Lighter side

I like to laugh. What I tend to find funny, though, tends to be quite weird or quirky, darker than brighter but it depends on what it is. Some people find me witty but oftentimes I am not trying to be funny, I am merely saying what I am thinking.

This trip had some crackers. Cambridge has a park called Christ’s Pieces, which tickles me rigid. A piece in Scotland is a sandwich but it could be what someone says to avoid swearing or the name of a church or given that an American might think of a piece as a gun, it could be where Jesus kept his arsenal. Or a heavenly sandwich shop. The park itself is stunning, quite like the Meadows in Edinburgh but on a smaller scale. I didn’t have the nerve to take a selfie beside the sign, though.

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I also gazed in amazement at a sign which advertised, evidently as a special offer, champagne and caviar for £99. Some folks have more money than sense. Or I have lived such a sheltered life. £99! I felt myself getting righteously indignant. My lunch that day cost £3.40. And I count that as dear. A roll and sausage al fresco in a beautiful place. They can stick their fish eggs and fizzy bloody wine.

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I was reminded earlier today of the rather good sign at Cambridge railway station. The first thing you see as you step off the train is ‘Cambridge, home of Anglia Ruskin University’. I like the cojones required to do that. Also, the very first academic institution I saw when I arrived, I am happy to report, was the Open University, not Jesus or Queen’s or whatever.

London isn’t very funny. It’s how Samuel Johnson was wrong when he said that when one is tired of London, they are tired of life. Those of us who possess a sense of humour lose it a bit there. Then again I nearly lost it in Cambridge when a cyclist missed me by inches. Those who know me well will know that I like to exploit the full reaches of our language so some well-chosen naughty words might just have slipped out. London is one long swearword – at least it has some redeeming features, like museums, galleries and the road out of it, right back here to Glasgow and civilisation.

I like the absurd, which is an area of humour London excels in. Cambridge had a good example, again in Christ’s Pieces, actually, where a tree had a Tree Maintenance Notice taped to it, the maintenance being that it was about to get chopped doon.

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So, that’s the tale of my Cambridge adventure, of libraries, museums and the lighter side. I hope to go back to Cambridge again, it’s a beautiful city. No doubt I will be in London again in a few months when I need a wee fix of the British Museum. Onwards to the next adventure.

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More holiday thoughts – museums

A colleague asked me earlier if I had seen anyone famous when I was in London last week. I didn’t but I wasn’t really looking. The only place I got to where I would be likely to see noteworthy people was Westminster but I made myself scarce pretty swiftly as I got myself angry about some of the more moronic and inhumane policies of the Conservative government while walking down Whitehall. Someone said once that the best argument for Scottish home rule was a trip to Westminster. Having been inside the Palace on a previous visit, plus what I know and read about the place, I can only but agree.

I have written a little here before about my mixed feelings towards London. Luckily there are some redeeming features. I wrote about my visits to the British Library and Conway Hall the other day. On the Thursday, I also visited the British Museum, one of my favourite buildings in the world, spending four hours there, a length of time I only spend in Durham Cathedral when I am in that area.

I have a half-serious joke every time I go to the British Museum about stealing the Lewis Chessmen and taking them back to Scotland where they belong. To their immense credit, the BM have sort of done that for me and some of the Chessmen are on long term loan to the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, which is pretty much where they belong.

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The British Museum is incredible. I wandered up and down the building, into areas I hadn’t seen before as well as spending time in busier parts. I have certain rooms I always go to – Mesoamerica, the Lewis Chessmen, the African galleries and early Britain – and they got their usual attention. But there is always something new and I like that.

The Celts exhibition is great, a comprehensive look at art and culture from across Europe, including some familiar objects from the BM, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and even from Kelvingrove here in Glasgow. One of them was the Monymusk reliquary (NMS) a little box in the Northumbrian style that may have been used to carry the relics of St Columba into the battle of Bannockburn. As always, it was well worth the considerable admission price.

The Great Court is one of the finest public spaces in the world. I love architecture with lots of glass, which this has, combining the old and the new. I usually do a few circuits just to soak it all in.

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As much as I love the British Museum, however, there might be a new favourite. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is magnificent, architecturally and in every other sense. It has art and material collections and I ventured in twice while I was down there, quite simply because I couldn’t get enough of the place. The French Impressionist collection was cracking though there were two other works that ticked my boxes. One was a painting by Vuillard of a girl reading a book lying in some reeds. The other was a polystyrene sculpture of Hercules, which I liked for all sorts of reasons. I snuck a picture, which is below.

