One room paradise

Except it’s not one room, y’all. It’s SIX. And two bathrooms. Boom!

The lease started on Wednesday and so far it’s been all good, settling in. My brother (who is no longer The Kid) came down to Oxford with me on the day and helped enormously with suitcases and the faffery of the check-in. Moreover, he didn’t seem to mind sleeping on the sofa. Our inaugural dinner, at the massive antique scrubbed-wood table, was a six-egg omelette with red pepper, chopped ham and onions, and half a bottle of red wine each, on which we got rather merry.

It’s a much nicer house than 52 Cowley, although I still feel nostalgia for that house and probably always will. It was my first proper home away from my parents. It was the place I first learned to cook and pay bills and ring the council when the bins hadn’t been taken away for two weeks (yes indeed). It was the first place in my adult life where I sat at a table full of friends who were eating, drinking and making merry, and thought, “I am happy. Everything is good. This is how it should be.” That said, 52 Cowley was also dark, cramped and extremely difficult to keep clean (not that we tried very hard). Our new house is a tremendous improvement. It’s a townhouse; somehow, it’s been constructed at an angle such that both sides seem to receive light throughout the day; all of the rooms have double beds, which is a huge advantage; and my room is simply enormous. The kitchen is infinitely better arranged, and larger; we have a dishwasher, and the wall has been knocked through so that, beside the table, there’s a space with a sofa, coffee/TV table and armchair–all our entertaining can be done in one place!

My much bigger bed (slightly wrinkled from First Nap)

My much bigger bed (slightly wrinkled from First Nap)

We tested this out with a visit from Hawkeye and Casanova on the second night. The Duchess had come down for the night as well, and my brother was still with me, so we had five people sitting down to dinner. I made chicken jalfrezi with a jar of curry paste from the store cupboard, a couple of chicken thigh fillets, and some red and green peppers. Being able to cook without having to ask some of your guests to perch on the table or flatten themselves against the wall to give you more space is a pretty delightful perk of the new kitchen. (Also, the curry seemed to go down rather well. The Duchess, who is a notorious epicure, gave it a Seal of Great Approval. This pleased me very much.)

I spent most of yesterday, after delivering my brother to the station, unpacking my things, which had been driven up from their temporary summer storage in Bournemouth by Lovely Uncle. Excepting a pile of winter clothes and cocktail dresses, and two boxes of books which Bunter kindly took for the month, I’m nearly all moved in! I relieved the tedium of unpacking, and the sudden loneliness which sometimes descends when you’re suddenly the only person in the house, with a playlist of my brother’s which is mostly a medley of Spanish rap and upbeat ‘70s classics. It worked terrifically, both lifting my mood and making me rather more efficient…

As much as I could get of my mostly-unpacked room: books on shelves, pictures on noticeboard, quilt on!

As much as I could get of my mostly-unpacked room: books on shelves, pictures on noticeboard, quilt on bed…joy!


Re-visiting York: And there came raiders from the sea

I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.

We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).

York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)

We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.

The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.

After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”

With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:

His virtues were equal to his descent;

By abilities he was formed for publick,

By inclination determined to private life…

He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,

In friendship sincere, in domestick relation

The best husband, the most indulgent father.

His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.

Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.

On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)

Just put on my travelin’ shoes

I’ve never really moved before.

It’s true that I moved to 52 Cowley from college at the beginning of second year, but that was nothing. When you live in, you have to move all of your stuff in and out of your room at the beginnings and ends of terms anyway, so you have much less latitude to acquire things. I had even less latitude because I don’t have parents who can come and pick me up in the car, so when I was living in, all of my belongings had to fit in four transparent plastic storage boxes (which could be left in college) or, if it was stuff I actually wanted to take away with me like clothes, two wheelie suitcases, a backpack and a hefty handbag. Getting the plastic storage boxes from college to Cowley Road involved a single taxi trip.

Having lived in the same house for two years, though, I’ve never had to move any of my stuff anywhere. Now, my lease runs out in two weeks, and I own a lot more than I did when I first moved in.

Much of this accumulated stuff is books. My course was, to say the least, reading-heavy (that is the funny thing about English), so my degree required me to have a lot of books. I want to hold on to most of them, too–though I’ve managed to give away Ben Jonson’s collected poems (I hate Jonson), and a copy of Faulkner’s Light In August that’s too tatty and run-down to be of any use. I’ve had better luck with the books I’ve acquired independently, giving away (with some sadness) Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, the magisterial Moby-Dick (which I’m pleased to have read, but which I shan’t want to read for a long time to come.) I’ve decided not to give away any books that were given to me, like the copy of David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls that my parents sent me after Finals, or the Arden Troilus and Cressida that Darcy picked up for me in a second-hand bookshop.

