England and the Continent: Reflecting on National Boundaries

At the moment I’m working out how many double chocolate cookies to order for a symposium I’m organizing this month called National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies. The event will gather early career researchers from across the UK, France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Croatia to make new friends and talk about how we all might work better together. Planning and participating in the symposium is helping me to think more about what it means to do ‘English’.

The Renaissance was a multilingual place, but we often study the period one language at a time. As a graduate student I ran into a problem that people studying pre-modern English literature often face: that in general the writers we’re reading had language skills that are much better than ours.

In sixteenth- and seventeeth-century England any boy who went to grammar school, or girl who was privately tutored, would study Latin intensively and might also have picked up some Greek, or learned other vernacular languages through phrase books and foreign travel. Latin and French were international languages. English, which pretty much no-one on the Continent spoke, was not.

When I chose to study French and German to A-Level, and then picked English for an undergraduate degree, I sort of knew that studying languages alongside English made a useful combination (e.g. for learning grammar). But I hadn’t realized how foreign languages could expand my sense of what studying English is.

I ended up writing a doctoral thesis on British responses to a sixteenth-century French poet called Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas. Now my research has developed to the point where I routinely work on Scottish, French and Latin sources, and need to seek out advice and discussion from people with different expertise. So there’s a real practical value in being able to chat with colleagues from a range of different disciplines and backgrounds over cookies.

The British Academy, who have provided generous funding for September’s symposium, have been running a languages programme to promote the value of language skills for the humanities and social sciences. Queen Mary’s English department is a natural home for multilingual English studies since there are several research groups that are demonstrating how knowing a language, any language, besides English is a valuable asset for studying English.

There’s the team at Global Shakespeare who are examining the Bard as a global cultural phenomenon whose plays and poems have been translated into every major language and performed and adapted in many theatrical traditions. The Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News and Networks investigates international communication networks in early modern Europe. And the department has numerous members working on postcolonial studies and world literatures who are examining how English culture became a global culture as it came into contact with other languages.

Thinking about England’s cultural relationship with the Continent is especially timely as the debate intensifies ahead of the coming referendum about whether we should draw a thicker national boundary between Britain and the European Union. One job for English studies is to improve our understanding of how far and in what ways this island’s cultures have, for better and worse reasons, intermixed with other cultures. Reading across languages helps us hear the voices that went into making our language and literature in the present.

Grace in Literatures in English: Conference Report

On Friday, 19 June, delegates from the UK, from Switzerland, and from Portugal arrived at Queen Mary to explore different forms and concepts of grace from the early modern period to contemporary literatures. The idea for a conference on Grace in Literatures in English was sparked during the planning stages of the 2014/15 Postgraduate Research Seminar Series. The intellectually highly stimulating discussion was ample reward for many months of preparation, endless e-mail threads, and some last minute panic.

Panels included papers on theoretical conceptions of grace, amongst them Kleist’s and Schiller’s, as well as on grace in Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, J. M. Coetzee, and Geoffrey Hill. Our two keynote speakers, Ita Mac Carthy from the University of Birmingham and Susan Jones from the University of Oxford, offered perspectives on the notion of grace in Italian renaissance culture and on how grace was rewritten, or rechoreographed, in the twentieth century.

The range of papers showed that grace is a term, notion, or concept that means diversely different things in different periods and genres as well as for different writers and critics. This made for a fruitful exchange, during which explorations of forms of monarchical address in the Early Modern period entered into conversation with eighties dance videos. It became apparent throughout the day that the discussion of grace cannot be contained within one art form but that grace needs exploration as much in the symmetry of prose, as in geometrical shapes, the dance of people, puppets, and even machines.

At the end of the day we had perhaps not found grace but are confident that there is much room and enthusiasm for further exploration of this multivalent term.

Tweets from the day can be found under #GraceinLits. A programme for the day can be found here.

My trip to the ‘Zoo (or: how to get the most out of an international conference)

On Wednesday 13th May, I trundled off to Heathrow airport for my first ever trip to America and my first ever trip to an International Conference, where I would be both presenting and chairing. The International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is the biggest medieval conference on the annual calendar. It takes place somewhere called Kalamazoo (‘Zoo, for short) which no one but medievalists and my Granny has ever heard of – it apparently features in a Glenn Miller song, (I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo, which she sang down the phone to me before I left for my travels. 3,000 scholars descend on this small town every year – even the security guards at the airport knew about us – and the congress features over 550 sessions of papers, panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and performances, as well as a really amazing exhibit hall full to the brim with books. For a PhD student with little experience of such a big conference the prospect was more than a little daunting. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on what (not) to do to get the most out of an international conference.

Be organised!

Okay, something of an obvious one to start, but by far the most important lesson I learned from my K’zoo experience was to plan ahead, both socially and academically. All your bibliography gathered in one place is an excellent opportunity to meet your academic heroes. But when you’re at one of the biggest conferences in your field, don’t just assume you’ll be able to get chatting with them and then go for a spontaneous coffee. I found that most people had been booked up by other interested parties weeks, even months in advance. So if there’s someone you really want to speak with then drop them an email before the conference to make sure you can secure some time with them!

Similarly, don’t be that person frantically trying to print off your paper moments before you’re due to deliver it. Even if the conference venue is geared up for these last minute panics, things can still go wrong and the unnecessary stress might overshadow the moment you’ve travelled all that way for: to present your research to people from all over the world, who are interested in the same thing! If you have your paper ready to go before the conference begins then you can spend your time enjoying the talks, rather than skipping that really useful panel in order to make last minute changes or finish writing your conclusion.

Know where you’re going

The Western Michigan campus, where the conference was being held, was absolutely huge – so big that shuttle buses had been organised to take participants between various buildings. I must have got lost at least three times and going to the room where I would be presenting the day before was a small step that made the talk itself less stressful. No one wants to arrive two minutes before, flustered and hot brandishing a memory stick wildly only to find out there isn’t actually a projector in the room.

