In this edition
Oh! For the Love of Books – A Bookish, Almost Fairy Tale
A wintry spring in Somerset: the excursion of 1977
Date to save!
We are still set for our annual get-together in March. We will keep our fingers crossed! So jot down in your diary: you have a date with us on Saturday the 5th of March 2022!
Message from the board
The board and the editors would like to wish you happy holidays and a good and healthy new year! To amuse yourself in these, sometimes boring times, we have a few interesting articles for you to read and we created a Christmas Quiz with music, video clips and interesting fun facts. Beware, it is a real Christmas Brain Cracker, but don’t give up, the answers might surprise you!
Lots of love,
Nienke, Marjan and Reinou
By Reinou Anker-Sollie
Now that we are all in lockdown (again) you can have a go at this online quiz (opens a Google Form)! Have fun!
Oh! For the Love of Books – A Bookish, Almost Fairy Tale
By Elke Maasbommel
Once upon a time, there was a bookish, insecure girl who thought bookshops were magical places that could solve all her problems. Whenever she was happy, she celebrated it by going into a bookshop and buying a book she’d wanted to read for a long time. Whenever she was sad, she drowned her sorrows by buying a book that was about someone whose life was even worse than her own. Whenever she felt lonely, she would visit a bookshop so the books would comfort her like the friends she felt she didn’t have. Sometimes she thought books could not only solve her problems, but everyone else’s, too. And that is how this story really starts when she had to buy a birthday present for a friend.
Not being able to imagine buying anything but books for her friends, she decided to visit her favourite bookshop to find him a nice present. He wasn’t bookish like her, but instead more science-fictionish, and she was convinced he wouldn’t mind receiving a science-fictionish present which just happened to be a book. Knowing exactly where to go, she almost knocked over other shoppers and ran to the science fiction section.
(It just took her quite a long time to reach it, for there were many other books drawing her attention, and, being quite a nice person and knowing it was rude to ignore those calling her name, she picked up all of them. Also, she wasn’t feeling terribly happy that day, so she needed these books to calm her down. She eventually put three books, all of which looked particularly pretty and comforting, in her basket with the present intended for the friend.)
After that wonderful half hour of browsing, after which her initial sadness had completely evaporated, she wanted to pay for her new books and the birthday present. While walking down the stairs, giddy with excitement about having found yet three more additions to her bookshelf, as well as what she considered the perfect birthday gift, she almost tripped over her own feet. Out of breath and gripping the till tightly with one hand to avoid falling over in earnest, she hurriedly put her new books in front of the cashier with the other hand, trying not to drop them on the floor. The cashier started laughing, and she was sure it was because she was looking ridiculous. But then he said: “That Star Trek design book is so cool! I’ve wanted to buy it for ages! Have you seen the series?”
“Erhm, yes, I have,” she said, relieved that he wasn’t laughing at her because she looked like she could lose her balance any second now, her knuckles white from clutching the counter
“That is amazing! I started watching it a couple of months ago with a friend of mine. We started with the original series, and now we’re halfway through The Next Generation.”
“Oh my, then you’re up for some amazing episodes. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
The conversation lasted for another couple of minutes until she remembered that the book which had started it was, in fact, a birthday gift. He wrapped it up, said goodbye, and she left. She was happy her favourite bookshop had such genuinely bookish employees…
Have you already started wondering what will happen? Do you think they might end up seeing much more of each other and live nerdy ever after? The problem is, this girl was never interested in the bookish employee in that way. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a fairy tale (partly my fault, I’m afraid, considering the title).
So here’s what really happened: I cycled home and told my boyfriend what had happened. He laughed at me, in much the same way as Bob (for that’s what I decided to call him since I liked the sound of that name) had earlier.
“I bet he’s got a crush on you, that one.”
I told him of course that wasn’t the case, for hardly anyone looks at me that way, even though my boyfriend continuously assures me that many men most certainly do, and moved on with my life.
