Sunday, September 30, 2007

Small Orange Earths

Small orange earths. Cold, from where I kept you. Your oils seeping into the air and promising sweetness.

What does it take to pierce you? A sharp finger nail? A prod from a blunt thumb?

Once I found you in a stocking at the foot of my bed and then forgot you until the new year. I smelt you out. A heavy odour leading me to you like a pungent brown trail.

As though you wanted to be found.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The FIRST EMPEROR: China's Terracotta Army.

Just recently something seems to have happened to time. Incidents that I just vaguely remember and assume to have occurred at least a week ago turn out to have taken place yesterday. It is disorientating and somewhat worrying.

Yesterday I rang someone to find out if my letter had arrived. 'When did you post it?' she asked. The evidence is here in my computer: the dates, the times all in front of me. 'Must have been 26th.' I said.
There was a pause. 'But that was just yesterday,' she said, 'it won't have come yet.'

So I put the phone down trying to remember. I must have printed it out, folded it, walked along the road to the post office...I must even have got dressed at some reasonable time because presumably I did not do all this in my dressing gown and slippers. But I can't remember it at all. Was the sun shining? Did I see anyone? I can't remember. Yet I can remember the terracotta warriors I saw the day before that. I can remember all the details: the way they all looked blankly ahead; the way their hands made perfect circles around poles that had long rotted away; the squares of clay armour joined together by clay threads over clay jerkins and trousers (since we were not allowed to take photographs in the museum I have used photographs of the exhibition brochure instead);
the graceful curves of a bronze swan and a bronze crane dipping their beaks into long dried-up pools;

the odd squat horses and their harnesses with cruel-looking pointed cones keeping one apart from the next;

and the chariot with windows made from beaten-out bronze to a lamella-like thickness so that light came through to the despot inside - the First Emperor Ying Zhen, King of the Qin (pronounced Chin).

Ying Zhen wanted to govern forever - in this life and the one he thought would come next. His tomb took 30 years to complete and contained 7 000 pot soldiers, several clay entertainers (also here - a strong man with an incongruously feminine roundness, and a thinner man who juggled something that had long-ago rotted away), officials with the knives and cutters of their trade (their hands hidden away in long rippling sleeves, pampered and well-cared for) and musicians that we can only guess are playing some sort of zither and some sort of drum.

Some artefacts, however, were preserved: bronze bells, beautifully embellished belt buckles, moulds for coins and the coins themselves - a square representing the earth cut out from the circle that was the galaxy.

Like Napoleon Ying Zhen was fond of standardisation. His standard measure for liquids is exactly the same as the measure of a litre today (I found that remarkable but there was no explanation if this was coincidence or whether the Chinese measure was the precursor of the European), the components for his weapons of destruction were of a standard design and therefore interchangeable and repairable throughout his empire, and the written language is still very much the one used in China today - although people in the different provinces of China cannot understand each other when they speak their script is universal.

The setting of the exhibition was dramatic; the reading room darkened so that the statues stood out strikingly with lights. There were small clips of films and photographs of the beautiful Chinese scenery including the wall that Ying Zhen built - connecting smaller walls to keep his empire in or invaders out. It was the first great wall of China - but this one made from mud rather than bricks and stones. But still it was impressive. It traced along the peaks of hills and mountains like a raised seam in buckled cloth. The ground looked smooth and felted and as I looked at it all I wanted was to be there in this kingdom of a despot, imagining how it must be to dig through all the layers to where there are thought to be mercury rivers and stone-lined vaults. However it is unlikely to be uncovered in our lifetime. The Chinese, quite correctly in my opinion, want to be careful and preserve what is there. Thousands of people died making this tomb - their names are scribbled on stones in hurried memorials and I suppose it is a tribute to them to preserve their labours in the most suitable way possible.

Even though we shall probably never see him Ying Zhen has already achieved a sort of immortality - not just for himself but for thousands of his anonymous citizens too. When we look at their faces we can imagine how they were even though we never knew them. Then, once we have seen them, we take an impression of them away with us in our heads and remember their exhausting, punishing lives building Ying Zhen's empire - even if we remember very little else from that otherwise unremarkable week in our thankfully mundane little lives.

(A final shot of the roof of the British Museum which thrills me with its light and space each time I see it).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The State of Bookselling: a summary of the SoA debate.

This year's AGM of the Society of Authors was in Imperial College of Science and Technology - which judging from the banners decorating the modern entrance on Exhibition Road, is celebrating its 100th year.

