Friday, 17 December 2010

at the end of the day

This young man standing at my door, looking slightly dazed, has just been examined on his thesis. It was a two hour analysis of his research by two academic experts and was the culmination of three and a half years of fieldwork, reading, writing, rewriting, rerewriting. He has passed with distinction and I am the first person that he has seen since he stepped out of the room where the viva was held.

I grasp him by the hand and congratulate him...he is Dr now and will never be plain Mr again. We talk about his plans for the future and I know that he will work hard and be successful on whatever road he chooses to travel.

Finally, he gets the bound thesis out of his bag and shows me the front page where my name is included in the acknowledgements. It is completely unexpected and I try to think what I could have done that would be worthy of such a privilege. The only thing that I can think of is that I listened to him and encouraged him.

And I am overcome.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

First Aid for Geographers

Baines and Humphrey killing a crocodile
© Royal Geographical Society with IBG

O People of Blogland
do you remember the mad sock man?
I bring good tidings!
The mad sock man has an older brother
and he comes out of the wilderness
to teach First Aid to Geographers.

Wilderness Man wears three shades of sand:
Gobi sand trousers;
Kalahari sand shirts
and Negev sand waistcoat.
The waistcoat is accessorized with badges multiple
(think of an extreme outdoors organisation
and the badge is there looking weatherbeaten);
carabiners dangle from pockets
and the belt has three pouches of different sizes
which have obviously been hand crafted
from deer? bison? musk ox? that he has shot.
He has different sized multi task tools
for different environments
(city/high altitude/white water rivers)
but they are all useless in comparision
to the handforged knife with carved handle
that has travelled with him since he was a lad.
His mates have all served in Special Forces
and so he can do surgery
using only gaffer tape and pieces of roll mat.
It is a matter of minutes to make a stretcher
out of 40m of rope and some pebbles.

Wilderness Man introduces himself and then begins:
"First, you must assess the scene...
if your casualty has been attacked by a rogue crocodile
you are in immediate danger
and your priority is to send someone with a shotgun
to kill the crocodile and make the scene safe...."

MrsM sighs and leans back in her seat.
At last...a first aid course
that is suitable for her needs

original post

Friday, 10 December 2010

Future Uncertain

"The government has survived a revolt by Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs over its plans to increase university tuition fees in England. The policy was approved by 21 votes, with the coalition's majority cut by almost three-quarters following an impassioned five-hour Commons debate. Three ministerial aides quit the government in order to vote against it. The coalition motion, backed by 323 votes to 302, would raise fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year."

extract from BBC report, Thursday 9 December 2010


And now, the Department
must learn to live
in this Brave New World.

original post

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It must be Christmas...

...there are silver stars and tinsel;

fairy lights and streamers...

and lo!

the Department Office
has been converted into
a Daniel Craig grotto.

original post

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Student Experience (1)

I think that you need to meet Gareth,
my favourite PhD student.
I was planning to keep him all to myself
but that would be selfish because
Gareth needs an Appreciation Society.

Today Gareth arrived in my office
with a bag of fruit scones and plain scones
(baked by himself)
and a jar of home made jam
and a tub of clotted cream.

Thank goodness it is at least three years
before he submits his thesis.

original post

Student Experience (2)

I am very sorry but I will not be able to attend tomorrows lecture as I have managed to stupidly give myself food poisoning . But I will ensure someone gets me a hand out and I catch up on what I have missed. Very sorry again, will cook chicken more thoroughly from now on.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The New Principal visits The Department

MrsM wakes up at 4.30am
and wonders if she booked the catering.

MrsM spends an unreasonable amount of time
trying to decide whether
a contemporary wooden necklace
is more appropriate than
a shimmery necklace of mother of pearl.
She takes both.

The Head of Department
is anxious about his tie
because the knot is slipping.
MrsM assures him that it is not noticeable.

The Lady Professor
is worried about her skirt.
It is a beautiful purple silk
with a clingage issue.
MrsM assures her that it is not noticeable.

The Head of Department reviews the presentation
and makes changes at the very last moment.
MrsM shuts her eyes and prays
that he will not delete it accidentally.

At 9am the Principal arrives with the Dean
and finds the whole Department
sitting expectantly in the Board Room,
name badges neatly attached.