I’ve been trying to work on the one-in-one-out principle so beloved of bouncers: I’m not allowed to acquire more books than I give away. The snag in this plan is Blackwell’s, which is running a 3 for 2 deal on most Vintage books, and a buy-one-get-one-free on Oxford World’s Classics. I picked up five books there this afternoon, and so I’m giving away another five tomorrow. It’s an arduous process but there’s nothing else for it. (I’ve always had this problem: the books my dad used to buy me would accumulate in my room until the floor was invisible. Sometimes I would find them in my bed. I cleaned up twice a year, usually sending two or three brown paper grocery sacks’ worth of books to the Salvation Army or the library on Gordon Avenue.)

There are also no more readily accessible plastic boxes, so I popped over to Boswell’s this afternoon (after Blackwell’s–why are so many Oxford shops named for possessive nouns that start with B?) and got some. My ever lovely uncle has promised to come up from Bournemouth and take winter clothing and duvets back with him for the summer, so in some ways it won’t be as much of a challenge as it was in first year. It’s kind of exciting, actually. I feel a little bit more like a grownup now. Moving’s what grownups do, right? In August I’ll sit on the floor in my new house, surrounded by boxes, and eat some takeaway before unpacking, maybe from the Thai restaurant across the road. I don’t know how many times I’ll move in my life, but I think that’s meant to be one of the fun bits: discovering your new neighborhood (even though it’s only a couple blocks away.) Taking all of your stuff out of its packaging and then acquiring some more. Making yourself at home.

There’s something to look forward to, after all.

Beginning-of-life crisis (or, You’re not a freak)

Although the Duchess (who’s seen me through many, many weepy outbursts) will tell you otherwise, I’m pretty good at hiding my existential terror from most people. If I don’t live with you, chances are, you think I’m completely okay. If I know you from around college, and you’ve asked me what my plans for next year are, I guarantee you I’ve given you some form of the following: “Well, I’d like to go into academia, but I need to earn some money to pay my way through postgraduate degrees, so I’m taking a year out to work in Oxford–I’ve signed a lease on a house with four friends–and I’ll apply for an M.St. next January.”

I almost certainly have not mentioned to you the following things:

a) I’ve already applied for that M.St., this past January. I didn’t get in. So, yeah, I need some cash, but I don’t really have a choice about it either. And, yeah, that makes me feel like a pretty big failure.

b) I’m terrified about the implications of that failure. The course I applied for is one of the most oversubscribed around (English lit 1550-1700), but what if that’s not the major reason? What if I actually cannot do the thing that I have spent my whole life believing I will do, the only thing that I have ever felt in any way good at or qualified for? And what if, when I apply again next year (to more than one university this time), it still doesn’t work? I mean, when might it be time to give up?

c) I’m terrified about next year. It’s not because I fear the world of work: I’ve worked before, all through high school and the summer after first year at Exeter, at the bookshop. But I got that job when I was fifteen, and my dad had been such a loyal customer there, how the hell could they not have hired me? (He bought me a book every Friday after I turned two. Every Friday. At primary school we had to do a counting worksheet where we counted things like how many stairs there were in our house, but also how many books we had. I don’t know if we were meant to count our own personal libraries or our parents’ books, but I did the former, and I had something like one hundred and thirty-five. You want to know why I did an English degree, that’s why. Thanks, Dad!) I mean, I turned out to be good at the job, but I don’t seriously believe that I actually got it because of my innate competence.

I’m terrified about next year because seriously what if I can’t find a job. I’ve already given up on doing anything “career-enhancing”: first of all, what does that even mean when you want a career in academia? Most people don’t use research assistants these days (thanks, Internet) and I’m pretty sure the ones who do don’t exactly pay them a living wage. And secondly, there don’t appear to be any “real” jobs in Oxford for someone who’s just finished a B.A. The closest thing I could find was a graduate traineeship in Jesus College library, which fell through (whatever, as if I wanted to be picking up the phone and going “Hello, this is Jesus” twelve times a day. Except I did. I totally did! Wouldn’t you?)

So I’ve been submitting my CV to cafes and trying to think things like: “This is fine, I can get a job or two waitressing somewhere, make some money through tips, and have a little time to focus on writing poetry, articles, maybe getting them published, doing some general reading–all the stuff I haven’t been able to do for three years.”

