WCs and Copulation

I just stamped out for a walk, fuming about an essay of mine having been butchered in the editing process – perhaps not coincidentally, by someone who taught me when back when I was a Master’s student. (A Stiff Email was sent.) Poking around in the churchyard of Old St Mary’s, I was irrationally cheered to come upon an inscription to the memory of one Elizabeth Pickett, who died in 1761 aged 26, ‘by reason of her Cloaths having taken Fire the previous evening’, among the exemplary, smug Victorian patriarchs. I then sat on a neighbouring tomb, like a superior baglady in a trenchcoat – my indoor writing clothes are not respectable, and I had just thrown on a coat and shoes – and tried to remember as many literary instances of Death by Fiery Cloaths as possible.

Then found a Rebecca West novel I haven’t read for a pound in a bargain bin – God, the sexy, dusty delight of scruffy old bookshops. The excitable chocolate-eyed youth behind the counter said ‘You are Irish? This is why Irish and Jews get along, we are all readers!’ Whereupon I did not mention the Limerick Pogrom. On the way home through the park, a skinny child in a patka kicked a football in my direction, but before I could chase it – my ball-related reaction times are about those of a three-toed sloth – it was nimbly returned by an elderly Hasidic man with a Mosaic beard and fedora.

Returned from forty-eight hours at the workplace, marking repeat exams, and now finally feel the onset of my research leave. I’m deep in Woolf’s diaries, enjoying Woolfish sentiments – noticing the lack of emotion of the audience at the Queen’s Hall at the playing of a national anthem, she says ‘If the British spoke openly about WCs and Copulation, then they might be stirred by universal emotion.’ Then one entry later, she’s opining ‘I do not like the Jewish laugh’, then eating dinner in a cabman’s shelter, then arguing with dreary Leonard (to whom I cannot warm), reading Pope, and complaining that her stockings came off entirely while out for a walk, and that she hates to watch women shopping as ‘they take it so seriously.’

To Drummond Street to meet I. for dosas and lassi for lunch. 

en vacances

We’ve just come home from Burgundy, where friends of ours had rented a gîte in a particularly deserted bit of forest, surrounded by ponds in which swam the largest fish I have ever seen. One morning, when I walked over to the village for bread with the toddler, two men were filleting an enormous pike hung from the branch of a tree, so big I first thought it was a deer killed out of season, and poor little C. had her goldfishy bathtime ideas about watery things permanently altered by its whiskery gape. I had to tear her away to the tamer delights of brioches.

Maybe it’s having shutters pulled down on almost every window, but this unfashionable corner of France seemed largely dead in a bleached-out, bypassed by time way that appealed. (Our footsteps clattered on cobbles in Sancerre, where we seemed to be the only things moving, bar little lizards on the walls, and where a café told us it couldn’t serve us as it was closing for lunch.) We spent a lot of time playing with the children and loafing, semi-flown on cheap wine, around the farm, which had athletic-looking black hens, mangy border collies and a herd of sheep that kept breaking into our garden to drink from the paddling pool – our bare, big bedroom had an unexpected stone fireplace carved with birds and a graceful stag and a view of trees from both windows. We had a lengthy late dinner outdoors for my birthday, watching a thunderstorm flicker and growl somewhere in the distance, and I was given an agate bracelet (which came into play as a teething ring more than once, being practically indestructible) and a beautiful complete edition of Woolf’s diaries from I., which I have wanted my entire life.

