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

 

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.

World Book Day

On World Book Day, the English and Creative Writing staff have been pondering the books have shaped them as readers:

I fell in love with Narnia when I was about 7. I must have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a dozen times. The mesmerising combination of real-world childhood anxieties and the magical world of Mr Tumnus and the White Witch transported me from a humdrum suburban existence to a place of imagination and adventure. Later, I would reflect on the Biblical allegory and genre convention of portals to fabulous worlds which taught the children in children’s literature how to deal with the uncertainties of growing up, being part of a group, and the looming responsibilities of the adult world, but I will always remember the escape to a magical kingdom of talking animals and good and bad.

Right now, I’m reading Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K, a meditation on intersection of capital, technology and death.

Mark Brown

I can’t think of a more touching and fascinatingly conceived book than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Written at the end of C19, it brings to an end, to an extent, the ‘Age of the Victorian Novel’, climax of that great tradition and swansong at the same time. Tess is a radical novel. Hardy eschews the compromise of marriage that seals the trials and tribulations of the female protagonists in most of the women-authored Victorian novels (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch). With tragic inevitability Tess, a pure child of nature, walks into her own doom. Every move she makes to get out of her pickles only tightens the noose around her neck. The agents of her destruction are Time, Circumstance, the trappings and falsehoods of modern civilisation, and of course – men! (Hard to understand that this was written by a man!) Hardy had been working some time on transposing the tragic conflict of Greek Tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles) into the modern novel. In fact, his intention had been, (Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge are cases in point), to demonstrate that the novel was the only adequate artistic medium under conditions of modernity to render the notion of life as tragic. Tess is the most archaically wild one of the three late tragic novels, with the main character drawn so sympathetically that it is difficult to follow her plight without getting emotional. Hardy called her ‘my Tess’….

Martin Jesinghausen

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967).  This book is about…….everything: all human life is here.  It’s labelled as magical realist by the literary-critical establishment (although that’s not a term Marquez liked).  For me, the magic is so breath-takingly brilliant not because it is extraordinary, but because it is presented as so very ordinary.  My favourite line from this book is “Children and adults sucked with delight on the little green roosters of insomnia, the exquisite pink fish of insomnia, and the tender yellow ponies of insomnia.”

What I am reading at the minute: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (2016) – and loving it.  This fictional novel is set in present-day Cumbria.  The narrator is a woman who is an expert in wolves and is overseeing a project to reintroduce them to the UK, on a large country estate.  So far, the novel is raising lots of ethical questions about the human/animal divide and about the human alteration of the ecosystem.

Melanie Ebdon

My book would be the enduring cult classic Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – a one-off as great as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. It may be set in a freak circus but it’s about so much more: family life as we’ll never know it – and as we know it! A wild and transformative read.

Paul Houghton

The best book in the world (except for the ending). Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, in case anybody doesn’t know). I didn’t read this most famous of books until a few years ago, and I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not a children’s book. It’s life on the river, but what a life, and what a river. The language flows like the river, and you float along with it, on the raft with Huck and Jim, one hand trailing in the water

Margaret Leclere

Victorian farce at the New Vic

We were at the New Vic this week for Broadsides’ production of Priestly’s When We Are Married. First Year students Lynn and Cathryn give us their reviews of the show below, and you can get a taste of Broadsides’ very particular northern-ness and their take on Victorian farce here:

