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Preview: Amongst the Leaves

Amongst the Leaves

Updated: 2015-09-16T19:29:46.951+01:00


Links to Stuff X


The British Society for Literature and Science conference takes place 10th-12th April 2014 at the University of Surrey. I'm giving a paper on the second day on a panel titled:  Light Pollution and Green Technologies. My paper is, unsurprisingly, on Stephen Poliakoff:  Dead Batteries: Scientific and Technological Failure in the Work of Stephen Poliakoff

My friend Angharad Eyre has written an excellent post on the History of the Emotions blog about letters and friendship at Westfield College in late Victorian Britain.

AL Kennedy has a new collection of short stories out: All the Rage (Jonathan Cape)

Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard



I've finally submitted my PhD dissertation, which means that I can read books for enjoyment and not just work. As soon as I have finished James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still, I'm going to be reading Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard.

I know Daisy, we have both just finished and submitted our dissertations at Queen Mary, University of London, and have been on panels about archives and anecdotes - although our fields are separated by at least three hundred years. Hunters in the Snow is sure to be a great book, and the first of many. The fact that Daisy has managed to finish both a novel and a PhD dissertation in the last few years is very impressive - she is an inspiration to us all! I wish her lots of success with this novel and am really looking forward to reading it.

Links to Stuff IX


My friend Kirsty Rolfe has an excellent blog called Avoiding the Bears.

AL Kennedy has a new non-fiction book out called On Writing. And a repeat broadcast of her radio play Confessions of a Medium was aired on Friday night on BBC Radio 4 and is still available to listen again.

Stephen Poliakoff will be speaking at an event at the ICA in London on Friday 8th March. I can't go because it clashes with my teaching so I am hoping it might get recorded.

AcWriMo IV: Welcome to Procrastination Central


Yes, I know, AcWriMo is not about procrastination, it is about the opposite. Add a busy week so far doing things which needed to be done to staring at my laptop and when that doesn't prove productive move my books and whatnot from one room to another, and the result is no words written, and the sense of guilt mentioned on the No Matter, Fail Better, blog is something I'm feeling quite well acquainted with.

Also I'm feeling tired and head fuggy at the moment, and my ability to actually spell words and write things which make sense has been limited of late...

Got to get back on track tomorrow after reading an essay or two this evening. 

Now however I'm going to have a cup of tea. But which tea to have?

AcWriMo III: derailed


Today has been less about writing and more about making sure I have the information to hand so that I can move forward with my chapter, which means I haven't done my 1200 words today. Yesterday went a bit wrong on the AcWriMo front because I had to leave the house and didn't get the opportunity to sit in front of my laptop until late, by which time I was tired. Tomorrow I have meetings but I hope to get something written by hand when I am travelling on the train to and from London.
This is all a bit frustrating because I wanted to have a productive week and build on the momentum generated at the end of last week, so on Thursday morning I will refocus and spend a few minutes setting some writing goals for that day. This is something which is really encouraged by the Thinking Writing department at QMUL and when I remember to do it I do find I am more productive. This evening, after reading through and doing a rough edit of the work I have written so far, I am going to spend a few minutes working out which section I want to focus on and then outline some goals so that I can focus them on Thursday morning.

AcWriMo II


Although I'm a little over a week late in discovering AcWriMo and signing up to it, I've now committed to writing 1200 words a day (which is sometimes achievable and at other times a bonkers goal) which comes out as 25200 words over 21 working days - which I began on Friday 9th November, writing 1125 words on the laptop and probably around 100 in a notebook on the train on the way home.

If I achieve the 25200 it would mean a first (but hopefully not too rough) draft of my final chapter, a 250 word abstract for a journal submission and the surgery done on the second chapter which I've neglected for about 18 months - if not longer - and maybe even some other work as well. My main aim and major focus, however, is to complete my final chapter, not necessarily to write that many words.

Even though I discovered AcWriMo late I found that because I was starting writing my chapter this month anyway, I had already done some of work to meet some of the 6 rules of AcWriMo.

1. Set goals: I changed my goals after signing up and set a daily word count aim well above what I would usually set. So 1200 words a day 5 days a week and finish the final chapter.

2. Publicly declare participation and goals: doing that here now.

3. Draft a strategy: I've been reading and planning throughout October so I know what the strategy is - it is written down in ink in a notebook.

