On writing a diary of literary terms

Richard Jones, Lecturer in English Literature

Daisy, I say, it’s time to put you in a blog post.

Not likely, she says and starts to squeeze out of it.

I don’t mind this. The whole point of the blog post is to see how Daisy gets out of it.

I’m just an experiment to you, she says, not an animal at all.

Let’s try rhyme, I say, or sonnet or perhaps something more Heideggerian like being thrown into the kitchen.

You’re lucky I’m not a cat, she says.

Daisy hates cats.

The cat that was put in a box was pretty cheesed off, she adds.  Whipping about like a mad thing.  It wouldn’t tolerate this.

A blog post is not a box, I say.

Speak for yourself, she says.

*

We are silent for a while as I try to think of a way to coax Daisy towards the blog.  The trouble is that her eyes are full of the outside.  That was Rilke’s insight about the face of an animal: we know what is out there only from its gaze. That’s the starting premise.

*

Daisy, it seems, has become fixated on the cat.  That Dear Reader chap, you like so much, she is saying, had a cat.  An insistently real one.  It unsettled him by padding about and following him into the bathroom.  We can try that out, if you like, she says.  Would you like to get undressed?

She is getting cross now.  Little by little, I find she is stepping onto the page.  Is that how the outside comes in?

*

Hey Daisy! I say. Have you ever wondered what Shakespeare would sound like on a kazoo?  Daisy raises an eyebrow.  She is curious.  So I pick up a kazoo (doesn’t everyone own a kazoo?) and speak a few lines of Hamlet into it.  Famous lines. Lines everyone would know. That gets Daisy’s attention. It turns out that Hamlet on a kazoo sends her wild.  It’s not because of the words, she says. It’s because they have been taken back to the borders of meaning. To be or not to be? is Hamlet’s question – but on a kazoo it’s a more pressing matter. To mean or not to mean? The suspense keeps me playing all afternoon.

*

That’s an example of a blog post.  One animal at the mercy of language and one who is not.

*

You are talking about the cat again, says Daisy. (She doesn’t like to be tricked like this.) I wish it would just die, she adds matter-of-factly.

The whole point about the cat, I say, is that it is in two states at once.

Like your precious Literature, says Daisy.

Exactly, I say.

*

We proceed like this.  Daisy trots up and runs on (enjambement), brings me a rag (a text), jumps at her own farts (the ghosts of her desire) and props herself at the bar (well, Saussure’s). We work our way through everything: images, shadows, beginnings, translation and interpretation, poetic feet and poetic fallacy, rhythms, excesses and lacks, machines and nature and wonder. What have we discovered?

*

You know, says Daisy, you remind me of one of your eighteenth-century friends: Very Stern. Didn’t he give a macaroon to a mule just to see what it would do with it?

I’m sorry about that, I say.

That’s just what he said, she replies.

*

I’m glad Daisy has brought up the eighteenth century. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I muse upon its gruff critical spirit.  Its experimentation.  It was a time when a writer could be a critic but (because of an enthusiasm for quotation) not a real critic, or a historian who (because of a talent for abridgement) was not a true historian or a novelist who (because of a love for borrowed plot lines) was not a true novelist.  It was a time of writers who (because some Victorians did not think so) turned out not to be real writers.

I sum up these musings by saying: talking to a dog is not real critical work.

Now it’s Daisy’s turn to take pity. Her eyes are full of the force of somewhere else.

The only way to find out, she says, is to look in the blog.

We tiptoe up to it.  Prepare to take a look.

Wait, she says all of a sudden. (Or was it woof?) Best stop here, she says.

__________

Note

The cause of this commotion is the blog antiphysis.com, on which a new post can be found from time to time. Even though a link to the blog has been provided, there is perhaps more to be gained by not clicking on it.

 

 

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Teaching for the OU – having the time of my life!

Dr Lynda Morgan, Associate Lecturer

It is February 1976. I am 23 years old, recently graduated with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, and I am about to walk into a shabby classroom at Sarah Siddons school, Paddington. I have no idea what to expect; I am both excited and nervous. Balancing on rickety chairs in front of graffitied desks eleven students are poised to begin, among them the wife of a leading politician, a prominent woman designer, a young Egyptian man from Paddington’s bedsit-land who is struggling with his English, a woman who lives in one of the most expensive squares in London, an elderly man who left school at fourteen and fought in the First World War, and a middle-aged tube driver who tells us he reads the teaching material in his cab while the train drives itself. What unites this disparate group is hope – the dream of achieving something they all thought was beyond their reach. They are also all dreading the first assignment; it’s almost the first thing they mention. I am daunted, but struck by the realisation that they are more nervous than I am. I am also touched that they think the tutorial is worth coming out for on a cold wet night, and I am determined to make it so. That is my first lesson: it is about them, not me.

They take it for granted that I know what I am doing. By the end of the evening I think I have made a reasonable job of appearing to, but the reality is that I was learning a lot myself that first evening. The one thing I could not know, however, was that in going into that classroom to teach my very first OU tutorial I was stepping into what would be the most important and fulfilling element in a long and varied teaching career. 43 years later I am still stepping into classrooms – some real, and, these days, some virtual – to teach OU students, and still valuing every minute of it.

The course I was teaching was A100 – known in those days as the Arts Foundation course. It was a wonderful module, packed full of material on philosophy, art history, history, literature and music, all brought together by Oswald Hanfling’s regular input on logic. Students tussled with Sophocles and Shakespeare, form and meaning in music, and, amazingly, D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The amount and complexity of material they took on at level 1 was breathtaking. On TV, usually at unsocial hours, they could listen to discussions of poetry (with the text of the poem scrolling across the screen), hear lectures on sound and a recording of Bertrand Russell’s memories of Lawrence, and watch scenes from Aristophanes’ Clouds. It is hard to realise now how groundbreaking all this was. I thought it was marvellous, and I realised how little I knew. Yes, I knew a bit about literature, but I was ignorant of all sorts of other things. In a way A100 began what I think of as my ‘real’ education – a rigorous schooling in argument, a bringing together of disciplines into a rich interplay of ideas, and a questioning approach that was to inform all my subsequent teaching, as well as my later postgraduate studies. I was introduced to things I had no idea about, and I can honestly say that teaching A100 took me at least as far in my own education as my first degree had done.

