Over us looms atrocious history*



There is some dark comfort in the knowledge that all works of creativity, given enough time in production, is transformed through a bitter alchemy, into something the creator hates.  Ask any artist in any medium, or any writer who feels there is a place for art in any string of words, and they will tell you the same thing, in similar but more effective words. Given time, every masterpiece becomes, in the eyes of its creator, a tragedy that can’t be stopped. I know this because I have been there before; staring at some lump of metal that I knew was done because I hated it. My thesis is not done, but I hate it anyway. That’s probably for the good. It’s not long from being finished.

And the good thesis is the finished thesis. I can hate it. It’s all right.

Or rather, I hate that I hate writing it. No. I hate that the thesis I am writing, which was probably the thesis I always knew I would write, is not, and never will be, the thesis I wanted written. All it needs to be, so far as the process is concerned is done. And that’s probably all it will be, to me, when that time comes.

But the odds are good that I will be the only reader who will see in its pages the chalk outline of the thesis that it should have been. I’ll mourn it, and maybe, if I am fortunate, parts will be resurrected in chapters of some obscure monograph that professional obligations will force me to write, if I ever have the job that has such obligations. Bright patches of what I loved about it may appear spontaneously, in lectures to students, if I have students.

And then there is the familiar feeling of most, if not all doctoral students, where you survey the last years of work and fear that you have nothing at all to show for it. And what’s worse, you fear this lack will be patently obvious on the pages that must pass under the eyes of your supervisor. If you are one among the most fortunate, and have a supervisor who you respect and admire, you will feel shame and dread, not just dread, at the prospect.

I don’t actually have anywhere to go with this blog entry. I felt I needed to write something, for myself, if not for anyone in particular or for the blog itself, in some abstract, slightly anthropomorphic way. No one has to read it.

Maybe it’s best to end how I always want to; obscurely.

“His greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations.” **


* J.L. Borges, ‘In Memory of Angelica,’ (1979), quoted in Colin Richmond, John Hopton: A Fifteenth Century Suffolk Gentleman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. xvii.

** the concluding line in the final chapter of Colin Richmond, ‘Dung ABC’, in The Penket Papers and Other Stories (Alan Sutton, 1986), quoting the introduction by Hannah Arendt of Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (Shocken, 1970)

Ex regina


He was reluctant to continue towards the dim wall that surrounded the city. Seeing this, the Queen said “think of this as a performance for a very small audience. You have a persona for your performances elsewhere, of course?”
The Doctor nodded.
“You must adopt a persona here as well, if you intend to travel further.”
“I am not much of an actor”, he said.
“Nonsense. Be still, be quiet, and your audience will do the acting for you, seeing what they expect to see, not what you think they see.”
They stood and continued down the uneven steps towards the gates.

[From The King and the Queen City, an unpublished and unwritten book in the Oxford Noir series]

in proprio persona


It took some careful persuasion, and half a bottle of college port, before the Bursar eventually explained why there was no portrait of the late Master in the great hall. The Master refused to sit for said portrait in life but he granted permission to his executors to arrange a sitting post mortem. The result, admittedly regal and compelling, was rightfully considered too visceral for the undergraduates that would sit beneath its hollow gaze. Fittingly, the portrait was removed to the stairway outside the graduate tutor’s office where passers-by were more comforted than unsettled.

[from the unpublished and unwritten Oxford Noir]

Memento mori



When they were seated, and after a long pause, the man spoke to the King. ‘My cat is mortal.’
The King, being a sensitive observer of his subjects, knew this was more complaint than statement of fact. The man continued almost inaudibly ‘this is unacceptable.’
The King answered ‘indeed.’
‘And what then’, the man asked expectantly, ‘are the limits of your power?’
‘In this regard,’ said the King, ‘my powers are of no value at all… at all.’
‘Indeed’, said the man.
‘indeed’, said the Queen.
‘indeed’, said the city of the dead.

[From the 4th book in the unpublished and unwritten Oxford Noir series: The King and the Queen City.]

pendant / pedant


Respect des fonds had no temporal limit at the archives. Everyone knew that there were divine punishments for researchers who made their own ‘inclusions’ in the files. The young doctoral student who thought to deploy paperclips to keep his place in a particularly dense bundle of recorda learned that there were more immediate punishments for the most wicked. The archivist was pragmatic and impatient and perhaps agnostic.

[more from the unpublished and unloved Oxford Noir]

A detail of minor value

John Fyneux was Chief Justice of the court of King’s Bench from 1495 until his death in 1525. J. R. Baker, in his thorough manner, tells us that his name was likely pronounced as ‘phoenix’ “with the x sounded” and as support he mentions “in the plea rolls the first membrane sometimes has a phoenix drawn against his name”.

in hic modo

[TNA KB 27/1016 rot. 1f (Trinity term, 1515)]


* J. R. Baker, ed. The Reports of Sir John Spelman Vol. II, Selden Society, 94 (London: Selden Society, 1978), 358, n, 3.