4. Discuss what you are doing: I will be doing that on here, maybe daily, maybe not because repeatedly posting 'I wrote 1200 words today' would be boring. One of the things I do want to think about is the process of academic writing, and how different processes might be useful.

5. Don't slack off: Phd students specialise in procrastination. Please feel free to post daily in the comments section to increase my sense of guilt over any thoughts of procrastination, or just to provide encouragement.

6. Publicly declare your results: AcWriMo is due to finish on 30th November, but I will actually be continuing until 7th December partly because I'm a week late in signing up to this, and partly because my chapter deadline is 7th December.



I'm on another 'writing retreat' at the moment; my issues with the word 'retreat' remain, but again it has been a useful thing to do, and sitting in a room with other people who are also writing creates a sense of silent collaboration in a shared goal.

The end of this PhD is in sight (sort of, maybe) but I still feel too distant from the possibility of finishing, but today I wrote the first 2000 words of my final chapter. These words are not in continuous sentences, some are just random sentences stuck somewhere at the bottom of the document as ideas which pop up but while others are proper paragraphs. I need to read it this evening and work out what I need to do tomorrow to make the same level of progress.

Coincidentally I learned this evening from another waif and stray staying on the floor of the same London flat as me while we're both in the city for work things that alongside NaNoWriMo there is AcWriMo which I'm now signing up for in the hope that it will continue the sense of collaboration in a shared goal and spur me on to complete this chapter by 7th December.

Links to Stuff VIII


The good news is I finished the draft of the chapter by the deadline I set. The bad news is I'm not happy with the chapter as a whole, but I'll see how things turn out. I'm also physically and mentally wrecked at the moment - I have an article to write so will have to pull myself together by Thursday.

The writing 'retreat' helped quite a bit, but I still wish it was called something other than a 'retreat'... 

While I was shut away in the British Library last week reading about 1980s British television drama and the second Cold War, AL Kennedy's latest radio play was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, it is available on iPlayer (just, it expires in 4 hours) but you can also download it from the Play/Drama of the Week podcast via BBC Podcasts, and on iTunes. I shall be listening to it shortly before settling down to an afternoon of watching Wimbledon (if the rain ever stops).

Long term readers of this blog will know about my obsession with AL Kennedy's work, and I'm delighted that she has written quite a number of radio plays in recent years, and hope there are more to come.

Deadlines. Deadlines. Deadlines.


About ten days ago I decided to use a part of my diary (a bright green Leuchtturm1917, A5 size page a week style, in case anyone is interested) I've never bothered to make use of before: the page at the front which lists all the months and days of the year, and which does not have enough space to do anything but circle the relevant date. Before now this has seemed a bit pointless to me - I'm likely to forget what is important about the circled date - but then I realised that working towards a big, scarey, PhD endgame deadline without any general, easily accessible, overview of what I needed to do by when was going to make things, well, scarey. And stress inducing. So for the first time I made use of those little numbers at the front of the diary and circled the relevant numbers for chapter deadlines in red (Diamine Passion Red cartridge), supervision meetings are circled in Noodler's Navy - I am sure at different points new colours denoting different things will emerge, but these are the important things for the time being. I now know what I am working towards on a month to month basis - in my head I already knew this, but putting it on paper has made it clearer and also more immovable, making me create a structure - I am trying to do this but it does not always work.While I was trying to instigate a better working regime and structure for writing the final three chapters of my thesis, The Guardian Books section online ran this blog post: Write or Die: can a $5 app cure writer's block? I'm not sure about the concept of 'writer's block' being an inability to actually put one word after another. For me it is usually not a writing block, but a thinking block. Next week I am attending a PhD Writing Retreat for two days - run by a department called Thinking Writing - I'm looking forward to it, but the idea of it is also making me cringe slightly inside (the 'retreat' bit is mostly causing the cringing I think - it simultaneously sounds a bit 'hippy' and a bit like I am running away from something), and I'm worrying about having to write in a room full of other people. I usually write in a room on my own (Mrs Woolf was right, but inflation means £500 a year doesn't really make it very far these days). Is it going to be weird typing sat next to someone? And what about all that thinking happening in one room? Whether or not it will be a successful two days remains to be seen, but I am hoping it will give me the impetus to finish the first draft a little bit early, allowing me some days off and some sleep, which I really do need, not because I am working through the night (this may yet happen), but because I am just tired. What the writing retreat has done already (by way of a little exercise I have to do before I attend) is make me think about my process for thinking and writing. Thinking back to the last two 'big' projects I have done - my undergraduate dissertation and my MA dissertation, neither of which are anywhere near the length of the PhD thesis, although the MA was about the length of one thesis chapter - I realise the way in which I work now is very different to how I was working on those projects. I wrote the bulk (7000 words approximately) of the first draft of my undergrad project in a crazy burst of binge writing one night - I can't remember how many hours but I recall tinkering with it for most of the day, then having dinner and going back to it at around 8pm or thereabouts - by 5.30am the following morning I could hear the birds singing outside and was hitting the save button for the last time that night. I crawled into bed and woke about five hours later. I can still remember the elated feeling when I woke up and have yet to recapture it. I can also remember the look my supervisor gave me the following day when we stood over the department printer: the look told me I was crazy, but understood tha[...]

