Monday, December 22, 2003
Perhaps I should not have paid out so much on the “Love actually” vision of picture-perfect white Christmases in England.
There is talk of snow tonight in Cambridge. It is bitterly chill and there's a weird grey sky ...
Blogging is likely to be suspended until 8 January, when I get back from the craziness of World's Debating in Singapore, where I will also be spending New Year's Eve!
(I am actually around Cambridge until Friday - but the libraries are shutting and my internet access from home is presently non-existent.)
Happy holiday season everyone!
Friday, December 19, 2003
There are now even more photos up over here. (Imaginately named "A new set".)
A few are of everyone looking very pretty at the college Christmas dinner, which was some time ago now (yes, it was held early). There’s one of the cast of the play and one more “Cambridge view” shot.
But - a gem for the curious – there’s a photo of the mathematician-flatmate’s equations, not on a window, but the edge of the bath closest the toilet seat. (Shudder.)
In other news: I went to see Lord of the Rings and it rocked. I then wound up talking about it endlessly in the pub afterwards. Seems there is no ceiling limit on Tolkein-geekiness in Cambridge: we all knew way too much stuff about the books, and even the Silmarillion.
But of course, there’s no geeky like RPG geeky. Not that I could ever comment on that. Ahem.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
I’m not a fan of palpitations. My neat, tidy organised life is structured to avoid self-inflicted nasty surprises.
It should really not come as a surprise when you have friends round for dinner and someone, gently, reminds you that you need two referees to support your Ph.D. application.
Ideally, you should know this, and have started chasing referees weeks before. You should not wake screaming at 4 am when it finally sinks in that between the impending DOOM of Christmas and your departure for Singapore, you have under 10 days to write a research proposal and get your references together.
Indeed, it should not surprise you to do the maths and realise that only a saint (fully equipped with miracles) could get references to you from Australia in time to meet Cambridge deadlines and requirements.
(“No, fax copy will not do, sir. Three originals, with a completed cover form signed by applicant and referee in a sealed envelope. Remember the referee must sign the envelope over the seal, and cover their signature with clear tape. Red tape, sir? Ha ha. No, since the Act of Supremacy, papal blessing of the documents is no longer a formal requirement. Remember: only return the sealed references with your original application. Do not have the referee post them in directly. That will simply result in wailing and gnashing of teeth. On your part.”)
Anyway, one wonderful referee now teaches in Nottingham – and I caught him virtually on his way out of the office on holiday and he has still prepared a reference; and my lovely LL.M. supervisor (who knows me so slightly I’m happy that she can distinguish me from surrounding inanimate objects and remember my research idea) has also stepped up to the plate.
Now to pound out a 2,000 word research proposal. After referees, though, that should be a piece of cake (in an eerie moment, I first typed “panic attack” instead of “piece of cake” … ).
PS Oh, the photo - things are no longer this green, but ain't it pretty? (Thanks for hosting it Beth.) I'm working in the library just out of sight to the left. Squint, I'm waving.
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
This is a special birthday blog for someone turning 24. I’m not going to be able to give her her combined birthday and Christmas present until we meet in Singapore (I won’t trust it to the mail), and I’m not sure if my postcard (on which I stupidly forgot to say “happy birthday”) will reach her in time.
So for now, this is for B – my only sister, and sole sibling.
I wonder if you know how often I think of you. Just the other day, in Harrods of all places, I remembered standing in Macy’s in New York and finding the letter-B brooch I gave you for your birthday in ‘98. I keep tripping over those little memories of you, or to do with you. Not surprising, given I’ve known you longer than anyone except the parents.
I think you’d also have trouble grasping just how proud I am of everything you’ve achieved in the last six years. Yours has not always been the easiest of paths, but you’ve cut your losses when you had to, kept focussed on what you want and you’ve made it this far.
Art History is a much more difficult field than mine: like anything people will do for love, not money, there’s a lot more competition for the few places available. You’ve done so amazingly well in your honours year to make such use the opportunity to get interesting work experience, and undertake interesting projects, with great people and institutions. And here’s a big public congratulations on your first contract to do real work for a real museum! Hurrah for you, I say!
You also have so much more confidence and skill with people (even in interviews!) than you sometimes give yourself credit for. You don’t just charm the little old ladies buying floral print cushions you know, it’s everyone.
We’re chalk and cheese, and I always admire about you what I don’t have (night-owl stamina, gregariousness, the ability to dance, a better understanding of what makes certain people tick), but we’re two halves of something as well.
It would be hard to tell you how good you’ve been to me as a sister. Sure, we’ve fought and yelled (occasionally, though, and not very recently). I know we had moments when we were small when I was not particularly great to you (or when I should have stuck up for you and didn’t), but you’ve often been a tower of strength and sensible counsel to me. Yes, I know as the oldest child I’m meant to be the solid, stable one (and I know I’m often boringly stable) – but when I’ve needed it, you’ve always been a loving listener, but one who won’t let me lose perspective.
You are the one person who has known me all their life. You know me uniquely – better, perhaps, than anyone and still love me for it. That’s a small miracle of family life, and by no means something natural or inevitable. It’s a perfect treasure.
At bottom, I know you will always, always be there for me. It’s my absolute bedrock. I can only promise to do the same for you.
With all my love,
Monday, December 15, 2003
Daniel was buying a paper in the train station.
I was in a car hurtling along a dark motorway: a lift home from a friend’s kindly uncle (a chorister in the Royal Philharmonic choir, a charming man with an extraordinary Charles Darwin beard). We had been to that most quaintly English of things: a carol concert at the Royal Albert Hall where the audience are encouraged to sing along with certain carols or verses. It seemed a bit twee at first, but we got into it.
So Saddam has been captured. Let the debate over his trial begin.
There is already an Iraqi tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and under its rules it could - like the Special Court for Sierra Leone - appoint international judges. But this seems unlikely: the Iraqis want to keep it local, and the US administration wants to keep the UN out.
I expect some would rather see the new International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague have responsibility, or would like to see a special Security Council tribunal established, to emphasise the international nature of Saddam's crimes and ensure impartiality.
Personally, I think the best option is the Special Court for Sierra Leone model (a “mixed” court of domestic and international judges appointed by the local government and the UN Secretary General). It would have the following advantages:
(1) the ICC can only try crimes committed after 1 July 2002, when its statute came into force. It would not have jurisdiction over many of Saddam’s crimes. Further, the Court has no territorial jurisdiction over Iraq – which never signed the statute.
(2) A Security Council Tribunal (as was set up for Rwanda or Yugoslavia) could be seen by the locals as another UN imposition and lack credibility given the suffering caused by UN sanctions (also, the US is less likely to fund it – it has pressured the Yugoslav Tribunal to wrap up its cases in a hurry through budget cuts);
(3) The Special Court for Sierra Leone is coupled with a truth and reconciliation commission, and only has jurisdiction over those most responsible for the most serious crimes (which avoids the criticisms aimed at the Yugoslavian trials of going after foot soldiers more than generals and better allows for national healing);
(4) a mixed court allows for both international involvement (funding, impartiality) and involving local judges (with their knowledge of local law, conditions and language, as well as being more likely to garner local support); and
(5) The Special Court was not imposed upon a conflict by the Security Council under Chapter VII, but was established by a treaty between the UN and Sierra Leone, thus recognising Sierra Leone's own sovereignty and status as a nation. This also allowed the Court to remain within the country where the crimes were committed (unlike the Hague tribunals): which makes it easier and less traumatic for victims to give evidence.
The ICC is important, and will have its day, but Saddam should be tried in Iraq by a mixed local/international tribunal.
Anyway, where were you when you heard?
Saturday, December 13, 2003
It’s a different atmosphere with the undergrads gone, and my fellow grads slipping one by one onto flights home. Things felt more serene at first, but suddenly seem hectic again.
So yesterday I did the only rational thing a student fretting about workloads could: caught a train to London to help the good Italian flatmate pass his last day in England before Christmas.
He had to drop by his Embassy, so I hit the Victoria and Albert Museum on my own. It’s simply jaw-droppingly huge and varied: though the exhibit labels often read like a small history of pillaging (“taken from the Emperor’s palace by soldiers during the Boxer uprising, this throne …”), which made me a little uneasy over questions of cultural property.
The ornate lobby has an extraordinary Chihuly “chandelier”, a seemingly organic growth of green and yellow bulbs and tubers and curlicues of glass. On Wednesday nights the museum has late openings and, apparently, serves wine while music is played beneath it. What the linked pictures don’t show is how the information desk with its backlit green panels complements the work. I’ll try and get my pics up soon.
I also stopped by the Brompton Oratory, before visiting what one of my Greek flatmates calls “The Museum” (Harrods – you don’t buy, just peer into glass cases), and then the Italian and I hit Portobello Road (the rain had dampened the market, but not our appetite for coffee, or the cuteness of English people buying street-corner pine trees) and watched the Christmas shopping on Oxford Street.
I weirded-out crossing Piccadilly Circus and riding double-decker red busses past Kensington Gardens: it all just seemed a bit too stereotypical to be real.
