Tuesday, 24 February 2015

All hail Eimear McBride

Last week we had the enormous pleasure of Eimear McBride visiting us. I put her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing on a first-year course last year and was stunned by how strongly the students responded to this experimental, poetic, harrowing novel.

This year, Eimear kindly took a class with the second group of students to study the novel, reading beautifully from the text, discussing the process of writing, editing and (eventually) publishing it. She took their questions seriously and answered them in depth. I particularly liked the way she insisted – with considerable grace and no trace of ego – on her right and that of other women to engage in modernist fiction and 'high' literature, often portrayed as a boys' club. Joyce, she told us, did women beautifully but left room for the interior voice of women in the modernist tradition, a task Eimear fulfilled with astonishing success. Her novel's linguistic style, she said, is 'about the point before consciousness, about experience before language tells you how to feel about it' – just what modernism tried to do. Her return to modernism, she says, is fuelled by a distaste for the distancing irony of postmodernism, an attitude shared by my friend and our writer in residence Niall Griffiths. Asked to recommend other forgotten modernist authors, she recommended Dorothy Nelson's In Night's City, which I've now ordered. She also put in a word for Edna O'Brien - rightly so.

We talked about the experience of being reviewed, and the way misogynist attitudes can crop up in even the most appreciative assessments: James Woods' review in the New Yorker was positive and perceptive, but still described the rape of the 13 year-old central protagonist by her uncle as the start of
a sexual relationship with her uncle, an affair … a sexual encounter
Interestingly, she said that Australian reviewers and audiences are interested in the (largely self-destructive) sex, whereas British ones talk about style. What that says about both cultures, I couldn't possibly say, but Eimear is very clear about the need to address uncomfortable material and to find a style to suit: 'If you don't want to offend or write what you're compelled to write, don't bother. There are enough bad writers out there'. Invited by the students to name the worst book she'd read recently, she politely declined in case someone (who, me?) tweeted the name. Let's just say she's an exacting and discerning reader who thinks life is too short for adults to read children's fiction.

Irish reviewers have also been positive. Anne Enright in the Guardian called her a 'genius', which Eimear said would only be a problem if she believed it were true (it is) and was a deliberate attempt to end the critical reluctance to apply the term to women. One un-named reviewer accused her of being a 'court jester' to the English (the same treatment given to Caradoc Evans and Brinsley McNamara) but the rest were positive. Eimear has strong views about ghettoising work by sex, nationality or genre: her books, she says, are in the prize-winners' section in the shops. Retort of the day, I thought: she's won 5 literary prizes for this novel no publisher would touch until Galley Beggar took it after a chance meeting. She also had this to say on the subject: 'Novelists who accept the post of representative of a particular group tend to turn out to be shit'. Biographical readings also get short shrift: this is a novel, not a misery memoir.

Eimear McBride signing a student's copy of her book

In the evening, Eimear gave a public reading and Q+A session to a paying crowd at the compact and bijou Arena Theatre (thank you!), which was also a triumph thanks to her and my colleague leading the conversation. On the subject of being a writer of 'women's issues', Eimear was very clear. Modernism may have been a boys' club, but it had to make room. She is a writer, not a purveyor of women's writing, but her novel makes space for a female character for whom sex is not a route to love but a way to make choices again and again, whatever the consequences. Asked again about prizes, she said this: 'I like winning prizes but the writing is all that matters. Fuck the rest of it': the creative writing students were left under no illusions: write because you're compelled to write, not because it's cool to say you're a writer, or because you want to be famous.

Eimear talking about her novel
I already had an autographed copy of A Girl which I've kept pristine, so I asked Eimear to sign my battered, heavily annotated teaching copy ('a bit stalkerish', she said). I got her to write 'all your theories are completely wrong, and she laughed!

Then we went to dinner and had a brilliant night. It's not all work, work, work. Thanks to Eimear, my colleagues, the students and guests. If you're sad you missed out, here's a short interview we recorded with her.


Just a brief one, and definitely no pictures.

