Month One of English Living

Now that I am in Norwich for a spell I am in the process of organising my office and activities. This involves something of a clear out. I have been going through huge quantities of paper. Many printed papers have been recycled, the realisation is that I am neither going to reread or refer to them.

Books get appraised for their usefulness now and in the future, and there is a high bar if they are to remain. I probably have 300 CDs and they too need to be gone through. Anything that I am uncertain about is being put on the player. If there are scratches on the disc, or it is something I will never listen to, it either goes in the bin or the charity pile. In a few months I expect to have a very much more habitable and organised office.

Since London is where so many interesting things happen, I anticipate going down reasonably regularly. This is made easier because the ‘over 60’ railcard I have makes travel more affordable. In addition, to my surprise on looking at the train timetable, I discovered there is now a train that has cut 30 minutes off the two-hour journey, a few times a day. That does make it a great deal easier to travel down. I went at the end of January for the day – leaving Norwich at 9.30 and getting back at 10.30, not sadly, on the fast train.

Decades ago, I joined the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). This was a club on Northumberland Avenue, very close to Trafalgar Square and only about 100 yards from the Embankment station on the Circle Line. When I first joined it was a bit dusty and old fashioned, but the club had a library, meeting rooms, a restaurant, lounge, bar and bedrooms. It was a great place to hang out and meet people. I organised meetings, seminars and dinners there and even, occasionally, stayed overnight. Unfortunately, over a period the offering dwindled, first the bedrooms, then the meeting rooms, until the club finally closed in 2013. I had been pondering what to do to get a London base and came up with a solution earlier this year.

In 2009 I was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow for the British Department of International Development. I held this fractional post for several years. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the experience of working in the Civil Service. This means I will get a small British Government Civil Service pension. It also meant, I realised, that I was eligible to join the Civil Service Club, very close to where the RCS was. The address is ‘Great Scotland Yard’! I applied and was accepted. The fees are modest, which is a real plus. Towards the end of January, I had occasion to visit London. I went to the club for the first time and got my membership card sorted out. I would not describe it as modern or flashy, but it has all the amenities one could want, and it is a place one can meet people, hangout and relax without feeling pressure to consume. There is a very nice patio for the summer and the street is extraordinarily quiet.

I met a colleague for lunch and then, in the evening had dinner with a former student from Canada. We went to a pizza restaurant just off Trafalgar Square. I thought I had allowed plenty of time to get the tube back to Liverpool Street Station to catch the 20:30 train to Norwich. I was travelling on an advance purchase ticket, so I really had to be on that specific train. Well, there was a dearth of Circle Line trains from the Embankment. A number of District Line ones came and went, and my hopes were raised when the notice board indicated passengers should ‘Look at the sign on the front of the train to see where it is going’. It was a Circle Line train, great I thought, but as soon as we left the driver announced it would terminate at Tower Hill one stop before I wanted to get off.

After consulting the tube and street map, I realised that, given the idiosyncratic design of the map there were stations closer to the mainline one at Liverpool Street. It was, I decided, time to ditch this mode of transport and hail a taxi. The driver was confident that we would make it with time to spare. He had not counted on the road works! He dropped me off and pointed out the direction I should go. I had about 15 minutes and so had to trot to the station, but I made it! There was a close call as I got out of the cab. A chap on a bicycle was coming up on the inside, between the taxi and the curb, and nearly rode into the door. It is so dangerous to do that.

Douglas and I went to the Liberal Democrat Burns’ Night celebration and fundraiser on the next evening. Doug was pretty much the youngest person there. The tables had six diners each. Ours had two older women, a couple and Douglas and me. There was a very long (and traditional) programme that included the Haggis being piped in and out of the room; toasts to the Haggis, the chef, the Piper, the Laddies, the Lassies and finally a toast to Robbie Burns. I was most impressed with the bagpiper who performed for us. There is a pipe band in Norwich which is surprising. The evening ended with everyone singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It was an interesting evening and made me reasonably happy to have joined the Liberal Democrats.

