Tap Dancing, Poetry and Black Mascara

Birkbeck PhD student is one of four prize winners at the 2020 International Book and Pamphlet Competition for her collection: ‘Black Mascara (Waterproof)’

This is a photo of Rosalind Easton

Rosalind Easton

An English teacher for the past 10 years and an English, Theatre and Creative Writing PhD student more recently, Rosalind Easton has spent as many years deconstructing poetry. But it took the interaction with and observations of her young niece to inspire her to write poetry in the first instance. 

Just two and a half years ago, she penned her first poem about the birth of her niece and found other familial influences through her grandmother’s love of literature. She shares that her writing was sporadic- just one or two poems every few months but also notes that “when you get into a rhythm of writing, that’s when you get the lightbulb. That’s why it’s so important to try and write every day.”

Easton was able to source further creative expression through her love of dance; tap dancing, in particular. She points to the correlations and expresses, “The rhythm of my tap dancing comes through in my poetry.”

Having found her rhythm and routine, Easton would spend her mornings before going into work, writing in a local cafe for just under an hour, a process driven by “50% ruthless discipline, 50% pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”

Connections between things is a key component of Easton’s work. She draws the link between poetry and mathematics for its patterns and structures; as well as likening the visual elements of poetry to paintings and sculptures. Throughout her winning collection, objects seem to take on a life of their own with judge, Imtiaz Dharker capturing this most aptly:

Catching sight of a former lover makes my iPhone flicker/ with the ghost of a Nokia brick. All kinds of inanimate things come alive enthusiastically in these poems: the stiletto heel, the music stand, the microphone, a wand with no spells, making every poem a delightful surprise.”

It’s all a far cry from when Easton had worried about her poetry being publishable, acknowledging that she writes long lines; so she was pleasantly surprised when judge, Ian McMillan praised her for this. Indeed, both judges McMillan and Dharker were emphatic in stating the“final choices were unanimous”.

A Book & Pamphlet winners reading will he held at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere in Spring 2021, and the four winning pamphlets will be published in Feb 2021. Read more about the competition and winners.

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School of Arts Awarded Three Research Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust

Senior Lecturer, Dorigen Caldwell, reflects on her award and looks forward to a time she can visit Italy again.

Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work!

this is a photo of a cathedral in Italy

Please tell us about your area of research. I am a Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art in the History of Art Department at Birkbeck. My area of research is early modern Italy, with a particular emphasis on religious art produced after the Council of Trent (1545-63), where the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church were discussed and codified, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. This marked a key moment in debates not only around religion, but also around the visual arts and their role in the propagation of faith.

What inspires you most when it comes to your academic pursuits? Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work! In both teaching and research, I think I am primarily interested in the history of ideas, and in thinking about the use of images within a broader historical and cultural context.

Why have you chosen this particular area of research? The title of my current research project, for which I was awarded the Leverhulme fellowship, is ‘Piety, Patronage and Politics in Early Modern Rome’. The focus of this research is a private chapel in a Roman church that was lavishly decorated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and includes an altarpiece designed by the celebrated painter, Annibale Caracci. I chose this chapel because it was commissioned by a family of cardinals who came from the Northern Italian city of Trent, where the pivotal Council was held, and which at the time was a German-speaking territory. As such, these cardinals represented the interests of German catholicism in Rome, and their family chapel represents a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between the periphery (Northern Italy/Southern Germany) and the centre (Rome) of the Catholic world at the time, and to explore ideas around images, beliefs and politics at a moment of intense artistic production.

What impact do you envisage from the research? I am due to give papers at conferences in Rome and Dublin over the next year (coronavirus permitting!) and plan to write a book which I hope will disseminate my research to a broad audience beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art history. The Leverhulme Trust will be paying for a replacement post to carry out my Birkbeck duties over the course of the next academic year (apart from my PhD students who I will continue to supervise); and I plan to make two research trips to Italy to visit churches and archives. The award allows me to focus on my research for a year, to (hopefully) travel to Italy, and to get as much of my book written as possible in the time.

And lastly, can you share your sentiments on the significance of the Fellowship? I am incredibly grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for this Fellowship, as it will make all the difference to my research, allowing me to focus on my book project over an extended period of time. I am very excited about this opportunity to devote myself to my research and I look forward to the moment when I can travel to Italy again.

Learn more about the Leverhulme Trust Fellowships.

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The Effects of COVID-19 on Carbon Emissions and how longer-term remote working may impact it further

Dr Becky Briant, Department of Geography and ​Marianna Muszynska, Sustainability Officer, Bloomsbury Colleges Greenthing, consider the impact of the current pandemic on the environment

A picture of a steam locomotive train

A steam locomotive train

There’s a certain schadenfreude in the community of environmental campaigners about the impacts of the current coronavirus crisis on travel and therefore on carbon emissions, but is this crisis really good for reducing our impact on the environment long term?

A reduction in carbon emissions in response to a reduction in economic activity is not a new phenomenon. As Dr Becky Briant teaches Birkbeck Geography MSc students on our Climate Change module each year, one of the only reasons that global emissions only grew 11% between the early 1992 commitments to reduce emissions and the year 2000 was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic is having similar effects, with an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil per day reduction on 2019 levels at the start of March. Oil production is particularly hard hit by this crisis because it is mostly used for transport. This has other knock on positive environmental effects such as a reduction in air pollution in urban areas.

