Tag Archives: English and humanities

Conceiving Histories: Being Human 2016

A Birkbeck and Wellcome funded project, Conceiving Histories, is taking part in the Being Human Festival in November 2016, holding a free public event 23rd November 6-8pm in Senate House (book a place here). For more information on the festival, see our news article.

Here, Dr Isabel Davis describes the project which the event runs as part of.

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

If you type into a Google search box ‘Am I…’, ‘Am I pregnant?’ will be one of the first offered searches. The internet can supply some general answers – for example about what might make you pregnant and what pregnancy might feel like – but it can’t, finally, answer the question ‘Am I pregnant?’. Just as much as it is a pragmatic technology, Google is also a convenient and discrete fortune teller here, a place to ask imponderable things. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, in the time before they can test, women and their partners exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited before home pregnancy testing was available: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies. Belief, speculation and fantasy flood into the vacuum created by the absence of objective knowledge. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern.

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories is a new interdisciplinary project initiated by Isabel Davis in the English and Humanities Department. It investigates this time before pregnancy diagnosis: how was it described, negotiated and experienced in the past and how might historical knowledge about the time of pre-pregnancy be used to contribute to debates and questions about becoming a parent, or not, today?

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between academic research and contemporary art practice. Anna Burel, an artist with a long interest in questions about the female body and medicine, is looking at the primary materials gathered by the project. The aim is to use artwork as well as writing to articulate the project’s research findings but also to put different ways of working into dialogue and, in that way, to find new and creative answers to the project’s research questions.

The project works through primary case studies, from different periods of time between the Middle Ages and the late 1970s, when the first home pregnancy tests first became available. The case studies concern hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies, as well as the desire to know about and to diagnose early pregnancy. We will be looking, to give a few examples, at the wishful idea of angel messengers who revealed the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; the pregnancy diagnostic centres in the twentieth century and the logistics of supplying them with hundreds of thousands of tropical carnivorous toads; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century on whose reproductive chances the fortunes of the known world rested; experiments and also plans for experiments to determine the moment of conception; the peculiarity of pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and sensational stories in both historical and literary materials.

Conceiving Histories: At Being Human 2016

We are showcasing some of this material as part of the Being Human Festival. The themes of this year’s Being Human Festival are hope and fear and we are presenting material from two of the project’s case studies to respond to that theme. For hope, we are looking at a strange late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’ which made women look pregnant who really weren’t. We’ll be using this to think about the possibilities for women excluded from the experience of pregnancy and pregnant fashions, the comedy – but also perhaps the humiliation – of pretence.

Our other case study is darker and explores an idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital, described in a commentary on a fraught peerage dispute in 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as Conceiving Histories does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.

The event will include art work and short talks as well as a wine reception. Everyone is welcome but you need to reserve a place here. Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Details: 23rd November. Senate House (show on a map). 6pm – 8pm.

Follow us on twitter @conceivinghists and facebook @conceivinghistories and visit our website

Book a place on the individual events:

Read more about Birkbeck’s involvement in the 2016 Being Human Festival

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Arts Week 2016: Rediscovered!

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2016 event on Wednesday 18 May titled, “Rediscovered! The Story of Birkbeck’s Manuscript and Rare Medieval Book Collection”

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost

How does half a millennium of possession and loss write itself into the history of a book? How can time eat itself into the very pages of a mislaid book? And what happens to a book when no one remembers it?

Rediscovered! at Birkbeck Arts Week invited us to consider these questions through the story of four medieval books found late last year in Birkbeck Library. Uncatalogued and locked away for safe keeping, these books had slipped from memory sometime in the last century – almost certainly not for the first time in their history.

A tale of finding something that once was lost

Telling the story of the books’ rediscovery were Birkbeck’s Anthony Bale and Isabel Davis, but their fascinating talk was more than a tale of finding something that once was lost. It was a talk that swept through 600 years of European history; following the books’ journey between libraries and collections, surviving the Reformation, Napoleonic and world wars, until finally reaching Malet Street sometime in the twentieth century.

Here and there it was possible to catch glimpses of the forgotten books, swapping owners and countries, but mostly their past is silence; as is history on the fate and identities of those who once read and left their marks within these pages. Yet these are organic books, and traces of the lives that made, owned and touched them do survive.

