A Christmas card, from a small corner of Cambridge

From the Fitzwilliam Museum

So here we are. I don’t need to tell you that it’s been a troubling year in so many ways. Though as I have said before, compared with too many people, we personally are very fortunately placed — staying healthy (thanks for asking), no small children or very aged relatives to be deeply anxious about, in funds, well-housed, delightful walking on our doorstep (if you have to be locked down in a city, central Cambridge is one of the better options), and indeed with some gently lovely countryside still accessible not many minutes away. Friends and relations are there frequently on Zoom and FaceTime. The thing we miss most is being able to travel, and in particular to meet up in person with The Daughter who lives abroad. The weeks do drag, and the sameness can be enervating. But we mustn’t, and (mostly) don’t, complain. There is, in the circumstances, still much to be grateful for. But there is no question but that it is going to be a long,  long, winter.

The last months have certainly concentrated the mind on what really matters. Family and being in closer contact with nature seem to be very high on most people’s list: they certainly have been on ours.

Have any philosophers recently been writing particularly well on lockdown themes? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t entirely bet on it, given philosophers’ propensities for daftness of one sort or another. I was struck the other day by David Papineau’s report of Bernard Suits’s pretentious  The Grasshopper (a book I gave up on very quickly): “The overall argument of the book is that in utopia, where humans have all their material needs satisfied at the push of a button, what we would do would be play games, and therefore playing games is the ideal of human activity. Freed from all the necessities of having to do things we don’t want to do in order to get the material means of life, we’d do nothing but play games.” How profoundly silly is that? Not to say philistine. To be sure, some people sometimes enjoy games. But many of us, me for one (and actually most of the people of near my generation that I know well), have more or less zero interest in sports or games. And the idea of doing nothing but play games would fill us with horror — apart from spending time with family and friends, there are so many books to read, so much great music to listen to again, art to see, theatre to go to, wonderful countryside to be explored, new cities, new countries, to visit,  … Given the alternatives, spending time on games has very little appeal.

As I said, so many books to read. And re-read. Indeed, I mostly seem to have been re-reading since lockdown. But this is the season when all those lists of Books of the Year are published, depressingly emphasizing how few recent books have come our way. I certainly won’t be adding to those lists of obscure titles you mostly have never head of. Of books which were published this year, I’ve in fact most enjoyed two that very many others have equally enjoyed and recommended: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and (quite in a league of its own) Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I had just previously re-read with huge enjoyment the first two books in Mantel’s trilogy: but this final part is stunningly good.

On my desk too, dipped into at random times, have been some of Alice Oswald’s books of poetry. I do not find her at all easy or comfortable to read. But her work is deep and challenging and rewarding.

No concerts to go to. Wigmore Hall’s series of streamed concerts has included some wonderful occasions, most recently Mitsuko Uchida’s playing of two Schubert sonatas. Initially, being able to see so many concerts online in lockdown seemed terrific: but lately, I’ve been feeling that they somehow emphasized what we were missing by not being able to go to a live performance shared with an audience. Others have said the same.

Of CDs released in recent months, I’ve kept coming back to Supraphon’s boxed set of the Smetana Quartet playing the Beethoven quartets (recorded between 1976 and 1985), playing of the greatest humanity and insight. The tradition of Czech string quartets is indeed extraordinary.

A lot of reading and listening, then, in lockdown, while cautiously staying very close to home and trying to stay well. And on we will go, let’s hope, for more months like this. But still, the Tuscan wine selections for the holidays are looking very promising; we take our consolations where we can …!

With all good wishes for Christmas and for an eventually much better New Year. And stay well.

4 thoughts on “A Christmas card, from a small corner of Cambridge”

  1. It may be too soon to write on lockdown — or too late to read anything written about the one in spring. Too much is still uncertain, and if the new variant is as much more infectious as it seems, even things that had been safe enough before may not be now.

