Archive for May, 2015

On coachwork

May 25, 2015


Hyde Park, early evening at the beginning of the tour.

This week I was taught a very good lesson by a Dutch coach driver. Coachwork – providing a commentary on a bus tour (or panos as they’re more commonly known in the trade) – is not my favourite part of guiding. Or at least that’s what I always, rather snobbishly, say. Compared to walking tours, where you can do interesting research and put together a considered narrative through the streets, a coach tour is a repetitious bunfight with the content constantly being switched from one topic to another to suit the buildings and landmarks that one is driving past.

The route rarely varies (Westminster, a bit of Southwark/Lambeth and the City of London, occasionally Docklands and the Olympic Park – I rarely go out of town) and thus your patter tends to have a core content of royals, wars, shops and celebrities with the amount you can devote to a particular anecdote dependent on the stickiness of the traffic. Due to the constant gridlock around Knightsbridge I know far too much about Harrod’s (a place I’ve only visited once (once is enough, isn’t it?)). For example that the Shakhtar Donetsk football team were refused entry for wearing shell suits. I tell this anecdote to help me to feel warmer about the place. It doesn’t work.

So, it’s with a rather heavy heart that I prep for the coach. However, there are certain aspects of coachwork that I do enjoy, chief among them the feeling of working in a team. This week’s driver, a Dutchman, introduced himself as Rien, ‘Like the French for nothing’. ‘But you’re everything to me this evening,’ I jokingly said.

There was an element of truth lying behind the gag – the guide depends on the driver to get the coach round safely, to slow down when going past the major TVPs (Top Visual Priorities – more guiding lingo), and sometimes to calm down the rabble at the back. Similarly, the driver relies on the guide – to know the route, to give clear directions, and to entertain the clients (or at least to avoid making them positively hostile).

My prep for the coach tour (because I avoid them it means when I do do them I have to prep a lot more than I would for something that I do regularly, like a Westminster walk) was stressing me because I have two writing deadlines at the moment. The nearest one isn’t a definite deadline, it’s more of a self-imposed deadline for a chapter in a book on South African cricket. This will be volume two of a work that I’m collaborating on with a group of authors for UNISA Press. (Volume 1 is here.) And because it’s for people who have become good friends I care very much that I do a good job. Stress and tension in the house.

I think it’s quite common for academics to feel that they have too much on their plate – it was certainly a feeling I had while writing my thesis and trying to combine that with working, and that returned while teaching at Luton and trying to write papers and articles. Having more than one project on the go can feel overwhelming and in trying to do everything at once one often finds that one advances very little on any front.

What does this have to do with coachwork?

Rien was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with. While I was prattling on about the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner I hadn’t registered that Rien was in the lane to head down the Mall rather than round the back of Buckingham Palace until it was nearly too late. The Mall costs for coaches so it is to be avoided for the budget conscious group leader. I asked Rien if he could get in the right lane. ‘Yes, no problem,’he said as he gently nudged across two lanes of traffic incurring angry honking horns from angry gesticulating cabbies.

Rien was magisterial in his calm at the wheel (this wasn’t the only time that I had to give him a late nudge in the right direction), and I complimented him on it at the end of the tour. ‘I drive the bus to the end of the day and when I bring the bus home I’m happy. Why be worried along the way if you do a good job?’ Wise words. 

So now I’m thinking of my chapter as a big bus. And it’s my job to get the bus home. Why be worried if along the way I do a good job?

Looking at the photos on my phone after the job I thought how lucky I am to do coachwork. The first was of Hyde Park where I was waiting for the coach to arrive. Peace, joggers, grass and trees in the soft evening light. And the next was after being dropped off at Lambeth, the Palace of Westminster in the last glow of the sun. Coachwork isn’t so bad.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

On Lunchtime Music in London

May 13, 2015

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

This was a picture that I culled from the Financial Times a while ago that was partly responsible for my taking up the trumpet late in life (sorry Denize, I know it’s loud). Rushing, if you’re not familiar with his work, was in his pomp in the 50s when he recorded a version of his biggest hit – Mr. 5 by 5 (so called because he was said to be 5′ tall and 5′ wide) – with Lyttleton’s band.

