Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?

and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

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Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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Ode to Oxford

Oxford, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.*

  1. Red brick houses and sandstone colleges;
  2. University Parks, so green and full of trees;
  3. Squirrels and dragonflies and songbirds;
  4. Libraries full of books and silence;
  5. Dear friends, old and new;
  6. Medieval colleagues;
  7. Streets filled with memories;
  8. Christ Church Meadow and the avenues of trees;
  9. G&D’s, Ben’s Cookies, and the Covered Market;
  10. The dreaming of spires and ringing bells.

Someday, I would love to live here again. Until then, I am content to visit, and fortunate to know more and more people who live here.

The International Arthurian Society British Branch conference was interesting and I very much enjoyed getting to catch up with colleagues and get to talk to other people who are actually working with Melusine and Thomas of Erceldoune, and to have my thesis topic validated by my colleagues, both senior and new. A successful conference indeed! Now to spend the rest of the week in various libraries and spending time with friends…!

* I am not Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I write academic papers, not sonnets.

My other home

After researching in London I went to Oxford for the Romance in Medieval Britain conference. I arrived two days before the conference so I could do some more research in the Bodleian and spend time with my travel-partner-in-crime Chris R. — of Portugal and Cyprus fame — and Oxford is our ‘home base of operations’ so to speak. As usual, we saw a play: Hamlet, performed by Creation Theatre, but otherwise we were both working. We walked into town together through the fog before parting ways at University Parks.

Whereas Chris went on to Wycliffe, I went to the Bodleian Special Collections. After walking around the outside of the Radcliffe Science Library, wandering through the maze, trying to get the change machine to work (and only having a £20-note, oy), and getting my bag stored in a locker at last, I went into the reading room, committed my name to paper and gave my Bod card over for ransom, and in return was handed the remaining printed fragments of the 1510 edition of Melusine.

(Yes, I did receive permission to take these photographs.)

I was expecting only two fragments… but there were six! I took as many notes as I could, and the Bodleian Special Collections will be seeing me again, once I have a better idea of what it is I’m looking for. Can’t you see why I love my job? How couldn’t you love a woodcut illustration of Geoffray with the Great Tooth fighting the giant Guedon? Continue reading

Back from the south

The past week I was in England and Wales — England for pleasure and Wales for work (which was also pleasurable). Going south has given me hope: it was beginning to look like spring there. Crocuses and daffodils were blooming, the air was warmer, the trees a bit greener. In about three weeks, it should start looking like that here. Ros says there are shoots sprouting up already in our garden, but I came home after it was dark so I haven’t seen them to be sure.

Oxford was lovely, as usual. I got to catch up with friends and eat at my favourite restaurants. Whenever I visit Oxford I breathe a sigh of the familiar. It is nice to have another city in this country that I know well enough that when I visit it can actually be a holiday: having lived there before, I am not pressured to ‘do Oxford’ when I go there. And though I am very glad I am at the university I am, I’m a bit envious of the college system — especially the chapel. If I could go to Evensong or morning prayers every day just by walking across the quad, I would.

I was in Wales for a Master Class in Medieval Palaeography at Bangor University. On the train there, I sat across the table from a mother and her six or seven-year-old daughter. The little girl had with her a chapter book in Welsh and was learning to read English. It was fascinating to listen to the girl practice reading the English book aloud, and to have her mother occasionally help her with pronunciation, saying, ‘In the English alphabet, these letters are…’ Then, at the workshops, at least half of the people there could speak Welsh (the rest of us were from universities farther afield), and they all introduced themselves and spoke first in Welsh, then translated into English. I had been to Wales before, but in Cardiff, and haven’t had an opportunity to hear Welsh spoken. Even while walking around the town and sitting in Costa there were people speaking in Welsh.

More academically: I was in the classes for Middle English, which were taught by A.S.G. Edwards.* At the conference dinner I learned that he had visited Norman, Oklahoma and afterward he, Rebecca, another one of the lecturers, and I had coffee (from which I learned that I can drink decaf coffee without ill effects! hooray!). I was most interested in the sessions on editing texts, in case I do end up spending the rest of my life working on Melusine. As a result of this weekend, I have had my faith in the Riverside Chaucer utterly shattered. Thanks Tony.

Also, I’m pretty sure that Super Amazing Cambridge Guy is actually in all probability a nice person (I’m sure I’ll meet him eventually at one of these conferences), but I’m tired of hearing about him whenever I introduce my thesis topic. This time I heard about how hardworking and dedicated he was, having finished his thesis in two and a half years, that he would wake up so early in the morning and exercise and then work straight from 6 AM to 7 PM, and what a charmed academic life he has had afterward. Well, let’s just say that I’m glad my supervisor would kill me if I tried to keep those hours.

Consequently, being in Wales this weekend meant that I missed the royal visit to our town. I saw a bit of it on television when I walked through the hotel lobby where our conference dinner was going to be. Oh well.


* Okay, I’ll admit that whenever I see his name I think of the the financial firm A.G. Edwards.

