The Booker at Birkbeck: Atonement

Ian McEwan, the best-selling author of over twenty books, came to Birkbeck to discuss the process of adapting a novel into a film with Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Birkbeck Lecturer Dr Agnes Woolley.  

L-R: Christopher Hampton, Agnes Woolley, Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan joined Birkbeck’s students, alumni and wider community to discuss his Booker Prize shortlisted book, Atonement, alongside screenwriter Christopher Hampton, with whom he adapted the title for the big screen. The discussion was mediated by Dr Agnes Woolley, Lecturer in Transnational Literature and Migration Cultures at Birkbeck. Focusing on the collaboration between the writers, they discussed the process of adapting a book for cinema, and the unique challenges and opportunities this brings to storytelling.

Atonement is set in three time periods; 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present day England. It hinges on the fateful mistake of upper-class Briony, who as a child witnesses – and misinterprets – a series of events which lead her to falsely accuse her family’s housekeeper, Robbie, of raping her cousin, Lola.

“Sometimes powerfully in people’s lives,” explained McEwan, “believing is seeing. It’s part of the reason the police no longer rely on identifications from line-ups. Memory is very malleable.”

Robbie, who is truthfully in love and beginning a relationship with Briony’s sister, Cecila, is imprisoned; and the lives of all three are irreparably damaged by the lie. Following his release, Robbie joins the army, and is seemingly able to reunite with Cecilia prior to fighting in the war. In 1940, Briony visits Cecilia to atone for her actions, while Robbie is home, on leave from the army. Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right.

McEwan, an accomplished screenwriter himself, turned down the job of adapting the title for film declaring himself “in a long term sulk” about the process following a particularly excruciating previous experience. This decision, he says, was vindicated when Hampton came on board, who himself said he had become enthralled with the novel while reading it on holiday: “I scarcely left my hotel.”

The ending of Atonement, wherein the reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding story – and that Cecilia and Robbie were in fact never able to reunite before their premature deaths – was an “overwhelming” challenge from a screenwriting perspective. “Part of the success of the film,” said Hampton, “was that after going through a lot of labyrinths [to tackle this], what we ended up with was much more simple.”

He remembered one possibility they explored involved Vanessa Redgrave, who plays 77 year old Briony, appearing throughout the film observing her ‘characters’ and narrating different parts; but in the end they kept the three-part structure of the book, with the final section seeing Briony’s older self, a successful writer whose health is in decline, explain that the fictionalisation was her atonement: it finally allowed the lovers to be together.

McEwan noted that “the breadth of the imagination in the adaption” was complemented by the “fidelity to the source material.” He added that while he wouldn’t dare to intervene with the filming, there is a certain “chaos” to film sets, and where things are filmed out of sequence, the author can be useful as they “always know what’s going on in the psychology of a character’s head.”

McEwan is one of the most adapted novelists working today, a testament to “how well his novels work as dramas,” according to Hampton. “Even Atonement, which is a very ruminative novel, is very dramatic.”

Before the event, McEwan attended a prize-giving for a creative writing competition at Birkbeck, and kindly presented the awards to the winner: Richard Roper for his short story The Carousel of Progress; and the runners-up, Matthew Bates (Another Language) and Marienna Pope-Weidemann (Dandelion).

The Booker Prize has been the UK’s leading literary award for over 50 years. Every autumn, Birkbeck hosts an evening with a Booker Prize nominee, which gives students, staff and alumni the opportunity to hear from, and pose questions to, a celebrated writer.

Find out about Birkbeck’s previous Booker events, with authors including Ali Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hilary Mantel. 

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“There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’”

Former television presenter and journalist Gavin Campbell grew up in a house full of books, jazz, and intellectual discussion, and credits his parents for instilling his love of learning. His successful TV career brought him into contact with various aspects of the law, sparking an interest in human rights, criminal law, and in particular the uses and abuses of custody. He chose to pursue this further by undertaking an LLB at Birkbeck, which he graduated from this week aged 73, and in a new career as a paralegal.

He follows in his mother’s footsteps, who, despite leaving school at 14, was able to pursue her own scholarly interests later in life, gaining a BA from the Open University in her eighties. His father, having been seriously wounded at Dunkirk, spent much time in military hospitals studying, with a particular interest in the early Greek and Roman periods.

