Tracks in the Snow

Tracks in the Snow

It snowed in the night.  While we were sleeping, it snuck up on us as the world held its breath.  We woke to a new monochrome morning, the air electric with the possibility of a day unspoilt.  There’s something regenerative about a covering of snow – somehow it erases yesterday, leaving a fresh canvas to mark with tracks.  And tracks there were.  A polka-dotted trail of prints left by our soft-hearted, firm pawed, slightly dimwitted tomcat as he had earlier forged a path across the roof, off to carry out his daily inspection of his extensive lands.

This time last year, BMO and his sister Bellatrix (Trixie) were gracious enough to decide that we have the privilege of being their humans.  “BeeMo” was the result of an 8 year old’s naming decision, the culmination of a fortnight spent compiling a flip chart of potential identities for the tiny black ball of chaos and his sister, rescued from the streets and adopted with glee by us all, condemned as we had been to a temporary feline hiatus.  Since then, BMO and his 8 year old have been inextricably linked by a combination of dogged persistence (the 8 year old), inexhaustible patience (the cat) and Dreamies (also known as ‘cat crack’).

This time last year, it was easy.  BMO was a tiny black ball of crazy with no interest in the outdoors, happy sleeping between us on the pillows at night.  This year though, he’s started to wander further afield.  First came the late nights, although I convinced myself that was just because he was ignoring the call and hiding out in the garage or the orchard.  Then last week, I spotted our practically-challenged black devil at the bottom of the hill.  Quite definitely not in the garage or the orchard and quite obviously most comfortable with that eventuality.  I resisted the urge to bolt out of the car, scoop him up and lock him inside forever.  He’s not an ‘inside-cat’ after all, and to restrict him for protection would, by equal measure, diminish him.  Besides, knowing the great big gallumping oaf, ill could just as easily befall him in the confines of home … he has been known to fall off things and run into doors.  Even if that isn’t his destiny, I was moved to ask myself what I was protecting him from.  So instead, I drove on and waited on tender hooks until his eager face appeared at the bedroom window, much to my relief.

This morning though, on a day so full of possibilities, he had left us tracks.  Tracks that beckoned seductively, whispering, ‘Follow us’.

This was how we had ended up here, gazing downwards on a snow-covered road, bedecked in all manner of thermally-assistive clothing, following the siren’s call of the little black indentations in the snow.  Tracking something is a strange mix of meditation and serendipity.  Before long, we had fractionated, the 8 year old lured away by pheasant tracks, the loping traces of a rabbit and once, the memory of a fox in the crystalline carpet.  I stuck with BMO though, eager to see if following the ghost of his passing could give me insight into the life he had that was no longer mine.  He zig-zagged, marking his territory with a capricious freedom, drifting from one interest to another until I lost his tracks under a hedgerow in a patch of meltwater where his world became private once more.

I turned around to call back to everyone, to tell them that we’d followed as far as we could, that we’d have to let him go here into his own world.  In that instant, as I looked back up the hill towards a small child bundled up in brightly coloured woollens, scooping up snow with abandon and launching it skywards with a cry of delight, I realised it wasn’t really the cat I was tracking.

I read somewhere recently, that having a child is like taking one of your vital organs out and letting it live on the outside, spending the rest of your life with a deep-rooted fear for it as it will always be integral to your survival.  That resonated.  Just as the cat spread his paws and outgrew the garden, so too will his 8 year old.  In September, there will be new schools and new challenges, buses, distance and freedom.  We are not raising an ‘inside-child’.  BMO needs the sights, scents and secrets of the outdoor world and our daughter needs no less.

Looking back along the path we’ve walked, there’s another set of tracks interspersed with the prints that have led us this far, those of a small person stepping out in the world.  Maybe one day, these will be what we have to follow.  But not this morning.  This morning I scoop up my own handful of possibilities, run back up the hill and throw it high with laughter.

Original Soundtrack (Redux)

In the wake of Prince’s demise this week, I’ve been dwelling on the importance of music as an accompaniment to life.  It still amazes me that I have important memories that are intimately tied to Prince’s music from the time I was not much older than my nearly-9 year old daughter is now to the nearly-45 year old I am.  I lament the fact that there’s really no-one in the musical landscape that my daughter inhabits that will have that influence or staying power.  It seemed like a good time to repost something I wrote a while ago that sums up the importance of music to me.

Words on a page don’t do justice to memories. When I peer backwards into my past, there’s a soundtrack. Music and memory are intimately entwined and the link is visceral. The tune, the lyrics, the era – for each person a different catalyst but the physical jolt that occurs years after when a song insinuates itself into your consciousness from a distant radio broadcast or a car passing by as you walk is common to us all, bringing the past so close you can taste it. They are the moments that shaped us and the soundtrack that accompanied them is integral.

