Friday, 17 April 2015

The new old weird: The Duke of Burgundy

Rather than watch the Leaders' Debate Minus Cameron and Clegg last night, I went to see The Duke of Burgundy.

One of the central protagonists is played by the star of Borgen, which was enough for me. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. By the end, I wasn't sure what I'd seen. It was like going back to the early 90s and seeing a Jarman or Greenaway film for the first time. Plot: minimal. Car chases: none. Resolution: minimal. Not even a gunfight on a train roof, for crying out loud.

The trailer makes it more action-packed and saucy than it really is. The film follows the relationship between two women, one of whom wishes to be dominated in increasingly bizarre ways (one-handed viewers may be disappointed to learn that virtually none of this is portrayed visually).

The other character, Cynthia (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) is increasingly uncomfortable in the role, complaining that she prefers her comfortable pyjamas to the corsetry provided by her partner, which needs 'an instruction manual'.

All this is played out amidst the faded grandeur of Empire-era Hungary (interior design fans will find the film far more exciting than those looking for a bit of girl-on-girl): it's autumn, the leaves are falling on the stonework, the sun is low and intense. The protagonists are entomologists attached to an Institute, though the way lecture attendance is boosted by mannequins hints at a degree of performativity. Every single entomologist is female and the sexual tension between them crackles: the claustrophobic, out-of-time atmosphere is redolent of Alan Moore's deliberately transgressive Lost Girls. I did wonder about the politics of an all-female cast but a male author-director.

The entomology stuff provides the symbolic backbone of the film: butterflies are everywhere, used to represent the life-cycle of the relationship, of aging, of mortality, of sexual pleasure and sexual pain.

The film is deeply repetitive: the same scenes play out again and again, though our understanding of them changes each time. We don't know whether we're seeing the start, middle or end of a relationship, nor do we know whether they achieve happiness (or whether it matters). The music too is claustrophobic: bits of post-rock mixed with the faux-innocence of St. Etienne or Belle and Sebastian gone wrong - if ever a film cried out for a hauntological reading, it's The Duke of Burgundy.

Sometimes my colleagues and I contemplate starting a scheme whereby students are encouraged (compelled?) to experience cultural forms that they've never been exposed to - without assessment or context, just purely experience. This might be the first candidate. It's visually and aurally ravishing, while remaining elusive: linear and reductive meanings are refused, while multiple interpretations seem to be encouraged.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Ed Balls!

Ed Balls was in town just now, catching a tram. It was – like all contemporary political events – a non-event, but still enjoyable.

He has very blue eyes.

I'm not sure why the spin-doctors are advising Labour campaigners to dress like Mormons these days. Perhaps they're more welcome on people's door steps than politicians these days.

Cracking Allegory, Gromit!

One of the Tory attack lines on Ed Miliband is that he's a geek, or a nerd (as though these debased terms were somehow insulting). He looks a bit funny they say, so obviously is incapable of understanding the PSBR or negotiating trade deals. It's got to the point where EM makes self-deprecating jokes about looking like Wallace of & Gromit fame.

Victor Quartermain
I like him, and the reference. I'm far more leftwing than Miliband, but he seems like a decent and humane man with a set of principles that have endured throughout his political career. As for Wallace: he's a decent and humane man with a set of principles and a dog which have endured throughout etc. etc. And let's not forget that in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the violent bullying of a gun-toting, arrogant aristocrat goads Wallace's transformation into a powerful, angry beast who lays waste to all around him before living happily ever after. Having lied to and treated with contempt the locals, Victor is driven out of public life.

I wonder if there's a political fable relating to the current election campaign available in that somehow?

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What I did on my holidays…

This year, I co-organised the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference alongside Prof Diana Wallace of the University of South Wales, with the theme The Country and the City  With Raymond Williams in mind, and recognising challenging new work by urban and post-bucolic authors such as Rachel Tresize and Niall Griffiths, the conference tried to explore themes such as green deserts, the countryside as crime scene, urban Welsh-language culture and much more besides. As usual, we held it at Gregynog, a sprawling and (shall we say 'authentic'?) Victorian stately home (you can't drink the water thanks to the historic lead pipes, but that means you don't have to shave: just splash on some tap water and hey presto! instant depilation) in the rolling hills of Powys. It's a beautiful place, festooned with quality art and surrounded by woods, formal gardens and wildlife. For someone trapped in the mean streets, it's hard to sleep what with the incessant racket of owls, woodpeckers, wrens, buzzards, herons, pheasants and new-born lambs. There's absolutely no mobile coverage, so the only tweeting is of the avian variety, while the wi-fi is much like David Cameron's religious belief (no, not 'conveniently present only in front of conducive audiences'). It's hell being an academic, I tell you. 

Lucky Bryn Jones
Daffodils at Gregynog

Keynote speakers were Prof Helen Fulton from Bristol University who traced Arthurian myths about Carleon from Geoffrey of Monmouth  to the contemporary era; Dinah Jones whose mixed-media Welsh-language documentary on controversial author Caradoc Evans is broadcast on S4C on April 12th, playwright and film director Ed Thomas (whose Ceredigion crime drama was made twice, in Welsh as Y Gwyll and Hinterland in English with critical and financial success) and Christopher Meredith  whose poems and novels often explore than porous borders between urban and rural, Welsh and English, prose and poetry. 

