Colour at the Fitzwilliam

There are certain classes of noun which I very rarely teach: types of tree, for example, or species of bird. I don’t think my students would see the relevance if I handed them a chart of common British bird species, and laboured over their pronunciation of chaffinch, say, or song thrush. Or if I brought in sprays of leaves and taught them to distinguish an oak from an ash from a chestnut. Much as it would please me.

In the same way, I don’t often teach my students shades of colours. I take it for granted that they can identify red blue yellow and green, but there it stops. I would be amazed to hear any of my students describe something as navy blue or pea green, or speak of the crimson sun or the scarlet jerkin; or to pin something down as plum or burgundy or puce, or to dwell on the ultramarines and umbers and lakes of the painters.

But perhaps an opportunity presents itself for my first colour-shade lesson. An exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum entitled Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts will be open from 30th July until the end of the year. It posits that the body of surviving illuminated manuscripts is the most complete document we have of medieval and early Renaissance painting style, far outweighing in importance the ravaged remainder of panels and altarpieces. And this is especially true when it comes to colour palettes. An altarpiece will have stood for centuries in a smoky church, its colours fading year on year; an illuminated manuscript, meanwhile, will have been a prized and protected possession for all of its lifetime, and will have preserved its chromatic intensity accordingly.

Initial Letter of Genesis, The Wenceslas Bible c. 1389

A must see then, you would suppose, for the first confirmed tetrachromat – a woman in the north east of England who has four, rather than the traditional three, cones in her retina. The shades of colours she and other tetrachromats can see have no names at all, since they have never been named. They inhabit an intense and unknowable world, just like many of my students.


ARM Sign on the Dotted Line

I notice that one of Cambridge’s most successful companies, ARM, is selling itself off for big money. Twenty-four billion pounds, to be (approximately) precise. That seems like quite a lot. House prices down in Fulbourn are set for a little tickle.

I like to think one day I will get to sign on the dotted line for a 24 billion pound deal. I like to think, also, that my hand wouldn’t shake. But failing all that, and perhaps rather than actually sign on the dotted line, I think I would most like to use one of these dotted line pens. It is perhaps more my style.

Bureaucracy is not what it was. Now it is all virtual. If you are not signing things digitally, you are nowhere. The tools of your trade, beyond your computer, are a stapler (if you can get it to work), a hole-punch (if you can get it not to stick) and a paper clip. In the office at OISE we favour torn up scraps of paper for notes. If I sign for something, it is an illegible digital signature on some unwieldy pad brought by some delivery man or woman who seem satisfied with any sort of illegible mark.

Time was, you would require a presentation set of drawing instruments before you would even contemplate running something up in triplicate. You would settle down to work in a high-wing collar and tail coat, and progress empires and corporations through the measured flow of ink, the steady accumulation of dockets and receipts and despatches.

I have a feeling that even the engineers at ARM, specialist in the always-becoming Internet of Things, would pause to gawp in wonder at the simple yet sublime mechanism of the line-dotting pen.


Yesterday we were amazed to see a unicycle wobbling into the car park of the anonymous corporate building over the road from the school, ridden by a young lady in no way wishing to draw attention to herself. I was talking to Mark, about sober and important business of some sort, when he spotted her from the window. Not only was she riding a unicycle (not an everyday sight, but not unseeable either), but she was riding a unicycle with an enormous wheel. None of us had seen a wheel so large on a unicycle before. A penny farthing, remarked Susie, without the farthing.

I suppose it is too late now ever to hope that I will arrive at work one day on a unicycle, to the amazement and delight of my colleagues. The best I can hope is to watch my students perform analogous operations on the monocycles of their acquired language. For most of us, learning a second language is a little like switching from an automatic, internalised behaviour – speaking our mother tongue – to something similar but harder. We map the new skill to the old, and wobble off down life’s highway, trying not to collide with, or get in the way of, too many bicyclists. We make progress with our arms (and perhaps our tongues) hanging out.


We soon got back our work. But the lady on the unicycle struck a chord, on a day so hot that anyone with any sense would rather be differently engaged, elsewhere.

And the chord was this. While none of the teachers or staff, to my knowledge, unicycles to work, we all arrive folding up strange mental contraptions not suited to the workplace, and walk and talk, and appear to all intents and purposes commonplace functioning colleagues to one another. No one knows that we have a unicycle or other crazy mental contraption folded up in the garage; or that, as the day ends, we take ourselves away, and unfold our mental unicycles, and create a silent sort of gleeful mayhem up and down the Hills Road.


The jasmine is so sweet that I am obliged to quit my chamber.
Gilbert White, 17th July 1783 (Hampshire)

Intensely hot day—left off a waistcoat, and for yarn wore silk stockings.
S.T. Coleridge 19th July 1803 (Cumberland)

The weather this weekend was so clement, that I was obliged to leave off a waistcoat, and quit my chamber. I set up a deckchair in the garden, and stared at the blue sky, listening to England lose the cricket. Summer, proper summer, has finally arrived, if only for a few days.

