Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

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?

On Blockbuster vs Bijou Exhibitions

April 20, 2015

On Friday I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the National’s latest blockbuster, Less of an Exhibition, More of a Thesis (or Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets). I won’t expand too much on the drawback of such exhibitions to the average punter – too crowded, bed blockers parking themselves with their audio guides in front of the good stuff, the sharp elbows of the English Middle Classes, the inexplicable amount of babies and toddlers, the all-too-BIGNESS of the show. We all have our personal grievances on emerging from these things.

Across the road is another show, a teeny tiny one, of work by Jeff Wall, put on by White Cube in the Canada House Gallery. I’d been to visit it a few weeks ago in altogether different circumstances to those in the NG. Apart from having to go through an airport-style security check (it is part of the embassy after all and you can forgive them for being rigorous after the events in Ottawa last year) I didn’t see another person in the place. I had the room to myself to contemplate a handful of pictures, among which was at least one masterpiece, in absolute peace.

So, to an extent this is a piece about the value of seeking out the free treasures that are to be found in London’s art world. The various charitable spaces, private art dealers, cultural centres and auction houses that bespeckle the London map are full of things that the big institutions, even the free ones like the National, would make you pay to view as part of their monster spectacles.

From memory over the last few months I’ve seen a Breughel exhibition at Bonham’s as high quality as any you’d find in Brussels or Vienna (also with a lot of modern toss larded between), a collection of masterpieces at Christie’s that ranged from Chinese art to Rembrandt and Monet, and a little exhibition of Martin Parr photographs at some private dealer off Bond Street. As far as I remember I’d only gone to them because I’d passed them in strolling around and thought to pop in or go back when I had the spare time. Each time I had the Exhibition largely to myself.

What luxury. What pleasure for the cost of slithering under the gaze of the laser-eyed harpies that often act as the gardiennes of these places. So yes, do visit these things.

But do more than that. Think too. For what is the curse of the blockbuster exhibition? It is the audio guide. The mental crutch of the intellectually crippled. Fully formed opinion at the cost of a fiver and a surrender of self-respect.

And here the experience of gallery-going ties in with academia. By all means seek opinion, an academic lecture is after all just opinion (if you’re lucky, expert opinion) that should inform your own writing or lecturing but not dictate it. Students should be encouraged to question the view of their teacher but all too often they listen (well, it depends what time of day it is) and repeat without a digesting process in between. Which is what the audio guide does, it gives you opinion (of excellent quality no doubt) at second hand. It interrupts thinking. Put it away and think.

In an exhibition of the most tremendous quality (I urge you if you can to get to the NG before it shuts) one picture, for me, stood out in particular. Manet’s The Battle of ‘Kearsarge’ and the ‘Alabama’ (1864, Philadelphia Museum of Art). This is an extraordinary painting of an incident I knew nothing about. Now I know a little more. During the American Civil War the Confederacy operated a guerilla war at sea against the navy of the Union. The Kearsarge was a Union warship keeping watch off the French coast for three Confederate Navy commerce raiders: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Alabama was lying off the coast near Cherbourg, waiting for a response from the French authorities to a request to land civilians captured in the course of capturing and burning two United States merchant ships, the Rockingham and Tycoon. After some to-ing and fro-ing, during which the anticipated battle between the two ships had attracted the attention of the world’s media and brought a number of visitors to Brittany to witness the event for themselves. The battle finally took place on 19th June 1864 and the Alabama was sunk in short order. Such is what I have learned this morning but intend to find out more, especially what Manet was up to.*

But that was afterwards. I don’t know what the commentary said about the painting, although judging by the catalogue it almost certainly told of when Durand-Ruel bought it and how much he sold it for. My immediate thoughts on looking at it were of what an extraordinary thing it is – big, contemporary, striking. A colossal study in grey-blue. With echoes of the Raft of the Medusa and parallels in Manet’s own work (so much more politically engaged, it seems to me, than a lot of the other impressionists and hence why he’s of more interest to historians) The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and its concern with the modern world.

Apparently contemporary critics decried the amount of space that Manet gave to the sea, seeing it as overwhelming the more important matter of the battle. Yet to me this is what thrilled because the sea he makes a turbulent danger. The sea is the subject in any maritime painting for anyone concerned about the individual. This occurred to me as I watched coverage of the ongoing losses of life in the Mediterranean as people try to escape conflict in Africa to make a better life in Europe, at enormous risk. A fisherman turned coastguard showed the humanity that Manet shares in his canvas when he pointed out that fishermen-coastguards and the refugees they pluck from the water both share an awareness of the brutality of the sea. Its indifference to what is tossed into it and what is pulled out.

