Friday, 15 December 2017

Vole's Christmas Crackers

OK, seeing as all the posh newspapers do it, here's a semi-comprehensive list of all the books I've bought this year (in reverse order as that's how my Librarything page does it), with an opinion if I can remember them. I've read other things too: these are just the year's purchases. 

It's taken so long that I haven't time to add links, but I will on Monday. 

  1. After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun - Nigerian SF. Sounds good, haven't read it yet. 
  2. The Rift by Nina Allan - quirky-looking SF, as yet unread.
  3. The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama by Brinda Charry – excellent introductory text for undergrad students. Engages with primary texts very well. 
  4. John Scaggs, Crime Fiction - short, snappy and thoughtful.
  5. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I've taught Tales of the City, 'Howl' and Little Brother recently, so thought I should add some more San Fran/Beat/Hippy stuff. JD's essays are wonderful. Highly recommended. 
  6. Gill Plain, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. As you'll shortly see, I've been reading a lot of 1920s-1950s crime fiction and am contemplating writing an MA module. This will help. 
  7. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: see above. Breezy, comprehensive overview despite being rather old now. 
  8. Acadie by Dave Hutchinson. I liked his Europe series but haven't read this yet. 
  9. Kit Habianic, Until Our Blood Is Dry. I bought this because it was the only Welsh mining novel covered in a PhD dissertation I was examining. On the first read I thought it was a little simplistic but the dissertation made me really reconsider it, and I'm now impressed by a lot of the subtle characterisation. 
  10. JG Ballard, Running Wild. I'm teaching an all-JG Ballard module at the moment and hadn't come across this one. It's in the 'Read Soon' room. 
  11. The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes. Bought it because I was shocked to discover I didn't own it. A real gem - wise and precise. 
  12. High-Rise, JG Ballard. Someone nicked my copy of this a few years ago: teaching it was a good reason to buy another. Rather misogynistic, stylistically compelling. I liked the recent film. 
  13. Chris Riddell, Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright and Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony. Got a slightly twisted, clever 8-year old in your life? These are perfect. 
  14. Concrete Island and Rushing to Paradise by JG Ballard: Concrete… is ur-Ballard, as Ballardian as you like. Haven't read Rushing to Paradise yet.
  15. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Herland Trilogy. Herland (the middle book) is famously a representation of a man-free Utopia. I only recently discovered it was part of a trilogy, but I haven't read the others yet. 
  16. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic – acquiring a medievalist colleague who teaches on the Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module with me reminded me that I really should read this classic work on late-medieval/early-modern spiritual landscapes. 
  17. Lisa See, Shanghai Girls: recommended by a student doing a dissertation on female immigration narratives. It sounded good: haven't read it yet. 
  18. Paris by Wiliam Owen Roberts: I liked Petrograd, the first one in this series (translated: my Welsh isn't up to literary fiction yet) but haven't had time to read this one so far. 
  19. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature – another book I'd read in years past. There's an entirely justifiable Williams revival going on and I want in!
  20. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. I'm fascinated by the Wars of the Four Kingdoms or whatever the English Civil War is now known as, and the cultures that led to and stemmed from it. This is a key work of philosophy informing the spirit of the age. I don't agree with his worldview but you know you're in the presence of enormous intellect. 
  21. Tony Really Loves Me: short stories by and based on the life of now-dead MP Stuart Bell. Occasionally funny, largely dreadful. Part of my politicians' fictions research. 
  22. The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman. Started off deceptively simple, became morally more complex as it went on. Good driving narrative too. 
  23. Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders: an SF locked-room whodunnit with a philosophical twist. I love AR's stuff very much, and this is up there with the best. 