A100 also taught me how to teach. I began to realise that OU teaching wasn’t in essence about how much you know – though knowing things is obviously essential – but about bringing mixed groups of people together, and engendering an atmosphere in which they feel they belong and are safe to try out ideas and ask questions. It is about finding ways of rendering complicated ideas accessible, making apparently arcane material relevant, and empowering people with the belief that they, too, can understand and have a right to respond. It is about enthusiasm and excitement, helping students to think independently, and being able to tolerate it when their ideas are different from your own. Perhaps most importantly it is about thinking on your feet. In the early days I was constantly faced with questions I had never considered, things I had taken for granted in my own very traditional education: Why do we bother to study Shakespeare? Why do we write essays like this and not like that? Shouldn’t good literature be easy to understand? Isn’t making things difficult just showing off? I was also learning how to deal with awkward situations: the student whose first words were, ‘I hate poetry; what are you going to do about it?’; the student who sat in the corner with his back to the rest of the group, tutting loudly, and refusing to speak until he suddenly said, ‘I have never heard so much twaddle in my life’. Who knows whether he was referring to me, or to Jan Kott’s material on A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

A100 was replaced by A101, another demanding course with Hamlet and Jane Eyre as the literature texts, and then in 1982 I was appointed to teach A312, The nineteenth-century novel and its legacy. I was thrilled to be teaching level 3 literature, and the richness of this course enchanted me. This was in the days of summer schools, where we had the privilege of spending a whole day on Anna Karenina, and another on Middlemarch, and in between we fitted in Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’urbervilles, Cousin Bette, Germinal, On the Eve, and Huckleberry Finn. Bliss! We ended each week with an entertainment put on by tutors and students – the result of rehearsals squeezed into coffee breaks, and ‘brilliant’ ideas generated late at night in the bar. There were spoofs of Miss Havisham, and unlikely meetings between Pip and Count Vronsky, alongside inevitable jokes about the geese that left droppings everywhere on the lake-filled campus of the University of York; many a skit began with the actors examining the soles of their shoes. Every year I longed to be cast as the seductive Rosamond – every year I was the serious Dorothea … I can’t overstate how wonderful the many weeks I spent at York were, seeing the excitement and discoveries of students who were experiencing full-time study for at least one week of their lives, and benefiting from the dedication and support of marvellous colleagues who all taught me a great deal. Indeed, I met my fellow bloggers Dennis Walder and Richard Allen there, as well as many others I still think of.

I went on to teach a series of other courses, all of which did something new and exciting: A319, Literature in the modern world (which taught high-level critical theory alongside the literary texts. Many said the students wouldn’t cope with it – they did!);  AA316, The nineteenth-century novel (which gave students the opportunity to have fun with Dracula, and to read lesser known novels like The Awakening); A300, 20th century literature: texts and debates (which asked questions about the construction of meaning and the role of readers, as well as including many texts that students loved and said they would never otherwise have read – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Kiss of the Spiderwoman; poetry of O’Hara and Ginsberg); and currently A334, From Shakespeare to Austen (which particularly gives value to students’ own voices and their chosen research). I also played a part in the development of Creative Writing in the OU, teaching the first two 10-credit creative writing modules, A174, Start Writing Fiction, and A175, Start Writing Poetry, as well as acting as what was grandly and somewhat improbably called a ‘supermonitor’ for the award board.  After that I shared with my colleague Lynne Dixon the moderation of the national student and AL online forums for the new 60-credit modules, A215 and A363. We worked on those forums together for 10 years, and we would both agree that it wasn’t always an easy job. It was, however, a privilege to work with and advise so many students and colleagues, and also to work so closely with one another. Not many days passed without numerous emails between us discussing how to resolve this or that problem!

So much has filled my OU years that inevitably a lot has to be omitted. But there is one topic that I can’t leave out: what the OU has offered, especially in its early days, to women. Of course it has been important for men too, but as a woman myself I can’t help but be forcibly struck by the opportunities it made available to women, and its contribution to changing how they saw themselves. It is difficult to remember how unusual it was when the OU started for women to be educated to degree level. In the early years my groups were full of women of all ages and backgrounds who had not had the chance of an education beyond the age of sixteen. They talked about how no-one had thought it was important for them to do anything other than get a job and/or marry and have children. Many said that now their children were at university they wanted to prove they could do it too. It was not unusual for a student to pour her heart out about how her husband resented her study and tried to prevent her doing it. Others said they could only do it without complaints from their families if the study came last after every detail of cooking and housework had been completed. Some were studying secretly, with their study materials sent to a friend’s house – I would be instructed not to telephone them or write to them at home. Some arrived at summer school terrified because they had never been away from home on their own before. In the days before mobile phones there would be queues of women waiting to use the telephone every evening so they could tell their husbands what they needed to do the next day to keep things going at home. Most of them had filled the freezer with cooked meals for the week and had left lists of the order in which meals were to be taken out and put in the oven; they anticipated arriving back to piles of unwashed dishes. Newspapers sometimes reported on the so-called wild goings on at summer schools; but behind the sensational headlines there often lay moving stories of deeply unfulfilled women discovering that there was more to life than hoovering. A week away from home, with like-minded people and the excitement of full-time study, was a heady experience. Some women realised they needed to make substantial changes to their lives; I remember more than one woman refusing to go home at the end of the week unless her husband agreed to a divorce. This was a time of radical social shifts, and although the OU was often blamed for breaking up marriages it was not responsible for the changes taking place. It did, however, play its part in the shifting social landscape by giving women educational opportunities they had never expected to have. Of course plenty of women lived contented lives with families that were proud of them, and they were just thrilled to have gained a degree; others, however, needed the OU to help them lay claim to a different way of living. I received numerous letters from women students thanking the OU for opening up their lives in ways they could never have imagined.

Sarah Siddons, where this all started for me, has been demolished and replaced with luxury flats, and the OU itself has changed tremendously. It is, however, still staffed by people dedicated to offering an opportunity for excellent education to everyone who wants to try it, and it is still full of students excited by academic study who work their socks off to gain a degree. I hope this will remain the case for many years to come. But whatever happens to the OU in the future, nothing can change the fact that it is one of the most important educational developments to have taken place in the twentieth century. I am very proud to have been part of it, and grateful to it for the joy and fulfilment it has given me.

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Reading as a writer: ‘Offshore’

Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer, Creative Writing

As creative writing academics, we constantly remind students about the importance of ‘reading as a writer’, and in my own reading I sometimes wonder to what extent this should be a conscious process, and to what extent something that I try to sublimate, reading as a reader, enjoying the book in a naïve way on first reading at least. In an ideal world, I would read everything twice, but as we know, this world is not ideal. Therefore, the way I consume books is a compromise, shifting between immersive engagement with the narrative and awareness of the techniques the author is using. As with the business of writing, novel reading is protracted, sometimes disrupted, sometimes seeming like a professional duty.