MrsM is thrilled to discover her photo
at a feature point of the presentation.
She resists the temptation to whisper "That's mine!!"
She notices that the Principal smiles.
Well...she is sure he did.

As the Principal leaves the Board Room
to tour the Department
MrsM's best friend from catering
is waiting around the corner
with the trolley of coffee and biscuits.
MrsM resists the temptation to hug him.

MrsM briefly panics when she remembers
the Daniel Craig feature wall
in the Departmental Office but knows that
it is part of the Student Experience.

MrsM wonders if the Principal notices
the smell of furniture polish,
or the impressive display of posters
or the immaculate noticeboards.

The Principal leaves promptly at 11am
and the Head of Department breathes out slowly
for the next hour and a half.

The Principal writes to thank the Department
and praises the evidence of excellence
in teaching, external engagement and research.

There are exceptionally difficult times ahead
for Higher Education and particularly Geography.
The Department will need friends in high places.

original post

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

all in a day's work

If you were me
you would have met
these students today:

four early birds
waiting at my door when I arrive
with essays hot off the press

a finalist who needs to borrow books

a late bird who delivers his essay
dressed in pyjamas and slippers

a very tall, athletic lad with a limp,
(tendon problems, apparently)
accompanied by two very small admirers

an anxious first year
who has missed the deadline
to pay for the field trip to Spain

a new PhD student from Canada,
delayed by visa issues,
but here at last,

an exchange student sending greetings
and a warm weather report
from the University of Arizona

a student with a complicated medical problem
weeping with frustration
at the inconvenience of illness

a beautiful young Belgian
collecting a red rose
delivered by an admirer*

a vivacious PhD student
with long blonde hair
and fabulous black nail polish
left over from Hallowe'en

my lovely South African friend
who asks about MasterM
and knows how far away he is

a Masters student in Peruvian bobble hat
coming in to start work as I leave


*actually, that wasn't today
but I thought that you should know about it

original post

Thursday, 4 November 2010

the world comes to me

Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio
Map of the North Pole/Arctic
Mercator (1595)

The brilliant young ice scientist from Denmark
is visiting to give his annual lecture.

He tells me about the silent ice world that he works in,
flat, white and bright with constant daylight.
After a while you lose track of time
and the only thing that breaks the monotony
is the wild party that is organised every Saturday.
The scientists set to with chainsaws and create an ice bar
which is loaded up with an impressive amount of alcohol,
the musk ox steaks start sizzling on the barbecue
and then the party begins.

If his outrageous Nigella impression
is a glimpse into Saturday night life on ice
it would be serious fun to be around.

In my next life I am going to be an ice scientist.

original post

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Four Year Plan

Project Initiation
What we've got to do is get round a table
and put together a solution package -
perhaps over tea and biscuits.

Division of Responsibilities:
Hey, this is mine. That's mine.
All this is mine.
I'm claiming all this as mine.
Except that bit.
I don't want that bit.
But all the rest of this is mine.

Strategic Analysis
We have three realistic alternatives:
Sit here and get blown up,
Stand here and get blown up,
Jump up and down,
shout at me for not being able to think of anything,
then get blown up.

Resource Allocation
Hey, I got it!
We laser our way through!?

Operations Manager
Ah, an excellent suggestion, Sir,
with just two minor drawbacks.
we don't have a power source for the lasers,
we don't have any lasers.

Forward Planning
Well, if you've got some amazing secret plan
up your sleeve
now's the time to mention it.

You're going to go with one of my plans?
Are you nuts?
What happens if we all get killed?
I'll never hear the last of it.

Action Points
Step up to Red Alert!

Operations Manager
Sir, are you absolutely sure?
It does mean changing the bulb.

[with apologies to the talented writers of Red Dwarf]

original post

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Walls of Granada

Between budgets and employment contracts,
room bookings and purchase orders

The Hill of the Alhambra
Samuel Colman (1832-1920)

and clattering visits
from the academic who is now 41
and has another cunning plan or three
on the boil

The Comares Tower of the Alhambra
David Roberts (1796-1864)

I pause
and my mind drifts sideways...

The Gate of the Justice
Wilhelm Gail (1804 - 1890)

I have never seen the Alhambra,
that rose-red citadel on the edge of Granada;

Lions in the Alhambra
John Dobbin (1815-1888)

the sprawling walls and towers,
massive gateways, pillared courtyards
and extravagant Moorish decoration.

