“It’s not at all grim up North” –

At the end of June I attended a one-day interdisciplinary conference at York St John University: the title of the conference was “Uplandish: New Perspectives on Northern England’s ‘Wild’ Places”.  The topics which people presented on were very varied and included: film-making, the cultural mythology of the Moors Murderers, the history of Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s most famous home), and the work of the National Trust in securing UNESCO World Heritage status for the Lake District.  My paper was one of a handful of literary-critical papers that day – it was titled “Sarah Hall’s Wild Women of the North”.

My 20-minute paper gave a brief analysis of the idea of wildness in three novels by Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2006), The Wolf Border (2015) and Haweswater (2002).  I focussed on the presentation of central female characters as embedded within the Cumbrian landscape of all three texts, its ecosystem and the contestation of traditional stereotypes that this entails.  My paper gave a broadly ecofeminist reading of the literature, and made the point that the association of women and nature is not at all retrogressive in Hall’s writing but, rather, is presented as a source of radical energy which enables the women to intervene in political history, as opposed to seeing them excluded from it.

My paper concluded with a question: these novels seem to fit in with a trend in contemporary literature to access the authentic, ecologically-implicated, animal self – an identity which stands in sharp contrast to our increasingly technologically-mediated existence; does this represent a genuine cultural turn developing in the new millennium, or are these just consolatory fictions which we can shut off from when we close the book?

I very much enjoyed giving this paper, as well as the discussions over coffee with other delegates, in particular another academic – Dr. Justin Sausman of the University of Hertfordshire – who also presented on Haweswater.  Another personal highlight for me was having the opportunity to quote a small section of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon (yes, it was relevant to a discussion about the literary history of monstrosity and the moors!).

York is just lovely – you should go, especially if you really like a bit of Viking history mixed in with your organic cafes and high-end clothing stores.

My thanks to the University for funding my trip.  Next stop: a conference on Eco-Gothic in Dublin, Trinity College, late November – yey!

Dr Melanie Ebdon

 

Congratulations to the Class of 2017

The Class of 2017 graduated at the picturesque Trentham Gardens this week.

Congratulations to everybody who completed their degrees this year. We were all so proud to share your day on Monday. Congratulations, too, to this year’s prize winners; Sian Davies, Ben Underwood and Susan Ecclestone. Here’s some of the pictures we managed to grab (see the facebook page for more).

History as a text – Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

In her Reith lecture recently, the double Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, said:

“history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”

Hayden White, somebody who we might characterise as a ‘postmodern historian’, similarly claims that all history is text, and is subject to the same subjective interpretative understandings and misunderstandings as any other piece of writing. In addition, the historical record is often in the hands of those wishing to put their side of events, and it is history’s winners whose version gets to become the ‘official’ history. White identifies how events don’t always fit into the comforting structures of narrative, how events don’t always lend themselves to a beginning, a middle and an end. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, he argues that:

‘But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be. …The lateness of the invention of historical discourse in human history and the difficulty of sustaining it in times of cultural breakdown (as in the early Middle Ages) suggest the artificiality of the notion that real events could “speak themselves” or be represented as “telling their own story”…. It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that narrativization is so difficult.’

History then, as Mantel identifies above, is an unreliable witness to the events of the past, and we can never recover them with any objective clarity. As Mantel says, ‘history …. is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ The unreliable nature of history, and who controls the official record, have concerned many great writers of recent years. Toni Morrison has explored the legacy of slavery in black communities, Tim O’Brien has wrestled with the un-tellable story of Vietnam, and E L Doctorow has fictionalised the histories of those marginalised and ignored by the official historical record. From these writers, I teach Song of Solomon (but Beloved is probably Morrison’s finest achievement), In the Lake of the Woods, and The Book of Daniel. From these texts, we learn that history has competing interpretations of the past, and the un-official histories of the unvoiced has an equal claim to be heard.

You can listen to the Reith Lectures on the BBC iPlayer.

Readers and Writers – new Distance Learning MA in English Literature and Creative Writing

On the English and Creative Writing degree at Staffs we are dedicated to demonstrating to our students that the best writers are also well-informed readers. The conventions that shape literature go back to the epics and tragedies of ancient Greece and were first classified by Aristotle, and every student of the creative arts must know what traditions she or he is writing out of or against – whether they are classical drama, the Shakespearean sonnet, or modernist poetry. When we teach the Beat writers of 1950s America, for example, we show our students that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and their fellow travellers were not just iconoclasts, tearing down the walls of literature, they were deeply aware of their literary outlaw forebears who had been the rebels of their day.