Links to Stuff VII


A quick AL Kennedy related link today - and get in quick, because I've been slow and forgot ALK is on the wireless for fifteen minutes every Friday for a few weeks (starting last week) which means the first episode will expire in a few hours on iPlayer...

Here is the link to the first part on the Radio 4 website. The second episode is broadcast on 15th June 2012 at 3.45pm and the third on 22nd June 2012 at 3.45pm.

Now I've listened to it (and laughed) I must get back to meeting my own typing deadline.

MindNode Software Review


I've been battling with my chapter for sometime. To begin with I had a big panic about where the chapter could be situated within the rest of the project - when I first sat down to think about it, this chapter seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the project. After some major procrastination and a big conversation with my supervisor I finally found a way to get it to work. More procrastination ensued, followed by my Canada trip, and never ending marking. When I finally sat down to start writing last week I found myself writing random lists, thoughts, post-it notes, and then leaving these ideas in a messy heap of paper. The system wasn't working; well mainly there wasn't a system. One of the courses I've been teaching this academic year is a second year undergraduate course which prepares the students for planning and writing a final year research project. At some point in the term one of the lecturers told the students about a brainstorming website called so I thought I'd give it a try. It was useful, but the downside is that it requires you to be on the internet to use it. The internet is great, but it is a great source of distraction, and I really do not need any form of distraction, so the internet gets turned off when I am writing because otherwise I just end up faffing about looking stuff up.Looking on the App Store I came across a few mind-mapping/brainstorming type apps and thought I'd give one of the free ones a try. I downloaded MindeNode Lite because it looked fairly simple and unfussy - which it is. To create a new mindmap you just open a new MindNode document and get clicking and typing.My only major criticism though was that when making the mindmap the new nodes (lines) were created underneath the existing ones (you can see this on the yellow lines) which meant there was all this space at the top which was going to waste. After some fiddling I discovered that you can move the nodes up or down by clicking and dragging, but it would be great if new nodes appeared at the top as well and underneath existing nodes without having to be dragged up there.The maps tend to naturally develop horizontally, so the whole map becomes a bit too linear for my liking, but a bit of dragging and this can be changed. The Pro version of this app may do these sorts of things automatically, and you can also do things like add links and photos, but I'm not sure I need something like that at the moment - maybe once I've proved the usefulness of the software to myself and when I've got an income again in 2013 I'll upgrade to the Pro version. I've only been using MindNote Lite for a few days, but it has been useful so far and I hope as I get to know the software better I'll use it more and it will work in the way that I want it to. It has already helped me to get a complicated narrative sequence in one Poliakoff drama sorted out in my brain. I'll probably recommend this to my students - it is compatible on iphone, ipad and Mac - as using an internet based program can be dangerously time consuming and distracting when you are planning and writing a big project with an immovable deadline.[...]



One of the big problems with my job is that (like so many other people) I spend an unnaturally long time sat in front of a computer. On top of that I have a long term back injury ( 17 years and counting) and an inability to say no to biscuits. I've been trying and failing to go to the gym (when at home) or swimming (when in London). Getting to the gym means a 30 minute round trip in the car, an hour there, and changing etc, and two hours have gone by before I know it. In London if I want to go swimming I need to be in the pool by 7am if I want to avoid the crowds, and this just hasn't been possible over the last few months - I've managed it a few times, but I've been so chronically tired that I need every minute I can get.

