From the monthly archives:

December 2023

Sunday photoblogging: Launderette

by Chris Bertram on December 31, 2023

I only had an oldish iPhone on me, unfortunately


My best novels of the year

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2023

I tend to read a novel a week (53 this year). Academic friends sometimes appear amazed by that, but if I don’t read 20 or 30 pages at night, I’m not going to sleep. Add 10 pages here or there during the week, and it’s four a month. Here were my 10 favourites during 2023:

James Cahill, Tiepolo Blue
Hernan Diaz, Trust
Michelle De Kretser, Scary Monsters
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
Rupert Thomson, Barcelona Dreaming
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream
Daniel Woodrell, The Death of Sweet Mister
Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
Laurent Mauvignier, The Birthday Party

(I’m including contemporary novels only – I read excellent novels by Sam Selvon, Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, etc, but it feels more appropriate for some reason to separate them out). Are there common themes to these novels? Not really, but it is striking that a number of them deal with themes of breakdown: personality breakdown (Tiepolo Blue, arguably Trust, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free), ecological breakdown (Scary Monsters, Sea of Tranquility). A few of them were split into apparently separate parts – some of them resolved those divisions, some didn’t (Barcelona Dreaming, Trust, Sea of Tranquility). Anyway, no doubt I missed many gems. Tell me about them!

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol harbourside

by Chris Bertram on December 24, 2023

Bristol harbourside

Tim Brighouse is dead.

by Harry on December 23, 2023

Well, you know that, thanks to Maria’s lovely post earlier this week. I’ll post a long, maybe self-indulgent, remembrance in a week or two (I’ve been overwhelmed by things this week, including the kind of staggering outpouring of affection ad memories on social media, in my inbox (Among the many messages came a lovely email from a headteacher my own age I last saw in 1970, and whom dad, of course, kept up with). Even the Daily Telegraph did a rather good obituary. Now I have to finish my grading by tomorrow, and get ready for Christmas, which dad loved, and I think we’ll all enjoy remembering him). But for now, if you’re interested, here are three things to read/listen to/watch.

The formal, detailed, Guardian obituary is here.

The Radio 4 obituary show, Last Word, is here. David Blunkett is excellent, the clips of my dad sound unnervingly young, and I liked that they took the parts from the interview with me that are about my dad’s appearance. He would have been genuinely horrified by all this fuss, but, bracketing that, he’d have been delighted by the first segment, about Maureen Sweeney, to whom he would have been intensely grateful (as we all should be).

Finally Rachel Johnson of PiXL, whose dad Sir John Rowling worked with Tim at the London Challenge, wrote a lovely tribute, which includes an extended video interview (half way down the page) that she just made available free, here.

The chap serving me at Pret in Heathrow the other day asked if I was going somewhere special for Christmas, and for the second time since Tim died I faltered, and said “I’m going home to Wisconsin, I’ve just been visiting because my dad died on Friday”, and berated myself inside for making him uncomfortable. But he smiled, and said, you know the usual things, and then said “Did he have a good life?” and I found myself grinning widely and said “Yes. He had a great life”, to which his response was “That’s really the best you can ask, isn’t it?”. It was lovely, like something out of the kind of movie that neither my dad nor I would ever willingly watch.


by Ingrid Robeyns on December 23, 2023

Little mole giving water to his flowersI was walking with my teenage son in a large shop the other day, and we passed by the children’s section. I saw a duvet cover that so much reminded me of Kretk – or, in English translation, the Little Mole. We were recalling which of the Kretk films that we saw we liked most – but basically, we liked almost all of them. Thinking of the Little Mole brought back happy memories.

Krtek is a series of animations that have been made by Zdenek Miler in the 1950s and 1960 in Czechoslovakia. It has a very interesting artistic signature: not only the pleasing and colourful visual arts, and the typical light, cheerful and romantic music that would come with it; lots of anti-modernist themes (such as in this one that I just found on YouTube where the little mole tries to stop the damage a bulldozer will do to its flowers); and, of course, animals that are all humanized, as they are in many movies for children. Not all animals are nice, by the way; one of my favourite Krtek movies is one where there are large animals (wolves?) who are a danger to the other animals, and by painting themselves and standing on each other’s shoulders (and thus pretending to be huge, much more dangerous monsters themselves), they are able to chase away the wolves. (NB – I have this from my memory from watching this a pretty long time ago, so not 100% reliable!).