Entrance to the Hall of Ambassadors
George Owen Wynne Apperley (1884 - 1960)

I can't go today or tomorrow
or even next week
but I will...

one day I will go to Granada.

original post

Monday, 18 October 2010

Attendance Register

She wins the prize for the most exotic name.
It stretches from one end of the alphabet to the other.

He enquires about language training because
Russian is essential for his fieldwork in Uzbekistan.

She asks the way to the train station.
MrsM considers the feasibility of a GPS loan.

He has had his dreadlocks cut off
but the mischievous grin is still there.

She is homesick and decides to leave.
MrsM signs the form and wishes her luck
but she is not listening...
in her head she has already left the campus.

He is awarded a prestigious grant
to fund his studies for the next four years
which vindicates his brave decision
to leave a well paid but boring job.

She sets off for a year of fieldwork in Asia.
She is young and flustered
but her new husband stands reassuringly behind her.
They are on their first adventure together.

He sent so many emails before he arrived
querying every single detail
of the enrolment and financial arrangements
that MrsM is surprised to discover
he is a very 'street' young man
and not a retired accountant.

She did not get the job
even though she was well qualified.
MrsM makes enquiries and discovers that
a student from her old Department was successful.
MrsM is torn between delight and disappointment.

He describes his exciting placement
in South Africa during the World Cup.
MrsM remembers encouraging him to apply and smiles.

She is persuaded to show off her diamond ring
which made a surprise appearance
from a rucksack on a foggy day.
It is undoubtedly the first chapter
of a happy marriage.

He was a student when she arrived
but was appointed as a lecturer shortly afterwards.
MrsM wonders if he will become Head of Department
before she leaves.

original post

Friday, 24 September 2010

Freshers' Week 2010

The new student did turn up after all.
The Admissions Tutor wins the bet and claims his £10.
I will get it back next time.

A distraught President of the GeogSoc wails
"I have 150 students waiting for a drink
and NO corkscrew!"
I turn to my cupboard.

I greet a Fresher and he looks confused.
"How did you know my name?"
I remind him that he came to my office at lunchtime.
Apparently lunchtime is already too long ago.

Brad is looking city sharp
in his Baker Boy cap, red shirt and leather tie.
"Will they know that I am a Cultural Geographer?"

The new PhD student from Canada
has flaming Titian hair and dramatic clothes.
I am going to enjoy watching her wardrobe.

"We can't find the way out!"
As I give them directions
I realise that the two young men accompanying her
don't seem to be taking any notice of me.

On my way across campus
I spot the Hockey Society promotional campaign.
Behind the placard "Hockey Loves You!"
are three very attractive students in short skirts.
It could be a good year for the Hockey team.

MissM meets up with the Glamorous MissI
and other friends from school who have started as Freshers.
She is thrown out of the Union because she has no ID.
The excitement!

The academic who will be 41 very soon
is at a conference in Italy.
He claims that he would rather be with us.

All the lights are on in the corridor
and the sound of tutorial meetings
leaks out of the offices.

I meet the new Scottish academic
and ask him if it is busy enough for him
"It is perking up nicely" he replies.

The Ginkgo trees outside my window
have turned butter yellow.
The Autumn term has begun.

original post

Monday, 20 September 2010

the world comes to me

The young academic who went to Iceland
has just returned from the border of China.

He tells me that while he was in China
he went up onto the Tibetan plateau for the first time
and after he has told me of the mountains
I ask him something that I have always wanted to know
"Is it true that everywhere you go in Tibet they are flying kites?"
He assures me that it is true
and the kites fly so high that they are dots
in the clear Himalayan skies.

The image of the kites stays with me all day
as I prepare for the start of term
and once again I am grateful that my office walls
reach to the farthest edges of the world.

original post

Thursday, 16 September 2010

An Ending and A Beginning

The academic who dreamed of golf courses
is dressed in the suit that he wears to weddings
with the tie that he keeps for special occasions.

He whispers that he did not sleep last night
because he was so worried about his speech.
I whisper back that I did not sleep either
because I wanted everything to be perfect for him.

He asks who is coming.
I tell him that all his friends will be there
He shrugs and suggests that it will a quiet event.
I tell him to expect a room full.

