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.

Appropriate verse

In Hull on Friday for the funeral of my lovable though sometimes difficult aunt, who was keen on poetry, and particularly on the local product. Which set a recurring theme for the day, starting with one cousin’s reading at the crematorium,

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said …

and ending, after many hours of revisiting family history and several bottles of good red wine, with a spontaneous rousing chorus of

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Not that it was a morbid day. There were spring flowers everywhere and we basked in spring sunshine, and there was a new baby to admire. And a great deal that was very good to celebrate in the family history, too.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

I’m very glad I went. I don’t see my cousins often, but they are important to me, and it’s lovely to see the next generations of their families flourishing (so far nobody other than me has actually followed Larkin’s advice on the question of reproduction). The whole day formed a fitting send-off for a vivid, complicated and often wonderfully entertaining aunt. A hangover the next morning seemed a small price to pay.

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).

In memory of Muppet

The morning fanfare is the first thing that comes to mind. As I descended the stairs she would swirl around the corner from the sitting-room in a flurry of huge fluffy tail, calling out at the top of her voice, in unmistakeably cheerful tones, a very distinctive greeting: two syllables, rising in both volume and inflection. It sounded a lot like “Hel-LO?!”, and she used it only to mean that (she had different calls for other purposes). I always intended to record it.

My other special memory is of a typical evening at home, watching the television. We’d hear the cat-flap go, and a few moments later she’d appear. Usually she’d come to me first, step carefully and politely onto my lap, pause as if considering her options, and then proceed to her master’s. Where she would circle around through 360 degrees, always in the same direction, swirl her magnificent tail round after her, and settle herself tidily, and rather smugly, down. Sometimes it would have been necessary to displace his laptop or newspaper in order to achieve this. Once established she would stay for hours so long as she was undisturbed. Sometimes he would reach for a comb and groom her fur, which she submitted to with a reasonably good grace (occasionally whinging but never biting or scratching). If he was not around she made do with my lap instead, but it was clear from her demeanour that this was second best.

The name was my idea—I was thinking of one of those cute fluffy monsters from The Muppet Show—and of course I regretted it later. I first heard the word used in its modern sense by Ed Grundy (a streetwise young character) on The Archers just a couple of months after we’d named her. We considered changing it, but it had stuck, so she was stuck with it.

She quite liked other cats. Darcy, who doesn’t, was a disappointment to her as a companion. Muppet’s attempts to start a playful rough-and-tumble were usually misunderstood. The few occasions on which we found them sharing a bed or a sofa were so rare and delightful as to inspire an immediate dash for a camera, so the photographic record is distorted in this respect.

We chronicled some episodes from her life in our Christmas circular letters:


We acquired two new cats. Their names are Darcy and Muppet.
Muppet is Andrew’s cat. She is large and has a tail of great magnificence.
Darcy is Sarah’s cat. She looks like a fragile and elegant little creature, but in fact she is an ardent adventurer who goes out in all weathers.

Muppet contemplating a winter sunrise



What we did on our holidays

Mostly we sat on the sofa on the boat while it went along. Sometimes we sat up inside the porthole instead. This is particularly rewarding when moored in Ely, where lots of people walk past and they all stop and say “Ah”. (Why do people do that?)

We experimented with walking around the outside of the boat while it was going along, but there was a bit of a mix-up when we were trying to get past each other on the gunwhale and Muppet ended up in the river.

Fortunately she turns out to be a very good swimmer, but the master and mistress made a huge fuss about having to climb out onto the bank to pick her up. We don’t understand why, as it was only a thicket of nettles, thistles and rusty scrap iron. They are weaklings.

– Darcy & Muppet

We like to spend quite a lot of time upside-down because it is good for the brain

That year, Muppet also appeared on our Christmas card. She was very well insulated from the cold, and quite happy with snow.

Deep and crisp and even


The feline year

We continue in joint domination of the Water Street area, or at least this bit of it.
There was a serious challenge over the summer from two very uppity young intruders – one night they even invaded the bedroom that we allow the master and mistress to share with us – but they proved no match for our superior running-away-and-hiding skills and they eventually had to persuade their people to move house so as to save face.
– Muppet and Darcy


We were very pleased to see the Japanese guy again. Next time we’ll remember to ask for his name and address. He told us the photos of Muppet that he took at our 2004 Open Studio had been very popular at his own exhibition in Tokyo.


Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Many thanks to the friends who helped with posters etc (we were in Paris). No thanks at all to the man who phoned on the fifth day Muppet was gone, claimed he’d got her and demanded a thousand-pound ransom. Fortunately she came home the next morning. We still don’t know where she was.


“I must confess I lack my small friend’s dedication to the pursuit of voles. Problem is, I don’t really like raw vole. But they’ve been so plentiful this autumn that no cat could help catching the odd one. So I hand them on to her. Freaks her out! She’s such a suspicious little thing. I have to close both eyes tight and then, would you believe it, roll on my back and wave my paws in the air before she will actually believe that I mean it as a gift.”


We used a little photo story that had already appeared on Flickr.

Muppet has just died

Muppet was at the vet’s today (well, yesterday, I mean, since it’s now after midnight) for a very minor procedure—flushing out a blocked tear-duct, under sedation. I picked her up in the afternoon and she seemed just like her usual self all evening, only rather cross because she wanted to go out and we had been instructed to keep her in. Then, at about 11pm, Andrew went to get her (she was sitting in the hall) to give her an eye-drop. As he carried her over to the sofa she seemed to shudder, and then she just collapsed. We rushed her to the emergency vet’s in Milton, but she was dead on arrival.

The emergency vet was very kind and spent time with us talking it over. He explained that she died because she had lost a great deal of blood. He said it was most likely internal bleeding (must have been—there was no visible wound), though he couldn’t explain what had caused that. He said that nothing connected with the usual procedure to flush out a tear-duct could possibly account for this, and it was probably a coincidence that it happened on the same day. He said that a post-mortem would be the only way to find out, and of course there was no need for that to be treated as an emergency. So we brought her body home, and will see about that sort of thing in the morning.

She had a good life. She was nine years old (same age as Mercury was when he died), and she was always active and healthy apart from minor things. It is a shock for us, but perhaps not too bad an end for her. It was sudden—no lingering illness—and she died in the arms of her master, whom she adored.

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!