Friday, 5 October 2018

A rag-bag of passing thoughts

This week has been the first on win which we teach: new students and returners get to experience the full horror (or, potentially, delight) of my colleagues and I getting stuck in to new texts or familiar ones creatively defamiliarised. This semester I'm only teaching the second years, on the core Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module and my solo We Are Many: Literature and Protest module. The first Shakespeare lecture involved me introducing the concept of the Renaissance and then us pulling it apart as we discussed the multiple ways in the concept can be constructed and the political and social implications of marking off the past as somehow barbaric and culturally unimportant. It's an old argument but one that still works well. We'll still run a module with Renaissance in the title though! After this week we do The Tempest, Hamlet, Malfi, a collection of sonnets and flytings, then Paradise Lost. It's one of my favourite modules, though I wish it were a year long. Or perhaps two.

The other one is meant to examine literary responses to various social and political movements: not just what gets written about and when, but the cultural tensions inherent in turning events into forms which have their own structural implications – how to fit mass unemployment or hunger marches into the classic bourgeois novel form which privileges individual consciousness and success, for instance. We looked at Gwyn Thomas's 1947 novella The Alone to the Alone this week: GT was a spiky character who used a form of loquacious absurdism ('Chekhov with chips', he called it) to depict the stasis of Welsh valleys unemployment in the 1930s. His central characters, the 'dark philosophers' sit on a wall and observe the trap into which their community has fallen with moral and social sophistication and wit. They know exactly what has happened to them and they respond with the only weapons at their disposal: laughter and scorn.

Next week we'll compare GT's work to Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live: ostensibly orthodox communist socialist realist novels set in a neighbouring community at roughly the same time. These novels struggle with the tension between mass and individual: they have a central protagonist whose experiences are the focal point, despite appearing to be chronicles of the eponymous township. Most critical views see them as interesting failures: too dominated by the novel form (especially the melodrama) to be sufficiently revolutionary for some, too communist for others. I think they're much more sophisticated: that the damaged hero stands as a critique of authoritarianism as much as capitalism. They end in his foreshadowed death in the Spanish Civil War: not heroically, but as the only respite poor harassed Len can get from the contradictions of his existence.

As you can probably tell, teaching is uppermost in my mind at the moment. It's genuinely lovely to see the students, who seem eager and willing to join in. Everything else is terrible: morale, timetabling, rooming, the VLE, but just talking to interesting people about books is wonderful. Other than that, I feel like I've mostly slept and ironed things. I had my second weekend fencing coaches' course – exhaustion set in on the second day and I'm not sure I performed to the best of my abilities when observed, but hopefully I've passed. I discovered a Cory Doctorow novel that actually worked as a piece of fiction, which was quite a turn-up. I taught Little Brother last year but despite their excellent politics, it and several of his others are too authoritarian (to use Susan Suleiman's term) to be bearable. However, For The Win, a YA novel promoting online anarcho-syndicalism for the dispersed proletariat of the tech economy genuinely worked well as a piece of realist fiction (I'm not a big fan of realism, but if you choose that mode, you've got to do it well). You can read it and all his other novels for free on his website, though I've bought paper copies for the same reason I buy music: I want people to make a living from their art, and I like to scribble notes on books. The only other novel I managed to get through this week was John Masefield's The Midnight Folk. I know its sequel, The Box of Delights, inside out but for some reason never got round to this one. (The dated but still wondrous BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights is on YouTube in its entirety. Whether or not you can get through it depends on how much you can stand privately-educated child actors).

As children's literature, they're both top-notch: rollicking adventure, a real sense of wonder, some of the mysticism so often found in Edwardian children's fiction, cracking baddies (in Delights, Miss Pouncer and Abner Brown have a Scrounger, which turns impudent children into dog biscuits) but also – as befits a prominent poet – some really sophisticated narrative techniques and turns of phrases. The narrator's use of free indirect discourse to convey his governess's opinion of young Kay is really beautifully done. Next up is Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, which again I've meant to read many times and never got round to.

Other than that, the cultural highlight of the week was going to see Okkervil River*, as my belated birthday present from my colleagues. A fine night was had by all. I was a bit surprised by how sparsely attended it was, but the band gained my admiration for giving it everything as though it were a packed out stadium gig. I saw the Charlatans do the same once on a wet weekday in Stoke when they weren't at all fashionable, and admired them very much for it. The other things I liked about OR were the tumbling, lyrics spilling out over the tunes, and the way songs started off pretty musically orthodox and then went to very odd places – interesting chord progressions or key changes that were very unexpected. One song was about the lead singer having a tracheotomy and listing all the other actors, singers and public figures who'd had them too. Some challenging rhymes in that one…

* I seem to have a liking for aquatic bands. Also in my collection off the top of my head: Lanterns on the Lake, East River Pipe, State River Widening, Silver Seas and Novak's 'Silver Seas', Hydroplane (a John Peel discovery), John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, Tindersticks' The Something Rain, Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, Bonnie Prince Billy's Pond Scum, Sally Beamish's River, Madder Rose's Swim, Aqua's 'Barbie Girl', Neil Young's 'Down By The River', PJ Harvey's 'Down By The Water', and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Bill Callahan's Dream River, The Pond's album The Pond (they had a song called 'The River')Hannah Peel's The Broken Wave, Songs: Ohia's Didn't It Rain, Morphine's sublime 'Sharks Patrol These Waters', The Stone Roses' 'Waterfall', Eric Whitacre's 'Cloudburst', the chorus to Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's 'Patio Song' ('Mae'n bwrw glaw…'), REM's 'Nightswimming' and 'So. Central Rain', Eliza Carthy's Neptune of course, many many Kate Bush songs like this one, the Broken Family Band's Cold Water Songs, Joni Mitchell's Clouds, Timothy Andres's Fast Flows The River, Backwash by Talulah Gosh, Sea Shanties for Spacemen by Snowpony, Vaughan Williams's 'Full Fathom Five', Jon Boden's Songs From The Floodplain, 'Melt Away' by Galaxie 500, Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man's 'Sand River' (what a lost classic that album is), 'Oily Water' by Blur, Trembling Blue Stars' 'The Rainbow', 'Draining the Pool for You' and 'Spring Rain' by The Go-Betweens of course, Tystion's 'Tryweryn', Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, Sugartown's Slow Flows The River, 'Teardrop' by Massive Attack, Paradise Motel's 'Derwent River Star', Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement, Enya's 'Orinoco Flow', Last Splash by the Breeders obviously and Sparklehorse's 'Rainmaker',  There's only Stornoway's Tales From Terra Firma and PJ's Dry making a stand against liquidity. It must all mean something.

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