Five Vignettes About Trees


I attended Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago, where the first line of Kilmer’s best-known poem was painted in old-worldly script above the stage of the auditorium: ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.’ The metaphor still works for me, but the rhymed couplets throughout the poem (I will spare you) edge close to doggerel. Thankfully, loads of other poems about trees have been published. I’ve recently discovered the French-Canadian poet Hélène Dorion, whose collection ‘Mes forêts,’ as the title suggests, features trees. Here’s a sample:

Trees bite into the soil
their bodies parched
in the cold of their roots
gaunt shadows bodies
pressed together
we hear the song
of fracture and desire
body like the tide going out
pale boat
lost in its night

body of love and storm
given over to the earth
that it licks as if
it were a wall to pierce through

  • Hélène Dorion (Translated by Susanna Lang)


With talk of today being the Spring Equinox in the marginalia of the news, I was reminded of St Joseph’s Day. It’s the day before the equinox, but nevertheless it was for me as a child the Italo-American version of St Patrick’s Day. It was customary to wear red. In Italy, it’s also celebrated by gorging on a zeppola, a custard-filled pastry with cherries on top – the cherries represent the buds on the trees in spring.


At the start of the year, I enrolled in another MOOC intended for French undergraduates to help me expand my French vocabulary. The course, entitled ‘Les Arbes,’ was about the biology of trees and their contribution to the Earth’s biodiversity. Once again, learning scientific French highlighted the paucity of my scientific English. Many of the words I looked up in French were the same or close to it in English.


In Cambridgeshire where I live, a furore has erupted over new plans led by the county council to build a busway (a bus-only road) from a new 6000-home development to the town of Cambridge. Building such a road will involve cutting down 1,000 trees. The majority of these arboreal victims are in the Coton Orchard, one of the UK’s largest and oldest orchards, with a unique ecosystem that cannot be mitigated with planting new trees elsewhere. This is part of a pattern in Britain, where the mass felling of trees has been carried out in the interest of road building. In 2018, despite two years of protests from residents in Sheffield, the city council allowed for the felling of some 17,500 trees. It later turned out that the justification for this was based on misunderstandings of an environmental survey coupled with misinforming the public.

I’m not just being sentimental about trees – all trees everywhere. Trees are also a crop that provide wood for furniture and pulp for toilet paper, among other things. Some trees also need to be cut down due to disease or public health reasons. The destruction of trees in our parks and towns is a different matter altogether. With the loss of these trees, the bird and insect populations, already in catastrophic decline, suffer greatly. To this, it’s necessary to add negative effects of such barbarous acts on the human population, both in terms of our physical health (such as the quality of the air that we breathe) and psychological health (where studies have shown improvements in emotional well-being with the introduction of sylvan spaces).


Every year, I buy an artsy calendar to add some colour and visual creativity to my home office in Ely. It’s also a place to jot down writing deadlines, meetings and health club activities – things that are on my phone calendar as well but are sometimes forgotten when my head is in the comfort of clouds. My 2023 calendar has a tree theme. Every month displays a painting of trees by some famous, and some not so famous, European artists. Looking at these photos of paintings everyday – these meadows, these tree-lined shores, these shaded forests – gives my days a natural sense of calm and beauty. Since according to a French professor lecturing on the MOOC, there are over 60,000 species of trees, every year could have a tree theme, a different tree calendar, and in the remainder of my lifetime, I still will have only scratched the surface.

Above: Emmanuel Gondouin, La Forêt, 1912
Feature image: Henri Charles Manguin, Les oliviers à Cavalière,  1905

Native American Redux

Any kind of revival or revisiting of something from long ago is a set up for disappointment, a total deflation of the nostalgia bubble for sure.

