‘The Antipodes’ by Annie Baker at the National Theatre

Alistair Daniel, PhD student and Associate Lecturer, Creative Writing

In his monumental study, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker identified the seven types of story that, he argued, recur time and again, in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters. Booker’s is one of several well-known storytelling theories that make fleeting, uncredited appearances in The Antipodes, the new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Annie Baker, currently making its UK debut at the National Theatre in a production co-directed by Baker herself. An enigmatic, elusive exploration of storytelling, The Antipodes is set in an anonymous boardroom where six writers are attempting to develop some kind of epic new show about monsters. The writers have been hired by a legendary showrunner called Sandy (played, in a piece of inspired casting, by Conleth Hill from Game of Thrones) and their job, Sandy explains, is to tell each other stories – any stories – until something leaps out.

Annie Baker

The writers take to their task with relish, telling stories about everything from childhood traumas to their greatest failures, tossing out monster ideas and crackpot theories of time. In Booker’s mythic terms, they are on a quest, albeit a very modern sort of quest in which no leaves the room, where boxes of Evian are stockpiled as if anticipating the kind of apocalyptic weather event that does, in fact, arrive.

It is never clear what the writers think they are doing, or how Sandy expects this process to result in a new work of art. As a method of creation it’s a bit like running a writing workshop in which everyone types out their favourite story until inspiration strikes. Which is not quite as mad as it sounds. The novelist Joseph O’Connor learned to write by obsessively copying John McGahern’s ‘Sierra Leone’ in longhand, gradually altering, reshaping and rewriting until he’d made it his own. In a storytelling landscape heavily populated by screenwriting ‘gurus’ who, as John Yorke puts it in Into the Woods, insist that ‘there must be an inciting incident on page 12’ (Yorke, p. xii) but can’t explain why, Sandy’s method may be as good as any other.

Besides, some things bode well. Some of the writers have been through Sandy’s ‘process’ before, with apparent success. One of them is part Icelandic, which seems promising to a room full of writers in search of the epic, and then there’s Adam, who is at least named after a character in one of the most famous stories of all. And yet, suffice it to say, things do not go to plan. As the writers reel off anecdotes – funny, strange and banal – eat, doze, and bicker over how many stories types there are (Booker’s seven, or George Polti’s 36?), the chances of Sandy’s monster show going into pre-production begin to look increasingly remote.

Any play about storytelling will inevitably be judged by its own ability to tell a story, and in this respect, The Antipodes doesn’t quite deliver in its season finale. Baker’s frame of reference is dizzyingly broad. As a story about a group of strangers trapped in a room, telling stories, The Antipodes nods to everything from The Decameron to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – where Godot is both the studio boss (Max) who will either green light Sandy’s project or pull the plug, and inspiration itself. Perhaps it’s a version of Sartre’s No Exit, in which hell is listening to your colleague crack boiled eggs on the table and eat them (an allusion, perhaps, to the Chinese creation myth printed in the programme notes). But The Antipodes is also more than that. It’s a satire about writers who never do any writing (some readers may wince), about screenwriting psychobabble and the money pits behind television’s much-vaunted ‘golden age’. And it’s a play about gender politics in the #MeToo era, in which Eleanor, the only female writer in the room, is subjected to insidious forms of aggression from her (faintly monstrous) male peers. It’s about all these things, but above all it’s a play about the business of creation – what fuels it, where it comes from, and how it works.

Baker is far too interesting a writer to answer the questions she raises, or conform to screenwriting diktats about story shape, but as the play progresses the rich stew of ideas comes to feel a little undercooked. Tensions within the group never quite come to the boil, plot threads are picked up and discarded, as if Baker is dramatising her own struggles with creation, and while, in the end, we do get crisis, climax and resolution (John Yorke would approve), what any of it might mean remains frustratingly out of reach. But perhaps it’s fitting that a play (at least in part) about creative failure might itself stop just short of success.

The Antipodes runs at the National Theatre until 23 November

Booker, C. (2004), The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories London: Continuum

Yorke, J. (2013), Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them London: Penguin




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Creative Writing Workshops on Word/Image Relationships

Patrick Wright, PhD Creative Writing Student

Over the last year or so, I have been facilitating a series of creative writing workshops on the theme of responding to images or objects. I was interested in exploring some outreach opportunities, especially the application of my current PhD research: on the ekphrasis of abstract or monochromatic artworks, supervised by Siobhan Campbell and Jane Yeh. In part, I was looking to test some of my poetic strategies and methods with the general public: those who already thought of themselves as practitioners or had a casual interest in creative writing.

I began with a short series of workshops at the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum (autumn 2018 – spring 2019). Here I asked participants to respond to a visual prompt. At the Whitworth, this was an artwork that could be freely chosen after having wandered around the gallery; and at the museum, I selected some artefacts from the holdings on the theme of ‘flight’, and these were presented in the middle of a table, as shown below.

The groups were asked to explore some free writing in response to their prompt over the duration of 25 minutes. We then discussed the experience and approach, and we had an opportunity to read out what we’d written.

Given that the series was funded by the Arts for Health Programme at the University of Manchester, and the workshops were aimed at carers, I also felt it was appropriate to discuss the therapeutic effects, if any. I was interested in the possibility of writing as catharsis, especially while using images or objects as a form of mediation. I was grateful to the participants that we were able to have these conversations towards the end of each session.

More recently, I ran a joint workshop (again on creative writing in response to images and objects) with Fran Hughes, as part of the AHRC conference on Trust and Truth at the University of Cambridge (September 2019). In this case the participants were, for the most part, postgraduates. Here we asked them to work in groups, using a similar method to that used in the parlour game ‘consequences’, to produce creative writing and images. Not only did the exercise result in some highly imaginative first drafts, it also worked fantastically well as an icebreaker and encouraged participants to get to know one another.