So looking back on my reading in 2018, what stands out? The novel which made the greatest impression on me was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won the Man Booker prize in 1979. The narrative focuses on a group of misfit Londoners, on the posh side of classless, who live in a row of semi-derelict boats on the Thames during the 1960s. None of them quite know what they are doing, or are entirely honest with themselves, and their compromises and misdemeanours drift with the ebb and flow of the river.

It’s hard to identify a protagonist, or a clear narrative through-line. But chaotic Nenna James comes closest to being its heroine, and her haphazard, wilfully disordered life presumably reflects that of Penelope Fitzgerald herself, who lived on a houseboat with her children after her first marriage collapsed. The point of view shifts among numerous characters including Maurice, a romantic and part-time rent boy, elderly marine painter Willis and Richard, an ex-naval man now working in insurance. All live half-way lives, at the edge of both land and water.

Nenna is incapable of doing anything practical, even a trip to Stoke Newington on public transport seems to faze her. Her visit ends in near disaster, shoeless in a rainstorm, pursued by a lecherous stranger. Yet at the same time, she is resilient and stoical, her expectations of life heroically low. In contrast, her young daughters Martha and Tilda are bizarrely precocious and competent, managing their bohemian lives with pragmatic ingenuity.

What I love about the book is its wry, strange humour, and Fitzgerald’s evocation of a lost London, not the place that we would associate with the Swinging Sixties, but more like the city that Dickens would have recognised. This metropolis is a post-war ruin not yet obliterated by developers, the river still a thoroughfare as it has been since Roman times. Fitzgerald evokes the inner lives of all these drifting, dreaming characters with intense precision as their stories unfold on the leaking vessels that the river will soon reclaim.

So what did I take from this book that will inform my writing? Initially, I was resistant to the way in which the point of view shifts are handled, with the narrative spinning around so much that I felt disorientated. But the effect builds over time, so that some scenes are focused intensely in the point of view of one character, and others achieve a choral effect. I also realised, by the time I finished the novel, that this kaleidoscopic perspective is consistent with the subject matter. The characters’ moods, desires and allegiances are in constant flux, just as the Thames is never still. Any piece of writing must similarly find its own shape, and the narrative mode should emerge organically from the material. And yet there is always the temptation to force a work of fiction into an already familiar format, to make it recognisable.

In addition, this book informs my knowledge of writing as an occupation, as this was a notoriously controversial Booker winner. The judges (Asa Briggs, Benny Green, Michael Ratcliffe, Hilary Spurling and Paul Theroux) failed to make a unanimous decision, unable to agree on whether William Golding should win with Darkness Visible or V.S Naipaul with A Bend in the River and so they gave the prize to Offshore which was ‘everyone’s second choice’, according to Spurling in a Guardian review of Fitzgerald’s collected letters. Spurling writes: ‘The presenter of the BBC’s book programme told her angrily that he’d been promised she would lose. Drunken reporters upbraided her for making them rewrite copy citing the favourite… according to her editor, the misery of this episode and its repercussions haunted her ever afterwards.’

What interests me here is the arbitrary nature of literary awards, and the way that they have increasingly become a measure of esteem and status. There is no reason to suppose that Offshore was inferior to the two books that caused the dispute between the judges, but Fitzgerald was made to feel that winning the Booker was a compromised achievement, that not being ‘the favourite’ meant that she was a writer of lesser quality.

Reading her novel today, it flashes with brilliance and strange insights. I’m inspired by her quiet eccentricity and her determination to pare her work down, creating something elliptical and magical in the midst of the chatter and turmoil of the book industry. The noise seems even louder now, so quiet eccentricity is even more important.

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‘Of These and Other Worlds’: Reflections on the C. S. Lewis Festival, Belfast

Patricia Ferguson, PhD student, English Literature

Saturday November 3 is described in the brochure as ‘The Day of Magical Thinking’, but it seems to me that we were privileged to enjoy a whole week of magical thinking. The title of this year’s C. S. Lewis festival ‘Of this and Other Words’ (November 3 – 7) is adapted from Of Other Worlds, a collection of Lewis’s essays and stories in which this theme is explored. He gives warning that it is a serious matter: a sojourn in fairy land, ‘far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth [ … ]. It is an askesis, a spiritual exercise’.[1]  #

When, in the spring of 1916, he first read George Macdonald‘s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, he found that a light from the other world came shining into this one, adding cheer to mundane things like ‘the bread upon the table’.[2]  This is Belfast, a city unrivalled for its hospitality, and that is how the festival begins, with bread upon the table (‘Festival Launch Breakfast’ at the Park Avenue Hotel), and yes, it is enchanted, both by its quality and by an inspirational speech made by Damian Smyth, Head of Literature at the Arts Council, and also a poet known for his ‘search for the uncanny, and how the local becomes the universal’.[3]

Audience members in conversation. Credit: Nurse Ratched Photography.

There are workshops in crafts and creative writing, activities for children, concerts, lectures, and book discussions, some seventy events in all. I choose from the list of lectures and book discussions, and soon I begin to notice something unexpected: a reversal of the usual meaning of ‘safe space’ as a venue, or an event, in which controversy is forbidden. It’s unexpected because, in this deeply divided society, a dangerous courtesy has developed which treats the whole city as a safe space of the usual kind. It obliges people to avoid saying anything that would identify their position as Catholic or Protestant. I’ve fallen into it myself. Because I’m Scottish, everyone assumes that I’m Protestant; I seldom correct the mistake. It’s dangerous because, although the violence has subsided, the reasons for it have not, and the words spoken are not the words that are meant, which are these: ‘I can’t ask, but I need to know, and all the time we talk I am looking for the clue that will tell me whether you are one of us or one of them’.

This being so, what is likely to happen when the Socratic Debate is given the motion: This House Believes that Churches are Holding Our Society Back, attracts a capacity audience, and has together on the same stage, the editor of the Irish Freethinker, the pastor of an ‘alternative’ church denounced as heretical by most of the others, an uncompromising Catholic, and the director of the Evangelical Alliance, all of whom speak, with passion and eloquence, the words that are meant?

