Dame Eleanor Hull

If I were an Angela Thirkell character

“Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. She was an excellent housekeeper, who never failed to care for her family and give them good food, and all servants adored her, but though she never obtruded her work, or spoke of it as if it mattered, she only had to go into her sitting-room and take up a paper or a book, to be at once engulfed in the ocean of the past, re-living with intensity the lives of people about whom little was known and whose very existence was dubious. When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded on the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours.”

Pomfret Towers, p. 4.


Travel agents. Remember travel agents? There still are a few in the world, I know that, and I’m beginning to wonder whether I would feel it was worth paying someone else a fee to book hotels and trains and so on for me. I just spent three hours arranging train travel and hotels in the UK for a trip later this summer. In theory, I could do this at some point of the day that is not prime writing time. In practice, I have found that when I do that, I wind up booking myself on a train that departs a week after I leave the country.

Seriously. I did that once.

I got lucky that time. The conductor did come round to check tickets, but just before he got to me, he encountered another woman with a wonky ticket: she was booked on a train that left at a different time, and that apparently was a huge problem. By the time he’d finished sorting her out, we were near the next station, so he only glanced at the time, not the date, on my ticket, punched it and moved on.

Probably I could leave the stewing over hotel reviews to non-prime-time, though, and just bookmark the ones that seem to have the best intersection of low-ish price, quiet rooms, and cleanliness, then make the decision later. It can be hard to tell the difference between shabby and unclean, based on some reviews. I don’t so much mind stained carpet, if it doesn’t smell and has been well vacuumed. I do mind the odor of stale cigarette smoke. I prefer the white-noise roar I get from a window that overlooks the hotel’s ventilation system to the intermittent uproar of overlooking a street in a popular area of town. Any hotel where people complain (complain! they don’t know they’re born) about the presence of a cat immediately moves to the top of my list.

Of course, if I felt like spending money on a travel agent, I could probably also afford fancier hotels, and taxis rather than public transport. It still might be worth it for the trains, just to make sure I’m really traveling on the correct date (and if not, it would be Someone Else’s Problem). Do travel agents provide cats?

Second Ph.D.?

Recently on the fora at the Chronicle of Higher Education, someone with tenure, I think in a STEM field, and on the math-ier end of it at a guess, was wondering whether it would be worthwhile to get a second Ph.D. in a related field. Commenters urged him (her? unclear, but I had the impression it was a guy) to just read and do research in that field, although it sounded like he really wanted to have the immersed experience of Ph.D. level courses. I’m not so sure how he felt about a second dissertation, though since math/comp sci dissertations can be short, and/or can assemble a batch of articles you’ve published already, that doesn’t seem so hard.

Anyway, I was somewhat surprised at the way commenters piled on, wondering why anyone would ever go through a second Ph.D. experience. It’s obvious to me: if I won the lottery, I would absolutely get a second Ph.D., in Classics this time. I’d have to start by learning ancient Greek, so I might need to start with a second B.A., but the necessity of learning Greek is, to me, a feature, not a bug. And for the purposes of language-learning, classroom immersion is about 95% necessary. There are some gifted, disciplined people who don’t really need it, and a lot of us have picked up one or more medieval languages by hammering away with a grammar and some texts, but for a really strong grasp, you need a lot of time, a lot of exercises, and a good teacher.

It’s true that I am not contemplating doing this while holding my tenured position, nor as a means to improve my current position or research ability (though it would certainly expand the areas I could research, and give a different perspective on what I work on now). I probably won’t even do it in retirement (well, maybe the second B.A.), because I have so many medieval research projects in mind already, and I’d like to make sure I get them done. The “winning the lottery” point is that I could pay my way wherever I wanted to go.

One of my colleagues actually did get a second Ph.D., while continuing to teach in our department, in a related field. Basically, it took up his research time for a few years, and I’m pretty sure one sabbatical leave went to the required coursework. His second dissertation was a well-regarded book. So it can be done, and there can be good reasons to do it.

What about you? If there were world enough and time (and money), would you go back? In a related field, or something really different? Why, or why not?

Down the rabbit hole

I had plans for a sane and sensible work routine this week: work out first thing, then come home to feed myself and the cats, get to work from 9-1, put in roughly an hour each on Revisions, Translation, and Work-Related Administrivia, then spend the afternoon on House and Life Admin.

Cue hollow laughter. I’m not good at transitions. When I’m in the Zone, I want to stay there.

The present Revision material is the MMP-1 (for its history, see here, here, here, and, well, just search this blog for “MMP”). I love this project. For (mumble) years now, I have been living with its protagonist. When I’m working on this project, I stare at Google Images of his tomb and his lands (as they are now: so far, I have not convinced Google to cough up overhead shots from earlier centuries, though there are some nineteenth-century images of his parish church and nearby bridge). I am obsessed with this manuscript owner. I don’t know why the MMP-1 has not yet found a home, when the MMP-2 and MMP-3 have done so. Probably because it’s a large and unwieldy project. This version is going to be much better than the previous two submissions. I know where I will send it this time, and I know where it will go after that, if that’s what it takes. I believe in this project. Sooner or later, some editor(s) will love it as much as I do.

