Flying the Nest

The squabs are gone. No one saw them go. To be honest, I had forgotton about them until now. But they have flown the nest. And they’ve left it in a bit of a state.


Newly-fledged birds flying the nest might seem the ideal jumping off point for a post on learning, and growth, and maturity. But in truth most of our students are fully-fledged long before they arrive here; our job is more like those volunteers who rescue seagulls from oil-slicks, the oil in this image being the accretion of error and bad habit, perhaps. Our students come in looking a little dishevelled and bewildered, and we scrub them up with a toothbrush (not literally!) and send them back out to their native habitat.

Not just restored, however, but better-equipped – and here my analogy breaks down, since I’m not sure how you better-equip an albatross, say, for life at sea. People, unlike squabs or gulls, are tool-using animals, and in the knowledge economy a more sprightly, less encumbered command of English counts as a useful tool.

And so we wish both our departed squabs and our out-going students not a tearful, but a proud farewell.


And I should perhaps offer up a toast. Tomorrow, for those who don’t know, is World Sake Day. Here at OISE we are right behind this initiative and indeed all World Alcohol Days. Unfortunately we are unable to pursue our enthusiasm in any sort of active way here at the school (not least because sake is a little hard to come by in Cambridge; by which I mean, they don’t sell it at the Co-op), which perhaps is just as well. We don’t want to encumber our students’ mental tool-kit any more than necessary.


What I tell you three times is true

“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

from The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll

My colleague Lily told me yesterday that spiders don’t like conkers, and I am starting to believe her.

I say, starting to believe her, because if I recall (and I may be wrong) she told me something similar this time last year.

If she did, it is not so surprising, this being the season of big spiders. I know it is the season of big spiders, partly because I have seen quite a few big spiders, and partly because I happened across a scary story in the newspaper about a plague of especially big spiders in Macclesfield. The story assured me that the spiders (giant house spiders – apparently also the fastest spiders in the world) wouldn’t be satisfied to stay in Macclesfield, but would shortly be migrating en masse, and very quickly, to the Newmarket Road.

We like to think that news is a running chronicle of whatever is most new in the world, but in fact it runs in cycles, like an eighteenth century almanac. Each year at the stated time we hear of the most depressing day in the year (last Monday in January), ‘A’-level results, policemen dancing at the Notting Hill Carnival, Perseid meteor showers, hurricanes in the Caribbean, Bank Holiday Monday traffic, spider epidemics, and so on and on, year after year, down to the final long blank un-newsworthy silence of the grave.

It used to be that spiders in September was not news but just knowing stuff. You knew that spiders got fat in September, you knew that conkers warded them off, and that was that. But now you have to be reminded, annually, on the news.

Having said all that, I should admit that in the matter of spiders and conkers, if I knew, I had forgotten. Perhaps the news cycle is just a didactic vehicle, like a sort of Church calendar. If it comes around enough times, some of it might start to stick. Next year, when Lily tells me about the conkers, perhaps I won’t look so surprised.

Hunting of the Snark – Henry Holiday

Hunting of the Snark – Henry Holiday


‘Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.’

Hart Crane, from Voyages II

I have written before about how the Cambridge skyline is not unlike that of Shanghai, at least where the ratio of cranes to finished buildings is concerned.

...cranes rise up –Bian Jingzhao, Bamboo and Cranes

…cranes rise up –Bian Jingzhao, Bamboo and Cranes

From the back of the school cranes rise up like a forest (a very small one) in the direction of the railway station, a region seemingly in a state of endless flux.

The University Arms Hotel, whose twin towers have long been a landmark rising up beside Parker’s Piece, has also now been demolished, and those towers replaced with cranes. The hotel, we are assured, will rise from the ashes (literally – it was heavily fire-damaged a year or two ago), always under the sheltering arm of those colossal cranes.


It seems that the word crane denotes both the structure and the bird which those structures resemble in many languages. I remember an Italian student of mine pointing out cranes from the window of our classroom in Milan, and standing on one leg with arms outstretched to illustrate the resemblance. Gru, he said.

Cranes have mystical significance in some cultures, and in China in particular, where they are connected to ideas of immortality, in particular to Taoist immortals who were said to be able to transform themselves into cranes to fly on important journeys.

