This post appeared originally on the Writers’ HQ blog.
Recently, I’ve been waking up with this feeling in my gut. “I’m done,” I say to myself. “I’m done. I’m finished. I’m over it.”
I get up and write because it’s my job and I have to but it’s dry. It’s bloodless. It hurts, and it never quite says the things I mean.
I haven’t been able to articulate quite what the feeling is, but I’ve been seeing it everywhere. My friends message me and say ‘I’m exhausted. I’m done. Let’s go.”
We joke about living on a women-only commune in houses just far enough apart that we don’t actually have to see each other very often. The kids can do a whole Lord of the Flies thing in our lush green acres while we lounge around reading books and creating art and, you know, tidying up after ourselves and being considerate and stuff.
I see it in the news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has had enough of your bullshit. Rose McGowan has had enough of your bullshit. Ursula Le Guin and Carrie Fisher hang over us, their ferocity burning through the tissue-thin membrane between life and death, and they too have had enough of your bullshit.
This year I turn 40. An obligation I find myself unable to cancel with a hastily written text. “Rly sorry but just too tired. Next wk?” It comes with equal parts trepidation and excitement. 50% of the way through life, but almost 100% of the way to not giving a single shit about what you think any more.
Predictably, and with regretful cliché, this grand old ageing has brought with it some intense introspection of the navel kind, and a little bit of therapy. “What am I even doing with my life, you know? I’m just not in the place I thought I’d be. And my writing is never quite good enough. I keep getting to the penultimate rung of the ladder and then falling flat on my face. But it’s not so much falling. It’s more like I fling myself off it. I just don’t get why. I know I’m like super privileged with my house and my whiteness and my tiny liberal bubble but somehow it’s just not enough.”
But also something else. Something I’d almost forgotten, just not forgotten enough. Hashtag me too. Brace for impact.
When I was sixteen, I found myself in a relationship with a Bad Man. He was older than me, and not very bright. He wasn’t so much intentionally malicious as he was a victim of his own circumstance. But still. We know how this story goes.
This was all the way back in the mid-nineties. Back then, there wasn’t the language we have now around coercive control and emotional abuse. Already an angry, confused, largely friendless and quite weird teenager, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the community to explain to anyone what was going on. And obviously you can’t tell your parents. Can you imagine their horror? So, it went on. And then, finally, it stopped.
I continued being an angry, confused and quite weird teenager and then morphed into the same but aged 20-and-a-bit. For a few years, I made increasingly erratic and unhealthy choices – some the standard fare of growing up, others the act of a person in desperate need of something. Until one day I woke up and realised if something didn’t change I would die. Literal, physical, actual real-life death. Or worse: a spiritual death. “I don’t have time to die right now,” I thought to myself. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs doing first.”
So I gathered up the scattered remains of myself and tucked them away in a little box, like a bunch of ugly jewellery and that no one wants to admit owning, and told it to sit still and don’t you dare move and just fucking well stay there for God’s sake stop messing everything up. I went and made a life for myself. A really great life, with wonderful friends and a great job and house (with a mortgage! No one can get a mortgage anymore! Look how well we’re doing!), a husband whose dysfunctions tessellate pretty well with my dysfunctions, a couple of bonkers kids hellbent on destroying us, and a whole bunch of laughter. But still. That box of ugly jewellery sits there.
Then all of a sudden, as if from nowhere, there’s nearly-40 and my navel and waking up thinking “I’m done. But what?”
I kept reading the #metoo stories and found I was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The stories were starting to hurt. Because I’m not a victim. I’m not scared. I have agency. I made conscious choices. And, also by the way, look at all this cool stuff I’ve done! I’m badass. You can’t touch me. Them too. Not me too.
By this point I had stopped writing entirely. I can handle rejections. That’s just part of what I signed up for. I can’t handle the realisation that suddenly there’s a huge space inside me that I can’t access. It’s shaped like a jewellery box full of awful tat and it’s impenetrable and it’s stopping me in my tracks and telling me: not you. Keep your head down.
Every day I teach my students that the most important thing is to be brave. To be vulnerable and find strength through resilience. To find their fundamental human truth, even if it hurts, even if it burns, and write about that. I tell them to do as I say, not as I do. I don’t tell them that I am a dreadful hypocrite.
My therapist is nearly 50. She’s been married three times. She’s insightful and uncompromising and she has had enough of your bullshit. She tells me my husband can do the fucking dishes or pack his bag and leave because who wants to be married to a twelve-year-old? I quietly love her, and I snigger into my tear-soaked tissue.
I don’t get it, I tell her. I can never quite get where I’m going. It’s like my sat nav doubles back five miles before the end. I tell her I’m only here to talk about right now and ugh she wouldn’t even want to hear the bad things I’ve done in the past. That’s why I can never be a politician, ha ha. Skeletons in the closet. Black jewellery boxes full of ugly paste.
Go on then, she challenges. How bad? Did you murder someone? “I had this relationship,” I say. “I stayed. I mean why did I do that? What an idiot. And afterwards, well, you know, I drank a lot. I did some really sketchy things with some pretty awful people.”
She looks at me in silence, her face full of confusion. “You do know you didn’t do anything bad, don’t you?”, she says. “But what if people found out?” I say. “What on Earth would they think?”
She raises her eyebrow and I realise: this is how the power structures assert themselves. This is how they persist. The true power of abuse lies not in the physical act itself – bruises fade, cuts mend – but in the silence we must endure in order to protect those wounds which don’t heal so easily.
Later I message a friend. “I’m trying to write a thing that I don’t quite have the words for yet.”
“Oh yes?” she replies.
“Yeah. Something about how the real consequence of patriarchy isn’t the physical submission of women but our silence. How we question our ability and our right to participate in society or to create art. How we sit down quietly because we don’t want to be the bad girl, we don’t want to upset anyone – imagine how horrified our parents would be if they knew? How disappointed in us. I couldn’t put them through that. How we don’t want a particular man or men to see us in public because if they did they might point their fingers and tell their friends what they did to us and, of course, it’s our fault. We’re the bad ones. We’re the dirty ones. We don’t want to have to explain why we didn’t speak up, why we didn’t leave. Why we weren’t better or stronger. Why we didn’t hold out our hand, a pulse of electricity firing from our palms, and cry STOP. And so we just sit back and say ‘one day, one day’. And it turns out I’ve spent twenty-five bastarding years of my life being scared of standing up in case someone did that to me and I. Am. Done.”
“This fills my heart with fire,” she says. “The world isn’t ready for the real feminine. We’ve forgotten the goddess of fire and rage and chaos.”
“Cool,” I say.
“Cool,” she says.
On Twitter the other day, I told a man I wasn’t all that interested in his opinion about the lived experiences of women. He accused me of attempting social domination through exclusion. I laughed. Men (not all) have this sussed. One act of physical aggression, one tiny sliver of one day, can silence a woman for life. And once you hide one thing so momentous, you might as well hide all the other, smaller things, because probably that’s for the best. You know how it is. If we don’t listen to the big things, why listen to the small? And if everything is hidden, well then, what’s the point of you again?
Once you remove a person’s story from society, you remove them from history. You remove them from ever existing at all. This is the real goal; the prize we are desperately fighting for. Not just the freedom from physical and emotional assault but the freedom to participate in the world without fear, the freedom to have a voice, to create art, to be heard. To be seen. To be valued. To exist.
And it’s not just that silence is compliance, as the old slogan tells us. It’s that it allows the contents of that ugly box to fester. With each passing year quietly eating into its host, telling her that she better not tell, she better keep it quiet, she better not put herself anywhere that she might be seen, just in case it is her fault after all, just in case those fingers point at her – bad girl, look what she did. Then, after a while, a few years maybe, what’s the point of speaking up at all? Why didn’t you say something at the time? Why didn’t you kick him in the bollocks? Stupid bitch. Better keep a lid on it. Just in case.
“Did you see the news story about the President’s Club?” the therapist says. “I was crying! Every man left early and saw nothing. The Bank of England all but denied Mark Carney exists.” We laugh. “I’ve loved every bloody minute of it,” I say, and all of a sudden it’s not so bad with the lid off, the box open. It’s not so scary. It’s just me. It’s still me, and I’m not that bad after all. The terrible jewellery scatters everywhere and then, like magic, it dissolves in the sunlight. A toothless vampire made terrifying by shadows, weakened into nothing by the dawn.
She looks at me gently and says, “They don’t get to point the fingers anymore. You’re free to rise to whatever rung you want.”
In hiding, we become our own jailers. We remain powerless by our own making and in doing so convince ourselves that our value must be so little that there’s no point telling our stories anyway, that we had better stop ourselves before we reach that final rung, and if we even get too close – well look what happened to Icarus, that little slut. He should have covered his feathers. He shouldn’t have flown home alone.
Out in the open, in the bright light and the noise, alongside each other, those shameful ugly boxes transform into something else: they become our power, our connection, our truth, and we can finally step into ourselves and everything that truly entails.
“It’s no surprise you’ve never really chased this career is it?” the therapist says. “I work my sodding arse off,” I say. ‘But not really,” she says. The eyebrow again.
I leave her place for the final time and check my phone for messages, check the latest news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has passed down her sentence and says to the victims: “Leave your pain here. Go out and do your magnificent things.”
The next morning I wake up and the feeling in my gut has changed. Chaos is brewing. “I’m done,” I think. “I’m done saying ‘one day, one day’.”
I write some stuff. It’s okay. It’s not magnificent. It’s not magnificent yet, and there are only a few more rungs of the ladder to go. This time I’m holding on tight.
Sarah Lewis is one half of Writing Supergroup Writers’ HQ and founder of the original Brighton Writers Retreat. Constantly trying to escape her family to write while simultaneously reaching new heights of procrastination. Sarah writes endlessly and is never satisfied. She graduated in the top 20% of her MA creative writing class at UEA, won the David Higham Award, won an Arts Council grant to complete her first novel under the mentorship of critically acclaimed author Peter Hobbs, was one of the NWS10 talented early career writers, and gained a rarely given special mention in the BBC Short Story Award.
20 June 2018
University of Nottingham, Department of Music
Keynote: Professor Frances Spalding, CBE, FRSL (University of Cambridge)
Deadline: 9 February 2018
Call for Papers
From Plutarch’s Parallel Lives to Gordon Brown’s recent My Life, Our Times, life-writing has long dealt not only with individuals, but also with the times in which they lived. The discipline traverses historical, cultural, social, political and literary realms. As such, life-writing is a unique medium enabling authors to construct complex historical narratives through the eyes of a particular person. Memoirs, diaries, and other forms of life-writing can also fill gaps in the documentary record, offering historical information that may not be found elsewhere. This interdisciplinary conference aims to explore the myriad ways in which the medium of life-writing has and is being used as a means of constructing and understanding history. As a key characteristic of life-writing is its ability to cross disciplinary boundaries, proposals from a range of disciplines are welcomed.
Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:
Submitting a proposal
Proposals are welcomed for individual 20-minute presentations, panels of 3-4 papers (1.5-2 hours), and proposals for one-hour roundtables of 3-5 participants. Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words to Joanne Cormac (University of Nottingham): email@example.com by 9 February 2018.
Further information will be made available on the conference website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-arts/humanities/music/biography-and-public-history/biography-public-history.aspx
The conference is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Chair: Peter Wilson
The event explores the problems and challenges of writing historical biography, ranging from questions of context and human agency, to issues of interpretation and presentation. As authors of two recent best-selling biographies of Empress Maria Theresa and the reformer Martin Luther, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger and Lyndal Roper will discuss how they tackled these and other issues. Their two short papers will be followed by general discussion.
This month the fifth North Cornwall Book Festival welcomed Dame Hermione Lee, OCLW’s Advisory Director and Emeritus Professor of English Literature in the English Faculty at Oxford University. Hermione spoke to the festival’s artistic director, Patrick Gale, about Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald, and what they can teach us about the peculiar pressures on women novelists.
Hermione also ran a workshop on writing biographies. You can read more about this on the North Cornwall Festival’s website.
A common observation in autobiographical studies today is that poetry, and in particular lyric poetry, has yet to be investigated to its full potential. The conference entitled The Self in Verse. Exploring Autobiographical Poetry, held at St Hilda’s College, Oxford from April 9-11 2017, attempted to responded to this desideratum, which may come as a surprise to some given the very personal and emotional sentiments that lyric poetry is supposed to communicate. A collaboration between the University of Oxford (St Hilda’s College, Oxford Centre for Life Writing, Faculty of English Language and Literature and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages) and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School for Literary Studies (FSGS) at the Freie Universität Berlin, the three-day conference brought together some of the leading international literary scholars in the field. Amongst the participants were Jutta Müller-Tamm (Berlin), Patrick Hayes (Oxford), and Dieter Burdorf (Leipzig), who gave keynote speeches, as well as other scholars from the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Poland. In the productive atmosphere of St Hilda’s College, the conference paved the way for further investigations into the topic of autobiographical poetry.
