Thursday, January 17, 2008

Straight From The Source

I'm typing this in a pub, called, with admirable economy, “The Tavern” in the village of Kemble, Gloucestershire. There is manure on the road outside, and the people have accents. It's the countryside. I'm here for a site visit to the local manor house, which sounds exciting, professionally speaking, but in fact the contract is unlikely to be as lucrative as my boss was presumably anticipating when he agreed the £90 train fare for me to get here. It's a beautiful old house, the like of which one might imagine one of Jane Austen's moderately well-to-do families living in (it would have been a new-build, then, of course). I decided to walk from the train to Ewen, the adjacent village. That's what people do in the countryside, isn't it? Walk from one bit of countryside to another? They're not so big on pavements in this part of the world, so I was forced on more than one occasion to dive onto the verge to avoid oncoming traffic.

£3.05 for a pint of Lowenbrau? That'll be the “strangers” rate, at a guess. If I wanted to pay London prices I wouldn't have got on the train this morning.

Anyway, as I'm wandering towards the site I cross a small, picturesque stream. Nothing remarkable about that really, until I notice a wayside sign, a stake in the ground with painted arrows on it and the words “Thames Path” in relief. The stream is Old Father Thames, in infancy. Interesting but not an earth-shattering discovery, you might think. But the Thames has loomed large in my consciousness recently. I wrote this recently:-

The Thames rises in the Cotswolds, as a small spring which soaks through long grass down to some level lower ground where it begins to look like a brook, then a stream, but little more for most of its length. What begins as a bucket poured down a hillside flows out just two hundred miles later , coloured now by silt and sewage, bejewelled with every kind of floating rubbish, into the unremarkable North Sea. Yet this modest river was the most important in the world for a great chunk of the last millennium. The Thames brought life to London, the greatest of cities, and London brought fame to its river. This was the river on which Chaucer and Conrad worked... and besides which Spenser and Shakespeare wrote.

I mentioned my discovery to the architect I was meeting on site who said “You do realise you're about a quarter of a mile from the Thames Head?” And he took me there, after a couple of hours of ironmongery stuff. There's standing water everywhere here; persistent, heavy rain is making people's lives miserable. But every cloud, etc. We drove slowly past the place where a spring forces the river above ground and where the raised water table has created a marsh (the ground slopes more shallowly than I thought) from which the river snakes away and he told me “You're lucky – usually there's nothing to see, really.”

I've been to the Sagrada Familia, Stonehenge and Fenway Park in the last year, but this glimpse of the nascent river was up there in terms of exhilaration. That makes me odd, right?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ou sont les Dambudzos d'antan?

Rates of attrition at Birkbeck have become alarmingly high. Specifically in my seminar groups. It could be me. I try to be polite and understanding, and to nod where appropriate but I can't see my face when someone else says something which is neither intelligent, germane nor funny. (I, of course, have carte blanche to be unintelligent, off-topic and unamusing, because I don't have to look at me.) This wastage seems to be principally female in make-up, but there were more female students to start with, so this impression is unreliable. I could offer a generalisation about the sterling commitment of the men on the course, we happy few, but I suspect there are one or two dilettantes. And I know for certain that there are some rabid types amongst the lasses. It's a shame, that's what it is. Money wasted, time wasted, breath ill spent, in retrospect, at least. It's all my fault.