There was no debacle, but plenty of fierce argument, focusing on Conor Cruise O’Brien‘s indictment of ‘the harsh re-emergence in recent years [ … ] of “sacral nationalism”’.[4]  It was pointed out that sacral politics had bedevilled Northern Ireland for four hundred years, but that evening people hammered out their views on abortion and same-sex marriage without compromise, but with good humour. Someone remarked on the relief of having a ‘safe space’ in which to do so. The motion was carried by a small majority; such an outcome would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

This atmosphere prevailed throughout the festival. In ‘Faith and Fiction Readings’, Jan Carson, who was brought up in an exceptionally strict Presbyterian setting, spoke of her love for the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor; academic Andrew Cunning chose novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a Congregationalist with a liking for Calvin; Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish speaker, poet and leader of the Corrymeela Community read to us from the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Corrymeela works tirelessly for reconciliation. I warm to its description of sectarianism as ‘belonging gone bad’.[5]  Then there was ‘Exploring the Protestant Imagination’, addressing tough words to both sides: to the Republicans that their works are not works of art, they are merely defensive, because art must imagine beyond itself; to the Unionists that that name is a misnomer, because they are not Unionists at all if they refuse the citizens of Northern Ireland the same rights as are enjoyed everywhere else in the United Kingdom.

I postpone writing about the ‘Till We Have Faces Book Discussion’ because that needs a whole piece to itself, which leaves me just enough space for one final reflection. Emma Must read to us from some of her engaging and delicate poems, including Belfast Pastoral which describes a city transformed from that of the Troubles. The last line goes round and round in my head: ‘And this is no longer the city you’ve read about’.[6]  Alas, it is, but hidden under the courteous veneer I spoke about earlier.

As the new Glider bus passes the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand, I look at the network of ‘Peace Walls’, and remember that Emma Little-Pengelly, DUP Member of Parliament for South Belfast, was so concerned about its name being given to the bus stop that she set up a petition to try and change it.[7]  But despite her best efforts, there is hope. Sometimes the peace walls open, as happened two months ago on Townsend Street when the heavy metal barrier that separates the Shankill from the Falls was opened for a street party.[8]  This year’s was the sixth C. S. Lewis Festival. It will take many more, and many other festivals and family fun days, but the determination is there to fulfil Emma Must’s vision at its deepest level, and it will prevail.

 

References

[1]     Clive Staples Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. by Walter Hooper (London: Bles, 1966), pp. 29-30.

[2]     C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (London: Fontana, 1959), p. 145.

[3]     ‘Nessa O’Mahony in conversation with Damian Smyth’ (2018) <http://theatticsessions.tv/the-attic-sessions-25-in-conversation-with-damian-smyth/> [accessed 19 November 2018]

[4]     Ideas Matter: Essays in Honour of Conor Cruise O’Brien, ed. by Richard English and Joseph Morrison Skelley (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), p. 17.

[5]     <https://www.corrymeela.org/programmes/sectarianism> [accessed 19 November 2018]

[6]     The Future Always Makes Me So Thirsty: New Poets from the North of Ireland, ed. by Sinéad Morrissey and Stephen Connolly (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2016), p. 214.

[7]     Gareth Cross, Belfast Telegraph Digital, 27 July 2018 <https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/dup-mps-short-strand-belfast-bus-stop-serious-concerns-but-its-traditional-says-translink-37160029.html> [accessed 19 November 2018]

[8]     Maurice Fitzmaurice, Belfast Live, 22 September 2018 <https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/shankill-falls-coming-together-interface-15185175> [accessed 19 November 2018]

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The Book as Cure: Bibliotherapy and Literary Caregiving from the First World War to the Present

Jenny Cattier
PhD student, Anglia Ruskin University

When I saw the conference programme for The Book as Cure: Bibliotherapy and Literary Caregiving from the First World War to the Present, I genuinely could not believe my luck.  As a creative writing PhD student researching bibliotherapy, there were so many compelling paper titles it was difficult to decide which panels to attend.  In fact, it was the ‘Reading and Self-improvement’ event, part of the AHRC funded ‘Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present’ project (also run by The Open University) in March 2016 that inspired me to pursue both my own creative writing and this field of academic research. Since then I have been immersed in existing scholarship on bibliotherapy and have started to design my own empirical research in the area. However, as every PhD student knows too well, independent research can be isolating and lonely. There really is no substitute for a conference and the opportunity to listen to and question experts in your field.  Fortunately for me The Book as Cure appeared on my radar just as I was beginning to feel the need for peer input very keenly.

Under the aegis of the Open University’s History of Books and Reading (HOBAR) research collaboration and organised by four English and Creative Writing academics at The Open University – Shafquat Towheed, Siobhan Campbell, Sara Haslam, and Edmund King – supported by plenary speakers Dr Jane Potter (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Peter Leese (University of Copenhagen), the event marked the centenary of the war’s end and guided attendees on a bibliotherapeutic journey from wartime to the present.

Photo: Shafquat Towheed

Dr Potter opened the sessions by describing some of the perceptions surrounding bibliotherapy during the First World War; not only in terms of its importance to traumatised and injured soldiers, but also for those left waiting at home for loved ones. Her keynote lecture: ‘The Solace of Literature: Reading and Writing in the Great War’ noted that psychiatrists, nurses and surgeons became increasingly convinced of the therapeutic benefits of reading and quoted one wartime caregiver who observed that until this point “We protected his [the soldier’s] stomach but forgot his brains.” She also highlighted the importance placed on the hospital librarian who “understood both books and men”, a highly esteemed and respected role, that was remarked upon across several of the day’s presentations.

As was acknowledged on Twitter, a number of key themes emerged early on: we repeatedly heard the terms ‘administering’, ‘prescribing’, and ‘dispensing’ used in relation to the provision of books for their curative properties. Mary Mahoney’s research suggests that the adoption of a very scientific or medical approach to bibliotherapy was particularly prevalent in America in the 1920s and 1930s. These analogies were echoed throughout the day, with references to reading acting as medicine for the troubled mind. An excellent example of this came from the journal of the writer and scientist (and MS sufferer) W.N.P. Barbellion (1889-1919), who wrote in his journal the phrase: ‘what I do is drug my mind with print’. We heard doctors of the day cautioning on reading the ‘wrong’ kind of novels, and how the consumption of these could cause ‘overdose’ and lead to ‘hysteria’.

