Given that I’m writing a whole PhD thesis on memory, it’s probably not that surprising that I’m interested in memories of my childhood. This post was occasioned by my sorting through all of my stuff in an attempt to live in marginally less clutter than before. What I’ve really learned, of course, is that if only I could live in a book fort I would want for nothing.

I have a box which I refer to as my ‘memory box’ (misleading as I own a number of receptacles containing memory materials). In there are badges, little bits of knitting, Care Bear finger puppets I must have had help to make, my bouncy ball collection etc. However, there was something I’d stored in there which I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see again: the hospital identification bracelets from my operations. These aren’t the markers of happy moments in my life; they also aren’t as old as almost everything else in that box – I had my first operation in 2006, last in 2010. Why on earth had I decided to keep them?

The awful thing is that I know the answer, and I’m ashamed. I have these flimsy plastic strips which are punctured with holes (let’s dispense with the misnomer that is ‘bracelets’ right now) is because they are proof of my operations.

I need to go back to more basic facts in order to explain. Particularly if you haven’t read this blog before! I have chronic pain. I have a chronic pain condition in my right forearm that the doctors can neither diagnose (well, after c.14 years there’s still no consensus) nor treat. That that is a fact is undeniable. That it is a hard fact to acknowledge is equally undeniable: hard for me to acknowledge because it’s unpleasant and it affects my entire existence; hard for others to acknowledge because there is no proof. I explain and the person I’m talking to says “really?” with a look and tone of incredulity, “you mean you’re in pain, right now?”. My anger over this has (largely) abated now, since – as a pain clinic nurse once told me disapprovingly like – “you’re going to exhaust yourself fighting”.

In an attempt to rectify, or at least ameliorate, this condition I’ve had two general surgeries and a handful of mini-procedures involving X-ray guided steroid injections (delicious, I know). These hospital souvenirs are identification tags, and while I might have worn them at times when I least identified with my own name (or any human state at all, perhaps), they denote that I was part of a hospital’s daily work on several different days. I’ve held on to this limp surgical detritus with a view to proving what I already know happened to me. That’s not an impulse I admire within myself, but it is one that I recognise all too well. Coming to terms with chronic pain is, in some ways, coming to terms with the fact that you will not always be believed. As Elaine Scarry so starkly puts it, ‘to have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt’. Just as I can’t avoid the certainty of my pain, I can never give you that certainty because it would involve giving you my pain (and that is something I would never do. I often think that the most immoral thing I could wish would be to give someone else my pain).

I’m throwing these tags out now, because I don’t need them. Yet for all my rational, adult thinking about my pain, I know that I will continue to be anxious about the inability to prove it. Alarming as it ever is to align oneself with Shakespeare’s Othello, I too know the desperation of wanting ‘ocular proof’. That impulse, though, is waning – and I’m better able now to control it. These can go, but it’s yet another negotiation of memory (which is also always a negotiation with identity) that I’m pleased to do: hey, it’s not always a pleasure, but that’s life!

*waves bye* (mainly to you, reader, but also to those darn tags that have dogged me!).

PS. ‘Perhaps’, ‘largely’, ‘seems’ – none of these qualifiers appear in this post by chance. Linguistic certainty is a fool’s game if you’re trying to write about something as extra-linguistic as pain. I no longer hide behind such hedging language, but – in fits, in starts – embrace it.





2015 has been a strange year for a number of reasons, but one of these is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Noticeably, VJ Day (or Victory over Japan Day) didn’t catch on in cultural memory. ‘Hiroshima’, though, has been a damning noun, unable quite to capture the atrocity. Of the three grandparents alive when I was little, all remembered World War II. As this generation dies out, I’ve been increasingly worried by the knowledge that tomorrow’s children – even today’s children – will have lost that direct link to our shared past. What is history for me, was reality for my grandparents.

I’ve been intending to write something on this since I saw Oppenheimer in Stratford, but the 80,000-word thing I’m supposed to be writing always operated as a powerful deterrent. Now with little left of the year, and my country dropping bombs I don’t agree with on Syria, it seemed like the right moment. While I’m in no way comparing airstrikes on Syria with Hiroshima, I did feel disturbingly as if I was in the wrong century to read the headline ‘PM receives huge backing for war’ across the train aisle the other week. It is also sobering that my 93-year-old Granny (who remembers German bombs dropping on the Admiralty, where she worked through the London Blitz) has asked for an Atlas for Christmas: she wants to be able to see where we are bombing now.

Anyway, what is this? It’s a reflection on how I have experienced Hiroshima: through literature. I wanted to consider how this news ruptures the text in a favourite novel – Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) – and a recent reimagining of the Manhattan Project – Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer (2015). Yes, I engage with literature because that is my whole life, but artistic re-tellings of historical events are the only way most of us will have any imaginative engagement with historical events (and, dare I say, learn from them?). To these two fictional texts, which accidentally affected me, I add a third: in preparing this, I purposely sought out John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the famous piece of journalism which offers the stories of six survivors. Hiroshima originally appeared in the New York Times, before Penguin published it in 1946. It became a Penguin Special Issue and was reissued this year to mark the 60th anniversary (along with Eric Schlosser’s Gods of Metal, which is also well worth a read). So, one novel, one play, and one landmark work of journalism: three texts and an attempt to tackle my abiding incomprehension that Hiroshima ever occurred.

Perhaps I should point out that I have no particular links to this, beyond that of all humans who live with this legacy. However, my sister’s doctorate was in Nuclear Physics – a fascinating and fiercely intelligent field – and I went from being a science enthusiast as a child to incredibly afraid of any science practical as a teenager (thanks to an irresponsible science teacher at my comprehensive who couldn’t keep control of unruly schoolchildren wielding acid). In large part because I don’t understand it, but also due to these formative experiences, science is something which can inspire fear in me. Maybe this plays into my intrigue and my concern over Hiroshima: a defining moment both for science, and humanity at large.


August, an ending; ending with August

I’m one of the few people, I think, who really likes both the novel of The English Patient and also the film. Although the film is quite a variation on the book, both of them move me. In order to explain how and why Ondaatje’s incorporation of Hiroshima is so powerful, I need to provide a little back story. The present-day action of the novel takes place in an abandoned monastery in Italy, where a young nurse, Hana, has left her job as a wartime nurse to care solely for the English Patient, or Almásy: a former desert explorer burned beyond recognition, who is dying a slow and painful death. Also present are David Caravaggio – a former thief and wartime spy whose thumbs were cut off during interrogation – and Kip (real name Kirpal Singh) – a sapper whose day job it is to defuse mines and ‘regular’ (in inverted commas because such a modifier seems a nonsense given their own destructive power) bombs. Each character is mentally, and often physically, scarred by war in its pre-Hiroshima manifestations. Ondaatje doesn’t spare the reader the abject misery of the warfare which atomic bombs hoped to make obsolete.

