Of Mud & Flame
Apr03

Of Mud & Flame

by Joseph Brooker Penda’s Fen is a 90-minute television film made for the Play for Today slot and screened in 1974. Its content and history are discussed already on a post here. Though received with interest at the time, it then dropped out of sight for over fifteen years, and did not truly come back to view till the twenty-first century. In 2016, when Penda’s Fen had earned the phrase ‘cult film’ more than most, it was issued on DVD by the BFI. A year later, two postgraduate researchers from Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities, Matthew Harle and James Machin, organized a conference, Child Be Strange, at the BFI to celebrate and explore the film, ahead of a commercial screening. The Centre for Contemporary Literature supported this conference, and two of its members – Professor Roger Luckhurst and I – have contributed to a subsequent volume that developed from the conference and was published in late 2019. Of Mud & Flame, edited by Harle and Machin, is the fullest assembly of material on Penda’s Fen that is ever likely to exist. It contains versions of papers given at 2017’s event (including Roger Luckhurst on contexts of the 1970s, Adam Scovell on the subgenre of Folk Horror, Carolyne Larrington on women in the film, and Beth Whalley on Medieval sources), along with wholly new essays, interviews with key actors from the film, a foreword and afterword by scriptwriter David Rudkin, and the entire script of the film. A remarkable demonstration of the richness of the film, the book also represents the outcome of a collaborative process initiated by Harle and Machin at Birkbeck. In February 2020, events were held to promote the book, at the BFI, London Review Bookshop, and Whitechapel Gallery. On 29th February I attended the last of these events, where the film was introduced by the erudite Medievalist Beth Whalley and the unstoppable curator Gareth Evans. I must now have seen this film half a dozen times, but this was the first on the big screen. It made me concentrate differently and see even more than several previous viewings had highlighted – like the detail of the music, the Dream of Gerontius, in the first scene; the whole motif of the dissonant musical representation of God had passed me by. Most of the film is now so familiar, to so many, that it could be a Rocky Horror Penda Show, cult-TV fans intoning the dialogue as it comes. The scenes don’t, though, follow a very obvious order; apart from protagonist Stephen Franklin’s gradual journey from conservatism to discovery, they feel discrete, as though they could often...

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Notes on Camp 2019
Jan04

Notes on Camp 2019

by Dickon Edwards At the end of each year, critics like to put out their lists of highlights. In a similar vein, the following represents my own survey of the year 2019 in terms of the books and other media which affected my field of research. My field is camp modernism. ‘Camp’ as in the aesthetic of exaggeration and parody, often with implications of identity, and literary ‘modernism’, as in the innovative literature of the early twentieth century. My argument is that the best examples of camp modernism in literature are the works of a British writer who tends these days to be overlooked, Ronald Firbank. Firbank published a series of novels from 1915 to his death in 1926, including Vainglory, Valmouth, and The Flower Beneath the Foot.  He is described in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ as one of the two ‘conscious ideologists of camp’, the other being Oscar Wilde.[1] In May 2019 Sontag’s essay was used as the theme to one of the biggest events in the American celebrity and fashion world – the opening gala for the summer exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Or as it’s usually known more simply, the Met Gala. This year’s gala required guests to interpret the exhibition’s title, ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’. Among the guests was Billy Porter, the actor from the TV series Pose, which narrates the lives of trans people of colour during the New York drag balls of the late 1980s. At the Met Gala, Porter dressed in gold lamé as an androgynous Egyptian-like deity from the ancient world, carried on a litter by a group of half-naked men in similarly ornate Egyptian veils, matched more anachronistically with gold painted jeans. On Twitter, Porter supplied his own annotation to his costume: ‘The Category Is: Old Testament Realness.’[2] Viewers of Pose, or indeed RuPaul’s Drag Race, will recognise that statement as a catchphrase from drag contests. The serious implication is that camp plays with the idea of categories as received structures of power. Camp asks what defines such categories, who defines them, what they mean, and why they exist at all. I was reminded of the way that modernism, too, is a much-questioned category, and that it’s works like Firbank’s novels or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) which bring this interrogative aspect of camp into the category of literary modernism. Happily for me, the catalogue accompanying the Met exhibition begins with a epigraph from Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory (1915), one which also relates to Billy Porter’s costume: ‘If we are all a part of God then God must indeed be horrible’.[3] As Firbank’s...