This leads us to the books used in bibliotherapy: there have been many differing opinions over the last two centuries about what is considered suitable reading material. Should specific books be prescribed, or avoided, based on a particular illness or condition? One wartime writer noted that ‘Jane Austen has taken her fragrant way into a surprising number of dug-outs’ which stood in contrast to the advice of some medical professionals of the time, who recommended literature that promoted ‘detachment, elevation, and mental economy’.  Kipling’s ‘The Janeites’ also refers to Austen’s, perhaps unexpected, popularity with those in the trenches. On this subject, Laura Blair’s presentation: ‘Reading, Asylum Libraries, and the Asylum War Hospital Scheme’, we heard how asylums and their libraries were turned over to war hospitals and how strong concern was voiced regarding ‘appropriate’ reading material and particularly the fear of encouraging ‘addiction to novels’.  Yet, from soldiers’ diaries and hospital librarians’ records we can see that reading tastes were eclectic, with detective stories, poetry and romance very much in demand.

Portrait of Rudyard Kipling from Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer.  Used under Wikipedia:Text of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The subject of the detective tale used in bibliotherapy was broached several times; first in George Simmer’s paper “Kipling’s ‘Fairy-Kist’: Bibliotherapy Gone Haywire?”. Simmer reviewed what may have been Kipling’s own experience of bibliotherapy, making the case that Kipling’s childhood reading of Julia Ewing influenced the writing of his only detective story, Fairy-Kist (1928), about an ex-serviceman who hears voices, and ends up the prime suspect in a murder case. Simmer suggests that Ewing was the Jacqueline Wilson of the nineteenth century, taking difficult subjects and making them accessible, this being why she would have appealed to the troubled young Kipling.

An especially emotive case study demonstrating the efficacy of bibliotherapy for children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder came in the final session of the day from Wendy French who read a poem from an adolescent boy. His writing expressed the depths of his self-loathing by listing all the ways ‘shit’ served more purpose in life than he did.  This particular boy related to Michael Morpurgo’s illustrated book Not Bad for a Bad Lad in his counselling sessions and this enabled an on-going and positive dialogue with French.

A particular highlight for me was the chance to hear in detail the important research being undertaken by Laura Dietz, my second supervisor at Anglia Ruskin University.  Her work into immersion and engagement with e-novels, suggests that screen reading, on devices such as Kindles and iPads, may see the reader equally immersed in the narrative as with a printed book. For many reasons, most notably their accessibility, digital books are critical to bibliotherapeutic practice. Dietz’s research used a wider range of e-book formats compared to earlier studies, which is perhaps one of the reasons her findings reveal narrative immersion to be a more nuanced or complex phenomenon than was initially believed.

On a personal level, one of the standout aspects of conference was the friendliness and generosity of the organisers, experts and panellists. All of the presentations I attended were insightful and persuasively communicated. I am delighted to have already exchanged emails, received papers and references for further reading that will enrich my research, which explores the place of short and fantasy fiction in bibliotherapy for women with depression.

Photo: Shafquat Towheed

In the summary session we mused over the key questions that had arisen over the course of the day: Is reading inherently good? Does the genre of the literature make a difference? Is the term ‘bibliotherapy’ itself a valid or helpful one? What does the future hold for the field and who should be advocating and delivering bibliotherapy? Is the future digital? Is the efficacy of bibliotherapy limited to specific audiences? For each of these questions the conference provided empirical indicators, anecdotal evidence and qualitative findings, all of which deserve further, deeper, and broader exploration. I, for one, hope that there is a follow up conference for The Book as Cure and I expect this sentiment is shared by the majority of attendees.

I’ll end my account with a quote from my own paper where Alan Bennett, in William Seighert’s The Poetry Pharmacy, encapsulates the essence of a good book but also that of successful bibliotherapeutic intervention:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Jenny Cattier is a PhD researcher at Anglia Ruskin University examining the therapeutic potential of short fantasy fiction for female depression. Her thesis will be fifty percent research and critical commentary, and fifty percent of her own creative writing which will take the form of a collection of short stories. 

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Light Documents: The Personal Inspiration for a Research Project

Patrick Wright
PhD student, Creative Writing

It has always struck me as peculiar that academics tend to conceal personal origins or motives for their research. More often than not our deep investment in a subject or area of study appears to have emerged out of a vacuum or with disinterest. Little is said of how intellectual concepts bear a significant and abiding relation with, or are even a sublimation of, our innermost vulnerabilities or concerns.

As a response to this observation, I wish to present a kind of prequel to my area of research (the ekphrasis of dark or near-black paintings), one that will share with the reader how such a rarefied focus developed, organically, in and through my personal life; how, for instance, my recent poem on Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square is beyond any casual or highbrow interest, related with what is most intimate and precious (for the poem click here). Moreover, by writing in this way my hope is to present a hybrid piece of writing that blends academic and confessional registers.

My late wife who passed away in the summer of 2017 was a phenomenally talented photographer and artist; what makes her talent all the more noteworthy is that she was visually impaired. Born blind in her right eye, Kim developed retinitis pigmentosa in her late thirties, and before long she was left with what she described as her ‘two O-clock aperture’ in her left eye, through which she could still discern the odd colour, some contrast and movement. This limitation did not deter her though; her imagination thrived and she advanced a genre of photography which she called ‘light documents’: chance shadows or sun beams thrown on walls or other parts of the domestic space:

 

Light Document # 2 Image: Kim Parkinson.

 

I think my interest in ekphrasis (writing poems in response to visual art) was born out of my role as a partner, often tasked with describing how two-dimensional things appeared, from dresses to wallpaper. Essentially, each day, I was engaged in a verbal ekphrasis, as a means of conveying to Kim what aspects of the visual world looked like, particularly patterns, shapes and colours. I was also, with melancholy, striving to reach into her darkness – or to bring her darkness into the light – evoking the Orpheus myth. Her blindness often seemed like a limitation on our closeness; and so I struggled with words to reduce the distance between us. Poetry is about this kind of struggle for me: representing how we continually fall short in our efforts to describe.

I was especially inspired though by Kim’s ability to find so much in the darkness and in shadows (her favourite book was In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki). She discovered such ethereal beauty in random glints of light, spectral colours on walls, or numinous shapes on the ceiling. As a student of Art History, she also had recollections of art works she had previously seen, and was thus able to make comparisons. Her visual acuity was also informed by learning about optics and ideas such as the Golden mean and compositional balance, in anticipation of a condition that she knew to be hereditary.

