Autumn is Just a New Beginning

It’s hard to capture the loveliness of autumn in words, still less on video. I totally failed to immortalize a magnificent tree that shed most of its leaves over a period of a minute, creating an orange snowstorm. Here’s the tree now.

bare tree on Lammas Land

It being the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I can at least show you these.

misty morning on Lammas Land

autumn triptych

Autumn marks la rentreé, the beginning of the academic year and serious work. I spent many hours here, most of them wondering what the lecturer was talking about.

Mill Lane lecture rooms, Uni of Canbridge

And what could be more romantic than walking to class or work among the bright fallen leaves?

Lammas Land, Cambridge

Watch out for dog turds lurking underfoot, though.

New beginnings are in evidence everywhere, with cranes on the horizon, and buildings popping up all over the place. Alas, fresh starts mean the fall of the old order. 

demolition of the Strachey Building

If you were at Newnham College, you may just recognise your old room among the ruins.

The new buildings will be splendid and useful, I know. I trust the people in charge of the change, and I’ve seen detailed plans as well as the architectural model.

architectural model of new buildings Newnham College, Cambridge

But other new starts are less certain, and a hard winter may be on the way.

***

To take your mind off our crazy world, here’s a two-minute video of the demolition of Strachey.

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Twelve Snapshots from Freshers’ Week

Freshers’ Week is a bit like the 60s – if you can remember it all, you weren’t there. So these glimpses will have to do:

1 Mists and mellow fruitfulness.

redcurrants

2 Not knowing where anything is, and trying to get there by bike, if you can remember which one’s yours.

bikes against a wall

3 Existentialist conversations with a swan.

swan on the Cam

4 Signing up for everything at the Freshers’ Fair.

5 Blood-red Virginia creeper.

Sidgwick Hall, Newnham College

6 Smiling at everyone in case one of them becomes your best friend.

7 Buying lots of instant coffee and biscuits for all your new friends.

FreeImages.com/Rositsa Jeliazkova

8 Ridiculously cheap booze at the Freshers’ Disco.

9 Kebabs and puke.

dsc01081

10 Reinventing yourself (because you can).

11 Staying up till 3 a.m. (because lectures haven’t started yet).

12 Getting a meningitis jab (because it’s really important).

So many new beginnings, but for some things it’s an end. Goodbye, Strachey Building. I won’t be there on Friday when the wrecking ball comes for you and the Porters’ Lodge.

Strachey, Newnham College

The Nuisance of Smoking Bans

Less than four weeks ago it became illegal in England to smoke in a car carrying anyone who’s under 18. As a medic, I think the new legislation is a great idea. To me, the earlier 2007 ban on smoking in indoor public spaces was a no-brainer. It has helped to bring down rates of lung and heart disease. But there’ve been consequences I’m less keen on.

FreeImages.com/Adri Claassens

Enter (or rather exit) the denizens of the local Social Club, as it calls itself.

Its cheap booze and bar billiards attract drinkers from miles around.  Except that they haven’t all come to sit in the warm convivial atmosphere. A sizeable contingent of patrons are lounging against the lamp-posts, or parking their backsides on neighbouring walls so they can enjoy their tobacco habit.

There’s not an e-cigarette user among them tonight. These are hard-core, like 18-year old Chloe whose birthday was last weekend. She spent her summer in Ayia Napa, got a cute new tat on her left buttock, and broke up with Jason cos he shagged Melanie. I know all this because Chloe has the dulcet tones of a foghorn and her fav smoking spot is under our bedroom window.

This, by the way, is Cambridge, and about as far from punting and Pimm’s as you can get.

Punts on the River Cam

I go to the window and catch a glimpse of Chloe through the blinds. She has a backside the size of a shire mare’s and I begin to fear for the wall.

She’s not talking to herself, of course. All the cool people go outside to smoke these days. Darren is a gas fitter but he was laid off last week, and his mum’s got a new boyfriend. By the light of the street lamp I make out another woman, a guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt and what’s left of his hair scraped into a pony tail and, and a man who’s clearly thought ahead because he’s got on fingerless gloves, plus a bobble hat pulled down to his eyes.  