Be genuine

Everyone talks about ‘networking’ when you go to a big conference. Regardless of one’s opinion on the concept it goes without saying that these events are a great place to meet like-minded people, to find out who is working in a similar area to you and to have a fangirl/boy moment when you run into the professor who has written your favourite academic book. All over the conference postgrad students were launching themselves at more established academics, proffering business cards (I didn’t have any of these, a decision I’m very comfortable with). With this in mind, I decided it was best to only approach people if I had actually read and engaged with their work (not just because they were a ‘big name’) or if I wanted to talk to them about their paper. People could sense who was being genuine and who was just ticking names off a list – taking this approach might mean fewer conversations, but hopefully longer and more meaningful ones!

Socialise

After a very tedious journey to the conference (including a missed connection and an unexpected night in Chicago) all I wanted to do was curl up in my room and watch Grey’s Anatomy. But some of the best connections I made at the conference were in the cafeteria, at conference dinners, or wine hours. I can’t pretend that I had any intellectual conversations at the infamous K’zoo ‘dance’ but watching a bunch of medievalists doing the YMCA and then getting down to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was not to be missed.

Embrace Social Media

Twitter and Facebook aren’t for everyone, but an international conference is one place where I think they’re genuinely useful. I could avoid a huge phone bill texting people by checking Twitter and Facebook to find out where everyone was meeting/to hear more about the social and academic events going on through live tweeting. On a less serious note it also became a useful outlet for expressing opinions on the dismal, monastic dormitories us students were all staying in, rooms which would not have been out of place in a prison drama. Next time I’m taking a sleeping bag…

 

“The moves may change, but the groove remains”: Old Men Grooving and the Joy of Dance

I seem to exist in two utterly different worlds. My name is Bret Jones. I am a PhD student in the Drama Department at Queen Mary. I am also a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent with the dance group Old Men Grooving (OMG), a group of older guys who are reclaiming dance and getting back our groove. This was not a designed career move. We had been put together for an internet commercial for Christmas jumpers for a national retailer. The next thing I knew, the video had gone viral. Something about the incongruity of older guys – ‘dads’ – doing a form of Hip Hop seemed to have resonated. The decision to go on Britain’s Got Talent was unexpected. One of the original guys became injured, and we got a new member who was a friend of one of the existing group. We all had some kind of dance background, in clubs, or competitions, or a bit of performing. Some of the group danced in Hip Hop clubs in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the moves you see in these young dance crews were invented and developed. What is often missing is what we can bring – the ‘feel’, the ‘groove’. We dance because the music tells us to. The groove is who we are.

Of course, Britain’s Got Talent plunges us into the very depths of popular culture, but what is clear is just how complex and rich this culture – musically, kinaesthetically, and emotionally – actually is. It has been three weeks since our audition was broadcast, and the YouTube video has reached over 15 million hits:

We’ve had to jump on board the Facebook wagon to help spread the word. After all, Britain’s Got Talent does require audience support. The ‘feel good’ factor that seems to be very much a part of the response is actually a connection to something very profound within people. The younger audiences seem to like ‘Dad dancing’ done by guys who actually can dance and know how to express our own groove. The older audiences seem to identify with that love of dance that they once had, but that never really died. It’s still there. We’ve even created a little ‘Dad Dance’ that people can learn and join in with us:

The Anglo-American culture seems to relegate dance to the young, but this is not true in other cultures. We, in OMG, remember what it was like to dance in clubs and what that dancing meant to us as individuals, but also to the larger community. Dancing can help bond us, as well as be a means of personal expression. We have at times been humbled by the responses. We recently had a comment by a woman who lives in chronic pain, but who said that we had helped to lift her spirits. Yes, we are out there to have fun, but to have our dancing touch people in profound ways has been very moving.

My own dance background is in older forms like American rhythm tap and Lindy Hop, Swing, etc. However, this is directly related to later forms of African American dance, such as Hip Hop. Still, it has been a learning curve as a dancer. As hard as that has been, it has also been a joy. That, I think, lies at the heart of it. We are reclaiming dance as part of who we were and as part of who we still are. The moves may change over time, but the groove remains. We feel as young as ever when we dance, and so do the people who watch us. Unlike some of the young dance crews, we don’t dance at the audience. We share our joy with them; and they share their surprise and joy with us. We are both equally validated. This has engaged both body and soul, and although the body may ache at times, the soul is soaring. We need the support of all people, young and old, so that we can continue to reclaim dance for everyone, to make dancing part of our own continuing development as human beings, to embody and to share joy. In the end, it’s about joy.

Why Travelling is Good for the Soul

You’ve probably heard of the term ‘wanderlust’ before, particularly if you have Tumblr (it’s all over that thing). If you haven’t, wanderlust is a strong desire or impulse to wander, explore and travel the world. Whether it is a fifty minute walk into the next town in North Africa, a seventy two hour cross country American road-trip, or an EasyJet flight to Majorca for £89 quid, all around the world humans travel, from one destination to the other. In just under a month’s time, I will be embarking on a three month summer adventure across the Atlantic. Very soon, the time will come to heave my dusty suitcase from the cupboard, count my socks and shirts, and, most importantly, forget to pack something (sunscreen and toothbrush go in first, my friends – thank me later). If ever you’re mulling over whether to see somewhere new, somewhere out of your comfort zone, somewhere with a different culture from yours, I am writing this article, on this drizzly, ‘where’s-the-cappuccino-at’ day, to tell you to take the plunge. Here are three reasons why travelling is good – no, great, (gratifying, wonderful and astonishingly stupendous) for your soul.