With for many of our readers the holiday season before the door, I just wanted to share this with those of you who have never heard of the Little Mole. If you have small children, I bet they (and perhaps you too) might like to see some of it, tucked away under a blanket on the couch. Happy holidays!


by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2023

I don’t know about you, but my relationship to dentistry is somewhat infantile. I went this week. I go every six months (hygienist too) but though I brush twice a day with an expensive electric toothbrush, I’m very bad at all that interdental work you’re supposed to do. But then when I notice that the appointment is coming up, for ten days or so, fearful of being told off by the dentist, I work hard with those little brushes – red, blue and yellow – in the hope that I won’t be admonished this time round.

It never really works. There’s always some plaque here, some bleeding there and I get the lecture on what I have to do. Often it seems to be the opposite of what I remember from the previous time: use the thinnest brush first or last? And there was a period when the hygienist was keen on interdental brushes and the dentist was pushing me to floss instead. But they seem to have converged on the little brushes now.
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I can’t write about Gaza

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2023

I can’t write about Gaza because to write about Gaza would be to devise some premises, arguments and conclusions, when all I want to say is stop. I can’t write about Gaza though too many civilians have been killed. How many would be enough? I can’t write about Gaza without making mentioning all the bad things that were done before. And then the things before that. And before that. I can’t write about Gaza because if I said the things ritually then I wouldn’t be taking them seriously. And that would say something about me or The Left. I can’t write about Gaza because if I said the things and omitted something of moral importance, that would be symptomatic. I can’t write about Gaza because I might commit unintended tropes which turn out to be detectable, also symptomatic. I can’t shout about Gaza without being careful that the person next to me didn’t once say something bad. Such as a trope. I can’t write about Gaza because I can’t say for certain that those kids were the intended target. I can’t write about Gaza because I don’t know those kids weren’t human shields. I can’t write about Gaza because I can’t be sure they are lying this time. She can’t write about Gaza because her nationality gives her historical responsibilities. He can’t write about Gaza because he didn’t condemn some other killings somewhere else. I can’t write about Gaza without saying that states have the right to defend themselves. I can’t write about Gaza without making fine and careful distinctions, the absence of which may be taken down and used in evidence. I can’t write about Gaza. But stop.

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol, Gaol Ferry Bridge

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2023

Bristol: Gaol Ferry Bridge

Notice about Harry’s father, Sir Tim Brighouse

by Maria on December 16, 2023

I know many Crooked Timber readers will want to mark the passing of Harry’s father, Tim Brighouse. Harry has sometimes written here about his father’s pedagogy and influence, and more obliquely at his singularity and sheer loveliness. Today’s Guardian newspaper carries an obituary:

“Teachers and education experts this weekend paid tribute to Sir Tim Brighouse, “one of the great educators of this century” and “a delightful human being”, who has died at the age of 83.”

A life truly well spent is the best rejoinder to our inevitable mortality, and Tim clearly did so much for so many people with his. But I do still wish for the UK that it had been the sort of country, these last couple of decades, that could have put him in a position where he may have done even more.

Our sympathies, Harry, to you and yours.

2023 Book recommendations Part II – Novels

by Maria on December 15, 2023

Rightso! Novels. My three runaway favourite novels this year, which I recommend to you wholeheartedly, are Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors and, friend of this parish, Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. Cahokia Jazz I want to write something dedicated about, and imminently, so let me tell you about the first two now.

Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic Leave the World Behind came out in 2020, and a Netflix adaptation has just been released. Read the novel first. From what I’ve seen of the trailer (and it looks great), the film takes place during a more explicit and amped up catastrophe, making it a very different kind of beast. The novel is more subtle and mysterious about an unfolding disaster which, at first, only insidiously impinges on what starts as a class and race-based comedy of manners, with a high social capital white New York couple taking their perfect family to a perfect vacation house outside of New York, only to be disturbed one night by the house’s Black owners seeking refuge from the city. One of my sisters gave the book to me as we returned home from a holiday, and I read it straight through on a horribly delayed flight, barely even registering the usual Ryanair shenanigans and the misery of freezing, drunk-filled Liverpool Street night buses, I was so rapt. Ironic, really, how a book about an (at first) insidious apocalypse gets you through the falling down bits of broken Britain in the dead of winter.
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2023 book recommendations – Part I