I jam earplugs further into my ears. It’s obviously going to be a long night. As a medical journalist, I’m often asked to reel off the dangers of smoking. Now I can add earache and insomnia to the list.

2 brands of earplugs

The Social Club has long shut but that doesn’t matter because someone’s brought tinnies. Nobody goes anywhere until about half past midnight when a taxi shows up. Whose taxi is it?  A punch-up ensues to settle this.

None of these soothing sounds feature on my app of atmospheric tracks to doze off by. There is Australian Beach, Cape Cod, and Whale Music. Oh, and Night Ambience, though it’s not anything like this. Could be a gap in the market.

beer and cider tins

After the taxi episode, I hear tins been kicked in the road, followed by a particularly good joke which has the revellers laughing like drains. Around 1.30am a car alarm goes off. We’ve had around two minutes’ sleep so far.

What will the ban on smoking in cars with youngsters bring? Hopefully only good, but I’m not holding my breath.

Seven Reasons Why August Sucks

While the name ‘August’ comes from the Latin for dignity or grandeur, the reality is somewhat different.  Yes, it’s still high summer, but when you compare it to its neighbours June and July, I don’t think the month of August makes the grade. Here’s why:

1 The days are already noticeably shorter. As if that’s not bad enough, the weather thinks it’s October.

Rain by Valentina Degiorgis

2 You can’t move for tourists in London. Have you been to Marble Arch lately? It’s heaving. Luckily I know just enough Arabic to move dawdling visitors out of the way.

And in Cambridge, there are even bigger queues to get into the colleges. As here.

Clare College gardens

And here. 

queue at Kings College Chapel

Even more competitive than it is for prospective students, it seems.

Clare College gardens

3 It’s the silly season for news. That’s why the papers carry stories about donkeys rescued from seven-feet deep storm drains.

rescued donkey

And stories about Morris dancers having a punch-up with blind footballers. If you’re wondering, that one’s a spoof.

The biggest silly story of all? Must be the Labour party’s leadership contest. 

4 Kids in Scotland are already back at school. They’ve given up pretending it’s still the holidays.

5 When the August bank holiday weekend is over, that’s it. There are no more official holidays until Christmas. And any minute now, Christmas merchandise will hit the shops.

by Raquel Santos

6 It’s high season for kittens. In north-west London, the Mayhew Animal Home’s kitten cabins are overrun with furry bundles that need forever homes. Can you help? 

posed by model. photo by Roger Heykoop

7 Everyone is away (except for tourists). If you’re an adult, your inbox is full of automated away messages. If you’re a child, there’s nobody around to come to your birthday. I should know. Mine’s tomorrow. Are you going to be there? Thought not.

Roll on September.

***

Easy tweet: 7 Reasons Why August Sucks http://wp.me/p3uiuG-13z according to @DrCarolCooper

Is Researching a Book Better than Sex?

Some authors say that research is the best bit about writing. I’ve never believed that. What’s so great about spending long hours in the stacks at the library, or ages trawling the internet to find out what people had for dinner in 17th century Crete?

reference library

But now that I write fiction, research has taken on a whole new hue. I wouldn’t say it’s better than sex, even if in some cases it IS sex. Here’s a rundown of some recent endeavours.

1 Intel gathering for a steamy bathroom scene.

steamy bathroom scene

Is it possible for the earth to move while scrubbing lime-scale off the taps?  Everything had to be just so: a non-slip bathmat, a filthy dirty bathtub (this takes months), and of course the right bathroom cleaner.

Cillit Bang

2 The front seat of the Mini scene. If a couple feel inclined to bonk in their Mini near a lighthouse in Norfolk, can they do so without tearing an Armani suit or a ligament? We may never know for sure. Thanks, man who rapped on the window to say, “Ere, lost me mobile. Can I borrow yours?”

Mini Cooper S

3 The Gents at the hospital. There’s a scene in my work-in-progress where a character has to rinse his tackle in the loo at Watford General Hospital. I couldn’t do this one on my own, but the great thing about being married is all those vows. My other half is an honest guy, so he takes such things seriously.

However, it proved not to be so simple. The water was either freezing cold or boiling hot, and the hand dryers were at the wrong height. Besides, who’d actually dip his bits into a Dyson Airblade?

