Mischief Night

Halloween is approaching, with its trick-or-treating, but before we get there we have to negotiate Mischief Night, on 30th October (or November 4th, or May 1st, depending on your mischief calendar).

Apprentices fighting - Jean de Gourmont

Apprentices fighting – Jean de Gourmont

Mischief Night is a night of mild childish or less mild teenage anarchy, a Saturnalia for the young. Children are authorised to play pranks, and can be paid off with small amounts of money or sweets. In parts of the USA it is known as Devil’s Night, and In Yorkshire as “Mischievous Night”, “Miggy Night”, “Tick-Tack Night”, “Corn Night”, “Trick Night”, or “Micky Night”.

Not at all unlike trick-or-treat then, but it is, in fact, a wholly different institution, originally celebrated on May Day (where the tradition is still honoured in Germany). And, like trick-or-treat, it can spiral out of control. In the 1980s in Detroit it became associated with arson, gangs of teenagers setting fire to bins and cars and fences; citizens grouped together in bands of vigilantes to defend their neighbourhoods.

Teen arson gangs are not common in Cambridge this side of the Apocalypse, but a little out-of-controllness is surely the point. As with trick-or-treat, where teens are encouraged not to participate because it is threatening, and we dress up small children to go from door to door looking sweet (and looking for sweets), our attempts to control what is quite clearly a vent for lawless energy are bound to fail. Someone I know was Mischief Nighted in Liverpool a few years ago by a group of chirpy but menacing young teens who demanded a small amount of cash or they would egg and flour their victim; they were paid off, but threw the eggs and flour anyway. The stylised violence is the point. These things are fun, mildly liberating. Necessary, perhaps.

Gentlemen Break Rules

The magazine Country Life (circulation: 38,000) has attempted to define the 39 attributes of a gentleman. It is a horrible list, not least because I find myself disqualified on various grounds: I do not know when to tip a gamekeeper, for instance, nor do I own a tweed suit; I cannot (read: will not) train a dog, nor a rose;  and I do not sing lustily in church.

Mr and Mrs Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough

Mr and Mrs Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough

The gentleman is an unwieldy concept, not because unwritten codes of good or appropriate social behaviour are irrelevant, but because gentlemanliness as understood by Country Life is a construct designed to separate social classes. Reasonable tenets of good behaviour (holding open doors, entertaining children, not blow-drying your hair) are mixed promiscuously with elements of wealth distinction (being able to ride a horse or sail a boat). Thus if I hold a door open, it merely indicates ordinary manners; if a rich man in a tweed suit holds a door open, it is testament to his breeding and elite status.

Having said all that, the last rule of the 39 is fine by me. A gentleman knows when to break a rule. Never mind that by that token we are all gentlemen, since it could be argued that we all instinctively know when to break the rule about tipping the gamekeeper, for instance (always, since the only gamekeeper most of us are likely to encounter will be trying to get us off his master’s land with a shotgun), or the one about singing lustily in church (which for an atheist would anyway be in poor taste). No. Judicious rule breaking – whether the rule be of behaviour, grammar, etiquette, taste or law – is a sign of intelligence and even wisdom, neither of which is especially the preserve of tweed-wearing, lusty-singing, gamekeeper-tipping, chihuahua-dispising, elbow-loving, rook-distinguishing gentlemen.

The Topography of Social Touching

Who can touch whom, and when, and how? A team at the University of Oxford (where they have too much time on their hands and nothing better to be getting on with) in tandem with a team at Finland’s Aalto University has drawn up a series of maps of the body showing where we are comfortable being touched and by whom. This they call the topography of social touching.

Topography of social touching – Caravaggio

Topography of social touching – Caravaggio

The summary of the results is stunning in its predictability (Touch is a powerful tool for communicating positive emotions… the maps confirm that women are uncomfortable with being touched by male strangers on most of their body, while men do not want relatives of either gender to touch their genitals etc.). The only mild surprise is that Italians are less readily tactile than Russians or Finns, although this probably correlates to how much Italians, Russians and Finns like a drink. Italians – a sober bunch, on the whole – do not so much touch a lot as, to an English sensibility, stand a bit close. In general we prefer to stand just outside an arm’s length, Italians just within.

None of this is in the least helpful to me as a teacher. In general, the moment I start laying my paws experimentally on my students is the moment I lose my job (although, having said that, I did once have my palm read by a student: some confusion over the life-line is all I remember, and the assertion that I could be a medium). I did not need a survey or coloured-in bodies to tell me so, but then, if you consider that the authors of the study got their data by simply asking people, perhaps that also is not surprising.

Death of the Bacon Sandwich

My culinary world has stalled and gone into a nosedive: the bacon sandwich, it turns out, is carcinogenic. It gives you cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, eating a bacon sandwich (or, worse, a sausage sandwich) is like poking your recto-colonic cells with a sharp stick. Go on, you’re saying, do your worst. And sometimes they do.

half a bacon sandwich. Photo: whatleydude

half a bacon sandwich. Photo: whatleydude

British cuisine is built on the (rather wobbly, greasy) rock of bacon. It is our breakfast. It is our hangover cure. It is our fast food. When students tell me that they are keen to sample fish-and-chips, that being our only widely known traditional platter, I mentally double-take. I like fish-and-chips, I eat fish-and-chips; I just don’t consider it central to my culinary life or to the culinary life of the nation. There is only one irreducible centre, and that is bacon.