Which is a good mental strategy but only gets you so far. Because there’s that back corner of my brain that isn’t as tiny as I’d like it to be, and it keeps saying things like this: “So, what, you got a degree from Oxford? What’s that degree doing for you at the moment? You think you’re smart? Oh, okay. You must just be misunderstood, I guess. Especially by the graduate selection committee. What a shame.”

That corner of my brain is an asshole. I know this. Unfortunately, it’s a rhetorically gifted asshole. It is a modern-day Cicero, if you will. It is frequently very convincing.

Anyway, I don’t have a tidy moral lesson or a particularly happy ending for this post, I’m afraid. Fundamentally, of course, I have faith that things will turn out all right. In a way not quite religious but somewhat uncanny, I have been thinking, right from the moment of rejection, that this was meant to happen. Something out there–circumstance, if you don’t believe in anything else–wants me to have a year to explore my own life, before I go back to the rhythms of studying. But I am still really scared. I’m afraid that I won’t get a job, but I’m also afraid that if I do, this one year off will turn into two, then three, then a lifetime. That I’m signing up for a life of anxious mediocrity.

I think maybe it’s useful to let other people know that you can be scared. I keep feeling like a failure–as a Finalist, as a student, as an adult human being–for not having the thrilled anticipation that everyone else seems to have about the rest of their lives. There must be other people who feel the same trepidation. To you, fellow worriers, I have this to say: we are not failures. We will not be failures. We will be okay. It is all going to turn out right.

(But try not to drink alone too much. Really, that is too sad.)

Trufax about taking exams; or, The sort of thing they ought to tell you in revision lectures, but which you end up finding out for yourself anyway

1st day: Morning exams are nice because there is every chance you’ll see people you know cycling in to college while you’re walking to your exam, and every chance that they will wave and shout “Good luck!” This will cheer you considerably.

2nd day: The first one is scariest. Of course it is; it’s a new environment and beginning is always the difficult bit. After your first exam, the whole process gets to be routine, fast. You’re still nervous, but you’re a lot less nervous.

3rd day: In at least one of your exams, some Weird Shit will go down. About twenty minutes into our Romantics exam, the room was filled by the sound of three haunting, guttural screams which sounded like they were coming from the echoing lobby of the Exam Schools. One hundred and fifty Finalist heads popped up from their papers and looked around; and one hundred and fifty Finalist heads thought, “Can’t afford to care” and went back down to the paper on the desk again. If that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it has to be.

4th day: Your hand will get tired. The only piece of advice I heard from a tutor which I decided to implement immediately was to handwrite all of your revision notes, to give your muscles (more accustomed to typing in this day and age) a chance to get used to it. It was good advice. The joints in my right thumb keep swelling up anyway.

5th day: You will get tired. On the morning of the fifth exam, all the adrenaline is gone. We’re almost there, but we’re not quite there. Plus this was the medieval commentary paper, which no one likes. The only saving grace is that it’s only two hours instead of three. That, and knowing that after this morning, the next exam you take will be your last.

Days in between exams: If you have them, rejoice. The English exams don’t all fit neatly into a week. We have Saturday, Sunday and Monday off between our penultimate and our last. I’ve done no work this afternoon except to hang out in college on a bench and eat a Victoria sponge (and walk to the English faculty to pick up my alumni card–is this real life?) and it’s been great. Tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that will be plenty of time to do some last minute quote-solidifying.

And then… and then… I can’t even bring myself to think about life A.T. (After Tuesday) just yet. (Except that one of the other English students and I were having a chat in the quad about all the books we were going to read, and he said “I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow”, which is an extraordinary assertion even for someone who hasn’t just finished Finals. I told him I was going to read Game of Thrones, which is sort of true. I’ve got a pretty long list.)

This looks like fun…

Pass notes: Finalists

[my thanks and acknowledgments to g2, the supplement of The Guardian, for the format]

Okay, what are Finalists, then? Seriously? Does what it says on the tin.

C’mon. Pretend I’m a total newcomer to the subject. Is that a cunning revision tip? Don’t give me cunning revision tips! That’s cheating! Also, everyone who marks you is definitively not a newcomer to the subject so that’s actually the worst advice you could possibly give me!

Calm down. NOOOOOOOokay.

So what’s a Finalist? Someone who’s about to take Finals.

And what are Finals? Well, most other places, they’re a set of exams you take at the end of every semester, because your classes end every semester, and they kind of add them all up at the end of three or four years. At Oxford, they’re a set of cumulative exams which you only sit at the end of your entire degree, and they’re literally the only thing that counts. In three years of work, your performance during one week (or ten days, sometimes) is the only thing taken into consideration.

