I could claim this was a New Feature for the blog, but really it’s just five scraps of unrelated minutiae that anyone with a greater grip on trendy ephemera would stick on tumblr. Just take it as evidence of what a DPhil does to your brain.*
1. Tomorrow my housemate and I are in formal hall for the advent of Ms Vanessa Redgrave. We are on High Table, which may in fact be a sort of children’s High Table due to the numbers booking in. Like a large family wedding. If Brasenose were marrying a famous actress. And Andrew and I were flower girls. In any case: I am very excited about the Vanessa Redgrave events and YOU SHOULD BE TOO. There are FOUR events over the next two days, in Oxford, they are all free and booking is HERE.
2. This is beauty and truth.
I have never seen a hipster who looked like they were capable of either having fun or reading a Sayers novel. I bet a hipster would never go and see Noises Off (I am going on Saturday!).
3. Ian Charleson = my new obsession. Please listen to him singing Guys & Dolls. It’s just audio, no pictures, so you can go and get on with what you’re doing while slowly sinking into dehydration-induced blindness (the blog that keeps on giving).
4. I have just remembered that last night, while very tired but unable to sleep, I wrote and illustrated a four-page children’s book called Josephine And The Marvellous Moustache. It’s about a little girl called Josephine and her moustache, which is marvellous, and possibly sentient, and they go to Paris together and she takes on her moustache on a date to the opera, where she and her facial hair are envied by a collection of poorly-drawn men who ALL resemble W. H. Kendal. Who says you need to be asleep to dream. My God, and to think I could have legally been a parent for the past eight years, now. I’m not fit to look after daffodils. Addendum: when I started this point with “I have just remembered that last night” I BET you didn’t think it would involve sobriety, kid’s lit, and facial hair. I BET.
5. I am off to do some doodling and sleeping. Based on last night’s adventures I can only assume I’m about to create Bearded Narnia.
*I’d appreciate it if everyone who knew me before the DPhil just KEPT QUIET on this one.
For me, this is only an interim step – I want to see gay marriage within the Church of England, during my lifetime. That is, gay couples being married to each other using a recognisably Christian marriage service, inside Anglican churches, by current Anglican priests, then signing marriage certificates and having the option to use marital titles (e.g. husband/wife) if they so choose, with the same religious, social and legal standing as heterosexual couples, without
a) it making the blindest bit of difference whether either or both parties are ordained ministers, priests, or Rowan Williams himself,
b) anyone feeling entitled or obliged to question whether the couple are in a sexual relationship, because it is neither a problem nor anyone else‘s business, or
c) the celebrant, assistant, or clergy in the congregation having to worry about the ramifications for their present and future careers.
This is a long way from what the Diocese of London is asking today. However, I truly believe that the success of this petition would be the first step to achieving everything I’ve described. So, if you sympathise, please sign here.
This is my fifth term as a doctoral student, and a New Year to boot. Thinking about academic goals for the year, I’ve decided I want to spend more time thinking about, and practising public engagement.
Already, there’s a problem. I don’t like the phrase. It’s too jargony, redolent of patronising bussed-in audiences with why your research is a) brilliant and b) beneficial; particularly when the benefit is relevant only as a justification for ongoing funding.
I’m also anxious about the consequences of enforced public engagement for very arcane, specialised, or technical research whose benefits are not instantly explicable or financially clear. It’s important, and (in the Humanities) often difficult to strike a balance between celebrating research with clear “real-world” application, and reducing everything to pound signs or buzzwords. Kat Gupta‘s blogged about the latter issue and Alex Pryce has written several good posts about the kinds of public engagement she does as a poet. I want to keep both models in mind.
However, when it comes to public engagement, I think I’m quite lucky. I do the kinds of research which – for better or worse, mostly just for luck – are easy to discuss outside the academy.
My theme – Shakespeare performance history – is self-explanatory, and benefits from centering on the most famous playwright in the world. My actresses are often still well-known, especially Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, I have the kind of topic that makes people look pleasantly surprised when I answer their enquiries about what, exactly, I am (still) studying at Oxford. Ironically, while Victorian performance remains quite a niche interest within the academy, in the wider world, I believe that female performance history is something with which most people can engage. In my totally unbiased opinion, of course.
