All the World’s a Stage: Musings of a Globe Theatre intern

This post was contributed by Eva-Maria Lauenstein graduate MA Renaissance Studies student at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. As part of her programme, Eva-Maria carried out an internship with the education team at The Globe Theatre on London’s south bank. Here she describes the experience

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London - Copy

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London – Copy

The ‘Theatre of the World’, writes Frances Yates, ‘is the “Idea” of the Globe Theatre.’[i] Epitomised in its emblem of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, to this day the Globe typifies this view of the multivalence of theatre according to its motto, totus mundus agit histrionem; ‘All the world’s a stage’. This maxim doesn’t merely encapsulate the side of the theatre that visitors experience on a daily basis, but equally the vibrant atmosphere of the world behind the stage.

Working for five months with the education team at the Globe as a research intern has been illuminating, not least because of the moments of wonder passing the boxes and racks of props, and observing the electrifying enthusiasm of the actors as they pour in and out of rehearsals and performances. From writing synopses for almost forgotten plays for the Globe’s Read not Dead performances, to the challenge of unearthing how, precisely, a shepherd of the early modern period passed his day, the internship was a journey of fascinating discoveries that was a pleasure for a theatre lover, but also entailed many opportunities to gain a plethora of new research skills and methods.

 

Henry Singleton - Ariel on a Bat's Back - Google Art Project

Ariel on a Bat’s Back, c. 1819, oil on canvas, 1003 x 1257 mm, Tate Collection, Henry Singleton

Tackling Shakespeare’s more divisive plays

With artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s final season coming to an end, the winter season’s performances equally mirrored the end of an era by taking on some of Shakespeare’s last plays. The internship allowed me to be part of the encounter with plays that have often baffled and divided critics, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Tracing the romantic air of the pastoral elements of The Winter’s Tale, I particularly enjoyed discovering the role of women in rural communities and how the utopian and romanticised image of the country maid of the stage compared to the harsh and difficult life of poorly regulated wage labour. Equally fascinating was the compilation of a research document on the way in which The Tempest’s Ariel was understood by contemporary viewers as a larger part of a community of the spirit world, delving deeply into the magic, the occult and the otherworldly.

A great way to hone research skills, the internship allows for experimentation with different sources, especially through its invaluable on-site archive and library. The variety of tasks meant that every week posed new challenges and the working to often tight deadlines a good way to pace and structure the work.

John Massey Wright's painting of The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

John Massey Wright, The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

While research into the nature of the plays dominated most of the work, there was equally ample opportunity to build on research skill sets by compiling press reviews and contributing to the collation of material for the website. While some tasks may have seemed daunting at first, the team was always friendly and helpful and fostered an environment of teamwork.

Finally, some of the most fun moments came with a much-needed refresher on the invigorating oddity that was part and parcel of early modern theatre. Assisting in the writing of a blog entry on The Winter’s Tale’s now notorious Exit Pursued by a Bear stage direction, I rediscovered the way in which Shakespeare, to this day, contains unexpected twists and turns that still manage to baffle, frighten and allow audiences to guffaw in an explosion of slapstick-induced comedy. Just so, this research internship has given me unexpected and insightful moments that will continue to inspire my research

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[i] As quoted in Kent T. Van den Berg, Playhouse and Cosmos: Shakespearean Theatre as Metaphor (London: Associated University Presses, 1985), p. 45.

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Notes from an intern at the Guildhall Art Gallery

This post was contributed by Fiona Ratcliffe, who is currently studying for an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Here Fiona writes about her internship experience at the Guildhall art Gallery from January to March 2016.

The internship was carried out as a module on the MA programme – a popular element of the course in which successful students have the opportunity to spend a term working with one of London’s Victorian cultural institutions, gaining first-hand experience of working in the cultural sector and using their host institution’s archives to develop a unique research project. Previous interns have worked with the Dickens House Museum, and the Salvation Army Heritage Centre and Archive.

Guildhall Small Size-4Day One

Having cleared Security (a permanent fixture at galleries today), I meet the small, industrious team behind the scenes at the Guildhall Art Gallery – Katty (Curator), Andrew (responsible for the Roman Amphitheatre) and Jeremy who, as General Manager, handles the practical running of the Gallery.

Katty warns that finding desk (and computer) space is a constant challenge and I will inevitably have a variety of work-places, including perched in a corner of the small shop, gaining an insight into that essential income-generator for museums.

My first task is to familiarise myself with the preparations for the forthcoming exhibition, Victorians Decoded, opening in September. This exhibition will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the successful Transatlantic telegraphic cable-laying, demonstrating how artists subsequently re-imagined time and space, responding to their changing world.

In addition to artworks from the Gallery’s collection, five loans have been requested from other institutions. So far, the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery has confirmed the loan of Edward Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes with the stipulation of a T-Crate for transportation – leading to challenges of storing the crate, space being at a premium here.

Early Weeks

Switching tasks (a constant theme ensuring plenty of variety), I am asked to prepare visitor-friendly information on the ‘Fire Judges’ for a Museum of London exhibition on the Great Fire. This involves circumnavigating the archives – a tiny cupboard space – to research the portraits of the judges who processed property and boundary claims prior to rebuilding the City.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery

The Gallery is delightfully intimate and peaceful but being within the City’s municipal building, the Corporation’s civic presence is constantly apparent – particularly when the whole building goes into ‘total shut down’ (a security measure) while The Sun hosts The Millies, an awards ceremony commending military bravery, and I realise I may not be able to leave or return at lunchtime. In my haste to get a sandwich, I bump into Rod Stewart, Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson – as a friend asked later, “What sort of gallery is this?”

It’s time for the de-installation of the exhibition “No Colour Bar”. Paintings are shrink-wrapped and swiftly taken through a side-exit by a specialist removal firm – with Katty’s eyes on every move whilst the door is temporarily de-alarmed.

Katty explains that loaned artworks are covered by ‘Nail to Nail’ insurance with the borrowing gallery insuring the painting for loss or damage for the duration. Surprisingly, the borrower also funds and organises any requisite conservation or frame refurbishment.

Exhibitions have astonishingly lengthy lead-times and London galleries are currently collaborating on exhibitions up to 2023 – including a London-themed one for which I am asked to source suitable artworks from the collection database. The remit is not just Victorian art, which is refreshing, but does lead to ‘St. Paul’s overload’.

In Week 3, Sonia (the Principal Curator) departs on maternity leave and we join the Conservation team for her farewell tea-party. Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata aloofly surveys us tucking into cake, and I notice just how exposed a painting appears without its frame. Excitingly up close to the brushstrokes, I am shown various tears and some ‘tenting’ where it has lifted from the canvas.

Middle Weeks

A memorable day! I join the planning meeting for Victorians Decoded and am asked to help with research in preparation for exhibit captions – a steep lesson in brevity. I’m struck during the meeting how much events-planning and budget control predominates – along with the logistics underpinning the positioning of cables and procurement of objects such as a telegraph machine. We didn’t discuss the art at all!

Heading towards spring, the gallery is becoming busier, visited by schools, interest-groups and individuals, many joining the in-house talks. One of the guides tells me that she’s a retired City financial journalist and had looked for voluntary work but could only find weeding in Epping Forest, so just called in at the gallery and was welcomed as a guide. Her groups are usually small and it often turns into a two-way exchange so she’s continually learning too.

In five years, footfall has increased from 30,000 to 100,000, reflecting a widening demographic – younger, international with rising tourism in the City, and also more Londoners increasingly culture-seeking in their own city. Exhibitions are vital – a way for a lesser-known gallery to achieve publicity, although a recurring tension between free access and charging for exhibitions persists.

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re surveying the new Robin Reynolds’ 2016 artwork of London commissioned by the Gallery to hang next to Visscher’s 1616 cityscape. As a commemoration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Reynolds has incorporated references to all 37 plays but we’re not here trying to identify them. Unfortunately, the canvas is ‘bulking’ where the artist has tried to fix a central rip, at eye level. The conservators arrive, armed with various canisters, but are unable to do a quick fix –it will have to be dismantled, repaired and re-framed as quickly as possible by this time-pressed team.

Final Week

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Another exhibition, Martin Parr – Unseen City, begins and there is a flurry of media activity. Katty’s role requires multiple skills – preparing speeches for opening nights, coordinating hanging and lighting, and dealing with both the press and the local authority the Gallery belongs to, who approve the exhibitions but may still express criticisms with the outcome.

Preparations are escalating for Victorians Decoded, with the room layout established six months ahead. A balancing-act is required to ensure the technical aspects of telegraphy are comprehensible, whilst providing substance for visitors specialising in art and science. A subsequent challenge will be to fill the spaces in the permanent collection where paintings have moved to the exhibition. Katty describes it as a four-dimensional puzzle: satisfying the aesthetic, chronological & contextual, scale & size, and overall fit.

On my last day, Katty gives visiting VIPs a private viewing of two Pre-Raphaelite artworks held in store – Millais’ sketch of Lorenzo and Isabella (being watercolour the picture can’t be regularly exposed to UV for long periods of time, which precludes it from being on permanent display) and charcoal drawings from Holman Hunt’s sketchbook. Both the guests and I feel utter wonder at having access to these hidden gems – a true privilege of working behind the scenes in this very special gallery.

The internship has altered my perception of artworks and I’m now far more aware of their vulnerability. Visiting an exhibition will never be the same again, having witnessed the in-depth forward-planning and bustle behind the scenes. Ultimately, however, the experience has opened up new avenues and inspired me to pursue research opportunities with galleries after graduation.

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Dickensian delight: Our ‘serial’ fascination with the afterlife of Charles’s characters

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

BBC drama Dickensian (image copyright Premier)

Is there a word for that familiar feeling of sadness or melancholia that accompanies finishing a novel? Perhaps there is a ferociously lengthy compound noun in German, or an elegant Japanese word with multiple, elusive meanings that can’t be fully encompassed by a solitary English word. A quick, unscientific search on Google reveals fascinating discussions on sites such as reddit about this emotional state and the various words that might describe it: sadness, ennui, nostalgia, regret, catharsis, homesickness, mourning, separation anxiety, and the delightful but somewhat toxic sounding ‘book hangover’.

Another suggestion is the term ‘limerance’, used in psychoanalytic theory to describe an invasive sexual and emotional obsession with a person or object – an infatuation or crush, in more demotic idiom. This feels a little too histrionic for such a quiet, fleeting but pervasive feeling. Imagining a curiously powerful parental bond, Dickens described David Copperfield as his ‘favourite child’, which suggests the intense feelings of attachment readers (and writers) can develop for fictional creations.

Do Dickens’s books deliver more noxious ‘book hangovers’? After all, Dickens was keen throughout his writing career to evoke feeling in his readers, meaning that his forceful use of sentimentality and melodrama, to induce laughter and tears in rapid succession (what Dickens described as his ‘streaky bacon’ approach), might be regarded as a particularly heady and intoxicating form of emotional pummelling. Dickens’s work provokes powerful feelings and his readers are famous for their attachment to the author and to his works. Dickens’s sentimental mode entices, coaxes and even coerces us to be affected by its depictions; it is a form of aesthetic and imaginative self-projection. Indeed, the shared, collective experience of feeling is what often brings us together as a community of Dickens enthusiasts.

It is also worth remembering that Dickens’s original readers would have encountered multiple hiatuses, as they read the novels serially in weekly or monthly instalments, which may have provoked feelings of frustration, anticipation, excitement and longing. A novel’s plot may be thrillingly propulsive, providing a forward momentum that, when halted, generates an exasperated thirst to traverse the ‘empty’ space in-between as quickly as possible. These manifold mini or false endings – which sometimes took the form of cliffhangers, but were more often simply breaks in the narrative – are similar to the final ending of the novel, in that they represent spaces that evoke fantasy and speculation. Just as the serialised instalments represent only temporary cessations that are potentially bridged by longing-filled fantasy, the end of a Dickens novel may similarly rouse imaginative speculation and fancy about the afterlives of the characters.

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

A scene from BBC drama Dickensian, featuring Stephen Rea in the role of Inspector Bucket (image copyright Premier)

Adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging

Dickens was himself no stranger to this phenomenon. The exceptional success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, serialised in 1836–37, stimulated a veritable industry of adaptations, pastiches, rip-offs and continuations. One of the most famous was Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France (1837–38) by George W. M. Reynolds, a hugely successful radical journalist Dickens intensely disliked. In this decidedly rough and ready sequel, the Pickwick Club ventures into France, where crass national stereotypes and risqué adventures abound. In an era before copyright law – for which he campaigned vociferously – Dickens witnessed the multiple imaginative afterlives of his stories and characters on stage and in unlicensed prequels and sequels.

There was also a bustling trade in Dickensian souvenirs featuring his characters, including illustrations, porcelain figures, china plates, Toby jugs, keepsake boxes, and miscellaneous other household items and collectibles. Interestingly, in his short-lived journal Master Humphrey’s Clock, which he wrote and edited alone between 1840 and 1841, Dickens acknowledged and indulged readers’ desire for afterlives and new adventures for their favourite characters by reintroducing the hugely popular Mr Pickwick and Samuel Weller. We can also sense in Dickens himself the irresistible urge to resurrect characters he evidently longed to spend time with again – just as many of his readers did.

A digital Dickens afterlife

More recently, Birkbeck’s inventive and successful Twitter retelling of Our Mutual Friend, which saw dozens of people tweet as characters in this multitudinous novel, provided an outlet for Dickens readers to reengage with, and extend the afterlives of, their favourite characters. Many tweeters were unafraid to present their characters in decidedly modern, updated terms, which meant that, while the novel’s plot remained essentially the same, many characters took on new aspects, had new adventures and relationships, and occupied more imaginative space than in the original work.

At the most recent Dickens Day (October 2015), Professor Holly Furneaux, an alumna of Birkbeck who is now based at the University of Cardiff, delivered a fascinating paper on Dickensian fan fiction online, which is forging communities and providing avenues for original, and even erotic, (re)engagements with popular Dickensian characters. Furneaux demonstrated the particular popularity of the triangular relationship between Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, which many online Dickens fan fiction writers reimagined more capaciously, with space within Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage for Mortimer.

Dickensian ­– Goading the stuffy old gatekeepers

Given the powerful attachment of Dickens’s readers to his works and the long history of adaptation, reimagining, pastiche and outright bootlegging of Dickens’s work, Tony Jordan’s Dickensian feels less of an oddity or a provocation than it may first appear. In this twenty-part TV serial, we enter a fantasy Victorian world, in which many of Dickens’s characters, from several of the novels, coexist. Thus, Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1852–53) is investigating the demise of Jacob Marley (A Christmas Carol, 1843), with the forensic assistance of Mr Venus (Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65). Accompanying these fantastic mash-ups is Jordan’s reimagining of backstories and subplots in the novels; thus, Honoria Barbary is embarking upon a relationship with Captain James Hawdon that readers of Bleak House know is doomed. And in a delightful nod to the queer affiliations that Professor Furneaux has observed in online fan fiction and other literary and non-literary sources, Arthur Havisham is hopelessly in love with Meriwether Compeyson, the dastardly seducer he has appointed to marry and defraud his sister, Amelia (who will become the bitter, decrepit Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, 1860–61). The first episode of Dickensian thus presented a delightful, uncanny guessing game, as Dickens fan scrambled to identify all of the characters and connect them to their extant stories within the novels.

Jordan himself is keen to present his work as goading the stuffy old gatekeepers of Dickens’s legacy, irreverently insisting in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that ‘he knew the changes risked “p––ing off the Dickens community”’. In actuality, Jordan’s work taps into a rich seam of readerly fantasy about Dickens imaginative worlds that has been amply mined by authors, playwrights, filmmakers and TV executives. Furthermore, the intense relationship between Dickens and his readers, and the love and affection readers have felt, and continue to feel, for Dickens, his fictional world and the people who inhabit it, have all been objects of intense scholarly scrutiny and analysis.

Dickens Gurney head

Charles Dickens – By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is a truism that all Dickens fans and scholars inevitably encounter that, ‘Were Dickens alive today, he would write for a soap opera’. Jordan, who famously wrote for Eastenders (and less famously, for the slated, 90s camp classic Eldorado), has been keen to emphasise that Dickens’s serialised fiction prefigured the episodic melodrama of the contemporary soap opera. In a recent interview with The Big Issue, Jordan observes that,

“People can be far too reverential. We mustn’t forget that Dickens was a populist writer who wrote for the masses. He wrote episodically, trying to flog magazines every month. He was sensationalist and did cliffhangers way before soap operas. He and Wilkie Collins said their secret was to make them cry, make them laugh and make them wait. That is everything I did in my EastEnders career. It is that deferment of gratification.”

The originality of Dickensian lies in its audacious bringing together of numerous characters at once, but one of the impulses that has powered this – the desire to make characters live again and to imagine them into new aspects, new stories and new worlds – accompanied Dickens’s fiction from its earliest moments. In the spaces in-between and after instalments, we find that readers’ emotional engagement births alternative and new stories, trajectories and lives that all demonstrate the enduring power of Dickens’s fiction.

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Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

This post was contributed by Prof Anthony Bale, who teaches on the MA Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This article was originally posted on the Material Texts Network on October 30 2015

When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.

Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.

This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.

It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to image3discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.

The books are:

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)
Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)

The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.

MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.

MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententaie Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.

Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.

Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)
Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).

The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.

NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.

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“You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten”: Benjamin Wood on writing The Ecliptic

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

The EclipticIn Benjamin Wood’s second novel, The Ecliptic, we delve into the story of Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy, a passionate, though somewhat lost, painter. Her desperate pursuit of truth and capturing it in her creations leads her to flee the commercialised 1970s London art scene. Refuge awaits off the coast of Istanbul in the form of Portmantle — the secret retreat on the island of Heybeliada which houses an eclectic group of creatives, from painters to architects and writers.

Will Ellie reconnect with her muse? What exactly was she fleeing from? And is this Turkish haven really everything she thought it would be? All come to light in Benjamin’s book, a fascinating journey into the mind of a passionate artist and her quest for creative authenticity.

The frequently thrilling and consistently moving story was sparked by Benjamin’s own experiences in Istanbul during a three-month artist-in-residence cultural exchange programme which the 34-year-old, Southport-raised writer was selected for by the British Council. Set up with an apartment in Istanbul for the duration, he was handed a simple mission: explore.

Here, the senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, discusses his Turkish adventure, crafting his novel, and the pursuit of authenticity in art.

Hi Benjamin. How was the Istanbul experience?

I was so absorbed by it. There’s something about the city itself­ — it’s a meeting place of continents, and it has an innate sense of history, but equally there’s a certain manner to the people there that I enjoyed. It was quite a levelling experience. I felt that there was a frenetic energy to the city, but also an astounding natural beauty. I could wander alone and feel quite a part of things even though it was a different culture from the one I grew up in. But actually, I don’t know if it was the people or the landscape that I found most inspiring. I think it was going back and forth from the mainland to the islands on the ferry that gave me the strongest connection to the place.

That’s where the idea for the book really came to mind, wasn’t it? What sparked it?

It was visiting the island, Heybeliada, and discovering that a Turkish author Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar had lived and worked there. That set my creative head spinning, wondering about the possibilities of how far I could extend this idea of a reclusive artist at work on the island, and how I could use the landscape to hypnotise the reader.

In the book you go into beautiful detail about the process of painting and creating art in general. I believe you went to art college for a while in your youth, but beyond that, what research was involved?

A mix of book learning, extrapolation and some imaginative projection, I suppose. A lot of the stuff about Ellie wandering around Paddington with her sketch book is something I do as a writer. If I’m looking to write about somewhere, I go there and try to memorise the scene and convey that in language — these are things a painter does, it’s just that my medium is different.

How did you come to flesh out the central character, Ellie?

I tend to read a lot of life stories of artists or creative people who I find inspiring. With this, I was reading about Alasdair Gray and Francis Bacon and John Craxton. I tried to find ways to appropriate elements of their lives and create a viable character of my own.

I try to build a character out of found materials and my own personal reflections, to mould them into something that’s believable and authentic — as authentic as fiction can be, anyway.

Ellie goes through some very dark times. Do your characters take you down a dark path personally when you’re writing them?

I tend to be drawn to characters that are solitary and autodidactic, and who feel both compelled towards the world they inhabit, but also repelled by that world too. My characters tend to be only children with few friends who have a very active interior life.

It does make you go to places you wouldn’t wish to go to in your own life, but when you imagine your character in situations like that, it’s one of the most affecting things you can do. You really feel like you’ve been there yourself and, even though you haven’t experienced that particular thing, somewhere you have access to the truth of what it feels like. I’m not saying there aren’t inconsistencies, but when you go into that inner darkness of the character, you realise that it exists in you as well.

Does it feel cathartic?

Yes, it’s saved me a ton in therapy. (Laughs) I’ve always been an aggressively creative person. I think it’s because I work out so much of my anguish that way.

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

Do you miss the characters once the book is finished?

I miss being in their headspace. It’s an odd thing, because they’re always with you, in a way, but equally you move on to the next project. It’s like being an actor going from one role to the next; you give up so much of yourself to get it on the page, but the character gives you so much in return. But you forget so much of them as soon as you send off the draft. You have to do that otherwise you would go completely mad.

There’s a flushing out process in between novels when you need a year — well, I need a year — to get over the last one and ruminate on the next one and find the right voice.

When doing her best work, Ellie becomes completely absorbed in her work and time seems to stand still. Do you crave those moments in your own writing?

Yes! You reach this plane of consciousness where you’re not aware you are writing and creating. You’re just in this…it’s like when you look at a heat shimmer on a hot day. It’s like that shimmer is all around you. Those moments come rarely, so when they come to you, you go until you are exhausted.

You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten. You come out of it and suddenly you’re hungry, then you look back and you have written 5,000 words. Those days rarely come at the beginning, they tend to come at the end when everything is coalescing and words just seem to flow.

It’s a physical rapture that you feel when it’s going absolutely as well as it can. And those moments usually need the least amount of retouching afterwards. Because it’s like the tap has opened up and it’s clear water rushing out.

Benjamin Wood (photo credit Nicholas Wood)What’s next for you?

I’m writing my next novel. I’ve got the research behind me now, and I’m entering the writing stage. I’m in the foothills of the thing. Actually the thing that takes me the longest isn’t the writing; it’s all the formulation of the character and finding the voice. It takes a long time to find the right framework and the right voice to it all. Once I’ve got that, it gets much easier to commit the words to the page.

How do you find striking a balance between writing and your teaching work?

It can be exhausting but you learn to manage. I tend to be a ‘compartmentaliser’ anyway, so when I’m at Birkbeck I’m doing Birkbeck stuff, and the days which I’m allotted for research are my writing days and nothing really interrupts them.

I also find that I get into a bit of a funk when I’m not teaching and I’m solely working on a novel. Teaching keeps me in the real world, and gives me purpose beyond churning out a creative project. I find I bounce off the energy of this place.

I find teaching really rewarding. It allows me to think about my own craft continuously, to look at the work of great writers and see how their stories function. You’re teaching yourself as much as you’re teaching others.

The Ecliptic is available now in hardback and Kindle. His first novel, The Bellwether Revivals is also available across print and digital formats

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TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

This post was contributed by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on Dr Eve’s personal blog on Wed 9 September. It was then reblogged by Times Higher Education.

Jo_Johnson_at_British_Museum

Universities minister, Jo Johnson

I feel fairly drained today reading the speech given by the minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson.

The inferences I make about the speech are that:

  1. There’s a massive coming wave of shake-ups to HE finance, both research and teaching, implemented through a Teaching Excellence Framework
  2. Critiques of the REF have backfired as they are used in a deft rhetorical move to cut state funding for research through QR

This is all just my reading of the speech. It doesn’t represent my employer’s views and it is speculative.

On TEF

Even while decrying REF as “bureaucratic and burdensome to academics”, Jo Johnson wants a TEF. There’s so much talk of “deregulation” in the speech, even while the crux of it is to introduce a massive top-down regulatory mechanism. The core of TEF is financial, though, regardless of what Johnson says about “teaching quality”. It is to be incentivized by allowing institutions to raise their tuition fees:

there will be financial incentives behind the TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation

Another way of putting this is from the flip side: there will be real-term cuts to the funding of institutions that do not fare well under this system. Since assessment will presumably be relative from a single budgetary pot, this is a zero-sum game in which some universities are to be slowly de-funded.

There’s also the problem of private providers for the government. These were fairly disastrous before. TEF gives a way to control this expansion, though. It seems that the government wants to decouple fee increases from social mobility while at the same time controlling the expansion of private provision according to teaching metrics. The end point looks likely to be to cut all public support for teaching outside the fee loan system and to squeeze the loan system to drive up competition (while getting rid of social mobility regulators like OFFA). Lots of universities won’t survive that kind of move, but will be replaced by new teaching providers.

On REF and Research Councils

The current modelled spending cuts in BIS are unlikely to leave research funding untouched. The Minister for HE used a deft rhetorical elision to couple academics’ critiques of the REF with removal of state funding for teaching and research:

“To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture. […] Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers. […] It is also clear to me that there are many in the sector demanding a process for assessing the quality of scholarly output that is less bureaucratic and burdensome to academics.”

These critiques, of course, were of REF as a reductive quantifying procedure. They were not meant to justify the removal of QR, just the removal of the process by which it was assigned. Be careful what you wish for. REF was the way that QR was saved. Regardless of whether you like REF or not (I hate the procedure, but want universities to continue to receive state funding for research), QR gives institutions the freedom to allow their researchers and teachers to fulfil both roles. It is naive to think that this government would continue to fund universities in this way without a procedure like REF. So, I don’t like REF, but I accept it as the pragmatic/political compromise negotiated with a centre-right government to continue funding. This is my view of a messy political compromise, not my pure ideal.

The problem is that there are now several different ideologies competing here and the government must weigh its alleigance to each before deciding what route to pursue to achieve its aims. While Johnson says that he is “committed to the maintenance of dual funding support”, i.e. Research Councils and QR, something has to give. So, the ideologies competing are:

  1. An ideology of cost-effectiveness
  2. An ideology of deregulation
  3. An ideology of strategy

REF/QR is cost-effective compared to the Research Councils:

The REF assessed the outputs and impact of HEI research supported by many types of funders. In the context of £27bn total research income from public sources in the UK over a six-year period, the £246M total cost for REF 2014 is less than 1%. In the context of dual support, the total cost amounts to roughly 2.4% of the £10.2 billion in research funds expected to be distributed by the UK’s funding bodies in the six years, 2015-16 to 2020-21. This compares with an estimate of the annual cost to the UK HE community for peer review of grant applications of around £196M or around 6% of the funds distributed by the Research Councils.

So there’s a drive to maintain REF and QR for cost effectiveness.

But REF/QR has been massively slammed by academics as “bureaucratic and burdensome”, so it doesn’t fit the ideology of deregulation (however contradictory). Furthermore, REF/QR can’t be directed, as can Research Council funding; institutions can spend it on whatever research projects they like.

So the government has to work out what it really wants. If there is to be state funding for research, does it value a cost-effective route (REF.); a de-regulated route (maybe Research Councils? Or just cut REF but keep QR? Yeah, right.); or a route that it can control (Research Councils)?

Finally, the Research Council rejection rate is massive. Only a small number of applications go through. If we’re all forced to apply for funding via this route because there is no QR, then this will get even worse. Research funding will only be available at a very small number of places as concentration rises. This protects the golden triangle while exposing everyone else.

In conclusion

Johnson said, in his speech, that he has “no target for the ‘right’ size of the higher education system”. However, we can infer from this that he does not believe the size to be “right” at the moment because of all the changes he wants to make. Indeed, he said that we need changes to ensure “that more [people going to university] does not mean worse [quality of education]”, which presumably is what he thinks happens at the moment. I speculate, from reading this talk:

  • that the government continues its policy of protecting prestigious institutions while sharpening severe financial competition among all others.
  • that TEF is a financial move, not a teaching quality move, even if you think that teaching should be better rewarded in the academy.
  • that real-term de-funding of existing institutions through TEF will be the way in which the expansion of private providers is regulated.
  • that as long as the student loan system stands, the government can have it both ways: it can claim that it does not fund universities and that this is private income, even while having a regulatory say over them because taxpayers “underwrite” the RAB charge.
  • that REF/QR and the Research Councils are up for debate but the government is to use academics’ calls for its abolition as a justification to cut QR.
  • that there are several competing motivations for the government’s actions in the research funding space that it must weigh.
  • that the stability of operation for many institutions is to be upset.
  • that the talk of de-regulation here is only possible by the introduction of massive new regulatory bodies.
Dr Martin Eve

Dr Martin Eve

None of this is new, of course. I haven’t here, also, gone into liberal humanist defences of the university, of which we will surely see many in the light of this talk. I find myself supportive of the goal to get a more diverse student body – I can’t argue with that, just the methods by which it might be achieved. For instance, while there are talks of supporting those who don’t go through a “traditional route” to HE, the government’s recent policies on funding led to a period of severe financial difficulties for institutions like Birkbeck that cater exclusively for those non-traditional students. So, again, the rhetoric is confused.

But now we have it from the Minister and I suspect we will see action on the ground very soon.

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