The Head of the Academic Services Review is there
He can remember getting phone calls
when he skipped lectures as an undergraduate.

The Head of Department reminisces about the time
that they were stuck in the African sands together.

The Deputy Principal teases him about his office
which was archaeological in appearance
with layer upon layer of paperwork and books
carefully stacked and undisturbed.

He starts his speech nervously
and immediately turns to his beautiful wife
who was a student when he was a young lecturer.
"Meeting my wife was the turning point of my life" he says,
they smile at each other and the nerves vanish.

He flourishes his briefcase,
a veteran of 40 years service,
battered and unpolished,
and walking boots of similar vintage.

Stories of exotic illnesses around the globe
cause his audience, who have just eaten lunch,
to wince and look out of the windows.

He mentions the famous cricket match
in which a Professor was out in ignominious circumstances
The Professor confesses afterwards that he didn't know
whether to laugh or cry at the memory.

After the presentation of the formal gifts
he opens the unusually heavy gift.
"Surely it is not a theodolite" he says.
But it is a theodolite
with a message from his friends on a brass plaque.

We raise our glasses to this modest man,
friend and colleague to us all,
who has given forty years of service to the Department
and wish him happiness in his retirement.

And then the academic who dreamed of golf courses
gives me a hug, gets into his car
and sets off to improve his handicap.

original post

Friday, 13 August 2010

Inside the Cave

The excavation is hidden among dense woods
on the steep side of a Somerset gorge.

You walk down the narrowest of paths,
being careful not to trip on tree roots,
and find the cave sheltered with blue tarpaulin.

There are six people working in the cave
removing breccia from the walls and floor
which is coarsely filtered
and then stored for fine sieving in the laboratory.

In the first year they found very little
because they were working
at the surface in the modern deposits.

Four years later,
the excavations are revealing evidence of animals
that lived in this gorge after the last Ice Age.

Yesterday they found this reindeer bone
which has been gnawed by a wolf.
If you look carefully you can see
the puncture marks from the canine teeth.

It is really exciting to imagine
what might be in the lower layers of the cave:
woolly rhino, woolly mammoth
or even evidence of Neanderthal occupation.

It made me wish that I had studied Geography.

Original Post

Friday, 6 August 2010

Objective : Office Improvement

The Front Office is looking cluttered
and the summer is the time to make changes.
I discuss it with my team of lovely ladies.

We agree that desks must be moved,
shelves must be tidied,
cupboards must be emptied
paperwork must be organised.

And we agree that the pictures of Daniel Craig
must be refreshed and enhanced
and so my lovely ladies take time
to choose a suitable selection for a montage.

They ask if Daniel in Speedos is acceptable
and I say:
'Of course it is acceptable...
it is a defining image of our generation
and it is vital to have
up-to-date cultural references

in an academic environment.'

Objective completed.

original post

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Ceremony of The Key

"and finally..."
says the Examinations Officer

(whom we all admire for his efficiency
and meticulous attention to detail)

"...I must give you the Special Key
which was given to me by my predecessor
and has been passed down
from one Examinations Officer to the next."

The new Examinations Officer appreciates
the significance of the moment
and asks respectfully

"What is special about The Key?"

The retiring Examinations Officer pauses for effect

"It opens any door in the Department!"

The new Examinations Officer is impressed.
The retiring Examinations Officer looks at his bunch of keys...

"Oh bother!
They all look the same.

I will have to go and try them out
to work out which is which."

MrsM realises that he has already handed over
The Mantle of Infallibility.

original post

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Population Explosion

There have been so many new babies
in the Department this year
that my budget for celebration flowers
has been joyfully stretched to the limit.

We know the date and wait for news.
The email arrives:
"I have a beautiful baby daughter..."

They stare solemnly out of the photo,
little French twins, petit pois.

She is swaddled and sleeping.
Her parents looked shocked with sleeplessness.

He is a placid baby
and smiles slowly,
showing two pearly teeth,
when I bounce him on my knee.

I shut the door and make her sit down.
She leans back in the chair beside my desk
and relaxes while I hold the baby.

He leaves the office with Post-It notes
on his jumper
and on his nose
and on his little chubby fingers.

