Experiencing Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport

Out of all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport had the most arresting summary: a first-person one-sentence inner-monologue spread over approximately 1,000 pages, covering every thought that runs through the Ohioan housewife speaker’s head, including worries, observations, clickbait headlines, jingles, and wordplay.

More accurately, the book is 988 pages, although that number increases to 1,030 if you include the glossary, appendices, and front matter. It’s also not just a single sentence; punctuating the stream of consciousness is another narrative about a lioness told in third-person prose with the blessed inclusion of full-stops. There are, by my count, 17 instances when the main stream pauses for the lioness’s story, each time for 1-2 pages. The pauses occur every 100 pages or so for most of the novel, the gap between pauses decreasing to as little as 10 pages towards the end. The two narratives are linked thematically and eventually the plots intersect.

I was curious to know how such a novel could work; whether a single sentence could be maintained for that length without degenerating into nonsense word soup, and whether the extreme page-length was justified.Read More »

Students Have the Right to Be Offended

At last year’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit meeting in September, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, revealed that she’s

had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality […] And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable […] If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that […] Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind.

This was followed by an official statement from Professor Richardson on the university website, pointing out that the university has an anti-discriminatory policy which she has always supported. She did not retract any of her words from the summit.

As someone who has taught students at Oxford and elsewhere, let me say this: it is absolutely not the role of a teacher to make students feel uncomfortable.

Professor Richardson is mistaking the need to challenge students intellectually with a desire to make them so uncomfortable, so distressed, that they complain to a university authority. Yes, we should be able to justify and defend all our positions, including the idea that homophobia is bad. Yes, students should have to understand and analyse ideas they may not agree with. Yes, students should at times feel out of their depth or bewildered – this is how we know we are stretching them intellectually.

But as teachers we control the context in which ideas and views are argued for or against, and I see no reason why a professor’s personal views on a subject should even be considered. What matters is, what does the student think? Why do they think this? Most importantly, how do these thoughts relate to the topic they are studying?

This intellectual work should take place in an environment the student is comfortable in; just as you would not ask a student to sit an exam whilst half-submerged in icy water, we should not expect students to learn from someone they know holds offensive views.

How do we define ‘offensive’? The Sun reporter Giulia Crouch paraphrased Professor Richardson’s comments as ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES […] Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’. The problem with this interpretation is that Richardson singled out negative views on homosexuality in her example, and homosexuality is not just an idea, it’s an identity. As such, the problem isn’t that someone has a different opinion from the student; it is that part of the student’s identity – or part of the identity of people the student cares about – is being judged and attacked.

If the professor was instead arguing against the effectiveness of government surveillance to counter domestic terrorism, or the idea that the British Corn Laws bolstered the Victorian economy, then yes, a discordant student should construct a counter argument, rather than taking offense and complaining. That, however, is not the point Professor Richardson was making.

But what if we reversed the hypothetical, and the student was homophobic, and felt uncomfortable because their professor was pro-LGBT rights? You can imagine other examples – the student could be racist, anti-Semitic, or sexist, and these views might even form part of the student’s identity, as a white supremacist or a ‘meninist’. Would this student also have the right to feel ‘comfortable’ at university?

The difference is that in these examples the professor’s position is inclusive rather than exclusive, assuming that all sexualities, religions, and genders should be treated equally. The onus is on the student to argue that a sexual, religious, or gender identity should be treated differently, and those arguments should be heard and responded to objectively (although I’ve yet to hear an argument for negative discrimination that holds up to serious scrutiny).

Of course, this assumes that arguments against homosexuality – or any other identity – are relevant to the topic being studied, and that personal views needed to be considered. Even if that topic was the effect of gay marriage in the Christian church, a teacher should still frame all arguments in the context of the wider effects and issues; not because it will make everyone feel more comfortable, but because this is how we analyse ideas at universities.

