Freshers’ Trip to London in Welcome Week

We are in Week 4 already, and it’s now quite a while ago since we went to London with the Freshers in Welcome Week, on Thursday 21 September to be precise, to visit two venerable institutions associated with learning and culture in this country: the British Library and the British Museum. However, the memory of our trip still lingers pleasantly like a warm cloud of benevolence over this busy semester…

The Class of 2017/18    

We took the slow train there and back which meant that we had plenty of time to get to know our wonderful new students.

Mark Brown about to teleport to the Metropolis 

In town, highlights were the manuscript treasures of the British library (with, for example, the heavily annotated and worked over first page of Hardy’s Tess on display, and many more samples from the literary canon relevant to us, plus the priceless exhibits documenting British culture through the history of books), and an exhibition on print making and modern Western information culture in the British Museum (which had only opened that day!). Some of the group also used the opportunity to look at the infamous Mummies.. A nice lunch in the Library was thrown into the mix for good measure, before we walked through St Pancras Station (Neo-Gothic!), and from there in a 20 minute trail through Bloomsbury to the Museum. As we headed for the train back, we even managed to get a pint in at a hostelry near Euston. In summary, an altogether fruitful day, and time well spent with my students and colleagues.

Martin J

Strenghtening Cohort Identity on Trip to Liverpool

To Liverpool last Wednesday, originally to get some live-experience of Pre-Raphaelitism (on our list of topics in my Level 5 and 6 module Painting the Town Red), through sampling the holdings of Pre-Raphalite paintings in the Walker Gallery, around the corner from Lime Street Station. However, we broadened out the brief of the trip by opening it up to all English and English and Creative Writing students on our Staffs Awards. Also, we did not just do the Walker Gallery, but also Liverpool Central Library, Tate Liverpool by the Albert Docks, and much this, that, and the other besides …

As it turned out, we ended up a fairly small, but perfectly formed little throng of 15 +, a cross-section of really nice people from all study-levels, with some joining us along the way, and also leaving at various stages of the programme, for one urgent reason or another. (One student had actually gone to the length of driving up with her lil’ toddler son to meet us at Lime Street station; she had to leave half way through, but – as we heard from  her the next day – spend more than 5 hours on the motorway on her way back: so not lucky!). A sizable part of the group made use of the opportunity to check out the watering holes and eateries in up-town Hope Street area, after the bugle had been sounded that ended the official part of our venture. One of these night birds, at the ‘Career’s Fest’ next day (a man, who shall remain nameless), had the deep bass-baritonal timbre of voice that normally follows a bout of alcoholic abandon….

At the station we were also joined by Greg, one of our Level 5 ‘mature’ students, dyed-in-the wool scouser and guide extra-ordinaire from whose expert knowledge we beneffitted all day long. He led the way, and also led by mature example as some of us frequented the more insalubrious establishments of town, in between watching the High-Art display in the two Galleries, and then later into the night….

After coffee we looked around in the Walker, starting with C19 Victorian painting. Their Pre-Raphaelite holdings are not as extensive as in he Birmingham or Manchester galleries, but we saw a couple of paintings which we had actually discussed in class, particularly Millais’s Isabella; remarkable also, a picture that we had not so far looked at on the module, one of my favourites, Brett’s Stonebreaker, which exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelites’ obsessive attention to meticulous detail (the picture shows an abundence of plants, all botanically identifiable, and much geological detail): ‘truth to nature’ is the motto; the human, here labouring, part of the cycle of things; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is in the air…

The next station was the newly reconstructed and modernised City Library, right next to the Walker Gallery. Greg pointed it out to us and suggested we go in. We took a look at the old rotund Reading Room, reconstructed and absolutely glorious, not unlike the old Reading Room of the British Library in London, then housed in the British Museum.