Blogger's owners Google has announced that sexually explicit blogs will be forcibly made 'private' - available only to individuals the author personally invites to view.

As you may have noticed, Plashing Vole largely eschews sexual material you're one of those discerning souls who flushes at the thought of a well-applied preposition or a neatly-turned phrase. You I welcome. In short, there's nothing 'blue' to be seen here, though a look through the search terms used by people who land on Vole implies that a lot of people are a) sick and b) very disappointed quite quickly.

As perhaps the least sexy author and blog in cyberspace, I protest. Google, Apple (another deeply prudish company) and various other tech corporations are happy to spy on us, spy on us for governments, avoid their taxes, promote a politics which disempowers the citizen in favour of oppressive states and oppressive, unaccountable corporations, and yet they fear the expression of sexual appetites. Reaching back to my days reading Freudian literary theory, I seem to remember an argument that the exchange of money is a fetishised transference of the exchange of libidinal energy – if that's true, Google is the horniest beast in existence.

I don't view pornography for a range of reasons personal, political, social and sensible (for a start, I only use the web at work, and shared offices aren't the ideal setting for a session with the Kleenex; besides, I like my job). But I do want to stick up for my invisible comrades in the blogosphere. Firstly, explicit material is not necessarily pornographic. There are millions of people out there discussing their sexual development and appetites in constructive ways. Human sexuality is a wondrous (bonkers) landscape and take it from this ex-Catholic: not talking about it produces damaged people and societies. I want the gay Saudi or Nebraskan kid to find out that there are people like her or him, and that anyone who feels a bit odd at home has a community of people exploring the same feeling.

Not all sex blogging is pornographic. A large amount of it, frankly, is. I'm largely opposed to pornography but accept that there's at least the potential for 'ethical' porn. My guess is that it's more likely to be found on blogs than on the corporate pages of commercial producers. I'd far rather hear about Hilda and Cyril's wife-swapping parties in Tunbridge Wells than some violent rape-fantasy produced by the Gb in Los Angeles in conveyor-belt fashion. Artistically, too, let's hear it for awful mobile-phone footage and the glories of DIY home decor and (don't blame me; Boing Boing thinks it's cool) Indifferent Cats in Amateur Porn (link is harmless but please, people, shut your bedroom door).

Most of all, I'm bothered that Google is going to be the ultimate arbiter of what's unacceptable. A tiny elite group of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-heterosexual elitists is now going to decide what can and can't be written about and shown in one of the few uncommercialised spaces on the web. Yes,  you might say, Blogger is a commercial service, freely available on the understanding that content and metadata become Google's profit-making data. It's a pseudo-public space rather than a public one, and it has the right to dictate what goes on under its roof. I suspect Google will claim that this is an issue of public protection, but it doesn't stand up. A Tory MP last year appealed to the Prime Minister to ensure that children are prevented from seeing sexual material. From the party which hates the Nanny State, this is a bit cheeky: how about he do some actual parenting? I don't think children are going to read blogs about shoe fetishes. They'll google the obvious things or view stuff their mates pass on.

I don't think this washes any more. There is no public equivalent of the blogosphere for those who don't have the resources to host their own sites, and without the visibility the comes from being on a major site, you may as well not exist. Yes, there are compromises (WordPress even tracks bloggers through a hidden feature in the typeface) but we should demand at least a clear and accountable process for determining what is and isn't acceptable. My guess is that the ideological and cultural position occupied by Google's censors will disproportionately hit blogs dealing with homosexuality, trans-gender sexualities and other 'minority' positions on the sexual continuum.
I have a sneaking suspicion that big-boobed-babes of the kind purveyed for heterosexual men by Playboy and its multiple imitators will somehow remain visible (bloggers making money from erotic material are banned: you can find corporate porn via Google any time you like).

I don't mind my government passing laws about this stuff even when they're wrong, because I can vote them out if enough people agree with me, but Google et al. are informed by only two things: profit and their own private perspectives on what's 'icky'. That's not good enough when their service is fast becoming a utility.