But we also piled into the car a lot and wandered - the motion kept the fractious new baby calm and M adores to drive – on empty roads through endless shuttered villages, stopping at a café when we saw one open, buying pottery, and trying the doors of locked churches. One, which was opened for us by an old woman, had extraordinary carved capitals of St Michael weighing souls and Jacob wrestling with the angel, and smiling skeleton tomb carvings dating from just after the Black Death. (It had had an Irish priest who lasted less than a year in 1830 – one wonders how he ended up in this out of the way spot, and what exactly happened to end his tenure, when every other incumbent seemed to stay several decades…) This was in a raised massif of wooded hills called Le Morvan, known for – according to the saying – producing 'neither good wine nor good people', for its poverty, and, in the nineteenth century, for its supplying of Paris with charcoal and wet nurses (and the 30% mortality rate of their charges). Jean Genet was farmed out here, which seems appropriate. We also made a literary pilgrimage on my behalf to Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, where the novelist Colette grew up, and which now has a museum in one wing of the local chateau, with some of her belongings – a collection of glass paperweights with flowers and little bottles inside – and photographs of her going from minxy Claudine to fat, beautiful Léa, to the extraordinary images of her old age, all frizzed bob and kohl-ringed level stare.

London seems unnecessarily crowded and complicated - walking along Piccadilly to Hatchards yesterday was like an obstacle course of tourists - and the threads of life to be taken up again very many and messy. There are academic chores to be done before my replacement takes over, a book to be written – a novel also – and D is here and wants, he says, to see me. I'm half-scared by how much the Morvan and its shuttered farmhouses appeals. Sometimes there seems something vulgar in big cities' claims on your attention.

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Last weekend I managed the feat of going straight from an NFT showing of Jules et Jim -- wilful, amoral, free spirit caught between two men – to having a long-postponed dinner where I finally got to introduce I. to D., and which I got through by drinking rather too much. It was a cordial, but rather strange, affair, smoothed over by the fact that I. is utterly nice, and will find common ground with anyone, even a virtual stranger who has an ambivalent but intense relationship with his own partner. It was warm enough to eat outside a small Italian place in Notting Hill, on a street which appears to specialise in expensive baby clothes shops with outré names. I was so twitchy I eviscerated my stuffed courgette flower across the table cloth. I. and D. talked sport, which isn’t how it worked for Jules and Jim, in their Austrian chalet with Cathérine seeking whom she might devour in the background. It’s funny, you can’t tell whether men are liking one another the way you can often with women.

What a soothing lingua franca sport must be for men. I remain baffled by the whole concept, especially as at the moment, our very Turkish area has been erupting into fireworks, cheering and outbreaks of car horn hooting because of the national team’s performance in whatever football tournament is currently under way. (Call me unpleasant, but I’m distinctly relieved they were knocked out. I find nearly any manifestation of nationalism distasteful – apart from my own blamelessly patriotic cheese buying, which is, I think, a side effect of growing up in Ireland at a period when ‘Buy Irish!’ was the national economic mantra. I have been known to argue the merits of goat’s cheese from County Clare with incredulous French cheese sellers.)

What else? Two days at the Work Place, in a virtual monsoon, for excruciating exam boards and hiring my cover for next year. It felt very strange not to have D.’s flat any more, although I stayed with our mutual friend C., whose funny, cluttered, little terraced house is a second home. It’s the kind of house where you’ll put down a glass on a night table, and then remain in fascinated contemplation of a Mandarin phrasebook, a couple of volumes from the Little House on the Prairie series, dead flowers in a jug, a box of Tarot cards, two tiny jade elephants, an old-fashioned brass candle-snuffer, a hot water bottle in a woollen jumper, a dust-furred teacup, and a scholarly treatise on Middle English. Then back here to book work, which must be done, no matter how much I itch to get on with the novel.

Another suitcase in another hall

I decided on the spur of the moment to sublet D.’s flat (my termtime week night bolthole) for the summer, as the rent isn’t negligible and I’m not planning to spend more than a week or so here in the Work Place before my research leave kicks in on September 1st, and I return to being a full-time Londoner. (And have friends here I can stay with when my presence is necessary.) So I’ve spent the last few days here busily scouring and recycling, trying to sort out my books from D.’s, and regretting the fact that the flat was always stupidly huge for one person, and seems even more stupidly so now I have the three bathrooms to scrub. After putting an ad in the paper, and interviewing a lot of people – including one awful mother-and-daughter combo (designer handbags on crook of arm, matching oversized sunglasses used as Alice bands on Identikit blonde hair, gold gladiator sandals) who were visibly horrified at the non- Designer Room look of the flat, which is an old holiday let with tired paint, a lot of bookshelves and a lot of windows – I found a nice couple who seem entirely suitable and likeable. And I have a soft spot for shaggy-haired young love in Indian cotton skirts and Dinosaur Junior t-shirts.