We took the above group picture on the Viewing Platform on the top floor of the modern new part of the library, whose interior compares very favourably with the new Birmingham Library, but here, of course, the modernist interior design is very well hidden behind the early C19 facade behind which it is inserted, whereas part of the splendour of the Birmingham Library is also in its multi-culturally inspired exterior design: Orienalising (?),  filigree….

Greg then led the way through town towards the Albert Docks. We got a good whiff of the Mersey sea air (with the weather wildly oscillating between misty, rainy gloom and bursts of sudden sunshine). The tide was half in, and the water over to the Birkenhead shore was like a grey mirrror, reflecting clouds and the high buildings on the other side.

Mersey Mirror


Some of us went for a liquid pub lunch, others for more solid food in the Gallery’s café.

img-20161110-wa0001Photo: Irram Amin

Tate Liverpool had provided us with a living guide, who, for a fee (Mel, extremely kindly, forked out on all our behalf!) talked us through Tracy Emin’s Unmade Bed, as an example of a ‘Self Portrait of the Artist as a Troubled Young Woman’ (very convincing!), and tried to draw parallels (perhaps not so convincing!) with the 25 or so William Blake etchings, drawings and paintings which Emin had chosen as context for her own artistic bed-statement. The Gallery has been following through for some time with their laudable project of connecting conceptually seemingly very different art works by exhibting them side-by-side.. With Blake and Emin (Mel and I talked about it afterwards) we were not so sure whether the connection worked, even though the guide, John Hughes, did his best to draw out the links. For example, the contrast of the soft toys by the side of Emin’s bed with the depressing adult chaos of the bed he connected with the contrast of Innocence and Experience in Blake’s poetry and painting. (He also interspersed his substantial talk with amusing limericks of his own making characterising ‘the essence’ of various artists: Pollock, Dali, Emin, Blake, etc..) In any case: both the Bed and the Blake were well worth looking at.

wp_20161109_14_55_04_pro Photos: MJ

All in all, a good day out with very nice things to do, in the company of very nice people (on an otherwise depressing day, with Fascism looming in the Anglo-American world).

I enjoyed myself tremendously.

Sonnet 65: ‘Paint it Black’ – Back to Black, on occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary

The Sonnets are Shakespeare condensed into small scale poetic form. Their performance space is not on the playhouse stage, but in the more expansive theatre of the mind, portable Shakespeare, therefore, for the modern bookreader, to be accessed anywhere and whenever. Compiled inside the covers of one book, the 154 poems, 14 lines each, provide a lyrical backdrop to Shakespeare’s theatre, a sort of engine room or microcosm of nuclear ideas that power the universe of the plays. Of course they also demand to be enjoyed in their own right. For, first and foremost, this is great poetry: something else Shakespeare, the playwright polymath, was exceptionally good at, even though various juries are still out whether all of The Sonnets are of equally high artistic quality. As is the case with numerous other aspects of Shakespeare’s work,The Sonnets carry some unanswered questions regarding sources, origins, authorship, publication, purpose, sexual orientation even, order of arrangement of the sequence and of individual poems in the collection, its dedication, addressees etc.. To pick out but one area: who, for example, was the dedicatee of the collection, the enigmatic ‘Mr W.H.’ (the most recent research-based claim suggests he was a friend of the author, a London publisher called William Holme), or, in another contentious area, who was the young man the first 126 sonnets are addressed to (was there even a physical role model, and what, if there was?); and who was the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ of the last 28 ones? As first port of call, introducing some of the ins and outs of the text, W. H. Auden’s ‘Afterword’ to the Everyman’s Library edition may serve: a poet’s perspective on the poems…

