I have this thing with my eyes. It isn't very common, and it took a long time and a lot of doctors to get diagnosed as a child. This didn't bother me much back then, because being a medical curiosity with a non-painful, non-fatal condition is sort of fun when you're young, and it hasn't bothered me much since, because, well, these are my eyes and I'm used to them, but it's bothering me right now.

My eye condition is one of the disorders collectively known as congenital fibrosis of the extraocular muscles (CFEOM). The eye muscles are filled with useless fibrous tissue, and so eye movement is very limited. I had ptosis (extreme droopiness of an eyelid), hypertropia (a type of misalignment of the eyes that looks like this), lack of binocular vision, one eye that wouldn't move above the midline, and one eye that mostly wouldn't move at all; the hypertropia, ptosis and limited movement got fixed after diagnosis, but the 2D vision is here to stay. CFEOM was traditionally diagnosed as a muscle condition, but later research has found associated issues with one or two of the cranial nerves (usually the oculomotor nerve), and the general medical opinion is now that it's a neuromuscular condition where the muscle problems arise from a neurological defect.

Following that? Sort of? Doesn't really matter. If you even read that, you're currently doing a better job than my GP, who is uninterested in reading my medical notes beyond a single word.

As far as my GP's concerned, my sole medical problem was hypertropia - a kind of squint - which was operated on and fixed. It says so in the computer summary of my records, after all! And when he went to get the paper file, clearly pissed off with my insistence that no, really, there is an underlying condition that caused that squint, as diagnosed by a paediatric opthalmologist at one of the world's best children's hospitals, no really it will be in my file go and look, what he read out to me was 'operation for hypertropia caused by congenital fibrosis of the extraocular muscles'. Which I think proved my point, but which he was equally sure proved his point, and we were left with him saying 'I think this 'fibrosis' thing is just the way they described your squint, but at any rate, you do not have an existing eye condition,' and me and my single contact lens blinking at him in bewilderment.

I promise you, internet, I am not making this condition up. Nor did I diagnose it all by myself with the help of Dr Google. I'm used to trying (and failing) to explain this to people, doctors and opticians among them, and I have a lot of experience of being a Mac user phoning tech support ('Okay, just click on the 'Start' menu...') and being a person with a difficult-to-spell name, which all comes in handy in such situations ('no, I can't see through both eyes - no, not even if I try very hard'), but not quite to this point. It was a strange, strange moment.

Also, a very annoying one. But you got that.

And the point of this is, the reason I was talking to the GP in the first place is that my eyes have started doing some weird things over the past year or two. Suddenly, bright sunlight has gone from being a minor inconvenience to being painful. I've started getting migraines, which I never had before. And in my reasonable sensible way, I thought, hmm, existing rare eye condition which is partly neurological plus photophobia plus migraine, eh? Maybe that's worth speaking to a doctor about. (Which of course I didn't, because I'm useless, but I did end up mentioning it to my mother, and she shouted at me, so I ended up going to a doctor after all.)

But my GP will not refer me to a specialist, because there is 'nothing wrong' with my eyes.


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Belated observation from a literary festival

Posted by September Blue Friday, 30 May 2008 3 comments

- Although you wouldn't think it, weather like this:

Hay festival

is not the best kind of weather to have. Notice how few of those people are smiling. It rains at Hay; it always rains at Hay; it's supposed to rain at Hay, and blazing sunshine just feels wrong. Thus, the atmosphere was a lot cheerier the day after, when the world looked like this:

Chairs in the rain

Much better.

Anyway, for someone who doesn't much like hearing authors talk about being authors, I had a really good time. And I rubbed shoulders with Jimmy Carter (if only because it was really crowded and he and his security people were squeezing past, and I didn't have any idea who he was until afterwards anyway, but still).

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 28 May 2008 7 comments

£42.78 is what it costs to get one copy of your PhD thesis (if it's exactly the same as my PhD thesis) printed on the right kind of paper and bound in the right kind of way. You could buy a lot of things for £42.78, and most of them will flitter before your eyes as you hear the cost, but at least you will have your thesis, bound in black with gold lettering, looking like it's a real book that you really wrote.. For a second, just a second, £42.78 will seem worth it.

And then you'll look again at that spine, with a vegetarian-spotting-chicken-on-the-pizza expression inching its way across your face.

And you'll say, Um.

And there'll be a brief conversation with the book-binding people, who will go and fetch more book-binding people, and there'll be some muttering and some whispering and some "well, when did you claim you sent this e-mail, exactly?", and some (quieter) "oh, that e-mail," and some apologies. Which will not help you very much, because there you are in a city that is not your city, tired, rain-soaked, fed up of your stupid PhD thesis and everything to do with it, and wondering what else you could spend £42.78 on. Now. Today. If you just walked out of here.

And you're also sort of hung over, but it's not exactly hung over, because while you were indeed drinking last night and while your first words this morning were indeed to tell your friend to change out of that bright pink t-shirt right now because there is a time and a place for verging-on-neon and this is very much Not It, you were fine four hours ago. You were fine four minutes ago. The hangover that kicked in just then has nothing to do with alcohol; this, my friend, is a PhD hangover.