If I don't exercise my back gets worse, along with everything else, so after some thought I decided cycling at home would be best. My old bike was knackered and slightly on the small side, so I forked out what was left of my teaching money and got a new hybrid bike. I've been doing well and getting out on it almost every day, but on Monday a pick up truck decided to clip me ever so slightly whilst on a country lane and a combination of things sent me flying. Nothing broken thankfully, but really bashed and bruised, my left hand took all the weight of the fall, got pretty skinned, and now typing with it is really quite uncomfortable, my knees are blue and purple and I can't laugh because my ribs hurt too much.

Unfortunately this has set me back about 5 days on the writing front, partly because of the general pain, the painkiller induced brain fog, and now having to type with only one hand. It also means that my 442 words a day have now become 521 words a day. I know it isn't much of a difference, but at the moment every single word is mentally taxing. I just hope that sometime in the next few days my brain shifts into a more engaged gear and manages to come up with more like 1000 words a day.

Einstein on the Beach - by Peter Falconer.


Guest post on Einstein on the Beach written by my very good friend Peter Falconer, who I met over a bottle of water (the only one in the room) at a horrendous undergraduate departmental Freshers' Week party in a drama studio around ten years ago. We go to opera and we like tea. We attended the performance at the Barbican Theatre on 9th May 2012. Peter's post has captured perfectly the mad, abstract, and occasionally baffling atmosphere of the performance. We remained in our seats for all 5 hours - we could have wandered off to use the facilities at any point but we decided to be hardcore - it was worth it, but we paid for it the following day. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen - along with the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia at the Royal Court in 2007, Katie Mitchell's production of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life at the National Theatre in 2007, and Complicte's production A Disappearing Number at the Barbican in 2007/2008, and Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw's production of TS Eliot's The Wasteland at Wilton's Music Hall in 2009/2010. Like those other productions Einstein on the Beach made me think about the potential of theatre and of the theatre space, and the possibilities of language. * There are swear words in this post. I'm not editing them out. You have been warned. *Peter's post:  What follows are the scrawlings I made in a notebook whilst watching Einstein on the Beach - scored by Philip Glass, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, and directed by Robert Wilson - at The Barbican Theatre, 2012.  There was a little confusion over the naming of the various scenes, as I had only glanced at the running order beforehand.  Aside from a general knowledge of Glass's minimalist style, I had not prepared myself by reading up on what each scene contained, or what I was to expect musically or dramatically.  The notes were made by information coming in through the eyes and ears and going directly to the pen - the brain was, for the most part, bypassed in order to achieve maximum sensational enjoyment!         So, as people are entering, we're faced with one girl at a desk miming typing on some sort of keyboard and another...A....G......C........... on a mouse."These are the days, my friends." Orchestra pit slowly fills with chorus (Cons; grey trousers; white short sleeves; braces; white faces; smiling, surprised)Pause on way up stairsThe bloke next to me is wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck with no apparent irony.  He also smells very musty.  Like he's spent a fortnight in a library or a second-hand book shop in Shoreditch. "It could be very... fresh!"Photo of child by lake.=======================Child holding cube of light on gangway up high.  Conch shell underneathGirl walks back and forth (upstage - downstage - upstage) holding pencil?Red jumper enters downstage. Seems delighted.Music a mechanical, contrapuntal mash.Red jumper's writing in the air with chalk now.Big argument over seats on the row in front.  Getting quite heated.  Meanwhile, a train enters upstage left.And exits as soon as it entered.Another dancer's just entered downstage left.  Think she's operating a train or something.  Argument resolved - people here first are on the wrong floor!Ooh, the train's back again.Poor girl's been walking backwards and forwards at about 120bpm for 7 minutes now with her left arm at 45degrees.  Must be getting tired.Paper aeroplane on stage.Photo of a train now.  Ah, this part is called "Train."More train operators!  And the walking girl's trying to controll something with her hands.  Could s[...]

Links to Stuff VI


It is a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK, which naturally means that it is raining. I have no excuse not to write some PhD words over the next three days then. Hope those of you having days off and parties aren't getting too drenched. London was awash with bunting and flags when I left on Thursday. 

