Saturday, 30 January 2010

He paces the earth like a demi-god

OK, since we’re on a Chekhov birthday riff, here is my favourite quote from Uncle Vanya:

The professor, as always, sits writing in his study from morning until far into the night … He complains endlessly about his misfortune, although in actual fact he’s quite unusually fortunate … Just consider this. A man spends precisely twenty-five years reading and writing about Art when he understands precisely nothing about it. For twenty-five years he chews over other men’s thoughts about realism and naturalism and every other kind of rubbish. For twenty-five years he reads and writes about things that clever people have known for years already, and that stupid people don’t care about anyway. For twenty-five years, in other words, he’s been shovelling a lot of nothing from here to nowhere. And yet what an opinion he has of himself! What pretensions! He’s reached retiring age, and not a soul has ever heard of him. He’s completely unknown. So for twenty-five years he’s been usurping another’s rightful place. Yet lo and behold – he paces the earth like a demi-god!

I may not be a professor, and I don’t think I’m quite as self-deluded as Serebryakov, but that line about ‘shovelling a lot of nothing from here to nowhere’ always makes me wince. Ouch. I’ve just got back from doing a talk at a conference organised by postgrad History students at the University of Leicester. And I felt, as I usually do at conferences, that I was just trying to move a few ideas around on a page like a fussy-eating child who doesn’t want to eat his greens moving food around on his plate, and trying to fool people that the plate looks different – only this time I’m trying to convince them that there’s more rather than less on the plate. The odd thing is that, unlike the fussy-eating child, I usually manage it. Or maybe it is just that academics are more polite than parents.

Anyway, everyone was very nice, welcoming and interesting - you can check out their collective blog at - and one or two kind people had even read my book.

Very flat, Leicester. And once again I was acquainted with platform 7 at Nuneaton railway station – that mundane metaphor for our contemporary condition of transit and exile, as we desperately search on the annunciator board of life for our connecting train to who knows where.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘You cannot read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives?’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Happy birthday Chekhov

I’ve been in iPlayer heaven this week, listening to all the Radio 3 programmes about Chekhov to celebrate his 150th anniversary.

Chekhov on the banal would make the subject of a blog in its own right. British audiences tend to think of his plays as tragic and melodramatic, when actually they are full of motivelessness and boredom, and his stories are always enveloping the everyday in strangeness and surrealism. Janet Malcolm calls it the ‘kind of bark of the prosaic in which Chekhov consistently encases a story’s vital poetic core, as if such protection were necessary for its survival’. In The Broken Estate, James Wood writes that ‘Chekhov thinks of detail, even visual detail, as a story, and thinks of a story as an enigma’. According to Wood, Chekhov ‘loved to read out random oddities from the newspapers: “Babkin, a Samura merchant, left all his money for a memorial to Hegel!” The attraction of such tales, one suspects, was that a newspaper imagines that it has explained a story when all it has done is told one … His writing, which is strewn with unsolved details, is a kind of newspaper of the intimate fantastic … his stories are like tales of crime in which nobody is a criminal.’

Over Christmas I read Chekhov’s letters, which are compassionate and funny and written throughout with a pleasing tone of fake melodrama: ‘I received your letter while yawning at the gates in a perfect agony of extreme boredom, so you may imagine with what marvellous timing your monster epistle made its appearance ... You cruel, savage woman, it is a hundred years since I had a letter from you ... You must come, my dear, good, glorious creature; if you don’t you will deeply offend me and poison my existence.’

Apart from his writing and medical practice, Chekhov helped to build three schools, sent regular parcels of books to his home town's library, wrote about the plight of Siberian exiles and financially supported his often feckless family. He also complained all the time about railway bookstores not stocking his books.

