A Life in Letters: Ford Madox Ford

Pablo Scheffer, BA English Literature student, King’s College, London

This summer I had the pleasure of spending a month as a research assistant at the Cornell University library, working on the digitalisation of the letters of Ford Madox Ford. When I started the project, I had only read a handful of Ford’s essays and none of his longer works, knowing him mostly from his connection to other modernist figures, and so I had the unusual experience of getting to know the author not through a thorough reading of his work, but rather through an immersion in his personal correspondence.

Ford Madox Ford PublicDomain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51044

Through this experience, I came to realise to what extent we tend to view the lives of authors, especially of authors who are no longer alive, through a lens of the literature they have left behind. A great example of this is the abysmal J.R.R. Tolkien biopic Tolkien that came out earlier this year, in which the novelist’s life is portrayed as a series of events that all, in some teleological way, contribute to his creation of The Lord of the Rings. The film gives Tolkien’s life meaning purely based on its relevance for our “understanding” of his books, resulting in a strange cocktail of dragons and melodrama that seems far removed from a realistic depiction of life.

Although Tolkien’s portrayal of J.R.R.’s life is an especially cringe-inducing instance of us viewing an author through their oeuvre, it does point to what I think is a more general trend: because we have a tendency to approach authors through their stories, we seem to consider their lives, to a degree at least, as we would consider a story: as a linear narrative where elements introduced in the beginning are shown to have relevance at a later point. From our own lives we know, however, that life is expressedly not a singular, linear narrative, but rather a messy amalgamation of a great many different narratives, or perhaps not even a narrative at all.

I had never considered this difference between the way we view authors and the way we view ourselves until, through this assistantship, I spent time with the letters of Ford. Reading his correspondence, especially his correspondence with family and close friends, I was struck by the familiarity of the language – the letters appeared to me more like postcards from a good friend than the work of a high-brow modernist. The words were not stern and stately, as I had (perhaps ignorantly) expected, but often playful: they were the words of a little “Fordie” writing to his grandad, or of a playful “Pumpums” sending postcards to his “dearest little kid”.

The more I read, the more I began to form a picture of Ford which was very different from the image that I had had before. It was a picture of a man in whose life writing was admittedly a large, but far from an all-consuming part. I found that where I had initially seen the person Ford as peripheral to his oeuvre, I began instead to consider Ford’s oeuvre as peripheral to its creator. As a result, where initially the smooth surface of the literature had lured me subliminally into an artificial view of the writer’s life, viewing the literature from the perspective of the writer dissolved this smooth surface into a messy process of writing and rewriting.

Now, this is not to say that viewing a book “through” its author is necessarily always a good thing (Roland Barthes would have something to say about that) – rather, I would say that Ford’s letters have showed me how it can be a refreshing and demystifying experience to get to know an author and their literature not through the polished works of art, but rather through their rough, everyday correspondence.


Professor Sara Haslam and Professor Max Saunders would like to thank the Open University and King’s College, London for their financial support for this initiative. 

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‘Let Me Tell You A Story’: Reflections on the EastSide Arts Festival, Belfast

Patricia Ferguson, PhD student, English Literature

‘Let me tell you a story’ was the principal theme of this year’s EastSide Arts festival. These are my reflections on four events which seem to me to resonate profoundly with the present state of affairs in Northern Ireland. The Irish genius for the ancient art of storytelling has never dimmed; it has become if anything brighter than ever in recent years. Libraries NI has its own Storyteller in Residence, whom I was privileged to meet. (Tales & Tunes With Liz Weir). Her first job had been as Children’s Librarian for the City of Belfast in 1976, when the Troubles were at their height and where they remained for the next twenty years. Undeterred by all this, she started a storytelling group at the Linen Hall Library in 1985, calling it ‘The Yarnspinners’: ‘I had a dream that one day there would be story telling groups all over Ireland. That dream has sort of come true; there are now the Tullycarnet Yarn Spinners, the Dublin Yarn Spinners, the Cork Yarn Spinners, there’s a group in Castlerock now as well.’[1]

Our event took place at Tullycarnet where yarns have been spun at least once a month for twenty-seven years. There were more than a hundred of us in that small library, brought to tears of grief and laughter by tales tragic, poignant, and hilarious, and beguiled by Maeshine’s exquisite melodies. If the musica universalis became audible to the human ear it would surely sound like this.

Word and song came together in a different way at St Martin’s Church on the Newtonards Road. (An Evening With EastSide Choir & Women Aloud NI) After each song, two members of the award winning writing group responded with stories or poems written specially for the occasion. The effect was startling; quite ordinary, well-known songs discovered the power to evoke the most personal memories and to inspire some intriguing yarnspinning. (I want to hear the murder mystery tale again!) All the same, I was constantly distracted by remembering where we were: St Martin’s Church of Ireland is just across the road from St Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church – a stone’s throw, in common parlance. As everyone in Belfast knows, plenty of those, and much worse, were thrown throughout the night of 27-28 June 1970 in what became known as ‘The Battle of St Matthew’s’. We are on the edge of Short Strand, a small Catholic enclave in the heart of Protestant East Belfast, where ‘Catholics believed that they were about to become “victims of a Protestant pogrom” and Protestants believed they were on the “eve of an IRA insurrection”’.[2] The rights and wrongs of these perceptions are still argued over and each can sound as plausible as the other: compare and contrast, for example, the accounts of the battle given by An Phoblacht and Long Kesh Inside Out.[3] [4]

