Lives of Houses: One-Day Colloquium, 27 May

In a letter to his father sent from Florence in September 1826, the 22-year-old Benjamin Disraeli proudly recounts his visit to Tasso’s prison cell in Ferrara, where he marvelled at Byron’s name – “here scratched with a great nail on the brick wall”. In his 1837 novel Venetia, Disraeli’s complex biofictional engagement with his Romantic literary heroes, Marmion Herbert, a curious fictional amalgam of Byron and Shelley, becomes the lucky master of Petrarch’s house at Arquâ and gives orders “that his absence should never deprive a pilgrim from paying his homage to the shrine of genius”. This ‘shrine’ is clearly on the map of the early-nineteenth-century tourist trail of literary celebrity, visited by Herbert’s estranged wife, Lady Annabel, and their daughter, the eponymous heroine, who – like Byron when he visited Tasso’s prison cell and Petrarch’s tomb – can’t resist the urge to leave her own mark: “I must write my name in Petrarch’s house”.

Disraeli’s fantasy of literary pilgrimage pays tribute to the auratic appeal of physical spaces, laying bare the thin line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. They promise privileged access to an individual’s ‘real’, ‘private’ self, the cradle of ‘genius’ and artistic creation, across temporal and spatial distance, tricking us into an illusion of getting closer to the bodies, and therefore the historical ‘truth’ of our subjects. There lies a central ambiguity in the fact that the houses of famous individuals promise access and intimacy, while at the same time they are part the public sphere, ‘homes and haunts’ eagerly sought out by scholars and tourists. They promise authenticity, while at the same time they present a specific version of a life, shaped by socio-political agendas and notions of creating and preserving cultural memory; a version sometimes uneasily positioned between commemoration and commodification.

“Lives of Houses” will explore new ways of thinking about the intersections of biography, material culture, and notions of fame and celebrity. It aims to encourage a dialogue between academics, biographers, curators, and audiences who study, tell, and productively consume the stories of famous or obscure lives through a variety of different media. Questions to be addressed include: Whose life gets commemorated through physical spaces? How do we recover marginal voices? Who are the agents involved in shaping these narratives and what are the media they avail themselves of? What is the balance between historical accuracy and imaginative reconstruction? What is shown, what is concealed? What survives and what is lost, and how do biographers, scholars, curators deal with the challenges posed by presences and absences? How do scholars write their own experience of their subjects’ private space into their work?

The day’s programme features a keynote lecture by Daisy Hay; a roundtable discussion on “Presenting Houses” with Nino Strachey, Serena Dyer, and Alexandra Harris; a panel on “Writers’ Houses” with papers by Alexandra Harris, Frankie Kubicki, and Nicola Watson; and a panel dedicated to “Musicians’ and Architects’ Houses” with papers by Gillian Darley, Lucy Walker and James Grasby.

Click here for more information and to book your place.

 

 

Faith Biography

On Tuesday 23rd May we welcome Professors Heather Walton and Peter Ackers to Wolfson College to give a lunchtime seminar on faith biography. Spiritual autobiographies, such as those famously composed by Augustine, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, constitute the earliest forms of life writing. The genre has changed and developed to the modern era. Contemporary spiritual life writers must engage with pressing challenges such as the feminist critique of male-centred religious practice, emerging reconceptions of materiality and the relation between spirituality and embodiment. Heather discusses her response to these issues in constructing her own spiritual life writing.

Christianity and Communism have been two themes of British Labour History. Peter brings them together by focusing on the common experience of ‘religious’ conversion & loss of faith and often the shift from one faith to the other. He explores the faith and raw emotion that lies beneath the rational surface of orthodox Labour History, discussing: WT Miller, a moderate religious nonconformist; Arthur Horner, Communist leader of the National Union of Mineworkers; and Professor Hugh Clegg, an Industrial Relations academic and Cold War social democrat. OCLW’s Katherine Collins explores their work:

Katherine Collins: You are both what we might call ‘applied life-writers’ in the sense that the life-writing itself is not the end of the story for you: you’re seeking to go beyond it to gain theoretical and historical insights. So I wonder if you might think of life-writing as a research method, or a personal, spiritual or creative practice, or something else… What is life-writing to you?

