Sarah Woodall

My marginalia and some of the things that I do

just a doodle

She was a rare thing

Darcy reclining on her amplifier

She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away

I’ve been slow getting started on this, but it’s been a month, and I can’t put it off any more. It’s a hard one to write because I want to say it well enough.

This was Darcy—my Miss D. Of all the cats in my life, one of the two best beloved. Born July 2000. Killed by a dog on 15 July 2013 in the garden of the Green Dragon, well within her own territory.

She was a grand adventurer and a great climber. I’ll never forget the first time we saw her dancing along the ridge of the roof, and I’m glad I was never personally a witness to her trick of dodging outside the parapet of the footbridge and trotting over the river along the outer edge. She adored boating, too.

Despite her great spirit and her grand ideas, she was a delicate, fairylike little cat. But she was astonishingly robust. She never knew a day’s ill-health—well, she once had to be anaesthetized for the removal of a grass-seed she’d incautiously attempted to swallow, but apart from that it was, literally, never.

She hated to be shut in, and I always knew there were dangers out there. I tried to protect her as far as I could (that’s why it isn’t generally known that her real name was Brandywell Tenderberry, and that she was a chocolate-shaded silver Burmilla, descended from Grand Champions).

She knew there were dangers, too, and she was careful in her own way. She would meet us at the footbridge when we walked home from town, telling us off roundly with vociferous miaows for having strayed beyond what she deemed to be safe limits. She would permit us to pick her up and carry her home so long as there were no bicycles or cars around, but she preferred to trust her own judgement if there were.

Her attitude to the rest of the animal kingdom was basically hostile. She saw them all as either something to chase or something to run away from. She was deeply suspicious of dogs and certainly wouldn’t have courted her own disaster. But she was a free spirit. ‘Maybe that’s the price you pay for the chains that you refuse.’

She loved people, though—all people: friends, neighbours, strangers and even small children. She had a magnificent, luxurious purr, and she bestowed it lavishly on all her admirers. She spent most of the nights of her life on our bed, often sharing a pillow, sometimes curled up on top of one of us (on her last ever night, it was me) and sometimes more decorously arranged between our feet.

She was a joyously enthusiastic carnivore—red in tooth and claw—so I can’t truthfully claim that the manner of her death was unfitting, though it was horrible and upsetting (but mercifully quick). Her victims must have numbered in the hundreds, and she’d killed a mouse that very morning. But at least she usually ate them afterwards—and a cat can’t live without meat.

She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
I miss her more than ever words can say
If I could just taste all of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today…..
I wouldn’t want her any other way

(Lyrics by Richard Thompson, though it’s Christy Moore’s version that stays with me, and I’ve taken the words from his site. The rest of the song doesn’t fit what I wanted to say here, but that chorus came rushing into my head four weeks ago, as I stood by our sundial looking down at the fresh little grave, and it’s been there ever since.)

‘Girnham’ College

[I wrote this introduction for The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge, which was published by Girls Gone By in August 2012.]

‘Girnham’, despite its name, is not a hybrid of Girton and Newnham. The establishment that Josephine Elder describes so vividly in The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge is firmly rooted in the reality of just one college. All the details, from its location on the Huntingdon Road and its architectural eccentricities (the tower, for example) to its celebrated Fire Brigade, point only to Girton—the college that, under its own name, the schoolgirls Monica and Francesca have already visited in The Scholarship Girl.

To my surprise, reading the descriptions of college life in this book have brought memories of my own years at Girton in the late 1970s flooding back. Despite the huge differences in our worlds (my generation’s experience of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll would of course have been unimaginable to Monica and her friends; on the other hand, the Fire Brigade was disbanded in 1932, so our opportunities for extraordinary heroism were much more limited than theirs) an astonishing amount apparently did not change at all between her day and mine.

The social lives of the students as described in this book—the ebb and flow of friendships, the gatherings in one another’s rooms for work, for fun and for serious talk, and the expeditions by bicycle into town for lectures, for exams and for punting in May Week—were immediately familiar to me. Even the antics of the hockey team in Chapter X ring absolutely true (in my day the Boat Club were the usual suspects, but the behaviour was strikingly similar), though I was amused to read that in the 1920s they seem to have been fuelled by nothing stronger than cocoa. And the unconcerned and rather dismissive attitude (p100) of some students to the funny old ladies (as they appeared to them) who had played such an honourable part in breaking down the barriers and paving the way for their own, much easier, path towards educated adulthood is exactly what I remember. Some things will always be true of a group of intelligent not-quite-grown-up girls, and it’s a measure of Josephine Elder’s skill that they are so recognisable to one who was a student two generations later.

