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.

No country for old men

I wrote this for Times Higher Education about Kieran Setiya’s new book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

For an academic, midlife has an odd feel. Life is linear; university life is cyclical. Each year, amid the sweet, melancholy, annual death that is autumn, the cycle begins again. You are a year older but are surrounded by young people who are not.

There is another, complicating factor. The managerialism of the modern university is project-driven. Its audits and assessment exercises consume much time and worry and then vanish like snow, to be replaced by something worse. After you have been through enough of these iterations, the organisational amnesia—in which every year becomes year zero and we are always “moving forward”—starts to feel quite surreal. Meanwhile you welcome new colleagues, attend retirement dos and go to funerals. You are “moving forward” all right—in one direction.

We midlife academics carry on doing the same job as best we can. But we now know that we are auditioning for another role: the academic ghost we will one day be, haunting the corridors and rattling our chains. Our role model is Stoner, the freshman-composition drone at the University of Missouri and eponymous hero of John Williams’s classic novel. At 42, with a failed marriage and failed career, he “could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”.

Kieran Setiya is nothing like Bill Stoner. An MIT philosophy professor with a happy family life, he recognises his good fortune. And yet, six years ago, at the age of 35, he began to think of the life he had worked so hard to build and to see it as a series of diminishing returns. There was “something hollow in the prospect of doing more of it, in the projected sequence of accomplishments stretching through the future to retirement, decline, and death”. He became filled with “a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness, and fear”.

First world problems, you might think, and Setiya has anticipated this objection. The midlife crisis is partly a phenomenon of the affluent West and, at least as a named entity, fairly new. Only in 1965 did the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques publish the paper that coined the phrase. The way it has entered the vernacular hardly invites precision and rarely elicits sympathy. Whenever I hear that someone is “having a midlife crisis”, I invariably hear the implication that this is a self-indulgent (and usually male) vanity.

But the midlife crisis, as Setiya shows, is real and gender-unspecific. Recent studies identify a U-curve of human happiness, with depression and anxiety peaking at age 45. Some of this may simply mean that “shit happens in midlife”, to our health and our work and family responsibilities, and we call it a midlife crisis because we can. But the crisis also has deeper existential causes.

Our lives, Setiya argues, are founded on incommensurable values, which cannot be evaluated using a simple felicific calculus. He grew up wanting to be a poet, then wondered about following his father into medicine. Being a poet or a doctor cannot be compared with being a philosophy professor, for none of these fates subsumes or cancels out the others. Trying to choose between incommensurable values inevitably generates midlife regret and a feeling of missing out. It is the price we pay for the plurality of our values and our freedoms.

Setiya is happy to call Midlife a self-help book, even if he concedes that he has written it partly to help himself. It is a model for how to write philosophy clearly and non-technically without lapsing into banality or truism. Setiya writes enlighteningly about his own midlife crisis without it ever sounding like a whine. His voice throughout is warm, lucid and sane.

For a self-help book it certainly refuses easy consolations. Some of the advice Setiya gives is, he must know, no help at all. In the face of one’s physical decrepitude he advises anticipatory nostalgia. “Imagine how you will feel about the face in the mirror, the body you inhabit today, when you look back from ten or twenty years,” he writes. “It could and will be worse.” (Thanks.) He also argues that cognitive therapy has no answer to the perfectly rational fear of death. (Thanks again.)

But some of Setiya’s advice is genuinely useful. If you think, as he does, that you would have been better off as a doctor, then recognise that you are ignorant of the texture of such a life, “the enveloping substance of the work that makes it so worthwhile”. This “amplitude of life, its unfathomable particularity” is what is missing from our midlife regrets. The answer is to focus on the rich and irreducible details of our actual lives. “Do not weigh alternatives theoretically,” he writes, “but zoom in: let the specifics count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived.”

Setiya also makes a distinction—especially useful, I suspect, for academics—between telic and atelic activities. The former aim at terminal states; the latter have no end but are valuable in themselves. Many academic projects, like publishing articles and applying for grants, are telic. To do them well “is to complete them and so to eliminate meaning from your life”. The best one can feel is what Setiya calls “the emptiness of satisfied desire”.

His advice is not to spend more time doing obviously atelic activities like going for walks or sitting in parks. (I suspect he knows his neurotic peers too well.) Rather, if you over-invest in telic activities, the solution is “to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project”. Only thus will we escape “the self-subversion of the project-driven life”.

It seems to me that Setiya, as a philosopher, misses something else about middle age: it turns us all into anthropologists. “In middle age a liberation takes place,” the poet Michael Hamburger wrote in his memoir A Mug’s Game. A “fourth factor” appears alongside the id, ego and superego, “smiling or unashamedly laughing at their silly little squabbles”. This fourth factor is a relativist not an absolutist, a comedian not a tragedian. The middle-aged are converts to life’s essential absurdity.