He says: “I think it was my parents’ attitudes to learning – to never be afraid to question that to think that one might be able to achieve something – that made me believe I could.”

He left Drama School to pursue acting work, before training as a journalist and joining the BBC’s current affairs unit, working on That’s Life, and other features and current affairs programmes. However it was his work as an investigative reporter which brought him into frequent contact with various aspects of the law and accelerated his interest in the subject.

“A short documentary that I reported on following the suicide of a young teenager at a Young Offender’s Institution, gave me an insight into and a further interest in the use of custody in the UK,” he remembers,  “an interest which has deepened and led to an undergraduate dissertation on Restorative Justice for my LLB at Birkbeck.”

“Although a tough regime in terms of the reading and essay writing, preparing for and attending lectures and seminars, I loved the subject and was hugely encouraged by some remarkable teachers.”

His advice for an older person who may be worried about starting university and whether they can make a go of it, he says, is simple and straightforward: “everyone has talent, and talent will out; it’s just a question of finding the right outlet for it. Ask yourself why you want to study. Finding the right subject  – something that fascinates you and you really have a need to find out about and explore  – is essential if you are going to be able to enjoy it and sustain the effort required over three or four years.”

“Everyone finds some aspects of study difficult, so don’t expect that there won’t be times when you think ‘I can’t get this’ – there will be. But don’t ever be afraid to ask for help – your Personal Tutor, the academic teaching the subject, your fellow students. There are always solutions; it’s just a question of getting help and advice to find them.”

“Lastly, and really importantly, make sure that you have the support of your family in undertaking a degree. Discuss it with them first, explaining what it is, why it’s so important to you to undertake it and what the likely and possible demands it may make on the family life are. Honesty is the very best policy here. A united, agreed start is the best start to studying.”

He is doubtful about whether he could have finished the degree without “the kindness, encouragement, help and support from the Birkbeck teaching and administrative staff,” who he says were central to his studies. “The inclusive and open atmosphere of Birkbeck and the sense of ‘you can’ is, I believe, perhaps the most important aspect of studying here. Never once was I told that I couldn’t, or that it would be too difficult. On the contrary, at every turn I was encouraged to continue, to work hard, to feel able to approach staff with a difficulty and seek a solution – and never to lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’”.

He is now working for a firm of solicitors with a practice focused on immigration, personal injury, public law and human rights, which he combined with his studies at Birkbeck. He is currently working on the Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry, where his firm represents many of the bereaved survivors and relatives of the 72 victims of the tragic fire.

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“I envisioned the day I could at last say, ‘I graduated from university’”

Esther became homeless when family tragedy and funeral expenses meant she couldn’t afford her rent. However, she was determined to graduate from her BA Creative Writing and English programme at Birkbeck, writing assignments on trains, buses and a night shelter. Today she achieves that remarkable feat. 

Growing up in Kenya, Esther Wangui’s passion for literature was carved through Sunday School, where she studied the Hebrew scriptures, and weekly cinema trips, where she developed an interest in script-writing. When she came to Birkbeck to study Creative Writing and English she became interested in form, critical creative writing, and unpicking literature with her classmates in seminars.

However family tragedy struck when her step-son died by suicide in the first year of her degree. The funeral expenses meant she was unable to pay her rent, and she was evicted by her landlord after falling into a month of arrears.

She says: “Homelessness is not something one can share easily, so I didn’t tell my friends or fellow students. Staff at the shelter were very supportive, cheering me on. And although my class tutor did not know I was homeless, he was always very supportive.

“It was difficult at first. I felt stupid, ashamed, and angry at myself. I was staying at a night shelter in Kingston, so I had no privacy, nowhere to cry, no friends to share the downs with… I just kept moving towards the end of my degree. I come from a small town in Kenya which is home to numerous world-class athletes. I used to compete for my high school so I know to always keep my eye on the finishing line.

“The greatest challenge was being woken up early every morning, having to leave the shelter at 10:00am and returning in the evening, cold and tired. I craved what Virginia Woolf called a ‘room of one’s own’. While I was homeless, I even ‘slept’ at the airport several times, but mainly I read or wrote poetry. I was constantly lacking sleep and at times, fatigue affected my concentration. I thought of doctors and world leaders dealing with huge problems and was inspired to carry on, but I envied them for having a bed to go back home to. I could not afford to call my family in Kenya to share my problems. I prayed, I learned from others, and I thought about the fact that I had waited all my life to go to university. It was such a privilege to get an education at Birkbeck.

