HIt is deeply depressing to learn that philosopher Kathleen Stock has indeed been kicked out of her chair at the University of Sussex by the mob. As brilliant as her career is going forward – and there is no doubt that it will be – it’s hard to see her departure as anything other than a victory for tyrants and anti-intellectuals. (Stock’s only “crime” is that she refuses to deny the material reality of biological sex.) But as the child of an academic, I also experienced something else, a painful sense of longing for an era. where the argument was not only tolerated. in our universities, but actively adopted.
I can’t stop thinking about those Saturday mornings long ago when my dad would drag me to his office at Sheffield University, a stop on our regular trip to town to buy books from W Hartley Seed and anise balls at Castle Market.
In the halls of the university, which smelled of manor Polish and festering grudges, we often met several of my father’s colleagues. Smiles and polite greetings would be exchanged, hands would be shaken. But no sooner would we have passed the milestone than my father began his tirade. “This man is a shame! he would say, or, “His latest paper: lazy and inaccurate as you wouldn’t believe.”
I’m quite sure that not only did the guy in question, walking in his bad shoes, think the exact same thing about my father, but both parties found their sometimes overwhelming disagreements intensely invigorating, a force just as galvanizing as anything they might be about to discover in their labs.
Not quite believing the government’s insistent claim that there will be no more lockdowns this winter, I continue to maniacally and relentlessly fill my agenda. You have to see plays and hear concerts; restaurants must be booked and drinks with friends organized. I go out every night and it’s exhausting. As I rushed to an exhibition of works by Ben Nicholson at Pallant House in Chichester the day before it closed, I suddenly felt almost dizzy with fatigue. Why don’t you take a break? I thought, looking at its pretty circles and squares, its wonderfully clever lines. Stay a few evenings and watch TV.
But I know I won’t. Thanks to the pandemic, my gratitude for life outside is so great that it sometimes seems close to numinous. I’m like a weird cultural nun, a vestal who can derive pleasure from anything, even from Pablo Larrain’s frankly batty new movie about Princess Diana (Spencer, with Kristen Stewart, which opens Friday; watch out for his cream yellow tricorn hat).
The show at Pallant House included items from the beloved collection of old mugs and pitchers that Nicholson loved to keep in his studio – and yes, I was duly delighted. Never before has a lustrous, slightly chipped piece of Sunderland pottery looked so beautiful, a tarnished pewter mug looked so absurdly alluring.
In Sussex, I was staying in a house by the sea, where my little niece, E, had prepared for my arrival by writing a document much like the ones some hotels like to hang on bedroom door handles.
What time, he asked, did I want to be awake? Was I interested in having my bed folded down? Several boxes needed to be checked immediately, but for everything else, including room service, I was asked to call housekeeping. Underneath, she had written her cell phone number and, in parentheses, the advice, quite categorically offered, that I was to “THINK REALISTICALLY”. Words for life, I would say.