Hwæt! Anglo-Saxon in 1973

Probably the biggest shock to the system back in 1973 was the requirement to study Anglo-Saxon. Most of us had encountered Chaucer, since the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales plus one of the tales was a common package set at A level. I’d read the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Knight’s Tale. So we had some idea of an English that was older than Shakespeare’s, but Anglo-Saxon was challenging. The Anglo-Saxon strand of the degree in the first year consisted of a lecture, in which we learned about the history as well as the literature, and a seminar where we would tackle the set texts, translating passages and learning the grammar. In the first term, the lecture concentrated on the history, and the seminar on grammar and vocabulary. In the second term, we explored the literature in more depth. Our texts were Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and Anglo-Saxon Reader, together with three long poems: The Battle of Maldon, The Wanderer, and The Dream of the Rood. It was tough, but enjoyable, and certainly entailed some concentrated study to enable us to grapple with some very unfamiliar material.

My lecture notes for Anglo-Saxon are headed, to my shame, “Auntie Joyce.” This was Dr Joyce Hill, whose lectures were packed with information, and delivered with enthusiasm. We called her “Auntie”, affectionately, because she had a rather old-fashioned look. She was, we imagined, approaching fifty perhaps, a real bluestocking academic. So, imagine my reaction when I tried to trace what happened to her, and discovered that she is still going strong, delivering lectures on YouTube for the Leeds Civic Society, and writing a column for her church, St Aidan’s. Clearly, the lively, vigorous woman in the recent video footage is not that old, so our youthful estimates must have been very awry. Back in 1973, she must have been much younger than we assumed, probably no more than 30. Her career at Leeds was a notable one, and her profile as an emeritus professor shows the extent of her achievements.

Guided by Joyce Hill, and in my seminar by a PhD student whose name was, I think, Pam, we got to grips with this strange and exhilarating language. Unusually, we did get some handouts to illustrate the subject matter, but most of the time we were reliant on the ancient volumes of Henry Sweet, who was, allegedly, the model for Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. His Primer and Reader had been much revised, but the basis of the books was still what Sweet had published at the end of the nineteenth century, when the study of “Old English” was really in its infancy. The handouts were typed, of course, probably by Audrey Stead, the English Department’s secretary. I wonder how she managed the special characters, like the eth and the thorn on a typewriter?

What did we learn? A lot of history, to begin with. We were encouraged to read Peter Hunter Blair’s Anglo – Saxon England, which was a solid introduction. I see my copy cost £1.60, which was expensive, especially as it was old stock, and the price had been overprinted: the original price was 18s or 90p, as it had been originally published in 1970.

Joyce Hill was particularly good on the Benedictine Revival, which I see now was a major research area for her.  We covered the history very thoroughly, right up to the Battle of Hastings. Then we concentrated on the literature, and again, it was thorough, painstaking line-by-line reading. I find I still have many pages of vocabulary and translation from the texts we studied. Here are a couple of examples from The Battle of Maldon.

Reading these texts made me appreciate what academic study was all about. This was very different from school work. Grappling with the unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary, trying to understand that distant and strange world made you feel part of an academic community in a way that school never did. This was the pure pursuit of knowledge, esoteric knowledge at that, and it was very satisfying. The poetic techniques of the Anglo-Saxons, with the strong emphasis on rhythm derived from the oral tradition, were very different from the metrical exactitudes of much of the later poetry which we had learned for A level. The use of alliteration and the dramatic pause in the middle of each line gave it a chant-like quality, and confirmed the directness of its approach.

I loved the scholarly little editions we had. For Maldon and The Wanderer, we had Methuen’s Old English Library, very sturdy paperbacks, with excellent introductions.  For the very mysterious Dream of the Rood, we had a Manchester University Press edition. Manchester, as I discovered much later, had an impressive Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English group of scholars. As had Leeds, of course. The department published a journal, Leeds Studies in English, which is still extant, and looking through issues from the seventies, it’s clear that the scholars of Anglo-Saxon and historical linguistics dominated.

