I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escaped with pain from that adventurous flight,
Now seek repose upon an humbler theme;
William Cowper The Task Bk. I

It’s all change in the student’s lounge. The sofas are gone and the chairs have taken over. I sing the sofa.


There’s a story about Steve Jobs and his obsessive perfectionism. At one point in the 1980s he and his family moved into a new house, and spent the next seven years (if memory serves) agonising over not only the choice but the root purpose of their furniture. His wife recalls that they would spend night after night at dinner worrying about, for example, just what a sofa is for.

Perhaps it’s not such a dumb question. I had an American friend in Rome who believed that his relationship with his girlfriend broke down because they did not have a means of transition between the dinner table and the bed. I suspect he was wrong (where there’s a will there’s a way) but his supposition points to the fact that what we take for granted as functional objects – sofas, chairs, desks, tables – are nothing but: they are loaded with symbolic associations and other semiotic baggage.

Hence the shock, yesterday morning, at the disappearance of the sofas. A sofa is at once a convivial object (as my American friend surmised) and a presidential object; chairs are more strictly businesslike, I suppose, but if you sit with the president of the country, or the corporation – not that I have much experience of either – you will probably sit on a sofa. And there will probably be biscuits. I did once teach the president of a large corporation in his office now that I think of it, and I remember biscuits, and coffee brought in on a little silver tray. And sofas.

We will adapt. Chairs are flexible little objects by comparison with a sofa (pretty immovable on the whole), they can move around, occupy odd corners. For now they are ranged as though for an AA meeting, but that will change. We may not grow to love them, but we will cease to notice them, we will start, merely, to use them. Furniture, in the end (and as Steve Jobs might usefully have reflected) is just furniture.

I wonder though how they are getting on at Regent, with their nice sofas and everything…


Tripe, for Stamina

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Tripe Marketing Board

I’ve been following the Tripe Marketing Board for a while now on Twitter (appropriately, since Twitter is the home of tripe). They have a smart line in a
ConsulterElementNumcertain sort of old-fashioned marketing-speak (you’ll see we mean business) and some actual merchandise sold through a predictably flakey third-party payment system. They seem to have quite a following.

I am actually quite fond of tripe, although always a little suspicious. I ate it often in Rome – once, memorably, in a well-known Jewish restaurant, Piperno, where I wanted to order the coratella (bits of lungs, as far as I know) but the waiter insisted I try the tripe (particularly fresh, sir). It was spectacular.

Tripe is poor food, insofar as it is not one of the prime cuts of the animal, but I suspect there is an interesting sociological point to made along the lines that the poor down the ages have eaten the gristliest and strangest but also the tastiest bits of the animal (when they were eating anything at all), thus tripe, heart, kidneys, brains; while their overlords have had to make do with delicate but relatively tasteless fillets of this and that.


The World Wide Web, to repeat, is full of tripe.

My own online life veers wildly between actual news sites and sites like the Tripe Marketing Board (personal favourites: Scarfolk, which is a thing of genius, and Bad Taxidermy, which sort of speaks for itself, and is even better on Twitter if you have an account). When I find myself staring gloomily at the front page of the Guardian (sample headlines today: Bowel Cancer Risk May Be Reduced By African Rural Diet; The English are Biggest Victims of Racism Because of Scots (says Nigel Farage); Keith Harris and Orville Die) I like to be reminded that there is a carnivalesque underbelly to it all, where the comments are inane and vitriolic, and someone somewhere has taken the trouble to assemble all the pictures of angry people in local newspapers on one handy site. The world may be terrible (unless you eat an African rural diet, apparently), but it is also absurd.


Today in the workshop we talked briefly about mammoths.

I was shocked a while back to discover that a mammoth was smaller than an elephant, by some way. I had alway imagined them a colossus of the animal kingdom (and I suppose, in fairness, they were pretty large at that); but no – the African elephant was much taller in the shoulder and more massive all round. Why they are called a mammoth is beyond me (perhaps we get the word mammoth from the animal, now that I think of it).