We refuelled with fish and chips with beer in Soho (possibly better for cheap eats than Cambridge) and managed to get last-minute tickets for the Royal Court theatre. The production was “Duck”, an Irish play: which was well-acted and interesting enough (a girl learns to escape an oppressive family, boyfriend, an entanglement with an older man to strike out on her own), but really lacked a conclusion.
(I’ve since been told by an Irish friend that this is their national theatrical tradition: it’s about the journey – destinations or resolutions aren’t highly prized.)
Our £7.50 restricted view seats at the very back of the theatre were fine, if you sat on the seat-back, not the seat, to see over the head of those in front.
What did impress about the Royal Court was the slick-but-comfy, all modern-brown wood and concrete walls bar downstairs (beers were really not as pricey as I would have thought for Sloane Square, yuppie central) and the fact that their “playbooks” (programme and full script) are only £2.
Funny that the bars and pubs I like in (my very limited experience of) London invariably remind me of Melbourne.
We missed our best train back from King’s Cross, and – not being able to find platform 9 ¾ - had to settle for the 10.50 from platform 8. To fill in the time my flatmate bought a cheeseburger and I bought the early edition of the next day’s paper. I wonder what that says about both of us …
On the train on the way home, a very British moment: a sozzled Friday-night suit-slave phoning the missus to ask that, as drinking-up time was approaching, she have two pints waiting on the bar for him and his friend.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
Now that he’s abandoned wit and originality and become a factory recycling his self-created stereotypes, there’s something sweetly comforting about seeing a Richard Curtis film with all its predicatable emotional scenarios, middle-class settings, and - of course - Christmas in England.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Love Actually: it was a skilful piece of work, a series of invariably thin stories skating along on the bankable watchability of a talented ensemble cast doing it by the numbers. No surprises, no stretches.
Curtis has an impressive series of “Big England” writing credits to his name, exporting a certain universalised, highly PC, Christmas-Card-Englishness to the world, through films containing just enough American characters (or casting) to be trans-Atlantically marketable.
And he does deserve credit for becoming a “name” in an industry that tends to treat writers as interchangeable, anonymous day-labourers.
Still, key parody points of his scripts that emerged in the Guardian (not reproduced on-line dammit) included, more or less, that in Curtis’ England:
“Bugger” does not mean “sodomise this!”, but is a quaint English expression, acceptable in the politest of circles.
Few English people have proper jobs, and if they do they are endearingly bad at them. There is no incentive to really strive in the British economy when even the owner of a failing bookshop can afford an extravagantly large terrace in Notting Hill.
All social groupings contain at least one person with a disability, one gay couple and one member with a charming regional accent: such friends are highly prized and distributed according to a complex statutory formula.
Men have floppy hair, women floppy jumpers or hats (depending on the season).
It always snows on Christmas Eve, and this is invariably the best time to tell someone that you love them.
All right, it’s easy to throw stones. And I did rather enjoy “Love, Actually”, but it’s not a patch on “The Tall Guy” or early “Blackadder” – the acid has leached from his now fairly saccharine humour. Also, nothing in in this film really matched that one excruciating moment of real feeling in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”: the heart-rending reading of Auden’s “Stop all the clocks”.
The humour here feels like a pretty fresh stab at an old gag, not genuine wit; and some of the storylines in “Love actually” are one-gag sketches stretched over the film (most obviously, the romance between two “lighting models” for adult films who chat, semi-naked or naked, about London traffic while technical rehearsal progress).
The one moment of real poignancy was the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson pairing: a story of a marriage confronted by Rickman’s blossoming, potential adultery. But otherwise we had the fairly stock performances by the likes of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant that we’ve come to expect. (Grant’s Prime Minister did have some good lines.)
But go on, you know you’ll see it anyway. After all, it’s Christmas.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
The first of Cambridge’s misty December days today, a light continuous fog that conducts bone-eating chill through your clothes.
Somehow, I am still getting no work done. Shortly, this will become a real problem.
Anyway, getting a little sight-seeing in. The weekend was rest mostly, except for a disappointing effort to catch my first evensong service at King’s College Chapel – only to find evensong was done for the term, recommencing 13 January. Still, interesting to take a look about: the Chapel in its heraldry is virtually a document of the Tudor/Plantagenet power struggle. It was begun by Henry VI (of the red Tudor roses), the continued by the “interloping” Edward IV and Richard III (the white Plantagenet roses), and after Bosworth Field was finished under the stewardship of Henry VII (who had the sense to marry a Plantagenet and change the crest to a red and white rose) and VIII. Greyhounds, red dragons and portcullises belonging to heraldry of various family branches finish off the decorations.
You can buy a little plush Henry VIII at the gift shop and a complete set of wives (heads all firmly attached, alas), but I settled for a batch of postcards.
However, I have saved my tacky-souvenir money for a college scarf: the black and white of Trinity Hall on one side, the two-tone blue of Cambridge on the other, appropriate embroidered crests on each side. A scandalous expense, but cozy warm good-quality wool and a decent (just above knee) length.
It’s the scarves that add a real Potter-esque quality to Cambridge life, I saw an under-grad borderline goth-rock girl the other day (all black and denim and tall Docs) sporting a cheerful green Caius scarf. (“Yup, I’m a rebellious individual – and a staunch Cambridge college gal.”). Their other amusing power is door-opening: University members get in to a number of places (like King’s Chapel) free – which is fair enough. But if wearing a college scarf you are never “carded”. Not a bad investment for the average tourist at £15 - £25.
Have to admit, am becoming ludicrously attached to mine as one of those visible badges of identity. All this from a man who never owned a football scarf in Melbourne …
Monday, December 8, 2003
“… the world crossed the wet courts, on Sunday, politely,
In tourists’ tentative shoes.
All roads lay too open, opened too deeply
Every degree of the compass.
Here at the centre of the web, at the crossroads
… the see-saw bustling
Atmospherics of higher learning,
And lower socialising …”
Ted Hughes, “Caryatids (2)” from Birthday Letters
It started because on Friday evening I discovered that my bike, after I'd been drinking at the Pickerel and eating noodles at Don Don, would not unlock. My key half-snapped in the stiff, weather-bitten lock.
I walked home, and was caught up en route by a flatmate.
Returning on foot Saturday morning (spare bike key now on my ring, disgraced key remnant binned), I passed Brown’s bookstore and went in for the first time. Oh, the second hand treasures buried at the back!
In a tough, close-fought contest over a £10 splurge, the selected Les Murray was inched out of the final three by the Oxford Book of Australian Poetry (my favourite title belongs to Clive James: “My enemy’s book has been remaindered”) for £6.00. Getting a gurnsey for being a mere £1.50 was a yellowing “Treasuries of English Verse” – still, it had my favourites from Keats, Eliot, Larkin, and Auden (how can you pass by “lay your sleeping head my love/human on my faithless arm”?).
The gem, the complete show stopper, though, was the US paperback edition of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, his story of his life with (and after) Sylvia Plath. My favourite single volume of poetry. I had been missing my hardcover with an occasional ache since arriving, and here it was for £2.50. (Half a shelf away, the UK paperback edition was a mysterious £4.00.)
I took my loot, and have been happily dipping in and out ever since.
Hughes was right, of course, about the tourists, the rain, the bustle, the occasional sense of overwhelming – paralysing – possibility, and (that ever present university sense) that “the world” is elsewhere, something that visits, not something that’s present.
Things are a little calmer with classes over, but not necessarily peaceful. I can feel a mounting tension about my mountain of as yet unassailed reading and research.
Have not been out in two nights (a rarity in this party town), but the dinner-party season among those of us who are “staying up” for the holiday season commences this evening at my place. I hope we have enough food for the horde of Greeks, Italians and Australians that will be descending on us …
Friday, December 5, 2003
1 am Thursday. Returned home from the college Christmas dinner (the last graduate hall before the vacation) filled with good cheer, roast chicken, Christmas pudding and mulled wine and gin and tonic.
Discover flatmates (who left early because they did not pull the last shift on the bar) cooking full English breakfast in kitchen.
Decline a share of their grease, consume an orange and a mug of lemsip. Extract myself from dinner jacket (I’ve learned to tie a bow tie!) and go to sleep.
10 am Thursday, awake with plans of going to law school to work desperately on LLM thesis draft due to supervisor. Dawdle over breakfast. Recall 12.15 pm Christmas party with History and Theory professor – dash off to eat sweet food and drink wine straight on top of breakfast.
Meet an international relations student friend at law school before my 2 pm lecture, but too late to go for coffee. Make plan to meet at the college library after eight and grab a late-night-study-session-coffee.
Go to 2 pm lecture given by supervisor. Realise I’ve been approaching a key issue in my thesis all wrong (damn UN Charter, damn International Court of Justice). Madly scribble notes. Then go to clear e-mail.
Forget that 4.30 make-up class is not in the faculty, but a bike ride away at the research centre. Arrive late and burst into a conference room.
People shuffle chairs out of my way (red sea parting style), so I can crawl to the very back of the room and sit down. Attempt to remain inconspicuous.