The old saw about 'first they came for X, and I said nothing because I was not X' applies here. However disgusting you might find them, it's time to stand up for the perverts, not only because someday Google might decide that you're one too, but as a matter of principle.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fencing photography on a budget

I'm desperate to tell you about brilliant author Eimear Mcbride's visit to the university, but I haven't time yet to edit all the photos and video - a few more days.

Instead, I wanted to show you a few of my favourite photos from last weekend's British Junior and Cadet British championships: all weapons, age groups from U14 to U20s. As usual I wandered around with my camera when duties allowed. There are a lot of people taking pictures (some of them on iPhones and iPads, which won't come out well) so I thought I'd give a few hints about how to get some decent shots. (Click on all these to enlarge, and see the whole set here).

Fencing halls are the bane of the photographer. The pistes on which the fencers perform are very close together. The fencers and referees very disobligingly move up and down, while other fencers, coaches and parents get in the way. The photographer can't get as close as s/he would like, and the angles are hard. It's OK if you can afford a massively fast long lens, but I haven't got £4000 spare, and anyway, people would be walking in front of you all the time.

Shall we dance?
The lighting is always, always terrible in sports halls: artificial and low. Add to that the incredible speed of the action and things get hard. Autofocus struggles to find the piece of the action you want amidst all the movement, so you're always struggling with the tension between getting enough light for a visible photo and missing the action. A full-frame camera and very fast professional lens will do it for you, but for the rest of us there's a trade-off.

My camera is an ageing Nikon D7000 - very good when new but not a full-frame, so it doesn't have a high-end sensor (which is what really matters, not megapixels). Under most conditions, it's pretty good but sports photography is hard - if you have a D3 or D4 you're thinking of replacing, let me know). For fencing, I use an incredibly cheap but brilliant lens: the f/1.8 50mm, which I think cost me £80. Another £150 would get me an f/1.2 which is very tempting, but for now this will do. 50mm lenses are incredibly sharp - the quality is superb because there are no moving parts, just lots of glass. The drawback is the fixed width: you can't focus in and out. Instead, you have to move until you've framed the shot you like, or be prepared to crop heavily. The strength is the aperture: you get loads of light with a 1.8 so you can up the speed and ISO settings. For fencing, I have it set on 1/1000th of a second, ISO 800. Never, ever leave your camera on automatic.

How to choose your shot: watch your fencers. See where on the piste they like to mix it up and focus on it. Then switch autofocus off: if you don't you'll miss the shot you want while it hunts for perfect focus.

The curse of autofocus: what would have been a great shot ruined because the focus settled on the background

Then wait for the fencers to move into your shot. As you can see from my photos, 1.8 gives you an incredibly narrow depth of field: there's a central point of absolute focus and a lot of the shot is out of focus. It's a lovely effect, but not one I'd choose all the time - it's one of the things which would be solved by investing the price of a used car on a lens (if you'd like to buy me one, get in touch).

What should you look for? Go for the badly-behaved and/or technically deficient fencers, especially at foil or epee. The best fencers are calm, controlled and undramatic. A slight movement at the right moment gets results with the minimum of fuss. But that's rubbish for photography. What you want is great big moments of acrobatic, balletic skill. Thankfully, lots of British fencers rely on athleticism rather than brains or timing: lots of their coaches will be looking at these photos and wincing!

Another victory

Note the score: he then lost 15-14

An armourer, viewed from above


Defeat and consolation

Disgusted with herself

Hit scored, but disgraceful technique

I like the symmetry here: hits, score, position.

It's hard to get a sense of movement in a still photo, though it can be done. I didn't have a monopod or tripod with me this time, but if I had, I'd have played with slow speeds and pans to capture movement. There are two types of shot I particularly like: the moments when blades bend when landing on an opponent or are parried, which require high-speed and luck, and the moment a fencer celebrates or despairs: when fencers have their masks on it's hard to convey personality but the seconds after a match ends are good for this.

