Cheese Sandwich

My father-in-law once complained to me, on the way to a pub, that pubs used to be about beer. He said you could get a packet of nuts if you were hungry, and a cheese sandwich at a pinch. And that was that.

We arrived in the pub, and top of the menu was a cheese sandwich. It didn’t cheer him up and I think he ate something else (a packet of nuts, perhaps). But there is something to be said for the fact that pub food has improved. I read recently that 90% of pub visits these days are connected with eating of some sort or other. I don’t know if that includes people eating a packet of nuts, but if true it suggests that we are well beyond a tipping point in the social function of the pub.

Tipping Point – Gabriel Metsu, Portrait of the Artist with his Wife in a Tavern

Tipping Point – Gabriel Metsu, Portrait of the Artist with his Wife in a Tavern

It goes without saying that much pub food is not much of an improvement on the curled cheddar sandwiches my father-in-law so much misses. Many pubs are supplied by catering sub-contractors who present the food cooked and frozen and ready to micro-wave. Pubs rarely, in fact, have proper kitchens.

But those pubs that do take their food seriously can be pretty good. Some are more restaurants now, with a pub attached; some are destination foodie spots (the gastropub, a desuetudinal word, I think I am right in saying); and some get the balance just right – for example, the Kingston Arms on Kingston Street off Mill Road, and The Wrestlers on Newmarket Road. Both do a pretty reasonable beer, too—I spent the evening at the Wrestlers with my father-in-law a couple of weeks ago, and he didn’t once mention the want of a cheese sandwich.


Un-neat and Untidy

I spent time last week discussing with a student whether or not graffiti was an index of social disorder.

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

My student took the view that more graffiti equals more disorder. She noted, correctly, that one of the spars of New York’s zero tolerance policies of the 1990s which so successfully returned the city to a state of relative law and order after decades of spiralling decline was the responsibility given to residents for maintaining the fabric of their own buildings. Thus, no broken windows, and no graffiti.

The root of this approach lie, ironically, in the liberal thinking of Jane Jacobs who wrote, in The Life and Death of the Great American Cities, of the need for people quietly to police their own streets and communities, to be empowered to work on the fabric of the city themselves.

I do not disagree. Many projects of urban regeneration, from Bogota to Detroit, have focussed on getting people on to their own streets again.

However, I disagreed about the graffiti. I wrote a post some time back about the Heron graffiti that has sprung up like a rash across the walls of Cambridge. I am not unpleased to see it, when I do. And while some graffiti aspires to the level of street art, I am not suggesting that graffiti is pleasant to look at, or that its value lies in its decorative functions. I just think it is a sign of life. It would be too easy, I think, to equate signs of disruption or disorder with malaise; graffiti is a form of protest, certainly, and not always an elegant or mature one, but a tag is a reminder that not everyone is going to assert their presence on the earth and in the city by voting and owning a house. And I am not convinced that I want to live in a society which outlaws chewing gum, or hounds graffiti artists in a policy of zero tolerance, merely because we (i.e. the established) prefer things in general to be neat and tidy.

Cambridge, of course, is neat and tidy, on the whole. I was speaking with my student about New York, London and Paris. But Cambridge has its untidy corners, its moderately hard edges, its low-grade wildness. If you’re not careful, someone might pinch your bicycle. Or tag your wheelie bin. And life goes on.

Motte and Bailey

Every morning on my cycle to the school I pass I very solid looking, windowless edifice which I think I would know to be associated with the administration of the law, in some way, even if I did not in fact know it to be the Cambridge Crown Court.

Cambridge Crown Court Photo: David Gruar

Cambridge Crown Court
Photo: David Gruar

How would I know this? It is oddly anonymous, seen close to, for one thing, just like the belly of the sleeping Leviathan on which sailors were said unwittingly to put ashore, taking it for land. I was recently waiting at the lights just outside it on East Road (quietly abiding the law, perhaps, owing to the louring operation of some coercive gravitation field exerted by the building itself) when some hapless individual asked me directions to the Court. I simply pointed at the huge blank wall just beside us, and he walked off, looking a little cowed, I thought.

From a distance, also, the building is like nothing so much as the motte-and-bailey and stone castles of our former oppressors, the Normans, which squatted so many centuries over our towns and freedoms. You would think, after ten years, the building would have softened a little, assimilated to the native climate. A little ivy wouldn’t go amiss, for example, even, dare I say it, a little graffiti. Some signs of life, at any rate.

Each day I cycle past, and keep my head down, and hope never to be drawn inside its walls. From the look of them, you would never get out.


I am on the train, to York.

A few weeks ago one of our longer-term students took himself to Edinburgh for a long weekend. Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and it was his favourite trip in the UK (he had also been to Manchester, York, Stonehenge and Salisbury, and I don’t know where else).

But what he particularly enjoyed was the train journey. The East Coast line, north of Newcastle, passes along the spectacular coastline of the Northumberland National Park, as well as inland through some pretty wild country. Get a window seat, he advised his fellow students when he returned, and just take in the view.