Whether or not these initial effects will have a long-term benefit for the environment, however, is entirely dependent on what decisions are made in relation to energy usage and infrastructure once society returns to ‘normal’ after social distancing restrictions are lifted. The only way to reduce global carbon emissions in the long term is to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. There is some evidence that this has been happening in many service-based economies over the past few decades, even if you account for the carbon in the goods that these economies buy from other countries (consumption-based emissions).

Closer to home, here in the UK, Government data shows that UK production-based emissions were about 45 per cent lower in 2019 than in 1990. This is a 3.6 per cent drop on 2018 levels and the same value as during 1888. Even consumption-based emissions have dropped somewhat. There is therefore some evidence that the UK are starting to decouple emissions from economic growth, with emissions reductions of 29% and economic growth of 18% between 2010 and 2019.

This is really good news for our environment, and of course the emissions reductions due to coronavirus are a welcome addition to this, but they are a short-term disruption to a long-term trend. Climate change is a long-term environmental issue and so only long-term changes will make a difference to reducing it.

Reverting to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis will give only another 10% fall by 2030, whilst meeting the UK’s carbon budgets require a fall of 31% by 2030. There is also the danger of a ‘bounce-back’ effect where Government is so keen to stimulate economic growth they reduce environmental ambitions. As a country, we are currently doing well at decarbonising our electricity supply (moving from coal to renewables), with gradual decrease also in the use of gas for space heating although mostly due to increased efficiency rather than switching to electric. Transport, however, is proving less tractable. Oil emissions have only dropped by 6% since 2010 and transport as a sector is now the largest contributor to UK emissions, even without international aviation and shipping, which are not accounted for by country.

Whilst at Birkbeck we are committed to long-term solutions to educate staff and students and reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, we too have seen examples of short-term changes that will not suffice in the long run to decrease carbon emissions. For example, two months of lockdown would reduce Birkbeck’s energy use by 17%, saving almost 400 tonnes of carbon emissions. Indirect emissions from staff travel are also reduced. However, with good planning and resolve carbon savings can still be achieved when restrictions are relaxed.

It is here that the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to leave a lasting legacy – reinventing the concept of the workplace. Having been restricted to remote meeting and discovered that the technology is frequently good enough to make these effective as well as saving time and money, organisations may decide to move to more remote meeting in the longer term. Working remotely for 5 weeks in a row, already, is daunting for some, but not all. Due to the long travel distances of many staff and cost of commuting into London, remote working is already common amongst academic staff. Forced lockdown for all staff has planted a seed of possibility of remote work more often than we previously anticipated is possible or productive.

We hope that once stay at home restrictions are relaxed, Birkbeck’s recovery plan will include encouraging more staff to work remotely a few times a week. This will have the benefit of reducing onsite energy use as well as emissions associated with commuting and business travel.

Whilst we can make these shifts at a local scale, for global changes to be effective, changes are also needed at national level. The key is in what Government policies are in place globally to ensure that economic recovery post coronavirus encourages environmentally positive activities. This is the moment to make this case, as can be seen in a the output of a wide range of organisations from the International Energy Authority to Extinction Rebellion. If we don’t, we risk bouncing back to higher emissions in the search to recover from the economic hit taken during this crisis.

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The Students’ “Joy-Night”

Professor Joanna Bourke, Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology, recalls a period in history when student expression was far more rambunctious and gave way to the ritual of ‘ragging’

Ragging

‘Ragging’

Once a year between the 1880s and the 1930s, Birkbeck students went wild. In what was called the “Joy Night”, they threw their energies into a boisterous ritual that saw hundreds of fancifully dressed (often in gender-bending ways) students waylaying the Foundation Day speaker prior to his lecture. They would then ceremoniously cart him to the College’s theatre, just off Fetter Lane. The noise was deafening: bells were rung, whistles blown, clappers thwacked, and rattles vigorously shaken. This was a very public ritual: in Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, crowds of people stepped out of their offices and shops to watch this “students’ rag”. Most witnesses to the “ragging” cheered the high-spirits of Birkbeck’s students; a few “tutted” disapprovingly about “childish” antics. Once at the theatre, Birkbeck students sang silly songs, beat drums, released balloons or streamers, and mocked the authorities. They refused to let speakers start their lecture until they had loudly sung the “Birkbeck Anthem”.

College song

College song pt 1

College song pt 2

College song pt 2

In 1934, it was the turn of Walter Elliott (the Minister of Agriculture) to be “ragged”. The students forced him out of his taxi and made him ride up Fetter Lane on pantomime-cow. He was photographed “clinging with one hand” to the “cow” and waving his hat with the other hand “in the manner of a Wild West rider (but looking less sure of his seat)”. The Minister was then led up the steps to the platform of the lecture theatre by two young men: one dressed as a yokel and the other as a fairy. Once on the platform, the “fairy” curtsied before presenting the Minister of Agriculture with “a basket containing a pig’s head and some kippers”. The Minister was then required to sign this declaration:

“I, Walter Elliott, alias Bo-Bo the Gadarene, whose father was Hi-To, begat of Circe, do hereby present all my estate in piggery to the students of Birkbeck College.”