Ah, so, anyway, this morning I skipped the gym and sat down at my desk at 7:30 and put in two solid hours on the MMP-1. That was after about an hour of tracking down an obscure reference last night. When I could no longer ignore the cats, I took a break for about an hour, trying to get my head away from the MMP-1 and around translation. Or Administrivia. I thought I’d done it. But when I went back to my desk, from 11:00 to 1:00, I was immersed in the MMP-1. I cannot quit it.

I’m re-writing the whole thing, this time, because it has gone all patchworky and awkward from having too many bits imported from earlier drafts, a real Frankenstein of a piece. I’m very happy about writing 1769 words this morning. I want to write this piece in big chunks, because that will make the style much smoother. But I’m sure not sticking to the plan. There’s a translation deadline, and at least one Administrivia deadline (two days off, plenty of time), and I really prefer to go to the gym early in the day because it’s better for sleep and organizing meals and such. And a lot of Life Stuff to deal with, including travel plans for this summer.

Tomorrow is another day. Either the plan will work, or I will stay immersed in this project till it’s done. Again. Either is an acceptable outcome.

Inspiration from Ira Glass

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”-Ira Glass

I found it in the comments here: http://www.emkennedy.net/blog/2013/04/quote-me-parts-1-and-2.html

From the Desk of Basement Cat [with editorial comment]

Now that we have all had a couple of weeks to get used to Me in My new role as Senior Cat, there are a few points I would like to clarify.

First, I hate change. While being Senior Cat is, on the whole, a pleasant change, it is still change, and I hate change. Many of the following points have to do with avoiding change in future.

Regarding feline personnel: there shall be no further changes in the feline residents of this household, either adding or subtracting. I believe I made my feelings on this matter known upon the departure of the Tiny Cat and the arrivals of Glendower and Reina, with further vigorous protests at the addition of Sabra. Although I disliked Sabra, her disappearance alongside that of the old grey guy in the same week was too damned much. I wanted her to submit to me, not to vanish. I can’t be sure that she isn’t going to pop out of a closet and chase me around the house again. At any rate, now that we have achieved an equilibrium of three members of the ninja persuasion, let us remain a triumvirate.

The humans agree whole-heartedly on this matter. Basement Cat’s preferences are indeed well-known, which is why Sabra is now awaiting adoption (at a no-kill shelter) into a home where she can be an only cat. Her desire to be an only or Top Cat created considerable friction in the household, and is indirectly responsible for more than one injury among the other residents, mostly at the paws of Basement Cat making his dissatisfaction known. The humans, who are responsible for the veterinary bills, found this situation unacceptable, though they were reluctant to part with the beautiful and affectionate (to people) Sabra. The humans nonetheless reserve the right to offer temporary shelter to ferals awaiting or recovering from spay/neuter operations, and to foster and socialize kittens in cases of great need.

Regarding hoo-man personnel: there shall be no further changes among the hoo-man residents and associates. He and She shall remain in their current positions as cat servants, and shall not take time off (an occasional afternoon out may be countenanced under certain restricted circumstances). The only visitors shall be those who have already received approval from the entire ninja committee. Under no circumstances shall tradesmen, construction workers, or other creators of loud noises be granted entry to the premises.

The humans agree that a lack of construction workers and other creators of loud noises is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Unfortunately, in the interest of keeping the house from falling down around feline (and other) ears, it may on occasion be necessary to allow such persons to enter it. Further, the humans cannot control the city or the neighbors, such that loud noises may occur outside the house, disturbing the occupants. Rest assured that the humans sympathize deeply with the felines on this matter. Regarding travel, the humans undertake to provide qualified, competent cat servants, most likely recruited from the technicians at the regular vet practice, so that they will be known to the feline residents.

There shall be no travel by the hoo-mans, and most assuredly no use of the barbaric practice known as “boarding.”

See above on the topic of substitute servants. Humans, rather like Glendower, crave novelty from time to time, and like to go exploring outside the house.

Further with regard to feline personnel: Reina shall immediately disabuse herself of any notions regarding “Girl Power” that she may have acquired from that Sabra. This household shall observe strict seniority rights: I am Senior Cat, then Glendower, then Reina is Most Junior Cat. Should I inexplicably fail to live forever (in which case I hope Sabra, Evil Neighbor Catboy, and my other enemies will be rigorously prosecuted), then she may eventually have her chance to be Senior Cat. No female cat shall have any rights save those conferred by (lack of) seniority, while I am Senior Cat.

So long as violence is avoided, the humans will allow the feline residents to work this out for themselves, while reserving the right and obligation to break up fights, with the squirt bottle if necessary. It is felt that sufficient cat-on-cat violence has already occurred in this household.

Effective immediately, Glendower and Reina need to show their submission to Me by becoming messier eaters. One thing that pleased Me about the old grey guy was that he threw a lot of food out of his bowl, which was then available to Me. I am not getting enough to eat since he stopped eating.

