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Fig.1: Satire of Charles James Fox
(kneeling centre),
canvassing the Westminster parliamentary electors in 1784:
detail from an anonymous print, entitled
‘A New Way to Secure a Majority: Or, No Dirty Work Comes Amiss’ (1784).
Original in British Museum Dept. of Prints & Drawings, no: 1868,0808.5288.

Happy canvassing memories indeed! I no longer go out knocking on doorsteps – been there, done that, for many years, from the age of fifteen onwards! But, in this month of busy electioneering, when many of my friends are still on the stump, I can’t keep the memories at bay …

Political activists have a very mixed reputation, as has the political process itself.1 Door-to-door canvassers are sometimes seen as pests. Or as cravenly kow-towing to the voters. The image of Charles James Fox, the Whig reform candidate in Westminster election in 1784 (shown in Fig.1) pulls absolutely no punches. He is shown as literally arse-licking the voters. The shopkeepers and tradesmen, meanwhile, are lining up to receive his grovelling submission. (Either way, it worked. Fox won the seat, despite intense campaigning against him from the government, headed by Fox’s great political rival, the Younger Pitt).2

Well, needless to say, the canvassing that I have undertaken was always more dignified. Generally, I enjoyed the process. Rarely encountered voters who were rude or personally unpleasant. Often, it was just a case of ‘Will you be voting Labour?’ …, and, after the reply: ‘Oh thank you’ … or not as the case may have been.

Meanwhile, there were, from time to time, real doorstep debates. We canvassers are not supposed to linger but instead are required to press on relentlessly. But I enjoyed the rare chances for real conversations. Once as a student, when canvassing close to my parental home in Sidcup, I remember an impromptu doorstep encounter – discussing the pros and cons of comprehensive education with a genuinely questing voter, who was keen to get my views – and to share his. It was a stimulating exchange.

Later, on another occasion, in 2004, after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a voter said curtly to me, on the doorstep, that all supporters of the Labour Party were war-criminals. Well, I could not let that pass unchallenged; and, although the leader of our canvassing team was urging me to move onwards, I remained for a good half an hour. We talked, at first fairly heatedly. but then more calmly. I did not myself support the invasion; but I reviewed the case for ousting Saddam Hussein; and I also talked about the immediacy of politics – the need for snap decisions; and the non-stop debates within as well as between the political parties.

By the end, the voter thanked me. She had not changed her mind – nor had I tried to change it for her. But she understood why I remained in the Labour Party – and she was glad that I’d stayed to talk through the issues.

Such moments made the whole procedure worthwhile. Rational democracy in action! And there have been plenty of other doorstep debates, though usually less basic than rebutting accusations of war-criminality.

Yet … I also learned that politics is not always about considered deliberations. There is scope too for quick and pointed repartee. Once, when first canvassing with my father in Sidcup, a voter asked on the doorstep with real anger in his voice: ‘What about the Labour Government’s failed groundnut scheme?’ 3 I then knew nothing of the issue (and cannot claim much expertise now!) Fortunately, my father was at a nearby doorstep. Quickly, I asked the voter to wait and ran over to consult my canvassing mentor. He said: ‘Go back and ask in reply: “What about Suez?”’4  I promptly did so. The voter stopped ranting and muttered ‘Oh yes, you’ve got a point there!’ He confirmed that he’d vote Labour – and I learned the value of smart repartee.

So there we are! In the big political battles, doorstep canvassers are mere foot-soldiers in the trenches. They know that. And the voters know it too. Yet, as already noted, these doorstep consultations are usually conducted politely. Voters may not want to see you at the moment that you call. But they do like to know that the political parties are out-and-about in the neighbourhood, talking to voters and picking up on local issues and casework. If there is no canvassing, there are liable to be complaints of: ‘We never see you!’ But they do often see Labour canvassers in Battersea, where I now live. It’s good for the voters; and educational for the canvassers too! ‘What about the groundnut scheme?’ … ‘Well, what about Suez?’ Long live doorstep democracy!


1 See e.g. R. Behr, Politics – A Survivor’s Guide: How to Stay Involved without Getting Enraged (London, 2024).

2 For Charles James Fox (1749-1806), see L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford, 1992); and for context, consult the impressive website on ‘Eighteenth-Century Political Participation and Electoral Culture’:

3 For the Labour government’s project in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) the mid-1940s, see A. Wood, The Groundnut Affair (London, 1950); and N. Westcott, Imperialism and Development: The East African Groundnut Scheme and its Legacy (Woodbridge, 2020).