And the book-binding people will say, reasonably enough, that they can have the whole thing done all over again for you inside two hours if you don't mind coming back then.

And what you'll think is not even that you're worried about your thesis, or that your PhD is resting on this being handed in on time, or that you have done so damn much for this thing over the years. No. What you'll think is: but it's raining.

And although you will eventually decide that, oh, all right, you might as well, and you will come back two hours later (even soggier, even grumpier), and you will pay that £42.78, you'll surprise even yourself by how close you came to giving up the whole degree at the last minute just because you'd had it with going out in the rain.


Posted by September Blue Saturday, 17 May 2008 1 comments

What I was going to say here at first was that there's a teenage couple at the next table, having one of those painfully civilised pre-breakup conversations. Bit lips and eyes staring at the table, turning sugar packets into little pellets of damp, gritty mush in their hands while they talk. And I was going to say that I'm not the only person who's glanced over at them, and that there's something comforting about the silent, sympathetic "ouch" that just rippled out across the leather sofas and arty photo prints on the walls.

And then as they kept talking, I realised that wasn't what was going on at all, so I was going to write about the teenagers at the table next to me who were planning a party, or something, of some sort, and how the girl didn't want somebody else to be there, and the boy was disappointed by this, and the girl was disappointed by having to tell him. Except the way they were talking, it sounded like the idea of this being bad news was some kind of pretense, and that neither of them was all that unhappy at all.

And then it turned out that that wasn't it, either. So I was going to write something about how the boy at the next table was thinking out loud about breaking up with his girlfriend, and that his friend sitting next to him was giving him the kind of advice that sounds like it's helpful and platonic and objective, if that's what you want to hear, but isn't necessarily any of those things.

And then she hugged him and said "You should so ask Stacey out! She'd love that!" And he grunted that he didn't want to talk about Stacey.

So I have no idea what's going on at the next table, but God I miss being seventeen.

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 14 May 2008 1 comments

Dear Miss Not-A-Doctor-Yet,-Maggot:

Congratulations! Academic Council has decreed that you do, indeed, deserve the status of Doctor of Philosophy. As such, you are hereby invited to attend your graduation ceremony on [a weekday]. Please respond to this e-mail NO LATER THAN the end of the month, letting us know whether you'll be coming along or not. (And do bear in mind that if you don't, we'll still charge you a graduation fee, because we're just like that.)

In order to graduate, you will need to submit yet another copy of the thesis you never want to see again, bound and formatted in accordance with the following set of mutually contradictory instructions WHICH MUST BE FOLLOWED EXACTLY. If you fail to comply with these instructions, your thesis will not be accepted as fulfilment of your degree requirements, and we will send your phone number to every student you've ever marked down for poor presentation. The cost of a single hard-bound copy varies depending on who you get to do the binding, how quickly you need it done, how far you're prepared to travel and precisely how many fits you think you'll have when the quote comes in, but we can safely say that it's going to sting.

If you choose to attend graduation, you must either hire (if you have a lot of money to shell out) or buy (if you have a spare Jaguar to sell) your graduation gowns. Bear in mind that these colours, which confer the highest academic degree you have achieved, are the ones you are stuck with for the rest of your academic career, no matter where you go and no matter how much cooler everyone else's look. Nobody tells you to think about this when you're deciding on a university, do they?

Anyway, we just wanted to say congratulations again, from all of us at Registry! It's been a fun few years, hasn't it? You and us, together? We've laughed, we've cried (well, you've cried - we in Registry shed no tears), we've had lively, energetic debates about matters like whether or not we had the power to physically bar you from the campus - ah, good times. And now you're graduating! Wow, it seems like only yesterday that your whole year group came in to register for your PhDs. Remember that? How we managed to lose all your details and send you back and forth across campus in the pouring rain all morning as everyone involved denied any responsibility? Oh, your little faces!

Anyway, it's been a laugh. For us. Take care, now!

Hugs and kisses,

(p.s. - we also have very strong views about what to wear under your graduation gowns. Oh, come, now - surely you have enough money to spring for another new outfit on top of the graduation fee, the binding fee, and the gown hire? God, you are such a cheapskate.)


Posted by September Blue Sunday, 11 May 2008 2 comments

I bought two more fish! Foolishly. Maybe. I'm counting this as a tick in the 'sensible' column, though, since despite all the cool marine fish and corals in the shop, I'm still sticking to freshwater. (But one day, one glorious day, they shall all be MINE.)

Anyway, the new fish are some variety of gourami. They were labelled as 'Sunset Honey Gourami', which I guessed meant they were a colour variant of the honey gourami (Colisa chuna), and this was good because it was honey gourami I wanted. I would tell you how long I've spent researching the best fish to put in the tank given its current inhabitants, but you would only point and mock. Let us just say it was enough for me to laugh knowingly and shake my head when the man at the fish shop told me that the dwarf gourami (Colisa lalia) would be just as sociable and easy to keep, and then draw a veil over my current fish-related geekiness.

