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.






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’?





*Apologies for the late posting – I’ve been ill*

One thing I failed to mention yesterday, was the ‘Treasures of the Hardy Collection’ talk by Helen Gibson. It made me want to rush straight back to the DCM archive to look at many more of the TH manuscripts. While at the DCM, I went into the Victorian Gallery and saw the bound manuscript edition of The Woodlanders. He has a charming hand and – though it would take longer – it would be amazing to read entire novels as penned in the author’s hand.

Thursday’s proceedings began with a keynote from Prof. Tom McAlindon on Time and Mutability in Hardy. A fine array of quotations read beautifully helped to shape this lecture into a really beautiful thing to hear – and that was without the interesting content!

The next panel I sampled was smaller but really strong. Education and its effects in Hardy prove to be particularly interesting. I’ve never thought of education as being complicit in the process of (local) cultural amnesia, but of course as a systematic means of knowledge control, it is/can be. I’ve been thinking on this since: how educational reform can divide the generations, and how – for Hardy’s remote country folk – education might dislocate one from his/her cultural roots.

One paper on the folk songs of Far From the Madding was really entertaining, because examples of the songs being sung were played from a cassette tape. Yes, I said it. A cassette tape. Even better, a self-made mix tape including octogenarians singing the songs their forebears taught them. Wonderful. It reminded me of he that fun of hearing ‘A rotty trotty trotty, a rotty trotty tree’ in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard, on the same track as Robert Frost reading his poetry. The enthusiasm of these preservers of local culture is marvellous – and infectious.

To prepare for giving my paper, I retired to the lovely Oak Tea Rooms (about which I have waxed lyrical before). There is something calming about the historical surroundings, traditional B/W waitress-wear, old gramophone and penny farthing. Nervous butterflies kept me from demolishing their fabulous cake, though. Ach well.

I was speaking on belatedness and recognition memory in Hardy’s verse, but let’s turn to my fellow panellists. Other people’s projects are endlessly fascinating. The development of artificial light in the long C19th novel – I’m sold! I want to know more about that. In fact, I was watching the adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree this morning and thinking that our forebears must have been less generally scared of the dark than we, for there was so much more darkness to go around before the invention of electric light. One chap spoke on legal ethics in The Woodlanders, which I’d never considered. The question of altruism is a really fascinating one (I went to a seminar on the problems of medical altruism in Middlemarch once – really good).

Of particular interest to me, was the paper connecting Hardy to burgeoning theories of time (including Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). It’s an area I want to know more about, so hearing quotations and poems I know viewed in this different light was rather wonderful.

In the second postgraduate seminar, we furthered the post-paper Q&A/discussion from postgraduate presentations. I wasn’t very good value, though, being quite tired and post-presentation spaced out. When I was with it, I really enjoyed again being in a lively conversation about all things Hardy: I always want that to happen and it just never does! In the solitary library hours of the literature PhD and the silent study of the archive, it’s hard to feel like part of a community, thus it’s really great to meet other Hardy types (hehe!), to have people to bounce ideas off.

It was a quiet eve I needed after such excitements – dinner in Carluccio’s and a well-deserved glass of red. Even if speaking doesn’t make you particularly nervous, it somehow exhausts you.

Friday morning I packed my belongings and walked into town for the last time this trip. (Weep weep, indeed). I took photos of the lovely Hardy statue I’ve been walking past each day. You’ve gotta tip your hat to the man who makes your academic world go round! I also saw again one of my favourite ‘don’t litter Dorchester’ posters, designed by a local schoolchild. A cool idea well-executed that made me read its message: not bad, Dorchester.

Chairman of the TH Society, Tony Fincham, led us through some Hardyean landscapes to kick off the final day of academia. Knowing this was my last morning in Dorchester, I had to try out a teashop/coffee house I’ve been walking past and wanting to sample. The Gilded Teapot is a charming little place – a little bit like Ollivanders, but for tea/coffee instead of wands. When I went in I couldn’t help saying “what a lovely-smelling place to work!” (and – amazingly – I wasn’t thrown out on the spot). All of the different smells of speciality teas and coffees intermingled to smell simply brilliant. I can imagine several of my close friends quite happily working in such an environment. The mocha was delicious and if I’d had more money or time (or case space) I would have brought back some yummy tea for my flatmate. Anyhow, the message is: if you’re in Dorchester, go to The Gilded Teapot. It’s lovely, the staff are really friendly and you won’t regret it.

The final keynote was Dr. Marion Thain, who I’d been looking forward to. Affective form in Hardy’s poetry – a title that baits people like me. There was a possibility of my doing my PhD with Dr. Thain, and though I can tell it would have been amazing, she’s now moving to NYC, which wouldn’t have worked out so well for me! Having been writing a chapter on ‘Voice’, my focus within Hardy’s poetry has been very aural (and oral) of late. Thus, it was good to be shown again the importance of the visual to Hardy’s verse, especially in ways I had not ever considered. One always wants to end a good conference on a high, and this certainly provided satisfaction.

After that, it was goodbyes to newly-made friends and off on my 5 hour journey back home. I think that Hardy would have liked Kenilworth, which is pleasing. It only remains, then, to thank all of the various conference organisers for a wonderful week – and especially Dr. Jane Thomas, the Academic Director. Thanks also to all the postgrads for being so welcoming and fun to be around – keep in touch!

In the style of the Loony Tunes, that’s all folks! (Until next I find myself in interesting thesis circumstnaces…)

Pics: My official looking badge; Hedgehog hiding under a hat; light lunch Oak Tea Rooms style; post-paper dinner and sneaky glass of D’Abruzzo; affogato to close; Hardy statue; don’t litter poster; the DCM; inside The Gilded Teapot; TGT logo; the Hardy head which presided over the conference.