It inspired a feeling in nostalgia, not because I remember the 1950s, I’m not quite that old, but because I was introduced to jazz by listening to Lyttleton’s Best of Jazz on Radio 2 when I was at sixth form. While other people switched on to John Peel (and I would turn to him after Lyttleton’s hour was up) I would get a selection of the best of jazz and feel my whole musical world expand. He was a ‘curator’ before there were ‘curators’.*

So, at the end of my PhD, aside from trying to find an academic job and writing up articles/books, I needed a project. The manager’s vacancy at Perfidious Albion had been filled (it’s currently open again if anyone wants to apply). Music was on my mind. I’d seen Rusbridger’s exercise in egoma … errr, interesting project of learning the piano heavily publicised by the middle class media and the thought of trying out an instrument seemed a good one. But not the piano, I like it too much to spoil it. My son was/is learning trombone and I had the sound of brass in my head. And I wanted something portable and with an adaptable sound. This picture struck my eyes and a plan to play the trumpet was born.

I am fortunate enough to live close to a top class young trumpeter (‘James The Trumpet’** to distinguish him from my son) who was a student at the Guildhall when I first started but is now doing a Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for a long time but it wasn’t till I met James that I thought to go to the RAM for a bit of lunchtime music (I haven’t managed to see him there yet, to my shame) and its different atmosphere to my usual haunts (the Wigmore and St. James’s Piccadilly) put me in mind to do a little round up of what’s on offer in the West End at lunchtime for a time-rich, cash-poor music fan.*** Because each (and I’m using SJP as an exemplar of the free music on offer in lots of churches in London at lunchtimes – another favourite is St Bride’s, Fleet Street) has a very distinct profile both of performers and market.

But my main concern is to publicise the fact that these things happen at all. When I go to these venues, from the library or from home, I invariably have to walk along at least one portion of three of the busiest shopping streets in the country – Marylebone High Street, Piccadilly and Oxford Street. One of the attractions of going to a lunchtime concert is that you step from the noisy sea of humanity that is the West End into places of absolute calm and thoughtfulness. And I don’t intend to give the impression that going to a lunchtime recital is a relaxing experience in some shallow cheesy listening classics way.

Far from it.

These concerts are for thinking; for engaging with the relationship between performer, sound and architecture. And above all, if it’s going well, a concert gives a satisfying rush of emotion, of diverse emotions over the course of an hour long performance. In many cases it’s for donations only, or for the Wigmore (where the performers they have on Mondays are extraordinarily good) for 13 quid.

What troubles me though is that even for an established venue like the Wigmore it isn’t difficult to get tickets. The church and college performances are sometimes moderately, sometimes sparsely, attended. There are thousands upon thousands of people shopping, scoffing sandwiches, boozing, idling within minutes of the doors of these venues who would surely enjoy a more cerebral, or more visceral lunch.

I think one of the off-putting things is that if you haven’t been you don’t know what to expect. There’s very little commentary on what happens in these places on the internet, except among those already in the know, and hard as the publicity departments of the Wigmore and the Colleges work it’s obviously very hard for them to compete with the tidal wave of garbage on Twitter.

And I remember that when I worked in the City (nearly twenty years ago) I used to walk past a sign for concerts quite frequently (usually at St. Mary-at-Hill, sometimes at the Pepys church) without being tempted in because somehow I thought (as a Sarfend/pit village raised geezer) that they weren’t for me. Which is the kind of blinkered nonsense it took me a long time to get over.

So in a spirit of encouraging fellow chip on the shoulder sufferers, and I hope with not too much disrespect to the institutions themselves, I offer this brief guide to two venues I’ve been to a lot and one venue that was new to me with my thoughts on who goes there, what’s on offer and how to get the best out of the experience.