Now, carrying the burden of grief and the honour of her legacy, I feel it is important to not only acknowledge Kim’s influence upon me – a catalyst in the development of a PhD on writing with dark or near-black paintings in mind – though also to continue to write poems with a heightened awareness that the Orphic task has, if anything, intensified: to insist her vision, in spite of death, is not lost; to allow her presence to live once more in and through my writing. Her lesson for all, as I see it (and encapsulated in the premise of my thesis), is that meaning can be found in even the darkest of images; and, more pertinently, life can be affirmed even after all appears lost.

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What is literature for? – and Why do I do what I do?

Sara Haslam, Senior Lecturer in English

Soldiers reading during the First World War. Shared under the Creative Commons licence. Date:1917 Source http://www.fortepan.hu/_photo/download/fortepan_16325.jpg

We’ve been asking the first question in my title for this blog post for many years in our department. In modules such as A300 Twentieth-Century Literature: Texts and Debates our teaching materials have explored the relationships between art and politics, for example, and asked students to do the same. (My writing on Chekhov, the literary doctor, for A300 was perhaps an early sign of current interests.)

Recent research projects, though, have provided a new set of answers to both questions above, and reflecting on those answers for this post has proved a welcome activity.

Starting to read a thin and battered pamphlet in the spring of 2015 in Oxford’s Weston Library I had one of those ‘aha’ moments the researcher craves. I’d ordered it up because of a couple of key words in the title. Previous searches hadn’t unearthed it and I wasn’t sure until it was in front of me that it was going to be of much interest. But Helen Mary Gaskell’s account of the beginnings of her War Library in 1914 proved a wonderful find. Her epigraph, ‘Take choice of all my Library, and so beguile thy sorrow’ (from Titus Andronicus) had key words of its own, and what followed opened up the history, and challenged the scholarship, of reading during the First World War, particularly that of sick and wounded soldiers. It prompted me to find a name for one kind of organised charitable endeavour in war-time: ‘literary caregiving’ – a phrase I used in the key-note I was writing in 2015 and the article on Gaskell’s war library I’ve published since.

Gaskell’s idea for a library for sick and wounded soldiers, to be stocked in the main by donated books, was realised in the first weeks of the war. She had powerful and wealthy friends – one, Lady Battersea, had a mansion going spare in Marble Arch, which is where they stored the books. Aside from the speed with which the War Library was operational, the most striking aspect of the early weeks was the number of donations. One individual contributed a library of 35,000 books. Gaskell needed them all, and more too; supply rarely met demand. And yet records show that in the first half of 1917, for example, 1,125, 840 units were sent from the library’s London base to its depots around the world.

Gaskell also had a methodology – one related to her epigraph and to a democratised rather than hierarchical understanding of literature and its purpose. She prioritised what she called a ‘personal touch’, meaning that specific requests from wounded soldiers should be met if at all possible. Books, she felt, were a ‘flow of comfort’ that should not be interrupted by lack of effort. Over the course of the war, the War Library collected and distributed millions of books by writers such as O’Henry, Kipling, Marie Correlli, Dumas, Nat Gould – but if a soldier wanted a book on bee keeping, for example, every effort would be made to source that too.

This pamphlet was fascinating in its own terms. It also offered important answers to the question of what literature is for. And these answers, and the research directions they instigated have led to new networks and collaborations with colleagues departmentally, and externally too – a particularly positive outcome when we spend so much of our research time on solitary labours. Some of the results will be discussed in other posts here.

The tone and character of the book-related language used by soldiers and the volunteer librarians caring for them during the war will stay with me. Contemporary experience of a ‘book hunger’, of ‘the bitter cry for books’ led to the idea of books that might ‘heal’ – one that is explored in all kinds of ways in the papers those librarians left behind. The media, too, was fascinated by this work, which shifted the medical focus to include minds as well as bodies.

The Times, for example, told people ‘What to Read to the Wounded’ in 1915. It turns out, though, that both the wounded, and Gaskell and her colleagues, had other ideas. If one of the things that literature is for is healing, these caregivers noted, then feeling freely able to choose, and then being provided with, their own book was the best place for patients to start.

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Reflections on EastSide Arts Festival, Belfast, 2-12 August 2018

Patricia Ferguson, PhD Student, Department of English

The Director of the EastSide ArtsFestival writes, in the brochure’s welcome page: ‘…if this part of the city is your home, the festival is our annual invitation to you to celebrate and enjoy the creative energy that surrounds you. If you’re a visitor, let us be your hosts; you will receive the warmest of welcomes’. I am a visitor, and the welcome could not have been warmer. A Big Top has gone up in C. S. Lewis Square for circus events, family fun, and evenings filled with music. There are venues for authors to give readings of their poetry and prose, guided walks and bus tours, one hundred and twenty six events in all! Choosing between so many is not easy, but I decide in favour of readings and walking tours because, as the welcome page points out, the inspiration comes from ‘the landscape, history, culture and above all, people of east Belfast‘.

These four go together because, as I see for myself on the two walking tours, in every part of east Belfast, from the working class terraces of Newtonards Road (‘Communities Shaped by Conflict’) to the detached houses and gardens of Belmont and Sydenham, (‘C. S. Lewis Walking Tour’) the landscape is dominated by history and culture in two forms, and these likewise belong together. Look around you anywhere in east Belfast, and on the skyline you will see Samson and Goliath, Harland & Wolff’s enormous, bright yellow gantry cranes, and lining every street you will see Loyalist flags. Harland & Wolff grew from small beginnings in 1861 to an enterprise which, by 1919, owned 220 acres, employed 22,000 people, but was plagued by sectarianism.[1]  ‘The shipyard workers identified with a Protestant state for a Protestant people’. Catholic workers were expelled, violence followed so deadly that in 1969 ‘Catholics whose homes had been attacked when they were children found themselves being attacked again in what seemed like a re-run of the 1920s pogroms’.[2]

As on the one side, so on the other. On the ‘Conflict’ walk we visited the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre, an Ulster Defence Association museum named in honour of one of its earliest commanders. The Tyrie family was one of many Protestant households forced out of their homes by Catholics. As time went on Andy came to realise that the way forward must be political, but many others did not. He himself narrowly escaped death in a car bomb attack set by UDA hardliners in 1988.[3]  As we leave the museum, still reflecting on these things, a different guide – as it must be, even in 2018 – takes us a mere yard or two into a different world. This is Bryson Street in the Short Strand, a Catholic enclave of around 3,000 people surrounded by the 60,000 Protestants of Inner East Belfast.[4]  This is where in August 1971, as a consequence of the internment debacle, the residents had to flee while the wall went up, destroying houses to partition the streets. A headline in the Irish News for 12 August 1971 reads: ‘Bryson Street Dies in “Scorched Earth” exit’. Although I am Catholic myself, I am glad not to be alone here; forty years have gone by, but the fear and suspicion remain.

