Archive for May, 2008

cambridge life

On the grounds that if I don’t write this all down, I will probably forget it. Also you are interested in my tiny life! Yes you are.

Our place here is schweet. It’s one of six flats in a newish building on a cul-de-sac. We’re one of two flats on the top level, and we have two floors. Downstairs there’s a twin bedroom, perfect for the girls, with a bathroom next door. Both open onto the hall-and-staircase, which because we leave shoes there and go barefoot in the house Claire calls “the shoe room”.

The hall also opens onto a kitchen/living room/dining room with two big east-facing windows. We’ve festooned the windows with the girls’ drawings and paper dolls. Two sofas in the lounge area mean we can all curl up and read or watch TV or dink. (Dinking is Jeremy’s term of art for noodling around on the Intarwebs.) The kitchen is elaborate enough that we’ve managed two- and three-course meals. There’s a heavy emphasis on sausages (because, yum), white rice (we have a rice cooker), salad and fruit.

The really nice part, though, is upstairs, where the master bedroom occupies most of the garret. Skylights in the angled walls let in masses of light and air. Just like home! We have our own bathroom, very civilized, and there’s a corner where I can work. So yes, I am in Europe, writing in a garret. It’s software industry research, not novels, and Cambridge not Paris, but let’s not split hairs.

Primrose joins Victoria Road next to a farm shop (Radmore, whence the sausages – yum!) There’s also a good co-op grocery two blocks down at Mitcham’s Corner. The fresh produce is a bonus because eating out has been iffy; I haven’t even been specially impressed with the nearby Indian and Bangla places.

A rough thing about traveling is that you lose your knowledge of short cuts to places and the best things to order in cafes. I’ve been enjoying Cambridge more as I have figured things out. So from Primrose and Victoria you cross the street and take a footpath down through housing projects to Carlyle, where there’s a very nice park and playground. Turn left on Carlyle and you get to Chesterton, which runs along the river Cam. Two buses run along here, or you can cross the bridge over the lock to Jesus Green. That sounds far but it’s about thirty seconds from our front door.

Jesus Green has really been the center of our Cambridge world. It’s on the way to everywhere, and the girls go to its playground every day. If you follow the river to the right you get to Quayside and a couple of decent restaurants. And a place to hire punts. If you strike out overland you hit the back of the city center, and can take cunning shortcuts through to the pedestrian zone. The time I haven’t spent sitting in my attic writing, I have spent in the basement of Starbucks on Market Square. Yeah, I know. I am here now. I find splitting my Cambridge days between Starbucks and home makes me slightly less stir crazy than if I did not. What?

Two days a week I go down to London. I prefer it, but the days are very long, and the kids are nearly asleep before I get back. I catch a bus on Victoria which takes me to the station, and then I get an off-peak ticket and take the 10.15 express to Kings Cross. It’s a brisk 15-minute walk from Kings Cross to the office but it really isn’t worth getting on the Tube to Goodge Street; would probably take longer. Not a bad walk anyway since I found the back way past St Pancras and around Gordon and Tavistock Squares.

Our office is in a basement on Gower Street, in the same row of Georgian brick houses that Spike stayed in on his London trip. If we lived here I’d love to live somewhere in Bloomsbury. It’s probably hideously expensive, but I do like the squares and being close to the British Museum. Filmlight, where Jo, Kirsty and Christopher work, used to be practically next door on Bedford Square. It’s moved a little further away but it’s still really easy to meet them for lunch.

My level of happiness was greatly improved by the discovery of Paradiso on Store Street, around the corner from work. They make their own pasta. A hot lunch makes a 12-hour London day much more bearable. The days are so long because the off-peak tickets mean I can’t catch the train before the 7.15 back to Cambridge. Gets in at 8.06, narrowly missing the 8.05 bus home, and leaving me to wait till 8.35 for the next bus. Home by 9. Into bed, catatonic, at ten.

See? You hung on every word! You SO did.


We left Jeremy’s camera in a cab again, and got it returned to us, again. That makes four times now. The kindness of strangers, let me show you it.

the residents

Jeremy’s green card arrived today. A billion thanks to Kathy for FedExing it over, and to our awesome attorneys Minette and Sheryl for working on this for five-and-a-half years.

We had our first meeting with Minette when Claire was six weeks old and snoozing peaceably in her sling. Claire woke up about ten minutes in and gurgled graphically. We apologized, but Minette said not to worry:

“Those are perfectly legitimate noises.”

So! We have it under legal advice.

a girl’s best friend

LATER the same evening they watch a DOCUMENTARY, in which rutting UNGULATES SMEAR themselves with mud.

J: Would you respect me more if I smeared myself with mud?

R: Lasts forever.

she’s right you know

C: Where are we?

R: Stevenage. Jane Austen was born here.

