William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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James Joyce on TV

Dr Joseph Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, reports on a recent film screening in celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.ulyssesJames Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on 16 June, which has accordingly come to be celebrated each year as ‘Bloomsday’, in honour of the protagonist Leopold Bloom. Celebrations in Dublin started in 1954, 50 years after the book’s setting, with a pilgrimage around the city by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and friends; in 1982, Joyce’s own centenary, it finally started to become the wider civic festival that it is for Dublin today. Around the world, many devotees of Joyce like to do something to mark the date: only a minority dress in Edwardian costume, but many gather to read from the novel. We have held such readings at Birkbeck in recent years.

In 2017, Birkbeck’s Bloomsday celebration was distinctive: an evening screening of two very rarely seen films about Joyce, organized by Michael Garrad – a cinema programmer and graduate of our MA Modern & Contemporary Literature – with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was heartening to see a large and engaged audience turn up to spend two hours in the dark, even on a sunny evening worthy of Joyce’s summery book. Michael Garrad expertly introduced the films, and held a conversation afterward with documentary film-maker Clare Tavernor and me.

The first film was Anthony Burgess’s documentary Silence, Exile and Cunning (1965). This black and white film of c.45 minutes was made in the BBC strand Monitor, pioneered by Huw Wheldon; the film was produced by Jonathan Miller who had emerged from the Beyond the Fringe set. The film thus exemplifies some aspects of British television culture in the 1960s: adventurous arts programming in the form of personal essay films, with auteurs and artists like Burgess given their head in a relatively free and experimental culture of programme-making. There is a risk of misguidedly idealizing a televisual golden age of the 1960s and 1970s at the expense of the present, but it seems true that certain possibilities existed then because of a less bureaucratic system. Clare commented with amusement afterwards that Burgess’s method had been ‘I’m not going to interview anybody – it’ll just be about me’. His film is indeed centred around his monologue, delivered to camera on Dublin location or as voiceover. Burgess’s voice is punctuated by others reading from Joyce’s writings, including a Leopold and Molly Bloom who both sounded lower in class status than those we have come to know from the more recent CD renditions by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan.

Burgess’s film is visually quite striking, using still images and close-ups of waves and water, as well as monochrome panoramas of Dublin Bay and scans across old photographs of the streets of Edwardian Dublin.  In its use of a kind of montage along with Joyce’s words, it struck me that the film anticipated Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, shot at similar locations and released two years later. Burgess’s exposition places strong emphasis on Catholicism as a matter of guilt and struggle, with which he – calling himself a ‘renegade Catholic’ – openly identifies. He suggests that in embracing the story of Daedalus and the framework of Homer, Joyce fled from a pained Catholic world to one of ‘guilt-free Greek myth’. After the close of Molly Bloom’s monologue, one might expect the film to end – but Burgess takes it a stage further, with a riverine passage from Finnegans Wake. Burgess’s film shows some ambition in extending its coverage to Joyce’s most challenging work.

Joyce in June is a very different artefact. Filmed in the centenary year  of 1982, it starts as a biopic of Joyce, aged 22, in June 1904. Real events are depicted, like Joyce’s drunken collapse in the hallway of the Abbey Theatre. This version of the writer is talented and witty, yet also irritating and arrogant. The depiction might be uncomfortably, insightfully close to the truth about the young Joyce, in a way easily lost amid reverence for the artist. The film enters its second phase when Joyce poses for a photograph by his friend Constantine Curran, which will become the best-known portrait of this artist as a young man. Waiting for the camera to do its work, Joyce enters a reverie which takes up the next 50 minutes of screen time. It comprises an aftermath of Ulysses: Molly Bloom’s trip to Belfast on her concert tour with Blazes Boylan, along with a number of other vocal artists pulled together from Joyce’s pages (Bartell d’Arcy, J.C. Doyle, Fanny M’Coy the wife of C.P. M’Coy from the ‘Lotus Eaters’ episode), and piano accompaniment from Stephen Rea’s character: one Michael Macintosh, a version of the most elusive figures in Ulysses. During the trip Blazes Boylan proves ever more unscrupulous, then finally receives nominatively determined comeuppance by setting fire to his boot: a spectacle happily witnessed by Leopold Bloom who has made a surprise late entrance.

Michael Garrad suggested that the BBC had filmed the story because rights to Ulysses itself were unavailable. The resulting creative work is bizarrely offbeat (given that Joyce didn’t consider the outline of Ulysses itself till later, it is odd that he is seen here already dreaming up its sequel), yet unique and entertaining. If the novel as a whole was legally off limits, its text doesn’t seem to have been, as the script is strewn with repurposed phrases from Joyce’s writing. It seemed to me that Joyce in June was among other things a more Wildean Joyce than usual: the author himself cast as an aphoristic drawing-room dandy, and his imagined narrative at times taking the form of farce. One of the many audience members at the screening was Bernard McGinley, a dedicated scholar of Joycean ephemera for decades. He reported that he had never seen either of the films: a good indication of what a rarity this double screening was, and how much obscure but fascinating material still waits to be rediscovered from the archives of British television.

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Child Be Strange: A Symposium on Penda’s Fen

Dr Joseph Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, comments on a recent symposium and screening of cult film Penda’s Fen. pinvin-text

The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised.

Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place of women in the film; Yvonne Salmon of the University of Cambridge, who spoke on the recent assembly of the canon of ‘Occulture’; and Beth Whalley, a researcher from King’s College London who brought expertise in medieval history to bear on this late twentieth-century work.

