Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Christmas Lunch

40 members of staff are in festive mood
surrounded by crackers, wine and good food.

The Admissions Tutor is in San Francisco.
We miss his cheerful banter.

The academic who took us to Stonehenge
is giving the closing speech at the Royal Society.
He claims that he would rather be with us.

The enthusiastic academic
describes her family Christmas
on a farm in the heart of Wales.
It sounds noisy.

I turn around to see the deputy Exams Officer
and the academic who dreams of golf courses
looking like identical twins with their paper hats.
They have worked together for a long time
and they are very good friends.

One end of the table is all Professors.
The conversation sparkles.

We say farewell to the young academic
who will be starting a new job
in the snowy north of Norway.

The academic who shall be nameless
has just won a large Research Grant.
There is much applause and raising of glasses.

The academic who has just turned 40
leads a crowd
down the street
to the nearest pub.
I hear later
it was only the beginning
of a long evening.

I pay the bill,
supervised by the Head of Department,
who hasn’t been drinking wine
so he can still add up.

The Head of Department leaves
to chair a session
at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit.

I go home to look after MissM
who has acute tonsillitis.


These are good people.
They are dedicated to their students and their research
but they know how to party too.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

i choose to look upwards

The campus is enclosed by woodland
and trees encroach from the margins
so that the buildings are embedded
among oaks, horse chestnuts and great cedars.
This is the oak tree outside the front door
of the Department. I see it every morning.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Venice in Winter

The academic who has just turned 40
went to Venice for a special birthday weekend.

The Doges Palace
Edward Seago

I recommended our little hotel
near the Accademia Bridge

The Grand Canal from Accademia Bridge
Edward Seago

and told him to ask for the room at the front
which overlooks the canal.

The Doorway, Venice
Edward Seago

We arrived by watertaxi at night
when Venice was shrouded in fog
and nothing could have been
more magical or romantic.

Venice at night
Edward Seago

The academic told me of a tiny restaurant
hidden among back streets
and I longed to return.

Maybe in the Spring.


Edward Seago (1910 - 1974)
started his artistic career in a travelling circus
but went on to develop an Impressionistic style
which he used to explore the effect of light and shade
in various locations from the Antarctic to the Norfolk Broads.
His paintings were much sought after and he enjoyed
the enthusiastic patronage of the Queen Mother.
I look forward to the Centenary exhibition
at the Portland Gallery in February 2010.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Walking through the RGS

"The learned society & professional body
for geography & geographers."

The Map Room has low cabinets
with shallow drawers.
The temptation to open one
almost overcomes me.

There is a lunch reception and
I see out of the corner of my eye
that the immaculate man on the sofa
is from the Embassy of Azerbaijan.

Tea Room : for use by Fellows and Guests only
Do eminent explorers drink tea?

I am momentarily distracted
by the selection of guidebooks
for the Arctic and Antartica.

Stanley, moustachioed and belligerent,
is hidden behind the swing doors.

The Zanzibar chests
are from the Artefacts collection of the Society.
Please do not sit on them.

A sliver of the Royal Albert Hall
is glimpsed through the tall casement windows.

In the empty lecture theatre
the brass edge to the balcony seats
shines dully in the half-light.

Lavatories on the Minstrels Gallery

Sir Wilfred Thesiger stares back at me,
his hooded bronze eyes exactly on a level with mine.

The leather seats in the corridors
are gold embossed with
the impressive design of the RGS,
crowned and gartered.

Photographs of Sherpas
from the 1936 expedition to Everest
stare solemnly out over the exhibition space.
In this building where great expeditions
have been proposed and planned
they claim their rightful place.


Founded in 1830,
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
is a world centre for geography:
supporting research, education,
fieldwork & expeditions,
and promoting public engagement
and informed enjoyment of our world.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Yardangs and other matters...

I know that yardangs
are not the obvious choice for a post
but bear with me...