I didn't take too many shots of defeat this weekend: the fencers are young and probably wouldn't appreciate it, though one mother framed a shot I took of her daughter on her knees in front of the victor as an aide-memoire to never let it happen again!

In some age groups the size difference is enormous

The final tip: digital cameras are great. I couldn't imagine using film: every shot costing money with no guarantee that you got it right. With digital you can fire off 50 shots in 10 seconds, knowing that you'll keep only one or two of them. What a luxury.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A dose of the old-time religion does you good

Last night I went to my local theatre for an evening with Polly Toynbee and David Walker, promoting their new book Cameron's Coup, basically a summary of all the evil things the Tories and their Lib Dem sidekicks have done to us all over the past few years.

The audience was as you'd expect: Guardian-reading academics, social workers and teachers: those of us with the time, energy and enthusiasm to still be angry. In short: Toynbee and Walker were in friendly territory. Perhaps too friendly: aside from a smattering of SWP-style critiques, her shady past as an early adopter of the SDP (thus allowing Thatcher's reign) was largely overlooked. There was some discussion of the Guardian's endorsement of the Lib Dems in 2010, but she made it clear that it was the editor's sole decision, made in the teeth of opposition from the staff, and based on civil liberties grounds – which is understandable given New Labour's total contempt for such things.

I mostly enjoyed it. The first half of the evening was devoted to a fusillade of statistics and facts which we probably could have done without. Everyone in the audience was highly informed and often faced the realities every day. I'd have preferred Toynbee and Walker to focus on fewer things in more detail, throw in material related to the location of each night's talk, or to give more analysis than fact, as that's their super-power. Once that was over though, things improved hugely. They took questions from the floor and relaxed hugely, giving informed, witty, thoughtful answers to a range of questions: the breadth of their shared knowledge was astounding.

I also enjoyed it because I was sitting next to one of my students - a hugely likeable chap who for some reason is a damned Tory, and was reviewing the gig for the local hard-right paper. Given that the event was solely devoted to Tory-bashing and gingering us up for the election, I teased him about potentially being converted to socialism - sadly it didn't happen, and Toynbee never looked in his direction when he had his hand up so he never got the opportunity to ask what I'm sure would have been an interesting and challenging question. But at least he had to listen to someone other than me explaining just what these bastards have done to us all!

I didn't ask a question either, but if I'd had the chance, I'd have asked about the Tories' motivations. As far as I can tell, some of them genuinely believe that what they're doing is good for the country: Gove, Letwin and some others. They're massively wrong and perhaps even more dangerous than the others, whom I strongly suspect don't have this public service ideal. I remember a newly-elected Kenyan government minister replying to a question about corruption with the words 'now it's our turn to eat'. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but I think there are a lot of Tories who take this line: the public good is far less important than the disposal of state assets and alteration of laws and policies to benefit themselves, their class and their global allies. I think Osborne's one of them. Cameron is half-way between: he's PM because the job appealed to him as a bit of a jape but he's also from a class which had a public service ideal, but his personal fortune is derived from tax evasion. Hunt, Shapps and others seem like nothing more than looters in the service of the global super-rich. My own MP is rarely spotted outside the rich suburbs where his core vote lies, and when he does emerge it's to dine with arms dealers or tour the Syrian Golan Heights in the company of the Israeli occupiers, and he's certainly acquired some extra chins since 2010, so he's certainly taken his turn to eat.

They do, like me, see this government as highly successful. Yes, the deficit is up, Sure Start centres have closed, the poor are poorer and the rich richer, but what people forget is that none of these things are 'collateral damage' cause by 'tough choices'. Occasionally the cleverer Tories fake a note of regret ('this hurts me more than it hurts you'), but the Tory project was always to shrink the state and abolish social protection. As Naomi Klein predicted, they took advantage of a crisis – this is the Pinochet manoeuvre – to impose their fantasies, without warning or a mandate. The only vaguely humorous aspect of this is that the crisis was one of neoliberal capitalism's making (despite their partly-successful attempts to blame it on the last Labour government) and their solution was more neoliberal capitalism. The crying shame is that enough people swallowed this to vote them in, however marginally.