7 pm, Thursday. The plan: meet my debating team-mate at Borders and go for Chinese to brain-storm issues for the debating tournament in Singapore. The actuality: retire to his place with a bottle of a great German ’92 Spatlese-Riesling to eat his left-over salmon steaks, make bad jokes, chat with one of his house-mates and do almost no debating prep.
Walk into his student lodgings and realise they’re straight out of one of those intimidatingly white interior design magazines expensive hairdressing salons leave on their coffee-tables. Realise I may be in the wrong college. Curse the wealth of Trinity College once more. Assured walls are in fact dreadfully thin and people wake each other up in the night all the time, and have no auditory privacy.
Count small justices, but sceptically.
Repair to library after 9 pm. Write blog stuff. Open thesis document, begin to craft my "breakthrough" realisation into something useful. Stop mid-sentence. Go for coffee in common room. Work to 2 am, achieve something, cycle home and hit bed around 3.
House very quiet. Did not reflect on eerie absence of ranting mathematicians in common areas.
9 am Friday. Crawl out of bed to get on with it. Discover that while I was out the previous night there was a major incident with a certain difficult flatmate. Appears certain inter-housemate relationships now destroyed, College may have to get involved.
Dash to law school, finish chunk of draft and e-mail it to supervisor, then text a hard-done-by-housemate and organise lunch.
So looking forward to drawing breath.
My first commitment today was a 12.15 pm Christmas party thrown by the guru Professor who takes my History and Theory group. His address was "F staircases, Room 2, Great Court, Trinity College". Simple enough, you'd think.
I was running a little late (I thought) only struggling into Trinity's bounds as the various church bells began to ring the quarter hour.
Great Court is, indeed, fairly impressive. I think it could comfortably hold a small sporting arena. I entered it on the side nearest my college - "R Staircase" and had to scamper round three sides of it to get to F, which was right by the main gatehouse which leads out onto the imaginatively named Trinity Street.
At the top of the stairs I found the door to room 2. "Ring the buzzer, and if you hear an answering bell, enter," said a label. "Unexpected visitors are asked to telephone to make an appointment". A little intimidated, I rang, and on hearing a buzz, went up the carpeted stairs.
This was not the Professor's office. It was not a study. It was a private apartment of several large high-ceilinged rooms with views over both Great Court and Trinity Street.
There were framed sketches over the sideboard with the mince pies that looked suspiciously like they'd been executed by a contemporary of Rubens and some bric-a-brac that looked as though it might have been looted from a Greek archeological site. (My first taste of Trinity's art collection. The lesser pieces are farmed out to their student accomodation.)
On gawping about, I discovered I was also the first to arrive.
Struggling for small-talk, I asked how long he'd had the rooms.
"Oh, twenty-five years now. You know you've arrived in Cambridge when people start referring to them as your rooms not - 'oh, you have the rooms of that other fellow'. It only took ten or fifteen years."
I later found out from his co-teacher that the other fellow was Wittgenstein.
At some point I am going to have long enough to draw breath that I can pick my chin up off the floor.
That night-owl student thing
It's a fair sign you're a student again when you find yourself sitting about in a common room having a pre-midnight coffee, before trudging back to the library in an effort to write up a chunk of draft thesis due to my supervisor at 1.00 pm tomorrow. Um, today, now I guess.
I cannot believe how hectic the last week of classes has been, hopefully there will be more time for blogging and reflection next week.
Of course, in the next few weeks I also need to consider whether to put in a PhD proposal, and by next Friday there's a job application for next year I should put in as well.
Still ... a sure sign of student life is that my morning-person body clock appears to have re-set to a night owl finish of around 2 am. I'm just going to try and go with it and get some work done.
Happy Friday morning, Australia.
Tuesday, December 2, 2003
It only just struck me, thinking back over yesterday's post, that tucked in it is an utterly obvious idea for a novel/TV mini-series.
A retired DCI, who takes on a retirement job as a Cambridge college porter - and then goes on to solve murders among the academic community and sort of out the lives hapless students!
Man, I smell a runaway hit.
Now, where's a producer I can pitch this to?
Monday, December 1, 2003
Cambridge feels like the latest step in a process I’ve been undergoing for a while now: being new.
It works two ways. You are both new to a town, its people, haunts and hangouts, its mores. You have to make new friends, find a supermarket, buy a few items that in a previous existence landlords or housemates supplied.
But you also get to be new as well: each move I think, has made me more myself – stripped off another unneeded layer, shed a few outgrown skins, left a little more literal and metaphorical baggage behind each time. I am a much more confident and resilient person than I was three years ago. More assertive also. (Though in Cambridge some of this probably just comes from being a few years older than many of my fellow grads.)
When new in town, the easiest people to meet are always other out-of-towners, infants of the storm, blow-ins. As a Cambridge graduate student, that’s almost everyone you meet. Most grads are from somewhere else, almost all have done other things and been other people along the way.
An American with a Friar Tuck bonhomie studying divinity, drinking obscure boutique beers and telling tales of his days living and working in an art house coffee-shop and cinema.
A British soap actor in his fifties, rowing for the college, and studying Art History. I can see him on TV three Thursday nights running this month.
A Canadian PhD student studying a contemporary of Wordsworth, who has worked as a journalist and political staffer.
A Swiss-German insolvency lawyer here to upgrade his quals and sporting college scarf, Burberry overcoat and fine cord, tailored trousers.
A liltingly-accented, richly pragmatic and humorous Irish international relations student who’s studied in Dublin and Paris and worked in four countries.
A vet who wants to become an MBA; a lawyer training as a mathematician; central European men with perfect English public-school accents; Asian women who answer their mobiles in casually inflected French; a favourite porter who is a retired Detective Chief Inspector, and used to run a young offenders program; and an endless stream of fellow Aussie lawyers with their identikit CVs (a major university, a major law firm, and then one or more of: having worked for a judge, the attorney-general’s department, an international NGO or having done a UN internship).
We are all – less so the porter, and those who were undergrads here – new. For 750 years or more Cambridge has (with the exception of the odd revolt among the townsfolk) welcomed this seasonal human inflowing tide. The cultural processes that exist to gather us up, make a melting pot of these accidental communities, are vital living things, but terribly old and comfortably well worn.
Many turn to rowing as their way to become a part of Cambridge, for me it was debating and drama (a rediscovery of half-forgotten pieces of myself). But at the core of it all, is your College: your colours, your default friendship circle, your clan riven with all its little alliances, celebrations, tensions and reconciliations and joys.
At the end of an eight week term have I enjoyed it? Am I exhausted? Do I feel its been both years and no time at all? Do I feel I fit in? Do I feel I’ve changed? Am I still excited by it all?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and very much yes.
PS New Naylor went up late last week over here.
Friday, November 28, 2003
Communities use language differently: and it’s always interesting to speak from people from different disciplines, let alone different countries, and realise that while you may share a common language, you use it to express very different world views.
Odalisk-Erin wrote recently and vividly about this in terms of academic “shorthand”, the way a community uses language among its own members – and her own experience as an Art Historian visiting a law lecture:
“… the way that the professor spoke so slowly, it was like fishing. There would be a pause before a word, and then he'd pull it out of the air, like dragging a fish from the water. The effect was to make the word heavy and solid, like a weight. A thing.
The professor protested, throughout the course, against ambiguous answers - he wanted definite statements, assertions.
Language in the humanities is precise, but I feel like in the end we are not trying to make a thing so much as a fabric, a skin. You use every word meaningfully, yes, but you want it to play, to intertwine, to skim above the solid ground and never touch it.
… language in law is like a noose? I mean, there is something so dreadfully solid about it, and, obviously, disputable. You can certainly be hung by it.”
This is enormously perceptive. The disciplined practise or study of law does require you state concrete propositions with precision. This almost instantly invokes the opposite argument to the one you have put.
What has always impressed me most about law is the way it attempts to reconcile:
(1) extremely large and abstract ideas or principles; and
(2) their concrete expression in relation to particular, real circumstances.
Unfortunately, this often leads to a perception (even among lawyers) that law is not a theoretical discipline, that it is merely the application of settled, stable law to “facts”.
That said, as a “theoretical” international lawyer I do love conversations with “practical” commercial lawyers here – there is the ease of a shared set of assumptions about legal discourse and reasoning. Chief among them is the great non-concrete standard of the law, “reasonableness”.
In a world where few values are shared by the whole community, and their interpretation varies wildly (especially the meaning of “justice”), legal debate is usually governed by the undefinable boundary of what is “reason-able”: i.e. what someone with commensurate training and experience can agree is a decision able to be arrived at by process of reason, even if they disagree with it personally. Lawyers are usually able to “agree to disagree” pretty freely: it’s the natural state of things.
This is the essence of legal decision making (e.g. judgements of courts): one side will inevitably be disappointed in the outcome, the grandeur of the law is in producing an outcome that is justifiable (“reason-able”) through a pre-ordained process people are able to agree is fair. In this sense one can never guarantee “justice of outcomes” (because opinions will vary as to what that means), but one can have outcomes governed by a just and stable process (e.g. judges and other decision makers applying the law, even when they believe it to be wrong).
