Britgrad 2011 and a summer of conferences…

On Sunday, I returned to Oxford from the Britgrad 2011 conference, where I was part of the Victorian Theatre Practices panel with the fragrant Jem Bloomfield.

KENDAL 4 LIFE. Or similar.

Jem was talking about mid- and late-Victorian productions of The Duchess of Malfi, while my paper was entitled ‘”Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind”: Madge Kendal and Victorian Shakespeare”. The conference organisers charitably having given us a panel in which to get REALLY EXCITED to the bemusement – and, thankfully, amusement – of our colleagues, we waved our arms and talked actresses to our hearts’ content.

A large proportion of the delegates at our panel had strong interests in performance; sometimes both as scholars and practitioners. I’d hoped one of the main points of my paper – that our current theatrical historiography is problematic in its accommodations for women, as evinced by Madge Kendal, acclaimed and central Victorian actress, falling through the gaps of history – might be disproved by someone bouncing up to say they, too, are a ridiculous enthusiast/horrified onlooker at the fireworks of her life. But no. While this does tell me I’m probably on the right track (conference full of excitable Shakespeare postgrads = not a flicker of recognition, but much interest), it’s such a shame!

Overall, a productive three days. Having swotted up on posts from (all I really need to know, I learn from) Thesis Whisperer, I made myself ask questions at most panels. I usually struggle to think of them (and am slightly allergic to Q&As as it is), but found that if I went in determined to ask, it made me a more proactive listener and I ended up with genuine queries. So hurrah for that. My only Britgrad regret is that there was a girl in my panel who asked a really fascinating question about Victorian theatrical fan literatures. I’d hoped we’d get more of a chance to talk afterwards (Victorian fan literatures are honestly one of the most exciting, and weirdest, things on God’s earth), but sadly I didn’t see her again.

My conference schedule for the rest of the summer is ridiculously busy. Should you have an inexplicable yen to see a short girl in glasses talk about Victorian actresses, you can catch me at any of the following:

10 June 2011: Oxford English Graduate Conference, University of Oxford: “The Famed and the Forgotten”.

7-9 July 2011: Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster, The Storey, Lancaster: “Politics, performance and popular culture in nineteenth century Britain”.

18-19 July 2011: Victorian Popular Fiction Association Conference, University of London: “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Popular Culture”.

If you’re attending any of these events, please let me know! It’d be great to make some new conference-friends beforehand…

PRS to DPhil: the transfer viva

Passed my transfer! Slowly reappearing from my little pre-viva wormhole.

For those sufficiently blessed not to know, Oxford’s English students, on beginning their DPhil degrees, are actually known as Probationary Research Students. This is a terrible term, leading one to expect a clap on the shoulder at any time and/or immediate eviction from the EFL.

Whereas most of the Humanities degrees seem to allow you to “transfer” to DPhil status at any time up until your sixth term (end of second year), English wants you through by your third term. You submit 10,000 words and a thesis outline at the start of May, then have a viva a couple of weeks later. My lovely supervisor insisted it wasn’t a viva, it was an interview, which would have been more calming if she hadn’t been the only person saying that.

I’ve been thinking about how much of an academic’s job seems to consist of listening to students angst on, then refuse to take ANY of your advice until you’ve said it three times. This fairly obvious comparison struck me after I turned up in my supervisor’s office to find a poor finalist undergrad in a state of near-collapse about the impossibility of finals, her certain self-destruction, the sure knowledge that all other examiners/markers/tutors were Out To Get Her. My supervisor explained why all of that wasn’t true, and how she wasn’t going to fail, and how her work was good. My supervisor is currently “on sabbatical” and finishing a book. Yet, here she was in office hours, peeling this student, of whom she is both fond and supportive, off the ceiling. Eventually the student felt reassured and left to catch a train. My supervisor shut the door behind said student and then, to my immense guilt, had to repeat virtually the same pep talk to me.

Then both my supervisors had to do the same thing yet again, a couple of weeks later. Like our very first three-way conversation about transfer, my contributions  contained more myths and dark rumours about the process than an Oxbridge admissions thread. For example.