In such an impasse is a just judgment even possible? This question is as old as it is intractable; it was asked by Sophocles in the Antigone more than two millennia ago and, still unresolved, was discussed here at the Festival by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General himself, John Larkin QC. (Antigone: A Choice Between Law and Justice?) The Irish have long seen parallels between the Greek classics (especially Antigone) and their own situation. In 1984, while the Troubles raged around them, Irish playwrights presented it in four different versions. One of these, Tom Paulin’s play, The Riot Act, is set in Northern Ireland, where: ‘Creon becomes a Unionist politician devoted to law and order, and Antigone becomes a republican who wishes to bury her dead brother. Here the alien laws of Creon’s Unionist state are opposed by Antigone’s devotion to the native ethos of family, kin, tribe. As Antigone says: “Down in the dark earth/ there’s no law says,/ Break with your own kin, go lick the State”. ‘[5]

Seamus Heaney took up this theme in his own translation of the play, The Burial at Thebes (London: Faber, 2004). Comparing the burial of the hunger striker, Francis Hughes, in 1981 to Antigone’s burial of her brother he asked: ‘By what right did the steel ring of the defence forces close round the remains of one who was son, brother, comrade, neighbour, companion?’ and found no satisfactory answer. I heartily recommend the lecture, which is in the public domain and can be found here: 

Immediately after the lawyer came the journalists. (Reporting the Troubles: A Discussion). This was a book launch for the second edition of Reporting the Troubles: Journalists Tell Their Stories of the Northern Ireland Conflict, compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little (Newtonards: Blackstaff Press, 2019). They and their colleague Eamonn Maillie chaired the discussion. They looked at us with haunted eyes. They had been there throughout those thirty years, never knowing whether they would find themselves reporting atrocities happening in their own families. The book is indeed, as it says on the cover, ‘a landmark book, raw, thought provoking and profoundly moving, a remarkable act of remembrance’. But always the question arises: how much should be remembered? Surely the best thing to do is let the past go? Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, thinks not. ‘That’, she says in her contribution to the book, ‘is a recipe for mass neurosis, delusion, and moral hypocrisy – that, to keep the “peace” we must inflict another kind of violence on survivors, censoring their stories, blue-pencilling the raw heart and hurt mind’. (pp. 222-23)

On the contrary, we must hear as many stories as possible.

[1]    ‘Meet the Teller: Liz Weir’, Liz Weir: Storyteller, Writer, (2019) <https://www.lizweir.org/liz-goes-digital/> [accessed 21 August 2019]

[2]    ‘Battle of St Matthew’s 27-28 June 1970’, Belfast Child: Remembering the Victims, <https://belfastchildis.com/2016/06/26/battle-of-st-matthews-27th-28th-june-1970/> [accessed 21 August 2019]

[3]    ‘Remembering the Risen People: The Battle of St Matthew’s and the Falls Curfew’, An Phoblacht/Republican News <https://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/25115> [accessed 21 August 2019]

[4]    ‘De-bunking the Myth of the “Battle” of St Matthew’s’, Long Kesh Inside Out <https://www.longkeshinsideout.co.uk/?p=3720> [accessed 21 August 2019]

[5]    Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy, ed. by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton (London: Methuen, 2002), pp. 52; 208.

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Ten days with Edith Wharton: impressions of an archival visit

By Isabelle Parsons, PhD student, English Literature (1)

It’s a Monday morning in June and I’m standing in front of the imposing granite and marble cube that is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I’ve spent the past four years studying published texts, correspondence, biographies and scholarship relating to Edith Wharton’s work, especially her portrayals of women through the use of secrets and silences. Now I’m about to examine the most relevant portions of the archival paper trail of her life.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

3 June – Heaven under surveillance
Inside the Beinecke cream-coloured carpet muffles sound, black leather-backed chairs surround generous desks, and Gertrude Stein looks down from the wall.

The manuscript for The Age of Innocence is being scanned off-site, so I move straight on to A Backward Glance. I note Wharton inserting the phrase ‘secret lisp’ to describe the sound of arbutus buds in the spring woods near Mamaroneck.[2] Then she adds the word ‘secret’ to describe her reading practice as ‘a secret ecstasy of communion’, before explaining why she’s chosen this particular adjective.[3] Understanding dawns – Wharton is saying that she attaches value to concealment, in an autobiography that is noticeably reticent.

4 June – Hunting for silences in The Reef
Sophy’s manifesto-like exclamation, ‘“I wanted it––I chose it. He was good to me––no one ever was so good!’”, where every pause drives home her certainty, is absent from the manuscript.[4] And the narrative leaps from Anna learning about Darrow and Sophy’s past, to a chapter I don’t recognise from the published text, one where she wakes up ‘an hour or two before dawn, got up and threw open the shutters of the bedroom windows. The intense silence of a muffled sky hung in the woods and fields.’[5] This, then, is transmission history in action, showing me Wharton’s creative mind at work.

5 June – Wharton writes women
Lawyer Royall says something extraordinary in the manuscript of Summer, omitted from the final text: “Every thing I’ve done in my life’s been a failure,” he broke out suddenly –– “and now I’ve made a failure of this too.”’[6] The next folder I open includes the view of The Literary Supplement of the London Times (1917), which finds that Royall and his ward

[…] are remarkable beings indeed, a bitter girl and a tarnished old man; […] he is a really rich piece of creation, a masterful louche, obscurely battered and defeated derelict of his world; he does not, one feels, get all the display he should have had.[7]

But the evolution from manuscript to published text makes clear that this story is not about Royall. Wharton wants us to empathise with the girl!

6–7 June – Wharton’s war
Request scan of Wharton’s talk to American soldiers – in Paris? – despite pages missing from document. Her warmth & Francophilia unmistakeable.

Judging by Roosevelt’s letters, he and Wharton egged each other on over American neutrality. Conrad’s letters unexpectedly gentle; it is 1 October 1917 and his son has just visited from the front. Then Bo Rhinelander’s excitement over getting into the thick of things with his ‘D H 4 with a 420 h.p. Liberty Motor’, envy of the English pilots, is palpable in a September 1918 letter to his mother, Wharton’s cousin by marriage.[8]

Philip Newbold Rhinelander (1895–1918) [9]

The last is a difficult read. Within weeks Bo’s plane is shot down, and Wharton calls on her impressive network to determine his fate.