On the theme of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the final session of the European Parliament where British MEPs were present was on the 29th of January. There was the usual buffoonery from some members of the Brexit party, but at the end the MEPs joined hand and sang this song. A fitting end to a truly disastrous decision that Britain will have to live with for many generations. We are making ourselves insular and are going to face severe human resource shortages very soon. Already there are signs of firms relocating. I don’t understand how the pound has remained so strong.

I have just finished reading an excellent book. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (2013, Random House). It is the story of twins who have the gift of second sight. One, Kate, set out to suppress it, the other, Vi, continues to use it. They live in St. Louis and Kate has a classic American life – two children in a suburb and a husband who is an academic. The story appears to centre on Vi’s prediction of an earthquake. The book is good and fun but then toward the end it becomes a nail biter. In the last 80 pages Kate has sex with one of the family friends and everything falls apart. At the end we leave them in a new city, with Kate trying to come to terms with her infidelity. It is a precarious position, especially since she has a child, clearly not fathered by her husband.

In Canada I read Sam Miller’s Fathers (2017, Jonathan Cape). When Sam was 13 his mother told him that his natural father was a family friend Tony White, who died when Sam was a teenager. His father Karl Fergus Connor Miller was aware and accepting of the affair, and brought Sam up as his own child. I came to the end of the book wondering why his mother had given him this information. It must have absolutely rocked his world. This is the conversation that the fictional Kate and husband Jeremy will have to steel themselves for.

Both books make one reflect on the nature of families and relationship. The conclusion must be they are complicated. My father was married three times. I have two older half-sisters, one from each marriage. I am in touch with one and we try to get together every so often. I am deeply grateful to her for meeting a bewildered, out of place, would-be undergraduate at Heathrow in September 1975, for a few days of acclimatisation to England. I had never been here and was so naive.

Of course, thinking back, an additional complication was that I did not look different from the English. This in turn give rise to a reflection on how I managed. There were two black Africans on my course: James Kalizangoma from Malawi and Dennis Baloyi who was on a scholarship from South Africa. Together we negotiated the new world we were in. I well remember in the summer on Saturday we would get together, cook a chicken and spend the evening chatting. I have no idea what happened to them, James returned to Malawi, while Dennis’ wife came to the UK. Apartheid South Africa was not a place to return to. The Soweto uprising of 1976 led to unbelievable oppression and brutality.

I devour the book reviews in the Observer, a Sunday paper. There were two remarkable reviews in the one of the 26th January. The first was by Peter Conrad, a book by Phillipa K Chong, ‘Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times’ (Princeton University Press, 2020). Chong is described as a ‘tenure-hungry assistant professor at a Canadian university’. A quick search shows me she is at McMaster in Hamilton and has a very thin CV. The webpage is well designed but has little on it. A quote from the review:

“none of the … Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to “enact their duties”, which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for “satisficing in the face of practical constraints”? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a “cognitive heuristic” that defines an “acceptability threshold”.

I am not going to embarrass Chong further, but this feeds into the reflective piece I want to write on my Canadian experience.

The second is a new biography of George Orwell. The book is “Orwell: A Man of Our Time” by Richard Bradford (Bloomsbury Caravel, 2020) and the reviewer Dorian Lynskey. The essence of the review is a badly written book and don’t bother. To quote:

“there is not an ounce of unfamiliar material here and even the less obvious quotations and anecdotes appear to have been drawn from secondary sources. Vital context is missing. Bradford’s minimal interest in other writers of the period gives the false impression that Orwell was alone in, say, noticing that Stalin and Hitler had much in common, rather than one node in an informal international network of anti-totalitarian socialists. The bibliography is both thin and predictable.”

It is so unusual to see unkind (honest?) reviews that these really stood out. I think I am going to have to sharpen my pencils. Indeed there is some discussion in including more reviews in the journal I am the Editor-in-Chief for. We shall have to see.