FIRST TERM AT UNIVERSITY

Only the crème de la crème go to Cambridge, my parents always said. Now I had to survive three years without anyone discovering my secret: the university must have let me in by mistake.

To help cover up my imposter syndrome, I also spent Freshers’ Week smiling at all the other undergraduates. Perhaps one of them would later become my best friend.

My room bore little resemblance to the glorious quarters I had imagined when filling in my application form. By the bare 40-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling, I found crumbs in the cupboard, silverfish in the drawers, and a mattress so lumpy that it would rule out most activities, especially sleep.

In the college library, where even new books smelled ancient, I waited to see my Director of Studies. Would she be as intimidating as the Tutor who’d served me a small, sweet sherry? I’d barely uttered a few innocuous words before she pierced me with her gaze and said, “What exactly do you mean?”

On the first day of lectures, I crept reverentially around the physics department. Here, James Clerk Maxwell had been professor, JJ Thomson had discovered the electron, and Rutherford had split the atom. It was a lot to live up to.

In addition to lectures and practicals in each science subject, there were weekly supervisions in small groups. These hour-long sessions had the ability to inspire, terrify, or amuse me – sometimes all three in turn.

By the way, supervisions are what Oxford types call ‘tutorials’. Pah! That word is way too obvious and hardly the way to train spies.

In my first week, I found out that lectures took place on six days a week, Fitzbillies was the place for Chelsea buns, and a bitter wind often blew in straight from the Urals. As a result, my nose was usually cold and wet. It’s a sign of health in dogs. Not so much in students.

Male students were more numerous, but many of them hid away in libraries. Even tough subjects are easier than finding the courage to speak to a woman.

Before mobile phones and internet, the main method of communication was face to face. Obviously, there’d be times when you weren’t in your room, in which case a visitor might scrawl a message on the notepad hung on the outside of the door. I’d get back from lectures to thrilling notes such as the one from the student next door asking if she could cadge some Persil to wash her undies.

By the end of October, I had few illusions left. What exactly do I mean? Only that they must have let in all the other students by mistake too.

***

That was a long time ago and many things have changed, though I reckon a lot of students (and some staff) still struggle with imposter syndrome. But Cambridge isn’t nearly as scary or as elitist as some people think.

The University and its Colleges are committed to widening participation to higher education. Hundreds of outreach initiatives and events are run each year both in Cambridge and in schools and colleges across the UK. See this about widening participation.

Target Oxbridge is a free programme that aims to help black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with black African and Caribbean heritage increase their chances of getting into the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The programme is open to UK-based students in Year 12 (also Year 13, in some circumstances).

There’s also the brand-new Cambridge Foundation Year, a free and fully-funded one year pre-degree course designed as a stepping stone to Cambridge for those who have experienced educational disadvantage.

What’s your take on our two most ancient universities – or any other university you’ve been to? Drop me a comment below.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE WIDE AWAKE AT 3AM?

The usual advice is to keep away from your phone and other bright screens when you’re trying to sleep. But suppose you’ve tried all that and more besides, and you still can’t doze off? I asked volunteer worker Andy Tudor to write about his Wide Awake at 3am Club on Twitter. He finds himself awake in the small hours for a very particular reason ~ Carol

Ever since the surgical removal of my brain tumour nearly five years ago, I typically only sleep in two-hour chunks, and am wide awake in between. I have no problem getting to sleep. I just can’t stay there for long.

A common side-effect of any brain trauma (e.g. stroke, accident, surgery) is the disruption of the neurotransmitter chemical process which regulates and encourages the brain to stay asleep. The result? Waking up a lot earlier than intended.

I often find myself wide awake around 3am, which can be a dark, lonely place if the mind isn’t occupied. I decided to start a Twitter ‘club’ whereby I post most nights around 3am to keep others who are awake – for whatever reason – company.

This has proved more and more popular as word spreads. I’ve been amazed to find so many people engaging actively.