10 June – Secrets revealed
Unexpectedly discomfited by Morton Fullerton’s clandestine transcription of ‘Terminus’. Wharton destroyed the original, yet I have in front of me her intimate thoughts about a love affair that delighted and then agonised her.

Delve into Henry James’ letters, but his handwriting defies me. Call it a day and get soaked on the way home. Sandals squelching, inspiration strikes; look for Powers’ volume of James-Wharton correspondence on Internet Archive  to work out which of James’ letters are not published, and focus on those!

11–12 June – The Wharton marriage
Acrimony of the Wharton separation emerges. In December 1912 she writes to Gaillard Lapsley, ‘I’ve been going through bad times. Teddy [Edward Wharton] is in London, in the clutches of a woman, + I can do nothing. Try not to see him, please. He is pursuing all my friends.’[10] Sixteen months later Lapsley hears, ‘[…] I “get my decree” in another four or five days. I find that Teddy has registered all his various temporary brides as “Mrs Wharton” in the hotels they frequented –– rather a gratuitous last touch of ill-breeding.’[11]

Then it’s early 1914; Wharton sends Lapsley postcards from North Africa containing what can only be described as toilet humour. Stifle my laughter with enormous effort. At the next desk scholars sombrely examine medieval manuscripts.

13 June – Paper trail of a life
Wharton’s 1920 diary tracks Age of Innocence’s relentless progress, and shows Walter Berry moonlighting as her New York courier, hand delivering to Appleton the novel’s completed chapters as sent to him.

Swallowing hard again, now over diary entries for Berry’s death, and maids Elise and Gross’s.

14 June – Time passes
Photograph 1938 letter from Yale president Charles Seymour to Lapsley regarding gift of Wharton’s papers. Confirms willingness to provide ‘careful housing and protection’, ‘that the correspondence and biographical material will not be accessible for a period of years, roughly corresponding to a generation’, and that Wharton’s manuscripts ‘will be accessible only to bona fide students of literature and that none of the unpublished material be published until the copyright expires’. He agrees also to ‘the necessity of guarding against the danger that the material might fall into incompetent or unwise hands in the meantime’.[12]

Edith Wharton to Morton Fullerton, 19 October 1907 [13]

Back up my notes and photographs one more time, yet resist closing my laptop and returning the last folder to the front desk. How lucky to be of a generation with access to the words and images that today signify Wharton. Sit a while longer, thinking how ten days have wiped away the years between her life and mine.

1. Isabelle Parsons is an Associate Lecturer and doctoral student in English at The Open University. Her visit to the Beinecke Library in June 2019 was funded through an Edith Wharton Society Award for Archival Research and The Open University’s PRA and RESSF schemes.
2. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series I, Box 2, 
Folder 27.
3. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series I, Box 2, 
Folder 28.
4. Edith Wharton, The Reef (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p.263.
5. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series I, Box 11, 
Folder 320.
6. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series I, Box 12, 
Folder 362.
7. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series I, Box 12, 
Folder 363.
8. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series II, Box 30, 
Folder 916.
9. James W.D. Seymour, Memorial volume of the American Field Service in France: “Friends of France” 1914-1917 (Boston: American Air Service, 1921), n.p.
10. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series VII, Box 59, 
Folder 1706.
11. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series VII, Box 59, 
Folder 1707.
12. Beinecke Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAL MSS 42, Series XI, Box 65, 
Folder 1795.
13. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, YCAK MSS 42, Series II, Box 25, Folder 774.

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Manga, The British Museum

“思春期誘惑” by 南宮博士 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Francesca Benatti, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities

I recently visited the Manga exhibition at the British Museum (23 May-26 August 2019), the largest of its kind ever to take place outside of Japan. Manga is the name commonly applied to Japanese comics. Behind this simple term hides a galaxy of artistic, historical and cultural practices, which the British Museum exhibition elucidates for a Western audience.

Manga are composed of frames (koma) and contain a combination of black-and-white line drawings, speech balloons, onomatopoeia and symbols (manpu). Together, these form a language of visual storytelling that is central to Japanese identity and is increasingly popular in the rest of the world.

The exhibition begins by explaining the historical roots of manga, from the 12th-century Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, to Hokusai’s 19th-century drawing manuals, to the satirical magazines inspired by Punch that emerged in the late 19th century. Kawanabe Kyōsai’s 17-metre Shintomiza Theatre Curtain (1880) is the spectacular apex of this part of the exhibition.

The ample section on Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) acknowledges his centrality in the development of modern manga through new publishing and artistic practices. Original artwork is on display from Tezuka’s seminal series, such as New Treasure Island (1947), Astro Boy (1952-68) and Princess Knight (1953-67), the first manga to address a female readership.

For a book historian like me, it was rewarding to see the attention paid to the dynamics of manga production. Interviews with manga artists (including numerous female mangaka such as Kōno Fumiyo and Hagio Moto) and with the commissioning editors of the major manga publishers illustrate the complexity of the creative and production processes of an industry worth £3bn a year in Japan alone. The weekly and monthly magazines serialising multiple titles, as well as the tankōbon collected editions can achieve sales of millions of copies across the various formats. By way of comparison, US comics titles struggle nowadays to sell more than 100,000 copies.

The diversity of contemporary manga is then illustrated through its multiple genres, including dramatic manga, comedy manga, shojo manga for female readers, shônen-ai or boys’ love manga (also aimed at women), shônen or boys’ manga and sports manga. Each genre is illustrated through noteworthy examples, such as the football manga Captain Tsubasa (a childhood favourite of mine in its anime television version), and Inoue Takehiko’s immensely successful basketball series SLAM DUNK and REAL, the latter notable for its portrayal of disability.

Where the exhibition truly shines is in its depiction of the sociological and cultural impact of manga. When studying literature, we are often taught to adopt a critical distance from our object of study. The opposite is true with manga, where audience participation is central to its impact, as shown here through exhibits and interviews from the twice-yearly Comics Market (Comiket).