MrM and MrsM recently had the pleasure
of meeting a friend of MissM,
let us call him MasterN,
and, as luck would have it, he is a Geographer.

MrsM was able to make intelligent conversation
about exhibitions that she had been to at the RGS.

MissM was able to entertain us
with stories of the coldest place on earth.

and MrM?

MrM decided to give a monologue about yardangs
(which appears to be all that he remembers
from years of Geography lessons)
and spoke at length
and in great detail
until MrsM and MissM begged him to stop.

MasterN gave a very good impression
of being completely fascinated
by the mysterious world of the yardang
and delighted by the chance to learn about them...

which is why I think we should refer to him
from now on as
the Charming MasterN.

Friday, 16 October 2009


Most of the time my office door is open
and the room fills with the sounds of the Department.

If you listen at any moment in the day
you will hear laughter
somewhere in the building.

The squeak of the Admission Tutor's shoes
as he leads another guided tour
for applicants
and their anxious parents.

The rattle of the ventilation unit
starting up on the ground floor Cold Store.

The trumpet player in a nearby Hall of Residence
who practises endless scales and arpeggios.

The students who chatter
as they leave the seminar room
"Human Geographers are SO intellectual."
and then, mysteriously,
"My girlfriend is KILLING me."

The telephone in the office next door
which has a special ring tone
when the Professor's wife calls.

The Academic who has just turned 40
who marches purposefully down the corridor
and says "I don't want to disturb you but...
I have another cunning plan..."

The clatter of a skateboarder in the car park
where I hope that the new Little Car is safe.

The folding bike with tiny wheels
being wheeled down the corridor.

The faraway music of an ice-cream van
in the streets at the bottom of the hill.

The swirling sounds of rooks roosting
in the tall trees outside the building.

The succession of people leaving for home
who cheerily call out as they pass
"Bye, Alice, have a good evening.
See you tomorrow."

Thursday, 1 October 2009


The noticeboards in the Department are immaculate.
The order and energy of the display impressed me
when I walked through the door for the first time.

A handwritten message from a tutor:
"Hello again!
I hope that you had a great summer.
Please come and see me to discuss
your course choices for this year."

An advertisment for a seminar:
"Why Denim?"
(Why not?)

The Student Soc poster:
"Around the World Pub Crawl.
A different drink in every pub."

Newspaper cutting:
"Great Dust Storm Shuts Sydney"

Poster of Department Staff:
There is an empty space
where the China expert should be.
He was in Corsica
when the photos were taken

Health and Safety sign:
"It is Strictly Forbidden
to Eat or Drink
in this Room"
which is on the wall above the table
where the birthday cakes are shared out.

Outside my office:
Pictures of the bones of
a Woolly Rhinoceros.
I know the person who dug them up.

Notice of Important Meeting:
to give details of Field Trip, January 2010
for the first years
who read it anxiously,
not sure what to expect.

Collage of Photographs of Field Trip, January 2009:
Much laughter and chatter from second years
as they recognise themselves
smiling out from the display.

On my noticeboard:
a postcard from the University of British Columbia
sent by the Professor of whom we spoke.
It shows a granite arch stranded on grassland.

Small notice in foyer:
"The sarsen stones outside the front door
were found during excavations for the M25.
They are similar in size and age
to the sarsen stones at Stonehenge."

A competition to design a sari:
I wonder if my friend, Gina, would be interested...

Friday, 31 July 2009

Summer Vacation

It is the summer vacation
and the Department is in hibernation.
There is time to stop and chat.

She tells me that...
she has taken eight children camping.
I bow before her.

He tells me that...
his wife cut his hair.
His hair is shockingly short.
He says that it is an economy haircut.

She tells me that...
her daughter is at summer camp.
Today they are playing with clay...
if only we could go and join in too.

He tells me that...
he is to become a father
and it is clear that he cannot believe
that he is saying the words out loud.

She tells me that...
it was her daughter's 18th birthday party.
"It was lovely to see her so happy
and the centre of attention.
Birthdays should be special."