Birkbeck’s Roger Luckhurst opened the day by situating Penda’s Fen in a ‘polytemporal 1970s’ of texts that combine traces of different periods, suggesting that such combinations were often a response to periods of social crisis. Characteristically of his work as a cultural historian, Luckhurst did not discuss Penda’s Fen in isolation but as part of a cluster of other texts from the period, including the 1977 children’s TV drama Children of the Stones and the fiction of Alan Garner. Such texts became increasingly familiar reference points during the day, as an ‘eerie’ version of the 1970s materialized through the mists of cultural history. Recent ideas of sonic ‘hauntology’ and the comic period spookiness of Scarfolk Council are relevant co-ordinates, though they also risk anachronism in being imposed on a work composed, as Luckhurst pointed out at the close of the day, from a richly educated post-war sensibility.

Speakers brought specific angles. Craig Wallace (Queen’s University Belfast) compared Penda’s Fen to other legends of sleeping kings who will return in times of crisis – not least King Arthur. Andy W. Smith (University of South Wales) set the play in the context of Manichean religion. BFI programmer Will Fowler and experimental poet Daniel O’Donnell Smith (another Birkbeck graduate) offered responses which were at times openly subjective and personal.

Carl Phelpstead (still another presenter based in Wales, quite suitably for the play’s geographical setting and interest in Anglo-Welsh encounters) situated Rudkin alongside other writers, including Geoffrey Hill and, fascinatingly, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Riders of Rohan were said to be based in part on Mercian history. Phelpstead’s clear and erudite presentation was accompanied by images of the region today, lush and green yet also peppered with quirky details, taken by his brother on a research trip. Beth Whalley also showed us images of a trip to the real Pinvin, inspiration for the play. Her paper brought together not just a detailed account of the work itself and a comparison with Hill’s King Offa, but also the natural history of fens as material environments, and new emphases on their social history in medieval times. In its interdisciplinary range Whalley’s was one of the day’s richest presentations.

Yet amid all this emphasis on the content of the play, I was particularly intrigued about another aspect: the play’s place in the history of television and the institutions of the BBC. This was addressed by David Rolinson (University of Stirling), who explained that he had put together a day-by-day calendar of the entire creation of Penda’s Fen – the kind of obsessively complete coverage one might just about expect with Guernica or Citizen Kane. Through research in BBC archives, Rolinson had unearthed extraordinary materials: letters from writer and director; details of a wrap party after shooting dubbed Penda’s Fun; duty logs recording viewers’ calls and letters to the broadcaster (often expressing dissatisfaction, in the age of Mary Whitehouse). Such material is a valuable addition to the discussion, giving us a salutary reminder of how the play’s mystical aura was in fact generated by mundane work within conventions of television production of the time.

The event closed with a Q&A conference call to David Rudkin at his home. As his rich voice with its Ulster traces resounded through the darkened theatre, the effect was akin to a séance: an apt image of communication for this ‘unburied’ work.

 

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Dystopia Now

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker from Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities

dystopiaOn Friday 26 May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17.

Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history. To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread.

In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had been occluded. Laura De Simoni, in a study of Philip Ridley, reminded us of how dystopia can be represented on the stage as well as the page.

In a panel on gender and dystopia, Nick Hubble read the work of Naomi Alderman and Iain M. Banks, while Sean Donnelly considered the value of young women as potential role models in dystopian Young Adult fiction. The symposium also contained a panel dedicated to the work of MA students. I was only able to catch the third of three papers here, but this – Eden Davis’s reading of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge (2013) in light of the history of counterculture – was impressively erudite and delivered with panache. I heard good things, too, about the two MA speakers I had missed, Frank Jackman and Lawrence Jones.

The afternoon brought two papers discussing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006): Alice Reeve-Tucker stressing its element of Christian redemption, Diletta De Cristofaro making a case about the treatment of time in this and other narratives. A question from the floor raised the issue of science fiction and literary fiction as different, though perhaps overlapping spheres. This was one of the issues that remained of interest to me: how far does dystopia belong to SF, and how far have such issues spread beyond particular genres into what is often called the literary mainstream? The same point might apply to the author Cory Doctorow, whose brand new novel Walkaway was discussed by Chris Pak. An impressive voice in recent science fiction studies, Pak gave the impression that his work was broadening its remit, though his use of the term ‘neoliberalism’ to designate the world system was queried in the wake of recent claims of the retreat of globalization.

Hollie Johnson introduced us to a vision of ecological dystopia in the age of climate change, which was echoed in Amy Butt’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140, in which sea levels have risen around Manhattan. Butt’s paper was distinctive in reading dystopian fictions alongside architectural practice. I found it particularly interesting that she used illustrations of the new architecture posited by novels, including Robinson’s. Butt demonstrated how such visual imaginations of a high-rise world can be a bridge between dystopian fiction and actual city planning, though she also expressed caution about the distortions that illustrations can produce as representations of literary narratives.

Where Caroline Edwards’ opening keynote had grounded us in dystopia’s history, Mark Bould’s closing address was oriented to the present. Bould started from recent dismissals of dystopia as ‘monotonous’ and ‘politically wrong’ by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek respectively: while reluctant to agree with them, he expressed distrust of dystopia as an adequate form for our time. Despite Ray Bradbury’s suggestion that the point of dystopia was to prevent, not predict, the future, Bould declared that such fictions seemed to have done little to prevent the worst aspects of the contemporary world. Indeed Bould limned a damning picture of that world, arguing for the affinities of the contemporary West with fascism. Perhaps the trouble with dystopia, Bould proposed, is that it is no longer sufficiently different from our shared reality. Bould’s barnstorming address closed our day on dystopia by provocatively questioning the value of the genre. Still, the discussions throughout the day gave evidence of the critical reading and thinking that people are doing under this rubric. Notwithstanding the ominous global developments implicit throughout the day’s discussions, it was inspiring to see so many scholars come together, share their work and make connections.

 

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