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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How my MA work placement helped me kick start my career in the Arts

Birkbeck alumna, Florencia Nannetti de Bella who studied MA History of Art at Birkbeck details how she started her career in the arts, from work placements to freelancing, to now starting a full-time role while working remotely.

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

On Monday 20 April, I started a new job as Community and Visitor Engagement Officer at the Museum of Cambridge. This has been, as you can imagine, a very unusual experience, given the circumstances. However, I could not be more thrilled about undertaking this post for many reasons, and I want to tell you about it.

First of all, let me tell you a bit more about how I got here. In 2017, I enrolled on a full-time History of Art MA course at Birkbeck. I had undertaken several courses in Arts Education and Visual Arts before, but this course at Birkbeck compelled me for a particular reason: it offered the opportunity to do a work placement at a cultural institution for 3 months.

At least in my case, I discovered quite quickly that breaking into the arts and culture sector could be difficult without enough experience. And although I had worked extensively as a freelance art facilitator in galleries and schools, it felt like I needed something more solid. So I figured that doing a work placement as part of my studies was a good place to start.

While enrolled on the Work Placement module, I had sessions with the tutor Sarah Thomas and the rest of the students to reflect on my practice. This is not something you usually get to do when you are working or doing a placement outside university, and it added so much to the experience. To have been able to discuss what you’re doing, the challenges you’re facing and the things you learn, added a whole new level of knowledge. In this case, it helped me become a reflective professional, and therefore improve my performance.

I had it very clear in my mind what I wanted to do for my placement: I wanted to be part of an Education Team. There were many more placements related to curation, but I was lucky to find one with the Creative Learning Team at Alexandra Palace.

Anna Gordon, from the Careers Advice Team, was brilliant at helping me with my application and interview. If you haven’t heard of the team, I would recommend you look them up and get in touch with them. In preparation for the work placement, Anna not only provided some great sessions on how to prepare your CV and cover letter, but she also provided 1 to 1 sessions. She carefully went through the application pack with me, and helped me tweak my CV accordingly. She gave me homework on this, for us to review together, and then helped me prepare for my interview.

One of the things that have impacted me the most from these sessions has been how she taught me how to approach an application. And most importantly, she helped me understand the skills that I have that I can offer to employers. This was so empowering and gave me more confidence to apply for the jobs that I really wanted.

I would certainly take this particular time to get in touch with the Birkbeck Careers Advice Team and work on your CV and cover letter. What better time to tackle it? Many new remote posts are appearing, so you might also want to consider that as an option.

It was a tricky time, when I was working, studying, and doing the placement at the same time. It was not easy, but was absolutely do-able. You will have to be extremely organised, planning ahead was key to navigating that period successfully.

The placement lasted three months, and it was great. My manager at Alexandra Palace, Isobel Aptaker, would take me to all her meetings, let me see how she went about doing certain tasks, answer my questions, and discuss challenges of the role, and of working at this venue in particular and others she had worked at. It was very useful, because I could get a real sense of how things are done, and the dynamics of the job. It also gave me a chance to really put to the test whether this was something I wanted as a career or not. A work placement can be a great way to discover if something you thought you liked, is actually what you want. Don’t regret it if you discover it is not.

Increasingly, I would have more and more tasks with a good degree of responsibility within the Ally Pally Learning team, which was good to test my skills and learn new ones. You don’t need to know it all when you undertake a placement, and it is good if your manager can give you challenging tasks that will help you grow, and build your knowledge. This is something you should discuss with the manager and your tutor. After all, you need to make it work for you.

After I graduated, I continued doing freelance work, and kept an eye open for other opportunities. My freelance experience has also been invaluable to expand my skills set and grow my professional network after the placement.

Last July, I got a very nice position as the Education and Training coordinator for a team of energy advisers, at an environmental charity. The experience from my work placement, which I spoke about during my interview, was key to getting this role. On this topic, I would recommend you keep a log of every new job or placement: it will help you keep track of everything you learn and do, so then it’s easier for you to give examples of your skills.

Starting a job in lockdown: why it has been good in many ways

In March this year, I came across this lovely post from the Museum of Cambridge, and just before the quarantine started, I managed to attend my interview. Consequently I was offered the role, which I accepted. The week right after, the country went into lockdown. However, Cambridge City Council, who is funding my position and the projects I will deliver, and the museum, were very keen for me to undertake the post remotely.