He tells me that...
he is not going home to Spain this year.
"It will be very hot there"
he says gloomily,
looking out at the rain.

She tells me that...
every time she organises office moves
she is also moving house.
"If I see another archive box

He tells me that...
they are going on holiday to CentreParcs
where he will look after the children
and his wife will go the Spa.
I think he is looking forward to it.

She tells me that...
she is thinking of leaving.
I am sad
but not surprised.

He tells me that...
he had remembered what I had told him
and so the new baby
arrived with a present
for a newly promoted big sister.

She tells me that...
her daughter got married.
The sun shone all day
and everything went according to plan
and, afterwards, she felt quite bereft.

This time last year I did not know them.
They would not have told me these things.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Graduation Procession

We processed across the Quad
and along the corridor
and through the Gallery to the Chapel.

The sun shone on the mortar boards
and the smart suits,
frivolous dresses and fabulous shoes.

The sun shone on the academics
in their multicoloured gowns
and fantastic hats.

The sun shone on the wide smiles
of proud parents and guests.

The sun shone on the turrets and towers
so that the building glowed.

It was a wonderful afternoon.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

All Aboard the Charabanc

the following invitation was found on the photocopier...

The next Day of Culture
will consist of a visit to Brighton
to explore a number of themes
related to the Social and Cultural Research Group.

We will meet at the The Royal Pavilion Gardens
and visit the Brighton Museum
to consider issues such as:
health, housing, religion
civic pride, sport and other social activities
through a range of objects and printed ephemera.

The exhibition will help contextualise
the second activity of the day
raising questions that we might like to contemplate
as we move beyond the museum space.

Next we will visit
the historic ‘Lanes’ area of Brighton
which has a vibrant café culture
and is characterised by
second-hand and antique emporiums
as well as flea markets
making it an ideal place to pause
and consider a number of themes
including consumption,
the histories of objects
and material culture.

Finally, we will visit the Pier, promenade and beach
to consider the role of tourism
in the creation of Brighton, past and present.

You may wish to read the following
as an introduction to some of the themes
that might arise during the day:

Shields R (1991)
‘Ritual pleasures of a seaside resort
liminality, carnivalesque and dirty weekends’

from Places on the Margin: Routledge: London

Miller D (1998)
Theory of Shopping
Polity Press: Cambridge


MrsM admits to adding the illustrations.

Needless to say, MrsM must remain in the office
to ensure that the administrative wheels
of the Department run smoothly...

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Final Lap

Red pen for result.
Blue pen for explanation.
Black pen for comment.

The Educational Support Officer
is wearing bright green Converse
and dark grey boardies.

'We need...
more chocolate biscuits...
says the Deputy Exams Officer.

Mark entry.
Long columns of numbers.
Double checked.

Two students in summer dresses
are strolling across campus
eating ice creams.

After analysis
a mark is adjusted
to compensate for
rounding error.
It might make all the difference.

A queue of party goers
waiting for a bus
in bright cocktail dresses and high heels
are off clubbing.

Mark entry is completed early.
The Exams Officer
and the Deputy Exams Officer
are all smiles.

The StudentSoc are planning a boat party.
I must have looked slightly alarmed
because she says soothingly
'Don't worry - I won't be drinking -
I will make sure nobody falls over the side'.

The very fierce lady
in the Exams Office says
'Well Done'.

Offices on the Quad
will be disturbed by soundchecks
for the Summer Ball.

There are more meetings to come.
Some will need lots of Kleenex
but the end is in sight.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Learning at Work

You have not yet met
the Professor who shall be nameless
but he has a mischievous sense of humour.

He sends me a link to
the Learning at Work Day homepage.
He knows that I will be entertained
by the list of prizewinners of the
'Name the Fruit and Vegetable' Competition.

The Professor who shall be nameless
does not mention that
a Very August Colleague
is a prizewinner.

