I know my fellow teachers these days mostly by their initials. There is AC, VH, SS, JM, TP, EC, LS, STG, MHD, NR and of course JC. All highly familiar glyphs on the timetable, deployed like runes of power at the end of each week, a mantra or spell cast on the week to come.

Students, on the other hand, know us by our first names. They sometimes get the Johns confused, and they have it easy: there used to be more of us. There used to be quite a few Simons as well (I used to assure my students that the Johns would beat the Simons in a stand-up fight, mainly thanks to the formidably stocky JR).

Or perhaps they have nicknames for us. I am not aware that they do, but I could be wrong. I struggle to remember the actual names of many of my school teachers, but I certainly remember their nicknames – Vogo, Pinhead, Scapegoat, Koko and Hollowhead, among others (the last was our games teacher, needless to say; a former England rugby international, who bore our disrespect will rather an ill-grace and quite a lot of violent retribution, I remember).

Nicknames take time, not to invent, but to stick. They are part of the culture of a school, passed down generation to generation. I have no idea, for example, why Vogo was called Vogo. He was our Latin and Greek teacher, and Vogo sounds like it should be Latin, but as far as I am aware, isn’t. Scapegoat’s nickname came to him on his first day teaching, or so I was told, from a story he told his class about scapegoats in the Bible (he had a somewhat strangulated, high-pitched voice, and I suppose the word sounded funny in his mouth). It never left him thereafter, and quite possibly follows him around to this day.

I have nicknames for some of my students, but they are unrepeatable. My students I mostly know by their given names (or Christian names, as we call them, although by no means all my students are Christians). I could probably get most of their surnames as well, but that is not how they present themselves to me in memory. And I perhaps I get them wrong from time to time, swap them round, mispronounce them. I have certainly once or twice had to apologise to students for calling them by the wrong name all week. Sometimes, as you get older, it is hard to make things stick. And that, I suppose, is when you start to pick up nicknames.


Consolation of Philosophy

England went out to Iceland last night in scenes reminiscent of the Cod Wars. In the words of one commentator, it seems the only person in England with a coherent plan for exiting Europe was Roy Hodgson.

It is very sad for the English football supporters, no doubt, if not the entire nation (since I suspect slightly less than half the nation was indulging in a bit of self-harming, anti-nationalist schadenfreude); karmic, some might say, Joe Hart and Harry Kane and the shambles in between somehow channelling both the miseries of the nation and retributive justice of the universe.

Not that, with the football, we are in need for the very first time of the consolation of philosophy. However, this time we are in luck, since a concert this Saturday at Pembroke College in Cambridge will give us precisely that: the Consolation of Philosophy.


The Consolation is a work by the late Latin writer Boethius, hugely influential in the thinking and culture of the Middle Ages, but now not so well know. It alternates prose meditations with poems, all offering a series of neoplatonic and possibly Christian arguments for resignation and patience — an urgent problem for Boethius, since the work was written during the year of imprisonment (for treason) which prefaced his rather grizzly execution.

In the eleventh century many of the poems were set to music, and that music has now been recovered from a manuscript in the collections of the University of Cambridge (the aptly-named Cambridge Song Manuscript) and reconstructed for performance.

The Consolation of Philosophy will be sung by early music group Sequentia at Pembroke College from 7pm on Saturday. I don’t know that Roy Hodgson and 48% of the voting public will be there, but perhaps they ought to be.


I don’t know if we can now regard ourselves as at the denial or bargaining stage of grieving, where the referendum and our upcoming Brfreefall are concerned. Over the weekend the papers (anyway, the ones I read) were full of stories about the impossibility of our ever triggering Clause 50, about the near-certainty of a parliamentary revolt, of a second referendum (best of three! as Nigel Farage was quick to point out), of a Scottish veto. The path to exit is seemingly strewn with obstacles, practical and psychic and moral. Brexit is a fiction. It can never happen. If we ignore it, it will just go away. Like cats, we ask insistently to go out until they open the door, and then we just sit and stare at it.

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75) *engraving *24 x 18.8 cm *1514

We are, evidently, in a state of shock. It is curious that events of national importance can have such a strong micro-impact on our daily lives and psychological well-being. It is, I suppose, a lingering tribal instinct. We somehow identify the nation with our social group. We are wired to care about blips in GDP, the value of the pound, beyond any economic logic. They are our markers. They tell us how we are doing.

And we are admittedly doing rather poorly at present. Rather than planning any sort of future, most of the major players have been reduced to panicked infighting. Never waste a good crisis, said Winston Churchill, and perhaps that is what they are all doing. Not wasting the crisis. And perhaps just as soon as the rest of us emerge from our deep slumbering trauma, pass from denial to anger, or from bargaining to depression, and on to a sort of furious acceptance, we can get on and not waste the crisis as well.

Death of Shelley

“Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no.”
Tory Newspaper, The Courier, on receiving the news of Shelley’s death

“I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.”
Byron on Shelley

We are just a touch early to celebrate either the death or the birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) great Romantic poet and political activist. Shelley died in the gulf of Spezia, returning on his sailing boat (the Don Juan) from Livorno to Lerici. He was twenty-nine years old.