Our English and Creative Writing group had the pleasure of attending The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme, to see the Northern Broadsides perform JB Priestley’s When We Are Married. Many of the cast were easily recognisable from various television dramas and soap operas, so we immediately realised we had come to see something special. The New Vic Theatre is a theatre in the round and so there were little effects and props used throughout the entirety of this performance. However a variety of early 20th Century chairs, tables, ornaments and whiskey decanters were used in the staging and this was ample to create a lively living room area. The play is set in the early 1900’s and manifests itself around three married couples – the Halliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts. This particular evening they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary as they all got married on the same day, at the same church by the same Vicar. However their evening of celebrations was set to be ruined as there were speculations that the Vicar who married them was not in fact official. This set off a fast-paced, comical chain of events; with a hint of regular disruption from visitors at their door. The three married couples were left wondering whether they were actually better off free from their ‘institution’ of marriage. With their high social standings in jeopardy and bitter home-truths been outed, the three couples eventually joined forces to discover the legalities of their marriage. When We Are Married is a light-hearted comedy that can be appreciated by all ages. Our group thought that the men in the married couples stole the show. They were charismatic, witty and showed us their humorous side to their equally different personalities. This was JB Priestley, performed at its very best. (Lynn Statham)

The Northern Broadsides theatre company presented JB Priestley’s When We Are Married at the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire. Set in the fictional, northern town of Cleckleywyke just after the turn of the 20th Century, three couples who married on the same day, in the same church, by the same parson are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Set around the living room with chairs for the ladies, sherry decanters in abundance and a door for listening at, the celebrations quickly turn sour by the discovery that the parson wasn’t licensed to marry them and they have in fact been living in sin ever since.

The horrified couples suddenly realize that they will become social pariahs and laughing stocks if the news of their predicament gets out. Cue hilarious attempts to keep the news secret: firstly, from husbands to wives, then from the formidable ex-housekeeper Mrs Northrop, who is adept at listening at the key hole.

When it looks like matters cannot get any worse, the local newspaper photographer turns up to take a group photo in celebration of their anniversary. Barrie Rutter, director of the play, delivers an excellent comedic turn and believable drunk as photographer Henry Ormontroyd.

As the couples try and sort out the quandary they have unwittingly found themselves in, each of the characters comes into their own and the tables are turned between each husband and wife.

A rousing song at the end closes an excellent production by the Broadsides.

(Cathryn Hurd)

 

Careers Week: Graduate Talks

Thursday 9th November 2016 – Careers Week

Today we had talks from three graduates of the English and Creative Writing awards at Staffs Uni

  • Danielle Booker, manager of local PR company ‘Lyme Communications’
  • Sharon Sant – novelist (Romantic fiction under the pen-name ‘Tilly Tennant’, Young Adult fiction as herself)
  • Bram Welch – Entertainment Journalist

 

20161110_114531

The speakers brought a wealth of diverse topics to the panel, which in turn generated many helpful questions from the current undergraduates in attendance.   Having attended the careers talks this week and last, I can see several important linking themes emerging, which I shall summarise here:

  1. All speakers stressed the importance of forming good friendship groups at undergraduate level in order to support and encourage you in the key task of getting through your degree!
  2. Relatedly, there was further emphasis in every presentation regarding the need for networking after graduating.  This could mean any of the following: keeping in touch with your fellow graduates, attending events relevant to your areas of employment interest, letting family and friends beyond the Uni know about your skills set/career aspirations, creating a LinkedIn profile, creating a Facebook page for professional use only.  Get to know people and get people to know you!  Many of the stories we heard at these talks depended upon happy coincidence, and that coincidence was generated by networking.
  3. A degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a job – work on YOU.  Become someone that an employer wants to employ: work on your interpersonal skills, your self-confidence, maybe even your manners.  Learn to cultivate a good presentation of self.  Develop your personality by travelling, possibly even by living and working in other countries (Bram talked very enthusiastically about the TEFL scheme), volunteer – even for things that aren’t directly relevant to what you’d like to do eventually.  If you have no particular career path in mind, then pick some work experience and just make yourself do it; if you hate it, you can at least discount that field.  If you love it you could be making valuable links for later on.   Any work experience will give you life-experience and help you with your personal development.
  4. Find out about Graduate Schemes – you may not even be interested in the field in which any given scheme is based, however, you can be well-paid and given intensive training in a variety of skills which will stand you in good stead for a range of other careers.   This tip was really just from Kerry Ann last week, but it’s such good advice that I had to include it here.
  5. Managing your existing online profile/s: if a potential employer were to Google you, what would they find…?  It’s time to think carefully about what’s out there on the internet and how it will look from a professional context… (Again, this was just from Kerry Ann, but too important to leave out!)
  6. Start the wheels in motion NOW!  This was a common and crucial piece of advice we heard from every speaker.  All 6 of these points can be tackled right now, today, yes – even in the 1st semester of your 1st year!