The other thing I love about law is this process of struggling towards the best-reasoned, most “reason-able” conclusion on a point of law: the effort to pin an idea down in a concrete situation and express it clearly. This was what most impressed me in the period I was working for judges: their ability to take a concept that I could only narrow to, say, the area of a saucer and refine the same idea down to the size of a penny – in Erin’s words, “tightening the noose” around the language.
Bother, I somehow feel I haven’t expressed this as well as I’d hoped.
I am trifle ashamed of my previous flat-mate rant. Well, not entirely.
But we did have a great conversation (admittedly between 2 and 3 in the morning) when in a fit of insomnia I went up to ask him if he was loudly opening and closing drawers (he wasn’t). Among things we agreed on in our rambling conversation (the most lucid we’ve had – I have gravely insulted his English) were that: becoming comfortable with who you are is incredibly important (I cannot tell you how much my view of him softened when he said, “I will never be a great mathematician, but I love maths”); and that if what you like and what you are good at is the same thing, you are incredibly lucky.
So, I guess I think he is now being about as considerate as he can be given: (a) his eccentric working hours; and (b) the structure of the house.
Our walls are just too thin, and our insulation too great. The result is there is no background noise from the outside to mask the slightest creak of floor, door hinge or bed. Some noises I had blamed on the mathematician, were probably made by another flatmate with the habit of rolling over in bed so hard he can hit the wall with a thud.
As a light sleeper, I can only struggle now to find better ear-plugs, or hope to sleep with my window forever open and get used to the outside noises as well.
Also I really don’t want to turn into some parody of sea-side resort town landlady creeping about in the wee small hours in a dressing gown rapping on doors and asking people to “Keep it down please, some of us are trying to sleep.”
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
My life in Cambridge is, by and large, a bowl of peaches. Not a cloud in my metaphorical sky.
(As opposed to the hideously persistent clouds in the literal sky, with their constant light drizzle – not enough to stop me cycling yet, but I suspect the onset of another cold.)
Anyway, nothing to complain of – well, almost nothing.
I am fairly close to snapping when it comes to a certain someone.
Remember the fairly mad, unsleeping, late-night mathematician? The one who scrawls his equations everywhere? (His latest point of attack is the surface of the bath-tub, pictured.)
What madness is this?
On top of that, in a deadly quiet house, he has no concept of how to shut a door or drawer quietly. Everything closes with a bang. Probably not one you would notice in the day, but that shows a distinct lack of consideration at night.
Then there's the erieer sound of rythmic pounding: like finger drumming but with fists, or by kicking something. I am deeply afraid I will surprise him one day beating his head on the table in an effort to extract the solution he's seeking.
He has got the message that he is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the house. Frankly, this is fair enough: he is incompetent, inconsiderate, of dubious personal hygiene (learn to flush you moron!), smokes in violation of the lease, leaves ash on the stairs and in the toilet bowls … it just goes on.
At least he’s been terrorised into cleaning up after he cooks rather than leaving pans of rotting pasta on the sideboard for days.
However, he has apparently told one of the others we all hate him because he is here to work (18 hours a day) and we are only here to have fun.
I’d get a crap-load more work done, buddy, if I could get any sleep before 2 am.
I tried not to make too much of an issue of things for a while, working under the delusion he’d secured a transfer to accommodation closer to town. He apparently declined the offered substitute accomodation as there were “no shops” nearby.
Meaning that we’re stuck with him.
So, my new watchword is “zero tolerance”. OK, that’s two words, but I have extended the last courtesy of which I am capable.
An underslept Douglas is a beast not to cross.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
The play ended last night with a strong final performance. I’m both grateful and sad: grateful that I will now be able to sleep properly and get some work done; sad at losing the camaraderie of the play.
A Tom Stoppard play was always going to be popular, but we had a great four-night run with houses that were consistently two-thirds full to almost-sold-out. Being the late show also helped, as people are pretty willing to drop in for an hour-long play for £3 after 11: whether you’ve been at a formal dinner, the pub, or studying it fits in nicely.
That said, word of mouth did us proud – we seemed to go over really well as a tight, well-performed show. Two of the guys in the cast were stand-out comic talents: Rowan Atkinsons in the making and the first thing most people mentioned about the show.
It was a really good cast, often I forgot I was working with people mostly ten years younger than me: I enjoyed hanging out with them, and it was only at the cast party – despite how horribly tired I felt – that I realised I would miss them. Sure, that’s the feeling at the end of any play, and it fades, but it doesn’t make it less real at the time.
But I was tired: rehearsals on top of classes for the week before the play; then these last four days with an 8.30 pm call for an 11.00 pm performance, getting off stage at 12.10, helping reset the stage for the main show, a wind-down drink at the bar and getting home 2 am at the earliest. No wonder I was a zombie most of the week.
The play itself passed financial break-even on the second night, and our profits will bail out the debts of the main show, David Mamet’s “Water Engine”. The main show had a much less sympathetic script to work with I think, Mamet’s characters (think “Glengarry Glenross” and “The Spanish Prisoner”) tend to be hard-boiled and two-dimensional. We also had a smaller, tighter cast and a shorter play, which I think made it easier to pull together on four weeks’ rehearsal.
The main show was terribly well-acted and well-staged, I just don’t think people responded to the script (and the actors all having to do American accents probably did not help).
So last night was the cast party, and I do not really recall the last time I partied in a bar until 5 in the morning. (If the theatre bar is closed to the public for a members-only function this country’s bizarre last-orders rules don’t apply.) I was great to meet the guys from the main show at the party (as well as being daubed with chocolate face-paint by fellow Albert’s-Bridgers): one of them wants to apply to direct Macbeth for the Cambridge American Shakespeare tour. I can feel an urge to play Duncan rising ...
Duncan wouldn’t be a big leap from “Dad” in “Albert’s Bridge”: an old, bitter man who’s given his life to the job and doesn’t much enjoy it. Several people told me I did the role of the tragi-comic bridge painter with understatement and feeling. I have to admit the part grew on me: the embittered ex-solicitor in me really came to the fore.
That and a strong touch of Eeyore.
I do want to try and write something for two of the guys from the play, the two who did the comic roles so well.
It’s a pretty weird feeling that I am now taken seriously on the drama and debating circuits in Cambridge. (I was also told by a main show director that I was their second choice for their lead. Quite wacky.)
Friday, November 21, 2003
Our guru did something pretty clever in History and Theory of International Law today.
I’ll try to reproduce the effect here. Words in bold are not the original text:
“… it follows that … if the business of democracy cannot otherwise be forwarded, that the Americans may lawfully conquer the territories of these people, deposing their old masters and setting up new ones and carrying out all the things which are lawfully permitted in other just wars by the law of war, so long as they observe always reasonable limits and do not go further than is necessary.
“They must always be prepared to forgo some part of their rights rather than risk trespassing on some unlawful thing, and always direct all their plans to the benefit of the Iraqis rather than their own profit, bearing constantly in mind the saying of St Paul: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (I Cor. 6: 12)
“… it may happen that the resulting war, with its massacres and pillages, obstructs the conversion of the Iraqis instead of encouraging it. The most important consideration is to avoid placing obstructions in the way of democratisation … I myself have no doubt that force and arms were necessary for the Americans to continue in those parts; my fear is that the affair may have gone beyond the permissible bounds of justice and democracy.”
For “democracy”, read “religion”
For “Americans”, read “Spaniards”
For “Iraqis”, read “barbarians”
For “democratisation”, read “the Gospel”
Fransisco de Vitoria, By what right were the American Indians subject to alien rule?, 1539.
How is it that the hawk-ish case for “noble” intervention has become less sophisticated in the last 500 years? Maybe someone should draw Mr Bush's attention to I Corinthians 6: 12.
He might listen to St Paul over the UN.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
The play opens tonight, this is my oh-so-brief "lunch" break at 11.30 am.
Around 20 people from the Trinity Hall Middle Combination Room (grad society) will be along tonight, which is great.
I didn't understand the point of colleges before coming here: teaching occurs through the faculties, though you may as an undergrad have "supervisions" in the college-based office of your tutor. They seemed an anachronism, albeit one that provived accomodation.
How wrong I was.
Your college is the people you share dining, accomodation and social facilities with. Fresher's week is a hectic round in which you meet the self-selecting core of "social" graduate students: an instant clan, peer group, set of friends from different degree programs and countries.
It's been a real experience, and goes a long way to explaining what some commenters see as my social success over here.
(Which is not to say I'm still not a nice guy.)
The intensity of an eight-week term is bizarre: I feel like I've known a lot of these people for more than two months.
Anyway, time to dash back to the play. It's such a combination of confidence, anticipation and sheer nerves at present ...
Still, there will be a lot of hanging around. I suspect my choice of down-time reading will freak a few people, the San Remo manual of naval warfare isn't your standard thespian fare.
Monday, November 17, 2003
New photos are up at my un-hip and non-integrated yahoo photo site, filed as “Birthday”, “Cambridge 2” and “Oxford”.