I have been to a couple of AGMs at the Society of Authors before and I have found them fairly depressing (although I remember Philip Pullman cracking a few good jokes). This year it was the turn of Tracy Chevalier to take the chair. A good chair person has to be firm and charming at the same time, I think, and luckily Tracy Chevalier was both.

The three guests of the discussion after the AGM 'The State of Bookselling' were Gerry Johnson, the Managing Director of Waterstones, Kes Nielsen, Amazon's Director of Buying (UK Books) and Robert Young, an independent bookseller in a small market town called South Molton - so a good range.

It was a really interesting discussion and I left feeling quite optimistic (which I wasn't expecting). I shall attempt to summarise the general points.

Waterstones seems to have changed a little in character over the past few years. A few years ago I tried to arrange an event in a branch in Manchester but was told to contact the regional events manager. She proved to be not open to suggestions - something other people reported finding also - even the eminent writer sitting close to me. Perhaps these days we would both have more luck; Waterstones is no longer 'centralised', says Gerry Johnson, but relies on local autonomy. Although some stock is common the stocking process in general has been devolved with the local manager making decisions. This must be good for everyone - the manager, the customers and local writers.

Waterstones has a staff of 3 500 with a range of experience and there will be 460 events in the next few weeks. They are independent - for instance all the hand written signs are actually a result of individual enthusiasm within a store and Gerry Johnson felt that Waterstones were getting a raw deal with reports in the press.

These are difficult times. The High Street is under pressure. All retailers are finding things difficult as they are in competition with out of town shopping centres, supermarkets and the internet. High Street shops are heavily taxed and parking is expensive (this is certainly true in Chester - with parts of some streets given over entirely to charity shops) . In view of this Waterstones is also attempting to establish its own internet presence.

The independent bookseller, Robert Young, commented that since the abolition of the net book agreement the business of bookselling had changed considerably. It was now pointless for them to stock many titles due to competition from Watersones and Amazon. However it was possible for them to succeed with some authors and events in their shops attracted a substantial number of customers in small towns. They offered experience, knowledge and service.

Amazon are 'cool'. This is official (on some authorised list - not sure which one). They have 666 000 titles available and are proud of recent innovations including the 'search inside' facility. However Kes Nielsen acknowledged it was still 'day one' and more work needed to be done. There is almost limitless potential with the internet, he said, and although they are proud of the job they have done in their first nine years they regard it very much as a 'work in progress'.

I shall finish with some startling statistics:
1. Only 30-40% people ever buy a book...
2. ...and of these 60-70% only buy one or two books a year.
3. The age-group least likely to read are the 14-30 year olds. This group are regarded as a critical challenge. They need something ephemeral (i.e. celebrity-based, perhaps) to entice them back into the childhood habit of reading.
4. Waterstones is spending £4 million on targeting children and enticing them into their stores. They are aiming to reduce the perceived 'stuffiness' and make the bookshop an interesting place to the young.
5. When Waterstones took over Ottakers they had to throw £1 million worth of stock into skips.
6. Amazon have a scheme called VINE. This consists of a database of 100-1000 of their best reviewers who have a monthly newsletter and are invited to read proofs.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


In Kensington, I noticed, the babies do not match the young women who are pushing their buggies. During week days this part of London becomes nannyville. They emerge from houses that are tall and grand - like something out of Mary Poppins or Paddington Bear - belonging to the very affluent middle-classes. My hotel was typical: a Victorian town house five floors above ground and another beneath

overlooking a small square of community garden.

I had a peaceful night. The room small but perfectly adequate and the place clean, quiet and with a pleasing quirkiness,

and the staff friendly. I'd definitely stay there again - although Kensington is not particularly central for most of the events I usually attend.

However in this instant it was; just a short stroll, about fifteen minutes, took me to the Albert memorial

the Albert Hall,

the Royal College of Music and,

the venue of the AGM of the Society of Authors, Imperial College (part of the University of London).

Queen Victoria, I decided long ago, had brash tastes. She loved the gaudiness of India; nothing could be too shiny, too gilt, too bejewelled or too opulent in her eyes. Wealth and empire, once acquired, should be flaunted...

Albert was the love of her life and when he died prematurely she seems to have set a large part of London aside to honour his memory. The Albert Memorial (which glints quite dazzingly in the least suggestion of sun) is at the edge of a large splendidly encircled park, and across the road from the magnificent concert hall which is also named in his honour.

I like the detail of these structures; the patterning of the grille here for instance and the moulding of the sills.

