Monday 29 November 2010

The Back Side of Norwich

On Saturday I decided to head off in a totally new direction, having not yet explored the area to the east of the railway station near where I live. It had snowed lightly, and the paths were a bit treacherous, but I made my way up a slope towards what looked like a ridge. I figured I'd be able to see the city centre from up there, and take some good shots of the sun shining on the cathedral spire in the far distance. I saw a path off to right with a sign saying "foot bridge" so followed it a way before coming to an amazing structure, which I assume is part of an ancient rampart that once surrounded the whole city. There were no signs, no plaques to describe what I was looking at. The photo above is the inside of the tower. I considered pushing open the old rusting gate and taking the flight of stone steps up to the top, but changed my mind. There was something strangely spooky about the place. It made me remember someone saying that Norfolk folks were all quite odd, given their population had been reduced by half during the bubonic plague of the mid 1300s. They are, in other words, quite inbred. For some reason, this all came back to me as I stared up inside that tower, so I did the smart thing and headed on down the hill.

I got safely back to the flat and had tea and biscuits, so indoctrinated have I become to the English way of life. It's funny though to go to the grad pub with some of the younger students and watch them order tea and crisps (potato chips). I asked them how they could enjoy something sweet with something savoury, and they said they don't put sugar in their tea. It's just not done - it's called "trucker's tea" if you do. (I guess I'm a trucker.) Here's a shot of the flat just after I got back from my hike. There was a dusting of snow, which you can barely see on the roofs of the houses across the street. I love the way the light pours in from the skylight and reflects on the walls.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

What is this space?

What is a blog anyway? Is it a place where the blogger expresses every little thing that goes on in her head? That's not my intention. I have a private journal for that. I'm well aware though of the huge elephant that sits in the room of this blog, things I don't talk about but that do occupy a place in my mind every single day. My reason for creating this public space was first to record my year studying in Norwich and second to provide my family and friends with my progress. It's challenging to find the balance between blathering too much about how I'm feeling and providing enough information to keep people from falling asleep while reading it.

Today is Wednesday, so I'm now home from the university until next Monday, unless I decide to make a trek to the library. I know what I have to Virginia Woolf's Flush, her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, for a start. (I'm avoiding the "dog" word here, for personal reasons.) Then I have several reprints to read, a Phd dissertation to edit (paying job), Writing Centre work (paying job), and some writing to do for my own dissertation (unpaid job). It's so important to stay focussed and not distract myself by, for example, searching the internet for never-seen-but-always-wanted-to movies to download. That's what I'd really like to do though - an antidote to the intellectual calisthenics. But I do enjoy Virginia Woolfe, and even though it's very sad that she ended her life by walking into a river with heavy rocks in her pockets, I'm sure her accounts of Browning's Flush will be just as entertaining as, say, any of the antics of Sarah Jessica Parker and Co.

I just got back from my walk to the local supermarket called Morrisons, and I'm all stocked up for next few days. As I came in the door, the sky opened and a torrential rain is now rapping hard on the skylights. I think we're in for some cold wet weather, but nothing like Vancouver is experiencing. I've been reading the Vancouver Sun online, my way of spying on my home town, and it seems like winter has arrived there earlier than usual. Norwich too is bracing for a brutal winter, and today "severe weather warnings" were issued for this eastern part of the UK. I'm all cozied up though, with enough food to last at least a week, and enough books to last for the rest of my life.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Finally Some Humour

After all these weeks of slogging through the history of biography, reading the likes of heavy hitters like Plutarch, Suetonious, John Aubrey, Samuel Johnson, and Edith Gaskell, the way is brightening. I found a book in the list of secondary readings (not that I've read all of the primary readings yet!) - Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. It's a very funny book and was exactly what I needed to pull me out of the doldrums. Gosse's father was a rabid evangelist during the high Victorian period and the younger Gosse never quite believed the teachings that rained down on him day after day, sometimes all day. He mentions having to go around the village with his father, who was committed to bringing people into his particular evangelical Protestant sect. Gosse describes his father taking him into the homes of the poor, which he found really smelly and disgusting. He says, "One had to run over the whole gamut of odours, some so faint that they embraced the nostril with a fairy kiss, others bluntly gross of the 'knock-you-down' order; some sweet, with a dreadful sourness; some bitter, with a smack of rancid hair-oil." I must remember to recite that sometime at an appropriate moment: "I've detected a scent so faint it has embraced my nostril with a fairy kiss!"