We even had time in the brief post-Easter term to look at Icelandic sagas, which we examined in translation. Laxdæla Saga and Hrafnkel’s Saga were our texts, read in Penguin Classic editions. The lectures were given by an Icelandic expert rather than by Joyce Hill, and seemed rather tacked on to the programme. But again, vistas opened up: this was an introduction to a great national literature, closely connected to our own, of which I knew nothing.

Looking back fifty years on, I feel privileged to have been introduced to this remarkable body of work by someone so obviously engaged and deeply knowledgeable. Thank you, Auntie Joyce.

Review: Emmeline

Emmeline, by Charlotte Smith (Walmer Classics, 978-0-6457519-0-1 paperback)

A novel with the title Emmeline: The Orphan of the Castle, published in 1787, immediately suggests that the narrative will deal with a spirited and noble heroine, whose virtue will be threatened by a villainous admirer. The heroine will have a champion who will rescue her from the clutches of the villain, though not before she has endured death threats, encounters with brigands, and imprisonment in some fortress in the Apennines. There will be dungeons, secret tunnels, and mysterious apparitions. Along the way, the plucky protagonist will be thrilled by the power of nature, especially of the mountainous variety, and will probably compose poetry inspired by the terrain. The novels of Ann Radcliffe, wildly popular at the end of the eighteenth century, followed this pattern, perfectly reflecting the literary zeitgeist of early Romanticism, and the concomitant enthusiasm for picturesque landscape. Radcliffe was pre-eminent among a group of women novelists of the time whose works were gently satirised by Jane Austen in her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Turning to Emmeline, then, now republished as the second volume in the Walmer Classics series, we might expect a Radcliffian narrative, and to some extent that’s what we get, but there are important differences.

Charlotte Smith was Radcliffe’s precursor, and this novel, while anticipating some of the tropes of the female gothic, is not really of that genre. Our heroine, Emmeline, is the “natural” child of a nobleman and an unknown woman. Both parents are deceased, and Emmeline grows up an orphan at Mowbray castle in Wales, a crumbling ruin, where she is in the hands of the family servants who live there. Her adventures start when, on a rare visit from the family, she catches the eye of her rakish cousin Delamere. He is the nearest character to the classic gothic antagonist, but is not the Machiavellian schemer who frequently figures in Radcliffe and her peers. Rather, he is a driven, passionate, selfish young man, who fixates on Emmeline, and will pursue her at all costs. That pursuit is the mainspring of the plot, which follows Emmeline’s peregrinations, and her complex relations with the family, until the predictable outcome.

This narrative proceeds in a leisurely fashion – close to 800 pages are required to complete the story, and sometimes Smith is guilty of emphasising telling at the expense of showing, so that there are passages of wordy narrative where there is rather too much detail on, say, the logistics of changing horses on a post-chaise for a modern reader. But there is much to enjoy and admire here, not least the subtle analysis of society and the workings of eighteenth century patriarchy. Charlotte Smith had a troubled life. Following a disastrous marriage aged 15, she gave birth to twelve children, and was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison along with her feckless husband. Afterwards, they were frequently obliged to move in order to avoid his creditors. So, it is not surprising that a leitmotif of this, her first novel, is the impact on women of marriage to useless husbands. Mrs Stafford, Emmeline’s friend, is one such unfortunate, whose intelligence and good sense are just about sufficient to keep her family’s head above water. Smith has something of Jane Austen’s sharpness when describing Stafford and his ilk, and an eye for the comic detail. Here is Stafford, who loses money hand over fist by pursuing crackpot get-rich-quick schemes:

“Mr Stafford…was now gone for a few days into another county, to make himself acquainted with the process of manuring land with old wigs — a mode of agriculture on which Mr Headly had lately written a treatise so convincing, that Mr Stafford was determined to adopt it on his own farm as soon as a sufficient number of wigs could be procured for the purpose.”