The sonnet as a new poetic form originated in 13th century Italy. Its invention can be regarded as one of the most substantial literary achievements of early modern culture, with a first peak of artistic perfection in the Canzoniere of Petrarca (written between 1327 and 1368). In fact, it has been argued that the sonnet as an artistic landmark points to the beginning of the Renaissance as  such… Since then the form has enjoyed several high points along the way to later modern writing, Shakespeare’s collection of 1609 being one of them, of course; also, Elisabeth Barrett-Browning’s 1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese needs a mention, and, most recently, in 2015, Don Patterson’s excellent collection of  40 Sonnets. Almost everybody who was (and is) anybody in the world of poetic writing has at some stage used the sonnet. Its specific formal features demand of the poet a high degree of skill and good craftsmanship; it lends itself particularly well to the display of poetic virtuosity. You can make a good name for yourself, even aspire to enter into the afterlife of everlasting poetic fame, or become a Poet Laureate, if you manage to compose  decent sonnets. Contemporary likenesses convey Petrarch as the bearer of the laurel wreath, the ancient Apollonian crown for heroes and champion poets. The other reason is that owing to the peculiarities of its intricate structure and patterning, the Petrarchan sonnet and its Shakespearean modification have served as a model form for expressing complex  thoughts, sentiments and feelings: the sonnet is a modern poetic form because it allows particularly well for an expression of the issues that are on the modern mind.

The modernity of the sonnet as a form lies in the fact that it is eminently suitable to deal  with questions of conflicted human identity in an increasingly confusing world of post medieval secularisation, a world we are still living in today. The discourse-oriented, bipartite structure of the Italian sonnet (Octave – two Quatrains –  followed by Sestet – two Tercets) and the possibilities of fugue-like intertwining of rhymes (across the different intersections) allows for great flexibility in expressing condensed, complex ideas, often of an antithetical, or oxymoronic and paradoxical nature, and encourages the development of a complicated argument, that may extend from initial statement via discussion in the Octave down to a resolution at the end of the Sestet. Shakespeare modifies the Petrarchan model. Replacing the two-part structure (Octave and Sestet), he introduces three Quatrains and one final Couplet, which, it can be argued, even increases the sonnet’s propensity for intellectual disputation and the charting of thoughts as a ‘dialectical’ process, with negation, self-doubt, and contradiction as ingredient elements. Arguably, through its essentially tripartite structure (plus concluding couplet), the Shakespearean paradigm of the sonnet, even more so than the more binary-based Petrarchan, caters even better for the requirements of dynamically developing, modern thought and a fluid argumentation. Like most of his plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets use iambic pentameter, the metrical line that hides its own constructedness and aims at giving the illusion of life-like speech. It also brings The Sonnets in proximity to the plays in that it enhances the dramatic positioning of the ideas discussed in them. Their rhyme scheme mostly follows the pattern of abab cdcd efef gg.

Sonnet 65 is one of my favorites.



Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


To me it stands out as one of the most radically modern of Shakespeares utterances, through its imagery, for a start, which seems to point forward as far ahead as Victorian Industrialisation and Darwinian Geology. But also through the depth of what is being discussed in it: at the root is a central question still asked in a similar way (and sometimes  answered), perhaps asked again for the first time in this radical way since Shakespeare’s days, in European art and thought around the middle of the 19th century and beyond. Art, poetry to be precise, holds out the faint hope of permanence and constancy in the face of the great ravisher Time who causes all human life and its products to be annihilated. The human counts for nothing in a world of raging natural devastation where even rocks erode over time, let alone brass and steel: hope against hope, the poet writes against the inevitability of natural decay, and perhaps there is a slim chance for poetic passion, codified in the black ink of the written text, to survive the tumult of destruction and shine through it.

