Thursday, April 04, 2024

Troutworthy's Travel Blog: Up and round

I leave Helsinki on the evening of the second, boarding a train that is bound for Kolari, in the far north. Kolari itself is the northernmost tip of the Finnish passenger rail network, but I'm not going that far: Tornio, on the estuary of the river Torne – the river that defines the Swedish-Finnish border for hundreds of kilometers – is my destination. Still, it's the furthest north I've ever been in my life, narrowly beating out Akureyri, in Iceland.

The Finnish night trains are well equipped. Like other countries of the former Russian Empire, Finland's railways are built to five-foot gauge, which allows these trains to be enormous beasts of burden. I'm in a two-bunk compartment on the lower level, effectively meaning that four people can sleep stacked vertically. The trains are new and very clean, with card-locked compartment doors. I don't sleep very well, perhaps because it's odd to be travelling so far north when I'll be turning round and heading south again the next day.

Tornio doesn't have much of a station – just a platform with a couple of signs on it. When I arrive, the sun is shining, but it's icicles-in-the-beard temperature. In principle, a branch to the southwest means that trains can travel between Tornio and its adjacent Swedish twin city, Haparanda, on the other side of the Torne, albeit with a break of gauge. In practice, no passenger trains currently make the trip, and so it's a trek of a little under five kilometers to Haparanda station.

The frozen river Torne.

This part of Tornio is pretty industrial, and the black ice on roads and pavements is treacherous, but I manage to find my way through via a surprisingly nice little bakery and café. A long bridge connects Tornio island – where the heart of the town is – with the industrial side, but it's not even necessary: the river is completely frozen over, and that doesn't look likely to change any time soon. With the morning sun reflecting off the white expanse of the Torne, it's dazzling.

A smaller bridge crosses the channel from Tornio island to Haparanda. It's blue and white on one side, and blue and yellow on the other. I'm back in Sweden. Some slipping and sliding later and I'm at Haparanda station.

Haparanda station from the platform.

This enormous building is rather ghostly. It is open and (mercifully) heated, but there's no one around. The ghostliness is accentuated by artistically-placed piles of early-twentieth-century luggage. Apparently the border here saw many refugees pass through during the wars. The station was recently and grandiosely renovated using EU money, but doesn't seem to see much use: there's a space for a café, but no café (alas). It's de facto the end of the line, and there are only two trains a day. I check my watch: the next one isn't for four hours. I remember that I've entered a new time zone, change the time on my watch, and check it again. Five hours.

Spectral luggage.

“One-horse town” would be an overstatement for Haparanda. (The Western allusion is appropriate, though: the whole area feels very frontier, the Wild North.) I head into town and find a simple restaurant offering a nice buffet with fresh catch. Although it's modern, the vaulted ceiling and long lines of tables put me in mind of a mead-hall of legend. Perhaps I've been reading too much Kalevala.

In the end, the train is replaced by a bus, a fact about which no one seems very surprised. Two hours later and I'm in the northern Swedish railway-junction town of Boden, for which “one-horse town” is a thoroughly appropriate descriptor. Along comes the corrugated-metal night train and I hop on, finding it hard to believe I'll wake up in Stockholm. Compared to the Finnish sleeper, this one is somewhat dated, but I'm in an ensuite, and it's beautifully spacious. (Probably because they put me in a wheelchair-friendly compartment, with alarm buttons everywhere.) 

Swedish sleeper compartment.

After this chilly, adventurous day I sleep the sleep of the righteous in the comfy train, and in the morning I change onto the fast train to Copenhagen, from where I will continue south. None of this was actually part of the plan! But improvisation is fun, when you can afford it.

Here's the outline of the trip so far. This'll probably be my last post from this holiday, since I'll be working on the train tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Troutworthy's Travel Blog: Helsinki

March, and the Easter weekend in particular, isn't the best time to visit Helsinki. Lots of things are under (re)construction – the Sibelius park, the Havis Amanda statue – and other things, like the Seurasaari open air museum, are closed. The occasion for my visit was a gig by Mew, one of the best bands in the world, performing with the Danish Chamber Orchestra, but this too is a bust: they cancelled at short notice. Still, the day I arrive in Helsinki, the sun is shining.