Poetry as a means of autobiographic self-expression has constantly fascinated writers across the ages and cultures. Early examples are ancient authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose Latin poems Carmina and Tristia relate the stories of lives spent in 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 and Wordsworth’s Prelude represent just a few crucial milestones of the genre. As we can see, autobiographical approaches are located at the very heart of lyrical expression: attempts by poets to represent and narrate the self, and thus achieve ‘selfhood’ (poetically at least), have played as integral a role in historiographic and epic poems as they have in the more intimate domains of love and religious poetry. Since the nineteenth century, the boundaries of autobiographical poetry have been tested and pushed time and time again by modernists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn and the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (“Otobiyografi”, 1961), or via the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and the multi-layered lyrics of certain modern singer-songwriter poets. Prominent examples of the latter are texts by singers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, the 2016 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prevailing term “autofiction” and an increasing tendency towards self-expression, as well as self-staging through performance or various forms of trans- and intermediality, have broadened the artistic and aesthetic possibilities of the autobiographical genre not only for novelists but also for poets.
Within this broad historical frame, the conference participants presented on different forms of poetical self-portrayal from the medieval to the present time, with an emphasis on 20th and 21st-century literature. Over the course of the conference, autobiographical poetry was analysed and discussed amongst other things in relation to poetical multiplication of the self, paratextual references and functions, biographical facts, constitution of the lyrical self, the poem as an independent entity in an embryonic state, lyrical life-writing from a feminist perspective, autobiographical poetry as digital performance, and the emerging tendency of autobiographical and autofictional poetry. Collectively, the conference presented an initiatory mapping of the scholarly field of autobiographical poetry, which until now has been an underrepresented research area. Differences between autobiography in epic and lyric form were widely discussed, as well as the dialogic references connecting the different poems presented and analysed by the conference’s participants. What does it mean for literature, especially poetry, to thrive on unveiling and/or concealing personal matters and how do we as scholars tackle this literary interplay between author and text? Thanks to this successful collaboration between the University of Oxford and FSGS, these and other important questions of current literary theory were raised, revealing the plethora of potential that exists for future (diachronic as well as synchronic) investigations. A publication of the contributions is currently in preparation.
Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies is a structured programme for doctoral candidates, which has been funded by the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments since 2007. The Graduate School belongs to the Freie Universität Berlin and in 2012 Humboldt University joined the programme as an important co-operation partner. The FSGS promotes and supervises theoretically and conceptually outstanding PhD projects in the field of Literary Studies analysing texts of European and Non-European origin. The Graduate School strives for the advancement of genuine research perspectives of Literary Studies, which cross single-language borders and challenge the technologies of globalization, last but not least by locating past and present phenomena of cultural practice within a broad historic horizon.
With this imminent conference on autobiographical poetry, we are happy to have strengthened our partnership with the University of Oxford and our colleagues at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.
We would like to express our gratitude to Georgina Paul for her outstanding co-organisation and last but not least we would like to thank the director of FSGS, Jutta Müller-Tamm, for making this conference possible.
Marie Lindskov Hansen, was born in Copenhagen, and studied Scandinavian and European Literature at the University of Copenhagen and the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Currently she is a PhD-fellow at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at the Freie University Berlin doing research on Autofiction as a literary and theoretical construct.
Life Writing Projects is is a new collaboration between The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research (CLHLWR) and REFRAME.
“Our contributors, who include new and established writers, artists and poets, embrace the concept of life-writing as a project. They work here within a set of self-imposed constraints, in order, as Michael Sheringham puts it, ‘to allow something unforeseen to happen’.”
In Wardrobe Diaries Louise Kenward grieves for her grandmother by working with her dresses and old wardrobe; Tanya Shadrick connects her grandmother’s loving and playful care for her as a child with her own newly discovered capacity to be creative. Jenni Cresswell’s Three Green Dresses threads together past, present and future.
Tom Ottway works through his own and his mother’s grief for his father in Negative Spaces: Postcards Home, and Nirmal Puwar laments not only the loss of close relatives but austerity’s legacy of neglect and deterioration in inner city Coventry where she grew up and lives again now.
In The Uses of Photography, Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie make a literary project out of their erotic relationship and Annie’s treatment for breast cancer, defying death and grief.
Similarly, in the poetry, prose and photographs of Breastless: Encounters with risk-reducing surgery Clare Best tracks her journey through grief and loss to a new physical shape and powerfully creative identity.
In The ‘Campus’ Blouse, Lyn Thomas describes the uncertainties and disorientation of arriving in Oxford from a working-class background, and the pleasure of at least looking the part.
In the Books section of the site, pieces explore the role of encounters with books and reading in life history narratives, including an audio recording of bookshop browsers’ memories of favourite books made at independent bookshop Much Ado Books in Alfriston, Sussex.
In Desperately Seeking Susan, Lyn Thomas reflects on her childhood reading of Jane Shaw’s Susan books, and her return to them in later life.
Life Writing Projects was devised and is edited by Professor Lyn Thomas and was designed by Dr Tanya Kant.
The Oxford Centre for Life Writing, in partnership with the Western Front Association and the Wilfred Owen Association, is pleased to be hosting a conference to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s death.
Owen’s life was tragically short. Any study of his life is by definition overshadowed by his death and the bitter irony of its timing, at the very end of the war. Unlike some of his lesser discussed contemporaries, such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, Owen’s poetry has been appreciated and analysed by many scholars in previous decades. It remains enduringly popular, and has lost little of its capacity to move and shock its readers. It is taught across the country as part of the National Curriculum, and has become the lens through which we view what, with Owen’s help, has been dubbed the most literary war in history.
This conference is concerned with Owen’s afterlife. How has his work been received, and how has it changed our view of the war? What effect has his verse had on writers, composers and other intellectuals, and how has Owen himself been portrayed, appropriated and discussed posthumously?
We invite proposals for 20 minute papers on the theme of Wilfred Owen’s legacy. Please send a 250 word abstract and a mini-biography (50-100 words), to Dr Kate Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org (all other queries about the conference, including registration of interest in attending, should be sent to email@example.com).
You can find more information on the call for papers, programme, how to register, and venue details on the conference webpage.
The closing date for submissions is Friday 20 October 2017.
Originally posted by Oxford University Press.
We are delighted to announce the recipients of the Oxford DNB/OCLW research bursaries for 2017/2018. This time, OUP has awarded two bursaries in association with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing: they go to Dr Katherine Collins, an academic and creative writer working across the disciplines of sociology and life writing, for her project on British expatriate communities in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries; and Alice Little, DPhil candidate in Music at the University of Oxford, who will study the unacknowledged musicians contributing to J.B. Malchair’s music collection in the 18th century.
Katherine and Alice will use the Oxford DNB as the focus of their research and will work closely with academic staff at the Oxford DNB and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Find out more about their projects below:
Dr Katherine Collins (Wolfson College, University of Oxford)
Brexpats: British Expatriate Communities in Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Katherine will undertake a prosopographical survey of the ODNB to identify individuals that belonged to a British expat community in the 19th or 20th centuries, to draw connections between those individuals temporally and spatially, and to place them in an historical and social context. She will focus particularly on how living abroad may have influenced their work and its subsequent reception in Britain.
The project seeks to contribute new data to the ODNB by consulting primary sources in The Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague, which carries a collection of life writings, photos, letters, digital material and secondary sources from the late 19th century to the present day, created from donations by expatriates and their families. It will provide a deep historical and cultural context to this highly topical and important work, enriching our understanding of the lives of expatriated Britons in Europe at various times in the British past, in various locations and political climates.
Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and Associate Lecturer in the Social Sciences Division at the University of Oxford. From September she will be a researcher on the U.K. in a Changing Europe funded project “BrExpats: Freedom of Movement, Citizenship and Brexit in the Lives of Britons Resident in the European Union” at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Alice Little (Music Faculty, University of Oxford)
Unsung Musicians of Eighteenth-Century Oxford
Alice’s research focuses on the collecting practices of the band leader and artist John B. Malchair, who collected ‘national music’ in Oxford from ca. 1770 until his death in 1812. In her project, she plans to uncover the network of previously unacknowledged – or ‘unsung’ – musicians who contributed to his collection. Using the ODNB to research these figures will make it possible to identify for the first time a group of people involved in musical networks in Oxford in the 18th century who did not necessarily have any connection to the Oxford Music Room or the University’s School of Music.
Alice’s research responds to the need to reassess our understanding of music collecting, how music was shared, and its social and cultural function in 18th-century society. She will use digital technology to visualise her findings, showing Malchair’s network of contacts and their chronological and geographical coincidence in Oxford and at the Oxford Music Room, which she plans to make available as an online resource. Ultimately, her project will make an essential contribution towards a biography of Malchair, which Alice is in the process of writing.
Alice Little is studying for her doctorate at the University of Oxford’s Music Faculty. She writes her thesis on eighteenth-century collecting practices, focusing on the music collection of J.B. Malchair. Her research interests include 18th- and 19th-century traditional music; folk music; the history of collecting; and musical instruments.
On 8 March 1823, the Spanish dancer, Mademoiselle Mercandotti was due to dance for a packed house in a performance of Daniel Auber’s ballet, Alfred. The audience were expectant: Mercandotti, who had arrived for the 1822-1823 season, had been dubbed ‘The Andalusian Venus’, and the manager of the King’s Theatre, John Ebers (c. 1785-c. 1830), ‘was pestered from morning to night by young men of fashion anxious to obtain an introduction.’ But when the moment came she failed to appear, and manager Ebers came on stage to announce her indisposition.
But it was later revealed that she had in fact eloped with a ‘young man of large fortune’, revealed to be the immensely wealthy Hughes Ball Hughes (1799-1863), nicknamed the ‘Golden Ball.’ As Walter Scott later commented: ‘few events in the fashionable world… excited more attention’, and it became one of the great scandals of the age. How the whole thing was accomplished remains obscure, although it is clear from his presence as a witness at the wedding that Ebers must have been involved.
This paper for Dancing Lives returns to these events, examining the circumstances of the elopement and its place in Mercandotti’s career, its position in the history of the King’s theatre and its troupe, and the building of the theatre’s first Green Room for the dancers. It will focus on the work of the caricaturists, to whom this (biographical) event offered a ‘golden’ opportunity to the satirists.
Michael Burden is Fellow in Music at New College, Oxford, and Professor in Opera Studies in the University. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, and his PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He has served on the Council of the Royal Musical Association, is a patron member of the American Society for Eighteenth-century Studies, a trustee of Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM), and is currently the Past President of the British Society for 18th-century Studies. He is Dean of the College, and also holds the offices of Chattels Fellow and Portraits Fellow. He served for some years on the University of Oxford Committee for the Museums and Scientific Collections, and is currently a Visitor of the Ashmolean Museum.
This paper for Dancing Lives looks at the way Berto Pasuka’s dancing embodies his life experiences. Pasuka was born in Jamaica in 1910 or 1911 and moved to London in 1939, founding his company Les Ballets Nègres there in 1946. The performances he gave in his ballets with this company exemplify an opposition to colonialism through re-encountering and restaging of Afro-Caribbean traditions of dance and drumming. This paper explores the ways in which an account of the physicality of Pasuka’s dancing and choreography can be used to show how this embodies his life experiences.
Ramsay Burt is Professor of Dance History at De Montfort University, UK. His publications include The Male Dancer (1995, revised 2007), Alien Bodies (1997), Judson Dance Theater (2006), Writing Dancing Together (2009) with Valerie Briginshaw, Ungoverning Dance (2016) and British dance: Black routes (2016) with Christy Adair. With Susan Foster, he is founder editor of Discourses in Dance. In 1999 he was Visiting Professor at the Department of Performance Studies, New York University. In 2010 he was Professeur Invité at l’Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, and he is a visiting teacher at PARTS in Brussels.
Mike Webb (Bodleian Libraries) and Jennifer Thorp (New College Oxford) contribute to Dancing Lives.
The Bodleian Library has recently acquired a Gallen’s Almanack for 1667 which belonged to Jeffery Boyes of Grays Inn, who has been suggested by Janet Todd as a candidate for the ‘Amyntas’ of Aphra Behn’s poems. In the diary section of the volume Boys records aspects of his social life, including attendance at plays at the theatre and at all-night dance parties with Aphra Behn and other acquaintances whose names throw light on the social and political circles in which he moved.
At the back of the volume he has written down the titles and figures of nineteen English country dances, seemingly as an aide-memoire from the perspective of the first man in the set which suggests that he himself danced them. Some of them are variant in form from the better-known versions published by Playford between 1651 and 1670, and another may be unique to Boys’s diary. They represent the dances popular with Boys’s circle of friends and at Grays Inn, which as one of the Inns of Court continued a long tradition of dancing at its own masques, revels and other feasts.