1. The Wigmore Hall

The Mighty Wigmore

The Mighty Wigmore

The Wigmore Hall is the daddy of all chamber music venues in London. It has a fascinating history, which I won’t go into here because that’s not what this post is for (but do look it up). Just walking through the door you can feel a sense of history. This oozes out of the grand architecture and is backed up by portraits of the multitudes of performers who have played there over more than a century of music-making.

The crowd is similarly historic and one could be forgiven that some of them were there for the opening night way back before World War 1 (the war was significant for the Wigmore, it had previously been known as the Bechstein). These venerable patrons mix with obvious high-brows and a range of eccentrics who put the regular Joes and Josephines (among whom I count myself, I’m often among the youngest there) in quite a small minority.

So architecture and punters can combine to make up a pretty intimidating atmosphere for the lunchtime neophyte.

Fear not, this is one of the most knowledgable music crowds you’ll ever be among and if you dare to break the ice with someone at the (excellent) bar before or after you’ll generally be very welcome. The Wigmore costs (13 pounds on Monday) and I’m aware this can be a barrier to entry for some but it’s cheaper for students and you get an excellent small programme included. The bonus of the Wigmore series is that since it’s featured on R3’s lunchtime slot you can listen live and then listen again at home via their website or on Sunday when it’s usually repeated.

My own ideal routine goes an hour in the library, sweets (overpriced but cough candy is a bit of a madeleine for me so worth it) from Mrs Kibble’s in St Christopher Place, a cheeky little pre-action Viognier in the bar with the crossword (the staggering distance pubs are not good) and then get there just in time to an end seat if possible. The regulars do not like being made to stand up once they’re sitting and the seats are quite tight.

The repertoire is generally solidly Baroque/Classical/Romantic big beasts, with the odd bit of twentieth century/contemporary thrown in from time to time, meaning that if anything too atonal isn’t your bag there shouldn’t be too much to frighten you here. The performers are uniformly outstanding (and I mean world class), whether established artists or members of the BBC’s New Generations programme and the Hall’s acoustic is reputed to be one of the best in Europe. The first time I went there I thought there was something wrong because I could hear the music too clearly. My brain had to adjust to the crystalline sound in order to make it appear normal to me. That’s a feeling that still returns if I haven’t been there for a while and have been going to mudpits (see StJP below).

So what I’m saying is one shouldn’t count oneself a Londoner without at least one visit to this, the best music venue in London bar none.

2. St. James’s Piccadilly

St. James's Piccadilly

St. James’s Piccadilly

St JP is worth a visit even if not for the music and I think the first time I heard some music there was because I happened to be visiting to do some research for a walk when a concert was about to start. The building is by Wren, with much restoration following bomb damage in World War II, and being at the heart of St James’s has oodles of connections with the rich and famous through history.

Its position on Piccadilly means that the crowd it gets is a mixed bunch. A lot of the un-idle retired (as always at these things), with a smattering of youngsters (especially if the performer is a music student), some local office workers and a dollop of more or less confused tourists, depending on whether they knew in advance of their visit to the church that there was a concert on. This means that for the newcomer, by contrast to the Wigmore, you will not be alone in being new.

Of course another upside at St. James’s, if you’re not sure you’re up for the lunchtime music scene, is that the concerts are free (although if you’ve enjoyed the gig you’d be an ingrate beast not to make a donation on the way out) and performers are not concerned if you leave in between pieces (although NOT in between movements) as there will be some in the crowd who don’t have the full hour off for lunch and necessarily have to leave.

Those on a budget can get cheap eats before/after out the back of the church where there’s a street food stall, with park benches in the Square for scoffing space. And naturally there’s plenty of sandwich bars and restos in St. James’s and environs. Booze hounds might want to check out the Red Lion for its Victorian interior though the crowd in there can be a bit brayingly hedgey.