Professor Richardson’s remarks are particularly disappointing as her university is generally a very comfortable, welcoming place for everyone, including LGBTQ students. The colleges fly rainbow flags for LGBTQ awareness; student committees have LGBTQ representatives; cases of discrimination based on sexuality are treated seriously by welfare and disciplinary teams. A few years ago the chaplain of my college draped a rainbow flag across the chapel lectern for LGBTQ awareness month, and gave a stirring sermon in which he apologised for the church’s prosecution of LGBTQ people.

Oxford students and organisations have been quick to respond to professor Richardson’s comments. The University’s LGBTQ society wrote an open letter, asking her to apologise, and reminding her that as Vice-Chancellor she has moral and ethical obligations to protect LGBTQ students according to the Equality Act 2010 and the university’s own equality policy. It has 3,185 signatures.

Lloyd Houston, a teacher and LGBTQ Staff Role Model at the university, also wrote an open letter. He argues that the power balance in the teacher-student relationship does not work the way the Vice-Chancellor describes it: the tutor is an intimidating authority, one of the people who determines the student’s academic success, and to expect a young unqualified person to ‘persuade’ them to reconsider their view on the student’s lifestyle is grossly unfair.

What the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University says – and how others respond – is important, not just because it sets a standard at the university; Oxford also helps set a standard in the world. Young students preparing for their studies at Oxford or other universities now think that as well as defending their arguments, they may have to defend their sexualities from criticism. A student should be worried they haven’t done enough summer reading (you can never do enough summer reading), not that they have the ‘wrong’ sexuality.

As teachers, we have a duty of care to our students. As scholars, we have an intellectual obligation to frame ideas and perspectives in historical and social contexts. We can reject homophobia and maintain a high standard of intellectual rigour; we only need to put the emphasis on the student’s ability to understand and argue, all the time respecting the personal identities of the people we are teaching.

A version of this article appeared as a ‘letter to the editor’ in the January / February edition of The Gay and Lesbian Review.


Sean Coughlan, ‘Oxford head attacks ‘tawdry politicians’ on university pay’, BBC News, 4 September 2017: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41149074

Louise Richardson, ‘Statement from Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor’, University of Oxford, 6 September 2017: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-09-06-statement-louise-richardson-vice-chancellor

Giulia Crouch, ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES: Oxford university head says Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’, The Sun, 4 September 2017: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4392155/oxford-professor-toughen-up-snowflake-students/

Oxford University LGTBQ+ Society, ‘Letter to the Vice Chancellor and Senior Staff of the University of Oxford’: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd8kJePIi8erpbpytUMXHKNeSCJyUeBtxhJp9HqI3cnumH3yA/viewform

Lloyd Houston, Facebook post, September 5 2017: https://www.facebook.com/lloyd.houston.7/posts/10154961028392616

Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

Earthrise, taken by Bill Anders during Apollo 8 (1968). Image © NASA.

In January 2017, Theresa May spoke of ‘a truly Global Britain,’ and Brexit as a vote to ‘embrace the world,’ but only referenced an increase in the number of trading partners when describing the nature of this embrace. The pro-Brexit report from think tank The Henry Jackson Society (September 12, 2017) also used the phrase ‘Global Britain,’ but only when arguing that the country is a potential ‘leader of nations.’ There is no sense of global unity in either of these visions; only a desire to be important in a world divided into nation states.

In his speech on the future of Europe (September 26, 2017), Emmanuel Macron talked about an ‘open world’ in which European identity and values are constructed. But for Macron, as for May, the world is still only considered in terms of trade; he framed his ideas ‘within the context of globalization,’ rather than within the concept of a single world with shared issues to tackle.

We may have to wait until politicians visit space before we hear a speech with a truly global perspective. That day, however, may not be far away; by the time Britain leaves the European Union and begins its transition phase in 2019, SpaceX plans to fly tourists around the moon. By 2020, one year into the transition phase, Blue Origin aim to run their first cargo trip to the moon’s surface. Around 2025, when Britain will have established its new relationship with the rest of Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA), ChinaNASA, and Russia intend to begin construction on their permanent moon bases.

