Last week I discovered the value of grumpiness. Prickly and dyspeptic with tiredness, I dropped my bag of papers and books all over the floor in the Main Library. As I bent, grumbling, to pick them up I caught sight of a portion of text. It was part of a display commemorating female scholars, leaders and pioneers at the University of Edinburgh. Beside the photograph of Brenda Moon, one of the first women chief librarians, was the following unattributed citation:
‘a slightly built and softly spoken woman who cared about others and was always gentle and supportive. However, beneath this deceptive exterior there was a clarity of thought and purpose and a persistence which moved mountains.’
(Photo by Mary Moon)
I had read this many times before but last week I saw it with new eyes. I was struck by the bewildering oppositions it seemed to set up. What, exactly, was deceptive about Brenda Moon’s appearance? Why would we be surprised that a small person was clear thinking? Or that a woman was persistent?
I imagined a parallel universe in which Bill Moon was remembered as:
‘a big tall man with a loud voice who was uncaring, harsh and unsupportive to others. This exterior was perfectly in keeping with his clarity of thought and purpose and a persistence which moved mountains.’
By turning it inside out in this way, the assumptions were revealed in all their absurdity. I pointed them out to a female colleague. “This is manspeak”, she declared, and immediately set about finding the source of the silly quotation. Now, if I had been what I like to think of as my normal self, I would have taken the memorial at face value, appreciating the generosity of the sentiments and thinking the best of the speaker. It was only because I was in a grumpy mood that I saw through the words to the mountain of silly assumptions that Brenda Moon had to tackle in order to get on with her work. And although I believe strongly that it’s possible to be both purposeful and caring, kind and determined, nevertheless in this case it was actually quite helpful to be unkind for a moment, in order to grasp an important idea.
About the author