The notion of transience of life is as widespread in the European literature of the Baroque as that of teatrum mundi  (‘All the Word’s a stage’, in the words of one of Shakespeare’s plays), both ideas feeding into the modern notion of tragic absurdity of life. Thus, as Walter Benjamin emphasised in his  study of Baroque tragedy, the literature of Shakespeare’s period paves the way into our own time. However, Sonnet 65 seems to me to go particularly deep in its modern concerns, perhaps further than other discussions of the matter in Shakespeare and other contemporary writers, such as Cervantes, Calderon or Grimmelshausen. This sonnet strikes me particularly through its visionary qualities, enhanced  by its peculiar network of metaphors, directly anticipating, down to the phrase almost, many later expressions of the same dilemma from poets and writers who were neck-deep embroiled in the battles for orientation and identity during Industrial Revolution and later Capitalism, the worst times of turmoil and change of the whole period. Marx, no poet, comes out with the stunning well-known poetic line, ‘All that is solid melts into air’ (1848), a fact, he maintains with the characteristic optimism of the early freedom fighter, that we can, waking up to realising our own situation, turn into our advantage. From Sonnet 65, links can be drawn to Darwin who propagates the notion of  ‘geological time’ in Origin of Species (1859); The sentence from the same source: ‘How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods’, chimes with the sentiments of the Sonnet. It also anticipates late-19th century Aestheticism which, counteracting the pessimism of Darwin’s biological determinism, identifies a faculty in the make-up of the human that may provide a reason to live in a devastating world of destruction, by resisting ‘Nature, Red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson’s phrase from In Memoriam, 1850). In the famous Conclusion to The Renaissance (1873) Walter Pater says that

‘we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. … Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. … Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’

There is a variety of connections that can be made between Sonnet 65’s desperate vision of hope that art may resist the destruction of time to similar reflections in 19th century poetry. Canto V of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) echoes the Sonnet’s idea of fragile ink set against overwhelming devastation. Tennyson, who thinks of his own poems as ‘lullabies of pain’, holds that

But for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

If at all, it is only through art that the human has any significance, any distinct part to play in the grand scheme of things. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 the dim glow of the black ink of poetry is the only light source in a world of cosmic devastation and universal darkness. The same black sun of poetry shines from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857), and more, powerfully black even, from James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night (1874). In an early poem called ‘Hap’ of 1866, Hardy calls Time a ‘purblind Doomster’: this is the major ingredient also in all of Hardy’s novels. Time in Hardy is the modern equivalent of ancient fate in a post-mythological and post-Christian age, the main agent (together with chance, or ‘Happenstance’ – the shortened title of the poem ‘Hap’) that turns human life into tragedy, even under the most modern of conditions.




Hardy’s Tess – Skeleton found in a – Prison Carpark?

It so happened last week, just before we were about to start the first session of our four week run on The Novel (in the Level 4 Introduction to English Studies skills module), that a newspaper article appeared reporting the discovery of the mortal remains of one Martha Brown in the grounds of a Dorchester prison. Brown was condemned to death by hanging in 1856 for the murder of her violent husband, one of the last executions of this kind in England. The event was attended by the 16 year old Thomas Hardy, apparently traumatised by the incident, so much so that he used the personage and the story leading to the hanging as raw material for one of his most famous novels, the late work Tess of the D’urbervilles, published 1892, more than half a lifetime after the grim spectacle. Coincidence wills it that this very novel is featured as specimen in our session on the novel in the above mentioned module. I could not have wished for a more fitting and timely introduction to studying the novel as a reality-bound literary form. The episode profiles the doctrine of Realism in stark relief…

Gemma Arterton (right) in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ Adaptation: ‘Battlefield’, at the Young Vic

Down the smoke, 19 and 20 Feb, to tank up on High (and some low!) C(c)ulture. I saw Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen’s The Master Builder: an excellent performance in the Old Vic. The Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street behind King’s Cross (free entry!) has an exhibition comparing/contrasting portraiture of the photographer Avedon with Warhol’s portraits. Highly recommended. The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Aldwych (also free entry for students and teachers), shows the Botticelli cartoons illustrating the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy: 60 plus drawings, with magnifying glasses handed out at the entrance.: can’t think of anything better, at least not in this area of the highest pursuits…

Warhol: self Portrait

Warhol: self Portrait

Avedon: Ezra Pound

Avedon: Ezra Pound


Avedon: Beckett


The main theatrical event happened in the other more vibrant place around the corner from the Old Vic: i.e. in the Young Vic, which still, it seems, fulfils the promise held out by its name: vibrancy, new impulses, setting the standard for contemporary theatre. A while ago I saw Beckett’s Happy Days there. Terrifyingly intense. This time, I was  lucky enough to score a ticket for one of Peter Brook’s rare productions on an English stage, entitled Battlefield. Brook is now 91; it was (without trying to wish time away) probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me then to see the legend in live-action.

