Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

Imperial Wanderers: Cricket Tours in the High Noon of Empire

June 1, 2017

In my capacity as a convenor of the Sport and Leisure History seminar series at the IHR it’s a great pleasure to flag up the forthcoming paper by Dr Prashant Kidambi on early Indian cricket tours to the UK. I’ve written about his work on a previous occasion so if you want to get a flavour of what to expect should you come along to the IHR do read that post. For those interested in cricket history, the history of the British empire or Indian history it promises to be a rewarding evening with the chance to discuss the subject with Prashant in a relaxed but intellectually focused atmosphere. Click here for details.

S&L

#cricket #India #history

Marivaux Pt. 2

April 22, 2017

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A bit of repetition of a previous post but I recently wrote this for the French History Society blog:-

Adapting Marivaux’s L’Ile des Esclaves in 2017

One of the things that never occurred to me until this year was that I might end up adapting a play by Marivaux for the stage. Marivaux’s LIle des Esclaves is a one-act play first performed by the Comédiens Italiens in 1725. It tells the story of two ancient Athenian aristocrats and their slaves who are washed after a storm wrecks their ship to discover that they have landed on an island run by the descendants of former slaves. A role reversal comedy along the lines of the 80s cinema classic, Trading Places, it sees the masters become slaves and the slaves become masters at the behest of the Island’s leader, Trivelin.

imgresI’d become interested in Marivaux having noticed a succession of reviews of productions of his work in Le Monde. In an idle moment in the library I saw Marivaux’s name and thought I’d check him out. My sole previous experience of classical French theatre was being made to study L’Avare for A-level. And I mean study in the loosest sense. The pursuit of knowledge being strangely absent from our school’s ethos, even in Sixth Form, my familiarity with Molière’s text was based solely on having watched a BBC production starring Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. I thus approached Marivaux cautiously and chose L’le des Esclavesas my introductory text, which weighs in at an easily digested 60 pages of text.[1]

The language wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. Some archaisms apart I could follow the dialogue well enough and the classic role reversal plot was very entertaining. I was interested to see if there had been any translations and was delighted to find an edition of his plays in English in the excellent Skoob Books of Bloomsbury.[2] The Island of Slaves had been translated by William Gaskill for a performance at RADA in 1986 and I rattled through it very quickly.

imgres-1While reading it in classical French I hadn’t been especially bothered by the very eighteenth century social and gender attitudes of the text. However, reading it in modern English made it seem rather anachronistic, especially the ending. Although Marivaux’s comedy was quite radical for its time in positing a situation where aristocrats are taught to improve their morals by their social inferiors it struck me that the play’s resonance with the twenty-first century was let down by the docility of the female characters and the socially conservative message embodied in the restoration of the hierarchal status quo at the resolution of the plot. I just couldn’t see how you could play the text straight in the modern world. So it seemed odd that RADA had chosen to do so. At least on the page, it may be that their staging undermined the socially conservative resolution.

So I began to turn over in my mind how one could update the piece for a modern English audience. Firstly, I did this as a kind of academic exercise. I was commuting to Leicester for a VL job at De Montfort once a week and Stella time on the train back seemed more productive if engaged in a bit of translation for pleasure. Then it occurred to me that with members of the Crouch End Players among my circle of friends and the Crouch End Festival coming up, I might be a bit more ambitious and actually get it staged.

I began by going back to the French original, trying to put all thoughts of the English translation out of my head. Attacking the text I soon came up against a problem which has long been recognised – to what extent should I place the translation in the context of the time of its production? Should I attempt to replicate the eighteenth century terms in like for like English? Or should I rather place the translation in the context of the audience for which I intended it, a non-specialist festival crowd likely to be assembled in the function room of a pub?

At De Montfort I’d noticed that the ‘Centre for Adaptation Studies’ occupied a corridor along the way from the historians. Adaptation Studies was a new term for me so being an academic I thought this sounded like something that might be able to help me formulate a structured approach to adapting Marivaux for the English stage. I was wrong – Adaptation Studies is concerned more with the adaptation of texts from one form to another, for the most part novels to films. What I was looking for was Translation Studies, which has its home in this country at UCL and has a much longer-established methodology.