Like so many things in my early life, my entrée into Native American literature came via my determination to be a spiritual person – connected to universal powers, trying to levitate in incense-filled rooms. During my teens, I believed Native Americans were more spiritual than the rest of us. In popular culture, thanks largely to second-rate westerns and new age marketing, these indigenes appeared to have a sixth sense allowing them to see through people and communicate with flora and fauna in mystifying ways. I saw traditional Native American stories with their supernatural elements of talking animals and powerful deities as spiritual as opposed to the mythology and morality tales of the Bible and classical literature.

By my late twenties with my feet more firmly on the ground of literary and linguistic criticism, I was able to straddle Native American fiction as replete with episodes of magical realism. Yet, I privately thought of it as still somehow spiritual. That is, such fiction could be used spiritually, where the magic is mystical, for people in those native cultures and for those of us on a spiritual path – though my path was already becoming marred with potholes of doubt. Indigenous people were still more naturally spiritual in my mind’s eye, but I wouldn’t dare say this to students on my Native American Literature course. I had learned at university some important social skills, including not sounding like a new age hippy in public – such talk is easily mistaken for gullibility. The novels on my course were taught devoid of spirituality and as fictional retellings of reservation life and the treatment of native peoples by the US government with magical realism woven into the stories to reflect the traditional teachings of these peoples.

It was around this time, in the early nineties, that I attended a Native American languages conference in New Mexico, thinking this might be a direction to take my linguistics career. I know this sounds nerdy, but I think I would have done well in language documentation research, recording and transcribing dying languages. This gathering was unlike any linguistics conference I had been to before or since. Talks were introduced with songs and prayers, the latter a strange mix of indigene spiritual teachings and Christianity. As much as I enjoyed the songs and the linguistic research on these heritage languages, I felt disconnected. Two things were at play here. I was one of a few non-Indians in attendance and soon realised that native peoples were also linguists and training others in their tribes in language documentation. I was an interloper. The other point of disconnect came from the very earthy – and I would argue, political – Catholicism out on display. At the time, I was quite uncomfortable around brandishing formal religions of any sort although I was tolerant of spiritual speak and its cousin psychobabble. Suddenly Native Americans were no more or less spiritual than anyone else.

Fast forward 30+ years and several jobs in linguistics later, to where I found myself reading a work of Native American fiction for the first time in decades. Erdrich’s The Night Watchman caught my attention after it won the Pulitzer for literature. I approached this book with a sense of nostalgia, reminiscences of my younger, spirit-seeking, self, gobbling up Indian fictions. Set in America in the 1950s, it’s about an extended family of Chippewas living on a reservation and working under oppressive conditions at a jewel-bearing plant while their tribe’s leaders take on the US government. At the time a bill was going through Congress to end tribal recognition and Indian rights to their ancestors’ lands.

The story has magical realism elements in it – prophetic dreams, a talking dog and an owl that gives signals, but for me they are no longer aspects of spirituality. The story is more socio-political about the way American Indians were oppressed and subjugated to the reservations. I was struck by the language of this passage, referring to the bill proposed in Congress:

‘In the newspapers, the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill—emancipation, freedom, equality, success—that disguised its truth: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefix. The ex.’

More importantly for my older self, this is a story about the treatment of women in 1950s America. The women play the roles of cook, doctor, nurse and maid while coming up against sexual assault and forced prostitution.

While reading The Night Watchman I was reminded of an academic collection of Native American essays and fragments of memoirs, for which I wrote a review in the Journal of Language and Literature. Key to all these writings is the idea of survivance, as opposed to survival. The collection’s editor, Ernest Stromberg explains that ‘While survival conjures up images of stark minimalist clinging to the edge of existence, survivance goes beyond mere survival to acknowledge the dynamic and creative nature of indigenous rhetoric.’ Erdrich’s narrator employs what I would call survivance rhetoric:

‘You cannot feel time grind against you. Time is nothing but everything, not the seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Yet this substanceless substance, this bending and shaping, this warping, this is the way we understand our world.’