Another minor character, the fop Elkerton, one of several suitors for Emmeline’s hand, flatters himself that she would be unable to resist him, and couches his appeal in terms which recall Jane Austen’s ironic universally acknowledged truth:

“Elkerton, in looking about for the happy woman who was worthy the exalted situation of being his wife, had yet seen none whom he thought so likely to succeed to that honour as Miss Mowbray; and if she was, on enquiry, found to be as she was represented (related to Lord Montreville) it would be so great an additional advantage that he determined in that case to lay himself and his pied horses, his house in Kent, his library, his fortune, all at her feet immediately. Nor did he once suffer himself to suspect that there was a woman on earth who could withstand such a torrent of good fortune.”

The society in which idiots like Stafford and Elkerton are afforded every opportunity, but where women are denied basic agency, is implicitly criticised at every turn. Certainly, women are the main sources  of intelligence and rationality in the narrative. It is no surprise to learn that Charlotte Smith was an early advocate of women’s rights. Her own life, which had many striking parallels with that of Mrs Stafford, gave her ample reason to side with such contemporaries as Mary Wollstonecraft on this issue. 

Smith is very illuminating on the business of class, and the rigidity with which a person’s perceived rank fixed their place in society. Emmeline is, of course, beautiful, sensitive and accomplished, but cannot be thought of by his family as a match for Delamere because of her origins. Various sub-plots also centre on the way in which societal norms impede the path to happiness of the characters, and how an upper-class background gives someone carte blanche to act in the most arrogant manner to those of lower social status. Even so, some social mobility is possible, for those devious enough. One of the most unpleasant characters in the novel is the social climber Crofts:

“To his superiors, the cringing parasite; to those whom he thought his inferiors, proud, supercilious and insulting; and his heart hardening as his prosperity encreased, he threw off, as much as he could, every connection that reminded him of the transactions of his early life, and affected to live only among the great, whose luxuries he could now reach, and whose manners he tried to imitate.”

Emmeline’s travels in escaping the clutches of Delamere take her first to the environs of London (Clapham is a pleasant village a few miles from the metropolis), the Isle of Wight, and eventually abroad, to France. A storm on the island presents a grandeur which “gratified her taste for the sublime” but it is when she crosses the Channel that the narrative most resembles the style that would soon become so popular, with the heroine immersed in dramatic landscapes. Even so, Smith never really fully buys into the idea of the romantic sublime. Her characters are more domesticated, and more likely to be overwhelmed by the prospect of an unpleasant meeting than by the mysterious power of nature. Fainting fits are frequent, usually resolved by the use of hartshorn and Hungary water.  Nevertheless, there are some passages which could easily have been written by Radcliffe. Here is Emmeline on the road:

“As they were travelling between Marseilles and Toulon, they entered a road bounded on each side by mountainous rocks, which sometimes receding, left between them small but richly cultivated vallies; and in other parts so nearly met each other, as to leave little more room than sufficed for the carriage to pass; while the turnings of the road were so angular and abrupt, that it seemed every moment to be carrying them into the bosom of the rock. Thro’ this defile, as it was quite shady, they agreed to walk.”

Shortly after, following a description of the various species of trees that could be discerned from the road, our heroine allows herself to be overwhelmed by nature:

“Emmeline in silent admiration beheld this singular scene; and with the pleasure it gave her, a soft and melancholy sensation was mingled. She wanted to be alone in this delightful place, or with some one who could share, who could understand the satisfaction she felt.”

The idea of the sublime surfaces in one or two other places, for example in the poetry of Emmeline’s friend Adelina, but otherwise, there are few passages that treat of the romantic sensibility commonly exhibited by the gothic heroine. Emmeline is, despite her complete lack of schooling, refined, intelligent, and artistically talented but more inclined to concentrate on practical matters than flights of the imagination. 

Emmeline’s journey from poor orphan to the inevitable happy and prosperous marriage with which all such narratives must finish, is a tortuous one, along which she encounters many obstacles, but none that are life-threatening, as in the novels of Mrs Radcliffe. Rather, she must forever react to the power exerted by malevolent men, and rely on help from other women (and one or two virtuous males) to navigate her passage. 