I have finally finished all my marking for this academic year. Well theoretically I have - some work always manages to appear out of the woodwork after I think I am done...

As promised a guest blog post on Einstein on the Beach written by Peter Falconer will be posted here shortly, and I am (slowly) working on a long post about the current state of British television drama - the idea for post was prompted by this article in The Guardian by the playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan, but also by my own research and response to what is on television on a nightly basis.

The British Museum has a wonderful exhibition called The Horse which is running until 30th September 2012. Readers of this blog will know my love of plants, and the BM also has an outdoor exhibition called North American Landscape which runs until sometime in November, so it will be interesting to see how the exhibition changes and develops with the seasons. Both exhibitions are free.

For reasons I can't explain I quite like this band based in West Wales: Paper Aeroplanes

The poet Kathleen Jamie has a new book of essays out. Jamie's first was the beautiful and compelling Findings, the new book is Sightlines. I'm looking forward to reading it in July when I will have finished this chapter of my PhD - 12,518 words to go, 442 words a day between now and 1st July.



I haven't been blogging for a while because between January and March I was teaching and marking and attempting (and failing) to make progress with my PhD, and then the beginning of April managed to produce the Worst Week of My Life - which we won't go into because it makes me sad.

Yet more marking has arrived and I have a week to do it; once the marking is off my desk I will have five weeks to write chapter 4 of my PhD and until 7th January 2013 to finish my PhD. That is an actual, set in stone, deadline.

The blogging will continue to be erratic, and may consist of 'Please make it stop' at various intervals. In the meantime, a guest blog post by my friend Peter Falconer about our experiences at Einstein on the Beach a couple of weeks ago will appear here when Mr Falconer has deciphered his notes (he was very studious and filled most of a notebook). Since Einstein we've been to The Flying Dutchman at the ENO, which was much shorter, but also much less amazing, but did boast some very excellent video projection designed by Nina Dunn.

A while back I wrote about the importance of titles, and Peter has written along similar (but probably more amusing) lines about song titles. If you are interested you can find the post on the PFlog.

Links to Stuff V


I was away for half of April in Canada for the History, Memory, Performance conference at the University of Ottawa, and before that I was teaching and marking, so I've not had much time. This is a quick 'Links to Stuff' post before I get back to posting (hopefully) more often.

While I was away AL Kennedy's Sunday Feature on Art and Madness was broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday 22nd April. I've yet to listen to it yet, but it is available on iplayer.

On Tuesday night Peter Falconer and I went to see Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican. We managed not to get lost in the Barbican (which is like a modernist Alice in Wonderland) and sat through the entire 5 hours (it has no interval). One of the most amazing things I have ever seen on stage. The various videos of it on the web do not do it justice - it is definitely one of those productions where you had to be there. It runs at the Barbican until 13th May.

Links to Stuff IV


Regular readers will know how much I like AL Kennedy's work, and her new radio play That I Should Rise was broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Saturday night drama slot The Wire on Saturday night. It is available until the weekend on BBC iplayer. 

The November/December 2011 edition of Intelligent Life magazine published this article about handwriting.

There are currently two exhibitions running in London about Antarctica The Heart of the Great Alone at the Queen's Galleries at Buckingham Palace and Scott's Last Expedition at the Natural History Museum.

Links to Stuff III


Congratulations to Peter Falconer over at A Song A Week 2011! for writing and recording 52 songs in 52 weeks.

Going Dark at the Young Vic looks like it will be great - I'm going in early March because it is one of the things my students have to go to for the course I teach this term.

Some of BBC Radio 3's New Generation Thinker's are broadcasting on The Essay this week.

Links to Stuff II


Baz Productions are a very exciting theatre company based in London who recently had a production of Macbeth running in the Crypt at St Andrews in Holborn. You can read their blog here. This was the first production I've seen in a long time which actually made me realise how much I miss working in the theatre. I'm looking forward to seeing the work Baz Productions make in the future.

I'm giving a paper at a conference in Ottowa next year: History, Memory, Performance. My paper will be on history, memory and storytelling in some Stephen Poliakoff dramas. I'm very excited about it, but I'm trying to pretend I don't have to fly - I'm not scared of flying I just hate it, and the cheapest flight to Ottawa is nearly 15 hours with a stop over... Maybe I could row over there or something?