Suomenlinna fortress in the sun.

Devoid of any grand plan, but with a few tips from friends to work with, I roam. The Temppeliaukio church, carved into the rock, is a sublime piece of modern architecture. Nearby, the Arkadia bookshop is well-and-truly lose-yourself-in-able.

Temppeliaukio Church.

Karelian rice pies are not in short supply.

Karelian pies in a hipster café.

Snow still gathers in clumps in the shade here, unlike in Stockholm, and much of the bay is frozen over. With the Sibelius park denied to me, I get a cinnamon bun and coffee at Café Regatta and gawk out over the ice. Later, wandering round town, hopping on and off ancient trams, I do some more gawking at the fine Art Nouveau buildings that seem to be on every corner. The Oodi central library is a bit of a monstrosity from the outside, but on the inside is a fine civic building, a library for the twenty-first century. At the Kiasma contemporary art gallery just round the corner, I'm surprised to see that one of the artists who's being exhibited is Simon Fujiwara, who's featured on this blog before.

On my second and third days in Helsinki, the weather turns cold and grey, and on the afternoon of the fourth it starts to rain quite heavily. This is fine; I'd probably have felt short-changed if I'd visited a Baltic city and there hadn't been at least one day like this. But four days is not enough for Helsinki, and I hope to come back here one day.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Troutworthy's Travel Blog: The Party Boat

The party boat.

Stockholm was in many ways as I remembered it – though, as I realized with a shock, it's been nearly twelve years since my previous visit, and even that was for a conference with little time for sightseeing. This time I found myself at the Hagaparken to the north of the centre. Most of the winter ice is gone, though a cold wind still blows. We stopped for coffee at a mysterious copper tent.

The next day, after some more wandering, we visited the Vasa museum. Not the titular “party boat” of this post, it's a seventeenth-century ship which immediately capsized in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage and was preserved in the city's historically-minded Baltic waters. The museum too was as I'd remembered it from my first visit, perhaps unsurprisingly. It's huge, dark and austere and a handy reminder of human hubris and folly. The academics and conservationists now labouring to preserve it seem almost monomaniacal: the constant visits from humans, we are told, take their inevitable toll on the ship's integrity, but they are working to make sure it lasts forever. Perhaps, when the apocalypse has passed and a future race of extraterrestrials stumbles upon the shattered remnants of our sorry planet, the preserved Vasa will still be there to teach its lesson to these new visitors. “Look on my Works, ye Aliens, and despair!” Or perhaps, more likely, it'll be a second-order failure.

The Vasa.

In the afternoon, we boarded the ship to Helsinki.

I must confess to having had the wrong expectations of this journey. For me it was a fairly sober and straightforward way of getting from A to B, and, from my knowledge of the inhabitants of the area, I expected the voyage to be dull, more than anything else. Turns out I didn't know the inhabitants of the area as well as I thought.

My associate sagely described the experience as a cross between Dubai duty free and a Barnsley Travelodge, and it's an apt comparison. Outwardly all is calm, at least for a while: for the first four hours, as the sun slowly sets, the Silja Serenade traverses the Stockholm archipelago, hitching up its skirts to navigate the narrow channels. It's tranquil and beautiful.

Dancing with another passing titan.

Inside, Ragnarok is here. In the time we've been out on deck, the Swedes and Finns have wasted no time, and have already put several away. Children spin each other around on rotating seats as their parents swill lager. On the stage of the Starlight Lounge, a cover “band” mimes along to various 80s classics; when Abba comes on, everyone goes apeshit. And down at the sixth circle of hell – sorry, deck – our Nordic heroes are fortifying themselves with as many twelve-packs and two-litre bottles of whiskey as they can carry. One can see why the Man in Seat 61 describes these voyages as having “a reputation as party boats”.