In Western culture Translation Studies’ founder (although like all firsts this is disputed) is St. Jerome, who coined the concept of sense-for-sense translation as sound practice compared to literal translation with the former using sentences rather than individual words as the basic units for making a new text. Cicero put this more pithily in his De Opitimo Genera Oratorumwhen he explained that in translating from Greek to Latin, he ‘did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but … preserved the general style and force of the language.’[3] Which seems a bit of a no brainer to me.

A more thorny issue might be that defined by Lawrence Venuti in the 1990s as the issue of whether to take a ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignizing’ approach to translation.[4] That is, whether to keep the original cultural context or move it to that of the target language. Again, this seemed straightforward to me, I wanted to not only translate but update Marivaux and make it not just relevant but topical. Which is where I wanted to go beyond the translation that I knew, Gaskill’s, and also one that I was aware of – Neil Bartlett’s.[5] His translation was for a production at the Lyric Hammersmith and I definitely wanted to steer clear of his version as I suspected that he might have wanted to make a more radical intervention to the original than Gaskill for RADA. However, from skimming the introduction and the opening few pages it seemed that Bartlett too had largely respected Marivaux’s concept and resolution. His introduction was very informative, especially in its notes on performance style in Marivaux’s day, outlining how actors would be expected to add in their own songs and jokes to liven up a show for the audience. So I took this as carte blanche to do my own bit of embellishment for the Festival crowd.

imgres-2I felt the field was clear for a radical revision of L’Ile des Esclaves for the post-Crash generation. The island is now Corbyn Island and our castaways are not Athenian aristocrats and slaves. For present times I felt that a Premier League football manager and his youth team coach on one hand, and a media-savvy interior designer and her PA on the other, would have something to say about contemporary class relations. And they get washed up on Corbyn Island, the last refuge of socialism in a post-UK dominated by Theresa May.

Rather to my surprise the play is happening! It’s been the most interesting piece of writing I’ve ever done, going from a straight translation through rewrite after rewrite taking on the advice of an experienced writer for the theatre (my friend Phil Woods) and my fellow director, Anna Rogers. Speaking with my academic hat on I’d say that I’ve learnt two valuable things in the process of going from translation to rehearsal. The first is that however obscure are some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down as a historian none have so far been as obscure as wading through the literature on Adaptation and Translation Studies. Though each has been fascinating I’ll be glad to get back to the dry ground of archive-based research for the SSFH Conference in June. Secondly, I’ve never had to work so collaboratively on a piece of writing before. I’ve been through the editing process for articles and books but taking something you’ve written and then rewriting it in the light of how an actor says the line is something altogether different and quite rewarding for being a shared experience.

So I’d like to hear from other historians who have worked in the same area, whether as specialists in eighteenth century France or in doing something similarly off beam to the regular grind of being a historian. As much as I’ve strayed from Marivaux’s source material I can’t wait to get back into reading more of his work now that I’ve discovered how rich his work is.

Corbyn Island will be showing on 16th and 17th June 2017 as part of the Crouch End Festival. Go to www.crouchendfestival.org for further details.

[1] Marivaux, L’Ile des Esclaves (Folio Classique, Paris, 2000)

[2] Marivaux, Plays (Methuen, London, 1997)

[3] Cicero, De Optimo Genere Oratorum, Translated by H. M. Hubbell (Loeb Classics Library, Harvard, 2017) pp. 364-5. Although Hubbell himself is doing quite a bit of conveying meaning here himself rather than translating! Another translation I have read rendered the original, ‘I did not think I ought to count them (words) out to the reader in coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were.’

[4] Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. (Routledge, London, 1995).

[5] Neil Bartlett, The Island of Slaves (Oberon Books, London, 2002).

 

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …

Churches

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St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas

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No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street

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Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro

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Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.

Books

Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.

Art

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New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …

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A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.

Pubs

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The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.

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Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.

Buildings

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De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.

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Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.

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That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.

Food

But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.

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Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.

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For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

Translating Marivaux

March 2, 2017

Reading Le Monde over the last few months I’d noticed an uptick in performances of Marivaux recently. Despite being subjected to heavy doses of Molière during my French A-Level I’d never made much of an effort to familiarise myself with classical French theatre in the intervening twenty odd years. But with a twenty quid voucher to spend in Skoob (thanks Amanda!) I took a punt on Marivaux’s collected works in English.