To provide a welcome distraction to anyone awake at that hour, I try to think up topics that might be quirky. Popular examples of recent posts include:

Do you have pets who don’t care about your dignity? 😂

As there’s a heatwave, let’s see your favourite holiday picture! 😎😄

What’s the dullest photo you have?… here’s mine! 😂

My lad was in this city on the weekend – where was he? 😄

My posts have have a lot of positive feedback on my posts, a recent example being: “Just want to say your 3am club thing really makes me feel better at waking at such an ungodly hour… like it’s OK.”

Assuming my sleep patterns don’t change, I aim to continue posting, to provide support and company to anyone awake for any reason at that time. I also get interaction from around the world, which is great for providing more company for everyone awake. With luck, I then fall asleep again a bit later.

If you’re ever conscious around three in the morning or soon after, please look out for my “Wide Awake at 3am” Club posts.

You’ll find me at @AndyHTudor1 Come over and join in the fun!

***

For those interested, I had a large, low grade (benign) meningioma, up to 7cm in diameter. It was completely removed in a six-hour operation at Southampton hospital six weeks after initial diagnosis in January 2017. My annual brain MRI scans have been all-clear since, and I lead a full, active life. However, I do suffer from brain fatigue and tinnitus, although I have coping mechanisms to manage their effects – but that’s a whole other blog!

I strongly recommend the excellent Brain Tumour Charity to anyone who’d like to know more about the symptoms and effects of a brain tumour. It’s also brilliant for those who’ve been diagnosed – and for their families.

Andy Tudor

WHY WORRY ABOUT SEPSIS?

If you know much about sepsis, chances are the condition has affected your family.

I’ve blogged about sepsis before, but the condition is still with us and has a high mortality. It kills about 48,000 people a year in the UK. Worldwide, someone dies of sepsis every 3 seconds. Survivors have a high chance of serious long-term effects.

Today being World Sepsis Day, I’m parking the levity once again and using this post to sum up – or update – what you need to know about sepsis. 

Understand what it is.

Sepsis is when the body responds to severe infection in such a way that it attacks its own organs and tissues. Without treatment, this quickly leads to organ failure and death.

Most people have heard of blood poisoning (septicaemia) which is much the same thing. But doctors now prefer the term sepsis because there isn’t always blood poisoning in this condition.  

Sepsis isn’t exactly a household name – yet. Personally I still think ‘sepsis’ sounds weaker than either septicaemia or blood poisoning, but we’re stuck with the term that scientists agree on.

Know the warning signs.

The symptoms depend on age, but the main point is that there isn’t any one specific sign like, say a swollen jaw with mumps. A child with sepsis can have a high fever, or an abnormally low one. The younger the child, the vaguer the symptoms.

Here are some signs to look out for in children (from the UK Sepsis Trust website):

In under-fives the symptoms can be particularly vague:

And here are some signs to watch out for in adults (again from the excellent UK Sepsis Trust):

If you just remember two things about sepsis, remember this:

You or your youngster will be more unwell than expected.

Things get rapidly worse, especially in children.

Understand who gets it.

Anyone can develop sepsis from a bacterial infection (or sometimes a virus or fungus). But some are more at risk, like the very young, very old, pregnant women, diabetics, and people on long-term steroids.

The initial infection can be a serious one like meningitis, or seemingly trivial, like a horse-fly bite.

scalpel

Surgery can be linked with sepsis, especially emergency operations on those in poor health, or with peritonitis or bladder infections.

And yes, Covid-19 can sometimes lead to sepsis too.

Know what to do.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs urgent hospital care. Don’t waste a single moment.

Sepsis isn’t one disease, but rather a syndrome that cuts across almost every medical speciality. The first doctor you see could be a paediatrician, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, or your GP, and sepsis may not feature at the top of their list. That’s why it’s so important for you to mention it. When you see the doctor or nurse, or speak to 111, make sure you say, “I’m worried about sepsis.”

Thanks for bearing with me. Hope you stay healthy.

Litmann type stethoscope

The UK Sepsis Trust is a wonderful charity founded to save lives and improve outcomes for survivors of sepsis – by instigating political change, educating healthcare professionals, raising public awareness and providing support for those affected. For their general info on sepsis, click here.