After all these years, I’ve come to realise that survivance is what unites works in the genre of Native American Literature, which includes poetry and memoirs, and this is what is shared between writers and readers. I guess, this realisation is my spiritual experience after all.

Daphne and Daphne

My nod to International Women’s Day 2023 comes in the form of noting two women named Daphne.

The first is the original Daphne, a figure from Greek mythology. Not important enough to be a goddess, she was a type of nymph associated with freshwater structures, such as wells, streams and brooks. Her story is certainly a woman’s story. Determined to be independent, Daphne wanted to stay single and untouched by a man for the entirety of her life. Unfortunately, she was beautiful, and even worse, Apollo wanted her. In one version of this tale, Eros, punishing Apollo for his hubris, speared Apollo with a golden arrow, making him desire Daphne. To protect her from Apollo’s clutches, the river god Paneus transformed Daphne into a tree. A linguistic aside: In English, the type of tree that Daphne becomes is called a laurel tree, and in Greek, the word for laurel is the same as Daphne.

Was Daphne happy and fulfilled being a tree? That, we don’t know as Daphne’s storyline ends there. From versions and adaptions written by men, this is Apollo’s tragic story. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the moral is the lesson Apollo learns about his haughtiness. Daphne is left in the dust, a conduit for the man’s (or god’s) story. Ovid’s version also has Daphne being pierced by Eros’s lead arrow to make her repel Apollo – that is, she loses her agency and her desire to be independent from men. I’m waiting for a feminist scholar to take up the perils of this Daphne.

The other Daphne is du Maurier. You probably guessed that. The author of modern classics Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat was only on my radar as a novelist until I read Margaret Forster’s biography. Du Maurier was also a scriptwriter and film producer, eventually owning a production studio, none of which were easy feats for women in post-war Britain or America. She was also the breadwinner, earning a great deal more than her army general husband – who was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in the film A Bridge Too Far.

Yet, du Maurier was not just another woman of extraordinary accomplishments bucking the social gender-defined trends. For me, she was also an everywoman of sorts. According to Forster, du Maurier battled with depression throughout her life and was at its worst towards the end when it was accompanied by anxiety. Women are more likely than men to experience depression and anxiety. Women are also more likely to speak about these conditions and to be prescribed medication. Between 1977-81, du Maurier suffered from such a severe bout of depression she couldn’t write. She was trapped in a cycle of being too depressed to write while believing that some inspiration to write would take her out of her depression. She was prescribed Halcion (a benzodiazepine). That medication heightened her anxiety, which du Maurier felt was caused by a lack of creativity. For the anxiety she was put on the sleeping pill Mogadon, which triggered a deeper depression, for which she was given Prothiaden (a tricyclic antidepressant). After a severe panic attack accompanied by spells of not eating, she was taken to hospital. She wrote about it in verse:

“They said it was not my body but my brain,

Had ceased to function in its normal way,

So back to hospital I went again, Doctors

Would find out what had gone astray.

A week of tests. Results? I am not told, but

Appetite has gone, has ceased to be. The sight

Of food appals me, hot or cold, the character sitting here

No longer me. I walk around the block, then

Come inside, no reason to exist or to reside upon

This planet here, myself has fled to unknown starts

Far lower than this earth.

Dear God, did you intend this from my birth?”

These Daphnes shared more than a name and an undaunted spirit. They both struggled in ways clearly indicative of their womanhood.

Marking the one-year anniversary

As a news junkie, I’ve been on a seven-day high. As Friday saw the one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, reviewing the year and predicting what is to come has dominated the news cycle. There was also a spattering of this weeks’ events featuring Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine, Putin’s speech about a parallel universe with Ukrainian nazis attacking Russians and scenes of support rallies and vigils starring the familiar blue and yellow flag.