This is good. And it is bad. There is nothing less conducive to some good hard study than a sun-drenched day outside. After lunch, in the warmth of the long afternoon, concentration can start to flag. The fans, like the teachers and the traffic and the projectors, drone on, and everyone is gently lulled, reduced to a defenceless state where the best that can be hoped is that a bit of English trickles in at the porches of the ear.

But it is also, as I say, good. The debilitating warmth of a summer’s day is mitigated by the length of the evenings. Summer can be a reflective time, not so much wild fun as slothful rejuvenation, a sort of reverse hibernation. On a long day in summer you are separated from the business of the year, are obliged to quit your chamber, literal or metaphorical, and dwell outside.

Thus we have presentations on a Friday now in the warmth of a crowded garden, quite another thing from the small winter gatherings of cold-weather stalwarts. Everyone basks in a few extra minutes of sunshine, chatting in the warmth. The garden might not smell of jasmine, but it is relatively sweet.

Room Change

Yesterday afternoon one of my groups changed from the furthermost distant classroom to something a bit more spacious. Room G to Room 8.

There are pros and cons, as ever. The new room is much larger. That is good. As it happens we talked about factors most disturbing to our fellow workers and classmates, and not having enough space was high on the list. Most office workers crave more desk space (or a desk, in fact, if they are hot-desking). It is, of all frustrating factors, the most frustrating.


Second in the list of frustrations, and highest if you only count how often (and now how vocally) workers complain about it, is noise pollution. This is a con, where the move to room 8 is concerned. Room 8 faces the road, and on a summer afternoon you want the window open, and opening the windows lets the traffic and above all the ambulances into the classroom. Not literally, but still. Students with weak attentional filters will suffer. Room G, on the other hand, is in the remotest, quietest corner of the school, over-looking the garden.

So, noisier, but also larger. My students can spread their endless bits of paper across acres of table, but won’t be able to hear a word I say. Perhaps that’s a plus, who knows? Workers don’t complain much if at all about difficulty interacting with their fellow workers. And then, room 8 has a computer and a projector, I am not forced to write on the board. There is more light in room 8 (not so high on the list of workers’ complaints, as it happens), and, with the windows open, it is a bit cooler (because larger: a smallish room with five adults in it, their brains pumping out calories, is never going to be the freshest).

So, what is the net effect on productivity? Probably positive, I think. But I might be saying that because I get to stand by the computer and look out at Hills Road. Looking out of the window and punching a keyboard (not simultaneously, but alternately) is a key element to my own productivity.


I’m enjoying teaching a bit of pronunciation at the moment. I find it an invigorating departure from the endless glossing of meaning or nudging of grammar. In the pronunciation plenary, I’m much less interested in the meaning of a word, than in the noise it makes.

And I suppose it is refreshing for my students, as well. It is a sort of misdirection. It suits kinetic learners (if indeed such learners exist). It is an opportunity to horse around a little bit, trying out some strange sound or other.

And in between the barnyard noises that the pronunciation lesson mostly is, I have had time to reflect (silently, as I’m sure my students appreciate) on the nature of vocalisation. It has long been recognised that there is a big leap between our primate cousins’ vocal production and our own. They mostly proceed by grunts and howls; we have progressed to sing-song bleats and yowls, alongside some clever business with the teeth and tongue, interrupting and shaping the airflow.

There are suggestions, however, that the expressive sing-song of intonation, the way we use tone, pitch and timbre, might represent a middle step, in getting from there to here. In other words, we (i.e. humans) might first have evolved a complex non-verbal modulation, and this remains, a living relic of early hominid voice control.

I’ll mention that today, perhaps, when we move on to a bit of inter-primate intonation. I always feel you can never have too much information.


I spent an hour or so in the wonderful Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences on Saturday, browsing the rocks and fossils. It is not, on the whole, a museum which has moved much with the times. This is not a criticism. The exhibits are laid out in cabinets, with detailed labelling. It is all very informative and interesting. There are some activities for children, very properly; but it is, on the whole, a sober space.

The exhibits are, in the main, organised by type; but that means organising them also in large part by provenance. A particular fossil will derive from a particular layer of exposed rock, and that rock will in turn be linked to a particular location. Thus we have Portland oolites, and Kelloway cretaceous chalks (from Yorkshire), Jurassic liassics from Lyme Regis (a famously rich stratum) and so on. To progress around the museum is to progress around the rocky beds of the United Kingdom (and beyond).


Not unlike my day-job, then, where I potter around the displays of fossilised language exhibited by my students, and wonder about linguistic provenance, sedimentation, metamorphosis, and so on. I turn up specimens, seemingly unique, but in fact commonplace, tied to a common origin. And then, unlike in the museum, I try to revivify them, and chase them away. Metaphor has its limitations.

There are other differences. To move around the museum is to slow to a sort of geological creep. Even my seven-year old was moderately sedated. My lessons are quite different. And in the end I bought an ammonite for two pounds from the shop – mid-Jurassic, the chap assured me, from Madagascar. At the end of my lessons, you do not exit through the shop. You are already in it.