The Electric Forest are fantastic light installations and walks through British forests. I'm looking forward to going to the one in Thetford Forest.



I've been thinking about critics lately.The first two assignments my students have to hand in on the course I am teaching this term are book reviews. This might sound easy: it is not. The work they need to produce should be well written, well argued and succinct - the word limit is a very strict five hundred words maximum. Only a very few of them asked before they began their work what the role of the critic in a review is. This is a question which attracts different answers, and over the last few years there have been discussions - in theatre and literature - about who should review work, how, and for what purpose. On Wednesday evening some friends and I went to see the new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at English National Opera directed by Deborah Warner, whose production of School for Scandal at the Barbican in early summer was badly reviewed by some (not all) critics - to which Warner responded, and a low key, short lived - but media inflated - 'spat' occurred when two critics took this response very poorly and then themselves responded... are you bored already? What always seems to come out of things is an air of critics in one camp and writers, artists, actors, theatre directors - or whatever other artists I have left out - in another, with no real dialogue occurring between them: critics - and the newspapers they write for - do not want to change the way they do things, which leaves everybody feeling frustrated. Warner - I should declare now that I have great respect for her work and have yet to see anything directed by her in the theatre or opera house which I have disliked - seems to have been attempting (I may be entirely wrong about this of course) to get some sort of discussion going for a while, at least since late 2009 when I heard her on BBC Radio 4's current affairs programme PM talking about critics and criticism and role/responsibility of the critic - but consistently the response to this from senior theatre critics has been patronising and condescending if nothing else. Which, for me, is disappointing, because I feel very strongly that this is a discussion which should be had - there must be a way of properly jump-starting this conversation and preventing it from becoming some sort of pathetic newspaper argument. Before my students hand in their next review I will be encouraging them to think about the role of the critic, or rather think about what the responsibility of the critic is, and what they - as writers, critics, readers, and audience members - want from a review.  The production of Onegin is stunningly beautiful (the lighting alone was worth the price of the ticket) and without a doubt the best thing I've seen all year - I would go again every night before the run ends if I could, but I can't so I hope it returns to the Coliseum in the future. There were six of us, each enjoyed it, but from different points of view - at the first interval we had a great discussion about the date the production had settled upon - the story is an 1820s one, but this production was firmly rooted in 1890, and our discussion ranged from Jane Austen to Chekhov via wars, revolutions, 'The New Woman' and Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (one of my favorite films, but it entered our discussion because of the duel in both that film and Onegin) . If you want you can listen to a live recording of it via the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer, but I really do urge you to go an see it if you can.   [...]

Links to stuff


I'm going to try to blog more, so if I can't write a proper blog my compromise is going to be to post some links to interesting things (things which I think are interesting and hope you will too).

Quick reminder about my friend Peter Falconer's project to write A Song A Week in 2011. He has ten songs left to write, record and produce - and there aren't ten weeks of the year left so if you haven't already take a look at the SAW2011 blog and give him a comment or two to encourage him, and a few pounds for the charity pot if you can.

High Arctic exhibition at the National Maritime Museum - is a rather extraordinary exhibition conceived by Matt Clark of United Visual Artists after he went on the 2010 Cape Farewell High Arctic expedition. The blogs by the people who went on the expedition can be found here.

BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival is currently happening in Gateshead. Radio 3 broadcast various lectures and events and you can catch up on the iplayer.

And for something absurd and hilarious: French and Saunders Hungarian Madonna Interview (with thanks to Mr Falconer for sending me this link).