We were talking about mammoths in the context of de-extinction. It seems ‘scientists’ at Cambridge’s daughter college, Harvard, have recently interpolated mammoth genetic material in to the cells of elephants. And why not, if you are so minded? If we can grow new mammoths, well that would be fun if nothing else, and life is short. (Read about the mammoths, here).




I tried to encourage my students to chose mammoth-cloning at the topic for this week’s debate (this house believes we should grow mammoths at the earliest opportunity) but they settled instead on a more general theme: digital technology is ruining our lives.

This is perhaps a more contentious issue. We all love our devices (we would rather do without our cars than our smartphones, and would probably be stupid enough to give up our washing machines and fridges if we could only stay networked), but we also spend too much time coddling them.

I went to the optician a few years ago when I was working in a software engineering company, complaining of tired eyes, and when she asked me how many hours a day I spent looking at screens, I was forced to confess that it was about 16. So ruining our eyes is a given. But our lives? I don’t know. As a civilisation we seem to be reading more and more rubbish online, but we also seem to be doing enough actual work to be able to de-extinctify mammoths.

It is, anyway, a pointless debate: our devices are beyond our control. We may just be able to stop the herds of mammoths (although I doubt it), but hunching over our screens is like a behavioural virus: we just have to sweat it out and see what’s next.

And Is There Honey Still For Tea?

God, I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go!
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The Shire for Men who Understand;
And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester…

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

One of my students told me she intended to go to Grantchester this weekend. I hope she did – not so much for the weather, which was at best fair-to-middling, as for the anniversary she will unwittingly have marked – the 100th anniversary, plus a couple of days, of the death of the poet Rupert Brooke.

Rupert_Brooke_Q_71073Rupert Brooke was the darling of his age (for a restricted social set, at any rate), an able if unexceptional poet of the Georgian school,also associated with the Bloomsbury group, who captured the early enthusiasm for the Great War in a series of rather jingoistic sonnets, and then sealed his legend by dying, like Byron, in Greece, en route to Gallipoli to fight the Turks.

And somewhat like Byron, too, he was considered the great beauty of his generation (I do not know that Byron was regarded as beautiful so much as highly competent in matters of love; and Byron was a very great poet, to be clear, which Brooke was not). Virginia Woolf boasted to Vita Sackville-West of having gone skinny dipping with him, and if he broke endless hearts, both male and female, he also had his own broken, famously, in 1912, by Katherine Laird Cox. It was while he was recuperating from the breakdown that followed the break-up that he wrote his whimsical The Old Vicarage, Granchester, lamenting his isolation in Berlin (where ‘Tulips bloom as they are told’) while, in May, Grantchester was at its finest.

His death was not martial: he contracted sepsis from an infected mosquito bite and died on the Greek island of Skyros at 4:46 pm on 23rd April 1915. (But hadn’t Byron, too, died of fever, at Missalongi?) However his death came about, Brooke, only twenty-seven years old, passed into a legend strangely at odds with, but no less lasting than that of his fellow Great War poets, Owen, Graves and Sassoon.

I will find out today if my student went up the river to pay her respects. But I notice that King’s College, Cambridge has just paid half a million pounds for the last substantial collection of documents relating to Rupert Brooke still in private hands. The legend continues.

Happy Swiss

The Laughing Cavalier - Frans Hals

The Laughing Cavalier – Frans Hals

I have a Swiss student at the moment, of Italian descent. She lives in Geneva and works at the university. She seems pretty happy on the whole. But it turns out she and her countrymen are not just happy, they are positively laughing.

The Swiss are officially the happiest people on the planet. They have come top of an annual survey measuring happiness, displacing for the first time the Nordic countries. I do not know that it will make my student more happy to know that she is happier than everyone else, adding just pride to her mix of emotions, or less happy, knowing that she really cannot get any happier than she is. There is surely nowhere to go from ‘happiest’.

Or it could be that a measure of ‘national happiness’ is a nonsense to begin with. Happiness, according to the survey, is a composite measure comprising GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom to make ‘life choices’ and ‘perception of corruption’. When I think about the times in my life where I have been most happy, it has had very little to do with my nation’s GDP per capita, or my perception of bureaucratic corruption.

