Well loved tales

I pride myself in being open to new technologies (with the usual caveat, for my age and gender). I use my smartphone to organise my travel, pay bills, and track my exercise. My kindle app contains a well stocked library, ranging from academic articles, cookery books, to cheesy midlife romances. I am active on all the usual suspects in social media, and I think they can be extraordinary tools for sharing ideas, in the same way that coffee houses were in the 18th century.

But there are some types of reading where paper surely has the edge, and one of these is reading to a child, because it allows you to relive some of your own early reading pleasures (and naturally, the more dog-eared and coffee stained the book, the higher the affective value). Recently with my grandson I have been rereading the same children’s stories I read to his father and uncle.  Yesterday I dug out an Alfie book by Shirley Hughes, and my 31 year old son immediately sought out his favourite illustration from it.


No doubt when the time comes we will read Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’ and I will almost certainly cry at the page when he receives the last letter from his mother. This has become a family tradition.

But what has really excited me recently is coming across in various second hand book shops the slim hard backed Ladybird readers of the 1960s. The other day I heard a mother reading the Magic Porridge Pot to her child in the doctors surgery and I was struck by the beauty of the illustrations and storytelling of those early readers. The real classics are written by Vera Southgate and now I am on a mission to build up a collection. How can the cartoonish illustrations of today compare with this evocative frontispiece of Rapunzel and the prince’s beautifully peaked hat?



Forward the pumpkin, flying flying ūüé∂‚ÄĚ9

The writer Laurie Lee described birth as an ordinary miracle, and the same could be said of language acquisition. Everyone learns to to communicate verbally at some point, but it is still fascinating to observe toddlers take small incremental steps from first words to full sentences.

My small grandson is acquiring two languages in a naturalistic way, German at home with Mama and with Oma when she visits, and English from Papa and the community he lives in. And because languages and linguistics are my stock in trade, I am enjoying analysing this development of his speech. For example, I remember his early attempts to make a negative sentence by putting the word ‘not’ the end of the phrase as in “that way not”or “Nana’s arm not”. There was a definite logic to this strategy and although it wasn’t standard grammar his meaning was usually very clear.

Then came the (for me) the very enjoyable phase when he would notice evaluative phrases and reproduce them immediately. So, when I complimented him on his accurate positioning of a sticker in his workbook, “That’s perfect!” He would congratulate himself with the same phrase on his next attempt. My linguist friends would approve of his sensitivity to interpersonal meaning.

I am also delighted by his ability to pronounce difficult sounds in both languages. His gutteral ‘ ach’ ‘ would warm his Opa’s heart and the title of this post refers to an English nursery song our boy sang for his Oma in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to reproduce the difficult consonant cluster ‘pumpkin’ so well, although I later found that he was actually singing. “Four little pumpkins” – a case of misheard lyrics.

My grandmotherly pride knew no bounds, however, when he saw snow falling for the first time and exclaimed ” Das klebt auf dem Dach! “! (It’s sticking to the roof) because that was a real sign of his developing language. The linguist Bernard Spolsky believed underlying linguistic competence to be demonstrated through creativity, or the ability to produce new sentences. This first sighting of snow prompted a small boy to do just that.

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The Museum of Broken Relationships


This museum got some media attention a few years ago, and the online site is still a mournful  hub of sorry tales and philosophical musings.

In it we find  a virtual depository of images posted as emblems of love stories which have gone wrong or, by mutual agreement, just petered out. These artefacts range from a wedding dress in a jar, to a bottle opener. What is striking about the posts is the universal nature of romantic disappointment, and how the contributors attempt to extract some kind of meaning from the experience.  What you might call regret management.

This theme was explored movingly ing a conversation between father and son in the film Call me by your name, a hot Oscar nomination this year (and only to be missed by emotional cowards).

As the journalist Terence Blacker wrote eloquently:

‘Some good things do not last. Their short, intense lifespan might be a matter of days, or even a night. They may end up broken, but they are only failures in the eyes of dreary puritans. Often they were, while they lasted, small triumphs of romantic life’


The Grand Perhaps!*


The notion of uncertainty fascinates me. Being uncertain is often seen to be a bad thing, and expressing it in writing and speaking is sometimes criticised as being wishy-washy.  These days it  seems that  unmitigated statements are preferred for their directness and clarity. Personally, I am more comfortable in ‘the space between yes and no’ as one writer called it,  which I think can be more precise and more polite. I am full of admiration when politicians or scientists will admit to being uncertain about something. One example was  surgeon David Nott interviewed on the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs about his work on the front line. He recounted one episode where he had operated on an IS fighter and saved his life. Pressed by the journalist, Nott refused to concede that person would have certainly continued to kill innocent people,  His reply was “I don’t know that, and you don’t know that”.