4 For the Anglo-French 1956 invasion of Egypt, see H. Thomas, The Suez Affair (London, 1967); S. Lucas, Britain and Suez: The Lion’s Last Roar (Manchester, 1996); and K. Kyle, Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East (London, 2003).

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Daffodils © Clipart 2024

Good things can happen at any time of year. As can bad ones. But there is something basic about the cyclical nature of the seasons in Britain that encourages a degree of seasonality in human thought patterns. The perceptible lengthening of the daylight hours, the sight of radiant blossom on the trees, and the budding of the first daffodils encourage a sense of renewal. Time for fresh plans!

True, we have already discovered greenfly on the first green shoots of leaves on the rose bushes … but that’s also part of life.

I don’t want to recount all the details of my current plans – for writing books, planning more books, giving lectures, and organising various good projects – but I am happy to record the springing of renewed activity.

‘There’s no time like the Spring/ When life’s alive in everything …’ (Christina Rossetti).1 ‘I am amazed at this Spring, this conflagration/ Of green fire lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze/ Of growing …’ (D.H. Lawrence).2 ‘Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year’s pleasant king/ Then blooms each thing … / Cold does not sting; the pretty birds do sing …’ (Thomas Nashe).3  ‘Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring/ In triumph to the world, the youthful Spring …’ (Thomas Carew).4 ‘If ever there were a Spring day so perfect/ So uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze/ That it made you want to throw/ Open all the windows in the house/ And unlatch the door to the canary’s cage/ …/ Well, today is just that kind of day’. (Billy Collins, abridged).5

Of course, the poets are not slow to stress that Spring is transient. And to point out that the beauty of Spring offers a stern reproach to the ugliness that too often mars human relationships with other humans. Think of wars; famines; drastic material inequalities; community hatreds; territorial disputes; the misuse of creative technologies; ecological degradation and species loss; the growing climate crisis – and (so far) the failure of international political organisations to cope with that litany of horrors.

Such thoughts are more than enough to wipe the smile off the face of anyone who is overly complacent.

At the same time, however, I’ve enjoyed the time just spent, finding a diverse range of poems, with diverse emotions, about the coming of Spring. I am enjoying the real thing all around us as well. And, yes: the turning of the seasons brings a message. To quote Goethe: ‘We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves’. That includes our civic commitments as well as our private projects. And now is a good time to start the renewal! It’s Spring!


1 C. Rossetti (1830-94), ‘Spring’, first pub. 1862; available in C. Rossetti, The Complete Poems, ed. R.W. Crump and B.S. Flowers (Penguin, 2001), p. 28.

2 D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), ‘The Enkindled Spring’, first published 1916; available in D.H. Lawrence, Complete Poems, ed. D. Ellis (Penguin, 1957).

3 T. Nashe (1567-c.1601), Spring, the sweet Spring’ is a song from his play Summer’s Last Will & Testament (1600).

4 T. Carew (1595-1640), ‘The Spring’, first published in a collection of poems in 1640.

5 B. Collins (b.1941), from his poem Today, first published in 2000.

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Drawing of Cough © Doodle-Vector 2024

What comes after the Midwinter jollity and Ho-ho-ho!? (And this year it was all very jolly indeed). Alas, however, the answer in mid-January was a never-ending dry cough: hack, hack, hack!

If other people’s illnesses can be boring, then usually one can muster up some interest in one’s own. But not a dry cough. It is very boring indeed. The entire body struggles repeatedly to cough up … nothing at all. There’s no phlegm, no satisfactory feeling that one is clearing clogged lungs. Just a never-ending cough, cough, cough. Every rib aches. It’s impossible to sleep at night, so the days are passed in an exhausted trance. One cannot even listen to soothing music, because someone in the audience is coughing unbearably.

Basically, it was an enforced ‘time out’. (By the way, it was not Covid, a routine test showed). It was not a relaxing rest, because it was so uncomfortable. It was not in any way romantic (no lying in languid elegance on a chaise-longue, writing great poetry). Nor was it beautiful in any way. The coughing body does not feature in great art. Staying put to cough non-stop was totally boring.

