Cambridge Manuscript

Many students will by now have revelled in the exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but may have missed the recent discovery of an eleventh century psalter which almost certainly belonged to Saint Thomas à Becket, and which he may also have been holding at the moment of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.


The psalter has been in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge for many years, and its association with Becket was discovered by chance. Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts, was chatting with a colleague, and remarked on the fact that while in the middle ages objects associated with saints were generally revered, the same was not true of manuscripts owned by saints. His colleague said that he knew of one exception, and directed de Hamel’s attention to a very early description of a psalter which Becket was reputed to have been holding when he was struck down. De Hamel recognised the manuscript described as one held in the Parker Library, and the various connections fell into place.

The psalter in question was probably made for the eleventh century Saint Alphege, also martyred, in his case by the Danes at Greenwich; it would have passed into the hands of Becket, who held Alphege in particular esteem, and after Becket’s death was placed on his shrine at Canterbury. How it then filtered down to a library in a Cambridge college is anyone’s guess, but given that those libraries are among the most efficient and durable cultural filter-fish in the world, lying for centuries with their baleen-plates agog, it is perhaps not that surprising.


Mannequin – the Silent Partner

A new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum called The Silent Partner focuses on the role played by the artist’s mannequin over the centuries. (Read a review here).

I like to think of myself as a bit of an artist, in my capacity as English teacher, but I wonder if mannequin is not closer to the truth of it. There can occasionally be something oddly unreal about the experience of teaching a language, if you do it for long enough. Unreal, because while some of the exchanges are realer than others – so, a bit of chat about the weather is realer than a role play negotiation, for example – all necessarily fall under the rubric ‘practice’. A student walks in, you talk together for an hour or more, work on some structures or fields of vocabulary, talk about jobs and careers, processes and problems; exchange stories or ideas; and it all feels real enough, a simulacrum of a real conversation or encounter.

And yet at some level it is all pretend. The teacher is listening to the English, the student is worrying about the English. Neither of us would be here if it wasn’t for the English. And so on. Occasionally you get a student who absolutely refuses to play by the rules, will not small talk or do exercises. And occasionally you develop real relationships of friendship and affection which transcend the context. In the end, many relationships – those formed at work, notably – are equally unreal, context-dependent. It is a form of public life. And we do not always feel like mannequins. But sometimes we do.

Taxonomical delights of Cambridge

I ventured to school on my bicycle yesterday for the first time this year without my winter coat. Very daring, I know, but it was mild and sunny and felt like spring. And when it came on to rain a bit in the afternoon it felt like a mild early summer shower leaving a warm dampness in its wake, rather than a bitter reminder of your mortality.

It is too early to suppose it will last (although it looks as though we have another few days at least); and last year, it is worth remembering, it was extraordinarily cold and wet well into April. However, at some point this week I will go out at lunchtime to the Botanic Garden, where the orchid display in the hothouses is about to finish and the winter garden, while still impressive, has a vague, valedictory appeal.

Having said all that, I do not have much time for flowers, especially the large and demonstrative varieties, and there would consequently seem little chance of my visiting the exhibition of British botanical art at the Fitzwilliam Museum, on since the end of last month until the beginning of May. However, there is always the likelihood with botanical art that the merely aesthetic or (still worse) affective will give way to the taxonomical, and then it starts to get interesting, just as the systematic or chronological beds in the Botanic Garden are interesting, never merely pretty. Perhaps if the weather turns nasty again I will gravitate up there, in search not only of interest, but after all, of a reminder of fairer days just around the corner.


Edmund de Waal at the Fitzwilliam

The Fitzwilliam Museum has given over four of its galleries to celebrated potter (and Cambridge graduate), Edmund de Waal, author of the bestselling Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010).

De Waal is not so much a potter as a ceramic artist. His career has led him away from the making of simple, functional pots towards the creation of ambitious installations such as those at the Fitzwilliam Museum – assemblies which can comprise hundreds or thousands of individual pots or ceramic items.

The Fitzwilliam installations are actually two separate pieces: one, recently shown at the Alan Cristea gallery in London and called a thousand hours (which de Waal talks about in the video, above), is a series of hundreds of hundreds of porcelain vessels in two vitrines; the other, commissioned for the Fitzwilliam’s Chinese galleries, is called yourself, you and is similarly multiple pots inside a pair of displays.

In addition to his own installations, de Waal has re-curated porcelain objects from the museum’s permanent collection, setting them alongside objects (letters, notebooks, porcelain) from his recent residence in China, all in exploration, according to de Waal, of the idea and history of white.

You can see the de Waal exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street from Friday 29th November until Sunday 23rd February. Entrance, as ever, is free.

In the Chair

I am not particularly observant, but I think I notice that one or two of our longer-term students have had their hair cut.

Getting your hair cut in a foreign language is a brave move. You put you head in the hands of the fates.

I remember when I moved to Italy having to screw up my courage to walk into a barber. I assiduously prepared the vocabulary for what I thought I wanted (longer, shorter, back, sides, trim) and thought about it for a week or more (urgency with hair-cutting is a relative concept). Then when I finally got into the chair and explained to a peculiarly nervous barber what I had in mind and he started cutting, his first comment, so far as I could make it out, was ‘changing your look, then?’.

And as it transpired, I was indeed changing my look. I came out like one of the Bash Street Kids. But it wasn’t the end of the world. Ultimately, you never quite know what you will walk out with. You place yourself squarely in a barber’s hands. Your hair is not under your control.

All I really require from a barber is a bit of peace and quiet. I finally settled on a barber in Rome who was both competent and silent. I explained the first time I went what I wanted – my Italian was better by now – and came out satisfied. When I next went back he said only one thing to me: “the usual?”. I was amazed he remembered. Perhaps he only had one haircut – the usual. Anyway, I went back for years, and it was always and only ‘the usual’.


For those who want to research their haircuts in detail before risking the chair, there’s an exhibition on the origins of the afro-comb at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. They have more combs than you can shake a stick at, covering some 5000 years. Entrance is free, as ever. Detail here. And there is a full exhibition website here.