Actually, the whole thing was all right. Bloody frightening, not least because it was 1) at St Anne’s, approximately 45921 miles away, 2) on the day of a Biblical food, drenching steeples, drowning clocks and turning my tights into a wetsuit, but basically all right. My assessor’s office contained a great deal of fabulously theatrical furniture, and one nervous postgrad trying not to leave a rainfall-tidemark on any of it.

As a Victorian and former women’s college, St Anne’s consists equally of terrifying glass buildings, replicas of the New Bod, and hushed Victorian terraces made up of piano practice and bequeathed watercolours. They also have charming porters and excellent toilets. I attempted to dry myself in a succession of handdryers.

By the time I got into the room, my nerves were such that several of the questions no longer seemed to be in English, and although apparently they told me I was through at the start of the interview, all I remember is a wash of relief at “the chapter was good” which arguably blocked any further sound.

One of my assessors suggested I look much more at Elizabeth Robbins. I promised to do so (would have promised anything, but Robbins is so obviously the missing link that I wanted to hit myself on the forehead), said some dubious things about Bernhardt, and got a couple of dates wrong. I frequently failed to understand what I was being asked, and also couldn’t remember anything much about Lillie Langtry. Whoops.

Otherwise, I think it was all right. I did spend far too long talking about the fragant Jem Bloomfield, my co-presenter at Britgrad 2011. I don’t know. Then I walked home and changed my tights and went out for curry and slept the sleep of the inexplicably zombified.

Now, I just have to wait for Committee to meet and (touch wood) make it official. My supervisors are recommending me for transfer, and since my assessors are also recommending I go through, everything should be fine.. I don’t think there are any rogue elements left! I don’t understand why everyone can’t find out at interview – some assessors deliberately give no indication, and from what I can gather from past years, that doesn’t seem to affect the final outcome. I’m so grateful to know already.

Finally, I want to congratulate Brrnrrd and Betty Swallow on finishing English finals – both are amazing and full of present & future glory.  My friend Kate has today become Dr. Kate, and another friend, Claire, is officially 100 days from thesis submission. It’s beginning to look a lot like progress, at least in Central Oxford.

There will be feasting, and dancing/In Jerusalem next year

It’s the start of a new decade. The next time that happens, I’ll be 32. Predictably, this induces feelings of nausea and flashbacks to that scene in Friends where Monica’s mother tells her it’s time to start wearing night cream (is it? Is it? Does it matter that those unmistakable lines on my forehead are covered by my fringe? Why do I have crow’s feet, but only on one side?). Standing about in my friend’s living room last night, our little group having rather self-consciously switched over from Jools Holland to toast the New Year with cut glasses and the BBC1 fireworks (which in itself begs the question: why am I worried about getting old), someone voiced the opinion that this next decade would be the most important and definitive of our lives.

This shouldn’t be startling. I’m 22 now; obviously, a lot’s happened to me since 2000 (cf. puberty, university, being sick in a field in front of someone I fancied), but it’s in your twenties that the Big Things are meant to happen. The Goals, and the Life Plan, and, honestly, as I type this, my palms have started to sweat. The glittering career part: absolutely. ASAP. Bring on the advancement and a job that doesn’t pay by the hour. It’s after that things start to get fuzzy.

Theoretically, I want to own my own house and pay into a pension and know about wine and dinner parties. At some point. In a distant and possibly parallel universe where I like cooking other than in a wok, and have learned to walk in high heels. Equally, I theoretically want children – as do my friends – but when another friend pointed out that this is the decade in which some of us will start buying/bartering/squirting them out of our bodies, we all started squinting suspiciously at each other. As if what Jack had actually said was, “this is the decade in which someone here will both contract and spread a disgusting, embarrassing disease. Or commit a murder.”

Seeing that his sprogged-up-for-2010 announcement had gone badly, the same friend (whose car bumper is currently held on by gaffer tape, suggesting that for him, adulthood won’t arrive any time soon) tried a different tack. “Or maybe,” he philosophised, “the most significant and definitive decade of our lives was the one that’s just gone.”

Yeah. There was twitching. Faces whitened and eyes bulged as all of us considered key memories of acne, school discos, life crises and A Levels as templates for the next sixty years. Over in the prat corner, Mr Philosophy (who in his own words, ‘only met girls in 2007’) seemed to be choking.