  1. It expands our awareness of different cultures. Though it may be surprising, not everyone drinks tea and watches Game of Thrones- (I know! I couldn’t believe it either). In fact, the countries of our beautiful world are jam-packed with interesting, diverse cultures much cooler than that, offering all sorts of food to be eaten, beverages to be drunk, and places to truly experience. For example, did you know that Mexicans celebrate New Year’s Eve by eating twelve grapes on the stroke of midnight? Or that there are 6,000 languages spoken in the world, with many of them by less than one hundred people? Yep, travelling will help you learn the quirkiest facts about our cultures that will make you more accepting (and generally lovely) as a person. I say put the Wotsits down, sign out of Netflix and go and discover what they are, yeah?
  1. It helps us learn what really matters, and what doesn’t. If you’re not already sick of the 9-5, or continuous stress with exam revision, or journeys home during the rush hour, chances are you probably will be soon- (sorry to be a Scrooge). Unplugging yourself from your daily routine through travel is as refreshing and revitalising as L’Oréal hair products. What’s more, while you’re away, you’ll realise what you want to do more of at home. If you hate your job, get a new one. If you want to take up tennis, google your nearest club and smack some serves Murray-style. Some people might huff ‘it’s not that simple!’, but they’re kidding themselves, because nothing could be simpler. In the words of writer, Henry Miller: ‘one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things’. Unforgettable memories await you, so do yourself a favour and leave the drama of home life behind – if not now, when?
  1. It invites us to face our fears. Whether alone or in a group, leaving the comfort of our bed, washing detergent and favourite pub and going to explore the big, wide world of the unknown is a terrifying and unique thing to do. It is only through travel that we can see what tiny place we occupy on Earth, and share remarkable moments with people who, only two weeks ago, were strangers to us. All of these experiences make you stronger as a person. Being without your family, you’ll learn independence; being without accessible Wi-Fi for long periods of time, you’ll realise that it is something far greater than the internet that connects the world together. Ultimately, with every fear faced, you’ll grow mentally, emotionally and physically as a person, and I’m rooting for you. (Psst, you can do it).

So wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, be good for your soul today and plan a trip in 2015. Watch yourself grow. Enjoy it. My words of wisdom have come to an end.

Video: Digital Humanities Lecture – Jonathan Hope, ‘Books in space: hyper-dimensional reading’

On April 29th 2015, Professor Jonathan Hope (Strathclyde) delivered our Annual Digital Humanities Lecture on ‘Books in space: hyper-dimensional reading’. The lecture can be watched in full below:

Digital tools allow us to ‘read’ vastly more text than any human could manage in a lifetime. They also allow us to make comparisons between texts, genres, and periods based on projections of those books into multi-dimensional spaces. Some have hailed the advent of ‘culturomics’ – but what kind of ‘reading’ is this, and how can we ‘read’ spaces which are beyond the imaginative capacity of human minds? I’ll consider the promise, and the opportunities, of digital methods applied to large collections of texts – and I’ll also consider how these tools and methods might change the nature of our object of study. Most of my examples will be drawn from Shakespeare and the Early Modern period.

Jonathan Hope is Professor of Literary Linguistics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. His research has consistently attempted to bring insights and techniques from linguistics to bear on literature. He has published Shakespeare’s Grammar, a systematic descriptive grammar of Shakespeare’s language, aimed at editors and literary scholars, and Shakespeare and Language, which represents the next step in this process, as it attempts to historicise concepts of language (now and in Shakespeare’s time).

In the Digital Humanities, he has been working since 2003 collaboratively with Michael Witmore and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in experimenting with the use of a computerised text analysis program, Docuscope, on Shakespeare’s texts. In 2012, he was invited by the Folger Shakespeare Library to direct a Summer Institute in Digital Humanities, funded by the NEH. The Institute brought together 20 Renaissance scholars, at varying stages of their careers, and with varying amounts of digital humanities experience, to the Folger for three weeks, to work with an outstanding group of visiting faculty on the practicalities and, most importantly, the theorisation of digital humanities in research into the Renaissance. The second iteration of this Institute will take place summer 2015.

His project, Visualising English Print brings together computer scientists and literary scholars as partners. It will break new ground in computational science, developing new techniques that better support humanist thinking. They aim to innovate in the literary sphere, showing how the introduction of computational thinking and the new tools they develop for applying it can be used to lead to new understandings of literature, language, and their development.

Sumptuous Gems: 80 Years of Penguin, 80 Little Black Classics

Book lovers everywhere, rejoice! To celebrate Penguin’s 80th anniversary, the publishing house has launched a Little Black Classics range. You may have seen the promotional posters on the Underground, which, I have to say, have made rush hour much more bearable. Each simple poster includes a quote from a text, which remains unnamed, prompting a delightful game of ‘Guess the Book’ as you’re swept along the platform with the disgruntled 5pm crowds. Even more exciting is the price of the Little Black Classics – they’re only 80p each! A glorious bargain. I can just hear the grateful roars of Literature enthusiasts everywhere.

Where can you get your hands on these sumptuous gems? Foyles in Charing Cross Road, the Chocolate Factory of the book world – and we all hold a golden ticket! I certainly felt like Augustus Gloop when I trekked there earlier today. The Little Classics are displayed along all of the shop’s staircases, so up I climbed, elbowing my way past bemused customers and gorging myself on these delicious offerings. I picked up Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, Woman Much Missed by Thomas Hardy, The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats and Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. At 80p a pop it was like daylight robbery! Other titles up for grabs include It Was Snowing Butterflies by Charles Darwin, Circe and the Cyclops by Homer and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde, among many others. What is also so great about this range is that it is taken from Penguin’s Wider Classics, so you get to sample some perhaps more obscure texts by some of our best-loved authors, and broaden your knowledge of their work. Also, on a purely aesthetic level, their simple black and white design is slick and classy, they can easily slip into a handbag and they are, like, so cute. To check out the range for yourself, just go to www.littleblackclassics.com.

