Thursday, May 31, 2007

Roots II

In my grandmother's house, this was My Teacup. I would come to visit in the afternoons, often after school, and she would make tea. A pot, three cups, a silver bowl of sugar, and a tiny saucer with a fish painted on it for the slices of lemon, all perched on a doily. Honestly, a real doily, from the vast recesses of her manchester collection, piled like slubbed, lacy snow in the linen cabinets. In the sitting room, there was a nest of tables next to the couch, and she would bring out the smallest one and spread something wonderful on it -- perhaps a little cutwork cloth or one with embroidered bees or daisies. "The way you know good embroidery, dear, is that it looks as good from the back as the front. But know the difference, because you must always iron needwork on the reverse."

I took one-and-a-half spoons of sugar in my tea. Perhaps when I was ten, I was discerning enough to have a definite feeling that one spoonful was not enough and two was too sweet. Or perhaps I just thought it was grown-up and refined to be very particular about how much sugar went in one's tea. She always asked. "One-and-a-half, please."

My grandfather had tea, too, sitting quietly in his armchair in the corner reading the paper and smelling faintly of the lovely French tonic that he combed into his hair that came out of a bottle that looked like something from a movie with Lauren Bacall in it.

"Just like your grandfather," my grandmother would say. She smiled into the tray with the doily on it and my grandfather smiled into his newspaper.

She could make perfect half-spoonsful.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


This is my grandmother. Glamorous, n'est-ce pas? We think this shot might have been taken to mark her engagement, which would make it 1936 and her about 22. My grandfather was the literal boy-next-door and they were utterly devoted until he was taken by cancer in 1986.

My grandfather was Catholic, gentle, methodical and quiet. My grandmother was Church of England, formidable, articulate and you might have thought she was full of whimsy and spontaneity, but actually she was as methodical and systematic as my grandfather and twice as flinty. The whimsy was part of the glamour, which was both effortless and considered, making it utterly, utterly impenetrable. Or put another way, it was completely real -- she really was like that. She really did have kitten-heeled bedroom slippers with a white feathery puff on the toe. She really did always have perfect nails, gleaming coral. She was the sort of person who could actually address a cab driver as "driver" -- as in, "Driver, Little Collins Street please" -- and make it sound both polite and respectful.

She always wore gloves. She taught me exactly how to angle a hat. She taught me how to get in and out of cars depending on what you're wearing, and my girlhood was peppered with baffling pronouncements like "Don't walk like a Parisian". She could take two white gardenias and a fragment of ivy and put it into the most kitsch miniature horn-shaped bud vase you ever saw and somehow make it the one thing you want beside your bed, every night for the rest of your life. Her taste made rococco look spare. She had a completely matched bedroom suite that was I think walnut veneer with brass beading all the way around the edges. The dressing table was seven feet long (I know this because my mother is now using it as a sideboard in her hall) and had a marble top. Over it was a triptych-style gilt arched mirror as wide as the table and taller than my father which showed you both your profiles as well as the front of you. The table had many tiny drawers, each one delicately beaded and with a tiny brass pull. As she sat on the matching stool (tiny, spindly turned legs with a striped gold cushion on the top) and "put her face on", she would let me look in the drawers.

When I was a child these seemed like an endless sequence of wonders -- because they were. Everything was in a tiny box or soft drawstring bag, many lined with felt or padded with cotton wool. Amber worry beads. A chocolate box from the 1920s containing hundreds of different buttons. Carefully stored boxes of her favourite perfume, brought back from Hong Kong. Tiny shells which my mother had found as a child, inside boxes only a little bigger than their occupants. Embroidered bags from China with loose beads inside. A miniscule, 3" square leather-covered traveler's Italian dictionary with phrases in the back like "Porter, please be careful with the hat-box."

In the kitchen were canisters marked "Tea" and the inexplicable "Sago" and there were silver calling-card trays in soft yellow drawstring bags printed with red ink like a postmark.

Boxes and bags, jars and baskets. They are both magic and reality, safe and adventurous, inhabited by things both found and waiting to be found.

I can never have too many.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Interactive technology

Interactive posting! Come out and contribute!

The theme of my life at the moment is the contrast between broken and working. These words are so lightly layered with millions of things, like puff pastry. Broken, not working. Broken, in pieces. Broken, ended. Broken, incomplete. Working, functional. Working, doing what it should. Working, doing one's work. Working, making something. Working, like what your mouth does when you don't want to cry.

