10 Things I Learned at Cambridge

Last weekend was the Alumni Festival, when Cambridge was invaded by hordes of people who look ancient (and probably think the same about the other alumni). Three days of talks, tours, and socialising helped fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. One thing I do remember: the beds in my own college are less than hospitable, so DH and I stayed in Churchill College instead. It’s where the Churchill Archives live, though they can’t be seen at weekends.

So here are 10 things I learned.

1 Founded in 1583, Cambridge University Press is the oldest publisher in the world (though Oxford, it pains me to say, is larger). Here are its headquarters.

The Pitt Building

The Pitt Building

2 Newnham College’s gardens are no longer a hidden beauty now that scores of alumni toured them at the weekend. They were even allowed – shock, horror – to walk on the grass.  

Part of Newnham College gardens

Part of Newnham College gardens

3 You can be a leading light in immunology, pioneer a vaccine for HPV, and still score zero out of 10 for tact. Here’s what the Vice Chancellor Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said to a gathering of alumni on Friday evening:

The quality of students has never been better.

4  There are too many sundials in Cambridge for me to count. If you happen to know the total number, please leave a comment! Meanwhile this is one of my favourites. Or rather two of them.

Sundials on St Botlph's Church

Sundials on St Botolph’s Church

5  There are now parking charges on Sunday, so bicycles are needed more than ever.

bikes against a wall

Bikes against a wall in Trinity Lane

6  It’s possible for a plant to have no leaves. An ephedra stem just has scales. If you’re wondering, the drug ephedrine comes from ephedra. This is one of the plants in the Botanic Gardens.

Ephedra major subsp procera

Ephedra major subsp procera

7  Thanks to the Whipple Museum, I can now tell the difference between a reflecting telescope and a refracting telescope. But I’m damned if I’d know how to use one.

Esquire Bedells can be female too. The role goes back to the 13th century but these days you don’t need a Y chromosome to carry a mace, perform ceremonial duties, or give a cracking tour of the Senate House. Here is an Esquire Bedell with one of her colleagues.

Senior Esquire Bedell Nicola Hardy & Pro-Proctor Tim Milner

Senior Esquire Bedell Nicola Hardy & Pro-Proctor Tim Milner

9  Because I couldn’t attend every event, I still don’t know:

Standing beneath the Tree of Knowledge aka Atlantic cedar

Standing beneath the Tree of Knowledge aka Atlantic cedar

How to strip and rebuild a single-cylinder engine.

Why cats make you sneeze.

Why we can walk, but robots can’t (yet).

What black holes are for.

Whether science can make a cyclist go faster.

What makes your brain efficient.

Why life is so complicated.

But maybe I’ll find out next year.

10  No matter how long it’s been since student days, you never forget how to drop curry on your lap like an undergraduate on a Saturday night.  I’ll spare you that photo.

A Little Road Trip

This will be short as I’m going away for a few days with one or two old school friends. By which of course I’m saying that I’ve known them a long time. What else could it possibly mean?

It could be a navigational challenge, so I’m taking this.

map of Italy

And these, obviously.

magnifier and glasses

I don’t trust sat nav, not after it dumped me the wrong way on a dual carriage-way. I’m sure we’ll be fine. Don’t you agree?  If all else fails, I can rely on this to call someone.  


Especially if I charge it this time.

And we’re taking this, because it’s not a proper trip to Italy without Eros Ramazzotti. Particularly when you’re stuck on the side of the wrong road with a flat tyre.

Eros Ramazzotti

Arrivederci a presto!


‘Cockanese’ – A Guide To Cockney Rhyming Slang, For Beginners Or Americans

With thanks to Don Charisma who allowed me to take over his blog so I could teach the world to speak Cockney, the dialect of my home town.

Don Charisma

Dr Carol Cooper’s been a friend since fairly much the beginning of the Don Charisma blog.