Occasionally, I saw Bob again at the bookshop. And yes, he did stare at me whenever I walked in, and he did crane his neck to see where I was going, and he did look pretty disappointed when I visited the shop with my boyfriend, but he still greeted me happily every time I saw him, and I greeted him back. I must admit it did wonders for my self-esteem, because it made me realize I can just be myself and people might even like me for it. I always enjoyed seeing bookstore Bob.
Until, eventually, he wasn’t there anymore. My boyfriend claimed that Bob had left because I never gave him the attention he so desperately wanted. But I like to think he had gone to work at an even better bookshop. He had made a big promotion, and he would now be in charge of ordering the books that would eventually be bought by bookish girls like me. I hope that Bob will eventually find a girl that will return his affection, so they can watch Star Trek together (by that time, he will have watched it three times already, but he definitely won’t mind watching it yet again) and talk about all the books they love. And they will live happily ever after.
Like I said: This isn’t a fairy tale. This story isn’t about finding true love. No dragon was slain, no princess was woken up. In fact, nothing really happened at all. Instead, it’s about an insecure bookish girl who found out that she was more likable than she realized.
Epilogue: I went to the bookshop yesterday. While paying for yet another huge pile of books, a male employee started talking to me.
“Oh, did you order a Kurt Vonnegut novel? Good. He’s quite a droll writer. There are also quite a few droll lectures of his online, you should look them up. It’s rather entertaining.”
He didn’t really listen to my reply. In fact, he sounded quite pretentious to me – using words like droll, twice! All his ponderous chitchat did was make me think of Bob.
I wonder how he’s doing.
A wintry spring in Somerset: the excursion of 1977
By Henk Dragstra et. al.
By the year 1977, the annual excursions to Britain that Anthony Davies had organized for students at our department had run to half a dozen. They were primarily focused on Roman and Anglo-Saxon remains, as well as prehistoric earthworks and standing stones. Hadrian’s Wall had been traced on foot and so had almost the whole length of Offa’s Dyke; more scattered sites visited included Avebury and several on the Yorkshire Moors. When an interesting landscape, ruin or other sight from a different period offered itself en route it would be visited as a collateral benefit of the trip.
This procedure corresponded, of course, to Anthony’s field of research and teaching, and could therefore plausibly claim financial assistance from the department. Anthony could have lightened his task by visiting the same places every year with new generations of students, but this was not like him: he took the challenge of tackling a new area every year. His excursions probably were as much organized to cater to his own personal interest as for the edification of his students, and rightly so.
Although a portion of Wansdyke had been briefly visited during the 1973 excursion, Anthony decided to explore it, and adjacent sights, more thoroughly this time. The name ‘Wansdyke’ covers a series of earthworks in the West Country, between points in Wiltshire and Somerset. Its origin and use are uncertain, but it seems safe to assume that it was a defence work built in or around the fifth century A.D. Anglo-Saxons later attributed it to the pagan god Woden, hence the name.
Less spectacular, less continuous, and less famous than Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke, Wansdyke did not lend itself so readily to the walks-from-both-ends-to-the-other-group’s-minibus that had been the standard procedure so far. But the surrounding area was full of exciting individual earthworks and stone arrangements, all more than worth the while. So, for longer walks Anthony had specified picking-up points to head for, or the circular walks that hill forts naturally suggested.
Ne’er the twain shall meet
Like most previous excursions, this one was scheduled for the Easter Holiday, which this year meant from the 31st of March to the 14th of April: a time of year that might be mild, but had proven quite grim at times. The number of participants for this excursion was as usual, filling two minibuses. What was unusual was that there was a second staff member involved in the planning of the trip. Mary-Jo Arn, freshly arrived in our department from upstate New York, with husband Ken Heinrich, expressed an interest to come along, and did; in fact, the two of them led a group of their own.