Peter Ackers: I began doing Biographical research with my PhD, completed in 1993. I was a Sociologist interested in History and the big inspiration was Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with its individual exemplars. I hadn’t thought it through then, but I think a central reason for my Biographical & Historical ‘turn’ was a sense that ‘people matter’ and a reaction against institutional and structural accounts that downplay human agency. So to begin with there was a cold social science rationale for life writing. However, I’ve also been a Diary writer and I’ve always seen myself at the soft end of the social sciences close to English and History and interested in literary style. So I’ve come to see life writing as something more than a just social science method – though I’ve begun to include personal experience in more general articles – and as a more internal personal, intellectual and spiritual form of communication; hence our seminar.

Heather Walton: My first go at life writing was an attempt to understand what had contributed to my mother’s depression which deeply affected my childhood. I found that it was a way of engaging academically, politically and personally all at the same time and it was also something very active and empowering in a context where I could do little to change circumstances. I became more deeply engaged with life writing during a ten year period of infertility. Again it was a way of becoming creative in a very ‘barren’ place. The writing  did not resolve things but allowed me to think politically and spirituality about embodiment, generatively and loss. It was challenging but also comforting. It took me a while to realise that life writing could also engage theologically with big questions by rooting these in the particularity of my own story. Then there was no going back!

KC: Christian religious practice and Communist and left-wing movements have both been identified as male-dominated, perhaps even misogynistic in philosophy and praxis. Does the writing you work with bear out this assumption? And if so, how do you deal with it in your own writing?

PA: In my Labour History writing, I’ve reacted against a ‘committed’ Socialist approach that uses the past to build support for current political positions. Though I’m still interested in History & Policy in a broader, more critical sense. And our new edited book, Ackers and Reid, Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain: Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave, December 2016) concludes by exploring the relevance of a tradition of associational life and civil society for us today. However, I’m also aware of anachronism and of not judging the past by the standards of the present. I think too that, in their time, many Christians and Socialists were pioneers of equal rights. I’m highly critical of Communism, but there’s no doubt that British Communists often championed the cause of women and ethnic minorities by the standards of their time. Some Protestant Christian groups, such as Congregationalists, Quakers and Methodists, also pioneered women’s church leadership, again by the standards of their time. Finally, we shouldn’t lose class in this discussion and the working class men (mainly) I’ve written about remain important historical subjects, warts and all. I think today’s heightened awareness of gender and ethnicity is valuable in making Historians ask new questions and avoiding the old tendency to see men as the generic working classes.

HW: I think the traditions, ideologies and worldviews that shape Western culture are all male-centred and misogynistic to some extent. Working in theology and spirituality you are never really in a position to forget this or get too comfortable – which is a good thing I suppose. The way I respond is by deliberately assuming a ‘feminine’ voice in my life writing. This can appear fragmented, childlike and partial but I think it does challenge the dominant registers simply by not being logocentric or authoritative. I also think a lot of the authority of received male centred perspectives is often dissolved by humour. So if my authorial voice is ‘flimsy’ and ‘funny’ and I am talking about God then that is already doing something a bit different that shifts the old world on its axis just a little.

KC: You both seem to operate at an intersection of spiritual and political concerns. Can you elaborate on the differences you perceive between these two contexts? For example, there might be different senses of historical time, or perhaps temporal progression, in spiritual and political life-writing?

PA: I’m not so sure the difference between spiritual and political concerns is so great, particularly when you reach the most committed end of the political spectrum, like Communism – as our seminar explores. Both reach into an individual’s core identity and it’s no accident that Crossman’s 1950 edited collection on former Communist believers is title, The God that Failed. I’m a former Euro-Communist, former member of the Labour Party, former Methodist and now current agnostic Anglican Christian. At 60 I’m disillusioned with strong, all-encompassing belief systems, and an advocate of pragmatic politics, but I’m still fascinated by the search for meaning. This has been a central theme of my own life, which draws me to Biography – to access other individual’s journeys; to memoir – to reflect on my own; and to life writing in general.

HW: Never really been able to distinguish between the political and the spiritual myself. These spheres together are what fascinate me the most and actually they both call forth the passion, wonder and disciplined commitment that make living worthwhile and writing matter. We have some great examples in literature of the uniting of these perspectives (Blake obviously but also Emily Dickenson, Alice Walker – too many to mention really). In life writing I have been particularly influenced by the work of Etty Hillesum and Elizabeth Smart who seem to write from a world infused by both glory and suffering and the amazing everyday. I tend to prefer the radical and the unorthodox in politics and faith but still find ordinary religious practice deeply meaningful. I go to Church!

