The jaded calendar revolves

christmas tree

I wrote this little piece for Times Higher Education. Happy Christmas.

Christmas is just a few days away. I am one of the last left in the building on the day it closes for the break. Some colleagues come in briefly to pick up essays to mark. But the students have all gone, now that the factory bell of the last coursework deadline has sounded. Walking past the student village on my way to work, I saw parents loading a semester’s worth of their children’s lives into cars.

In universities, Christmas is only half-observed. Christopher Hitchens used to write an annual anti-Christmas piece complaining that it gave him a sense of what it must be like to live in a one-party state. Nowhere—airports, hospitals, waiting rooms—was safe from the “the collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy”. Maybe not, but universities come close.

At school we marked it all, from the first day of advent to the end-of-term carol concert. (“Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools” was another Hitchens complaint about the season.) But semesterised rhythms mean that Christmas and the university are always slightly out of sync. The students seem more interested in Halloween, or perhaps that is just because it comes bang in the middle of term. The tradition of card-giving among my colleagues has largely died. Some cite environmental reasons, but actually it is because no one can be arsed.

The more festive lecturers prepare mulled wine and mince pies for their classes. The Scrooges among us just hand round one of those party boxes of Celebrations (an annual experiment which demonstrates empirically that students will always leave mini-Bounty bars uneaten).

And now we enter this weird interregnum. Christmas is still to come, but the university’s Christmas is over. The academic factory will soon go dark for the only time of the year. This (pace Lord Adonis) is our one season of enforced idleness.

At the school I went to, my mother was a teacher. Waiting around for her after the final bell had gone, I came to enjoy the melancholy of a school building at the end of day, with the Polyprop chairs stacked on tables, the newly-mopped floors smelling of bleach and the unpeopled corridors echoing.

A university on the last day before the Christmas break has that same eerie feel. Only the remnants of other lives remain. One feels the weight not only of all the ghosts of university Christmases past, but of the years hurtling scarily by. “The jaded calendar revolves,” as Louise MacNeice put it in his poem “An Eclogue for Christmas”.

I pass by the school office, which is silent and stilled. There are slithers of tinsel wrapped round PC monitors, and the usual office-party leavings: a half-empty carton of apple juice, some soggy Doritos, a few chocolate marshmallows wrapped in foil. The Christmas tree’s lights are off. The last post lies unsorted, including Christmas cards that will not now arrive in pigeonholes until January. As I buzz myself out, I switch off the lights behind me and say goodbye to yet another year.

My skin runs with delicate flame


I wrote these programme notes for the production of Romantics Anonymous running at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London until the end of the year.

Romantics Anonymous is about two people who are meant for each other but who are separated by shyness. The methods they use to defeat their timidity—group therapy, self-help tapes—may be modern, but the story is old. For shyness, especially between lovers, is an ancient and universal problem.

In some of the earliest surviving fragments of poetry, lovesickness is linked with shyness. One of Sappho’s verses, written around 600 BCE, lists her symptoms when she looks at the woman she loves: ‘O Brocheo, I see you / And speech fails me, / The tongue shatters, / My skin runs with delicate / Flame …’ The idea of the cheeks as what Pliny the Elder called ‘the seat of shame’ was so familiar to Romans that the similar-sounding words, pudor and rubor, shame and redness, were often lyrically juxtaposed. ‘Purple shame,’ wrote Ovid in his Amores about a bride being gazed on by her husband, ‘appeared on her guilty face.’

This link between love and shyness was consolidated in the ideal of ‘courtly love’, which emerged in the courts of twelfth-century Provence and was spread throughout France by travelling troubadours. ‘Every lover grows pale at the sight of the beloved,’ wrote Andreas Capellanus in his Art of Courtly Love (c. 1184-6). ‘A lover is always timorous.’

Courtly lovers preferred unfulfilled desire to the consummated kind. Their sweet, self-ennobling longings came to dominate the western idea of love. According to Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella (1691), lovers are always tongue-tied, ‘dumb swans, not chattering [mag]pies’. In his essay On Love (1822), Stendhal writes of the lover reproaching himself for ‘lack of wit or boldness’ in the presence of the loved one, when in fact ‘the only way to show courage would be to love her less’.

In the mid-1960s, Dorothy Tennov, a psychology professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, became interested in why this ideal was so persistent, and why unrequited love was such an affliction of the shy. She had first noticed the phenomenon when students, distracted and late with their essays, broke down in tears in her office and turned out to be nurturing unspoken passions for fellow students or tutors. After interviewing many sufferers, she devised her own word, limerence, as a more specific term for infatuation or being in love.

Limerence, Tennov argued, could produce a ‘sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness’ in the presence of the loved one, and around other people as well. Its symptoms were heart palpitations, trembling, blushing, a churning stomach, awkwardness, stuttering and even fainting. Limerents were consumed with anxiety about whether their feelings would be returned; inconveniently, the fear that they might not be returned only enhanced their desire. Limerents took a lot of convincing before they accepted that their love would never be reciprocated—especially if, frozen with shyness, they had not made their feelings known. They seemed unable to avail themselves of what the writer Diana Athill calls the quickest and most reliable cure for a broken heart: the killing of all hope.

Nowadays limerence—the kind suffered by the protagonists of Romantics Anonymous—tends to be frowned upon. In her book Why Love Hurts, the sociologist Eva Illouz argues that unrequited love, idealised in poetry since Sappho as a sign of profundity and sensitivity, has now become an embarrassment. Contemporary love is meant to be the coming together of enlightened self-interest, with partners offering intimacy and commitment in return for the same. In an age that values emotional mutuality, unrequited or unspoken love signals immaturity and low self-esteem. A new word has emerged to describe this unenviable state, a word that once meant destitute and deserving, but now means clingy and insecure: needy.

And yet people in love carry on being shy, and the solutions to this problem become ever more resourceful. Texting, which the Finnish company Nokia introduced to its phones in the mid-1990s, took off first among taciturn young Finnish men. They used it as a way of communicating with girls without the signals being scrambled by blushing faces or tied tongues. Two sociologists from the University of Tampere found that a Finnish boy would rarely tell a girl he loved her, but would text loving messages, taking up to half an hour to edit and redraft them. He would usually write ‘I love you’ in English because he found it easier to express strong feelings in a second language.

In the Philippines, texting quickly assumed a similar role. Filipino courtship rituals are traditionally coy and convoluted. The man, who is meant to do all the running while the woman plays hard to get (pakipot) in order to preserve her honour, is often torpe, too shy to admit his feelings. And so elaborate, hedge-betting rituals have evolved. The man might begin with harana, the Spanish-influenced serenade of courtship sung beneath the woman’s window on hot Filipino nights, with his friends brought along for moral support as well as close harmonies. Things might then move on to ‘teasing’ (tuksuhan) by mutual friends, or using a ‘human bridge’ (tulay) between the prospective lovers, until such time as they can be persuaded to go out together on their own. The cellphone allowed young Filipinos to circumvent these face-saving routines and instead test the waters by text. By the turn of the millennium Filipinos were sending 10 per cent of the world’s text messages.

And so it is the world over. Texting lets those more dexterous with their thumbs than their tongues be more intrepid than in real life. Kisses added to the end of a text can be quickly recanted if they fall on flinty ground. And we can now make use of a whole menu of shy or embarrassed-looking emoticons with sweat drops and blushing cheeks. It is almost as if human ingenuity came up with the idea of the cellphone to solve this simple and eternal problem. We all want to open our hearts to others—but we are too shy.

Image: Where softly sighs of love the light guitar: a Visayan-Filipino serenade, Philippines, c1905. US Library of Congress.