However. The internet seems divided on precisely what species these are, with about 50% of fish sites and forums naming them a variant of Colisa chuna and the other half arguing that they're not Colisa chuna at all, with a subsection arguing to my consternation and distress that they're Colisa lalia. This is a problem - NO NO SHUT UP, hear me out, I'm serious - because some gourami species can be mean/prone to disease/mean AND prone to disease (Colisa lalia, the consensus of the internet's tropical fish communities is pointing its finger at you), and what if these end up killing everything else in the tank via direct attack or biological warfare? The worry!

They're sharing a tank with five neon tetra, collectively named the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or some of it, at least) and an apple snail who was originally called Tennyson but turned out to have a rather un-Tennyson-like personality and is now known as J. Alfred Prufrock. I have not named the new fish yet. See, if I have to convince the fish place to take back these two mean gourami, that'll be painful enough, because they are such gorgeous fish, but if I have to convince the fish place to take back Gladstone and Disraeli? I just don't think I'll have the strength.

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Where I'm working at the moment

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 7 May 2008 1 comments

My current office, originally uploaded by victorianitas.

Ability to write article outside in the sunshine, courtesy of Apple; WiFi connection courtesy of university; photo upload connection thanks to Bluetooth on my mobile phone.

I love living in the future.

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"Dear Miss [Blue]..."

Posted by September Blue Monday, 5 May 2008 2 comments

Let's recap.

I've passed the terrifying PhD initiation ritual. I've written eighty thousand words of passable academic prose in the guise of an Original Contribution To Research, which, in turn, met with the approval of my supervisor, the examiner from my own institution, and the examiner from somewhere else. I've passed the inquisition which calls itself a viva, even though I couldn't eat for about a week beforehand. I've fixed the fiddly little changes the examiners wanted me to fix. I've handed the final final copy and had it okayed by the relevant examiner.

And apparently, I've done all this to a sufficient standard that I can get an e-mail from Registry, this morning, inviting me to my graduation.

The last thing I want to do is annoy Registry, but damn it, Registry. When do I get to be called Doctor?

(I have a story to tell here about how I avoided deformity and blindness because somebody was an idiot about his title, but it'll wait for another day.)


Posted by September Blue Saturday, 3 May 2008 0 comments

That's the third person who's told me that my new flat's a great place 'for a single girl', and I've only been here a week. Well, thanks, I think. I've been trying to work out what this means without asking them to explain, because if I did that then they might say "to be honest, what we meant was that your new flat is so tiny it's a good thing that there's only one of you and you're five foot two," and this would be so much less interesting than the idea of certain spaces suiting certain people, which I'm not sure is true but which I'm determined to believe in regardless.

Especially with cities. Rural landscapes always feel like spaces in something more than a geographical sense, as if they have a self-ness, a kind of dormant consciousness, that might not affect you much but won't be relying on you to notice it anyway. Won't be relying on you at all, in fact. Rural landscapes have human histories, but it's not those histories that give them a sense of self; rather, their histories are histories of hundreds and thousands of years of humans interacting with what's already there.

Sun and dial

The metal disc (not much of a sundial; more of a map) was put there in 2002. Whoever designed this must have set it out on a computer, and whoever picked the location must have frowned over an 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map, and whoever thought of it in the first place must have sat through at least one County Council meeting in a room with suits and overhead spotlights and long beech tables. And between them, they ended up thinking the same kind of thing that the Methodists who held open-air services here two hundred years before them were thinking when they picked this spot, and the same kind of thing that the Neolithic farmers were thinking when they built a massive burial chamber on the lower slopes of this hill, built to catch the equinox sunlight. The background of that picture is made up of rocks and vegetation and the winter sun in the same way that it's made up of pixels: both are true, but neither quite describe it.

Cities aren't that way. The history of cities is entirely human. No less beautiful, maybe, no less powerful, and with no less meaning, but... artificial, all the same. Something that exists because we want to remember it.


This is Kendals, a beautiful Art Deco department store building in Manchester, as seen from the Waterstone's over the road. I love how this picture turned out, how you can't quite tell what's mirroring what and how the foreground dissolves into a vanishing point behind the backdrop, but that's all tricks and reflected illusions, not the city itself. It's not that Manchester doesn't have an important history; it's just that a history is something a place is given, not something it's already got.

That's what I used to think, anyway. I didn't like cities much then either. Now, I'm reconsidering.

My new flat is a small, one-bedroom place two floors up, on a street that was built, or at least rebuilt, by a series of nineteenth-century merchants back when the old city's wealth started to spill over and run down the hill. It's changed since - shops grow and split and merge again, and change hands on what seems like a weekly basis, and grand old spacious townhouses don't last long as they are in student towns - but above street level, the buildings look the same as they always did. And below that, there are crowds of people, and buskers playing slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars, and small gaggles of tourists clustering around the landmarks.

This time last week, all that was a vaguely interesting thing to notice when glancing out of the living-room window. Now, I've stopped drawing that curtain when it gets dark. And I'm falling in love with things written about cities, and with music about cities, and with poetry about cities, although more in the abstract than the concrete because I can't find any poetry about cities that I like, but damn it there has to be some out there.

Which isn't to say that I can find anything particularly single or girl about my new flat, either with or without my belongings moved into it. But maybe that's not the point, after all.

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