It is a leap year, and today is the leap day.

It is called a leap year, logically enough, because after February 29th the days of the week leap forward a day. What was destined to be a Thursday will in fact be a Friday, and so on.

I have long believed that leap year days (the 29th February) should not in fact be named for the day of the week on which they happen to fall, but should have some special name, a name which carries a sense of their import. Nonday, for example. Nonday would be a day unlike any other, a day, once every four years, when everything stopped. You would not work, not visit your friends or relatives on a Nonday; there would be no partying or drinking (save a whisky or two, to aid contemplation). Perhaps there would even be no talking. No television. The internet would shut down. There would be nothing to fidget over. You would be cast adrift on the swell of the year. It would be a little vacuum of time, a day of complete silence. A day to rediscover the importance and cultural centrality of looking out of the window and getting abstracted in the cosmos.


Nonday – The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya

I can see that Nonday would be a source of terror for the extroverts among us, but am inclined to think that a little fear, a little excursion outside the comfort zone, is not the worst thing that can happen. I can also see that it would be a rather monastic inconvenience for those cultures which adhere to a lunisolar calendar, since a lunisolar calendar calls for the interpolation of leap months (nine leap months in every seventeen years, to be precise) in order to arrest the drift of the calendar through the seasons.

However, waking up on Nonday morning would inject an invigorating strangeness into life and its routines. You would wake to silence and nothing, and float around suspended in that nothing and silence, the world slowly going to wrack outside; until the clock ticked around and you could start again, replenished and repolarised. Not unlike Sunday when I was a growing up, now that I think of it. Perhaps I am just nostalgic for a non-day.  

Rising Falling

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about the thorny issue of intonation, and why we hate teaching it. Patterns of intonation – the rise and fall in the voice – vary hugely between languages. And this lilt and music are not only an ornamental addition which learners (and teachers) can happily ignore: it can contribute to meaning.

There is one key context: the question. In many, if not most, European languages a question is indicated perhaps by structure (a subject-verb inversion, for example) and often by an interrogative pronoun (who, which, howwhat etc.), but most clearly by a rising intonation. In English this is not always the case. A question introduced with a who which how what most often has a falling intonation. Ten times a week I ask students a question (How was your weekend? What do you do? When did you arrive in Cambridge?) only to be met with a blank smile and a polite nod. If there was no rising intonation, there was no question.


Rising, falling … Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio 

So, it is important. The reason, I suspect, that we do not like to teach it, is that it is almost impossible to replicate a natural intonation when you start to think about it. Intonation is a subtle art, and mimicking natural vocal patterns is an actor’s business. Over the years I have learnt that it all depends where you start (high, mid, low tone), but you don’t always start your intonation phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

All a bit tricky, then. And that is before we get to the now-ubiquitous rising interrogative intonation which is not in fact a question. You’ll have to get your teacher to demonstrate that for you. They could probably use the practice.

Flying Scotsman

I missed it – we all missed it; it was easy to miss –  but the Flying Scotsman passed through Cambridgeshire yesterday, stopping at Peterborough Station on its way to London from York. Quite a sight, by all accounts.


The Flying Scotsman is in fact the name of a rail service rather than a railway engine, the 10am. non-stop line between London and Edinburgh which was served by numerous engines over the years; but one engine, the eponymous Flying Scotsman, has become famous beyond all others, the LNER Class A3 Pacific steam locomotive No. 4472 Flying Scotsman, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley and built in 1923 and in service between 1928 and 1963, first engine in the world to be clocked at 100 mph (in 1934). Something of a legend then.

Flying Scotsman has perhaps faded in popular culture by now, I don’t know (and let’s be fair: I have started to meet people who have never heard of The Beatles). But not so many years ago it was a household name. I am not sure if it is a specifically British trait, to preserve the names of railway engines (Flying Scotsman, Mallard, the Rocket) like the names of race horses (Arkle, Red Rum, Shergar); perhaps other nations have their famous trains, and their obsession with the railways. But if there is one subject guaranteed to get a rise out of the British (apart from education, of course), it is the railways. The railways are a source of perpetual angst (Beeching, nationalisation, privatisation, re-nationalisation, HS2, APT, cancellations, over-crowding etc.) but also a rich source of nostalgia. The steam locomotive and the passenger railways, in the minds of generations perhaps passing now, were a British invention, driving the industrial revolution and binding together the Empire. Steam was synonymous with glory, to be an engine driver the only true ambition. All gone now.

Until, that is, the Flying Scotsman passes through, and the old flame flickers again for a moment.

Root and Branch

We like to group languages in trees, to indicate something of their interrelation and genealogy – thus, the Indo-European group, where Germanic and Latin and Slavic languages grow from a common origin in some Ur-Sprache, some putative proto-Indo European tongue which spread alongside farming, or with the incursions of warlike horse-tribes, depending on your archeo-linguistic perspective.

And in fact we are fond of grouping all human knowledge into trees. The great Catalan philosopher and mystic, Ramon Llull, was producing tree-diagrams of all human knowledge in the thirteenth century, and they were still doing so by the time of the Encyclopédie in the 1750s.