The pages are palimpsests, layered with centuries of the European book trade. From these medieval manuscripts and incunabula the hands of scribes, illuminators, vellum makers, printers, and book binders emerge; leaving behind the fingerprints of culture and commerce, and belief and behaviour. In the beautiful book of hours, from early fifteenth century Paris or Rouen, the face of an enigmatic bear-bird-man watches the reader contemplate the crucifixion.

And so in this strange figure we find just the tiniest glimpse of a domestic lay culture where fantastical creatures could adorn a scene from the passion – reminding us with a jolt that these books are more than objects. These books were made, read and used with purpose. The books belonged to people who wrote in them, drew in them and with them marked the passing of time, until all that survived was the book.

The road to Birkbeck

Fast forward several centuries and we find a Victorian bibliomaniac on the continent, perhaps adding to his 146,000 book collection from the detritus of libraries broken up during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Forward another century and a Birkbeck mathematician, whose studies were broken by the Great War, adds his personal mark of ownership – an image of a fox in a library. Somewhere along the way woodworm creeps in, a book is re-bound, another is bought at auction, one is catalogued and then lost from the system that makes sense of its numbering. Somehow through trade, acquisition and donation the books reach Malet Street, London and then despite being perfectly safe are lost again. Until 2015.

So, what next? Have these books stopped travelling? Well, yes and no. The books will remain at Birkbeck, but a new journey is beginning for them too. These fragile books will be catalogued anew, and securely stored. Yet, through digitisation and plans for online access the books will take new form. From manuscript to early printed book to online edition a new chapter in the rediscovered Birkbeck medieval collection is about to begin.

Read Professor Anthony Bales recent blog: Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

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Meet the Kit de Waal scholar: Stephen Morrison-Burke

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer in Birkbeck External Relations.

During Arts Week, former Birmingham poet laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke, was announced as the inaugural recipient of the Kit de Waal scholarship – a creative writing scholarship specially designed for budding writers who would not otherwise be able to afford a Master’s degree.

Stephen Morrison-Burke

Stephen Morrison-Burke

A few years ago, Stephen’s motivation to write poetry began to give way to a new writing urge: to write prose. The result is his debut novel, The Purple Sun – a semi-biographical tale inspired by his father’s experiences leaving his Jamaican homeland in the 1970s to begin a new life in the UK. This month, Stephen finished the final draft, an 90,000-word manuscript, which follows two-and-a-half years of writing, primarily in the very early mornings. (For the full story, read the news article here)

At the Arts Week event – the Creative Writing Alumni showcase – Stephen offered his thanks for the opportunity to undertake the MA Creative Writing (part-time) programme over the next two years, then delivered a rousing rendition of a poem of his, called Wishlist.

Here, Stephen talks about the scholarship opportunity, and his relationship with writing.

Hi Stephen. Why did you decide to apply for the Kit de Waal scholarship?

“When you are essentially teaching yourself, there’s a lot you don’t learn about the theoretical elements, such as structure, plot, pace and character development, so I thought the opportunity to go through that with professionals in their fields was something I didn’t want to pass up.”

How did you feel when you were interviewed to interview for the scholarship?

“Instantly I was overjoyed. It was a very tough time for me, and it can be pretty lonely writing by yourself. So when I got that through I can’t remember feeling as relieved as that in a long time. It wasn’t necessarily that I thought I could win, it was just more that I saw an opportunity to showcase what I had been working on for so long.

Why did you decide to write a novel?

“I had no intention of writing a novel, that’s the honest truth. It sounds mad, but I just had these gut feelings that wouldn’t go. And when I started to write, I just felt better, like I was finally doing what I was supposed to be doing. I felt relieved. But it’s strange that at the exact same time as I got these feelings, the poetry stopped.

“I had had my busiest month ever in poetry – I had met the Queen, I had travelled round the country, I’d written and performed a poem for Prince William – but come New Years Eve 2013, everything just stopped, and this novel took priority. Since then, I’ve done bits and pieces with poetry, but really I’ve just focused on this novel.”

Stephen Morrison-Burke performing poetry

Stephen Morrison-Burke performing poetry

Poetry vs prose

“Although they are similar, I have to treat them very different. I have to respect the art form of writing novels. Strangely enough, my poetry is mostly storytelling anyway.”

