Saturday, 22 February 2014

beautiful morning!, tutes, st barnabas church, digital humanities, knowledge exchange, hollybush witney

















A beautiful morning! On a day like today, the last two dreary, dampened months are already a distant memory. (Only to return next week? Perhaps - but with lessened force, let's hope!)

In Oxford for one-to-one assignment tutorials today. On the bus in, answered work emails and organised next week's diary; a brief walk along the Jericho part of the Oxford Canal (photo above - showing St Barnabas church and the old boatyard that is under threat of redevelopment). Now, a cup of camomile tea at Caffè Nero before a walk back up the Oxford Canal, following my usual route but in reverse - a treat indeed! Then the tutes in the University's Summertown building.

On Tuesday, I went to a very exciting event on Digital Humanities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_humanities) entitled, Promoting Public Engagement Through Digital Projects in the Humanities. Guest speakers from different departments within the University, spoke about their work and in particular about harnessing public support for projects, either in terms of funding or valuable contributions (crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing).

A well-known (non-Oxford) example of the latter is the Jeremy Bentham website (Transcribe Bentham - http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/transcribe_bentham), that seeks to digitise all of the philosopher's manuscript documents and make them freely available to scholars. Members of the public have been enlisted to transcribe manuscripts a page at a time, under the direction of academic supervisors. Studies of similar initiatives reveal that the benefits to participants are fascinatingly various, ranging from the enjoyment of taking part in the venture to seeing the work as a therapeutic distraction from a life-crisis.

At Oxford, crowd-sourcing led to the creation of an inspirational archive of World War I ephemera which were brought to roadshows and digitised (Great War Archive - http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa). The project has now been extended to Europe.

A digital curator from the Bodleian Libraries talked about getting crowd-funding for a recent project to digitise the Bodleian's Shakespeare first folio (the only extant first folio still in its original binding). See http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk. (The first folio, incidentally, disappeared from the Library's collection in the late 1600s. It reappeared in 1905 but the Library had to pay a great deal to get it back. An oil baron was also interested in the book, which bumped up the price astronomically and the University had to enlist the support of donors through an ad in the Times to acquire it - an earlier instance of crowd-funding!)

Digital Humanities at Oxford (see http://digital.humanities.ox.ac.uk) is a growing part of the University's drive to share its collections and knowledge more widely - an initiative known as Outreach but which is increasingly being referred to as Knowledge Exchange. An area I'm particularly interested in through my work for both the Bodleain Libraries and the Department for Continuing Education (http://www.conted.ox.ac.uk). My online work for the Department has meant that I have helped to bring Oxford courses to students studying around the globe. They participate on a course via its dedicated website or via Skype one-to-one tutorials.

Off for a late lunch at the Hollybush, Witney, later (http://www.hollybushwitney.co.uk).

Monday, 17 February 2014

rain, high winds, 21st fiction from latin america, palabras errantes, weinrebe lecture, edward st aubyn, hermione lee

















It hardly needs saying but this has been another week of atrocious weather - torrential rain with the addition of very high winds on Friday night and Saturday morning. Mercifully, Bampton continues to avoid house flooding, although local farmers are facing heavy losses because their fields have been under water for six weeks - some fields higher up the valley look like old gravel workings and lower down it is as if a dam has been built and a reservoir created.

What it must be like in Somerset and beyond Reading is hard to imagine, nevertheless.