The repertoire at StJP is similar to the Wigmore – mostly killer no filler. Occasionally there’ll be a new piece (sometimes with the composer in attendance) as this venue is one where students often come to get some concert practice and they’re more adventurous. So probably a bit more variety than at the Wigmore. But be warned – there are three potential downsides. The acoustic is not the best and it pays to sit near the front. If you want to do this you’ll need to get there early as the front rows often fill up quite quickly. There is also a lot of construction in St. James’s. Those builders don’t stop for anyone, not even Schubert.

Also, if you’re there for the duration try and judge that the person in your row is there for the music and not liable to get up halfway through/start scrunching their sweet packet/be jabbing their phone. The pews are uncompromisingly pew-ish too, be prepared for a bit of fidgeting to get a comfortable lie.

Thirdly, standards can vary too! The students are generally excellent (to this untrained ear) but there have been occasions when I’ve been in attendance at performances that were excruciatingly bad. I mean not just bad but downright offensively amateurish car crashes of recital.

You might think, ‘I’m up for a bit of car crash classical.’ You are wrong.

After 2 minutes of somebody murdering a masterpiece I promise you that you’ll be holding your head in your hands and silently praying for it to stop. I once had the misfortune of listening to someone in StJP hesitatingly, stutteringly, ham-fistedly not picking their way through Beethoven’s PS 32. This work was described by Robert Taub as “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.”

I was left only with the anguish.

After the pianist had finally stopped I turned to the feller next to me.  ‘Was that as bad as I thought it was?’ I whispered. ‘No’, he replied, ‘It was worse.’

It haunts me to this day.

But it isn’t always like that! Mostly it’s good times in St James’s, well worth the trip if you’re in town and want to rest your feet.

3. Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

The RAM, as mentioned above, was new to me and it was thanks to James the Trumpet that I took a look in there last week for a concert of a Notturno by Haydn and Mozart’s Gran Partita in the Duke’s Hall (I think there’s another hall for chamber works). The Duke’s Hall is smack on the Marylebone Road but you wouldn’t notice once you’re inside the building. All is peace. Well, bustly peace. There are students everywhere and this gives a buzzy atmosphere and makes for a younger crowd than at the other venues. As the concert I attended it was half old buggers like me and half students.

Again, this concert was free and unlike StJP there’s no expectation of a donation – the point of the exercise is for the students to gain concert experience so you can enjoy it for nowt guilt-free. If you’re skint you can lunch in the canteen downstairs. If you’re well-heeled Marylebone High Street is across the road. The hall is purpose built so the sound is great and there’s all sorts of portraits of musicians around the walls to keep your eyes occupied, as well of course as the museum next door (which I may talk about another time).

The performance I saw was introduced and conducted by Trevor Pinnock (though he denied that he needed to conduct these pieces) and was phenomenally good. I knew neither piece and to come to something fresh, performed by outstanding young musicians with a top-rank musician in charge was a privilege. Though if you only have an hour for lunch they weren’t concerned about that, I think the performance lasted about 70 minutes – though again there was no tutting at people ducking in or out between pieces.

As it was my first go I haven’t got a handle on their repertoire yet but I’m assuming that of these three venues it will be the widest as the students learn the full range of serious music – classical, contemporary and jazz. Thursday they’re doing Shostakovich (I’m only just getting into him) Trios and since I’m working in the evening that day it might be the perfect break between library and job.

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this page then I know you’re either a lunchtime concert-goer already or you’re thinking about giving it a go.

Do so. Do something different that might improve your state of mind for the cost of an hour of your time.

* Except of course he wouldn’t have been daft enough to use that term outside of describing someone who worked in a gallery.

** If you want his details for tuition you can contact me here. He is a gent.

*** It also has a stonking museum that I’ll blog about anon.

On Luton

May 6, 2015

‘Luton, with over 200,000 inhabitants, is by far the largest town in Bedfordshire, but it is a town of very little architectural interest.’*

Such is Pevsner’s damning opening line on Luton. And I must admit that when I began as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire last October it wasn’t in anticipation of a pleasurable aesthetic experience. Yet this is what it turned out to be.