Shelley was enjoying a self-imposed exile from England, a country whose repressive political order and cultural conservatism during and just after the Napoleonic Wars he came to despise (although, like Byron, his exile had a lot to do with his let’s say progressive sexual relations). There is a school of thought that sees his poetry as a secondary concern, and his radical political agenda as his main occupation during his short life, beginning with his being sent down from Oxford for composing a pamphlet on the reasonableness of Atheism. He was an uncompromising idealist who recognised the developing oppressions of industrialising Britain for what they were: a way of keeping privilege in place.

Shelley’s body was immolated on the beach near Viareggio (an act not of spiritual exuberance on the part of his attendant friends, Byron, Trelawny and Leigh Hunt, so much as conformity with the quarantine regulations), and became the subject of a famous painting by Louis Édouard Fournier.


Exeunt, right

“We must build a sort of United States of Europe.”
Winston Churchill, 1951

Owen Glendower: At my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.”
Shakespeare, Henry IV Part. 1 III. i

It is the day of the big, stupid vote, and everyone is on tenterhooks. It goes without saying that it is a day not just of rain, but of thunder and weather warnings, of humidity and roiling mists, like the birth of Owen Glendower (“I say the earth did shake when I was born”). What supernatural acts, acts of witchcraft and portentous magic, are we carrying out, each in his little booth, as we scrawl the mark of an illiterate on our ballot?

Referenda are, it is well known, the work of the devil, popular with dictators and tyrants. The will of the people, unmediated and unfiltered by the sagacities of their elected representatives, is a raw power for evil, gleefully harnessed by the power-mad. We cannot be trusted to do anything more than express our various prejudices (whether for or against something). Trump rails against the obscurities of the American electoral process because it prevents him mainlining popular discontents.

This is also true of any sort of voting. The difference is, we expect our elected representative not only to be smart, or motivated, or capable; but to learn on the job. Off they go for their elected term, and get an education in the ways of government, in the complexities of the arguments. Their own prejudices and idiosyncrasies will be subdued and rounded off by the gravity of party.

All this is Edmund Burke, I should say, not me. Edmund Burke would have despised a referendum. And while he might have taken a dim view of Churchill’s remark, he would have approved the historical sensibility on which it was made. Look at history, and take the long view. Which is not going to happen in a hundred thousand voting booths, or be born with accompaning thunder and portents.



I have been stung by bees and by wasps, and have been bitten by ants. The ants were negligibly painful, the bees not too bad, the wasps worst of all, probably because I was stung several times as a small child, and they always linger as trauma in the memory when you are small. My brother was once bitten by a horsefly, and that looked pretty painful. But then again, he’s never been stung by a wasp, so who knows? Perhaps he’s just a bit wet.

That is the best I can do, when it comes to rating the pain associated with various stinging insects. But Justin Schmidt, an entomologist at the Southwestern Biological Institute, can do better. He has, over years of getting stung, either by accident or on purpose, produced an exhaustive ranking of insect-sting painfulness, at once rigorous and painstaking (literally, of course) and florid and impressionistic. It is quite a document.


The Pain Scale for Stinging Insects ranks 78 insect stings and bites on a 4-point scale (with some half points thrown in for clarity). The honey bee, for example, scores a modest 2 points. Up at the top are such horrors as the bullet ant and the warrior wasp.

And Schmidt not only ranks and sorts his sting experiences. As though to remind us that his classification is entirely subjective, and that stings vary qualitatively as well as in intensity, he adds a description. So, the Fierce Black Polybia Wasp sting is “a ritual gone wrong, Satanic. The gas lamp in the old church explodes in your face when you light it.” Or the Florida Harvester Ant is “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.” And up at the most intense end of the scale, the Tarantula Hawk is “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath. A bolt out of the heavens. Lie down and scream.”

On it goes, the oblique discrimination of the connoisseur, the testament to a lifetime’s experience of getting stung (more than 1000 times, Schmidt estimates). I suppose it is a job that keeps you awake.

The Longest Day

It is the longest day of the year, and that is not necessarily a good thing. There is a film starring John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Michum, Henry Fonda and half-a-million extras called The Longest Day, and it is about the D-Day landings on the 6th June. The movie  is heavy on portent and machine-gun fire, and tends to drag a bit.

We don’t have any pillboxes to contend with today (unless you think of a classroom as a pillbox to be stormed, which I can’t imagine anyone does), but we do have the tedium of the EU referendum campaigns reaching a plane of transcendent stasis. The campaigning period has been pock-marked with moments of fun (Nigel Farage on the radio saying he hadn’t said anything in the least bit ‘inciteful’, for instance) but on the whole the country has been experiencing an incessant grinding of mental gears. I am amazed there are people who are still undecided; you would decide, you think, if only out of self-preservation.

So, a long day of ‘campaigning’ ahead. And a long day of rain. We have had more rain these last two weeks than ever before, it seems. And I don’t just mean since records began. The middle of June should not be such a long, indoors type of day. There are slugs in the garden, campaigning furiously to remain, and snails assaulting the beaches.

A long day, then. But there will be compensations. My students can expect an EU-Referendum-free zone of calm and industry. Some dry weather is predicted (but not promised). And when the short night eventually falls we can begin our long slow slide towards winter, with its forgetful blankets of endless night.