What have I learned from this week of international newspapers, podcasts, radio, television and magazines? President Zelensky is still the master craftsperson of public relations. Despite that, he’s not likely to get the full military support he craves for reasons to do with geopolitics and the practicalities of transporting and using these machines of war. It’s also not likely this war will end anytime soon as both sides are far from the negotiating table. One pundit predicted that this could last a generation.

The most thought-provoking commentaries came from the weekend papers. The Observer editorial put a spotlight on the results of this week’s UN resolution to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine and demand an unconditional withdrawal. The resolution was supported by 141 countries, voted against by 7 and had 32 abstentions:

‘Worrying, even dismaying, is the realisation that important regional powers such as India, South Africa, Ethiopia and Algeria continue to sit on the fence. Foremost among them is China. Beijing is becoming, or already is, a global economic and military superpower. But with power must come responsibility – and its refusal to condemn, sanction or publicly criticise Russia is inexcusably irresponsible.’

Patrick Cockburn in the I Paper offered a sobering thought for us news addicts:

‘Biased reporting is inevitable in any war, but in this case the partisan news coverage has tended to over-focus on the military conflict in Ukraine and under-report the risks stemming from a growing confrontation between a confident America and a weakened Russia.’

Maybe I binged a bit too much on this news cycle as another take away from the week has been a feeling of worried ambivalence – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. This came to me as I was walking down the streets of Cambridge as part of a march and rally for Ukraine. Noting that fewer than 500 people showed up in this thriving student town made me think that this war is starting to drift from the collective consciousness – that was the worrying part. At the same time, I was growing detached from the event as the message wasn’t clear and at times made me feel ill at ease. This march was devoid of peace signs and the main message seemed to be that we are ‘standing with Ukraine.’ Are we standing with them as they fight, as this war is escalating and as more countries become involved? I agree with this in principle but feel uncomfortably militaristic with their application. I also didn’t see any signs or hear any chants or even casual talk about the thousands of Ukrainian children being taken by Russian troops to Russia to be re-educated – Putin is playing the long game by creating the next generation of pro-Russian nationalists.

My head spins with these thoughts, and I’m not really one to shut down and become ambivalent. Like a typical addict, I deal with these doubts and confusions by taking more of the drug that started it. Back to a podcast…

Where’s the Sense in Sensitivity Reading

I was appalled at hearing about the linguistic butchery being performed on some of Roald Dahl’s most famous works. The publisher Puffin and the Dahl estate have announced that they’re making changes to the author’s language on weight, gender and race.

These guardians of children literature are not giving children or the adults who read to them much credit. Dahl’s writing has always been full of hyperbole and even his narrators can have the bluntness and insensitivity of schoolboys. Readers expect this from Dahl, alongside humour laced with cruelty and darkness. Love it or loath it, this is the author’s voice. People who do loathe these features of Dahl’s work have a plethora of other children’s book to choose from.

This reminds me of my own childhood. I was fortunate in having my formative reading years in the seventies when America was burgeoning on the liberal and tolerance fronts. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was on the reading list but has since been banned from most States’ school curricula. Finn was the first social satire I had read outside of the comic strips in the Chicago Tribune. But it is a book that uses the n-word. Hundreds of times. Long before we read Twain’s masterpiece, my little friends and I knew that the n-word was pejorative and using it was racist. Huck and his sidekick, Jim, a runaway slave, both use the word nonchalantly. That’s not to say it wasn’t pejorative or racist even among these two friends. I believe they were portrayed as following the hierarchy of the times, unconsciously for the young Huck, but deliberately used by Jim as if to say he knew his place. Coming to understand these nuances was important for me in developing a deeper understanding of individuals battling and reflecting society at the same time and in developing an appreciation literature that could draw this out.

What is going on with the censorship of Dahl’s work is part of a bigger and worrying trend. American and British publishers have in recent years hired sensitivity readers to screen books before publication. The aim of these readers is to provide feedback on language that could offend minority groups. This feedback then becomes an editorial decision. Of course, literary editing and input from commissioning editors is nothing new, but it’s the search for offence and readily acting on this advice that is a sign of our times. In Le Monde, Clementine Goldszal reasons that this new job title has emerged as a way of avoiding heated debates on social media, many of which have spun into threats of violence against the books’ authors and publishers.