As luck would have it,
the Very August Colleague
is the next person to come into my office.

I congratulate the Very August Colleague
on this extraordinary achievement.
He glows with pride.

I got 33 out of 40.
I am amazed.

Not everyone can identify a Mangosteen, you know.
I am impressed.

I thought it was VERY unfair
that I was expected to know it was a Medjool Date.
I just wrote Date.

I am sympathetic.

I didn't recognize the Dragon Fruit
but who would?

I would!
I say.

He looks doubtful.
He is, after all,
a widely travelled,
highly respected,
senior Professor
who gets letters published in the Guardian.
If he doesn't recognise a Dragon Fruit,
it is unlikely that I will.

But it is true.
I would recognise a Dragon Fruit.


Later, MrsM recounts the story to MissM.
She looks slightly mystified.

Why did he win?
What did he call it?
Oh! I SEE ...
I thought it was 'NAME the Fruit and Veg...'
like 'Billy-Bob...the Carrot'

MrsM realises that she may have to
sharpen her act before
she gives up the day job.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Stonehenge at Sunset

If you stand with your back to the Heel Stone
at the ancient entrance to Stonehenge
this extraordinary Neolithic monument
does not seem large
under the huge Wiltshire sky.

It is only after you have stepped over the rope
and approached the great Sarsen ring
that you begin to comprehend the size
and complexity of the construction.

Walking under the massive lintel stones
into the inner circle
you feel awed by the vision and organisation
of the community that created this place
6,000 years ago.

Closer still,
you discover the pale patina of lichen
which catches the late evening light.

We were very fortunate to have
a Stonehenge expert,Andrew Lawson,
as our group leader.
His detailed description of the construction
and archaeological excavations was fascinating.

These daggers and axeheads
occur on many of the stones in the inner circle
and were carved into the rocks nearly 4,000 years ago.

Then it was time to be quiet
as the sun began to set.

It is a rare privilege
to be allowed inside the stone circle
and it was an unforgettable experience
to be there at sunset.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Equal Opportunities

Lecture Theatre

tiered seats of excruciating discomfort
each patinated bench with a brass ink well
primrose walls and white plasterwork
black iron wall radiators
smoky glass pendant lamp

the man at the lectern
describes the manifold ways
in which discrimination should be avoided
in a dry, monotonous voice

it delights me to think
that this same lecture theatre was built
for the sole use of young women
who were educated here
but were unable to graduate
and returned to a world where
only men could vote

what would they think of this
equal opportunity legislation?

Students - 1891

Friday, 15 May 2009

Special Arrangements

I don't want to worry you

the invigilators have not arrived.
Could you phone the exams office?

Wait a minute!
Why is that candidate walking out of the building?

What do you mean - the invigilators are lost?

I am going to go back and reassure the other candidate.

He's gone!
This is a disaster...
we have no invigilators and no candidates.

Phone the exams office
but don't tell them
we have lost the candidates.

Ah! Here is an invigilator...

I am afraid that you will not be in the room
on the schedule because the computer centre
set up the computer in the other room.
I am afraid that we don't have a candidate either.

Ah! Here is a candidate.

Oh dear - it is the other candidate
and his invigilator is still missing.

I am going to walk around the building
and see if I can spot anyone who looks lost.


Some candidates have special arrangements
for their exams which take account
of particular challenges that they face.

These students are in individual examination rooms
and may have computer equipment or a note-taker.

This year we have a number of candidates
with special examination arrangements
including a finalist with cerebral palsy

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Invitation to a Private View

The artist, smiling.
The husband, relieved.
The mature student, gesticulating.
The photographer, bored.
The research director, self-deprecating.
The gallery receptionist, blase.
The influential woman, networking.
The blogger, fascinated.


The images were taken, with permission,
at the private view of an exhibition,
Moving Patterns,
at the Royal Geographical Society.
It is the culmination of a research project
to consider the effect of migration on artistic expression.