Mary-Jo’s field of expertise being Middle English rather than Old English culture, the excursion would offer her a choice opportunity to visit some places associated with King Arthur, particularly Glastonbury of course. In addition, the phrase ‘West Country’ is almost synonymous with ‘Hardy Country’, and although Hardy was not a medieval, he became the other focus of her quest.
As the two groups of students were scheduled to follow different itineraries, they were not likely to meet often, except at the day’s end, and that only a few times. Anthony assigned participants as he saw fit: those students who showed an interest in prehistoric and Old English monuments seem to have landed in his group and found what they came for. Annie van der Veen was assigned to Mary-Jo’s group, and very happy with the arrangement: “Especially because its atmosphere was so different from last year’s. Lovely, happy people. A group of friends welcoming others. So many different individuals. Good friendships started here. Compared to last year, this excursion was much more focused on literary topics, such as King Arthur, and Thomas Hardy. This is what started my fascination with ‘all things Arthurian’.”
Fred Adam on the other hand, though temperamentally suited to this group, nevertheless confesses to bitter disappointment: “At the time of the excursion, I was 22 years old and as yet not very interested in matters Anglo-Saxon (nor would I ever become interested, possibly as a result of the excursion …) and I had not yet read any works by Thomas Hardy. An admirer of Anthony Davies I was not – and this sentiment was reciprocated with feeling. Thus, there was hardly a legitimate reason to apply for this trip, had it not been for the fact that I was very smitten at the time with someone who had (we’ll call him M), and so I ended up among the participants. There were about twenty of us, and Anthony divided us into two groups: one that would primarily explore the Wansdyke and prehistoric remains (led by Anthony himself) and a group that would primarily visit Hardy country, apart from a few snippets of the Wansdyke as well – led by Mary-Jo Arn and her husband Ken. M was in the first group, I in the second; so there went my whole reason for joining – oh well …”
As in previous years, students were to take turns writing daily reports, to be collected, reproduced, and presented to the Department afterwards. Copies of the collective report were lent to me by Frank van Broekhoven and Jos Vaas, the latter with his own sidenotes and pictures added. All pictures shown here are by Jos, except where stated otherwise.
For colourful narration I am especially indebted to Fred; here is his general view of the sleeping and mealtime arrangements: “I suppose the Department paid for it all (I do not remember having to contribute to the costs), and that meant that conditions were primitive, very primitive. We brought tents and sleeping bags, and the food was on a slightly surreal level: powder that turned into yellowish goo claiming to be (but not tasting like) scrambled eggs. We also had space blankets: thin but strong foil you put over your sleeping bags that mostly made you sweat but did keep out the cold – we sure needed them, because at some point we even had snow.”
Annie adds that the most revolting concentrated food of all was called “Savoury Fry”, and savoury it was, i.e. inedibly salty. In these respects the trip was as full of hardships as the previous year, which had been less cold, but excessively rainy, and marked by similarly unpalatable catering.
On the upside, several students mention a meal they had in an Indian restaurant for the first time in their lives, and relished. And while in 1976 the whole trip from Groningen and back was made in rickety private minibuses, 1977 boasted, after a train journey to Flushing and a ferry to Sheerness, two rental vans, Ford Transits, with steering-wheels on the right, and supposedly roadworthy. Both had doors at the back, so they could be used as makeshift indoor-outdoor kitchens.
The arrival in Sheerness was on Friday the first of April, an ominous day, as students gleefully reported. Said Annemieke Spijkstra: “During the journey to London Anthony arouses complete panic by discovering that the return tickets are missing. It will take a lot of phone calls to get them back in the end. At Victoria Station the group is split up for the necessary shopping, to be united two and a half hours later in an East Croydon pub. At the YHA services Anthony manages to be overcharged by £ 140. He only notices this the next day. Thank God April Fool’s Day ends at noon.”