Travel to London on Wednesday was by coach - I'd originally booked train tickets but services between Oxford and Didcot then between Reading and London were severely disrupted. I was heading for a one-day seminar on 21st Century Fiction from Latin America. This was a wonderful, informative and enjoyable event. Well-attended and thoroughly stimulating. Great to see friends too and to meet new colleagues working in the area of Latin American Studies. It's hard to isolate highlights from this event but I was particularly struck by Professor Claire Taylor's talk entitled From Print to Hypertext: Digital Media and New Literary Genres in Latin America in which she emphasised the continuity between born digital works and the rich traditions of Hispanic literary experimentalism. Professor Taylor's presentation was complimented by Edward King's exploration of critical approaches to comics and graphic fiction in Latin America, in which he quoted Professor Jared Gardner of Ohio State University (a quote that seemed to sum up nicely some of the things that are happening in the cultural sphere globally as result of the digital revolution):

'...we are in the  midst of a major sea change in the ways in which our culture represents itself to itself, moving from the traditional, linear, cause-and-effect narrative towards the database (multilayered, non-hierarchical navigable archives.' Archives, Collectors and the New Media Work of Comics, Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (Winter 2006)

I was also delighted to discover the amazing website Palabras Errantes, which was introduced by its editor Cherilyn Elston, a Cambridge University PhD student. The site publishes new work by Latin American authors who are largely unknown to British audiences. Each story is published in an English translation and in the original Spanish. The objectives of Palabras Errantes are explained on the website:

'Palabras Errantes is a collaborative online project that publishes contemporary Latin American literature in translation.  Born in 2011 in Cambridge, England, the project was created with the goal of forging a dialogue between Latin American writers and Anglophone readers interested in getting beyond Borges and Bolaño. To this end, we publish writers who thus far have had little or no exposure in Anglophone literary circles, while serving as a forum for translators interested in Latin American literature.'

Some terrific stories - a website well-worth a visit!

On Thursday evening I walked to Wolfson College for the second of this term's Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe lectures, which took the form of a fascinating discussion between the college's President, Hermione Lee and the novelist Edward St Aubyn. The discussion focused on St Aubyn's five-novel series featuring his fictional alter ego Patrick Melrose. Lee praised St Aubyn's abilities as a mimic - the title of the four Hilary Term Weinrebe lectures is Voicing the Self - and was interested in his decision to write the Patrick Melrose novels in the third person. St Aubyn said that he was attracted to the freedom of the third person and being able to drop into consciousnesses, write multiple points of view and also maintain a sense of distance (from the highly disfunctional family he writes about, presumably). He also discussed his preference for setting the novels in a single place over a short space of time. He felt that in following the classical unities of place and time he created strong structures for each novel, which he needed in order to contain the chaos of emotions. He was in any case drawn to compression - the condensing of many years' worth of experience into a few days. When discussing the autobiographical background of the novels, he revealed that he had never talked about what had happened to him as a child until he was twenty-five, something that had led to strong feelings of isolation. Reading had been almost the most intimate communication he had experienced - though he regretted that since becoming a novelist he read with a 'technical gaze' and could no longer read in a receptive way. He cited as key influences Racine, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady (adding that A level set texts were bound to be influential because that period of one's life was the only time when one spent two years studying the same books). At Oxford (he was at my old college, Keble), he had valued Joyce (who he had written about for the entrance exam), Yeats and Eliot. He praised Beckett's starkness and purity and said that he liked Thomas Pynchon, who had been recommended to him by a friend. (On the subject of Joyce, Lee made an intriguing comparison of a scene in which Patrick Melrose experiences an episode, close to Schizophrenia according to St Aubyn, in which he hears voices and his personality fragments, to the effects found in the Nighttown sequence on Joyce's Ulysses.) However, St Aubyn disagreed with Lee when she suggested that his novels were satires, saying that to him they were tragedies - although their surface did explode into forms such as satire. Lee suggested that a compromise position might be that the novels were tragedies with a comic surface. St Aubyn said that he had been afraid that he would be ostracised by family and friends when the novels came out but on the contrary people had seemed to vie for the honour of being the model for certain characters. He had also received a lot of compassionate support for the true-life suffering he had endured as a child. He said that there were, nevertheless, only three direct portraits in the novel series, while most characters were either combinations of real people or invented (Nicholas Pratt had been an invented character). With a new book coming out shortly, St Aubyn was keen to emphasise that although like many novelists he had started out writing inquiries into his identity, he was not just an autobiographical writer.