The more I find out about the guy, the more I like.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The winter of '47

In case you didn't believe me about the terrible winter of 1947 (see School's Out, below), this is a little piece I wrote a while ago about how it gave birth to a culinary revolution:

It was Britain’s worst winter of the last century. Stranded by a blizzard in a Trust Houses hotel in Ross-on-Wye in the middle of February 1947, a 33-year-old Elizabeth David felt an “agonised craving for the sun”, remembering the wartime years she had spent in India, Egypt and Greece. The hotel served dismal meals, “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. In a state of fury about this terrible, cheerless food (she regarded postwar rationing and shortages as no excuse), David began to write down sensuous descriptions of Mediterranean cuisine – although she later said that in England in 1947 “olives” and “almonds” felt like dirty words. In 1950, some of these words ended up in her first published work, A Book of Mediterranean Food.

David’s books were to revolutionise British middle-class cuisine, but their impact was gradual. Before the 1960s, it was difficult to purchase her more “exotic” ingredients (anchovies, aubergines, mozzarella) outside Soho delicatessens and the food shops off Tottenham Court Road. Olive oil was only available from chemists, for dislodging ear wax.

Slowly, the metropolitan middle classes cottoned on. David’s sensuous descriptions of continental foodstuffs evoked fond memories of the foreign holidays they had begun to take in places such as Provence and Tuscany. Her recipes appealed to young, professional couples on a limited budget because they were sophisticated but cheap, finding uses for everything from pigs’ trotters to sheep’s lungs. The novelist Olivia Manning, reviewing David’s 1954 book, Italian Food, described its prospective readers as “the New Poor” – those who would have employed housekeepers and cooks before the war, but who now had to look after themselves.

In contrast to classic English dinner-party cookery, with its elaborate preparation and presentation, many of David’s meals could be described in a few lines and prepared in a matter of minutes. Her simple, beautiful dishes would be eagerly consumed by the group she idealised as the “ordinary middle class”. But in February 1947, this must have seemed like a distant dream. It would be many years before David’s fellow Britons ceased to suffer the same dreadful hotel food.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up.’ - Hannah Arendt

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Banging the drum for boredom

The big thaw has begun, which is fine by me because being stuck in the house when you can’t move about in the snow is really … boring. I shouldn’t really admit that, because this blog should naturally be banging the drum for boredom.

Boredom is a modern notion: if our ancestors suffered from it, they didn’t call it boredom. The verb “to bore” was first used in the late 18th century, while the noun “boredom” dates only from the mid-19th century. By then, it was often seen as an illness: in Bleak House, Charles Dickens refers to it as a “chronic malady”. The literary critic Patricia Meyer Spacks traces a shift from 18th-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual’s personal responsibility or moral failing, to more modern notions which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. Spacks argues that this “reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power”.

Boredom was one way of making sense of modernity: the repetitiveness of work, the monotony of bureaucracy, the regimented time of clocks and timetables. Boredom was also the luxury of people whose lives had become relatively comfortable. That more glamorous subset of boredom, ennui, was a generalised angst or world-weariness - likely to be experienced by those upper-middle-class men who could delegate tedious tasks to their minions, and dwell on life’s futility at their leisure.

Boredom has a lowly status in modern philosophy, which tends to stress the hidden potency of our inner lives or some other, deeper reality beneath the veneer of mundane experience. Boredom denigrates whole areas of our lives, often ones that we share with others - such as office life or commuting - but in which we have little personal investment. If we took time out to be bored occasionally, we might begin to notice this commonplace, everyday world that we normally regard as unworthy of our attention. We might even find boredom quite interesting.

But for now, I’m just glad to be out of the house.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If you want to see the world in its true light, watch old episodes of Crossroads. The dullness is the dullness of real life – observe how the camera records a character silently and slowly pouring tea into six or maybe sixteen cups, then the milk, then the sugar; be mesmerised by Meg Richardson dialling a twenty-digit long-distance number on the big white phone, only to have to hang up; marvel at the look of growing incredulity on Sandy’s face as he taps at a pocket calculator for minutes on end and then announces, “Have you seen how the price of tinned coffee has gone up three times this quarter alone!” We are watching time being deliberately killed … Pinter and his famous pauses were I always felt as nothing when put side-by-side with the reception desk hoop-la at a Midlands motel, and Crossroads to this day can be said to symbolise the blithe indifference of an unbalanced, random cosmos, where nothing is finally knowable.’ – Roger Lewis, Seasonal Suicide Notes

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

I-Spy the unusual

During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the I-Spy club had half a million members. But it was still going strong when I joined up, for a brief but intense period, in the late 1970s. All the I-Spy books had a list of potential sightings on a particular theme, with points awarded for each spot.