In Applied Linguistics,  the ability to hedge, or convey appropriate tentativeness, is seen an important interpersonal skill for building relationships in business, or expressing modesty in academia. In the last few years  a trending hedge in these settings is ‘My understanding is that....’. The polemicist Christopher Hitchins used ‘Arguably’ to name one of his collections of essays,  and my favourite Roger McGough volume of poetry is entitled ‘As far as I know’.

Hedges, like love, are all around us. They often crop up in song lyrics, such as  ‘It ain’t necessarily so”, or my favourite song from the shows “If I loved you”. And rather than being wishy washy, uncertainty was used very effectively to torment and tantalize in this old number. Because uncertainty also means possibility.

  • The Grand Perhaps!: from Browning’s Poem “Bishop Blougram’s apology” in which the Bishop challenges the narrator to admit the possibility of a God.

The Mystery Scrabbler

When I started my new job I was struck¬†by the small touches in how staff are looked after: newspapers in the coffee bar, Bandaid dispenser near the coffee machine on every floor, ¬†and thoughtful hand cream in the loos. There are even showers and hairdryers for the¬†cyclists – Cambridge as a cycling city resembles¬†the Tour de France rather than an Italian provincial town. ¬†Then in our large, open-plan office there’s a¬†desk known as The Usual Place where people leave edibles for everyone to enjoy . This week we’ve had Iranian pastries,¬†¬†Russian and Brazilian chocolate , and more prosaically, welsh cakes from¬†yours truly. All of these feelgood enhancers soothed me through my first few weeks, but what has especially delighted me is the Secret Scrabbler.

Near the coffee machine cubicle that we share with Research and Validation is a whiteboard on which every day nine letters appear. ¬† As you wait the 6 seconds for your¬†coffee you can create words and list them¬†in a friendly competition. At the end of the day the longest word and¬†the one with biggest total are recorded¬†¬†as the ‘winners’. I¬†take issue a bit with this very quantitative way of evaluating the goodness of words, but it seems to be the way Scrabble is played these days. I am trying to persuade my colleagues that we should have a third category for unusual or quirky words; some of my favourites recently have been ‘gawp’ ‘fondler’ and ‘glisten’.


What I loved about this ritual is how the letters magically appeared.  I knew there must be a  person who discreetly took the trouble to renew the board every day ,and stereotypically imagined a lady with a bun looking after our lexical health. Then I found out it was my buddy Lynn with modern swingy hair. Yesterday she let me do the letters which was quietly thrilling.




Psychologists categorise life transitions into planned and unplanned, and I thought I was a specialist in handling them, even seeking them out. ¬†Now I’m ¬†in the middle (no, at the beginning) of one of those universal transitions, unplanned by me, but planned by life for us all: the death of your last surviving parent.

My mother was 92 (she would round it up to nearly 93) and so had a good innings, though she was fully intending to go on a bit longer (“they say these days that if you’re looked after well , you can live til you’re a hundred” ” I have to have fish every week as it’s keeping ¬†me well “). But despite her best efforts, and regular fish dinners consumed with gusto, it was not to be.

Yesterday’s journey from Cambridge was reminiscent of another sad journey 38 years ago when my father died suddenly, shockingly young, at the age I am now. I got the same feeling of heightened awareness – produced by the adrenalin helping you make the necessary ¬†work and travel arrangements (flinching at the walk on price of the train ticket) and the long journey ¬†to the town you grew up in. These events unearth all sorts of memories. My mother had been what was euphemistically termed “fiercely independent”‘all her life and maintained this characteristic until the end, calling my sister and me up sharp until well into our sixties.

I arrive at the care home where my sister is waiting for me just as she waited at the station 38 years ago. It touches me how sensitive the care workers and undertakers are in what is for them an almost everyday event.

Sandra and I go to Blanco’s to have a fish dinner in her honour. It has been ¬†a long day travelling. On the way home we stop at Hopkins’, open until 11 thanks to two friendly immigrants. We curse Donald Trump as we buy milk, tea, Cadburys Dairy Milk and a small bottle of Teachers whisky: our bereavement kit.


Airline talk

The trouble with linguists is that they get nerdy about the most apparently mundane texts. Academic articles have been churned out analysing ¬†the features of blues lyrics, obituaries, press briefings, and service encounters. This is not as pointless as it sounds. Linguistic choices can tell us about cultural values, how language is used to persuade, conceal and much more. This can also help us understand what to teach and assess. In an increasingly mobile world , for example, what do train ticket inspectors need to be able to do in a language and how do we assess that? I recently described my German level as ‘German for mothers-in-law’ and having had two of those, ¬†I regard myself as a bit of an expert. ¬†I’ll leave you to flesh out what that might be these days, but for my generation it involved a lot of Eintopf recipes¬†, diplomatic talk and childrearing ¬†vocabulary.


