Old December’s Bareness

plane treesI wrote this for the Times Higher last week.

In his essay, “The passing wisdom of birds”, the nature writer Barry Lopez advocates that every university establish the post of in-house naturalist, to be held in rotation by a student in his or her final year. The university naturalist would record the flora and nonhuman fauna of the campus and advise about how best to look after them. He or she would be like a university archivist, but of the outdoors.

Although I’m not a student, I should like to apply for this position. As a university naturalist I am, in CV-speak, a dynamic self-starter with a strong skill set. I’m also good at looking out of windows and spotting the seasonal shifts: like the arrival of winter on campus, with the first frost on the path and the squirrels hoarding beechmast and berries.

I teach in a building that backs on to a garden full of London plane trees. Outside one of my classrooms, there is a tree so close that you can reach out the window and almost touch its branches. The London plane is the perfect urban tree for our urban university: its knobbly bark and leathery leaves hoover up polluted air. It also sends out an early signal of autumn, shedding leaves even before Michaelmas. Yet the sheltering wall of our building – and, presumably, global warming – has, for this particular tree, held back the full force of the fall. Even now, in December, a few shrivelled, yellowish leaves cling on.

I ask my first-year students to guess how many leaves that tree had when they started their course in September. Puzzled as to why their literature class has turned into nature study, they humour me and guess a thousand. Times that by at least a hundred, I say. Look. It’s been shedding leaves since induction week, and still has some left.

We are meant to be discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare never set eyes on a London plane, which is a late 17th-century hybrid. But he knew his trees, and lived in a world where they were vital – for making ships, houses, furniture, books. And while teaching the sonnets this year, something obvious has dawned on me. Shakespeare doesn’t really think in seasons, which are a human construct anyway. He thinks in micro-seasons, subtly blurring into each other.

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold,” Sonnet 73 begins, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”. I used to think that second line was just lazily fixing up the metre, but now I love its self-cancelling order and the way it catches a precise stage of late autumn moving into early winter. Leaves in the sonnets have many states, depending on the micro-season. They are “lusty”, “fair”, “vacant”, “barren”, or “look pale, dreading the winter’s near”. And then they are gone, replaced by “old December’s bareness everywhere”.

This year, I have noticed the micro-seasons myself, perhaps because I have suddenly felt part of what the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie calls “that rough tribe of the mortal”. And it’s not just other people who seem fragile and vulnerable. Nature feels vulnerable too, and every moment of autumn has felt like an exquisite death, a bereavement.

I’ve noted it all as the light in this afternoon seminar has slowly dimmed: the first swallows gathering on the telephone wires before their journey south; the first heavy dewfall; the first air from the Arctic; the first buzz of the gardeners’ leaf blowers in November. Meanwhile, the demands of term-time have felt more than ever like a perpetual juggernaut that acknowledges neither the seasons nor the particularity of individual lives.

Trees, our longest-living organisms, fool us into thinking that things are permanent. Alone among plants, they raise a wooden scaffolding above the ground – building, in annual increments, a frame on which to hang their leaves, while their heartwood grows hard in death and serves as a backbone. In winter, when so many other things are absent or dead, their leafless skeletons stand proud and, seemingly, immortal.

But people aren’t as sturdy as trees. As Shakespeare reminds us in the sonnets, they are more like leaves, waiting on winter. Each human life burns itself out, is “consum’d with that which it was nourished by”.

For the students – I hope – autumn is what it used to be for me: a new start, a second spring, what the French call la rentrée . Long may they feel cocooned in this illusion of continuity, that there will always be another semester, that life will go on as before.

You have to be ready to notice things – in literature as in life. When you do, they are right there in front of you, hidden in plain sight. And now life just seems too short and precious not to notice every falling leaf.

The managerial catechism


Where are we going?


What must we do to governance?

We must reshape it.

Where should we put service users?

We should put them at the core of everything we do.

What is the universal quality of our stakeholders?

They are key.

Are there are any stakeholders who are not key?

No, there are not.

What must we do with data?

We must drill down into it.

What must our procedures be?

Robust and transparent.

What must we do with our portfolio?

It must be continually enhanced.

What is not an option in terms of our portfolio?

Quality status is not an option in terms of our portfolio.

What must we focus on?

Our core business moving forward.

What should our direction of travel be?

We should be driving forward to a place where we are proactively positioned.

What do we need?

We need a strong story to tell.

What can we not do with change?

We can’t ignore it, so we must drive it.

What must we do for the rest of our time on this earth?

We must relentlessly pursue excellence, in the sure and certain hope of our resurrection.




Wow. I didn’t get shortlisted for any awards. So moved.

Chuffed to learn that my paper got rejected. Yay!

Thrilled to receive this iffy review.

Sat on the sofa all day eating crisps. Flexed biceps emoji.

News! I haven’t been promoted.

Great to hear that my book got pulped. Go me.

Super-excited to say that my line manager gave me a warning.

Look who I bumped into in the first-class lounge! Security, who evicted me.

Shameless self-promotion klaxon: I’m still breathing.

Now it’s official I’m delighted to share this: even my dog thinks I’m a loser.

Just emptied the dishwasher. Hashtag: winning at life.

Reaching out

I wanted to reach out and say hello.

I wanted to reach out and give you an update.

I wanted to reach out so you have my details going forward.

I wanted to reach out because I’m concerned that you may not be getting the best advice available about plastic decking.

May I quickly reach out to you?