Why do you choose to write at 4am?

“I’m a nightmare. If the sun’s out, I always end up procrastinating looking at my phone or on the internet. If it’s dark, there’s nothing else I can do, so there’s no other choice but to write.”

Do you get writer’s block?

 “I don’t believe in writer’s block. I always believe I can write something, even if it’s nonsense, or just a short poem or something to plug the gap. But the writing is a slog, it’s hard work. There are no two ways about it. I thought it would be easier than it’s been, but I chip away at it one day at a time, one sentence at a time, one word at a time. I just turn up and make sure I’m writing something.”

Why does writing make you feel better?

“I felt like there was a lot I had to say that I wasn’t saying. There was a lot to get off my chest. I’m quite quiet and introverted, so by not getting it out it felt like it was building up. So when I was writing it was cathartic.

“From the things I had learned and experienced living in a tough part of Birmingham, to then boxing for 10 years of my life, to then all this poetry, there was a lot I wanted to say. I just wasn’t saying anything about that, so it was a relief to write it down. I thought I would only write one book and it would all come out in one go, but now that I’ve written one, I feel I could write another ten.”

How has your style developed over time?

“It’s certainly developed. It’s been a mirror of who I am as a person. I started off a little pretentious maybe, trying to impress. And certainly the poetic influence can make you embellish the writing. But the more I went along, and the more I read the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Amy Hempel, the more I realised it can be straight to the point and not too airy fairy. It’s about trying to see things different to how everybody else does, which is why I’m so fascinated with the perspectives of children.”

What can you say about the background to your novel?

“It’s loosely based on a true story – my dad’s. My dad and I have been working on this together since Day One. He’s the one that said ‘you can do something with this, it’s going to be special’. He would always gee me up and gave me the motivation to see it through. It was just me on my computer, and he gave me the motivation to do something.”

(l-r) Kit de Waal, Stephen Morrison-Burke, MA Creative Writing director Julia Bell

(l-r) Kit de Waal, Stephen Morrison-Burke, MA Creative Writing director Julia Bell

The latter half of the book deals with violence. What can you say about that?

“That topic is not something my Dad would go into. That’s where I had to go into my own feelings. This is where I related back to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and started to be creative. It’s not just violence for violence’s sake. I wanted to understand the mind behind violence, and what would drive someone who’s intelligent to turn to that life.”

Does your poetry background influence your prose writing?

“I feel I’m able to draw on it. I focus on the form of novels and sometimes the poetry will come through. For instance sometimes words come out in rhyme. I have to stop myself, but then at times I find it creates a good rhythm to the sentence when two words rhyme. So I would be very careful and selective about how I use poetry. But there is a very thin line between the two, if a line at all. So I let them wrestle between themselves.”

How does it feel when you are in the writing flow?

“Being in the flow is very rare for me, to be honest. I’d compare writing to how I imagine riding rodeo would feel like. You have to hold on as tight as you can until it throws you off, and that’s the end of your day, when you run out of juice. It could be three hours, or one or seven. You just hold on as tight as you can and afterwards you wait for the next day to come round.”

How did you find the interview for the scholarship with Julia Bell and Kit de Waal

“They gave me a lot of encouragement, the fact that I had got that far. On the day I said to them it was great to hear that I was on the right track with my writing. They said it was brilliant, which was actually the first feedback I had had on the writing. I was so happy to hear that.”

What do you want to get out of the MA Creative Writing programme?

“If I’m honest, I came into this wanting to make some kind of living through writing books. But I don’t put any pressure on the course to deliver that for me. My goal is to make a living out of writing and I know the course will help me, to say the least.”

“I really want to contextualise books. When I read them, there’s no context beyond reading the introduction, so for the lecturers to paint a picture of the times the books were written, and to talk about what was going on at social and political levels, will be really useful. As it is right now, I read a book from first chapter to the last, but with little understanding outside of the words I’ve read. So it will be great to sit down with a professional to discuss the whys and hows.”