Charlotte Smith went on to write nine further novels, and it is to be hoped that this edition, well-produced as we have come to expect from Walmer, Britain’s most northerly publisher, is not the only work of hers to see deserved republication. She is an important figure in the development of the novel, and merits more attention from both readers and critics.

Thanks to Mike Walmer for the review copy. Some more reviews of Walmer books can be found on the Shiny New Books site.

Poetry for beginners

Back in 1973, the weekly poetry lecture focused on the sixteenth and seventeenth century. For many of us, this was familiar territory, since Helen Gardner’s The Metaphysical Poets was a common set text at A level. I had studied Donne, Marvell, Herbert and others for A level Eng Lit, and felt quite confident about studying them at degree level. I even had my school prize complete editions of Donne and Marvell to hand. In the lectures, my lack of deep understanding became apparent early on, as ideas drawn from philosophy and rhetoric forced me to rethink my comfortable interpretations.

Our lecturer was Kenneth Severs, a minor poet himself. He had been a senior figure at the local BBC station in Leeds, just down Woodhouse Lane from the university. In the post-war years, he had been a journalist and a PhD candidate at Leeds. We didn’t know that at the time, of course: he was a besuited man who swept into the lecture theatre at ten o’clock on, I think, Tuesday mornings, and launched into whatever that day’s topic was. One quirk, with which we soon became familiar, was that he would get noticeably twitchy around the 35-minute mark of his scheduled hour. And by the 40 or 45 minute mark, he was motoring towards his concluding remarks. The reason for cutting short his lecture was easily discerned. Just across the concrete wasteland of a courtyard in which the lecture theatre stood, was an exit from the campus to Springfield Mount, where the Faversham pub was situated. In those days, of course, the licensing laws meant that pubs opened from 11.00 a.m. to 2:30 or 3:00 p.m., before opening again for the evening trade. Ken Severs timed his peroration so that he could be first through the door as the clock struck eleven.

He still packed a lot in, and I remember often struggling to follow his arguments, not because they were poorly presented, but because they were grounded in the cultural and historical context, of which I was largely ignorant, having completed A level study very much on the basis of the “New Criticism” where attention to the text was everything. I think we’d been recommended at school to read a slim volume by EMW Tillyard called The Elizabethan World Picture, which I discovered about forty years later was seriously flawed. 

It occurs to me that I should say something about lecture style. I am sure that the lecture theatres were state-of-the-art for 1973; after all, the building was only a few years old. But I don’t recall any lecturer, ever, in my entire degree programme, using any audio-visual aids. The lecturer stood at the front, spoke for an hour (or a bit less) and disappeared. Very occasionally, there might be a handout with some suggestions for further reading, but that was as far as it went. We attended, we listened, we made notes.

I don’t know if Ken Severs held tutorials. I just encountered him across a lecture theatre, and I think he left Leeds after my first year, or maybe he was still employed at the BBC and just covering for someone at Leeds. But he was a significant figure in Leeds life beyond the university. I came across a fascinating PhD thesis on the BBC in Yorkshire, 1945 -1990, by Christine Verguson. She mentions Severs a couple of times, and interviewed a BBC Leeds colleague, who remembered him thus: “Ken’s contacts were legion and Ken liked a drink, and in his office at the end of the day there would always be some amazing character who you would give an arm and a leg to be in the company of…Writers, actors, performers, academics, it was an intellectual hotspot.” 

Poetry was important at Leeds: the Gregory poetry fellowship was awarded to some very significant poets over the years, and the journal Poetry and Audience, while ostensibly a student publication, featured the work of many well-known poets. I remember Severs commending the new student editor to us, and encouraging us to submit work. Some of us did; I didn’t. The Leeds poetry map shows the many and various ways that poetry was woven into the fabric of Leeds. Vernon Scannell, whose unusual career involved transitioning from army deserter to professional boxer to award-winning poet, is mentioned on the map. He had a connection to Ken Severs, which is recounted in James Andrew Taylor’s biography of Scannell. Severs befriended him in Leeds after the war, and enabled him to move in the local literary and artistic circles, introducing him to figures such as Bonamy Dobrée, then professor of English, his colleague the Shakespearian scholar G. Wilson Knight, and Jacob Kramer, the artist. By the time I was at Leeds, the art school had been renamed Jacob Kramer College. This sketch of Ken Severs by Kramer must date from that time.