WHOSE STORY IS IT ANYWAY?

Most of the time, this blog has a jovial slant. This week, I asked my friend and thriller writer JJ Marsh for a more reflective piece on aspects of control. Here’s what she has to say.

Arguments often explode on Twitter (#notnews) and some issues surface again and again. In the book world, the question of cultural appropriation sets author against author, publisher against reviewer, and generates hours of heated discussion. As I write, a debate rages about a writer’s use of clichéd terminology to refer to people of colour.

The problem comes down to an old adage: Write what you know.

The writer did indeed write what she knew, about real children, but applied her own cultural lens. This upset many people devoted to shining a light on intrinsic racism.

Write what you know.

That advice carries a whole host of issues. Do we police our imaginations and stick to our own lived experience? Or are we able to step into other worlds with ethics and empathy?

It’s a topic I brood over often.

Not ‘just’ the race or gender discussion, but the topic of mental health. I’ve written characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and sexuality, but the area I feared to broach was the characters’ inner world.

When choosing to create a protagonist with bipolar disorder, I knew I was on shaky ground. I researched, learnt about how the condition can vary and/or develop, checked chapters with psychologists and those with experience to ensure my representation was authentic. The greatest feedback was from readers who recognised and appreciated a sympathetic approach to a condition that touched their lives.

Then I embarked on Wolf Tones, a novel about coercive control from the perspective of a vulnerable male. Abusive relationships take many forms, as I know from my sister’s role as a support worker. Most victims are women, but some are men. So how to tackle such an issue without diminishing the female experience, acknowledging how it affects men and shining a light on how coercion works?

After two years of research, I came to a conclusion.

It’s all about the narrative.

Every relationship is a story, told by the players themselves. To outsiders, the reality of fraying tempers or bad behaviour might be polished, even exaggerated, for comic effect. Within the relationship, people make up their own journey as they go along – negotiating problems, harmonising habits, confronting obstacles and adjusting their own happy ending.

What about coercion? That’s when one party wrests control and becomes the director, casting a partner or family member in a role they may not want to play.

The first element of redefining roles is by eroding their confidence. Psychologists and therapists point to several techniques by which the director destabilises the victim and convinces them to give up independence. These include criticism, gas-lighting (making one believe something has/hasn’t happened) and micro-managing everything that person does.

Doubt and dependence are harder to introduce when a person has a network of friends, fulfilling job ,and supportive family. That’s why a coercive abuser begins to isolate the victim from any means of emotional outlet. Friends pushed away, families distanced or even rejected outright – the abuser paints them all as the bad guys.

This last is a common occurrence – the abuser claims the status of victim, reversing the roles in order to destabilise and gain sympathy from the person or persons they attempt to control.

Once the manipulator has command of the console, the victim is reduced to no more than an avatar; allowed no choice over money, clothes, activity, or behaviour.

This pattern of behaviour is at the heart of my psychological thriller Wolf Tones. It’s not a puppet show portraying the above because each character has a history (good and bad), ambitions, connections, a sense of loyalty and the issue of class to navigate in a professional environment.

The setting is a classical European orchestra, but the story could happen to any of us. It all depends on the narrator.

If any of the themes in this piece affects you, here are two places where you can find out more: Women’s Aid and ManKind.

Wolf Tones is a work of fiction. This story belongs to Rolf.

Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects. All because of her.

Smart, sexy, well-connected, and crazy about him, Leonor is his fantasy woman. She made him and he’ll never forget it.

Neither will she. 

Read the first chapter here.

A big thank you to JJ Marsh for her thought-provoking post. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wolf Tones is out on August 19. You can pre-order it here.

A BLOODLESS COUP IN ’52

Around this time of year, my thoughts turn to the Egyptian Revolution of July 1952 when King Farouk was ousted. It began with the Free Officers Movement, a group of Army officers that included future president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Many books have covered this period of history, as well as the era of revolution and decolonisation that it triggered. Here Nadia, a fictional character from The Girls from Alexandria, gives her take on the 1952 revolution.