‘August’ is the title of The English Patient’s tenth, and final chapter. It refers, of course, to the month that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the event which precipitates the end of the Second World War and, within the novel, the end of Hana and Kip’s relationship (and leads to the novel’s close overall). Hiroshima becomes a momentous event in the microcosm of this quartet-housing Italian villa. Although couched in terms of Kip’s leaving her, Hana ‘recalled everything that August day – what the sky was like, the objects on the table in front of her going dark under the thunder’ (300). It’s as if she has a flashbulb memory for Hiroshima this is ‘recalled’ in such snapshot detail (‘flashbulb memory’ the term for the seeming, though heavily flawed, perfect memory for specific news events i.e. JFK’s assassination, 9/11). Ondaatje offers this before the nature of ‘that August day’ is revealed – at least to the characters. There’s a good page a half of Kip’s reaction to the news only he knows before Ondaatje deploys ‘One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.’ (302). The brevity, the unadorned names return us to the way that ‘Hiroshima’ has become less a location than a powerful symbol. It reminds me of Primo Levi’s observation that Auschwitz was ‘un nome privo di significato’ for the Jews seeing this name upon arrival at the camp (‘a name without meaning’, from Se questo è un uomo, 15). I’m not aligning Auschwitz and Hiroshima except to say that in both cases these proper nouns have had to become improperly capacious for all that we tax them to mean. Ondaatje’s one city name after another also puts me (perhaps fancifully) in mind of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London



Drawing a worrying parallels between ancient cities which were destroyed and two modern European metropolises, Eliot’s list names solid, civilised entities which were capable of ‘falling’. Alighting on ‘unreal’ helps me at least to negotiate Hiroshima, even if of course it wasn’t a European city that was in fact destroyed. Part of Kip’s disbelief in The English Patient is that it is ‘a bomb the size, it seems, of a city’ (305, emphasis mine), a seemingly impossible idea.

While we are on the topic of names, let’s speak of planes. However, I don’t mean the Enola Gay. I was both intrigued and disturbed to learn that the second B-29 to fly over Hiroshima after the Enola Gay (for the purpose of strike observation and photography) was called the Necessary Evil. Admittedly, it was only so-titled after this flight, but as Jared Farmer’s blog makes clear, immortalising this name might have made a significant difference to our cultural memory of this event (particularly given the plane’s ‘mockingly militaristic and sexist artwork’, Farmer). Considering this evil ‘necessary’ was the only way to commit it, yet having ‘evil’ as one of the words commonly associated with Hiroshima might have been a boon to the anti-nuclear movement.

The dropping of the atomic bomb renders Kip’s bomb disposal job useless. Part of his distress is in his self-questioning ‘What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?’ (303, original emphasis). At this point, Kip is alone in his anguish, with only Almásy also having forcibly heard the news via the crystal set. Both The English Patient and Oppenheimer feature characters led to question their own professions critically. Kip loses sight of the good of his, Hana leaves a relentless round of near-dead soldiers to care for one man to whom she can make a difference. Similarly, the scientists of Oppenheimer subject their profession to criticism. Frank, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s brother, confronts his sibling with the memory that ‘we talked about what we’d do if we had the power to change the world. The assumption … from me … was that we would change it for the better’ (2.14, 100).[1] Robert Wilson (the most concerned by the moral implications of the bomb) asks boss Oppenheimer ‘We are the heirs to Newton, Faraday and Curie – we looked at their beautiful work and we saw this?’ (2.11, 94, original emphasis). The advantages of this scientific discovery have, by this point, left Wilson. Noticeably, it’s the same italicised ‘this’ in both texts: indeterminate, of unknown quantity, said with disdain or disbelief, the bomb lurks in the least specific part of these two men’s vocabularies.

This new type of bomb makes Kip’s training obsolete. The magnitude of destruction is beyond the understanding of a man who daily deals with mines and unexploded bombs. Kip ‘steps away from the many small bombs of his career towards a bomb the size, it seems, of a city, so vast it lets the living witness the death of the population around them’ (305), emphasising the sheer size of it. This bomb expert is so traumatised by the news of the A bomb that ‘he does not feel he can draw a match out of his bag and fire the lamp, for he believes the lamp will ignite everything’ (305). Through Kip’s imagination, the reader is led to link to this distant event alongside the characters present. Indeed, the scale of the damage is foremost in Kip’s vision, since ‘if he closes his eyes he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map’ (302). What Ondaatje does, in this one Indian man marooned in Italy, is dramatise the attempt to understand the bomb post-detonation. If Oppenheimer depicts the attempt to understand the bomb pre-Hiroshima, then The English Patient, and obviously Hiroshima, depicts the attempt to understand it post-event.

Comparisons can be drawn between Ondaatje and Hersey’s work in this way, not least because in both cases the news is carried by radio. Kip receives the news from his crystal set, causing ‘a scream [to] emerge from his body which had never raised its voice […] He sinks to his knees, as if unbuckled’ (300). Angry with the English Patient, Kip then ‘puts the earphones over the black head of the patient, who winces at the pain on his scalp’ (302): the news of Hiroshima literally hurts to hear. Hersey notes that on 7th August, the Japanese radio broadcast an announcement for survivors (who were unlikely to hear it). Amid the confusion, the government ‘“believed that a new type of bomb was used. The details are being investigated”’ (65). ‘A new type of bomb’, ‘a bomb the size’: both texts struggle to conceive of the A bomb in its all horrendous glory. Ironically, of course, ‘Japanese radar operators, detecting only three planes, supposed that they comprised a reconnaissance’ (Hersey 8) and survivor Mr. Tanimmoto, thought that although ‘he had heard no planes, several bombs must have been dropped’ (25). Hersey captures the instinct to find a logic, but also  ̶  with such a bomb the stuff of fantasy  ̶  the many incorrect readings of the situation. Many of the people of whom Hersey speaks believed the bomb had dropped directly on them: how else to explain the scale of their own experience? The distances people were thrown by the blast are unthinkable: ‘Father Kleinsorge never knew how he got out of the house’ (18). Of course, for Ondaatje’s Kip, there is only the radio (and then his own imaginative) representation: ‘a terrible event emerging out of the shortwave’ (304). However, by offering a character knowledgeable about bombs to be so disorientated by the news of the A bomb, Ondaatje intensifies the reader’s own reaction to the news.

Hana’s profession is also implicated in the events of August. She cares for ‘a burned patient’ rendered ‘unrecognizable’ by his burns (30), much as one imagines the Japanese citizens ‘leaping into rivers into reservoirs to avoid flame or heat’ (304-05) may end up. Furthermore, for the whole novel, nursing during a war is shown to be little more than witnessing death. Having become an expert in helping men to die, knowing ‘when to give the quick jolt of morphine in a major vein’, Hana claims that ‘every damn general should have had my job. Every damn general. It should be a prerequisite for any river crossing’ (89). That pre-Hiroshima war caused so much suffering emphasises the worrying possibilities of ‘A new war’ (304) from the new bomb. Before reading Hersey’s Hiroshima I hadn’t considered the quite obvious problem of the immediate aftermath:

The lot of Drs. Fujii, Kanda, and Machii right after the explosion […] with their offices and hospitals destroyed, their equipment scattered, their own bodies incapacitated in varying degrees, explained why so many citizens who were hurt went untended and why so many who might have lived died. Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded.


Hersey’s juxtaposition ‘lived died’ and the ever-conjecturing ‘might’ (so present in his text overall) is particularly arresting. Medical professionals had little to work with and no understanding of their plight: not only unable to comprehend the attack, but about to be faced with a type of sickness previously unseen. The English Patient’s Hana struggles to work in bombed-out hospitals and to cope with what the profession asks of her. She has to ‘swab at blood that never stopped, as if the wound were a well’ (43), ‘swabbed arms that kept bleeding […] removed so many pieces of shrapnel’ (52), but she is a fictional character and these wounds at least (small consolation, if any) were in some way expected. Hersey reveals that Dr. Saraki ‘became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding’ (35) in an endless round which only chronologically came after all the previous wounds, compounding injury with injury, only increased ten fold.