Was there any silver lining? Well … that’s a good challenge to the incorrigible Pollyanna in me. After all, the cough did stop after a few days, which was a great bonus in itself. And being briefly unwell certainly did make me appreciate the inestimable value of good health. Such a cliché … but valid for all that.

So, as I am now recovering, I am resolving to get even fitter than I was before the never-ending cough struck. I am back in the swimming pool in the early mornings – pushing myself to kick hard all the time, and not to hang around at end of each length. Annoyingly, I am still unusually tired a lot of the time. At last, however, I can feel a spring returning into my step. Ah, Spring …

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Image 1:
Fall of Icarus (c.1588),
engraving by Hendrick Goltzius after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem.
Source: Wikimedia Commons – De val van Icarus.jpg

This personal BLOG is very short but very determined. It expresses my commitment to expand my daily exercise routine. Currently, I walk at least a mile and swim for half an hour daily, pushing myself to exercise all limbs with all-out effort. It’s very enjoyable. On the way to the pool, I sometimes yawn and am often bleary-eyed. On the way back, however, I sing cheerfully, feeling at one with the world.

It’s certainly good to keep fit and well. But I now realise that more is required. As people get older, they need to keep supple and, above all, to strengthen their leg muscles.

Alas, one of the greatest age-related dangers is falling over; or, worst of all, falling down long flights of stairs. People break limbs. And falls often indicate a lack of whole-person mental as well as physical balance. They stem from confusion, which is then worsened as a result. Bad and sad news all round. Often such falls, especially when repeated at short intervals, are indications of the approaching end. Ultimately, gravity cannot be denied. It drags us all down.

The antidote is therefore not just to keep well but to keep supple and to strengthen legs. I have blogged before about how I don’t self-identify as an old person.1 Inside, I feel that I am 25 years old. Have done for years. Don’t intend to change. And I am highly delighted when I meet similar veterans who feel much younger than their nominal years.

Nonetheless, time passes; and the body conveys its own messages. I am actually now over 30 years old. So herewith my next good resolution: to become more supple; to exercise specifically all my leg muscles (calves, thighs, buttocks); and to do so daily. My wise partner, having kindly read the text to check for spelling errors and typos, notes that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. At which, I laugh. Let’s see ….


1 PJC BLOG/121 (Jan. 2021) ‘Being Assessed as a Whole Person’. Also available on PJC website: Pdf/ 58.

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Adrian Corfield,
on the South Coast seafront,
not long before his death from lymphoma at the age of forty-four.

Thinking about ‘Being Penelope’ (BLOG/130 October 2021) got me remembering – again – my next brother Adrian (1946-90). We were the oldest two of a close-knit tribe of six siblings. I’ve web-posted my obituary of him already.1 So I am not planning to repeat myself. Instead I am just distilling my thoughts on how bereavement feels, thirty-one years later.

Thoughts of Adrian are woven into my life. They don’t need to come at special moments. He was a happy person, one might say happy-go-lucky. So my memories are usually joyous ones. His smiling face is like a benison.

One fun thing, when we were kids, was our laughing game. It was an enjoyable way of passing the time, if we were confined to home by bad weather (say) on a dank November afternoon. One sibling would be selected to start laughing. The rest were enjoined to keep their faces straight. The test was to see how long the non-laughers could resist. Adrian was especially good at giving a contagious chuckle and making funny faces. Soon we would all be laughing uncontrollably. And if a parent popped in to ask: ‘What’s the joke, kids?’ our glee was redoubled. It was not a game which we played all the time. But it was a great reserve for raising everyone’s spirits on a gloomy afternoon. And shared laughter is very bonding.

Remembering an emotionally close sibling also reminds me of the almost instinctive bonds between children brought up together from the earliest age. There are many people in life to whom I feel warm links. Yet those are all, to a greater or lesser extent, chosen and cultivated during my lifetime. My bond with Adrian was not something that I chose. It just happened, because we were very close in age within an emotionally tightly-knit household. I would not say that I understood all of Adrian’s thoughts, especially as we got older and our daily lives diverged. Yet, when young, I effortlessly understood his emotions, moods and reactions, just as he understood mine. Quite probably twins who are close and are brought up together feel this form of identification even more strongly.