Cultural events such as the National Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition, and Michael Holroyd’s prize-winning A Strange Eventful History keep the profession’s past in the public imagination. More broadly, Britain remains a nation obsessed with history. The last three big British films focused on, in succession, the outbreak of World War II, 1970s spy culture, and our first female Prime Minister(this last makes me feel quite ill). Meanwhile, as X Factor passes its expiry date, ITV’s current flagship drama (whether you love it or see it as the fourth opiate of the apocalypse, after Cameron, big jumpers and the Honourable Kirsty)* turned 1920 in the Christmas episode. Although essentially a frothy confection of frocks, plague-as-plot-twist, and some Very Special Trenches, Downton still tries to take its historical responsibilities seriously. This mostly takes the form of Goodness Me It’s 1912, I Bet That Boat Won’t Sink, but still.
Given this enthusiasm for (in roughly descending order) history, scandal and frocks, people can be as interested in nineteenth-century actresses as in their modern successors. I’ve been reading Sexualities In Victorian Britain, edited by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams, a book which points out on the first page that Victorian views of sex (however we reconstruct them) are essential to our own understanding of modern sexuality. Oscar Wilde is practically a one-man creation myth for British male queerness.
Beyond sexuality, I’d argue that Victorianism is formative in almost every area of social life – the nineteenth century and the ideas with which it is associated. Everybody has their own concept of Victorianism, whether conservative (repression, doom, stiff collars, the Tories) or updated (Sherlock, jet jewellery, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians). Dickens is never off our screens, a “new” Wilde play was “discovered” a few months ago, and this winter I watched four Jack The Ripper ghost-walks jostle for space in the square where a victim died.
Enter the actresses. Confections of beauty, multiplicity, celebrity and scandal, they fulfil our contemporary interest (however prurient) in the desirable, the taboo, and the popular all at once.
Today’s culture creates escapism from lavish displays of historical bling: it’s no coincidence that as the recession and cuts really bit, TV tastes switched from soberly-bonneted, sweetly curly Cranford to jet-beads-and-sex-bomb Lady Mary, an Edwardian Scarlett O’Hara in a frankly massive castle. Our fashionable passion has been labelled “retro porn“: with their Worth gowns, their fascinating lovelives, and their sometimes frenziedly emotional performances, Victorian actresses like Langtry, Terry and Bernhardt still satisfy those desires.
At the same time, theperformers I’ve mentioned were skilled businesswomen and consummate professionals. Victorian actresses constitute an essential part of women’s history. After all, in the nineteenth century , acting the only profession in which women could achieve public acclaim, independence and (eventual) respectability without being accused of stealing men’s work. They often earned more than their male counterparts, and were frequently more popular.
Actresses became politically active. In 1899, the International Women’s Congress (held in London) ran a committee on Women in Professions: the chair was the actress Madge Kendal. In 1911, the Actresses’ Franchise League was the most prominent contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession: forty thousand women, marching through London to demand the vote. Their leader was a woman on horseback dressed as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s Victorian heroine who killed herself to escape pregnancy, marital and sexual subjugation.
The best-loved British actress of her day, Ellen Terry, lectured on Shakespeare’s characters to feminist groups including the Leeds suffrage society, modelling female public speaking to emerging feminist activists. Moreover, by focusing attention on Shakespeare’s heroines in her lectures and autobiography – as other actresses did in letters, memoranda and memoirs – Terry began to redress the balance that emphasised male characters, and male performance, in criticism. Above all, as female professionals, Victorian actresses’ negotiations of workplace harassment, misogynist smears, and the conflict between job and family make them relevant models for working women today.
Finally, a thesis is never just one thing. God knows I have even more problems with the phrase “transferrable skills” than I do with “public engagement” (see also “competencies”, “directional work”, “impact” and, recently, “bleeding the radiator” for Words I Don’t Like), but I’m realising that there are numerous aspects of my research with which I can engage people. Because I am a research student, I do genealogy; I work with databases; I source permissions for artwork; I balance freelance research commitments with my own thesis; I teach (with all the mentoring/interpersonal/professional development issues implied); I’m a member of an union; I’m self-employed and I know a lot of really odd facts about such fascinating topics as Dracula, circumcision, whether smoking gives women facial hair, Judy Garland’s coffin handles, fur, infanticide, tuberculosis, where to see a lot of pickled foetuses, and murder. Some of these are skills or experiences I could share [NB: I am not a murderer or a mohel]; the arcane topics are at least new points of contact between my weird interests and those of the outside world. I’ve got lots of starting points for public engagement – but it’s time to make more concrete plans. Hopefully, as I formulate and act on my ideas, I’ll be able to share them here.