The event, which attracts an audience of half a million otaku (persons with obsessive interests or fans), shows the extent to which manga readers enter into a dialogue with the medium. This takes the form of creative engagement through self-produced dōjinshi comics, which are sold at Comiket, and through the practice of cosplay (costume play), where fans dress up as their favourite characters, seeking physical immersion in their favourite manga storyworld.

The future of manga is the subject of the final section. Here the focus is on the growing transmediality of the form. Increasingly, print manga are part of a complex ecosystem that interweaves digital comics, television and games, highlighting the permeability of the form to new technologies and publics. The growing presence of manga outside of Japan is also brought to the fore, through collaborative works and through the adoption of the visual language of manga by European and American creators The appeal of manga to a wide audience both in Japan and in the rest of the world, its ability to adopt multiple registers, from escapism to social engagement, its embracing of new technologies and formats, all suggest that this art form will continue to transform and to engage readers for the foreseeable future.

Accompanying the exhibition is also an excellent catalogue edited by curators Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (British Museum) and Matsuba Ryoko (Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, University of East Anglia).

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Early days with the Professor of Literature

Dennis Walder, Emeritus Professor of Literature 

When I used to travel to Walton Hall for meetings I was fortunate to have Arnold Kettle, the Head of Department and sole Professor, sometimes invite me stay in the rambling old Kettle house in Aspley Guise.  After an evening discussing the politics of the day, we would listen to Arnold’s favourite opera singers, as he produced disk after disk from his vast collection.  He was hugely knowledgeable about opera (as is his elder son, Guardian columnist Martin Kettle).  At breakfast he would have two newspapers beside him – The Morning Star and The Times.  The first time I noticed this I enquired – Why The Times? ‘You need to know what the opposition is thinking,’ he replied.

Arnold Kettle was a prominent Communist, and knew he would never be appointed to a chair in a conventional university such as Leeds, where he had been Senior Lecturer for many years despite his eminence as a literary critic. His students there included Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it is striking that just prior to the OU he was briefly Chair of the English Department at the University of East Africa, Dar-es-Salaam. A few years ago at the University of Namibia I met one of his former students who recalled how Kettle had brought local African texts into their curriculum for the first time. ‘We are doing the same,’ he said proudly.

Kettle was the OU’s first Professor of Literature – not of English.  He chose the broader title for the Department too, believing literary study should range more widely than the standard English Department fare.  ‘You cannot say you know about the novel if you haven’t read Balzac and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Turgenev, ‘ he would say, ‘in translation if need be, as well as Dickens, the Brontes and James.’ He set up what became our massively popular full credit 19th Century Novel course, with an appropriate range of writers and issues.  And helped me to introduce texts from the former colonial territories into our curriculum, despite opposition.

Another early appointment, Brian Stone, a drama specialist, was a war veteran with an artificial leg, whose politics could not have been further from Arnold’s.  Brian provided the other side of the dialectic, remarked Arnold. There were many disagreements, not just between them. But everyone’s commitment to the idea of the course team, the most original and challenging departure from how conventional universities created and taught their courses, was profound. Nick Furbank, from King’s College Cambridge (E.M Forster’s friend and biographer), and Graham Martin from Bedford College London, were the next appointments, and a formidable group they were.  The emphasis initially was on more senior, experienced academics to translate their teaching into the new format, although soon there was also a young appointee, Cicely Havely, fresh from Oxford.

Course Team Meetings often ended up, as we used to say, with ‘blood on the floor’ – especially when creating the first multi- and interdisciplinary courses. But, as I discovered after my appointment, you soon got used to colleagues from other discipline areas critiquing your work, and the result was plain to see, as we began to come across well-thumbed copies of our course materials in other university libraries, despite the unusual A5 format of the ‘units’, and the initial disdain of other institutions. My own PhD supervisor at Edinburgh University seemed embarrassed to confess he was taking a bunch of our materials with him when he went to the States to teach a semester. ‘So well written,’ he muttered.

Initially drawing external examiners from established chairs elsewhere ensured growing acceptance of our ‘standards’, although there were some surprises on both sides.  At one exam board I was chairing on the 19th Century Novel Course the external reluctantly agreed that a paper was a First, adding, ‘but it’s not a transcendental First!’

In any case, Kettle did not believe that we as teachers of literature should be concerned overmuch with firsts.  As he said to me once, ‘The students who are going to get firsts can look after themselves; what we should be concerned with is teaching the majority, who will not get Firsts.’

Kettle was wise and subtle, and, as a chair, would keep his comments to a minimum.  His expression was often hard to read, which could be intimidating. So too was the fact that he had a phenomenal memory.  He could on occasion be cutting: once when a distinguished BBC colleague who always arrived late and with a hefty bag slung over his shoulder, came into a course team meeting with the usual commotion, Arnold turned to him: ‘Come for the night, Alasdair?’

He had a healthy skepticism about how much you could teach literature through television.  The real work was done through the printed materials, textbooks and the marking of student essays. His own academic background was relatively traditional, through Cambridge and Yale – although his Yale PhD was unusual in those days.  I once asked him about his Yale experience, and he said that while there he met the one person who had left the most lasting impression upon him of anyone he had come across:  the great bass baritone singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson.

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Voices from the Past: Peterloo and New Historical Fiction

It’s exciting to hear that Hilary Mantel’s novel The Mirror and the Light will be published in March 2020. Like many thousands of historical fiction fans, I am impatient to see how she concludes her epic trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell. However, I’m also keen to see historical fiction focus on the lives of those who have been given only a footnote in the historical record.  Earlier this month I organised a conference in Manchester with my Creative Writing colleagues Heather Richardson and Joanne Reardon, commemorating the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre and considering the role of historical fiction in celebrating marginal voices from the past.