I suspected Pevsner of being unnecessarily pessimistic about Luton the second I walked past St. Mary’s church on my way to the interview for the job. I’m not much of a church hound but I do recognise excellence when I see it. I made a mental note that if I got the job and saw out my year I would try and get into the church sometime and have a good rootle around.

St Mary's, Luton

St Mary’s, Luton

Over the course of the academic year I walked past St. Mary’s in sun, rain, snow and hail, usually bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and fretting about what I was going to do with the students that day. Arriving in Luton from the gleaming terminal at St. Pancras was a dispiritingly Pevsnerian experience. The renovation of Luton station (a slunking drabness of concrete, brick and corroded metal whose single decorative feature, a Moderne-ish clock, posseses no hands) seems to be very low on Network Rail’s list of things-to-do. And the route to the University from the station either takes one through bypass hell or, even more horrifically, The Mall – an example of Arndale atrocity that even the most stubborn member of the 20th Century Society would find it difficult to defend.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

But then, but then, a descent from the shopping centre to ground level (taking the stairs, the escalator (the Darren Anderton of escalators) invariably being ‘under repair’), a stroll across the road and there lay St. Mary’s lounging defiantly in its own circle of green. So the church was always a welcome sight on the way into work. Even with its bunkerish parish centre attached to the east end it stands out as a piece of civility in a thoroughly feral stretch of the urban landscape.

As does the University, but that’s for another post.

View to the East End of St Mary's

View to the East End of St Mary’s

I’d emailed the church to ask if I could take a look around since it was usually shut on my teaching day. They agreed and on the last day of term I was allowed to wander around the church on my own. It is a gem.It is an outstanding example of the parish church of a wealthy mediaeval town. Its architecture possesses both modest grandeur and quirky byways. Grandeur in the broad wooden roof and gothic arches of the crossing. Quirkiness in its side chapels and piscinas (yeah, I had to look it up too).

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V's chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V’s chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

The memorials tell a very local story of Luton and its inhabitants that links into a national narrative stretching back to the 14th Century. Those who are interested in the Wars of the Roses (never my favourite part of giving a tour of the Tower I have to admit) will be curious about the Wenlock Memorial.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

I was struck by a memorial whose name rang a bell with work that I’ve done on the history of South Africa, that to Alexander Pigott-Wernher. I knew the name Wernher from the firm of Wernher, Beit & Co., who were big players in the South African mining industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My own work has looked in a small way at the relationship between the mining industry and the development of sport in South Africa in the years running up to the Great War and so I’d only read about Julius Wernher as part of the background to the man I was more interested in, Abe Bailey.**

IMG_2866 (1)

I’d assumed that Wernher, like many of the Randlords, was Jewish, so I found it curious that his son, who died on the Somme in 1916, should have a memorial in an Anglican church. In fact Wernher was brought up a Lutheran in Germany and in 1870 had fought in the German army during the Franco-Prussian War. After the war he went into business and had come to the Rand via spells in Paris and London. While his partner, Alfred Beit (who was Jewish), was a dealmaker and visionary empire builder on the Rhodesian model, Wernher was the steady numbers man who ensured that their company had the liquidity to cover Beit’s grand schemes for controlling the market first in diamonds in Kimberley and then in gold on Witwatersrand. Like many of his fellow Randlords Wernher invested his fabulous wealth in property in England, buying a mansion on Piccadilly and the country estate of Luton Hoo (now a luxury hotel) in Bedfordshire – hence the connection with St. Mary’s.

