Small corner

From a small corner of Cambridge

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.

From a small corner of Cambridge, 11

Sunday morning. Trinity Street almost deserted. Not so long ago, there would have been quite a few people around by this time. But now, walking in to the Sunday Market as we have started doing again, the city centre is very quiet. There are little queues for the market food stalls; but evidently people are still coming into town much less. And of course the usual hordes of tourists have quite vanished, while most of the students aren’t back yet. The out-of-term Cambridge of fifty years ago has re-appeared. Strange, but it has its attractions.

Who knows what the coming weeks will bring? Students returning, a marked upswing in local Covid cases, increased reluctance again of older residents to venture out? Perhaps our reluctance is overdone. But levels of trust that the government is giving wise guidance are, shall we say, low; it is pretty difficult to interpret the various statistics for ourselves; so our generation’s erring on the side of excess caution is natural enough. Things are not looking hopeful.

We will try to enjoy the relative safety while we can.

So the days rattle by. While more confined to home and garden, various grands projets are underway. Encouraged by Youtube how-to videos (how did we manage before?), new skills are being acquired. Next up, getting handier with a silicone caulk gun …

Having so little to report, Zoom calls with friends are full of similar trivial domestic detail. Comforting in its way, though.

No concerts, then, and no trips to the London galleries and museums. But the wonderful Wigmore Hall series of free online concerts starts tonight; and as soon as the weather turns more autumnal again, we must book timed tickets to the Fitzwilliam. And as for reading … Having got so much out of revisiting Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I’m at last launched into the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Best, I think, to treat this massive volume as itself another three books (and anyway, I don’t want to finish it too quickly). So having read the first two parts of the new book, I’m pausing — and really enjoying re-reading Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. That’s the first of her Jackson Brodie novels, which are both wonderfully well written and also entertaining enough detective stories. What’s not to like? If you don’t know the series, warmly recommended for when you need distracting but not mindless reading!

From a small corner of Cambridge, 10

We are better placed than very many; but even so — five months in from the initial “lockdown”, and with so much still not returned to the old normal — it is sometimes difficult to maintain good spirits.

Travel has to be virtual. There’s another possible world, not that remote from this one, where we would have been spending quite a bit of our time living close to Siena. So, encouraged by the reviews, I was looking forward to Hisham Matar’s short book A Month in Siena. But I have to report that it is a grave disappointment. The book has its moments, but Matar’s descriptions of the city are uninspired, and his reactions to some Sienese paintings seem quite overblown and self-indulgent. A pity.

I was sorry to hear of the death a few days ago of Elliott Mendelson. I suppose I owe him my whole career. For his classic Introduction to Mathematical Logic was published just before I took Part II of the Philosophy Tripos (d0 the math!). Some questions in tripos that year could be aced if you’d got your head round that then-new book. In particular, I recall a question on a possible misunderstanding of Gödel’s Theorem (yes, that!) which I could answer elegantly by just giving part of Mendelson’s proof which showed exactly where the misunderstanding would lie. So by that sort of happy chance, I did much better in tripos than I really deserved (for my knowledge after just a year of philosophy was so fragmentary), which meant I carried on with philosophy rather than going back to applied maths. And here we are …

Things falling out one way with respect to living near Siena; the serendipty of things falling out another way with respect to becoming a philosopher of sorts —  such are the chances that shape how things go. Thoughts about chancy events  encouraged, too, by re-reading Kate Atkinson’s terrific Life after Life, where the narrative starts and restarts, again and again, small chance changes making for such different outcomes. Still her best book, I think.

Pointless to wonder just who is to blame for the depressing fiasco over the English A-level results. But it brings home, again, just what a rotten time this must be for students — those about to start (or indeed, wondering whether to start) at university, those mid-course, and indeed those just-finished and facing such diminished prospects. Grim.

I’ve been struck by some of Vassily Kandinsky’s paintings for a long time. But I knew really embarrassingly little about his background, life and thought when I chose his Blue Painting for the cover of IFL2. So I’ve been reading the large illustrated book of essays edited by Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg. Which perhaps tells me just a bit more than I needed to know.