…Right. Does it work? Sometimes.

And what kind of exams are they? Well, they’re a little different for everyone, but for English students, they’re three-hour essay exams (you get one hour per essay) which consist of profound quotations. You’re meant to pick a quotation, extract all possible resonances from it, and then write something which manages to both demonstrate your range of knowledge and stick closely and explicitly to the terms of the question, even though it’s possible you’ve never seen the quotation before.

Can I have an example? Welp, here’s one from last year’s Shakespeare paper: “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?/Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” (Sonnet 8)

So, um, how do you study for that? Alternating steady work and frantic panic. Most people start to revise their work for the past year and a half over the Easter holidays before Trinity term.

And what’s Trinity term again? Ffs. Haven’t you been reading this blog for the past three years?

Humour me. Summer term: April-June. Famous (or infamous) for punting, Pimm’s, college balls, croquet tournaments, everyone you know suddenly hooking up with everyone else you know (it’s the sunshine), and Finals.

Where do Finalists spend most of Trinity? In the library. Duh.

I see an awful lot of you in the quad or the fellows’ garden. Study break.

For three hours? SHUT UP.

I also see a lot of first years and second years taking up spaces in the library. Don’t even talk to me about that. The other day I heard a second year complaining about how there were no seats and I nearly punched them.

So the stereotypes about crazy bitchy Finalists are true. Oh, so true. It’s kind of hard to talk to anyone in any other year because they simply have no idea what you’re referring to when you say “I’m stressed.” They go, “Oh yeah, me too, I went to Park End/Bridge/Junction every night this week and now I have to pull an all-nighter to finish my essay.” Then you just want to hit them again.

That kind of impulse to violence doesn’t seem very healthy. Nope.

Everything’s going to be fine, you know. You’ve worked hard and you know a lot of stuff. That’s what everyone says.

Do say: “Can I buy you a cup of tea?”

Don’t say: “When do they start?”

Ne’er a clout

I’ve never known quite what that saying means: “Cast ne’er a clout/Til May be out.” It could mean “Don’t take off your woolens until the end of the month of May,” or it could mean “Don’t take off your woolens until the May flower has blossomed.” Either way, it is a wise counselor that urges one not to forsake one’s woolens, and the twenty-first century man or woman ignores it at his/her own peril, especially now. It is unseasonably, and unreasonably (hey, a rhyme!), cold. Temperatures have not risen above a very few degrees Celsius for over a week. Crushing quantities of snow in the north and in Scotland have been destroying livestock and power lines, and rendering roads impassable. For sheep farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time: lambing season is in full swing, and they have animals dying.

Here in the south there has been no snow, but the wind is bitter and the sky grey; morning, noon and evening, all alike, raw and unkind weather. I went for a walk with the neighbours the other day, up the hill and a little way along the path to Buriton. The fields were sullen and brown, the marks of tractor wheels hardened in the soil by chill so that you could feel the pattern of them through your boots as you walked. The bits of flint and chalk that stud the ground in this part of the world looked like bones. The Revered Ancestress and I took the dogs on Harting Down today, and the sun peeped out just a bit as we were coming back, shedding a light at first watery but slowly strengthening. It didn’t last long. The wind is simply evil; clouds scudded swiftly back across the sky.

All of this horrible weather means that it’s absolutely imperative I have a good book to curl up with once I’ve done revising for the day. (Television is also a nice anaesthetic, but unless I watch iPlayer with laptop and headphones, I’m restricted to what the R.A.s want to see. Which isn’t to say that Countryfile isn’t immensely relaxing–it totally is–but so is Mock the Week, and I don’t feel right exposing my grandparents’ tender sensibilities to Frankie Boyle.) I finished Doctor Thorne the other night. A contemporary reviewer got it right, I think, when he said that it was too long. The trials of Frank and Mary’s love are not sufficient, on their own, to support a three-volume length; two would have been enough, and as it is one begins to tire of the reiterations of a situation that’s already been fully explained. Still, it’s diverting, which is the main thing. I’ve made a tentative start on Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain, which covers the period 1901-1945. Technically, it does have a narrative, but the rough outlines of that narrative are reasonably familiar, and there’s so much more I need to know about this nation’s politics and history. Marr’s a master of the fascinating detail (Henry James was at Kipling’s wedding; also, George III had fifty-six grandchildren, of whom–before Victoria was born–none were legitimate), and he can write an epithet as well as any man living (Victoria’s father is the “fat, garlicky, sadistic fifty-year-old Duke of Kent”). In the absence of a big fat Dickens novel, this may be as cheering a tome as any for bad weather.