Held at the People’s History Museum, the conference brought together a number of speakers including writers and academics from different disciplines. The keynote was Jacqueline Riding, historical consultant to Mike Leigh for the film Peterloo.

Jacqueline briefly summarised the events that took place on 16 August 1819. On that day at St. Peter’s Field, a combined force of local yeomanry cavalry and British-army regulars  tore through a pro-democracy meeting of 60,000 people. Many of the local yeomanry were drunk.  At least 15 people were killed or died later from their injuries, including an infant and two women, and over 650 were beaten and maimed. This terrible event is the focus of increasing interest, with a number of books published recently including Jacqueline’s Peterloo: the Story of the Manchester Massacre.

The first panel discussion looked at the way in which historical fiction writers interact with historical fact, and why they tell the stories they do. Novelist Emma Darwin suggested that often readers go to historical fiction looking for stories that aren’t covered by history, sometimes focused on whole sections of the community, sometimes on individual voices that have not been heard, citing the example of Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light which tells the story of Maire O’Neill, partner and muse of Irish playwright J. M. Synge who became a successful Hollywood actress.

Michael Green talked about his novel The Ghosting of Anne Armstrong, and his research process. It is based on the story of a 14 year old girl who went before a justice in Northumberland  in 1673, accusing her neighbours of witchcraft. Michael came across the story on a plaque in his local pub, and became engrossed in the research journey, which eventually led him to the National Archives at Kew where he found Anne’s depositions. Her unlikely story caught his imagination: ‘A voice gets me and won’t go away.’

The panel ‘Touching history – tactile historical fiction’ focussed on the importance of tactile objects when connecting with the past. Vivienne Richmond presented on her work on the clothing of the working class and talked about her book Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England. It is hard for us to understand the way that clothing was coded in the past, and historical fiction set in the Victorian period – such as The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber – can help decipher such codes, because writers producing work for 21st century readers make information explicit which would have been implicit in the work of Victorian writers.

Vivienne also suggested that as the scraps of fabric that mothers left with their babies when leaving them at the Foundling Hospital in London are often vibrantly patterned, we can assume that they wore dresses made from such fabrics. The concept that we generally have of ‘the poor’ wearing clothes that were shabby and drab would only apply to the most deprived.

Heather Richardson talked about her research process in her novels Magdeburg and Doubting Thomas, and her recent project ‘A Dress for Kathleen’, in which she commemorates the life and death of her aunt Kathleen during a blackout in World War II by making a dress using a contemporary dress pattern and creating an artefact that blends the verbal and the tactile.

The conference also encompassed new ways to present historical fact. Graphic novel Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, a collaboration between cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald ‘Polyp’, artist and activist Eva Schlunke and academic Robert Poole, demonstrates that it is possible to distil detailed academic knowledge into the succinct visual form of graphic art.

The final panel event was a ‘Big Book Group’ discussion in which Emma Darwin talked about her book The Mathematics of Love, which encompasses the Peterloo Massacre, and her latest publication: This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin. Emma described how The Mathematics of Love began as a response to a writing exercise where the prompt was ‘watch’. Immediately the image came into her mind of a red-coated English soldier watching a girl bathe in a Spanish river – and so her main character was born.

Throughout the conference there was a sense of connections being made and links being forged, and of possibilities for future collaborations. One conclusion is that this is a vibrant, multifaceted form that offers continually evolving interpretations of past realities. There is a full report of this conference on the Contemporary Cultures of Writing site.

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‘An Agreement Born of Impossible Conversations’: Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, Belfast, 25-31 March 2019


Patricia Ferguson, PhD student, English Literature

I have taken as my title this arresting phrase with which the poet Matt Kirkham, writing in ‘The Belfast Agreement: Twentieth Anniversary Issue’ of Irish Pages, sums up the Good Friday Agreement, an anniversary which is also the theme of this year’s Imagine! Festival.[1]  In his preface to the programme, the director Peter O’Neill invites us to enjoy ‘a unique way of imagining the future of this great city [ … ] as we try to make sense of this volatile world’. It builds on last year’s theme of restorative justice, which asked, ‘How do you change a punitive mindset into a restorative one?’

On that occasion I learned about friendship clubs, integrated schools, and heard Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners speak from the same platform. I thought this last the most heartening of all. I thought that this Irish genius for conversation, which they call the craic, might prove sufficient to heal the city’s wounds. I realise now that none of last year’s conversations could suffice, because not one of them was impossible, not even that between the ex-prisoners. That conversation, I now see, was not in fact between them; they told their stories to us, the audience, not to each other, and left the stage unreconciled.

The conflict lasted so long that ‘only people of my age, pensioners, can recall what the peace was before the Ulster Troubles. We can speculate what life might have been like, had we not had our thirty year war’.[2]  Given such a history, that the Agreement ever happened is something of a miracle, but the brittle accord which it achieved might yet be shattered by Brexit into nothing more than a twenty year truce, because, as Mary Robinson warned, it institutionalized sectarianism. Can there be any irony more bitter than this, that ‘when a cross-party delegation visited South Africa, even Nelson Mandela had to address Unionists and Republicans separately’?[3]  If the peace is to survive, let alone grow stronger, they must learn to talk to each other.

The poet Damian Gorman (‘What Rhymes with Conflict?’), who spent ten years working with young people from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, understands this perfectly. He read to us from his poem ‘If I was us, I wouldn’t start from here’, which is a reflection on the Agreement. He exhorted us to ‘tell your story until it’s told’, but no less vitally, to listen to the other person’s story – and he means listen; to do that, he said, you must clear a space inside yourself and let your enemy in, because ‘Each generation has a sacred task – |To tell a better story than it was told’.