But, with some judicious skimming, the essays are indeed fascinating for someone as ignorant as I am about the birth of modernism and its roots. And the book’s many reproductions of paintings and other artworks are terrific. Art books these days can be produced to a wonderful standard — cheaply too, at least for someone used to academic book prices, even for student texts. (Speaking of which, see the upcoming next post …)

From a small corner of Cambridge, 9

What news from the Rialto? Who knows? We are still avoiding the Rialto. As indeed are most of our friends. The hopelessly wavering and confused messaging from the  government, its perceived incompetence, has engendered among our generation very little confidence in the safety of re-embracing anything like the old ‘normal’. So, for example, where we would once have wandered into the city centre across the common perhaps every other day, we now go out to various places in the country to walk. And indeed we wonder why we (rather unthinkingly) had stuck to our old more urban habits for so long; we are unlikely to ever fully re-adopt them. Anecdotally, lockdown has prompted similar ‘resets’ for many: small changes for individuals that are, however, going to sum to pretty  significant economic effects for the city to add to the loss of tourists (and not just for the coffee shops and restaurants).

The local National Trust properties, though, continue to be a delight. No doubt because there are fewer gardening volunteers working, the borders seem a little less well-ordered, the meadows more unkempt, but all the lovelier for that. We have never seen so very many butterflies there.

The latest issue of the London Review of Books arrives. Of course, I could already have read it on the iPad. But there still is something very pleasing about sitting over coffee with the elegantly produced paper edition (even if this is at home rather than out at a café). Yes, the LRB can be idiosyncratic and provoking (though mostly in a good way). I will usually dive into most of it. Sometimes — though, trying to be realistic, not as often as I’d like — I’m even spurred on to buy one of the books reviewed. A piece in the current issue entices me to send off for a copy of the poet A. E. Stalling’s recent collection Like. I confess I had not heard of her before.

In the same post as the LRB, a copy of the newly paperbacked Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Praise was heaped when first published. But Mrs Logic Matters, fifty-something pages in, is not at all impressed; she rarely gives up on a book, but has already passed it on to my pile.

I’ve just been looking for our copy of Tony Judt’s wonderful The Memory Chalet. Where can it possibly have gone? It surely can’t accidentally have been given away in one of those many piles of books that have gone to Oxfam in the last few years. I find losing or misplacing a book that I’ve been emotionally affected by to be strangely dismaying, even if the copy can be readily replaced. We’ve both searched high and low, and still no sign.

Of recently online concerts, we found the Pavel Haas Quartet’s performance from Litomyšl particularly moving. There is of course something special about being present, there in the audience for a live concert. But compare having to traipse up to London and back, perhaps in bleak mid-winter, to get perhaps a distant view with slightly distracting neighbours, perhaps in any case on a day you are not particularly feeling like going to a concert, compare all that with viewing a well-produced streamed video of the live concert at home, watching and re-watching when the mood takes. Put it this way: if (say) Wigmore Hall starts offering paid access to streamed videos — or free to members, perhaps! — then the prospect of ourselves going to far fewer live concerts is not overall such a bad one.

But who knows when live concerts will resume to be streamed! Looking at the blank online future diaries of (say) the Pavel Haas, and the Doric, Belcea and Chiaroscuro quartets, and of Cuarteto Casals, is depressing indeed. Heaven knows how such great musicians are faring in these times.

The third instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy remains on the coffee table. But it’s  time to decide who is going to read it first, as we have now both read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies again. And we have independently both been very struck by how much we’ve got out of rereading them — appreciating them, if anything, even more the second time around. The writing really is stunningly good. So that’s this week’s (very unoriginal) semi-lockdown reading recommendation: if you have been wondering about rereading those first two books of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, don’t hesitate any longer. You’ll really enjoy it!

From a small corner of Cambridge, 8

The wider world beyond our small corner is in no great shape: weeks upon weeks upon weeks of alarming news rather grinds you down, no?

Keeping on keeping on. But some small steps back towards normality for us. It has been good to have been able to go  further afield recently. The two nearby National Trust houses — at Wimpole and at Anglesey Abbey — have opened up their grounds again to visitors. We have been walking too at Wandlebury just outside Cambridge, through the woods and out along the Roman Road beyond. So that’s been a delight.

On the last four walks we have seen red kites overhead (one circling very low at Wandlebury). Once upon a time they were so very rare. The British population was just a dozen or so breeding pairs left in the remote mid-Wales hills. And when we lived outside Aberystwyth, we’d sometimes see one or two very slowly flying down the Ystwyth valley as we drove into town, as they went to scavenge on the town rubbish tip by the sea. They were always a magnificent sight. And even now, seeing a kite remains magical.