I was a bit surprised at how cross I was at the Karen-Millen-mother-and-daughter unit’s ill-concealed disgust (though I know perfectly well it was nouveau riche fear and horror of the Unshiny Untasteful Un-neutrals, and that which is not endorsed by weekend supplements). I’ve lived in D’s flat part-time for two years of the last five, and while I have often been unhappy here, because working somewhere far from home and being away from I. more than I’d like is difficult at times, no matter how I dress it up to myself, it remains my Room of One’s Own, the place where I work, eat makeshift meals of cereal and oranges and cake, and curl up by myself and read. I wrote my first book here, at a desk with a beautiful view of water and hills, and paced a worn path in the carpet while doing so. It’s always been a retreat, or a kind of hermitage for the part of me that just isn’t wild about social life or sociability.

So maybe it's not so odd that I find myself slightly sad to let it go, even when I’m telling myself that I will not be returning here at all – that by the end of my research leave, the current book will have a contract with a good press, I will have found a job closer to home, and won’t have to lead this weird, bifurcated life any more. I know that it isn’t good for me in the long run, and that it gives the uncommitted, hermit side of me the excuse to opt in and out of the world of fully-functional people.

But this weekend feels a bit elegiac. I. is in the Middle East, and his face on Skype appears against a heat-hazy background of skyscrapers and beach. Not one of my friends here is at home, and though the weather is beautiful, I’m staying in reading the papers and living on apples and takeaway food from the Hare Krishna's place, in this empty flat, with its shampooed carpet and bare counters, and my suitcases in the hall. Talk about suffering from the vapours. Home on Tuesday, a single night when I coincide with I. before we both head off again, me to France to a conference, I. to South Africa to enter into some kind of negotations with a millionaire who wears shorts and Crocs in the boardroom.

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I spent a very irritable flight back from the funeral listening to a particularly hearty American in the seat behind me cross-examining his timorous neighbour about Ireland, which he claimed to love, and then answering all the questions himself. By the time he had converted hurling into lacrosse, and taken credit for everything from golf courses to the peace process, patronised the stewardess who’d apologised for not having some damn frozen pizza slice or something (‘Hey, don’t be sorry, what did you do wrong? You Irish, you’re always saying sorry’) and kindly allowed the ninny alongside to believe that Ireland might, some day, if it was very lucky, come to resemble Milwaukee -- all at a level of decibels commensurate with an Aerosmith concert -- I was fondling my rolled-up in-flight magazine and wondering whether I'd be able to hit him more than once before I was wrestled to the ground by the apologetic stewardess. Though in fairness this may have had less to do with the orator in the seat behind than a week's proximity to my mother.