Will the event change the course of the election? I doubt it, and so did the speakers: as Toynbee pointed out, people read the papers and columnists with whom they agree. Perhaps a few more people in the audience will help deliver leaflets in this marginal constituency, but the point was really for like-minded people to huddle together in mutual outrage at the vile things done to us.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Visual Guide to Modern Britain

Perhaps this is a little reductive, but given the confluence of sexual predators such as Jimmy Saville, Tory-donating tax avoiders and the Conservative Party's 'Black and White Ball' (lots included pheasant shooting, Swiss holidays, shoe-shopping excursions with the Home Secretary and a run with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), it seems accurate enough. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Harper Lee v Chilcot: who'll publish first?

I'm marking. It's not really #markinghell in terms of quality, merely in terms of volume. I have to say that the proportion of cheats and idlers has been in decline over the past few years – there are always people who struggle but in the piles on my desk right now, they're honest strugglers who've clearly tried their best. Unlike, for instance, the senior manager who rejected our MA proposal with the biggest load of unreflective nonsense I've seen in quite some time. D– for that. I can't go into details, but let's just say that reading the feedback (hand-scrawled then scanned for distribution) I wasn't angry. I was embarrassed on their behalf.

Anyway, I'd better get on with the marking. At this rate, not only will Harper Lee's second novel be out but the Chilcot Report will be published before I finish. I'm a bit dubious about Go Set a Watchaman the To Kill A Mockingbird sequel. The stories of a manuscript just being 'discovered' sound a little suspicious, and the press statement from Lee reads as though drafted by a PR operative. The feminist website Jezebel is much more hostile: they reckon that publication is coming suspiciously quickly after the death of Lee's sister and attorney, who was famously protective, and may be the result of machinations by her new attorney (ironic, given TKAM's idealisation of honourable lawyers). I'm not so sure: that seems to deny Lee agency and autonomy because she's old:
…leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart. 
Tonja Carter, Harper Lee's attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author—who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007—often doesn't understand the contracts that she signs. "Lee has a history of signing whatever's put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter's advice," Gawker reported last July. But now Alice—her Atticus—is gone and an unhealthy and unstable Lee must alone face the publishers, interviewers and literary agents that she's spent her entire life avoiding.
The novel was written back in the 50s, so if it's legitimate, it's was produced at the height of Lee's powers. It may be an apprentice work, and there are thousands of authors who wrote only one truly great book, but that's one more than me, so I wouldn't begrudge Harper Lee an 'ordinary' one.
Instead of being grouchy about this book, be wary of the hype machine. This novel was written at least half a century ago. A lot of literary and cultural water has flowed under the bridge since then. Readers' expectations are different, style and language has changed. It may or may not be a great novel, but it will be a period piece and should be read on those terms.

Despite being a professional literature academic, I don't actually have much to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it several times as a child and saw the film adaptation once or twice. I'm not sure I appreciated it fully then – it was given to us to demonstrate that racism is bad, but I'd never heard of actual racism the first couple of times I read it, so I imbibed the intellectual lesson (very successfully: still not a racist) and I'd little conscious experience or knowledge of the United States at that point either. Nor was I sufficiently developed as a reader to have much sense of style. I guess in some ways this is beside the point: many of the texts we discover as a child become untouchable and unreal: reading them as an adult is unsettling for precisely those reasons. Instead of a cherished but impressionistic memory, we're confronted with actual words existing within a hugely changed interpretive community. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me in advance that racism was wrong. Going back to it now would require a whole new set of criteria for analysis derived from my own experiences, cultural context and my education and I'm not sure I want to disturb my dim but positive memories. I have done so with other childhood texts: I wrote a conference paper on Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels a few years back and found the experience fulfilling but also quite difficult: re-reading revealed so many dark or disagreeable aspects of the texts which my young self couldn't have understood. I don't think that cherished texts should be left untouched in the golden halls of memory but at the same time, I'm happy for other people to do the revisionist work!