This week’s lockdown recommendation? It has to be the series of live lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall that have been going since the beginning of the month. You can catch up with the streamed performances here. Two that I’ve particularly enjoyed not only hearing but watching again were the concerts by Lucy Crowe and Paul Lewis. So different in their style! Lucy Crowe conjuring up her widely scattered audience and projecting all her usual vivacity, charm and engagement (stunning singing, it goes without saying). Paul Lewis very inward, as if playing for himself (but again it goes without saying, wonderful Schubert in particular). Do watch, if you missed them!

From a small corner of Cambridge, 7

You don’t want my thoughts on the current political mess. Here instead is a peaceful photo of St John’s chapel, taken from across Jesus Green on our morning walk. Once upon a time at this hour, there would rowers on the path, furiously cycling back from boathouses on the river. Now the early-morning Green is almost deserted.

So the university is planning for all lectures to be given online for the next academic year. Supervisions and small classes will continue, but no large group teaching for over a year from now. Not unexpected. After all, it is difficult to imagine anyone sensible wanting to be in an unnecessary crowd for a good while. But that decision close to home is a not-so-very-cheering reminder that we are indeed surely in for a long haul.

I imagine that we won’t be going to concerts, for example, for many months. It’s really good to see, then, that Wigmore Hall are planning a series of twenty lunchtime concerts (one or two performers and no audience, broadcast live and then available for video streaming) for a month starting next week.   I wonder, though, if they are trying to tell us something in having the series culminating  by rending our hearts in a performance of Winterreise? In the meantime, though, some unalloyed musical pleasure. The Chiaroscuro Quartet have released a disc of the first three of Haydn’s late great Op. 76 quartets. This is wonderful music and here played with same insight and verve and delight and (appropriately!) light and shade as the Chiaroscuro’s earlier recording of the Op. 2o quartets. Something, then, to relieve the gloom of these troubled days for an hour, and for more hours of repeated listening! Warmly recommended.

From a small corner of Cambridge, 6

We have at last ventured from our small corner of the city into centro storico on our morning walk: it was almost deserted. Here is a glimpse of Trinity and its Newtonian apple tree — without the dozens of tourists who are usually to be seen sitting along that low wall. Cambridge gets about eight million visitors a year, mostly on day trips (which is pretty absurd as there is really so little to see apart from King’s College Chapel, as most of the older colleges are closed to visitors most of the time). I imagine that very many residents would be pretty happy if that level of mass tourism doesn’t return here for years, if ever. But that’s just one more unknown about the post-virus world.

Meanwhile, no visit this week to Wigmore Hall on Tuesday to see the Pavel Haas, no driving off  today down to St. Mawes in Cornwall for the planned fortnight. Drat. But those are small things in the overall scheme; we are daily reckoning up our good fortune compared with so very many, and just keeping ourselves safe. And the preternaturally good spring weather has been mighty cheering and made those morning walks a delight. So on we go, into this new normal, whatever it turns out to be.

We can, of course, get books delivered here by post. But where’s the fun in that? One small everyday pleasure we really miss is getting to second-hand charity bookshops; we much enjoy the serendipity, the chance discoveries. The wonderfully well-run and well-stocked Oxfam bookshop in Walden is a particular favourite, and in normal times we drop in there perhaps twice a month. And when in Cornwall, there is a terrific bookshop at the National Trust house at Trelissick near St. Mawes. A couple of years ago, we happened to be there when someone came in to donate a paperback set of Helen Dunmore’s first ten novels (obviously brand new); I snapped them up within a minute, having by chance just finished and much admired one of her later novels, Exposure. I have been reading those earlier novels with great pleasure over the intervening months. And I’ve just finished Counting the Stars, Dunmore’s imagining of Catullus and his obsession with Clodia. I’m not sure that this is her most successful novel; and arguably her Catullus — for all his obsession — seems a mite too tame, lacking some of the fury and satiric energy that drives the poetry. But I can still recommend it for a spring evening read, far from Rome!

From a small corner of Cambridge, 5

The days are often very long, yet the weeks seem to fly by. Such odd distortions of time as we are knocked out of our usual patterns of life.

We have been walking out on Midsummer Common most days, in wonderful weather, with almost no-one else around, just the occasional runner or dog-walker whom you can easily dodge. But gone for now are our old regular habits of dropping into one or another of a couple of coffee shops on the far side of the Common. It is such little things that you miss.  We took a decision years ago not to have a serious coffee machine at home, partly because there’s little space on the kitchen worktops, but mainly to encourage us to leave the house and have a decent walk in order to have proper espressos and to get some friendly human contact too. Who knows when that can all begin again?