The talks were – obviously – much richer than this list can indicate.  We are very grateful to our alumni for returning to pass on their pearls of wisdom and inspire our current undergraduates with a lot of food for thought.

Melanie Ebdon.

 

Broadsides in Stoke

The lovely people at Northern Broadsides theatre invited me to see a read through of their upcoming production, Cyrano de Bergerac. A read through is quite close to a performance, but with the script in hand. This adaptation, from award winning playwright Deborah McAndrew, retains some of the rhythms and rhymes of the original (which was entirely in couplets).

cyrano

The story is probably best known from the Hollywood version starring Steve Martin, which is played pretty much as a joke about Cyrano’s big nose. Here, Cyrano is a talented Renaissance man who displays equal panache with his sword and his verse. But his ugliness is his curse and is contrasted with the beauty of Roxanne. He can only admire her from a distance, until his skill with words is needed by a handsome but intellectually limited cadet who takes Roxanne’s fancy. McAndrew demonstrates a keen ear for comedy – even in verse – and handles the poignant resolution with… well, with ‘panache’

I can’t wait for the production at the New Vic theatre early next year.

It was fascinating to see, along with a small invited audience, part of the creative process. Director, Conrad Nelson, and McAndrew told me afterwards that performing the play in front of a small audience is part of the ‘alchemy’ that animates a work, and it allows them to get a sense of what needs to stay and be drawn to the audience’s attention, and what needs to be cut. For the creators, showing us a bit of ‘how it’s made’ also allows them to bring friends of the company together and show off interesting buildings in the area.

wedgewood

The Wedgewood Institute, where we were gathered, is about to be renovated as a result of a grant from the Prince’s Regeneration Fund. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century for the education of the factory workers of Burslem and it stands opposite the equally impressive Burslem School of Art, whose famous alumni include renowned artists such as Arthur Berry and ceramic designer, Clarice Cliff (google her stuff if you don’t know it, it’s wonderful).

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016: Bob Dylan

I have a confession to make: I do not like, nor have ever liked, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. This is surely  heresy as today sees the announcement of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for 2016-05-25-1464211797-4748536-bobdylanearly1960sLiterature, and it has left me with some mixed feelings.  I have among my friends and colleagues on social media many poets and writers and musicians, and the debate out there is passionate, emotional, fierce. Perhaps what surprises me the most is my lack of resistance  to this news; while I cannot suddenly purport myself an overnight fan of Dylan’s work, I do err on the side of the poets speaking in his defence. What I am certain about is Dylan’s unequivocal talent as a lyricist, and that writing lyrics is not the same craft as writing poems. Each of these disciplines is distinct and comes with its own complexities and challenges; one is not ‘better’ than the other. If I were a songwriter, I’d be proud to have written:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” — Tambourine Man

The sonic undulation of sibilance in the second line of this lyric is poetic, as is the clean and unusual imagery (‘diamond’ ‘circus’). Is this a poem? Is this a lyric? Dylan has been awarded the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, and to my mind, this extract above supports this position.  I would go further and suggest that Dylan also innovated and energised the form of the American song.

This award also brings into debate old divisions between supposed high and low culture for some, and I say, perhaps it is time to get over this class war of culture.  For some decades now, those boundaries have been blended, deconstructed, questioned, dismantled–so why are some commentators even calling into question the validity or possibility of the Nobel literature prize going to a songwriter?  I say, why not?  When I wrote my PhD, on sonority in literature by writers who might have ‘once-upon-a-time’ been called ‘minority’,  I included African-American spirituals and Welsh folk songs in my literature review not just as cultural documents, but for their distinct contribution to our literature.  It is about time perhaps to review what we call literature and broaden our consideration of all written cultural artefacts–perhaps we will soon see a Nobel Prize for Literature award to a video-game.

