One year floods rose

“My lot is cast in a country where we have neither woods nor commons, nor pleasant prospects; all flat and insipid; in the summer adorned only with blue willows, and in the winter covered with a flood. Such it is at present: our bridges shaken almost in pieces; our poor willows torn away by the roots, and our haycocks almost afloat. Yet even here we are happy.”

William Cowper, 1767 (Huntingdonshire – next to Cambridgeshire)

“The first day, this year, begun without candles. Birds singing a little.”

John Ruskin, 1884 (Coniston, Lancashire)

The Cam is a placid, well-mannered river which rarely floods much. It can only be provoked by long and persistent rainfall, such as we have had, in fact, this month, and even then it chooses to seep and infiltrate rather than gush or pour.

River_Cam_flooding_Stourbridge_Common_2001-10-23If you are riding a bicycle along the tow path you might get wetter than you like (although by now no one could possibly tell the difference, so super-saturated are we), and if you have bought one of the uninsurable houses on Riverside you are probably standing by with the sandbags and galoshes; but in general, for such a flat county, it could all be a lot worse.

January is on record in some parts of the country as the wettest yet, and while in Cambridge it has not been as bad as all that, it has nevertheless been a leaden month. From time to time I clean my shoes and each time wonder why; by the time I have gone fifty yards they are spattered and mushy again.

But there is always a little hope. While it is still dark in the mornings it is fractionally less dark; and my cycle home in the afternoon is no longer a lurid street-and-headlight affair; and when I trundle my bicycle down to the shed at the bottom of my muddy garden, there is a thrush who seems pleased enough with life, still singing away.



This is pretty much how I remember it.

Here is a short film about life in Cambridge, in particular in the University of Cambridge, as the war drew to a close in 1945. It is laced with low-key propaganda – much is made of intellectual freedom, for instance – and in some ways is peculiar to its age (everyone smokes as if there were no tomorrow, for example, which in wartime I suppose is a reasonable line to take; and the students are almost universally referred to as ‘men’), but some shots of bicycle traffic around Market Square and Regent Street and Silver Street could have been taken yesterday, as could the opening shots of graduation ceremonies at Senate House. Cambridge in the twentieth century, as today, was an odd mix of rapid development and geological stillness.

Going to a dance

One of my students this week, Nathalie Boucher, a major in the French Army, is preparing for a NATO language proficiency test, preparatory to possible assignment with various NATO commands.


For several years I taught military officers in the Italian armed forces at the Italian Ministry of Defence. In general the standard of English there was high (and the higher the rank, the better the English, on the whole), but there was considerable anxiety about possible miscomprehension. One colonel, I remember, had been in charge of the Italian contingent in the NATO force massed on the border of Kosovo during the bombing campaign against that country in 1999. The commander of the operation was a British general, and my student would go over to his HQ on a regular basis for briefings. He told me he was terrified, given this was a live situation, that he would misunderstand an order, and so double- and triple-checked everything he thought he had understood, to the bemusement and irritation of his colleagues.

You don’t want to be invading a country by mistake. There is a famous (and apocryphal) story about a Great War front line commander who sent a message back to his HQ by runner, and in the process of Chinese whispers that ensued his despatch – ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’ ended up reported as ‘send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance’.

And there’s a frighteningly real story about Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief of the Anglo-French forces in the Crimea between 1853 and 1855, who had last seen active service in the Napoleonic Wars (he lost an arm at Waterloo), and who repeatedly threw his staff into bewildered panic by referring to the enemy (the Russians) as ‘the French’ (his allies). A different class of misunderstanding perhaps, but precisely the sort of thing NATO will want to be avoiding.

Lord Raglan

Lord Raglan


I didn’t have time for a nap yesterday. I never do, really. But increasingly I think that this is a shortcoming of my day.


For preference, assuming I had no choice but to complete a full day, I would work from early in the morning until lunchtime; then eat, nap, and do nothing for three hours, and then get going again in the late afternoon and early evening.

I think this is a good plan, but for some reason no one will allow me to integrate the middle bit (eat, nap, and do nothing) into my working day. I call it a failure of imagination.

History is full of productive nappers. Thomas Edison was notorious for how little sleep he needed, boasting that he got by on three hours a night; but when Henry Ford once visited hiim in the middle of the day, he was astonished to be told not to disturb the great inventor, because he was napping – a frequent and longstanding habit, by all accounts.

Churchill used to get into his pyjamas in the afternoon and snore for hours. Field Marshall Sir William Slim, commander-in-chief of British forces in Burma in World War Two, when he had nothing much on (i.e. a battle), would rise early, consult with his staff in the morning, take a full and extensive lunch, and do nothing except nap, stroll and read until evening, when he might deal with some correspondence. It was no use, he said, being worn out with tiredness when vital decisions had to be made. Better to establish a contemplative rhythm. Prepare yourself to think better than the enemy. And so, in the event, it proved.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t broach the subject with my students, proposing a five-minute constitutional in the afternoon lesson, the better to assault the imposing mound of afternoon English. I suppose it would look bad, but it would forestall the horrible fate that overcame a colleague of mine many years ago, who when teaching a naval officer with a weakness for deeply-considered if somewhat rambling oratory, and desperately fighting a rearguard against the encroaching nap, asked one last question and said to himself, he’ll answer this and I’ll be done; and then promptly fell asleep. The next thing he heard was the oratorical voice, from a long way away, saying am I boring you?