I helped facilitate the Open University’s event, ‘Reading in Conflict’. The members of my group got no further than the first extract, a passage from Anna Burns’s novel, No Bones, set in Belfast in 1983, and bringing back the most searing memories of growing up as children of the Troubles. I wish I could have recorded their stories! But as with the ex-prisoners, Catholic and Protestant talked to us, the visitors, not to each other. As the week went on I became ever more aware of the Belfast people’s urgent need to find ways of talking to each other across the sectarian divide – but how can they, when the very geography of the city is designed to stop them? The Peace Walls are obvious enough, but a multi-disciplinary research project at Ulster University, (‘Hidden Barriers’) has been able to prove that, in redeveloping the city, the authorities closed off former thoroughfares, divided through-streets into cul-de-sacs, and put in ‘a proliferation of dead-end alleyways and courtyards with a single entry-exit point’ with the express purpose of keeping Catholic and Protestant apart, a policy which defines Belfast to this day.[4], [5]

We saw some of this for ourselves, looking at Ligoniel through virtual reality headsets, and then properly on the ‘History of Terror Walking Tour’. Like Damian Gorman, our guide Paul Donnelly has spent years as a mediator; ever since the ceasefire he has been working on dialogue projects between Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners. The interview he gave to Chris Luecke for ‘Pubcast Worldwide’ can be found here  It’s well worth a listen!

Perhaps it is because of the Brexit frenzy that the divide seems deeper than ever this year. When on the one hand I heard the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama of the Corrymeela Community use a story from the Bible (‘The Book of Ruth, the Moabites and Brexit’) to illustrate his plea for generosity and a more civic discourse; then on the other heard Ruth Dudley Edwards, quoting her friend Lionel Shriver, dismiss Sinn Féin as a ‘cancer’ (‘How Violent Republicanism Entrenched Partition’), I think I was the only person who had attended both talks. The question and answer sessions made it quite clear that neither group was there to learn; they were there to be comforted in the views they held already. Here are a few more lines from Damian Gorman’s poem on the Agreement:

The kind of myth my generation supped
Was, ‘We have better heroes than they’ve got.
For ours are much more decent – to a fault,
And if we’ve a rotten apple, they’ve the Rot’.

I burn to point out which side it is that has the Rot, but I know that until I can be cured of that, I am not part of the solution but part of the problem. I too must learn, in the poet Moya Cannon’s delightful phrase, ‘the nobility of compromise’.[6]

[1]     ‘Mission Impossible’, Irish Pages, 10, no. 2 (2019), 148-60 (p. 159)

[2]     Robert McDowell, ‘On Educating Memory’, ibid. 138-40 (p. 119)

[3]     John Gray, ‘A November Night’, ibid. 61-68 (p. 64)

[4]     David Coyles, Brandon Hamber and Adrian Grant, Hidden Barriers and Divisive Architecture: The Case of Belfast (Belfast: Ulster University, 2018), p. 10

[5]     To this day, indeed: a headline in the Belfast Telegraph, 9 April 2019, reads: ‘It should be renamed Sectarian Street – [Orange] Order questions building of houses near Belfast Orange Hall’.

[6]     Title of Moya Cannon’s article, ‘On the Nobility of Compromise’, Irish Pages, 10, no. 2 (2019), 76-83

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Reflections on Critical Thinking in Italy, France and Scotland

Judith Gorham former MAED (Applied Linguistics) student

My summer 2018

Critical thinking is a term much bandied about. Undergraduate and postgraduate degree course programmes tend to include it in their aims, though how this plays out differs. We know it when we see it – when a student essay shows a stance on what has been read – and we know it when we don’t see it – in endless descriptive regurgitating of reading.  I’ve even heard of an Italian university offering a single lesson on it, which ticks the box.

How do we actually get students to integrate critical thinking into an iterative working process? This was what led me to my dissertation main research question: Can student dialogue during group-based activities act as a medium for joint critical thinking?

Dialogue seemed a good place to start because of its potential for many-voiced texts, aka different ways of looking at a problem. In an Action Research study with a C1 (advanced) English for Academic Purposes class, I asked students to plan group presentations over three weeks, using discussion of sources to develop and refine slides. I decided to consider face-to-face and online dialogue, where distributed collaboration could lead to knowledge evolving over more extended time. I hoped for cross-multiplication of modes, where a multimodal text forges original meanings.

This was my plan. Then I started working with the students…

Half the class didn’t consent to their data being used – despite assurances, they believed it would take up too much of their time. In the first lesson, half (a different half!) were absent, so my carefully planned groupings had to be reworked on the hoof during the lesson. The next lesson everyone came, so all original groups of three had to accept a latecomer. Some groups viewed this positively, but others less so, and some latecomers remained ‘on the edge’. It also meant that the online threads got off to a rather haphazard start, and remained the weakest mode of discussion, critically speaking.

My carefully planned intervention was not as absorbing for students as I’d hoped, and I was surprised by how meandering some of their discussion was. More unsettling was the way some groups used superficially friendly interaction, apparently welcoming contributions before quickly contracting the interaction, and redirecting the discussion. This was only really apparent through my later Exchange Structure Analysis, adapted from North et.al (2008), and SFL analysis of interpersonal metafunction. I related these analyses to my critical thinking categories, which were developed from Krathwohl’s (2002) reworking of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning objectives.

It was not all bad news. Some face-to-face discussion really did lead to critical thinking, and one group built on each others’ ideas productively, using grammatical metaphor particularly effectively to open out space for critical thinking to emerge.

But the data where critical thinking was least evident was in the slides (visual language), and there was very limited exploitation of the cross-multiplication of modes that had seemed so full of potential. Groups were keen to paste images from the internet into their slides, transferring adverts with minimal recontextualisation, so endorsing wholesale the voices implicit in them, with a negative impact on the coherence of their own critical stance.

It was quite disappointing.

Eventually my analyses led me to two complicating factors that I had underestimated. These were external motivation in the form of a grade for the presentation, and internal motivation in the form of empathy. Negative past experiences of group-work had led to a lack of trust in the process, as well as a kind of persistent ‘novice’ approach, where tasks are divided up and then brought together without any real collaboration.