Christopher Meredith
Ed Thomas
I recorded short interviews with Ed and Chris, which are well worth watching: they aren't just funny, they're wise and loquacious too. 

With speakers from as far afield as Wolverhampton, Brazil (Ugo Rivetti) and Japan (Prof Yasuo Kawabata, who recently re-translated Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Dr Shintaro Kawabata), the 27th AWWE conference lived up to its reputation as a cutting-edge, ambitious event which manages to attract renowned scholars (such as Sally Roberts Jones  who published her first poem in 1952 and read new work on the first night before closing the conference with a superbly provocative paper on the contested definitions of Welsh Writing in English: ‘a bloodsport’ as she put it) while giving new scholars a chance to establish themselves. Aberystwyth student Jamie Harris (a Wolverhampton Grammar School alumnus) won the M Wynn Thomas Prize for new scholars for his article on Iain Sinclair as a Welsh author, while eighteenth-century specialist Heather Williams of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies won the Open category for her bravura article on Iolo Morgannwg from the perspective of Translation Studies. 

Sally Roberts Jones: 'here's a poem I wrote in this room in 1961'

As a competition judge I can honestly say that the field is in for exciting times, and it’s great to see the border between Wales’s English and Welsh-language cultures and scholarly communities becoming a little more porous: Rhiannon Heledd Williams (who is USW's entire Welsh department) was particularly good on this. You can see them in conversation with me these short videos:

Alongside fascinating presentations (I came away with a massive reading list), we hosted a wine reception sponsored by Honno Books  the last independent women’s press, to mark the publication of Lily Tobias’s My Mother’s House and Jasmine Donahaye’s biography of the author: Jasmine’s speech was impassioned and inspiring on the need to restore not just Tobias’s prominence, but that of other female authors excluded from the major publishing series of our time (42 books so far, 7 by women: pathetic). 

Sally Roberts Jones and Jane Aaron listen to Jasmine Donahaye's passionate speech
The panel on Caradoc Evans also produced fireworks as M Wynn Thomas pronounced him ‘a writer of genius…narrow genius’ while author and academic Mary-Ann Constantine talked candidly about how he struggled to read his work which she found alienating as well as compelling. The Welsh Books Council provided a bookshop, which did no good at all for my bank balance, and the convivial atmosphere gained even more energy from the presence of a lively school prom in the building on the first night… Nobody told me that until I turned up, which was a bit naughty. I announced it to the assembled scholars by pointing out that it would of course be entirely unethical to press prospectuses on drunken sixth-formers who may not finished filling in their UCAS forms…

I couldn't possibly list all the excellent presenters and the work they discussed. I went to several covering the works I did on my PhD and learned so much, while others gave me loads of ideas for future work. I can tell you that I'm going to have to spend the rest of what might be laughingly called my career stamping on the fingers of the bright young things clambering up the academic ladder behind me: they are ridiculously bright and seem to have read everything (often in two languages despite being barely out of school. God how I fear the young. 

AWWE: a window on the world
A Gregynog ceiling
I had to miss a lot of sessions because we had to run parallel panels for the whole conference, but when the wifi worked, Twitter was telling me good things. I'm running @plashingvole and @awwetweets. It's a nightmare trying to separate bitter nasty Vole from thoughtful intellectual AWWE, just like real life (see all the tweets Storified here by @dyddgu and see the rest of my photos here). I can quite understand Grant Shapps's problems with his multiple identities (have you seen his Newsnight car crash? And to think he's a senior figure in one of the world's oldest and most successful political parties). 
I can thoroughly recommend organising a conference (or attending one). It takes a lot of work and organising academics is like herding cats but when you can gather together the brightest minds of a generation or two, sparks fly, ideas are refined, new books are imagined and new directions are identified. Talking of which, the British Comparative Literature Association’s 2016 conference will be held at The Dark Place. Get writing.

Before I say anything else: lots of people made AWWE happen. Diana is a genius at putting the right people and subjects together, and nothing disturbed her preternatural calm. Sarah Morse of the Learned Society of Wales knows everybody, looks after the money and knows the exact location of all the bodies. Matt Jarvis and Kirsti Bohata keep the society going in so many ways. The senior professors who founded the association lend gravitas, provide institutional memory and continuity, foster new talent and are so very kind to all: the new scholars provide fresh blood while making the after-hours sessions in the bar unforgettable. I've learned more about honey-badgers and obscure PS1 games than I ever thought possible. It was also great to meet one new scholar who lives near me, one who used to live on my street, and lots of Twitter friends in the flesh (sorry for the face and personality everybody, I'm much better online). The Gregynog staff are unfailingly patient and kind too. In comparison, all I did was maintain a couple of spreadsheets. 