C: Who is Jane Austen?

R (mimes being stabbed in the HEART): What a cruel thing to say to your mother! Jane Austen was the best writer ever. She wrote the best books. All six of them.

C: Did she write any kid books?

R: No, she didn’t really get time. She died when she was only 38. She did write a funny history of England, which you might like. I have it at home in California.

C: Why do people die?

R: Some people get sick. Some get old. Some die in accidents. Or do you mean why do we all die? Nothing lasts forever. Not even stars. They get old and die.

C (looks EMO)

R: It’s okay really. If you’re lucky you get to die when you’re really old, and those people sometimes say it’s like going to sleep when you’re tired.

C: I can tell you one thing that lasts forever.

R: What’s that?

C: …mud.

island nations

[16:55] ian_envivio: have you seen the healthy but creepy M&S grocery shop where everything is prepackaged in plastic tubs
[16:56] mizchalmers: i obtain my food units from there every day
[16:56] ian_envivio: it looks like a hippy/western healthy version of a japanese inner city supermarket
[16:57] mizchalmers: the british and the japanese have a lot in common
[16:57] mizchalmers: tea, war
[16:57] ian_envivio: love of the monarchy
[16:57] mizchalmers: crazitude

this day again

Happy birthday Salome. Wendy, I still miss you. Wish you’d got to grow up and have adventures and babies too.

dirty ol town

Dad asked the fair question of why I didn’t mention Dublin in my big England-confuses-me post. Thing is I don’t really associate Trinity with Oxbridge any more. It wasn’t a consolation prize and I can’t believe I ever thought it was. It was a miraculous escape and the beginning of my adult life. I learned vi there, for God’s sake! I spent the night of the Ireland-Norway world cup match reading the first copy of Wired magazine I had ever seen! Rathmines, the Long Room, Ha’penny Bridge, the Winding Stair, Ormond Quay, Newgrange: all mine. Ireland made me. I am listening to the Pogues as I write.

the white album

Spike counters, brilliantly, with Patrick White. To which Alex replies:

And for that matter, Jack White:


Oh well, they gonna make me king
Oh well they gonna make me king now
I pulled a sword out of a thing
They made me kiss the bishop’s ring
And now they gonna make me king now

So Lance is sleepin’ with the queen
My Lance is sleepin’ with the queen now
And though I think it kind of mean
I just don’t wanna make a scene
Cause I do love my wife the queen now

I wish that I could talk to Merlin
I wish that I could talk to Merlin
The night is dark, the world is whirlin’
My son the traitor’s flag’s unfurlin’
And I could really use you, Merlin

Me, I am working on Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Melbourne.


Email with Alex, reposted here for Spike and Francis:

My children are endlessly hilarious. Claire saw Jeremy reading my copy of T. H. White’s The Age of Scandal and asked “Is that the same author who wrote Stuart Little?” I said “That’s E. B. White but you know what? We’re going to keep you.”

It might have been interesting had they written each other’s books..

(from ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by T.H. White):

‘But how am I to be SOME PIG, Charlotte?’ asked Wilbur. ‘I don’t even think I’m much of a pig now.’

The spider rolled up her struggling prey, a small fruit fly, and meditatively injected it with paralysing venom.

‘You must root, Wilbur,’ she answered, her voice slightly muffled, as the fruit fly thrashed with decreasing vigour. ‘Root, dig and furrow, for it is in your nature to find the deepest and the most buried things. That, at least, is the wisdom as recorded by the best authorities. Spiders kill; pigs root. Excuse me just a moment.’

Charlotte dug her fangs into the fruit fly’s abdomen and sucked the liquefying flesh into her thorax. The fruit fly’s struggles ended, and its many-faceted eyes went a dull slate colour. Charlotte extracted her mandibles and smacked her lips.

‘Delicious,’ she said. ‘I always like a little snack before Vespers. In the meantime, however, I think we need a new word for you.’

‘I wish I could do that,’ said Wilbur wistfully, watching Charlotte dispose of the brittle husk of the fruit fly…

I would do a version of The Once and Future King as if by E.B. White but he’s just not imitable enough. Not by me, anyway.

Wart spent his long afternoons in the wood with his brother Kay, where they fished and fought and listened to the goshawks crying “Cree, cree!” and the frogs in the reeds remarking “Sweet, sweet interlude; sweet interlude.” For it is in the nature of boys in the summer to seek the earth and growing things; to watch the shoots unfurl as the manhood is unfurling within those bony chests. Such summers come but once and are soon over.

‘Well,’ said Templeton, twitching his whiskers, ‘sword or no sword, I’ll be gold-darned if HE’s gonna be king of England.’