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Islington 91-year-old resident graduates with theatre degree

A theatre-loving 91-year-old graduated from Birkbeck this week with a Master’s degree in Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

Patricia Bishop and her daughter, Hilary

Patricia Bishop and her daughter, Hilary

As part of her dissertation project, Archway resident ­Patricia Bishop watched 37 performances of Shakespeare’s work at the Globe Theatre in the space of six weeks – at one point seeing three performances in a single day.

One of the UK’s oldest graduates, Patricia received her Master’s degree at a formal graduation ceremony in Senate House, Bloomsbury, on Wednesday (20 April). This is her third degree, having initially graduated with a BA in Psychology in 1945 from Bedford College for Women (now part of Royal Holloway), and then a BA in English from Birkbeck in 2010.

In between these degrees she led a fulfilling career in clinical psychology in England and France, working primarily with young people and their families. She held research and clinical positions in a variety of settings, including the Tavistock Clinic, HM Prison Holloway, and latterly at the Learning disability Services in North London, where she retired at 80.

Patricia's story was covered in the Islington Gazette. Click here to read the article

Patricia’s story was covered in the Islington Gazette. Click here to read the article

Her love of literature and theatre began at a young age when she was a student at Pontefract Girls’ High School in Yorkshire, however she didn’t pursue it as a career path. Upon retiring at the turn of the century, she resolved to fulfill a longtime ambition to explore literature in an academic setting. Birkbeck’s modes of evening and part-time study allowed her to maintain some balance between spending time with her family, some volunteering activities and attending to her studies.

Patricia wasn’t daunted by the classroom environment.

She said: “Of course I was one of the older ones, but most people were in their 20s and 30s which was nice. I have always worked with young people as a psychologist, and so I liked that about the classes.

“In fact the contact with people from different backgrounds and with younger minds was most enjoyable and refreshing. It was good for my morale that younger students often told me that they found my enthusiasm and effort a source of encouragement.”

However, getting to grips with academic writing took some adjustment.

She said: “Although I have been writing reports for years, it’s quite different writing an essay conveying your thoughts on literature. To explain ones enjoyment and to relate it to others’ ideas on the subject is the challenge, but very rewarding as one begins to achieve it. What is important at Birkbeck is that help is available with methods of study and writing in particular in addition to inspiring teachers.”

Patricia was interviewed on BBC Radio London on her graduation day. Listen here (from 02:23:40)

Patricia was interviewed on BBC Radio London on her graduation day. Listen here (from 02:23:40)

In addition to gaining academic support during her two degrees at the College, Patricia also reached out to Birkbeck’s Disability Service and Library for help with mobility and gaining access to learning materials.

“I have huge appreciation for the team at Birkbeck. Throughout my time I have experienced enormous encouragement, support and really practical help,” she said.

For her Master’s dissertation, exploring how Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful without understanding the language, she attended the Globe’s multilingual festival of Shakespeare’s works which ran as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. In total, she saw all 37 productions in the six-week season

“I really did become something of a fixture at the theatre,” said Patricia, who is still a regular audience member, attending the theatre up to twice a month.

This week, she graduated alongside nearly 200 fellow postgraduate students from the college’s School of Arts at an afternoon ceremony held in Senate House’s Beveridge Hall.

Patricia Bishop

Patricia Bishop

In the audience was her daughter Hilary, granddaughters Violet (16) and Leila (13), and son-in-law Daniel, all of whom were very much looking forward to seeing her graduate once more – especially her granddaughters.

“They think it’s great. They’re very happy and proud. Last time I graduated at Christmas time in 2010, my granddaughters came to the ceremony and absolutely loved it. So they were impatient for me to finish as I have been rather slow in completing my MA, and they have been looking forward to the next ceremony,” she said.

Looking forward, while Patricia isn’t planning to pursue another degree, she is continuing to satisfy her academic interests by attending weekly sessions at the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution plus many events and discussions in the literary world such as those held at the University of London and elsewhere

As with her time at university, she said she continues to enjoy “the luxury of studying something in depth, having good teachers, and new experiences”.

Her advice to others is to the point:

“I would say go for it, choose what you really want to study or learn more about. And to succeed, you need to learn to focus.”

Jeremy Corbyn House of Commons

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of the Labour Party, mentioned Patricia’s success during Oral Questions at the House of Commons on Thursday 21April 2016. Click the image above to watch the clip.

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