Graduate spotlight: Jo Holloway, MA Creative Writing

Jo Holloway, who graduates with an MA Creative Writing this week, discusses her time at Birkbeck and how her course has helped her to develop her writing career.  

When I decided to undertake a master’s degree, I always knew it would be at Birkbeck. I work full time, so the evening classes and part-time courses were perfect for me. However, unlike many people, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. I considered History (which was the subject of my first degree) or a Master’s in Education (I’m a teacher so this would have helped professionally), but then I realised there was one thing I’d been working on for a number of years: a novel. Everyone has at least one in them apparently, but writing mine had been a struggle, and that’s putting it mildly. I had several beginnings of various stories, one that had stalled at the halfway point. I just had no idea where to take it. I realised what I wanted was guidance, expertise and feedback on my writing so that I would know, hopefully, that what I was writing wasn’t absolute rubbish! And so I applied to study for a Master’s in Creative Writing. Was it the right choice? Definitely.

During the course, I completed modules in reading and writing short stories, screenwriting, genre and a final workshop where I began to put together the backbone of my dissertation, which I completed over the summer. Each module complemented the others and taught me about point of view, structure, character, dialogue and the many other components that make a story. We read and discussed a variety of texts including David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the screenplay of The King’s Speech, and short stories by authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ali Smith and Raymond Carver to name but a few. Above all, we wrote. During the first unit, I wrote three short stories to be critiqued by my peers. The feedback that I received was invaluable. It allowed me to improve my stories and have more confidence in my ability as a writer. Two of the stories I workshopped during this unit have been published, one online and one in print in the Mechanics’ Institute Review, Birkbeck’s annual anthology of short stories.

While I’m talking about the Mechanics’, it seems appropriate to mention the other opportunities outside the taught units that were available to me during my MA. Birkbeck’s anthology of short stories is an Arts Council-funded project, open to all writers across the country. Not only have I had the pleasure of being published in the anthology, it also led to reading my work at the MIR live events, which was a wonderful (if slightly terrifying) experience. And then there’s the wealth of expertise that was shared with us. Prior to the course, I would have had no idea about how to approach an agent or publisher, or what to expect from the editing process. But now, I feel much more confident with this aspect of being an author too.

As for my ambition of finally finishing writing a novel, I am well on my way. The dissertation for the final unit of the MA was the first 15,000 words of my young adult sci-fi novel. After handing it in I am now in the process of writing the rest of it and aim to have a completed draft by the end of the year. Best of all, through the wonderful people that I have met on the course, my novel continues to be workshopped in a writing group formed of several graduates from the Creative Writing MA. I honestly loved studying for my master’s, and it has given me a great foundation on which to build my writing career.

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Celebrating the cinematic richness of Belgium

Vladimir Seput, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Film Programming and Curating, discusses a recent event looking at Belgian cinema. 

On Wednesday 21 February, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image was once again filled with people. This time, BIMI hosted Belgian film lovers (and those who might become ones) who came to watch and listen about the latest trends in Belgian cinema in a special, introductory event to the programme, Focus on Belgian Cinema. With the support of Wallonie-Bruxelles International and Flanders House, film critic and author Louis Danvers and Wouter Hessels, the film lecturer and cinema programmer at the Brussels Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound travelled across the Channel to give talks on the state of contemporary Belgian Cinema.

Mr Danvers talked about French-speaking films from Wallonia and Brussels and the often paradoxical situation that they are facing, namely because they cannot reach large audiences even though they regularly win numerous major awards at international film festivals. For example, the Dardenne brothers still hold the record, among a few others, of the highest number of precious Cannes’ Palme(s) D’Or. Even so, their movies often struggle with reaching a significant amount of audiences. Unfortunately, the reasons for such a poor result on the domestic market are, as often, multiple and complex. Besides the fact that the subject of those works is often the gloomy topic of social injustice, which is hardly a crowd-pleaser anywhere, French-speaking Belgian cinema lacks infrastructure that would help in the promotion of films outside their habitual audience. Such infrastructure exists in Flanders, Mr Danvers said, and it would be beneficial to have it in the French part as well. As a result, in 2016 the most successful Flemish film in terms of audience attendance did 15 times better than the most popular French one. However, French-speaking Belgian cinema is a prolific creative industry of a rich documentary tradition and often surreal fiction films, with the latest trend in making films inspired by true events, such as A Wedding (Noces) from 2016, also part of this year’s festival.

Genre cinema is often a key to success if a film wants to reach a large audience and Flemish filmmakers know that quite well. Under the title Belgian Cinema: Made in Flanders Wouter Hessels presented the Flemish film wave which started in 2002 and the conditions that preceded it. Mr. Hessels emphasized five key elements of success of Flemish films in recent years: founding of the autonomous Flemish Film Fund (VAN) in 2002, introduction of the tax shelter in 2003, the project Faits divers by Flemish commercial television VTM, numerous international film festivals in Flanders like Ghent, Ostend and Leuven and the increase in quality of student films realized at five different schools in Flanders. Some of those conditions resulted in commercial and/or artistic successes through the works of filmmakers like Felix van Groeningen, Fien Troch and Erik van Looy, whose film The Loft from 2008 holds the record for the most popular Flemish film (more than one million tickets sold).