At present, I am now working again with Manchester Museum on the Creative Writing for Carers scheme. I have been asked to run a series of sessions through the autumn (2019), which will also function as a short course. With the additional time and scope, I want to explore a wider array of possibilities, especially in terms of how participants might approach their interaction with a chosen artefact. In addition to grounding what can often be highly specialised ideas (such as ekphrasis) in the playfulness of creative writing sessions, I also hope to glean new ideas for my own practice and add a social dimension to my research activity.

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Thoughts on retreat, writing and solitude as the nights draw in

Joanne Reardon, Lecturer, Creative Writing

The popularity of writing retreats has grown and grown over the past few years: retreats masquerading as holidays where not much writing is done, teaching retreats where you get a writing tutor thrown in, retreats where you can be totally alone. The most important thing is solitude, the space to write where you are given your own desk and your own room and the promise that when you leave you might be on your way to creating your greatest work. I’ve been on two this year: at Gladstone’s Library for a weekend and the Arvon Foundation’s Clockhouse Writing Retreat in Shropshire where, for the past few years, I’ve spent a week each August writing and thinking in the kind of solitude that allows me the kind of creative freedom I just don’t get every day.

View from the Clockhouse, The Hurst, Clun, Shropshire

Retreat in the traditional sense has always indicated some kind of withdrawal to a secluded, quiet place where we might find silence but where we might also find isolation. In a world where the common cure for loneliness means creating ever more connections, this kind of isolation where we spend time alone with our thoughts can seem a frightening place to be.

I recently discovered Michael Harris’s book Solitude, in pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world which examines the idea of solitude as ‘a resource’ which can be ‘harvested and hoarded’ and to which there are ‘benefits to maintaining’ so that it might enrich us. Solitude he says is ‘a fertile state, yet one we have a hard time accessing’ (Harris, M. (2017) p.29). This idea of solitude is always on my mind at this time of year because October always seems to me like a month for contemplation. The psychiatrist Anthony Storr writing in 1988 explains in his book Solitude that ‘nearly all kinds of creative people, in adult life, show some avoidance of others, some need of solitude’ (Storr, A. (1988) p.146). This suggests the imagery of an artist tucked away in her studio, the writer trapped in a garret and these are the clichés that jump into people’s mind whenever a writer talks about having private space in which to write or indeed of needing it. Sara Maitland has written a great deal about silence and the retreat into being alone and in her book How to be alone talks about ‘being fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off-button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness’ (Maitland, S. (2014), p. 7).

Some years ago, I attended a silent retreat at Loyola Hall in Widnes near Liverpool which turned out to be a transformative experience and taught me for the first time the value of silence and of living with only my thoughts, which weren’t good at the time, for company. The place felt isolated even though it was virtually on the hard shoulder of the M62 motorway near Warrington. There were pylons which ticked like crickets running through the wild, untended grounds and in the woodland which closed the hall off from the outside world, a dog was said to roam, hiding from the owner from whom it had so cleverly escaped. I spent hours walking, looking for the dog – a King Charles spaniel apparently; I spent hours sitting in the lounges, eating in silence; I spent time reading and thinking. It’s when you disappear into your own head that you worry you will find the madness you’ve been hiding from all this time and the surprise is that the opposite can happen. It surprised me and at the time I think it saved me. Several years later I was commissioned to write a short story to accompany some paintings in Warrington Art Gallery only a few miles from the hall. I decided to set my story there making the fictional place into a retreat for people broken by life which was exactly how I had felt when I set foot in there myself. ‘My Mind’s Eye’ was about a singer suffering from PTSD following the loss of her daughter in a car accident, she exists in the company of other people broken by life and slowly through the power of isolation and then through comradeship, the healing begins.

Michael Harris talks about the power of daydreaming where to retreat needn’t be to remove oneself to a physical place for a length of time because every day can deliver moments where being alone can ‘allow for the drifting, unfocused mind to be inspired’ (Harris, M. (2017) p. 54). This kind of retreat is often the most productive not only to find peace but also, I’ve found, as an essential part of writing. It’s the place where ideas begin and this is something I’ve been writing about for just over a year now in my own blog A Writer Retreats where I explore the idea of retreat being as simple as gathering leaves in an autumn garden or walking up an Alpine hill in the darkness listening for wolves. Somewhere there’s a story out there, in the space between thinking and doing. Retreat brings me back to myself when I feel like things are slipping away and connects me to my creative self.

It seems as if I’m not alone in feeling like I want to retreat at this time of year. On Mental Health Day on October 10th last week, I was on a train coming back from Liverpool when some volunteers from The Samaritans boarded the train to hand cards out for people who might need them. I was struck by how many people refused then went back to staring at their phones, out of the window, looking away. ‘We can offer a retreat when you think the world has forgotten you,’ one of the volunteers said in answer to someone who had engaged them in a conversation. I took a card, looked out of the window, the rain beating against it in the darkness, all those lights in tower block windows and so many people in there on their own and thought about Michael Harris’s words that ‘True solitude – as opposed to the failed solitude we call loneliness – is a fertile state, yet one we have a hard time accessing’ (Harris, 29). How can we tell the difference and what do we do if we can’t?


Harris, M. (2017) Solitude, in pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world London: Random House

Maitland, S. (2014) How to be alone London:Macmillan

Storr, A. (1988; reprint 2005) Solitude New York: Free Press

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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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