King Farouk on a coin

ALEXANDRIA, JULY 1952

I sat on the swing and watched Rashida pick vine leaves, yanking each one off with more force than seemed necessary. People thought six-year-olds understood nothing, but I knew very well that things weren’t right.

‘What’s going on, Rashida?’

Rashida continued harvesting leaves in thick silence, so I went back upstairs to the little sitting room where my parents often sat. Father was in a white vest, listening to the news on the radio, one ear touching the speaker.

I asked Mother what was wrong. She replied with agitated hand movements that there was a frog in a pan of water, coming to the boil. I would have asked what she meant, but the phone in the hall rang. She rushed to answer it.

The telephone had to be answered solemnly and self-importantly, and the receiver had to be clasped with two hands, in case a limp hold would lose the connection. All conversations involved shouting, as if the other person was in Zagazig and telephones had yet to be invented. Despite all the shouting, though, I comprehended nothing.

After the call, Mother settled again in her favourite chair, picked up her canvas, and resumed her vicious jabbing. She was doing even more needlework than usual. I couldn’t see any need for it, not when every table already had an embroidered cloth and every chest of drawers a runner. There was even a huge folding screen that did nothing except skulk in the corner of the dining room, looking sinister despite the fat pink roses stitched into it.

I did know, though, that a lot of the calls were from Cairo these days. The phone made a different dring if the call wasn’t long-distance.

‘Trunk,’ one of my parents would exclaim, and there’d be a race down the parquet corridor to pick up the receiver with even more haste than usual. Nobody would say why our relatives from Cairo had taken to phoning so often.

I hung around doorways. I lurked outside rooms. I stayed awake after being put to bed. If the door of my bedroom was ajar, it let in a rectangle of light from the kitchenette where Rashida sat with magazines that she could not read. The jingling of bangles and the turning of pages usually soothed me to sleep, but Mother and Rashida had recently taken to whispering in the kitchenette.

As soon as I got out of bed and tiptoed to the door, they stopped. Mother put on an innocent face, and Rashida assured me she was just saying her rosary.

When the revolution came in late July, it took three days to unfold. It began in Cairo with soldiers in the streets and, Mother told me, the announcement that the army had taken control of the country. Things were changing. Rashida prayed even more fervently, kissing her cross and the medallion of St Anthony on the gold chain around her neck. St Anthony was the one to pray to if you ever lost anything. He’d even found Rashida’s pink handbag when she’d left it on a tram, as she often reminded us. This time, however, Rashida refused to say what was lost.

The Royal palace at Montazah, Alexandria

I was exactly six years, six months, and two days old when, on the twenty-seventh of July, Father told me that King Farouk had fled Egypt on his yacht the night before. It was then my solemn duty to inform the dolls in my pram that the King had gone and that soldiers were now in charge.

***

There’s more about Nadia, her sister, and the making of modern Egypt in The Girls from Alexandria – available as paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

IF CARLSBERG GAVE WRITING ADVICE…

They say writing is a solitary activity (no, not that one). After all, an author sits in isolation, ploughing a lonely furrow that meanders from page to page. But there’s a community of other writers out there and, when I got stuck with my manuscript, I turned to author friends for advice. Here are some of their very best tips.

First I consulted historical novelist Liza Perrat. ‘Write the first draft without editing,’ she says. ‘Just get the story down.’ Editor, author, and writing coach Lorna Fergusson is one of many who agree. ‘Keep going and don’t stop to check a fact or agonise over a wording. Insert XXX and go back to it later.’

As author Debbie Young explains, ‘Writing and editing use different parts of the brain, so do them in separate sessions.’ She adds that writing the first draft by hand helps connect with the creative brain more readily.

I too find that using a pencil helps the writing flow, but it doesn’t always help the quality. What if you find yourself, as I did, mired in reams of Proustian prose, only without his madeleine or his talent?

Jane Davis brought me back to reality. ‘Make sure there’s conflict on every page.’ If you don’t know Jane, she writes award-winning novels set mainly in London.

This conflict thing is easier said than done. I think I ended up boring my own cat.