Choreographer Liam Francis is an advocate for rehabilitating discarded creative offerings.
Consequently, R1 is a performance piece composed entirely of rejected choreography banished to the choreographic wastebaskets of creative processes.
In particular, R1 draws from the wastebaskets of five creative processes that Francis was creatively involved in.
R1 is the first in a range of experiments that investigate the recovery of choreography that has been discarded.
The recycled choreography in R1 finds its texture, rhythm and dynamic from research into the idiosyncrasies of human communication.
Simone Damberg Würtz, Liam Francis, and Hannah Rudd will perform R1 at Dancing Lives.
Dr Kate Kennedy, our Weinrebe Fellow in Life-Writing, has won an Early Career Researcher award in this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards, which celebrate public engagement work across the University. The announcement was made at an awards ceremony at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on 28 June hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson.
Dr Kennedy won her award for her public engagement work relating to a triple biography of poet Rupert Brooke, and composers F.S. Kelly and W.D. Browne she is writing. The three men were close friends who sailed to Gallipoli together and were all killed in the First World War.
Studying archives, letters and diaries, and animating the stories she has uncovered has enabled Dr Kennedy to work with young people and adults, musicians and theatre professionals through drama, music, the media and public events, including:
The biography of Brooke, Kelly and Browne is due to be published in 2018.
The project has transformed Dr Kennedy’s research, developing her understanding of the stories and how they can be communicated effectively. In turn the neglected work of the composers has now been shared with many thousands.
The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards recognise and reward those at the University who undertake high-quality engagement activities and have contributed to building capacity in this area. Dr Kennedy was one of five Early Career Researcher winners at the awards.
Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor says: “I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the public engagement with research projects submitted for this year’s awards. The breadth and diversity of the activities taking place show how seriously the University takes its commitment to public engagement.”
Professor Alison Woollard, the University’s Academic Champion for Public Engagement with Research says: “Public engagement enriches both research and society and the University is committed to enabling our researchers to inspire, consult and collaborate with the public. I’m delighted that we are able to recognise and highlight the fantastic work our researchers are doing and hope these awards encourage more colleagues across the University to carry out their own public engagement with research.”
About the awards
The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards recognise and reward those at the University who undertake high-quality engagement activities and have contributed to building capacity in this area. The awards are awarded in three categories: Early Career Researcher, Building Capacity and Projects. Entrants can be at any level in their career and activities of any scale are welcome. Winning entries received recognition for their achievements at the Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards Ceremony that took place on 28 June 2017.
At the peak of her dancing years – between 1916 and 1926 – Lydia Lopokova was one of the world’s most popular ballerinas, stamping the signature of her quick, bright technique and irrepressible stage personality onto the repertories of Massine, Fokine and the young Frederick Ashton. She was also closely connected to some of the key personalities in early 20th century ballet, moving as she did from the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and eventually to London where she become a leading figure in the newly emergent ballet culture.
The fact that Lopokova is now far less well known than many of her contemporaries has something to do with her refusal to insist on her dancing fame once she retired, but also to do with the willingness with which she embraced her subsequent role as wife, muse, travelling companion and eventually nurse to the great economist John Maynard Keynes.
This talk at Dancing Lives is essentially about the pleasures and obstacles of writing Lopokova’s biography, the challenge of piecing her life together from footnotes, anecdotal gossip and fragments of ballet history. It focuses on the difficulties of evoking her singular qualities as a dancer when all that survives of her performances are the erratic impressions of contemporary reviewers, a limited archive of photos and a very tantalising few minutes of film. It also considers the issue of how a biographer should weight the narrative of Lopokova’s life – not only in setting the story of her professional career against the dramatic events through which she lived (the Russian Revolution, the First and Second World Wars) but also in balancing the inevitably sketchy chapters of her dancing years against the far better documented chapters of her marriage to Maynard, which took her from the drawing rooms of the Bloomsbury Group, to the common rooms of Cambridge, to the inner circles of power in Washington and London.
Judith Mackrell studied English and Philosophy at the universities of York and Oxford, and became dance critic of The Independent in 1986, moving to The Guardian in 1995. She has broadcast widely on radio and television and written several books on dance including Out of Line and Reading Dance. Her works of biography and social history include: Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova – Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008); Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (Macmillan, 2013); and The Unfinished Palazzo: Life Love and Art in Venice (Thames and Hudson, 2017). She has just started work on a group biography of women correspondents writing and photographing during the Second World War, to be published by Macmillan.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invites applications for the Tony Gray Visiting Scholarship, tenable for one year.
Closing date: 28 July 2017
Start date: 9 October 2017 (or as soon as possible thereafter)
The scholarship awards £500 expenses to the recipient, and a further £500 towards the organisation of an event. We are interested in applications from anyone who has recently completed their PhD, up to experienced senior researchers.
The scholarship comes with the expectation that the recipient will organise an event related to their field, with our financial and administrative support. This could range from a seminar, invited guest speaker, to a day colloquium or full conference.
The researcher will play an active role in the community of academics at OCLW, and take part in the weekly seminar meetings. The elected scholar will obtain membership of Wolfson Common Room (entitling them to a University Card and use of the Bodleian Library; use of the dining hall for meals; use of the college library and sports facilities; room hire and eligibility of most College committees). The researcher will benefit from the intellectual community of the College and University: they may join College clubs and societies (a charge may apply for some clubs), use all the College facilities, attend Guest Night dinners and bring guests to dine in Hall for lunch and dinner. They may also apply to the Accommodation Office for housing during their stay, although there is a great demand, and it may not be possible to meet their needs.
Please submit the application form, accompanied by a current CV, to firstname.lastname@example.org [marked ‘OCLW Tony Gray Visiting Scholarship application’] or by post to: Dr Kate Kennedy, OCLW, Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford, OX2 6UD.
Photo by Prasanna Kumar (CC0 1.0)
There’s been so much interest in OCLW and DANSOX’s event Dancing Lives, and here is another brilliant event about dance, happening in Sadler’s Wells just a week before ours:
Join the Society for Dance Research in a discussion on Alain Platel / les ballets C de la B’s nicht schlafen on Monday 3rd July with invited speakers Katalin Trencsényi and Dr Kélina Gotman, two days after the performances at Sadler’s Wells on 30th June and 1st July.
Dramaturg Katalin Trencsényi will present her research on Alain Platel’s collaborative dramaturgy and the development of nicht schlafen over the past year, while Dr Kélina Gotman will discuss the consequences of nation/post-nation or transnationalism, and how we might read cohabitation onstage. Both speakers will then propose some questions to open up the discussion.
Katalin Trencsényi is a London-based dramaturg, researcher and associate lecturer at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). As a freelance dramaturg, Katalin has worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre, Corali Dance Company, and Company of Angels, among others. Katalin is co-founder of the Dramaturgs’ Network (d’n), worked on its various committees, and from 2010 to 2012 served as its President. Katalin is the author of Dramaturgy in the Making. A User’s Guide for Theatre Practitioners (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015), co-editor of New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), and editor of Bandoneon: Working with Pina Bausch. (Oberon Books, 2016). For her research on dance dramaturgy, Katalin was recepient of the the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas’ Bly Creative Fellowship Grant. Katalin has a PhD from the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.
Kélina Gotman teaches Theatre and Performance Studies at King’s College London. She writes regularly on the history and philosophy of theatre and dance, cultural history, writing, translation, and the history and theory of disciplines and institutions. She has contributed among others to Performance Research, About Performance (on the work of Alain Platel), Choreographic Practices, Textual Practice, SubStance, and various edited collections. She is author of Choreomania: Dance and Disorder (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, Studies in Dance Theory) and Essays on Theatre and Change: Towards a Poetics Of (forthcoming, Routledge). She has collaborated on over two dozen dance, theatre, and experimental opera productions in Europe and North America, as a translator, dramaturg, performer, director, writer, designer, movement director and curator. She is currently preparing among others an edited volume on performance, translation and everyday multilingualism, and a chapter on choreic gesture in Platel and the ballets C de la B’s Out of Context: For Pina for an edited volume on Platel’s work.
SDR’s Choreographic Forum is open to students, researchers, artists, and practitioners.
Attendance is free for Society for Dance Research (SDR) members / £6 full price / £3 concessions (students) + booking fees. Tickets available here.
The 2017 series is curated by Iris Chan, Victoria Thoms, Florent Trioux & Lise Uytterhoeven.
Photo credit: © Chris Van der Burght
The lives of dancers are among the most elusive subjects for life-writing. Not only is the art form itself ephemeral, notoriously difficult to capture in notation and on film as an accurate record. Dancers are often reluctant to talk about themselves – “we are what we do” – is the familiar refrain. Historically, the life of the dancer gets lost in the account of the processes of choreography. Sources and records are often difficult to find, especially in the case of pre-twentieth-century subjects, and frequently testimonies left by dancers themselves may be focussed on a particular aspect of self-presentation rather than an emphasis on historical accuracy. Nevertheless, there have been many vibrant, searching accounts written (or ghost written) by dancers themselves, such as Tamara Karsavina’s Theatre Street (1930), which provide insights into the mysterious back-stage daily rigours, emotional highs and lows of the profession.
This conference brings together a host of experts, dancers, scholars, and critics who have intimate knowledge of the lives of dancers in many different forms, and a host of questions will be discussed, centred on the issue of how do people write about the lives of dancers and choreographers? What distinctions are there in writing about a twentieth-century dancer (as Judith Mackrell has done for Lydia Lopokova), and those who must rely on the archive to piece together accounts of pre-twentieth-century dancers’ lives, or those (like Jane Pritchard) who have unearthed the importance of dancers who are largely unknown and who have gone unrecognised in the historical record.
The question of life-writing also implies the problem of how does dance as a silent form itself represent life stories? In addition to uncovering the sources and methods of scholarship and various genres relating to dancers’ lives, we shall hear from Jennifer Homans, whose work currently focuses on the life of choreographer, George Balanchine, an artist who frequently questioned narrative form.
We will hear from our keynote speaker, Dame Monica Mason, an account of the impact of travel on the lives of dancers, and from other scholars about the diasporic conditions bearing on the lives of dancers from outside Europe.
And we get an opportunity to watch and listen to current dancers from Rambert Dance Company who have collaborated on choreography and considered the “life” of the choreography itself. A combination of practical demonstration, film, biographers, practitioners, discussion and speakers promise to make this a stimulating and enlightening day.
Marie Taglioni’s overwhelming success in ballets such as La Sylphide triggered a cult of the ballerina which was to last for many decades, and which swept away the image of the acclaimed male dancers of the past. This paper for Dancing Lives accompanies Marie Taglioni on her way to celebrity from Stockholm over Vienna and Stuttgart to the Paris Opera, where she created some of her most memorable roles, and from there to other major ballet cities.
It explores questions such as: which changes in the world of ballet paved the way for Marie Taglioni’s triumph, and how did she acquire her reputation? How did Taglioni describe her own life in her memoirs, and what did others write about her? Furthermore, it reveals how Taglioni’s glory was documented and diffused through artistic representations of her.
My paper for Dancing Lives 2017 considers the dancer/choreographer Kurt Jooss (1901-1979). He is probably best known for his iconic role as ‘Death’ in his 1932 dance drama The Green Table. During his exile from Nazi Germany, in England, between 1933 and 1949, Jooss embodied his complex life in both dancing and choreography.
His dominating presence as a performer in these troubled times is juxtaposed with his absences from the stage and his company, Ballets Jooss. During these enforced estrangements he continued to live in the company’s repertoire. It was here that he made the transformation from choreographer drawing on his German background to that of someone rooted in English soil.
He became a British citizen in 1947, four years after premiering Company at the Manor, a dance he described as ‘so utterly English’. I consider Jooss in terms of presence and absence in his work to examine his life in England. I draw on archival materials and interviews I conducted with Jooss in 1978 to look at his dancing life historically.
Michael Huxley, Reader in Dance in the School of Visual and Performing Arts at De Montfort University, teaches and researches in dance history. His specialist areas include early modern dancers 1900-1945; the work of the choreographer Kurt Jooss; dance, the natural and wellbeing in the 1930s. His interests include the pedagogy of dance history, the idea of the modern dancer as choreographer in the 1930s and history of the Alexander Technique. His teaching of dance history includes the early modern period, the emergence of new dance in the UK in the 1970s, and contemporary dance of the 21st century, especially the work of Akram Khan.
by Clare Brant, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research. Cross-posted with permission from the Department of English at King’s College London.
The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).
One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).
A diary’s lure of intimacy…
Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.
Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived.
Writing a diary gave Cummings the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty…
In 1915 Cummings was a naturalist who went for a medical prior to signing up for the First World War; the doctor sent him home with a letter. On the way back he read it, and discovered he had multiple sclerosis – and that his family already knew, and indeed had known for some time. Aged 26, he suddenly had a very short future. Multiple sclerosis comes in several forms, all cruel. Barbellion knew he would be facing loss of functions like mobility, but he mobilised all his mental and emotional resources. Writing a diary gave him the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty. His celebration of existence is poignant: ‘To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time’.