But then I spent the weekend at the Roundhouse at the RSC’s Histories cycle. This was absolutely wonderful, all blood-addled royal psychopaths, demented queens, fratricide, the French court descending with long trains on trapezes, a Hieronymus Bosch Cade rebellion, the ‘bottled spider’ Richard III bribing the Princes in the Tower with a Space Hopper, a completely terrifying Margaret of Anjou hefting her murdered son’s skeleton about on her back, some crazily good ensemble acting, and more very high quality fake blood than I’ve ever seen at one go. (Because of the way they had pretty much rebuilt their Stratford playing space inside the walls of the Roundhouse, there wasn’t really a backstage area, the actors entered and exited through the audience, and you made your way to your seat past vats of fake blood, coffins and daggers. I thought a knife-toting teenage gang member would absolutely get the Henry VI plays, way more than Hamlet or As You Like It, but that 'knife virtually everyone before they get you first, and occasionally vary things by killing all the lawyers or offering people handkerchiefs soaked in the blood of their slain relatives' might not be such a good moral...) I felt positively sodden with gore and betrayal, and very contented, despite the fact that some god with an odd sense of humour was clearly sending all of my neighbours from central casting. This time I got the JYA student who kept putting her handbag and bottle of water in the aisle, even after Jack Cade, Richard Plantagenet, the Bishop of Ely and a couple of Murderers had all fallen over them. There was also the chorus of middle-class complaint which arose at every interval. We had been watching Henry V besiege Harfleur, or Richard III slime his way into Lady Anne’s affections over Henry VI’s funeral cortege, and all you could hear was ‘Oh, that was a bit long, wasn’t it?’ and ‘Well, I don’t see why they all wanted to be king so much, do you, Angela? Lot of bother if you ask me’ and ‘These seats just touch one right at the wrong point of the back, don’t they?’

Obviously, this brings me to the awkward conclusion that Shakespeare audiences should consist of one enthralled, perfectly silent and appreciative individual, namely me. The weekend's had one amusing effect, though - two colleagues saw the Histories too, and we've been collectively scything through marking meetings on the 'off with their heads' model of business. The Plantagenets Meet the Externs. Richard III tinkering with the borderline firsts.

the Sorrowful Mysteries

I.’s grandmother died unexpectedly at the weekend – well, as unexpectedly as is possible in one’s late eighties, though in robust good health, and married for sixty-seven years to the elderly rogue with whom she had thirteen children – and was waked for four days in her own living room, as was her wish. There were the usual battalions of women making ham and salad sandwiches on sliced pan, tea and whiskey, endless streams of neighbours and family passing through – with twenty-six grandchildren and fifteen-great-grandchildren, and the sheer volume of acquaintance you have when you’ve always lived in the same place, things get dizzying – and the smell of candles and air-freshener. Her hairdresser, a local lech who looks a bit like Sean Connery, did her hair, and she wore a wedding outfit bought for her youngest son's third marriage in the autumn.

The house is tiny, and most of us ended up saying the rosary in the front garden or out on the road, where the traffic eventually gave up and reversed away. I’d spent the previous three weeks marking throughout twelve hour days and seeing no one and going mad, and suddenly there I was being semi-hypnotised by the Sorrowful Mysteries, in improvised black next to I. in a black tie, watching an earthworm tie itself into wet knots in the scrubby grass. I am still word perfect on that most peasant, masochistic and priest-ridden of prayers, the Memorare, which I can’t have said since secondary school:

‘…O Virgin of Virgins, my mother
To thee do we come, before thee we stand,
Sinful and sorrowful,
O Mother of the Word Incarnate
Despise not this poor petition
But in thy Clemency hear and answer us….’

That was absolutely her life – this world is a vale of tears, cook and clean and no contraception, and the odd sing-song down the pub and making chips for her middle-aged sons when they called over, pray for a happy death and a short purgatory – and everything I’ve ever done in my life has been out of the selfish, clear-sighted desire never to live like that.

But there is a kind of tacky, lumbering grace to a big funeral like that, done the old way, without funeral parlours or middle-class good taste, with lots of crying, and drinking, and the local madman wearing head to foot yellow with an armful of calla lilies, and the house close enough to the church for the coffin to be carried there by I. and his cousins. This was the only thing that really upset I. who is a natural stoic – the dead weight of the coffin.