What makes The English Patient’s engagement with Hiroshima so unusual is that it is caught up in postcolonialism, or rather a critique of colonialism. It is British-trained Indian Kip, Kirpal Singh, who is the messenger in this case and it awakes in him an incredible anger towards the British. He directs this, then, at the English Patient (who is, ironically, not English). Before Kip has explained to any of the others what has happened, he rails against his growing up ‘with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world’ (301, original emphasis). In the minds of his listeners, and also the readers, August’s events are a colonial problem before they are allowed to be anything else. Told that Almásy isn’t English, Kip says

American, French I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English.


Much as with the geography of the desert explorations for which Almásy was known, Ondaatje ranges around here as Kip draws wild parallels in his distress. Kip feels complicit, noticeably stripping ‘all insignia off his uniform’ later that evening (305). Hiroshima acquires a racial element from Kip’s speech, that it is directed towards ‘the brown races of the world’. Uncomfortably, white Canadian Caravaggio ‘knows the young soldier is right. They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation’ (304). Oppenheimer, too, is ill at ease with the foreigner as enemy. Although Oppenheimer briefly asks that the Japanese be warned (2.13, 97), the last scene sees him correcting himself: ‘I saved many lives … American lives’ (2.26, 116). This is a reversed echo of Bob Serber’s earlier slip ‘No one’s going to die. I mean … of course … people are going to die … Japanese people’ (2.21, 111). Morton-Smith has a knack for the awkward added modifier. What both of this examples show is the change in perspective that comes with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, when human beings artificially divide themselves into separate categories. In a sense, it’s a concept which the whole of The English Patient rails against, where nations and nationalism are consistently criticised as limiting: until the war breaks up the group of desert explorers ‘we were German, English, Hungarian, African […] Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states’ (147). With war, nationalism’s grip tightens and drives these diverse men apart. Later, the multicultural microcosm that is the Villa San Girolamo is torn apart by news of Hiroshima. It can be no accident that at the end of the novel, in Kip’s future life, ‘at this [dinner] table all of their hands are brown’ (320). Hiroshima in The English Patient is decisively divisive.


Scientific discovery: A game of consequences

I’ve always been oddly fascinated by the Manhattan Project, as one of the greatest moments of scientific collaboration and yet which resulted in one of the most horrific destructions of life. Hearing, then, of Oppenheimer, I was intrigued (not least because I haven’t seen that much new work at the RSC). Before going, I wondered whether this was going to address the possibility of making J. Robert Oppenheimer into a tragic hero. If Oppie (as he is referred to by almost all characters) has a tragic flaw, it appears to be ambition. As General Groves determines of the whole project, ‘it smacks of ambition’ (1.21, 47). Oppie himself  states ‘It would be easier if I thought it was beyond me. I know it is not’ (1.17, 40). Ability burdens the capable scientist. If ambition aligns Oppie a little with Macbeth, let’s not forget the other Shakespearean tragic character with whom Oppie is aligned when he worries about being ‘a man of inaction’ just lines later. This refers to the worry that in the race to atomic arms Germany might pip America to the post (a fear which transpired, of course, to be unfounded  ̶  depicted in Oppenheimer 2.8). Given that the (original Stratford) Oppenheimer trailer utilised this exact speech, there can be little doubt that the RSC were positing a Hamlet dimension to Oppenheimer, at least. Unlike Hamlet, though, here inaction gives way to action, which causes its own problems:

KITTY [OPPENHEIMER]: The man who builds this bomb will be hailed a hero.

OPPIE: I have never asked for that.

KITTY: But you have wanted it. Everyone will know your name. Everyone will want to bask in your light.

OPPIE: My ‘light’ … if I were to show it … would strike the world blind.

KITTY: You cannot be scared of your own potential.

OPPIE: I have it within me to murder every last soul on the planet  ̶  should I not be scared?

1.36, 70

For Kitty, ‘light’ here is figurative  ̶  the glow of success, fame and reputation. As Oppie correctly predicts, his ‘light’ was to be all too literal and overpowering, the ‘Noiseless Flash’ from which Hersey’s first chapter would take its name. Human potential and scientific potential come into conflict in this play, partly because in both cases, this ‘potential’ remains the great unknown. One near ludicrous example is that Hans Bethe asks ‘what if we were to set fire to the earth’s atmosphere?’ (1.27, 55). This was one of the possibilities which had to be (scientifically) discounted in the early stages of the Manhattan Project (see 1.30). What clearer way to suggest that we were tampering with powers beyond our understanding?

‘Potential’, of course, has a specific meaning within physics, but even the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of ‘having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future; latent’ begs meditation given that no one could, or did, predict the tremendous long-term potential of the bomb to cause damage – the ‘slow violence’ of Rob Nixon’s book of the same name. Not only have several generations of humans suffered as a result of the A-bomb, but the poisoned earth similarly struggles to recover, even now. This long-term potential was foreshadowed perhaps in the fact that Hersey’s last chapter was called ‘Aftermath’ and is by far the longest chapter (occupying nearly half the of the book). For instance, he details the plight of the ‘‘hibakusha’  ̶  literally, ‘explosion-affected persons’’ who suffered economically as well as medically (120). Father Kleinsorge became ‘a classic case history of that vague, borderline form of A-bomb sickness in which a person’s body developed a rich repertory of symptons’ (142-43). Although Hersey’s aftermath concerns the lives of the six individuals and their offspring, and Nixon’s aftermath the natural environment, Hersey depressingly punctutates ‘Aftermath’ with different nations’ announcements of the successful testing of an A, or an H, bomb: the potential for mutually assured destruction lives on.

The unknown potential of the Manhattan Project was what made it so intellectually stimulating and so practically dangerous. Part of Oppenheimer’s pull for me was its depiction of the heady excitement you get when you gather great minds together and have ideas. Act one scene 18, set in ‘Berkeley campus’, reminds me of the electricity I have felt in certain supervisions, coffee conversations, symposiums, conferences. In 1942, though, men (and they were largely men) met to be shown ‘images of the devastated city of Halifax, Nova Scotia’ and hear from Oppie ‘This is the level of destruction that we are hoping to achieve’ (1.18, 42). It’s nothing if not direct. Yet even with ‘destruction’ so obvious, so intentional from the off, it somehow doesn’t connect to any tangible reality. Some of the gathered scientists shift perspective radically during the course of the play, but, at this point, ‘Everyone is excited’: a stage direction which included me, in the audience.

Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist, is portrayed as more ambitious than Oppie and is driven by scientific curiosity without any moral barriers. Teller considers the Manhattan Project ‘beneath me […] It is a nonsense to have someone of my ability scratching out sums that would barely challenge a college freshman’ (1.35, 68). Just as the play as a whole suggests that  ̶  like nuclear fission  ̶  once events are set in motion they are unstoppable, for Teller and his H-bomb, ‘I cannot simply stop halfway … I cannot simply say “well this will do”… no … I must know the full extent … the ramifications … the … the … progression of a thought’ (2.5, 85). Compulsion seems to be a property of the scientists as much as the science in this play. The fact that to ‘know’, that this knowledge, is dangerous does not come into the equation. In my day job, ‘the progression of a thought’ results in a sentence, but here it is the successful completion of a bomb. One ambiguity which Morton-Smith keeps in play, for both the A and the H bomb, is the difference between the outcome of an experiment (seeing the science through to its logical conclusion) and the outcome of a bomb project (in terms of real human lives). The scientists appear to operate under the former condition until the last possible moment, making their actions more understandble.