That is a difficult question to answer honestly. What my colleague should have said, of course, was that he was simply preparing to think better, and in a sane society, the naval officer would not have needed telling.


Today, the last Monday before payday in the worst month of the calendar is, I think I remember, supposed to be one of the most depressing days of the year, according to an algorithm designed to assess degrees of bitterness, and rolled out by the papers (and now the OISE Cambridge Blog) every year. It is second in misery only to the first Monday of January.

It is nonsense of course. Monday, January, pay day – none of these make any substantial difference. As Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, points out in this talk he gave on TED, we tend vastly to over-estimate the effect of events on our future or current happiness.

Gilbert calls it the Impact Bias. Your experiencing self, a year from now, will be neither more nor less happy than it is today, regardless of whether you experience an accident that confines you to a wheelchair, or a lottery win. It will make no difference.

Having said all that, I notice that I have posted an uncharacteristically gloomy entry today. Perhaps it is getting to me after all. I should point out then, for balance, that Gilbert goes on to note that we are also very good at synthesizing happiness. For example, he quotes a man who emerged from jail after 35 years of wrongful imprisonment saying ‘I don’t have a moment’s regret. It was a glorious experience.’ A glorious experience, no less. Perhaps there is hope, then, that this Monday of Mondays can be, if not glorious, then at least bearable, or even moderately agreeable.

Twilight in the Garden

We had a power cut last night where I live, which took me back to my childhood in the 1970s when the power went off on a regular basis.

DCF 1.0

We cracked out the candles, and lit a fire, and had a McDonald’s for dinner (the chip shop was also blacked out, the chippie sitting gloomily in the dark by his silent fryers; nothing stands in the way of a McDonald’s). Then the lights came back on and it was all a bit of an anticlimax.

My children, seven and five, explored the house with torches and got very excited. There is always something oddly portentous about a darkened world.

In February, the Cambridge Botanic Garden, along with other museums in Cambridge, will hold a night-time opening, when it will be possible to explore the greenhouses by torchlight.

The greenhouses will at that time be dominated by an extensive display of orchids, with a focus on orchids from the southern slopes of the Himalayas. So, orchids by torchlight in the dead of winter – possibly even more exciting than a power cut and a McDonald’s.

Cambridge Botanic Garden 19th February, 1630-2000. Entrance free. Bring your own torch. And a hip flask.  


I notice that Botanic Garden has also developed and published a website, called Changing Perspectives, detailing the history of the garden through its archives from the end of the second world war to the present day.

This period was one of major restructuring – during the war about 18 acres of the garden had been given over to allotments to support the war effort, and in subsequent decades these were heavily made over, creating, among other things, the grassy walk that leads up to Hill’s Road, opposite the school.  This was also the period in which the rock garden was laid in.

Sorry about that

I found myself apologising a couple of days ago to one of our students, Weijan, for the Opium Wars. This is partly a reflex courtesy – I once also apologised for the RAF bombing of Lübeck – and partly a reasonable acknowledgement that British history is not free of agressive intent.


The Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) were provoked by Chinese Imperial resistance to the wholesale import of opium by the British, who had long been searching for an alternative commodity to exchange for the object of their own addiction – Tea.

Actually it was not tea to which the British were addicted, but sugar. Tea was a better vehicle for sugar than coffee (you can drink much more of it at a sitting), and the British had developed plantations in the West Indies (a whole other story) of cane sugar, on which they were now very pleasantly hooked. The British therefore took to importing tea in vast quantities from China (as well as a good deal of porcelain, used as ballast in the tea trade, and silk), but since the British had no commodity which the Chinese wanted in return, that meant a drain on bullion.

From the eighteenth century on, however, Europeans (chiefly British, under the auspices of the East India Company) began importing opium mixed with tobacco for smoking into China (which already knew the medicinal virtues of the drug) in ever-growing quantities. The Chinese authorities resisted, ineffectually, until by 1838, on the eve of the first Anglo-Chinese war, over 40,000 crates annually were imported from the British East India factories in Patna and Benares.

The two Anglo-Chinese wars effectively settled the matter in the British interest, and secured Hong Kong (and various indemnities and assorted concessions) into the bargain.


I should stop apologising, however. There simply isn’t time. A couple of years ago Stuart Laycock caused a considerable furore when he tallied up the number of countries Britain had invaded in its history – it turns out only 22 modern-day countries have escaped our civilising attentions.

France, it seems, is our favourite country to invade, but in fairness to us, they started it.


Here we go again