After accumulating the requisite number of points, you got a parent to sign a disappointingly hedge-betting endorsement (‘I certify that I have examined the records in this book, and as far as I can judge, the entries are genuine’) and sent the book in the post to Big Chief I-Spy at the Wigwam-by-the-Green, which turned out to be just off London’s Edgware Road. By the time I sent off my books, Big Chief was no longer the I-Spy founder, Charles Warrell, but a man with the more indigenous-sounding name of Robin Tucek, although I imagine it was one of his braves who handled the paperwork and who sent me, by return of post, an I-Spy badge.

My friend Jo gave me two old I-Spy books this Christmas: I-Spy People (1963, 9d.), in which redskins could score 15 points for spotting a ‘man with a moustache’ - ‘perhaps it’s small as a toothbrush, or large as a handlebar; wafer-thin, or thick as a forest’ - and 30 points for spotting ‘a Star personality. Most young people have a favourite star. Perhaps it’s a singer, like Adam Faith; or an actress like Hayley Mills; or a famous scientist like Sir John Hunt. Whoever it is you’ll probably follow his career and collect photographs and autographs.’

In I-Spy the Unusual (no date but I would guess c. 1960), you got 15 points each for spotting signs that said ‘Caution – Peacocks’, ‘Beware of Adders’ and ‘Danger! Tree Pruning’, and 40 points for a thatched telephone kiosk. Accumulating 750 points entitled you to the Tribal Rank of ODD HUNTER Second Class (you needed 1500 points for first class honours). I shouldn’t imagine there were many graduates.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Reading a newspaper is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony which he performs is being replicated by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion … what more vivid figure for the secular, historically-clocked imagined community can be imagined.’ - Benedict Anderson

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The price of everything

These words by me from yesterday's Guardian:

If there is one thing I would like to see more of in 2010, it is those statistics that purport to tell us how much such and such a thing is costing the British economy. 2009 offered pretty slim pickings on this score. We had to make do with the following newspaper stories about how much actual or possible events were costing or might cost the economy: EU regulations (£184bn by 2020), hangovers (£54.7m a year), ID fraud (£1.7bn a year), headaches (£1.5bn a year), arthritis (£2bn a year), illegal downloads (£120bn a year), swine flu (£1.5bn a day), staff pulling sickies in the summer heatwave (£190m a day), the loss of the British Grand Prix ($1bn), people using social networking sites at work (£1.38bn a year), health problems caused by stiletto shoes (unspecified millions in lost working days), Andy Murray getting knocked out of Wimbledon (£150m), and a snowy day last February (£3bn). Admittedly, this is a far from exhaustive list, but I still think we will need to pull our fingers out and do much better this year.

Naturally, there are a few statistical pedants who claim that these figures may not always be 100 per cent accurate. They argue that such statistics are essentially a spurious extrapolation of the cost-benefit analysis, where you try to measure externalities – unseen costs accrued by society as a whole, like time savings or accident rates – as well as direct costs. For all their anomalies, you can see how cost-benefit analyses might be necessary if you are going to commit public money to expensive infrastructure like a new road. But, the pedants argue, things become more problematic when you are trying to compute, for instance, all the billions of pounds lost from people staying off work, the so-called “productivity hole”. For this assumes that when people are at work they are all dutifully contributing to our GDP every minute of the day – rather than, say, attending meetings where the only thing that gets decided is the date of the next meeting.