The title of the work The Journal of a Disappointed Man, is slightly misleading: Barbellion is disappointed in the sense that life is being taken away from him, but he converts disappointment into the most profound celebration of life. Being a naturalist helps: the complexity, beauty and vivacity of other forms of life gives him much to celebrate, and reminds him – and us – that humans are organisms in a mutable universe. The MS Society recommends Barbellion’s Journalto people with multiple sclerosis. I recommend it to everybody. It is sobering, humbling, cheering, comforting and touchingly human.
William Wyndham’s diary provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness…
Just as the exhibition powered up, I was also running around giving talks related to my forthcoming book on eighteenth-century ballooning: Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786(Boydell & Brewer, autumn 2017). It was a hectic doubling, except my balloon book does have a whole chapter about a diary. It belonged to William Wyndham, who was an MP, mathematician, classicist and convivial dreamer, and it provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness. It also provided methodological challenges, because the diary’s entries about balloons are frustratingly laconic. Having just started his diary, Windham confided to it, like many eighteenth-century people, a sense he was not getting enough done. On 7th February 1784 he wrote ‘Did not rise till past nine; from that time till eleven, did little more than indulge in reveries about balloons.’ (You can read the whole text online, as The Diary of the Right Honourable William Windham, 1784-1810, ed. Cecilia Anne Baring, 1866).
What did that entry mean? What was going on in his head? I had to adapt critical tools from life writing to reconstruct Windham’s balloon reveries, though joyfully he did turn those reveries into action . On 5 May 1784, at the height of balloon madness, he made a successful ascent with the Oxford aeronaut James Sadler from grounds near Hampton Court, watched by a collection of Fellows from the Royal Society. His diary entry afterwards begins: ‘Went up in balloon. Much satisfied with myself; and, in consequence of that satisfaction, dissatisfied rather with my adventure…’ It seems to have cured his balloon madness; his reveries moved on to other things.
Air-minded people can be generous in sharing stories, and a later balloon episode also involving a diary came to me by way of a former student, Eric Larsson (thank you, Eric). It joins a literature of ice which also has dedicated admirers, and a fine critic in Frances Spufford , author of I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (Faber & Faber 2003). This story begins in 1930 on a Norwegian sloop in the Arctic, with geologists and seal hunters aboard. They discover the remains of an expedition, long presumed lost. On 11 July 1897, the Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée and two companions had ascended in a hydrogen balloon aiming to discover the North Pole. They had had to land on the ice and travel on foot in rigours which eventually defeated them. (Read more of their story in the New Yorker magazine).
Each of the three men had kept diaries and all were eventually published. One waterlogged notebook was recovered by a reporter, Knut Stubbendorf, who dried it in his cabin, and recounts the experience of turning the pages for the first time:
“I have seldom, if ever, experienced a more dramatic, a more touching succession of events, than when I began the preparation of the wet leaves, thin as silk, and watched how the writing or drawing, at first invisible, gradually became discernible as the material dried, giving me a whole, connected description written by the dead – a description which displayed unexpected and amazing details, and which allowed me to follow the journey of the balloon across the ice during the three short days from July 11 to 14, 1897.”
This thrilling moment in which invisible writing emerges to be readable, and the visible writing tells of what happened, has stayed with me: it could be a compelling metaphor for what all diaries are and what they do. They say what happened, and they make that a mystery to be revealed, a voice from the dead which can become alive again.
So please keep a diary – you never know if it may fall into a researcher’s hands! And please come and visit the Dear Diary exhibition! You can share your thoughts about diaries and your diary practice via the exhibition website.
You can also contribute to ongoing research in the Ego-Media group by going to their DiaryBox. The Ego-Media team (also members of the Centre for Life Writing) would like to know about the shape of your online day – or night! – so as to understand better how digital traces can be read as diaries, and what they can tell us about self-presentation online. Your contributions will be ‘leaves of silk’, with invisible ink drying into unexpected and amazing details… Share your stories today.
You may also like to read: It’s In My Diary – behind the scenes of ‘Dear Diary’.
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and not those of the English Department, nor King’s College London.
Global Lives and Local Perspectives was the second largest collaboration between two research clusters of Wolfson College: OCLW (Oxford Centre for Life Writing) and THSC (Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre). In 2012, Wolfson College hosted the conference Beyond Biographies: New Perspectives on Tibetan Life-Writing; convened by Professor Ulrike Roesler and held in collaboration with OCLW, the meeting had the merit of attracting attention to the rich tradition of biographical writing within the Tibetan literary corpus by placing Tibetan biographies and autobiographies within the broader context of life writing across the world. New avenues of interpretation and understanding were advanced at the time, and, by taking our cue from that, we proposed to slightly enlarge the focus of the analysis to embrace other forms of indigenous life writing, such as journals, memoirs, songs, oral testimonies, and personal narratives, as they are documented in Tibetan historical, poetic, legal and religious literature, as well as on social media.
In the course of Global Lives and Local Perspectives, new approaches to Tibetan life writing had been proposed by the speakers. Whereas it is undisputable that biographies and autobiographies are at the core of the Tibetan practice of recording memories and experiences of the self, it is also clear that such a label crosses over and includes diverse genres and forms, thus opening the field of investigation to different analytical means.
Biographical and autobiographical writing can be used, for example, as a source of information about social, cultural, and political history, as demonstrated by Dr Franz Xaver Erhard and Rachael Griffiths. Through the eyes of the authors, modes of identity construction come to the foreground, thus allowing for a better understanding of the different ways in which Tibetanness was, and still is, expressed. It has been reiterated throughout the workshop that the role on self-perception by the socio-cultural and historical milieu should not be underestimated; individuals are in fact urged to adhere to specific kinds of personhood, that is to say behavioural models considered to be socially acceptable. Dr Marta Sernesi, Miroslav Hrdina, and Sangseraima Ujeed presented contributions describing the edifying character of rnam thar, and the importance given to the observance of precise schemas in the portrayal of the life of an individual considered to be “exemplary”. Interestingly, it is the analysis of the themes and structures of these texts that makes it possible to gain a new perspective on rnam thar, the most popular form in which life writing was carried out in Tibet. Tibetan biographies also provide interesting information about the biographers themselves, so much so that sometimes the real value of these works lies not in the amount of details about the life of their characters, but rather on what the authors or the compilers reveal about their understanding of both their own identity and the socio-cultural environment they lived in, as shown by the presentations of Prof. Per Kværne and Dr Lewis Doney. Furthermore, the recording of life-stories of remarkable individuals was not a perfunctory implementation of a traditional practice; rather, Tibetan authors reflected on the issues of literary theory, developing indigenous explanations regarding the worth of their compositions as well as proposing new ways of narrating the self.
If the importance of biographies and autobiographies for social and cultural historians is clear, the perils of considering these works as mere deposits of dates and names should not be forgotten. Life writing, in all its forms and expressions, is a literary manifestation, and as such it deserves to be considered and discussed. The literary value of autobiographies, journals, and memoirs affects the surrounding society; the creation of a relationship between the work and its audience may lead to the negotiation of issues of exemplarity and legitimacy, as illustrated by the case-studies brought by Prof. Per K. Sørensen and Lucia Galli. Personal recollections may shed a new light on past events, improving our understanding of controversial historical periods, as the decades of the 1940s to the 1960s certainly were for the Tibetan communities along the Sino-Tibetan borders as well as for those living in the central provinces of the plateau, as showed by Prof. Heather Stoddard, Dr Lara Maconi, and Xénia de Heering.
What has been said so far applies not only to biographies and autobiographies compiled in pre-modern times, but also to new forms of individual expression, such as social media, blogs, and instant messaging apps. Creating the self in the moment is a feature that we ascribe to modernity. Technology provides us with the means to immediately share small personal stories, updating our identities constantly though multi-semiotic forms. But writing on the spot, recording the ebbs and flows of the mind, is indeed a rather ancient practice; diary, personal journals, travelogues are all instances of what can be defined as life writing of the moment, jotting down impressions as well as reflections on the self and the other. The contributions offered by Prof. Charles Rambles, Dr LamaJabb, and Dr Theresia Hofer broached the issue of “fragmentary” selves and how it is possible to reconstruct a personal identity by putting together snapshots of life as they appear in legal documents, poems, songs, or instant messages shared on social media platforms.
These are indeed exciting times for those working on Tibetan life writing. The field is ripe with possibilities. Not only the past may be looked at with different eyes, but also the present, and more importantly, the future, all reserve new and unexpected ways of studying and comprehending the ever-evolving Tibetan identity. We planned to collect and publish the contributions to this workshop, with a sincere hope that the study of Tibetan life writing may continue to thrive and develop.
We would like to express once again our gratitude towards those who have made this workshop such as successful event: Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), Ti se Foundation, Wolfson College Academic Committee, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre (THSC), and the Linying Foundation.
Lucia Galli and Franz Xaver Erhard (Conveners)
Photo by Nadja Friesen (CC0 1.0)
Cross-posted with permission from the Department of English at King’s College London.
‘It’s in my diary’
is a phrase you still hear. The expression gives no clue as to whether the speaker uses a paper diary or an app, and not needing to make the distinction shows how old and new forms of diary co-exist happily. The paper appointment diary is still an everyday object – I have a Filofax I was given in the 1990s when they were fashionable and it’s still easy to buy an annual refill. Meanwhile an increasing number of apps make the diary mobile-friendly, multi-media, synchable – and, if you want to keep it private, encryptable.
Do you have a paper diary? Do you use a diary app? Do you contribute to an online diary platform? Do you do none of the above but are curious about diaries? Then put in your diary 26 May – 7 July, the dates for Dear Diary, a forthcoming exhibition at the Inigo Rooms, East Wing, Somerset House on diaries old and new. It’s a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research, which I co-direct, and the Great Diary Project, directed by Dr Polly North.
Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage… No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence…
The GDP is a thriving archive housed in the beautiful and friendly Bishopsgate Institute near Liverpool Street station. Its founder, Irving Finkel, argues that ‘Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage. People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes. No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence’. The GDP came to talk at the Centre for Life-Writing Research in 2014 and then suggested we partner for an exhibition.
I could write about the months spent planning Dear Diary as a production diary, something like playwright Simon Stephens: A Working Diary (Bloomsbury, 2016) a calendar-based account of his spectacular successes in 2014. The blurb sells it as ‘an exceptionally honest account…unprecedented access to [his] mind’, hyping up a common association between diaries and revelation. Or I could make a video diary like Planet Earth Diaries (2006), segments of narrative which explain behind-the-scenes efforts, or how footage of elusive camels involved a two-month trek across Mongolia… Ah yes, similar to putting on an exhibition. I could share Instagrammed developments every day, or I could share lists and goals from an ornately-decorated bullet journal. Or I could creep into a small space like Big Brother’sDiary Room and complain to camera.
Each of these diary genres spins off from a genealogy which stretches back to Babylonian almanacs, clay tablets from around 1400 BC recording the movement of the sun, moon and stars. So one of the puzzles of the exhibition has been how to put varieties of diary together, and how do we define these varieties in the first place? What connects them conceptually?
Diaries can make everyday lives seem extraordinary. At times I left the GDP thinking never again will I assume anything about a human being.
The puzzles got bigger over the exhibition planning process, but so did the team of helpers and thinkers. The Ego Media research group, based in the English Department, has expertise in blogs, vlogs and life-logging; funded by the European Research Council (pre-Brexit), its main research question is ‘What’s happened to life writing in the digital age?’. Diaries are a fine test case. I think there are at least three answers, and they help to structure the exhibition’s layout in what proved to be a difficult space with many practical challenges.
Diaries can make everyday lives seem extraordinary. At times I left the GDP thinking never again will I assume anything about a human being. People are full of surprises. It’s difficult to replicate that effect in an exhibition when there’s so much to be said and shown from diaries’ long and global history. But we’ll try.
We will show film interviews with living diarists and footage of daily life made by refugees in camps in the Middle East. A forthcoming blog post here will talk more about the political and ethical questions raised in exhibiting these diaries alongside domestic journals.
Famous diarists include Virginia Woolf, Anne Frank and Anais Nin, also Frances Burney, Anne Lister, Dorothy Wordsworth, Beatrice Webb… we give them a namecheck, but this exhibition is not about famous or even literary diarists. It’s about the genre. Instead, we’ll show women reading their teenage diaries – brave! – and engage with mummy vloggers. We’ll explore the profiles of users of fitness apps, descendants of the Puritans who turned to diaries to review their faults and aspire to virtues. Critics have noted how women gravitate to journals as a place where self can be fluid and prose experimental, and the exhibition features many such examples.