A bit of theatre

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

-Henry IV, Part I, I.i.86-89

So yesterday, Chris and I hopped over to London for the day. We had lunch with Timothy, a former-SCIO housemate who now lives in London, and then headed over to The Globe to see Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Ever since I toured The Globe during is construction when I was 12, I’ve wanted to see a play performed in it, and getting to see two plays in one day was just brilliant. For the first play we were groundlings in the yard and in the second we sat in the gallery. The rain stayed away, it wasn’t too hot, the acting was amazing, the audience responsive — in short, it was a great experience (even with the annoying teenage girls braiding their hair during the performance!). I loved how we were recreating an atmosphere and an experience that we could share with people 400 years ago, how the jokes were still funny, the grief still poignant. There are some things about human nature that just haven’t changed over the centuries. Except, I don’t think that the people back then had to worry about overhead aeroplanes drowning out the voices of the actors.

Even though it was a really long day, I kind of wish they had gone the whole way and started in the morning, so that they could do both parts of Henry IV *and* show Henry V in the evening. I know, I ask too much.

Chris and I also saw four of the actors at Wagamama’s during dinner in between the plays. We were perhaps a little too giggly about this.

We didn’t get back to Oxford until 1.30 AM, so I slept in and have had a lazy day hanging out with the Hardins and their friends, and enjoying a quiet Sunday evening. It’s nice to be able to relax and have no demands for a little while.

On a side note, I used the ‘I Write Like’ analyzer and found out that on my blog I write like Neil Gaiman. Pardon me while I am not-so-secretly pleased with myself.

Points of interest

Some other things about Leeds:

  • There was a storm. Several storms. With actual lightning and rolling thunder and rain crashing down in sheets. I stood at the window and watched and watched and forgot my headache for a little while.
  • I had my suspicions confirmed that fairies do not fit into the ‘monsters’ box, nor the ‘supernatural’ box, nor the ‘magic’ box. Therefore, I have something else to include in my thesis.
  • The MEARCSTAPA people were the nicest strangers I met. I guess people studying ‘border-walker’ type things tend to walk on the borders themselves. And being that I study fairies, which are by definition liminal beings, means that I, too, can be part of MEARCSTAPA.
  • I reread The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin. I can never choose which of the Earthsea Trilogy is my favorite. “It was very strange. Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.”
  • I got a green Jute bag with a dragon on it. He is wearing a hat. This probably makes me happier than it should.
  • I sat near the back of a crowded bus on the way to the rail station this morning. Another medievalist was near the front of the bus, and he gave up his seat once to a woman who was standing, and secondly to a man who was carrying a baby. These little acts of kindnesses have made me smile all day.

I am in lovely Oxfordia now. I wasn’t in Oxford for more than fifteen minutes before someone was asking me for directions. I followed notes left for me by the Hardins to get into their house (it was fun. I got to climb through a window!) and had dinner with them. Now I’m with Chris, having three conversations at once.

Visiting Oxford always feels a little bit like stepping back into one of my homes.


The Town was swathed in fog when I left last Wednesday to go South, and it is still cloudy and gray now that I have returned. On Wednesday, I stood in six train stations and rode six trains to go down first to Oxford, then to Stratford, to see Julius Caesar with Chris. I had seen the RSP perform Julius Caesar four years ago, but only remembered it being very modernized and very weird. This time, however, it was set in period. The use of projector screens to create a hall-of-mirrors effect was spectacular; live music combined with synthetic sounds, confetti, and further projections did only the very best to create a suspenseful atmosphere. It was a very dark play, very bloody. I was struck by the complete lack of comedic relief. Brutus (Sam Troughton) and Cassius were both brilliant. Apparently Chris and I both forgot that Caesar dies before the end of Act III, and kept trading glances as the suspense built up and as he died before intermission. The play is almost more about Brutus than it is about Julius Caesar. I loved the costuming. I still don’t know where the wolf children at the beginning were hiding the fake blood.

Kat and I stayed in the Vines in Headington. The kitchen has been remodeled, but the poster of Noah’s daughters-in-law holding the dove that Sarah and I left behind has been framed and is hanging in a doorway. Thursday, I walked into town alone, taking the Marston cycle path, curious whether my feet could remember the way. Memory is such a funny thing. The three days I spent in Oxford I didn’t get lost once, and my sense of timing between places was accurate. I spent most of my time with Chris, or Kat when she wasn’t at the Perelandra conference, or alone. We heard evensong at Christ Church Cathedral and had lunch in Christ Church meadow. We went to exhibitions with free admission. We sat in Balliol college. We heard the opera adaptation of Perelandra. We ate at the Eagle and Child, twice. I happily had lunch from G&Ds, the Cornish Pasty shop and the Oxford Sandwich Co. I saw a book that Elizabeth I translated and bound, embroidering the cover herself, as a gift for her stepmother Katherine Parr. I saw the blackboard on which Einstein wrote out the proof for the expansion of the universe. Chris and I did not go punting or play croquet, but we continued our ADD conversations at breakneck pace, and we fed ducks in University Parks. I had tea with Jill and the happy little bundle of energy that calls herself Annie. I saw a couple OBU students staying in Crick for OSP. I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Blue Sword in Christ Church meadow, Keble College, a couple cafés, and the back garden of the Vines. It was a good trip.

This morning we got on the train, and during the course of four train stations and four trains, we saw the low rolling hills of southern England transform themselves into the Borders and then the rocky crags of Scotland. Here are buildings made of earth and stone, though not drab, not with the brightly coloured doors, blooming rosebushes and brilliant green of living things. I saw a swan with cygnets and heard the cry of seagulls.

I love Oxford. I miss Oxford. I hope I get to go back soon. But I also like Scotland, so being here is good, too. I don’t think my holiday was quite long enough to want to come back so soon, but I am here now, and it is back to work in earnest tomorrow.