Mind the Ironic Gap: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library

Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific novelist, with only five novels to his name, but he is an important one. His first, The Swimming-Pool Library, burst onto the scene – the gay one and the literary alike – in 1988 just as Thatcher’s third government was introducing the Section 28 laws. The infamous clause prohibited local authorities disseminating material deemed to be endorsing homosexuality, and attempted to silence teachers who dared instruct children that being gay was a normal lifestyle. At the same time, the AIDS crisis had devastated lives around the world, and the World Health Organization began its effort to promote awareness, founding World AIDS Day.

Neither of these two traumas, though, made it into Hollinghurst’s seminal depiction of gay lives, a novel which now makes up a great deal of my dissertation. The presence of these national and international crises is felt throughout the novel, however, which is principally set in London, 1983, but looks back and further afield to Britain’s colonial exploits in the Sudan and to the post-war ‘gay pogroms’ in the 1950s. Hollinghurst quite flippantly said that Section 28 boosted the sales of the novel, and threw a lot more publicity its way, an example of his particular dark, serious humour that runs throughout his work.

I first read this novel for ‘pleasure’ – whatever that means – before I came to Queen Mary, and now at the close of my undergraduate years, I’ve dedicated a year to studying and writing about it. Just as much fun as it was when I read it as a teenager, I decided to revisit it with academic lenses on, focusing on the politics of the 1980s, issues of representation, and invocations of the past. For me, thinking about all of this within a novel I never read in a classroom has been a great way of getting to know it better – and I will excommunicate anyone who says studying a book makes you hate it. What I’ve found is that so much of what I really enjoyed in ‘casually’ reading the novel comes up again and again in what I think provides the potential for ‘formal’, academic discussion.

In The Swimming-Pool Library, the narrator Will Beckwith recounts his leisured life as a 25 year old gay man in early 1980s London, a period he describes as his ‘belle époque’, a kind of prelapsarian golden age for gay men before it all went wrong. Still, he senses disaster amidst the summer of fun: ‘all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.’ A novel of nostalgia, however, this is not. And Hollinghurst is careful to put pressure on any notion of a sentimentalised gay past, since the wealthy Will from an aristocratic family is brought up against different working-class and black gay men who remind the reader that such hedonistic experiences were exceptions to the rule. More than this, after a comic encounter in a public toilet with an old Lord, Will agrees to undertake the task of writing this man’s biography. Through the diaries of Charles Nantwich, Will comes to know a complicated and unsettling history of homosexuality in Britain and its empire.

Indeed, the novel balances the main sections of first-person narration in the aesthetic and affected voice of Will with passages of Nantwich’s Oxford and Sudan journals from the 1920s. Hollinghurst’s intention was to explore ideas of ageing, and the tension brought about by the two styles of narration suggests what has changed and persisted across the twentieth century for gay men. With this compare and contrast of Will and Nantwich, two gay men from opposite ends of an age of extremes, what is seen to persist most clearly is their appetite for men.

Often labelled as ‘brave’ and ‘unapologetic’, The Swimming-Pool Library continues to be regarded as an important text in depicting gay sexuality and desire for men, and is almost treated as a ‘coming-out’ case in itself. But for all the reviews which praise his defiance as a ‘gay writer’ showing ‘gay sex’, what is most exciting about Hollinghurst’s novel is its refusal to sentimentalise his characters, or feel pressured into depicting all gay men either as allies, heroes or victims of a common enemy, that is, the heterosexual world. In fact, there are remarkably few heterosexual characters in it, and nearly no women. What Hollinghurst achieves in shaking-off is what James Baldwin called the burden of representation. This is unapologetically a novel about a white, rich gay man who lives in west London, and who develops ‘a taste for black names’ and working-class boys, rather than a story which attempts to tell all gay men’s stories.

The first lines of the novel neatly offer the measure of Will, a bright young thing detached from the reality of most people’s lives in Thatcher’s Britain, yet he is physically caught up in the cosmopolitan mix. Hollinghurst makes great use of trains to show off this kind of close detachment, and the Underground often becomes a way for Will to eye-up men or even find a fling:

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the state heart of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives

Will’s curiosities as to how the other 90% live, since he ‘belonged to that tiny proportion of the populace that indeed owns almost everything’, function as an ironic gap through which we read his peculiar and often uncomfortable perception of black and working-class figures. As his thoughts wander along with his journey, he comes to feel ‘a kind of tenderness’ for the black worker who he imagines going home after a hard night’s graft.

Will in many ways is a pretty unpleasant character, but Hollinghurst maintains that these are the really interesting ones, and makes the point that it ‘doesn’t mean that you can’t find them sympathetic’. Will is, though, a terrific snob. On more than one occasion he travels to the East End to conduct research for Nantwich’s biography or to visit ex-lovers. Going to see Arthur, a seventeen-year-old from Stratford East, Will feels a striking ‘culture shock’ that leaves him disbelieving he is in the same city. As he walks about the tower blocks, he feels an alien: ‘Away to the left a group of kids were skateboarding up the side of a concrete bunker. I somehow expected them to shout obscenities, and was glad I had come ordinarily dressed, in a sports shirt, an old linen jacket, jeans and daps.’

The buildings he sees around him seem to disregard ‘anything the eye or heart might fix on as homely or decent’, and he finds the estate defaced with National Front graffiti: ‘“Kill All Niggers” or “Wogs Out”.’ It is at these moments, in which Will’s ignorance and distaste for the working-class areas comes through, that he is at his most political in revealing the massive divisions that remain in British society. Travelling around on the tube, Will does not so much mind as confront the gaps that exist between races, classes, and subcultures in 1980s London.

For a story belonging to Will, a man who alights at Tottenham Court Road to go home to the flat his grandfather bought for him, the novel has a surprising reach to it. Will is equally fascinated and appalled by the places he visits. As one of many larger instances of Hollinghurst furnishing the novel with references to earlier writers, Will, an Oxford graduate, looks on at east London with a kind of literary sensibility of its divergence, seeing it through ‘Dickensian or Arnold Bennettish’ lenses. Yet, the novel makes no claims to the kind of panoramic perspective that we might expect from an older realist novel.