I think I’m lucky to get to write & read & think about all of the above. At bottom, I also think that receiving public money gives me the obligation to try and share the benefits with the public. There you go – a moral imperative. How very Victorian.
*I would like to make it clear that I am a big fan of the Hon. Kirsty (also the delectable Phil), am currently enjoying a box set of the 1980 Nancy Mitford mini-series, own a splendid tetris-like jumper and am, to quote Bloomfield (2011), “the sort of gel who likes the Pre-Raphaelites”.
Just stopping by to express my delight that, today, Oxford passed a vote of no confidence in the universities and science Minister, David Willetts. The majority was 283-5. I am so proud of the “dons’ parliament”.
Once again, I’d like to know why anti-rape advice focuses on women changing their behaviour, not men. I’m not saying that “don’t walk alone at night in unsafe places” isn’t advice that might stop SOME women being raped.
But if that advice is given – from schools up – I want it to be followed by the spoken phrase “because some men are absolute sick bastards”, not the unspoken “because if you do, you deserve it”.
Best way to stop women being raped by men? MEN: DON’T RAPE WOMEN. If men STOP RAPING WOMEN, there will be no women BEING RAPED BY MEN. Essentially, women are raped because SOME MEN CHOOSE TO RAPE THEM. Not because of short skirts or routes home.
We have to be careful what we wear and where we go, not because there’s anything inherently or morally wrong with certain clothes or certain addresses, for god’s sake. We have to be careful because of some men being rapists. PLENTY OF MEN are not. However, NO WOMEN deserve to be raped.
Again, MEN: DON’T RAPE WOMEN. The best and indeed ONLY piece of anti-rape advice which, IF FOLLOWED, is GUARANTEED to reduce rape-against-women figures to almost nothing. INDEED, following this advice makes a dramatic drop in rape figures LITERALLY INEVITABLE.
I’ve followed the Arts Council England cuts today with deep sadness and anger. Our society – not the Big Society, but the place(s) we really live – is under threat, and in this time of economic attack from our coalition overlords, the arts’ position is especially contested. There are lots of issues here, most of which I don’t feel qualified to speak on, but I did want to discuss the following.
The myth of the press officer class
Quentin Letts scoffed at the sufferings of what he calls the “press officer class”, i.e. those in arts admin (some of which could, perhaps, be more accurately known as arts bureaucracy). I have no animus against arts administrators whatsoever, and I hope that as few administrative roles as possible are lost. But what I hate most about Letts’s argument is the way it elides all the other people who work in the arts. At least if you’re an administrator or other office-based professional, you have transferrable skills! God knows there are few enough administrative and management posts available at the moment, and it’s appalling when people have to take skills and wage cuts, but for many people in theatre, that kind of transition just won’t be possible. If you’ve spent twenty years as a followspot operator, how many other roles can you step into? Stage carpenters are stage carpenters. A career in automation (formerly known as “flying”) doesn’t allow you to move between different kinds of organisation in the same way as a background in development or HR. These technicians are also incredibly skilled professionals. What will happen to them?
Creatives, technicians, and artisans don’t have the same prominence or vocality in the anti-cuts movement as doctors and teachers, and for good reason. But there’s a new body of workers who’ll be badly affected by these cuts, and Letts’s argument ignores them completely.
Audiences and young people: a manifesto
I am lucky: I’ve seen a lot of theatre because my parents were willing and able to make theatregoing a priority throughout my life. I also had inspired, discriminating and proactive teachers. A few weeks ago, the RSC (who have themselves taken a 15% hit) opened a Facebook discussion on why it was so important for young people to see theatre. I’d like to say that theatre is important because not only because it enriches our cultural lives, our imaginations and our intellects along with the rest of the arts, but also because it builds tribes, encourages acceptance, and creates communities with dignity. When a young person becomes involved with theatre, in any capacity, it changes how they see themselves, and how they see the world. Theatre prioritises the development of physical, mental and emotional stamina, of confidence, of self-worth and the capacity to take risks. Theatre offers to chance to step into a different kind of life, where people are valued in new ways, and where personal and professional relationships are based on immediacy, intimacy and trust. Unlike almost everything else in popular entertainment, theatre demands that people come together in the same room and listen to each other. Theatre demands that audience and performers treat each other with respect and generosity. When you make theatre, you have the unbelievable privilege of making your thoughts come alive around you, of creating a private world that then becomes gloriously, unbelievably public. Around the world, wherever there have been struggles for freedom, dignity and equality, theatre has been there somewhere. The defining figure in British culture, for better or worse, is not a statesman, a musician, a sportsman or a surgeon, but a playwright. On personal level, theatre has, again and again, created and changed the course of my life. When you take theatre – performance, stagecraft, design, text, activism – away from young people, you are denying them the chance to be the best they can be.