She is very shy...
but she blows me a kiss...
much to the surprise of her father and mother.

He is clutching a miniature Woolly Mammoth.
Not difficult to guess whose son he is.

She is proud of her baby brother
but the lure of the swivel chair
is too distracting to maintain the image
of a responsible two year old Big Sister for long.

Will this little boy,
hiding behind his father's legs,
be good with computers too?

She is younger than me
but is already a grandmother.
I look at the photo of her tiny grand-daughter
and wonder what the future holds for me.

Somewhere in Edinburgh
the newest little Geographer is asleep
on the edge of the world that awaits him.

original post

Thursday, 15 July 2010


Here they are:

the Head of Department,
the Examinations Officer and the Admissions Tutor,
the enthusiastic academic and the expert on woolly mammoths,
the youngest academic and the tiny American academic,
the Professor who shall remain nameless,
the academic who is going to be 41 quite soon,
and a score of other colleagues in their academic finery.

The sun shone, the champagne flowed,
the cameras flashed to capture the memories
and the parents of the graduands smiled and smiled.

And now...
let the summer begin.

original post

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Lunch Hour

The view from where I sit.

You are welcome to join me
but you need to bring your own rug...
mine is only big enough for one

Please don't tell anyone where I am
because it has taken me two years
to find a place where I won't be disturbed.

original post

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Madonna dell'Umiltà

Vitale da Bologna (~1309 - 1369)

The exam season is ended for another year...
well...not quite...
because the scripts must be packed away,
the minutes of the various meetings written,
marks delivered to the Examinations Office
and the results of the Finalists published.

But the hard work is done
and I can move on to other things.

The last task is to meet students who have failed.
There are all sorts of reasons why this might happen
and inevitably the meetings are distressing.
As we waited for the first student
I looked around at the other people in the room
and I knew that there could not be
a more conscientious and caring group of academics;
their only motivation to ensure
that the best outcome for each student is achieved.
It is not the sort of thing that is mentioned
in the prospectus or departmental reviews
but I wanted you to know about it.
Compassion is a rare thing.


The academic who has just come back from Japan
had an unexpected trip to Italy this weekend.
He won't have time for looking at frescoes
but if he did he could see the work of Vitale da Bologna.

original post

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Trouble at t'mill

The Examinations Officer looks shocked
and the Deputy Examinations Officer looks anxious.

The evidence is indisputable.

The Examinations Officer walks back to his office,
composing a steely email in his head
that he *might send to all academic staff.

Dear All,
This morning, it was discovered that the Examiners' biscuits had been taken without their consent. I am disappointed to report that the situation is even more serious than would appear at first sight because the chocolate biscuits have been taken from the second layer before the boring biscuits on the first layer have been finished. This is a very serious breach of discipline. It is unacceptable and must not be repeated.

While I have had no objection – so far – to colleagues using the Examiners' room, it is vital that you understand that the biscuits have been purchased for the sole use of the Examinations Officer and his Deputy.

I trust I will not have to write again about this matter.
The Examinations Officer

(*but, of course, he didn't send it...
Examinations are serious matters...
there must be no accusations of levity...
or the remotest suspicion of frivolity.)

MrsM hurries out to the shops and buys more chocolate biscuits .

original post

Friday, 14 May 2010

the world comes to me

The young academic who often visits China
has just returned from a trip to Iceland
when he drove to within 4km of Eyjafjallajokull.

He tells me of the extraordinary crackling sound
of the volcano exploding; twisters of volcanic dust;
a smell of sulphur that clings to everything;
the gigantic plume of smoke that fills half of the sky
and leaves the other half clear and blue.

He thinks that it is unlikely that
he will ever see anything as exciting again in his lifetime.
I make him promise to show me a photograph
and when he sounds surprised
I insist that I would really, truly love to see a photo.

"Well..." he says "if you are really, really sure
I will send you a photo whenever I go somewhere interesting."

"I'd like that a lot." I said.

original post

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Eyjafjallajokull edition

MrsM is pacing the empty corridors of the Department.

There are 15 academic staff stranded abroad;
they are experienced and resourceful travellers
but MrsM wants them all back. Safely.

The Intrepid Research Assistant
was the first one home after driving overnight
from Denmark to Calais.
He emails to let me know that he is
'tired and dirty but safely home'.