The church was completely full, with probably a hundred or more people outside on the steps, and the city Male Voice Choir singing the responses, and a terrible, bleating old-school sermon from the parish priest on the dead woman’s ‘ vocation’ for motherhood, cooking and cleaning and – I quote – ‘keeping her husband clean and tidy’, at which I.’s tough mother, aunts and sisters all snorted audibly. In terms of packing a psychic punch, these women, shoulder to shoulder in black with hairdresser blowdrys, effortlessly dominate the tough men of the family, with their minor criminal concerns, vicious republicanism and fingers in every pie. I had charge of the great-grand-children gabbling Prayers of the Faithful and needing to be taken out the back to the loo. Then a long trek in a downpour behind the hearse out to a new ‘American-style’ park cemetery on the edge of the city – six of the choir reappeared and sang ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’, which is what I.’s grandmother used to sing at singsongs, and the pub musician from down the road sang ‘The West’s Awake’ in honour of her Mayo roots. I was completely taken aback again to find I still remember the words. For those of you who don’t know the tune, it’s a Thomas Davis rebel affair that ends:

But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,
The West's awake! the West's awake!
Sing, Oh! hurrah! let England quake,
We'll watch till death for Erin's sake.

Not a dry eye in the graveyard, before a return to I.’s uncles’ pub for a session that is probably still going on. Am back in not noticeably quaking England now, though, spending a weekend at the RSC Histories, plugging back into the middle classes.

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We just spent four days in Paris, staying with friends we wanted to see before their second child arrives in a matter of weeks. It was a lovely weekend, despite a drip of anxiety from urgent work e-mails which I had to try to respond to on a French keyboard, and the fact that the spring holidays meant that central Paris, blossomy with flowers and budding trees and stupidly romantic as a Cartier-Bresson photograph, was thronged with French tourists buying Tour Eiffel letter-openers and postcards of poodles in berets. The queue for Berthillon on the Ile St Louis stretched along the street, but luckily my fanatic love of their salted caramel and pear flavours meant that I do still remember from my student days all the other places that also sell Berthillon and so was able to have the Platonic Icecream Cone, of which all others are pale copies. K and M, and their daughter had moved apartments within the same pretty suburban village since we last visited, and with K heavily pregnant and mother of a toddler, we did more loafing about locally than usual – taking young C, a chic, bobbed, bilingual little creature, to the park, buying bread, walking in the grounds of the defunct local chateau, which has wonderful views across the city, and the kind of pleached lime alleys Shakespeare characters get gulled in. The nicest thing (besides the happy galvanic kick of speaking French again) was that a local sculptor had an installation in the old orangerie, where all the potted orange trees from the Tuileries and St Cloud parks over-winter, so that you were able to walk through a sort of dark maze constructed of wonderful-smelling white-wrapped trees in blossom, looking like tall, skinny hospital patients. I also saw a Vlaminck exhibition at the Luxembourg and divided a withered bunch of cheap flowers between two of my literary heroes in the Montparnasse cemetery.

This helped with some of the odder, more difficult parts of the weekend, like my dawning sense that the friends we made when we were all penniless students living on coffee and toast and handouts have, at some point when we weren’t looking, turned into pillars of the French establishment and have some frankly unpalatable views. When we went out to eat, at the kind of grandiose Michelin-starred establishment I. and M. like very much, and were going up in a mirrored lift with a bellboy in red livery like an organ-grinder’s monkey, I could hardly believe that this well-fed, well-dressed foursome staring back from the reflection was us. Enceinte young matron, successful lawyer, and two slightly grungier people, one (me) wearing definitely unsuitable tweed trousers, about to order points d’asperges and Brouilly. We made me sick, to be honest. When did the people we used to go skinny-dipping with, and watch marathons of black and white films with on afternoons when we should all have been working, start being people who object to their cleaner calling them by their first names and namedrop ambassadorial dinners? It's some combination of being glazed over by wealth, the kicking in of inherited confidence about playing the system, and parenthood, as far as I can judge. But I'm not so changed since my student days, and I'm not comfortable with being an untidy-haired record of bohemia for other people. And then I think, maybe I. and I are the ones who are somehow at fault for having remained largely the people we were, for not having made Petit Bateau clad toddlers in the suburbs, for living mostly for ourselves in a rather rackety and undistinguished way - maybe we just haven't committed to the world?