Our students are often described as “digital natives”—not always true, in my experience. But students are natives in the sense that they are too young to know that the reality they swim in was once different and will be different again. In midlife the world feels slightly skewed, its languages and behaviours newly strange. The rituals of the modern university begin to feel as curious as the rituals of the Trobriand islanders must have seemed to Malinowski (although not as much fun).

The midlife academic is sailing to Byzantium, but may be stuck halfway, feeling adrift and disorientated. Diana Athill writes beautifully about old age as “like coming out onto a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle going on down below me”. That is the state I hope one day to attain. I will be an unembittered, obliging onlooker, with only benign feelings towards those still stuck in the country that, as Yeats wrote, is not for old men. If anyone knows a way to attain this state, please tell me how.

I Spy at the Seaside


I wrote this for Times Higher Education about the academic on the beach.

You don’t really need a guide to the British beach, do you? You have been coming to the seaside all your life. Everything—the coin-slot telescopes, the bucket-and-spade sets, the coloured windmills on sticks—is the same. That singular smell, a sweet bouquet of ozone, salt and seaweed, opens up a wormhole back to childhood.

But did it ever occur to you that the beach is also a training ground for scholars, an outdoor library-cum-laboratory? In his famous “two cultures” lecture, C.P. Snow decried the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the sciences and humanities. He should have spent more time on the beach. For this is where human culture, nature and dead matter meet, where you learn to be interdisciplinary. And as you keep returning to the beach as the years go by, you make your way through the disciplines.

First you are a scientist, albeit a clueless eight-year-old one. On every trip to the beach you carry your copy of I Spy at the Seaside. The number of points you score depends on the rarity of what you spot: five for a lugworm’s coiled casting, ten for a razor shell, thirty for a gooseneck barnacle. For even on holiday you are a little high achiever, collecting ticks, marks and gold stars—a perfect apprenticeship for the endless measurement and self-surveillance of academia, it turns out.

A sand grain is your first lesson in non-human scale: infinitesimal in the singular, immeasurably vast in the plural. The horizon over which the sea disappears feels like another kind of infinity, until your dad disappoints you by telling you that it is only three miles away. The rock pools that you study with your shrimping net are a tutorial in biodiversity, life’s gift for enduring and multiplying in uncongenial places. In the sea, as you scream with delight at the oncoming surf, you are a trainee oceanographer. You have an inkling that those weird things, waves, are not things at all but processes: not water so much as energy using water as a medium.

Scientists recently worked out the perfect type of sand for sandcastles. The grains have to be fine-to-medium to cohere, irregular in size to interlock, and wet enough to stick together: ideally, eight-parts sand to one-part water. As an eight-year-old apprentice engineer, you may not know that precise formula. But you do know which type of sand will neither crumble from dryness nor collapse from sogginess. And you know just the right dampness of grain so that your castle turrets, moulded inside the indented base of the bucket, stay upright.

The years pass. You are older now, bored with sand and waves. You have turned into a social scientist. You begin to see the beach as a frontier—between the wild and the domestic, between anarchy and social order. For here the riders of sand yachts and kite buggies have to share space with families playing rounders and sunbathers snoozing on towels, in states of proximity and undress they would never countenance in their normal lives. The beach is a self-policing community, where social rules and hierarchies are put on hold—a great site for sociological fieldwork.

Nowadays, though, the beach has brought you back to your true home: the humanities. “Here I am, before the sea; it is true it bears no message,” wrote Roland Barthes in Mythologies. “But on the beach, what material for semiology!” Now you wander, Monsieur Hulot-like, among the beach-dwellers, all of them performing “fun”, with their picnics and games and self-mockery. You come across many versions of the parents in that Philip Larkin poem, all of them “clumsily undressed” and teaching their children how to live by “a sort of clowning”. And you realise that this fragile search for meaning, this grabbing at happiness on the wing, is all we have, all that separates us from nothingness. Without us meaning-making animals to notice it, the beach is just liquid, sediment and foam.

The beach now seems to you like an accelerated demonstration of the impermanence of all human culture. At the end of each day on the beach, everything—deflated beach balls, damp swimming trunks, uneaten sausage rolls—must be packed away. Sandcastles are stamped on before the sea devours them. Names writ in sand with a stick are erased. The crisp footprints of children, running in joyful circles, vanish.

At last you tire of parsing everything for meaning. You are on holiday, for heaven’s sake. Life is too short to waste time explaining it all. As Shakespeare wrote—although somehow it’s hard to picture him at the seaside—“like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.” Time to switch off your too-busy brain. And so you stand, as mute and unthinking as one of Anthony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach, watching the sun sink below the sea as the waves break on the sand.

Photograph: Ian McAllister, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)