Carol is an author, blogger and a lady who gets my sense of humour. I believe she’s also quite well known in the UK, Google would tell you more, I’m sure, otherwise this will start to look like a Dr Carol Cooper resume or groupies club, which it’s not …

She’s also in my experience very humble and personable, which counts to me personally more than any other accolades … charm is magic they say … so …

Quite a few moons ago I, a little tongue-in-cheekily, proposed a title for a guest post, and Carol being the good soul she is, took the bait, hook, line and sinker … A break from the norm, something a little different, here’s Carol’s version of how to speak like a Cockney …

Disclaimer – no Americans were harmed in the…

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What Happens When Writers Meet?

Writing is a solitary life. It’s just you and the page, though, all being well, some words eventually show up. If you write novels, you may fashion some wonderful characters, but you still don’t see other people.

Going out in public once in a while is a good idea but it takes an effort. It might even mean getting dressed and putting a set of teeth in.

It’s totally worth it because, as you know, everyone’s fascinated.  Mention you’re a writer and people invariably say “How interesting.”

Royal typewriter

Sadly, the interest rarely lasts. Those same people want to tell you all about the novel they have inside them (it’s often the one that shouldn’t get out). But all a writer really wants to do is talk about their own work. After a while, few can put up with us because we either bore them to death about our books flying off the shelves at the speed of light, or bore them to death because our masterpieces are Superglued to the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

It’s sometimes the same with significant others, so the writer skulks off to the shed or spare room to keep out of the way. At this point SO usually gives a look that suggests you’re engaging in solo activities of an adolescent nature.

But it’s good to get out. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with back pain, constipation, low mood and worse: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even breast and bowel cancer. It’s estimated that globally lack of exercise causes 5.3m deaths a year, which is roughly the same as smoking. 

There’s a lot to be gained by meeting other authors. It’s really not the same as communicating online, as fellow indie author Kevin Booth points out in a recent blog post.  When we meet, we can learn a lot from each other, in a casual, friendly and effective way.  

We’re not all introverts. Writers are often outgoing. As Kevin says

There’s a particular chemistry that seems to engage when a group of writers get together over a glass of something. If people find it difficult to stay on-topic, it’s because they are sparking creatively off each other and raising new questions that they hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think the online experience has yet been able to replicate this.

Some like meeting to critique, but other authors hate talking about their work in progress. I sometimes worry about Schrödinger’s novel. Let even a chink of light in, and the book dies. While it’s still safely in the dark box of the mind, it could be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger’s cat, you’ll recall, is based on quantum physics. Until the box is opened, the cat could be either alive or dead, or indeed, a touch of both. 

Personally, I don’t have many doubts about the cat. If you can’t hear it inside the box, scrabbling to get out, then it’s probably dead. Cats may like boxes, but they want to choose their own. Nobody should ever put a cat into a container without food, water, ventilation, and a clean kitty litter tray.

cat in box

But back to meeting other authors. Do writers bitch and argue when they meet? Hardly ever. Apart from the fact that we’re a nice bunch of people, or so I like to think, we’re also mighty relieved to find like-minded company. We enjoy each other’s books and don’t mind saying so. And, when someone is super-successful, it’s inspiring to remember that it can happen to people not so very different from ourselves. We can celebrate other writers’ triumphs, just as we commiserate over setbacks like paltry advances or poor sales.

There’s no place for petty jealousy. Out there are many millions of readers. No one author, not even one several times as prolific as Barbara Cartland, could produce enough books to keep the whole world happy.

If you write but don’t have a writing group nearby, why not start one? Self-published authors might like to join the Alliance of Independent Authors.author-member ALLi

ALLi (pronounced ‘ally’, appropriately) is a global non-profit association of author-publishers. They offer connection and collaboration, advice and education, and, importantly, also campaign to further the interests of self-publishing writers everywhere.

I come back from local ALLi meetings with a spring in my step. Here’s more of what Kevin Booth has to say on the ALLi blog about face-to-face meetings.

Every reason for getting up from your desk, then.