According to such a model we progress, in knowing, from root to trunk to branch to tip; we can measure the relevance of any given bit of information by measuring its distance, its degree of separation, from the hypothetical bole of the tree; and so on. Thus with language-learning: the past simple and the present perfect and the pronouns and prepositions of place and time adverbials form the trunk; past perfect continuous is more of a branch; and out at the tips and twigs you find such arcana as inversion with negative adverbials, or certain specialist lexical sets: engineering, law, etc. You start at the trunk, clamber out along a branch of your choosing, and perhaps, if you are lucky, finally get to pluck the relevant apple.

But trees do not, in fact represent knowledge all that well. They do not, for example, model networks. A network suggests attention or information passing through  switches and gates; more frequent passes build and strengthen switches and gates into nodes; in time, certain pathways will come to dominate, and others to wither. Habits of knowing develop. There is no apple of attainment, only the continual passage and flow through the network and, if you are hard-working and focussed, some restructuring and laying down of new or better paths. Like a shark, your knowledge must move or die.

That, at any rate, it what I tell my students.

Bedders and Scouts

I hinted yesterday that to some jaundiced observers Oxford and Cambridge appear to be repositories of ancient and irrelevant and perhaps even outmoded practices, and I was thinking in particular of the culture of the bedder (or, as I believe they are known in Oxford, scouts).

A bedder is college slang for a bedmaker, a housekeeper in college responsible for the upkeep of students’ rooms. They empty bins, change bed linen, do a bit of hoovering, that sort of thing. More importantly, they see that the student is still alive after a night of heavy drinking, and perhaps get them out of bed before two o’clock.


…before two o’clock. Memmo di Filippuccio

I have only sketchy memories of having my bed made – perhaps by the time I was at Cambridge they didn’t make your bed any more. I do recall the sound of clanking bins coming along the corridor as a sign of their arrival, and I also remember that if you left your bin outside the door like a sort of do-not-disturb sign, they would leave you in peace.

I suppose in sum it is no more strange than having your room done in a hotel, or, for that matter, staying with a host-mother (a similarly arcane expression) during a language course; and the bedders (like our host-families) are often seen as a first line of defence in pastoral care. You bedder will know if you have not left your room in weeks, or have set up a moonshine still in your gyp-room (a small kitchen), or are running a small business or subversive political campaign.

As for scouts, well, who knows (or cares) what they do?

Benin Bronzes and Bedders

Like pubs and churches and the Queen, Cambridge and Oxford Colleges have accrued a great deal of unwanted, unregarded tat down the years. People give them gifts, they make unwise investments in art, and here and there (unlike pubs, perhaps) they pick up articles of real value.

Such as, for example, the Benin bronze which Jesus College JCR is now keen to repatriate. Benin was a kingdom of West Africa, now subsumed into Nigeria, which had the bad fortune to tangle with the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. In amongst the spoils carried off by Her Majesty’s servants were a large number of bronze reliefs (actually made of brass, not bronze) and sculptures created by the Edo people from the thirteenth century through to the seventeenth, and decorating the halls of the Kings of Benin.


Benin ‘bronze’, British Museum (photo: Michel Wal)

The Bronzes are now dispersed among the great museums of the world (by which I mostly mean the British Museum). And Jesus College, for some reason, has one, a bronze in the form of a cockerel. The students there have now voted to have the piece repatriated, in much the same way that students in Oxford have been pressurising Oriel College to remove the statue of noted Imperialist and enthusiastic exponent of apartheid, Sir Cecil Rhodes.

Perhaps they have a point. It is a complex argument. One argument against is that the Benin Bronzes, like the Elgin Marbles and the statue of Sir Rhodes, is just one end of a very complex thread; pulling on it will lead who knows where. We might even, heaven forfend, see the end of such cherished institutions as bedders and scouts (more on them tomorrow) and the rest of the cultural baggage that seems to persist in Oxford and Cambridge as the world roars by outside.

There are those who would go so far as to include in that category the Cambridge MA, although that’s quite a different thing altogether.

Addenbrooke’s and the Judge

Among other buildings to be illuminated during this year’s e-luminate festival, the Judge Business School was particularly striking (although not as striking as the University Library, which was lit up in a sort of spectral blue).

The building in which the Judge Business School is housed, just opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum, used to be part of Addenbrooke’s Hospital (the small annex to the right of it, now Brown’s Restaurant, was once the VD clinic, if persistent rumours are to be believed, although I have also heard tell that it was the tropical diseases ward). Addenbrooke’s was established on the site in 1766, and remained there until it moved to its purpose-built campus in 1976.

The old Addenbrooke’s building was redesigned by architect John Outram in the 1970s, by which time he had developed a reputation for a polychromatic facade’s and semi-visible structural features (known, none-too-affectionately, as the robotic order of architecture). And the facade is indeed polychromatic in a rather 1990s way. Perhaps that is why it responded so positively to garish illumination.

I don’t know if it is appropriate or not that the Business School (one of the foremost in the world, if you pick and choose your league tables – 3rd on the Forbes List) should be a relic of a hospital retouched like a cadaver in the Brave New World of the post-Cold-War – slightly sinister, slightly dated, cheery looking, just a little bit deranged: a sort of classicising neo-Babylonian, let’s say. Anyway, there it stands.


The Judge – photo: cmglee