  24. Softly in the Dusk by Stuart Bell MP. Dreadful. 
  25. Binkie's Revolution – Stuart Bell again. See above. 
  26. The Ice-Cream Man and Other Stories. Yes, it's Stuart Bell. Self-published, like all the others. The trees thirst for vengeance. 
  27. Days That Used To Be – Stuart Bell. How I wish they hadn't been. 
  28. Robert Knopf, Script Analysis for Theatre. I have a semi-practical theatre module trying to bridge the gap between literary analysis and performance. This will help. 
  29. Hywel Dix, Postmodern Fiction and the Break-up of Britain. I held a conference on Four Nations Literature recently, and liked Hywel's book so much that I invited him along to speak. It was a good move. 
  30. Bentley, Hubble, Wilson and Tew (Eds): The 2000s; The 1990s; The 1980s; The 1970s – 4 anthologies of critical work on British Fiction in these decades. I'd leafed through one at a conference and was impressed. When Routledge offered my cash or books to a greater value for peer-reviewing a book proposal, I went for these plus a couple of others. 
  31. Reginald Hill, An Advancement of Learning. I don't really go for contemporary crime, but I'd enjoyed his Austen pastiche The Price of Butcher's Meat, and a Twitter friend recommended this Dalziel and Pascoe police-procedural/campus novel. I liked the plot but hated the characterisation. The first thing you learn about every single female character is the shape of their breasts. I may return to this one in another blog-post. 
  32. Colleen McCullough, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. An Austen-loving student eggs me on to buy every homage/pastiche/sequel to Austen's novels. She tells me that this one, by the author of The Thorn Birds, is awful. I haven't read it yet, but I trust her judgement. You just shouldn't make Mary a Romantic heroine. It's just a stupid and disrespectful idea. Leave Mary alone!
  33. Nicholas Blake, A Penknife in My Heart. I'm working my way through C Day Lewis's alter ego detective thrillers. They're very inconsistent and occasionally offensive. This one was…OK.
  34. Lord Lymington, Spring Song of Iscariot. The most expensive book I've ever bought. Published by the Black Sun Press in an edition of 60. Lymington was a Tory MP before becoming one of the most committed fascists in Britain in the 30s-40s. This is a stunningly beautiful book of mediocre imagist poetry. 
  35. Ian Bell, Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction. A collection of very good essays, including Tony Bianchi's classic 'Aztecs in Troedrhiwgair'. 
  36. James Birch and Barry Miles, The British Underground Press of the Sixties. Some of my colleagues are experts on this and persuaded me I need to know more. This is a sumptuous record of counterculture media, though I didn't learn a lot. 
  37. Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death (rather good); A Tangled Web (can't remember much about it); The Worm of Death (darkly psychological and compelling); The Widow's Cruise (made little impression); The Deadly Joker (haven't read it yet, came in different edition to all the others, which is annoying); The Whisper in the Gloom - very good. 
  38. Stuart Bell, Paris Sixty-Nine. It's that man again. This is the semi-pornographic novel Bell tried to suppress once he became a Church of England Commissioner. It's not just sexist, sad-old-man fantasy: it's unbelievable badly written. He doesn't just hate women: he hates English. 
  39. Guy N. Smith, The Druid Connection: silly horror by the author of Night of the Crabs and many, many more. Very interesting take on Wales (he's mostly against). 
  40. The Complete Stories of JG Ballard – easily hefty enough to commit murder with. Very comprehensive and lets you trace his development from SF pulp to author of misanthropic inner-space literature. 
  41. Nicholas Blake, The Case of the Abominable Snowman. Lovely cheap 1950s edition, and a chilly, wintery, WW2-set country house thriller. 
  42. Ken MacLeod, Emergence. Haven't read it yet but I like Ken's Trot-libertarian politics and beautifully-crafted way round a paragraph. Bound to be good. 
  43. Aramaki Yoshio, The Sacred Era. Apparently a classic of Japanese SF. I'll let you know. 
  44. Nicholas Blake, The Sad Variety. Can't remember much about this one. 
  45. Guy N Smith, The Knighton Vampires. I think this is the one in which Cardiff University's English department are murdered en masse. Lots of them are my friends, so I'm looking forward to that scene.