Photo by Austin Ban (CC0 1.0)

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Poems of Life and Death

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Pursuer or pursued? Holmes on biography

‘If we are to have any hope of making a better world, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively.’

On 9 May, we’re delighted to welcome Professor Richard Holmes to Wolfson College, to give the Richard Ellman Lecture.

For Holmes, biography has always been a personal adventure of exploration and pursuit, a ‘handshake across time, cultures, beliefs, disciplines and genders.’ He is the author of Footsteps, a bestselling book of essays blending travel, memoir and biographical investigations, and the acclaimed companion collection Sidetracks, a captivating mixture of biography and memoir. In his latest book, This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, Holmes roams widely through the arts, science, poetry, and more than 200 of his own working notebooks to offer an insider’s account of a biographer’s world: travelling, experimenting, teaching, forgetting, ballooning.

Holmes’s major works of Romantic biography include: Shelley: The Pursuit,which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1974. Two volumes on Coleridge: Early Visions, which was awarded the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Prize (now the Costa Book Awards); and Darker Reflections, which won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, concerning the friendship between eighteenth-century British literary figures Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage, won the James Tait Black Prize. He is the author of bestselling book The Age of Wonder How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and several drama-documentaries for BBC Radio, most recently The Frankenstein Experiment (2002), and A Cloud in a Paper Bag (2007) about 18th century balloon mania.

Are you a member of Wolfson College? Do you have an object with a story to tell? A life story to share?

The Wolfson Life-Stories Day is back, and this year it will be accompanied by an exhibitionA Day in the Life of a College. Wolfson through its Objects.

We are seeking members of College to contribute to either or both events. Please click here for more information.

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The Self in Verse. Exploring Autobiographical Poetry

 

Poetry as a means of self-expression has fascinated writers throughout the ages and cultures. Early cases in point are ancient authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose Latin poems Carmina and Tristia treat questions of lives faced with controversy and exile. In the Middle Ages, French and German troubadours such as Chrétien de Troyes and Walther von der Vogelweide sought to cultivate a courtly mode of self-fashioning in their songs. Likewise, ever since the Renaissance, eminent writers have penned some of their most important works in the form of autobiographical poems. Dante’s Vita Nuova, Petrarch’s Canzionere, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Goethe’s Sesenheimer Lieder, Wordsworth’s Prelude are but a few, crucial milestones of the genre. Autobiographical approaches to considering the self are located at the very centre of lyrical expression: whether in love poems, religious poetry, historiographic or epic poems, to name but a few, the poet is often intertwined with the text in an approach to telling selfhood. In the 20th and 21st centuries, autobiographical poetry has also been widely practised throughout the literatures, with Modernists and Postmodernists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn, and the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (“Otobiyografi”, 1961) stretching the boundaries of life-writing in verse.

Yet scholarly approaches to the art of autobiographical writing are typically focused on prose narrative forms rather than on poetry. It is often overlooked that the long history of life writing has spawned a rich corpus of self-portraits in versified, rhythmic, or otherwise deliberately bound language.

This conference, a collaboration between the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, the Faculties of English and Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, brings together researchers interested in autobiographical poetry or the ‘writing of the self’ in lyric forms, raising major questions about non-narrative means of self-articulation and self-portraiture and forms of life-writing specific to poetry. Aspects addressed in the keynote papers include the use of names in poetry, the articulation of gender, poetic ‘masks’, and voicing and the ‘sound of the self’. With scholars from both English and Modern Languages drawn from four countries among the participants, our conference will provide a rare opportunity to compare current theoretical positions in different national contexts and disciplines and refine our methodologies through dialogue.