This week the classes went really well, and yesterday I was given an encouraging response to my review of Poe's biography. Made me realize that this is exactly why I'm here, in case I'd forgotten. I have to write 2500 words for a workshop on December 14th, but feel confident about it. As a group too, we're starting to coalesce, and there's a real feeling of camaraderie - essential when it comes to having your work critiqued.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Grey Day

This whole week I've struggled with low mood, but sad is just the opposite of happy, and you need to feel both to be truly alive. Sunday was Geoff's birthday and that set the stage for it, then Nan leaving after a week filled with the stimulation of interesting people and new sights added more weight. The shops in Norwich are in full swing for Christmas, and walking through the lanes in the evening, looking into colourfully decorated and brightly lit shops makes me feel nostalgic. The biography of Edgar Allan Poe by Peter Ackroyd hasn't helped. I'm required to write a book review of a recent (past five years) biography and I chose this thin volume at Waterstone's Books only because it was the tiniest biography on the shelf. There's so much reading to do for the program, and I wanted to lessen the load a bit. Ackroyd describes Poe's life as being tragic from the beginning. His mother, who he adored, died from tuberculosis, which she contracted before he was even born. Then, each of the women he loved during his life: adoptive mother, friend's mother, and wife, all died of consumption. Another one died of insanity. One explanation for this succession of tragic losses, according to Ackroyd, was that Poe was attracted to "frail or damaged" women. Not exactly the kind of reading one needs when one is down in the dumps, feeling frail and damaged.

Yesterday was cold and cloudy, but I decided to get on my bike and take a ride to clear my head. I cycled aimlessly for about an hour, over the bridge and along the Wensum, and my mood soon lifted from the benefit of oxygen and endorphins. When I got back to the flat, my biographical subject was working on getting herself ready to leave for Morocco tomorrow, so I made myself a cup of tea, grabbed a plate of cookies, retired to my room and settled into Poe again. I'll be glad to be finished with him.

Around 8:00 pm Nancy called down the hall and invited me to join her for a G&T. We started talking about her early life in Vancouver and her time at art school. It's fascinating stuff and she's a wonderful raconteur, stories flowing out like water over river rocks, taking different directions, circulating back. We talked for over an hour and then made a supper of crisp bacon, boiled potatoes, and salad, continuing the conversation that will form my dissertation. I presented my biography proposal in a workshop last week and got some good feedback, especially in regards to the opening. It's more interesting to start a life story from anywhere but the beginning, so I plan to begin with Nancy's present life in Morocco, reflecting back on the past at various points. I hope that spending time in Morocco at Christmas will inspire me to write a rich account of her life there. I can't believe I'll be flying to Marrakesh in exactly a month. Yesterday I had a request to edit two dissertations, and even if it's adding to an already heavy work load, it'll bring in a bit of extra cash. It's all good.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Back to Routine

After a whirlwind trip with Nan around England during reading break, I'm back in classes. It was great spending time with her and visiting old friends. We picked up a Vauxhall from the car rental place and headed off, driving to Nottingham from Norwich on the first day, then travelling down to the Cotswolds and staying in a place called Chipping Campden - an absolute jewel of a town. The hotel was small but clean and cozy, and included a full breakfast. Nan wanted to see Hidcote Manor Gardens, famous for its topiary, but when we got there were told the gardens had closed to the public two days earlier. It was disappointing because it was a perfect day for viewing gardens. Not to be thwarted, and thinking we might be able to see them from the surrounding fields, we took a path that looked promising. Before we knew it, we were actually inside the gardens. For half an hour we strolled through the most stunning landscaped grounds with nary a soul in sight. Nan took photos and mentioned that you would never be able to get shots without crowds of people in them when the gardens were open to the public. 

Feeling hungry from all the fresh air and walking, we decided to get a pub lunch before heading to Bath. As we were leaving the car park, Nan backed into a tree that wasn't there before (ha!) and we checked the bumper to find just a little dent. We drove on and parked at the first pub we saw, but it didn't look promising so we backed out, this time Nan hit a trailer attached to a small car, and the damage was significant this time - although no harm was done to the trailer (or us). I told her she wasn't allowed to put the car in reverse from then on. It wasn't her fault, really, and she's a good driver, it's just that the visibility out the back window was almost nil. 

From there, we headed to Bath and checked into a guest house for two nights. We took a bus tour around the city and were shown points of interest, Jane Austen's house for example, and the Bath Abbey with its lacy facade, founded in 1491. The shops were brightly lit and inviting, so of course we had to take a cursory spin through floors of merchandise. 

