The Man Booker at Birkbeck: author Julian Barnes on The Sense of an Ending

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker event at Birkbeck, which saw author Julian Barnes in conversation with Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing.

On 27 November 2017, prize-winning novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist and art critic Julian Barnes came to Birkbeck for the annual Man Booker at Birkbeck event. Hundreds of Birkbeck students, alumni and staff – including many from Birkbeck’s popular and successful creative writing programmes – attended the event, while 2000 free copies of Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), were distributed in the weeks beforehand. This is the seventh year of this ongoing, hugely successful initiative between Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation and, as Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, observed in her introduction, both institutions are committed to ‘the public good’ of bringing the highest cultural and intellectual achievements, including the very best of contemporary literature, to the widest possible audience.

In a genial, urbane and erudite exchange, Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, discussed The Sense of an Ending with Barnes, interrogating him about the novel’s genesis, central concerns and themes, and readers’ responses. The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on the pleasures and perils of ageing, the slipperiness of memory, the contingency of identity, and the sting of remorse. It is narrated in the first-person by Tony Webster, an affable, very British everyman, who has happily – perhaps even smugly – sailed through life with as little friction and emotional upset as possible. In the first part of the novel, we are treated to Tony’s blandly straightforward memories of his sixth-form and university days, as the repressed 1960s begin to sputter into life with the falling away of old prohibitions. In a bravura middle section, Barnes glosses over four decades of Tony’s very ordinary life in just five paragraphs, emphasising the swift passage of time and the terse eulogy of a man who has lived entirely according to his own fixed self-image as a ‘regular, reliable, honest chap’, in Barnes’s words. In the second half of the novel, Tony’s life is upended by revelations about the death by suicide, forty years previously, of his precociously brilliant school friend, Adrian, and the return to his life of his acerbic first girlfriend, Veronica.

In a tussle over ownership of Adrian’s lost diary, Tony endures a series of baffling, bruising encounters with an indignant Veronica, whose constant refrain is, ‘You don’t get it, but then you never did’. The recovery of a half-remembered letter he sent Adrian in a fit of pique overturns his quietism, revealing a moment of youthful callousness that belies his lifelong self-image as an amiable, decent and morally equitable person. Tony is also confronted with uncomfortable truths about a child secretly fathered by Adrian, forcing him to reassess his memories and unleashing an irremediable, guilty sense of responsibility for contributing to Adrian’s suicidal despair. We might regard Tony as ‘cowardly’, Barnes observed, or as ‘emotionally practical’, but he is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator who simply gets things wrong.

Barnes located the origins of the novel in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of, which explored his own intense fear of dying and death. While writing this piece, he shared with his philosopher brother a memory of their grandfather slaughtering chickens, which his brother remembered so differently as to present Barnes with two alternative, ‘incompatible’ memories. This powered his interest in the precariousness of memory, which has profound implications for our sense of self, but also for the writing of history more generally. In the novel’s early scenes, the young Adrian quotes a historian invented by Barnes – whom some readers have fruitlessly Googled and even quoted as if he were real – who argues, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ The Sense of an Ending is thus shot through with concerns about causation, memory and the writing of personal and national histories. This ‘comic beginning’ to the novel was accompanied by the personal discovery of the death by suicide of a brilliant school friend many years before, which encouraged Barnes to explore in fiction how we can think of the dead as alive and fantasise about their unlived lives.

Barnes admitted that he liked wielding the authorial tool of a hidden secret, enlisting the reader as a detective or a historian, who must piece together events from Tony’s unreliable memories. Barnes also confessed to enjoying inflicting a correctional revelation on his complacent narrator, unearthing his buried, youthful capacity for ‘great emotional violence’, as well as delivering a shock to the reader, who has taken Tony at his word and understood him as essentially mild. Through Tony, Barnes explores how our memories, which can feel utterly truthful and foundational to our sense of self, can be sanitised, redacted and preserved in mental aspic. Barnes confessed that he shares Veronica’s punitiveness, as we come to understand the profoundly damaging effect Tony’s blithe letter had on her.  ‘Remorse’, Barnes expounded, has its etymology in Latin and originally meant ‘to bite again’, and it is through the sharpness of his regret that Tony comes to a deeper understanding of himself, his history and his actions.

Barnes discussed his own belief that our character is largely fixed in childhood and the illusoriness of our adolescent sense that our life ‘as free philosophical individuals’ will fully begin when we become adults. In distinction to existential philosophy, which emphasises individual freedom and action and which Barnes’s young characters affectedly adopt, Barnes argues that ‘your room for manoeuvre in your life is smaller than you think’ – as Tony painfully learns. An audience member remarked on Tony’s retreat into the mundane when confronted with uncomfortable truths – he instigates a hilariously petty discussion about thick-cut chips in a pub when he realises that he has met Adrian’s now-grown son – and Barnes revealed his own preoccupation, at a dear friend’s funeral, with the architectural history of the church in which the service was taking place. Grief, he argued, ‘is not as it is written down’ because ‘we oscillate between different levels’ and our grief is rarely unmixed with other emotions, responses and thoughts.