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Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Jan04

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Patti Smith, Year of the Monkey by Karina Cicero Patti Smith dreams and writes, writes and dreams, walks, sleepwalks, questions and converses with all manner of signs in her latest memoir. Drawing on events of the last year she spent with her close friends Sandy Pearlman and Sam Shepard, she revisits focal points in her career, enclosures previously visited, landscapes she had never seen but feels lured to, and recreates conversations that have never (and may) not take place in the realm of the real, all under the auspicious protection of the year of the monkey (2016) in the lunar calendar. The main protagonist is the process of dreaming and its outcomes. Dreaming takes on an elastic function in Smith’s narrative, as she blurs the boundaries between sleeping and wakefulness, bringing in elements of the unconscious into her waking moments: ‘I actually watched myself fall asleep’ (58). Her chronicles are ornamented with uncanny discoveries of candy wrappings, ‘All opened, yet not a trace of chocolate’ (11), and signs that voice enigmatic messages – ‘There are many truths and there are many worlds’ (23) – as she embarks on a quest for clues: a process fashioned after the detective novels she hopes to write one day or, some might argue, a tribute to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. An obvious and almost expectable intertextuality with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland lurks in the narrative, blaming on the magnetic power of the Dream Inn sign the distorted images her minds summons, likening her to ‘Alice herself, glumly presiding over an endless tea party’ (6).The only difference from that classic text is that Patti knows exactly where she is heading and who is waiting for her (or no longer will be) at the end of this fateful year. Smith does not limit herself to comment on the reality she witnesses; she transcends images and appearances to explore the soul behind an inert neon sign, or a bowl of soup. The narrative in Year of the Monkey blurs the lines that divide the present from the future and from the past. These are obliterated to give way to a constant criss-cross of temporality, like the moment when she has an epiphany about taking a trip to see Ayers Rock, in Uluru, and her interlocutor assures her she has already started that trip – in her mind: ‘The soles of your shoes are already red’ (104). It is not surprising to discover her longing to visit Ayers Rock. In Smith’s world, life is an ever-present punctuated by focal points, which illuminate certain periods of her life but lead up to any other point in the past and...

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Organic Systems: Session 4 – report
Sep23

Organic Systems: Session 4 – report

by James Burton The fourth and final event in the CHASE Organic Systems series took place in the Dana Studio at London's Science Museum. We were hosted by curator and researcher Glyn Morgan, who is in the process of developing a major exhibition on science fiction that will open at the museum in 2021. In the morning training session, Dr Morgan introduced us to the wide range of opportunities for research collaboration offered by the museum, including support for preparing collaborative funding applications, the on-site research library, and the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. We also learned about some of the many archives and holdings of the museum relevant to our interests, such as the huge James Lovelock archive (including patents, school reports, letters, prototype inventions and much more). Glyn also offered some fascinating historical examples that reveal the cultural, historical and theoretical intertwining of our key themes of science, fiction and ecology, such as the influence of pioneering radiation researcher Frederick Soddy on H. G. Wells (and vice versa). The session was followed by a short museum tour in which participants’ attention was directed to some of the long-term exhibits relating to our discussions, including the landers and of the 'Exploring Space' section of the museum, and a replica of the 'Clock of the Long Now'. In the afternoon, Roger Luckhurst introduced and moderated our first workshop session, which saw Glyn Morgan joined by two inspiring and thought-provoking interlocutors: Hugo-award-winning historian and critic of science fiction Farah Mendlesohn, and architect, educator and researcher Amy Butt, who draws on science fiction as a critical resource across her practice and teaching. Farah Mendlesohn opened the discussion with several provocative ideas about the changing historical and cultural status of “waste” in relation to a number of questions of environmental and ecological transformation. All three panellists drew on different works of SF (such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide) in exploring different creative and political ways of engaging with and (re)thinking these issues. In the latter part of the session, participants were divided into groups and took part in an interactive exercise conceived and led by Amy Butt, using physical materials and ideas from SF narratives to explore speculative ecologies of plastic, considering questions of waste, recycling, and the imbrication of different environments, networks and agents. The exercise gave rise to several (often surprising) lines of exploration and discussion around our key issues, as well as reflections on the value of SF for critical and speculative research. In the final session of the day, a collective of early career researchers working at Birkbeck and Goldsmiths (the two institutions organising the...