In other news, it is possible that I. may need to spend several months in the Middle East. As it would, if it happens, coincide with my leave, I would go for at least a couple of months, as I am tired of these termtime separations. I do not know at all how I feel about the possibility.

(no subject)

Last night, I went to the pub with a lively class of my night BA students who had finally come to the end of their degree classes, and eventually it was two o’clock in the morning, there had been dozens of group photographs in which all concerned are mugging and saying ‘Postmodernism!’ at the camera, the pub spaniel was drunk from titbits and attention, and the barman was strongly suggesting we leave. I walked home along the river, recklessly, generally believing myself to be more dangerous than muggers – sharp breeze, bright three-quarters moon on the bay – and for some reason checked my e-mail when I got home, while I was boiling water for tea.

To find a mail from the university head of research asking whether or not I had been successful in winning a Prestigious Fellowship Which Shall Remain Nameless, as he believed letters of notification had arrived yesterday – a day when, owing to five hours of teaching and four of meetings in far-flung bits of campus, I hadn’t checked my department pigeonhole. I stood there in my night clothes, thinking, Bugger. I did actually think, ridiculously, about going to bed and trying to sleep. Then I put on a pair of jeans and a coat with my nightshirt, took a cab to campus, got the understandably grumpy security guards to let me into the building, and ripped open the skinny letter, and danced around the empty office like something from The Rite of Spring. (I also possibly howled a sort of wordless victory howl, but am definite I didn't say 'Yessss!' or do that punching the air thing you see sports people do when they pull something off.) This is crazily wonderful. This is the proposal I spent half of the autumn working on, and that D. spent his Thanksgiving weekend painstakingly going through with me, line by line. It gives me a year’s leave to finish the book, and pays for someone to replace me in the department. Essentially, I have another sabbatical next year, and can be at home in London for a year, with I., not being split between workplace and home, not commuting, not spending half my physical and mental time in transit, just writing and living.

Back at the flat, I phoned I. who is in the Middle East, and D. in New York, and then, because it seemed impossible to sleep, went down to the beach and watched the sun rise in a self-effacing way across the water. Sometimes I am surprised by my propensity for adolescent melodrama, but this feels to me, in my circumstances, like more than an academic pat on the back, or an enormous boost to my CV. I feel some faceless bureaucrats (some lovely, right-minded, appreciative faceless bureaucrats) have given me a year as a present, by plucking it down from a tree, polishing it and dropping it into my lap, and I'm sitting looking at it and thinking 'Is this for me?'

(no subject)

Yesterday down to the river to the boat race, somewhat by mistake. It was blowing and raining, and biting cold coming off the curve of the river by Chiswick, but I'm leaving in the morning for another three weeks of being mostly away from home, and wanted to see as much as possible of I., who was keen to howl encouraging remarks at the Oxford boat. The Black Lion on Chiswick Mall is generally a nice old pub, with decent beer on draught and those expensive crisps in recherche flavours which tell you on the bag which Toby or Robin hand-fried them specially for lucky you, but it turns into hell for the boat race, full of portaloos, booming voices, and the kind of people in boat club blazers I used to avoid when I was actually at Oxford, and who haven't become any more congenial over time, with added stockbrokerish sheen.

Although, when we eventually climbed over a wall, swarmed through a children's playground and got to a bit of riverbank, we were mercifully surrounded by people who were just there for the drink and who regarded Isis and Goldie ploughing past with a wake of launches, camera boats and police boats with mystification. 'What was that?' asked one youth with hyacinthine curls, Jamie Oliver Mockney and and a golf umbrella. I did quite a good impression of Eliza Doolittle at the races when the boats finally came past, semi-visible in the drizzle, hard against the far bank, and I was mildly pleased Oxford won. I can honestly not imagine going to sports events where you actually cared about the result - it must be terribly taxing. But much the most interesting bit was queueing for the (indoor) loos afterwards - girls still get sick apologetically in sinks, with their friends holding their hair back, and then try to cover the damage with foundation that's slightly the wrong colour. It was like being in a nightclub in my undergraduate days again. Cidery vomit can provoke Proustian moments as well as madeleines in lime tea.