Dyson Airblade hand dryer

4 Undercover underwear work. Hopefully this quiet day would keep me on the right side of the law. St Michael may be the patron saint of underwear. They’ve even made briefs with the word Gentleman woven into the elastic, just like the Diesel ones say Diesel. But John Lewis has the range of men’s kecks I needed for my research. So there I was, checking out the feel and, more important, the scent of the fabrics used in boxers, briefs, budgie-smugglers, front-loaders, posing pouches and thongs.

Pierre Cardin knitted briefs

As I crumpled the waistbands and studied the gussets, I managed to side-step six shop assistants, or, as John Lewis calls them, partners. Unfortunately I didn’t spot one of my patients who was shopping for Y-fronts. He caught me with my nose up a pair of Calvin Klein trunks (low-rise, if you want to know). It’s funny, but he hasn’t made an appointment to see me since.

5 Bridge over troubled water. It used to be so easy to climb in and out of King’s College, Cambridge after the back gate was locked.

King's College Cambridge bridge (1819)

But what about now, after they’ve added extra ironwork as a deterrent?  As I found out, there’s a very real risk of losing your footing and falling into a deep and murky ditch, especially if you’re 40 years older than the last time you did this.

I tried to think calming thoughts.

Keep Calm.You're in Cambridge

This is hard when a couple of tourists are standing over you, offering to ring an ambulance. A passing medical student thought an air ambulance would be more appropriate. Perhaps he hoped Prince William might pitch up.  What got me out of the ditch in the end was a snooty college porter, incensed that I was doing my research on his patch.

6 An overnight stay in a bookshop.

bookshop

Luckily I didn’t have to do this myself, or enlist any of my family, as an American tourist did exactly that in late 2014.

Right. That’s it. From now on, I’m doing all my research on Twitter. Though I will miss my husband.

***

I’ll be at the Indie Author Fair at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on April 17, and so will lots of other authors. Why not come in, see their books, and maybe ask them about their research? The event is free.

Indie Author Fair

I Hope Aliens Don’t Find my Phone

There’s a lot of embarrassing rubbish on my mobile, including the logo.

BB

As my husband pointed out, aliens could be mighty confused if they ever got their hands on it. I’m confused just looking at the memos. ‘Next book’ is one of them. Here I meant to jot down amazing plot ideas as they came to me while sitting on the 13 bus. But what could I have meant by ‘Dr Tiggywinkle’, and then something about cradling a fire extinguisher? It hardly seems the stuff of which Booker winners are made.

The shopping lists are easier to decipher. There’s no spellcheck on memos, so one list goes

Bresd

Winr

Benecol?

Veg

Narnite

Surely everyone likes a bit of Narnite on their bresd.

I have 389 bonkers photos, mostly blurred, which may be just as well.  Alongside Remembrance Sunday in Aldeburgh and the cat sitting on my neck trying to suffocate me, there are toilet facilities in Lion Yard, Cambridge:

Cambridge-20141129-01354

Here’s Sigmund Freud clutching his belly in what can only be an attack of womb envy:

Camden-20140419-01011

 I’ve kept this great memento of a shag on the beach: 

IMG-20140302-00942

There are slides from a lecture by Roger Neighbour: 

IMG-20140613-01050

Every cat owner has close-ups of their cat sleeping. I’m no exception.

Camden-20140715-01160

I’ve kept some choice texts, like the one from Henk the oven cleaner, and the exchanges with wretched PPI claims companies. My usual text reply? PPISS OFF.

At five minute intervals, there’s a pop-up which invites me to validate my BlackBerry ID credentials. I’ve forgotten it, so that’s not going to happen.

There are a gazillion back and forth BBM exchanges from friends I never manage to meet, and WhatsApp messages from people I’ve never met in my life. One mystery missive asks me

Es tu cumple hoy?

If you speak any Spanish, you probably know this isn’t as obscene as it sounds.

I’ve no idea what else is on there, as the thing has just seized up. Excuse me. I’m just off to write a letter to Santa.

My next post should be a lot more festive as I’m going to a party. A Christmas blog hop, no less. And you’re invited too.

2014-ChristmasPartyBlogHop

 

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.