Our students are this week tasked with drawing up an itinerary for an unusual tour of Britain, and selecting out-of-the-way or unexpected destinations.

This is a challenge. Most of our students are not well versed in the by-ways of British culture or locales. The Tatsunoris of this world are few in number (Tatsunori was the genius who turned his study sabbatical into a fish-and-chip quest, exhaustively reviewing twenty-four different but somehow similar plates of the stuff over the course of twelve weeks).

But this is a pity. There is a case to be made that you will gain more insight into Britain and the British (if that is in fact desirable), not by gurning through the fence at the changing of the guard and sitting miserably through Les Miserables, but by uncovering the odd corner of what is sometimes affectionately known as ‘crap Britain’.

The Prickwillow Drainage Museum is a case in point. It is out of the way (in Prickwillow, of course, some unspecified distance north of Cambridge), and, well, a museum about the drainage of the fens. You have to have a prior interest. But if you happened along at the beginning of October, you would stumble across their ploughing festival.

I ran into something similar in a one-horse town (not literally!) in Colorado a few years ago. We watched some ploughing, and some blacksmithing, and some basket-weaving, and learnt something about the history of the settlement which I have long-since forgotten, and ate corn or grits or something or other; but we got a glimpse of backwoods America amusing itself, unobserved, with a bit of heritage. It wasn’t Disneyland, but it was in almost every way better than Disneyland.


I have a quiz I sometimes bother my students with, which includes a question on the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet. The answers I get are various, sometimes right sometimes wrong, and reflect the truth that I am only half sure myself.

By now I have learnt that the Internet (originally ARPANET) was a military application linking computers with its origins in the 1960s (a so-called packet-switching network); and that the World Wide Web was first put together towards the end of the 1980s at CERN on the Swiss-French border by Tim Berners-Lee (now, Sir Tim), as a means of linking physicists world wide with the latest research, and pioneered the decentralised network of servers and fixed addresses, allowing for hypertext links. Tim Berners-Lee, I explain in parentheses to my students, was the fellow sitting under a big dome at the London 2012 opening ceremony typing out a welcome greeting. No one remembers.

By now the World Wide Web is around 25 years old. It celebrated one of its anniversaries at the beginning of August – the date, in 1991, when it first went public. And you can visit the very first web page, still hosted at its original address (here).

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It is an interesting document. For one thing, there was an early attempt to name the WorldWideWeb W3. That didn’t catch on. But it also reminds us that our common experience with what is increasingly a consumer package of major sites (Google, Facebook, the BBC, Huffington Post, etc.), but was once a hand-to-mouth free-for-all where you had to learn a little HTML in order to put together your homepage, is still shot through with the skeletal remains of its origins; we still talk of ip addresses and hypertext, servers and FTPs. And we still use that instantly recognisable blue for our hypertext links.


In the light of an article which ran in the Guardian following the Brexit referendum and the near-contemporary sale of ARM to a Japanese corporation, which suggested that Cambridge might now be in terminal decline, I have been considering what post-post-industrial decay might look like.

It is my hope that it looks something like Soviet industrial decay. I spent parts of yesterday discussing industrial decline and decay with various of my students (German and Spanish, as it happened), and mostly in the context of the railways. My Spanish student, Carlos, pointed out to me that the the Soviet Union had ‘developed’ a high-speed railway in the 1960s and 1970s. It was called the SVL or ‘Reaction’ train, had some fearsome-looking jet propulsion gear on the roof, not unlike Flash Gordon’s pioneering rocket ship, and could manage a top speed of 160 mph.

Comical, perhaps, but at about the same time Britain was sinking the national debt into the development of a similarly rubbish high speed train, called the Advanced Passenger Train or APT, which solved the problem of the curves in the West Coast mainline by the introduction of an active tilting mechanism. The train never got beyond the teething trouble stage (although its design was adopted by many current high-speed trains).

I do not suppose that Cambridge in years to come will be strewn with the rusting detritus and remnant of the knowledge economy. No tangleweed of fibre-optic cable, no calculus-graffiti, no digital snow. Although I did once visit a warehouse of old computers in Foxton, just outside Cambridge, piled high with that grubby yellowish-cream plastic all computers used to be made of. Perhaps we are already living it.

Bee or Wasp?

It has been a poor year if you are a fan of wasps, or vesps, as one of my students is fond of calling them. I haven’t seen a single specimen. Something to do, it seems, with a mild winter allowing too many queens to survive and therefore compete for early-season resources, and a cold, wet spring and early summer.

In consequence I am now calling any slender stripy stinger a bee. Over the past couple of days one or two have floated into my classrooms, and I have reassured my students that they are harmless, friendly, a little bit lost – wandered in, no doubt, from the hives they keep over in the Botanic Garden (which has, in the past, provided us with a swarm).


But they are sceptical. No one is a fan of wasps, and we are hypersensitive to their possible presence. Bees are benign; wasps are malign. One of our students a few weeks ago, Alain, who lives in the south of France and is on the point of retirement, is a beekeeper. He means to occupy a part of his retirement with his bees. I asked if, as in Britain, France was worried about epidemic colony collapse and he said no, it happened, but within normal tolerances. What particularly bothered him was wasps, and in particular one variety of wasp which makes its living attacking beehives. He will spend a measurable proportion of his retirement, he said, hunting these wasps by hand. He will, ultimate, fail. Wasps are going nowhere.

I haven’t got to the stage yet, in my classrooms, of hunting wasps by hand, although I did help a bee out of the window on a board cloth yesterday. And who knows, perhaps it was a wasp?


PlagueDoctor (3)If you spend enough time in Cambridge you will, like it or not, end up spending a little time in Addenbrooke’s hospital.

Addenbrooke’s is not just a hospital: it is a teaching hospital, a faculty of the university, rooted in the freethinking (not to say laissez-faire) world of a seventeenth and eighteenth century Cambridge medical education.

Addenbrooke’s was founded from a bequest by a Cambridge physician, Dr. John Addenbrooke of St. Catherine’s College. Nothing is known of Addenbrooke’s medical practice, but he did publish ‘A Short Essay on Freethinking’ in 1714, in which he argued that an individual holding a belief was as capable of freethinking as one who entertained no such belief.

He was perhaps encouraged in his appetite for freethinking by his medical training, which at the time was not well developed as a discipline in Cambridge. According to the University Calendar for 1702 “A student of medicine in this University is not required to attend any lectures but is left to acquire his knowledge from such sources as his discretion may point out.”

This is not so much freethinking, of course, as an excuse for non-thinking. But non-thinking, the self-permission to switch off from time to time and allow the mind to wander, is perhaps a precondition of free-thinking. It is certainly how I spent my university days, and I am very untroubled by belief of any stamp, so far as I can make out.