The Swimming-Pool Library is, I think, one of the great contemporary representations of London, and surely right up at the top in gay men’s writing. Hollinghurst’s fiction is stuffed with vile characters, as anyone who has read his most famous novel will know – the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty of 2006, which was also made into a not-unsuccessful BBC series. They are hilarious novels, too. His fiction has been criticised for being parochial and short-sighted, but what really succeeds in Hollinghurst’s depiction of London is his ability to confidently show the city in all its divisions and inconsistencies, partially rather than omnisciently, and as multiple spaces. London can seem like cities within cities, and I’ve often been struck by that strange feeling of dislocation, popping up in Victoria or Bloomsbury, when travelling by tube. It’s a view of London Hollinghurst wants to offer up in his first novel, a feeling illustrated nicely by a cameo made by something not so unheimlich for us, Mile End:

The City had already evacuated, and though the train was crowded to Liverpool Street there was only a scattering of us left for Bethnal Green, Mile End and beyond. All the other people in my car – Indian women with carrier-bags, some beary labourers, a beautiful black boy in a track-suit – looked tired and habituated. When I got out at Mile End, though, other passengers got on, residents of an unknown area who used the Underground, just as I did, as a local service, commuting and shopping within the suburbs and rarely if ever going to the West End , which I visited daily. I felt more competent for my mobility, but also vaguely abashed as I came out into the unimpressionable streets of this strange neighbourhood.

Tips from Prize-Winners

We are delighted to announce that three of our academics have recently been recognised in the QMSU’s Teaching Awards. Dr Natalie Pollard won the Postgraduate Teaching Award (for her teaching on the MA module ‘Forms of Modernism’); Professor Julia Boffey won the Postgraduate Research Supervisor of the Year Award; and Dr Sam McBean won the Assessment and Feedback Champion Award.

Here, the three prize winners give their top tips for success:

Dr Natalie Pollard (on what makes for an effective MA class)

  • Interpretation, critique and dialogue as live interaction – not lonely brow-scratching! Complex ideas are read together as part of everyday life, and the social stakes of what we say and do. ​
  • A space of intellectual and creative risk-taking – of ‘serious play!’ – where learning is mutual and surprising.
  • Most important of all is the good – the really good – conversation.

Dr Sam McBean (on what makes good feedback)

  • Point to the strengths

I always try to start my feedback by summarizing for the student what I got from their piece – what the argument was, what points were made. I think it is important to let students know what stands out about their work and what they’ve managed to most clearly convey to their reader. Sometimes we might think of feedback as constructive criticism but it is just as important to outline what a piece of writing has achieved. From my experience, students respond to reading what it is that was successful about their writing and this helps them to model their future assignments on what has worked in the past.

  • There’s always room for improvement

No assignment is perfect! And it shouldn’t be. Students who score a 2:2 should get clear feedback on what they need to do to reach that 2:1; students who score a 2:1 should be able to understand what they need to do to get that 1st; and students who get a 1st should get feedback on how to edge their work into MA level or even towards publication. In my feedback I always try to give clear pointers on how a piece’s strengths might be brought out. For example, while I try to explain what might not have worked as well, I also often tell students where certain parts of their writing edged into a higher grade point. This gives them clear direction on not only what was less successful but also examples from their own work of what could be developed into stronger future work.

  • The feedback is in the detail

Students are always told to “evidence” their claims in their work – close reading, close reading, close reading! I think the same applies to lecturers when it comes to feedback. I always try to evidence my feedback by pointing to particular examples in students’ work, being clear about what I think works or where improvements could be made. Just like I tell my students to avoid vague language in their work, I try to aim for clarity in my feedback. It is through attention to detail that I think students can really achieve an understanding of their grade and the ability to work towards improving their critical writing skills.

Professor Julia Boffey (on what makes an effective PGR Supervisor)

  • Work *with* students to find and shape a worthwhile topic that will interest both them and you, and will enable them to play to their strengths
  • Keep in touch with them, even (perhaps especially?) during periods when they may not be producing written work for discussion
  • Keep them thinking about life beyond the PhD, as well as about completing it (what will they want to do next? how best can they be preparing for this during the PhD? what kinds of contacts/activities/training will help them prepare for what comes next?)

You can read more about the QMSU Teaching awards on their website.

A High Price to Pay: QMTC’s Love and Money

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how apathetic students are, but Ema Boswood’s direction of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly just one play in Queen Mary Theatre Company’s excellent End of Season Festival – is an entertaining and provocative rebuttal to any suggestion that young people aren’t interested in energetically engaging with political ideas. And Love and Money is all about Big Ideas. Not just the mingling of romance and finance promised by the title, the play is a scathing indictment of contemporary capitalist society, furnished with existential predicaments – a morally ambiguous parable about how we live now.

From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015
From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015

Kelly plays on what seems an endless number of embedded clichés to do with what can and can’t be purchased with money – happiness, love, etc. In his vision, though, the characters seem to have forgotten what so many songs and greetings cards remind us. The central figure Jess ‘believes happiness can be bought – but it doesn’t come cheap in a world of easy credit.’ The extension of these kinds of financial metaphors – the idea that we all have to pay for our decisions or that a person can be morally bankrupt – is at the heart of this twenty-first century morality tale. A play about a marriage ruined by debt, it’s also about the debts we have to other people.

Martha Pailing’s handling of the erratic big spender Jess is striking – a funnier and more sinister shopaholic than Sophie Kinsella’s Rebecca Bloomwood. The play, unlike the world, revolves around Jess and her suicide, setting off backwards from her widow David’s disturbing explanation of her death during an email conversation with French colleague Sandrine. Melenik Milmano and Moa Johansson kick the play off on its reverse journey with David and Sandrine’s snappy online exchange, an early indication that seemingly everyday occurrences will pretty sharply be revealed as moments of the weird and shocking. From David’s awkward attempt to start the email – something we all can relate to – the flirtatious chat begins, before Sandrine’s refrain, ‘Tell me of your wife’, leads to the revelation that the rest of the play recounts.