 

Colm Tóibín, writing in the Guardian recently, explores similar ground. In exploring evil in the contemporary world, contemplating the Northern Island Troubles and so-called Islamic State, he has reworked the Greek story of Clytemnestra who killed her husband, Agamemnon, to explore the personalities of those capable of great cruelty. One of the characters he struggled with was Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, who goes on to kill his mother in revenge for his father’s death (the daughter is Electra, so you can see what a dysfunctional family we are dealing with). Tóibín, unable to conjure Orestes’ voice, looked to other male figures in literature capable of murder. “As I went through other novels and some plays, and indeed my own experience and memories, trying to find a shape for Orestes,” he writes, “I  looked carefully at the figure of Hyacinth Robinson in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, who is all passivity and ambiguity. I thought also about Adolf Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and even Hamlet, or Iago, or Macbeth in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Duncan.” Like all great writers, Tóibín is deeply aware of the debt he owes to his literary predecessors, and it is to earlier writers that he turns for inspiration. Iago, Macbeth and Hamlet are written into our cultural DNA and provide touchstones of violence or madness in the pursuit of vengeance or power. James’s and Conrad’s figures are less well known (Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s best-known figure of evil unconstrained by social conscience), and are more recent examples of the inquisitive reader finding raw material in the wealth of our literary inheritance.

To encourage writers and analysts to locate their creative and critical practice in relation to recent literature we have, here at Staffordshire University, recently introduced a brand new Distance Learning MA in Modern and Contemporary Writing. This innovative post grad degree will introduce students to key writers, texts, compositional methods, literary movements and critical perspectives of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The modules are arranged around key thematic and narrative concerns, paradigmatic shifts in American writing, global writing, and emergent theoretical and critical perspectives, such as eco-criticism. Uniquely, the assignments allow students to explore critical or creative approaches to the literatures of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. As a result, this MA will help students develop as critics, or creative writers, or both. All students take the dissertation or creative project module at the end of their studies. If you take the creative project, you will be supported by the Writers’ Workshop module to prepare you for the task ahead and to give you the opportunity to produce a very substantial piece of creative work. English dissertation students can use the Contemporary Critical Approaches module to identify and explore the critical or theoretical perspectives they wish to employ in their research project.

Because it is Distance Learning, students can organise their studies around their other commitments.

First year perspectives from Cathryn Hurd

What a Year!

It might sound strange calling a blog post “What a Year” in the middle of June but my academic year has recently drawn to a close. Today I received the results of all my hard work, tears, often shouted “I can’t do this” and head-stuck-in-a-book weekends. I passed. Not only did I pass but I averaged a 1st for my first year at university doing my English degree. I’m completely over the moon, ecstatic and somewhat amazed at myself.

A year ago, I was counting down the weeks until I started uni. Nervous about whether I would: –

  1. Understand what the lectures said or whether they did actually speak in a foreign language that everyone else would understand except me.
  2. Be able to read all the books on the course and understand them!
  3. Fit in. This was a biggie for me. Being a “mature” student, the worry was that I would be in a classroom full of young people who would look at me like an uncool old fart!

Continue reading

Bonkers and Brilliant

Stoke on Trent celebrated submitting their City of Culture bid with an open air spectacular in front of Haney Town Hall. The performance involved drummers, an opera singer on the roof, fountains and fireworks. If this is the sort of entertainment we can expect in a City of Culture, 2021 will be a fantastic year.

The show was called ‘There’s Something in the Water, Duck’ and it was presented by Avanti. My pics don’t do it justice, so click here too

 

A Trip to Bronte-Land!

Haworth Parsonnage – home of the Bronte family:  On April 1st-2nd, a few Staffordshire Uni English and Creative Writing students went on a trip to Haworth.  On the Saturday we visited Haworth Parsonnage, home of the Bronte Family.  On the Sunday we walked a total of 9 miles along the Pennine Way to Top Within: this now ruined farmhouse is said to have been the inspiration for the house called Wuthering Heights in Emily’s novel of the same name.  Well worth it – and we had a lovely fine day.  With thanks to Cathryn Hurd for many of these photos and for driving us!

This is where the magic happened: the table at which Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and Emily wrote Wuthering Heights.  The museum information described this desk as “One of the most important literary artefacts of the 19th century” – I’d say it’s one of the most important literary artefacts ever.  The table was purchased and brought back into the home in 2015 at a price of £580,000.  The family who sold the table to the Bronte Museum had used the table for their Christmas dinners…!