The birthday party went really well, a lovely turn out on a cold, horribly windy and wet night. (So windy I wasn’t game to cycle over the bridge on my way home in case I fell off the bike into oncoming traffic.)
I thought it would be a disaster. I was pretty tired after rehearsals and limited myself to chips and dip catering. I billed the event as being for “after 8”, but at 8.20 I was alone in the house with the weirder mathematician (who was studying, as he continued to do so throughout the party). Worse, the corkscrew was trapped in a flatmates’ locked bedroom.
Still by 9 things were well underway. The photos more than my recollection seem to reveal a turnout of around 30 over the course of the evening. It was lovely to have Malcolm along, one of the guys from my high school I’ve known since I was twelve. Bless his heart, he brought me a bottle of Margaret River Chardonnay.
(I also got from college friends a couple of cards, a copy of a Stoppard tele-play, a novel (from the flatmates) and some Belgian chocolate – as well as a Sainsbury’s “Colin the Caterpillar” chocolate log cake-thing – despite my strict “no presents” injunction.)
Events wound down around 2 am with the last of us finally departing the lounge room.
Somewhere in the midst of it all I gave housemate Stefano my digital camera and told him to go crazy – which he did. I’ve selected a mere handful of the more than 30 shots he took, largely on the basis that in many I look rather too inebriated. There’s no need for the camera to be that honest, dammit.
Anyway, there were some decent shots of me blowing out Colin the Caterpillar, in whom someone rather resourcefully stuck a candle and brought through to me in the lounge room. (All lights turned out, chorus of "happy birthday", etc).
I include some shots of the kitchen more so people can get an idea of the house than anything else. It (and our comfy red couch) had college-dorm dwellers turning green with envy I tell you.
“Cambridge 2” photos are of Apple Day at the Botanic Gardens, autumn at the law school and me and Stefano.
The “Oxford” photos are from the recent Debating Intervarsity.
Enjoy! (But remember to come back and leave comments!)
Sunday, November 16, 2003
(You might be in Cambridge if … )
… you come home at one in the morning, a little tired an emotional, to find a pure mathematician in the kitchen constructing equations to describe the rising coils of his own cigarette smoke, and a lawyer ironing shirts and knitted tops in the lounge room – especially if you then sit down and spend an hour discussing comparative constitutional law and the importance of institutional practice over written law.
… a “hall” is no longer a place, but a meal where you wear an academic robe.
… half the reason you can’t remember a fellow international student’s name is because you can’t actually pronounce it.
… if you are more likely to see your flatmates in the library or Middle Combination Room than the kitchen.
… you develop a sudden knack for talking your way past college-party doormen on the basis that the friend who “was going to sign me in, but isn’t answering her phone” is dancing right behind them. Honest.
… a “glorious day” means an ice-like wind capable of piercing granite, but perfectly blue skies and daylight until at least half-past-four.
… you could not, on the basis of personal experience, recommend more than one restaurant to a visitor - but could enthusiastically recommend over a dozen pubs.
… you begin to believe urban myths that as only “fellows” can walk over the college lawn, some colleges have made the local ducks honorary academic staff.
… your body-clock prefers that you are asleep by eleven and up by seven, but increasingly you are coming in around two and waking up after ten.
… if the only things in your life that seem cheap are cycling everywhere, college food and beer in pint glasses.
... colleges begin to seem egalitarian becuase they let students walk over the grass.
… if you are capable of assimilating and holding institutional grudges based on largesse distributed to other colleges at the expense of yours in the reign of Henry VIII.
… you skip a lecture on the law of armed conflict to hear Michael Moore speak about the Iraq war at the Union.
... you are paralysed with indecision at the prospect of walking over a college lawn because you're not sure what the local rule is.
… you have not opened a text-book recently, but by Christmas will have appeared in a play and participated in three internationally-attended intervarsity debating tournaments before Christmas – with a few (hypothetical, bottom-of-pint-glass theoretical) options on writing for the student paper or some sketch comedy about international law in the new year.
… you suspect that maybe the PhD students have the right idea, in at least that no-one expects them to have achieved anything much in their first year.
… you begin to think that Byron really was on to something when he hit on the plan of keeping a bear in his rooms with the intention of training it to sit his exams.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Yup, by the time those in Australia are reading this it will be my birthday.
My plans for my birthday consist of going to my intellectually straining History and Theory of International Law class from 10 – 12, a play rehearsal from 1 – 6 and my own house-party from 8 onwards.
I have not yet bought any drink or nibbles for the party, and am not certain when I will have time to do so … hmmm …
In the course of the party my “billet” from the Cambridge-hosted Debating Intervarsity should arrive, which will be interesting. Then on the Saturday I am meant to judge rounds of debating, hand out flyers for the play and go to another rehearsal.
How that will dove-tail with the party is anyone’s guess.
My lovely family sent me a birthday parcel, which arrived yesterday, containing a lovely woven silk tie from my sister and a gorgeous green merino-wool jumper from the parents (along with a batch of toasty winter socks).
Have hardly stopped wearing the jumper, which is just the sort of green that cheers me up. The sleeves may be a teeny tiny fraction short (as mum worried over in a note), but this is not at all noticeable once I’ve turned up the cuffs of whatever shirt I’m wearing under it.
I know Naylor is overdue, but it may have to wait for next week at present – between being a little social, the debating and the play, there hardly seems time to draw breath, let alone study.
Not that that stopped me spending nearly three hours with an international relations student friend cooking up her (assigned) presentation on why the UK was right in the Security Council to support an arms embargo on the Bosnia/Herzegovina conflict, despite the Bosnian claim it interfered with their right to self-defence, especially against genocide.
We'd pretty much prepared a moot presentation by the end of it - a lot of fun, and at least partially relevant to the issues I need to be thinking about myself - but mostly just me trying to offer a lifeline to someone who has way too much work due too early.
Right, off to bed now. When I wake up, I’ll be a whole year older. Right now, that doesn’t disturb me in the slightest – despite being frantically busy and behind on personal projects, thesis research and course reading, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more generally comfortable or confident in my life.
Not bad for a birthday.
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Wachowski B2: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, B1?”
Wachowski B1: “I certainly am, B2. After the uber-cool gothic-cyber-punk chic of the first film – and the hideous, stultifying, speechifying flop of the second film – we really need to pull out a dazzlingly original conclusion to the trilogy.”
Wachowski B2: “Alternately, B1, do you think copyright has run on the New Testament? We could just resort to a clichéd showdown between the Saviour and Satan … ah, Smith … where the key to victory is turning the other cheek and making a noble sacrifice! We could even drag out that resurrection imagery for another spin round the block and duplicate the ridiculous climactic battle scene from Dark City.”
Wachowski B1: “Not bad B2, why don’t we also eliminate everything interesting from the first film, set it entirely in boring old Zion, and film it in only about four colours until the coda sequence to really emphasise our ham-fisted forebodings of – DOOM! We could also cut Morpheus’ role right down. That’d really make it sell.”
Laurence Fishburne: “What the Hell do you mean, I have no hand-to-hand fight scenes? Just one gunfight? Where’s my katana, dammit?”
Link: “I only hope Frodo – Neo, I meant Neo! – can make it to Mount Doom – sorry! – the Machine City and confront that, that … blazing eye of energy … (gee, you know, that seems kinda familiar, too) … before the audience loses all interest in these totally CGI battle scenes!”
Audience: “Too late.”
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
The first weirdness of language in Cambrdige I picked up before I came here.
One pronounces the River Cam with a short “a” (as in “Sam”), but “Cambridge” with a long “a” (as in “came”).
Why don’t we say “Came-bridge” or “the River Came”?
Still, at least I picked up on two classic Australian blunders before they happened to me:
(1) The college “Gonville and Caius” is pronounced Gonville and Keys”, and only ever referred to in casual conversation as “Keys”.
(2) I was wondering for a while why there was a ruefully, nostalgically drunk college – until I realised “maudlin” is written “Magdelene” – which means that Cambridge also has a “maudlin” street.
So much charm, so many possible mispronunciations.
Monday, November 10, 2003
Conspiracy theorists need to stop ranting on about the Royal Family’s alliances with demonic sects or alien invaders; or plain nutty ideas that the government of Britain is run from a couple of gentlemen’s clubs in the Strand by men last seen in public in 1923 at a small café off Threadneedle Street dining with Prussian aristocrats later associated with the collapse of the Weimar Republic – a moment captured in a rare photograph hanging in a disused cupboard in a boarded up room behind the Marchioness of Salisbury’s Wiltshire estates’ third bedroom’s ensuite.
The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is far more prosaic.
England is run by the Fire Department.
Every door in this country, down to the cupboard under our staircase that houses the fuse box, bears a neat blue circle on a white background with the legend “Fire Door Keep Closed”.
Taken literally, I would have trouble leaving my house. It would almost certainly involve shimmying down the drainpipe.
But this insidious influence reaches much further. For example, patrons at the Globe Theatre in London – even £5 groundlings – are prohibited from sitting in the aisles.
“Sorry, they’d close us down. Fire regulations.”
And the funny spikes, piercing the Globe’s thatched roof, are they part of the authentic reconstruction?