This is an Arts Festival. Can the mere act of painting, or writing plays and poetry, have any healing properties? Shelley Tracey, who read to us from her new collection of exquisite lyrical poems (‘Prose, Poetry, and Pastries’) told me about an oral history project of her own which demonstrates this very clearly.[5]  The Prison Arts Foundation provides Northern Ireland’s prisons with mentors, writers, and artists-in-residence ‘to release the creative potential of those previously excluded or from marginalised communities, as well as those serving custodial and community sentences’. (p. 10) This fits perfectly with the concept of the Restorative City discussed at the Imagine! Festival earlier in the year. I am especially moved by ‘SG’, a young man whose experiences in helping to create a Holocaust Museum at Magilligan transformed his prejudices into ‘a desire to communicate the importance of tolerance and acceptance’. (p. 7) He came to understand that ‘dehumanization can start even by calling people names’. (p. 41)

It is ‘ZM’, however, who has me in tears. She is out of prison now and thriving, except that she uses an alias because of ‘the people who wouldn’t want me to be doing OK’. I become aware that this malignant mindset, all too common and constantly aggravated by social comment, is a stain in my own heart too. One of Hickey’s respondents described this barrier in the mind as ‘the point of no return’. (p. 43) Belfast’s festivals provide an antidote: they show that, against all the odds, barriers can be dismantled, a point of return can be found.

[1]     ‘Harland and Wolff’, in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History <https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Harland_and_Wolff> [accessed 25 August 2018]

[2]     Kevin Johnson, Irish Times, 29 November 2008 <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/sectarianism-and-the-shipyard-1.916936> [accessed 25 August 2018]

[3]     Belfast Telegraph, 15 September 2002 <https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/imported/struggle-for-power-within-uda-28130828.html> [accessed 25 August 2018]

[4]     Rosalind Hickey, Reflected Lives: Intergenerational Oral Histories of Belfast’s Peace Wall Communities (Belfast: Belfast Interface Project, 2018), p. 15

[5]     Shelley Tracey, Building Foundations for Change through the Arts: An Inquiry into the Impact of Participation in Prison Arts Foundation’s Programmes (Belfast: Prison Arts Foundation, 2017)

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“What Do We Do Now?” Part 1

Thoughts on Enright, Academic Travelling and Critical Distance

Robert Fraser, Emeritus Professor of English

One afternoon in October 1974, I was standing in a somewhat Spartan corridor in the University of Leeds in desultory conversation with a tall, lean, slightly stooping gentleman in his mid-fifties. He wore a suit, held a thin-stemmed pipe between his teeth, and was delivering diffident remarks between successive puffs of smoke. There was a slightly gloomy air to his conversation, gloomy but also droll, as if a little dejected and at the same time laughing at his own dejection. On this occasion, however, he had a subdued gleam in his eye, because I had just brought up a subject that interested him. In effect, I had become a participant in his wry despondency, since at this moment in time we had two things in common. Broadly speaking, we possessed a common invitation and a common problem, which could be summed up in the words “What Do We Do Now?”

The pipe-smoking gentleman was the poet D. J. Enright, not long returned to Blighty after a peripatetic lecturing career in, successively Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand and most famously Singapore, writing all the while. His nick-name was “the mendicant professor” and that had been the title of his memoirs, published five years previously. I was not quite as mendicant as he was, but had myself just returned from a lengthy and enjoyable spell lecturing in Africa. Both of us had been invited to spend some time in Leeds, teaching and taking our bearings. The topic of our conversation that afternoon was this: how do you approach the challenge of teaching English Literature in England when all your experience is of teaching it just about everywhere else?

Two qualities, I believe, are necessary to the successful teaching of literature to any student audience: intimacy and distance. When the teacher originates from the same environment as the text, but the students do not, the lecturer must exercise all of his or her imagination and resourcefulness to bring the text alive by translating it into terms the students will appreciate and understand. You begin with a distance that you then attempt to cross, so that by the end of the process the text is as intimately known to the students as to yourself, but in a different way. When the students and the text have a common background, the same factors do not occur, at least to the same extent. But, of course, there are different sorts of distance. There is the kind of distance that is achieved by time, when an historic text has to be made accessible to modern students (which is why a play by Marlowe or Paradise Lost is more challenging to teach anywhere than a modern text, and often a lot more fun). There is the distance achieved by theory, which I usually find unsatisfactory since it sometimes amounts to erecting a barrier of jargon between text and reader. In any case, some students find it alienating, and since the object of the exercise is to remove obstacles, the question arises, why erect this particular barrier in the first place, except to mystify? And then there is the sort of distance posed by some postcolonial books where the element of cultural alienation re-asserts itself, but as it were the other way round.

So when in 2015 I became an Emeritus, and the question posed itself once more – “What do we do now?” – the answer seemed to be to return to my academic roots and re-establish that geographical distance between audience and text which I have always found so stimulating. The first chance came towards the end of that year when Dr Nourdin Bejjit, whose doctoral thesis I had co-supervised at the OU, invited me to Morocco on a lecture tour. I flew in to Casablanca, which did not live up to its cinematic reputation, and then journeyed on to Rabat and Fez. I ended with four days in Tetouan, former capital of Spanish Morocco. As in the other locations my primary assignment was to talk about the reception of Eng. Lit abroad, as it is in the present piece. But on the last evening mine host Dr Jamaleddine Benhayoun asked over coffee, “The quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death is coming up soon. Tomorrow, why not just slip in a talk on the Bard?”