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Once upon a time in olden days, BC, we’d thought of going up to London to visit the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery. Well, that didn’t happen, either the exhibition or the visit. But as a present I did get the catalogue which has been published and is terrific. In fact, aren’t many art exhibition catalogues these days just wonderful? Quite beautifully produced, with often very readable and illuminating essays (which, judging by the characteristic pages of endnotes, are grounded in a huge amount of scholarship lightly worn), and all for the price of a couple of exhibition entry tickets. This book is no exception. We saw the Artemisia exhibition in Rome a few years ago; and yes of course it is a great pity not to experience again the visual impact of some of those dramatic canvasses face to face (and that seems the appropriate description). But this catalogue is much more than a small consolation: it’s an art-work in itself and very enjoyable. So that’s this week’s lockdown book recommendation!

From a small corner of Cambridge, 4

Chez Logic Matters, we are fine: the wider world, not so much. It is becoming clear that the early days of the pandemic in the UK were mismanaged, not listening to the scientists, with unconscionable delays in reaching lockdown that will have cost many lives. It could well be that this becomes the worst affected country in Europe. Then who  knows how things will go from here, except that it will surely be a very long haul. Afterwards — and what will “afterwards” mean? — the world is going to be a different place in lots of foreseeable and no doubt even more unforeseeable ways.

Meanwhile, however, another two weeks have rattled by in this small corner of Cambridge. We are no longer completely housebound, as we have just started walking out on Midsummer Common (very quiet). And we are more than comfortable at home, finding plenty to do. FaceTime and Zoom keep us connected with friends and family, who all seem safe and well. Compared with so many, we are extremely lucky, and we are very conscious of that.

And there has been much to divert us — a nice mix of the occasional streamed High Culture and fun (the Così from the Royal Opera House, still available, scored very well on both counts!). Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light arrived a couple of weeks ago, but we haven’t yet tackled that, because we both decided we wanted to re-read from the beginning of the trilogy. So Mrs Logic Matters has been diving back into Wolf Hall with great enjoyment. And I’ve just finished re-reading another weighty book — Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale. Is Bennett much regarded these days? But he writes so well — with irony yes, but insight — about ordinary lives, the way our upbringings so constrain us, about the passing of the years, the compromises we make. He creates a very human world that you find yourself swept up in.  This week’s warm recommendation, then.

From a small corner of Cambridge, 3

Some quite beautiful spring weather in recent days, and it’s rather frustrating to be confined to home. But while our whatever-it-has-been bug still hangs around, we should do what we can not to spread it. At least we are no longer feeling dog-tired much of the day, and want to get out. Tomorrow maybe. If we survive the excitement of a Waitrose delivery later.

Decorating plans are on hold. Guess who left it too late to order a delivery of what we needed. Which is a very small example of the irrationality that seems to hit people: at some level I knew perfectly well it was foolish to delay making the order when I first thought about it, and that  spending a day or two wavering over colour choices was likely to be silly. But it is difficult to really adjust your thinking to the strange times, isn’t it? — so waver we did, and now we’ll have to wait, until perhaps I find another source for at least some of the kit we need. Still, we seem to have plenty to keep us busy. Friends and family are keeping safe. The house is very comfortable even if the paintwork isn’t perfect, and the larder is well stocked. We are extremely lucky when so very many are not. The real world beyond this very small corner seems pretty grim in places. And April could be the cruellest month.

Distractions are needed. There’s a lot of High Culture being provided free online as various opera houses open up their back catalogue of recorded performances for streaming. For instance, we  caught the Swan Lake from Paris Opera which is available until April 5.  But mostly we are in the mood for unchallenging comfort viewing. So we watched the 2009 BBC adaption of Emma again. We enjoyed it enormously (thinking it even better on a second viewing). Of course you can cavil. You can argue that no filmed version can do even a quarter justice to Austen’s knowing narration as it slips in and out of her character’s minds. You can complain that, in this Emma, Hartfield is too grand, Mr Knightly a  bit too young, Mr Elton too caricatured. But as Austen adaptations go, this is surely as true to its original as any. And Romola Garai is terrific in capturing Emma’s vivacity and youth and fundamental good-heartedness (and shortcomings!). So that is this week’s recommendation for something to distract you!

The Amazonian ontological argument: if it is listed, it does/will exist.  So I better crack on with getting more answers to exercises online …

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