Thursday, 16 March 2017

Down in the stacks

I've been so ridiculously busy recently that I haven't really had time for blogging, and when I have it's been addressing Big Issues in a rather sharp tone of voice. Lots of readers (thanks everyone), but it's time to bore again with dispatches from my habitual mundane existence.

Actually it hasn't been entirely mundane: teaching at the moment is a joy, for which thanks are due to my students and colleagues. I'm running a drama module for first years which is meant to put plays into their theatrical context. We're doing it in a proper theatre, and it's co-taught by the director-producer-actor-manager who runs the place, so we examine texts and then look at the challenges and opportunities of staging them. Students have done some acting exercises (more to come), we'll do some technical things, and we dumped three professional actors in front of them so that the students could direct a scene until they were happy with it. Scary stuff for a new university student, but they've done fantastic work. One day I'd like the assignment to be a performance, but it's early days… The plays we've looked at have been challenging too: Pinter's The Birthday Party, Beckett's Breath (full performance below), A View from the Bridge, MacbethJerusalem and for the last remaining weeks, we're looking at Jennifer Hailey's The Nether.

Breath was chosen because it's so completely outside the kind of theatrical experience young students have had: it has no actors, no dialogue and lasts less than a minute. I'm a fan of creative defamiliarisation. Jerusalem is fantastic because it's funny, dark, topical, mythical and controversial all together, while The Nether is confrontational: it deals with online child pornography by forcing the audience to consider the nature of reality and performance. There's a debate that emerges from it that links Bakhtin to Baudrillard and asks some very uncomfortable questions about paedophilia and complicity.

It's hard to stage too - one of the things we explore in depth is the range of potential settings and performances available to a theatre company and what audiences want: dreadful acts are perpetrated, usually between the scenes, but the audience has to ask itself whether it really wants to see them. I think the students are enjoying it: it's not like the 'classic' English lecture, my colleagues are very engaging, and the texts are good. They keep coming, anyway. My other main course at the moment is mostly Shakespeare and Milton, so there's an awful lot of theatre in my life right now. I live for the smell of greasepaint, darlings!

Away from work, I've been reading all sorts of things for fun. Lots and lots Margery Allingham's Albert Campion novels: as a 1930s specialist (slightly manqué) I've become very interested in popular genre novels. First it was Dorothy L Sayers, then Allingham and Nicholas Blake (the pen-name of poet C. Day Lewis. Campion started as a parody of Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey (complete with comedy butler/sidekick), and the series swings between satirical, funny and genuinely dark. They're also very strange: The China Governess and Tiger in the Smoke for instance are gripping but also driven less by plot than by character (post-war London is virtually a character itself), and those characters are often opaque. Perhaps it's the distance between then and now but even as a 30s buff I find myself alienated or excluded by the narratorial interventions and observations: people behave in strange ways and it's hard to tell whether the contemporary audience was assumed to intuit beliefs/perspectives/responses easily or not. They're disconcerting in a fascinating way. Like Sayers et al.,, there's the additional challenge that they reflect middle-class attitudes of the time, particularly casual and fairly liberal anti-semitism with occasional dashes of other forms of racism. Difficult to read, but fascinating from a cultural studies perspective.

I've also just finished Joanna Russ's The Female Man which I wish I'd read decades ago. I know and adore her How To Suppress Women's Writing but this novel is a mind-spinning semi-science fiction feminist/queer classic. Outspoken, cutting and funny.

In almost complete contrast, I also hugely enjoyed Richard Power's The Hungry Grass, recently republished after disappearing since the author's early death in the 1970s. It follows a lonely, conflicted rural Irish priest around his parish in the last few weeks of his life as he struggles with the legacy of his family, the nature of his vocation (or lack of it), his parishioners, a changing Ireland and the small p politics of being a priest. It's being marketed as resembling John Williams's slow-burning novel of masculine failure Stoner, and that's fair. It's elegiac without being hagiographical; sad and moving without being sentimental, deeply rooted in Ireland and above all, profoundly serious. You couldn't write this stuff now because the priesthood and the Church have been so damaged in the intervening years: the protagonist is a personal and moral failure in many ways, but they're quieter ways: he's no paedophile, and there's no plot of this sort to artificially add drama. (Also in complete contrast, I've been buying more Austeniana thanks to a student's enthusiasm for the stuff: I've just acquired two Jane Austen Choose Your Own Adventure books. They're a hoot – and culturally significant, obvs).

I also read Alastair Reynolds's Chasm City after reading a paper that reckoned it's a Welsh novel despite being set millions of light years away. If I can remember the article I'll link to it because it's very convincing. A colleague recommended Genevieve Cogman's steampunk/sf The Invisible Library which was good fun too. Talking of library-themed books, Jenn Swann Downey sent me her book The Ninja Librarians: Sword in the Stacks which was very funny and a good fast-paced adventure. If you have clever children, they'll love it. I liked Sidney Padua's graphic novel/cartoon The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage an awful lot: I've followed their progress online and was very pleased to finally see it in book form. It's got Science and Puns and a Pipe-Smoking Mathematician Who Overcame Being Byron's Daughter To Invent Software And Computer Programming (this bit is true) and Solve Crime With The Inventor of Computer Hardware) I also read a couple of Philip Kerr's The Pale Criminal for their interwar atmosphere: I liked them and admired the way he generated atmosphere, but not enough to commit to what is now a substantial series. They're similar to SS-GB: compromised but honest private detective struggling to achieve justice while getting by in Nazi-controlled Berlin. Quite a change from the Kant I'm reading struggling with at work… Oh yes, and I very much liked Julian Rathbone's 1984 satire of Conservative/conservative Britain: Nasty, Very. It is. And still very relevant. Related to Jonathan Coe but angrier.

That's all I've read in the last few weeks aside from teaching texts (and memos) but it's been interesting. I haven't read anything truly terrible for a while, other than Fifty Shades of Grey (I'm supervising a PhD on fan fiction) and a series of erotic fan fictions (for a journal piece on neoliberalism and culture). Some were disturbing but well written. Some were disturbing and badly written. People: stop thinking about your cats like that. Ugh.


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