Reading Lists, libraries and beautiful books


Somebody asked me recently what books I'd read recently - I had to think about this, which is unusual as I can usually reel off quite a few without thinking at all. I read everyday, but rarely these are books anyone else would want to read - New Perspectives in Historical Writing, Probing the Limits of Representation, Practicing New Historicism, anyone? Thought not.To add to this I've been stuck in interminable chapter writing hell since sometime in March, which finally came to an end about ten days ago, but which has meant I've not been able to read anything non-chapter related, mostly because I've just been too tired to read anything else at the end of the day.This term though I've been teaching a course on contemporary writing, so I've been reading a book a week, and this is the reading list:Marilynne Robinson - HomeAli Smith - The First Person and Other StoriesSarah Waters - The Little StrangerMichelle Paver - Dark MatterJackie Kay - The Red Dust RoadJackie Kay -Fiere Jeanette Winterson - Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Jose Saramargo - The Elephant's JourneyAlex Wheatle - Brenton BrownBel Mooney - A Small Dog Saved My LifeIn the last week of term the students get to choose the book they want to read. A few of my students raised their hands 'What do we do in week 12?' questions abound. Choose a book you like and suggest it to the rest of the class. 'What?' - none of them could think of a book they had read. What did you read in the summer? Silence. You must have read something. One finally mumbled that he spent the rest of the year reading and so didn't read anything over the summer. What is he doing an English degree for if he doesn't like reading? When I finished my undergraduate degree I was so tired I couldn't read any of the books I loved or wanted to read, but I needed to read something so I trundled my way through all my Dad's crime novels. How can these students spend a whole summer not reading? I would go crazy if I didn't or wasn't able to read - books have been there at the most difficult and terrible times and I've always used books as a way of escaping the terribleness. When I worked as a bank clerk I used to use my lunch hour to go to the library in the town (whatever town, as I was moved about a lot) where I was based and sit in there and read; it was an hour of grace day on day, week on week while I was doing a job which made me very unhappy; it got me out of the bank and effectively made the job bearable until a job I wanted to do came along. In the last month I have learned four out of the seven public libraries I used have been shut down, two have had their hours cut, and one risks closure. The Kindle advert may be claiming the thing replaces the book (it doesn't because you can't drop in the the bath for a start, not to mention all the other things, which I won't mention otherwise I will be ranting) but I cannot replace the library: the experience of going into a place filled with books, pulling something off the shelf at random and starting the reading journey. Or going into a library with the reading list for your course and looking at the shelves and pulling books off to find which ones you need, which are interesting or helpful, and which are no good and can go back on the shelf. The rejection process in the academic library is as important as the act of discovery.  I haven't managed to finish AL Kennedy's The Blue Book - I was just too tired and couldn't actually hold the book upright in bed, and decided the book and I[...]

What's in a title?


I had a meeting this afternoon about a paper I am giving at a research seminar on a panel with two of my friends and colleagues in March. Our research is quite varied and does not really link up in anyway - one of us is researching scientific writing and the Royal Society in the 17th/18th century, another on the East India Company Archive 17th-19th century, and my research is on Stephen Poliakoff, which puts me firmly in the late 20th/21st century.There is, however, one area in which we are all interested and have talked about with varying degrees of intellectual depth: the archive. But none of us could face yet another panel on this subject and have happily discovered that we are also interested in the anecdote - so that will be our general subject for our panel.From there we had to write a title for our panel - this sounds easier than it actually is.In today's lecture for the course I teach on we were discussing contemporary publishing in all its glory and shallowness, and one of the questions was about whether we read a book because of its title. To our surprise none of the students said they were attracted to a book by a title - other factors were more important for them, particularly front covers it seems, so that old saying about judging and covers never goes away. But do we judge a book, or a play, or opera, or an art exhibition, or a film, or a song, or whatever else, by its title? What impact does a title have? Do we learn anything from a title?We decided our panel title needed to have a colon - the colon in academic paper titles is all. Or not. I still maintain my best title was a two word title for a paper on AL Kennedy - Writing Home - now though I have long wordy titles with quotes and colons. We wanted something about fragments in our title to reflect the fragmentary, shard like, nature of the anecdotes and anecdotal stories and incidents we would be discussing. The only thing which came to mind over and over again was 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' - the famous line which comes four lines before the end of the fifth section - What the Thunder Said - of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and while I'm talking about titles, it is interesting to observe the reason why the European Parliament wouldn't allow Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw to stage The Waste Land in their new parliament building in Brussels was because the powers that be didn't care for the title...What if T.S. Eliot had kept the title he originally considered - He Do the Police in Different Voices? Or on a less dramatic level if Ian McEwan had maintained the original title of Atonement so that it was An Atonement - it was his publisher who wanted it to be just Atonement and McEwan relented. 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' is an incredible line, but one which we could not use: how could we?The line has been haunting me for the rest of the day, and whilst I listened to a paper on mourning this evening it kept returning: 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'. Eventually we came across a fantastic Francis Bacon (Bacon senior, the 16th century statesman, not the 20th century painter) quote: 'Out of monuments, names, words, proverbs, traditions, private records and evidences, fragments of stories, passages of books, and the like, we do save and recover somewhat from the deluge of time'. But this was too long, so after a bit of chopping and twisting we came up with 'Recovering from the deluge of Time' as our before the colo[...]

