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

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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.


Reading Burgess

19731973_10154812324647291_4850089015476714974_nAs my dear reader will know, Anthony Burgess is a constant presence in my life, so it was a pleasure to provide a little guide to some of my favourites among his works for the latest Shiny New Books. As ever, Shiny has lots to offer the discerning reader. The photo is of me spouting nonsense (surely ‘delivering a magisterial exegesis’? Ed.) at the recent Burgess 100 conference in Manchester.



David Hewson: Sleep Baby Sleep

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This is the fourth in David Hewson‘s series featuring Amsterdam-based detective Pieter Vos, and old fans will not be disappointed. In this complex, and swift-moving narrative, Vos is personally involved in a case involving the abduction of a young woman, in circumstances which recall another case from some years before. Vos is troubled by the thought that the loose ends on the other case weren’t fully tied up, and what’s more the bossy new female Commissaris is gunning for him. He’s also edging nervously into a relationship with Marly Kloosterman, the prison doctor. But mostly, he’s being given the runaround by someone who knows his every move, and taunts him via notes and phone calls.
Vos and his assistant Laura Bakker have to battle not only a serial killer, but also to work out the connection to the old case, whilst avoiding the wrath of Jillian Chandra, the publicity-hungry new boss. Hewson deftly handles the various threads, moving in cinematic style between the different story lines, and building a believable cast of characters, including the family of Bert Schrijver, the flower seller whose daughter’s abduction sparks the action. Hewson is good at distinguishing characters through dialogue, giving them all distinctive speech mannerisms and vocabulary.
As with the previous Vos novels, the role of Amsterdam cannot be overstated. Hewson’s spare, direct style evokes the dark side of the city vividly, and provides some memorable locations for the action, from the Zorgvlied cemetery to the hipster bars of De Pijp, to the Albert Cuyp flower market or the snazzy houseboat of Marly Kloosterman. The action is rooted in the city, and the reader feels very much immersed, as the descriptions are so specific and immediate. Vos himself is very appropriately located in his shabby houseboat in the Jordaan, just down from his favourite bar, the Drie Vaten, where he is often to be found with his dog Sam, who is instrumental in this case.
Brilliant and evocative local colour is no use without an excellent plot, and this novel certainly has just that. The reader, along with Vos, remains pretty much in a fog as the seemingly unconnected elements slowly and relentlessly come together before a stunning denouement that is superbly orchestrated, and completely unexpected. The dogged police work and the flashes of insight that lead Vos to the solution, at some personal cost, are laid out for us in traditional style, but I’m confident that very few readers would predict the outcome.
Vos – it means “Fox” – takes his place now in the canon of fictional detectives whose adventures demand the crime fiction fan’s attention. This is an excellent, credible novel, which had me gripped from start to finish. Published on June 1st, 2017 by Macmillan. Available from Wordery.


Edward Petherbridge and Bloomsbury

iuEdward Petherbridge is probably best known now as the definitive Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC adaptations of the late eighties, opposite Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. He brought a wounded sensitivity to the part, presenting a more complex figure than his predecessor Ian Carmichael, who remained largely in Bertie Wooster mode. Any casual viewer of those programmes now can see what an accomplished actor he was — and indeed still is — but might not be aware of his considerable background in the theatre, where his distinguished career over forty-odd years has taken in everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard (he was the first Guildenstern) and beyond. My favourite Petherbridge moment was his Faulkland in Peter Wood’s National Theatre production of The Rivals in the early eighties, with an absolutely world-class cast: Michael Hordern, Tim Curry, Geraldine McEwan, Patrick Ryecart, Fiona Shaw… Petherbridge was perfect as the endlessly prevaricating Faulkland, showing real comic timing and exquisite judgement. This production was one of the highlights of my theatre-going experience, and the starting point for my interest in Edward Petherbridge’s career.