We then headed off to Hampshire to visit Pip and Selina in Wield and spent two nights with them. They put on a very stimulating dinner party on the Friday night, with a total of ten, and the next day another visitor came down from London, Loren, a young woman in marketing, who brought a nice touch of youth into the mix. I've been visiting P&S for 25 years and their penchant for having a houseful of visitors and continual dinner parties has not waned. On Sunday, we drove to Marlborough (photo is of the chapel at the school) where P&S's daughter, Emily, is studying. She is a beautiful girl, well mannered and caring, and invited us for a tour of her room in the student residences after we'd been for a pub lunch and watched her field hockey match. I'm exhausted just recounting all of this. 

Nan and I got back to the flat in Norwich on Sunday night and Nancy Patterson was at home, so we had a G&T and recounted our travels. Nan left this morning and Nancy Patterson went to London, so I've got the flat to myself. Just as well. I had a meltdown this afternoon, probably from too much excitement and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the courses and the amount of reading.  I feel better now; that's why I'm able to mention it. I've been living in a bubble for the past seven weeks and being taken out of it and put into the real world brings out all sorts of emotions for me. I have to remind myself that I've taken a gargantuan leap, that I need to stay focussed on the task at hand and give it my all, not get soppy about those I've left behind in Vancouver.  Everything else will "become clear in the fullness of time."

Saturday 6 November 2010

A Social Life

Nan arrived from Vancouver, and I prepared a welcoming meal of salmon poached in white wine, fresh salad greens, and steamed asparagus. We were good, and didn't get too over excited, going to bed at a reasonable hour - 11:00 pm. Waking up full of beans, we had tea and toast then headed off to the airport to pick up her rental car. Nan's a great walker, but I had no idea when I agreed to go by foot that it would take us an hour and a half. And it wasn't exactly picturesque along the way, buses and cars zooming past and high winds lashing our faces. Three quarters of the way there, we decided to jump on a bus, only to be taken two blocks before we had to get of because that particular bus wasn't going to the airport. We went through the process of renting the car and were directed to a very nice new vehicle that will take us around the UK for the next twelve days. We then picked up Nan's friend Doreen from the train station and dropped me back at the flat. Doreen lives in London but has a house in the country and that's where Nan will base herself.

Later on, Nancy Patterson arrived at 10:00 pm all the way from Marrakesh by plane and bus - the same trip I'll make when I leave Norwich for Dar Sidi Bounou on December 21st for two weeks. I had a nice meal waiting for  this Nancy too - smoked haddock done in the oven with roasted yellow peppers, leeks, tomatoes, and white wine, served with parsley potatoes and green beans. We talked until 2:30 am! I told her how grateful I am to be able to call her flat home for the next nine months or so and to be able "eat, drink, and live" with her off and on for the time I'm studying. Because I've chosen her as the subject of my biographical dissertation we'll need to spend as much time together as possible. She's only in the UK until November 22nd, but I'll be able to hear more about her life when I go to Morocco. My dissertation is supposed to be maximum 60 pages, but I think I'm going to have trouble keeping it to that - there's so much rich material.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Reality Check

Today was incredibly stimulating, probably to the point where I won't sleep tonight. I went to my "Theory into Practice" seminar, which provides us with information about researching our subjects and discusses ethical issues around "spilling the beans" on people who are now dead. We also talked about the problems around using subjects who are still alive, and how to tread carefully. It can be a real minefield because you're giving the point of view of one person, but there may be lots of people out there who see a situation very differently. It's like when you're a kid and something traumatizes you (and can last your whole life), but your sibling might see the event quite differently. Both of you are right, it's just a different perspective. There lies the problem for a biographer.

My fellow students are so bright and well read, I often feel like an idiot Colonial. I'm not the only one though. Michelle, the lawyer from Missouri, feels the same. And she's one clever cookie. It's just that when people from Britain start throwing around names of people we've never heard of, it makes us feel like we're definitely living in a foreign country. I'm happy that the subject of my dissertation is Canadian, but has lived in the UK for 50 years. At least I feel I have a foot in both cultures.

So today is the beginning of reading week at the University of East Anglia, and I came home feeling like I was on holiday, forgetting the key words "reading week." I realize I have six books (big ones) to read, one 2500-word essay, and two 5000-word essays due after Christmas. So, no...this is not "a break," but an opportunity to do some serious writing. First though, I'll treat myself to just a little break.

Nan arrives tomorrow and I'm so excited about seeing her and spending some time catching up. It'll be strange though, sharing this flat with another human being after five weeks of solitude. I told some classmates today that if I were to suffer a fatal heart attack on a Tuesday evening, no one would even miss me until maybe the following Monday (Monday and Tuesday being my days at the university). After I leave the classes, I have no contact with anyone except for the bus driver and the cashier at the supermarket. People would say, "It's so unfortunate that she was gone all that time before anyone noticed."