The breakdown of one relationship is symptomatic of an entire global culture’s collapse. If charity starts at home, then, so does economic failure. Though the play’s themes have grand implications, political speeches and debates are swapped for scenes comprised of emails, job interviews, chats; everyday manifestations of the economic system we live in. And written in 2006, Love and Money has proved popular owing to renewed debates around capitalism triggered by economic crises and the so-called banker-bashing anger of the public. But unlike a play set at the heart of power by David Hare or James Graham, for instance, Kelly is much more interested in dramatising neoliberal ideologies at work on the small scale.

This is a play about death and Big Ideas and what Ed Miliband might call predatory capitalism, but it’s really funny, too. And I don’t think that’s an accident. The Godfather of modern political theatre Bertolt Brecht believed laughter and fun were essential to the political power of theatre, and this production certainly makes the most of the dark humour which accompanies the vitriolic critique.

We get the measure of this kind of comedy early on from Jess’ parents, played by Billy Gurney and Maria Pullicino, as they reveal their distaste – and envy – for the ‘flash’ and ‘vulgar’ grave of a Greek woman next to their daughter’s. We can only laugh as the Father has his outburst about the price of the headstone (the Mother scorns him for mentioning VAT), but, as they keep saying, they’re not rich. Amongst the taboo humour, and probably the reason why we’re laughing, are the uncomfortable truths of just how hard death is to deal with. And even though we feel we shouldn’t worry about the (financial) cost, death, too, is a business. The spending goes on after Jess.

Love and Money is full of awkward encounters. David’s job interview with his ex Val (Annabelle Sami), and her catty, Audi-driving assistant Paul (Peter Walker), relishes the discomfort and sourness of the situation. It’s time for Val to get her own back on the desperate English graduate David, who now hopes to pursue a career in sales. She wants to do him a ‘favour’, but it won’t come easy. Beneath her mocking and bitterness, she reveals a nihilistic heart: she loves and worships cash. She used to believe in religion, just as Paul believed in socialism – he still votes Labour, mind – but now wealth and power fill their dreams.

In a ‘shitty pub’, Debbie (Tilly Bungard) seems to be pestered by the tipsy Duncan (Jack Ridley), in another strange meeting that goes far beyond where we expect it to. As so many weirdoes in pubs promise, Duncan wants to make Debbie famous – well, everyone’s thought about being on TV nowadays. Typical of the whole show, this scene is saturated with swearing, and becomes an air raid of C-Bombing.

From foul language, though, the actors do well to perform Kelly’s often jagged, staccato lines, which look more like poetry on the page. Kelly’s script is written carefully to depict how real people speak, drawing attention to hesitations, breaths, mistakes, and the performances follow suit with an obvious consideration of the text. It’s an achievement in any theatrical performance to follow a clever script, while at the same time encouraging the audience to forget that the broken and muttered and spat-out lines are actually printed on a page. This could be improvisation, except the language is so well-worked  and intentioned; it’s constructed, as great writing often is, to seem fluent, mundane, and inconsequential, as if every word were spoken at random – as we tend to think we speak – when actually it’s all strictly penned and rehearsed.

Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David
Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David

‘I’m just so / looking forward’ are some of the last words of the performance and Jess’ final speech, but in the world of the play they are the first, since we’ve ended up at the beginning of Jess and David’s relationship, before everything goes wrong. It is a strength of Pailing’s performance that we meet Jess halfway through the play with her frenzied love of shopping in full bloom, announcing that as a child she discovered she was an alien, and we watch her manic personality gradually shrink until we are left with only the seeds of what we know will become her addiction. As she speaks, more quietly now, (and places her make-up in a bag) we can see she will become a woman standing outside a shop transfixed on a handbag, but, crucially, we also see her when she looks like all of us, that is, just liking ‘things’ and wanting a ‘neater’ life. Her acting matches the tragic effect of Kelly analeptic tale, where we finish with what actually turns out to be a really crushing sense of sadness as Jess tells of her excitement for the future.

As a piercing keen starts to drown Jess out, her final words signal her enthusiasm to begin her new life, but it’s already been written, and the audience knows how it will turn out. There’s no room for manoeuvre in this world, and closing the show, she says, ‘That’s it.’

Five Ways to Achieve Stress-Free Travel around London

Let’s be honest – travelling around London can be stressful and exhausting at the best of times. The last thing you need when you’re trying to grapple with the labyrinthine London transport system is to be on a tight time limit. I’m usually late for everything and am no stranger to the abject horror of tearing through King’s Cross with approximately 8 minutes to get from the Northern Line to the National Rail platform, usually via the ticket collection machines and ideally with a quick stop for a cigarette en route. Even during my final year of studying in London I still forget how long it takes to get to certain destinations and misjudge just how big London is (I’m from a small town). So, if you’re perennially late for everything, terrified by the sheer size of London or just struggle to get around the city without experiencing homicidal feelings, follow the tips below.

  1. Avoid travelling during rush hour

Unless you enjoy inhaling the pungent aroma of 50 armpits during your journey and have a penchant for being pushed, sworn at and prodded and shoved, avoiding the excruciating hell of rush hour is a good idea. This is not just because you’ll save some money travelling off-peak, but also because your chances of grabbing a seat and some personal space are greatly increased. Unfortunately university schedules, work shifts and other commitments often leave us with no choice but to travel during the busiest times of day. So, if you do have the choice, take full advantage of it, especially if you have to travel long distances and are prone to claustrophobia.