Though actually we ended up at a gay clubnight in Vauxhall not far from where we used to live. It was a friend's birthday, and a lot of us had had an Eritrean meal on the Brixton Road (you eat out of enormous communal metal dishes the size of dustbin lids, picking up the food with sour bread that looked like rolled-up crepe bandages - lentils done seven ways for us vegetarians, goat ditto for the meat eaters), and then swayed vaguely in a crowd of rather beautiful white men, before a nine-foot-tall drag queen took the stage with a rap called 'Woman of Mass Destruction', which the crowd greeted suspiciously kindly. Apparently there was a striptease later on, but we'd run off home by then. I've had two showers since, and done an average amount of handwashing, and my Duckie stamp will not consent to come off my hand.

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I had plans to walk up to Hampstead Heath today, and go and visit the Rembrandt at Kenwood, but it's filthy out, and I am poring instead over a chapter that appears to be getting to an unmanageable length and yet not be quite finished. Trying to ward off mid-afternoon sleepiness with tea and Radio 3, but the fact remains that I came home late last night from a second visit to the NT's Much Ado About Nothing, knackered after a second, rather enjoyable, dawn queuing session, to find I. already asleep, after which we had somewhat experimental sex and a long argument about which art form Polyhymnia is muse of, sparked off by having been to see the Bluestocking exhibition at the NPG. (Having been physically prevented from getting out of bed to look this up, I still don't know. Answers on a postcard.) This will tell you as much about our relationship as you might care to know.

Easter has been fairly sociable, in spite or because of seeing so many friends in various forms of trouble. I am sparky with Shakespeare, having embarked on a re-read of my favourite plays, and James Shapiro's excellent 1599, and have endless energy, but am rather twitchy indoors, being nervous about the upcoming revelation of whether or not I have my grant money. R is dealing with a slowly dying grandmother across the Atlantic, and her feelings for her Older Poet ex; J. has just emerged from a stay in the mental hospital she refers to as the Laughing House; the friends who married in Lisbon last year have been flooded out by their stockbroker upstairs neighbour's automatic watering system malfunctioning; D stayed over en route to seeing the woman he left his wife for, but who lives several thousand miles away from him. We have also evolved a running joke about our nice, preternaturally silent upstairs neighbours being Basque separatists running a bomb factory. (We have invited them down for a drink, thrilled by the fact that they are not the Boyband 3 am Karoake Horrors or the Flood-Causing Pothead of last year, but they may of course interpret our Irishness as evidence of shared political ideals...) We finally found the cheap, good, dim sum place in Chinatown which has been eluding us for years, and I., who takes his intern there for lunch, is training the staff not to giggle at vegetarians. I went to St Pauls for the Easter Vigil - I must go there more often for the choir, which is wonderful - having left I., who is distressingly bored by religion, at home baking and watching Cheers re-runs. Which I find distressingly boring, apart from Lilith.

The prospect of going back to teaching keyed-up finalists for three weeks - not that I've been able to forget entirely, as pleas and queries pursue me by e-mail - is making me think about the future and other kinds of life. J. has had a vision, during her time in hospital, of how she wants her life to be, and is starting the esoteric body of London routes and rat-runs known as The Knowledge, to become a cabbie. S. is planning to retrain as a primary school teacher. My sister writes cheerfully of culture shock, drugs and learning Mandarin in Beijing. Unforunately, my own desires are, characteristically, more to do with the impossible, like travelling back in time to be one of the original Bluestockings, or being Richard Burbage, or Isabella Bird.