While I’ve been putting this blog together, a glut of articles about sensitivity readers has stolen my thunder. Most are against them, regarding their work as a type of censorship and inevitably quoting Lionel Shriver, who describes the practice of sensitivity reading as ‘totally subjective’ and ‘a waste of energy.’ (Cliché alert) If you can’t beat them, join them. The only piece I have seen in favour of using sensitivity readers was in The Conversation.

That article raises interesting points about this new practice offsetting the predominantly white, male and educated class of writers and publishers. To some extent this is true, but there are also ethnic minority and women writers getting published by mainstream and independent presses. If people read or listen to a book review and decide that a book might offend them, they can protest with their wallets by not buying it and expressing their feelings on social media or face-to-face at the café or pub.

A closing thought – you may have noticed that earlier I used the n-word instead of spelling the word out in full. I didn’t do this to avoid offence, and I would have preferred to use the full word – it is an example of language, just like any other swear word. What I have done is self-censoring so that the bots at WordPress do not label this blog ‘Objectionable Material.’ I’ve been punished with this label before. Sigh.

An Alternative Valentine’s Day

No cards. No flowers. No chocolates. No boozy dinner at an upmarket restaurant. Today, we celebrated Valentine’s in a different way.

Since Christmas my David and I have been doing the green thing of not giving each other cards. Over the years, we have exchanged cards for birthdays, anniversaries and all the big holidays. We saved these in our personal filing cabinets, most of David’s to me have been transferred to a plastic storage box with other paper-based memorabilia and my writings that pre-dated internet clouds. We both know full well that in our senile dotage, these overpriced cardboard confectioneries are going to the recycle bin, which then goes to the overflowing waste management centre, where currently less than 60% of recyclables are recycled.

Recent years have also seen us both clean up the clutter around us, and 2022, after my milestone birthday, became the year to cease card-giving and consequently, card storage. No jokey Christmas greetings or 25th wedding anniversary of rhyming sentiments written by strangers. Instead, we wished each other happy Christmas and anniversary and washed down special meals with good wine. Chink.

As with Christmas cards, there is also an historical case against exchanging Valentine’s Day cards and gifts. A little internet research (okay, not peer-reviewed) reveals that St Valentine of Rome was added to the calendar of saints by Pope Galesius in 496 even though he was martyred in 296 for performing weddings for soldiers who were not permitted to marry. This lovers’ day did not see the exchange of cards and gifts until the 19th century with the industrial revolution. Like so many customs, the festive day had become commercialised, a chance to sell mass-produced cards, sweets and flowers. We’re not so much breaking with tradition as we are fighting consumerism.

Within this Hallmark-free zone we celebrated Valentine’s Day by going to a pub in our town of Ely, partaking in the two meals for £25 lunchtime special. Yet, stingy doesn’t mean we are devoid of sentimentality. While waiting for our meals, we talked about this blog and my wish to end it on a love poem that isn’t soppy. Without hesitation, David said, ‘”An Arundel Tomb” by Philip Larkin.’

Side by side, their faces blurred,   

The earl and countess lie in stone,   

Their proper habits vaguely shown   

As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,   

And that faint hint of the absurd—   

The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque    

Hardly involves the eye, until

It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still   

Clasped empty in the other; and   

One sees, with a sharp tender shock,   

His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.   

Such faithfulness in effigy

Was just a detail friends would see:

A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace   

Thrown off in helping to prolong   

The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in

Their supine stationary voyage

The air would change to soundless damage,   

Turn the old tenantry away;

How soon succeeding eyes begin

To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths   

Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light

Each summer thronged the glass. A bright   

Litter of birdcalls strewed the same

Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths   

The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.   