Albeit unusual, this has had a lot of positive benefits. Firstly, I could tackle my induction in a record time! I went through a lot of online training modules and documents that usually take a bit longer to go through, as you normally have to do other things around it if you are on site. In addition, since all of our cultural and engagement offer has to be re-arranged to fit the current circumstances, I have had to spend a good deal of time figuring the alternatives out. This is certainly testing and improving my planning skills and my creativity. I have to find alternatives, adapt activities, think of new ways to continue to build community through collections with all these new challenges we are facing. On the down side, I cannot familiarise myself with the collection and the building. However, this is bringing me closer to the wonderful team of volunteers and the Collections team, whom I rely upon to understand the museum’s dynamics.

Something that has always interested me is work within the arts and culture sector, and social issues, which in my opinion, have to involve engaging with local communities. One of the things that worried me the most about a lockdown, was that the voices of those communities, especially minorities, might go unheard again, and that we might lose the sense of connectedness between us. In this new job, I have the chance to try and stop that from happening.

It didn’t happen from one day to the other, but with patience, dedication, and the help of the very talented professionals I have mentioned, I was able to find the job I really wanted.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Birkbeck School of Arts
Birkbeck Futures

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“By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me”

Former ballet dancer Katie Willis completed an MA in Creative Writing and was due to graduate with her peers this week. In this blog, she shares her experience of studying at Birkbeck while dealing with illness and her plans for the future.

I am very excited to graduate from my MA in Creative Writing as this is my first degree.

I am a mature student and I’ve had no previous experience of university-level study as I followed a vocational path – I was a ballet dancer before my illness took hold. It is a huge achievement for me to be graduating.

If you want to write about a sick body you have to be comfortable with living inside of it. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and a rare form of cancer. I had to balance university with regular hospital appointments and the side effects of taking chemotherapy and other drugs. On occasions that felt overwhelming.

I faced quite a few physical challenges. I had to be very disciplined on a daily basis, managing the limited energy that I had. The travelling to and from university was physically demanding on a sick body. I had to rest up on the days preceding and the days following my lectures in order to be well enough to attend. I was sad that I was not always able to participate in social events with other students, but I always held on to the important part that it was such a joy and privilege to be able to attend university in the first place.

Throughout my studies I had the support of a close group of fellow students who were aware of my physical challenges. I had two friends who always offered to carry my bags and books to and from and class.

Creative Writing at Birkbeck

I began the MA writing stories which were mostly about magical realism but then in the second semester I took Julia Bell’s Creative Non-Fiction module and I realised that I was interested in writing about the self, using my experience as a dancer. I slowly learned to embrace my quirkiness which allowed me to write to my strengths.

I realised that my writing is poetic and kinetic, and I wanted to write about the body: the sick body and the dancing body, and the place where those two bodies meet. Similarly, I am interested in the place where fiction meets non-fiction meets poetry. I want to meld the genres in my own way but also reflect the shape of the body on the page.

I no longer try to write outside of myself or to become the writer that I’m not. I found my own voice on the course and also found the courage to write in it.

By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me, on a level with being in a hospital, which has felt like a second home for many years.

As awful as the current situation is, there is some sense of community in nationwide lockdown. If you have lived with a physical disability that has left you housebound for a huge chunk of your life that is a very personal and isolating form of lockdown.

It is quite extraordinary to look at the world now and see everyone else under a similar lockdown and huge organisations and bodies rapidly making adaptations in the way they function and impart knowledge. Such adaptations would have made a huge difference to me in the many years when I was housebound.

It is sad that our graduation ceremony is having to be postponed probably until November, but I plan to relish the anticipation of it, so it will be all the more exciting when it occurs.

Looking ahead

I was invited to continue my studies at Birkbeck and am currently doing the MFA in Creative Writing under the guidance of Toby Litt.

Ultimately, I want to publish a collection of short stories. I am currently writing a collection of short stories about bones. I’m taking specific bones from the body and using the power of incantation I’m writing the stories that these bones hold and, in the process, shaping a new body that is neither a sick body nor a dancing body, but something else. Something strong and mobile.

I’d also like to share what I have learned on the course. It would be great if I could take creative writing into hospitals and offer it to patients who have had surgery, or are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, to help them as I think it is an outlet when you are going through life changing moments.

If you are mature student, if you have a disability, if you have cancer, if you have been housebound for many years, if you have something which makes you feel like an outsider just go for it. It may just change your life!

 

 

 

 

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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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Out@BBK film screening for LGBT+ History Month

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts discusses the feminist classic, Orlando, and why it was such an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies. The film adaptation of Orlando will be screened in the College cinema to mark LGBT History Month.

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in the film ‘Orlando’, Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

As part of our campus, Birkbeck is fortunate to have 46 Gordon Square, now the School of Arts but formerly, from 1904 to 1907, the home of the young Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf was 22 when she moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. Her time at Gordon Square was the beginning of her adult life as a professional writer and heralded the start of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As well as being an innovative author and thinker, Woolf was a feminist and lived what was then an unconventional life, including long relationships with women. Woolf’s affair in the 1920s with the writer Vita Sackville-West inspired her short novel Orlando, a ground-breaking queer text about identity, bodies, history, and love.

Orlando was presented by Woolf to Sackville-West in 1928 after the pair had been travelling in France together. The novel is the fantastical fictional biography of the hero of its title, a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries. Orlando meets key figures in English history including Elizabeth I, Charles II, and Alexander Pope, but Woolf creates a magical version of history in which the queer hero/heroine survives and succeeds. The novel culminates in 1928, the year of its publication. Orlando is at once a light-hearted historical satire and a feminist classic, and an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies.

As part of LGBT+ History Month, Out@BBK, Birkbeck’s LGBT+ staff group, is hosting a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) in the Gordon Square cinema. The screening will be introduced by Dr Jo Winning and myself (we have previously taught Orlando on our undergraduate course Critically Queer).

Potter’s film is a creative and dazzling interpretation of Woolf’s novel. Tilda Swinton, in one of her signature roles as the titular, androgynous lead, heads an eccentric cast encompassing such diverse figures as Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams and Lothaire Bluteau. It is also the film which saw British director Sally Potter emerge from an avant-garde notoriety into mainstream recognition, with a lavishly designed spectacle that earned numerous awards and two Oscar nominations.

Join us at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square cinema on Friday 28 February at 6pm to watch and discuss Orlando, a unique chance to see this fascinating film in Woolf’s Bloomsbury home. You can book your place in advance to save your seat.

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Zhanna Chenenk: studying theatre at Birkbeck

Moscow native and former MA Text and Performance student, Zhanna Chenenk reflects on her year at Birkbeck.

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I was looking for an MA in theatre. I was intrigued by the Text and Performance course thanks to its mix of academic and practical disciplines with the bonus of being able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Could you tell us about moving to London?

When I was sixteen I moved from my parents’ house in a small town close to Saint-Petersburg in Russia. That was a very stressful experience; a big city, a different culture, a huge distance (2000 kilometres) between myself and my family. Before coming to Birkbeck I had moved and travelled a lot and lived in many different cities, but it is still very hard to start from scratch in a new place. I arrived just before the course began and spent around a month searching for the right accommodation. I encountered many different people which was an interesting introduction to London life.

How was it coming to study at Birkbeck at first?

Before I applied for the course I met with a Birkbeck representative in Moscow to clarify some issues and later, when I was in London she took me on a tour of the campus and RADA. I liked the arts building as there is no logic to the room locations and you can easily find an empty space for a rehearsal.

Have you encountered any difficulties? How is the British system different from your country’s? Have you been to study skills sessions?

It was hard getting used to the British system, and once you’ve learned to cope with it, the year is over. Writing in a different language is a challenge in itself, but in addition this you are writing in many different ways; academic and narrative style, essays, scripts and portfolios. You even have to perform on stage in English – but I finally feel very comfortable using it. Now I feel it in my body. My program involved constant switching between practice and academic lessons and I wish I had more time to perfect everything.

What is it like living in London?

It took time getting used to London. Sometimes I loved it. I enjoyed wandering through the jungle of a city with my sketch book, but sometimes it was very oppressive. To escape these feelings, I travelled to new places like Berlin or Paris or Palestine, or even within the UK. I especially liked going to Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester! Most recently I discovered the Yorkshire Sculpture Park! The transport in London is also tricky to get used to and although I loved the poeticism of night buses, I hated using them during the day. Ultimately, opinions of cities are always built out of the opportunities that they give, and the connections you make. Not just the bricks and mortar which make it up.

Have you made friends on your course?

My course was international, so I’ve gained many connections across the world over the year. I participated in workshops and took on internships, so I’ve been able to build up my professional contacts to build a career upon.  London has been good to me. Whilst here I’ve met people who I have connected easily with. And even if some of them leave the UK soon I know that I have gained a wealth of friendships. I found my tribe here.

What has been your highlight of your time in London and at Birkbeck?

I would say that it has been good for me to review some of my personal values. Some of the things which were once important to me suddenly became very small. The same with my relationships; I revised all of them. I started to draw and take photos again. And I started writing. I found my experiences in London coming back to me in Berlin, when my friend asked me write a short story for his magazine. Thanks to the development of my language skills I was able to do this in in one morning and drew a picture to accompany it.

Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

I chose a practical path for my dissertation. For this I did a presentation – a 30-minute production and an 8000-word analytical portfolio. I chose to focus on women’s choices and the freedom to shape yourself as an artist. I have really enjoyed it, because I have had time to focus on one thing that I find interesting. It has also allowed me to make mistakes in the safety of an academic framework. I’m happy that I have had time to make these mistakes as they have taught me valuable lessons.

What are you doing since you completed your studies at Birkbeck?

I took on a thorough research tasks for my performance and now I have material to extend the performance into a trilogy. But, for now I am applying to take part in festivals for emerging directors with the presentation I created as a part of my dissertation. As for my other plans, details of these can be found in newspapers.

Further information:

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Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing gets a refresh

The Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing has begun a fresh phase in its distinguished history. Formerly the Department of English and Humanities, it is developing existing critical and creative strengths from the early middle ages to today.

We are proud of our bold research culture. Our work ranges from studies of foundational texts and subjects to new and emerging cultural forms, combining traditional approaches with explorative and speculative analyses from our research centres and networks including postgraduate-led initiatives.

Our historical and contemporary, creative and practice-led research engages with some of the most pressing questions of today including in relation to the environment, migration, race, gender and sexuality, medical, material and visual cultures, and new digital worlds.

We are excited to introduce a number of new courses and initiatives that complement and expand our established programmes in Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian, Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture, Critical and Cultural Studies, Theatre Studies and Creative Writing.

At undergraduate level we have updated the BA English, developing challenging core modules on Decolonising the Canon and Storytelling alongside options that reflect the full range of our research interests. We have opened up the joint BA English and BA Creative Writing programme to part-time students and radically reimagined our humanities provision, with a new BA Liberal Arts that provides access to modules from the arts, social sciences and law launching in 2020/21.

At postgraduate level we offer a new MA Critical and Creative Writing, which bridges the divide between these two popular yet often separately taught fields, and an MFA Creative Writing, which provides an exceptional opportunity for advanced writers to complete, a fully supported, major independent project.

We have furthermore remodelled our medical humanities provision, launching the MA Applied Medical Humanities aimed at practitioners, and an MA Medical Humanities: Bodies, Cultures and Ideas, which is co-delivered in an exciting cross-School collaboration with the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. In 2020-21 we will be offering for the first time a new MA Dramaturgy, an important theory and practice-based addition to our suite of programmes dedicated to the world of theatre-making.

We support an active doctoral community whose work spans and expands our research interests and expertise. The Department is part of CHASE, the AHRC-funded Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts in south-east England, and students regularly organise and participate in conferences, seminars, talks, reading groups, performances and exhibitions.

Students in the Department can take advantage of an extraordinary location right in the heart of Bloomsbury, in 43-46 Gordon Square, the childhood home of Virginia Woolf and later the residence of the famous economist Maynard Keynes. The Department is part of the School of Arts, and benefits from a state-of-the art cinema, a theatre and performance space, the Peltz Gallery and links with world-class cultural institutions such as the Globe Theatre, RADA, the ICA, the V&A and the British Museum. Our students have gone on to a wide range of careers in fields such as teaching, journalism and the creative industries.

If you want to find out more about the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing contact programme directors directly or get in touch with the Head of Department, Professor Heike Bauer h.bauer@bbk.ac.uk.

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Banksy comes to Port Talbot

Amanda Roderick, MA History of Art student at Birkbeck, discusses Season’s Greetings, the Banksy piece that appeared on a garage wall in Port Talbot late last year, and the wider context of a crisis in arts funding. 

This is possibly the first time that Port Talbot has made news on Birkbeck’s blog – although I note that included amongst Birkbeck’s impressive alumni is one Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party Prime Minster and MP for Aberavon in the 1920’s. Politics and connection to place are important in this story.

Last December, one week before Christmas, a striking image of what appeared to be a small boy enjoying the snow was discovered on a garage wall in Port Talbot. The site, a lane behind a row of early nineteenth century terraces in an area called Taibach (means ‘small house’ in Welsh), is sandwiched between the M4 and Tata Steelworks. Recognised and then confirmed as Banksy’s work within hours on his website and titled Seasons Greetings, it had his typical combination of hard-edged social commentary mixed with humour. In this instance, a small boy playfully sticking out his tongue with arms outstretched catching snow is bundled up for winter with coat, hat and scarf, complete with sledge at his feet. Only by turning the corner can the observer have a different reading – the flakes are not snow falling from the sky but ash blowing over the boy from what is either a burning bin or chimney. Subverting messages, questioning authority and creating political site-responsive work, is all familiar territory for Banksy. He’d played on Christmas before: in August 2005, he painted a series of images on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier erected by Israel, returning again in December 2007 with new images for ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ in Bethlehem.

Port Talbot is my home town. The site of the Banksy is on the street I grew up in, its lane is the route my sister and I took as a shortcut to school every day, where we played in the evenings, learnt to ride our bikes – and interestingly where bonfires were a regular occurrence. Visiting the Banksy was the Boxing Day walk for many families – mine included – and the security staff in place there (paid for by the actor Michael Sheen who is also from Port Talbot) informed us that in the days leading up to Christmas alone, there had been around 2,000 visitors to this small lane, causing traffic chaos and security issues (the number of visitors apparently rose to a grand total of over 10,000). The guard also confirmed the stories of various attempts at vandalism and concerns that the work would be damaged, stolen or destroyed by those wishing to own a small piece. Life, news and the art world have moved on since then of course; the work has been purchased for an ‘undisclosed six figure sum’ which will be paid to the owner of the garage, a local man. John Brandler, art dealer, street art expert and collector of Banksy’s work, was the buyer; he, promised that it would remain in Port Talbot for two to three years but insisted it be relocated somewhere else in the town for protection: ‘The piece has a relevance with the surroundings. It is important for me to keep it in the town as art is very often specific to a place, especially street art. The piece conveys what Banksy is about – it has a social message and it doesn’t matter where you are. It is about global pollution. We are creating an environment in the planet that will wipe us out.’ He makes very pertinent points, importantly highlighting pollution – the dangerously high levels of pollution must be recognised as amongst the most damaging in the UK. It cannot however be attributed the steelworks alone. The fact that a motorway cuts through densely populated areas must also be considered. Apparently somehow ‘improving’ in recent years, in 1983 it was reported that the town was the most polluted place in Wales and the most polluted in the United Kingdom outside London – only Marylebone Road and Camden had higher levels. There is also no doubt about the level of support, enthusiasm and pride in the town. Cottage industries have popped up selling merchandise; Banksy’s work on mugs, key-rings, t-shirts and bags, with one man having the image tattooed across his chest! Questions have therefore arisen around ownership, copyright, intellectual property – and what it will mean if/when the work is placed in another environment or different context of a gallery/public venue. All are provocations which of course is what Banksy wants.

It’s worth pointing out that Port Talbot was already on the cultural map before the new Banksy appeared. The school mentioned earlier was also the primary school Anthony Hopkins attended and for a time, the young Richard Burton lived a few hundred metres away in that same street, also attending the comprehensive school in the town. Michael Sheen’s 2011 promenade performance The Passion, produced by The National Theatre Wales, used a biblical account to tell a contemporary story of the town’s social history and the destruction of homes there to build the M4. Significantly, the two largest cultural events to take place in Port Talbot over the last decade – Sheen’s performance and the appearance of the Banksy – existed outside of any fixed or ‘physical’ venue and attracted audience numbers estimated in the tens of thousands, proving there is a need for what the arts can bring – and that engagement with the arts is a natural instinct and could not be stronger. This is despite the town not having any arts venue at all and very little provision for such activity – but lots of potential. Bristol, Banksy’s hometown, is a city where street art has been used to regenerate an area but there are examples closer to home in Cardiff and Swansea where the street art group Pure Evil has already been commissioned.

One new home being suggested for the Banksy work once it’s removed from the garage wall is the site of an old police station centrally based opposite Port Talbot Railway Station. Recently developed by social housing group Pobl (translates as ‘people’ in Welsh) the £4m development has flats on the top three floors and would provide the visibility, space, protection and accessibility required with its large glass windows facing onto the street, on the ground floor. Brandler has said he would be prepared to show some of his personal Banksy collection there, adding that he was also interested in developing education and participation opportunities with groups in and around the town, proposing a ‘street art school together with a cafe run by people who were homeless or unemployed’. At a time when the Welsh Government is undertaking a consultation process regarding the site of proposed new modern art gallery in Wales, Port Talbot council must surely be hoping this boosts its chances. For now, Port Talbot joins the list of international locations and institutions in providing a home to prized Banksy work. It follows a flurry of Banksy news in recent weeks. His fake £10 banknote depicting Diana, Princess of Wales named Di-faced Tenner, joined the British Museums collection of coins, medals and other currency in February 2019; Love is in the Bin, the self shredding work memorably auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2018 and a poignant artwork on the fire door at the Bataclan theatre in Paris thought to be Banksy’s homage to the 90 victims who died in a terrorist attack on the venue in November 2015 has been stolen.

As I write this, three new murals have appeared on walls in Port Talbot, which are not Banksy’s. They depict Lego mini-figures, all referencing the Banksy piece: its sale and removal and its critique of pollution. The artist responsible, who goes under the name Ame72 and is also known as ‘the Lego guy’, has confirmed that the three pieces are his work. For Brandler, this is exactly what is needed; ‘By using the Banksy to bring other interesting pieces into the town, I want to make Port Talbot the go-to place for street art in the UK’. He continues; ‘Ame72 is an up-and-coming artist, well known and well-respected within that sphere and the first one to come to the town – he would not have come here without the Banksy. I want to bring Blek Le [a French graffiti artist that inspired Banksy], Pure Evil and Damien Hirst. Internationally known artists will come if we give them Banksy. This is just the starting point; the more you have got, the more people will come’

Ame72 Lego Mural, Feb 2019. Taibach Rugby Club, Commercial Rd, Port Talbot.

There is a very important backstory here however and Brandler through his patronage perhaps unintentionally foregrounds the crisis that now looms. The danger for Port Talbot is that all the excitement generated by the media will fade and, as with other areas across Wales, these rare moments of inspiration and opportunity are rarely appreciated and acted upon by the Local Authority and Welsh Government. Without the philanthropy we have witnessed here, it is difficult to envisage how artists and small regional arts organisations will thrive and survive as public funding rapidly dwindles. The UK is fast approaching the US model of reliance on private and charitable funding – a strong tradition there, its infrastructures are built up over many generations where money is usually raised by wealthy Board members and Trustees. The encouragement of similar ‘business’ models in Wales has been a brutal transition into a different kind of dependency and one not easy to achieve, especially in the poorer regions or inner cities of Wales and England. Here there can often be little or no track record, resources or economic success related to individual giving and corporate sponsorship.  An arts venue in Port Talbot off the back of the Banksy would be hugely beneficial but the reality is that any new or ‘redeveloped’ space for showing or producing art, would come with unaffordable rents, overheads and often insufficient budget allocation to pay its artists and staff properly. It would, like, increasingly, the NHS and many school classrooms, be reliant on volunteers for many front of house staffing and operating responsibilities.

Secondly, there is a question as to whether urban graffiti is the only kind of art that can now be truly accessible, affordable and popular in some areas. It does not require a building but will it always need to be covered with ugly protective screens and fencing (as is the Port Talbot Banksy). What of the emerging, local artists, the art students and grassroot collectives? How and where will they make their art, who will pay to see it, buy – and how will it be collected, maintained and archived for the future?