I should have taken author Linda Gillard’s advice. Pretty sure she was reminding me not to bore readers when she said, ‘If you don’t want to write it, no one is going to want to read it.’ I must say I’ve never lost interest in Linda’s novels.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Prolific author Jean Gill has something to say. ‘My top tip is always to stop writing when you know what’s coming next. That way you start again with enthusiasm. There’s nothing worse than facing a blank page because you wrote all the scenes that were in your head.’

When it comes to editing, you have to be ruthless, just as Samuel Johnson put it.

But don’t throw those passages away, warns Liza Perrat. ‘I’ve learned the hard way never to delete anything. I wanted to use some characters and scenes left from my first novel that was never published. But stupid me had cleaned up the folder, and the stuff was gone for good.’

I have been known to rescue discarded papers from the wheelie bin, but it’s harder to retrieve files deleted from your computer.

Another gem comes from Amie McCracken, author, editor, designer, and all-round publishing guru. ‘My number one self-editing tip is to read out loud. There’s nothing like it to help you catch errors, but also to feel the cadence and flow of your words.’

My own writing tip? I have two. One, keep a notebook to make sure you don’t forget any good ideas. Someday, to paraphrase Mae West, it may keep you.

Two, keep reading good books.

If you have any favourite writing tips, I’d love to hear them.

***

In keeping with my recommendation to read good books, you may enjoy Pandora’s Boxed Set. It’s a collection of novels by ten award-winning women authors, to be published this year in two parts, first part No Woman is an Island and the second Not Little Women. The first is out on July 20 and the second in October. You can pre-order the first part today from your favourite bookseller (the second will soon be available for pre-order as well).

I’m thrilled to be included alongside authors like Jane Davis, Jean Gill, Liza Perrat, Linda Gillard, Clare Flynn, Lorna Fergusson, Jessica Bell, Amie McCracken, and Helena Halme. Here’s the foreword by Jean Gill.

Hope was left in Pandora’s Box, when all the evils were released into the world.

The Pandora’s Box series brings together award-winning and risk-taking international authors in an unforgettable showcase, with five books in each collection. Never has it been more important to collaborate across borders and to use the power of storytelling to express the rich variety of human experience. This has been the main principle underlying our selection and we also chose stories we couldn’t put down, characters we cared about, and writing that stopped us in our tracks to savour a phrase or an observation.

The novels in No Woman is an Island travel through time and space, from medieval and modern France through England in two world wars to present-day Scandinavia. Although very different, they all show the impact on women of events over which they have no control. No woman is an island.

Happy reading.

DO YOU SUFFER FROM LOCKDOWN MEMORY LOSS?

What have you lost during lockdowns 1, 2 and 3? Apart from such things as evenings with friends or outings to the pub, I mean. You’ve gained the ability to bake sourdough bread but, if you’re like a lot of people, other skills may have gone AWOL.

Take driving. Now that freedom of movement is returning, many find themselves flustered behind the wheel. In a snap poll conducted by CarWow, three-fifths of Brits surveyed felt anxious about post-lockdown driving.  

FreeImages.com/Jeramey Jannene

Motorway driving seems the most challenging, along with parking especially if, like a lot of people, you never quite got the hang of it in the first place. With my living-room window giving directly onto the street, the evidence is right in front of me.

You think driving should be like proverbial bike-riding? Maybe it is. But let me tell you that, when I tried to cycle after some decades, I’d lost all sense of balance and toppled over for no reason on a perfectly smooth road.

Why does that happen? It’s that old use-it-or-lose-it. No wonder going back to normal can feel like an alien world.

Even using your own feet can seem a trial. Neither my friends nor I can tolerate heels any more. It’s as if our feet have someone got wider after slopping around in slippers for months. Who knew?

Waistlines have inexplicably spread out too. I blame jogging bottoms, especially since the only jogging I’ve done is to the kitchen.

To combat post-lockdown sluggishness and avoirdupois, David Lloyd Clubs are running a six-week programme with volunteers working towards their health goals with personal trainers, nutritionists and psychologists. It’s called Team PB. PB for Pot Belly, perhaps?

