A Cambridge Christmas (and this year Carol’s at King’s!)

This year marked the 100th anniversary of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel. And, before the grammar Nazis pick me up on the extra apostrophe in the title, this Carol was there too.

While I normally watch Carols from King’s on TV, glass of fizz in hand, this Christmas we made an early start to attend the real thing. 

Mishmish

Why are the hoomins up at 2.30am?

Because, dear Mishmish, this is what the queue for tickets looked like at 3 am.

Yes, it really was that early, and tickets weren’t going to be handed out till 7am.

Not that I’m complaining. Some people had camped outside the college for three days, despite the rain.  The weather was fine when I got there, if a little chilly. No wonder people had their warmest coats, hats, sleeping bags, sheets of tin foil, etc.

The motley crowd had more than a touch of the Canterbury Tales, with people from all over. Originally a gift to the people of Cambridge, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is now a gift to the world.

The queue is finally on the move.

And here’s where the precious tickets are handed out, but only if you remembered to bring ID.

Now it’s time for the hardy types to pack up and go home for a few hours’ rest.

It’ll be a doddle.

Totes got the hang of this.

It must all fit.  Although…  could be worth turning the bike around.

Maybe a couple of minor adjustments.

Nailed it!

And here’s yet another happy camper, complete with dining chair.

No idea who this was, but they were a lot more stylish.

Outside King’s Chapel around 2pm.

Building started on the chapel in 1446 under Henry VI and took over a century to build.

It has the largest fan vault ceiling anywhere, and some of the finest medieval stained glass.

Just before the service began, it looked like this.

As always, the opening carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, starting with a spine-tingling solo voice from the back of the chapel. There’s always a new, specially commissioned carol. The 3pm service is not the Carols from King’s, which is pre-recorded for BBC TV earlier in December, and broadcast a couple of hours later on Christmas Eve.

You can see the 1918 Order of Service here.

The crowd files out into the dusk.

Mist had already descended over the Backs.

By contrast, we slept well into Christmas Day.  Christmas dinner was at Six, a restaurant with 360⁰ views of the city.

This view shows Charlotte and Harriet asking the waiter whether the gravy is vegetarian.

This shot of St John’s Chapel didn’t turn out quite as planned, but it’s jolly all the same.

Here’s hoping you all had a wonderful Christmas. See you in the queue next year?

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Beware: Umbrellas at Large

Has someone out there been doing a rain dance? The sun is a distant memory, the brollies are out in force, and it’s pretty clear it’s not all Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain.

I know, beach parasols aren’t entirely innocent. A sudden gust can give your sunshade wings, and propel it at speed into the chest or brain

But rain umbrellas are in another class of spikiness altogether, with sharp edges and points just where you least want them. It’s hard to protect yourself on crowded pavements in the rain when’s everyone’s scurrying about brandishing their weapons as they dodge the puddles.

In Cambridge’s narrow streets, there’s the added danger of tourists stopping without warning to take selfies, and tour leaders waving extra umbrellas around to show their group where they are.

From their origins centuries ago (nobody seems sure how many) as protection for the privileged, umbrellas are now as common as muck. Hundreds of millions of brollies are sold every year, and often break just as quickly, making them even more hazardous.

My husband negotiated the last downpour uninjured, but his thumb took a hit when closing his brolly. After all, everyone knows it’s bad luck to leave it open inside the house, right?

I escaped unscathed that rainy afternoon, possibly because I kept reminding the OH not to stab me in the eye. Nearly a fifth of umbrella-related accidents affect the eye, many of these being conjunctival tears. Spokes are the main cause, but even the rubber end of a rainshade can lead to eye injuries, according to a review from Monash University in Australia.

Their review concludes that umbrellas shouldn’t be used as toys. Sound advice, especially if you’ve read about the 11-year old who impaled his little brother with a piece of wire ribbing poked through the keyhole. The 5-year old was taken to the doctor but lost his eye, shortly followed by his life. 

Swans shun brollies. Unfurl yours and you may find yourself at the wrong end of a powerful beak.

The most high profile umbrella-linked death was that of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian writer and dissident murdered in September 1978 by a ricin pellet concealed in the tip of his assassin’s umbrella. Forty years on, the suspect is still at large. I’m told the case has links to the KGB. Obviously, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Please let me know your best umbrella stories. I’m really hoping one of you has an uplifting tale to share in this rainy season. If not, I’ll just have to stay in and listen to the Hollies’ Bus Stop one more time.

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.

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