“Ah, no. Those are fire extinguishers. Only way we were allowed to have the thatch. That type of thatching was banned after The Fire.”
Oh. That fire.
“But it’s OK, they passed special rules to let us have thatch in the original style, so long as we put the sprinklers in.”
It’s also the same at any Cambridge venue:
“Sorry, sir. Can’t let you in ‘till someone leaves. Fire regulations.”
They’d close you down?
“Yes, sir. Her comes someone now. Alright, in you go. Remember, we have to clear the place by 12.15 because of the –”
Yeah, yeah. I get it.
I’ve met people who live in college properties that have more fire extinguishers than people. Our own kitchen has a hefty dry powder fire-extinguisher and a “Cromwell brand” fire blanket.
I do not think it is possible to be indoors in the UK and more than ten steps from a fire retardant device.
The stranglehold on power held by the Fire Department in this country therefore suggests a far more plausible conspiracy theory.
I’d like to know if anyone saw a future fire chief loitering around bakeries in Pudding Lane on the night of 2 September 1666.
After all, the fire did start in the premises of King Charles II’s own baker.
Makes you think.
I’d write more, but I there’s this fire extinguisher in the corner of the computer room and those little blue circles are beginning to stare at me …
Sunday, November 9, 2003
A debating tournament is a really weird way to see a city.
Between 3 pm Friday and 10.30 am Sunday I saw an awful lot of the Oxford Union building, the street of shops behind it, and the road leading to our B&B and the railway station.
My parochial and predictable response, based on this thorough survey and comprehensive lack of sight-seeing, is that I prefer Cambridge. Cambridge is cluttered, cosy, market town with narrow laneways and the Backs along the river. Oxford seems more a city: seemed odd not to wander down lanes thick with gaggles of students and zooming velocities of cyclists.
It all seemed a bit too orderly and wide-streeted.
The Oxford Union though, is gorgeous. We had our quarter-final debate in the “Old Library”, a slightly octagonal, cupola-topped room of mellow lighting, towering old bookcases (including an upper landing with more books), fading frescoes and old clocks.
By contrast, the Union building at Cambridge is a slightly moth-eaten, vaguely dowdy fire hazard, though the actual “Chamber” where most high-profile public speaking takes place is a little cosier at Cambridge and a damn sight warmer. (I often had to wear suit, overcoat and jumper – sometimes even gloves – waiting for each round to be announced in the Oxford Chamber.)
So, the intervarsity itself (“IV” in the jargon). One thing you have to understand about debating culture is the language: two words you’ll hear often when debaters are unhappy are “shafted” and “robbed”.
It was a little amusing to be among all that once more, and to be debating alongside a Big Name on the Circuit (he was the World’s Best Speaker last year and is my team-mate for the Singapore World’s Debating Tournament in December.) It was like being on tour as a support act to Elvis: everyone was a bit curious to know how you’d got the gig when they’d never heard of you.
The competition itself was tiring, really tiring.
I had not really comprehended how seriously people took the Oxford competition as a prime warm-up for Worlds. There were 148 teams (and so nearly 300 competitors) there from everywhere: Manila, Boston, Princeton, Canada, Ireland, Russia, Hong Kong and from across the UK.
British Parliamentary-style debating is also a bit weird for Australians: two people to a team, four teams to a debate (two on each side); where the second teams have to come up with an “extension” on the debate as run by the first teams. Speakers can be subjected to “points of information” – essentially questions from the other side. Speeches are five minutes long and the topics for the debates change every round and are released only 15 minutes in advance.
At Oxford there were two debates Friday night, another three during the day on Saturday and then a quarter – , semi – and grand final in the evening: and lots of drinking both evenings. Pretty exhausting. I drank a lot of espresso – the bar in the Oxford Union serving the best coffee I have yet bought in this country for only £1.
How did we do? We did fine. We broke second at the end of the preliminary rounds, Elvis ranking at 6th best speaker for the prelim rounds and me weighing in at 8th. We survived a tough-but-fun fourth round where we met all the other undefeated teams – which was actually a harder round than anything we got in the finals series. We made it to the semis, but did not go through. The topic in the semi was that “This house would allow Terri Schiavo to die” – what was scary was that all four teams had clearly read the same Economist article.
And the topic in our quarter final was “That this house would sign a non-agression pact with North Korea”. Heh.
Anyway, we did not make the grand final. Some say we were robbed, I say “hey, we have judges for a reason – you just have to take the rough with the smooth.” Elvis was pretty relaxed about it all too, hell – what does he have to prove?
We went, we debated, we drank until 2.45 am and then got some sleep before charging back to Cambridge so I’d have time for a shower and nap before a 6.30 pm first run-through for the play. This week will be chockers with rehearsals.
Oh, and in weirdness upon weirdness I met at the IV a certain guy who used to debate for the ANU (friends, the man wore a novelty waistcoat with pig patterns to a “black-tie” event – as he did at Australian IVs six years ago); and my old office-mate from the 54th floor corner-view at my old Sydney law firm, he’s now studying at Oxford.
It’s a small, scary world.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
OK, the new Naylor instalment is now up, and Lyn I have taken your comments into account over here (thanks, they were useful).
This week Elliot has a semi-comic encounter with a name he has only previously seen on paper: Jeremy Ryder, one of Marina's father's business associates who is also tied to the corrupt developer Bob Mitchell (remember him, anyone?).
Off to debate at Oxford tomorrow, will report on my adventures when I'm able. We had a practice debate Tuesday night, and I really sucked, so I hope my luck improves during the train ride!
Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Before I put up this week's Naylor, I am republishing last week's instalment here making some changes suggested by Jason and Lyn, in my first edit-on-the-run job with Naylor.
Thanks for the feedback guys, I hope you'll think the changes match your concerns. (Comments over at Naylor are currently showing as "0", but this is just some BackBlog stuff up - nothing has been lost.)
Also I added some photos a while back to my photo gallery, so I hope you like some views of what's going on in Cambridge.
Tuesday, November 4, 2003
I woke up this morning, on my class free day, and thinking Winnie-the-Pooh-ish thoughts of my breakfast (porridge with honey and cream, two eggs on toast, strong black coffee, thanks for asking) I wandered downstairs.
I was not singing my very own morning song, a la Pooh Bear (pom tiddley um pom pom) but my iPod was at least providing me with a string of randomly selected jazz and other tunes.
Imagine my surprise then, when on opening the microwave I discovered a book.
Not just any old book mind you.
A large paperback copy of "The Topography of Algebra".
Mathematician No 2 later reported that he hadn't put it there, indeed he claimed to have spent much of the previous day searching his room for it, unsuccessfully. (Scarcely surprising given it's actual location.)
Mathematician No 1 also disclaims all knowledge and responsibility. But he may not himself be a credible witness.
When back in the kitchen at lunch, indulging in a smackerel of something, I had to point out to him (a) the existence of the dryer in our kitchen and (b) my good deed in putting his t-shirts through with my towels - when he expressed surprise at the sudden dryness of said shirts.
Our bed-maker (who cleans - for example - the kitchen, but does not make beds) exclaimed: "How did you not know there was a dryer?" - which fairly neatly echoed my own thinking.
"I have not washed since I arrive," he shrugged. "Well, I wash myself each day. But I have not used the machine."
Ladies and gentlemen, we are only four or five weeks into the term calendar. He has been home to Milan twice in that time, but surely he didn't take his laundry home to Mum on an international trip?
Should I be scared yet?
Monday, November 3, 2003
(Haphazard diary entry)
They talk about the short Cambridge terms. At three of eight teaching weeks apiece they’re potentially fairly bloody terrifying. I say “potentially” because panic has yet to set in.
Things are much too busy to panic. Last week was a fairly standard social roller-coaster with a committee meeting followed by beer at the Eagle on Monday, debating coaching followed by curry on Tuesday, Halloween Grad Hall on Wednesday, a quiet recovery Thursday followed by more Halloween parties Friday, a DVD with flatmates Saturday and drinking with LLM students at the Mitre on Sunday and never quite making it to a college jazz event.
(The Eagle, by the way was the pub where Watson and Crick drank when they weren’t coming up with the double-helix model of DNA.)
Anyway, you know that you’re not perhaps taking study seriously enough when you find yourself chatting about Diana Krall covers of Nat King Cole tunes with a Porter after midnight on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Still, how can you walk away from a conversation that starts with:
“Good evening Doug. That's a very nice coat, sir.”
The Halloween parties were fun, it seems a big thing over here, but I cannot claim to have had an evening to rate with Minderella and Odalisk-Erin’s.
Today looks like being a lecture, some much-needed library time, a lunch-time play rehearsal, errands in the afternoon, yoga (if I can find the class) and a committee meeting.
The play is actually becoming a bit of a worry. They have not called the minor parts (including me) in for rehearsals in two weeks, and now with two weeks to go until the play is on I am committed to going away for debating this weekend in Oxford. I suspect this will make me most unpopular, but what’s the worst that can happen?