Now, helpless in the hollow of   

An unarmorial age, a trough

Of smoke in slow suspended skeins   

Above their scrap of history,   

Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into   

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be   

Their final blazon, and to prove   

Our almost-instinct almost true:   

What will survive of us is love.

  • Philip Larkin (from The Poetry

Have a happy eco-friendly anti-consumerist Valentine’s Day.

The Arundel tomb that Larkin was referring to. You can just see the couple handing hands.

It’s time to evict English Departments from universities

About a dozen of my 35+ years of teaching were in undergraduate English departments in America and Britain. I now believe it’s time to get rid of these fixtures of universities once and for all.

Let’s start with the teaching of writing. Why do universities need English departments when other departments could easily include courses on written and spoken communication for their fields? American universities have been coming close to this practice for years, where English departments provide their services to other departments in the form of Composition classes. In Britain, English departments don’t include modules on composition or academic writing. Young people are taught (though do not necessarily learn) how to write in secondary schools and for those who don’t finish secondary school and later decide to attend universities, there are Foundation modules – and these are not always operated by English departments.

Furthermore, apart from modules on creative writing, most undergraduate writing is formulaic, following one of several genres of academic writing. The memories are flooding back from my stint of teaching Composition in the US, where I was encouraged to teach the five-paragraph essay and correct students’ fragment sentences no matter how effective they were. These essays came in several varieties – alternating argument, block-form argument, compare and contrast, process explanation etc. Fine for teaching some aspects of communication and critical thinking, but the end results hold little resemblance to writing in the real world, where essays take on creative forms, wiggling their arguments around anecdotes, and reports that could be journalistic, scientific, technical or legal, are punctuated with videos and follow in-house styles for speedy reading. The five-paragraph essay is the product of our assessment culture. Adhering to a formulaic genre of less than 1000 words is efficient for the grading machine, otherwise known as the English teacher.

Having learned the basics of prose writing in secondary school or a subject-specific Foundation classes, students could develop their writing with essays and reports in their fields of study. If they have the ideas and understand the content, but struggle to communicate, they can always go to a bot, such as ChatGPT, to help them. Not an original thought – a recent article in Nature considered whether ChatGPT could replace editors and teachers of writing. While academic publishers might take issue with this, such AI tools have a place in formulaic writing as an aide to written communication. Yes, they make mistakes and lack the creative nuances humans can bring to their writing, even if those humans are undergraduate students. Perhaps in the future student writing will become, with the help of bots, student editing. But I’m singing the praises of AI in soft tones until we learn more of the real costs – I’m waiting for news of the carbon footprint of ChatGPT and other sophisticated bots, considering the shameful carbon footprint of digital currencies like Bitcoin.

What about literature? English departments without writing courses would be left with literature, criticism and a spattering of linguistics. I’m not convinced that we need undergraduate English departments to teach us about literature. A lover and producer of literature myself, I see that the most influential works of fiction, poetry and theatre in my life came mostly from what I was taught in primary and secondary school. Other key works in my reading life came to me after finishing my student-serfdom as most of these books and plays were only written within the past 30 years. Outside of the academy, people enjoy literature the world over through book clubs, reading groups and as individuals. This is being helped with literary festivals, online forums and seminars, blogs, social media and sites such as Good Reads.

Literature in foreign languages, in my utopic university, would be retained in foreign language departments with hefty doses of literature and other cultural input. English literature would also still be studied at university as a component of other departments, most obviously sociology and psychology. Historical fiction could be part and parcel of history modules. STEM subjects could also draw from literary texts – last week’s blog discussed a novel that featured maths. All disciplines could benefit from more creative input.