Severs also inadvertently introduced Scannell to his future wife, Jo Higson, as recounted in Taylor’s book:

Ken Severs seems to have been a very talented man who never quite fulfilled his potential.  I can’t find any references to him after the mid-seventies. If you know what happened to him, I’d be grateful for the information.

Beowulf to Virginia Woolf

Recently, I was corresponding with a friend about doing some guest lectures, and I was asked about what topics I could cover. I said, jokingly, “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf.” I wasn’t claiming expertise over a thousand years of literature, merely a kind of Jack-of-all-trades competence. It stems initially, I think, from teaching A level English Literature forty and more years ago, where you just had to teach what was on the syllabus: Chaucer, Milton, Jane Austen, say, or Shakespeare, Dryden and Ted Hughes. Later, when I worked in higher education, teaching undergraduate and post-graduate Eng Lit, I specialised in modernist and contemporary literature, simply because I replaced someone with that specialism. But I also convened big survey courses, and introductory courses, so the breadth of literature I covered was maintained. Hence my jokey response to my friend’s request. But that phrase was actually borrowed from another source, an academic whom I encountered in that brutalist lecture theatre fifty years ago.

Thinking about my experience back then, it struck me that we didn’t really know who our lecturers were. The system at Leeds, as mentioned previously,  was to have free-standing lecture series, with tutorials in which any of the material from any of the courses might be examined, at the whim of the tutor. So, unless your tutor was one of the lecturers on a course you followed, you wouldn’t encounter him/her. When I was putting together module handbooks as a lecturer, the first thing which would go in would be my details (email, office hours etc) so all the students knew who and where I was. Back then, we usually got a single sheet with the set texts, and a bare list of lectures, usually with no name attached.  Which means that, looking back, I really struggled to identify who did what. So I consulted Dr Google, with some interesting results.

I still have some of my lecture notes from back then (I know…) and I found I’d written “MacDonald” on my first year Renaissance drama notes. This turns out to be an interesting character, Alasdair MacDonald, whose post-Leeds career was mainly in universities in the Netherlands, and who has a long list of publications, including one published quite recently. He even qualified for a Festschrift in his honour, “Airy Nothings”, published in 2013, the scope of which gives some indication of his broad interests.

The introduction to that volume gives a potted history of his career, and contains that Beowulf / Virginia Woolf quip as an expression of the varied nature of his academic experience.

At Leeds, the first year drama course focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama excluding Shakespeare. So we read Marlowe, Kyd, Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Tourneur. I remember using the Penguin English Library versions for some texts, because you got three or four plays for the price of one.

That led me to write about plays that weren’t on the syllabus, which may have got me some bonus points in the eyes of my tutor. How we were assessed is a theme for a future post.

Next time, I’ll look at our poetry course, given by another interesting figure. 

Robert Nye’s Falstaff

I recently had a chat for the International Anthony Burgess Foundations’s podcast series “99 Novels”. Each episode discusses a book that Burgess included in his survey of mid-twentieth century fiction, published as Ninety Nine Novels in 1984. In this episode, the Foundation’s Dr Graham Foster and I discuss Robert Nye’s rumbustious novel Falstaff. We also explore some related and not-so-related works, finishing with my recommendation for a 100th book : Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. It was great fun to explore Nye’s novel at length, and an honour to be part of this excellent podcast series.