Five Things Not Working In My House

1. My AirPortExpress, still brand-new and white as the driven snow in its box. Can't get it to work. And unlike everyone else in the known universe, I have scruples about asking one of my propeller-headed loved ones to do it for me. Still considering a suitable bribe.

2. The LAN. Apparently my institution's network is being insidiously destroyed by a piss-ant little utility called Dell Network Manager. Curse you, Dell-owning co-workers! Get a real computer! (See below).

3. The window above my desk. Yo. Can't see a damn thing. Stop letting so much of the EMR in the visible range through, 'kay?

4. My collection of Wedgwood Persephone by Ravilious. Dude, no matter how many times I rearrange them, the display just isn't working. I need a proper cabinet. Or like, a cottage in the countryside with a nook in the whitewashed corner of the kitchen. That would also work.

5. Me.

Five Things Working Beautifully in My House

1. My MacBook Pro 15" running OSX Tiger, and the genius cocoa-based TeXShop with BibDesk. Attention, universe. Do not mess with this part.

2. My new Babyliss Pro 230 ceramic plate straightener. Seriously, how did I live without this thing? The world is significantly more navigable with pretty hair.

3. My new Sennheiser PX100 foldable headphones. Bass response to make your pelvic floor thrum harmonically. Comes with added satisfaction of flinging your piece-of-shit white iPod earbuds into the void where they belong.

4. The magenta peonies on the windowsill.

5. The Veronica Mars soundtrack, as a mood-enhancer.

What's broken and working in your world?

Tuesday haiku

Rain, but half-hearted.
Polka dots and humili
ty. Auf wiedersehen.

Monday, May 28, 2007


The ability to 'compartmentalize' is often touted as a Good Thing. You should already be suspicious about the bona fides of that claim, because, lord god, how ugly is that word. If you have to -izeify a perfectly ordinary noun having nothing to do with the glittering, spectacular garbage heap of lost treasures and crucial detritus that is the interior human experience in order to describe that experience --- or even worse, in order to say how one ought to handle that experience --- you should wonder why. I have a certain sympathy for the thought that it's a Good Idea to distance one's feelings about one's professional performance from one's sense of oneself or one's belief in oneself as a desirable partner or whatever. But seriously? Who the hell actually does this? Does it really help? Or does the effort of doing it basically amount to whatever grief you would have gotten from letting all your shit bleed into your other shit in the first place? I am not sold, people. I do not buy it.

Still, I'm struck by the sense that I am made up of parts. Not in the boring and straightforward sense of having many different, conflicting aspects of myself, but real parts -- modular pieces which attach to one another with special grabs and clips and quick-release snaps like on a backpack designed to appeal to those with a fetish for the 'technical' in technical gear.

Once upon a time, I had a certain interest in these pieces, and their tendency to spring apart or rearrange themselves at inopportune moments when you would go looking for your ambition and find it gone, or possibly it's gone and clipped itself to something else that's hanging out in my head while I wasn't looking.

So I'd go looking. Or I'd idly rearrange the pieces, making soft mental hmmm ... and uh huh ... noises.

When you're in the right frame of mind, you can fondly call this navel gazing. But when the metaphor is not a metaphor at all and you are really coming apart, it is like stepping on something soft and squishy in the dark and finding it is somehow painful into the bargain. And then doing taking another step and ...

Oh, lord. So boring.

I like the outside much better. Rain, rain, go away ... I need something else to say.

Après moi, le déluge

It is still raining. The streets are slick-gritty like new tyre rubber and everyone envies my wellingtons. Wet pigeons wander around sporting rain-dredded ruffs and glistening pink lizard tongues for feet.

I think I am being washed.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Like, like, like

I've mentioned previously that I have an indestructible tendency to metaphor -- or more accurately analogy, I suppose. Even at my lowest ebb (witness today's sad little tideline) I am irresistibly playing with is-likes in my mind.

Of course, there is a special problem with pervasive, enduring, or otherwise paradigmatic things like love or marriage or heartbreak or graduate school, and that is from the inside everything is like them. Love is like the sand, or the flying bird, or the broken-down car, or the favourite pair of shoes, or whatever the hell you like --- frankly, the more outré the better, since if it's not way out there it's a cliché by now. In truth, I think that any analogy abut love, especially heartbreak, even the truly left-of-field, is instantly a cliché, because the very effort of trying to say what that vicious, searing, sickening, free-falling feeling is like is itself hackneyed.

