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

 

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)