I also like the way that you suddenly come across a building that is less well-known and less elaborate, but just as striking. This, presumably, is just a Victorian office block but, like one of the enviably proportioned females in the Martin Amis book I am reading, is both slender and tall in frame and yet curvaceous...

Although in another way entirely.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Trials and Treats

Well a busy weekend - sorted out sock drawer and other vital matters...

...including THE TAX FORM - the hideous thing. It looms up every year at the tail-end of summer, preoccupying me whenever I think about September. I don't know why it worries me so much - maybe because I'm not very good at filling it in. Each year I think I've finished the thing then an hour later think of something else that should have gone in - it almost makes me wish for some sort of gainful employment where this sort of thing would be done for me automatically. The on-line version is a great innovation though. I have now got to the 93% stage or thereabouts and shall save it there for a few days in case something else occurs to me and then send it through at the last minute.

However tomorrow I am having a little treat. I am going down to London for a couple of days: to the AGM of the Society of Authors at Imperial College where the subject under discussion afterwards is to be 'The State of Bookselling' (I shall be wearing black for that one), and then the next day meeting my mother to go and see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum (at 12 noon sharp - the tickets are timed and you only have ten minutes leeway) followed by a meeting on 'The Facts About Non-Fiction' (for children's writers) at the Society of Authors' premises in Drayton Gardens. Then I shall scamper up to Euston to catch the last train home.

I have, at last, got into MONEY by Martin Amis (having been distracted by a bit of non-fiction recently). I think it is the most brilliantly villainous work I have ever read and I am loving it enormously. I have read some excellent (and very different) books recently and intend to do a few reviews very soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Short Taxing Interlude.

There will now be a short blogging interlude as Dr Grump and I wrestle with our tax forms...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Day At The Zoo

'If an animal escapes lock the door.' my friend Kate said.
I grinned, thinking she meant one of these splendid little creatures we had just been admiring, but she did not.
'So far there's only been an orangutang that got out once...'
'Ah, yes, I'd forgotten about that...'
'There's a phone there, if you need help.'
But I didn't.
There were five students taking their City and Guilds exams in zoo keeping. They cover ten topics: on zoo collections; zoo management; animal identification and records; breeding; zoo design; horticulture; animal behaviour and nutrition; pest and parasites and general animal health.

Looking at the questions on the two papers I invigilated I would say the questions are roughly A level standard requiring quite specialist knowledge about animals and education, diseases, feeding and different sorts of barriers.

Apart from snails Chester Zoo has one or two other animals and while I was invigilating I could hear various screeches and screams from the gibbons who were being temporarily housed with some of the great apes while their house was being renovated.

The exam took place in the school room which contained various articles for demonstrations including a fine selection of skulls. one of which was used to prop up the clock for the students to see how long they had left.

There is not much you can do when you are invigilating: you can't absorb yourself in a book or writing, but it is fine to draw, I think. So I drew the skull in front of me and then took notes about what was going on around me, and my thoughts, and the hours passed quite quickly.

I am transferring some of this to this post just in case any of it comes in useful someday.

The skulls are lined up along the shelves in order of how we see things. They lead up to just one thing - us. While outside those that came before us yelp, howl and scream, and I wonder if they want to be free. If the bars came down would they run? Would this be just an entropic effect - a natural spreading out - or something more deliberate.

Outside your living relatives gibber and quarrel. Over what? The last banana? The best place in the pen? The female on heat? A piece of land? So many times we quarrel over that.

You could be a landscape. I see volcano vents, craters of meteorites, a river plain where plates join. Plates on the earth and plates on the skull. Once I met a man who thought they both moved equally. Outside something growls. It sounds like a cat snarling at something it doesn't like. I think of the animals escaping and the locking of doors. Animals inside. Animals outside.

Maggot-cleaned, sun-bleached, a hole and then a cave, an eye-socket and then a place for the optic nerve, teeth like a corrugated roof

if covered in silver would be like the links of a watch strap - your teeth around my wrist; clamped there.

And then this: a death mask with great hollows for eyes; it is difficult to think of them filled and seeing. Looking inside their empty spaces I see caverns and passages and delicate partitions, then deep within something yellow like the petals of a flower. I concentrate on just this. Something beautiful to chase away the rest.

The minutes ticked by. I called time. I bundled up the papers and the candidates trooped away. They seemed a pleasant little group and dedicated; apart from these examinations they also have to work full-time and observe and eventually specialise.