The venue was  bristling with young vibe. Andrew Scott, of Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) and Pride fame was in the house (I could smell his Eau, I came that close), also Fiona Shaw, and, as coincidence had it, our very own Staffs arch-practitioner in the dramatic arts, playwright and Panto specialist extraordinaire ‘Rob’ Marsden…. Indeed, the Staffordshire links extended further, for, one of the five-strong cast was the Cheesemanian disciple of yore and sometime Northern Broadside member, Sean O’Callaghan, the only Caucasian white actor in this show.

My interest in Brook’s work goes back some time and is linked partially with a stint of teaching I did in the olden days for the Drama and Theatre Arts Department at Staffs Uni, including 20th century play-writing and dramaturgy. A short explanation might be in order.

Peter Brook started off as one of the most radical innovators of British post-war theatre, with trail-blazing productions of plays from the traditional canon to his name, such as Shakespeare’s Lear (1962) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), but also new ‘experimental’ ones, the most spectacular Marat/Sade (1964) by Peter Weiss. Brook re-examined the very texts of the plays he used in the light of innovatory 20th century theatre practices and the theories that transformed theatre after Ibsen, such as those of  Brecht (‘Epic Theatre’), Artaud (‘Theatre of Cruelty’), and the Theatre of the Absurd. In one of his seminal studies (The Empty Space: the practitioner Brook is also a formidable theorist!), which has  come to be regarded as something of a rule-book for post-modern theatre, he argues that text is only one amongst the elements that come into play when the empty space of the theatre is to be filled with theatrical matter. In fact, it is Brooks iconoclastic irreverence towards the traditionally sanctioned play-text (handed down over centuries and meticulously edited into ‘definite’ shape by generations of scholars) that might be singled out as a key feature of his radicalism as a theatrical innovator. Far from holy writ, the actual text is according to Brook by no means THE central  element of theatre. Particularly the well established texts almost held sacred, such as those of Shakespeare’s plays, need to be put through the mincer; they need re-shaping and re-jigging, as each new specific present  production requires. The above mentioned  Midsummer Night’s Dream went down as a good example for the new flexibility in the handling of text for the theatre that Brook advocated, including cutting, altering, re-ordering of passages and scenes: an attitude of postmodern utility and sobriety…

All in all, Brook argues the case for a re-evaluation and re-prioritisation (dread word!) of the elements that come together to create the theatre experience. He aims at a new holistic inclusiveness of the theatre which needs to start from scratch (an empty room) in the assembly of its ingredient elements for each new production. Some of these elements, such as mime, acrobatics, magic, are to be re-admitted centre-stage from the neglected fringes of performance practice. Thus, Midsummer Night’s Dream used acrobats, fire eaters, jugglers, etc. In this regard Brook’s theatre seems to correspond  with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the Carnivalesque: established doctrines of style are subverted through the liberating force of chaos and humour ….

Brook also worked in film. In the versions of Lord of the Flies (1963), Marat/Sade (1967) and Lear (1971), all three in Black and White, Brook seems well conversant with the aesthetic requirements in this different medium. For example, the madness scene of Lear raving on the Heath comes alive well as film. Shot in a sequence of blurry, double-exposed images, the over-blending gives Lear’s psychotic outbursts a uniquely cinematographic form. During  the English period of his activity, Brook was instrumental in launching the careers of many now well-established theatre and cinema actors, such as Glenda Jackson’s (Marat/Sade) and Ben Kingsely’s (Midsummer Night’s Dream); the name of Paul Scofield (Lear) is intrinsically linked with earlier Brook.

