notes from 4th week (ht)

Thank you to everyone who has contacted me with kind words about my writing over the last few weeks: it’s much nicer to know when people are reading instead of just writing into the void! I appreciate your messages more than I can say.


“It doesn’t matter how strong or powerful you are – if you are not welcomed, you will never survive.”

We were in the Old Library after a truly lovely dinner at High Table, and the dimly flickering lights cast strange shadows over the faces of those at the table—they were nowhere near the windows, but the dark shapes softly moving over their faces created the likeness of being behind bars, of being locked in.

The room was lit only by a few half-hearted lamps and two tall candles on the table, illuminating the meticulously-arranged platters of fruit, the little symmetrical plates of chocolate, and the dark cheeseboard. I looked around at the endlessly narrow shelves of old, dark books—perhaps it was yet another sign of being a terribly lax Early Modernist that I genuinely felt no desire to unlock the cabinets and peel open the presumably centuries-old pages. Large books with elaborately-ridged spines and gold lettering, but no the type of books that are alive with brave, mad characters riding through city and country alike, but with diagrams and lines, records of names and quarterly inscriptions. The type of books that look like props.

It was certainly the kind of room that would have enraptured any teenage Harry Potter fan, with the little staircase, elaborately bejewelled decanters and the books from end to end. Slowly the conversation shifted—the individual strands died away and the central voices came to the fore, and the subject was Europe. I looked away. It seemed very much to me that this would have been what it felt like in those films set in the 1930s, where everyone it sitting in a wood-panelled room and the men in suits begin to talk darkly but matter-of-factly about the war that will inevitably come. These scenes have impact because the predictions of horror and destruction are invariably at odds with the lavishness of the setting, and the same was true here. It was only when we left the room that we realised the candles were electric.


It’s that point in the term where everything slowly starts sliding out of control—you’re not quite sure how, but the plates start falling and you can either attempt to keep just the one spinning exceptionally well, or feverishly gather up the various pieces of all the others and endeavour to form them into an innocent whole that strives to not belie their multiple cracks. It happens: lectures roll by unattended, messages sit unanswered, you’re late in the mornings and late in the evenings too, your family patiently waiting though you have only just turned off your computer and shrugged on your coat at the time you were meant to be there. I said this last term too, but this is now my fourth year of folding myself into bizarre eight-week structures of exhaustion, and I honestly do not think I can continue much longer. I have no idea what other places are like, but if the universal graduate school experience involves all your energy evaporating after a few weeks and every day being an exhausted struggle with the acute awareness that 7000 words need to materialise by next week, perhaps I’d be better-placed doing something else entirely.

Am savouring this rare hour spent entirely by and for myself neither in my office nor at home. I will never be entirely of the school that loudly proclaims its penchant for working in cafes, as I generally need to refer to several books at any given time, and I have little desire to create a quirky-sounding cover for what is generally a dire lack of adequate workspace—a problem that thankfully does not apply to me. No, I don’t see myself writing said 7000 words anywhere but in my office, but to write—this is fairly perfect. I am left entirely alone and untroubled by the sensation—indeed, conviction—that I should be working, not only because I physically can’t, as my work is a few streets away in the House, but also because I have decidedly set aside this time for just this and nothing else, and that makes a significant mental difference. At my desk I am prone to distraction and the impatient guilt surrounding actions that are not work when I could very well be working. But three-quarters of an hour in what used to be one of my favourite coffee shops in town doesn’t trouble my conscience in the same way. There is, too, a similar level of extremely contained euphoria similar to last Monday just at existing in different spaces for a change. In a way, both my home and my office are fairly private spaces, and the act of choosing to participate in a public space on my own is an enjoyable one: I believe it is something to do with purposefully weaving yourself into what we might call the fabric of a public society, and choosing to exist alongside strangers and other participants in this setting. I am not sure how to explain or define it, but it feels like good exercise to stretch the muscle of a public yet solo self.


I had never understood how people could go to war.

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.

(Judith Butler)

I had never understood how people could go to war. But what about when you do not possess the memory of the feel, but only the prospect of the touch—and not even that? Not even the prospect of the touch—not the everyday split-second touch, but the something longer something deeper, hinted at by the unplanned meeting of eyes, the contact of my gaze with your face, which I love—no, there isn’t even the prospect of that. It is but a shadow of a thought, one that is at the fore every hour that I spend with you, that enlarges itself and makes itself known and heard until I fancy you can see it right behind my eyes, but that I dare not put into words, in case it isn’t true.

I had never understood how people could go to war, until I knew you, and now I am every one-handed Spaniard at Lepanto, every innocent brother in the German films that runs away to the GDR in the dead of night. Can a person be a cause? because if so my every emotion is a battle cry, the skin that you have brushed with your hand or never touched at all a uniform. Your face so alien to me and yet so sweetly familiar, as if I had studied it since birth, everything imperfect about it kept on the soft skin of my left wrist. Was there ever such a thing? My love, I love, and live like a startled starling in the aching night, covered by the fear that I might lose you. Did you not know that I pray? That my mean and undeserving profile might carve a line into your distracted heart so that you would for ever miss me.

A mirror, my mirror, every part and corner that I excavate a reflection of my belonging(s). You are my words, my stance, my emphases, ya a stepladder to bolster myself until the day they find me out, ya the top shelf far above me that will still tower high the day they evict me. If I ever heard that it was me that you needed, in the smallest way at all, my joy would have no constraint, no edge, no word of expression. As you wish, I am, always ready to be, as you wish me to be.


Was on the way back from the House after an unproductive few hours, exhausted and clutching an unglamorous cup of tea from the kebab van, when I passed Itsu and saw […] two of my favourite literature scholars deep in animated conversation. […] darted inside, where the scene resembled some sort of apocalyptic takedown, with everyone clutching stacks of soon-to-be half-price sushi to their chests.

We got, as to be expected, to talking about literature and writing, the way different kinds of writing demand different things from us, phases of reading and writing. I suggested forming some kind of group to provide a regular home for these discussions: I couldn’t imagine anything better than sitting with some of the most brilliant people I know and learning more about their thoughts on the epistolary form, or what it means to them to write. I am hopeful something will come of this—it is not only truly wonderful to encounter people who carefully consider the act and implications of writing, but also to be brought, during the course of a conversation, from the perceived margins to the very fore, no longer existing only as a token or a tired reminder. How galvanising it is to be seen as a creative equal, not a patient recipient of advice […] but to be acknowledged as a positive and valued contributor of welcome ideas—it reminds me that I am a person, and not just a listener.

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