The flatmates are all good fun and good company – though I keep catching this mathematician talking to himself in the kitchen late at night; and the other mathematician came in rather noisily at 6 am this morning took someone up to his room, directly above mine, and conducted a loud conversation.
I left a pretty terse “not happy, Jan” kind of note for him when I left, given that I went up to politely knock on his door and got nothing but laughter through the wood for my troubles. Grrrr.
Still he did manage to go out partying for about 36 hours over the weekend and coin the phrase: “Reality is an illusion caused by the lack of alchohol.” Mathematicians. What can you do?
Still, much better than the way poor Shauny got woken up in Edinburgh recently – though rather less funny in retrospect.
Right, time to cycle to the law school and hope this morning’s wind doesn’t knock me off my bike. I definitely felt myself wobbling under the wind-pressure while crossing a park this morning.
Saturday, November 1, 2003
(a law blog)
Bio-ethics never gets any easier. Take a situation where, after the break up of a heterosexual relationship, there are frozen, fertilised eggs and the woman wants to use them to have a child on her own.
In societies with legalised abortion courts have rejected arguments that fathers have a right to prevent a pregnancy’s termination; but where there has been conception – but not impregnation - does the “father” have rights over biological material that is partly his?
The position at British law is that an embryo cannot be used unless both partners consent to the use. This “double consent” is also needed to continue to hold embryos in a clinic: if one partner withdraws that consent, the embryos must be destroyed.
The obvious solution for a woman under this law is that some of her eggs should also be stored unfertilised so that she is not solely reliant on the consent of a man who may not, in the long run, want to have children with her.
While it will obviously cause great distress if a woman cannot have a desperately wanted child, it’s hardly a good idea to lock men into parental responsibilities after a relationship’s breakdown when no pregnancy actually commenced during the relationship.
The case of Evans v Amicus Healthcare is undoubtedly tragic. In Ms Evans case, unfortunately, no-one thought about storing unfertilised eggs, until after the worst had happened. Suffering ovarian cancer, Ms Evans had all her viable eggs removed and fertilised with her partner’s sperm – they later separated and her partner, not wanting children with her, withdrew consent for the eggs to be kept.
Commentary in the UK (none of which appears still to be on-line for free) has had extreme, and predictable, wings. Some have crowed about a legal triumph which prevents men being seen as “mere sperm banks”; while some have seen a “male veto” over a woman’s right to control her own body.
Obviously, it’s neither. It’s simply a case of a law that has sought to balance individual rights and, in a hard case, has had a very bad result for one individual - but with no unfertilised eggs in storage, someone was always going to lose out.
There has been denunciation of Ms Evan’s partner as “one of the great moral cads of the age” (Joyce McMillan, “How the verdict in frozen embryo case got it wrong”, The Scotsman, October 4, 2003), for his selfishness in, effectively, permanently denying her children.
But this was no simple case of spitefully saying “you can’t have what you want, though I could easily give it to you”; nor was it a family law case about living children, with which two adults had existing parental ties and had assumed the duty of bringing them up. Her partner would have substantial financial commitments to these children during his life and, under inheritance law, after his death. These issues would certainly affect his ability to contribute to the material security of any future (wanted) children he might have.
These are not “cold” financial issues, as anyone who has seen bitter family fights over child-support or an inheritance would realise. Nor is it saying Ms Evans is a grasping gold-digger. She might somehow (though it would not be legal) excuse her former partner from child support payments; no legal arrangement, though, could completely cut them out of a right to inherit from him. The only point I am making is that bringing children into the world has inescapable consequences for both parties. When two people have irreconcilable differences over whether they want children - someone is not going to get what they want.
Yes, a childless woman may feel intense grief over that fact – but as a female friend said to me recently, having a child is, for most people under most circumstances, a deliberate choice. The desire for children is not shared by every woman or every couple. If people have children, they do it for their own reasons.
That makes it an essentially selfish choice, in the sense that it is something done for the parents’ own motives. It is, however, a socially expected and valorised choice.
What I find disturbing about this debate is that it seems to cast women in a biologically determinist light: victims of a cruel body-clock and attendant emotional distress if they cannot have children. By the same token men are reduced to a stereotype of economically selfish commitment-phobes.
I think both men and women deserve a higher standard of debate, where “the right to have children” isn’t an unproblematic moral trump card.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Is late this week, but has arrived over here.
Jason, your comments last week about Elliot and night-driving were spot on, unfortunately I've not had time to incorporate them properly into this week's instalment where Elliot - all to briefly - reflects on that issue.
I'd be interested in your reaction.
Otherwise, so much to blog, so little time. Stay tuned for more Cambridge adventures under the title "Talking with the Porters about jazz after midnight" (with vague apologies to Billy Bragg).
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
(another study blog)
It’s wonderful to be excited and challenged by ideas again. To have my brain stretched in what occasionally feels like intellectual sumo wrestling – where I, unfortunately, still weigh in with my scant 55 bantam-weight kilos.
Anyway, while kind of scary-daunting, its good scary-daunting.
One of the classes I’m getting the most out of is History and Theory of International Law. It’s basically jurisprudence (jurisprudence being the philosophy of law) and so asks the big questions I mostly ignored in undergraduate legal theory: and not just “why do we obey rules?”, and “where does law come from?”; but, “what is the nature of law?”, “what is a civil society?” and “how do ideas transform social systems?” – and “do ideas (including law) create reality?”
It’s being taught by a Big Name (to vaguely google-proof this course review, I mention the lecturer and his book over here), one of the few philosophers of international law currently working in English.
He’s a genuine English old-school eccentric: a musing and reflective radical in suit, tie and cardigan; an international lawyer who has suggested (in so many words) that international law and international legal relations as presently structured are wrong and, indeed, immoral. He refers with genuine sincerity to the idea that “the purpose of education is not that we know more, but that we become different”.
The readings he sets for class include a lot of dead guys with big ideas: Kant, Plato, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Marx, Popper and Hobbes, to grab a random fistful. I feel like I’m getting a crash course in classical western social theory and philosophy, albeit with a definite natural law slant.
To grossly oversimplify, I think what we’re being asked to wrestle with includes:
(1) Ideas do not only exist merely in human consciousness, they are powerful things abroad in the world - which while enduring, constantly change through interpretation.
(2) Any society, including international society, is composed of dynamic, interacting elements that work upon each other to produce change. These elements include: a society’s ideal of itself (its “ideal constitution”, what it believes it could become), its legal structure (which directs social power) and its “real constitution” (how power is actually exercised). Each element influences and is changed by the others.
(3) Related to, but different from, a society’s ideal constitution is the good old-fashioned notion of a social contract (or sovereignty of the people) – however this can also be seen as embodying a societal will, a will finding its expression in legal structures and acts of power within a society: not just legitimating the actions of the powerful, but – in a functioning, healthy society – guiding and limiting them (the ideology of the “rule of law”?).
(4) We obey law not to avoid punishment, or just because by being socialised we have internalised society’s restraints, but because by doing so we become part of that social will: we participate in its making and expression. Acting lawfully makes us part of our society’s will and “higher ideal”, we become not merely ourselves – but expressions of the greater Law.
Maybe only a lawyer would be exicited by this, but it’s vastly more stimulating than black letter law (find the rule, interpret the rule, apply the rule, analyse the result). Lawyers are too seldom encouraged to think normatively about what law should be, or to engage in the historic philosophical debate that surrounds our own discipline.
It’s wonderful to weigh into class discussions with the words: “But surely that’s the beauty of the idea …”
Still, the prospect of an exam at this abstract level is spooky.
I need to be taking better notes.
Monday, October 27, 2003
Genuine unsolicited views:
“Still wiping away tears of laughter …”
“Best set of minutes I’ve ever read.”
Okay, so it wasn’t comic genius, but my first effort at minute taking over here seems to have gone down fairly well.
From the minutes, I give you …
1. Sherry and port at Grad Halls
Henry will put up a sign-up sheet, so people can take turns helping out dispensing drinks before and after Grad Halls.
Adam stressed that we should all do our bit to help out, that as sherry is something we all enjoy we should see it as our duty to sign up at least once - or Henry will be stuck doing it.
David pointed out that sherry is not necessarily something we “enjoy” but that it is all that is available. The minute-taker took him otherwise to concur with the proposition that we should “all do our bit to help out”.
2. The new accommodation building
Apparently, there will be one.
This will meet the need for more student rooms: demonstrated by the growing number of satellite properties, and inevitable as some existing historic-site rooms are refurbished and turned into additional bathrooms, etc.
Plans were passed around, which looked pretty. The new building will spring from the soil of the “cabbage patch” (don’t ask me I just minute this stuff) which is apparently near the football pitch. It will house 100+ students. Construction noise begins September 2003.
(Which is fine if you’re here for an M Phil concluding in May.)
The first phase will cost £13 million, of which £12.85 million is approved. Apparently this is not an arithmetical error, as our “very sensible bursar” has ensured that “Phase A” can be built from existing funds. At the end of “Phase A” construction the “Phase A” buildings will be fit to inhabit (which sounds eerily logical).
All rooms will be ensuite and mixed undergrads and grads (well, the buildings will be mixed undergrads and grads – not individual rooms. That would be rather crowded, and maybe even unsanitary.)