In Search of the Perfect Notebook: Part 2 The Search Continues


After some thought I managed to work out where I might have bought the 'perfect' notebook for my work back in 2008. I narrowed it down to two shops in London, one on Devonshire Row opposite Liverpool Street and another on the Holloway Road near where I used to work. I was in London yesterday for a meeting about my difficult third chapter (which I'm told is reasonably good... but I'm not convinced, all I can see is a mess), so I decided I'd visit these two shops, however my day did not go quite to plan and I never got to the Holloway Road stationers, and when I got to Devonshire Row Crane Stationers were no longer there - just a row of empty shops.
I rang Holloway Road shop and explained my predicament with regards to the paper in particular, and although they were not sure what make the notebook was or if they still stocked it, but they said if I took it along with me they would see what they could do. So that will be a job for my next trip to London.
As a precaution - because my current notebooks are almost used up - I went into WH Smith at the train station and went to pick up one of their 'ok, but not great' notebooks, and found a label on the front saying the paper is 70gsm, which means they have downgraded it because I am sure the one I have is 80gsm. So I left it on the shelf and ended up with the New Statesman, the London Review of Books and the Independent's daily mini paper. Which is just as well because the train was delayed...

In Search of the Perfect Notebook


It seems many people who need to use, or want to use, notebooks - I mean the paper kind not the computers - is not really satisfied with the one they have got, and are therefore always in search of one which is better suited to what they want. I am no different. I wrote a few months ago about the notebooks I need to use - of all the notebooks listed the most important notebook I use on a daily basis is the one for my PhD research.My requirements are: A5, casebound in a hardback cover, good quality paper which takes fountain pen ink and pencil well, I need lined pages, the notebook must lie flat when opened, and for bizarre reasons know only to myself and my archiving needs, the notebook must have a red cover.I have tried making my notes directly onto my laptop but this just does not work for me - I need the feeling of pen or pencil on paper to process my thoughts - so I use the notebooks. I am currently using a WH Smith own brand notebook, which is ok, but the paper is not as good as I would like - some inks feather and bleed on it - but it does its job in most cases, but I'm still on the search for a better notebook, and I'm not that keen on the shade of red.Over the last few weeks I've been writing the third chapter of my PhD, and I expect this notebook will be used up in the next few days as I struggle - and this chapter really has been a struggle - to finish the first draft. This academic year has been difficult for so many reasons and this chapter should have been completed some months ago. This time last year I was on target, now I feel horribly behind. I am having to write huge stretches of the chapter longhand before typing them up because I cannot seem to be able to work out what I want to write on the screen. This is both time and notebook consuming.After I finish this notebook I will use up the few remaining pages in my Seawhite of Brighton notebook, which I stopped using when I realised how much I need lines. It is actually a sketch book because Seawhite of Brighton are an art supply company; it is a great notebook, I like the cover, and I like the thick pages, but I really do need lines. So I need to find something else.I know all the paper aficianados out there are shouting 'Clairefontaine', but have you seen the price? I go through these notebooks too quickly to justify spending over £7 per notebook, and although I agree the paper is great for fountain pens, I do find the ink takes a bit too long to dry on this paper - and if my thoughts are flowing I need to get them down and keep going, not wait while the page dries before turning it.Yesterday I discovered I did once have the perfect notebook. Searching through a pile of Poliakoff plays I found one of my old notebooks from my MA. It seems I filled this book up with terrifying speed in the British Library whilst doing some research on Irish writers broadcasting on the Third Programme in the late 1940s and early 1950s: it is full of pencil scribbles about dates and times and content of broadcasts made by Irish writers, copied from piles and piles of archive copies of the Radio Times. I flicked through the notebook and realised what a good book it was - the paper was smooth but not slick, it had lines, the cover was a nice shade of red and had a smooth texture, it opened flat. I'd only written in it in pencil (pens are banned in the BL) so I needed to find out if the paper was up to the worst behaving inks I own.[...]