Category Archives: Life

Onward and upward

Being a parent changes you. My wife recently gave birth to twin boys and, thankfully, we have been fortunate in that they’ve had no health problems or anything of the sort. The worst we’ve had is a spell when one of them had night and day confused and we’re currently going through a bout of colic with the other fellow.

But all that’s fine, as it happens. It’s a bit stressful at times – more so for my wife as I’m at work for a large part of every day – but rewarding in a way I didn’t fully comprehend beforehand. It’s not just that you have a new set of responsibilities that arrive fully formed and without any grace period, It’s that you’re entire outlook on life changes. Priorities shift, attitudes change, you have different things to look forward to.



My deputy, Sam, described it as being in a bubble that nobody else can get into. And he’s right. Non-parents won’t quite understand, parents probably will. I’m enjoying it all, even the late night (or early morning) screaming fits.

I now understand all those people on Facebook and elsewhere who publish loads of pics and updates concerning their children. They’re a huge and permanent part of their lives – why wouldn’t they be? I’ve tried to restrain myself somewhat, but they’re too cute.

This isn’t going to become a daddy blog. At least, that’s what I say now anyway…

Older, maybe wiser

I’m approaching a new decade in my life, and it’s making me think. I’m not that bothered about the Significant Birthday, at least not consciously, but I’m fascinated by how many turns my life has taken in the past five years, let alone the last 20-something.

I certainly feel older, or rather things make me feel older.

This is the kind of music I listened  to while growing up:

I find the contemporary equivalents dull and soul-less. I’m sure my parents felt the same in may respects.

Life goes on. The world keeps turning.  Music keeps playing, and I can’t really complain too much about being on the outside of the music scene as I’m too busy to keep abreast of it anyway.

When I started this blog I was a sub-editor with the Irish Examiner. From there I went to The National in the Middle East, before returning to further my education, doing a bit of teaching, and returning to the Examiner as chief sub-editor, a post I have now held for more than two years. Where has that time gone? And not even the five, nearly six since I moved to the UAE, but the two since I rejoined the Examiner? My industry is barely the same, let alone the rest of the world. Even Superman and Batman have had a reboot in the last few years.

In between returning from the desert and now I got married, bought a house (and battled with Nama along the way), adopted two cats, and I’m soon to be a father for the first time. This has had the most profound effect on me. I’m very much looking forward to being a dad. In fact I can’t wait. But it makes me nervous, more because it’s a great unknown for me than because it’s a scary prospect. I hope I can be a good father to them and that they grow up happy and well. Certainly all of my instincts right now are focused on making sure they have everything they and my wife need. It’s a whole new set of skills that I need to master in double-quick time, and I’m not sure how to even go about starting. That said I know I’ll cope, and not because I have to but because I want to.

There’s so much to look forward to. Reading to them, playing with them, introducing them to the cats, teaching them the little things.  It’s also the final stage of growing up (as if getting married and buying a house weren’t grown-up things to do).   And yet it’s a new, life-affirming stage which doesn’t make me feel old so much as it makes me feel, well, happy.

So, if this is growing up, bring it on (but please make better music).

The emotions of payday

This is how I felt when I was paid today:

But then I had to pay the mortgage and other bills, which made me feel:

And now I feel a bit like:

Still, there was moneys for a while.

Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, like Gildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Chronica Minora]

Moving on in circles

I’ve been working on the PhD for about six weeks now (it seems like much longer) and I’m trying to throw myself into as much as I can. I taught writing skills in October, and until the end of this month I’m teaching medieval history tutorials for first years. They’re a tough crowd.

But no sooner do I feel like I’m getting on top of things than something new and massive lumbers over the horizon. In this case, several somethings. Conferences and seminars. I’m attending one at the weekend, which I’m not delivering a paper at but which I’ll use as a chance to see what other PhD candidates are doing in the humanities. Meanwhile, I’ve submitted abstracts for two and been accepted for one, a postgrad series in Dublin. The other I’ve heard not a word about for sure. I have two conferences and another seminar series to submit ideas for, which is going to keep me busy. I was able to get the bulk of one paper written today but there’s a lot of finnicky detail to do yet. Plus it looks like going way over the allotted 15 minutes.

It’s a very strange experience going back to your MA thesis and referencing it in a conference paper. It’s almost like going back over ground that is far too familiar, while almost being like delving into a difficult past that you’d like to keep closed just a while longer. When the PhD loomed I was sure I’d have the momentum to just plough into it, but the day I submitted the MA I realised I wanted nothing more to do with the writer in question (Bede) or the era of history in general (early medieval Anglo-Saxons).

I knew there was no way out of it, but I promised myself that I’d spend some time writing about something else. Anything else, just not Bede. I needed to plug out of that mental world and recharge. And yet, slowly but surely, I found myself returning to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the people it documents and the tales it tells.

One strength of the department I’m in is that there is a postgraduate seminar series where the student can pick the topic of their paper. And so, one day, almost without realising it, I started fleshing out the idea for a paper based around Dryhthelm, an Anglo-Saxon who lived around the year 700 and who Bede says was brought back to life to pass on a vision of heaven and hell. Dryhthelm came up in my MA thesis, but only as an example. This time around he will be the focus of a paper in his own right, and it’s quite likely he’ll end up a chapter or significant section in the PhD.

I’m not sure whether or not I should be annoyed with myself for breaking my internal promise to avoid Bede for a while, but the brain is in session and heading somewhere, at least. Perhaps it’s worth noting that, much like the people I’m writing about believed the world would end when it returned to the condition in which it began, I’ve come around in my own mental circle and am back where I started, only further on down the road. It’s surprisingly close to how the early medieval writers understood the nature of time.

It feeds in to the work I’m doing at the moment. The paper I’m writing has nothing to do with Drythelm but something else that’s cropped up in my reading, which lately has been how early medievalists (and indeed Bible writers) understood how the world would end. It’s a bit different to what I’ve done before, but is closely tied to the main themes of my PhD, so, even if the paper goes down like a lead balloon, I should have some substantial work done for it regardless.

Between the two parallel ideas that are running through my brain at the moment, I’ve written close to 4,000 words. Not all of it will be kept, but some of it will be fleshed out and expanded in significant detail. Which, six weeks in to a three-year PhD programme that requires me to write 80,000 words, is not a bad thing at all.

Fewer editors, more mistakes

Copy editors (AKA sub-editors) will sift through stories to ensure clarity, will check spellings to the best of their ability, and do their best to make headlines enticing. That’s our brief, although we do sometimes fall short. Even so, it’s good that some people recognise the important role that copy editors play in journalism, whether it be online or in print. Very few readers actually know what we do.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they’re the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit.

They’re skeptics who revel in the arcane. They know the difference between median and mean, and can speak knowledgeably about topics from Methuselah to the Milky Way. They write headlines, design some pages, check facts and make sure assertions are supported. They spend entire careers working horrible night-shift hours.

This might sound like self-congratulatory waffle, but subs are losing jobs as quickly as reporters as newspapers seek to cut costs on production while maintaining a certain level of content. It’s also true that I’m an unemployed copy editor (although can you really be an “unemployed [insert job]”?) but that was by choice, even if I do miss the work, unsociable hours and all.

Meanwhile, my thesis is clipping along nicely and I have surpassed the 20,000 words needed for submission. Of course, now comes the editing and rewriting; the subbing, if you will.