His theatrical output may have diminished in recent years, though he still tours, most notably in his one man show A Perfect Mind, which is based on his own experience as the victim of a stroke. Rather unusually for an actor of his generation, he took to the internet enthusiastically, maintaining a website which chronicled his activities, and often featured his poems and paintings. The poems are impressive: traditional, formal, but sensitive and inventive. The paintings are attractively naive, showing a fair degree of talent – good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition at any rate. More recently, he has begun to produce little documentary films, and the most recent of these is a very interesting two-parter on Bloomsbury and its artistic inhabitants: Rooms of One’s Own. His oblique, personal approach is a welcome antidote to the normal lit-crit style accounts. There are some lovely little vignettes and anecdotes of theatrical life and the lives of the Bloomsberries, the Camden Town group, and others who passed through these London squares in the first half of the last century, such as Wyndham Lewis, also a particular interest of mine.

The films are well worth a look: intelligent, unhurried, informative and, of course, beautifully narrated in that distinctive voice. The website, Peth’s Staging Post, is a model of how to present yourself professionally and personally on the net. He is one of our finest actors, of a generation that is sadly shrinking year by year. Long may he continue to delight us.


Neil Campbell: Sky Hooks

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As a Mancunian, for me one of the immediate delights of this novel by Neil Campbell is the authenticity of the detail. The topography of the city, its street names, pubs and landmarks are all chronicled faithfully, so that you can trace the physical wanderings of the protagonist as he makes his picaresque way from promising young footballer to dead-end job to something better. We first encounter him working in a warehouse, resenting the injury that cut short his career at City and wondering what to do with his life. And his existence is certainly grim, a procession of dodgy encounters with the prostitutes and crooks who live and work around the high-rise flat he lives in, interspersed with drunken pub-crawls with the blokes from work. He’s fuelled by resentment, and a sense that he could he could have been somebody or something, but quite what he doesn’t know. Campbell evokes the sordid urban milieu very adroitly, his deadpan style perfectly appropriate to convey the sense of lives wasted in the tatty underbelly of the city.

The nameless narrator tells his tale baldly, almost without emotion., working against the usual convention of first-person tales, and almost, but not quite, making the reader indifferent to his fate. The novel progresses through a seemingly endless series of short scenes, almost self-contained, in which typically the central character finds himself in some sort of conflict with a co-worker, someone on the street, or an authority figure. These vignettes tend not to be related, so there is an ever-changing cast of characters, with just a few figures, like the menacingly psychotic Riggers, present throughout. These fleeting characters seem to perhaps represent versions of what our narrator might have become: the cynical manual labourer, manipulating the system; the bitter middle-aged man trapped in an arid marriage; the alcoholic young man who antagonises everyone he meets. Occasionally, we are given an insight into childhood of our hero, with some hints at the source of his alienation, but mostly the focus is on the rootless life of this young man in the urban jungle of contemporary Manchester.

An unexpected circumstance leads to his channelling his creativity into writing, and that becomes his obsession. In the second and third parts of this shortish narrative, the hero develops a career of sorts on the fringes of the Manchester contemporary literature scene. Amusingly, he populates this arena with recognisable figures, many of them carrying their real names, though one obnoxious writer, in a nice Manchester in-joke, is given the name of an old-established textile firm. To anyone who knows Manchester, the descriptions are pitch-perfect. Here is our hero on the trendier parts of the leafy southern suburbs:

It made me laugh when I went out in places like West Didsbury and Chorlton. The men had moisturised beards and spotless retro trainers and skinny jeans. And they rode around on expensive bicycles made by Dawes, and wore horn-rimmed specs they didn’t need for seeing, and they never got drunk.

When he develops an interest in writing, our hero reads Hemingway, and there’s something of that writer’s laconic sparseness in Campbell’s prose. But Campbell is not a slavish imitator – he has his own distinctive voice, which uses a colloquial, demotic tone, quite sweary in places, that sounds grittily authentic. In addition, he isn’t afraid to use symbolism to enrich the reading experience. In particular, animals and birds often make unexpected appearances – a peregrine hovering over Albert Square, foxes running across urban wasteland, and herons on the canal and the river, all of them defying the relentless imposition of a man-made landscape. The man dreams of some kind of escape, and makes various attempts to realise it, in trips to New York and San Francisco, in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, and in the Scottish countryside.

This is a very promising first novel by a writer who shares quite a few characteristics with his protagonist. Campbell has published poetry and short stories, and an early, shorter version of this book. I look forward to reading more of his work. And the title? Well, sky hooks don’t exist, do they?

Thanks to Salt for the review copy.

Neil Campbell, Sky Hooks (Salt, 2016) ISBN: 9781784630379


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