These days it is rare to see Brook in action in Britain. He now operates from Paris, where he moved in the mid-70s, acquiring a defunct Belle époque venue, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord near the Gare du Nord, whose director he remained until 2008. The most spectacular production emerging from Paris was the 12 hour-long staging of a Sanscrit epic, Mahabharata, in 1985, an experience of truly Wagnerian dimensions, both in terms of sheer length and as a multi-artistic fusion project, with the slimmer film version, cut down to a mere 6 hours, added in 1989. The immensely long text of more than 200000 verses is the Indian equivalent to Homer’s Greek epics, albeit probably older, going back to even before C8 BCE in its oldest core parts.

It was thus with great expectations that I attended the performance at the Young Vic. Reader, they were not thwarted! Battlefield, it emerged, is the massive epic of the Mahabharata whittled down to a mere 65 minutes of performance time. Brook has moved away then from the gargantuan proportions of the original 1985 production, from the opulence of his earlier output altogether, to a ‘late style’ of sparse gestures and tightly crafted minimalism: the show runs through without interruption in what could be called ‘one act’. The short segment presented is the condensed essence of the whole of the Mahabharata project, the full epic in a nutshell, so to speak. The structure of the huge text consisting of scores of intertwined tales held together in a broader narrative frame is showcased here, in an exemplary, didactically demonstrative way, very much reminiscent of Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘Instructive Theatre Parables’). Thus, the Battlefield segment features as a representative nuclear scene standing in for the whole of the Mahabharata’s endlessly confabulated creation-of-the-world myth. We see the key players of the extended version in action here, Krishna and Vishnu, as well as a small selection of more minor characters lower in the mythological chain through whom the will and wisdom of the gods is filtered down the pyramid of creation. The ebb and flow of life is presented in an allegory of battle and war, the battlefield of death as wasteland of rebirth and renewal, a kind of Indian version of the baroque idea of Theatrum mundi.

One of the most impressive features of the production is  that of ‘the fifth man’, a Japanese tabla player with a free-jazz backdrop, who provides continuous musical commentary on proceedings. The music-maker is fully integrated as an independent voice with a non-linguistic, purely musical part. This goes deep into the heart of the play’s mythologizing intentions. The good Dr. Schopenhauer is near in spirit…

If one were to sum-up the whole thing in terms of impact of theatrical experience and significance of production, the following could be said:

  • an enormously rich experience  packed into  little more than an hour of performance;
  • a fruitful tension of contemporary, ‘modern’ theatre feeding on primeval, in itself half-shadowy, prehistoric text: a ‘post-modern’ tension;
  • fulfilment of the key demands of Brecht’s Epic Theatre (narrative intentions; props rendering strange the action; the actors stepping outside of their roles etc.), paradoxically through bringing mythology back to life;
  • a marriage of thinking man’s Brechtian Epic Theatre therefore and C.G. Jung’s dimming Collective Unconscious.
A curious admixture of the best of two different worlds….



Trip to Grasmere English and Creative Writing 31 October/1 November 2015, Melanie, Lisa, Martin



Repeating last year’s rapturous experience of our Level 4 English and Creative Writing residential trip to Grasmere, Lake District, everybody again had a blistering good time. On this occasion, we filled up some of the vacant spaces with level 5 and 6 people, and there was even a stray post-grad MA student… The mix of levels turned out to be a benevolent thing: we intellectually and otherwise cross-fertilised covering the range. Once again, the atmosphere was distinctly Halloweeny, what with the trip dates actually coinciding with the very event itself, and the local Youth Hostel being a rather spooky place at the best of times, hidden away in a nooky dell between thick, mostly dripping wet  foliage in a secluded spot en route to Easedale Tarn. One room, too frightening for anyone even to contemplate to stay in overnight, had a big wet patch on one of the walls and a putrid smell of wastage, hinting at oozing ectoplasm, the remains of the not yet fully, still somewhat active, dead.