As for libido, that too seems to have gone south for many. It’s difficult to prioritise intimacy when you’re stressed and the future looks uncertain. Watching the box is far simpler.

Here’s another reason why brain function may have suffered. Research from Johns Hopkins shows that, for those between 30 and 50, every extra hour of TV time daily translates into a 0.5% reduction in the volume of grey matter in the brain – in other words, the volume of nerve cells.

The road back to normal may prove long and winding, and I won’t be making the journey in high heels, but there’s a lot to look forward to. I might even want to travel again. Now where the heck is my passport? Bet it’s expired.

What do you think will prove hardest for you in the weeks and months to come? I’d love to hear.

THE “REAL” EASTER

Tomorrow, May 2nd, is Eastern Orthodox Easter. My mother’s family weren’t Greek, but, like many people in Alexandria, they were Greek Orthodox, a form of Christianity that goes back to the middle of the first century in Egypt.

Photo by Sorina Bindea via FreeImages

I know next to nothing about the Coptic religion, even though there are many more Copts in Egypt, but I can tell you a bit about Orthodox Easter.  It’s a huge festival, one which Nadia in The Girls from Alexandria knew well. As usual, impeccable behaviour was expected of 8-year old girls.

Easter Sunday, 1954

The Greek Orthodox clergy were always invited. The whole tribe had invaded our sitting room, with their long black robes, white beards, and massive crosses. To top it off, they wore ridiculous headdresses that I wasn’t supposed to stare at, even when my big sister Simone whispered that one of them looked like Rasputin, whoever that was.

Lunch was in the formal dining room. It had a mirror-topped table that reflected the vaulted ceiling so it looked like a tomb. Worse, on the wall in front of me hung a painting of a pile of fruit with a dead rabbit lying beside it. A photographer took pictures for the newspaper. My sister Simone and I had to put on a camera face for ages, even though I was ravenous and Simone’s tummy rumbled. Little girls should be seen and not heard. Ever, really. They were meant to stay in their place. A preparation for life as a woman, I could see that.

Thus we stood still where we were told in our smocked dresses and frilly socks. I looked away from the rabbit.

Everyone had to kiss the Patriarch’s ring, including Mother, whose hand was normally kissed by other people. Simone got introduced to the Patriarch before me. The holy man’s beard had twitched as he rested his hand on her head. But, when presented with his ring, Simone refused point blank to put her lips anywhere near his fingers and ran out of the room. I would have followed her, had I been as brave.

Easter depends on the calendar, and, while most countries use the Gregorian calendar, Eastern Christianity still uses the Julian calendar which makes Easter fall later. Since 1752, therefore, Eastern Orthodox Easter has rarely coincided with what most of you think of as the regular Easter.

My  family tend to call Orthodox Easter ‘the real Easter’ but, in the interests of fairness and chocolate, they now usually celebrate on both dates. CHRISTOS ANESTI. Twice!

***

The Girls from Alexandria (published by Agora Books) is out as an ebook, audio book, and paperback.

10 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT ALEXANDRIA

In its heyday, Alexandria was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, as many people know. But there may be other things you don’t yet realise about Egypt’s second city.

1 Yes, there are Alexandrias other than the one in Egypt, but – and this may come as shock to American readers – Alexandria, Egypt, was not named after Alexandria, Virginia, however old and quaint you may consider that city by the Potomac to be.

2 The Macedonian king Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in about 331 BC. He also founded some 20 other cities named after him, but the one in Egypt became the leading Mediterranean city. That was the beginning of Greek influence in Alexandria, which to some extent still endures today.

3 Pigeons aren’t treated as rats with wings, as they are in Britain. Grilled or stuffed with rice, they are dinner. Not quite my taste, to be honest, which is probably why I haven’t been in a pigeon restaurant since 1971.

4 You don’t have to go to Cairo to see sphinxes. There are loads of them in Alex (some of them discovered underwater in the harbour) and they’re not all missing their noses like that battered old sphinx by the pyramids of Giza. Here’s one by Pompey’s pillar.