2009 had it in for us. More war and less lucre than ever, deaths that ranged from the tragic to the tragically bizarre, and the only real news-humour derived from finding not just that your MP claimed for a moated duckhouse with a shelf for garlic peelers, but that the great, almighty System condoned this. On a personal level, there were only one or two parts of the year I really, really didn’t enjoy, but last night I definitely shared the collective wish to shuffle 2009 out the door, into a Ford Transit and send it, bag on head, to an unmarked grave in Epping Forest. Sure, we inaugurated Barack Obama, but that was just a star-spangled hangover from November, back when the world was full of possibility. In fact, 2009 gave us Alfie Patten, the world’s youngest cuckold, and Susan Boyle who, poor woman, promptly went mad.

I may sound full of gloom. But 2009 was not a defining year for me (I swear I haven’t bought one of those Affirmations tapes), and I am more excited about this New Year than I have ever been before. I have made lists. I have resolutions. My first list fell victim to my tendency to let papers accumulate in my bed til they fall down the side of them, but that at least provides fodder for resolution no. five thousand sixty four and whatever. Crucially, I also have a gorgeous RED Moleskine diary in which to write them (the resolutions. And possibly also important things like dates, appointments, birthdays &c). Last night, arriving home with feet joyfully crippled and a lifetime’s supply of mascara, I used said diary to scrawl the following: “This is going to be the decade of clean-living, of direction, of success, of independence and maturity. ” I was completely sloshed, but greatly admire the sentiment.

All in all, things are looking good. My current job (which I have, overall, enjoyed) finishes in a couple of weeks; I have an exciting internship in the Spring, some great pupils for tutoring and several putative DPhil apps that might translate into places if only the funding mumble, mumble

There’s also the possibility of an interesting project with the National Library of Wales, singing in Birmingham Symphony Hall, and, throughout, the opportunity to improve my skillsets in the fields of begging letters, CVs, blagging and hype.

Anyway. Life is always good when you have people who love you and a The Thick of It DVD. I’m off to acquire the latter. Happy New Year.


(I cannot tell a lie: one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to start blogging, again, properly. Many thanks to the people who emailed and prodded and Facebooked and kicked.)

Les Halles, Saint-Eustache and kitten biscuits

We are in Paris, having survived the tender mercies of Eurostar’s ‘special assistance’ (v kind, v helpful, v unpleasant experience of being a kind of disability Prince Phillip), a terrifying cab driver (who, I am sure, called us ‘whores’ all the way to 1st), our equally terrifying German landlord, and the deathspiral that is our building’s staircase.

You reach Eglise Saint-Eustache via Les Halles, which on Sundays is a kind of big abandoned Disneyland, all shiny concrete steps and cheerfully hairy hedges. There’s a huge central avenue which, on entrance, I managed to miss entirely; it’s full of listless teenagers and very elderly French couples, whom I adore because I can actually understand their accents. The church rises behind Les Halles – above and behind, in fact, sunkissed and complacent, beautiful and self-assured in its cloud of pale stone. The rather hit-and-miss English of the .50 euros guide-sheet describes the church as an ‘harmonious edifice’, which I think gets it about right. The southern side of the church (like all of Paris, like the building in which I currently live) is undergoing the inevitable dusty renovations, and so worshippers enter across planks (accessible planks, though, so A+), greeted by an elderly woman (really quite arrestingly toothless) hoping to attract extra communicants for the morning or evening services.

I love big Catholic churches; they manage to be simultaneously cavernous and warren-like. The stations of the Cross and the individual chapels make exploring much more of a journey than the simple, see-what-there-is layout of your average Anglican church. Predictably beautiful, Saint-Eustache foregrounds its vie culturelle and its vie solidaire as much as the usual routine of messes, and the practical opportunities the place offers suggest that the church’s commitment is genuine. As well as confession, you could see the sacristan or a priest for lay counselling, join any number of groups for various secular or spiritual purposes, and, well, there was the free organ recital, in which the organist managed to predict exactly the sounds of the Day of Judgment approximately once every ten minutes. An odd thing, to see people all sitting in a church listening not looking. I started wondering what would happen if it actually were the Day of Judgment, and if the CoE has a contingency plan for such an eventuality, but then I realised I was feeling dehydrated and decided to head home.