We did Dove Cottage Saturday afternoon, getting us into the frame of mind of the Romantic situation. Obligingly, it was raining it down by the bucketfuls… Last year, on the first night, Paul Houghton, for some inexplicable reason, had turned all green in the pub, and we had, admittedly with not much success, tried after hours, in the cavernous basement, to conjure the spirit of my dead grandmother in a rather fruitless Seance. This time, some (!) beers in the pub later, with heightened senses and a high degree of exuberance, we did an extended reading in the lounge: a hellraisingly inspirational affair – we sampled some highlights of the Romantic repertory, and, best of all, excellent Creative Writing student work. We were all impressed by the high quality and intensity of the material. Lisa stood her ground, still capable of steering us through proceedings with a steady hand to the last.


Next morning, some of us set off on a  6 1/2 mile walk around Lakes Grasmere and Rydal, which, rather than a gentle ramble, as promissed in the brochure, turned out to be a real hiking tour-deforce, well, at least to us Stokie couch potatoes, in excess of 4 hours: intensely enjoyable in many ways, but this is also where some suffering occured (as in ‘blistering good time’ of the first sentence of this). Let us spread the sponge of amnesia over this stinging aspect of an otherwise wholly enyoyable outing…

Great trip.

Dr Martin Jesinghausen


Photography: Dr Melanie Ebdon

A Good Week of English Lit. Teaching

I had a good week of teaching (and learning!)  last week, which meant I (and my students) benefited greatly from student input, with particular highlights of two Seminar Presentations, one in my module Modernist Prose Writing on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the other, in the core module level 5 Literature and Modernity, on Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’.

The first two presentations of the season, these were of the highest standard immediately, hopefully setting the gold standard for the rest to follow. Both were delivered in a ‘thinking aloud’ manner, either  by way of (one person) speaking to Power Point slides (Conrad; mostly highlighted text passages), or to memorising notes (Poe; pair presentation with pre-arranged part allocation). Both presentations cut to the chase of the two texts. On a very high level, the Conrad one dealt with the complexities of the text’s existentialist message as it cuts across the binary divide, before a backdrop of colonial capitalism, between black/white, individual/mass, first world/third world, primitive/civilised etc.. It also opened up in an ananlytical way the detail in the Modernist techniques of Conrad’s innovative (1899!) prose style. – The Poe presentation delivered a fascinating reading of this short tale, by ‘presenting’ the seminar with more than one option of meaning, before homing in on a number of central points. The prophetic ‘textuality’ (almost post-modern?) of the piece was highlighted. The man of the crowd was identified as a symbolic (Allegory!) incarnation of the new socio/psychological identity model of ‘the crowd’. In the light of this monstrous phenomenon, symptomatic of the late modern age, writing cannot function any longer according to the tried and trusted models of ‘simple’ symbolisation. Symbolic representation (this is Poe’s point, it seems) needs to be designed to incorporate difference. Extended systems of interlinking symbols are needed. The ‘Man’ is an anorganic hybrid of contradictory attributes (‘dagger/diamond’) belonging to different class categories as they are listed with almost sociological precision in the middle section of the story. The possibility was offered that the ‘Man’ could also be read (Poe says, as part of the text of the story in German [missing Umlaut over the ‘lasst’], that he ‘cannot be read’; : “Er lasst sich nicht lesen”) as the narrator’s shadowy alter ego. Reconvalescing from a strange fever: opium, most likely, or syphillis as was suggested, he is obsessively following a figment of his own dark imagination which takes him  into the innermost recesses of his half-crazed mind: the horror of modern crowd identity/ nightmarish loss of individual identity boundaries etc.: ‘ a shadow chasing shadows’, the team said.

Both presentations initiated powerful seminar discussion. In a wonderful way, to me at least, and also to those students, I assume,  who are taking part in these two of my modules, a bridging link became visible between the two texts: the horror at ‘the heart’ (wrong symbol?!) of them both.

Martin Jesinghausen