Eng Lit Life, 1973

When I started my degree, we weren’t bombarded with information in the way that freshers are now. Our only source of information was the noticeboard in the English department, which in those days was situated in one of the brutalist concrete buildings that had been built when the university expanded in the sixties. We were on the floor above Biosciences, and the department was really just a corridor of offices, at the end of which was a small departmental library. We constructed our timetables from the noticeboard. Most of it was lectures, which were given in another brutalist concrete building, imaginatively named the Lecture Theatre Block. A few years later, it became the Roger Stevens Building, after a former Vice-Chancellor. The V-C in my day was Edward Boyle, Lord Boyle of Handsworth. We occasionally saw him on the bus travelling down Woodhouse Lane on his way to work.

The system at Leeds for the English degree was that everyone followed the same curriculum for the first year, and then chose a pathway for years two and three. So, the hundred or so of us who started the degree had a varied programme that aimed, I suppose, at giving us a broad base for our further studies. Some of it we were familiar with from Eng Lit A level, while much of it was new to us. The different strands of the degree would be called modules now, and each would have its own rationale and assessment regime. Back then, we had lectures for what you might label mainstream English Literature – poetry and drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth century – backed up by a weekly tutorial in a group of three or four. The tutorials took place in a lecturer’s office, and the tutor had complete control over the weekly topic. So the tutorials did not necessarily reflect the content of the lectures, and that kept us on our toes. You needed to be prepared: there was no hiding place when the class consisted of you and two or three others. 

The other elements of the programme were organised slightly differently. Anglo-Saxon history and literature was a lecture series, followed by a seminar, which, in my case, was convened by a young post-grad student, one of the few in the department in the days before mass PhD programmes. In addition, we had a language lecture, looking at accent, dialect and historical linguistics. So, while we (or at least I) had a relatively comfortable and familiar immersion in metaphysical poetry and Jacobean drama, there was a very steep learning curve when it came to grappling with The Battle of Maldon in the original, or the transcription of Received Pronunciation in the international phonetic alphabet.

Add to this activity the subsids, both of which were a one-hour lecture plus a one-hour seminar per week, and we were busy. We spent our money on the set texts at Austick’s bookshop across the road from the Parkinson building, and began to get used to the routine. The Lecture Theatre block became a second home, and I loved it. It had paternoster lifts, basically a series of open boxes going up and down the building, which you had to jump in as they passed. There was a café on the ground floor where we often met before and after lectures. Coffee (execrable, instant Nescafé in a styrofoam cup) was 5p, and we drank it and ate Kit-Kats while sitting around what seemed to be a water feature, but was in fact the cooling system for the building.

I made friends quite easily, of necessity really. We all did. Most of my peers were, like me, the product of the grammar school system. Technically, I had attended a comprehensive school, as Manchester had reformed its system the year after I passed the Eleven Plus. My boys’ grammar school became a high school, amalgamating with a secondary modern school on the other side of the playing fields. In truth, though, little changed, and the two schools were in effect still separate entities. At Leeds, there were a few public school types, who all seemed to have been herded into a hall of residence in an old building on campus, but most of us were first generation university students, enjoying an opportunity that would have been beyond our parents’ wildest dreams. It’s worth remembering that university education was still quite a rare experience. In 1973, only about 10% of eighteen year-olds went onto higher education, so we were, in effect, a kind of elite. Before the expansion of universities in the sixties, the percentage was about half of that, so even though many more of us were studying for degrees, it was still an experience denied to the vast majority of people. Remember, back then, you could leave school at 15, and many left effectively at 14, attending FE college to learn a trade on day release in their final year.

So, we felt privileged, and also excited to be embarking on what was almost guaranteed to be a life-changing experience. Next time, I’ll begin to explore the detail of the degree.

It was fifty years ago today

It was fifty years ago today… Well, fifty years last week anyway. I was 18 and about to become an undergraduate at Leeds University. I was reminded of the half-century (!) by a friend I met that week, and I thought I’d commemorate the event by writing about life as a student back then.

First, how did I get there? Sheer luck, I think. I’d managed a mediocre set of A level results, but had an A grade in English Literature. That must have convinced someone at Leeds to offer me a late place. I barely had time to think about it before I landed in a large, all-male hall of residence on the Otley Road, and began my adventure.