As for Literary Criticism, in the age of mass printing, the internet and MOOCs, self-study materials and literary theory discussions are available for the motivated. Better still, let’s leave Critical Studies, Literary Criticism and Literary Stylistics for post-graduate departments, where students can appreciate these subjects more having had some undergraduate education that gets them thinking critically, whatever the field. Having said that, writing in The New Yorker, Merve Emre argues that Literary Criticism has become professionalised and part of the cultural capital (in the Bourdieu sense) that excludes the under-educated and is wrapped up in ideologies at the expense of studying and enjoying literature. That is, maybe criticism needs to reinvent itself into something more accessible.

What started as a blog has turned into something of an essay. But note – more than five paragraphs, a few fragment sentences and a meandering set of arguments without a conclusion.

Some Quirky Memory Plots

Two books among my recent reads employ unusual premises around the concept of memory to develop plotlines and consequently some fascinating characters.

Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a psychological science fiction, though some might consider it magical realism, with elements of social satire woven in. The main character, Hope, is forgotten within minutes by anyone she’s in physical contact with as if that person had never met her before. No, she’s not a middle-aged woman. In fact, she is an attractive twentysomething and uses her condition, a person who can be filmed on CCTV but not remembered or identified by anyone, to become a master jewel thief. She is helped by contact with an underworld of thieves in the deep web, where her avatar and handles are remembered – that is, she has a digital footprint.

While it’s fun to read how Hope can get away with theft and escape police stations and other scrapes as soon as someone leaves the room for a few minutes, a serious side lurks. Forming relationships is nearly impossible and only happen when the other person is aware of this memory cloud and can write notes to themselves, a complicated and difficult process. Hope reminds us how life without relationships can be lonely and agonising.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa that uses memory in a more conventional and believable way but with a twist. Following a car accident, a maths professor suffers from some sort of anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new memories. In the professor’s case, he can only remember what has transpired within the last 80 minutes and his long-term memory only contains his life before his accident of some twenty years ago from when the story begins with the arrival of a new housekeeper. Of course, every day is experienced as if the ‘new’ housekeeper has arrived. Aided by notes pinned to his clothes, he pretends he knows her, and they cultivate a friendship of sorts. With the appearance of housekeeper’s young son afterschool, this threesome manages to communicate and grow around their passions for mathematics and baseball.

In both books the heroines make use of these quirks of memory. As she is easily forgotten, Hope can attend taster sessions time and time again, becoming an expert in martial arts and having an enviable command of several languages. The housekeeper, who had limited schooling, learns maths without embarrassment by repetition from the professor who teaches her each time as if the first time.

Neither book employs the worn tropes of traumatic memories, childhood memories that come back to haunt, or even memories of the future caused by time travelling. Playing with the concept of memory in these peculiar ways, North and Ogawa flex their readers’ imaginations and remind us that there are other ways of thinking about the faculty of memory and what it means to be human.

Shoah Memorial Day 2023

At one time, I wouldn’t have written about the Holocaust simply because I felt so much had already been written and spoken about it. What more could I possibly say?

There is, however, a great deal more to say as new discoveries and accounts have emerged. I’ve been listening to The Rest is History podcasts that have featured Jonathan Freedland’s recent book, The Escape Artist, about two Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who escaped the notorious concentration camp. I was particularly struck by the accounts of Jewish people who willingly went to the camps thinking they were being deported from Germany, where they were harassed, attacked and denied many basic freedoms, to start new lives elsewhere. Once the camps were fully operational, others were convinced to join their families through an elaborate system of faked letters about how pleasant the camps were from those supposedly inside. The so-called authors of these letters were likely to be dead – some 80% of deportees to Auschwitz died within hours of arriving.