France is supposedly a secular state but a Sunday in Paris – the juxtaposition of ubiquitous metal shutters with their ubiquitous aerosol coating of ethnicity-based slurs – indicates that, well, it’s still a country of, er, religious racists. The one supermarket we managed to find (we ended up using a tramp as a landmark, oh dear) was, apart from us, patronised entirely by North African women and incredibly skinny gay men. It had the weirdest vegetable selection I’ve ever seen, but also JAMBISCUITS. I don’t know what these are called, because we’ve thrown away the box, because we’ve already eaten them all. After discovering that they were made with pectin, my vegan-to-the-point-of-obstreporousness companion developped an instant addiction. They come with pictures of kittens on. We’re going to buy more tomorrow. In a shock twist of fate, the French have yet to embrace the ‘free-from’ section of supermarkets. In deference to said militant veganism, no products containing DEATH have been purchased, although I did eat the world’s largest tuna-and-cheese crepe last night, in a move to establish my RIGHTS and personality. Vegan ran from room. Steak-eating friend arrives on Friday; I look forward to sharing some tasty, tasty murder.

Stratford in bloom.

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The newly-reopened Bancroft, looking towards the bridge and the boathouse.

Back in Stratford. Effects of the recession: we are getting a Lidl, parking has gone up (70 pence for half an hour), and everyone who graduated without a law-conversion-training-contract is on Job Seekers’ Allowance. Unemployed at the start of last summer, I passed the time filling in my little dole book & trying not to weep over the kind public sector workers who told me that, what with my double first in English Literature, I should keep from setting my sights too high, and aim for retail. Having been turned down by Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and (you-bastards-the-money-I-have-spent-in-you) Waterstones, I got the best job of my life at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the issue of crippling penury was solved. Now, however, loud sing cuckoo, and I am even a little bit sunburnt – spring is here, so summer soon will be, which means a) I am going to have to Leave Oxford, and b) I really, really need to find a job.

Rad Cam & old Bodleian, seen from Exeter Fellows' Garden
Rad Cam & old Bodleian, seen from Exeter Fellows' Garden

Worse, this time I am actually leaving Oxford – whereas last year, there was the word-made-flesh possibility of a First and my Masters (mercifully realised), this time I have not applied for DPhil and so definitely shan’t be returning. I never intended to apply this time round, but it turned out that not even my best friend believed I would stick to it,  and instead assumed my reiterations of ‘but darling, I shan’t be here next year’ were just another form of mental torture. Considering our past relations, etc.

At the moment, I have three job applications current, three possibilities for work experience (one incomplete, one under consideration & one offered but logistically difficult!), one begging letter sent off and another to write. I have a chapter of my thesis due in next Friday, but did manage to spend today partly on the river. Stratford is beautiful – the air is much cleaner than Oxford, as I keep remarking – and since blogging, email & facebook keep me in touch with my Oxford friends, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

Stratford – despite the profusion of unemployed twentysomethings largely indistinguishable from holidaymakers, the unabating frothy fury of the local press, and the Tories – really is blooming. We even have a new community radio, with whom I hope to do some work over the next year (quick plug: presenter Debi Ghose, Friday mornings > anything on Radio 1). If I am going to be in Stratford for a while, I want to find out all the cool stuff that’s going on – there must be stuff I missed when I was at school. As far as religious feeling goes, I am apt to be indiscriminate in attaching it to churches, theatres, and libraries; Oxford in summer does look a lot like Heaven, and lamp-lit twilight in Radcliffe Square can be as sacred as anything in the college chapels. The morning after Barack Obama’s election, the Cowley Road Methodist Church (just down from where I live – I was there last Sunday!) changed the Scripture on its noticeboard to the first line of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork”. It was perfect, perfect; perfect for a perfect day and a fact, a single proof of human goodness in appetite and action, that still makes me happy, five months on. The new RST building is taking shape, and the actors performing in the Courtyard now are those who’ll take the stage on the new theatre’s opening night. When I was home at Christmas and in February, the site was still a mess; now, the scaffolding’s shaping a building and not a building site. There must, surely, be new jobs and renewed tourism when the site is finished, for some people, at least. It was great to be back with my friends, on an accommodating river, in a suitably battered boat. And to me, the emerging theatre looked like a symbol of hope.

The RST, seen from the river.
The RST, seen from the river.

P.S. Happy Easter, to those who are celebrating!