In any case, these pedants point out, the economy is not a self-contained totality, something you take money out of like a cash register. Money that isn’t spent on one thing can get spent on something else. Even employees who are off sick might be earning money for Beechams and the companies who advertise consolidated loans in the middle of Countdown.

These pedants are right, of course. But they are missing the point. The purpose of these figures is not to convey accurate information. It is to offer reassurance. These statistics are always cited by their originators with enormous authority, as if only an ignoramus could possibly disagree with them. When we have heard so much recently about funny money – toxic debts, sub-prime mortgages, money that turned out not to exist after all - then this sort of confidence is immensely comforting. Thank God, we think, that someone is keeping count and knows how much everything costs, especially now there is no money left and we are all going to have to survive on war rations. In the current climate of austerity, the work of the costings industry offers a consoling mood music.

Statistics, as the social scientist Joel Best writes, are “numeric statements about social life”. We think of them as simply facts that we hone out of reality like coal from a seam, when in fact they are numbers we create to make sense of the world. For example, if you think that something is really annoying, like people using Twitter or going on strikes, then finding out that this is costing the economy lots of money can give you a pleasing sense of righteous indignation. The actual figures don’t really matter. Most of us, as Best points out, are no good at distinguishing between large numbers. £20m or £20bn, it’s all Greek to us. We’re just supposed to think “ooh, that’s a big number, what a waste of money”.

Most importantly, these statistics give us a sense of the ebb and flow of the year. In January, for instance, we always have figures about the money being wasted by staff who are still hung over after new year parties, or who can’t get into work because of the snow. Then, in June, we will be told how much all those malingerers who are calling in sick to go to the beach or to watch the World Cup are costing us. Such statistics remind us of the eternal cycle of the seasons, the kind of work that used to be done by winter solstices and harvest festivals. And that is why it is vital we keep producing these figures telling us how much everything costs. Without them, you see, we simply would not know what day it is.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The breath of life

My new year’s resolution – apart from spending less time in the gym, obviously - is to spend more time talking to people by the photocopier. Before Christmas I developed a pain in my right shoulder which, after our season of enforced idleness, seems to have corrected itself. And since my right shoulder tends to tense up when I am moving the cursor on my computer, I have now self-diagnosed my former ailment as a form of RSI hereby named ‘mouse arm’. And if it isn’t nature’s way of telling me to stop fiddling with my cursor and do something more creative and enjoyable, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been reading Roy Mayall’s account, in his Christmas bestseller Dear Granny Smith, of how the postman’s pleasant exchanges with his customers have been thwarted by those evil time-and-motion modernisers at the Post Office (ok, it’s a bit of a fairy tale, but for anyone working in higher education, which now comes under the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a pretty convincing one):

Time is spending time on the things that matter, on the brief exchange of words that is the breath of life itself, sharing the air, shooting the breeze, enjoying the moment, taking a little time.

Thank you, Mr Mayall (not your real name, one assumes) for reminding me of the obvious. And there I was congratulating myself on doing all my printing for the week on a Monday evening when I don’t have to queue and there is no one around to interrupt me – forgetting that the photocopier is the office equivalent of the parish pump and inconsequential chatter about Dancing on Ice is the breath of life itself.

Yes, now is the time – in fact, it’s past time - to gather ye rosebuds, to kiss the joy as it flies, to tear our pleasures with rough strife through the iron gates of life etc. etc., or at least to spend less time reading unreadable articles about rational choice theory. For ‘the study of books is a languid and feeble process that gives no heat, whereas conversation teaches and exercises us at the same time’. (And I don’t know how this blog has managed to get through a whole year without quoting Montaigne before, because he is practically the founding father of everydayology.)