Before I became a ‘responsible’ parent, I used to be a ‘girl who gigs’. Live music nourishes me. When I listen to ‘This is the Sea’ by The Waterboys, I’m thirteen again, once again living the moment when this lifetime love affair began. Simple Minds playing at Milton Keynes Bowl – I can feel the butterflies in my stomach even now. It was my first live gig and, even though it was quite obvious that I would die if I didn’t get tickets to go, my Mum couldn’t find the money to pay a small fortune in concert ticket capital. I have never been daunted by circumstance, even at thirteen, and I decided to put my skills to work and earn my ticket (OK, so I filled in a crossword and won them but I have word skills not car cleaning skills). 1986. The year of yellow pastel fishtail skirts, white stilettos and the realisation that a great band can sell themselves to you on an amazing live performance. They weren’t even the headliners but the moment they took to the stage, my life changed in a profound way. I stalked this album after the concert – Saturday afternoons in the local record store avariciously caressing the vinyl dust jacket. The skirt and the shoes were retired – denim and black was now my de facto uniform.

1987 sees a different girl pass under the Wembley lions, clutching a golden ticket, bootleg gig t-shirt casually arranged over her ripped 501s, drawn to her Mecca to see U2 play their Joshua Tree concert. The uncertain steps of the previous year are replaced by a confident saunter as she appraises the ticket touts and merchandising stalls that line the route. Even though my O-levels began that Monday, it never occurred to me that I should be anywhere else. Two and a half decades later, I don’t even remember the exams I sat that Monday but the opening bars of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ transport me back to the Stadium that day. It’s not Bono that I remember so clearly, for all his musical prowess, but the wheelchair-bound man at the back of the pitch, scooped up in the arms of his friend, dancing, lost in the music. I learnt that great music can make you less earthbound, that you can be freed from limitations by a sequence of notes.

The eighties passed but I carried this lesson with me long after the print had been washed off the t-shirts and the jeans had been folded away, replaced by tie-dyed trousers and beaded hair. The early 90s were a bittersweet time of transition, the scar left by the incision made when we left school behind still raw as the brilliance of future possibilities lit the touch-paper that ignited us and sent us skywards to explore the world. Lives are tied to moments that change our paths forever. ‘Under the Bridge’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers brings me back to one of those pivotal times, even now forcing a tightness into my throat as I relive the sadness of the passing of an era. The smell of wood smoke from the log fire in our living room and the grainy odour of malt whiskey in a crystal glass surrounded by a group of friends, mourning the passing of childhood. This was the last time we sat together as allies without the complications of partners, a widening network of friends and a lot of mileage between us. It was the reason I packed this album when I set off around South East Asia later that year, the reason it now has more associations than merely teen-angst, why I now hear it and see children playing with machetes outside a shack in a hill-tribe village in the Golden Triangle north of Chiang-Mai. I had learnt how to fly and the music lifted me.

Everything that takes to the air eventually has to become grounded again and I returned to earth accompanied by the Pearl Jam album ‘Ten’, but it was a colder, harder Eastern European earth on which I landed. November 1st, the ‘Day of the Dead’, nostrils seared by the cold and saturated by the scent of hot wax from the candles that lit the graveyards brighter than any neon could. November in Warsaw is the kind of cold that steals your breath away – Pearl Jam playing live at the Towar arena is the kind of performance that steals your breath away. My future husband and I watched them play the songs that had defined the past 5 years of my life – university, upheaval, the working world, all of these were encapsulated by Eddie Vedder’s rendition of ‘Alive’. As I relived my history, I also forged a new history. As much as the songs then reminded me of the years before, so now I am removed to that cold, cold night asleep on a bench at Warszawa Centralna station surrounded by prostitutes and drunkards, the underbelly of a post-Communist state that few have the opportunity to witness.

This is the mix-tape of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person typing here today and even as I do, I am adding to the playlist – new songs, new memories. As Eddie Vedder sang over a decade ago, ‘I’m still alive’.

Find Some Beauty

Two of my favourite quotes. Beauty isn’t always at the other end of a camera lens, sometimes it’s from the end of a pen.

‘What I’ve written here is a message to myself. I toss it into the air like a boomerang. It slices through the dark, lays the little soul of some poor kangaroo out cold, and finally comes back to me.

But the boomerang that returns is not the same one I threw.’

Sputnik Sweetheart
Haruki Murakami

‘It’s been that way since I was little. When I didn’t understand something, I gathered up the words scattered at my feet, and lined them up into sentences. If that didn’t help, I’d scatter them again, rearrange them in a different order. Repeat that a number of times, and I was able to think about things like most people.’