  46. Nicholas Blake, End of Chapter (not read it yet); Minute for Murder (very good indeed: set in the ministry for propaganda in the dull bit between VE and VJ day. Attempts a homosexual character but can't quite go through with it. The Dreadful Horror: I'm almost at the end of this one. Poison-pen plot is OK, and Blake's happier to get his hands socially dirty unlike some of his contemporaries. Malice in Wonderland: this one's really good: set in a holiday camp, ideal for enclosing people from different walks of life. 
  47. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City and More Tales of the City. I'm teaching the first one. I loved these: soapy, warm, sexy, deeply interested in the richness of everybody's life. 
  48. James Bradley, Clade. Much-lauded SF which I haven't read yet. 
  49. Isabela Fairclough, Political Discourse Analysis. I have reservations about PDA/CDA but this was useful for a journal article I contributed to. 
  50. Jo Walton, Necessity: I really like Jo Walton's subtly spiky, twisty novels. This closed a series considering Platonic philosophy's strengths and shortcomings. It wasn't as good as the others but still made me think and occasionally laugh. Great characterisation. 
  51. Mitchum Huehls (ed), Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture. I've just co-written a paper on neoliberalism and erotic fan fiction. This helped understand the cultural operation of a much-discussed concept. 
  52. John Le Carré, A Legacy of Spies. I like Le Carré and wasn't going to be too picky about his return to the world of Smiley et al. A good read but not his best. 
  53. Myfanwy Alexander, Bloody Eisteddfod. A police-procedural comedy drama set at the Eisteddfod: it appeals. Haven't read it yet though. 
  54. Ann Widdecombe, An Act of Treachery: yet to read this contribution to my politicians' novels project. Apparently so good I managed to buy it three times. 
  55. Darach O'Séaghdha, Motherfócloir - a highly entertaining account of one man's return to Irish despite the havoc wreaked by the educational methods of his youth. Gave this one as presents to a few people. 
  56. Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings - one of the above-mentioned trilogy. Clever idea, knows her Plato, movingly plotted. 
  57. Sheila Wingfield, Collected Poems. Recommended to me by an august Canon, for which I am grateful. She had a fascinating life of the kind that is no longer possible, and the poetry is quietly wondrous. 
  58. Tom Gauld, Baking With Kafka. I love Gauld's wit and drawing style, and his literary cartoons can often be found adorning my walls and my lecture slides. 
  59. Sandra Alland, Protest: Stories of Resistance. Patchy collection of historical events and creative responses to them. 
  60. Caryl Philips, A Distant Shore – wonderful, emotional post-colonial classic. 
  61. Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way To Burn. I keep an eye on the YA Dystopian sub-genre, which is fully into eco-dystopias at the moment. Haven't read this one so far. 
  62. Anna, by Niccolo Ammantini. Another YA dystopia: well-reviewed, but I haven't got round to it as yet. 
  63. Stanley Johnson, Kompromat. A quick and dirty Trump/Putin/Brexit novel from the former MEP and father of Boris. He's written a lot of novels. He needn't have, but he has. 
  64. Vince Cable, Open Arms. Another for the politicians' novels project. Not awful, but not needed either. 
  65. Cory Doctorow, Homeland. I taught his Little Brother only last week. It did not go down well. I like his techno-utopian politics though they're highly redolent of white male middle-class privilege, but at least he's trying and is genuinely radical. He can't write a sentence or a character to save his life though. Talk about over-determined…
  66. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Politically admirable, but you'll wish the Department for Homeland Security had tortured its hero to death before very long. Pages of advice on hacks to keep the government out of your email: fine. Teenage hero going on and on about how we're all making coffee wrong with exactly the same fervour and urgency: beyond irritating. 
  67. Brick Lane, Monica Ali. A return to teaching this. Rich, subtle, beautiful. 
  68. Red Ellen: the Life of Ellen Wilkinson by Laura Beers. Wilkinson was a radical, inspiring 1930s-50s Labour MP who also wrote a couple of very interesting novels. Beers' biography does a very good job on her life, less so on her literary output. 