What did I learn?

Certainly that people are unpredictable. Also that my Spring 2018 data collection was about no more than Spring 2018. I wrote the dissertation last summer and by the end felt I knew the students better than they knew themselves. By September I had met many of them again in new courses and had to rethink my conclusions. The student who had shone in data analysis had become lazy; one group villain turned out to be a really creative thinker.

When I read the dissertation now, it takes me back to the places I worked on it last summer: our basement in Italy, a French campsite, someone else’s study during a house swap in Scotland. Moving about might seem a recipe for losing focus, but I found it actually helped to create deadlines. Data analysis had to be completed in France; writing up was during the month-long house swap. It was a bit like chapters. I think there’s some French beach in the data analysis and some Scottish weather in the writing up, though hopefully not cloud cover!

North, S., Coffin, C. and Hewings, A. (2008) ‘Using exchange structure analysis to explore argument in text-based computer conferences’, International Journal of Research and Method in Education, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 257 -276.

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview, Theory into Practice, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 212-218.

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Inspiration in the Third Space

Marielle Meulenberg, Former Masters Student, Applied Linguistics, WELS


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” While inspiration nodded its acknowledgement, anxiety reared its ugly head to taunt me on a regular basis. I had spent the module previous to EE819 panicking about a research topic. Being a private language teacher didn’t lend itself to extensive study of formal learning and provided little material to work with – or so I thought. As we progressed through the initial stages of EE819, I felt like there might yet be a glimmer of hope as ethnographic study took a front seat in our syllabus.

Then BOOM – enter centre stage, ‘The Third Space’. This is where lines are blurred and any combination along the formal-informal continuum has its merits (and faults, but let’s focus on the positives, shall we?). I found I was able to allocate my teaching environment to the Third Space, and that this too was a valid area of study. Having wrestled at length with doubts about the benefits of my teaching to my learners, my EE819 research project provided the perfect platform from which to begin systematic and critical study of this question. It would either assuage my guilt, or kick it up a gear.

I conducted a qualitative single case study that incorporated action research. It involved video and audio recording, participant journals, and (follow-up) interviews. Despite having only one participant (acknowledgement to said participant for being so dependable, committed, and patient), the amount of data produced over our ten-week data collection period was impressive. I spent many hours at my kitchen table transcribing and studying video data, poring through participant journals, reviewing and revising my literature review, and catering to the demands of two very rambunctious little monkeys. Oh, did I say monkeys? I meant my daughters…

Being a wife and mother as well as a private language teacher, I would spend the daylight hours living my ‘normal’ life, and then, come evening, I would retire to the solitude of the kitchen where I had my caffeine within arm’s length (literally), and the solution to most of my girls’ requests easily obtainable (let’s face it, water, food, and a first aid kit solve most daily child-related issues). But despite the division of actions between ‘normal’ and ‘study’ life, I admit that I was hard-pressed to halt thoughts on my research. Wherever I went, whatever I did, I was constantly thinking about how to condense and prioritise my findings, how to structure my interpretations in a clear and systematic way, and how to take the findings from my very informal teaching environment and make them relevant to formal pedagogical discussions.

I was battered by a combination of ‘eureka’ moments and self-deprecating thoughts of inadequacy. I experienced the highs of a well-formatted descriptive sentence that further served to link themes and the anxieties of staring at my computer screen while wondering whether I could ever pull it all together. Nonetheless, as I gradually approached the submission deadline, I was on track with my self-imposed writing schedule (summer holidays with two young children required an adapted timeline). As my data interpretation was iterative and ran parallel to data collection, I had the advantage of kick-starting the writing process early on. I wrote far more than 12,000 words over a period of three months, and the most painful challenge was to mercilessly cut themes from my discussions. With files full of data and a stack of literature at my side, I returned religiously to my research questions to ensure that the findings I included were the most relevant and evidentiary.

It literally hurt (okay, more emotionally than physically) to exclude themes – especially in relation to the action research aspect of my project. My limited teaching environment had suddenly expanded into a much larger world of potential learning, for myself as much as my learners. The act of reviewing videos and studying learner journal reflections enhanced my awareness and criticality of self as teacher while permitting me an appreciation of the environment I created for my learners. The EE819 research project became much more than an academic obligation. It was the confirmation I needed to accept that I was indeed teaching, but even more importantly, it evidenced how ‘Third Space’ learning fomented my roles as mentor and motivator to my learners.

It’s one thing to teach formal language structures, it’s another to inspire and motivate others to put aside their self-consciousness and be willing to engage in the target language outside of the language classroom. It took me almost ten years of teaching, three years of part-time Masters study, and a few months of research and manic writing, but I now proudly state that the latter has become my personal benchmark for success in my language teaching.


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Thinking Aloud: Ethical Research

Shafquat Towheed, Senior Lecturer in English

[Image 1: The Africa Museum, Tervuren, Belgium]

‘In a very few hours, I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre’, said Conrad’s Marlow about his return to Brussels in Heart of Darkness (1899). Following in Marlow’s (and Conrad’s) footsteps and carrying with me a well-thumbed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to re-read on the journey, I recently stopped in Brussels on the way to Africa. For me, this was a trip with special significance, for perhaps more than any other single work, it was Conrad’s searing indictment of colonial exploitation, fashioned in the form of a quest romance, which first introduced my teenage mind to the possibilities of literary fiction. Before encountering Conrad, as a child I had been an avid reader of encyclopaedias, National Geographic magazine, books of adventure and factual travel writing, but not of high ‘literary’ fiction. In essence, Conrad was my introduction to the literary canon.