Bright lights, big boat.

At around midnight we're due to dock at Mariehamn, in the Åland islands. The ship slows down and stops, but the party doesn't. From here it's nearly ten hours across the open sea until we reach our destination, so I retreat to my cabin. The less said about the rest of the journey, the better; suffice it to say that I'm not much more of a fan of boats than I am of flying, and even with the partygoers well out of earshot there's plenty to occupy my mind.

We shuffle off the boat punctually in the morning. On the bright Helsinki harbourside, a group of youths with nothing in the way of luggage lurch endearingly along, likely readying themselves to do the whole thing again in reverse in the afternoon. All power to them.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Troutworthy's Travel Blog: Heading north for Easter

The sleeper train from Hamburg to Stockholm has only been running since 2022 – part of the new wave of sleepers that have been popping up around Europe since the dark days of the mid-2010s. The nadir was 2014–16, when Germany's Deutsche Bahn got out of the sleeper business entirely. But, aided by a heavy dose of shame, they're making a comeback, especially in Scandinavia.

And so I'm on one, and will be in Stockholm within the hour. That's about 1300km north from Konstanz, which isn't bad for just over 24 hours, the first four of which were spent trundling across the Schwäbische Alb. It hasn't all been plain sailing: the ICE to Hamburg ended up 45 minutes late, and the sleeper set off from Hamburg-Harburg rather than the city centre due to engineering works. At this point the sleeper is over an hour delayed, though in my experience that's not at all out of the ordinary for night trains (unfortunately).

Photo of birch forest out of train window
A representative vista in southern Sweden

The sleeper compartments are narrow, but the beds surprisingly comfortable. The train seems to be completely booked up; my compartment-mate tells me that there's far more demand than supply. Breakfast is a fresh bread roll with some butter, cream cheese and jam; the coffee is less shit than I'm used to on trains. Now that I've woken up, southern Sweden rolls by unremarkably, mostly birch or pine forests on level ground punctuated by serene patches of water. The sun is shining.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Konstanz Working Cafés #14: Backhaus Mahl

A new contender, in the brand new building off Sternenplatz. I don’t normally include bakeries in this series, but this one is unusual, as you’ll see!

Fake plants
Fake plants


  • Location. Right next to Sternenplatz bus stop, just outside the city centre. Easy to reach by foot or by bus.
  • Wifi and power sockets, the latter at pretty much every table. Amazing!
  • Food. Nothing fancy, but alongside the usual bakery fare of filled rolls and cake there are some very nice hearty brunch-style options, including omelettes and salads.
  • Spacious. There’s a deceptively large seating area at the back.
  • Open every day. Even Sundays!
  • Cheap and cheerful. Omelette and coffee for €8.05.
  • Ambience. Clean and bright, but unlovely, I’d say.
  • Kids. It's right opposite a secondary school, and at certain times of day it is full of teenagers.
Coffee here is decent, though nothing to write home about.

Price of a regular black coffee: €2.90 for a generous “normal”, with a small option for €2.

Overall rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️ (5/5). I’ll be back!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Books read 2023

36 books read this year – which works out at three a month, though they were in fact very unevenly distributed through the year.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness

A beautiful, down-to-earth and unpretentious story about the consequences of a chance meeting. I’m uneasy about the antipsychiatry-adjacent message towards the end, but it’s a charming and thought-provoking book.

Misha Glenny, The Balkans, 1804-2012: nationalism, war and the great powers

A veteran journalist’s take on the most politically complex area of Europe. It’s both a big, dense book and at times one that cuts corners, taking a few things for granted. I probably need to read around and then return to this one. Glenny’s take seems very balanced to me; his harshest criticism is reserved for the “great power” interventions, none of which have ever ended well, even up to the present day.