And while to say so is to fall into the fallacy of mistaking momentary satisfactions for the state of life in general, it remains true that happiness in a community is complex system, not an aggregate of factors. Thus a community can be ‘happy’ in spite of hardship, and dulled to life in excess. And the happiness of the community is always filtered through dense and personal affective states. The Swiss have never struck me, for instance, as a joyous and life affirming people, whatever their other virtues may be.

Unless of course we take happy to mean not content, but fortunate. I suppose, on a global scale, the Swiss are pretty fortunate, up there in the mountains with their political stability and their gold and their low perception of corruption. Perhaps there should be a table for ‘luckiest nation’ which takes into account such critical metrics as the scenery, the quality of the beer, the size of the spiders and whether their footballers actually sing the national anthem.

Indigenous Australian Art

Last year I was in New York and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you are required to pass through a pay point and are encouraged to pay $25 entrance. But it is up to you. I paid a dollar. The woman behind the till asked me where I was from and when I told her London (I was born in London) she said, huh, city of free museums.

City of Free Museums

City of Free Museums

She has a point. The great museums in London and Cambridge and elsewhere in the UK are free. You stroll in, take a look at as many of the assembled antiquities or curiosities as you have time or inclination for, have a coffee, and wander out again.

Unless, that is, you pay for entrance to an exhibition. We tend to think of the blockbuster exhibition as new or newish phenomenon, but it is not: many remember the queues that coiled through the interior of the British Museum and across the courtyard and out on to the pavement for the Tutankhamun exhibition of 1972. These days everything is controlled by time slot, but it is no less of a scrum.

But it is often worth it. And today at the British Museum a major exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art is opening. Aboriginal art is not, like the paintings or art typically housed in museums, prestigious art. It was not even considered art at all for many years, since art was the product of a ‘civilisation’, and an itinerant people could not be considered a ‘civilisation’.

However, as Jonathan Jones notes in his review in the Guardian, it is in fact the most ancient artistic tradition on the planet, one that is intimately connected with a vast land that was not, as early white settlers surmised, an empty wilderness, but a landscape intricately mapped and understood and endlessly represented by artists using techniques handed down for some 40,000 years.

While it is not free (tickets are £10), and, like the Parthenon Marbles, many of the objects are in disputed ownership, it is, by all accounts, quite a show.

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation runs from 23rd April to 2nd August. Book tickets or find out more here

Clarity and Personality

Do language teachers make good editors? I am inclined to doubt it.

I am sometimes asked to edit written work – typically student CVs, but occasionally longer discursive essays. I have just edited one academic paper for a German scholar of my acquaintance, who regularly sends me bits of her art-historical output to look over.

Dostoyevsky – Manuscript of The Devils

Dostoyevsky – editing work

It is not uninteresting work, but it has nothing, or very little, to do with teaching. It looks similar from a distance – both are about correcting, and both are about language, to some degree. But teaching is also much more about building competence, and that means being very selective about error correction. Learning to write in English, for example, is not about learning not to make mistakes, tiptoeing through a minefield of inevitable error. It is about building good compositional practices, of which self-editing is only one.

With editing work, however, every single mine has to be cleared. But this is itself a minefield. Some errors are a matter of simple right or wrong – the text I just edited contained a fair few practises for practices, for example, and some highly unconventional and inconsistent Capitalisation; but much is just interpretation, a matter of stylistic improvement. And at some point you have to edit yourself, make an internal cost-benefit analysis about the merits of wrestling with a fairly clear but inelegant sentence, for example, or a slightly obfuscating but expressive locution.

And then there is the question of personality. Style – whether written or spoken, whether we are talking about editing or teaching – is not merely a question of deviation from norms or failures in competence. If a French speaker handles certain vowels in very non-native ways, but the utterance remains clear, then there is no question of error, just of language marked by origins; similarly if a writer, native or non-native, has a quirky manner of expression, it is not just a matter of linguistic poverty; it is sometimes evidence of a way of thinking particular to that individual. Seeking to eradicate that personality in favour of some vision of universal competence is a chimerical goal.

Clarity, in other words, is only one desirable end of utterance. As my own style of writing and speaking probably attest. And since my capacity for self-editing is not  notable, I had perhaps better leave it there.