In reply to questions from creative writing students, Barnes confirmed his abiding interest in form and discussed the ‘technical challenge’ of a novel in which the bulk of a person’s life is hastily summarised and the emphasis is rather on the bookends to Tony’s existence – his youthful education, followed by his retirement. The authorial ability to move a narrative through time is something Barnes feels becomes stronger with age. For Barnes, form encompasses style, design and viewpoint and he quoted Flaubert’s observation that form needs an idea – and vice versa. For Barnes, when these two elements – form and idea – cross, there is a ‘fizz’, like electricity passing along a wire. Barnes insisted on the centrality of truth-telling to the art of fiction, arguing that it encompasses and expresses complex ‘truths [that] can’t be reduced to bullet-points or Christmas cracker mottos.’ Although he is an accomplished critic of art, Barnes argued that the novel, with its unique depth and intimacy, cannot be supplanted by other art forms.

The audience was interested in the film adaptation of the novel – ‘Take the money and run!’ was Barnes’s droll advice – Barnes’s influences, readerly responses to Tony, what Barnes is currently reading and his interest in translated literature. This successful, enjoyable evening confirmed yet again that Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation are a natural fit, with both offering multiple opportunities for cultural exchange, intellectual advancement and literary enjoyment.

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Future Focus workshops: careers and employability

With the new academic year well underway, the first Future Focus workshop was held at the Bloomsbury campus this month, as part of a series of five workshops that support mature learners with advice and guidance on career prospects.

It’s the start of the new academic year and our very own version of the ‘New Year, New Me’ mantra dawns on Birkbeck; a chance for us to contemplate our goals and the tangible steps we need to take in order to get there. Deciding those next steps can always be made a little clearer with the support and guidance of others and attending Future Focus, a workshop organised by Birkbeck’s Widening Access team and designed and delivered by the Careers and Employability team, is a great place to turn to for that.

The first Future Focus workshop of the academic year took place in early October. Delivered by Birkbeck’s Employability Consultant & Events Manager, Alex Jones, attendees were encouraged to use the time to reflect on their motivation, decisions and skills, and whether the next step they were about to embark on fed into these goals. In our busy lives, taking the time to consider and plan, is all too often swept under the carpet, pushed for another day.

By coming along to Future Focus, attendees gave themselves the headspace to contemplate, make informed choices and seek the motivation and confidence to take those exciting first steps.

One of last year’s Future Focus participants, Ana de Monchaux, talks about her experience of attending the workshop:

“My son was applying to university and in the process for this I had got on the Eventbrite mailing list. One of the events promoted was a Future Focus workshop at Birkbeck University. I had been toying with the idea of going to university to study history but I was unsure whether I was too old and would not fit in. I had done a couple of modules with the Open University but had found the lack of face to face time quite isolating, so I didn’t want to feel isolated in a room of younger people.

I had heard really good things about Birkbeck so the Future Focus workshop seemed the ideal opportunity to test the waters! The workshop looked at what kind of career you could get with a degree in your chosen subject. If you just wanted to study for study sake that was okay but it gave you an idea of what you could do.

Everyone was very welcoming and the demographic was varied, I did not feel the oldest one there. Some people wanted a career change, some wanted to enhance and progress in their chosen career and some just wanted to study a new subject. We were asked what we liked about our present job, if we were working, and what we didn’t like. It made me realised that it was interacting with people that I liked the most and being self-employed I liked the least. It also made me see that I could change my career if that is what I wanted to do.

What the Future Focus workshop did, was to give me the confidence that I was not too old and that I had something to offer and that I could go to University. I applied and got in!”

If you’re thinking about your future and the tools you need to get there, sign up to the next session!

If you have any questions or want to find out more, contact the team.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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UpScale visits 10 Downing Street

This post was contributed by Kate Dodgson, UpScale’s Employability Project Manager

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

On 24 November 2016, UpScale went to 10 Downing Street to attend a Women in Tech Networking and Mentoring event. The event was on the invitation of Rt. Hon Karen Bradley MP – the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and was organised by one of UpScale’s partners – DevelopHer – a non-profit organisation elevating women in tech.

100 women in tech were invited to attend and were divided into mentors and mentees. I was invited to represent Birkbeck as a mentor. Birkbeck’s UpScale programme aims to encourage Birkbeck students to pursue work in technology and has a strong focus on under-represented groups including women in technology. Partnerships with organisations such as DevelopHer support UpScale to achieve this important aim.

While nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and sipping elderflower cordial, the fifty mentors began networking with the fifty mentees. Roughly ten minutes were allocated to each conversation before a gavel was hit and the women rotated. Ideas, business cards and laughs were exchanged, and there were women representatives from the public sector, higher education, the private sector (ranging from huge multi-national companies to brand new start-ups) and everything in-between.

The Rt. Hon Karen Bradley arrived and gave a speech highlighting the gender gap in STEM industries and emphasising the need to close the gap. She said that the event was designed to allow prominent women in tech to get their heads together to try and find ways to combat the inequality. She invited the women attending to suggest to her ways that the government could address the under-representation of women.

downing-st-4The evening ended with a hundred selfies by the front door of No.10 and a walk to a nearby pub. Here the networking continued, and the wine drinking commenced. Ideas on how to lessen the gap and make technology a sector of choice, for all women, continued and relationships were built and no doubt will continue to be nurtured in the coming weeks and months.

Birkbeck’s UpScale programme helps promote women in tech by exposing female students to the tech industry and offering ideas and thoughts, directly from industry on how to support them to enter it. Through partnering with numerous companies and organisations, UpScale provides students with a series of co-curricular events which improve their digital and soft skills. Providing female students with these skills gives them greater confidence to enter a currently male-dominated industry and over time will reduce the gender imbalance.

UpScale is delighted to have been invited to No. 10 to act as a mentor for women in tech and looks forward to continuing the incredible work being done to boost women’s prospects in this substantial industry.

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