  1. Pay attention to TFL updates

TFL (Transport for London) provides travel updates on Twitter (@TfLTravelAlerts) and on their website, and it’s also worth signing up to receive email updates. Don’t rely on the live updates in stations – it’s important to know in advance which routes you may or may not be able to use. The engineering works in London can be an absolute nightmare. They have the potential to render certain parts of the city almost totally inaccessible, which is why signing up to receive email updates letting you know which works are taking place over the weekend is a very sensible idea. Otherwise, you risk finding yourself marooned at an unfamiliar station, embroiled in a 200 strong crowd brawl trying to fight your way onto the next rail replacement bus.

  1. Plan ahead and know where you’re going

At some point when you’re heading somewhere new and ask for directions in advance you will hear the immortal words: ‘It’s just a couple of minutes away from the tube station’. Always check first. Firstly, because London is huge, and secondly because Google Maps has a tendency to behave like a petulant child if your mobile internet connection isn’t up to scratch. I naively assumed that regardless of where you are in London, you’re only ever ‘a couple of minutes away’ from the nearest tube stop. Not true. When someone who knows their area well tells you that you ‘just’ need to take the third left and then the second right and go through the underpass and then past the park and then it’s simply the third turning opposite the pub on the right just near the station, you need to worry. Write down directions, take note of which tube stations/bus stops you need and leave half an hour spare for getting lost. You’ll be fine.

  1. Pay attention to your surroundings

Disobeying travel etiquette in London is a bad idea and usually makes your journey (and everyone else’s) a lot more stressful. Standing on the right hand side of the escalator will put you in good stead. However, running up the left hand side trying to keep up when you know you can only make it halfway and then having to stop to catch your breath (especially when there’s no space for you to move over to the right) will drive people (okay, me) absolutely insane. Holding people up by dawdling in busy areas will get your toes run over by a large suitcase careering past (probably mine) and stopping abruptly at the bottom of a staircase in a crowded station to check your Twitter feed is just plain silly. Planning a chilled out journey is the best way forward, but London can be a tough place so being aware that other people are stressed and in a rush is advisable. This way, you’ll get to your destination free of hassle and won’t spend your evening out crying in the toilets over that guy who sighed loudly and called you a ‘bloody tourist’ when all you were trying to do was take a picture of your feet in front of the ‘Mind the Gap’ sign at the height of rush hour.

  1. Scrap the whole thing and just walk everywhere

A little controversial I know, but walking around London is easily the least stressful way to see the city. For a start, it’s free and as a student you should seize every opportunity you can to get out of spending money on silly things like Oyster cards. The blasted things run out of credit whenever they feel like it, get lost all the time and generally make your life a living hell (I’m kidding, sort of – pretty much everyone in London has one). Walking across the city means you control where you go (you’ll need a map) and how long it takes to get there (a great way to monitor how much slower you’re walking since all that fried chicken and cider became your main diet). A long purposeful walk to your destination will burn some calories, cut out travel costs and help you to learn your way around. Additionally, travelling on foot will give you some fresh (ish) air and the best part is that you’ll discover places you’d never have found otherwise.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die

Today I finally made it to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London, which is embarrassingly late considering it has been running since October. Clutching my ticket, I descended the stairs to find a father and two kids patting a bookshelf in front of me and, catching my puzzled expression, the security guard informed me that we had to find the entrance. The father finally had some luck and pushed the right book, which, to the excited squeals of his two children, revealed a doorway. A charmingly magical entrance to an exhibition about a rather magical genius.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the emphasis is on the timelessness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, the endless possibilities for adaptation and the way in which the Sherlock Holmes stories capture the imagination, ensuring their remarkable staying power in our hearts, on our bookshelves and on our televisions. This message is clear from the very beginning, as, on entering, you are confronted with several television screens, each displaying a different adaptation of Sherlock Holmes through the years. From Alan Wheatley’s portrayal of the detective in the 1951 BBC television series, to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film version and Benedict Cumberbatch’s adoption of the role in 2010, it is clear that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes will live to deliver and delight time and time again.

The meticulous detail that has clearly been put into this exhibition is impressive. Much like the detective himself, it leaves us with no stone unturned, every aspect of the author and his creation are presented and examined – there is even a section dedicated to London fog, as this features frequently in the stories. I personally liked the maps of Victorian London, which were fascinating. One map was colour coded to show the areas of London that were ‘wealthy’, ‘well to do’, ‘poor’, ‘very poor’ and so on. There were also maps dedicated to certain stories such as ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘A Study in Scarlet’ to show the areas of London that Sherlock and Dr Watson had visited in these tales and which mode of transport they had used. This visual representation of the stories is great as it makes us connect with them even more, seeing if Holmes ever passed by the way you walk to work, or if he and Dr Watson ever visited your neck of the woods. You get to immerse yourself even further in the world of Holmes and watch the scenes of pursuit unfold in front of your eyes.

Another great feature was a display of postcards sent to and from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We are asked to adopt the role of the detective as we are told that one of the postcards holds some significance to the Sherlock Holmes stories and are given the clue to look at the picture on the postcard and its address. This interactive element encapsulates the spirit of Holmes and further engages us with the detective and his creator. Indeed, in the final section of the exhibition we are presented with various artefacts, such as a pair of ladies’ shoes which are shown to have slits in the soles where a blade would have been kept. It is the presentation of such minute details that allows us to get inside the mind of the detective and imagine Holmes examining such items himself in order to solve mysteries. The exhibition completely engulfs us, transporting us to the world of Sherlock Holmes in a way that is magical and that indeed proves that the much-loved detective will never die.

If you haven’t already been, there’s still time to catch the exhibition as it is running until the 12th April and costs £9 for students. Worth checking out if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, and there’s a charming little café next door that sells an excellent Lemon Drizzle. Mary Berry would be proud.

3 Reasons Why Studying Drama in London is Awesome

Cosmopolitan Capital. International city of stuff. Centre of important things and whatnot. Whatever London is, choosing to study here was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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Photographers united through Instagram

Not sure which famous sites to visit in London? Interested in photography? Want to know more? Read on to find out about the ‘Instagramers London’ meet-up page.

