On the change we are becoming: New Year’s Eve 2017

Quotation from Malouf's An Imaginary Life It’s been a struggle of a year – personally as well as corporately. And now, at the bitter end of 2017, I am where I desperately hoped I would not be: approaching the end of my contract (NB: I’m okay til the end of August. Don’t panic. It’s just that, in higher ed, the hiring cycles churn well before the actual transition happens. Planning ahead is essential.)

So, instead of relaxing over the holidays, I’ve been spending the time between Christmas and New Year’s tailoring applications. And worrying. And telling myself not to worry.

We turn to old friends when we’re in need of ballast, and I’ve returned to three novels for the month of December that please me perhaps more than any other writing I’ve ever read.

First was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place he is rooted: Gilead, Iowa.

Then was Last Orders by Graham Swift – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by a close group of people at the end of one man’s life in the place they all are rooted: Bermondsey, South London.

The last I just finished before turning out the light last night. It is an absolute gift and the best thing I read during my undergraduate degree. It is David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life – a profound, honest, and utterly imagined narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place to which he has been uprooted: Tomis, on the shores of the Black Sea in what is now Constanta, Romania, south of the mouth of the Danube and the furthest limits of the Roman Empire.

It is the imagined metamorphosis of the poet Ovid in exile, from the slick cosmopolitan poet to one awake, aware, and untethered from his life and his world. If you need a book recommendation for 2018, all of these are good, but this is perhaps the best of all.

I read the sentence scrawled out in the photo above and felt it encaptured the sensation of precarity and openness I somewhat have and very much need right now. Here it is, more legibly.

What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the mystery of what we have not yet become, except in dreams that blow in from out there bearing the fragrance of islands we have not yet sighted in our waking hours, as in voyaging sometimes the first blossoming branches of our next landfall come bumping against the keel, even in the dark, whole days before the real land rises to meet us.

-David Malouf
An Imaginary Life

Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye

Leonard Cohen live in Nîmes

Leonard Cohen in Nîmes, 2009. Photo by gaët, found on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0


By mid-November, no one needs to be told that 2016 has not been a very good year. Taking my cue from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who posited the idea of the short twentieth century (starting 1914 with WWI and ending in 1991 with the fall of Communism in Russia), I hoped desperately and publicly for a short 2016. It would start on 10 January, when we learned about the death of David Bowie, and end on 9 November when Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. We know how that prediction worked out.

In the midst of our (okay, my) rage and incomprehension, word of the death of Leonard Cohen hit – not like a bomb, but like a cone of silence that allowed me to leave aside internal wranglings about politics over which I had no control. It forced a kind of stillness and attentiveness on me, and I was the better for it. Many sobbed and sighed and thought, “Why are we losing Leonard Cohen precisely when we need him?”

I had a different reaction. Grimly, cynically, I felt he got out in time. But more reflectively, I think he has given us everything we need already. He has so adequately prepared us for our own mortality by musing on and confronting his own. He’s left us a body of  literature and song that deal so squarely with death and grief, with life and beauty. He has told us what we need to know. Continue reading

Daddy, the Champion of the World

Picture of me by my toddler

We don’t make a big deal of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day in our house. Sensitive to the greater cultural environment, my eldest son had prepared a glitter-filled piece of art about a sunset as well as a loom band in the Daddy Approved colours of green and purple; my daughter improvised a puppet show which included a crocodile eating a dragon and finished with me being knighted; my youngest gave me a picture that he had declared earlier was a crocodile – and it very much was, in a not-yet-three kind of way, though the real Father’s Day treat, such as it is, was the portrait he made of me on his chalkboard a few days earlier (see above).

What really made it good for me was doing the things I always and already do that make me a father: going out in the rain to do errands for the family, trading silly jokes, and best of all, reading the bedtime story. The celebration, for me, is in the doing. Continue reading

One Line to Last You

Galician hillsideI popped into the bank a little while ago. I seldom need to go in, as I can do most of what I need on the internet or at the hole in the wall, but we had recently moved from Scotland to Wales, and I had a mittfull of Scottish bank notes which are not widely embraced as currency south of the border (even though they’re still pounds sterling. Even at the food shops in King’s Cross Station, where the Edinburgh train tends to arrive. Don’t get me started.)

Anyway, I was at the bank, as I said, and they had a table out with some used books for sale, raising money for some charity or another. Cancer, I think. Most of the books on the table looked pretty carcinogenic, if you ask me, but that’s often the way of these things. The dregs and the disposable circulate, whilst the books that are actually worth reading tend to stay on our shelves. Funny that.

But I looked at the table anyway, and on it was Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. I know a lot of people get pretty jazzed about his stuff, and his books and his thoughts were present with many of our fellow peregrinos on the camino, which we walked ten years ago on the button. I was not tempted, nor did I put much faith in Shirley MacLaine’s also-influential account. She got a lot of people scared about dogs – people practicing their faux-fencing skills with those wonderful Nordic poles in case they had to defend themselves on the journey. (We did meet a dog – a yappy thing with a blue ribbon around its neck. I wanted to take a picture for Shirley’s sake.) Continue reading

Go Set a Watchman

I confess, I had a difficult time figuring out what to do with the news of Harper Lee’s new publication. When I got home this afternoon, I tweeted a nice message of support for a local band whose new CD is just pressed–we got our copy through the slot today. The music’s great, and the writer/singer/strummer is a friend and former neighbour. Tweeting support was absolutely the right thing to do.

Except I then decided to figure out why people on my feed were talking about “savages” and “Jordanian”, and after a click or two, my cheery tweet seemed somewhat out of place. Twitter is, of course, that cheek-by-jowl blend of grotesque, mundane, inane, and clever. But it felt odd.

So aside this, I see the news about the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I feel like I’m being told one of those stories about how Grandma got on the roof. Or like Kramer: I’m flippin, I’m floppin, what am I gonna do?

A couple of hours later, after the kids are abed, I look more into the Harper Lee story. We need good news, right? And the news is all good, as seen in this story from the Guardian… right until the comments from Dr. Ian Patterson from Cambridge University (otherwise known as the University of Cambridge) who was reportedly “underwhelmed by the news.” Dr. Patterson gives it the right smug academic snub, deriding Lee’s first published work as “a soggy sentimental liberal novel if ever there was one.” He doubts, it seems, the lasting power or artistic worth of the unearthed treasure that is about to dazzle all the bestseller lists. Continue reading

#RLSDay in Edinburgh

Here’s how I celebrated Robert Louis Stevenson and participated in his unbirthday.

I was informed from three directions that he gave his birthday to a little girl; we had some scholarly disputes regarding whether it was Christmas Day or Leap Day, but this post seems to have settled it, in true RLS fashion.

Continue reading

Harry Potter and the Gulag Archipalego

This blog post has been edited 4 March 2014. Please see additional note at the bottom. MM

When I was bombarded with analyses of the Lego movie, putting a recent blog post together, I came across one review from what appears to be a libertarian blog or news site called The Federalist. It was a sort of unremarkable commentary—first outlining the argument that the movie was anti-business and then unpicking it, turning the argument on its head so the movie becomes instead a paean to hard work, creativity, and all the enterprising qualities that embody the libertarian ethos. It’s a good trick, and one I think all of us reviewers and commentators like to do. I recall a similar hue and cry over the Muppet movie, so I’m thinking a) movies for kids rely on a convenient stock of easily drawn villainy, and b) big business is an easy and obvious image of villainy, like the severe Russian generals of my own childhood, none of which subverts or submits to the idea that c) the virtues associated with individual triumph can be wrestled into whichever ideology you want them to support. So who cares. Continue reading