One particular fascination of mine is the English used  in the aviation industry. There is pilot talk, which has clear implications for safety and has in recent years become a focus of interest for both teachers and assessors. Then we have English for cabin crews who need it for much more than serving drinks. Nowadays their linguistic repertoire needs to include polite handling of uncooperative passengers and warring spouses, as well as a bit of hard sell of scratch cards and the like. Once I was taken aback to see a steward giving a pre-touchdown speech inviting passengers to consider her fair city (Las Vegas) for relocation as teachers and doctors were needed.

My favourite airline language is that of safety instructions. ¬†I once read a Time article which said that people have a better chance of surviving a disaster if they have mapped emergency procedures on their brain before the event. Ever since, I have become one of those¬†passengers who crane their head to get a better look at how to inflate their life jacket in the unlikely event of landing on water, and possibly the only one who looks around to check the nearest exit ‘which may be behind you’ And on landing I wouldn’t even dream of unbuckling my seatbelt until the crew had completed the safety-related procedures.



Mimmo and Pino


Bars aren’t what they used to be in Italy. The simple salami roll of the sixties and seventies has now been ousted by all sorts of truffled concoctions, and you can take your cappuccino with soya milk or ginseng if you like. These days counters are marbled, and the iconic Bar signs of the black and white films have been replaced by gleaming fa√ßades. If you have a nostalgic gene, you can still find an old price list with plug in tile letters in some of the old trattorias.  One example is Aldina near the covered market in Modena, whose decor and menu have remained gloriously unreconstructed for 30 years.


However, the best panino in Modena is to be had not in a bar, but from my greengrocers di fiducia in Corso Vittorio Emanuele as you walk into town from the station.  Mimmo and Franco have been meeting the grocery needs of the older population in this area for years, and Mimmo’s cherry tomatoes and oranges are truly speciali. Once I asked him for some good olive oil, and he searched behind  his bottles on the shelf until he found something that his quietly triumphant smile suggested he had been saving for me alone.


Recently Mimmo and Pino have been building up a steady trade in panini, and you can order your filling according to what fresh produce is available that day. If you’re not too much of a control freak, you can let Pino create you a bespoke sandwich, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. My personal favourite has chunks  of chicken, slices of  aubergine and a little olio piccante. Pino’s quiet concentration as he assesses your mood and produces a small gastronomic triumph is not to be missed.

But if you want to, skip the fancy stuff and just get a serious salami sandwich. Perch√© quando ci vuole ci vuole



La Nonna ha il suo perch√® (or thank God for Granny)

Italy has changed a lot since my first trip backpacking with friends one hot July in the 70s, fresh from A levels. We arrived sleep-deprived in a Transalpino at Milano Centrale, and I can still remember the sensorial hit ‚Äď a mixture of poetic train announcements, the smell of coffee, and the arms stretched through train windows to pay vendors for salami rolls. Back then the country was still innocent of the culture of consumption that was sweeping across the Atlantic, and four impoverished teenagers could get by on simple pleasures. Our budget covered lunch in a bar: a Toast of ham and cheese, a glass of water, and a 50 lira gettone for the juke box. Et tu by Claudio Baglione was the summer hit ‚Äď a triumph of plaintive yearning that reached out and grabbed our 18 year old hearts.


Nowadays Italy has inevitably embraced the culture of TV dinners and hyper-choice. I recently came back after three years to find that supermarkets now do a roaring trade in cartons of readymade broth. 15 years ago every self-respecting Italian mother would make her own brodo di carne, and I learned how a piece of chicken (tip-always a wing for flavour), beef, and bone could be simmered to produce an exquisite broth for tortellini. These days some people pay extortionate amounts for 6 tortellini arranged on a plate in a fancy restaurant, but fortunately here in the heartland of Emilia, some grannies still have time to make their own tortellini and broth for a traditional Sunday lunch. As I overheard a shopkeeper say recently,¬†‚Äú la Nonna ha il suo perch√®”





Polentone (polenta head) is an affectionately derogatory term used by people in the south of Italy to describe north Italians. In a country known for its culture of slow eating it is not surprising that a food term should be used to distinguish people from different regions. I live in the north and am a proud Polentone. There is nothing more comforting than a dish of this creamy yellow sustenance on a damp foggy autumn day. Of course, it belongs  to the tradition of Cucina Povera, as all the best dishes do.

The other day I was shopping in my corner shop for an easy supper and I saw a variation of polenta that I had forgotten about: Calzagatti.  These are made of cooked polenta mixed with bacon and beans to form a thick dough, which is then cut into chunks, and fried. Surprised by joy (as Wordsworth would say), I bought some, along with a piece of deep orange baked pumpkin. That evening, with a glass of Lambrusco, I dined like a diva.