They immediately parted company, the Mary-Jo-ites bound for a campsite south of Bath, the Anthonians for Devizes, some 20 miles to the east of it. After three nights apart, the groups were to reunite at Priddy, a village near Wells, for three further nights, and then on to Warmwell, near Dorchester. Thus, home bases were established for exploring Somerset, Wiltshire, and Dorset respectively. Some major sights were to be visited by both groups, though not at the same time.
Sites and other sights
The West Country being famous for its ancient hill forts, these naturally featured large in the itinerary. Barbury Castle was one of the first to be explored, as Mannie Wessels describes: “It is an Iron Age hillfort, surrounded by ramparts and ditches, with entrances on two sides. We spent considerable time walking the ramparts while Jos, carefully following Anthony’s instructions, took a lot of photographs, dutifully making notes of the exact positions from which they were taken. It was not until we were in Avebury that he noticed that there was no film in his camera.”
At Anthony’s severe insistence, he returned to Barbury Castle the next day to take the same pictures, with a film in his camera this time. Another famous hill fort is Cadbury Castle, near Glastonbury, said to have been the site of legendary Camelot. Jos (the same) comments: “The site is almost impregnable, situated on an isolated hill twelve miles south-east of Glastonbury. It suddenly starts snowing. This makes the fort even more impressive; now you can imagine how it must have been in Arthur’s day, as the driving snow obliterates the view of the modern towns in the distance.”
The biggest of the Iron Age fortresses in Britain is Maiden Castle, near Dorchester. Though featuring on the itineraries of both groups, it was described by neither: the one group missed it, the other assumed the task of description had already been done. Unlike Cadbury Castle, it is kept bare of trees, showing its rings of ramparts to full effect. From my own experience, at some other time, I can testify to its impressiveness, especially because it and I were whipped by torrential rains that day. I got soaked through, my boots were caked in mud, and I was the only one there, feeling like a pilgrim rather than a tourist for once. A very satisfying experience.
Another kind of ancient monument worth seeing are the earth and stone works called ‘long barrows’, long earthen tumuli with ditches running along them, and often incorporating stone structures. Though to the modern observer’s eye they may seem akin to hill forts, they are in fact much older, dating from the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, during the Early Neolithic period. A famous long barrow, visited by Anthony’s group, is that of West Kennet, near Avebury, a very large tomb containing five chambers, in which burials were made for many centuries—a mega-hunebed as it were. Stony Littleton Long Barrow, a close runner-up to West Kennet 5 km south of Bath was visited by the other group.
Also close to Avebury is Silbury Hill, a prehistoric artificial chalk mound almost 40 metres high. It is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, also dating from the Neolithic period. Avebury itself, with its famous stone circles, must have been a favourite of Anthony’s, as it had featured on several of his earlier excursions. It does not need further description here. This also goes for other famous West Country sights, such as Stonehenge, Corfe Castle, Ebbor Gorge and the Wookey Hole caves, Wells Cathedral and several historical churches; some places associated with Thomas Hardy; and picturesque towns like Bath, Sherborne, Weymouth, Bradford-on-Avon, and Cerne Abbas, with its famous hillside figure of a man with two big clubs.
Oh, and what about Glastonbury, with all its Arthurian associations? It proved as inspiring as could be expected. But not as welcoming: hippies were not served in tea-shops and pubs, thank you very much—let alone ragged, ill-mannered bands of Dutch students!
A joke in exceptionally bad taste
So much for the sights; now for the gossip. Nobody does that better than Fred, so let’s give him some space: “A couple of days later, we would meet up again accidentally on a barren camp site, where we exchanged tax free spirits over a more than merely symbolic wall between the two groups. Ever since Sheerness, there was a strong ‘us and them’-feeling: ‘we’ had a lot of fun (we actually sang in pubs) whilst suffering from the intense cold; on the other hand, we suspected ‘them’ of having broody and moody discussions in the dark. ‘They’ camped in the furthest corner of the camp site from us; we could hardly see them, and there was that wall, of course.”
