Bubble problems

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Entirely predictably, I’ve let this slip a bit since getting back to Cambridge. The world of the university, in a rather hackneyed turn of phrase, often referred to as a bubble. This is a pretty accurate description though, at least for me. It’s as if entering the boundaries of the university puts the rest of the world on hold, or at least more difficult to access mentally. Between you and any ‘outside’ concern or desire,  there’s always an essay, a translation, or the threat of one. Either that, or some piece of bureaucracy (invariably involving emails, and lots of them). And the weird thing is that simply getting out of the city, piercing that wall, puts you in more direct contact. In less pretentious terms, it helps you realise that Cambridge is not the centre of the universe.

Right, clichéd rant over. So what’s been occupying my thoughts, through the barrier? I’m still reading Howards End, and still loving it. But mostly I’ve been thinking about walking and folk songs. There is a thin trace of connection between the two. The first I am dying to do some more of in the next holiday – it’s like the opposite of the impression of Cambridge I gave above. Walking in the Lake District, which is what I hope to do at the end of March, is pure openness and freedom. You can wander off the paths, peer over edges, encounter a stranded sheep or two, swim in a lake if you want. There’s nothing between you and your thoughts, just as there’s nothing between you and the sky (this sounds overly poetic and Forsterian – I definitely assimilate the style of whatever I happen currently to be reading). And the English Lakes are, well, so English, a part of the national imagination thanks to poems, paintings etc. They appeal to the same part of me as the things I talked about in the last post. Again, an encounter between the personal (the cold in your fingers, the wind in your face, the water seeping into your boots) and the immense exterior (the imposing mountains, the imposing names: Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Scafell).

There was an idea I found in Sartre’s What is literature? which really struck me (this study business does have its uses). Sartre writes that the poet considers words as things, that for him or her language is a ‘structure of the exterior world’. This is a different instance of the feeling I was getting at just above: it’s treating all words the way we treat those strange names of hills. Marvelling at the sound of them, not understanding the effect they have on us. That (tenuous link alert) is  partly why I’ve been enjoying folk songs so much lately – the primacy of the language, the sense of national tradition. Two current favourites:


I will declare a vested interest in the choice – I am ever so slightly in love with Laura Marling.



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