Jamie and Nigella

One of my students, Roland, tells me that he ate on Wednesday night at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Cambridge, and that it wasn’t at all bad. I’m glad to hear it.

For those who do not know who Jamie Oliver is (can there be anyone?) this is him showing you how to make a Bloody Mary with bacon and barbecue sauce.

Oliver is a celebrity chef. I sometimes think it would have nonplussed George III to think that the most famous men in his kingdom were his gardener and his cook (notwithstanding the fact of Lancelot Capability” Brown), but this is how it has fallen out. We are mad about our celebrity chefs (and just a little bit less mad about our celebrity gardeners, although see here). When Oliver was about to open his Cambridge restaurant, I saw him walking up Trinity Street with his children (I suppose they were his), one on his shoulders, and there was a somewhat awed but very polite ripple following in his wake. No one actually touched the hem of his garment that I saw, but it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising.

Sad then, or apt, that another of the most revered lifestyle and cookery gurus, Nigella Lawson, has been enjoying a hair-raising fall from grace. Following her public falling out with her multimillionaire husband, Charles Saatchi, her name is now being dragged backwards through a hedge, in the trial of two of her former servants (can we still use that word?). There are rumours of narcotic substances as opulent, rich and various as her hors d’oeuvre. No wonder, if it’s all true, that she felt the need to raid her fridge in the middle of the night.

It is curious that, in spite of our obsession with cookery programmes and their hosts, we make very little actual food. A recent poll suggests that we tend to survive on a half-dozen meals, which we cycle though, regardless of how much aspirational TV cookery we consume. Or perhaps these stories of Nigella’s peccadilloes provides part of an answer: we seek stimulation, not instruction. Cooking is hard work. Much easier to sit and watch someone else do it, enjoy watching Jamie drink his Bloody Mary or Nigella scoff chocolate stuff, while we sit and eat cornflakes like everyone else.


Antarctic Day

More or less around the corner from the school, the Scott Polar Research Institute will be celebrating Antarctic Day on Saturday 30th November.


Antarctic Day celebrates the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1st December 1959, in which signatory nations (now numbering 48) undertook to preserve the Antarctic region (defined for the purposes of the treaty as all land south of 60° S) as a natural reserve. The treaty has five broad terms:

  • Countries that sign up to the Treaty are free to carry out scientific research in Antarctica and must share their results.
  • No military activities are allowed in Antarctica – the continent must be used for peaceful purposes only.
  • The Treaty promotes Antarctica as a place to undertake important scientific research.
  • All testing of nuclear weapons and the dumping of radioactive waste is forbidden in Antarctica.
  • Claims to slices of Antarctica by individual countries are set aside so long as the Treaty exists.

Here is a short film celebrating the inauguration of Antarctica Day in 2009.


The Scott Polar Research Institute has a small but nationally important museum dedicated for the most part to polar exploration, with particular emphasis on the expeditions of Shackleton and Scott to Antarctica. Last year marked the centenary of Scott’s death on his return from the Pole, having been beaten to it by a matter of days by the Norwegian team of Roald Amundsen. The museum was extensively refurbished in the run-up to the centenary, and the collections rehoused.

The museum is on Lensfield Road, and is open from 10-4, Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free.

Conker Canker

From the front of the school we look over Hills Road towards the Botanic Garden; and if you stand at the board in room 8, every time you look out of the window your view is dominated by a sickly horse chestnut tree.

ChestnustMarronnierPseudomonasSyringaeThe horse chestnut is in Western Europe is threatened by an incurable pathogen, a new strain of the so-called bleeding canker (Pseudomonas syringae pathovar aesculi), which affects and slowly circles the bark and major branches of the trees, restricting and ultimately cutting off circulation to the crown. Crown dieback is one of the symptoms, and is what we see from room 8 (and in the picture above).

It is also what I see from the windows at the back of my house. We have a horse chestnut in the garden which is dying, and will soon need removing. It is a sad business, also and perhaps especially for my children, for the horse chestnut is the source of the conker.


Conkers is a game played with the fruit of the horse chestnut, known as a conker, which is skewered on a bit of twine and smashed into a rival conker. Last conker standing, so to speak, wins. When I was at school (and I am sure, still today) conkers were valued according to their accumulated victories, like Spitfires; there was solemn debate over whether the victories should be numbered singly, or inherited – whether, in other words, defeating a conker with a given number of victories meant you should claim all of those victories too.

Well, the conkers are on the way out. Nearly half of all horse chestnuts are affected in Britain, and there is no known treatment. In the 1970s we lost almost all of our elm trees to the virulent dutch elm disease, and recently ash trees have similarly been threatened. The landscape is forever changing, and soon, from room 8, we’ll be able to see right into the Botanic Garden, perhaps as far as the systematic beds.

post on our sister blog, OISE Oxford, laments the destruction of avenues of horse chestnuts in Cutteslowe Park, Oxford. 

Eff the grammar

Here is a short lesson in anti-fluency from a young (and slightly wobbly) Steve Jobs.

Twice in the last week or so I’ve found myself talking about the Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, which Jobs is quoting here – a classic of software engineering management, one of whose central arguments is that increasing the number of engineers working on a project which is running overdue will paradoxically slow that project down.

The idea is that more workers represent more nodes in the network of communication between workers, hence more time lost in every step taken. One engineer working for a month does not equate to twenty engineers working for a day. This does not mean that one worker will always be more productive than two or more workers – it will depend on the project, on how well it responds to discrete segmentation, there will be local maximums, and so on – but in general the relationship of workers to productivity will not be linear.