by Maria on December 13, 2023

It’s time for my annual-ish reading round-up. Record-keeping has many benefits, chief amongst them, counter-intuitive insights. This year’s book diary has revealed that in a year I’d have said was pretty so-so, it turns out the number of books I really loved was unexpectedly high, about three times that of the previous two years. The number of books I read was pretty consistent, on average a book a week. In these increasingly short-form times, that starts to seem like a lot, but it’s average or slightly below average for bookish types. And I still outread fiction to nonfiction by about 8:1.

In 2022, rather shamefully, I read no non-English language book, and only six in translation, and no complete poetry collection. This year wasn’t much better. The only poetry collection I read beginning to end was Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, and that’s largely because I read them aloud to our second dog, Molly, who seems to enjoy it. I read no books in Irish (though some poetry and a few short stories), but did manage Balzac’s Père Goriot in French. (In an act of completism or perhaps just insecurity, I then also read it in English and listened to a French audiobook. I enjoyed it a lot, perhaps especially as it’s so interesting and freeing to experience the much roomier concept of what a modern novel is, in the hands of one of that form’s creators.) [click to continue…]

Adventures in Marmalade Making

by Harry on December 13, 2023

This is my marmalade-making time of the year. Not because it’s the only time I can get hold of Seville oranges – I can get hold of the MaMade tins any time of year, and have only ever gotten fresh ones to use one time that I happened to visit a friend in Arizona who complained about the fruit trees outside that produced oranges that were inedibly bitter (I picked 10lbs and brought them straight home). It’s actually because of the grapefruit.

Only being able to get hold of MaMade (very inexpensive, at Amazon, makes excellent marmalade) gives rise to a problem. MaMade is only sold in a thin cut version. So, what if you like thick cut? I finally figured out the solution, which is to buy two white grapefruit, that are only available, here, December-February, and chop the rind roughly. You simply add that to the marmalade and you have a rough cut Seville orange marmalade with just a hint of grapefruit flavour, but really just a hint.

I’m not finished with the regular marmalade yet. I specifically like Oxford marmalade – once you’ve had that its hard to go back. And I like it bitter. Conventional recipes tell you to substitute black treacle or molasses for some of the sugar, but no recipe has gone far enough for me. And the 4lbs of sugar recommended to accompany a tin of MaMade makes for too sweet a result. So – I use 2lbs of sugar and 1lb of treacle/molasses, which gets exactly the flavour I want.

Still there’s a problem. With only 3/4ths the recommended level of sugar, how do you get the marmalade to set properly? One way is to add phenomenal amounts of pectin. But almost as good is just to simmer the concoction for much longer than recommended, just to reduce the liquid, until you have something that, while runny, is adequately viscous to stay on toast (or if you are Paddington or the late Queen, in a sandwich). I generally cook for about around 3 hours, most of it on a very low heat, but occasionally boiling it while stirring vigorously. You’ll end up with less than 5lbs of marmalade, but with an intense flavour so you use less at a time.

A student the other day revealed her obsession with grapefruit and that prompted to me attempt fully grapefruit marmalade.

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Coasean, Schmoasean

by Henry Farrell on December 10, 2023

Back in the day, there used to be a lot more arguments across blogs. Perhaps we’ll see more of it happening again as Twitter continues its collapse into a dwarf star composed of degenerate matter.  To get things started, this seems to me to be a quite wrongheaded claim by Tyler Cowen.


In a deal months in the making, the University of Wisconsin System has agreed to “reimagine” its diversity efforts, restructuring dozens of staff into positions serving all students and freezing the total number of diversity positions for the next three years.

In exchange, universities would receive $800 million for employee pay raises and some building projects, including a new engineering building for UW-Madison.

“This is an evolution, and this is a change moving forward,” UW System President Jay Rothman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “But it does not in any way deviate from our core values of diversity (and) inclusion.”

Here is the full story, via HB, it is rare that the real world is actually so Coasean.

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Sunday photoblogging: disused rail bridge, Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2023

Disused railway bridge

Sunday photoblogging: Banana bridge, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on December 3, 2023

The Banana Bridge