There’ll also be a day of talks about diaries by writers, artists and critics: Diaryfest, on the 30 May 2017 in the Council Room, Strand Campus. Register for free and see the full programme on the King’s website. Speakers will include Alexander Masters who took possession of 148 diary volumes found in a skip and turned them into a biography in A Life Discarded (2016), an ingenious book which foregrounds diary reading and refreshes the idea of reader as detective. For most of the book neither he nor we know who the subject is. Anonymous isn’t confined to diaries of course, but it has particular resonance given the diary’s association with secrecy and illicitness – an idea given a room in our exhibition, where Disney princesses, call girls, bankers and spies come together.
The blog, of course, is a diary descendant, now with a literary history of its own – hence a happy medium in which to alert you to Dear Diary. In 2013, Technorati’s Digital Influence survey declared that blogs were the fifth most trustworthy source overall for information on the Internet. And believe me, Dear Diary will be thought-provoking and fun. We look forward to seeing you there.
Clare Brant is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research.
Clio Barnard is one of Britain’s foremost directorial talents. She first gained critical acclaim for her film The Arbor (2010), which followed the life of West Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, and whose formal innovation mixed a documentary soundtrack with fictional reenactment, as actors lip-synched to the words of her interviewees.
Barnard gained further acclaim when she returned to the West Yorkshire council estates to make The Selfish Giant (2013), which, like The Arbor, challenged the conventions of social realist drama, creating a loose interpretation of the 1888 Oscar Wilde story of the same name. On May 30th at 5:30pm, she will be in conversation with OCLW about her film practice and career, especially as it relates to the role of life-writing in filmmaking.
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.
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)
‘If we are to have any hope of making a better world, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively.’
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.
The Wolfson Life-Stories Day is back, and this year it will be accompanied by an exhibition: A 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.
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)
CNR-TCRU Postgraduate Narrative Research Seminars, 2016 – 17
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.
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:
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.
Photo by Annie Spratt (CC0 1.0)
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.”
“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
Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)
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.
Writing in a late 1870s ‘confession album’, a young Oscar Wilde answered the question ‘What is your aim in life?’ with a characteristically cocky ‘Success, fame or even notoriety’. Intriguingly, the term ‘confession album’ points towards the darker, more menacing undercurrents of a format often dismissed as idle celebrity gossip, and there is a ring of eerie foresight in Wilde’s youthful bragging. Almost twenty years later, Wilde was tried for ‘gross indecency’ and found himself subjected to gruelling cross-examination, during which he gave a brilliant performance of rhetorical bravado, but during which he also passed, as he observed in De Profundis, ‘from a sort of eternity of fame to a sort of eternity of infamy’.
The most recent event in OCLW’s ‘Life-Writing and Celebrity’ series cast a spotlight on the history, aesthetics, ethics and methodology of the celebrity interview as a form uneasily positioned between the public and the private, art and commerce, individual agency and appropriation. Its complexity is rooted in its paradoxical double nature: promising intimacy, privacy and access, it is yet firmly embedded within the public sphere; successfully creating an illusion of authenticity, it is yet blatantly staged and orchestrated, a key site for self-fashioning and performance, subject to editorial conventions and the constraints of the medium – print, television, radio; live or recorded. As a metaphorical dialogue between revelation and concealment, the interview format therefore lends itself to a fruitful interrogation of the forces at play in the production and consumption of celebrity.
Drawing on her foundational research on the genre of the literary interview, Becky Roach (King’s College London) in her talk outlined some of the basic premises underlying a ‘theory of the interview’. The interview is fundamentally concerned with the transfer of specialised knowledge, but, at the same time, points towards the insufficiencies and pitfalls of mediation. Catering to our desire for imminence in an age of mass communication, it offers a platform for deception, ghosting, false portraits and variably serves as a vehicle of rambling chatter and communicative clarity. Moreover, the audience was reminded that the interview promotes two versions of subjectivity: the highly constructed personal identity of the interviewee, promising an accurate portrait of psychological depth and interiority, and the frequently de-emphasised personhood of the interviewer. Even though the interview is generally considered an autobiographical life-writing genre, its authorship is shared, raising questions of attribution and ownership. The role of the interviewer often uncomfortably hovers between self-effacing listener and highly visible co-protagonist on a spectrum that ranges from observation to dialogic participation and and can even take on the form of coercing the narrative of the interviewee.
Providing intriguing insights into the form of the ‘staged last interview’ by renowned public intellectuals and writers, Anneleen Masschelein (University of Leuven) highlighted the ethical dimensions of the celebrity interview. She began by outlining the historical and socio-cultural contexts of what German art historian Peter Geimer calls the ‘Dramaturgy of the Last’: the memorial function of the death-bed conversation and the ars moriendi tradition. Masschelein’s case study focused on the legendary last interview given by dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter, broadcast by Channel 4 in 1994. Seemingly unedited and unmediated, it features a chain-smoking and champagne-drinking Potter, who frequently interrupts the interview to take a sip from his flask containing liquid morphine. What uncomfortably strikes the viewer as turning death into a spectacle feeding audience voyeurism is in fact a minutely choreographed performance that serves a concrete agenda – in Potter’s case, to self-reflexively engage with his authorship status, secure his legacy and ‘go out with a fitting memorial’. The staged last interview, Masschelein suggested, is symptomatic of a new ‘death style’ that emerges in the late 20th century as a response to the biopolitics of life-style and the possibilities of staging and performing our deaths just like our lives.
The two talks on the history, aesthetics and ethics of interviewing were meant to be followed by a practical demonstration of the art and method of interviewing by Hermione Lee and Mark Lawson, two ‘celebrity interviewers’ par excellence. With train security alerts and unreliable Skype connections preventing both Mark Lawson’s physical and virtual appearances, the planned meta-interview turned into a master-class of how to deal with the unpredictability of interview situations with professionalism and aplomb. Hermione Lee thus shared with the audience her rich experience as seasoned interviewer and interviewee in her multiple roles as academic, biographer and broadcaster. She emphasised the interviewer’s need to remain flexible and readiness to abandon their tactics and agenda in order to respond to the interviewee’s moves and potential refusal to play along: “Sometimes you need to throw away your notes, you need to go with the flow.” She impressively drew attention to the power games between the interviewer and the interviewee that can make the interview situation go off kilter and the importance of silences, encouraging interviewers to resist the temptation to fill in those pauses, excruciating as they may be.
The evening was an apt reminder of the need to pay more critical and scholarly attention to a format that can hardly be dismissed as a mere self-marketing tool or vehicle for spreading trivial celebrity gossip. Participating in different types of discourse and serving a whole range of different purposes, from market research to psychotherapy, it is impossible to ignore its ubiquity in contemporary society and its importance as a platform for articulating public and private identities.
On 6 June there will be a second chance to experience Mark Lawson, one of Britain’s leading arts journalists and broadcasters, in conversation with Hermione Lee about the pitfalls and opportunities of the celebrity interview.
Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.
Photo by Samuel Zeller (CC0 1.0)
Please join us on Tuesday 17th January at 5:30pm, at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College.
The second in a new series of OCLW events focusing on the intersections of life-writing and celebrity, this discussion panel is dedicated to the genre of the celebrity interview. Scholars and practitioners will cast a spotlight on one of the dominant forms in contemporary media and celebrity culture, exploring its history, aesthetics, and methodology.
In her talk on “Interviews and the Work of Celebrity”, Rebecca Roach (King’s College London) will consider the labour involved in a format often derided as being little else but celebrity gossip, even though it has become the predominant mode of (self)promotion for authors and other public figures.
Anneleen Masschelein (University of Leuven, Belgium) examines the practice of the recorded last interview by eminent intellectuals, such as Dennis Potter, Edward Said, and Stuart Hall. Her contribution looks at this media phenomenon in the light of the ‘famous last words’ tradition and against the background of a shift in practices of dying in contemporary Western culture.
The panel will be rounded off by a ‘meta interview’: a conversation between critic and biographer Hermione Lee and arts journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson about the art and method of the celebrity interview.
The event is free and open to all.
For more information, please contact Kate Kennedy
Photo by Oscar Keys (CC0 1.0)
The 9th conference of the International Society of First World War Studies took place at the University of Oxford between 9th-11th November. The conference welcomed more than 80 academics from 11 different countries, who met at the Maison Française d’Oxford. Held at the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, this year’s ‘War Time’ conference theme aimed to encourage scholars to re-consider and reflect upon the way time has impacted and shaped conflict itself and subsequent scholarship.
ISFWWS conferences are based on an unusual yet very productive format, which aims to inspire wide-ranging academic discussion and provide junior researchers with an opportunity to present their work in an encouraging and stimulating environment. All 18 conference papers, which had been authored by PhD students and early-career researchers, were circulated amongst the participants in advance of the event. A senior academic in the field was invited to provide a commentary for each individual paper. The papers, which covered a variety of topics, were then paired up to create the following nine panels:
Following a commentary, the author of the paper had an opportunity to respond. Afterwards, the floor was opened to discussion.
The conference was framed by keynote lectures from prominent historians Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), in which they discussed the topics of time and strategic planning, time-frames, and moving from war to peace respectively. The keynotes, which were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team, will be available online shortly.
The conference organisers had the privilege of welcoming a number of distinguished scholars. OCLW’s Weinrebe Research Fellow in Life-writing, Dr. Kate Kennedy, was asked to serve as commentator for Ellen Davies’s paper, entitled “‘Mechanical Rhythms’: Music & Temporal Multiplicities in Pre-War Paris’”, on the Soundscapes of Time panel.
Furthermore, during the conference two separate prizes were announced and awarded. At the end of the first day the ‘WWI Research Competition’, open to all students and staff members of the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the war, was awarded to Dr. Alice Kelly (Harmsworth Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute) for her podcast by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). The runner-up was JC Niala, an MSt Creative Writing student from Kellogg College for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’.
The Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper, which the conference committee- with input from an ISFWWS representative- selected from amongst those conference papers whose authors do not already hold a doctorate, was announced during the concluding remarks. The winner was Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University with his paper ‘‘‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”.
The conference proceedings were followed on 12th November by a public engagement day organised by Oxford’s Academic IT department, during which twenty conference delegates and organisers worked as part of the volunteer team helping to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 project.
Adam Luptak, Hanna Smyth, and Louis Halewood, War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.
We invite papers that explore new approaches to the various forms of Tibetan life writing for a two-day workshop to be held at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, on May 12-13, 2017.
The aim of this workshop is to examine Tibet’s rich tradition of biographical writing as documented in Tibetan narrative, poetic, legal and religious literature. Particular attention will be devoted to journals, memoirs, letters, oral testimonies, personal accounts, and ritual inscriptions as expressions of the relationship between the individual and the society, the local and the global, the past and the present, the public and the private.
How and in which ways does life writing shape the public and private identity of the protagonists? What do personal narratives say about the way Tibetans perceived and made sense of the outside world? What role, if any, does life writing play in historical revisionism? Why does Tibet have such an unusually rich tradition of biographical writing and how much creativity was allowed by literary and cultural conservativism? What does material culture say about the life of artists, patrons, and spiritual masters? In addressing these and other questions pertaining to Tibetan life writing, contributors are invited to broach topics including, but not limited to:
Postgraduates and scholars are encouraged to submit an abstract of up to 500 words (for a 30-minute presentation) together with a short academic CV at email@example.com by February 1, 2017.
Life Writing is calling for submissions to a special themed edition on Philosophy and Life Writing, to be guest edited by Christopher Cowley and D. L. Mahieu.
Philosophers have long been interested in the nature of the self and in the meaning and narrative structure of human lives. Many philosophers have themselves written autobiographies. Descartes’s Meditations, Augustine’s Confessions and Rousseau’s Confessions are all frequently cited as early influences on the writing of autobiography. Yet there has been very little direct, theoretical and systematic interest from philosophers in the modern boom in autobiographical writing.
Christopher Cowley recently addressed this gap in his book The Philosophy of Autobiography (University of Chicago Press, 2015). In this special themed edition of Life Writing, he plans to open up further discussion, together with his co-editor, D. L. LeMahieu, an intellectual historian and the author of two books and many articles on British cultural history.
Full details on the journal website.
Abounding with buzzwords such as ‘myth’, ‘image’, ‘authenticity’, ‘public and private persona’, ‘iconicity’ and ‘cultural memory’, the links between celebrity and life-writing seem self-evident. There are, for one, the ambivalent motives underlying our fascination with both biography and celebrity, ranging from a desire for emulation and hero-worship to a hunger for gossip, revelation and social levelling through a vengeful ‘dethroning’ of celebrities. We are drawn towards the extraordinariness of exemplary lives and tempted into semi-religious veneration of their ‘relics’, while, at the same time, the appeal of individual life narratives is rooted in their ‘ordinariness’. Their promise is the democratic attainability of fame: that, with a bit of luck and a good marketing strategy, we can all become at least ‘micro celebrities’ as the stars of our own YouTube channel.