  69. Gillian Cross, The Demon Headmaster: Total Control. The original books in this teen series were subversively anti-authoritarian. Cross returns to the school because she has things to say about contemporary society and politics. Good things. 
  70. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Another text I taught this year. Fierce, intelligent, necessary. 
  71. Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto. I tied this together with Woolf's long essay Three Guineas which worked very well: Solanas as provocateur, Woolf as middle-class, privileged but devastatingly intelligent feminist. 
  72. Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems. I knew some of Ginsberg's work but somehow didn't own much. It reminded me how much I like his actual poetry, and not just his life. 
  73. Diana Henry, Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours: a birthday present. Visually seductive, but I haven't yet tried anything in it yet, being at work until 9.30 most nights. 
  74. The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on The Tempest – an extension of Auden's lectures on The Tempest. Occasionally obscure, but really changed my thinking on this play. As did Marina Warner's retelling of it, Indigo
  75. Guilty Thing: a life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson. I don't have any knowledge of De Quincey beyond a vague sense of where he fits in with the Romantics, so I'm looking forward to reading this birthday present - a gift from my boss, whose name curiously enough is Francis Wilson. No relation, he tells me. 
  76. Peter Cossin, Alpe d'Huez: the story of pro cycling's greatest climb. I'm a cyclist of sorts and love the Tour (despite everything): this was very enjoyable. 
  77. Alys Conran, Pijin and Pigeon. We asked Alice to read from and talk about this prize-winning novel in our bit of Shared Futures, which slipped and slid between Welsh and English in fascinating ways. One of the best novels of the year. 
  78. Anthony Buckeridge, Jennings At Large. I read some of the Jennings series as a kid and liked them well enough. I recently read that despite the boarding school setting, Buckeridge was a good socialist, and this particular novel reflects that. I'll let you know when I get round to it. 
  79. Sarah Caudwell, The Sybil In Her Grave. My wonderful colleague Gaby recommended Caudwell's four comic legal thrillers and I'm hugely grateful. Some clever stuff (you never find out whether the protagonist, Hilary, is male or female), a lot of very funny characterisation and dialogue, and satisfying legally-accurate plots. I gave a couple of these as presents to lawyer friends and family. Via their Cayman Islands brass-plate addresses, naturally. 
  80. Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea. I'm saving this one for Christmas, and look forward to my nephews and nieces being old enough to get these as birthday presents: this is a sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
  81. Catherine Spooner, Post-Millennial Gothic: I'm supervising a very brilliant PhD on gothic urban romance (yes, it's a thing): Spooner's book is an excellent primer. 
  82. Andrew Tate, Apocalyptic Fiction. A very slim book about a very large genre. Highly readable but no defence against mutant cannibal werewolves.
  83. Ian Sansom, Westmorland Alone. Not sure about this one. Being almost a 1930s specialist I like his detective version of those populist, didactic, polymathic authors of the period, but I'm not sure joke can be sustained over several novels. 
  84. China Miéville, The Last Days of New Paris. One of my very favourite authors: formally radical, always thought-provoking. Haven't read it yet. 
  85. The Power, Naomi Alderman. I liked this a lot until the end, which didn't feel fully-formed. Morally complex, but perhaps too in thrall to Atwood. 
  86. Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis MurderedThe Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Shortest Way To Hades - the rest of Caudwell's series: I gobbled them up. 
  87. Realms of Memory vol. 3 by Pierre Nora: one of the multi-volume, seminal analyses of place, space and cultural meaning: about France but applicable to anywhere. I can't find affordable copies of the other volumes (this was £50 second-hand) so I haven't read them. 
  88. Lucy Boston, The Children of Green-Knowe: another recommendation from Gaby, our children's lit. expert. Somehow this classic had passed me by. I intend to read it this Christmas. 
