Sarah Woodall

My marginalia and some of the things that I do

just a doodle

‘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.

Déjà vu

These are notes for what might become an essay one day. It’s a big theme and I’m not sure I will ever write it up properly. The elements are:

  • Chapter 12 of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: ‘In oval mirrors we drive around’: on experiencing a sense of déjà vu;
  • My own experiences of revisiting, after an interval of three(?) years, the half-remembered city of Lecce (‘I went in there—I’m sure I did—and there’s something to see in there, something quite grand, I think …’);
  • A visual illusion—an infinite regression—caused by two not-quite-parallel mirrors (see photo), which in turn reminded me (déjà vu!) of …
  • The downstairs front room in my grandmother’s house, long ago: the ‘shop’, as it was still called, though it hadn’t really been one for years—where there was just such an arrangement of mirrors, endlessly delightful to small children, and presumably also, though in a quieter way, to the ladies of Abergavenny in former days as the fit of their tailored costumes was altered (Granma with a mouthful of pins, measuring, tugging, adjusting with a confident hand—as she still did for us as children, though I never saw her with her paying customers).

Why life speeds up

A couple of years ago I was walking past the CUP bookshop in town and I saw a title in the window: Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older. And I thought,‘Yes!’ And I bought it. But sadly I haven’t had time to read it yet.

I’d been meaning to say that for ages—it was one of the numerous things on my blogging backlog—but it only appears here today because I wanted to play with twitterfeed, and posting ‘This is a test’ after several weeks of silence seemed a bit pathetic. So I picked the easiest thing out of the backlog.

Ten implausible years

After dinner yesterday evening, in the final hours of the decade, the conversation turned to fiction that is based on counterfactual history (Fatherland and so on). Someone pointed out that this has an inherent limitation: it mustn’t surprise you too thoroughly, because of the need to keep the story plausible. Reality, on the other hand, is not constrained in the same way. And over the last ten years it has been taking full advantage of this freedom. As someone else said last night, since 9/11 we all seem to have been living in some kind of parallel universe.

My personal experience of the 21st century so far has been rather implausible, too. Most of what I was doing at the turn of the millennium could reasonably have been predicted at least 15 years before that, by extrapolation (not the details, of course, but the broad trends). The disruptive event in my life was the dotcom bubble, right at the start of the decade. I was just sitting there at my desk, minding my own business (or rather, my employer’s), when it picked me up, whirled me around, and then—pop!—deposited me, a bit shaken, in a delightful spot on the bank of the river. The consequences of this are still working themselves out. It was the start of a journey, and I don’t know yet where I’m going.

Sincerity, backlog and this and that

Just been enjoying the new Norah Jones album. When young I would have dismissed quite a bit of it (I think) as sentimental and therefore insincere. Same with those fantastic late works by Johnny Cash. It takes time before you realize that someone really could feel like that, and, if they did, that they would want to make art out of it.

This would have been a tweet, but it was too long.

I am backlogged on things to blog about (I have a list) and email to answer. And I have a pile of unopened letters. November.

Blogger’s spelling checker flags “blog” as an unrecognised word!

Garbage collecting

I’ve discovered something that might be important.

If you write a few words on a Post-it note and stick it to the windowsill next to your desk, the ink will eventually fade and it will become totally illegible. At this point the only sensible course of action will be to throw it away. But you will be unable to bring yourself to do so. Just in case its mute presence might still assist you in reconstructing the memory of whatever was once significant enough to have been written on it.

This is what happens when you don’t get round to things. I guess everybody else knew that already.

The last 36 years have just been a diversion

Contemplating, as one must at my age, the menopause (I shall be fifty this year, so it is something of a hot topic—pun intended), I happened upon a new angle from which to consider this transition: as the end of a temporary state, during which one’s true personality has been submerged. An article on the Guardian women’s page (where else?) quotes one Jane Polden, a psychotherapist: “She’s felt overwhelmed, controlled almost, by this hormonal surge … and now it’s draining away, and she can work out who she is, and who she wants to be.” The fertile years have been a distraction. It’s an attractive idea.

Generation gap

[OK, so now I’d better actually write some stuff.]

Recently we’ve established social contact with the son of one of my cousins, and his girlfriend. Nice young people. It’s been a curiously disturbing experience, though. Here are people who are a whole generation younger than us, but nevertheless adults. Weird. When you reach middle age you think (well, I thought) that life would run out of novel experiences to show you. But it doesn’t.

The personal and the public: 10 years on

Ten years ago we brought down the Government, and then we got married. It was a very happy time, all in all. Lots of things are conspiring just now to bring it all back, and to remind us how long it’s been.

There’s Tony Blair’s resignation, of course (I could write a long essay on all the emotions that produces. Maybe another time. I guess there are enough of those essays about at the moment – you don’t need me to add to them).

And this morning I got an email from a friend who did one of the readings at our wedding (a few lines about marriage taken from Four Quartets), asking for a pointer to the text so that he could read it again at someone else’s. So I dug the wedding script out again and spent a happy half-hour wallowing in nostalgia.

Andrew has just installed MediaWiki here so that we can have our own household wiki, for shopping lists and so on — mundane stuff, mostly. (Much cursing during the installation process, which seemed to require a complete OS upgrade on our fileserver. Why are these things always so hard?). So this morning I put the wedding script in as the first page. Seemed a good starting point.

Doesn’t time fly?