Such a career demonstrates how fluid national identity was in the era of Edwardian high imperialism. The father is a middle-class Prussian soldier when young, yet through the transformative power of capital and class his son dies fighting his father’s nation of birth as an Old Etonian officer in the Welsh Guards. In Luton, the home of the EDL, the story of the Wernhers’ connection to the town is a strong reminder of the flexibility of Englishness and its ability to be an inclusive identity rather than one that rejects newcomers.

I spent a year teaching the history of sport at Luton and one of the commonest discussions we would have as a class was about the tension between globalisation and nationalism in sport. I see the same tension cropping up in the debates about the future of the country during the election campaign, especially with the main parties under pressure from the nationalists of Scotland and UKIP. And what I want the mainstream parties to make a stronger case for is a more inclusive sense of nationality that is open to the hyphenated identities of Scottish-British, Polish-English and English-European. And in this I think Ed Miliband has shown more leadership than David Cameron in rejecting outright a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. Confident of our national identity we have nothing to fear from pooling sovereignty with other nations. I only wish he’d argue more confidently against the exclusionary politics of the SNP and emphasise more the common values that give strength to our nation both in our own eyes and that of the rest of the world.

*Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 211

** If you’re interested in the history of the development of the Rand and the extraordinary range of characters involved in the development of the mining industry I heartily recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book on the Randlords as an introduction. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Randlords (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985)

On ‘On Connaît La Chanson’

May 1, 2015


On Connaît La Chanson (1997), Directed by Alan Resnais.*

Alan Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad, passed away last year. Among his lesser-known works is one of my favourite films, On Connaît La Chanson. This week I watched it for maybe the fifth or sixth time while training for the forthcoming Hackney Half Marathon.** But I hadn’t seen it for a long time, perhaps for five years or so. Certainly not since I started writing up my thesis. It’s a beautiful ensemble piece which is a love-letter both to Paris and to Dennis Potter. It uses a variety French chansons to illuminate the characters’ inner emotions (à la Singing Detective) and thus acts as a beautiful little initiation into the variety of French pop in the twentieth century.

One of the reasons that I took to the film initially is that one of the characters, Camille Lalande (the character hanging off the Eiffel Tower in the illustration above) is a guide. And I think I first saw the film when I had just completed my training as a guide, or was towards the end of it. I could see that certain situations in the film were inspired by the real-life things that guides have to cope with all the time (know-all clients specifically being one of them). As a semi-pro guide I can tell you that her guiding style is awful! But mebbe that’s for another post. Here I’m concerned with OCLC and academia. For anyone who is planning to write, is in the process of writing or even has completed a thesis it is one of those unusual films – a film about doing a PhD. Or more specifically, Camille goes from candidature to completion of her PhD during the course of the film. And anyone who has been through that process will empathise with certain situations and feelings that she experiences.

The first thing, and something that I touched on in an earlier post, is how one can get bored with one’s own subject. And if you’re bored thinking about it you’ll be even more bored talking about it. Camille explains her thesis to an acquaintance and is shocked when she realises that he thinks it’s as boring as she does. Often when you’re inside the PhD even though you yourself may think it’s really dull you still want everyone around you to think that it’s the most vital and interesting subject in the room. If only because you want them to convince you that what you are doing is worthwhile. The boredom often becomes bound up with anxiety – not an anxiety about the examination but an anxiety that you’ll never finish the Thing.

This boredom-anxiety is a threat because it can lead to you becoming depressed. Such is the case with Camille. The one thing that she has chosen to focus on in her life (she appears to be working casually as a guide and has no partner or offspring at the beginning of the film), the thing that defines her to herself and to her loved-ones, has become something that gives her panic attacks to the extent that she passes out during a tour of a château.*** Even having passed her viva she continues to be plagued by thoughts of the pointlessness of the comically obscure subject she has chosen to write about.

To try and make someone who hasn’t done a thesis understand how stressful it can be is quite a difficult thing. ‘What, you mean all that sitting in libraries is stressing you out? Oh, you had to give a paper in front of six people? You mean you can’t stand the pressure of talking about something for a couple of hours about the one thing that you’re the world expert in? Poor you.’ To misquote Keith Miller, ‘Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse. A thesis deadline is not.’