It involved collaboration with artists
who have a variety of visual references from different cultures.
One artist amalgamates the structure of tartan
and the Indian tradition of gold and silver artwork.

Another artist uses images such as
the double decker bus and helmeted policeman
in repetitive patterns.

If you thought that
Geography was all about maps
you are so out of date.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


MrsM has been signed up for a Time Management course.
MrsM is aggrieved. She does not think that she needs to attend.
MrsM is informed that it is compulsory.
MrsM provides a credible excuse for the first session:

"Board Meeting"

MrsM provides a credible excuse for the second session:


MrsM runs out of excuses.

MrsM checks her diary first thing in the morning. It is The Day.
MrsM shakes her head at the shocking waste of time.
MrsM arrives with a minute to spare.

There is no-one there.
MrsM is a week early.
MrsM turns around to see the course organiser.
MrsM is busted.

Alas! MrsM knows that the course organiser knows that
MrsM really, really needs a Time Management course.
And the course organiser knows that MrsM knows that.

It is a bitter medicine to swallow.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Calm before the Storm

It is the first day of the exam term.
Another year, another exam timetable.

The Chair of the Board of Examiners
and the Educational Support Officer
sit in my office looking gloomy.

Extenuating Circumstances,
External Examiners,

The Chair of the Board of Examiners
has started to think in decimal points already.

I tell him that the invigilator
has emailed from Jordan to confirm
that she will be back in time for the first exam.

The Educational Support Officer
is responsible for students with problems.
I admire him - it is a difficult job.

I point to the traditional tin of chocolate biscuits
for the sole use of examiners.
It is a feeble attempt to lighten the mood.

They dictate an email to be sent to all students.
My erratic typing makes them laugh.

We agree that "Groundhog Day"
is a truly great film.

The Chair of the Board of Examiners
takes the notices from the filing cabinet:

Quiet - Exam In Progress

It will all be over in five weeks.

I consider warning my blog friends
that I may be slow to respond to emails.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Department Board Meeting

It is nearly the end of term.
Everyone is tired and scratchy.

The smell of onion soup
drifts across the room.

The Head of Department
has a vivid orange and red waistcoat.
With matching socks.

The business of the department is discussed.
Everyone is there apart from
the Professor who has meetings in Sierra Leone.

The tiny American academic
is wearing a beautifully cut
short suede skirt
with long black boots.

The Admissions Tutor thanks everyone
for their hard work
supporting the admissions process.
Evening Lectures, Open Days, School Visits.
Applications are up.

The academic who dreams of golf courses says
"I am worried that soil is slipping off the agenda."

The enthusiastic academic
is not happy about a proposal.
It has not been properly presented.
The air sparkles.

I am distracted by the sight of a heron
in the blue sky outside the window.
That part of the meeting will not be recorded.

The person next to me is eating
curried chicken in a ciabatta.
It is in imminent danger
of cascading all over his notebook.

The Professor of whom we spoke
requests information about manual handling
with a mischievous glint in his eye.

The Libyan expert is congratulated
on his forthcoming marriage.
Everyone applauds.
He blushes.

Outside, the Magnolia stellata is in full bloom.
In another life I would have been in the garden.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Academic Progression

A young finalist breezes into my office.
As she leaves I notice her well organised backpack.
With a pocket for a water bottle.
Students in my previous Department
did not use backpacks.
Which might explain why
they were always losing things.

This Professor can't stop to chat
because he has a conference call to Alaska.
It is a telephone-interview
for the Masters course.
I wonder if the candidate is smartly dressed
as they try to impress him from afar.

I discuss the arrangements with a PhD student
for a research trip to Vietnam.
We agree that it is unlikely that
rickshaw drivers will write receipts.

There is champagne in my office fridge
for the next PhD student
to celebrate a successful defence of their thesis.

It is such a pleasure to write an email which starts
Dear Dr....