I remember talking to some of my own students about the differences between their experience and mine. The most obvious ones, which they highlighted bitterly, were that there were no tuition fees, and that we received grants. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Tuition fees were required, actually, but we didn’t know about them, because they were paid by our local education authority. As for grants, they were means-tested based on your parents’ income, so only students from the most impoverished families received a full grant. Mine paid, at least in my first year, for my accommodation at Bodington Hall, with a very small amount left over. Otherwise, I depended on my parents to send me money for books, clothes and everything else. In another contrast to modern-day students, I never considered finding a part-time job in term time to support myself, and I knew of only one student who did: he was estranged from his parents, but nevertheless only received a means-tested grant, so he pulled pints in a pub a few nights a week. The rest of us just thought of ourselves as full-time students, because we were. In those days, it was even forbidden in some universities for students to take employment in term time: certainly at Oxbridge, and also at some of the more traditional universities.

As a result, most of us were not able to pursue the hedonistic lifestyle of student mythology. Fifty years of inflation have made the figures almost meaningless, but for the record my disposable income consisted of the twenty pounds a month my parents sent me. I paid their cheque into the bank at the start of the month, and then visited the bank each Monday, wrote a cheque to cash for £5, and that was what I had to spend that week. So, the occasional night out was largely nursing a pint for a long time in the pub, or going to a cheap gig in the university union.

The first week of orientation was mainly spent queuing for grants, library cards, and all the other bits and pieces required by the bureaucracy of the institution. We were split into groups of about ten, and given a third year guide who showed us around. Ours, a pleasant chemistry student, was very well-informed about the history of the university. I remember she said there were 10,000 students, which all of us thought was a huge number. Today, it’s approaching 40,000.

Preparing for the degree had been, necessarily, a rushed process. We were sent a rough outline of the degree, a booklist, and that was it. We went to the departmental notice board to find our names, and which classes we had to attend, and we also had to choose what were known as “subsids”: subsidiary subjects, which were studied alongside your degree subject. You could choose pretty much anything that was on offer, provided it fitted in with your timetable. I chose Roman Civilisation and Sociology, for reasons I forget.

So, having informed myself of what was expected, I prepared to enter the world of higher learning that October week half a century ago. I will continue in the next post with some memories of what an Eng Lit degree was like in 1973.

Now, where were we?

Blimey, it’s 2023! Last time I looked, it was 2017! I remember as a boy trying to work out how old I would be when the millennium came to its close. It seemed impossibly far distant, and my age in the year 2000 impossibly old. And yet, here we are.
I’m currently revamping this site, and will be posting more in the coming weeks and months, and, I hope, years. First up, I’ll draw your attention to the Anthony Burgess special issue of the excellent Hungarian journal The Anachronist. I have a piece in it on Burgess’s love-hate relationship with Manchester. It’s available to download here.

Jonathan Coe, Middle England

Brexit is at the centre, both literally and metaphorically, of Jonathan Coe’s latest novel. The title hints at the territory it covers: geographical, since much of the action takes place in the English midlands; social, since many, but by no means all, of the characters are comfortably-off middle class; and psychological, since the sympathetic characters at least show some sense of being balanced and reasonable.

Coe goes back to the cast of characters first introduced in The Rotters’ Club, especially Benjamin Trotter, now living as a semi-recluse in a converted mill in Shropshire, and still working on the roman fleuve that he hopes to publish some day. We see him first after the funeral of his mother, listening to Shirley Collins’s evocative rendition of the old folk song “Adieu to old England.” Sophie, his niece, now an art historian, has a major presence in this novel, as does his friend Doug, now a hard-bitten member of the political commentariat.