I started with a short one, naturally. A one act play. L’ile des Esclaves as performed at RADA in the 80s (and including Liza Tarbuck in its cast) turned out to be a straight translation of the original and an amusing role reversal comedy along the lines of Trading Places (one of my favourite films of the 80s). Well, the Trading Places comparison interested me – aren’t we living through the consequences of a similar period of the over-inflation of financial markets and the ensuing social polarisation that usually accompanies it? Marivaux was more contemporary than I’d anticipated.

I wanted to go back to the original and of course the London Library had a full edition of the plays. The original tells of a pair of masters and slaves from Athens in classical times washed up on an island run by the descendants of escaped former slaves. Captured by the ex-slaves’ leader the masters are forced to serve the slaves to learn how to be good people and all kinds of shenanigans ensue before all are reconciled  along the lines of conventional classical drama.

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Thinking through comparisons with 18thC France (about which of course Marivaux was writing – very presciently one might argue given what happened sixty years after the play’s première) and present day England didn’t present much of a challenge and I used the play just as an interesting nugget of conversation for a few days.

Until I dropped in on a meeting of the Crouch End Players. The CEP is a local drama group who function as an excellent piece of social glue in an area of London (well, like any big city) where it’s easy as a newcomer to just do the work/home/work/home thing.

They have a development group to produce new writing and I thought it would be an interesting exercise (and a useful distraction from writing lectures) to tackle L’Ile and translate/update it. Not even having written a piece of drama before didn’t seem a barrier as with Marivaux’s text to support me structure wouldn’t be a problem.

And now the first draft is complete! Updated as Corbyn Island I’ve eschewed the RADA line of setting the play in classical times to let the parallels be made by the audience and decided to do a much cruder rendition in the present day because well, because I’m cruder myself I guess! Whether it will see the light of day on the stage we shall see but it’s been worth its while as an exercise in its own right.

The translation was difficult, my French is okay for reading a newspaper but not necessarily up to the niceties of 18thC dialogue while supping a beer on the 19.02 from Leicester. But in a way I felt that this was an advantage as I didn’t really want to make an exact replica of Marivaux’s work but rather to catch its sentiment in a twenty first century accent. Think Citizen Smith meets Ex on the Beach. Let’s hope it comes off.

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#Marivaux #France #CrouchEndPlayers

 

Cricket as Revolution

February 23, 2017

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent panel discussion on Cricket as Revolution organised by the LSE as part of its literary festival. The two speakers were Dr Prashant Kidambi of The University of Leicester and the journalist and cricket historian Peter Oborne. 


It was an excellent evening. Prashant kicked off with an unscripted 15 minute talk outlining the theoretical approach that he’s taking to a social history of Indian cricket that he’s researching now. His argument that the development of cricket is closed tied to the modernisation of Indian society in the twentieth century is one with which I agree wholeheartedly and whose grid of analysis (the rhetoric of equality on the field v quotidian bias on class/ethnic/caste lines, the role of mass media, the varying role of nationalism, and the role of class formation) could be applied across a range of sports in a range of territories. 

Against Prashant’s coolly analytical voice we then had Peter Oborne give a less coherent but more impassioned account of the role of cricket in the formation of Pakistani identity. His shoot from the lip style in the discussion afterwards was entertaining and entailed an unexpectedly enthusiastic digression on the development of women’s cricket in Pakistan. But I reckon his fondeness for straight talking (for example the comment, ‘Dubai is the most corrupt city on earth … with the possible exception of Bueno Aires’) may give something of a headache to whoever has to edit the discussion for podcast. But if it does go up on the LSE site I do recommend a listen.

The open discussion ranged widely but focused more on present-day issues than historical events. Of course I’m interested in both but as a researcher I would have been interested more in the latter. The former I’d rather discuss in the pub or at the match. But it was good to see such enthusiasm for the game among the audience, and especially the stout defence of the Test game against the rise of T20.

Prashant I’d first met when he examined me for my PhD and during that meeting he’d mentioned that he was working on a piece about the first all-Indian cricket tour of the UK in 1911. My thesis was largely concerned with the growth of international sport in the imperial context in the 1900s and I was aware that my own section on Indian cricket was weaker compared to some of my other material but Prashant was nice enough not to take me too much for task about it.

So it’s now a pleasure to see that he has brought his work on the tour to fruition and his book should appear in the summer. Before then he will also give a paper at the Sport and Leisure history seminar series at the IHR on the subject which I’m very much looking forward to now that I’ve heard him speak, if only briefly, about it last night.