Freeland’s book describes how the two young men escaped in 1944, and more importantly how they authored a lengthy and detailed report about the horrors taking place in Auschwitz and struggled to get it taken seriously. The report was sent to Jewish leaders in Eastern European countries, where Jews were being deported to Auschwitz. After some convincing, Hungary stopped its deportation as a result, saving some 200,000 lives. Upon reading the report, Churchill went straight to the Department of Defence, bypassing his Cabinet, to order a sabotage operation of the train tracks to Auschwitz. But he was met with resistance due mostly to practical military matters, and the operation was sent to the Americans. Like Churchill, Roosevelt felt something had to be done urgently and came up against resistance. Antisemitism in America was pervasive at that time, and military officials expressed their doubts, treating the report as ‘Jewish exaggeration.’ Such accounts of the US response chime with Ken Burns’ recent documentary The US and the Holocaust, detailing the anti-immigrant and antisemitic fervour that played a role in America’s delay to fight in Europe and its shameful unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees.

On a personal note, the subject of the Holocaust often brings back a memory from childhood. When I was about nine years old, I was watching television at a friend’s house. I can’t recall what brought this about, but during the ads, my friend’s grandfather rolled up his sleeve to show us the tattooed numbers on his forearm. Too many years have passed for me to remember his exact words, but it was something about the war and being Jewish.

I’ve ended up having something to say about the Holocaust and a reason for saying it. As the witnesses and survivors are dying off, I feel the weight of responsibility on my generation – the children and grandchildren of those who lived through WW2 – to keep the conversation going, to share the knowledge so that history does not repeat itself.

Jewish Cemetery, Nice, France

Learning Foreign Languages

Some 30 years ago I was asked to author an article for a little-known inspirational magazine in the US on the topic of teaching yourself a foreign language. I’m reminded of this every year around this time when language learning websites are in promotion overdrive, targeting people who resolve to take up a foreign language.

The popular press also plays into this, and the London Times recently ran a piece about a language learning guru who spoke seven languages and claimed to go from nothing to ‘fluency’ in three months. This polyglot, Benny Lewis, defines fluent as ‘up to a conversational level.’ By this definition, I’m fluent in French and Italian – which I am not. I can manage certain types of conversations in both languages, but still stumble speaking to my French neighbours in Nice about problems with our building’s finances or with an Italian about politics (I know there is a joke in there somewhere about a country with 70 governments in 50 years). I simply don’t have the years of exposure to these languages and their cultures to be fully ‘conversational.’ Anyway, fluency is a slippery word that linguists avoid using. David Crystal, the popular linguist, once noted that while he is a native speaker and fluent in English, in a room full of physicists talking physics he would struggle to communicate.

Lewis does speak sense when he talks about ways of learning languages. On the topic of Duolingo for fluency he says that it’s ‘just never going to happen. Simple as that. It will get you started, you’ll get your little trophies, and you’ll feel that sense of achievement. It’s better than doing nothing.’ I agree completely. Duo is fun, but it relies too much on translations and that doesn’t help a person to think in the language. It also uses mostly language out of context – sentences and little paragraphs – and that makes it difficult to retain new vocabulary. Having said that, I’ve been using Duolingo everyday for the past 670 days – not to boast, but I’ve got a streak going and am into the Diamond League (whooo hooo). But I use it for languages, like French and Italian, for which I already have some proficiency. It helps me to practice the grammar through repetition, but I’m not learning new vocabulary or interacting in a meaningful way.

Since I wrote my article 30 years ago, self-taught language learning has come a long way thanks to the internet. Through YouTube, I watch news in Italian and documentaries in French, and I have language partners who chat (and correct me ad nauseum) via Skype and Teams. As for that article, as it was never digitalised, it’s in the dustbin for lightweight features – and just as well. When the editors discovered that I was female (they had assumed a Dr of linguistics was male), they denied me my by-line for the reason that their predominately ‘businessmen readership’ wouldn’t ‘respond well.’ Unforgettable words.

A piece of advice on learning languages from this female linguist is to simply experiment and discover how you learn languages best. I’m an auditory learner, so I learn more from listening than reading and more from speaking than writing. How ironic you might think given that this blog in my native English language is all about my life as a reader and writer.

Not advertising- just mentioning.