“I wrote most of my assignments on the long train and bus journeys, and on weekends I worked from the Kingston University library, watching the winter turn to spring and then to summer. I envisioned the day I could at last say, ‘I held on, I tried my best. I graduated from university.’”

Now back in secure accommodation and excited for her future, Esther has started a Master’s degree focused on Near & Middle Eastern studies and Hebrew. She hopes to one day learn all four of the main Middle Eastern languages and go on to work in that region.

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Studying after 60: never too late to learn

40 years ago, going to university was unusual. Only 8.4% of school leavers went on to get a degree in 1970 compared to just over 50% now, and many older people today may feel they missed out on a major opportunity to explore a subject they’re passionate about and to develop a range of academic skills.

Undertaking degree level studies for the first time is a popular option for retirees with time on their hands and a willingness to learn. Not is it an excellent way to keep occupied after exiting the workforce and to explore areas of interest that may not have been available in the past; older students can also qualify for the same government loans as their younger peers, in most cases without the expectation that they will later exceed the annual £25,000 income threshold necessary to pay them back.

Known for its flexible, part-time and evening study, Birkbeck is an appealing choice for London’s mature learners where this year, 9% of students were 51 or older (1,026 out of 11,871), and 2% were 61 or older (291 out of 11,871). The College offers a range of workshops tailored to those who want to go to university later in life, to help them with study skills after a long time away from the books, and to offer support in using technological resources such as digital journal archives.

While a common view of a university student may be of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old embarking on their studies after completing their A-levels, Birkbeck’s 2019 graduates prove there’s not just one way to do a degree.

John Alexander, BA History of Art, aged 68:
“My wife and I have spent our whole lives visiting galleries and I’ve long thought I’d like to learn more about the art we’ve always loved looking at.

“I researched the huge number of options available to me in London to study art, and quickly decided History of Art at Birkbeck would be the best as they have a great reputation, flexible hours and were happy to take me! I knew if I only went to the odd lecture at, say, a museum, I’d enjoy it but not retain the information. I need the discipline of having to write an essay or sit an exam (which was daunting at first after some 45 years) in order to force myself to focus and learn the material. It involved many hours sitting alone at my desk or visiting galleries, none of which I could have done without the patient and enthusiastic support of my wife. She said she will proudly add my graduation photo to those of our children hanging in her study.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my studies at Birkbeck and have been in awe of the many inspiring students of all ages I’ve come across. This was my first degree, and I was worried that I might not have sufficient grey cells left to learn but I’ve found it stimulating and enlightening. The only problem is that it now takes me much longer to go around galleries as I see so much more in the works of art than I used to! My wife has also enjoyed learning more, almost by osmosis, alongside me! It has certainly kept my grey cells active and I would highly recommend study to anyone of any age who wants to learn more about any subject. It’s challenging, but it’s fun!”

Diana Hills, Grad Cert History of Art, aged 72:
“I decided to do a graduate certificate in History of Art because I like working towards something rather than just going along to talks for interest. I’ve always been interested in art history and the course was an opportunity to try my hand at academic writing and learn more about aspects of art and architecture I didn’t know much about.

“To me it’s never too late to learn, and perhaps older people get more enjoyment in learning new skills. As we move more and more into a knowledge based age, it’s important that people of all ages have the basics so that they can cope and at least know how to access information. Education doesn’t just need to be academic – just the ability to communicate and appreciate the variety of opportunities modern life has to offer.

“The first assignments are always tough. Everyone has their own way of coping – you have to try, get the feedback and with time you do get better. Some of my family and friends said ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering’ and urged me to give up when I got stuck on an assignment. A number of people, including my grandchildren were a bit puzzled as to why I wanted to go back to school but they soon got used to me making notes, even if they couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t use a laptop!

“To study and get a qualification is a privilege for people of any age, and while undoubtedly you may go through a bit of a rough patch, the sense of achievement when you finish, whatever your mark or grade, is second to none.”

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