  89. David Simon, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood. An angry, passionate, detailed, novelistic, human examination of the culture, economy and social structures of crack-ridden West Baltimore. It stayed with me for weeks afterwards, and I found myself Googling the central characters in the hope they'd survived. Mostly, they hadn't. A searing attack on the hypocrisies of governments, politicians and corporations. 
  90. Laurel Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures – horrific urban gothic recommended by my PhD student. Not my usual thing at all, but very well-written with plenty to think about. Great opening line I won't ruin. 
  91. John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (eds): A History of British Working-Class Literature. I'm in it, but the rest of it is excellent. 
  92. Jeremy Gilbert, Neoliberal Culture. He gave the keynote at a conference I presented at. He was ill and had just had bad news. It was still better than most lectures I've ever been too. What a brain. 
  93. Letzler, The Cruft of Fiction. Haven't read this yet, but it sounded like a really interesting take on how we read great big novels. 
  94. Chana Kronfeld, On the Margins of Modernism: She's particularly interested in Jewish modernists, and finds some fascinating texts, but this will help my Zelda Fitzgerald PhD student (and me) as well think about modernists on the edge. 
  95. Mike Parker, Real Powys. Mike imported psychogeography to Wales, and gave an amazing lecture at AWWE a few years ago – an original, thought-provoking and combative re-evaluation of Welsh topography and space. 
  96. A.L. Kennedy, Serious Sweet. I've heard good things about this but haven't read it yet. 
  97. Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and On Reading. I love Thoreau and Walden changed my life at 17. This tiny book (a Penguin 60) is a joy. 
  98. Nicholas Blake, There's Trouble Brewing. One of his better detective novels. A Question of Proof – can't remember much of this one. 
  99. M Wynn Thomas – All That Is Wales: The Collected Essays of M Wynn Thomas. Wynn is one of the most learned and wide-ranging intellectuals in Europe at the moment. Absolutely nobody outside Welsh-language and Welsh Writing in English gives a damn. Shameful. 
  100. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. It's brief. I still haven't read it. 
  101. Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language. Haven't got round to this one yet but it sounds like a hoot with its cast of French literary theorists. 
  102. Leonora Brito, Dat's Love and Other Stories. Another in the Library of Wales series. Yet to be read. 
  103. Sally Roberts Jones, Painting in the Open Air: an Annotated Bibliography of the Anglo-Welsh Short Story to 2000. Sally is an unsung hero of Welsh writing in English, a publisher and a fine poet. She is also astonishingly generous scholar and colleague. 
  104. Bethan Jenkins, Between Wales and England: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the Eighteenth-Century. Bethan is almost comically modest about this major achievement. I'm no 18th-centuryist but I ripped through this one in double-quick time. 
  105. Baron Philip Noel-Baker, The Private Manufacture of Armaments. This, along with the following couple of books, are Left Book Club editions, which I collect. These came from Ystwyth Books, where I spent the fee paid for examining Jamie Harris's excellent PhD on Welsh psychogeography and devolution. 
  106. John Strachey, The Theory and Practice of Socialism. LBC. 
  107. Hewlett Johnson, The Socialist Sixth of the World. LBC.
  108. Bang! You're Dead by Henry Treece. Leftwing children's literature from decades ago. Very good stuff. 
  109. Gwyn Thomas, The Love Man. My PhD had a chapter on another GT novel. The Love Man is a little too comic for my taste but he's a wonderful writer. 
  110. Lewis Davies (ed.), Urban Welsh Fiction. Haven't read it yet, but a good addition to my Welsh collection. 
  111. The Trial of Mussolini by Cassius – one of Gollancz's urgently political WW2 rush jobs. 
  112. The Heyday in the Blood. Don't yet know whether it's any good but I can't resist a title lifted from Hamlet (cf. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). 
  113. Margery Allingham, Traitor's Purse – as you'll soon see, before Nicholas Blake I read my way through all of Allingham's eccentric, funny, dark detective novels. Most of them are wonderful – especially the post-war, London ones that deal with a changed society. The last couple are a bit weak but I'd heartily recommend her novels. 
