Tuesday, 30 August 2016

PV's Culture News

Happy Tuesday to you all. I'm officially on holiday so obviously I'm in the office, avoiding unpacking crates. It's been rather lovely actually: met colleagues to get help launching a literature festival, met an Associate Dean for lunch and talked about books and ideas (he's giving me Ian Jack's collection of essays, I've persuaded him to read Thoreau's Walden, which I can honestly say changed my life). It's been good to see my colleagues as we all gradually move into this shared office, and I've already held a really enjoyable (for me anyway) undergrad dissertation tutorial on the literary history of pirates. I'm really going to enjoy supervising this student, though whether she'll forgive me for making her sit through The Pirates of Penzance remains to be seen.

The other thing I'm doing is going through all the dog-eared bits of newspaper I've torn out over the summer, trying to work out why I kept them and why I wanted to buy those books and that record. At least being away from the web for a few week means that this kind of filtering process is going on, rather than me buying things on a whim immediately. So far this morning I've bought contemporary music: Henri Dutilleux's Cello Concerto, Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness, Emily Howard's Magnetite and Cloud Chamber, and Upheld By Stillness, a collection of Byrd's choral music with contemporary settings on the same disc. This is what happens when you listen to Radio 3 for too long.

Obviously I've been reading too, and not just Edwina Currie novels, though I have three of them on the go at the moment and I'll be discussing those in more depth at some later date (you have been warned). I've whipped through Dan Vyleta's alternative-victoriana novel Smoke fairly quickly: it's compellingly written and has some intriguing ideas but is rather confused by the end.The idea is that for a couple of hundred years people in a deeply authoritarian Britain have literally smoked whenever they sin, broadly defined, and that the ruling classes are those who either develop the self-discipline to minimise their errors, suppress the symptoms, or cheat. Several subversive groups interact, all after different things, until in the end our adolescent heroes decide to allow some terrorists to complete their plan of overdosing the entire country with Smoke to purge the nation through a temporary orgy of violent sin, rather than allow continued moral and political repression. Lots of ideas, large chunks of Victorian literary pastiche, but something felt oddly lacking.

The other book I'm reading at the moment is Christopher Hill's God's Englishman, his 1970 sort-of biography of Oliver Cromwell. It's only a sort-of biography because Hill, as a Marxist, is (rightly) suspicious of the Great Man theory of history and so works hard to contextualise Cromwell as a symptom of prevailing economic and social forces as well as a key figure whose personal characteristics and decisions shaped great events. Hill's very clear on Cromwell's hatred of and brutality towards the Irish, and his increasingly conservative authoritarianism, while admiring his many good instincts and impulses. I don't think it matters too much that it's 46 years old: no doubt new facts about Cromwell and the period have emerged, and obviously there are new theoretical approaches available, but Hill's book is a classic of its time and context.

I've another day in the office, then I'm off to Loughborough for my annual Week in Polyester, working at the School Games. This time I'm on the staff for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Normally I know most of the fencers but I haven't done much refereeing and managing this year so I don't know any of the NI kids. Drawing from a much smaller pool than the other nations means that they usually get a kicking but we'll see what we can do. See you on the other side.

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