So if you happen to see me by a photocopier this year, feel free to interrupt my cursing-at-the-paper-jam reveries and give me the breath of life. Because, as I really should know by now:

Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,
That will not be deep-searched with saucy looks;
Small have continuous plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others’ books.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

School's out

School’s out, for winter. They have closed my uni for the rest of the week because of the weather, so I really should be out throwing snowballs at policemen. But it’s as cold as an endorsement of the PM from his cabinet out there. Still, it’s nice and toasty in here and all I’ve seen out of the window all day is a cloudless, azure blue sky and the vapour trails of planes leaving from John Lennon airport. It might as well be midsummer.

This is all bringing back memories of the winter of discontent in January 1979, when Glossop was virtually cut off from the rest of the world for a month and on one day I was the only pupil who turned up at my primary school. You see, I was a girly swot even then.

Not that 1979 was anywhere near as bad as the winter of 1963. ‘The English, of course, have no snow plows, because this only happens once every five years, or ten,’ wrote Sylvia Plath to her mother, ‘So the streets are great mills of sludge which freezes and melts and freezes.’ She killed herself on 6 February. That was also the winter, according to Roger Deakin in a lovely piece he wrote about ice skating in the fens, that someone drove a Mini along the frozen river Ouse from Ely to Littleport. (I had heard that story about another river and always assumed it was an urban myth, or at least a rural one, but I will take Deakin's word for it.)

Nor was this as bad as the winter of 1947, which was psychologically if not statistically worse than 1963 because it came right in the middle of other privations. The snow, wrote Christopher Isherwood, ‘assumed the aspect of an invading enemy’. Worst of all, they cancelled television for a month to save fuel.

The Deakin piece is from a collection, Caught by the River, edited by the guys who write and manage the most excellent website of the same name ( These clever chaps also run Heavenly Records - they named the book and website after a Doves song so, you see, rivers really are the new rock’n’roll – and they asked me to write something for it which I definitely will get down to sometime soon, guys.

Here’s to flowing water and balmier times when we can all go down to the river again.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I’m living now. I want it exciting. Mind you, I can get excitement from a puddle.’ – David Hockney on R4's Today programme

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

This will not do

Snowed in and marking student essays today, I was reminded that the latest release from the National Archives revealed, according to news reports, that Margaret Thatcher was prone to writing things like ‘No!’ and ‘This will not do’ in the margins of draft documents written by civil servants – although I suppose it would have been more surprising and newsworthy if it had emerged that she sprinkled the margins with encouraging words, kisses and smiley faces.

Of course, now we are living at the end of the consumer revolution in higher education initiated by Mrs. Thatcher – under the latest regime announced by Lord Mandelson, university courses will be tagged with dropout rates and student feedback, modelled on a supermarket food labelling system – ‘No!’ and ‘This will not do’ are the very last things one should ever write in the margins of student essays. Not that I would ever want to.

There is a great Billy Collins poem about marginalia which you can read at

More on Billy Collins anon because he is coming to my uni this year, hooray.

I did a piece about Mass Observation for the Faber website – they are republishing some of the MO books – which you can read at

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Disney on the banking crisis

Over Christmas I caught the end of Mary Poppins on TV, and noticed the children’s father, Mr Banks the banker, delivering some now rather quaint comments on his noble profession:

A British bank is run with precision. A British home requires nothing less. Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools. Without them: disorder... catastrophe! Anarchy! In short, you have a ghastly mess!


Remember that the bank is a quiet and decorous place, and we must be on our best behaviour.


If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound, soon that tuppence, safely invested in the bank, will compound! And you'll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands, in the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands!

And by the way, why does everyone go on about Dick van Dyke’s wobbly mockney accent – he doesn’t even have that big a part – when at the centre of the film is a lovely, pitch-perfect performance from David Tomlinson, who as Mr Banks delivers songs in a sort of Rex Harrison-style sprechgesang even though, unlike Rex Harrison, he has a pleasing baritone voice. I had forgotten all about this charming, clever film which, like Cadbury’s Buttons and Bagpuss, is far too good to be wasted on sprogs. If you’re not a sprog you can still catch it for a few more days on iPlayer at

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Familiar acts are beautiful through love’ – Percy Bysshe Shelley