Monday, 16 June 2014

One day last week ...

I'm procrastinating. It's not something I'm prone to, but sometimes it happens. For months I have been meaning - indeed, wanting - to write a long and serious-minded reflection on the passing of a cornerstone research partnership that has been at the heart of my professional life for more than a decade ... but the words just won't come. So, here is my latest bit of illustrated frippery instead: one working day amongst so many, and the thoughts it evoked.

From time to time I get invited to do a job for another university or some other organisation. Sometimes these last for several years, like the approximately six years I spent, until last Autumn, as a member/chair of a couple of high-level Science & Technology Facility Council committees, and sometimes they last only a day or two (although usually requiring a bit - or a lot - of preparatory work). Acting as an external examiner for PhD students fall into the latter camp. Last week, however, I had a one-off role to fulfill which was new to me: acting as external assessor for a proposed new undergraduate course at the university at which I was myself a student many, many years ago. The details are irrelevant (and are, as one might expect, confidential) but the occasion illustrates nicely part of what it means to do the job I do. This was not a typical working day, far from it - and I'll probably not write about those in any depth until I have fully retired, but neither was it unusual. As with all such tasks it was voluntary and I had chosen to 'opt in' for the same reasons I decide on all such invitations: it sounded interesting, it might inform what I and my colleagues seek to do at my home university, it came from people I know/know of and who I like and/or respect, and I thought I had the knowledge and experience to make a reasonable stab at it. (That latter point is often the toughest hurdle by the way: chronic 'imposter syndrome' affects me and so many others ...)

The day began with my usual arrival at my office, shortly after 8 am; this gave time for a last scan for urgent e-mails before packing my small rucksack: my all-too-obviously old laptop (don't forget the charger, and the one for my 'phone!), necessary instructions and notes and something to read. I took the bio-fuelled Unibus into town and walked to the station (- Canterbury's attempt at coping with too many vehicles on 'Medieval' roads means that the bus no longer goes past the train station ...). The journey to Leicester was as straightforward as they all should be, and for this particular journey there was the added bonus of arriving at and leaving from the same mainline station: St Pancras. Since I had half an hour to kill before the service to Leicester, I started to wander around the upper levels. Although I'd seen and admired it on many occasions from the ground floor, this was I think the first time I'd looked closely at Martin Jennings' 2007 statue of the railway-loving poet John Betjeman. It really is a gem, overflowing with personality. There's another statue up there, which is so large that I was amazed I'd not seen it before: this is the 9 m tall The Meeting Place by Paul Day. It's a lovely statue, but what really caught my eye was the set of friezes encircling the base. They're fascinating in their own right, but it was a particular 'detail' I noticed; at three points the bronze has been especially noticeably polished by the touch of umpteen fingers: a dog's head, the pockets on the back of a woman's shorts and a child's outstretched hand. I carried these with me in my mind's eye for the rest of the day; they seemed to offer a commentary on life, or society, or some combination thereof.

In my humble opinion, the best route towards Leicester university means ignoring the instructions provided and heading across the road in front of the station and walking the three minutes or so required to reach New Walk (then turn left). This is, I think, one of the jewels of Leicester; from 'Vicky Park' at one end, it passes the university before reaching into the old heart of the city at the other: a Grade II listed pedestrian way tracing its origins back to the 18th century. It's proportions, green spaces and atmosphere of past-world leisure provide a great way to gather ones thoughts on the approach.
I first walked its length in 1972, as a student embarking on a degree in Physics (by mistake: I had applied to do Combined Sciences but someone there had ticked the wrong box; however, by happenstance, this matched my revised ambitions so I kept it to myself). The signs by the door are new, but the essence of the main student entrance remains the same today as it was back in the day. It's been totally remodeled internally during the intervening years, as has much of the rest of the compact central university campus. However, my job for the day would unfold in the Fielding Johnson building, itself Grade II listed and home to the university's managers and administrators (- although originally a lunatic asylum in the 19th century). Two hours later I was heading back down New Walk and on to a train southward.

I've been very fortunate of late to be invited to launch parties for two very different books, both written by women who have been or are my colleagues. One was associated with a novel, 'Memory of Water' by Emmi Itäranta, set at some time in the future after climate change and the associated societal upheavals have wrought their effect on the world. Emmi worked in my department for a while during the time she was writing this first book (originally in Finnish by the way) and I'm proud now to have a signed copy. I'm also distinctly envious of her ability to imbue her characters with such reality. However, it was the other one I packed to read on my homeward journey: 'Continental Drift' by Nancy Gaffield. Like her previous collection of poems, 'Tokaido Road', now also used to inspire the libretto for an opera, the effective solitude of a train journey seems somehow appropriate for the necessarily measured and contemplative reading required. (Tokaido Road was read, and re-read, on my way home from Glasgow University as I recall.) I love this second collection of poems as much as the first, although they are very different, but in this one I was confronted in one section of the book with the role of scientists within the Manhattan project and with the consequences of their work. An important part of Nancy's lineage has its roots in Japan, and I spent some time, almost 30 years ago, working at Los Alamos (albeit in the civil research side of things - armed guards and high fences blissfully isolated me and my colleagues from the military sections of the place). Poignant doesn't seem to cover it at all - in fact, my paucity of words and their use is one of the things thrown sharply into relief by the excellence of her writing.

After delays caused by trespassers on the lines near St Pancras and the associated knock-on effects, I eventually got home about 12 hours after I had left. Another day.