Permission to blog this exchange?


somewhat less annoying material

We went out onto Coe Fen, which is quite the loveliest part of Cambridge we’ve found so far, all birdsong and head-high wildflowers and fragrance. I ambled on as Claire and Julia, exploring in the verge, found a roly-poly, what I’d call a slater. Wikipedia calls it a woodlouse. Jeremy loaded it onto a piece of grass to bring it with us. The girls ran ahead, as its heralds.

When they caught up with me, the roly-poly was gone.

Claire collapsed with grief. She could not contain her sobbing. Julia stood stony-faced and sorrowful nearby; she could not be comforted. Jeremy was mostly amused but I remember what it was like to be that little and lose something you care about. I sat on the fen with Claire and told her about Sugar, my dog. I recited Sugar’s elegy and improvised one for the roly-poly:

We had a roly-poly,
he was on a piece of grass.
When we turned to look
he was gone, alas!
Roly-poly how we miss you.
When we see you next, we’ll kiss you.
Roly-poly we love you.
We would not make you into stew.

Claire’s weeping abated a little. I said: “There’s a cafe at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Shall we go and have hot chocolate? I think it’s what roly-poly would have wanted.” Jeremy snorted and I kicked him.

a distant echo

(Go give money to Burma and China. And then when you have compassion fatigue, come point and laugh at the non-disabled white girl who wants a pony.)

England confuses me. There are all these none-too-subtle reminders to Know Your Place, most recently when we went to Kings College Chapel for Evensong and a smiling Anglican person said “You are very welcome! Please sit in the antechapel in case the children need to leave in the middle of the service. I know it sounds horribly exclusionary but it’s not…” This after a fortnight of walking around the quite pretty public spaces in Cambridge looking through locked gates at the exquisite private spaces. It’s as if the class system here were set up intentionally to tweak my insecurities.


And as it turned out the kids did need to leave early, Anglican liturgical music not being the overwhelming cultural touchstone for them that it is for me. Jeremy packed them off home and as I sat listening to the rest of the service I thought about the imaginary England of my childhood; the BBC and imported copies of Horse & Hound, Thelwell, Penguin Classics, Maree Suchting’s back copies of Punch and my grandmother’s Everyman Shakespeare and Kipling. Little wonder that everything in Australia seemed insubstantial and derivative. I was ignoring the dark sky and the thousand lost languages, and spending all my time in Edmund Blacket’s Main Quad and Christ Church St Laurence, explicitly modelled on the Perpendicular Gothic of Oxford and Cambridge.

Everything was a distant echo of the purported Real Thing, a black swan of trespass, &c. The unquestionably real and solid thing of my teens and twenties was my horse Alfie, the source of my obsession with Lady Anne and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Crabbet Arabians generally. Some of the best memories of my adolescence are dawn rides through Kur-ring-gai National Park. At least I was paying attention. Being in the place I was in. And when I thought about this, in Kings, it occurred to me that my malaise of the last few weeks might be attributable to my not being in the place I am in, and instead being bugged by my 21-year-old self who would cheerfully have killed to be here, albeit as a student, not as a townie wife.

So (here is my California stint for you) I went to sit down in the Christ Church choir stalls sixteen years ago with sad baby Rach. I said, Chin up old girl. You won’t believe me if I tell you how it turns out. You’re married to this extraordinary man! And oh my god, the children, you cannot imagine it, the way you love them makes you a better person. The members of your little family are all brilliant and hilarious and they smell good. And the place you live in! And what you do for a living! And oh my god, your friends!

As I did this (California is really getting to me, you can tell) I vividly remembered a moment that bitter February when I turned 22, with no clue what I was going to do. I sat in the choir stalls beside Moira, crying silently through the readings. And then I felt the ache in my chest ease a little, for no reason, as if someone had kindly patted my hand.

Here’s the thing. I knew nothing, really, about Oxford or Cambridge. I’d never been here and I still haven’t been to Oxford. I knew no one at any of the colleges. I asked Professor Riemer, the Grim Riemer, to write my academic references, and I’m pretty sure those references were bad. (Did he do me a favour there or not? Discuss.)

What I thought about Oxford was that I would get sort of promoted out of a life where I would have to scrabble and compete and use my wits, into a world of tenure, a world full of books. I saw myself sitting by a diamond-paned window, looking out on a lawn, reading a dusty tome. Life would effectively stop. These daydreams did not involve marriage or children or grocery shopping or going to the toilet. I would hover, I suppose. I would transcend.

Sixteen years’ hindsight makes it clear to me that this was a virginal death wish. (Incidentally I think I understand Sylvia Plath a lot more than I did two weeks ago.) What I wanted was not to have to grow up. I felt I needed tenure because otherwise I would certainly be fired. I needed the ivory tower because I couldn’t possibly cope out in the big world. I needed the imprimatur of Oxbridge because there was no other way I could avoid being exposed as the idiot I am.