9-11 April 2017, St Hilda’s College, Oxford

Convenors: Dr Martin Kindermann, Dr Johannes Görbert, Marie Lindskov Hansen (FU Berlin), Dr Georgina Paul (St Hilda’s College, Oxford)

Photo by Álvaro Serrano (CC0 1.0)

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Life Goes On: How people in northern Rwanda make sense of psychosocial suffering from war and healing

CNR-TCRU Postgraduate Narrative Research Seminars, 2016 – 17

Organised by the Centre for Narrative Research (CNR), University of East London and the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), UCL Institute of Education

Yuko Otake, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Northern Rwanda experienced wars between 1990 and 2000, including the civil war 1990-1994, the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and the war of the abacengezi 1997-2000. The region was most catastrophically affected by the war of the Abacengezi during which mass killings took place on a daily basis. For political reasons, international aid interventions as well as government support to this area have been extremely limited, whereas grassroots communities have played a significant role in psychosocial healing of the people.

This ethnographic study explores the ways in which local communities in northern Rwanda heal psychosocial suffering in the context of limited humanitarian aid. Employing a narrative approach, it unpacks experience of psychosocial suffering, elaborates the ways in which communities heal themselves, and describes the meaning of ‘healing’ in the light of local views of morality, life and death. Qualitative analysis drew on participant observation, in-depth interviews, and focus-group discussions based on ten months of ethnographic fieldwork, which built on prior life and work experience in the field over two years.

Findings first describe local conceptualizations of psychosocial sufferings. These fell on a spectrum constructed by the degree of social disconnection reported by participants and how far their thoughts and memories were oriented towards a traumatic past. A key element of suffering was the literal ‘unspeakability’ of many wounds due to politically sensitive circumstances. This related to difficulties in making sense of what participants have experienced. Narratives of healing pathways described a common theme of leaving the past behind and going forward to the future through participation in different communities. In the context of the unspeakability of many traumas, communities provided alternative ways of healing from ‘speaking’ of the trauma directly. These include: allowing members to make sense of their sufferings through religious activities, everyday-life practices, and life-event ceremonies.

The study highlights that, in this setting, healing is not conceptualized as ‘recovery’ as assumed by Western theories, but rather, as a trajectory of ‘life goes on’: that is, that time continues into the future. In these communities’ accounts of healing, the focus is not on traumatic time but on time ‘being lived’ as part of life, and a series of lives beyond generations, through sharing everyday life and significant life events. In other words, healing can take place through social connection in a wider time-scale than trauma.

Yuko Otake is a PhD student at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and recently finished writing her thesis “Life Goes On: Psychosocial sufferings from war and healing pathways in northern Rwanda”. With academic background of psychology and public health, her work focuses on healing and resilience of war-affected communities. Before starting her PhD, she was working for Japan International Cooperation Agency in Rwanda and assisted community reconstruction from the war and genocide, which provided a foundation for her PhD study. She is also an awardee of the World Bank scholarship and the emerging scholar award by the Japanese Association of Qualitative Psychology.

Tuesday 4th April 2017, 5 – 6.30pm
Library, Thomas Coram Research Unit 
27 – 28 Woburn Square, London WC1H 0AA
All welcome, particularly graduate students.

For further details please contact Corinne Squire at c.squire@uel.ac.uk or
Xin Guo, Thomas Coram Research Unit graduate partner, xin.guox02@gmail.com
Details are also on the CNR website

The Lives of Houses

Saturday, 27 May 2017, 9:30am-5.30pm
Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford OX2 6UD

A one-day colloquium convened by Oliver Cox & Sandra Mayer, and hosted by OCLW in collaboration with TORCH, will bring together academics, biographers and curators to explore the ways in which the life stories of well-known individuals are preserved and presented through the architecture and material culture of their homes. Talks on musicians’, architects’ and writers’ houses will focus on the intersections of life-writing and notions of fame and celebrity through physical spaces and objects. A plenary lecture by Daisy Hay on “Writing Space in Mr and Mrs Disraeli and Dinner with Joseph Johnson” and papers by:

  • Gillian Darley (Sir John Soane)
  • Lucy Walker (Benjamin Britten’s The Red House)
  • James Grasby (Edward Elgar Birthplace)
  • Alexandra Harris (William Cowper, John Clare and Virginia Woolf)
  • Frankie Kubicki (Charles Dickens Museum)
  • Nicola Watson (Shakespeare’s New Place)

Finally, a round table featuring Head of Specialist Advice for the National Trust, Nino Strachey, biographer and broadcaster Alexandra Harris, and art historian and curator Serena Dyer, the expert panel will cast a spotlight on the strategies available to those who open and present these houses to the public today.