  114. Jan Morris, A Machynlleth Triad – another book I read to examine a PhD. Very conflicted by this one: beautifully written but somewhat disturbing politically. 
  115. Cory Doctorow, Walkaway. Another novel of ideas: utopian but rather evasive around some questions. He still can't write. 
  116. C. Silvester Horne, Pulpit, Platform and Parliament: a memoir by cleric-MP and father-of-Kenneth Silvester Horne: interesting by-product of the politicians' novels project. 
  117. Down Station by Simon Morden. I like Morden's earlier SF novels. This felt like a scene-setter for a new series, with some intriguing twists on the fantasy-world genre. 
  118. John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: excellent history of one of my favourite Utopian sects. 
  119. Victoria Coren: Once More With Feeling: How We Tried To Make the Greatest Porn Film Ever. Very very funny. 
  120. Jem Roberts, The Fully Authorised History of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue' – niche, obviously. 
  121. A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood. Sad, moving and lovely. 
  122. Jan Morris, Hav - beautiful writing occasionally taking you in directions you don't want to go 
  123. Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: master at work. 
  124. PG Wodehouse, The World of Blandings - not as good as Jeeves and Wooster but very charming. 
  125. Jeffrey Archer, Willy Visits The Square World. Perjuring ex-con and Tory Lord turns his hand to children's books. Any child would have done better. 
  126. Lady Caroline Lamb, Glenarvon: I like what I've read about Lamb, but haven't got round to this yet. 
  127. Dancers in Mourning, Margaret Allingham. One of her very best. 
  128. Emma Webster, Lost In Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. Hilarious for the first few goes. I usually ended up marrying the vicar. 
  129. Sean Carney, The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy. Currently on the to-read pile. 
  130. Margery Allingham, Death of a Ghost. Can't remember much about this other than liking it. 
  131. Rob Latham, Science Fiction Criticism – another one I haven't started yet but Latham's other work is very useful. 
  132. Robert Dickinson, The Tourist. I actually can't remember whether I've read this one. 
  133. Allingham, The Fashion In Shrouds (brilliant, funny, scathing); Cargo of Eagles (awful); The Mind Readers (aging novelist hears about esoteric science with dreadful results); More Work for the Undertaker: really excellent. 
  134. Stanislavski, Creating A RoleBuilding A Character and An Actor Prepares. I now know what my motivation is – and can talk about it in my drama module.
  135. Margery Allingham, Look to the Lady. Good creepy country-house mystery. 
  136. Anthony Cartwright, Iron Towns: he's such a good writer about working-class lives. 
  137. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I slightly dread re-tellings (this one's of The Tempest) but she's really pulled it off. 
  138. Max Stafford-Clark, Letters to George. Fascinating way of communicating how a director thinks him or herself into making a play. He's since been revealed as a serious molester of women. 
  139. Alistair Reynolds, Chasm City – I've a soft spot for AR's superior space operas. He can do character. 
  140. Ann Widdecombe, Father Figure. Yet another politician's novel for the project. 
  141. Maria Fyfe, A Problem Like Maria: A Woman's-Eye View of Life as an MP. Not yet read, but apparently rather good. 
  142. The Attention Merchants: Timothy Wu's excellent exposé of the people mining your data as you read this very blog. 
  143. Arthur Miller, A View From The Bridge: replacing another stray book. Taught this for the first time, and got a lot more out of it this time. 
  144. Simon Shepherd, Drama, Theatre, Performance – a useful primer. 
  145. Robert Leach, Theatre Studies: The Basics. Again, very useful but slightly limited from a literary perspective. 
  146. Michael Mangan, The Drama, Theatre and Performance Companion. Really sharpened my approach to teaching the drama module.
  147. Helen Nicholson, Applied Drama. Scope fell outside my module but really thought-provoking. 
  148. Beckett, Three Novels: Molly, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. So good that everything else I read this year felt insubstantial. And he's so funny. 
  149. Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library. A romp. 
  150. Margaret Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers. I used to do a lecture on book covers: this is pretty but essentially a coffee-table book. 