After dropping off the papers I came across this: a single meerkat sunning himself under an electric lamp and this I dedicate to one Jeff VanderMeer he (and a lot of other people) know why.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Little Job At The Zoo

Tomorrow I am going to spend the whole day invigilating zoo keepers who are taking their 'City and Guilds' exams. For some reason I am finding this inherently funny.


Just come across this excellent idea on THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE LEAF via DEBLOG - namely the 24 hour readathon. The idea is to read and blog for 24 hours. See here for details.

Unfortunately I am due to be in Birmingham that day but the idea appeals to me so much I am going to try and rearrange the date of my visit - or maybe, if this is impossible, take part in the tail-end since it only starts at 2pm GMT...

I have to say I really like Debra's idea of a mini readathon too - taking a day out a week to read and blog...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Gaining Extra Time

From the Telegraph this morning...

How to gain extra time:

Get married...... 7 years for a man, 2 years for a woman
Moderate cardiovascular activity 30 mins five days a week...... 2-4 years
5 portions of fruit and veg...... 3 years
Increased amounts of omega-3 (oily fish and almonds etc)...... 3 years
Give up smoking...... 6 years
Meditate for 2o mins every day.... 1 year
Keep a pet...... 1 year
Do brain exercises...... 5 years
Chat to friends...... 3-4 years
Sleep for eight hours a night....... 6 years

And finally,
Sex every day...... 8 years

Dr Grump, for some reason, is looking very smug. 'I'm going to live forever.' she says.

Dr Grump and The Extra Dimension: Part 1 (a story in fragments).

'What's up with you?' I said to Dr Grump last night in our faculty office.
'Nothing,' she said, but in that way we both knew that something was.
'Are you going to tell me now or later?'
But she flounced off.

Dr Grump is very good at flouncing. In fact I think she studies it (when she is not studying sexual dynamics and etymology). Sometimes Dr Grump and I sit together in the Senior Common Room in College (St Clueless's at the University of Uurm) and watch soap operas on the TV just for research purposes. Whenever there is a big spat I notice that Dr Grump pays especial attention to the end of it, noting particularly the scene-shaking slamming of a door and the momentary hush that follows it.

There were doors slammed last night. In fact it was easy to follow her because of the noise: first the one to the office and then the one to the corridor and then another and then another after that - each one slammed a little less vehemently than the last.

I eventually found her in Simon's car trying to detune his radio to something more to her taste (Simon is Dr Grump's ex-lover - also a professor of hormonal chemistry and a fellow fellow).

'What's up?' I asked again (I was having to shout above the mess of music and manic voices). She shook her head.
'Tell me.' I said and lent forward to switch off the radio.
She looked up at me and I gave a little gasp. Dr Grump's mascara was running down her cheeks - normally her grooming is impeccable.
'Tell me.' I said again, a little softer this time and hesitantly touched her on the shoulder (although Dr Grump and I are close we are not physical).
'I found out something important,' she said, 'but no one will believe me.'
Then she frantically reached into the glove compartment for a tissue and sobbed loudly into it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Happy Anticipations

Just noticed something - today is the official publication day of Chief Biscuit's second poetry collection Made For Weather so I have just ordered it from Amazon. I think it came out a few weeks ago in NZ - we're a bit behind the times up here.

The cover is wonderful - designed by a 'biscuit-crumb' I understand - which is yet another reason I am looking forward to receiving this very much...

And on the subject of fabulous writers I have just ordered in advance Marly Youman's novella Val/Orsen. I am not sure when it is actually officially being published but if you order now you don't have to pay postage...which was too tempting for me to resist.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Empathic Smiles.

Yesterday evening I was coming back from taking Hodmandod Senior to the station when I found myself thinking about a photograph we have of our two boys. It is my favourite shot and is on prominent display in our living room: Hodmandod Major is aged about six and holding the hefty Hodmandod Minor (aged about twelve months) on his lap.

Major looks proud and Minor, as usual, looks happy. They are both smiling and it is this fact that they are imitating what presumably the cameraman is doing to them that I was considering as I drove home; the strange phenomenon that every child learns, in his early months, to make eye contact and to smile in response to another human smile. Even an autistic child learns this; even my nephew who is at the lower end of the autistic spectrum (and at the age of thirteen can hardly speak at all) smiled when he was a young baby. But then, just at the time of the first MMR jab (a coincidence, I believe, although my parents are convinced otherwise), this skill, in the autistic child, is somehow lost.

Recently, when I was colouring in my brain book I read that the neurons develop outwards in the developing human brain. They migrate to the surface and then seem to back-track and then, after a few months, some of these outer neurons die off as if they are not needed.

