Saturday, September 24, 2011


Another new academic year beckons and a lot of things are changing. Teaching hasn't begun yet, but I've just started doing a PG Cert in academic practice at one of the places I teach at. So far it has been great, although I fear it may take up more time than I originally envisaged. Still, I'm not paying the fees (employer funded), plus it will be interesting and also necessary for the future under the current policy requirements, so I'm definitely not complaining.

It's been really interesting meeting people from various colleges and courses. Everyone seems really enthusiastic about what they do, which is extremely refreshing compared to other scenarios I've found myself in over the past year. We had the first set of workshops this month and I met a lot of very nice people, although there did seem to be a lot of slightly frantic (desperate?) networking going on too. I think a lot were sessional staff which is fairly standard in this sector, but the current changes in higher education are creating a more unsettling environment with a gradually decreasing number of permanent jobs, so it's an unknown future ahead for most of us. I suppose a number of people on the course are competing with each other for a shrinking number of teaching hours within their subject areas - positively shrivelling actually, shrinking sounds far too sedate. Despite this, I've become quite excited about what I do and I'm looking forward to getting on with it all to see where it takes me.

I've become interested in gardening again too. I neglected my plants horribly during my PhD and most of them died. How much effort does it take to water a plant, eh? Obviously far too much effort for me back then. That's what the doctoral process does to you - shocking. Still, I've resurrected the plucky survivors and got some new ones and I'm very fond of all of them now. Crocus is a great online plant site I was recommended, very well packed orders, efficiently delivered and a really interesting range of plants to choose from. A lovely and uplifting sight after a hard day's work in a noisy, airless office.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chelsea Ducks

The other day I helped out with an event we were organising at work, a fairly formal lecture by a Professor from one of our colleges. Unfortunately I missed most of the lecture as I was doing other stuff and ended up standing by the door on the embankment for most of the evening. Events management is so glamorous.

Not all bad though. A twilight river view is always lovely and it was interesting listening to a slightly disgruntled guest who I didn't know airing his views on the event. I had to proof read the booklet published to accompany the lecture which was full of ideas and quite thought provoking, so the point of the event didn't completely pass me by.

On my way out, I was greeted by the sight of three mallard ducks nestling on a small patch of grass in the middle of the paved quadrangle of the college. I wondered whether they were part of an art installation at first, you never know as it's an art college, but I decided they must have wandered away from home, wherever duck-home is - I don't know where they might live normally, the banks of the Thames? It was very nice see their interested little feathery faces and to stop and feed them on my way home, which is quite a boring walk actually. They seemed to like the squashed banana and almond butter sandwich I offered them. I shouldn't really attribute human characteristics to them, but I do like ducks with a sense of adventure.

Friday, May 20, 2011

View from my hospital window

Amazing views from my hospital bed window and a brilliant distraction from any ailments. Very uplifting actually, so I'm sure that's all beneficial for people's health. Well, it is for mine anyway.  The views changed all through the day and night, different cloud formations and light levels, varying amounts of traffic on Westminster Bridge and on the river, a police boat speeding along purposefully at one point. Who needs a TV with a view like that.

It's my favourite hospital in London, partly because of the location and the history, traced back to the twelfth century.  I find it vaguely humbling for some reason that there's been a place on that site for hundreds of years dedicated to treating the sick of the city. It's bigger than any one individual, people come and go, but the tradition and history of the place keeps on going, almost having its own momentum. There is a good little exhibition on in the foyer at the moment with old photos and illustrations from the past few hundred years, in addition to the permanent display cases of objects and ephemera relating to surgery and nursing at that hospital. There is a bit about eyes, including a current lens implant, which addresses my workmates' lunchtime musings over what they actually look like (small bits of plastic, definitely not like tiny breast implants). It's nice to have free lunchtime piano recitals that anyone can wander into, including patients, and lovely ceramic tiles including a large depiction of the tale of Dick Whittington, a former Mayor and benefactor.

The op went well, though apparently it was more complicated than usual ones. I am now recovering and have my fingers crossed that it will all heal up properly. It's very liberating not having to rely for 100% of your vision any longer on external things (glasses, contact lenses etc). Sometimes people say, what would you rescue if your house was burning down and you had a minute to get out, and the answer is usually a pet, a possession, kids. For me, it would have been all my eye stuff I suppose, not that I've ever had to put it into practise. But I''ll never know now as they're like normal people's eyes, more or less. It's REALLY great. What a wonderful surgeon.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Any suggestions...?

I was wondering what a quagmire bracelet would look like. It was a search term I saw in my blog statistics. It must have come via an old post about the PhD experience (feeling like I was in a quagmire, as on the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles.)

This is a definition....

 -noun [16th C. from quag + mire]
1. an area of miry or boggy ground whose land yields under the tread; a bog.
2. a situation from which extrication is very difficult. an awkward, complex or embarrasing situation.
3. anything soft or flabby.