Well, yes. Such a bracing quote can help buck you up but it doesn’t alter the fact that writing a thesis can be a long, lonely process that lacks the cameraderie of the mess hall, the glamour of a pilot’s uniform and the thrill of 500 mph dogfights. So what to do about the doldrums when they arrive?

For me there were three strategies. First, booze. I don’t think this is recommended by the medical profession and I wouldn’t advocate it except at times of maximum affluence, minimum responsibility and maximum leisure time. An unlikely combination of circumstances for those in the thesis game.

Second, acceptance. This is the course that Camille chooses, aided by the friend who was bored by her thesis. He recognised her as being depressed, a diagnosis that she outragedly rejects at first. By the end of the film she realises that she is depressed, and the fact that a friend is also in the same boat comforts her that she isn’t uniquely afflicted. Sometimes it’s very difficult to admit to yourself that you’re having a bad day let alone to someone else. To do that you have to get out of bed and get out into the world, which can be the hardest but most crucial thing to do. The amount of times I’ve felt, not better necessarily, but rather on the way to not feeling worse is by chatting to someone and owning up to feeling down. It’s not a loss of dignity to feel sad, or self-indulgent, or weak. It’s just a thing to be got over in time. And sociability I think is the key to that.

Third, putting a perspective on the PhD. And by that I don’t mean pretending that it’s not a big thing. It is. To a lot of people it will be their greatest accomplishment to date. That’s a big deal. But by perspective I mean that you need to see it as part of your job, not an end point to a stage in your life. On a practical level the PhD is a job qualification that should lead to you being a member of the professional academic community, whether you choose to work in academia or not. Which means that doing a PhD is not unique; there are other wannabe professionals all over London doing just what you’re doing, only for a different set of letters after their name. Such as MITG.****

And that was something that helped me when I was fed up. Sitting on the tube, on the bus, walking around and observing the multitudes of people in London beavering away at improving themselves. Thousands and thousands at Birkbeck, in schools and universities, in FE Colleges and the City Lit. London is a community of strivers.

In this way Camille’s sister, Odile (in the red coat), is an exemplar. She’s a furious, energetic ball of strive. But a more useful (and real) example is that of Resnais himself. One aspect of the artistry of what he does in OCLC only occurred to me while watching Fast and Furious 7 at the weekend. Superficially they’re very different films (though I can’t help thinking that Vin Deisel’s ‘acting’ style would very much lend itself to the dreamlike blankness of Last Year in Marienbad). Yet what characterises them both is that they are ensemble pieces. For F&F7 this is a problem. The characters lack depth (even though they’ve had 14 hours or so to acquire it over the course of the franchise) and each time we have to spend time with them in conversation (in between bouts of increasingly ludicrous action) the film slows down. In OCLC on the other hand one doesn’t even notice how the skill of the director, even while using magical realist techniques that render the story as fantastical as F&F, introduces the characters to you in such a way that they become real people that you care about.

And Resnais did this to the very last year of his life, making films until into his 90s. Such tenacious creativity is worth remembering when feeling down about the pile of work to be done. Keep going.

*Not to be confused with On Connait la Chanson (2011-present) which appears to be an example of one of the few Canadian crimes against humanity.

** No, I’m not asking for sponsorship – if you want to give some money to charity come along to my Movember walk later in the year.

*** A tragi-comic moment – her group can’t tell whether she’s genuinely ill or play-acting as some character from the past. This prompted thoughts of the rivalry between guides and costumed interpreters that came up when chatting to a colleague at a seminar recently who has worked as a costumed interpreter at Historic Royal Palaces. She was (good-naturedly) put out when I made clear my feeling that interpreters (who are tied to a property) are a rung below guides (who wander where they will).

**** Member of the Institute of Tourist Guides

%d bloggers like this: