Dicken’s Day 2014: Dickens and Conviviality

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard, who is one of the organisers of Dickens Day. Join Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies as we read Our Mutual Friend month-by-month in its original instalments.


Charles Dickens

Now in its twenty-eighth year, Dickens Day enjoys a uniquely mixed audience of Dickens enthusiasts, academics, and students at all levels of study. It is perhaps apt then, that this year’s theme was ‘Dickens and Conviviality’, as this one-day conference, jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Leicester and the Dickens Fellowship, brought together over one hundred Dickens aficionados for a day of genial intellectual exchange.

Dickens was associated with good humour, bonhomie and sociability from the outset of his career. Before his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, had even concluded its run of monthly instalments (1836–1837), its twenty-four-year-old author had been catapulted to fame and was widely lionised, and even mythologised, as the proponent and exemplar of merry-making. Indeed, Pickwick is famously stuffed with eating, drinking and parties, dances, celebrations, picnics and all manner of sociable endeavours. Like many of his contemporaries, Dickens held that laughter possesses a unique ability to harmonise and heal. One of our speakers, Clive Johnson, observed that if Freud understood humour in economic terms as a ‘wasteful’ element in the psychic economy, for Dickens, writing in an era sharply defined by an imaginatively parsimonious political economy, this was actually a great positive.

Dickens went on to consolidate this image of himself as a master of conviviality in his own life: he was notorious for his love of parties, impromptu dinners, jamborees, skits, celebrations, practical jokes, amateur theatrics, and many other forms of high-spirited sociability. He also assiduously cultivated many friendships with some of the leading authors, politicians, artists, thinkers, philanthropists and actors of his age, and he was a notably prolific letter writer in an era famous for its voluminous epistolary correspondence.

It is as the exemplar of Christmas spirit that Dickens is perhaps most firmly lodged in the popular cultural imagination; he is even erroneously praised for ‘inventing’ Christmas in its modern, recognisable form. Even in Sketches by Boz (1836), his first published collection, Christmas is warmly lauded for stoking mutual affection:

‘Christmas time! The man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas. […] Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? […] There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten: social feelings are awakened in bosoms to which they have long been strangers’.

The later image of the joyous Cratchits in A Christmas Carol (1843) remains one of Dickens’s most famous depictions of good feeling, emblazoned on our collective memory from multiple versions of this perennial classic.

However, Dickens was also deeply interested in the flipside of conviviality and it is interesting that another paradigmatic Dickensian vignette is the starving, bedraggled Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl and asking for more. One of the day’s plenary speakers, Wendy Parkins, reminded us of the ethical injunction to care for the vulnerable, especially children, that Dickens evokes, citing the neglected Jellyby children in Bleak House (1852–53). For Dickens, hospitality, like philanthropy, is a duty of care that we all owe to those in need. Asking for more, like Oliver, is also a rebellious assertion of individual need in a system that conglomerates and marginalises the poor. One of the fascinating threads of the day was the constant slippage in Dickens between needs, desires and wants, and the interconnectedness of physical need with emotional, social and sexual needs and desires. In Dickens, ‘hunger’ operates metaphorically as well as literally. Indeed, Jo Parsons reminded us of Dickens’s own childhood experiences of physical and emotional hunger that echo through his work, in particular David Copperfield (1849–50), and which perhaps explain his wish, shortly before his death, to compose a cookery book.

Indeed, despite his reputation as a sort of literary Father Christmas, Dickens also depicted disastrous and terrifying Christmas scenes: most famously, Pip’s excruciatingly anxious Christmas dinner in Great Expectations (1860–1861), as he endures the moralising insults of the adults and awaits the discovery of his theft of food for the escaped convict Magwitch. Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), reaches a climactic point with the disappearance of the eponymous hero on a particularly fevered and gloomy Christmas Day. Despite this, Pete Orford, creator of the Drood Inquiry revealed how early reviews of Drood foregrounded the novel’s humour and compared it to The Pickwick Papers, despite its gothic themes of drug addiction, madness and murder. As Orford showed, Dickens was a master of alternating light and dark, moving swiftly between humour and more ominous, tragic tones.

Most of our speakers were reluctant to take Dickens’s representations of good-humoured sociability at face-value, with most papers focusing conversely on loneliness, isolation, poverty and want, social aping and pretension, and the feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and exclusion that may actually fuel conviviality. As Nicola Bradbury observed, Pip’s Christmas dinner is made entirely miserable by the appalling company – in Dickens, hell really is other people. Charlotte Boyce considered the hidden class dynamics of Pickwickian sociability; somebody low-paid and low-status prepares, serves and clears up all those extravagant, jolly meals. Harriet Briggs considered how Dickensian laughter may be hearty and boisterous but is rarely anarchic, often operating to dissolve discontent and smother rebellious impulses. As the day’s keynote speaker, Malcolm Andrews, observed, humour in Dickens is both social glue and a social corrective.

Dickens Day is famous for its readings and this year’s – David Copperfield’s hilariously drunken disaster of a dinner party and the sham society wedding of the Lammles in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) – further confirmed that Dickensian conviviality is often at its most hilarious when it is faked, strained, overegged – or otherwise goes horribly wrong. Fortunately, no such disasters befell this year’s event, which is already looking forward to celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2016.

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The challenges of peace-building, leadership and completing a PhD

This post was contributed by Kevin Teoh, a PhD student and staff member in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.


When a notice in February asked for volunteers to organise the second joint PhD Conference between the Departments of Organizational Psychology and Management, I thought: ‘heck, why not – how hard can it be?’ The work began almost immediately: sorting out venues and keynote speakers, collating abstracts and printing booklets; it may seem like a lot of work, but with some organisation and a good team, we made light work of it. Besides, picking out drinks for the wine reception doesn’t really constitute work!

The day in late September was soon upon us, and over forty of my peers from across the globe converged on central London to talk about where we were at with our PhDs. A range of topics was covered, with varied subjects including theories, methodologies, findings and even reflections on personal growth (video of the day available). People shared ideas, advice was given, and encouragement provided. My own presentation was about junior doctors and their working conditions, and how I intended to explore the link to patient safety. This subject itself is very topical, especially as Birkbeck researchers recently highlighted how patient mortality rises in August when new junior doctors start working in hospitals. Presenting my work gave me a chance to verbalise and focus on the core emphasis of what I am researching , and I was told about some resources to help with a prospective study as well.

In addition to the student presentations, we organisers pulled off quite a coup by securing the attendance of two high-profile keynote speakers. In the morning keynote (video available here), former Birkbeck student Dr Peter Davis talked about his work in the area of post-conflict peace building in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Nigeria. What struck me most was how Dr Davis used his PhD to have a real-world impact. I certainly had not realised the important role the private sector has in developing a functioning economy, vital in sustaining peace.

Professor Adrian Furnham, from University College London, spoke on leadership derailment in the afternoon keynote (video available here). A very lively speaker, Professor Furnham distinguished between incompetent and derailed leaders; the former represents the lack of ability, and the latter represents too much of a particular characteristic. It made me wonder, we often consider the narrative of incompetent managers in the NHS, but what about those who are derailed? Perhaps I should integrate this somehow into my research with junior doctors.

PhD work can at times be a lonely affair. However, I think the numerous brilliant presentations, and the informal discussions and socialisation between sessions reinforced that we are in fact part of a wider, supportive community. It allowed many of us to put a face to a name, and better understand what others were doing. One of our peers had just finished her own PhD, and it was the first time she could use the ‘Dr’ prefix. She was deservedly excited about her accomplishment, and it was wonderful encouragement for us to persevere with our own work. By the end of the day, the overall feedback was positive with everyone benefitting from participating. Although the conference is now over, we are already looking at how we can improve further for next year’s event.

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From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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Crystallography: past, present and future (Science Week 2014)

This post was contributed by Dr Clare Sansom, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences

Prof Paul Barnes sets the scene for one of the experiments he carried out in the Crystallography lecture

The second of the Science Week lectures from the Department of Biological Sciences, which was presented on 2 July 2014, was a double act from two distinguished emeritus professors and Fellows of the College, Paul Barnes and David Moss. Remarkably, they both started their working lives at Birkbeck on the same day – 1 October 1968 – and so had clocked up over 90 years of service to the college between them by Science Week 2014.

The topic they took was a timely one: the history of the science of crystallography over the past 100 years. UNESCO has declared 2014 to be the International Year of Crystallography in recognition of the seminal discoveries that started the discipline, which were made almost exactly 100 years ago; a number of the most important discoveries of that century were made by scientists with links to Birkbeck.

The presenters divided the “century of crystallography” into two, with Barnes speaking first and covering the first 50 years. In giving his talk the title “A History of Modern Crystallography”, however, he recognised that crystals have been observed, admired and studied for many centuries. What changed at the beginning of the last century was the discovery of X-ray diffraction. Wilhelm Röntgen was awarded the first-ever Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of X-rays in 1896, but it was almost two decades before anyone thought of directing them at crystals. The breakthroughs came when Max von Laue showed that a beam of X-rays can be diffracted by a crystal to yield a pattern of spots, and the father-and-son team of William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg showed that it was possible to derive information about the atomic structure of crystals from their diffraction patterns. These discoveries also solved – to some extent – the debate about whether X-rays were particles or waves, as only waves diffract; we now know that all electromagnetic radiation, including X-rays, can be thought of as both particles and waves.

Von Laue and the Braggs were awarded Nobel Prizes for Physics in 1914 and 1915 respectively, and between 1916 and 1964 no fewer than 13 more Nobel Prizes were awarded to 18 more scientists for discoveries related to crystallography. Petrus Debye, who won the Chemistry prize in 1936, showed how to quantify the thermal motion of atoms as vibrations within a crystal. He also invented one of the first powder diffraction cameras, used to obtain diffraction patterns from powders of tiny crystallites. Another Nobel Laureate, Percy Bridgman, studied the structures of materials under pressure: it has been said that he would “squeeze anything he could lay his hands on”, often up to intense pressures.

Scientists and scientific commentators often argue about which of their colleagues would have most deserved to win the ultimate accolade. Barnes named three who, he said, could easily have been Nobel Laureates in the field of crystallography. One, Paul Ewald, was a theoretical physicist who had studied for his PhD under von Laue in Munich, and the other two had strong links with Birkbeck. JD “Sage” Bernal was Professor of Physics and then of Crystallography here; he was famous for obtaining, with Dorothy Crowfoot (later Hodgkin) the first diffraction pattern from a protein crystal, but his insights into the atomic basis of the very different properties of carbon as diamond and as graphite were perhaps even more remarkable. He took on Rosalind Franklin, whose diffraction patterns of DNA had led Watson and Crick to deduce its double helical structure, after she left King’s College, and she did pioneering work on virus structure here until her premature death in 1958.

Barnes ended his talk and led into Moss’s second half-century with a discussion of similarities between the earliest crystallography and today. Then, as now, you only need three things to obtain a diffraction pattern: a source of X-rays, a crystalline sample, and a recording device; the differences all lie in the power and precision of the equipment used. He demonstrated this with a “symbolic demo” that ended when he pulled a model structure of a zeolite out of a large cardboard box.

David Moss then took over to describe some of the most important crystallographic discoveries from the last half-century. His talk concentrated on the structures of large biological molecules, particularly proteins, and he began by explaining the importance of protein structure. All the chemistry that is necessary for life is controlled by proteins, and knowing the structure of proteins enables us to understand, and potentially also to modify, how they work.

Even the smallest proteins contain thousands of atoms; in order to determine the position of all the atoms in a protein using crystallography you need to make an enormous number of measurements of the positions and intensities of X-ray spots. The process of solving the structure of a protein is no different from that of solving a small molecule crystal structure, but it is more complex and takes much more time. Very briefly, it involves crystallising the protein; shining an intense beam of X-rays on the resulting crystals to produce diffraction patterns, and then doing some extremely complex calculations. The first protein structures, obtained without the benefit of automation and modern computers, took many years and sometimes even decades.

Thanks to Bernal’s genius, energy and pioneering spirit, Birkbeck was one of the first institutes in the UK to have all the equipment that was needed for crystallography. This included some of the country’s first “large” computers. One of the first electronic stored-program computers was developed in Donald Booth’s laboratory here in the 1950s. In the mid-1960s the college had an ATLAS computer with a total memory of 96 kB. It occupied the basements of two houses in Gordon Square, and crystallographers used it to calculate electron density maps of small molecules. Protein crystallography only “took off” in the 1970s with further improvements in computing and automation of much of the experimental technique.

Today, protein crystallography can almost be said to be routine. The first step, crystallising the protein, can still be an important bottleneck, but data collection at powerful synchrotron X-ray sources is extremely rapid and structures can be solved quite easily with user-friendly software that runs on ordinary laptops. There are now over 100,000 protein structures freely available in the Protein Data Bank, and about 90% of these were obtained using X-ray crystallography. The techniques used to obtain the other 10,000 or so, nuclear magnetic resonance and electron microscopy, are more specialised.

Moss ended his talk by describing one of the proteins solved in his group during his long career at Birkbeck: a bacterial toxin that is responsible for the disease gas gangrene. This destroys muscle cells by punching holes in their membranes, and its victims usually have to have limbs amputated to save their lives. Knowing the structure has allowed scientists to understand how this toxin works, which is the first step towards developing drugs to stop it. But you can learn even more about how proteins work if you also understand how they move. Observing and modelling protein motion in “real time” still poses many challenges for scientists as the second century of crystallography begins.

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