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The other museum I got to in Cambridge was the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is also in an old building with some modern displays. The display at the entrance about the archaeology of Cambridge was brilliant, just the right amount of text and visuals.

On Friday, I decided to go back to the best places I had seen. I went to the Fitzwilliam then back to London to the British Museum. I also went, on the recommendation of a fair few folks, to the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Bloomsbury, which is remarkable, a Georgian house full of paintings, books and architectural features like sculptures and lintels. For goodness sake, go, if you can.

I might write a little more about Cambridge shortly. I crammed so much into my trip that there’s so much to write about. For instance, Christ’s Pieces and other things that tickled me along the way…

Books and that

On Friday night, I came back from a couple of days down south. Rather than write one very long post about my doings in Cambridge and London, I might just split it up a bit. My first immediate thought is about libraries. Given what I do for a living, it was only inevitable I went to a few while I was away. In fact, no fewer than four of them: Cambridge Central, Cambridge University, Conway Hall and the British Library. If you count Room 1 of the British Museum and the Sir John Soane’s museum, both of which have a fair few volumes, then it’s six. In three days. I realise that is quite sad but it was my holiday and I did do other things too. So there.

Cambridge Central Library is in a shopping centre. I only stumbled across it to get out of the rain. I am glad I did. For a start, I was tickled to find a copy of an archaeological book entitled Historic Dunbar (shown below), all about my home town. That book, incidentally, is now out of print and was fetching a fair few quid on eBay, I believe.

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I was also struck on the way out by there being a donation box, which strikes me as unbelievably sad, though at least there was some money in it.

Cambridge University Library (shown below) is a legal deposit library and like the British Library basically looks like a muckle factory from the outside. They had a glorious exhibition of treasures from their collection, donated by George III in 1715. To their immense credit, CUL had produced a booklet featuring the entire exhibition text, helpful for folks like myself with a rubbish short-term memory. It was an incredible collection brought together by John Moore, bishop of Ely, whose books passed to the Crown after his death in 1714. My favourite had to be the copy of Bede from the 8th century AD, an incredibly precious work that helps us understand the history of these islands and particularly northern Britain.

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Library number three was the British Library, conveniently located very near Kings Cross station. Due to being tight, I didn’t pay into their special exhibition though instead had a wander around the building before stopping into their Treasures exhibition. The Lindisfarne Gospels are undoubtedly my highlight but I also liked the Seamus Heaney manuscript and the religious books on display, particularly the Books of Hours. The display on Chinese printing was particularly good, a valuable reminder that the West was never really ahead of the game at the best of times.

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The photo above was at night but also captures St. Pancras Station too.

Later that day, I made an impromptu visit to Conway Hall, probably lesser known but no less interesting, housing the Humanist Library and Archives. It’s a nice building, Victorian exterior, hidden on Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury. The library is splendidly old fashioned, mostly consisting of books at the earlier ends of the Dewey Decimal System (not always well covered in public libraries) though with a fair few biographies, magazines and journals. I mostly spent the time blethering to the librarian, who used to be my boss, before she returned to the south. She also fed me very decent chocolate (aye, and from Waitrose too, a better class). As a humanist myself, it was a pleasure to be there in such magnificent surroundings, as shown below.

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On bookish matters, I read a couple of books while I was away. The main one was The Bonniest Companie, the latest volume of poetry by Kathleen Jamie, one of the writers whose books I would ring church bells to celebrate if I had access to any church bells. There were a few cracking lines, including this from ‘The Glen’:
‘I’ll lean on this here boulder
by the old drove road
and get my eye in, lighting on this and that.’

I also started re-reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, a fine book about walking which begins in Cambridge, naturally enough. I try to read a little about the place I am in while I am there, including when I read a book about hidden Dublin while in that fine city in January. Macfarlane is another author whose books I eagerly anticipate and like Kathleen Jamie, he can turn a cracking phrase.

Some other time I will write a little more about how we perceive the world. Most likely I will have another holiday post soon, possibly about Christ’s Pieces, museums or getting a blister from all the walking. Until then…

Where things take me

On Wednesday, I am going away for a couple of days to Cambridge, with a day trip to London chucked in for good measure. I have had a bit of a look at what is going on but generally I don’t have much of a plan. I haven’t been to Cambridge before so it will be nice to go somewhere different and follow my nose. London is a bit more familiar and it will be a case of the British Museum and whatever else makes up the day. I was talking to a colleague the other day about good places to visit and to eat in around London. She particularly recommended Soho, before all the soul gets taken out of it, she said.

The reason I asked about London is because of its complexity. Samuel Johnson might have said that when one is tired of London, one is tired of life but I think he didn’t get out much. London is a vibrant metropolis but it is a place to visit rather than live, at least for me. It’s worth having a sense of a plan, an idea of what’s worth doing and what isn’t. Also, it is a gentle taste of something new rather than scouting around Bloomsbury using the GPS on my phone to find a Greggs, as I did on my last visit. (What can I say? I know what I like.)

Cambridge is new and I have a vague idea of going to some museums then having a walk around. The Museum of Classical Archaeology is on the list, partly because I might run into the classicist Mary Beard, who works in the same building and is on my list of good people. Others include the actor who played the slightly camp lift in the stage production of Lanark I saw recently, the person who came up with dark chocolate Rolos, Alan Stubbs, the poet Jackie Kay and Steve Silberman, the author of a cracking book I have just read about the history of autism, Neurotribes. 

Sorry, kind of digressed a bit there. Anyway, Cambridge should be cool. London will be a whirlwind. And Friday I am not sure yet. I don’t know whether I will explore Cambridge more or go someplace else. I will see where things take me.

Autumn thoughts

I have written a little already about autumn and how I feel about it. I was walking across town a little while ago, along Gordon Street towards Central, when I saw the sky changing to that almost wintry grey slate colour. I often miss the wide open skies of the east coast but Glasgow has not a bad expanse of sky on view, in between the chimney tops.

Also, I wanted to share an experience from my commute this morning. It was bright but chilly when I left this morning and it continued that way until the train was pulling out of Dalmuir, near Clydebank. At one moment, it was still bright but just after the park, it suddenly got foggy and I could barely see a few yards away. That often happens when heading up to Dumbarton – the weather can be completely different from even a few miles away, let alone here in Glasgow – but today it was particularly noticeable and noteworthy.

As a rule

I have had a busy couple of weeks so haven’t been able to write. My brain has been elsewhere, with some good things happening to divert my attention. I am currently writing a post about politics but it isn’t ready yet. Instead, I would like to write a little about words.

On my desktop at work, I have a quote from WB Yeats: ‘Were we not born to wander?’ The answer is pretty much yes. The world is interesting and I like being in it, well, most of the time. Some of the finest literature I have ever read has been about exploring, even if it is, to quote Yeats again, sometimes about ‘one dear perpetual place’. I was reading Roger Deakin earlier. He wrote three amazing books about nature and just being in the world. Waterlog is about swimming in wild places and in lidos and features a swim in the sea in Northumberland where I was last weekend. Wildwood is all about trees and much else besides. This morning I caught up with Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, a compilation of jottings and diary entries published not long after his death in 2006. It is arranged by month with impressions of the different months. I read it first all the way through and every year since I have read it month by month, usually when I am travelling, at a loose end or just needing a wee blast of Roger. I like words that are well crafted and these are some of the finest, guaranteed to grab the attention wherever I happen to be, even on the Subway. Today I had two months to catch up with, which was a real treat. Reading Roger Deakin sharpens one’s perception and gives real pleasure while doing it.

My other thought about words concerns my own writing. I write a lot but don’t talk about it so much. Most of the people I know don’t know that I write, which mostly suits me fine. I went to a writing class over the summer but didn’t get too much out of it, except the idea to start a blog. The actual impetus to do it was a conversation with a colleague, who suggested it.

I don’t write about travel outside of this blog. I mainly write little scripted plays with stories I work on and change regularly. Characters recur and situations recur but I often change things depending on my mood. In a bad mood, there tends to be death or bad news; better days, meanwhile, are days of love and everything going right. Lately, I have been reading back at one of my many notebooks rather than doing much writing. That’s been fine, surprising sometimes when I see what I have done well. Plus I can nick my own ideas and make them better. It’s like having an ant farm, writing, when you get to play God, and it is hard to beat.

I am quite verbal as a thinker. I think in words rather than pictures as some other autistic people like Temple Grandin do. Writing is a therapy for me, a way to express what I am not always able to do verbally, either because of lack of sufficient means or an audience. In the mouths of my characters, I can end up putting words that sum up how I feel but could never say out loud or can deal with hopes before, possibly, maybe, they eventually become reality.

Here, however, it’s different. The experiences I write about here are about the actual world. They are a microcosm of what I experience when I travel. I haven’t written so much about how I feel sometimes when I travel, yet. I sometimes feel stressed in crowded places and there are times when travelling is more hassle than it is worth. But I am getting there and life is nearly always worth the effort, as a rule.