I was really just hoping to see when would be a good time to reach out.

Here’s why I’m reaching out: I love working with people like you who I think are doing exciting things with plastic decking.

I’m reaching out to you personally because my researches have highlighted you as a key influencer in this field.

I was inspired to reach out to you in the hope of igniting a conversation on how best I can serve your plastic decking needs.

Hey first name, I am reaching out to you because explain how you can relate to them re plastic decking.

I want to reach out to brand ambassadors in plastic decking – like you.

I want to reach out to follow up on the email I sent last week.

I want to reach out because it’s been a while and I’m keen to tell you about what’s been happening in the world of plastic decking since I last reached out to you.

Did you not get my email?

I only wanted to reach out.

What I know about Love Island even though I’ve never seen it

Love Island is a Rorschach test: you see what you want to see.

Love Island deals with deeper issues than lovers’ tiffs and perfect bodies.

Love Island is fuelling demand for cosmetic surgery, especially lip fillers.

Love Island is making us all more anxious about body image. 

Love Island shows the pain behind the Instagram illusion of a perfect life.

This summer’s big beachwear battle is between insta-kaftans and Love Island cutouts.

Here’s why so many of us have decided it’s OK to love Love Island: it’s a microcosm of reality.

Love Island shows that millennials are snowflakes and we should blame their parents.

Teenage boys are taking steroids to get Love Island bodies.

Love Island is a sad reflection on our education system.

You can be an intellectual and still like Love Island.

You can’t be an intellectual and still like Love Island.

Love Island has led to house price rises in Mallorca.

Love Island proves that the art of conversation is dead.

Love Island is to blame for the decline of hairy chests.

If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be watching Love Island.

Love Island shows us that men can be vulnerable too.

Love Island tells us all we need to know about toxic masculinity.

The prime minister has never seen Love Island.

At least one person on Love Island doesn’t know what Brexit is.

80,000 people applied for Love Island and it’s harder to get into than Oxbridge.

Love Island makes me fear for the future of humanity.

If you haven’t seen Love Island, that doesn’t make you a snob.

You need to stop being snobby about Love Island and embrace what it teaches us about feminism and relationships.

Love Island is our swipe-left culture made real.

You don’t like Love Island because it reminds you of your dad bod.

Rate your life

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On rowdy students

Some striking observations on student life from Norman Longmate’s book Oxford Triumphant (London: Phoenix House, 1954). The book is based largely on Longmate’s own experiences as a student at the university in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

On the timeless phenomenon of inattentiveness in lectures:

At one lecture on Aristotle’s Politics, ‘the man on my right was composing a sonnet and the man opposite was busily sketching the profile of the girl next to him, while she was much more conscious of his interest than she was of the contents of the lecture. Beside me sat an undergraduate who was the only person in the room showing any signs of concentration, and, on peeping closer, I realized that he was filling in a football pools coupon.’ (p. 35)

On student ‘rowdyism’:

‘Every writer on pre-war Oxford mentions this abuse; it is clear from their accounts that no peaceful citizen of the city was safe from attack by drunken and often brutal undergraduates. It was a recognized recreation of some members of the university to visit certain cinemas and thrust lighted fireworks down the backs of the dresses of the women in the rows in front …. One author, discussing Oxford restaurants, found it necessary to include the warning that visitors attending them should take large quantities of newspapers to spread over their clothes, since inevitably during the meal undergraduates would begin to pelt each other and the public with plates of food. The rowdy, it seems, held Oxford as his own, and timid proctors and studious undergraduates went alike in terror of him.’ (p. 75)

On the Bump Suppers held by college rowing eights:

‘When the meal is over they will start on a tour of destruction of the college. Anyone foolish enough to have left his outer door unlocked (or, in Oxford parlance, “his oak unsported”) will have his room wrecked, his furniture heaped together, his pictures smashed, his books torn or, if it be a wet night, flung out into the rain …. Often the dons themselves are partly to blame for such behaviour. I heard of one Dean leading a mob of undergraduates in a pitched battle in the college grounds and of another who, seeing long strips of toilet paper flapping in the breeze in the college garden, said that he liked to see it there.’ (pp. 79-80)

Passionate (a poem)

We are passionate about what we do: every small detail matters to us.

We are passionate about retail.

We are passionate about design.

We are passionate about all things data.

We are passionate about combining outstanding quality ingredients to create perfectly-matched, scrumptious sandwich fillings.

We are passionate about our work.

We are passionate about your work. 

We are passionate about loose-leaf tea and want to share that passion with you.

We are passionate about hair.

We are passionate about creating the world’s finest gourmet popcorn.

We are passionate about helping others fall in love with Jesus.

We are passionate about our product.

We are passionate about your product.

We are passionate about getting the best solution for our clients, not just a ‘good enough’ solution.

We are passionate about our olives.

We are passionate about changing the way you think about laundry. 

We are passionate about the world of makeup, the universe of transformations.

We are passionate about pickleball and introducing others to this beloved game. 

We are passionate about parking.

We are passionate about the continued growth potential for probiotics.

We are passionate about the art of great barbecue.

We are passionate about the next generation of start-ups.

We are passionate about sharing our beef production messages with key influencers.

We are passionate about our mission.

We are passionate about your mission.

We are passionate about pasture: turning a field of grass into milk.

We are passionate about trees and we won’t kill them unless we absolutely have to. 

We are passionate about reclaimed wood, and we are glad that you are too.

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.