Under Elliott’s signature were the words “Chief of the Pig Board, Chief of the Milk Board, Chief of the Hops Board, Chief of the Herring Board”. The fairy then reappeared, giving everyone on the platform a bottle of milk, each with a straw stuck through the tab, to suck. Only then was the Minister of Agriculture allowed to give his lecture.

Ridiculous? Well, yes, but that was the point. Foundation ceremonies could be very dreary occasions: “ragging” certainly livened things up. They were also an effective way for graduating students to “let off steam”. More importantly, they were a negotiated inversion of staff-student relations in an institution that was markedly hierarchical. “Ragging” was a classic example of “authorised transgression”. They were carnivalesque, temporarily inverting the rules and power structures while simultaneously blunting social criticism.

From 1939, however, a more serious mood crept over university culture as well as British life more generally. Austerity was not conducive to the wild pelting of eggs and flour, let alone men wearing lipstick in lecture theatres. Birkbeck students were also increasingly part-time and older: they had less time for the “high jinxs” of their predecessors. Alas, the carnivalesque misconduct of the “Joy Night” faded away.

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Professor Anthony Bale shares his passion for Chaucer & Medieval English

Professor Bale recently elected President of New Chaucer Society and discusses a career-long interest in Chaucer and his intentions to broaden the appeal of the subject.

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Some of us read Chaucer in school. What’s your earliest memory of the author’s work and what’s the relevance for our current times?

I didn’t actually read Chaucer at school – at my state school, the earliest literature I’d encountered before university was Shakespeare. However, I had long been interested in the Middle Ages and I immediately fell in love with medieval literature at university, whilst studying for my degree in English Language & Literature. I had some inspiring teachers at university and did special options on Chaucer and on Medieval & Renaissance Romance. Medieval literature remains relevant for our times – it helps us understand the language we speak, the changing idea of the nation we live in, and many of the institutions that continue to exist in contemporary Britain (for example, in the royal family, the legal system, universities, and local government). And London was Chaucer’s city – he lived for a time at Aldgate – and we can see traces of him and his era all across the city, from a bridge he had built at Eltham to his grave at Westminster.  Chaucer’s poetry is incredibly rich, and even after studying Chaucer for more than 25 years, every time I go back to his writing I find something new and exciting.

Tell us a bit more about the New Chaucer Society?

The New Chaucer Society was founded in 1979 and is the leading, global learned society for the teaching and study of the age of Chaucer – basically, the later Middle Ages, broadly from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. The ‘New’ reflects the connection to the original Chaucer Society, founded in 1868. But I’d like to think that the ‘New’ in the Society’s name shows how each generation keeps Chaucer and his era new and fresh, bringing new critical perspectives to bear on his life, work, and historical era. The Society is based at the University of Miami in Florida, and has a biennial Congress – which I co-organised in London in 2016. We’ll be meeting in Durham later this year. The Society also publishes a leading journal, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and has members all over the world working on medieval studies in different languages, national traditions and critical perspectives.

In your new position as President of the Society, what will you be focusing on and hoping to achieve?

The New Chaucer Society is flourishing but there are many challenges to be faced. I anticipate that priorities for the Society over the next few years include rethinking our biennial Congress and its purposes. The Congress has to be more ethical, sustainable, and inclusive, and we must protect and extend funding to ensure that those who wish to participate are able to do so. I also plan to advocate for the teaching of late medieval literature on school curricula and internationally, particularly in non-elite schools, and help to develop the Society’s profile as a resource for teachers of medieval literature at all levels. Without medieval literature on syllabi, we will not foster the next generation of medievalists.

How do those priorities fit into the general landscape for late Medieval English literature and culture?

Fewer and fewer schools and universities teach medieval literature, and it’s imperative that we don’t let this field of study dwindle away and become a ‘specialist’, niche field. Medieval studies has often had the reputation, as a field, of being conservative and exclusive. This cannot be the case, and I want to ensure that the Society remains an inclusive place for fresh critical debates in medieval studies.

It’s a great achievement to be elected President. Can you share what the process was; who was part of the nomination and election process?

The Society’s Trustees developed a slate of three names and an election took place across the Society’s entire membership, based on candidates’ statements.

What is the tenure and how large is your team at the Society?

The position commences in July 2020 and will run for two years. I’ll be working closely with the Society’s brilliant Executive Director, Tom Goodmann, at the University of Miami, and the Society’s Trustees. Four new Trustees were elected at the same time, and they are from Iceland and from across the USA.

How will this align with the role you hold at Birkbeck?

As Dean of Arts much of my energy has been focused on protecting the arts, addressing educational inequality, and leading change. This has included developing funding for diversity scholarships and co-founding the Out@Birkbeck LGBT+ staff network. My own research has been at the forefront of challenging understandings of the cultural history of medieval antisemitism and global encounters through travel in the Middle Ages. I have published on Chaucer throughout my career, and continue to do so.

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