After the presentations on French-speaking and Flemish Belgian Cinema, BIMI screened the film King of the Belgians from 2016 made by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth. The film presents a new direction for Brosens and Woodworth who were, prior to this film known primarily as documentary filmmakers. In this satire, they tackled the issue of a Belgian division in an almost farcical way, inspired by the Belgian mockumentary tradition of comedy making, best known from the cult Belgian film Man Bites Dog from 1992. Along with the five latest titles from the Belgian film factory, Man Bites Dog will be shown at the French Institute as a part of Focus on Belgian Cinema.

The event was concluded by a discussion chaired by Janet McCabe, director of the Film Programming and Curating MA at Birkbeck in which Mr Danvers and Mr Hessels talked about different aspects of the creation behind co-existence and shared with the audience their thoughts on encounters between identities, cultures and languages.

Focus on Belgian Cinema runs at the French Institute from 22-25 February.

For more on Belgian cinema, see Wouter Hessels’ choice of most representative Belgian films.

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Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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Peter Murray Memorial Lecture: ‘How to form a national collection’

Francesca Castelli, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses the recent Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, delivered by Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. The lecture is named in honour of Peter Murray, who founded Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art in 1967 and is part of Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck, a series of events celebrating the Department’s 50th anniversary.

A full house with a captivated audience joined Birkbeck’s Clore Lecture Theatre on 30 November to listen to Dr Gabriele Finaldi as he took us through the events surrounding the foundation and the development of the collections of two museums: Madrid’s Prado and London’s National Gallery.

These two museums differ dramatically in their genesis. While the Madrid museum was very much conceived as ‘an act of royal generosity to the nation’, the London institution was born through the will of the British Parliament.

Opened in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the Prado was to all intents and purposes a public showcase of the king’s personal collection. Indeed, all of the 311 pictures came from the Royal Residences in and around Madrid and were the works of Spanish artists. It was not until the nationalisation of Church property in 1868 and the incorporation of the holdings of the National Museum of Painting in 1872 that the distinctly local character of the collection started to move towards a more international dimension, with the introduction of works by Flemish and Italian masters like Rubens and Titian.

The National Gallery, on the other hand, was not born through the nationalisation of a royal art collection. It was instead established when Parliament offered a £60,000 grant for the purchase and display of 38 paintings from the estate of banker John Julius Angerstein, including Sebastiano Del Piombo’s s majestic Raising of Lazarus. The National Gallery opened its doors to the public on 10 May 1824 in Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, a building far too small and modest to accommodate a growing museum whose democratic ambition was to be ‘a gallery for all’. The collection was moved to its current location on Trafalgar Square in 1838 and was enriched with important Italian Renaissance works from the likes of Raphael and Correggio, as well as French paintings from the eighteenth century by Poussin and Claude through generous bequests. But it was van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, acquired in 1842, that seemed to pique the interest of Victorian crowds with its richness of detail and elegant symbolism.

The account offered by Dr Finaldi of the strength of the relationship between the National Gallery and its audience that became apparent during World War II was particularly poignant.  At a time when the museum was officially closed and the collection evacuated, former director Kenneth Clark began to organise daily piano concerts that were open to everyone. Myra Hess and other musicians played over 1,600 lunchtime concerts from late 1939 until the end of the war.  And in 1942, spurred by a letter written by a member of the public to The Times, Clark was persuaded to take one painting at a time out of storage and put it on display so that Londoners would have something to admire. This event marked the start of the tradition of the Picture of the Month that still exists today, and allowed the museum’s mission to offer the ‘enjoyment of beauty’ to be restored when it was needed the most.

Museums are thus places that bring people together and in more recent years both the National Gallery and the Prado have undergone extensive expansion projects aiming to provide a better environment for their visitors, as well as a modern space for their growing collection, temporary exhibitions and conservation facilities.

Dr Finaldi’s final point was about the opportunities offered by new technologies and social platforms and how these are instrumental in reaching out to new and larger audiences. Museums are called to have their own digital strategy in order to maximise the potential harnessed by the digitalisation of culture and to help people to experience art in different ways. Earlier this year, in a ground-breaking and unprecedented event, the five museums where the existing van Gogh Sunflowers are located, came together in a sort of virtual exhibition thanks to a live Facebook broadcast and gave life to a fully immersive digital experience supported by VR technology and Computer-generated Imagery.  An audience of some 6 million people connected to enjoy an interactive tour of the virtual gallery while van Gogh’s great-grandson shared his personal memories of the iconic pictures.

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