I also read recently in Nature (News@Nature (21 May 2007)) that in the first six months of life a baby can distinguish between different languages just from visual cues of the speaker but this capacity disappears later in childhood. I suppose this is more evidence of unneeded neurons dying off.

Then I thought that maybe this is what happens in autistic children - it would explain the smile and then that empathic skill being lost. Maybe the wrong neurons disappear.

However that musing is not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I wrote a couple of sentences that may be the start of a new book after several months of doing nothing much except editing and I want to celebrate. I was not suffering from any sort of block, merely overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. So far it is only a sentence or two but it might be a start.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

An Amazonian Delivery

A long-awaited parcel arrived from Amazon today. It was delivered by Parcelnet who have an interesting delivery technique: namely running up to the front door, ringing the doorbell depositing the parcel against front door and scampering off. Very bizarre. life is now three books richer. I wanted to get the newly-published MIMOSA by Susan Wilkinson (who is giving a talk on the topic at the Anglo-Argentine Society, 3 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PJ at 6.30pm on the 3rd October) so I also bought a couple of books I've had my eye on for some time while I was about it: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver (behind the times on this one, I know. Everyone else has read this a couple of years ago at least) and ARTHUR AND GEORGE by Julian Barnes for book group in October.

I can't start right away, however, because I still have a couple of novels I want to finish first. I am going to have such an indulgent weekend.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An Afternoon with the Women's Institute.

Today I gave a reading with a few friends to a local Women's Institute. The sun shone the whole afternoon (I feel obliged to point this out because it made me feel so cheerful). We sang Jerusalem, listened to notices and then Elizabeth read out a few humorous poems, Jane read out a few poems about local views and legends while Dilys read out an amusing piece about the political goings on in a similar Women's Institute. This proved to be highly popular.

It was a much happier experience than my solo encounter with a Women's Institute a year ago. Although the group this afternoon was much smaller - just twelve in the audience - they were warm and appreciative and one even took note of my name so they could get one of my books from the library. I was a little reluctant to tell them. Judging from their usual reading material I think they are unlikely to enjoy a book on an Arctic explorer and meteorologist or life in a German mental asylum, and anyway they all professed to appreciate 'happy endings' - which my books never have (although I do try to make them satisfying).

It was a fine way to spend an afternoon. For just a few hours we became part of their lives and learnt about how they came to be where they were: a husband's career forcing a move north from Wiltshire, a gentle joke about a hideous fireplace, the time when the chairwoman and the secretary first met and a child's face appearing above a wall - and that child now in her thirties with children of her own. This sort of thing always fascinates me; lives touching like two curves and then veering away again, and strange faces reminding me of more familiar ones. We are all so much the same and yet so different. It is a sort of duality - like that picture that is at once a vase and at the same time two faces looking at each other - but we can never see both at once.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Books on Bird Flu: An Appraisal

At the moment I am doing a little research into infectious diseases. I have found three books with approximately the same title:

Everything You Need To Know About Bird Flu by John Farndon (2005)

John Farndon is a science writer and has a clear accessible style. He covers basic concepts succinctly. At just 125 small pages it is an excellent introduction to the topic.

Everything You Need To Know About Bird Flu & What You Can Do To Prepare For It by Jo Revill (2005)

Jo Revill is a journalist who writes for the Observer. This too is an interesting book - not so much for the basic science but for its study of the political reaction to the threat. It is written (unsurprisingly) in the 'investigative journalist' style - giving quite worrying statistics and predictions - and has a very useful glossary of terms at the back. It quotes from a wide variety of scientists with greatly differing opinions and its conclusion is that a flu pandemic is inevitable.

The book then goes on to give detailed practical advice on how to prepare a family of adults and children for when a serious flu contagion is at large: hands should be washed regularly, floors, door handles and surfaces should be frequently disinfected and coughs and sneezes should be directed into tissues which are then disposed of in bins which are themselves thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. A person with flu should not attempt to go to work or prepare food for others but should take to their bed - to be looked after by another family member at a distance.

Jo Revill also suggests accumulating a box of tinned and dried food, bottled water, disinfectant, tissues and basic medical supplies in case of enforced quarantine or if the social order temporarily breaks down.