There is no way of travelling quite so pleasant as a train journey, assuming one or two fundamentals (nice scenery, a quiet carriage, a buffet car not too far off, a start not too early, an arrival not too late). On a train you can think, because you are in motion, and work, because you are at rest. You can read, sleep, drink, flirt, listen to a bit of music, charge your phone and wander up and down the carriages if you need to stretch your legs.

In Britain, the East Coast line is probably the most spectacular of the major trunk railway journeys, although another student who has just left the school is spending several days travelling around the Highlands of Scotland. This will be a different sort of experience. The trains will be a bit ricketier, the timetables unsuitable, and the services on board minimal. But the scenery, the sense of space and motion, will be still more invigorating, and the various arrivals, in small towns and villages, will be arrivals into a world utterly different from Cambridge and unimaginably so from his native Brazil.

Cyclists Dismount

Residents of Cambridge will have noticed the signs on various bridges over the river Cam encouraging cyclists to get off and walk.

Dismount - Mantegna, Parnassus

Dismount – Mantegna, Parnassus

I say ‘encouraging’, but the signs have the grammatical bearing of commands. Get off and push, they seem to say, or expect the crushing weight of the law to descend on you.

And if not the law, then pedestrian disapproval. It used to be that people would express disapproval of minor civil infractions with a bit of tutting, perhaps a word is disapprobation, but I read that some upright-minded individuals have now taken to policing the bridges (in particular, that leading between Stourbridge Common and the Green Man pub) by barring the way of cyclists and forcing them, if not to dismount, then to wobble to a stop.

Cyclists make people angry. A friend of mine once spent twenty minutes he won’t get back arguing with a fellow who, it turned out, was pathologically (and perhaps severely autistically) opposed to the idea of anyone breaking any rule ever. My friend had just run a red light on a pedestrian crossing, where there were no pedestrians and no cars present. He tried to explain that the individual citizen might on occasion take the interpretation of the law into his or her own hands, without much damage to society accruing.

This seems to me a reasonable, if admittedly liberal, approach to navigating civil society, but not, unfortunately, to the trolls on the bridge. A pity, then, for them, that the blue Cyclists Dismount signs have no force of law behind them whatsoever, but are merely recommendations from the council. But this is no more than a confusing detail in the never-ending war between cyclists and pedestrians and motorists. A battle line, after all, is a battle line.

Twins in Cambridge and Cambridge Twins

We have three and a half pairs of twins at the school this week. This is probably a record. I do not recall our ever having had any at all, ever, but then twins in language schools can be rather hard to spot, since they are rarely in the same class.

...three sets of twins – Antonio Pollaiuolo

…three sets of twins – Antonio Pollaiuolo

One of our sets (if that is not an impolite term) for example is a pair of identical sisters from Turkey, which has been very confusing to me, since I was teaching the one and saying hello in the corridor to the other for half the week before I realised. We also have a non-identical brother and sister from Jordan, a French brother and sister (I think), and a seventh, as it were, whose twin is at another OISE school (Oxford, I think).

There must be any number of strange psychic waves coursing through the school, if cod-theories about the uncanniness of twins are to be believed. Needless to say, they are not. I am perfectly prepared to believe that twins are good at pictionary and can finish one another’s sentences, and share tastes in clothes and where appropriate the opposite sex; they must also derive some strange insight about themselves from being able to see themselves as others see them, more or less; but I find it unlikely that they can sense one another’s pain across time and space (hard to verify, after all); they are not, I suppose, entangled like sub-atomic particles.


Cambridge has a twin, of course. Two, in fact. It is twinned with the venerable university towns of Heidelberg in Germany and Szebad in Hungary.

Town twinning was invented (if that’s the word) after World War Two, and was intended to bring communities together in reconciliation, and to cement new friendships. It has involved reciprocal trips, and gift-giving. It was not solely responsible, I think, for European reconciliation, although it might have cemented a few friendships down the years.

No mysterious unions here either, then, although I read that in 2012, the town of Boring, Oregon and the Scottish village of Dull, twinned their municipalities. Make of that what you will.

Nihilism and the Cambridge Summer

I have been talking about Othello with a group of students who are about to start their preparations for the International Baccalaureate. It will be one of their set works. The great American critic Harold Bloom suggests that Othello is a play which stands mid-way between on the one hand the teeming cosmos of Hamlet, with its walking spirits and its more-things-in-heaven-and-earth Horatios, and on the other the cosmic spiritual voids of King Lear and Macbeth. It is, in its way, a route map of nihilism.

...route map of nihilism. Edmund Kean as Othello

…route map of nihilism. Edmund Kean as Othello

Not a play, then, which you would expect to see out in the Cambridge gardens on a summer evening, where the normal fare are the comedies, the Midsummer Nights and the Merry Wives. Watching Shakespeare under the stars with a mulled wine calls for a little less drama, you would think, and a little less nihilism on the whole.

But I am wrong. The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is well under way, with productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be sure, but also of Macbeth,Timon of Athens, and the horrifying Titus Andronicus. Plenty of blood and gore to be had, then, and just a glimpse of the void, if that’s your pigeon.