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Organic Systems: Session 3 – report
Jul07

Organic Systems: Session 3 – report

CHASE series: Organic Systems  Workshop 3: Ecologies of Gender Report by Dr Sean O'Brien (Birkbeck, University of London) After a brief introduction and recap of previous sessions, in which Dr Joseph Brooker (Birkbeck, University of London) discussed the increasing awareness of ecology as a critical issue and noted the emerging interest in SF as a critical field with certain capacities for addressing pressing ecological questions and concerns, the group considered a set of questions posed by Dr Caroline Edwards (Birkbeck, University of London) that were designed to help incorporate feminist thinking and gender politics into the discussion of SF and ecology. These questions included: ‘How is feminist thinking valuable for thinking about the environmental and issues of ecological equality and futurity?’ ‘What happens if we ignore gendered experiences of when thinking about environmental issues like climate change?’, and ‘Can SF function as a method, rather than a literary or cultural mode of production [that could] help us address ecological issues?’ Dr Edwards then ran a PhD training session on ‘Public Engagement: Communicating SF Research to the General Public’. Dr Edwards began by problematizing the term ‘general public’, noting that the public is not only more accurately described as publics plural but also, and perhaps more importantly, is a space characterized by divergent backgrounds and a multiplicity of knowledges. Dr Edwards has spoken at a wide variety of public eventshosted by venues such as The Wellcome Trust, Deptford Cinema and Radio 4, and her work has appeared in a number of public outlets, including The Guardian and SFX. She has also staged public exhibitions, including Imagined Futures at the Museum of London, which was recognized in Birkbeck’s Public Engagement Awards, 2018. Over the course of her career, Dr Edwards discovered that her academic interests don’t always translate well for a mixed audience. The research forthcoming in her monograph, Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2019), develops cutting edge conceptual methods from Science Fiction Studies and Utopian Studies for reading a number of lesser-known contemporary British authors. This work has not been picked up by public media as has her work on Mars, the deep sea, the work of H. G. Wells and J. G. Ballard, or various topics she has placed in conversation with Science Fiction. The task then for researchers keen to disseminate their work to the public is to contextualize their research interests using broader topics of public interest, especially thematic and historic contexts. Dr Edwards emphasized that the timelines for public appearances tend to be rather tight, and so it’s important to think about how to use your time wisely and make the work...

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Organic Systems: Session 2 – report
Jun08

Organic Systems: Session 2 – report

On Thursday 23rd May 2019, we held the second workshop in our series Organic Systems, which is supported by CHASE, the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts in South-East England. This episode of our collaboration between Birkbeck and Goldsmiths took place in Birkbeck’s Cinema. A sizeable audience came along, including CHASE PGR students and also interested members of the public who had seen the event advertised as part of Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week. Like other events in the series, the workshop had the following aims: To provide beneficial research expertise from guest speakers in designated training sessions. To hold round-table sessions in which guest speakers with strong research interests and expertise will present and discuss ideas – with contributions also welcome from the registered participants. To encourage meeting and networking among scholars in related areas, leading to the development of this research area. After a general introduction to the themes of the series, we heard from Dr James Machin, currently based at the Royal College of Art, who discussed his experience of applying for and undertaking research fellowships in fantastic literature. James successfully applied for grants to visit the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin, Texas and the University of California at Riverside. His research was not on science fiction as such but on early instances of ‘weird fiction’, overlapping with horror and Gothic, notably the writing of H.P. Lovercraft and John Buchan’s lesser-known work in this field. James showed us his applications on screen, and gave advice on making them successful. In particular, he said, be thorough, and argue the case that the archive in question is crucial to your research, which couldn’t be completed without it. In response to questions, James also described the experience of working in an archive and the thrill of encountering original material that has rarely if ever been viewed before. The second part of the day was an extended panel discussion with three speakers: Sean Cubitt of Goldsmiths; Katie Stone, who is undertaking a PhD on science fiction at Birkbeck; and Francis Gene-Rowe, who is completing his studies at Royal Holloway. The panel was chaired by Aren Roukema who is completing a PhD on science fiction and religion at Birkbeck. Sean gave a fascinating presentation involving clips from the films Source Code (2011) and Déja Vu (2006), exploring the interaction between sound and image and their construction of virtual worlds. Katie and Francis then produced more of a dialogue between two streams of thought that were supported by an extensive series of slides, headed The Strange Ecologies of Science Fiction. Films mentioned and glimpsed included the recent Avengers blockbuster and other superhero...

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