I wasn’t anything like Monica. In fact, I can see more of my young self in the awkward outsider, Hester Williams, than in any of the confident, clubbable public schoolgirls. I met many just like them, though. Clearly Hester is of a type that was not Josephine Elder’s cup of tea, but I was delighted, in reading to the end of the book, to see how fair-minded the author is. Every character is shown to contain something of value, and all are improved and enriched by the influence of ‘Girnham’. That was my experience, too.

WordPress comment spam

In the past few days I’ve been inundated with comment spam. I suppose the spammers respond when an inactive blogger starts posting again. So I changed my WordPress settings to close comments automatically on postings older than 28 days (most of the spams were comments on old postings, not the recent ones). Sadly that seems to have stopped it displaying the old, approved comments as well! They are still there in the database but they don’t display unless I re-open the posts for comments. I guess this is going to require some hacking of my theme, and I haven’t time, so it will languish on the to-do list for now.

I’m back

I blog only from a position of stability. I do admire those who can document their transitions in real time, but uncertainty leaves me tongue tied. So I’ve been a bit quiet of late.

And this week a new chapter opens. I have an employer again! It’s only part time (I hasten to add in case any of my publishing clients are reading this). Details are on my software engineering CV page.

The job seems to be a very good fit. I know the people—I worked with them before, back when we were all at ARM—and I like them; I can see why they need me, and how I can make a worthwhile contribution to what they are doing; and it looks as though it is going to be fun. I think I’ve made the right move.

The site is the blog; the blog is the site

This website had fallen into disrepair. All the action (such as there was) was going on elsewhere.

This week I have taken a deep breath, installed WordPress, learned how to customize it (it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d expected), imported everything from my old blog, and created new (back-dated) pages and postings as homes for all the odd pages and other bits of material I had elsewhere.

It will take a bit of getting used to, but I think I like this. It seems more in tune with reality. Everything you write is out of date as soon as it’s published. So why not admit it? Put a date on it, and let it recede into the past. The perfect definitive ‘finished’ site is never going to happen.

Splendid day

Had a lovely ride through woods & bridleways near Chichester, thoroughly enjoyed despite (or even because of?) pony taking off with me across a ploughed field. Updated Facebook while waiting for train at very rural station, watching lovely effects of sun & wind. Couldn’t be better, really :-)

Andrew met me at Victoria; to the East End to see the Cable Street mural (imagine a Stanley Spencer Cookham painting, but set in London and featuring politics rather than religion); early Karahi at Mirch Masala in the Commercial Road (light and fantastic); brisk trundle through the city, admiring the Gherkin, the Shard and St Botolph-without-Aldgate, to the Barbican; and then the best bit: Nigel Kennedy doing his brand new Four Elements/Four Seasons rewrite – warm, rich, jovial and quite mesmerising. And then we managed to catch the 23:15 from King’s Cross! Not good for much today beyond dozing on the sofa, mind.

Reasons to be cheerful in midwinter

  • Oranges are in season.
  • I am reunited with certain favourite winter clothes.
  • Underwear won’t show, so it doesn’t need to be chosen with any care.
  • Cats choose to spend more time indoors.
  • I wake with Andrew (not hours earlier).
  • If the garden is tidied, it stays tidy—weeds don’t grow back.

There must be more.

Electoral reform – can we do something in Cambridge?

This is the moment electoral reformers have been waiting for—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I feel inclined to do something active. I’d have been in London yesterday outside the Lib Dem meeting, shouting, if I hadn’t had a work commitment. I know that a lot of people here in Cambridge feel as I do on the electoral reform question. Can we get ourselves together and do something locally, in the way of a public meeting, rally or demonstration?

I think it is important to remind the Lib Dems that a lot of their support came from anti-Tory tactical voters who will be outraged if they sacrifice this chance in order to make a deal. The long-term health of the country will be best served by their insisting on a referendum now.

For a statement of the main arguments for PR as I see them, see a piece I wrote some time ago in a quieter moment.