Perhaps that explains the current Chinese fascination with cranes – I mean the towers, not the birds. I do not know if the towers are called by the same word in Chinese as in English, or whether the towers bring some sort of immortal luck to the buildings they preside over. I do know that I have received more than one crane-related gift from Chinese students, most recently a hand-embroidered mini fire-screen (by the look of it). Whether crane gifts are intended to raise up their recipients in some mystical way, I do not know. Let’s hope so.

Sleep on the Radio

Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

I don’t know that the weekend is only about sleep, although it is always nice to catch up on some zeds. But Saturday night, for the insomniac, promises a treat: a complete performance of Max Richter’s eight-hour-long Sleep, from midnight on Saturday. It will be the longest single piece ever broadcast live on the BBC. Unmissable. Except that I will be asleep.

...catch up on some zeds – Piero della Francesca

Unmissable – Piero della Francesca

At least I hope I will be asleep. In a piece about insomnia on Radio 4, Will Self notes that as they age, men’s sleep patterns become more disrupted. Women, he is not so sure (based, I think, on his experience of watching his wife sleep while he wakes, and the anecdotal evidence of his friends).

I often wake for a couple of hours in the night. I don’t regard it as insomnia, exactly. I don’t really mind sitting up and reading for a while, and know from experience that I will be more or less fine the next day. I only need to get through the morning, since I am an inveterate napper after lunch (although given that I now eat my lunch at my desk in full view of most of the school and a considerable stretch of Hill’s Road, I may need to review that particular habit).

I have known students to sleep in my class. One Chinese gentleman in the last Deep Dive course was so worn out from his early-morning rowing that he would slumber gently between his various contributions to the group discussion. He would suddenly start from his light doze when something penetrated his mantle of sleep, engage in lively conversation for a few minutes, then drop back into the zone. On one occasion I found him stretched out on the floor of Room 8, finally surrendered.

We know very well that a lack of sleep can lead to cognitive impairment, so I suppose I should declare myself happy that my student was looking after himself in this regard (and I should point out, in his defence, that he was the most impressive performer in the several debates held at the school during his course). It is certainly true that sleep aids memory. Not for nothing do we insist students get a good night’s sleep before their exams.

It is also true, however, that in pre-Industrial civilisations, where the work day was not strictly regimented into invariable blocks and shifts unconnected with the season, sleep patterns tended to be more variegated, most typically divided into two segments, the first and second sleep. Perhaps we are returning, in the much vaunted knowledge economy, to more interesting sleep regimes.

Or perhaps I really am just getting older.


“Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights.”

Ian Parker writing in The New Yorker (2001)

I am well-aware that I’m not the only declared enemy of PowerPoint™ and its progeny (I’m not a huge fan of the presentation, either, but we might save that for another post). An article in yesterday’s Guardian pointed out the cognitive costs of the ubiquitous software, especially as used in academic contexts, and laid out (not in bullet points) how it has infected our thinking.

Aquinas refuting the heretics (with a presentation) – Filippino Lippi

Aquinas refuting the heretics (with a presentation) – Filippino Lippi

The PowerPoint presentation evolved as a tool for use within large corporations, as a way of making internal pitches. Departments inevitably compete for resources, and the silo-nature of very large entities dictated that any pitch should include a brief ‘presentation’ of key ideas and concepts, since no one department properly understood the work of any other. The presentation is therefore modelled on the advertising or sales pitch, and tries to highlight a few key flashpoints which might whet the appetite of a potential ‘customer’. It is a way of packaging and selling ideas.

Quite incapable, then, you would think, of handling the cognitive load of, say, a lecture in philosophy. Where once the key units of thought might have been the proposition and the paragraph, the key syntactic units of the PowerPoint presentation are the bullet-point list and the slide – the former a series of radically unconnected propositions the complexity of whose interconnections is implied, at best, and the latter an advertising hoarding rather than a parcel of thought.

The article notes with guarded approval, however, Steve Jobs’ approach to the presentation. Jobs used only visuals – pictures, short videos – not words, in his keynotes. I am pleased to say that encourage my students to make similar use of visuals in their Thursday presentations. For different reasons, however: the temptation to read whatever it is you have put on the slide is overwhelming for a language student. Much better to generate or recall language from a simple visual prompt.