Four of the best Post doctorate students in the Department
have come to the end of their research grants.
It is so difficult to say goodbye.

Waiting to hear if a grant application
has been successful
is nerve-wracking.
Grey skin and bags under the eyes
kind of nerve-wracking.
A young academic career hangs in the balance.

This young academic has just got his first job.
He shakes hands in a calm, courteous manner.
But as soon as he steps out of my office
he is surrounded by friends
rushing out of offices,
cheering, hugging him and each other
and hurrying him off to celebrate.

The Libyan expert is getting married next month.
He will be spending his honeymoon in Namibia
because he has 'always wanted to go there'.
I hope his wife-to-be enjoys travelling.

Little Rosa comes to see her daddy in his office.
I tell her about the little girl cousin
- also called Rosa -
who is very, very,very naughty.
Little Rosa's eyes grow large with delight.

I receive a special request for
next year's timetable.
I am delighted to be able to help.
I like to think that two children
can take it for granted that their father,
an eminent Professor,
will be home in time to supervise splashes and bubbles.

It is the people that you work with
that make the work worthwhile.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Vetting the Exam Papers

We spend an afternoon locked in a quiet office
scrutinising exam papers.

Everything must be perfect.
Font, format, spelling, grammar,
language, content, style.
There is no room for error.

The Chair of the Exam Board is a serious, careful academic.
He is exceptionally methodical.
His attention to detail is quite frightening.
He is just the right person for the job.

The word 'amongst' is rejected as archaic;
the word 'impacted' is rejected as nouveau
and the word 'conceptualise' as too difficult.

The ex-vegetarian academic who enthuses about duck
is also passionate about commas.

The answer to one question is "Woolly Mammoths"
and the academic next to me says
"Have you ever thought about
how much a woolly mammoth ate?"

The enthusiastic academic enthuses
"What an amazing idea!
What a fascinating question!
We teach our students such interesting topics!
This has made me fall in love with my subject
all over again."

One Professor is in disgrace
because his exam paper is so badly written
that it is rejected.

The tiny American academic
has written an exam paper that is much admired.
The questions are concise, thought provoking and varied.

Another Professor has re-used a question from last year.
This sort of recycling is NOT considered good form.

There is much anxious shuffling
when the paper of one of the panel members is considered.
Each correction is agreed with an embarrassed laugh
and there is a heartfelt sigh of relief
at the end of the process.

After four hours my brain begins to melt
and the corrections on the papers
seem to merge

Monday, 19 January 2009

Geographic Gastronomy

Sunlight glinting on sugar crystals catches my eye.

The lady who cleans my office brings in
homemade onion bhajjis
in the most extravagant and eccentric shapes.

The tiny American academic tells of her Christmas holiday.
She travelled in rural parts of Japan
and ate ferns.

The Head of Department listens politely
and then describes the conference in China
where he ended up in a restaurant called
The House of Frogs.
Everything on the menu was based on frogs.

The tiny American academic rises to the challenge.
She tells us that she was the honoured guest
at a meal in China
and was given a bowl
and a plastic glove.
She retrieved the goose foot
from the bright orange sauce
and chewed it ostentatiously.
It was essential to show how much she enjoyed it.

The Head of Department retires gracefully.
The tiny American wins.

My tall, friendly academic from two offices down
explains that he is no longer vegetarian.
He stayed in a hotel in Wales with an amazing menu
and had an overnight conversion
so that he could eat the Full English Cooked Breakfast.

This ex-vegetarian describes a dish of duck
cooked with red onions and plum sauce
in such detail that it makes me feel hungry to think of it.

What will MasterM be eating
this time next week?

We pore over guide books
with recommendations for steak restaurants
in Buenos Aires.

He reminds me that his uncle
came back from South America
with bags of deep fried grasshoppers.

Roast Beef for supper.

Unless I go to the supermarket NOW
there will be no food in the house this week.
We might need to eat the pointsettia.
Which would be bad for Family Karma.