Once the physics has been tamed, the scientists want to see the bomb deployed. To this therapist, and lover, Ruth Tolman, Oppie says ‘Let’s hope not. (Beat.) I mean to say …’ (2.9, 89) in response to the suggestion that the war might end before the bomb be used. Intellectual curiosity here slips over into eagerness to explode a bomb: two things which one feels should remain separate. Bob Serber couches it in slightly more palatable terms:

I’m interested. God help me, but I’m interested. We have to know … the effects … how bad … the pressures … the temperatures … to compare with our calculations. How else to know if we were right? Sorry … if we were correct. Correct is different from right.

2.20, 110

Serber has greater self-awareness about what his words might betray. In the whole of Oppenheimer this might be the clearest recognition of a difference between academia and actuality: putting these calculations into practice might prove them ‘correct’, but a lot else besides. ‘We have to know’, says Serber. This insistence rankles (or it did for me in the audience) because it is both understandable and terrible. Knowledge is, it’s often said, power  ̶  and has a biblical precedent for being trouble  ̶  but what is missing is the sense of responsibility. The characters of Oppenheimer seem to feel responsibility only to science: seeing the experiment through, solving the equation.

The one exception to this is Robert Wilson, who undergoes the greatest re-evaluation of his opinion about the bomb. Indeed, Wilson attempts to hold a meeting about ‘The Impact of the Gadget on Civilisation’ (2.11, 93; ‘gadget’ being the Manhattan Project’s euphemism for ‘bomb’). I say ‘attempts’ because Oppie breaks up Wilson’s gathering, in which he raises the fact that ‘we’re talking cities … we’re talking actual human beings obliterated … could that be justified?’ (2.11, 93). Oppie’s army-informed arguments in reply are logical, but Wilson at least tries to put their project in terms of ‘actual’ lives.

Wilson has an uneasy time of it in Act II, facilitating the Trinity Test to the point that – as he agonises – ‘My fingerprints were on the inside of the bomb casing’ (2.19, 106). (This concern particularly affected me because I wrote a very bad teenage poem called ‘The Guilty Signatory’ after watching a program on the History Channel about the Enola Gay. They showed footage of the plane’s crew, drawing and writing on the bomb’s casing pre-loading. I didn’t then, and still don’t now, understand that misplaced camaraderie). A page of dialogue later, the bomb has already crippled one man:

WILSON: Can we undo it, please? Can we … before it’s actually … actually used?

BETHE supports WILSON as they exit.                               

2.19, 107

The cerebral momentum, so winning early in Act one, is here recast as a process which has advanced beyond control so that already all of them are past the point of no return. Wilson is ‘undone’ by being complicit in something he knows will kill, and kill well.


An enduring image and a long shadow

I can remember (and it’s got to be an early-ish memory, given its own clarity but lack of any surrounding context) looking at a photograph of a woman with kimono pattern burned into her flesh. Of course, I didn’t name this ‘kimono’ – I didn’t know what a kimono was. Perhaps I learned it then. The more incomprehensible aspect of the picture was that the pattern of her clothes was on this woman’s skin. Clothing – external, that which one wears over the body – suddenly seemed to have no distance or distinction from the body. I remember being confused.

Although the mushroom cloud is the single image which has come to stand for Hiroshima, the kimono has also figured largely. Act two scene 22 of Oppenheimer is called ‘Hiroshima’ and with simple but effective symbolism, an actual little boy actor voices what the device named ‘Little Boy’ will do:

So can we talk of the kimono … of everyday dress …

Its pattern seared into its wearer’s flesh.

And can we talk of the shadows burned into the stone …

And if I say vaporization … then yes … that includes bone.

2.22, 111-12

The only speech which emulates verse in the play, the couplets neatly pair consequences even as they describe unspeakable atrocity. This ‘pattern seared’ also makes Bob Serber’s intended gift for his wife (from a previous scene) retrospectively awkward. Though not a kimono, ‘a dressing gown. Silk. With embroidered cherry blossom’ (2.20, 109) is too close to the mark. I’ve termed this horror ‘unspeakable’ but I wonder if this is my own reaction (and my audience-member reaction) to Little Boy’s semi-request ‘so can we talk of […] and can we talk of […] and if I say’. The bomb becomes a speech act and a challenge to linguistic inadequacy in the face of intentional destruction.

While The English Patient never uses the word ‘kimono’, Kip’s imagination is caught by the bomb’s effect on flesh: ‘the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadows of humans suddenly in the air’ (302); ‘heat that within seconds burned everything, whatever they hold, their own skin and hair’ (305); ‘boiling air scoured itself towards and through anything human’ (305). Burns figured as shadows feature in all three texts, but although Ondaatje doesn’t deal specifically with burns into flesh, he clearly depicts burning flesh. As the characters react to the news of Hiroshima, gathered round the bed of the dying man, there is a poignancy to the fact that Caravaggio ‘cannot bear to turn and look at the sapper or look towards the blur of Hana’s frock’ (304). If this ‘blur of […] frock’ is a reference to the pattern of the kimono, it’s a coded one, and yet knowledge of the visuo-cultural memory of Hiroshima makes the sentence hard to read. Hersey’s calm prose offers the inconceivable up as factual:

On some undressed bodies, the burns and had made patterns […] on the skin of some women (white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.


‘Patterns’, ‘the shapes of’ – the seeming decorative nature of these burns belies the physical trauma. The bracketed explanation is as neutral as the people Hersey witnesses, who ‘looked straight ahead, were silent and showed no expression whatsoever’ (40).

This vision of survivors, and images, as simply there without expression brings me back to shadows – ‘shadows burned into the stone’ (Morton-Smith, 2.22, 112) and ‘the shadows of humans suddenly in the air’ (Ondaatje, 302). Unless I’m being stupid (more than possible) ‘shadow’ here is a metaphor: really what is present is a solid burn mark, which looks like a shadow. As Hersey documents, ‘a painter on a ladder was monumentalized in a kind of bas-relief on the stone facade of the bank building on which he was at work, in the act of dipping his brush into his paint can’ (96). Hersey chooses ‘monumentalized’ but he could have written ‘immortalized’, the painter forever ‘in the act’, yet static and absent. Again, the destruction is awkwardly artistic, Hersey borrowing ‘bas-relief’ from the vocabulary of art history, of sculpture.

This sense of the bomb’s speed in killing and recording, recalls a section of text in The English Patient which comes mere pages before the Hiroshima episode. Retelling Kip’s work in Naples, the narrator states ‘He passes the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, where the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum are housed. He has seen the ancient dog frozen in white ash’ (297). Another historical moment in which living things were caught mid-action is referenced, though this one was a natural occurrence, not set in motion by fellow animals. ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum’ are not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Ondaatje leaves the parallel there to trouble the reader. Additionally, it is only following Hiroshima that Hana writes home to her stepmother, Clara, to say that her father was left by his unit ‘burned and wounded. So burned the buttons of his shirt were part of his skin, part of his dear chest’ (314). Although Hana may ask ‘What did we have to do with it?’ (306) of Kip, Ondaatje shows the pervasiveness of such trauma across national boundaries.

The most troubling manifestation of Hiroshima’s ‘shadow’, though, is Oppenheimer’s 2.24, entitled ‘Lecture Series: Bob Serber is in Japan’:

What would you say was the average height of a Japanese? Five six? Five seven? Let’s say five six. Those black marks we saw … those smudges we found at the centre … are all that remain of the closest to the point of detonation. Shadows burnt into the sidewalk. Fatty stains collecting ash and dust. If we measure those marks … take the average height of a Japanese … by the length … by the direction of the shadow we should be able to calculate where they were in relation to the bomb blast. From that we can gauge how high the bomb was when it detonated. Approximately. There will of course be outliers to discount … those significantly shorter … children … but we should be able to take an average … (Beat.)                                                                                     

2.24, 114

Having watched the play, I think I bought the script in order to look back at this particular speech. Bob Serber is a likeable character: bespectacled (in thick round lenses), faithful to his wife, a trustworthy colleague. Yet he says this. People reduced to ‘black marks […] smudges’ doesn’t seem to upset him. If anything he seems keen to introduce others to the effect of the bomb. Violent deaths become reconfigured as ‘calculations’, measurements which can yield further scientific results. The ‘outliers’ which can be discounted in an equation to establish an ‘average’, are in reality children.


What constitutes an achievement?

This subtitle is, I believe, a question all PhD students and indeed academics ask themselves on a regular basis, but that’s not where this is going. I’m taking my end from the beginning – from a consideration of Morton-Smith’s epigraph: ‘Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe’, from Kurt Vonnegut. Deserving or not, this is what J. Robert Oppenheimer did: the stage direction which ends the Trinity Test is ‘the sound of the very matter of the universe pulling itself apart’ (2.16, 104).[2] Vonnegut’s statement speaks to what ability affords one; being capable is not necessarily an asset, and it certainly isn’t objectively good. Potential is always intriguing and I think anyone with intellectual curiosity wants to find out how far he or she can carry that, but with this pursuit of potential comes if not an arrogance then an overreaching that distorts one’s understanding. So I leave you with some of the words of Oppenheimer that most appealed to me, from Frank to Robert, brother to brother, reminding us that intelligence isn’t everything:

OPPIE: The average man cannot possibly begin to grasp …

FRANK: Listen to yourself … the ‘average man’ … as though there’s some gaping chasm between the stupid and the smart. Do you honestly believe that intelligence sets a man so far ahead of the rest? The ability to solve differential equations is a minor variant on the marvel that is alphabet … language … the written word. Being well versed in Joyce or opera or Sanskrit is as nothing next to the child’s ability to recognize their mother. Give me a dancer … give me the world’s foremost ballerina … all of their skill … it is insignificant next to the miracle that is standing and walking on two legs.

2.14, 100






Works cited


Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Farmer, Jared. ‘Curios: Necessary Evil.’ Jared Farmer. 6 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Hersey, John. Hiroshima. 1946. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Levi, Primo. Se questo è un uomo. 1958. Torino: Einaudi, 2009. Print.

Morton-Smith, Tom. Oppenheimer. London: Oberon, 2015. Print.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print.

‘potential, adj. and n.’ Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.


[1]References to Oppenheimer are given as (Act.scene, page number) in the text.

[2]A pedant might point out that, as Hersey notes, ‘(Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb)’ (9).

Speed reading novels by Virginia Woolf is not something I never thought I’d find myself doing, but life is nothing if not surprising. However, I couldn’t have predicted that the Royal Opera House (ROH) would mount a production called ‘Woolf Works’, a triptych based around three separate Woolf novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to read all of them (by a fair way). Credit where credit’s due, though, all of Mrs D and three and a half chapters of Orl ain’t too bad.

The programme is pretty interesting in how unlike the standard ROH format it is. There’s a fold-out insert in the middle, with a detailed, though visually inexplicable, timetable of Woolf’s life and works. The ROH have also canvassed opinions on Woolf’s importance for individual lives, with some interesting responses printed up. The ever-excellent Dr. Susan Jones (St. Hilda’s, Oxford) also makes a welcome comment.

Like other ballet fans my of my generation, Alessandra Ferri remains a kind of hero. Her entire body bespeaks dance – all of her musculature is readied for the art form. Perhaps because of my problems with mine, but I have always loved Ferri’s arms. The expression seems to originate by her neck and come right through the shoulder, down the elbow, forearm, wrist, fingers and onwards. She remained a classic Juliet, dancing the role of the lovesick teenager well into her 40s. To have her back performing in England, out of dance retirement to dance en pointe at 52, is quite simply amazing (not to mention a coup for our age-resistant society).

I Now, I Then (from Mrs Dalloway)

I don’t know what I was expecting from this, but it more than delivered. Also, I’m extremely glad I managed to read the novel in time, since this piece largely follows the narrative in structure. My only reservation with ‘I Now, I Then’ is that it seemed a little overdetermined: not only were we using music and dance, but also square frames, period video footage and modern footage (of, presumably, Woolf’s garden) to tell the story. That’s a lot to throw into the mix. I appreciated most of it, but the garden footage was out of place and disturbed the otherwise period aesthetic of it.

This movement is prefaced by Woolf’s famous quotation about how words ‘are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally’. She notes how certain words/phrases instantly recall other usages by Shakespeare, or other literature so embedded in the readerly consciousness. Memory in literature is my day job, and on this evening out I thought more about how true this is for dance, also. Certain movements/positions recall those from ballets past. In my (likely impoverished) memory, I saw in ‘I Now, I Then’, a MacMillan lift position (from a Manon pas de deux?), Julie Kent’s lunge from James Kudelka’s Cruel World pas de deux, a drop from Anthony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading pas de deux, and a possible allusion to Puck (of Ashton’s Dream) in the way the character of Evans span in and out of view. I’m not saying that McGregor consciously referenced other works, but that certain steps/positions are so encoded within the context in which one originally saw them, that it can’t help but revive memories of previously-witnessed dance. Also, because this is a literary adaptation – to a certain extent – it also recalled MacMillan’s Winter Dreams (based on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters), especially in the relation of the older Mr. Dalloway figure (all tweed-suited like Antony Dowell’s character in WD) to the younger, more sprightly Peter Walsh figure, threatening to draw Mrs Dalloway’s affections. In the presentation of Dalloway and Walsh’s remembered youth, too, there were undertones of Ashton’s A Month in the Country! All in all, this offered quite the connections for the eager audience member.

Ferri was sublime as Clarissa Dalloway (the elder version), but if anyone could threaten to overtake her in sheer dramatic and anguished portrayal, it was Edward Watson as Septimus, the shell-shocked and all-round mentally-troubled ex-WWI solider. Long may choreographers continue to create literary roles for Watson to portray – Wheeldon’s rendering of Leontes for him in The Winter’s Tale was stunning, to say nothing of the critically-acclaimed Metamorphosis (Arthur Pita), and there are plenty more characters that are just begging for Watson to embody them.

Septimus and Rezia (his wife) worked together well to show the torment both of the madness-tempted husband and the wife who cannot help but cannot help but try to. There were a few touchstones to the narrative, with Rezia (Takada) constantly trying to change the Septimus’ (Watson) focus, even going so far as physically to try and turn his head away from Evans’ haunting (Dyer). This took me straight back to the “Look, look, Septimus!” and “Look […] Oh look,” she implored him’ of Woolf’s text. Indeed, Woolf’s constant use of the verb ‘implore’ in relation to Rezia came out in both the choreography and Takada’s performance.

A powerhouse of flexibility and psychological insight himself, pairing Edward Watson with Ferri is a gift I think we were all waiting for. Putting these two dramatic gifts together is possibly the best reason one could have to deviate somewhat from Woolf’s plot. Had the programme offered only ‘I Now, I Then’, I couldn’t have said it wasn’t worth the ticket. It left one awash with thoughts, emotions that couldn’t quite be articulated as thoughts and physical sensation – as art should.

Becomings (from Orlando)

Having ploughed my way, rather roughly, through 3 1/2 chapters of Orlando did little to help me understand this piece. Thinking there might be lasers involved in a Virginia Woolf novel is the kind of thought projection only Jeremy from Peep Show would manage. But lasers there are, many lasers! And a lot of gaudy gold costumes: Woolf has caught a severe case of The Shinies in ‘Becoming’ this version of Orlando. The way that the lasers can draw along the floor, or extend vertically in space is impressive, certainly. I think, though, that I appreciated ‘Becomings’ more as a light show than a ballet. In fact, it reminded me, with pleasure, of Light Show at the Hayward Gallery (2013).

I was at first intrigued by the Elizabethan-style costumes and static positions on the stage, wondering if the choreography was to look at restricted movement, movement codified by gender norms, perhaps, or even harking back to the courtly origins of ballet at Louis, ‘The Sun King”s court. None of these happened. Not much of Orlando happened, either, really. This looks a lot more like a lot of current ballet choreography: rapid flexibility and punctuated movements, all constant and all over the stage. Nothing wrong with it (although the ‘gymnastic turn’ in ballet is not for me) but not what I would particularly choose to go and see. There’s something about this style which makes me hear my Granny’s voice in my head: “I mean, it’s very nice that you can open your hip joint up like that, but why are you doing it?” A fair question.

Steven MacRae’s precise allegro was, though, as ever, impressive and detailed to watch. Also, there was the complementary pairing of Sarah Lamb with Eric Underwood, which I haven’t seen live since Electric Counterpoint in 2010; they really bring out greatness in each other.

Richter’s score (which I’m mainly not mentioning for good reason) reached breaking point in this movement. I had to stop myself from laughing when, at a particularly still moment a glockenspiel just struck out a few notes. It could have been effective as an eerie infantile throwback for a horror movie, but here it sounded like the precursor to an awkward conversation between conductor and percussionist beginning “now Bernard… we talked about this. You promised you wouldn’t hit the glock. You absolutely promised!”

Unusually, the company’s synchronicity was off on Friday night, which didn’t help matters. If this style of McGregor’s demands anything, it’s a rigorous adherence to the tempo. Otherwise, the audience can distinguish too easily between better and improving dancers. The ending, with two enlarged spotlights and individual dancers running through them looked more like an A Level devised piece rather than the artistry we know and love of the RB. A shame.

The most arresting moment for me was when a lone female dancer took centre stage in a nude unitard, moving as if discovering her body. This seemed to suggest the man-to-woman change at the heart of Orlando, but it wasn’t made pivotal enough to assure one of that. Since the performance, a friend has suggested that the shiny strip at the centre of the stage might have been representing the frozen Thames. I hadn’t thought that at the time, but I hope that is true, because there was an odd lack of representation of the changing state of water, so important to Orlando: ice so solid that body heat can’t melt it, to water so powerful you wish for Noah’s vessel.

Tuesday (from The Waves)

‘Tuesday’ is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. It is the sort of experience one hopes to have from art. However, I have one moral objection: the piece opens with Gillian Anderson reading from ‘a letter’ written by Virginia Woolf. It is not a letter, it is her suicide note and, as such, it is not an art work to be used to heighten aesthetic effect. The fact that this note has been often used before does not, for me, make it any more ok. Yes, it was effective – and affective – but just because something is effective doesn’t mean it should be implemented. Maybe it’s because I just finished a book on J. Robert Oppenheimer, or recently saw The West Wing for the first time, but this argument bespeaks boardrooms and bombs to me.

The background video of the sea – in black and white and considerably slowed down – made for a calming and meditative constant, which went well with the small repertoire of repeated steps. Having RB dancers eventually take over from Royal Ballet School dancers showed just how well-trained those little ones are.

‘Tuesday’ is much more biographical – about older Woolf – than a narrative version of The Waves (she says, having consulted a plot summary and talked to people who have read it). It feels like a swan song, not least because of the focus on the lone figure of Ferri/Woolf. The uniting and repeated step of the rond de jambe a terre (arms in fourth) into a semi-curtsey, which begins with just Ferri but gradually attracts the entire company, was an appropriate use of basic ballet vocabulary. As every ballet class ends with the reverence (as death comes, sometimes, with last words) there are codified ways to say goodbye.

Although ‘Woolf Works’ has its problems, I’m so thrilled that the Royal Opera House continues to commission new work. I went to see Oppenheimer in Stratford recently, too. As money continues to be diverted away from the arts, it is events like these which remind us that audiences appreciate seeing new work (the cheers were *deafening*). Also, I always remember Kevin McKenzie (Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre) saying, on an interview segment as part of what was then American Ballet Theatre Now (1998), “if we don’t create the mirror to hold up to the audience, what happened, you know? It’s our duty to do it.” Absolutely. And the ROH are fulfilling that duty well.


When I first arrived at my hotel on Sunday evening, ‘Harrow: A Very British School’ happened to be on TV. Oddly appropriate. The last thing I caught five minutes of last night was ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ – less appropriate. Five plasters across my two feet and a nifty breakfast at Starbucks later, I was ready to walk into Eton once again.

The Times of 9th February 1932 has a page of photographs for ‘Fifty Years: Great Figures in Literature’. The Hardy and Gosse photo is lovely (behatted gents) but there is a bizarre photo of George Meredith with ‘his grand-daughters, Joan and Dorothy Sturgis, and his gardner, Frank Cole’! Frank Cole looks rather stilted and uncomfortable to be part of this portrait.

In another article – ‘Woman’s Death in Hospital: Belladonna given by mistake’ – the doctor at the inquest says “To be candid, there has been a mistake in the medicine.” Can you imagine that statement being given today?! Candidness just ain’t the fashion at inquiries – just watch The Thick of It.

Stop your Cold at once! ‘NOSTROLINE’ – old adverts. Amazing.

I forgot to say that yesterday Sarah found a squished ladybug (ladybird to English me!) inside a manuscript so we played ‘Guess the Age of the Dead Insect?’. I invited the curators to join in, but I don’t think they find it fun in the way that I do. Certainly lil’ lb wasn’t as old as the manuscript (he had form, and a little colour) but he was long dead. Also, these books aren’t opened regularly, and he was next to the spine.

While I battle through fragile newspaper articles about TH, Sarah tries to replicate a Victorian classical education for the British schoolboy. She’s looking through the ‘textbooks’ they used, their Latin grammars and bearing in mind vocabulary advice for future prose compositions!

Reading the details of Hardy’s funeral, I am reminded of the bizarre circumstances surrounding his burial in Poets’ Corner. I’ve never been to visit Hardy at Westminster Abbey. It’s not a place I particularly associate with him.

Another excellent word/phrase which has passed out of usage: I’ve just read of Hardy being ‘much moved when the boys of the school gave him three lusty cheers’.

Another charming thing about archival work is finding tidbits for friends. When you know other people’s projects, you can be reminded of them by certain aspects of archive material which are not of use to you. Then you quickly describe or transcribe them and make them happy with a surprise “research help” email.

An old tribute/obit for TH has the brilliant subheading ‘Finest Sex-Novel’:

Without hyperbole it may be said to be the finest sex-novel ever written. All Hardy’s, like most other men’s novels, are, of course, sex-novels, but in “Jude” we are down to the bed-rock facts.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the hitherto unconsidered genre of… ‘the sex-novel’.

Sarah showed me some historical doodling on the inside cover of a Latin textbook. It was very a carefully drawn gate and turret down in that old brown thin ink that looks so convincingly beautiful. On the facing page, the boy has drawn a face. A later graffiti artist has come along and remodelled the doodle, incorporating that face into a bigger picture of a scarecrow/snowman. Ah! The generations of schoolboy doodlers, united on the page!

I spoke to my Mum in the morning saying that I was “down to the wire”. You feel it – three days to get through things you can’t take with you. In the afternoon, every bell strike felt like a dramatic tolling towards my exit. This, though, was after a lovely lunch in Costa with Sarah, discussing the highs and lows of graduate life on either of the pond. It’s been a real boon having Sarah’s company over the past three days – so often archives are silent and lonely places, and lunch is a solo mission to be disposed of quickly. This way, when either of us found something amusing in our reading we could actually share it in the moment.

The ephemera and biographical materials boxes turned up interesting finds, and then I spent my last 50 minutes or so reading FEH’s letters to John Drinkwater. I was sorry to say bye to Sarah, Maddy and the rest of the Library staff, but it was definitely time for me to return to my version of reality. Schoolboys in gown-style uniforms and masters in white tie make for a slightly unnerving environment.

I walked from Eton to Slough for the last time, had a rather nice jacket potato at Tesco and then started my three train journey home. I’m exhausted, my arms are really painful and I can’t put weight on one of my feet, but it’s been one hell of a trip. Hooray for research! I will return to the blog when next I have some funky research stories for you. Until then, take care!

PS. Proudest moment? Getting a porter to do a ‘thumbs up’ back at me. Small pleasures.

Nifty Starbucks brekkie

Nifty Starbucks brekkie

Last view of a pretty stunning workplace

Last view of a pretty stunning workplace

Maddy's thank you card (with added glasses and hedgehog)

Maddy’s thank you card (with added glasses and hedgehog)

Hedgie is still confused by snakes, even after so many archive visits

Hedgie is still confused by snakes, even after so many archive visits

The title refers to the fact that I have positively ruined my feet with blisters and now am performing some sort of hobble-wince. Never say that academics don’t suffer for their work! My knees do go a little weak whenever I see Hardy’s handwriting, though, so possibly my gait was already erring on the side of the wibbly.

Florence Emily Hardy (TH’s second wife) is a fan of the vertical in her handwriting. Her individual characters have little in the way of width, but stretch up and down the page like tall thin men. Also, she takes joined-up handwriting to extremes, not taking pen from page between words sometimes. There’ll be a terrific leap from the tail of the ‘y’ ending one word into the high stem of the next’s ‘h’.

Florence to a friend living in Australia:
I am glad you find the cider good out yonder.

Hehe, Florence recounts the story of the MS of Far From the Madding Crowd being lost for 40 years, found in time to sell at the Red Cross sale at Christie’s and sold to an ‘American collector & it is now in America’. It surely is! I’ve seen it in Yale’s Beinecke library! Serendipitous connections with letters I read here and past archival adventures 🙂

I did it again: in this letter Walter de la Mare is proposing to visit Hardy on May 22nd. I instantly went “Oh! On F’s birthday!”, because my sister was born on 22nd May. I’m really learning from my errors, aren’t I?

Only the other day I was talking to my students about the changing meaning of words and used ‘genius’ as an example. Then along comes an FEH letter in which she notes “I seem to have a genius for saying or doing the wrong thing”.

Every mention of ‘Wessie’ makes me giggle. Wessie is Wessex, the Hardys’ pet dog, much beloved by them, he was considered a terror by (al)most everyone else.

‘Glastonbury’ has become so strongly synonymous with the music festival (I mean, really, if a pop culture no-hoper like me knows it!) that every time I read about the possibility of TH going to Glastonbury/meeting friends at Glastonbury, I quite HOOT with laughter.

While the reading room was closed for lunch, I walked into Windsor. More walking?! Yes, because that’s where Boots is. I bought up their stocks of blister plasters and new orthotic insoles. Trying to give myself a chance, ish. Windsor is v v posh: somewhat unsettlingly so. The castle looks delightful, though, and the route from Eton takes you right past its walls.

For lunch, I went to Yo Sushi, not least because I have a 25% student discount. More, though, where better to go for a change when having been scrutinising papers in a library than a brightly-coloured, neon-lit place where people yell at each other as a matter of course? And not forgetting the mechanised food delivery system.

I have no patience for people who write as if they are trying to murder both pencil and paper.

FEH’s writing changes with age and I feel more sympathy for her, in reading her letters, than I ever have before. She’s looking after an increasingly frail husband, rarely perfectly well herself, and then (after TH’s death) dealing with a difficult co-executorship and mourning correspondence. The mourning stationery thing is, though, a good idea. We now have so few traditions surrounding the grieving process that no one knows what to do. Grief is a moment when a framework is, perhaps, most needed.

The letters between FEH and Siegfried Sassoon are rich and plenty. Especially with all of the centenary events of last year, it’s particularly sobering to read of Capt. Sassoon. And given that I work on Frost, Edward Thomas’ death is always at the back of my mind when it comes to WWI.

I had to wait for a bus to get me part of the way back, as the blisters were too painful. 2.60 to go in a straight line up a hill? Piffle, I say. In another money-saving measure (beginning to regret this) I changed hotels to avoid a leap in price for the Tuesday night. Thus, I found myself wandering some pretty dodgy streets to get to the Slough Travelodge, which is currently a partial building site. Renovations, sadly, not “the rooms that we do have are in peak condition”.

Nothing else of note occurred apart from my being called “sir” by the bar cafe server. He claims he was trying to say “Thank you” to me – a woman – and “Goodnight” to a man simultaneously, and so it came out “Thank you, sir”. I leave it to you to judge…

Eton prospect (or, what you see when you go the right way)

Eton prospect (or, what you see when you go the right way)

Where I'm working. I *have* an appointment.

Where I’m working. I *have* an appointment.

Windsor swans

Windsor swans

View of Windsor Castle

View of Windsor Castle

Of course my little research Hedgie is here!

Of course my little research Hedgie is here!

Herschel Park - walking from Slough

Herschel Park – walking from Slough

In terms of auspicious starts to researching at Eton College/a first ever visit to Eton at all, I failed spectacularly. My money-saving idea of staying in Slough was only good as far as I could in fact get to Eton. Whoops. It turns out that my phone’s mapping devices do not know where Eton College is. They think they do, though.

I was having quite a nice walk (there’s nothing like crossing the M4 of a morning) and seeing the most beautiful nursery I’ve ever seen and nice riverside imagery (see below). Then my phone announced I had ‘arrived’ at Eton, when in fact I was by – a leisure centre. Not quite the triumphant trumpet effect I was going for. I started following muddy footpaths towards some fields, never quite sure whether these were public footpaths or not. As you can imagine, I wasn’t terribly keen on the mud now creeping up my boots, nor the prospect of slipping over Hugh Laurie style.