I thought this an excellent idea. The only problem was that, though at Leeds I had spent most of my teaching week on Renaissance Literature and Shakespeare, since moving to London in 1978 I had hardly touched the subject. There was nothing to do except wing it. So at eight-thirty the following morning I was standing on the stage in the largest lecture hall in the university armed with my Kindle and no notes. Before me was an audience of about 500, with some people standing at the back. I had already made up my mind that I would focus my talk on King Lear, drawing inter alia on James Shapiro’s book 1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear, which had recently appeared, but I would obviously have to talk about much else besides, and to set Shakespeare and his theatre in historical context. I started talking as, as I did so, all my buried and neglected knowledge came flooding back.  Nobody moved. There are certain moments in one’s life when one loses sense of time, as when writing something, or painting a picture or composing music. When I thought I had finished, I asked Jamal the time. It was half-past eleven, and I had been talking extempore for three hours. That should have been it, but we had already agreed that we would have time for questions. Did anybody have one, I asked. Someone stuck up their hand in the front row and asked if Shakespeare’s plays had anything to tell us about Shakespeare the man. Not the plays, I answered, but the poems were a different matter. As an example I started reciting Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments”. As I started on the second line, I became aware of a slight but growing susurrus in the hall. Gradually, row by row, they were joining in. By I time I reached the concluding couplet the whole hall was involved as the entire student body shouted out the lines: “If this be error, and upon me prov’d,/ I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

We often hear of the incompatibility of Western liberal and traditional Islamic values in North Africa and the Middle East, and the impediment that this places between certain audiences and Western secular literature. What nobody tells us is that the deeply embedded religious culture of these lands allows them continuing access to the rapt expression of ethical truths that the secular West has almost lost sight of. The sanctity of marriage is one of them. How many large roomfuls of British university students know Sonnet 116 by heart?  Answers on a very small postcard, please.

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“What Do We Do Now?” Part 2

Thoughts on Enright, Academic Travelling and Critical Distance

Robert Fraser, Emeritus Professor of English

Continuing from Part 1

I returned to Tetouan in 2016 and 2017, and will go back there again this coming October. In the meantime, a fresh opening arrived from quite a different direction. Our son works in the amusingly and inclusively entitled “Department of the Universe” at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, where he has a postdoc in String Theory. Coincidentally, this is the very university where Enright worked as a lecturer between 1957-9, and so I was very glad when, on one of my paternal visits, the English Department approached me with a peculiar assignment. The Brexit referendum had already happened, and nobody in Thailand could quite understand it. Why should the British nation take such a stupid step? They had invited the British ambassador to explain it all; he had accepted, and then on second thoughts ducked out. Could I step in? I am quite sure that my views on the British withdrawal from the EU were and are the very opposite of those that the ambassador in question might have felt obliged to defend in public, whatever his private misgivings about the matter. I agreed, provided I could go back in time and show how English insularity and English expansiveness have run alongside one another for centuries, and how both are evidenced in the literature. So, John of Gaunt’s “This sceptred isle speech” from Richard II against Defoe’s “The True-Born Englishman”, Hardy alongside Kipling, etc.. The modern parallels were not hard to draw, and de-colonization, I speculated, had brought this identity crisis to a flash-point:

As a result, the British people have been driven into two camps, each of which suffers from a different variety of postcolonial stress disorder. One half of the population has renounced imperialism and the jingoistic patriotism or nationalism that went with it. The other half still espouses a vestigial and sentimental form of  patriotic affiliation, a shadowy sense of entitlement without an empire to support  it. They clung to this myth or paradigm with increasing desperation as employment opportunities shrank, while in the meantime their globalized compatriots appeared to flourish as never before. In 2016, the tables turned. It was the second group, from which the Brexit campaign had drawn so much of its support, that Theresa May addressed last October in her conference speech, calling them simply the “public”. 

In the ensuing question and answer session I was left in little doubt as to relevance of what I’d been saying, not simply to Britain, but also to Thailand. Most countries when you come down to it have their own variety of identity crisis, and Thailand is no exception (nor is Morocco). To address this question in the lecture itself would, of course, have been miles beyond my brief. Neither Enright nor myself were exactly friends to cultural nationalism, but I was not going to fall into his trap when, in delivering his inaugural lecture on “Robert Graves and the Decline of Modernism” at the University of Singapore in November, 1960, he opened with an assault on the government’s policy of nurturing “sarong culture”. Singapore should be open to all influences, he had said, but the following day he found himself hauled before the Ministry of Labour and asked to account for his statements. He was brusquely informed that foreigners should keep their noses out of local affairs, which were none of his business as a mere “mendicant professor”, etc., etc.. Upon which he turned into a Penitent Professor and issued a letter of apology.

There was no need for me to weigh in thus clumsily in 2016 because, almost as soon as I had finished talking, the conversation backwards and forwards across the room took off in a most satisfactory and vigorous way. Just about everybody had an opinion as to the coherence or incoherence, integrity and need for openness of the nation. In Thailand there is a very lively tradition of public debate and dissent, not least among the students. Every year, in February, a football match is played between Bangkok’s two leading universities, complete with cheerleaders and shouting crowds. For the last few seasons this has culminated in a demonstration against the military authorities, pilloried on satirical floats. The latest fixture had just happened, and the authorities had shown no inclination to intervene. The principal comment in the English-language newspapers (of which there are two) was that this year’s offering had been disappointingly low-key and tame.

But it is not just nations that are afflicted with identity crises; authors and texts experience them too. The following year I was asked to return to talk about T.S. Eliot and, seeing as a book of mine on cosmopolitanism and cultural migration had just come out, I chose to concentrate on his polyglot and polymathic affiliations. It is no secret that many of these are Eastern since, on registering as a doctoral student at Harvard in 1911, Eliot had chosen to take a whole range of elective courses in Pali and Sanskrit. The result is that, even as late as 1941, coded references to the sacred books of the East pepper his writings. When I sought to demonstrate this, the result was a remarkable and rewarding instance of reverse instruction. I had no difficulty finding people to read out extracts from Buddha’s Fire Sermon or the Baghavad Gita in the original tongues. I supplied translations, but afterwards one member of the audience (admittedly a Russian) took me aside and told me that these had not strictly been necessary. In this context, and with these students, the poems by Eliot that I had been discussing, mostly The Waste Land and Dry Salvages, had stood on their heads. What had seemed supreme expressions of, in one case post-war disillusion, and in the other, of revived Christian spirituality, had become Asian landscapes with incidental glimpses of a crumbling Western world beyond. As a result, the distance and the intimacy had reversed themselves. What was familiar to the students was unfamiliar to me: it was their job to bring me closer to the source. It is my pious hope that the experience had been mutually beneficial. In any case, I had learned a lot.

Teaching, as many of its practitioners will concede, is largely a process of learning. Especially if you are talking to diverse audiences, one of your most valuable pieces of equipment is ignorance, and preparation is often a matter of clearing the mind. As for ignorance, I flatter myself that I am unusually well qualified in that respect. It is a quality not to be scorned by any mendicant professor as he or she next opens up an Atlas, turns to the sunnier pages and inquires “What do we do now?”

One answer is to return to Morocco next February to organize a weekend creative writing workshop in the lovely hill town of Chefchaouen. Would anybody care to join us?

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