Warwick Arts Centre, responsible for all the experimental theatre I saw before uni, loses 11%. The Royal Shakespeare Company loses 15%. I love the RSC beyond all reason and am partisan to the point of incoherence in its favour, so I find this… painful. I have faith that they can take it, nevertheless.
Whichever way you look at it, the Midlands has suffered horribly today: we’ll feel the repercussions for years. It’s not just the arts, of course – I heard today (from my mother, who taught me feminism and liberalism and exactly why you never ever vote Tory – I only wish everyone else’s mothers had done the same) about some of the other services being axed in the West Midlands. Dudley Council closes Meals on Wheels next week, meaning that 120 Stourbridge pensioners will no longer receive a cooked meal each day (total saving: £32,000). The voluntary organisation Birmingham Tribunal, which provides a free welfare benefits legal advice for the city, is also shutting soon. But it’s another, depressing, regressive nail in the UK’s coffin, helping to push our society and its citizens further into unemployment and suffering. Forget the cultural value if you can, or even if it doesn’t matter to you: so many jobs and families will be threatened by these cuts. Even if you think the arts are elitist (although how anyone could think Clean Break, the theatre company working with women in prisons, is elitist… they’re taking an 11% cut), recognise that this is yet another sector in which workers are being threatened.
I have no answers. I urge everyone who can to focus on supporting their local arts organisations and services, and to keep voicing their displeasure. I offer my deepest sympathies to all the organisations mentioned in this post, and indeed to all who’ve been adversely affected by the decisions today. If anyone reading this is affiliated with an organisation attempting an appeal or looking for fundraising in the light of the Arts Council’s choices, please comment: I’d be delighted to add your links to this post.
This was posted on facebook, and linked by a fellow Orielensis, Richard Jones. It’s both comprehensive and lucid (unlike some of the TV reports, which I’ve been struggling to follow). The author is Paul Atkinson (seen left). I hope it offers information and reassurance; I’d also be interested to hear alternative views.
I have just returned from a conference call held at the British Embassy in Tokyo. The call was concerning the nuclear issue in Japan. The chief spokesman was Sir. John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, and he was joined by a number of qualified nuclear experts based in the UK. Their assessment of the current situation in Japan is as follows:
* In case of a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ (defined as total meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid affecting peoples’ health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.
* The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the above scenario.
* The bottom line is that these experts do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels affecting pregnant women and children – for normal adults the levels would need to be much higher still).
* The experts do not consider the wind direction to be material. They say Tokyo is too far away to be materially affected.
* If the pouring of water can be maintained the situation should be much improved after ten days, as the reactors’ cores cool down.
* Information being provided by Japanese authorities is being independently monitored by a number of organizations and is deemed to be accurate, as far as measures of radioactivity levels are concerned.
* This is a very different situation from Chernobyl, where the reactor went into meltdown and the encasement, which exploded, was left to burn for weeks without any control. Even with Chernobyl, an exclusion zone of 30 miles would have been adequate to protect human health. The problem was that most people became sick from eating contaminated food, crops, milk and water in the region for years afterward, as no attempt was made to measure radioactivity levels in the food supply at that time or warn people of the dangers. The secrecy over the Chernobyl explosion is in contrast to the very public coverage of the Fukushima crisis.
* The Head of the British School asked if the school should remain closed. The answer was there is no need to close the school due to fears of radiation. There may well be other reasons – structural damage or possible new quakes – but the radiation fear is not supported by scientific measures, even for children.
* Regarding Iodine supplementation, the experts said this was only necessary for those who had inhaled quantities of radiation (those in the exclusion zone or workers on the site) or through consumption of contaminated food/water supplies. Long term consumption of iodine is, in any case, not healthy.
The discussion was surprisingly frank and to the point. The conclusion of the experts is that the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent aftershocks, was much more of an issue than the fear of radiation sickness from the nuclear plants.