I would argue that something similar could be said about the teaching, and more specifically the learning, of grammar and vocabulary. I had a student, many years ago, who had an almost universal store of vocabulary items. He could name a skunk, a halibut, and a diatom. But he could barely pronounce any of them, nor could he string an elementary sentence of English together. At around the same time, I had a student who on one occasion held thirty native and non-native English speakers spellbound, telling a story which, if I recall, entailed him losing his trousers, with a total lexicon of roughly 100 words, not including the word trousers.

Quantity is not everything. Nor is more grammar. It rarely matters that you cannot use the future perfect continuous. Or any other tense or structure for that matter. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Naturally, a little bit of precision can save time, forestall ambiguity; but an apt circumlocution is sometimes even more impressive, and perhaps more efficient.

The most despondent and least fluent students are often those, I find, who have flogged themselves most zealously with grammar. Paradoxically, wanting to get it right is not always all that helpful.

In both cases where I mentioned to students the Mythical Man Month, I also had to teach the term counter-intuitive. Sometimes, if a certain approach has not yielded the desired results, what is needed is not the same approach done harder, but a little experimentation with whatever seems to go against the grain. Try forgetting things. Try getting things wrong. What’s the worst that can happen?

Like software engineering, it’s all about managing complexity. Or, as one of my colleagues once memorably told a student, eff the grammar and be yourself.

Rugby in Cambridge

I’m not watching sport any more. It is an emotional cost I can no longer afford.

sadirishI watched a bit of rugby over the weekend. Union, not League (two entirely different codes of the game). There may have been a bit of League going on too, I wouldn’t know. It’s only really recognised in the north of the country.

But there was certainly some Union going on. Ireland played New Zealand, and lost, as usual. Ireland, it should be noted, have never in the history of rugby beaten New Zealand. It was an exciting game. I’ve supported Ireland all my life (my family being Irish). It is not one of the very strongest teams in the world, but they have their moments. On Sunday they were up against a New Zealand team which has not lost a game in 2013, winning all thirteen they’ve played (now all fourteen – draws are pretty rare in Rugby Union). To repeat, Ireland have never beaten them, the record being played 28, lost 27, drawn 1 (in 1973).

Well on Sunday they came pretty close, romping to a huge first half lead, and then holding off the inevitable come-back, successfully, until two minutes into injury time when the All Blacks drew level with a try and then converted for victory with the last kick of the game.

I couldn’t speak for half an hour after the game, and this blog post is by way of catharsis. And while it pains me greatly, I think it will be psychologically healthy if I post the highlights.


Rugby in Cambridge is most commonly associated with the university, which plays a famous game against Oxford once a year, but there is a professional club in Cambridge as well. The Cambridge Rugby Union Football Club are in the fourth tier of the English league system. The fourth tier is divided into a North and a South division, with Cambridge in the South. And this season they’re doing pretty well – third in the league after twelve games.

The ground is just to the south of Cambridge, on the Grantchester Road, and tickets cost a tenner (if you arrive an hour beforehand).

But be warned: following sports is no fun at all. And that’s before you get to the cricket, of which I will not speak.

Edmund de Waal at the Fitzwilliam

The Fitzwilliam Museum has given over four of its galleries to celebrated potter (and Cambridge graduate), Edmund de Waal, author of the bestselling Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010).

De Waal is not so much a potter as a ceramic artist. His career has led him away from the making of simple, functional pots towards the creation of ambitious installations such as those at the Fitzwilliam Museum – assemblies which can comprise hundreds or thousands of individual pots or ceramic items.

The Fitzwilliam installations are actually two separate pieces: one, recently shown at the Alan Cristea gallery in London and called a thousand hours (which de Waal talks about in the video, above), is a series of hundreds of hundreds of porcelain vessels in two vitrines; the other, commissioned for the Fitzwilliam’s Chinese galleries, is called yourself, you and is similarly multiple pots inside a pair of displays.

In addition to his own installations, de Waal has re-curated porcelain objects from the museum’s permanent collection, setting them alongside objects (letters, notebooks, porcelain) from his recent residence in China, all in exploration, according to de Waal, of the idea and history of white.

You can see the de Waal exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street from Friday 29th November until Sunday 23rd February. Entrance, as ever, is free.

Frederick Sanger and his Double Nobel

Frederick_Sanger2Frederick Sanger, the only British scientist, and the only chemist, to be awarded two Nobel prizes, has died at the age of 95.

Sanger, an alumnus of St. John’s College, Cambridge who spent his career at the university, is in illustrious company. Only three other individuals have won two Nobel prizes: Marie Curie (for Physics and then Chemistry), Linus Pauling (for Peace and for Chemistry), and the American physicist John Bardeen.

Sanger won his first Nobel in 1958 for work on sequencing amino acids in Insulin, and the second in 1980 for work on the sequencing of DNA. In 1992 the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute was opened at Hinxton, nine miles south of Cambridge, and named in his honour; it now has over 900 employees, and has been instrumental in gene sequencing.

There is an obituary on the Guardian site, here. And here, on the BBC site, in an interview half way down the page, Professor Sir John Walker, also of Cambridge University, remarks on Sanger’s extraordinary patience, stretching sometimes to many years, with certain experiments.


Cambridge has been at the forefront of the science of genetics since Francis Crick and James Watson demonstrated the structure of DNA in the front room at the Eagle.

Crick and Watson favoured the Eagle because of its proximity to the old Cavandish Laboratories on Free School Lane, but in the early 1960s, they, Sanger and others were drawn to work at the Medical Research Council’s new Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, where Sanger’s work leading to his second Nobel prize was largely carried out.

The LMB has recently had a facelift, with a new building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus just to the south of Cambridge, next to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Needless to say, one of its four seminar rooms is named after Sanger.