Such a sentiment was also in my mind at the Jeff Wall exhibition. At the two previous shows of his that I’ve seen, at Whitechapel years ago (when I worked in the City and snuck off for intellectual nourishment (being a Guardian reader on the IPE I naturally earned the nickname Trotsky (when the traders were in a benevolent mood – usually I was called far worse))) and Tate Modern more recently, I perceived in Wall’s work this theme of the indifference of nature. I saw it in his A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) and also in his faintly menacing landscapes.

At Canada House there’s a picture I realised I’d seen before but probably through gallery fatigue hadn’t really looked at, Boy Falling From A Tree. It could be comic, most boys have fallen from trees haven’t they? It viscerally reminded me of the sensation of falling off a thing, or not so much the falling off as the landing – landing on the ground after falling off a shed when playing at a friend’s house and laughing at my dizziness after banging my head, or landing on a big bush after falling out of a window at university and impaling my leg on a branch.

Then there is the metaphorical implications of falling from the Icarus story to Lucifer, which put me in mind of Breughel (another favourite artist). But these stories involve human agency and what I get from the dispassionate view of Wall, and to an extent Manet, is that it’s not the person but the thing that is the agent. The sea swallows errant sailors. The earth crushes those who fall onto it. They are moral tales that warn us to be cautious, to be respectful of natural phenomena for our own good. And in this election time, after listening to the leader of the Green Party go on about what we are doing to the earth through our misguided actions I was struck by how wrong-headed this approach is. Nature is indifferent to us, both globally and individually. If we should persuade people to respect nature the more we should thus appeal to self-interest. Nature is capable of a far more brutal retribution on us for the wrongs we heap upon it. Manet and Wall show us that.

* My source is J. Wilson-Bareau & D. C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama (Yale University Press, 2003)

A paean to Birkbeck College

April 12, 2015

This week saw a celebratory lunch with two friends who I first met on my MA course at Birkbeck some ten years ago. Out of a dozen or so people on that course (London Studies, sadly now defunct) three of us came away with doctorates. I wouldn’t know the hit rate for people turning MA dissertation subjects into successful theses (and I’m not going to spend Sunday morning finding out) but I suspect it’s fairly low.*

So what does this mean? Obviously we were

1) Good at that shit

2) Worked hard, and

3) Had the fortune to find

i)  subjects we cared about

ii) supervisors who helped us to see the process through to the end.**

This has been done before but unoriginality never stopped me banging about something in the past (sorry Denize), so here are some thoughts on what to consider when you’re considering embarking on a PhD if you’re an old dudette or dude, like me.*** I may come back to thinking about what to consider while you’re doing The Thing ( as I referred to it until I’d finished) when I feel the urge to pontificate.

The Subject

Think very carefully about how interested you are in your subject. You have to live with this thing in your head not just for the duration of your PhD (2 years minimum, mine was 6 years) but most likely for a year or two afterwards as you try and turn it into a published piece of work. That could be 8 years of thinking about, researching and writing about the same thing ALL OF THE TIME. So if you have any doubt about whether you want to write on your subject don’t even begin.

You will also have to talk about your thesis to people who are only asking you about it out of politeness A LOT. This person may be a friend, family, your partner, your kids, colleagues or complete strangers (yeah, sorry to that woman on the plane to South Africa). If you can’t explain what the idea of your thesis is in a couple of sentences you have no coherent thesis and you have no right to bore someone else at a party talking about it. A thesis is around 70k words but it is, more importantly, an idea. Or a series of ideas (if you’re really brainy).

If you have no idea, or argument, that can be simply explained to the average civilian don’t start your PhD until you’ve found one.****

The Supervisor


I didn’t exactly choose my supervisor. I was writing about South African cricket and Hilary was the southern Africanist in our department at Birkbeck. I was lucky that we got on. This doesn’t always happen but I think it was crucial to my completing the thesis. Having a distant, unsympathetic or (and it happens) hostile supervisor will ruin your writing, and potentially ruin your life for a while.

Your supervisor may be someone you don’t meet that often but for a while they will be parent, boss and friend (or none of these if your relationship is disfunctional). They cannot make you complete – only you can do that – but they can certainly prevent you from completing.

Think hard and choose wisely. The illustration below is of a busted horsehair sofa. You will feel like that A LOT during the course of you PhD.

So I should round off as I began by praising Birkbeck again. While I may think that I’m great (though I suspect that I’m not) I know for certain that Birkbeck College is one of the most remarkable institutions in London.

If you’re thinking of studying there do that thing.


* Actually, I did try and find out but could find no definitive answer. Slate reckons around 49% of humanities PhD students complete their thesis; assuming (generously) that around 25% of MA students begin trying to turn their dissertation into a thesis that would produce a 12.5% hit rate.

** thank you Hilary, you are a saint.

*** I started my MA when I was 30 and finished my PhD when I was 40. My children were 6 & 8 when I started, they’re now both nearly grown up. I worked in two jobs throughout the process and co-managed a football team for two of those years.

**** Preferably original.

A busted horsehair sofa

A busted horsehair sofa


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