That’s up to Glendower and Reina, but the humans would like to take this opportunity to observe that they are aware of this change in Basement Cat’s environment and have increased his rations accordingly. Moreover, not only are they responsible for the vet bills, they would also have to administer tests of blood glucose and shots of insulin should Basement Cat become diabetic, and it is felt that Basement Cat would not cooperate for such treatment. Hence it is desirable, from the human point of view, that Basement Cat should retain his present svelte and elegant figure.

Glendower and Reina shall immediately cede to Me any cushion, patch of sunlight, windowsill, or other desirable resting place should I indicate the slightest interest in it.

The bedroom remains Mine and only on My sufferance are other cats, including the rest of the ninja committee, allowed to rest or engage in other activities there.

So long as violence is avoided . . . .

The hoo-mans shall have no other cat before Me. Glendower and Reina may be tolerated as substitutions for Me when I do not feel like interacting with hoo-mans.

Oh, obviously the humans worship Basement Cat. May you live forever. =^..^=

The Grammarian, 2003-2016



My love abideth, thine is away;
My love thee calleth, thou steleth me fro . . .
So welcome to me there ar no mo . . .
Quia amore langueo.

The difference a story makes

More tidying/decluttering leads to more thoughts about the past and our relationship to it.

If a yellowed lace tablecloth had been on the table when the Prince Regent came to dinner incognito, or Grandmamma wrapped the silver in it when fleeing Estonia ahead of the Soviets, or Great-Aunt Lena draped herself in it as she ran out of the house to escape the fires that followed the ’06 earthquake, then there would be that story to tell, that reason to keep the tablecloth or even its fragments.

What I have is the lace without the story: pieces of hand-crocheted lace cut from a tablecloth, and a note in my mother’s hand saying that it was from my grandmother Eleanor’s family. I can guess that the pieces were crocheted by a woman, probably in the nineteenth century, probably by someone I am distantly related to, and attached to a tablecloth that probably meant something to this woman beyond simply that it was pretty and she made it. It might have been made as part of her trousseau, or for a daughter or niece. Eventually the tablecloth became stained and spotted, either by age or by food, or both. Someone, perhaps the original lace-maker, perhaps my grandmother (were they the same?) carefully cut the lace from the damaged material, probably intending to attach it to a new, replacement tablecloth. This never happened. The lace stayed in a drawer in my grandmother’s apartment, and then in a drawer or a box in my mother’s house, and then was packed up and sent to me.

I do not lead a life that involves frequent use of tablecloths, and on the rare occasions when I use one, I have my choice of half a dozen intact ones. (Deciding which of these to give away is a task for another day.) Nor am I given to sewing and handcrafts. My nephews have no memories of their great-grandmother, since she died long before they were born. We are not the sort of family that has stayed in one place for generations, stashing all the trousseau pieces in the ancestral attic. We’ve moved around and started over, frequently. The family I know about is mostly male and of a practical bent, although since my grandparents were all from large families there may be second and third female cousins whom I wouldn’t know if I passed them in the street.

So I’m giving the lace away, to a charity shop that has a selection of craft and sewing items. Maybe someone will feel like attaching it to a tablecloth for a bit of nineteenth-century charm.

If you have family things that mean something to you, write out their story, and store it with the things. Tape a card to the bottom of the china tray; pin a note to the tablecloth. It’s like labeling the people in photographs. The time will come when you, or your heirs, don’t know who they were. Even if the things get given away, it would be useful to have dates and some information. Maybe someone whose family later lost the ’06 tablecloth would like a replacement that has a similar story; or it might wind up in some local historical museum as a suitable piece of decoration for a house of the appropriate era.

I should do more of this with the things I have. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, and I know “L. T.” was her husband, so when I come across a note of hers referring to something that was his, I know the connection if not the story. But my nephews and their wives won’t know her writing. And there may come a time when I don’t, either. “Write the swyvere down” is good advice for more than research.

A couple of links


Profacero mentioned the book, then I found this, and also this:

The slow professor

and from a different sort of writer, this:


sorry, the tablet is being rotten about links this morning. Maybe I’ll go back to this on the desktop and put them in later.



No, no, no, no, NO, NO NO NO NONONONONONO!

Maybe I’m British. I am horrified to discover that it is Hug Your Medievalist Day. While I think Natalie Grinnell’s how-to guide is amusing (the more so the farther down you read), I think I need to caution people I know in real life: don’t hug me. I like it about as much as Basement Cat does.*

Who may hug me? Sir John. My dad. Small children to whom I am related IF they are not sticky.

I tolerate hugs from close friends and family members not listed above, though even with these people, close observers will notice my ears slanting back and the tail twitching a little.

From anyone else, a hug makes the ears go flat and the tail lash. Why can’t you just shake hands? What is with all this touchy-feely crap? How can I single-handedly reverse the rising hug-tide?

Listen up, people: around here, it’s SHAKE YOUR MEDIEVALIST’S HAND DAY.

Okay? Do it my way, and no one will get hurt.


*    Basement Cat and I are both bribe-able. Offer him kibble. Approach me very carefully with a large slab of dark chocolate. In both cases, you may get away with it, but don’t blame me if someone runs away with the bribe and eats it behind the bookcase.


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