St Aubyn proved a very entertaining and congenial interview subject and Lee struck a good balance between insightful questioning and allowing the author to be himself.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

breezy, 2007, ditch clearing, assignments, windows 8, (deer and kite), kerry young, open country, adlestrop, wychwood forest

















It's been a breezy week - with lots of rain, of course.

Thankfully, the village seems safe from flooding. After over two hundred homes flooded here in 2007 a massive programme of ditch clearing and (I assume) stream and river dredging started, which appears to have worked. Water levels rise rapidly when rain is especially heavy but fall quickly too and have so far not reached houses.

More assignment marking this weekend - though for a different course.

This time the assignments have to be marked digitally. It'll be interesting to put Windows 8's Word through its paces. The old laptop gave out a couple of weeks ago and a new one had to be bought. Windows 8 has taken a bit of getting used to but is on the way to becoming second nature now. I love the way you can flick through photos using the desktop pictures app, especially (the laptop's got a touch-screen).

This morning started with a short bike ride and continued with a haircut then a log delivery (very dry, sound wood). Took the photo above just outside Clanfield, one of the neighbouring villages (also very badly affected by flooding in 2007). What the phone camera didn't detect, sadly, were a small herd of deer in the far distance (left-hand side) and a red kite flying directly overhead.

Attended a very energetic and entertaining talk and reading at the Kellogg College Centre for Creative Writing on Thursday evening given by Kerry Young, who was discussing voice in fiction. Her highly successful novels Pao and Gloria (published by Bloomsbury) are written in the Jamaican dialect of her childhood (she left the island when she was ten). She said that she wrote the first of these in standard English to begin with - several drafts were written like this - before the narrative voice came to her when she was revisiting Jamaica. Suddenly she could see how to tell her story in an interesting way. The voice, she said in answer to a question at the end of the talk, came partly from that of her father (who she had lost contact with when she left Jamaica) but also drew on other memories. It was in any case, she added, a simplified Jamaican voice because to write the dialect straight would make it hard for non-Jamaican readers to understand. She also said that the voice was the key to the success of the novels. She made the discovery of the voice and the subsequent flow of the rewriting sound almost mystical experiences. (Something I can readily understand - as I'm sure other writers can too). She had drawn on her father when developing her central character in Pao but she said that the character was nevertheless not her father - he had provided the historical facts which she had then got to work on imaginatively. Again this way of using one's own memories in fiction was something I could relate to. A terrific evening.

Oh and I meant to recommend an amazing, wonderful, brilliant programme I heard on Radio 4 last Saturday morning - Open Country, Adlestrop - in which Helen Mark visited the place where Edward Thomas' poem was set before she explored the north Cotswold countryside nearby. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the fate of the ancient Royal Wychwood Forest that I had always assumed had been destroyed piecemeal over centuries but which was cleared substantially by the Victorians. Apparently there was quite a bit of controversy about the land improvements that led to the felling of the trees at the time. One of the best remnants of the forest can be found in Blenheim park, I believe (or at least that is what I was told years ago).

Now, work.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

ugh! graffiti, downton hallucinations, log fire, assignment marking


















There has been a lot more rain this week. There's also a been a keen wind, which makes the saturated air particularly unpleasant. It's in any case as if you are clothed in damp air and then you're sliced into by jets of cold. Ugh!

Yet there has been some respite. Walking along the canal tow-path in Oxford yesterday morning, the air was warm for a while and I was fooled into thinking that spring was on the way. There were hazel catkins out near the station.

How I hate the damage graffiti does! But how striking some of the images are!

Expression of another kind was thrown into sharp relief this morning as I walked through the churchyard. (Not Bampton churchyard any more but somewhere caught between ancient Bampton and Yorkshire Downton. You half-expect to bump into Lord Grantham. Or at least you do when you have a cold - perhaps it's the Boots day and night remedy.)

No cycling today because of the cold - only the walk to the butcher and Budgens. Then some assignment marking seated close to the log fire. Very much enjoy getting to know my students through their work.