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the basics

I’ve always thought of semiotics as standing in the same relation to linguistics as astrology does to astronomy, but never knew enough about it to be sure, because most texts I tried to read on the subject descended quickly into obscurantism. Chandler’s text is a welcome exception. As I now understand it, semiotics is the project of Ferdinand de Saussure exegesis (but only the Cours – texts actually written by Saussure should be studiously ignored). And Charles Saunders Peirce exegesis, to be fair, though Peirce’s model of the sign is both more complex and less coherent than the one in the Cours. I had my quibbles with the author’s conclusions: in particular I don’t think it follows from the fact that Saussure (in the Cours) excludes reference from his model of the sign that Saussure is a Whorfian for whom language determines reality. But overall I liked the book, and can see the value of applying ideas from linguistics beyond linguistics. Though I will feel justified in continuing to mostly disregard semiotics in future.

Peter Dragicevic, Mark Baker, Stuart Butler, Vesna Maric, Brana Vladisavljevic, Anthony Ham, Jessica Lee & Kevin Raub, Lonely Planet: Western Balkans

Okay, I didn’t read this one cover-to-cover. Reading about nightlife in cities I’m not visiting is a bit much. But I’ve spent so much time with this book in the first half of March that I feel justified in making an exception to my normal rule and adding this one to the list. It’s bee helpful – especially for sights and food options – even when I haven’t ultimately agreed with its assessment of a place, which did happen occasionally.

Stephen Wechsler & Larisa Zlatić, The many faces of agreement

A thoughtful and thought-provoking book about the syntax of agreement, with an empirical focus mainly on Serbian/Croatian, that covers a lot of ground, some of it more convincingly than other bits. There are some ideas and thoughts in here that are likely to be be useful for my future work.

Edgar Allen Poe, Classic Stories

This collection of Poe’s works is a mixed bag. The nadir is probably The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, a detective story in which our protagonist spends pages explaining why the newspapers are wrong, only for the actual dénouement to not even be properly narrated. This one also sorely tests Poe’s principle that short stories should be read in a single sitting. Others, like Fall of the House of Usher and Masque of the Red Death, are sublime, though.

R. F. Kuang, Babel

A much richer, more thoughtful novel than the Poppy War. This one is historical fantasy set in Oxford and centred on magic derived from what gets lost in translation. It’s well written and moving, though the apparatus of footnotes doesn’t help matters, and there are some (I think unintended) almost farcical moments in what is otherwise a dark and serious book.

Anthony Warner, Complementation in Middle English and the methodology of historical syntax

A revised version of the author’s PhD dissertation, this book deals with all sorts of issues in the complementation system of Middle English, based on a corpus study of the Wyclifite sermons (c. 1400). It’s a rich and rewarding read, though the late 70s terminology/theory is not always easy for me to follow now. A big deal in this book is using intuitions and semantic judgements as a source of data for dead languages. Apparently Lakoff (1968) made the case for Latin, and Lightfoot says something similar! This seems bonkers to me, and I strongly agree with Warner that it isn’t a sensible thing to do.

Rym Kechacha, Dark River

Two parallel narratives of young mothers. A fine, moving piece of speculative fiction, though not one with a hopeful vision for the future.

Stephen Pax Leonard, Language, society and identity in early Iceland

Been meaning to read this for a while. This slim book, a revised version of the author’s PhD thesis, is erudite and draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, but ultimately (in my view) fails to make the case for any strong thesis about early Icelandic identity. That’s perhaps not surprising, as the task Leonard has set himself is an almost impossibly ambitious one given the nature of the evidence. His conclusion perhaps sums it up best: “the relationship between language and identity in early Iceland remains of course nebulous and ill-defined”. One thing that’s missing is reference to historical (as opposed to sociological or sociolinguistic) scholarship on ethnicity and ethnogenesis, which seems very relevant to the question. The discussion of terms for and perception of languages - dönsk tunga vs. norrœna - in chapter 5 is to my mind the most interesting part of the book.