Do I still dislike listening to Dylan’s music? Yes–but to deny him a Nobel Prize for literature as a songwriter would be untenable. This prize is not about calling Dylan a poet; it is about acknowledging songwriting as a legitimate form of literature.

(Image Credit: Huffington Post)

The English and Creative Writing students visit the British Library

bl

We had a fantastic day on Thursday in that London visiting the British Library with this year’s new first years. Hedley and Karen from the library gave us an insight into research using the library’s resources and a fantastic tour – our thanks go to them. While there we saw the original draft of Hardy’s Tess, Austen’s Persuasion, some Dickens and Nelson’s last, unfinished letter to Lady Hamilton (with a note on it from Capt Hardy explaining why it was unfinished). There was also a great little exhibition on punk. And we had a fantastic lunch on the sun-soaked British Library terrace.

We were whisked there (at the uni’s expense!) on the train straight into Euston (right next door to the library). The quiz on the way was won by Amy and Becky with a spectacular 46 (out of a possible 44!). I am quite concerned by the new intake’s lack of knowledge of the home grounds of London’s lower league football clubs, darts and 1970s and 80s sit-coms, but we have 3 years to put that right.

Our thanks go to the students for their great company on the day.

betjeman

Sam and Umehra with the statue of John Betjeman – the poet of the London’s suburbs, Metroland – at St Pancras Station (which he helped to from the bulldozers)

NUS advice on bank accounts for students

For many students starting university, dealing with finances for the first time can be quite daunting. You need to open a bank account to receive your student finance, and the banks are offering a bewildering array of incentives. Then there are lots of other financial responsibilities like rent, travel, insurance, TV licenses, car tax, and many others.

The SU have done some research and provided advice for students facing these challenges for the first time. Click here to read the NUS advice, and click here for a useful BBC article on first-time finances for students.

The SU Student Advice Centre above the Ember lounge can provide free and impartial financial advice for all students. The SAC can help all students with budget planning, income maximisation, benefits, housing, debt, and any other financial issue you might encounter during your studies.

 

An evening at the pictures

Does anybody say ‘the pictures’ anymore?

Well, that’s where I went on Tuesday; at the Stoke Film Theatre on the College Road campus for the independent German film, Victoria. This is not the sort of film you get down the local Odeon. Some of the film is in German with English sub-titles and some in English. But the film’s most notable characteristic is that it is one continuous 180 minute take, shot with a hand-held camera. This achieves many effects. It is extraordinarily intimate: the audience does not so much watch the action, as feel like they are part of it. Because it is one take, the film is also in real time, taking us from the depths of Berlin’s underground club scene to the grey urban dawn. The result is that, from when they meet for the first time at the beginning of the film, the actors have to reveal their characters and persuade the audience of their growing bond. Victoria is a Spanish pianist working in a Berlin coffee shop, and the group of men who take her on a roller-coaster tour of night time Berlin are marginalised petty criminals. Victoria’s experiences of unfriendly competition in the conservatoire makes her susceptible to the picaresque appeal of the group of men who are known only by their nicknames; Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss. Victoria herself is a beguiling mix of curiosity and vulnerability. The intensity of the camera gaze is at its most effective in claustrophobic spaces, and we quickly become entranced by the edgy relationships building between the characters as their personalities are revealed to each other and the audience.

The Guardian, like me, loved this film, giving it 5 stars. You can read the review here, and see the trailer here.

The Film Theatre is an authentic cinema experience. You are not cocooned in king size seats here, isolated from the rest of the audience. There’s also a nice little bar where you can get a local Titanic brewery beer, a cup of coffee or some sweets for the film. Enjoy.

Film Theatre Programme