    If not for that, days already seem noticeably longer, vaccines have appeared … I can look back on the spring lockdown almost fondly. Doing it again would not be too bad. I’m very fortunate, though, in not needing to travel to work and in living where there are many local walks worth taking. I enjoyed the quiet and the calm, back then, the activity that was just people walking, not buses and cars; I noticed when bluebells appeared, and when they were gone, succeeded by foxgloves, was more aware of birds and grew to recognise one bird’s song; I spent time with a local fox, one that seemed cautious, though unafraid, and would even walk with me at times (sometimes in front, sometimes behind, showing it wasn’t just following).

    If I make it through to a safer time, I don’t think I’ll go completely back to how I lived before.


    I’ve also been reading and re-reading, and listening and re-listening, so I wouldn’t criticise that. I’m not sure such activities are so much more worthwhile than games — or things near games — however, especially when they can be done together with family or friends; and I don’t think your comments are quite fair to The Grasshopper.

    I suppose it’s possible to see the book as having an overall argument that’s about that particular idea of utopia, but most of the book isn’t about that idea and doesn’t depend on it. Instead, most of the book is devoted to presenting and defending a definition of ‘game’ that can be set against Wittgenstein’s claim that there is nothing games all have in common. And while I agree in finding a life spent playing games unappealing, the way Suits defines ‘game’, and the conditions of his utopia, mean that many things would count as games that wouldn’t normally come to mind when talking of games.

    In any case, your aversion to games goes beyond horror at “the idea of doing nothing but play games”: you (and most people of near your generation that you know well) have “more or less zero interest in sports or games”, and you seem to find that spending any time at all on games “has very little appeal.”

    I have to wonder about that. Do hardly any of you play bridge, or golf, or tennis, or swim, play games with (grand)children, or solve crosswords (or any of the other puzzles in newspapers)? For even on the ordinary understanding of games, puzzles are quite similar. Jigsaws too. I don’t think I know many people who don’t do any of those things. And then there’s recreational mathematics — Martin Gardner’s Scientific American column was even called Mathematical Games. I wouldn’t want to spend all my time on such things, but I like spending some.

    1. The encounter with the fox sounds really rather special. And yes indeed — if I make it through to safer times, I’m pretty sure that some new habits will stick and some old ones not return (in shorthand, more time in the country, less in the city).

      As you say, the way Suits defines ‘game’ means that many things would count as games that wouldn’t normally come to mind when talking of games. Which runs counter to the idea he has undermined Wittgenstein’s point.

      We can argue cases. Recreational puzzles like crosswords, as you say, surely aren’t games. I’m not sure I would say that doing exercises, e.g. at gym or swimming, purely for health reasons, counts as evincing any interest in sports or games. And I suppose that playing with small children deosn’t (usually) show an interest in games per se either, as opposed to an interest in doing whatever will entertain them.

      Coming to think of it, I do know someone who watches Wimbledon …

      1. On games, I tried to be careful in my wording, choosing “wouldn’t normally come to mind” to allow that people might, on reflection, think they could be considered games after all; and also to include “the conditions of his utopia” in the context. Since Suits’s definition of (playing a) game is, in its brief form, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, in a utopia in which all material needs and desires are easily satisfied, and all scientific knowledge has already been obtained, more activities than now would make sense only with unnecessary obstacles, and hence would be games. That they wouldn’t seem games now would not, therefore, refute the definition. So I think it might still work fairly well against Wittgenstein, and Wittgenstein’s analysis does seem rather superficial to me.

        I don’t think there’s a sharp line between games and puzzles. Consider, for instance, of the card game SET. It’s a game, a puzzle, and can be treated as recreational mathematics (as in the book by Liz McMahon et al, The Joy of SET: The Many Mathematical Dimensions of a Seemingly Simple Card Game).


        I haven’t seen any of the local foxes for a while now, although the other night, after some snow, I saw two paw-print tracks leading through the otherwise unmarked snow into a nearby park. Too big to be cats; unlikely to be unaccompanied dogs: so foxes seem likely.

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