Banksy has been labelled a Situationist, and ‘part graffiti artist, part windup prankster’. In Port Talbot he has created a timely metaphor to shine a light on the town and through his art, re-opened and reignited excitement and creative discussion amongst its inhabitants across class and generation – appealing to all those who identify with notions of self-expression and the spirit of rebellion that he represents. He has also reminded us, in case we needed it, of the dereliction of duty towards arts and culture (and other public services) by the current government ideology of austerity – the repercussions of which are manifested in cost-cutting exercises by regional authorities across Britain. How this impacts the next generation of artists and museum visitors and collections we will see. The final word goes to London-based Welshman, Iain Sinclair who refers to Banksy in his thoughts and writings on an urban walk through Hackney;

There is now a fascinating interzone where a guerrilla street artist like the character known as Banksy is collected and patronized by Hollywood stars. Stencils and strategic cartoons are either destroyed as acts of public vandalism or endorsed by changing hands for huge amounts of money. And you have to argue over the fabric of the city as to whether this is the art the authorities want to sponsor (as they have done in St Leonards-on-Sea, by immediately sealing a Banksy paint job under perspex); or whether, in some way, these interventions should remain an encrypted secret. We live in a society avid for gathering up anything that seems to have spirit; anything that is dangerous can be captured and converted into a form of energy. Which is also wealth, money and credit.

All images and John Brandler quotes courtesy of Wales Online & BBC Wales.

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Changing Titles – arriving at ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind’

MA Creative Writing alumna Deirdre Shanahan, discusses how her degree helped her refine her skills in fiction writing and bring her characters to life, as her debut novel Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind is published. 

The reality of publishing a novel came forcibly to me in Oxford Street when I was Xmas shopping.  I had an email from my publisher saying they felt the title suggested the novel to be sci-fi. Having lived with the title for years and never thinking of it in this way, I was surprised but since the novel was not sci-fi or anything like it, I knew the publishers were speaking from a sense of how it would appear to any potential reader. They asked if I could think of another title. Changing felt as though it would be quite a wrench but I did not want to confuse potential readers – I didn’t want to lose any! So I accepted their professional judgement. Assuming I would not be able to come up with any other title, I  finally thought of about a half a dozen others and thankfully the one I liked most was agreed upon –  ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind.’ I am grateful the publishers alerted me to the possibility of confusion over titles, and for lots of reasons I like the final choice probably more than its original. I like the idea of- ‘caravan,’ from the Persian and all it suggests of journey and movement; a trail of people following one another and the way we have adopted it. I also like the other stolid words – from Old English,  clearly stating what I think are some of the themes.  The combination of these two languages,  what they suggest  in  a blend of culture and traditions – how we negotiate between differences is  a central focus of the novel.

Having to re-adjust to look at my own words in a public context, after all, is what publishing means. I knew this, having published short stories both here and in the USA, but not in terms of a novel. The MA in Creative Writing’s workshops provided a forum to share work and develop skills in fiction. We gave and received constructive criticism and learnt to appreciate and accept other genres, other kinds of writing.

Although I had written this novel and undertaken some drafts before the MA, I did not know what I had in terms of a sustaining narrative or characters and whether the novel overall would work- would it hold a reader. Would these people I had created be of interest to anyone else?  I was able to discover all this and more – discuss challenges, characters, constructing a narrative. Through the MA workshops, I was able to refine what I had already achieved.  Of course only a small part of the novel could be work-shopped but from the feedback I was better equipped and able to gauge how much I had achieved and how I needed to work on the rest.

The novel is about Eva an Irish traveller who returns to Ireland to try to reconnect with her daughter Caitlin who she left there years before. She takes her son Torin  as he is implicated in a stabbing and we follow the engtanglement of Torin and Caitlin as they try to negotiate their relationship in the  aftermath of  Eva’s actions. The novel looks at notions of family and flight, belonging and secrets and their unravelling, notions of displacement between rural and city environments. It is about the turmoil and dissonance that can occur when there is a rupture between living in one of the two places and having to form a new life elsewhere.

Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind will be published May 2019 with paperback and hardback available from Bluemoose Books.

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