Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Yesterday, I visited the Archives Départmentales. The director had set out a selection of their most precious treasures for us to look at and and I got to pore over this map dating from 1485. It's actualy a portulan: an early vellum sea chart. This is how a Portuguese navigator saw the world at that time (Ireland is massively overproportioned and the rest of Europe is somewhat stunted).

There's something wonderful about being up close to something that old. The most moving exhibit, however, was a thick nineteenth-century register listing all of the babies abandoned at one of the hospitals in Bordeaux. Each baby is described in detail and a little piece of the cloth from the clothes s/he was wearing accompanies the description. Because the register has remained closed for so many years, the colours of the clipped cloth are still bright. Among the hundreds of entries, I noticed a square of shiny green silk, some creamy wool, a coiled piece of gold thread and a length of pink ribbon. All heart rendingly singular.

I wonder what those mothers would have thought as they dressed their babies for the first / last time had they known that hundreds of years later, long after the babies themselves had grown up and died, other women would finger the remnants of those very clothes and wonder what had pushed them to leave their babies on the hospital doorstep.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

From Heffalump to Heroine

I promised you snippets and here's one from Andrew O'Hagan in the LRB. I know that Susan Boyle is sooooo last month already, but O'Hagan sums the phenomenon up quite nicely here. (Incidentally Susan Boyle is about the same age as me and she's also from Scotland but that's where the resemblance ends because although she will probably get a good makeover, I'll never ever be able to sing.)
YouTube can make stars out of nobody: it can make them cheap and can make them without permission. The morning after Boyle appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, three people sent me the link to her performance on YouTube. This was happening all over the world. Her success is not difficult to understand: we love to imagine that talent is hidden, and it lives among our deepest fantasies that the least prepossessing, the least styled, the most innocent among us may carry the power to amaze the world. That notion lies at the sentimental heart of showbusiness. Turning defeat to triumph, jeers to cheers, is a piece of schmaltz fans of transformation find irresistible, and most people with an interest in the wiles of human talent are connoisseurs of transformation. Susan Boyle’s journey from heffalump to heroine was instantaneous: it came not merely via her good singing voice, but via the audience’s strong sense of its unlikelihood. The powerful voice came like the uplifting last paragraph of an old-fashioned novel. If you surprise an audience by giving them something they really want they will love you for ever. They will also cry, which is why YouTube shows nearly a quarter of a million lachrymose messages under the footage of Boyle’s triumph.
Read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Words, words, words

I'm presenting a paper at a conference tomorrow. Here's what I'm going to say:

Any questions? No? Great. Let's just go straight to the cocktails then.


Being confined indoors most of the day, just the four of us, is reminding me of the days when my children were wee and most of our weekends ...