Sputnik Sweetheart
Haruki Murakami

The Ethics of Science Funding a.k.a. Murky Waters of Income Generation

I love academia. I love it for the sake of it, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own ends results in a better world. To educate and study purely with the furtherance of knowledge as a goal leads to a better informed, empowered and more innovative society. I believe that, in turn, engenders compassion, empathy and concern for the people and things that surround us. It has led and will continue to lead to great discoveries, from directed research and serendipitous leaps of faith. I have plied my trade at my current university, in one guise or another, for a decade – a decade that has seen a marked change in the higher education sector in the UK, moving towards a more commercialised model from the introduction of tuition fees to the wider market changes in the progressively more monetised arena of higher education provision. I’ve been on the receiving end of salaries from a variety of funding sources and experienced the peaks and troughs of the funding landscape first hand with a series of short-to-medium term contracts with no continuity guaranteed, often running to the final moment before any final funding decision has been made. I don’t necessarily think that this is the best way to foster scientific progress or that it is the best use of the funding council’s money that they so kindly spent on my PhD qualification, but it is something that I accepted before I embarked on this career track. I also accepted that the extremely hard work I put into requalifying in science as an older student and worker would likely go ignored in an area where that kind of dedication and obvious ability is discounted in the face of younger workers with longer publication records and no periods of career redirection. They are the lucky ones, to have found their career track straight from university and followed a more conventional route. They will be the future lectures and professors but that’s fine by me. I love getting my hands dirty and working at the lab bench and I’m quite happy to remain tied to it. I have even accepted without much rancour that my choice to have a family makes me often less valuable as an employee, again a break in my work history but a choice I am proud to have made when I realise the potential of this next generation that we’re raising. It is not until my most recent contract that I came across practices in academia that are so worrying that it moved me to blog about it.

Imagine a hypothetical university where, instead of academic research, staff are employed to service external commercial contracts, where experienced lab workers with good research pedigrees and PhDs are prevented from advising students or collaborating with staff outside the direct department. Imagine, if you will, the dystopia that would result from this lack of communication and collaboration – surely it would be an alternate world working in a completely contrary fashion to the cross-discipline environments that led to the discovery of things like DNA, where enthusiasm and engagement with a problem draws people in from the wider academic field and brings novel perspectives to research questions. It wouldn’t be much of a step from such a negative environment to predict that work could soon be locked away behind non-disclosure agreements where the university’s research time and facilities are put to work investigating scientific questions, not with a view to improving the global scientific knowledge-base, neither with the aim of high quality publications in the open research community, but instead to serve organisations that fund and have their own vested interests in the data generated, organisations who hold the ultimate sway over whether or not researchers are allowed to make their findings public. I’m sure the cry from such an organisation would be that the funders have a right to withhold information from the public as they have paid for the time, but what responsibility do researchers have to the country that trained and funded them and to the principles and ideals of universities as academic institutions not private data generating sources. Would these researchers bear some form of culpability? In the real world, I’m sure that they would be the first to acknowledge that their position is not an ideal one but often this could be the result of a choice between using their training in some way or wasting the years spent achieving the highest level of academic and technical excellence in fields unrelated to their chosen career. There may also be an element of devotion to the attempt at least, to keep academia academic, something that is impossible to achieve should they leave the sector altogether. In whose hands would it then rest and would they be trustworthy guardians?

I’m sure that this model of academic science would please our incumbent government, one that lacks an understanding of the process involved in good research and fails to understand that not everything can have a price tag attached to the end result from the outset. Their failings are exemplified in the attitude that academic research should be a business and that big business should serve as a model for best practice. I don’t wish to imply that nothing can be learnt from commerce or that academia is perfect – it has its flaws and there is a lot of good that can be distilled from a commercial model – but I do caution against the attitude that things without obvious commercial potential lack worth.

I think by now you may have guessed that this hypothetical dystopian academic world is not some kind of dismal prediction for the future but a very real description of the present. As scientists and academics, the question remains whether we will choose to accept this or whether we will fight to retain academic independence and the ideal upheld through history of academic seats of learning as places driven by the desire to forward knowledge not lock it away. I know which side of the fence I fall on.

Recent Reviews

A couple of new reviews up in the Book Reviews section, both of which I can highly recommend.

If you are interested in Young Adult fiction and want a truly intelligent read that is unafraid of experimenting with form and narrative, I strongly suggest you check out ‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan.  Click the image below for a link to the full review.


One of the best books I’ve read this year, ‘This Magnificent Desolation’ by Thomas O’Malley deserves to be read.  It’s wonderfully atmospheric fiction.  Again, click the link below for a full review.