As it seems a strange and slightly contradictory idea, I would be very interested to know what a quagmire bracelet might look like, or the materials that might be used. Any ideas...?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Eyes and Bones

I'm waiting to go back into hospital for my second eye operation at the moment and trying to finish all my dissertation marking for one college I teach at before then.  I popped in to the Hunterian Museum one lunchtime to see whether there was anything in the current displays about eye surgery, out of curiosity, not to scare myself!

There were some exhibits of nineteenth century eye surgery instruments, but nothing else that I could see. It made me wonder what sort of vision people had after undergoing eye surgery back then, as the tools and procedures must have been so crude compared with now. My grandfather used to work as a hospital porter in his youth and thought he knew everything about surgery, as it was a teaching hospital and he set up the AV for medical lectures. He told me that I would have to lay in a darkened room for a week with sand bags on either side of my head after cararact surgery. What a cheery thing to tell your granddaughter. Fortunately for me, he was very, very wrong. I thought he would be, given past experience of having to listen to his ill-informed diatribes.

It's surprising tranquil in the museum, given the subject matter. The central display is several floors high, with glass shelving holding hundreds of glass jars containing human and animal specimens, diseased or otherwise. The way the light plays through the room and the height of the display makes it seem quite majestic, like a cathedral of surgery, though obviously not religious. It was full of art students busily drawing the pickled parts of their choice. I found the display of the skeleton of the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, a bit depressing. He was 7 and a half feet tall, and considered a bit of a freak in the late 18th century when he lived in London. He turned to drinking heavily and died at the age of 22. It looks like surgeons couldn't wait to get their hands on his body as he was a medical curiosity and it was a period of scarcity for corpses for dissection. He didn't want to be dissected and arranged for his body to be buried at sea, but even though many surgeons tried to claim the body, one (John Hunter) got it for £500 and now, years later, it's on display in the Hunterian Museum.

The reason I find the display slightly depressing is how it highlights the way that money talks and that the rights and wishes of the dead are limited. His last wishes were ignored so surgeons with money could satisfy their medical curiosity, and there was not a lot he could do to prevent his dissection after death because he was poor and the 'wrong' social class. And obviously incapacitated somewhat by being a corpse. I suppose he could have come back years later to haunt them, if you believe in ghosts. I've taken my students to that museum a few times over the years and one got really upset by the giant's story, almost to the point of tears. I suppose it's good that we can empathise with old remains, as they were people once and we are all human.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I've been mulling over what I ought to do with my working life a lot recently, the type of jobs I should be pursuing and the other bits that accompany that - ie writing, publishing, conferences, academic stuff. It's that thing about having a PhD and knowing what you should do with it, but not quite wanting to... maybe it's too soon still. Someone asked me recently what my dream job would be and I wasn't sure, though I have a better idea now. It would be nice to have a Really Definite Plan sometimes though, so I'm trying to think one up.

There is useful stuff on various websites about what people actually do with their PhDs.... I found Beyond the PhD interesting as it has interviews with people up to 10 years after they completed, the types of jobs they ended up in and the circuitous routes that both their careers and their thoughts about their doctorates sometimes took. That was extremely reassuring as I realised I wasn't the only one ever to vaguely meander along for months after finishing, uncertain about what to do next, even though I knew what I was supposed to do. There were even a couple of profiles for people who ended up in research support (fancy that, a bit like me!). I guess my bottom line for now is to earn enough to live on from teaching and my part-time admin job, while starting to write for publication from my thesis and then see what happens. I've never really done the 'proper' career thing anyway, so it's easier to do things because I want to rather than because they fit into a neatly predefined career path. And hopefully the Coalition government will have finished buggering around with their destructive Higher Education mission by then and we'll all know where we are...

Hhmm, so it looks like that's the start of my post-doc action plan for now, I suppose. Blogs are good for thinking things through, particularly when you've exhausted real people's ears on the subject you're endlessly pondering.

All this mulling business was probably due to getting to the end of a really busy term's teaching in different places and getting one of my eye operations out of the way. Both have taken over my life in different ways for months though I tried not to let them, so time to think unencumbered by health problems seems quite a luxury right now. Actually mulling is an odd word now I keep writing it down, it seems a bit fishy for some reason though I was thinking of seagulls and they're not fish. Sounds like gulls and ought to look like a trout, no idea why. It was lovely seeing the seagulls swooping around outside my hospital bedroom window last week, they came so close and it was 12 floors up. A large crow landed on my windowledge for a few minutes and peered in too. I'll take a photo when I have eye number 2 done in May as the view is spectacular. I think I'll finish rambling for now, have my tea, watch Lewis and continue to marvel at the wonder of successful eye surgery.

