To the canny local historian, Castle Hill suggests a castle, but walk up it and you won’t see much of one (unless you stop at the Castle Inn, halfway up, source of a different kind of fortification).

Castle Hill is the only half-proper hill in Cambridge; people occasionally get off their bikes and push. It runs up beyond the river after Magdelene College (coming from the centre), at more or less the area of the first settlement of Cambridge, or Grantabrigge, as it would have been called then.

Near the top of the hill, to your right just before you reach the Shire Hall, there is an aggressive ten-metre mound – walk to the top of it and you will have some fine views back down over the city. And this is indeed the motte of the old motte-and-bailey castle that for centuries dominated the town, but now is no more.


The castle was built in 1068, just after the Norman conquest, as a way of supporting William’s campaign to capture York (three were built in the east of England that year, at Cambridge, Huntingdon, and Lincoln). The castle changed hands various times during the Anarchy (Stephen and Matilda) and the two Barons’ Wars, and was modified and fortified at various times, most dramatically by Edward I (towards the end of the thirteenth century), who rebuilt it in stone over a period of 14 years and at considerable cost, adding towers and gatehouses and the whole panoply of baronial oppression so beloved of the Romantic imagination.

Nice to think, then, that it fell into desuetude and was dismantled bit by bit, the stone being used by various of the colleges (notably, King’s and Trinity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries). The Castle dissolved, so to speak, into the University – and also the town, since the site of the old castle is now where Shire Hall, seat of local government, was built in 1932.

The walk up Castle Hill, then, and to the top of the motte earthwork, is a ghostly one, and a liberating one, and, if you like a view and are in the mood for a pint, a worthwhile one.


Skiving, and other Arts

I like to think all my students would benefit if they could convince themselves that their time in Cambridge was all one big skive – that back in the office they had left their jacket hanging on their chair so that their boss thought they were around somewhere, doing something, while they were in fact here, having a nice time, pottering about with a bit of English.

That is probably what most people do most of the time anyway. We skive in a variety of ways, all the time. French philosopher Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life identified ways in which individuals negotiate the structures of life (work, the city, etc.) by adopting tactics of creative resistance, part of what he called the ‘network of antidiscipline’. Like the schoolchild’s squint tie, we are all secretly resisting le pouvoir, however that is constituted, all of the time. And skiving is just such a tactic. Thus numerous studies have thrown up various numbers of hours representing the average daily skive – typically, between 1-5 and 3 hours.


I suspect that skiving is merely a reflection of some pre-industrial work rhythm, when the working year and day was governed by seasonal variation – periods of intense activity alternating with periods of relative idleness. Who is to say that this does not lead to greater overall productivity, in the end? To measure and control the worker, to render him or her docile or compliant, was an aspiration of industrial societies, one which only partly succeeded. Because, as prison warders well-know, there is no besting the ingenuity of humans intent on bending or subverting the rules.

So it is with language-learning. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of hard work and focus, but the truth is, goal-orientation, while well-meant, is not always best-placed. It helps to know what it is you want from a course; but paradoxically, getting there is often better served by a bit of what Keats called negative capability – a readiness to accept what comes along, to not be too hasty to ignore or cast away what does not seem immediately useful. The relaxed mind is also the most receptive mind.

And so I recommend over and over to my students that they would do better to go to the cinema, or the pub, or evensong in the evenings, than to sit in a room and process exercises. Confusingly, I also give them exercises to process. But I am sure that this is because, deep down,I want them to show me what they can do when it comes to skiving off.

Tea and the Progress of the Soul

Because I do not believe in the immortality, or indeed the existence, of the soul, I find myself forced to conclude that tea cannot be good for it. But paradoxically, I also know this to be false.

I used to live in Italy, and still miss the rapidity of café culture – the quick shot of coffee standing at the bar, or cappuccino and a sticky bun for breakfast, again standing at the bar. But as my Irish friend said about the banger (quoted on Monday’s blog), you could not get a decent cuppa there for love nor money.

I read now with considerable satisfaction that there are psycho-physiological underpinnings to the love of tea (and of other hot drinks, admittedly). For instance, evidence suggests that simply holding a cup in your hand makes you more sympathetic, better disposed to all and sundry (partly for the warmth – we seem to map emotional warmth to physical warmth). Drinking plenty of tea can also make you well if you are unwell, and happy if you are not.

In part this explains the historical reliance of the British on the cup of tea. The very lack of rapidity is half the story. Tea may be vivifying, but drinking it is fundamentally a contemplative experience. We have used it for generations to help us navigate in emotional crises, to generate solidarity, to provide consolation.

Here, for instance, is the final scene of Brief Encounter (1945) – a mawkish but well-loved film by David Lean where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both married, embark on, and then desist from, a clandestine love affair. It ends, as I seem to remember it began, in the tea room of a railway station. It purports to be about farewells and the brevity of love and life, but it really all about the tea, in fortifying vats of which they perpetually swim.

Paperless Hospital

I have written before on the tipping point we are approaching in paperlessness – the arrival of the long-touted paperless office. In fact, as I related in that previous post, according to one of my students the moment where the paperless office became inevitable has already passed, in spite of evidence to the contrary (i.e. lots of paper everywhere).