By the way, the pillar was actually built to honour Roman emperor Diocletian, but apparently someone misread the inscription at the base.

5 The cosmopolitan nature of Alex lives on after death, if the catacombs at Kom el Shofaqa are anything to go by. These are tombs in Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. Some statues are Egyptian but have Roman clothes and hairdos. I like to think this embodies the city’s inclusive spirit.

6 When it comes to Alexander the Great’s tomb, though, nobody knows where it is. Alexander died at the age of 32 and his body was moved from his first burial site. It’s not clear what happened after that. Many believe the tomb is somewhere in the centre of Alexandria, and archaeologists have devoted decades to digging for it, so far in vain.

7 Mohammed Ali looms large in Alexandria. There’s a huge statue of him wearing an impressive turban and brandishing an even more impressive sword. Born in 1769, Mohammed Ali was actually Albanian and didn’t even speak Arabic. All the same, history dubs him the founder of modern Egypt. He reformed laws, improved the economy, and, most progressive of all, he allowed the establishment of a School of Medicine to train women.

Mansheya Square, Alexandria, via Wikimedia Commons

8 You may see loofahs grow on trees. They’re not sponges at all, but a type of squash that grows very well in Alexandria, with its abundant sunshine and moderate temperature. You can grow Luffa aegyptiaca in northern climes too, especially if you treat it like a greenhouse cucumber vine.

9 Considered as gods in Ancient Egypt, cats are everywhere in Alexandria, though they favour the fish market at Anfoushy. “Affection for cats is part of Islam”, decreed the Prophet Mohammed. When the Prophet came across a black-and-white cat breastfeeding her kitten during one of his campaigns, he changed the course of his soldiers. He later adopted the cat.  Named Muezza, she was undoubtedly the favourite of his many cats.

10 Alexandria’s sunsets are spectacular, with every shade of pink, purple, and red. As the last slice of the sun sinks into the sea, there’s a momentary green flash, but you must be quick to see it. The flash is when you can make a wish, in the brief instant before the sun drops like a rock into the horizon and the sky suddenly turns dark.

***

You can read more about Alexandria in my brand-new novel The Girls from Alexandria. There’s a giveaway to celebrate the paperback publication next Thursday – head to @AgoraBooksLDN on Twitter to enter.

THE COWS OF CAMBRIDGE

It’s been quiet in this town lately. There are far fewer tourists since Covid hit, and most students are having to study remotely. But Cambridge still has a few new arrivals. This young herd arrived on April 1. Here they are, slaking their thirst in the brook 20 minutes after the transporter off-loaded them.

Like all newly arrived freshers, these guys stick together at first, but they soon learn to stretch their legs.

Grazing on common land in Cambridge is a tradition that goes back centuries. Bullocks and heifers normally arrive sometime in April, and may stay as long as six months, the state of the vegetation permitting. Common land is surprisingly near the city centre.

I won’t dwell on what happens when the cattle leave, but they seem to enjoy their time in Cambridge. Favourite pastimes include paddling, munching on willow, and getting to know the students.

There’s normally one bullock or heifer who is especially sociable. Here’s Panda Eyes making a friend in 2019.

And another one. They smell remarkably sweet up close, as long as you’re at the right end.

In 2020, we knew this one as Poop Face. Well, how would you describe these distinguishing features?

His, not mine!

Poop Face was so gregarious that several locals thought of adopting him. He also got himself into the Cambridge News AND The Sun newspaper for being so inquisitive about people’s rucksacks, picnics, etc. Unfortunately he nearly choked on discarded packaging, and survived only because someone had the presence of mind to fish a crisp packet out of his throat. Every year one cow or bullock dies here from choking on garbage, yet people still leave their litter.

Every year’s intake is different. I look forward to getting to know our new arrivals and watching them grow and learn, and just enjoy life while they can.

They’ll get used to the other young people, and their bikes.

Some may appreciate being serenaded while bathing.

If I don’t answer the phone, I’m probably spending time with these magnificent beasts.

PS In the interests of fairness, I have been asked to point out that Oxford has cattle too.