to Arts people (although fantastic advice for anyone who wants to rehabilitate an orphaned PhD student back into the wild). Advice which truly does affect everyone tends to appear in the form of mystic Zen-like phrases:

It is a wise student who decides to postpone the pleasures of attempting to be totally original until after the PhD has been obtained.

Originality leads to frustration, frustration leads to despair, despair leads to hate. Employment, a Jedi seeks not.(3)

We proceed through instructions for working with your supervisor, including cheerful insights to bear in mind ('Just as you may take an instant dislike to someone so, too, may your supervisor'), reassuring advice about the nature of your meetings ('[M]ake a short summary of what occured during each tutorial. This sheet of paper should be photocopied with both student and supervisor keeping a copy'), and encouraging anecdotes from other students ('I've blotted out most of this period except the pain'), a brief burst of actual useful advice for 'surviving in a predominantly British, white, male, full-time academic environment', and dire warnings about the viva (some universities allow other people to sit in and watch! What do they provide for half-time entertainment, gladiators beating each other to death?).

So to return to what I was saying: my friend picked up this book and was about to open it, so I did what I had to do. She'll understand one day.


(1) I don't have anything useful to say in this endnote, except that the reason I've gone all endnote-crazy here is because I'm writing an article in a new (strange, alien) style format and trying to get used to the idea in my spare time.

(2) Littlle-known fact: the Reavers in Joss Whedon's Firefly were originally PhD students, until somebody took their conference funding away and they just couldn't take it any more.

(3) While we're on the subject of TV SF and academia, it's apparently semi-canonical fact that Mr Morden, the creepy human emissary for the evil Shadows in Babylon 5, has a PhD. No, seriously this time. It's in one of the books that got the JMS stamp of approval. I think this makes him a less interesting bad guy, actually, especially if the job market for PhDs in the future is as miserable as it is today.

Bad scan. No biscuit.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 11 October 2007 1 comments

There are lots of reasons why we love digital archives. I would be a sad, lost and forlorn student without the wonders of the (searchable!) Making of America and the PAO; I have friends who owe their PhDs to electronic wonders like ECCO and EEBO. We're a generation of computer-raised scholars, and I know I'm not the only one who's searched through whole archives from the comfort of her desk, with Escape Velocity open in one window and some otherwise-inaccessible text open in another, wondering how on earth people coped in the days before.

It's easy to forget that digital archives don't always love us.

If you suffer from easily-induced headaches, you might want to look away now:


Look! Look! The woman! She's trying to get out!

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Run, Esther, run

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 7 October 2007 0 comments

"And why are we supposed to love Allan Woodcourt so much anyway? The man's like the Angel of Death. How many of his patients actually live?"

'To Jane Austen'

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 30 September 2007 0 comments

(Andrew Lang, Letters to Dead Authors, 1892)

As heroines, for example, you chose ladies like Emma, and Elizabeth, and Catherine: women remarkable neither for the brilliance nor for the degradation of their birth; women wrapped up in their own and the parish's concerns, ignorant of evil, as it seems, and unacquainted with vain yearnings and interesting doubts. Who can engage his fancy with their match-makings and the conduct of their affections, when so many daring and dazzling heroines approach and solicit his regard?

Here are princesses dressed in white velvet stamped with golden fleurs-de-lys –ladies with hearts of ice and lips of fire, who count their roubles by the million, their lovers by the score, and even their husbands, very often, in figures of some arithmetical importance. With these are the immaculate daughters of itinerant Italian musicians – maids whose souls are unsoiled amidst the contaminations of our streets, and whose acquaintance with the art of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Daedalus and Scopas, is the more admirable, because entirely derived from loving study of the inexpensive collections vended by the plaster-of-Paris man round the corner. When such heroines are wooed by the nephews of Dukes, where are your Emmas and Elizabeths? Your volumes neither excite nor satisfy the curiosities provoked by that modern and scientific fiction, which is greatly admired, I learn, in the United States as well as in France and at home.

You erred, it cannot be denied, with your eyes open. Knowing Lydia and Kitty so intimately as you did, why did you make of them almost insignificant characters? With Lydia for a heroine you might have gone far; and, had you devoted three volumes, and the chief of your time, to the passions of Kitty, you might have held your own, even now, in the circulating library. How Lyddy, perched on a corner of the roof, first beheld her Wickham; how, on her challenge, he climbed up a ladder to her side; how they kissed, caressed, swung on gates together, met at odd seasons, in strange places, and finally eloped; all this might have been put in the mouth of a jealous older sister, say Elizabeth, and you would not have been less popular than several favourites of our time. Had you cast the whole narrative into the present tense, and lingered lovingly over the thickness of Mary's legs and the softness of Kitty's cheeks, and the blond fluffiness of Wickham's whiskers, you would have left a romance still dear to young ladies.

Over to you, Mr Firth.

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Arts postdoc with a new job, a new city, and a lot of very old books.

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