Ian Roberts, Diachronic Syntax, second edition

I quite vividly remember reading this in 2007-8, as a final-year undergraduate, when it had just come out. It’s thus deeply weird (though also ego-boosting) to see that this new 2021 edition, very extensively revised, contains multiple references to me and my work: in particular there’s a whole section on null subjects in the history of Germanic. The first time I read this book I wasn’t very au fait with philosophy of science, and regarded the rather “brittle” predictions of the theory as a major weakness. Present-day me views this as a strength. It’s marketed as a sort of textbook, but one would have to be quite daring to teach a course based entirely on it, since it is fast-moving, wide-ranging and highly erudite, and students who haven’t had at least one course on generative syntax will probably struggle. I prefer to think about it more as a combination of detailed review of the “DiGS” literature and manifesto for a particular vision of syntactic change as parametric change. Either way it remains a thought-provoking read.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

A re-read. First time round I was a bit blindsided by this book and where it ends up. It seems at one point like it’s going to be a grand sci-fi narrative, but it’s more of a series of vignettes exploring what it is to be human (and sapient more generally), lovingly crafted – a bit like the Mass Effect universe, but without the militaristic bluster, combat sequences and universe-ending plots. A genre-changer of a book.

Georges Simenon, The Venice Train, trans. Ros Schwartz

A man’s life begins to fall apart after a chance meeting on the Venice train. The key events that kickstart the plot are not new, but the way their consequences are narrated is masterful. Perhaps I get bonus points for reading it on the train from Zurich to Venice, though my route was via the Gotthard base tunnel, not via the Simplon tunnel as in the book.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

I read this on the train back from Venice to Paris. It doesn’t strike me as one of Shakespeare’s best works. Quite apart from the rather undeniable antisemitism, there’s an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist in Act IV and then a rather tedious Act V about feigned marital strife. And, to top it off, the Monty Hall plotline with Portia and her marriage is both absurd and barely connected to the main plot. Several classic quotables can be found within, though.

Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: how the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West

A helpful read for my understanding, if a depressing one. In Belton’s telling, after a wobbly and inequitable transition to free-market capitalism in the 1990s, Russia once again ended up under the rule of a faction of the KGB. Freed from any ideological link to communism, these men’s only guiding lights were authoritarian nationalism and personal control. Belton allows herself plenty of interpretations where the facts are not known, and is pretty clear about when she’s doing this. (Abramovich sued over the claim that he bought Chelsea on Putin’s orders, but I thought it was transparently Belton’s inference, and a denial by Abramovich’s spokesperson was included.) Even without the more speculative parts, though, this book – written before the Ukraine hostilities initiated in 2022 – paints a grim picture of today’s Russia.

Victoria Mackenzie, For thy great pain have mercy on my little pain

A short fictionalized account of the meeting between Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, two of the most interesting women in the history of the English language (in fact most interesting people, full stop). Despite the subject matter I felt that this novel fell somewhat flat in terms of its emotional impact, and the interleaving of two storylines did not work well for me.

D. Gary Miller, Nonfinite structures in theory and change

A salutary reminder that great intellect and erudition do not automatically make for a great book. This one ranges widely over theoretical and historical aspects of all sorts of nonfinite structures, mostly in English but with detours into West Greenlandic, Latin, and more. Sections were extremely useful for my research but overall the argument jumps around so much that it was difficult to follow what point was being made.

Adam Smith, A dissertation on the origin of languages

A short work about the evolution of language. It starts out very speculative on the origin of word classes, but gets more interesting when it takes on a typological dimension, prefiguring to some extent Bopp-Schlegel morphological typologies, and even Trudgill’s sociolinguistic typology.

Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

Reading a bit of Scotland’s most famous author while in Edinburgh. This is a ludicrous pastiche that has probably done more for the popular understanding of the British Middle Ages than any history book. Centring on an attractive young Jew, Rebecca, who all the men in the story seem to have the hots for, it canters along briskly. Still not sure why Scott is so fêted when Edinburgh’s authors also count Stevenson among their ranks.

