Hi all. I've been on holiday in Ireland for the first time in two years, where the shelves are groaning with food and coronavirus appears not to have led to a collective nervous breakdown unlike certain countries I could mention. It was great: several swims in the Atlantic, a bit of walking, fine restaurants, a homecoming parade for the local Olympic rowers and a lot of good reading. I started with Ariosto's absolutely bonkers 1516/32 Italian epic Orlando Furioso, a poem that mixes obsequiousness, total contempt for the peasantry, sexy times, history (particularly the wars between the French and the Spanish Moors), Arthurian legend, ultra-violence, religion, romance, a trip to the moon on a hippogriff with St John the Evangelist to collect a lump of brains, and shaggy dog stories, all tied together by a hugely endearing narrator who can never resist a fork in the narrative road.
Funnily enough, I then read Jo Walton's Lent which was also set in Renaissance Italy - the central protagonist is Savonarola. She specialises in fantasy novels that engage with Classical and late medieval/ earlyRenaissance philosophy, especially neo-Platonism, and Lent manages to explore these themes, demonstrate her incredible historical knowledge while also working brilliantly as fantasy - similar in some structural ways to Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself, Christopher Brookmyre's Pandaemonium and Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game. It's the first work I've read that humanises Savonarole, which is ironic given the plot reveal. That said, the only other novel about him I've read is George Eliot's Romola in which Savonarola is a forbidding but ultimately altruistic and inspirational figure for the eponymous heroine. Highly recommended, by the way - if you only stop at Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss you're missing some of Eliot's best work.
After that I read the final volume of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Despite having absolutely zero interest in the Tudors, her grasp of psychology, power, the slow creep of corruption, group dynamics and politics in an essentially lawless and permanently unstable polity, just as hereditary officers were jockeying with talented commoners for position was absolutely gripping - it deserves all the plaudits it received. After all that time in the 15th-16th centuries, I cleansed my palate with Josephine Tey's clever 1934 murder mystery The Man in the Queue (recommended on Twitter by Aberystwyth University's @Tasha_Alden), before heading back to Italy for Sally Vickers' more contemporary Miss Garnet's Angel. I'm still reading it and am enjoying the quality of the writing while rather resenting the implication that socialist teachers are dried up old sticks requiring a Forsterian revelation in Venice to show them the error of their ways and give them feelings…But then she is a Liverpudlian 'red diaper baby' (as the Americans put it) like Alexei Sayle, who is rather less repentant about his communist heritage.
The holiday was wonderful and much-needed. Now I'm back for a very different kind of year. Plenty of teaching this semester, lots of it in-person for the first time in ages, and no new modules for the first time in at least a decade, so less hurried cobbling, more mature reflection (in theory). After 8 years I've given up my course leadership to the mutual relief of myself and my colleagues. The role was unpaid, and involved responsibility for programme management but not (thankfully) line management, and managed to be both essential and unrewarding, onerous and yet unchallenging on any level. I'll miss being the students' first port of call, but not stream of unexamined initiatives from the army of non-teaching 'experts' who've colonised universities.
The idea is to fill my time with research and writing rather than forms, but we'll see. I have an AHRC project to be getting on with, a PhD dissertation to turn into a book, my book on politicians' novels to write, a PhD to examine and much much else! But at least I'll never have to think of the phrase Continuous Monitoring Touchpoint 4 again.
Here are a few of my favourite photos from the break: the rest are here.