Both life-writing and celebrity – as practices, phenomena and fields of research – are concerned with the notions of authenticity and intimacy, public and private, accessibility and aloofness, myth-making and revelation. Both explore the tension between individual agency and the shaping and appropriation of public images by cultural and socio-political frameworks, media industries, ideologies and a whole network of agents. Life-writing is a multi-media genre, and it is one that both creates, and is fuelled by, celebrity, which emerges from the visibility and circulation of public images through a broad variety of media, from portraits to biopics and social media. A biographical subject’s celebrity status often determines whether their lives get written or not; it often obscures and obstructs our vision, necessitating a critical look at the workings of the ‘celebrity apparatus’ itself.
In spite of their many shared concerns, the close interconnections of life-writing and celebrity have only recently begun to be specifically addressed. The one-day colloquium Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue at The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 19 November takes up a conversation begun last year at the TORCH/OCLW co-funded conference After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity, organised by Nanette O’Brien and Oline Eaton. It aims to contribute towards a more sustained dialogue between these two closely interwoven fields and to trigger a conversation about what we as scholars and ‘practitioners’ may gain from combining their theories and methodologies. How can we benefit from integrating a life-writing perspective into our work on celebrity, and how does thinking about the nature of celebrity, the conditions of producing and consuming celebrity, change the way in which we write, read and study life narratives?
The mix of formats though which this conversation unfolds – research papers, a roundtable discussion, a ‘performance’ and Q&A – reflects the diversity of thematic and disciplinary approaches to celebrity and life-writing in dialogue. Research papers by Emma Smith, Tobias Heinrich, Julia Lajta-Novak, and Ginette Vincendeau offer specific case studies of the intersections of life-writing and celebrity in different cultural and historical contexts. They focus on biographical subjects as diverse as celebrity actresses and celebrity books and cover a broad spectrum of themes, including the (after)lives of iconic objects and the ways in which they inform discourses of cultural memory and value; or the relationship between life-writing, celebrity, and concepts of gender, class, and genre.
A round table discussion featuring biographers and scholars Hermione Lee, Philip Bullock, and Ruth Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero will address the challenges and opportunities of representing lives of different types and degrees of celebrity and fame (e.g. musicians, writers, politicians, explorers) through different media. Another aspect that links life-writing and Celebrity Studies is that the work undertaken in their respective disciplinary frameworks is often intensely personal, and scholars have not shied away from drawing on their own experience as fans. In a Q&A with author, academic and filmmaker Will Brooker, whose documentary Being Bowie captures the immersive research process behind his forthcoming book on David Bowie, we will have a chance to dwell on the question how this personal level of affective involvement can be turned into a form of auto/biographical experimentation.
The first in a new series of OCLW events dedicated to exploring the intersections of life-writing and celebrity, the colloquium will spark debates on how different degrees of fame, celebrity, and public (non-)visibility affect the representation of lives; on the challenges and the ethical questions that arise in the context of working on famous lives; and on the relationship between life-writing, celebrity and questions of selfhood and identity.
Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.
Photo by Anthony Delanoix (CC0 1.0)
This event is open to all, to register click here.
Memory, as they say, is a funny thing. The last time I saw Leila, I cannot remember in any detail what we talked about, or what we watched on television after she returned, exhausted, from the chemo. I do remember the day she enjoyed me showing off her wigs though, and then I made her a steak salad with strawberry coulis for lunch. What really sticks in my mind was the shape on the ATM keypad she drew out for me, so I wouldn’t forget her pin number when I went shopping (she had insisted on paying for dinner, but was too weak to make it to the shops). 1431 marks out a right-angled triangle that hugs the top left hand corner of the keypad and stretchers along the top edge. Like a cobweb, she said.
As we gathered her poems and papers together to publish a collection, Joe, her boyfriend; Humphrey, a local poet; and I were faced with a series of uncomfortable choices: in the absence of the author, how were we to proceed? We could not suggest revisions to texts, or additional pieces that might develop successful themes; nor could we nail down meanings, dates, or place for every piece. It must be a basic polychotomy of life-writing between those with no chance of a personal connection to a subject lost in time; those writing about a living, talking and question-able person; and those who had known their subject, who had seen how they talked and moved, how they listened, how they pondered. Our project belonged to the latter category, complicated further by its reliance on an unorganised cache of Microsoft Word files and handwritten notebooks. In addition, it was horrifically painful.
As such, we approached the work both with our memories of Leila as the person(s) we knew, and the truth of her absence. Our best and most respectful way in, we felt, was to be as professional and dispassionate as possible, a position we could only hope to aim for. We were alone amongst these tens of thousands of words and hundreds of images, but always accompanied by a loose phantasm of recalled moments. Whilst she had shared poems and prose with Humphrey and I for several years, immersing ourselves in the editing let us discover a private Leila: the artist at work. Leila was a drafter, we discovered, editing again and again, renaming, restructuring, returning to motifs, refining them down. She planned her work from the outset, the idea skeletally sketched out, then fleshed out with each subsequent draft. It was apparent how her artistic focus changed as she travelled, grew into full womanhood, and as she grew ill. It was also possible to see her reconsider and evolve in her conceptions as she returned again and again to the themes that so dominated her art. We were thus faced with an act of recreation, of resurrection, and bringing something entirely new, dynamic, and synthetic into being.
Her prose combined elements clearly biographical but distorted through a lens of folk stories and imagined futures, both declarative and reflective, with a keen eye for human foibles and facades:
“I bought a pair of boys’ jeans which I rarely take off, and find myself craving a moustache”
“Rebecca opened the bedroom door with a slice of bright yellow and looked disapprovingly into the shadowed room before lighting her way through the corridor to the bathroom. Deftly flicking switches as she went”
“”Miss…” he uttered. He had meant the words to be strong and reassuring but they cracked and disappeared in the dark. He reached out his dry hand and took her right arm in his grip, she was as cold as the sea. Then her eyes opened in panic and she thrashed violently”
The prose was light on dialogue; she used instead monologue and the inner voice. The characters are, in the main, observers, at one remove; placed there by either circumstance or their predilections. Leila writes them as an observer too, distancing them from herself and from the reader, as they are from their fictive habitats, yet still brings forth their essence. Her creations breathe and sweat, her allegories lust and fidget.
Her images repeat other, more self-referential themes, almost to the point of iconography. Ideas and pressures of womanhood, family, sex and sexuality, weakness, and the peace of the banal are all essentialised and distilled. Figures either emaciated to the width of a single pen line, or reduced to abstract shapes. These are, by design I believe, both open and closed to interpretation, a scaffold and a safe. An ongoing conflict (or synthesis?) exists in her visual art between simplicity and complexity, solidity and willowy sparseness, the plain and the mosaiced, the ephemera and the all too fleshy, untitled or adorned with cryptic notes.
Using an array of voices, Leila used her poetry as a far more personal mode of expression. Form was an intrinsic part of function for her as she whizzed from one tradition to another:
The poppy set slumber
For Dorothy in her blunder.
Sleep in an apple core
And let me rise in spring
In that same young tree’s blossoming.
She is older.
I’d give her three or four years on me at most
But she is such an innocent.
The pain of living has not set in yet, But I’ll bet that it does
And that’s where we differ
Your silk and leather,
my pauper’s wool
wet with weather.
My poxed fingers
and yellow thumbs
will sleep with Him
when all is done
and I will miss
your hissing tongue.
When I first was able to rouse myself to actually seriously read though the collection, rather than staring at words made meaningless by fresh grief and tears, I stumbled upon one piece of prose where Leila had quoted me. I do remember saying it and her nodding, more in conversational politeness than hearty agreement it seemed to me. The quote is unimportant, but the fact she had taken it up as a part of her art is not… The piece was saved under the name “Dialogue”. And imperfectly, made clumsy by our limited understanding and craft, this is what this book hopefully provides: continued dialogue with Leila, with her thoughts and her creative spirit, with how we remember her and how she remembered the world.
Leila Ann Soltau died of cancer, just shy of 31, on 26th September 2012.
Unsteady, a collection of her art, prose, and poems is available. All proceeds go to costs and two local Oxford charities; Helen and Douglas House where she spent her last days and the Young Women’s Music Project.
On the 6th November, from 7:00 at Fusion Arts (by the East Oxford Community centre on Cowley road) Unsteady will be launched. Books will be on sale, there will be readings from the collection and reminiscences of Leila’s life as well as examples of her work. Please join us. Stuart Bryant.
In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.
As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?
Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.
Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?
In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.
Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University.
Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)
An extract from the talk scheduled for October 25th
In an earlier draft of the novel I’m working on, I wrote a scene in which the daughter in the novel is given a suitcase that contains her father’s papers. I edited this out because it seemed too contrived, only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have these.
I remembered then, belatedly, that yes, of course there was a real brown suitcase, one my father had kept in the storage nook above the linen press, and that the case had been kept locked at all times. If you want it, my stepmother said, it’s yours.
After he died there was some concern as to the whereabouts of this case. Those he’d been closely involved with wanted the contents that related to them, or rather, did not want these contents falling into the wrong hands. Everyone wanted to be there when the suitcase was finally found and opened, so that they might lay claim to what was inside. For a while there was much talk of this, until it was forgotten. At some point the suitcase ceased to be mentioned and I didn’t think of it, in any way, until it appeared anonymously in my novel, and then in real life, when I drove home with it in the back of the car.
The suitcase dates from the 1960’s: it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this also broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle now snapped at one end. It is a relatively small suitcase; it looks as though it ought to be light. But when I picked it up I was surprised by the weight; there were meant to be only papers in there. A wave of something like dread swept through me.
I work in a studio at the bottom of my garden, and in this hut is a large, green velveteen armchair. I carried the suitcase from the car and pushed it behind this chair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt like I had my father in the room. I kept stopping what I was doing to get up and go and look at the suitcase. I would stand over it with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me. Only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before would I go back to my work. It was summer, the garden was growing wild. A green tendril of vine pushed its way up between the wall and skirting board. One day, when I went to check on the case, I found the green vine had wrapped itself all around. Spiders had built cobwebs.
Perhaps another person’s instincts would have been to open this case immediately – to set out to make a discovery. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do: that I would be such a brave and reckless person.
But I had never been allowed to open it, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before finally deciding to open it. The object hidden in the wrapping was beside the point. To open the gift was to destroy what he found most pleasure in; the secrecy, the muted curiosity about what was inside, the beauty of the wrapped object. Opening it would simply be a deflation of all this suspense, an end of desire, and there was the common risk, not unwarranted, that the gift would simply disappoint.
There was some pleasure to be found in thinking similarly, that I too was not obliged to open this suitcase, simply because it had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. Only, the novel I was and am working on – which centres around a fictionalized version of my father and my relationship with him – had, at the time when I inherited the suitcase, reached a hiatus.
I was stuck and looking for clues. The narrative had stalled. I did not know how to develop the “character”, as such, who was based on my father, I felt uneasy with this very term, I couldn’t decide on the balance between truth and fiction. I was unsure whether I needed to know the truth – as in the facts of my father’s life and family – in order to create a version that I would then call fictional, or whether I could go off the back of my own my memories, and let this material suffice.
If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find the answer I needed. I might find a clue, a link, a secret, something to explain the life I was combing through by memory and anecdote. In the course of my deliberations, I convinced myself that when I opened the suitcase I would absolutely and without a doubt find an answer so incredibly brilliant, so unexpected, that it would simply knock me out.
So convinced, I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters to my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from Sydney University listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a suicide note.
I was like a clichéd character in a novel, or had the hopes of one. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, a rustling of plastic. There, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in. I took this out, opened it, and being the clichéd character which, in that moment, I was, I expected jewels.
The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Then, beneath this, was a plastic bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. I took this out, emptied it: on each envelope was a list of detailed descriptions of camera, lens type, aperture, and inside each envelope were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. They were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping. I transferred these envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.
Stephanie Bishop‘s first novel was The Singing, for which she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. The Singing was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Her second novel, The Other Side of the World is published by Hachette Australia and Tinder Press (Headline, UK) and will be released in the US in September 2016 by Atria (Simon & Schuster). It is the winner of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016, The Indie Book Awards 2016 as well as being longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. It is also on the shortlist of the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Stephanie’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Australian, The Sydney Review Of Books, The Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is a recipient of two Australia Council New Work Grants, an Asialink Fellowship, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Varuna Mentorship Fellowship and Varuna Residency Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Cambridge and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. In 2016 she will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Life Writing at the University of Oxford. Stephanie lives in Sydney. She tweets at @slb_bishop
Photo by Lizzie Guilbert (CC0 1.0)
As an undergraduate, I came to Oxford looking for a writing community. Oxford, I thought, was the land of literary Greats — Tolkein, Lewis, Eliot, Shelley, Johnson, Sontag. Almost 100 years ago, a young T.S. Eliot, who was studying at Merton College, wrote feverish letters to his friends, complaining about his experience at Oxford: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead… Oxford I do not enjoy … I suffer indigestion, constipation, and colds constantly.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley spent no fewer than two terms in Oxford. In 1811, Shelley and a friend were expelled for being atheists. After his death, University College commemorated his time in Oxford with a statue. Susan Sontag was miserable in Oxford. Samuel Johnson dropped out after just a year because he couldn’t afford it.