RSC & The Oliviers | Tennant on DVD | British Library II | essay essay essay

Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/Getty Images
Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/Getty Images

This week has been a very tough week, but I’m using this post to focus on the awesomeness, MUCH OF WHICH is contained in the photograph above: the RSC Histories company winning THREE Oliviers. The photo is ridiculous in some ways – only Chuk Iwuji, as my friend pointed out, seems to know how to wear a suit in the accepted fashion, and why is Jonathan Slinger (Richard II and Richard III, for god’s sake) on his tiptoes at the back – but it’s also great, and hilarious, and I’m so glad they won. In rather less awesome news, RSC Sources (a really posh way of saying ‘Kath, with whom I  used to work, who is on Facebook, and lovely’)  say that the news that the David Tennant Hamlet will be put on DVD may have been a bit premature… which is a shame. I’ll be sad if the story’s false, but hopefully it will still happen sooner or later… in incredibly exciting Shakespeare news, the Cobbe portrait may (or may not) be another ‘life portrait’ of the writer. I hope it is, although I always imagined him milder and not so Elizabeth I about the nose and throat. But really, who has a portrait (I nearly typed ‘photo’) of a balding, long-haired Elizabethan with aesthetic tendencies on their walls for 300 years without considering it might be him? I suspect the Cobbes need their roof doing.

Today, I was back at the British Library, dealing with mercifully more helpful staff and a significantly more important manuscript. Even if the preliminary conversation (the gist thereof reproduced below) was like a sort of German farce:

Me: I am here for a manuscript. Look, my card.

Her: We know you not.

Me: I think you do.

Her: There is no manuscript here.

Me: It is quite an important manuscript. I had to get letters of approval. Please give me my manuscript.

Her: [indicates with look, word and gesture that she thinks my ever being approved to look in a mirror is unlikely] There is no manuscript. When did you order it.

Me: Two weeks ago. Let me speak to someone else.

Him: OH MY GOD, you want to see THAT MANUSCRIPT? It’s in a SAFE. A safe with LOCKS. Are you SURE, are you sure you won’t just VOMIT on it or possibly COLOUR IN WITH CRAYONS?

Me: I am quite sure.

Him: !!!!!!!!!! You need a LETTER FOR THAT.

Me: You are holding my letter. I can read the heading and the Brasenose logo through the paper.

Him: This is quite true. [gives] Where are you sitting? Oh my GOD, you’re sitting THERE? You want to look at that manuscript while SITTING THERE? As if it hadn’t just COME FROM A SAFE? Are you sure you aren’t just HIDING CRAYONS in your NON-EXISTENT CLEAVAGE?

Me: I need to write 11,000 words quite soon.

And so forth. All in all, though, a successful day; for the price of a 36-foot yacht, I was able to purchase the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever eaten, and further destabilise the methodology of a leader bibliographer (at least two of us are now writing essays the theme of which is primarily ‘[Bibliography X] is full of lies‘. But THEN, dear readers, after I had drawn big smiley faces over the priceless artefact completed my research, I went downstairs and into a room that was casually displaying the Magna Carta (I list this first not because I care but because I gather one is meant to), the LINDISFARNE GOSPELS, BEOWULF (ACTUALLY BLOODY BEOWULF, THE ONLY ONE, OMG), Sylvia Plath MSS, all sorts of sacred texts from world religions, GOWER, and PERSUASION. Sylvia Plath had writing like a cheerleader, the Magna Carta was clearly made by robots (and looks like a map of the desert), and if it’s medieval and came from the Cotton library, it probably had its edges burnt off during a fire in 1731. The exhibition doesn’t seem to be listed on the British Library website, but it’s free (like the rest of the library), so go, go in, and bear to the left.

Also, I went swing-dancing this week. My calves. My calves.

(other sustaining things here in OX4 – Jenny, Chloe, the fail king, my MCR, custard creams, using the word ‘torrid’ unnecessarily in my bibliography essay, implying Wilde had yet more boyfriends, Jay, m’boy, theselby.com and my new Primark habit. Yes, I know goods do not bring happiness but I have never been able to shake the belief that my life will be much better if I can only buy a lot of stuff. If stuff is edible,* so much the better).

*I am not saying the stuff Primark sells is edible.