Booking essential! Click here to reserve your place.

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Photo by Annie Spratt (CC0 1.0)

Dirty Little Secrets Of The Caspian

A streak of black for depression, blue for nostalgic memories of home, red for love, I put above all else, yellow for the hatred of injustice, green for the life I chose to not end, white for the peace I desperately seek. Here is a portrait painted with words.

It was time. After much encouragement and practice with my beloved husband Payam, I finally picked up the phone. I drew a deep breath to steady myself and dialed the number to my girlhood best friend in Iran.

One beep, two beeps, three beeps, four beeps…

“Why is she not answering?!”

Both relieved and annoyed, I knew that calling anywhere in the Middle East usually took a few attempts before one finally got through.

I tried again.

After two beeps, she picked up. “Hello.”

I was speechless.

“Hello? Hello?” My friend Delara’s familiar cracked voice came from my iPhone speaker.

I sat on the cold floor of our studio flat in London, gazing out through the window onto the wooden fence.

Frozen, heart racing, unable to speak.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes… Hi… It’s me… Raha.”

After twenty-three years, I was finally speaking to my childhood best friend, whom I had tried so hard to wipe from my memory.

After the initial shock and an avalanche of emotions, we were able to catch up.

She asked me how things were, and I told her that I was going to therapy, but I didn’t say what for. I told her that I was also taking a short biography writing course.

Payam helped me with the translation a few times; my Farsi had grown rusty without use. When I told her the name of the course in Farsi, she couldn’t believe it.

“Do you remember trying to convince me to write our life stories just before you left Iran? You even started yours in a notebook. I still have it.”

“What notebook?”

“The wounded birds…don’t you remember?”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

She continued, “You had written poems in the beginning of the notebook. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the shrieks in the silence of the mountains’… Remember now?”

As soon as she said that, I remembered the notebook and the poems… and the consuming pain I was trying to exorcise out by writing.

“I don’t know why I haven’t called for twenty-three years.”

It was a lie. I knew exactly why I had not called her; I just couldn’t tell her the truth because I was afraid of the impact it would have on her.

After what felt like a long pause, she said, “I feel the same way. I think I just wanted to hold on to the good memories. For some reason that I haven’t worked out yet, I think I was afraid of what would happen if we spoke. It was just too difficult. Maybe, because when you left for Pakistan everything happened so quickly and we didn’t even say goodbye properly. I heard through the grapevine that after Pakistan you were in Australia, and now married that famous guy everyone is obsessed with and moved to London. Is that true? How did you even meet him?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” I said.

“You know, I left our tiny old town too, left university, got married, had a baby and moved to North of Iran, near the Caspian Sea.” she said.

Every time I think about ‘The Caspian Sea,’ a breaking wave of anxiety sweeps me off my feet into panic. But this time, I gasped for air in an attempt to keep my anxiety in check.

I asked if she had moved north into her grandparents’ house, which also happened to be one of my father’s hideouts from the authorities, and where our families had spent one summer together just before I was smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan.

“Yes, for a while, but recently we moved a few houses down the road from them, not long after this beautiful boy was born,” she said in a peaceful voice, “I’m actually looking out onto our garden as I am speaking to you.”

“Wait… so does that mean you still see your grandparents and… umm… and your uncle?” I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say his name.

“Yes, they are all here – at my grandparents’ same old house.” she said.

My heart stopped. That house was where her uncle sexually abused us both, when we were nine—twenty-three years ago.

“Can you tell from my voice that I am freezing here in London?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I just couldn’t bring it up.

I promised to call her again. It has been one year, one month and a few days since that day.

To be continued…

By Tellurian Writes

www.tellurianwrites.com
@tellurianwrites

Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)

Maps without borders: Stories of civic science in action

This storytelling exhibition at University College London showcases powerful aerial maps created by citizens using kites, balloons, and point-and-shoot cameras. They explore how people around the world are harnessing the power of Do-It-Yourself techniques to address local environmental, social and political matters.

Sitting around a proverbial campfire, they will tell four stories of unsung heroes in the U.S. and the Middle East, who have crafted tools and gathered evidence that has reconfigured the perception of space, place, and issues that shape their lives.

For more information…