Thursday, 7 December 2017

Just another week in Paradise

I know I'm getting old, bitter and tired when I try to remember what I've done in the increasing periods between blog posts. Sometimes the witness statements fill in the blanks in my memory, and CCTV is a great help, but for the most part, life is a series of fleeting impressions: the hard edge of the desk meeting the relentless spread of my flabberguts; a never-ending series of tweets, likes and replies to emails; cycling shoes by the bed because I get home and realise there's little point getting changed before slipping into the waters of Lethe. Marking - endless marking.

Reviewing my diary though, I realise that good things are happening all the time. I've seen old friends, been to gigs, held a conference and had some fantastic times in class recently. Twice this week I've lectured on texts and then had students make observations that have made me re-think my understanding of them (the students and the texts!): on Paradise Lost and on Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I don't teach the first-years until next semester but the 2nd, 3rd and MA students are all a delight to teach and I'm learning a lot from them, which is how it should be. Next week is the last one  - the MA students are getting Ballard's late works (Millennium People and Kingdom Come) while the 2nd years are having Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Pahlaniuk's Fight Club. I will confess now that late Ballard is intriguing without feeling as formally adventurous as mid-period Ballard, Little Brother is politically radically while being a very bad novel indeed – download it for free here: Doctorow is a staunch foe of copyright – and I thought Fight Club was interesting until the twist, which I worked out very early and decided was a cop-out. I should further confess that Fight Club is on my list of Very Popular Films People Bored On About That I've Resisted Seeing. The same goes for Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction. I'm exactly the right age for every one of my fellow students to have had the poster on their walls as though it made them edgy and radical. Having endured one wide-eyed, evangelical, stoned exposition of their genius too many, I vowed never to see them even if they're every bit as good as my bohemian friends insist. I doubt they're as good as South American George anyway.



So anyway, the other thing that happened this week was a conference on the theme of Unshared Futures: Four Nations Literary Studies in a post-Brexit age. My view is that the English academy picks the occasional Scottish, Welsh and Irish author and treats them honorary English authors rather than as products of specific cultural moments and spaces. Despite the rapidly growing cultural and political splits between the nations of these islands, England has had no interest in the interior lives of its neighbours and victims – or in the subaltern lives of its own citizens. Perhaps if it had paid attention, events would have been very different. The Four Nations approach tries to address the cultural consonances and dissonances across the archipelago, identifying commonalities and disagreements in the way their literatures address events, experiences and philosophies, in English and in the Celtic languages. It's partly a matter of promoting the study of each others' literatures in the literary canon, partly a matter of examining the English canon for its overt and covert references to Celtic cultures and peoples, and finally a question of asking whether the nation is a useful category for the current moment. What will Brexit literature look like? Will we see the rise of Remainer and Leaver cultural texts? How will the English view the Irish, or how will leaver Wales represent European Scotland?

These questions being on my mind, and the university having some cash left over from the cakes-and-limos fund for senior management, I put together a day long event. It's actually a really easy thing to do: my colleagues in the Association for Welsh Writing in English provided the names of good speakers and travel bursaries for PG students and unwaged scholars, our excellent administrators did the tricky work, and one of my excellent PhD students kept the day – and me – going.

Before I tell you all about the excellent discussions we had, I'll just say that my perception that hegemonic literary gatekeepers and scholars aren't interested in their neighbours was entirely borne out by the attendance. Despite efforts to widely promote the event via mailing lists and direct invitations to personal contacts, the only delegates from English universities were Welsh literature scholars. No Scots or Gaelic specialists attended, nor any UK-based Irish literature experts.