The Very Cultured Professor
has decided to visit Vancouver
while he waits for his rescheduled flight
'because I have never been there before'.

The Professor of whom we spoke some time ago
has had a car accident in North Carolina
but fortunately is only shaken, not stirred.

The Examinations Officer is stuck in Washington
and we confer on the phone to make sure
that the exam preparations are unaffected.

The Expert on Hand Axes is in St.Louis
but it doesn't stop him from sending me emails
which make me laugh out loud.

The Enthusiastic Academic
is in hot and humid Taiwan
about which she feels less than enthusiastic.

The Expert on Fair Trade
has decided to wait it out in a beach hut.
She assures me this is the cheapest option.

The Expert on Communication Technology
is in a very comfortable hotel in Finland.
Travelling overland is not an attractive alternative.

The Head of Department is stranded in South Carolina
and his only consolation is the knowledge
that the Dean of Faculty is stranded in China.

The Deputy Exams Officer says, gloomily,
'I hope they all get back
before the other volcano blows...'

The Young Academic confirms his trip to Iceland
is still going ahead next week.
He assures me that you can fly in from the West.
I double check that he has travel insurance.

The Vulcanologist from upstairs
is quivering with excitement;
Christmas has come unexpectedly early
if you are a Geologist.

original post

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Easter Vacation

It is the quietest day of the year.

The academic staff are away
en masse
at international conferences
or doing field work in foreign parts.

This means that I can do the following:

Admire the pink blossomy beauty of the campus.

Smile sweetly at the lady behind the cash desk
when she scowls at me.

Chat up the guy in charge of the conference
until he lets me eat the jelly beans
which have been put out for the delegates.

Admire the tiny dog called Stanley
with a diamond collar and little grey hoodie
who arrives tucked under the arm of a (male) student.

Pimp my examinations spreadsheet
with coloured tabs.

Listen to music!
In my office!
On my sparkly green iPod!

Wave to the tiny student
who sits like a sea sprite
on the rock outside the front door
having a break from cataloguing hand-axes.

Listen to the lovely lady from Finance
tell me about her Caribbean cruise.

Go to lunch with a visiting Chinese academic
and hear his in-depth analysis
of UK steel and coal production.

Water the Head of Department's
much loved collection of plants.
I have only managed to kill one.

Discuss football
(about which I know very little)
with the Newcastle supporter
in his black and white Magpie shirt.

Wish I could hear the noisy footsteps
of the academic who has just turned 40
as he arrives in my office
with yet another cunning plan
to spin money out of thin air.

original post

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Insiders v. Outsiders

Please check the proof copy of your exam paper
and sign against your name.

Awkward pause

Junior Lecturer
I am afraid that there are mistakes.

MrsM is genuinely shocked.

Junior Lecturer
The full stop should be INSIDE the quotation marks.

MrsM is aghast

The Examinations Officer has specified
that it should be OUTSIDE the quotation marks.

Junior Lecturer
Well, he is wrong.

MrsM’s eyes grow as large as saucers.
Nobody EVER questions the Examinations Officer
and especially his opinion on punctuation.

He has stipulated that the full stops
should be outside the quotation marks
and he feels very strongly about it.

Junior Lecturer
Well, I feel VERY strongly about it too.
I have researched this issue in great detail.

I think this conversation is moving above my pay-grade…

MrsM goes to see her friend,
the Deputy Examinations Officer,
and asks his advice.
They decide that there is only one answer:
a joust in the long corridor outside the offices.
The Deputy Examinations Officer
suggests that T Shirts are made available
so that staff can indicate if they are
Insiders or Outsiders.

Just another thing to organise...

original post

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Tuesday Morning

I love driving onto campus...
This is what I saw this morning...

The roofing contractor's lorry
with silvery piles of scaffolding rods.

The students rushing across the pedestrian crossing
on their way to the first lecture.

The fruit and vegetable man unloading his lorry
which has come straight from Covent Garden.

The UPS guy, immaculate in brown.
In my heart I believe that his next stop is Tuvalu.

The fierce lady from the Exams Office
walking through a patch of sunlight under the arch.

The student from my old Department
serenely cycling on the wrong side of the road.

The Estate workers already busy
clipping, trimming, digging, brushing.