As for me: a few days off. Then it's on with the work. Our Star Trek, Who and Foucault has been accepted for a journal as long as we shorten it (bah), we're awaiting the full feedback on a chapter I co-wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Fiction but the word is good, I've got to write a conference paper on Caradoc Evans and Brinsley MacNamara for July, and I've two more joint papers to write with a couple of very esteemed academics in the cultural studies and critical management fields respectively, so I'd better sharpen the crayons. And of course there's the Politicians' Fictions event I'll be doing at the Cheltenham Festival in October (the Irish family were most disappointed that it's not the same thing as the horse-racing event). Working title currently 'Legs and Legislation: Politicians' Fictions and the Crisis of Democracy', given the preponderance of stockings-and-high-heels combinations on the dustjackets. 

Happy Eostre to you all. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Random shots from the V&A

Having missed out on the school trip to the Coronation Street studios on Monday, I accompanied some Cultural Studies students to the Hayward Gallery and the V&A yesterday. At the Hayward we saw the History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain exhibition, which was probably the first time many of my students have experienced conceptual art. Some raced through and nipped off to McDonald's, some were transfixed, others were confused (which is a perfectly fair reaction). I was intrigued, though slightly disappointed that some ethnic minority cultures and general leisure activities weren't included by the artists. (Also, one of the joys of a trip to London with students is seeing it through their eyes: this time the massive economic gap was obvious. I don't think they'd seen so many Rolls Royces and similar limos in their lives).

Then we went to the V&A for the Staying Power exhibition of black photographers' work. Small, but stunning, and much more accessible to the students than the more conceptual work. I took a few random photos.

Yinka Shonibare's photographic set echoing The Rake's Progress with a black protagonist

'In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo

And talking of Michelangelo… (from the Cast Room)

Netsuke of a badger wrapped in a lotus leaf

Detail from an Eastern tile

Shiva Stamping on the Dwarf of Ignorance (my favourite for the new university logo)

A propitious cow

Monday, 23 March 2015

She's got a little list

Until surprisingly recently, Room 105 at the BBC harboured an ex-military chap who would stamp job applications and personnel file with an upside-down Christmas tree. This denoted non-chaps: ladies and gentlemen whose opinions were entirely legal yet considered rather infra dig

This is the way the British establishment does it: determines who deserves freedom of speech and who doesn't. Officially, unpleasant thoughts are perfectly legal. Unpleasant actions, however, are not. You can harbour paedophilic or extremist thoughts to your heart's content, as long as you don't act on them.

In practice, anyone suspected of Thought Crime will find themselves on a list. Today the Home Secretary announced that she has started an Enemies List.
A Home Office blacklist of extremist individuals and organisations with whom the government and public sector should not engage is being drawn up, Theresa May has revealed. 
The list of legal but unacceptable organisations is being compiled by a new Home Office “extremism analysis unit”, which is also to develop a counter-entryism strategy to tackle Islamist radicalisation and ensure there is no repeat of the Trojan horse affair in Birmingham schools across the public sector.
 Apart from being sinister, this seems rather stupid. If any of these perfectly law-abiding organisations do start to cross the line, we won't know anything about it.

This stuff isn't new: here's an excerpt from 1885's The Mikado (slightly updated, as is traditional)

and here's Eric Idle's version:

The basic question is this: who's an extremist? Followed by this: who decides? My answer's very simple: the courts decide, not little committees out of sight. If you've committed an offence, you get what's coming to you. If you haven't, you get the same rights as everybody else. Once we add a third category of People We Think Are A Bit Rum But Can't Quite Pin Anything On, we're all in trouble.

Meet the literati

What a spectacular weekend. A long and very hilly bike ride to blow away some cobwebs (and ligaments), and three astonishing rugby matches after which the result went the right way. If only Stoke City had managed the same thing…

The highlight of the weekend though was going to a proper posh book launch. The book is The A to Z of You and Me and its author is James Hannah, a man who combines intellect, emotional depth, serious engagement with ideas and (this is the annoying bit) being a fully rounded human being. In such circumstances I feel like Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, who having been made accidentally immortal, discovers that the natural immortals are a 'load of serene bastards' who annoy him intensely.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that you should all buy James's book. And then his next one, whenever that's due. The launch was lovely: held in the gorgeous Wenlock Books (whose owners sung a hymn of praise about one of my students, which was lovely) and presided over by Christine, James's wife and eminence grise (and her dad). There were several other authors present, so I had to buy their books, plus the combination of wine and endless shelves of books meant that I came home with a bulging sack of treats, such as the 1954 collection of Times Leader articles, a battered but beautiful 1938 edition of Sacheverell Sitwell's Gothick North trilogy and lots of others besides. Though obviously I'll read James's novel first.

James also signed my copy of his novel. Declining to dedicate to 'EBay, with love', he recalled that Eimear McBride signed my A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing like this:

and entered a dialogue with her:

which is utterly thrilling.

I took some photographs. Apologies for the quality: the entire bookshop was lit beautifully but dimly by a standard lamp and perhaps some starlight. ISO2000 and very slow shutter speeds required.

James Hannah, author

James read a section called 'Feet'. So this shot felt appropriate.