Barbican Centre, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Barbican Centre, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

One account on Instagram you should be following is @London. You don’t necessarily need to have Instagram to join the meet-ups, so don’t worry! Just bring whatever device you have and enjoy the day. They always organise meet-ups in places where we can take cool photos and get to know people. Speaking of which, the next worldwide instameet has been organised for the weekend 21-22 March. Details are finalised closer to the date but get involved and join in the fun. This is something you cannot miss out on!

The first worldwide instameet in London I attended was in May 2014 and it was such a success! People came from all over the world and it was lovely meeting them! You felt comfortable carrying your phone, iPad or camera around; it did not matter if you looked like a tourist, as there were hundreds of us doing exactly the same. It gives you a sense of belonging – I am a lover of photography you see. I may not be a professional but I enjoy taking in the sights and sharing them with people. I like skylines, bridges, buildings and nature!

Barbican Centre Fountains, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Barbican Centre Fountains, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

We met bright and early at the Barbican Centre for the worldwide instameet in May and had the chance to visit the garden. The sun was out and I had lovely company. Oh, what a beautiful place! I felt mesmerised by the tropical atmosphere created by the warm temperature, trees and fountains. It is as if we stepped out of London and into a tropical island. It is quite useful to note that the conservatory and garden can be hired out for private events such as weddings and receptions. So you could use it for a big event, maybe even your birthday?!

The organisers were friendly and made sure that the day was packed full of great sights to appreciate. The fountains outside the Barbican Centre are a must see! The Barbican Centre is situated right at the heart of London. It is known to be one of the largest venues in Europe for celebrating the arts; such as music, theatre, dance, etc.

Freerunners in London, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Freerunners in London, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

After the morning session at the Barbican Centre we went for a photo walk accompanied by freerunners. They were climbing up buildings and trees for us to capture. Ending the day at Jamie’s Italian with free welcome drinks and acoustic singers for entertainment. If you are feeling competitive and want to showcase your photos from the day, there are prizes over £1000 to be won by the end which is exciting! If you want to have a taster of what the day was like, watch this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQENeKxL_Hk&feature=youtu.be. (You’ll see me and my friends at 1.34).

Clearly a lot of thought gets put in organising these events for us to participate in, experience and take memorable photographs of. I would definitely recommend joining one of their meet-ups as it is enjoyable and a great atmosphere to meet like-minded people. You can network and visit their hometown and go on your own photo-walks. One more thing to add, these events are completely free to join! So what are you waiting for? Make the most of these opportunities to fully experience London.

Not only do they organise worldwide meet-ups, they also keep an eye out for current events that take place in London which you can join at short notice. During the Christmas period they organised a gathering for the Regent Street Christmas Lights switch on. There were live performances and Take That were there to turn the lights on, with a fantastic firework display in the background. To keep updated on news around London events I would suggest you to join the ‘Instagramers London’ meet-up page. It is an exciting way to try out new places and meet new people! Step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in what London has to offer you.

International Love, International Women’s Day

Sunday 8th March is not any normal Sunday. Yes, the chances are your family’s roast dinner will still be served in all its gravy- sorry groovy – grandeur at the dining table. And yes, Countryfile will most definitely still be gracing your television screens with some lovely sheep and cows (on in the background of course, unless you like that sort of thing – hey, who am I to judge?). Nope, what I am really getting at is Sunday 8th March shines especially bright because it is the date that women all across the globe unite together for International Women’s Day 2015.

women unite
Women unite.

If you don’t know, International Women’s Day is a day of celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.  It was first recorded in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with over one million men and women attending rallies for women’s civil rights. Today International Women’s Day is a day of celebration for women’s triumphs, a day of raising awareness for women’s struggles, and a day of hope for positive change in the future. In some places of the world International Women’s Day is even a National Holiday. Of course, here in the United Kingdom, good old David Cameron is yet to make the leap to make it one (I’m sure he has a lot of other pressing issues on his plate), but one thing is for sure: with or without a break from the nine-to-five, our immense purple-pride over this momentous day is as strong as ever.

To remember why, let’s cast our minds back to three of the most iconic moments and remarkable achievements of women in the past year.

  • At eleven years old she was blogging anonymously for BBC about her life as a school girl in Swat Valley, Pakistan. Now Malala Yousafzai is a female activist against violence, poverty and for more access to education for women and girls. Most inspiring of all, in 2014 Malala became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen years old. Upon receiving the prestigious award, she said in her acceptance speech to the world: “I am those 66 million girls deprived of an education. And today I am not raising my voice, it is the voice of those 66 million girls”. Beyoncé may well be ‘Queen B’, but Malala is undoubtedly ‘Queen A’.
  • Emma Sulkowicz, an Art student at Columbia University in New York, vowed to lug around her heavy mattress everywhere she went until her alleged rapist was expelled from the school. And lug she did. The protest originally started as an art project, yet went on to provoke a revolution against sexual assault. 28 mattresses were dropped outside the University President’s office. Now that is some revolution.
  • If you haven’t heard, though no longer Hermione at Hogwarts, Emma Watson showed the world that she is still very much capable of magic with her speech at the UN conference in September 2014. Whether she is a famous film star or not, her message of Gender Equality and Feminism was heard loud and clear by men and women all over the globe. In the speech Emma passionately announced, “It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are”. Somehow I don’t think 10 points to Gryffindor will ever be enough.

There are seven billion people on planet Earth, half of those are women. Above are only three examples of millions of inspiring women making a change for a better future, and it all started over a hundred years ago with the Suffragettes. As for making a positive change to 2015, I suggest you start small and make your dear mum a cup of tea… and even your dad, if he fancies one. Heck, just make a round for your all your friends and the next door neighbour too.

Celebrate International Women’s Day with love on Sunday 8th March with #makeithappen. (Oh – and don’t to #makethetea).

International Women's Day logo