The lecturer trying to carry a large cup of coffee,
and lecture notes
and smoke simultaneously.

The Security high wheel base 4x4
with fluorescent strips and flashing lights.

The elderly cleaner from my old office
whose sari drapes and folds under her warm coat.

The postgraduate student in a white lab coat
absentmindedly strolling across the road in front of me.

The Head of Department freewheeling down the hill
looking like Darth Vader
with his black shades and cycle helmet.

At the top of the hill
the clock in the tower sounds nine o'clock
and the day is ready to begin.

original post

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Terms and Conditions

The Geological Society is in a grand building off Piccadilly and I stood among the crowd of Geologists in the library and asked myself "Why am I here?". It is an impressive room filled with leathery smells and oil paintings and it is not a good place to have a personal crisis

In one sense the answer was straightforward - I had come to hear my friend, the academic who took us to Stonehenge, deliver a lecture about the discovery of a hand axe.

In another sense it was more complex. We live in a world where a job is about money and entitlements, absence management and equal opportunities, tasks and objectives, family-friendly working hours and health and safety policies. These are all worthwhile things but none of them are the reason why you work. I know that you might think that money is the reason why you work but if you have ever been really miserable in a job you will know that is not true.

In the library of the Geological Society I realised that I am very fortunate indeed. I am not well paid and I do have to work long hours; there are petty frustrations and there will be difficult times for Higher Education as the budget cuts bite in the years ahead. But somehow, almost by accident, I have ended up in a job that matches my mixed bag of experience and interests.

None of the things that I love about the job feature in my contract - it does not say "You shall eat canapès in the library of the Geological Society" or "You shall make friends who give wonderful lectures about hand axes" or "You shall go out to dinner with a man who studies snails on Tristan da Cunha" or "You shall laugh at risqué jokes about prehistoric bear skeletons". I don't recall them being mentioned in the job advert or the panel interview but these, and countless other similar examples, are the reasons why I go to work every day.

And all this became clear to me in that moment, in the library of the Geological Society - which shows that you never know when inspiration will strike. And then I turned back to the person I was talking to and carried on our conversation about Thor Heyerdal, feeling very grateful for my good fortune.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Cartographic Imagination

Today, I watched an academic reading a map
and it seemed to me
that he had the same intensity that you see
in an artist looking at a completed canvas
or a musician reading an orchestral score.

I wanted to ask him
if the rivers actually cascade
in the landscape of his imagination,
if the gridded paper buckles
so that he sees valleys and mountains,
woodland, marshland and beaches,
if the churches with their towers and steeples
are just little map makers' symbols
or become solid stone with people inside.

Or if it stays two dimensional
and the contour lines swirl and curve
over the ridges and folds of paper
as they do when I look at a map.

But, of course, I didn't.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Friday Evening

The windows are steamed up
and when the front door opens
the sound of laughter spills out.

"It's been such a loooong week;
I'm so glad that it is Friday."

It is the end of the first week of term
and the pub is full to bursting.

"Can you get me a pint of the Cornish,
a pint of orange juice and lemonade,
a glass of red wine
and whatever that man in the black coat
on the other side of the bar wants."

Every seat is taken,
latecomers must perch on the end of benches
or lean against the wall, clasping their drinks.

"Have you packed for the Spain field trip?"
"Are you kidding?
I'm a bloke - I'll leave it to the last minute."

We are squeezed around a corner table,
academics and postgraduate students,
celebrating the submission of a thesis.

"We are going away for the weekend
but I don't know's a surprise...
he says we need a tent but I hope he's joking."

The academic who has just turned 40
looks pleased with himself,
organising excellent nights out is his speciality.

"Of course I have more hair than him.
He has a wig.
You watch carefully...
if he turns his head sideways
the hair stays still."

And then it is time to wrap up,
walk out into the cold night
and start the weekend.

On the way home I remember
that I was worried about making friends
before I moved to this Department.

And it seems a long time ago.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


In the midday sunshine
I left the Department

and climbed over the safety barrier
onto the path through the woods.

Very few people had walked that way
and the snow was soft and clean.

The Founders building looked like
an enchanted castle
hidden among the snowy trees

and the stone balustrade
was the perfect setting
for Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.

It was a brief respite from the preparations
for the start of term,

examination papers,
staff shortages
and field trips.