I can remember individual bacon sandwiches I have eaten. One after a sleepless night in Sheffield in 1989, bought from a brick cube planted in a shopping centre for the sole purpose of selling bacon sandwiches. One on a platform at Kingston station at the pre-dawn start of a long winter journey. And several in the mountains, this year, for example, eaten in the company of some curious ibex in the Sierra Nevada in Spain. A bacon sandwich, I have always believed, is life.

And perhaps it still is. We all live in the shadow of death. Knowing its forms and its preferences does not save us. And so the only sane response is defiance. In walking the precipice, literal or figurative, we signal not our indifference to, but our gleeful acceptance of, our own mortality, just as we do when we learn a new skill, invest time and energy building libraries or record collections, or gardening, or having families. Or, I now understand, eating a bacon sandwich. To eat a bacon sandwich is to embrace the paradox of mortality. Now there is something you don’t get with fish-and-chips.

English Wine and English Wine Cellars

English wine continues to build a strong reputation. I have posted before on English wine, and on the vineyard at Chilford Hall near Cambridge, and I mentioned that an English sparkling wine was recently placed in the top ten in the world. That wine was chosen last week as the aperitif at the state dinner given in honour of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping (although it is worth bearing in mind that when President Xi paid a visit to David Cameron’s local pub they served him a pint of Greene King IPA, a dull, mass-produced ale; I have to assume this was product placement of some sort. Find a picture here, along with a selfie of the PM, president Xi, and Sergio Aguero). And applications for new vineyards continue to grow: 65 last year, compared with 46 the year before. These are not huge numbers, but they reflect the growing perception that English wine is heading in the right direction.

...right direction.  from Li Livres dou Santé (French manuscript, late 13th century

…right direction. from Li Livres dou Santé (French manuscript, late 13th century


I have no idea how much English wine is drunk or stored in Cambridge, but you must imagine that some of the colleges have the best vintages hidden away already.

Cambridge (and I suppose, Oxford) colleges are astute and large-scale purchasers of wine. Trinity College has a cellar stretching from Trinity Street to the Cam, reputedly, with a stock of wine worth in excess of £1.6 million. Trinity is the largest college (also with the largest annual spend), but none of the colleges sells itself short. I remember as an undergraduate at Queens’ College having access to a ludicrous wine list at silly prices (and on credit, as I recall), and ordering bottles of vintage champagne and port to be brought up from the cellars. I recognise that am doing nothing to dispel stereotypes if I mention with particular fondness, relish even, the port, and one in particular, a Fonseca 1966, of which I had several bottles over my undergraduate year.

The wine would arrive twenty-four hours after you ordered it, covered in dust and spiders, and you would sign for it in biro, and take it away.

I do not know about English wine, but English wine-consumption is in rude health.

W.G.Grace and Other Iconic Figures

Today is the centenary of the death of W.G. Grace, one of the most iconic of Englishmen. Grace played cricket for Gloucestershire and England for most of the nineteenth century, and dominated the sport in its heyday like none other. Lord’s Cricket Ground has produced the following animation to celebrate the anniversary.

I say W.G. Grace is one of the most iconic of Englishmen, but I suspect that a great many current English men and women of a certain generation have barely heard of him. When I was a boy he was one of those greats, like Beethoven and Einstein and Chaplin and Churchill, who somehow stood as emblems of greatness for their entire field of endeavour.

Times change. One of my students this week, a young and well-educated Chinese  woman, had never heard of the Beatles, nor of John Lennon or Paul McCartney, nor was she familiar with any of the songs I could summon to Youtube. That the Beatles may already be passing from universal consciousness was a shock to me. But it must have been a shock to other generations that W.G. Grace no longer conjured an instinctive understanding in their young compatriots, whenever that started to happen.

English for Air-Catastrophe Survival

Glider design, Leonardo da Vinci

Glider design, Leonardo da Vinci

I sometimes teach a lesson which asks students to imagine what they would do if they found themselves suddenly in control of a light aircraft. The options are:

  • point the nose of the plane above the horizon and cruise to the runway like the space shuttle
  • fly in a straight line directly over the front end of the runway, or
  • set the speed to sixty miles per hour, land, and brake.

The latter is clearly the correct answer (although I was told by an actual pilot, a Bulgarian military pilot no less, that this is incorrect, and that there is not enough information in the question, and so on, no doubt because he got the answer wrong).

However, I can now verify that the description of the situation and the description of the correct solution are in fact accurate. One of our students, Hendrik, flew last weekend in a light aircraft from London to Paris, as I understand it, with a friend of his at the controls. His friend has had his pilot’s licence for some time, but Hendrik has never flown a plane before. In the week leading up to his trip I fortuitously gave him the pilot-death survival exercise, which he may or may not have passed (I do not remember); he said he was pleased, and no doubt mighty-relieved, to discover that his friend, the pilot, both took off and landed at precisely sixty miles per hour, and landed with the nose pointing slightly below the horizon. His friend could have expired in agony at the controls, and all would have been fine (well, not all, exactly, but at least Hendrik’s landing was covered).

This is what I call teaching English as a life skill.