Now I am presented with the unexpected option of not minding about any of this. Of thinking of Cambridge as a funny, beautiful old town full of posh (and not-posh) people, with some good colleges and some bad ones. Of thinking of class as a social construct, not a measure of worth. Of thinking of myself as just this person, you know? Yes, England confuses me.

three paragraphs just to prove i am alive

My sense of humour has returned! The peanut gallery cries: How can you tell? It is raining in Cambridge which is far more appropriate, pathetic fallacy-wise, because I can stomp through puddles and properly enjoy my crankiness. Also my cousin has turned up after I was worried about her.

Cambridge is terribly suburban. The car rental places close at 1pm on a Saturday, for example, and the local theatre is showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. No link for you, hackmeister; not after the Venetian in Vegas, where Phantom of the Opera was playing in the lifts, on infinite loop.

I read Porterhouse Blue. What a vilely sexist, not-very-funny mess that was. Better books since, notably Our Horses In Egypt with its lovely breathless vernacular prose style rather like Mitford. I was especially pleased that author Rosalind Bulben credited the Anzacs with taking Damascus, and not that idiot Lawrence. Fighting words! But you know it’s true!


The flat we’re in is very nice, and one block from a gorgeous playground, and two blocks from the river and Jesus Green.

Inside the flat every room has a heavy fire door designed to close. The rental agency has provided little wedgy doorstops so you can prop them open.

So far these doorstops have been cellphones, templates for a family of paper people and, most recently, ice skates. We didn’t need to bring toys.

the godfathers… of soul

It never takes longer than a few minutes, whenever they get together, for everyone to revert to the state of nature, like a party marooned by a shipwreck. That’s what a family is. Also the storm at sea, the ship, and the unknown shore. And the hats and the whiskey stills that you make out of bamboo and coconuts. And the fire that you light at night to keep away the beasts.

With its Philip K. Dickian mirror-world and paranoia, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been the perfect choice of book for this weird and dislocated first week in Cambridge. Jewish Sitka, that frozen metropolis, has made me appreciate for the first time how many of the places I am homesick for never really existed. It’s also the perfect book to be reading on Mother’s Day when one’s useless cellphone will not connect one with one’s mother, except via text message.

The great blessing of this trip has been spending hours and hours with the godfathers, Grant and Chris. I’ve been a bit too wrecked to talk to them very coherently, but the girls have taken possession, showed off their best kung-fu moves and pieces of stick and leaf and are now perfectly comfortable swarming all over them. I do not know whether the godfathers are equally comfortable being swarmed over, but this is what they signed up for.

Cambridge is so very pretty, the colleges all jumbled up like Examples of European Architectural Styles, green space everywhere with spreading trees and daisies, people being hilariously drunk in punts. Such beautiful weather that I have a suntan. I’m finding it all very suspicious.

punting on the cam

So we are in Cambridge! It didn’t help that we got here at the end of the week that started, for me, in Vegas; so what with the implausible Northern twilight and the pretty pretty greens and colleges so forth I have begun to think of this as just another themed casino. The Cantabrigian. With live shows called Tripos and Viva Voce! We punted on the Cam, which I insisted on spoonerizing, to my own hilarity and the resigned amusement of my entourage.

Anent which entourage Julia has jetlag which means that no one within earshot may rest. As a result Jeremy and I went for about six days with no more than four hours of sleep at a time. Jeremy coped with this better than I did; I was up at 5am yesterday, trying to help Claire in the bathroom, when I fainted. The flat has a wooden floor so I am sporting handsome bruises on my head and hip. It was extremely unpleasant but has had no alarming sequelae. I shall avoid recreating the circumstances.

Not suprisingly, my academic anxiety has been flickering on and off like a flaky Wifi signal. I had another good hard look at the MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science, a course I’ve thought about doing before. Grace Hopper, maybe, or Unix as literature? But I couldn’t help thinking I already have a perfectly nice MPhil that I am extremely fond of, and that the books I dream of having written aren’t academic texts at all but novels. And you don’t need any degrees from anywhere to write novels.

This cheering thought had me working on the novella on the train to and from London today. It’s far from perfect but there’s some decent writing in there. That said, I think I’m going to have to smash it to bits and patch the bits together if I want to get it to the next stage. I think it’s publishable as is but that’s not really enough for me any more; I think I can do better. Guh! What’s happening to me? IS IT SOMETHING IN THE CAMBRIDGE WATER SUPPLY???


Hit my deadlines. Worked about seventy hours this week. Work, dinner, bedtime, sleep, work.

Why didn’t you all tell me about Cassandra at the Wedding? Which bit did you think I wouldn’t like? The Didion-ish voice? The debt to Patricia Highsmith? The fact that it is apparently source material for The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, best book about an insane bishop EVAR??? Come on, people! What have we been talking about all this time?