It was, quite frankly, their loss. Our keynote speakers were wonderful. Prof Katie Gramich from Cardiff University talked about the changing status and meaning of 'British' in mid-twentieth century literature, and encouraged us all to read Ulster Protestant author Janet McNeill – her lecture really set the tone for a searching discussion of literary representations of identity.

J Staniforth, Western Mail, 1915

We then had a round table discussion chaired by Swansea's Prof Kirsti Bohata about Four Nations Literature and the curriculum, featuring Dr Hywel Dix from Bournemouth University who wrote Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain (e-book now reduced in price), and Romanticist Dr Elizabeth Edwards who traced the development of a Four Nations consciousness in the work of worker-poet Richard Llwyd - from there the discussion turned to how Four Nations approaches (familiar in the history world) could be used to widen and reassess the Canon, and how it intersected with the general awareness of the need to diversify the traditional canon. Finally we talked about the importance of representing students' own cultures in the classroom, and the difficulties of persuading Celtic, working-class, queer and minority ethnic students brought up within the English 'universalist' Hegemony that literatures of their own exist and deserve serious attention.



Our second keynote speaker, Prof Eve Patten from Trinity College Dublin, traced the covert presence of Ireland as a sign of impending degeneration in key modernist authors such as Woolf and Ford Madox Ford, starting with a really striking quotation from Wyndham Lewis on watching the body of Terence MacSwiney being removed from Southwark Cathedral after his Brixton prison hunger strike. From there she built a network of associations and references from which emerged a picture of Ireland as a persistently troublesome and troubling harbinger: many of the English Modernists had little sympathy for Irish nationalism, being too bound up in prevalent ethnic and cultural hierarchies to consider Ireland on its own terms. Marriage plots, she said, often stood in for the relationship between English-Britain and Ireland, such as in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Just like now, she said, Celtic nationalism was reflected by a 'virulent English nationalism', disguised as normalcy.

After Eve's tour d'horizon, we had a postgraduate panel with a difference chaired by Dr Sarah Morse of the Learned Society of Wales. The three presenters – Catriona Coutts and Amber-Rose Hancock from Bangor and Syd Morgan from Swansea – circulated their papers a couple of weeks in advance so instead of having them read them out then take questions, the chair and the audience could get involved in discussing the ideas arising from the work, contributing new knowledge and making links between their research: Catriona looked at the construction of borders in novels by Raymond Williams (the revival is ON!) and Margiad Evans, Amber-Rose compared Welsh literature to Catalan literary culture, while Syd examined the fascinating – and forgotten – life and work of Ascendancy Irish intellectual, poet, educationalist and Welsh nationalist policy adviser Noelle Ffrench-Davies. The session worked because the delegates had read the papers: if they hadn't, an embarrassing silence might have ensued. I'd definitely try this again, and not just on postgrad guinea pigs.

Finally, we had a creative keynote speaker, to make the point that Four Nations literature isn't retrospective, historic label. Thomas Morris came over from Dublin to read from his award-winning short story collection We Don't Know What We're Doing, and conversed with Matt Jarvis, the perceptive and very skilled critic. Tom read from a couple of stories including one about a Welsh stag do in Temple Bar, which veered from scabrous to moving and back again very quickly. In conversation all his mother issues came pouring out, and he spoke seriously and generously about his methods and experiences of being a Welsh-speaking young writer and editor in Ireland – he has a long involvement with hip magazine/publisher The Stinging Fly. I just wish even a single Creative Writing student had come to a free reading at the university by an acclaimed young writer. I do wonder whether if they achieved success themselves, they'd resent similar absences…

By the end I was elated and exhausted. Having an iPad meant I could buy an awful lot of books while people were talking about them, so I also ended the day considerably poorer. I owe the success of the day to the generous support of my Faculty, my research centre, to the Association for Welsh Writing in English; to the presence and generosity of so many great minds in the room, to the enthusiasm of the speakers, chairs and delegates and my departmental colleagues and to Jaime, my PhD student, who appears to be somewhat clairvoyant when it comes to finding things that need doing.