Pangur Ban

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

This is a charming book. I have loved  the poem – or at least the translation – for years. This picture – and the following ones – are a romanticised idea of medieval scholarship; the margins of texts (and texts themselves) attest to cold, cramp, poor light – and Church, and music, and beauty… I guess the closest  I ever came to this image of a scholar when young was sitting in Pusey House library one Corpus Christi, with the chapel organ and sweet incense wafting through the gothic reading room.

Perhaps a better model of a scholar is M R James, who even as an undergraduate undertook detailed study of MSS, and whose palaeographic works were my sourcebooks as a young graduate student. Painstaking. Silent, except for a cough, a creak of a floorboard, or sounds from a group outside in the sunshine. As a graduate student, a kid in a medieval sweet shop, ferreting around in dodgy catalogues felt as if James was at my shoulder. In reality, I was much more like Adam, David Lodge’s anxious protagonist in The British Museum is Falling Down, juggling family, scholarly activity and a hope against hope to continue doing so as a job. The book was instrumental in my first leaving academia: this wasn’t a life for me. It took working in libraries and then teaching (both of which I loved) to bring me back, not quite full circle.

And so when a student came to me to think about a career as an academic, what was I to say? What do I do? I have written about what I do when people think the University isn’t working – that is, when undergraduates are not about – and tomorrow I return to work, a good month or so before any undergrads arrive, except by email.  What is in store?

The job is not well delineated: fiction fictionalises, job descriptions hardly give detail (ah, yes, there’s something that needs doing tomorrow). This  post, however, from Ana Canhoto, is a really good indicator of what many academics’ life is like: no gothic beauty (except, for me, what the bus takes me past every day) and not much MS textual analysis. I did hit a vein of gold in my research on Friday (not helped by my cat, Ziggy, who wouldn’t be allowed in the Bodleian) but tomorrow is meetings, timetables, and NSS score analysis.

So would I want Pangur Ban and a cell to work in? Or do I really relish the ringing ‘phone, the dripping emails, the knock on the door and “Can I have a word?”  I think, in some way, I do; at least they are part payment for the task I love: teaching, or as someone once described it, “showing off for money.”


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