Consequently, when Adrian died, I felt that an entire branch of my specialist knowledge was nullified.  It was a bit like losing an arm or a leg. It’s a shock that always remains a shock. Plenty of other people know me tolerably well, as I know them tolerably well. But no-one now understands my reactions in the instinctive way that Adrian did. It’s not a matter that I go round bewailing. In some ways, it’s quite nice to maintain my adult mystery. Yet it’s still a startling experience, to lose someone who was so close. (And talking with others who have lost siblings, I know that shocked feeling is quite common).

Lastly, as life continues, I am increasingly conscious of one big issue which concerned Adrian greatly. He was a biologist; and, in the 1980s, was already lecturing his friends and family on the importance of maintaining global biodiversity. How right he was; and is!

Today, he would be beside himself with anxiety about climate change. As the urgency of the issue escalates, he would be one of the very many calling for immediate action to halt the process or at least to coordinate global attempts at alleviation. Adrian was not a political joiner. So he never became a member of the Greens, though that was the logic of his position. Today, I am sure that he would be marching with the recent crowds of protestors in London (as in many other international capitals) against the role of the big banks in funding fossil fuel extractions.

Would the failure of the world’s political leaders to undertake serious action during the last thirty years alarm him? Greatly. Would it dent his chronic optimism? Perhaps somewhat, though he would doubtless rally to say that the global emergency will finally force everyone, not least political leaders, to take urgent action. `

And what else? He would echo the brilliantly succinct warning from Greta Thunberg: ‘There is no planet-B’.


1 PJC, ‘Remembering Adrian Corfield (1946-90)’, in With my siblings, we organise an annual walk in his honour on the majestic outcrop of Beachy Head, near Eastbourne: views are magnificent and larks sing high above.

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Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.


1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 129, The Surprising Consequences of Learning to Float-and-Kick Simultaneously

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Floating © Clipart 2021.

Having been an enthusiastic swimmer all my life, it was a shock to be told casually by a friendly swimming-pool attendant that I was squandering my efforts by swimming wrongly. That is, I was using my arms for propulsion and merely wiggling my feet as rudders to improve direction. I was sceptical. But I accepted the challenge to swim a length of the pool, holding onto a float, and using nothing but my legs.

It was mortifying. I could hardly move. In addition, I immediately realised that the small and apparently tranquil leisure-pool has quite strong currents. These are caused by the swirl of the waters that are constantly pumped in to keep the ambience clean and fresh. My kicking was so feeble that the float – or rather the currents – were taking charge.

Turning to my pool-side mentor, I wondered what to do. ‘Kick harder’, she replied. Stung, I followed her advice. But the outcome was still mortifying. I could just about surmount the currents in the pool’s centre but, once I got to the edges, where the tides scour with special force, I was stuck again. It was objectively funny to be very close to the finishing tape, kicking away lustily, but unable to get to the edge. But, subjectively, I was not amused.

Well, I went back to basics. In the next two months, I sorted out firstly how best to breathe steadily on the float, instead of alternatively kicking and breathing. I then reviewed my leg movements and decided upon a more piston-like action. It took some time to get it; but it began to work. I had to use the entire leg, rather than just wiggling my toes. I knew that something radical was happening when I got spasms in my lower back, as torpid muscles were suddenly kicked into action after literally decades of under-use.

Basically, it seems that, not only had I been swimming weakly but I was also walking with only half-leg power. I’d been sort-of-gliding, holding my torso still and using only my calf muscles. Upon reflection, I realised that this state of affairs could be traced back to a serious fall which I had at the age of seventeen. In fact, it began as a joyous jump on a moonlit summer evening in Italy. I leapt from a high seaside promenade down onto the sandy beach. But I’d seriously miscalculated. (I blame the moonlight). The fall was uncontrolled, ending with great force. Fortunately no bones were broken. I got up, after recovering my breath, and continued strolling under the stars, with a group of teenager friends, who responded with gentle indifference.

In fact, however, I’d dislodged my pelvis. There was nothing to see; and the harmful effects on my knees became apparent only years later. Various osteopaths gradually managed to improve matters. Yet it was only when I persevered for weeks at hearty kicking with both legs, while buoyed in water, that things finally righted themselves. It was a shock, but a most agreeable one.

And about time too! My kicking with the float is still improving. My ordinary swimming has become stronger, with the aid of proper leg power. And I now walk briskly, swinging my hips, lifting my feet, and singing lustily as I go. Leaping from a high promenade felt (briefly) like flying. Yet getting old bones back into their proper alignment feels infinitely more euphoric.

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