I walked through quite a few playing fields, by a cricket pitch?, near a field, always worrying that I was trespassing onto private property and desperately hoping for something that was obviously signed as ‘Porter’s Lodge’. When I finally wound around to Eton town I was hugely confused by the many important-looking buildings with ‘report to [their own individual] entrance’ written on them. Just as I was about to accept the fact that I would have to ask a boy for directions, I saw the words ‘Porter’s Lodge’ across the road. Finally.

‘It involves a photo’ is not what you hope to hear about getting a security pass, but hey ho. While getting tagged I met the other researcher the library is hosting at the moment, Sarah. In a beautifully neat coincidence, she is visiting from University of Washington, Seattle, which is precisely where my supervisor is currently on research leave. Sarah is looking at the nature of Classical education in Victorian England. Who were students reading, and which texts? I know really want to know too! What is amazing is the records that the school has of past curricula – like playing detective with clues that can actually be found.

Two more sign-ins and a passport check later, I was in business. It was good to see Maddy again – I only saw her give one paper at one conference, but it’s incredible how voices can stay with you and in a moment of recognition, I was 100% certain of having met her before. Sorry, obvious I know, but a whole chapter of my thesis is devoted to recognition and I’m a little obsessed now.

I began by looking at the poetry manuscripts that Eton hold. I didn’t know which poems I’d find, so it was a right old voyage of discovery. Individual manuscript sheets have been collected together and beautifully bound in leather-backed volumes. Just handling these materials is pretty blooming special. God, watermarked paper is good.

Time No. c.837 that I have internally bemoaned my own inability to read Latin. Thanks state education and consequent lack of time! To be fair, these occasions arise thick and fast now that I bop about with a classicist, but even so, in studying Hardy and Frost one cannot help feeling a duffer for not being versed (haha!) in Classical poetry, in the original. It was Horace, by the way.

The library held their staff meeting and it included a woman with platinum blonde hair in a 1920s waved bob so perfect that I have never seen such a one outside of a film version of The Great Gatsby. Respect.

Even with Hardy’s lovely handwriting, there are still occasions when you have to decipher words. Then you’re relying on a knowledge of English syntax, the context of the letter and which characters your eyes are telling you you see. The last of these has a surprisingly strong grip and often prevents the other two from doing their work as efficiently as they might. Finally you read ‘alas’ instead of ‘ales’ and ‘holding’, not ‘holiday’!

Every single box containing a book MS opens a different way. It’s like a child’s shape-sorting test: I expect some developmental psychologist to be watching from behind closed doors in order to write a journal article about how procedural memory is scuppered in the researcher as his/her brain regresses to childhood…

A letter from 1931 and it uses proper orangey-red seals! All cracked and bizarre looking. Errol Flynn Robin Hood flashbacks. (The earliest memory I have of ‘seeing’ a seal).

‘Hail & hurricanes are the rule here’ – I love you, Thomas Hardy.

“A people carrier is coming from Slough to pick us up”, like he’s never heard of a people carrier before. And suddenly, now I am thinking of the weirdness of that name.

It’s a good job that the reading room closes for lunch so I am forced to un-crane my neck and un-screw my brow. At least temporarily. This also provided me with a first look at Eton town. Never have I seen so many Gentleman’s outfitters on one, rather small really, street. What proportion of Eton’s workforce uses tape measures?

Oh no! Hardy has cut the tip of his thumb with his new pocket-knife and writes with difficulty! The drama of reading personal letters in sequence is quite something. I want to bandage Hardy’s thumb now.

And thus I am introduced to the notion of mourning stationery. Ok, yes, you all knew because you’re great and I’m an idiot,but what a fascinating idea. Stationery that is black bordered on the front page, and also the envelope.

On 5th Nov 1899, Hardy wrote to George Gissing, and I thought, “oh, he wrote to him on my mum’s birthday.” Now this is one of the great cons we play on ourselves, marking time in alignment with our own personal events. Because of course it wasn’t my mother’s birthday in 1899 – she was far from even being born. While my rational mind knows this, my first thought still uttered itself as above. Although I am aware that not everyone’s memory for 5th Nov works like this, it’s certainly the method on which my personal memory has anchored.

“I just read Jane Austen’s nephew’s exams.” Possibly the best interjection to my work ever. Sarah is reading the exam scripts from a particular scholarship given to the best classicist. They are super old and came as an A5ish bundle tied up with a ribbony thing.

You’ll be pleased, possibly, to learn that I took a different route back to Slough. It’s a straight line from the school to Slough. Thanks, phone GPS, you cocky ignoramus.



Incredible building to go to nursery in!

Incredible building to go to nursery in!

I have been tagged

In the forecourt

Favourite architectural feature? These twirly chimney pots


Clear skies riverside

But can I? And do I need to?

Research can send you to all kinds of unlikely places and right now I’m in David Brent’s old stomping ground. Every person I’ve told I’m headed to Slough has laughed, if not guffawed. And yet, it’s just a place. My nearest town back home is really nothing to shout about. Why am I here? Thomas Hardy. He sends me to various locations, the active ghost.

For these three days, I’m booked in to be a visiting researcher at the library at Eton College. The irony of this visit is not lost on me: I’m the wrong gender and social class ever to be setting foot in Eton’s grounds. Anyway, it transpires (or transpired a few months ago, for me) that Eton has a Thomas Hardy collection in their archives. I was alerted to this from a paper by Maddy Smith (a curator at Eton) on Hardy’s bibliographic identity at the TH Conference in Dorset last year. I don’t know what exactly is in this archive, so I’m taking a gamble here.

In an effort to keep costs down on this trip, I’m staying in Slough and walking in to Windsor. All hope with me now: let the weather hold! I’d rather not turn up to Eton College for the first time looking drowned rattish… Also, I feel semi still in my comfort zone if I stay in Slough rather than Windsor.

The journey yesterday was…interesting. Everything was fine until I boarded the Paddington-Slough train. I’d just had a lovely time popping round the Paddington Bear shop (bears in duffel coats and hats – what’s not to like?!) when on a late platform announcement every person in the station tried to board the same train. Needless to say, it wasn’t a success. It was a squish fest. I was next to a physicist going through lecture handouts and on reading ‘Hilary term’ I really wanted to ask “so how’s Oxford going?”, but I thought it might be felt a little intrusive.

On arrival in Slough, the heavens were simply pelting all the people. It’s only a 14-min walk to the hotel, but that was enough to render me entirely shiny from the rain. It’s when you’re walking through a rainstorm, your waterproof hood keeps being blown back off and you’re yelling Robert Frost lyrics into the wind – “whose woods these are I THINK I KNOW!” – that you have to admit ‘it’s a bloody good job I love my work…’.

On the cusp of the archive is always a slightly daunting place to be. Questions abound in your head: will I make the most of it? Will I recognise the significance of the items and therefore prioritise my time appropriately? Will I get through this in the time available? Will I make this trip worthwhile (in terms of money, time and effort)? Of course, I’m lying in saying that my brain panics in such fully-rounded formulations. It’s more like the usual PhD brain worry: “Aargh! Oh no! Watch out! Not again! Take cover!” The last one is for when you’re absent-mindedly throwing pens and catching them, and then you throw one too high…

Right. Once more into the breach, dear friends…

Pics: Paddington Bear at the station; bedtime thesis bunnies; I’ve accidentally dressed for a funeral; there’s a view not to be sniffed at!

PS. Based on the music playing in the Premier Inn Breakaurant (breakfast restaurant), I have to ask – why does Lana del Ray insist on trying to sing an extra syllable into the word ‘beautiful’?