This sort of thinking is condemned in the next book: Bird Flu: Everything You Need To Know About The Next Pandemic by Marc Siegel MD (2006). Dr Siegel is a medical practitioner in New York city and although he acknowledges that there is a small chance that there could be a devastating flu pandemic he is sceptical that there will actually be one. Just because bird flu (H5N1) is lethal and infectious in domesticated birds, he says, it does not mean it will be similarly lethal in humans. In order to become a virus that is easily transmitted from one human to another it will have to mutate - and that mutation could well cause the virus to become less malign.

He then points out that hoarding supplies of the drug Tamiflu (which if taken early enough can mitigate effects of current flu) is fairly useless since it not only has a limited shelf-life, but is highly likely to be ineffective against the mutated humanised form anyway.

He says that it is the various recent scares concerning SARS, anthrax, West Nile virus, and mad cow disease that are pandemic and it is this that kills. He cites various examples of patients who have come to his surgery in New York desperately worried about the recent 'germ du jour'. They demand vaccinations and drugs against a peril they are unlikely to ever encounter. It is a widespread paranoia: one of my mother's friends in Leicestershire nagged her doctor into providing her with a course of Tamiflu although she had no symptoms whatsoever. Anxiety is a killer; it is thought to increase the incidence of strokes, heart disease, depression and even cancer and it is this that should concern us the most. These pandemics exist around us now and we can do something about them by ensuring we have a healthy lifestyle and keeping things in proportion.

Our best strategy against flu he says would be to increase our capability of making effective vaccines quickly using new cell technology (instead of the current long-winded method of incubating chicken embryos), and having done that use our 'personal fear radar' against the infectious diseases that already kill veraciously - AIDS (3 million deaths world-wide), tuberculosis (2 million) and malaria (1 million).

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Back to my Past

St Aidan's College is on Windmill Hill. Although the view of Durham is magnificent

the climb back up after a hard day at lectures and lab work is 'very severe'.

However there were compensations - during the many periods of deep snow there was good if terrifying sledging (four on one of the mountaineering club's survival bags) and I am sure the 'Aidan's Maidens' were the fittest students in the university (we were all maidens then....

now, apparently although there are still 'Maidens' there are also 'Members' (males)). This is a photo from 1978 - I am on the front row on the far right.

I retraced my steps. It was such a well-trodden path: down the steps across the road, past the entrance to St Mary's then down another hill to Prebend's Bridge (and its flasher who sometimes reportedly also risked the college grounds)

then over the river to the old cobbled street called the Old Bailey.

On the right then St Cuthbert's (and a geologist called Roy with blue eyes and a beard) then St John's with the twins and the girl who went out with both of them serially, St Chad's (and Paul who took a photo of me pulling a face and then sent it through the post like a postcard which disturbed my parents, a quiet, gentle giant of a chemist called Robert and the politically-active Venge who sometimes burst into my room (once or twice when I was still in bed) because he wanted to tell me something), then Hatfield (and Mike who I only got to really know after we had both left), and finally, perhaps most notably, the oldest college of all: University College

or Castle (and the home John the mathematician who always made me laugh, the serious and handsome engineer called Tim who I encouraged (cruelly, now I think about it) to go to Africa (he did) and finally Jeremy the botanist who directed plays in this theatre

and 'married' me with a ring made from grass and then abandoned me so abruptly that I suffered from what the Victorians called 'Green Sickness' for over a year).

My footsteps are heavier and happier now. They made loud echoes through the entrance to the Cathedral grounds

and on through the ancient buildings to the Palace Green

which is flanked by the Castle (and the lone piper who wailed atmospherically from the walls at dawn during June balls),

the library (where the results were posted in the glass cabinet on the wall),

and of course the Cathedral. In medieval times a criminal had to knock for sanctuary but nowadays all are freely admitted.

I am sure it is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. However photographing is not permitted inside so am unable to show you the pillars near the pulpit that are filled with fossils - and our manic lecturer pointed out with what seemed to be authentic excitement: dibunophyllum bipartitum. Even now I remember the name - long white shells preserved in the grey mass of shiny stone.

But here is the quad, and here are the cloisters. There is something about the way the sun shines through that always causes my breath to catch and it is easy to imagine the monks shuffling.

It is this cathedral that dominates Durham. Wherever you go it is there:

towering from the wooded cliffs of the South

and from the west where the small town meets the Wear. I have heard it called a jewel and I was always aware of its shining. I was privileged to go to university there - something that I realise more each time I visit. As students we were treated very well - and as graduates were welcomed just as warmly. The organisation of this reunion of about 2 000 graduates must have been difficult and even though I managed to stay only a short time much appreciated this opportunity to revisit my past.