Kenneth H. Jackson, Language and history in early Britain

Good to read this in Edinburgh, where Jackson worked; I’d been trying to get hold of this book for a while. It’s a masterwork not just for the fact that it weaves history, archaeology and linguistics together well, but because it does so in ways that are ahead of its time. Against the “triple-X” theory of the fate of Celtic speakers in the face of Germanic speakers, Jackson is excoriating (and this well before the emergence of processual archaeology). I focused on the first 260 pages – a deep sociolinguistic examination of the interrelationships between Latin (varieties), “Anglo-Saxon”, and Celtic (varieties) – and only skimmed the 400 or so pages on the details of specific sound changes.

Nina Puri, Queenig und spleenig? Wie die Engländer ticken

A book about the English from a German perspective. The author spent some of her childhood in the UK before moving to Germany. It’s always interesting to see how one’s tribe is perceived by another tribe. Some bits I knew, some bits I didn’t. Our cringeworthy mating rituals I was aware of, but I didn’t know that the Germans tend to think we drive too slowly. And the author offers a remarkably nuanced view on the tricky topic of English cuisine. Not sure about some pieces of information: no one says “how do you do” any more, and I’m pretty sure a “swot” is a type of nerd, not a black-marketeer. Fun book, though, and amusingly written!

Donald Campbell, Edinburgh: a cultural and literary history

Though it’s geographically structured, the heart of this book is the culture and the characters of Edinburgh over the years. A useful companion to this “mad god’s dream” of a city.

Samantha Shannon, The Priory of the Orange Tree

In two minds about this one. On one hand, some of the most original and evocaitve fantasy I’ve read in years. On the other hand, the pacing is terrible: half the book (400 pages) is basically worldbuilding, and the other half feels rushed. For that reason it took me a tremendously long time to finish. Still, it leaves me with a good taste in my mouth, and (unusually for a fantasy novel!) has a good ending as a standalone book.

William Labov with Gillian Sankoff, Conversations with strangers

This short book is structured around ten sociolinguistic interviews. It was interesting to read about these people and their lives (and language), and beautifully put together. But if there was any broader meaning to it, it passed me by.

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, this book is very… concrete. It’s a specific, situated future for North America, not some allegory. It raises intriguing questions about complicity and what it means to be a good person in an extreme situation. Atwood also handles the question of female physicality brilliantly, neither dismissing it not putting it on an essentializing pedestal.

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

If Gormenghast and Warhammer 40,000 had a baby, this is what it would look like (but with extra skeletons). A creative, well-constructed fantasy novel without the epic-style bloat so often found in the genre. The writing style sometimes jars with me due to all the yoofspeak blending with baroque Peake-type prose, but that’s probably just me getting old. Great book.

Friedrich Schiller, Wallensteins Tod

I do like a bit of Schiller, and this one almost makes me feel sorry for Wallenstein, who was an absolute monster, one of the inventors of modern professional warfare. But as a play I wonder how much fun it would be to watch, since it mostly involves men standing round talking to each other.

Susi Wurmbrand, Infinitives: restructuring and clause structure

After reading some rather… messy books about non-finite clauses, it’s a pleasure to read something that is not only insightful and clearly argued but also genuinely well written. The key idea is that a WYSIWYG approach to clause structure works as regards clause size, but that infinitives - even individual verbs - may take different sizes of complement: monoclausal (functional restructuring), VP (lexical restructuring), vP, TP or CP. I found it persuasive and not a little demystifying.

Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk

This gothic novel, telling of a charismatic monk’s descent into darkness, is frankly absurd.

Seanan McGuire, Every Heart A Doorway

A novella about the consequences of normal children travelling netween planes of existence. For all its feels and thoughtful world-building, it reads like a novel that hasn’t been filled out enough with character development - just over too quickly. That’s not to say that it wasn’t good, but it is unusually terse for fantasy.

Angela Chen, Ace: what asexuality reveals about desire, society, and the meaning of sex

An eye-opening, thoughtful and thought-provoking read that nevertheless came across as somewhat rambling and unstructured. Perhaps a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be or do - but still an invaluable exercise in awareness-raising.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

An amazing book about the danger of privileging beauty over more important things, a modern Gothic novel that still rather ironically manages to be beautiful in its way. Also intriguingly difficult to date beyond the mid-20th century.