Grad school, however, hasn't quite reached that particular pass and we can still amuse ourselves coming up with is-likes for it. Emphasis on "amuse" --- seriousness is a pain in the ass and I really don't want to hear how it is like a mountain or a journey or an initiation or like trying to find something in a library with no titles on the books or whatever.

The most distinctive thing about this whole process, or so it seems to me, is the whackaloon combination of seductiveness and nightmarishness. Basic Instinct has nothing on this shit. Bait-and-switch does not even begin to describe, and the truly incredible part is that the bait-and-switch happens practically every single damn day. My lord! one thinks, wandering the dusty, fabulous-smelling stacks of one's university library, or talking about arcane corners of your discipline with your friends; I am the luckiest person in the whole wide world! How did I come to deserve this life?

And then later ... pow! ... you're trapped again in some sisyphean paragraph you've been trying to get to express half a thought for three weeks, surrounded by photocopies of the lucky sons-of-beehatches who've actually gotten their shit together to the extent that their half-thoughts are like, you know, published and shit. And who you know, got their PhDs somehow.

Possibly, my ultimate metpahor for the whole thing is still this.

But today, I also like the Penguin of Death, who is pictured above. He comes with the following caution:
Things You Need to Know

1. He is strangely attractive because of his enigmatic smile.

2. He can kill you in any 1 of 412 different ways.

Be of good cheer

It is raining today. It has been pouring more or less constantly since I woke to the sound of it above my head, at 7 this morning.

It is unusual for it to rain so persisently, here -- Cambridge is a dry place, and the rain comes packaged into little storms accompanied by a sudden bloom of umbrellas, patiently waiting at the bottom of handbags and strapped to briefcases, and then as suddenly gone again leaving puddles between the cobbles and ducks in places they oughtn't to be.

On the way home through King's, umbrella in the left, Sainsbury's bag in the right and handbag awkwardly shouldered, I watched a wet blackbird fledgling harrass its mother. Or perhaps not its mother, from the could-I-care look on her face as she hopped resolutely out of the way of the quivering, not-quite-there-yet wing feathers. Peep! Peeep peep!

I thought the fledgling and I had a lot in common. Not quite there yet. Resolute and stubborn and wet and begging and studiously ignoring the need to go off and be an adult.

I guess at least I had an umbrella. I was dry when I got home. Dry on the outside, that is.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I had my hair cut. I used to have a very great deal of hair, and now I have considerably less, but the difference isn't particularly notable even so. Next time, I want to have it cut shorter. Which is weird because I'm conflicted about the loss of my hair right now, so god knows how I think cutting it shorter will help. But I know it will.

The reason that it's not shorter right now is that My Hair Guy™ thought that my hair needed to be in better condition so that I don't end up looking like a prettily coiffed head of frizz and split ends. So now I have this tub of hilariously expensive ceramide-whatsit-restructurobollocks which I am supposed to be massaging into my neglected follicles twice a week.

Twice a week?

I just don't have time for this. Note to anyone who might ask me out: I'm never washing my hair. If I utter this, it is truly the euphemism you think it is.

Which is not to say that I never wash it, you understand. Just that I'm never doing it when I could, say, sleep. Or kiss.

Snarkity snark

Xtin's Top Six Most Hated Conversational Gambits
  1. Xtin! Haven't seen you for ages. What have you been doing? I mean, you know, other than writing up obviously?
    Moaning softly to myself, obviously.

  2. So when do you think you'll be finished?
    NEVER! Never ever! In the shame and ignominy of complete intellectual uselessness I shall be cast into outer darkness where evil winged beasties will feast upon my soul for all eternity! All right? Are you HAPPY now?

  3. Where are you from?
    Australia. Thank you for emphasising my otherness and status as an alien in my own home.

  4. Yes, obviously I knew that you were from Australia. I meant where in Australia?
    I apologise for understanding your question to be so much less subtle and intriguing than it in fact was.

  5. Why on earth would you come to live here? The weather is so dire.
    Forgot to factor that in to the life decision. Stupid me.

  6. Do you miss Australia?
    Yes, I do. Being away from my brother rips my heart out every day. Thanks for reminding me. Oh wait, you meant the mythical 365 days of tropical sunshine and Neighbours.