I had been waiting to visit the now rebranded Africa Museum (formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa) in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, for a long time. The Africa Museum is the largest single collection of objects, artefacts and archives relating to Central Africa (Congo, Rwanda and Burundi) anywhere in the world, with over 10 million zoological specimens, 170,000 photos, 120,000 ethnographic items, 8,000 musical instruments and some 3 kilometres of historical archives; only 1% of the collection is on permanent display. Initially conceived as a propaganda exercise for the Brussels International Exposition of 1897, the museum moved to its grandiose, purpose built palace (modelled on the Petit Palais in Paris) in 1910.

The collection represents in material form, the staggering acquisitiveness of high 19th century European colonialism: the stolen natural and manmade treasures of Central Africa on display at the heart of Europe, a display that has been called ‘a monument to the worst excesses of European plunder’. Even more disturbingly, during the Belgian colonial period, human exhibits were a standard feature of the museum; Congolese men and women brought to ‘animate’ the collections during colonial expositions lie buried in unmarked graves in its grounds.

Over the course of the last decade the museum has been the subject of an extensive refurbishment, opening on 8 December 2018 after a five year period of closure. The refurbishment (and indeed, the reimagining) of the museum was long overdue; the Royal Museum of Central Africa had become an embarrassingly large colonial relic.

[Image 2: gilded statue of King Leopold II inside the Africa Museum]

Nothing can disguise the naked paternalism and casual assumption of racial superiority at the heart of King Leopold’s venture, demonstrated most viscerally in the gilded statutes of the Belgian monarch engaged in the civilising mission that dot the marble clad interior of this palace museum. But the refurbished museum is now making a start at acknowledging some of the unpalatable truths from which visitors had been shielded for over a century. As Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) has shown a century after Conrad, the sheer brutality of forced labour in the Belgian Congo resulted in the deaths of over 10 million people and has been called a ‘hidden holocaust’. The Africa Museum now features a new educational centre and information that begins the conversation about how an archive such as this, constructed as an unrepentant celebration of imperialism, can be used to interrogate and confront in the past – and be of relevance to new, multicultural generations growing up in Europe’s political capital.

[Image 3: forced labour in the Congo Free State, c.1904 – on display in the Africa Museum]

So, why should any of this matter to us today? Conrad’s writing on colonial atrocities in Africa in Heart of Darkness had a clear impact in terms of shaping my early literary interests, and proved pivotal in my choice of subject to study at university; eventually, this led to a career as an academic in English Literature. Likewise, visiting the newly reopened Africa Museum after a lengthy period of closure represented the fulfilment of a personal wish; but curiously enough, there is also a particular relevance to my own practice as a researcher which I should like to reflect upon, something it is relevant to anyone researching in the humanities and social sciences today.

Academic research (like the rest of life) does not exist in a vacuum, but is always shaped by historical, political and economic forces. I have recently been awarded a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to support my research. I am of course, delighted to be the recipient of this prestigious small grant, which will allow me to develop over the course of two years (October 2018-October 2020) a current research interest of mine, the reading (and engagement with reading cultures) of the explorer and travel writer, Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993) . Like almost all funding councils, the British Academy is bound by a code of ethical standards and is committed to supporting excellence in research; it really is as it claims, a ‘voice that champions the humanities and social sciences’. But where did the money for my research project actually come from?

The Small Research Grant scheme is funded in partnership with the Leverhulme Trust; founded in 1925 as a bequest by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1856-1925), this registered charitable trust provides annual research funding of over £80 million. Leverhulme, like Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) whose tainted legacy is now the focus of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, was both an extraordinary philanthropist, and a ruthless imperialist. Leverhulme’s business empire (Unilever) was substantially based on the exploitation of African land, labour, and raw materials. As the historian Jules Marchal has demonstrated in Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo, Lord Leverhulme was a personal friend of King Leopold of Belgium and an unapologetic supporter of imperialism in Africa. Unilever massively depended upon forced labour in Congolese plantations for its guaranteed supply of palm oil for the production of soap (this practice continued uninterrupted until Congolese independence in 1960). Incidentally, the British Academy was first proposed in 1899, the same year in which Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first serialised in the pages of Blackwood’s Magazine; it received its Royal Charter from King Edward VII in 1902, the year in which Conrad’s novella was published in volume form, and is currently based at Number 11, Carlton House Terrace, which from 1856 to 1874 was the home of W.E. Gladstone, Prime Minister at the time of the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) that formalised the European colonial carve-up of Africa (and confirmed King Leopold’s personal fiefdom of the Congo Free State).

[Image 4: forced labour during the Belgian colonial period. Africa Museum]

As the motto in the welcome hall of the Africa Museum reminds us, ’everything passes, except the past’. This first admission of the brutality of the colonial past means that the decolonisation of the Africa Museum has only really started in 2018, and may take some decades to reach fruition. Sadly, the exploitation of Congo’s natural resources by corporate and neo-colonial external powers with the connivance of successive regimes, exemplified in the 30 December 2018 elections, continues to this day. A century ago, it was rubber, timber, ivory and palm-oil; today, it is gold, diamonds, and especially columbite-tantalite (coltan) ore to extract tantalum, the metal that powers the smart phones of the world.

[Image 5: welcome hall, Africa Museum]

We cannot change the past – but we all have a duty to acknowledge its pervasive influence on us today, for we are all, whether we like it or not, the products of European imperialism and colonialism. My visit to the newly refurbished Africa Museum as a grant holder of money, derived in part from the forced exploitation of Congolese labour, provided a salutary reminder about the personal responsibility we all bear in terms of ethical research: we must conduct our research in accordance with the ethical guidelines of funding councils, but also, and more importantly, openly acknowledge the source of that funding and the human exploitation and misery that created it. To do any less, would be to dishonour the countless victims of imperial exploitation, and be a grave disservice to ethical research.



The Africa Museum reopened to the public on 9 December 2018. It is open for visitors everyday apart from Mondays and the standard closure dates of 1 January, 1 May and 25 December. Shafquat Towheed is a Senior Lecturer in English at The Open University, and visited the museum on 18 December 2018.

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