Richard V. Reeves, Of boys and men: why the modern male is struggling, why it matters, and what to do about it

I went into this book sceptical, but Reeves takes a sensible tack, on the whole, in arguing that men (particularly Black and working class men) are suffering as a side effect of the patriarchy. This part of the book is well supported with a variety of evidence, only some of which seems cherry-picked. Where Reeves is on shakier ground is his critique of progressive approaches to the question: while he’s right that there’s an unwillingness to admit that men’s problems are worth worrying about, and he’s right (to a lesser extent) that progressives can be dismissive of biological effects in some domains, his attack on the notion of “toxic masculinity” misses its mark completely, and more generally – despite many caveats – he seems not to have grasped the implications of sexual dimorphism as a more faithful reflection of reality than binarity; talking about “the exception that proves the rule” means nothing in this context, and is equivalent to sticking one’s head in the sand. His prescriptions are interesting, especially the idea of encouraging men to enter what he calls HEAL (humanities, education, administration and literacy) jobs, and the less narrow view of fatherhood he advocates – but I’ll need more convincing on his proposal for a later school starting age for boys.

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

A tiny book, basically an essay that’s had a hard cover slapped on it. I’m not generally any more impressed when someone calls something “bullshit, in the Harry Frankfurt philosophical sense” than when someone calls something “bullshit” tout court. But this is an interesting attempt to define bullshit as part of philosophy of language – as lack of concern for any connection with the truth. There are obvious links to speech act theory and formal semantics and pragmatics that could be exploited here.

Private Eye Annual 2023

Amusing and on point, as always. The “Could AI bore us all to death?” article was a highlight.

Andrew Robinson, The last man who knew everything: Thomas Young

The title is obviously false, but this biography is concise and engagingly written. Young was a fascinating figure who made significant contributions to several fields in the first half of the nineteenth century, most notably physics (a theory of light) and Egyptology (clearing the way for Champollion to fully decipher the hieroglyphic script). Significantly for linguists, he also came up with the term “Indo-European” (in an Encyclopedia Britannica article), and his Göttingen dissertation was on phonetics. The book also contains some interesting reflections on the advantages and disadvantages of polymathy. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Review of 2023

What did you do in 2023 that you'd never done before?

Lived in Scotland.

Edinburgh Castle in the sun

Visited 14 countries in one month.

Lake Skadar/Shkodër on the border between Montenegro and Albania.

Published a paper from the STARFISH project. Was interviewed on a podcast. Provided spoken Old English for a jazz track.

Did you keep your New Years' resolutions?

I didn’t have any this year, so… yes? No?

Do you have any resolutions for next year?


Did anyone close to you give birth?
Not as far as I know.

Did anyone close to you die?

What countries did you visit?
The UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands. 14 of these 18 in March.

What would you like to have in 2024 that you lacked in 2023?
2023 was a fine year for me, so there isn’t much to wish for. I’ll keep donating to charity so that others can have what they lacked.

What date(s) from 2023 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
26th July: Michael and Rachel’s wedding celebration, much delayed but all the more joyous for it.

What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Getting the LUKS prize for the second time was a nice validation of all the time I spent writing my bits of me and Míša’s textbook during the pandemic, and revising my big History of English course to reflect it.

What was your biggest failure?
I don’t feel like I failed too badly at anything this year. Though there was one paper that got rejected, which I hope will resurface in the not-too-distant future!

Did you suffer illness or injury?
I had more colds than usual, at least one of which might have been Covid again. Also blistered my feet quite badly in August and got a nasty UTI in September. But as illness goes this wasn’t too terrible.

What was the best thing you bought?
My trip on the Glacier Express was an absolute bargain, and a lovely experience.

The train bends round on the Oberalppass.