Xtin's Six Top Alternatives
  1. Xtin! Love the new hair!

  2. So I was watching this episode of Battlestar Galactica ...

  3. Coffee?

  4. Ultimately, do you think that Buffy's more mature relationship was with Spike, or Angel?

  5. There are blue tit fledglings on the lawn!

  6. Ice in your scotch?

One wry laugh, two

For the record, not being a national of the place you live and love sucks untasty rocks. It helps to see the humour. Not least because otherwise you curl up into the fetal position and rock slowly back and forth in a way utterly unconducive to the completion of the dissertation you are allegedly writing.

My current application is called Extension of stay to write up a thesis. Dude, we are our very own immigration category. I get to suffer my secret shame in triplicate, for the very reasonable price of £295 (postal), £500 (in person). I could never have guessed that the shining glory of British citizenship is that English persons only have to explain their pathetic self-destructive avoidance issues to their families at Christmas. I get to explain it to a foreign nation state!

Naturally, I also have to say for the record (or, you know, tick the box for the record) that I am not awaiting trial for something, have never been convicted, have not committed a war crime, crime against humanity or act of genocide, nor have I been a member of a terrorist organisation or "glorified" terrorism such that some suggestible innocent might have gone and perpetrated some.

Piece of humour the second:

Question 7.7 Have you or any of your dependants included in this application ever engaged in any other activities which might indicate that you may not be considered to be persons of good character? Yes/No

What, no instruction to continue on a separate sheet if necessary?


Yesterday, I spent the afternoon sitting in a conspicuously uncomfortable faux-velvet tub chair on the top floor of a building in Cambridge which is apparently very fine example of what is called Brutalist architecture.

Yes, well. Apt.

My coffee date, a brilliant ex-psychiatrist turned philosopher of psychoanalysis, noted that at least the view from the inside was nicer than the one from the outside. That's because opposite those nuclear-testing-site style windows is the river -- the Mill Pond, with geese and ducks wandering about on the banks and soft, billowy willows lush with new spring leaf, and punts sedately meandering. Very pretty, no doubt, and it's unusual to have a view of Cambridge from so high -- while we discussed representational states in preverbal infants I surreptitiously watched a sparrowhawk coast around in the distance, scoping for blue tit fledglings like an undergraduate queuing at the late-night burger van of death.

Of course, the view is even more lovely from inside this building, too lovely, caricatured by the contrast. The plate-glass aspect is startlingly pictorial, almost cinematic. Outside in 70mm. Only really, it was the building that was outside, with the pleasantly voyeuristic feel of being on the dark side of a one-way mirror. The outside in Cambridge is typically so ... within. Gardens inside walls, lawns squared by paths, bijou orchards hemmed by 20 foot hedges. Views out of a window in Cambridge are so often weirdly congruent -- with the window. A lush square of lawn with a blossom tree in the centre glimpsed through one of the many small panes of a window crumbling a little at the edges and closed with lever sporting a curly iron finial. A bit of the river through a window flanked with chocolately oak panelling. Maybe a spire and a tower and a flag or two out of an arched stone casement. In the other direction, a marble fireplace with grecian-style columns. Frilly. Fudgy. Victoria sponge. A cup of Russian Caravan with two lumps on the veranda. Inside outside. Outside inside.

To hell with the view. I loved the building. Bolts and slabs of concrete and a strange arty-industrial staircase inside with more bolts and glass and wrapped-around melty-looking bits of steel signposted san-serifly. Tongue-and-groove brushed stainless. Black olive pesto on a cracked pepper cracker.

The coffee was diabolical.

Things seen

Three things I've seen since last I posted

  1. a skydiver fall out of the sky, and die

  2. a hedgehog, at 2 in the morning, snuffling gently in the leaves and puddles in the gutter of my street, paying no attention to me and wearing a gleaming boot-button black nose straight out of a picture book, which glinted under the street lights

  3. a boy opposite me at dinner, wearing a black three-piece suit and tie and yellow converse all-stars on his feet.

These things surely have nothing to do with one another, but for some reason they all felt like the same thing. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with the boy. Quietly, you understand. Like the quiet after the skydiver and under the leaves in the gutter.

He didn't notice, like the hedgehog.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tuesday haiku

(on Thursday)

Venus mastermind
interrogative moon, tipped
special subject: g