“Moreover, it soon became clear when we met, Anthony’s group had seen the more spectacular parts of the Wansdyke and the stone circles, whereas we could discern the Wansdyke mostly from a slight discolouration of the grass. But it has to be said: the first time our map indicated we crossed the dyke, we found an enormous dyke that we proudly posed in front of, until we were told by passers-by that this was in fact a disused railway embankment. The Wansdyke could (vaguely) be seen as a lump in the field next to it …”
Riejet Nijdam, in Anthony’s group, recalled indeed walking a much more spectacular stretch of the dyke: “The Wansdyke appeared to be higher at points than we had expected; sometimes it reached heights of over 3 metres. Looking back, I think this day was the most splendid of all. In the West Woods millions of daffodils enclosed our feet, and once a deer bounded away from us, leaping across the sun-dappled bracken.”
A splendid day indeed, but not representative. Beyond any doubt the excursion’s most memorable feature, recurring in many of the day reports, was the intense cold, which most participants had not anticipated. Only Jos and Frank, on Anthony’s advice, had bought sufficiently warm sleeping-bags, of which they would mercilessly boast in the mornings. On the 7th of April it even started to snow, which delighted Anthony, but to Fred was “a joke in exceptionally bad taste”. As the latter recalls: “Mary-Jo suffered badly from the cold, and we bought a more professional space blanket for her at a specialised shop: it helped and she was over the moon. Still, she decided to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights to get her thoroughly warm again.”
Annie reminisces how her tentmate Aaltje and herself: “woke up with a start one morning because someone was writing our names on the tent. I had knit a thick sweater for Fred because we knew the cold was on its way. Towards the end some of us who had had it with the cold, spent the night in a B&B. They let Aaltje and me use their duvet sleeping bags for extra covering—I loved the warmth. And I seem to remember that one of the girls, Marianne, had her hair washed in a hair salon, for warmth…”
The same morning, as recorded by an unidentified photographer. Jos’s pose is probably intended to demonstrate how perfectly warm and snug his night has been.
In addition to the cold, or perhaps because of it, four participants fell victim to illness. Already on their third day in England, Jan de Geus and Annemieke Spijkstra were in trouble, from which they recovered later. By the end of the trip, it was Marianne Cox’s turn, and Baukje van Dijk’s stomach pains became so bad that she had to be taken to Weymouth hospital, where her appendix was removed, so she could not come back home together with the others.
Yet the shared experience of severe conditions bravely borne seems to have been a bonding factor. Indeed it actually helped Fred to establish contact with the object of his affection:“ At the outset, I knew only a handful of people in my group, but possibly as a result of the hardships and the cold, we became a very tight bunch and I kept in touch with most of them for the remainder of my time in Groningen, and with some even beyond (like M).”
Thus writes Fred, representative of a group for whom the social side of the trip was of prime importance. But it can be said in favour of the other group that they were no less faithful pub-goers. After hours of hardship, an evening in a well-heated place was an absolute necessity before retiring to skimpy tents and sleeping-bags, even with a layer of foil on top.
The last of the excursions
So, with the possible exception of Baukje, a good time was had by all. And a great deal was learned, too, as even Fred acknowledges: “In 2001 I visited the area again, and I was surprised by how much we’d seen and how deep all this had rooted in my memory: without hesitation, I could find the way we had walked and climbed through Ebbor Gorge a quarter of a century earlier. In spite of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the extreme cold, this excursion is still one of the better memories of my years in Groningen!”
Let this stand as a fit tribute to this and all the other excursions that Anthony Davies organized for the English Department in the ‘70’s; for, to the best of my knowledge, the 1977 excursion was his last one. It is true that in September of the same year he took a handful of students with him mountain-climbing in the Lake District; but this, I believe, was a private venture, not sponsored by the Department. Perhaps one of the participants can be persuaded to report on that trip sometime. In any case it was 1977 that saw the last of Anthony’s departmental excursions, and it is here that my series of reports on them must end.