“Phase B” will be built with anticipated funds if/when they materialise. If even more funds turn up than are presently projected there will be a “Phase C”.
Adam on the project: “It’s gonna be nice.”
Okay, I admit it, I’m scrounging for material today.
But I did spend an hour coming up with a two page outline of the remaining plot for Naylor’s Canberra – which should be a great relief to the people actually reading it.
Saturday, October 25, 2003
(return of the law blog)
This is an extract from my dissertation proposal:
On 11 December 2003 the Spanish navy, acting on information supplied by the United States of America, stopped and boarded the North Korean flag vessel the So San to seize a cargo of 15 Scud missiles in transit to Yemen. The vessel and its cargo were later released, the US making a statement that there were no legal grounds to hold them. On 25 December 2003, the North Korean government denounced the incident as piracy.
Seemingly in response to this episode and concerns regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) a coalition of states formed the Proliferation Security Initiative (“PSI”). On 4 September 2003 the PSI released a “Statement of Interdiction Principles”.
This statement refers to the “UN Security Council Presidential statement of January 1992, which states that the proliferation of all WMD constitutes a threat to international peace and security” and outlines a number of domestic law methods by which member states could intercept, stop and search (“interdict”) vessels suspected of carrying WMD by land, sea or air which are either present within its territorial jurisdiction or are its flag vessels.
The preamble to these specified measures states:
( “PSI participants are committed to the following [enumerated] interdiction principles … to impede and stop shipments of WMD, delivery systems, and related materials flowing to and from states and non-state actors [i.e. terrorists] of proliferation concern, consistent with national legal authorities and relevant international law and frameworks, including the UN Security Council.”
The PSI consists, at present, of Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States and has already held two joint military exercises and four formal meetings between 12 June and 10 October 2003.
So, this is where my thinking is up to:
In essence, the PSI is not controversial. It envisages co-operation between states and new domestic laws so that “suspicious” shipments can be stopped, searched and if need be seized, when they pass through a member-state’s territory. This gets around the argument that “interdicting” on the high seas is piracy.
However, I am interested in what will happen if the So Sun incident recurs (for example, you have a ship that’s rated as being of “grave concern” but will not pass through a friendly state’s territory). In this context, the questions I see arising out of the PSI are, broadly:
(1) Has the threat of WMD somehow changed the rules of international law relating to armed force? Is the proliferation of WMD now a causus belli (justification for war) or international crime, separate from the non-proliferation treaties from which North Korea has now withdrawn? (Must check on which states are signed up.)
(2) If the rules have not changed, are they adequate to face the military and terrorist threats of WMD? That is, are the rules on inter-state conflict drawn up in 1945 and predicated on “international force” only being deployed in the form of conventional armed forces appropriate or adapted to the modern situation?
(3) Is there state practice, or good theory, to support a modification or extension of the doctrines of self-defence and regional security arrangements (basically, organisations like NATO) under existing UN Charter law to cover these new threats to international peace and security?
(4) What, if anything, are the lessons for the theory of international law to be learned from recent intervention in Iraq, and the supposed doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence expounded by elements of the US government?
Many questions, at present, few answers.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
I keep having the most amazing, stop-in-your-tracks-and-lose-the-ability-to-move, encounters with animals when I do not have my digital camera at the ready.
The other day, walking down the lane that takes you through King’s College’s “backs”, I was passing the cows (yes, there are cows grazing behind King’s – and on other Cambridge greens) when I saw a squirrel leap up onto the barbed wire strand running between the old black iron fence-posts.
It coyly curled its tail round the wire and cocked its head at me, maybe three feet away.
Squirrels may not be amazing for you Brits and North Americans, but they’re gob-smackingly weird for Australians.
Before I could very, very slowly reach for my backpack, undo it and rustle like crazy for my camera – it bounded up the nearby tree (maple, oak, who knows? – something terribly old and English) in a series of wind-up toy jerks. It hung from its fairly vicious looking little talons and again gave me a jaunty, appraising look. Something like:
“Food? Has he got food?
Not dumb enough to hold it out. Damn. Not a local, not a tourist.”
“Ah, new student. Time to go, then. No food for me.”
And off it bounded into the canopy, while I stood about slack-jawed and dopey-looking.
Some people just do not have this trouble with photographing squirrels, durn them and their quick-wittedness.
I had another encounter with Cambridge’s not-very-wildlife on Monday morning, walking over the Garret Hostel Lane bridge (now one of my favourite cycle paths, not that I’ve yet got up the speed to get over the bridge without dismounting), where I stopped to look at some swans.
It seemed to be a Mum and her full-grown adolescents: too big for cygnets, but still to grey-feathered and grey-footed to be adult swans. Like all adolescent males, they were looking for food and their feet seemed clownishly huge.
They looked much bigger than Australian swans, but maybe they’d just put on their down bulk for the winter. They seemed very solid and ponderous on land, plodding about behind their mother while some sort of red-beaked moor-hen scurried about the edges of the scene.
One of them eventually wandered down to the water’s edge, a thick patchwork of autumn leaves, and lumbered in – the leaves brushing and spinning about his grey-white feathers, his gait in the water still somehow slightly waddling.
At that point I left. I was on the wrong side of the bridge and it was only a question of time before I collected a speeding cyclist by stepping back, awe-struck into the hurtling traffic.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
David Blaine is now in hospital, having spent 44 days in a Perspex box over central London, subsisting on nothing but water. His “stunt” has provoked a great deal of anger, including claims that it was a tasteless exercise (with a prize pool of £5 million) that demeaned hunger-striking as a tool of protest.
I’ll loop back to public anger, but let me diverge on the theme of escape artists and escapism for a moment.
Before leaving Australia I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”: a fabulous novel I never got around to reviewing. It is, simply, a magical novel – and in the great spirit of American art turns a popular form into art. It is the story of two young Jewish men re-inventing themselves in New York during the opening days of World War II, a period that also saw the birth of the comic book.
It relates complex themes of ethnic identity, the American spirit of self re-invention, comic books and their role as anti-Nazi propaganda, comics and the surrealist artists all through a single interesting metaphor: the escape artist. It is a fantastic novel (the first chapter can be read here), and its well-drawn (no pun intended), fully realised characters suffer more, and I more complex ways, than some reviews suggest.
What intrigued me most though, was the unifying theme: the art of escape. This was explored in any number of ways – one of the central characters trained as an escape artistry before turning to the escapist artistry of comics, having himself escaped Nazi Germany’s occupation of Prague. When we watch an escape artist liberate himself or herself from chains and a safe, we witness a metaphor – the human ability to escape what constrains us.
On a recent TV show American escape artist Thomas Solomon was entirely frank about this, people watching an escape artist see in his act the potential to escape what constrains them: a job, a relationship, their lives.
Perhaps what angered the British public most about Blaine was not that this was a rich man getting richer in a “parody” of famine, but his resolute refusal to escape his self-imposed trap. Here was an escape artist who did nothing but wait: he stayed in the box. No writhing, no contortions, no cries of “ohmigod, the bubbles in the water have stopped – did he get out alive?” as the wake of a dropped sack or safe in the river Thames subsides into ripples.
What Blaine’s act suggested to some, perhaps, was that there is no escape. That all you can do is wait.
Perhaps that was what made so many so inexplicably, inexpressibly angry.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
I knew pure mathematicians were weird. I’ve known a couple. I am now sharing a house with two.
What follows may be a vague breach of trust, as none of my new flatmates know that I blog – but what the hell, it’s a good story.
One of my mathematician flatmates needs alarmingly little sleep. (I won’t bore the world whining about what sharing with five people is doing to my stupid sleep patterns that always demand that though I am the last to get to sleep I should also wake up the moment anyone anywhere in the house leaves their bed ... Oh, wait, I just did.) He can get by on apparently four hours a night – and is always cheerful.
And he’s always working. He’s probably doing as much work as the next three of us put together at present (we’re all in a prolonged “warm up” phase, always best to limber the brain up for a few weeks before straining it, I think), but he always seems relaxed.
I left him last night doing equations on the kitchen table.
Not literally - there was, when I left, an ample supply of paper between his blue fine-felt tipped pen and the tabletop.
This situation did not apparently last out the night.
When I got up to make coffee this morning, on emptying grinds from the stove-top percolator into the bin, I discovered a few cigarette ends and a big wodge of paper covered in finely written equations sitting atop the garbage.
It seems that must have been the last of the paper, because on looking up to the back door I noticed something a little odd.
Two glass panes were full of equations, neatly laid out in non-permanent blue felt-tip marker. On close examination, some of the numbers or symbols (it’s all Greek to me) had been rubbed out with a finger and replaced.
Jonathon Nash, eat your heart out.
It’s all fine by me, so long as I don’t come home to find the lounge-room walls covered in newspaper clippings with red-circled letters spelling out coded conspiratorial plans.
That’d be awful.
Putting anything on the walls is a breach of our lease.
Me and the other lawyer decided we liked the equations and that they can stay.
So far our cleaner hasn’t said anything.