Everything stops for tea (and a coconut slice)

Getting into the Victorian vibe – what a lovely couple!

Setting off on a ramble up the Pennine Way towards Top Withen (why does this remind me a bit of the Tellytubbies…?).

Approaching Bronte Bridge

Gaining a little altitude – almost there!

The pen-name signatures of all three published Bronte sisters

I spent a fantastic afternoon with the Year 10 English class at Streetly Academy in Sutton Coldfield this week. In a poetry masterclass we looked at structure, rhyme scheme, imagery, language and punctuation in Robert Browning’s ‘Meeting at Night’ (a surprisingly subversive poem!).

Then we ripped it up into little bits and made our own poems out of it. We borrowed from Tristan Tzara’s 1902 poem, ‘How to Make a Dadaist Poem’:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

 

I managed to capture a couple of great examples before the poems got swept away:

large gray voice quench

pushing from fiery hearts

the sea and beach,

night and sand

waves and ringlets appears

the little joys   each startled fears

low fears, its pushing the sand.

appears: loud, less long land

These are great poems, but whose are they? These are Browning’s words (everybody’s words?), arranged to a method proposed by Tzara, but by the hand of today’s young poets!

This ‘cut-up’ method was later used by the Beat writer, WIlliam S Burroughs, and by David Bowie.

My grateful thanks to the students and the English staff at Streetly for their warm welcome. We are looking forward to your visit to Staffs next term.

City of Glass in Manchester

HOME Manchester, Lyric Hammersmith and 59 Productions are staging an adaptation of Paul Auster’s novella, City of Glass.

City of Glass is the first of 3 metaphysical or postmodern detective stories collected in The New York Trilogy, which is Auster’s best known novel and the one attracting the most attention from scholars.

The production coincides with Auster’s new novel, 4 3 2 1, and his visit to the UK to promote it – he’s been on Radio 4 and Newsnight in recent weeks, and read from his novel at, among other venues, HOME.

The metaphysical detective story employs the conventions of the traditional detective mystery – a crime, clues, investigation, a detective, a suspect, a femme fatale – but along the way the detective finds himself contemplating complex and foundational philosophical ideas. In City of Glass, the detective figure finds himself investigating language, identity, writing, narrative and literary form. I use the term detective figure here because Daniel Quinn is a detective writer who takes a case meant for the Paul Auster Detective Agency.

HOME’s adaptation is stunning in how it realises the claustrophobia of Auster’s metafictional central character, isolated from New York society by tragedy and his writing, Continue reading

Dark in The Day book launch

Some 50 members of the public attended the Dark in the Day Book Launch at City Central Library on February 7th. The book publishes 8 Staffordshire University creative writing students (6 undergraduates, 2 postgraduates) alongside established writers in the field of ‘weird fiction.’ The project came about when guest lecturer, Storm Constantine (author and publisher) suggested to creative writing lecturer, Paul Houghton, they might work on an anthology together with the students. The format for the evening was six contributors reading six-minute extracts. Before that, co-editor of the book, Paul Houghton introduced the event which began with a particularly luscious and surreal poem by Dr Lisa Mansell, ‘Angels of Anarchy’, inspired by the work of Leonora Carrington. The first story excerpt was by final year undergraduate, Jack Fabian, who read from his eerie story, ‘A New Womann’ about an artist inspired by a disfigured woman. Next up was Sian Davies, another final year undergraduate, with an equally chilling tale, ‘Post Partum’, about a new mother who believes her baby is not her own. She was followed by PhD creative writing student, Paula Wakefield, who read from her story, ‘In Touch’, a psychological zoom-lens analysis of an intense relationship. After a break for wine-bipping, bookselling and chat, lecturer Paul Houghton read an extract from ‘The Strange Case of Quentin Wilde,’ a black comedy which details a dummy’s first night out. Novelist and publisher, Storm Constantine read from ‘The Secret Gallery’, a luscious, dream-like story set in the mysterious Galleria Buiocuore. The surreal tone was continued by guest author Rosie Garland, who read from her dramatic and equally poetic story, ‘An End to Empire’ which has become even more poignant in the light of recent political events in the U.S. Rosie also gave an impassioned speech about the inspiration and importance of public libraries.

After more wine, book sales and chat, a happy audience filed out in an orderly manner.  It was great to see so many people there, even a few former students as well as library users and curious people. Many thanks to Emma and all the lovely staff at City Central Library for all their work and support.

Dark in the Day, edited by Storm Constantine and Paul Houghton is available here:

www.immanion-press.com/info/book.asp?id=492&referer=Hp