Back soon.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Just passing through

Just popped over to feed the fish with some yellow specks of virtual fishfood. It's still satisfying to feed them and watch them swim over, haha, simple pleasures, I must be more overworked than I thought. Can't believe how tiring it is juggling teaching plus an admin job, haven't been this knackered since I submitted my thesis and that's not an experience I care to repeat. I've had withdrawal symptoms from not watching TV detective programmes, or any TV actually. Writing lectures for a new place takes SO much time, you think you've got enough material but it's not enough when you start reworking it for a different audience. Oh well. And I'm wearing one contact lens which is really annoying, though you get used to it after a while and it's the best of a load of crap choices anyway.  I scratched my cornea so have to leave the lens out till it heals. You can get by with imperfect vision when you have to. I do like flaming eyeball graphics but am not mad about those glasses, they're a bit Elton John circa early '70s in his less sophisticated days. They'll do for the blog though. A question on wiki-somethingorother asked 'what do flaming eyeballs mean?' (a perfectly valid thing to ask) and the answer was 'you need medical help.' Not a very creative response for anyone wanting to investigate hot rod art. Eyes do feel a bit flamey when you've had scans with lasers or whatever they use, your vision goes all pink for a day or so. Quite weird. Despite that, I am looking forward to having some eye operations soon.

I must finish this lecture... I'll make a cup of tea and get on with it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Living Stole

I saw a ginger tom cat draped across the shoulders of his similarly red-headed and bearded owner last night on the bus. The tom was wearing a bright blue knitted cat jumper. His owner was getting quite irritable as the traffic was bad, but he couldn't get off because the driver wouldn't open the door between stops. The cat was flicking his tail in irritable sympathy with his owner, but he still looked very comfy slung around his owner's neck. What a nice way for a cat to see the sights of central London life!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Tiny Output

There's an enthusiastic comment in a video about my paper from a young man who attended a conference I did last autumn at the Horniman Museum (wrong surname, but I know who he means). He did a great summary of the discussion at the end as well and his comments are very nice. I'm sure he will go far in whatever he chooses to do in life. We had to give a copy of our papers to groups of young people at the museum to read beforehand, then do discussion sessions with them a few weeks later at the conference. Mine wasn't recorded because we had a last minute room change. It's an interesting format for an event for anyone working in Higher Education, especially as there is a preoccupation with audience engagement (amongst other things) in relation to research at the moment. It's useful to think about how, or indeed whether, your own subject is relevant to anyone outside academia's so-called ivory towers, even for embryonic 'early-career' researchers such as myself. It's a good thing to have to write for different audiences too, avoiding as much jargon as possible.

I know it's an 'output' (as they are called in research jargon) albeit a modest one, but I wish I had done it better. It was not one of my best conferences unfortunately as I had a stomach bug and felt really sick. Queasy, like I wanted to vomit. Spew. (But I didn't). Swigging large quantities of water throughout the event got me through it, but it's a shame I didn't manage to attend more of the events planned as they looked really varied and interesting.  Aah well, ifs and wishes and buts are pointless and I suppose it's all part of the lengthy learning experience of trying to be a researcher in academia. Maybe seasoned conference-presenters have a spectrum of techniques to draw on in these situations to save the day.

One naively thinks some significant conclusion has been reached with the completion of one's PhD, but then the realisation dawns that it's just the beginning  [a slightly sinister and knowing post-doctoral laugh would finish this sentence off nicely].  I don't know if I have the energy or the motivation to think about all this right now, but I am very tired of working seven days a week for what seems like little money or reward. Perhaps after a better night's sleep, things will seem better too....or maybe it's an expected part of the ongoing malaise affecting HE. I don't know. Back soon in a hopefully cheerier mood.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Crimson Trousers

My doctor was wearing an impressive richly coloured pair of crimson jumbo cord trousers when I visited him recently. They coordinated well with the red and gold swagged curtains and red velvet screen. Quite flamboyant, considering the circumstances. Not very GP-ish, but a suitable colour for sickly patients I think, a much healthier looking shade than anaemic whiteish-beigey-magnolia for the usual decor of NHS rooms and conservative, rather dull dress.

It reminded me of Winston Churchill's red velvet one piece siren suit (left). It's difficult to imagine him lounging around in red velvet when the usual image of him is the cigar-smoking, overcoat clad, portly figure in photographs from WW2.  I saw the suit displayed in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum once. We did a double-take when we read the label to that exhibit as it seemed so odd, but there it was. Apparently he also had blue and green ones made up for him by a Savile Row tailor. Garments are an interesting starting point for taking you on unexpected journeys into people's lives, or questioning one's own preexisting stereotypes, aren't they.

Image from Culture24 -  24 Hour museum.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rollin' rollin' rollin'....

I know the wind has been blowing, tumbleweed style, through my deserted blog. It's taken a while to settle in, but I'm enjoying my slightly odd new job at last, I am heartily relieved to admit. I also have a new chunk of teaching elsewhere which seems potentially very interesting, so it looks like I'm crossing into new frontiers this year. A good thing too, as I'm fed up with being fed up about stuff.

There are better videos of tumbleweeds (I know because I have spent a disturbing amount of time watching them, in true procrastinator style) but this one has the advantage of being set to Frankie Laine's perky 'Rawhide'- a genius combination.