He may have been right. Addenbrooke’s hospital down the road from the school has announced that it is about to ‘go live’ with a paperless patient record system, which will allow nurses and clinicians to access records across a range of ‘devices’ – smartphones, iPod touch, etc. The staff at the hospital are said to be ‘in panic’ and pervaded by a ‘sense of doom’ at the prospect of working digitally, although the system has been in place in many US hospitals for some time (see here).

Such transitions always generate resistance. It has nothing to do with digital or analogue, paper or paperlessness, but change itself, especially in institutional practice. But having said that, there may be a peculiar tension in the move away from paper. I do not think I am alone in always being secretly pleased to read about research which seems to indicate that retention and comprehension is better among those who read on paper than among those who read ebooks.

Perhaps that is my own inertia kicking in. I come from a pre-digital age, and while I am comfortable with digital media, my brain seems programmed to respond to the physical dimensions of a book – as though my memory and storage systems require the spatial coordinates of a book, and not the dimensionless spread of the digital world, if they are to work properly. Like Pascal, I am afraid of infinity in a way that digital natives are not.

In fact, it may more simply be the case that poor retention when reading digital media could simply be down to a lack of general experience with digital media (as suggested in the Scientific American, here). As time passes and we gain experience, rates of retention and comprehension seem to even out. No doubt there are generations coming up fast whose brains are more finely-tuned to the paperless world. In which case the tipping point has indeed already been passed.


I have a friend who was brought up a vegetarian, but who shocked his mother when, aged about 5, he burst out at the dinner table ‘I want a sausage!’. He got one, and never looked back.

Why should he? As an Irishman I knew in Rome said to me once, you can say what you like about Italian food, but you can’t get a decent banger (and his culinary repute was high, since while still in Dublin he had invented pasta and tomatoes from first principles, as an experimental combination plucked from his cupboard; it was, he said, a ‘taste explosion’).

So, sausages. Cambridge is itself near one of the epicentres of British sausage production, Newmarket. The Newmarket sausage, which dates as a concept from the end of the nineteenth century, is a moderately spicy sausage – not quite so peppery as a Cumberland, nor as sagey as a Lincolnshire) and was a couple of years ago awarded Protected Geographical Status, like Parma ham or Stilton cheese. Oddly, it was granted this recognition and protection in spite of the fact that there are three competing recipes, the best known of which are Musk’s and Powter’s (the third is Eric Tennant Butcher’s, apparently). Each has its own spice mixture. Here, then, is a man from Powter’s, explaining how his company have been doing a bit of brand-stretching.

I find it almost impossible to write about sausages – Newmarket or otherwise – without feeling the need to eat one. Their lure is strong.

Afternoon of a Hairdryer, and other Ideas

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas continues to throw up exciting events – an ex-guest-contributor on this blog spoke yesterday on how to read a poem, for example, to a rapturous reception (I imagine).

And this weekend there are a number of events concerned with language – a particular focus at the Festival this year, and in particular on the Festival Saturday. Thus Professor Ian Roberts shows how some languages shaped the world; Dr. Bert Vaux explores whether human language developed out of animal communication systems; and Dr. Esther-Mirriam Wagner talks about dialect and identity.

The Cambridge Museums are also involved, running a parallel event called Curating Cambridge (which includes, I notice, an exhibition of prints by Gwen Raverat, who has appeared on this blog). See the full programme here.

And there are a number of events that will transcend language – notably, the Afternoon of a Hairdryer, a pun, in French, on the Debussy Après-midi d’un Faun (the French for hairdryer being Foehn). The Après-midi d’un Foehn is a ballet of plastic bags, explained here (how’s your French?) by one of its creators.

You can see the plastic bags at the Cambridge Junction on Saturday afternoon. Here is the full Festival of Ideas programme:

Newmarket and its Horses

I grew up near Ascot and live near Newmarket but have never so much as seen a racehorse.

George Stubbs - Whistlejacket

George Stubbs – Whistlejacket

I was brutally quizzed about this by one my students yesterday, who was aghast at my indifference. The truth is, I do not understand the British (or Irish, or in this case German) obsession with horses and horse racing. There was a time when a horse was a useful tool, just as a car is a useful tool now; but the use I put cars to has never developed into a petrolhead obsession, and I don’t suppose in former ages the need to appraise a bit of horseflesh would have developed into a dangerous betting habit either.

But that’s just me. I am told by people whose opinion I trust (and who should probably therefore know better) that a day at the races is ‘fun’. I can imagine that having a bit of money on a nag would bind your attention to its fortunes in a race (‘make it interesting’). There is dressing up, and drinking. And so, while I do not positively recommend a trip to Newmarket, I notice for general purposes its existence only 13 miles from Cambridge.

Newmarket advertises itself as the home of horse racing – modern horse racing was essentially invented by Charles II who came to Newmarket twice a year. The town is home to a number of important stables, and the racecourse hosts some well-known races (I read), which you can watch from the ‘world-famous’ Rowley Mile. The season extends mostly through the summer, but there is an autumn meet which as I write is hastening (neigh, racing) to its conclusion; it might be a bit chilly standing there, but the last days are Friday 31st October and Saturday 1st November (the so-called Final Meet). You can buy tickets online. What are you waiting for? Go and see the horse do their thing.

Visit the website here