SpaceX plan to use their Dragon2 craft for their commerical moon missions. Image © SpaceX.

These projects will change human perspective. For the first time, anyone — not just scientists and astronauts — will be able to see our planet from a distance, so long as they can pay for it. We will have Instagram posts and tweets from the moon, and each Earth-rise and comment on the fragility of life’s existence will be shared by millions. Most importantly of all, by establishing a lunar base, and later, visiting Mars, we will become a multi-planetary species. Will we still be thinking of our place in a hierarchy of nation states, then? Or will we instead be considering our place in the universe?

Britain can play a role in reaching this new global perspective, by contributing to space exploration. For some science-fiction writers, European unity and space exploration go together: Eoin Colfer describes a rocket ship painted in ‘European Union blue’; Andy Weir’s The Martian features a German astronaut with the EU flag on his space-suit; and in Ben Bova’s Mars, the English character justifies his place in the first team to land on the red planet, when so many other nationalities were not included, by explaining that ‘England represents the European community.’

We do not have to remain part of the EU to contribute to space exploration, but to be influential we do need to collaborate with other countries on issues other than trade. Continuing to contribute to ESA is one way of doing this.

The value of global collaboration and perspective should not be forgotten during the Brexit negotiations; maintaining and strengthening the links Britain has made across national borders will not only help advance space exploration and science, it will keep the country relevant, even as the boundaries between countries become less important, in an increasingly interconnected world and solar system.

Edgar Mitchell planted an American flag on the moon. Decades of solar radiation have since bleached the markings of that flag, wiping away the stars and stripes to bare white.

And above it, the world.

Look at that.


· Anatoly Zak, ‘Russia Will Team Up with NASA to Build a Lunar Space Station,’ Popular Mechanics, 21 September 2017.

· Andy Weir, The Martian (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 134.

· Ben Bova, Mars (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 91.

· Christian Davenport, ‘An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’s Plan to Set Up Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,’ Washington Post, 2 March 2017.

· David Grossman, ‘China, European Space Agency Plan to Collaborate on “Moon Village”,’ Popular Mechanics, 26 April 2017.

· Edgar Mitchell, ‘Bio: Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,’ People Weekly, April 8, 1974, pp. 20–23 (20).

· Emmanuel Macron, ‘Sorbonne Speech of Emmanuel Macron — Full text / English Version,’ Ouest France, 26 September 2017. French text.

· Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist (London: Penguin, 2004) pp. 200–1.

· James Fincannon, ‘Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?’ The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, ed. Eric M. Jones and Ken Glover.

· James Rogers, ‘Towards “Global Britain”: Challenging the New Narratives of National Decline,’ The Henry Jackson Society, [September 12] 2017.

· SpaceX, ‘SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year’SpaceX, 27 February 2017.

· Theresa May, ‘Theresa May’s Brexit Speech in Full,’ The Telegraph, 17 January 2017.

When Life Gives You Pumpkins…

I began a pumpkin patch in 2016, mainly because I love the look of big orange pumpkins in October. When I needed to pick them, I looked around for ways to turn them into food. Thankfully, pumpkins are very versatile, and can form the base of many delicious things; not just pie and soup.

This was last year’s crop:

There’s a few different ways of harvesting pumpkin flesh. Some recipes ask you to carve it out with a spoon. That’s all very well but you need arms like Wonder Woman to do it properly. I found it easier to peel the skin off first and then cut the flesh into chunks. Better yet was the oven method: halve the pumpkin, scoop out the middle, wrap it in foil, and bake in a medium-heat oven (140 fan) for an hour. Then you just scoop the flesh out, like ice-cream, and blend to make a puree which can be used in most recipes, and can be frozen for later. This method also makes the kitchen smell of cooked pumpkin – an earthy, exciting aroma – and wrapping something in foil and baking it will make  you will feel as if you were cooking space food in the future.Read More »

How to Dig Graves in the Snow: A Story of Grand Forks, Yukon, and Jews in the Klondike

Last winter I wrote a 1,000 word story titled ‘The Kevura’, about the discovery of a dead body in the snow. It’s now been published, in the online Flash Fiction Magazine.