Whose behaviour merited celebration?
I’m tremendously proud of my three STARFISH PhD students. They’ve all really come out of their shells this year and become truly independent researchers producing exciting work. A shame that we have less than a year left working together.

The STARFISH team at DiGS in Paris.

Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Hamas, briefly, then the Israeli military, more extensively.

Where did most of your money go?
“Travel and various good causes”, like last year.

What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Hosting ETG again for a return visit, this time with the Tempest. There’s a fine line between excitement and anxiety for me, and one I was walking this November-December.

Cast of the Tempest at curtain call.

What songs will always remind you of 2023?
“In The Army Now”, by Status Quo, which seemed to be playing pretty much everywhere in the Balkans.

Compared to this time last year, are you:
Happier or sadder? Happier.
Thinner or fatter? About the same.
Richer or poorer? Richer.

What do you wish you'd done more of?
Writing! All other parts of the research process went well, and I was finally able to chill out a bit more in 2023 (at least most of the time; in February, April, November and early December not so much). And I probably did do enough writing, but I always wish I’d done more.

What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in 2023?
Getting lots of glitter in my hair.

Me chuckling while removing glitter from my luscious locks, surrounded by concerned family members.

Who did you meet for the first time?
A dude from Kosovo who helped me tremendously in getting into the place. Several nice people in Edinburgh; you know who you are.

What was your favourite TV programme?
Killing Eve series 1 was well crafted.

What was your favourite film of this year?
I watched a few big-budget action films that were enjoyable, like the new Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. The Crimson Rivers was an entertainingly creepy one. Belfast was very well made. Tenet and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever were disappointing. The original Mean Girls was a treat.

What was the best book you read in 2023?
Fiction: either Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, or The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. Non-fiction: Infinitives, by Susi Wurmbrand.

What was the best game you played in 2023?
I spent quite some time replaying Dragon Age III and Skyrim, though ultimately both replays petered out. As regards new games, I haven’t quite finished Baldur’s Gate 3, but so far it’s great.

What was your greatest musical discovery?
I didn’t make any new discoveries in music this year.

How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2023?
Hair down. (Largely a function of losing or breaking all my hairbands and never remembering to buy new ones.)

On a golden throne in a random restaurant in Frankfurt.

What kept you sane?
Having O. and S. around was very grounding.

Egg painting stations!

What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
38 this year. I was in Edinburgh and had a quiet time at home with a piece of red velvet cake.

Said cake.

How did you spend Christmas?
Another quiet one with my parents.

Family heirloom.

What would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
There’s not a whole lot, to be honest! A cure for CADASIL would be nice, or at least some prophylactic options that aren’t just “healthy lifestyle”.

What political issue stirred you the most?
A mess of unnecessary ethnonationalist wars in various parts of the world.

Who did you miss?
To spin this around: it was great to catch up with all sorts of people in Edinburgh, and at Michael and Rachel’s wedding celebration. There are family members I should reach out to, though.

Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Not sure. Possibly not, outside of British politics.

Was 2023 a good year for you?
The best year I can remember, in recent times. Probably since I left Cambridge, at least.

What was your favourite moment of the year?
Once again it’s hard to pin it down. Drinking coffee on a train at 2,000 metres in good company?

View from the Glacier Express.

Rattling across the border into Montenegro through the Piva Gorge in a rusty minibus?

Dirt track high above the Drina, Bosnia.

A tunnel in the Piva Gorge.

Sipping limoncello in a Venetian palazzo while waiting for the storm to subside?

Autumnal steam train ride after a bracing hike in the Harz with friends?

Trudging to the northernmost point of mainland Britain in evening light?

Light and ocean above the marsh.

Lighthouse, with Orkney in the distance.

Sunset over the Atlantic.

Me at Dunnet Head.

But I think it’ll have to be giving a reading at my brother’s wedding celebration in the Peak District.

Intoning ancient truths.

What is a valuable life lesson you learned in 2023?
Managing a team is never something I particularly signed up to do, as an academic – but it can be tremendously rewarding.