The novel is structured around significant recent events in British life, beginning with the 2010 election, and taking in the 2011 riots, the London Olympics of 2012, the 2015 election, the killing of Jo Cox in the 2016 referendum campaign, and the rise of Trump and populism. There’s a specificity about it, not just in terms of the history, with particular dates and events in mind, but geographically, with the topography of the midlands frequently featuring. This is the England of garden centres and golf courses, but also of abandoned factories and foodbanks, homogenised high streets and hypermarkets.

The calamity of the referendum result lies at the novel’s heart, its implications rippling out to affect the lives of all the characters, usually for the worse, but sometimes, surprisingly, for the better. The novel, more so than the previous two in the series, seeks to anatomise England (not Britain) and finds a melancholy spiritual waste land at its core.

This is not to say that the narrative does not have its lighter moments. Coe shows once again what a master he is of the comic set piece scene, especially in the spats between two minor characters who are children’s entertainers. He is especially acerbic when presenting the vacuous doublespeak of Nigel, a spin-doctor working for David Cameron. He is also capable of managing a large ensemble of characters, skilfully intertwining their stories, and producing a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, in which each participant – Benjamin’s bitter widowed father, Sophie’s blokey husband, his mother’s eastern European cleaner, Doug’s liberal Tory MP girlfriend amongst others – contributes to the overall portrait of a country in terminal decline, at war with itself.

This is truly a “condition of England” novel, which, despite the lightness of its touch, plumbs profound and disturbing depths. It should be required reading for every MP, and everyone who cares for this country.

Piers Paul Read: A Patriot in Berlin

9781504044660-book-coverPiers Paul Read is something of an oddity in contemporary English fiction, in that he is probably best known for his non-fiction work, most notably Alive, the 1975 account of the aftermath of the Andes plane crash. His other non-fiction has varied between other chronicles of disaster, such as Ablaze, about the Chernobyl nuclear reactor failure, and studies of historical events, such as the Dreyfus affair. He has also written a biography of Alec Guinness, a history of the Knights Templar, screenplays, essays and criticism, as well as seventeen novels. One thread that runs strongly through the different aspects of his work is a robust traditional Catholicism, derived, one imagines, from his Benedictine schooling at Ampleforth. At 76, he is one of the grand old men of English letters, like Tom Stoppard, who was once a flatmate.

A Patriot in Berlin, first published in 1995, and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media, is a spy novel that begins as a thriller, and ends as a meditation on patriotism and loyalty. The scene is the newly unified city, shortly after the events of 1989. A pair of disreputable Russian smugglers are found brutally murdered, and the German police can make no progress. In Moscow, a former KGB agent, Orlov, has vanished, and the Russian secret service sees a connection between the Berlin murder and their man’s disappearance. A shabby functionary, Nikolai Gerasimov, is dispatched to liaise with the police, and to track down their agent. In another narrative thread, a young American art history professor, Francesca McDermott, arrives to see friends in Berlin from her student days, and is soon invited to curate a massive exhibition of Soviet art by Stefan Diederich, now Berlin’s minister of culture. These elements are artfully drawn together by Read into a fast-moving plot that switches cinematically between the streets of Berlin to those of Moscow, with some excursions to a former Soviet base in East Germany.

Read is excellent at evoking the atmosphere of post-Wende Berlin. In particular, he renders the contrast between the capitalist west and the rapidly-changing, but still down-at-heel east with a keen eye for the telling detail. Similarly, his descriptions of quotidian life in the somewhat chaotic Moscow of Boris Yeltsin and his cronies ring true. It was a time when national, and therefore personal identities were under threat, and the novel goes well beyond the normal confines of the spy genre to examine the nature of patriotism and duty. The characters are much more rounded and fully-realised than the usual stereotypes of genre fiction, and their complex motivations are a key aspect of the way the plot develops. Having said that, the usual elements of espionage fiction are here: murder, deceit, sexual tension, a race against time, a satisfying dénouement and an unexpected final twist. The Europe portrayed in this novel from two decades ago has not, in the era of Putin, changed as much as one might imagine. Read’s subtle and thoughtful story stands up well. This is a good example of a literary novel that uses the tropes of genre fiction with delicacy and intelligence.

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