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.
Iris Julia Bührle is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow (English) and a Junior Research Fellow atNewCollege,Oxford. She studied comparative literature, history of art and international relations inStuttgart, Paris (Sorbonne-Nouvelle/ Sciences Po) andOxford, and she has worked for UNESCO, the Bavarian State Ballet and the Paris Opera. Her doctoral thesis (Paris/Stuttgart) entitledDance and Literature: the choreographic adaptation of works of literature inGermanyandFrancefrom the 18thcentury to the present daywas published in German in 2014. She also authored a bilingual (English/ German) biography of the British dancer Robert Tewsley. Her current project is on Shakespeare and dance.
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.
The Dear Diaryexhibition 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.
Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, 26 May – 7 July 2017, Weds–Sun, 11:00-5:30.
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.
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.
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!
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 WonderHow 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.