Living writers and writing communities were slightly more difficult to find in Oxford, five years ago. I organised a small circle of literary friends, and we met to exchange work. Over time, I learned that there are dozens of significant literary groups, societies, and programmes across the city, but they were cut off, as it were — fragmented and sometimes insular. I now am working with a group of over 15 volunteers and a world-renowned board and committee of literary leaders, many of whom have been spending their nights, weekends, and vacation hours on a unique arts project, supporting writers across Oxford. We have gathered together the most respected names in Oxford literature and academic writing, to create an inclusive, internationally-facing writing hub, called Oxford Writers’ House. As far as I know, the model is unique: we enable writers by giving them the creative and community support they need, help them find each other, converse, refine, and publish their work. For the time being, we’re a house without a single location — a floating city. Writers in Oxford often are ignorant as to the wealth of literary resources at their doorstep. We are trying to change this, by linking up the dozens of flourishing circles, programmes, and arts events, and making these communities open-access and interconnected.
Despite the profile and momentum behind the Oxford Writers’ House community, I am often asked why we think what we are doing is necessary. I tend to think this question is one of profit, rather than value. The real question, to my mind, is why doesn’t this exist already? Writers need support and community — they need accessible ways to meet, discuss, share, exchange, and refine their work. They need access to a community. This community should affirm that their work is valuable and necessary. I think we are too accustomed to considering our lives in strictly functionalist, individual terms. Many artists today think differently — they want to participate in global conversations and local collaborations. To meet our mandate (to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers), we’re partnering with journals and writing groups across Oxford, together with bookstores, colleges, the City and County Councils, and others, to host talks, workshops, meet-ups, and conversations. We are also putting this material online, so that our members and the broader world can stay up-to-date. Our house is your house. Welcome!
April Pierce, Founder
Being a not-for-profit means being eternally asking: asking for donors, asking for volunteers, asking for teachers, asking for partners. I’m getting much better at asking. It’s a life skill – we all need help sometimes. The better you get at asking, the more you realise how much people are willing to give, and how many people were just waiting to be asked. It’s great to know your experience, knowledge and skills are valued by someone else — knowing that you can contribute to something outside yourself. I love being asked. Getting to talk about what I know well, getting to pass on what I’ve learnt to more people in an eternal and boundless game of tag.
The more we ask as Oxford Writers’ House, the more we’re able to pass what we’ve gained onto others. We can share contacts, share audiences, share ideas. Through collaboration we offer more events and more resources for writers. We become a community for more people and containing more people, working together, collaboratively. It’s only by asking each other what we need can we make it happen.
That was what was missing from Oxford’s writing scene. What brought us together and what drove our start-up this summer. We realised we needed more asking, more sharing. Cross platform, cross city, cross university, cross age, cross experience, cross genre. Cross anything. Across writing. Across Oxford. Crossing boundaries is a phrase so sound-bitten it’s lost any sense of urgency. But we’re not crossing boundaries in the sense of transgressing. We’re reaching. We’re sharing. We’re asking and being asked.
Oxford Writers’ House isn’t a physical house (though we hope it will be one day). Oxford Writers’ House is the knowledge that you’re not writing in a vacuum, and that you can be the reclusive writer with your laptop and coffee, alone in the wilderness. But any time you want, you can reach out and ask.
Asiyla Radwan, Creative Director
The Publications arm of the Oxford Writers’ House serves two purposes: to spotlight new, valuable work that is being created in the city (and across the wider Oxford-linked community), as well as to document the joys and frustrations of being a writer in Oxford. To these ends, we feature new creative work and special releases of forthcoming publications, and also publish interviews, essays, and news articles which provide some insight to Oxford’s writing community.
Our writers range from longtime residents of the city to travelers on whom the city has left a lasting impression – the very idea of the ‘Oxford writer’, we believe, is a wide-ranging and continually re-negotiated one. We open the doors of Oxford’s university and city writers to the world writ large. Having access to the unique network and publishing resources of the Oxford Writers’ House gives us the responsibility of being as fair, inclusive, and empathetic as we can. As such, we’re always looking out for new or unjustly marginalized voices who deserve to be heard alongside the city’s luminaries. Feel free to pitch us, and help us make writing in Oxford as rich and beautiful as our city.
Theophilus Kwek, Publications Director
Oxford Writers’ House tutoring services are dedicated to providing writing skills support and creative writing mentorship to students and local writers of all ages. We aim to inspire young people to write and to help amateur writers to hone their craft. Our tutoring services are therefore structured around enhancing levels of literacy in Oxford while also building and sustaining a proactive literary community in the city.
Our select team of tutors is made up of established educators, academics, and writers, all of whom offer unique writing specializations at discount rates. Members of the public can book appointments with tutors via the OWH website, and tutorials take place in and around the city. We do not adhere to any curriculum, rather we give established writers and academics a platform to offer writing tuition and mentorship for the benefit all demographics of the community in which they live. All paid tuition is therefore balanced with community outreach and OWH associated volunteer programs.
One of the goals of OWH’s tutoring services is to close the literacy gap in the city of Oxford and to enable Oxford’s literary community to give back to the city as a whole. A guiding principle of our work is inclusivity, by which we mean the incubation of marginalized voices, whether those of young people, the economically disadvantaged, or minority groups. Our tutorial model and our community-facing approach allows all our students (no matter what age) ownership over the writing process, strengthening their ability to express themselves clearly in an academic or artistic context. Moreover, the mentorship offered by established, local authors through our tutorials allows students and new writers to feel they can have a stake in a literary community where their voices will be valued.
David K. O’Hara, Director of Tutoring
Oxford Writers’ House was officially launched in the Spring of 2016 as a hub for the writers in the universities and city of Oxford. Besides offering resources for authors of all backgrounds, they provide Oxford-based academic and creative writing support, and curate their own discussion-oriented, interdisciplinary events. Their goal is to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers. @
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Four years ago, quite against my better judgement, I began research on the life of American evangelical icon Elisabeth Elliot. I had a special needs son, a baby daughter, and a husband who was embarking on a rigorous professional program. I was two moves into a schedule of moving every six months to two years for the foreseeable future. But Elliot, whom I had briefly researched for another project, wouldn’t go away. I woke up at night thinking about her. I wanted to know more, and there was nowhere to go but source material.
When she died in June, 2015, Elliot left 25 published books, countless magazine articles and speeches, 20 years of bi-monthly newsletters, 13 years of radio programs, and a lifetime of journals and correspondence. Her body of work holds particular interest for life writing because of the tension it reveals between public and private writing. As a very private person who spent most of her life under the public gaze, Elliot inhabited this tension from childhood.
Perhaps in part because she was a “reticent” child with few friends, Elliot was a journal-keeper from an early age. She was also an early public writer: contributions to the family newspaper were not optional. When she went to boarding school at 14, a thousand miles from home, Elliot tried to write home twice a week—one letter to “the family”, and one post-card to her mother. The family letter was forwarded to other absent siblings so that everyone was kept informed. Despite what seems now like a virtual flood of communication, at one point her older brother gently scolded Elliot for not sharing enough with their mother. “I know that’s what she yearns for—that we children tell her everything. . . . this is one practical way in which you can show your love to her. So do tell her all.”[i]
Letter writing, with its blurring of public/private, was a constant throughout Elliot’s life. She continued writing her mother—sometimes marked PRIVATE for good measure—and “the family” as her siblings scattered across the globe. She sent expurgated versions of these letters to extended family, and public letters to financial supporters. As her audience grew, she received increasing quantities of fan mail, and spent a substantial portion of each workday writing back. Alongside it all, she wrote in her journal.
Reading the journals and correspondence reveals subtle differences in the way Elliot recorded events for personal use or public consumption. As the telling becomes more public, it becomes more controlled. It’s easy to think of apparent discrepancies between private and public tellings as “true” or “false,” but that understanding rests in part on a misconception of the act of writing. Writing assigns meaning and imposes narrative in order to exist. And there are conflicting goals on each side of the reader/writer exchange. The reader hopes for an authentic connection with the writer; the writer experiences the added necessity of maintaining a private self. For Elliot, the decision to filter what came to the public gaze, even when that public was her family, was quite conscious. “[T]he things that we feel most deeply,” she wrote, “we ought to learn to be silent about. . . .”[ii]
A biographer herself, Elliot wrote about the friction between what the public wanted and the private realities of the self from the other side of the exchange. She deplored the tendency to include only the facts which fit a preconception. When she wrote her late husband’s biography—drawing heavily on excerpts from his own letters and journals—she declined to leave out the “warts,” despite his public status as a modern-day martyr: “I have not ‘delicately censored’ anything at all which I felt would contribute to the faithful portrayal of the whole man as I knew him.”[iii] Since the journals included not only stirring spiritual meditations but fairly explicit accounts of struggle with sexual desire, this must have shocked the more traditionalist members of her audience. Of the research and writing process she wrote, “Again and again I found myself tempted to ask what my readers would want this man to be, or what I wanted him to be, or what he himself thought he was—and I had to ignore all such questions in favor of the one relevant consideration: Is this true? Is this how it really was? And of course this is the question that any writer, of any kind of literature, has to be asking all the time.”[iv]
During her lifetime, Elliot resisted attempts to biographize her—an understandable response to the tension between working in a medium which is largely (and increasingly) public, and the natural desire to control access to oneself as an act of sheer self-preservation. She pointed would-be biographers back to her heavily autobiographical work. It can be tempting, for writers and readers, to treat autobiographical writing as the most authentic way of accessing a life. Private writing in particular offers the promise of showing the subject unfiltered, “as s/he really is.” But as I sift through the material in Elliot’s own corpus and interviews with those who knew her, I am struck by how necessary it is to see her through others’ eyes as well as her own. In the end, even the authoritative myself of private writing is incomplete. I can never know myself as I am experienced by others—by my parents, who have known me longer than I have; my siblings, who know best what it was like growing up in our family; my husband, who has lived longest with adult me; my children, who see me when no one’s looking; my friends, who know me through their own lives. But each of those selves is true, just as my private self is true. I think that is why we read, and write, biography—holding up mirrors again and again from different angles, resisting preconceptions, hoping to see, finally, “how it really was.”
Lucy S. R. Austen is a writer, editor, and author from Washington State, USA. A graduate of the University of Washington, she has worked as editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Northwest culture. She is currently at work on a biography of Elisabeth Elliot. She tweets at @LucySRAusten.
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[i] Phillip Gillingham Howard to Elisabeth Howard, Papers of Elisabeth Elliot, Collection 278, Box 3, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton University.
[ii] Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984) page 60.
[iii] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page 12.
[iv] Elisabeth Elliot, Who Shall Ascend (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page xii.
I slipped this slim, unassuming little volume into my bag, planning to have a look during my daughter’s swimming lesson. I pulled out the book – pleasantly solid and tactile, with crisp cream pages – while perched on the unyielding plastic of the pull-down seat in the stuffy, chlorine-scented spectator area. The cover is simple and monochrome, with an energetic line drawing of the three authors wrapped in some sort of wispy communal kaftan, or perhaps a sheet, knotted at the shoulder; a nod to the authors’ collaborative approach that conceals their differences just as much as it showcases them.
As I began to read, the muffled hum of screeches and splashes faded away into the thick air, to be replaced in my mind with the sights and smells of the 17th century Couvent des Minimes in Lille. Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman, and Michèle Roberts – between them novelists, poets, biographers, autobiographers, playwrights, editors and professors – have been in a writers’ group together for ten years. In September 2013, they went away for the weekend to Lille to plan their new book, The Cabinet of Possibilities, about being in a writing group, and about opening up one’s writing. Over the weekend, each kept a diary.
Roberts is all about the detail, and once she introduces the idea of The Cabinet of Possibilities as ‘…a magical, expanding Cabinet, able to hold whatever we want to put into it. Space drawers. Knicker drawers? Top drawers. Bottom drawers.’ I perceive this playful metaphor throughout the writing, in her descriptions of food, for example: ‘…tiny cubes of cakes like jewelled objets d’art varnished and enamelled in slick, bright colours…’ And in Le Fanu’s embarkation gifts, given in St Pancras: a postcard from the Saloua Raouda Choucair exhibition at the Tate of ‘four naked women lounging around on cushions on a red checkered rug, sipping tea and reading books … cotton hankie covered in plump colourful birds on leafy twigs … conjuring up the pleasures of reading and writing (naked or clothed), and flights of the imagination.’