I suppose it is inevitable that new technologies will alter the way our minds work and handle information, over time. When print culture emerged in the sixteenth century there were fears that knowledge would be vulgarised, and indeed the emergence of widespread literacy was considered a danger to memory and hence to rhetoric and to thought itself in the classical world. It does not follow, however, that a new technology is beneficial and interesting, merely because other technologies at other times have been beneficial and interesting. In the words of our brave new Jeremy Corbyn (not a friend, I would think, of the PowerPoint presentation), there was nothing wrong with the Luddites.

See-Saw Season

Bright. Out to gather mushrooms for breakfast.
John Ruskin, Sept. 20, 1869

Great dew, cold air, cloudless.
Gilbert White, Sept. 22nd, 1786

Begin to light fires in the parlour.
Gilbert White, Sept. 23rd 1781

Very bright and clear. All the landscape had a beautiful liquid cast of blue.
Gerald Manly Hopkins, Sept. 24th, 1874

Hedge Sparrow begins its winter note.
Gilbert White, Sept. 25th, 1771

We like to treat our students to a little weather from time to time, not enough to destroy their will to work; just a reminder that there is a sunlit world out there, and they are sacrificing its blandishments in the name of higher achievement.

Today is no exception, and we have laid on something special for the equinox.

Autumn Sunset - John Constable

Autumn Sunset – John Constable

This is a see-saw season, one day pelting rain, the next not a cloud in sight; one day hot (Sunday last was proper summer again) the next frosty. Yesterday we had near-fatal hail, and this morning there is a sort of overwhelming sunlit clarity, the sort Hopkins called a liquid cast of blue.

English weather is classically confusing, particularly around now. Winter plays you in like a fish on a line, and the experience is almost bearable. I was relating to one of my students last week my first experience of Cambridge (actually, my second: I had visited the town with my family as a boy, and have a clear recollection of the Eagle): it was in December, and I was here for an interview, and I had a couple of hours to kill in the morning so went into the centre of town to buy cigarettes; and I sat on a bench in the market square on a bright clear day, not unlike today but much colder, and decided I could probably put up with living here a few years.

In England, if you are sensitive to first impressions, there is no telling what you will get. An Italian girlfriend I had many years ago first saw Cambridge in the evening, after a fresh fall of snow, just after Christmas. Many students have arrived on Sunday afternoons of eschatological darkness, mirroring perhaps their own profound anxieties.

But, as with those anxieties, you need not wait long for any given impression to be dispelled. Nothing lasts long in Cambridge, meteorologically speaking.


Meanwhile, in Scotland, the deluge of winter is no doubt already upon them. But they know what to do about it: like the eskimo, they have 421 different words for snow and snowing. Boost your pointless vocabulary here.


“King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’”

from Mercian Hills, Geoffrey Hill

This particular end of East Anglia is riven with ancient dykes and trails, lying, as it once did, on the border between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and the middle kingdom of Mercia.

Both East Anglia and Mercia, and indeed all Anglo-Saxon fiefdoms at various times, were not unified states but nebulous territories and marshy regions only nominally under control of this or that minor warlord or proto-baron. There was no one border, but a criss-cross of thresholds built and broken and filled and rebuilt over centuries.

Devil's Dyke (1853)

Devil’s Dyke (1853)

The ancient borders around Cambridge are thus scored out by a series of defensive dykes – the Devil’s Dyke, for example, running across the fields north of the city, and Fleam Dyke running to the south-east, from Fulbourn towards Balsham. These Dykes would once have joined the marshes of the Fens with the wooded hills of the Chilterns, making them hard to circumvent.

For several miles they are walkable, and are prominent and ancient features on the landscape, with their own micro-flora (the rare common juniper, for example, is found here and there along Fleam Dyke).


A newish novel by Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, has attempted to strip English back to its Anglo-Saxon pathways, so to speak, and uncover in the language something like the ancient ways and tracks which divide up the English landscape. To my ear it reads like nothing so much as Cormac McCarthy, which only suggests that the Anglo-Saxon, pre-French roots of English run deep. Either that or Paul Kingsnorth has been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy.

Here is Mark Rylance, reading out a bit.