By an odd coincidence I’d given a lecture on Indian cricket the day before in which, to put it simply, I outlined that contrary to traditional (i.e. white, Anglo, middle class) it wasn’t MCC that gave the game to the world, the world took the game from the English and developed it as best they could under colonial rule. Prashant can tell the story of the tour much better than I can so I urge you to either buy his book or come along to the seminar, which will be on 5th June 2017, if you’d like to hear more about it.

#cricket #India #LSELitFest

Academic Writing, or the Slow Crawl to (Possibly Non-) Publication

January 25, 2017

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Is it wise to whine about the time it takes to get a piece of work published when you have two articles and a book chapter currently in the peer review process? Probably not. Probably not original either so I’ll just point out that I have had one little piece of work published recently, a book review for Cultural and Social History.* The book in question is a wide ranging collection of essays on childhood in the British world. If you want my opinion of it in more depth those charitable souls at Taylor and Francis have given free access for the first fifty clickers via this link:-

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/FU6ANGEnYTYkheq4P43p/full

Enjoy.

* Simon Sleight and Shirlene Robinson (Eds.), Children, Childhood and Youth in the British World (Palgrave, 2016)

#History #British

Chichester and Arundel

July 7, 2016

Having spent a few days away from London I would normally have returned to my desk with a slew of reviews to do from the place that I’ve been. But on this occasion that isn’t the case as I was away for a conference of the Society for the Study of French History. So this piece is more of a reflection on that conference, a sidestep into my own little obsession of going to galleries and then a thought upon a moment of touching serendipity in a church.

It was my first time at the SSFH conf, presenting a paper that I’d previously given in Middlesborough but this time to a group far more likely to be more interested in the French than sporting aspect of my research. As usual it taught me the value of presenting to an audience whose specialism lies beyond one’s own. My co-pannelists (Will Pooley and Russell Stephens,  both of whose papers were very good (and you can’t say that about everything you go to at a conference)) were talking about witchcraft and nineteenth century political cartoons so could hardly have been farther from my own field of early twentieth century sports culture. Yet in a sparsely attended session (it was the last of the conference after all) the discussion ranged freely enough to spark a few ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me with that outside input. And I now know a shitload about witch trials and phallic imagery in the reign of Napoleon III. Result!

The other good thing about conferences (apart from the socialising, or maybe as part of it) is that it can clear the mind of applying for jobs and getting rejected, writing but ever feeling that you’re not writing enough and teaching but worrying that you haven’t given your students all that you could or should. Because by talking to other early career researchers, and I mean talking to them not reading their angsty tweets and blogs, you feel more normal about your own angst and setbacks. 

But of course much as I love conferences I do also like to get out of them and wander around. By contrast to Middlesbrough Chichester seems to be suffering from no economic dislocation, even in the early days of B****t. And this shows in the gallery attendance at Pallant House. It was solidly busy on a warm Sunday afternoon with families, young couples retirees and wannabe flaneurs like me. 

Deservedly so. The twentieth century art collection is outstanding, with my own favourite being a Patrick Caulfield room kitschly mysterious and entirely covetable. The temporary exhibition of work by Christopher Wood deserved more of my attention than I had the energy to give. So well worth 10 quid for entry.

But talking to a local who was back for the conference she said that she wouldn’t be going because she didn’t think she had enough time free to justify spending that kind of money. Which again reinforced my opinion that such galleries should mitigate the entry charge by extending the ticket for a year, as they do in Queen’s Gallery and the London Transport Museum. This would maintain revenue while also encouraging multiple visits by Chichester residents, thus resolving that conundrum about how to find a balance between earning the tourist bucks without fleecing the locals. But if you’re in the area go there – it’s worth ten quid.

And also go to the Cathedral, which is free. Preparing for my paper I sat in the nave while the organist went through a quite challenging repertoire of what sounded like Messaien to my untrained ear. And then on the way out I saw this:-

It inspired the final poem of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings (go here for a reading of the poem by Larkin himself) one of the few collections poetry that I know well. And very apposite in the week of my own wedding anniversary. A good omen.

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.

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The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.

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Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******

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Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.

 

Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.

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Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.

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****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.

On a rugby conference

September 13, 2015
Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?


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