The story is set in the town of Grand Forks, Yukon, a place now so forgotten that it only has a 72-word entry on Wikipedia. First established in 1896 as a small settlement of forty buildings, the town grew to house 4,000-10,000 people (the number varies according to accounts) after gold was discovered nearby in 1897. The town had electricity, a public bath, a dentists, a famous roadhouse, and a municipal government.

In 1899 gold was discovered in a more accessible location, in Alaska, and Grand Forks fell into decline. By 1911, just fifteen years after the town was established, the town was completely abandoned so that the ground underneath could itself be mined for gold.

This is what the town looked at in 1902, around the time my story is set:

Dawson City Museum (1984.139.1). Reproduced with permission. The annotations were added by someone who lived in Grand Forks from 1903 to 1907 (when they were 10-14 years old).

The annotated panoramic lists some of the towns amenities, including a Japanese restaurant, a German bakery,  and a photographers’.

This is the same site in 2017:

Google Earth aerial photograph.

Almost nothing is left, except for a single derelict building and the remains of the cemetery, carved into the hillside, protected from mining by (let us assume) reverence for the dead. In 2009, historian and conservationist Ed Jones began restoring the cemetery.

Read More »

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night and I thought it was excellent. Director Patty Jenkins pulls off a bold and ambitious story with aplomb.

There’s a lot to say about the film, and even more to say about the 76-year history of Wonder Woman as a character, but for now I just want to get a few preliminary thoughts about the movie down.

These are basic, raw thoughts, and I may change this blog post as my thoughts continue to develop. If you have any comments or you can correct / challenge me on any of the below, please do so!

This is also my first foray into the critical discussion of the film, and I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum’s blogpost for its inspiration and links to other articles discussing aspects of the film.

Spoilers follow…

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Looking for Mars

For my birthday last year my Dad took me to the Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux in Sussex. It was the site of the Royal Observatory between the 1957 and 1990, after it moved out of London to escape light pollution. Most of the buildings have since been converted into a science museum, but the six telescopes are still there, and on special open evenings expert hobbyists use them to look at the stars and planets.

I particularly wanted to look at Mars. I had been working on a Mars writing project for over a year, and for research reasons – as well as pleasure – my reading diet was almost exclusively Mars-based. I had come to know Mars pretty well. But I had never actually seen it.

Seeing Mars with my own eyes would, I hoped, bridge the gap that lay between my ideas of the place and its reality: between all the ideas and images drawn from fiction and non-fiction floating in my head, and the actual, solid, brute-fact of Mars.

It would be like seeing a famous celebrity in person for the first time. Actually, it would be like looking at a famous celebrity through a long-range telescope, but that just sounds creepy.

Read More »

The Thing about the Thing Itself

9780575127739I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.

The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.

Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:

The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.

– p. 8

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Satire in the Age of Trump

In 2001 the critic and journalist Charlie Brooker was writing fake TV listings when he realised that reality had overtaken satire:

The problem, he says, is that some TV has become so bizarre, it’s pointless to try parodying it. “Touch the Truck made the point for me,” he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. “I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.

Fast forward 16 years and the words of U.S. government representatives seem to be having the same effect. Take Sean Spicer, for example: the White House Press Secretary, the man who explains to the world the position of the U.S. government, spoke about dangerous five year olds, twice burped up some random letters and numbers which may have been his password, and endorsed (presumably by accident) a headline from satirical news site The Onion which stated that his job was to ‘spread misinformation’.

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The 2016 Man Booker Prize

In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.

After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.

It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.

My mother and I at the dinner
My place at the table

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