Reading and writing, naked and clothed, imaginations flying forward and back in time. If one could melt, mix, and then distil these three accounts of one weekend, the essence would contain all this. While Roberts often looks to the past – her French grandfather’s love of a caramel choux pastry called religieuse (the nun), whom he’d say was burning in caramel flames; and the plain yoghurt in a glass jar reminding her of childhood breakfasts – the whole group is also focused on the future: on what writing they will do, how they will push boundaries – their readers’ and their own. All are experimenting with form, Roberts reveals; refreshingly honest about the reaction of her ‘inner monster-toddler’ to her two friends’ gentle critique.
It is fascinating to see the different perspectives on the same events. Dealt with swiftly by Roberts as ‘a stag party of chaps all in pink polo shirts,’ Newman seems quite reflective about the group of young men who share their Eurostar carriage, casting them as a brotherhood, travelling counterparts to the sisterhood of three writers. She notices their politeness, their neat centre partings, their shirts bearing the words Al’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and their cans of beer, which don’t quite match up to the champagne and small glass tumblers rolled in a linen napkin that Michèle Roberts has brought. Le Fanu wonders, ‘isn’t the League of Extraordinary Gentleman an alternate universe steampunk series by Alan Moore?’ (I checked, it is).
As well as food, sights, and other people, they write about writing. Roberts’s toddler-monster, the unwritten rules of the writing group (discuss writing not feelings, leave the phone off the hook), point of view, Jane Austin and Katherine Mansfield, and the joyful rediscovery of a rejected manuscript. The writing is beautifully evocative, equally descriptive of place and emotion, and funny, accompanied by line drawings full of spirit, energy and humour. A wonderful insight into friendship and writing, it will inspire you to create a circle of writers of your own.
The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend by Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman and Michèle Roberts was published in 2016 by Hawkins & Quiggin, London.
Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.
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My First Diary
When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag with a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were very clear:
‘Take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice. We want to be able to read it!’
From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins.
It was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic, to muster up a grown up self. Above all, my diary wanted me to be extraordinary.
As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. Its purple satin cover was intimidating, I decided: too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a special thing? How could I begin to write anything in it?
I would have to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say.
‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort, for goodness sake!’
But surely a real diary doesn’t ask you, to make an effort? Surely a real diarist can let go of the picture-postcard version of things? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in my diary, to draw pictures of the funny looking people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did in the weeks ahead, to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too French for me to understand.
But, instead, over the course of the four weeks I spent in Switzerland, I tried to impress my diary. My diary was a boyfriend, my first boyfriend. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I wanted everything to sound like an Asterix adventure. Every day was filled with difficult and unfamiliar things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on.
I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (which was a lie because I read it in English).
When I went to the city of Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and then describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out. But I’d promised my mother I would write up every day and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.
But what happened in between all this edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-the-record moments when I was just a small, lost child in a Swiss village staying with a family I barely knew? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of the hill.
The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: stuffing myself on chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up mountains. And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?
My attempts at keeping a diary were inauthentic: a bad performance in being adult. I had missed the point: personal diaries don’t ask us to be good grown-ups. Our diary is the ideal boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend, someone who won’t abandon us, however bad our tantrums and misbehaviour. Even Greg Heffley, the touchy teenager of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, reluctantly admits to dumping his real feelings in his diary or ‘journal’ as he insists on calling it.
True diaries contain overspill; they batten down thoughts and feelings for which, in the everyday world, there is little time and space. Diaries can bare souls and anchor lives. Emotionally speaking, they pick up the straying and splintering pieces of ourselves, those moods, atmospheres and secrets that might otherwise ruin situations and relationships. We can say to a diary what we wouldn’t dare say to anyone else. Diarising is free therapy, a place where we can project all the mess and maelstrom of our unresolved, teenage identities.
Spending Your Personal Time
Diaries are supposed to help you consider how you spend your time. In Switzerland, I was spending all my time being afraid of my diary. My diary was always calling me into account. There was no real point to it.
Historically speaking, diaries emerge from a system of account-keeping: the public world of work and production. The father of the diary, Samuel Pepys, was a good diarist because his professional life asked him to be a good accountant. As the navy’s leading administrator and keeper of its books, diary writing was but a step away from totting up the naval accounts.
We will never know exactly why Pepys began to keep a diary, but there must have been some sense of wanting to say something about current affairs, which during Pepys’s lifetime were tumultuous: the dramatic restoration of Charles II to start with, which is where Pepys begins his diary. But there must also have been an urge to reflect upon his own, often messy, personal life – those extra-marital affairs and rows in bed with his wife.
Whatever the case, on January 1st 1660 Samuel Pepys began writing in a brown calf-bound notebook. He framed the pages with red ink, ruling margins along the edges of the pages: seven inches down, five inches across.
As Pepys demonstrates so well, the modern diary emerges from a mind set of expenditure: a system of daily account-keeping in which time and the unit of the day are the main resource. By 1660, a day had became a unit of time worth noting but also worth spending well. What would I do in my day; what did I do in my day, was now the question.
Putting Yourself Out There (Facebooking, Blogging, Tweeting)
In the 21st century, the traditional diary or journal has an online version, the blog. Facebook, Twitter and the culture of blogging emerge from a celebrity culture whose central premise is that we are all terribly interesting. Certainly worth following. Twitter gets you followers, Facebook finds you friends. In the world of social networking we are all celebrities, although only some of us really are. Stephen Fry was one of the first British celebrities to draw attention to the Twitter phenomenon, with his now notorious Twitter or ‘tweet’ update while stuck in a lift: ‘Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle.’
Footloose and fancy-free, twittering is for those on the move, and as Stephen Fry demonstrates, it is a good way of coping with that most frustrating of contemporary experiences: not being able to move.
Tweeting is quick, airy movement. An instant reflex, a flick-of-the-wrist approach to communication, tweeting is a sort of premature mental ejaculation.
But I might be wrong about this. I’m new to tweeting. Perhaps a tweet is a more reflective form of thinking. A friend of mine tells me that people can spend hours creating a tweet. A tweet, then, is a form of haiku in which every syllable, every one of your 140 characters counts. A tweet is not just another bit of noise floating through the cyber-universe. It is a brief meditation on the universe. On Twitter you can say something philosophical about Jeremy Corbyn finding himself without a seat on Virgin Trains; the return of socialism, or the latest terror attack. You can comment on the state of the nation and the globe. What is more, people will listen. Their attention spans won’t run out. They might even recycle what you say.
Still, I find it hard not to think of Twitter as just another form of social gossip, a quick blurt. One moment you tweet about a celebrity break-up and the next you tweet about your own. Certainly, Twitter marks the end of bounded public and private worlds. The traditionally private world, the sphere of the household, the home – Samuel Pepys in a filthy mood, in bed with his wife Elizabeth (also, no doubt in a filthy mood, her husband having given her a black eye) – has no separate form of life from the Pepys strutting about around Whitehall eager to be spotted by the King. Private forms of communication have not only engulfed our public world, they produce it.
Some of us still keep pocket diaries as a means of keeping ourselves tidily within time. But since the late nineties pocket diaries have gradually turned digital, to the now almost socially ubiquitous Smartphone. These days, from my iPhone or iPad, I can keep track of my future movements and obligations through slick digitalised calendar and diary functions. In 2016 the intimate world of paper has all but disappeared. Only a few of us cling to the old-fashioned notebook or journal in which to write down our thoughts. I do so mainly as a form of indulgent nostalgia for the child I once was, flitting about the world with a pretty notebook and Berol pen, a butterfly with paper. But why do I write on paper still? Perhaps to feel something more visceral, more real.
At the university where I teach, I see my students reverting, during exam time, to the comfort of coloured pens, ornate journals and notebooks. Paper is human, and something like skin; it is reminiscent of schooldays and childhood and earlier forms of learning. Writing inside their attractive A4-sized notepads my students take comfort from close contact with paper and pen, the structure of carefully ruled lines. They carry notebooks around like close companions and friends; theirs is a private world of words carefully placed in the right place at the right time. There is something magical in their thinking.
Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Insititute, University of Oxford and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written widely on visual responses to literature, including a jointly-authored study of Sylvia Plath’s relationship to the visual arts: Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007) and a study of Plath as a cultural icon, Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011).
Sally’s recent book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets, tells the story of the diary as a coming of age story. Beginning with teenage diarists, Sally moves through significant moments of lived experience, from the teenage years when diary writing often begins, to the years of family, professional life, old age and death. The book takes the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and others as her starting point for a discussion of the importance of private forms of writing and self-reflection as a means of securing a personal and public identity. From Pepys to Tweets assess the loss of such an acutely private form of life-writing in an age of facebooking, blogging and tweeting. She tweets @
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An exhibition of paintings and poetry responding to the life and work of British artist Felicia Browne.
Through An Artist’s Eye is my most recent project in a growing body of work relating to the Spanish Civil War. It is a creative collaboration paying tribute to British artist Felicia Browne, who died in action in the early moments of the War in August 1936. Her letters and sketches – on which we draw – are held in an archive at Tate Britain, and in the private collections of the Sproule family.
Felicia is a unique figure in this conflict, being the only British female volunteer in Spain to take a combatant role. An eyewitness report by German volunteer, George Brinkmann, tells us that she was killed while on a mission to derail a fascist munitions train near Tardienta in Aragon. Her group was ambushed and outnumbered by fascists, and Felicia came under fire as she selflessly came to the aid of a wounded comrade.
My first encounter with Felicia was through an arresting self-portrait on display at Pallant House Gallery as part of the Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War exhibition in December 2014. I was also struck by her exceptionally accomplished drawings capturing street scenes and Spanish militias in the early days of the Civil War. I was intrigued but occupied with work for my EXILIO collaboration with Jonathan Moss, exhibited at Wolfson College in January 2015. In September and October 2016, my response to this extraordinary life story finds full flower with an exciting programme of events, the catalyst being the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain.
Here is the backstory:
Earlier this year, I invited Jenny Rivarola (a poet who, like me, is also the daughter of a Spanish Republican exile) to join me in developing a project dedicated to Felicia’s memory. Subsequently, I secured Arts Council funding for us to work in partnership with Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History; Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, OUDCE. We have also been fortunate to develop a partnership with the Instituto Cervantes, who in supporting us signal a growing shift in some quarters towards dismantling decades of suppression relating to the history of the Civil War in Spain. In contributing to the recovery of historic memory, our project gains a wider cultural significance, and we hope to reach audiences in Spain as well as the UK.
Professor Buchanan rediscovered Felicia’s drawings and letters in the early 1990s, examples of which are now held at Tate Britain. Felicia’s archive has recently been digitalised – and a short film made as part of Tate Britain’s Animating the Archives series, featuring Professor Buchanan and myself, and is entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist.
The true inspiration for the project came to me while filming with the Tate Britain team in my Oxford studio, during an intense conversation with Rebecca Sinker (Curator of Digital Learning at Tate Britain). You can see the moment the idea seeds itself (at 4.35 mins) as I look away from the camera at the pile of vintage suitcases in my studio. At once I became acutely aware of the intersecting geographies of Felicia’s journey to Spain with that of my father to England, and I was visited by the image of my father’s footsteps across the Pyrenees at the end of the war in 1939, mirroring, or indeed overlapping with the tyre tracks of Felicia’s car journey at the very onset of the war in 1936. They had crossed in opposite directions to vastly differing destinies – one to her untimely death aged 32, and the other to his eventual safety in England aged 18.
I have cause to think of the Civil War as my cradle (a notion articulated through my 2014 film Without You I Would Not Exist), and filming with Tate Britain in my studio made me viscerally conscious that this same bloody conflict had been Felicia’s grave – rendering her life story ever more proximate to my own. So much so that they came to feel entwined (as though – however improbable – she had given her life for the eventual freedom and safety of my father and my grandparents). Astonishment at Felicia’s actions, gratitude and curiosity intermingled, and I wrestled with the challenge her short life implied. As an artist engaged in a form of war commentary myself – albeit historical – I questioned the boundaries of my engagement. Felicia made me ask myself, am I doing enough? I don’t yet have an answer. All I really know is that Jenny and I – as daughters of Republican exiles – have felt compelled to honour this remarkable British volunteer. Further, that in the case of Felicia Browne (as evinced through her letters), we find a witty, erudite and engaging personality, and that (with regard to her drawings) there is an exciting body of work to bring to public attention. She is without doubt a compelling character on so many levels.
We have a free booklet for audiences and will also be screening our project film at all our events. With talks by Professor Buchanan and poetry readings by Jenny Rivarola.
We will be seeking new venues to exhibit our work in 2017, and are available for talks, film screenings and conferences.
Sonia Boué is a visual artist whose painting practice encompasses, assemblage, video and performance. Her work is research based and deals with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice. Her Msc Applied Social Studies Oxon, continues to provide a useful framework for Sonia’s practice, which is concerned with the artist’s role as a catalyst for social justice. She is a Member of Common Room. She tweets at @SoniaBoue.
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