Report: James Joyce on TV
Jun18

Report: James Joyce on TV

by Joseph Brooker James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on the 16th of June, which has accordingly come to be celebrated each year – as ‘Bloomsday’, in honour of the protagonist Leopold Bloom. Celebrations in Dublin started in 1954, 50 years after the book’s setting, with a pilgrimage around the city by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and friends; in 1982, Joyce’s own centenary, it finally started to become the wider civic festival that it is for Dublin today. Around the world, many devotees of Joyce like to do something to mark the date: only a minority dress in Edwardian costume, but many gather to read from the novel. We have held such readings at Birkbeck in recent years. In 2017, Birkbeck’s Bloomsday celebration was distinctive: an evening screening of two very rarely seen films about Joyce, organized by Michael Garrad – a cinema programmer and graduate of our MA Modern & Contemporary Literature – with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was heartening to see a large and engaged audience turn up to spend two hours in the dark, even on a sunny evening worthy of Joyce’s summery book. Michael Garrad expertly introduced the films, and held a conversation afterward with documentary film-maker Clare Tavernor and me. The first film was Anthony Burgess’s documentary Silence, Exile and Cunning (1965). This black and white film of c.45 minutes was made in the BBC strand Monitor, pioneered by Huw Wheldon; the film was produced by Jonathan Miller who had emerged from the Beyond the Fringe set. The film thus exemplifies some aspects of British television culture in the 1960s: adventurous arts programming in the form of personal essay films, with auteurs and artists like Burgess given their head in a relatively free and experimental culture of programme-making. There is a risk of naively idealizing a televisual golden age of the 1960s and 1970s at the expense of the present, but it seems true that certain possibilities existed then because of a less bureaucratic system. Clare commented with amusement afterwards that Burgess’s method had been ‘I’m not going to interview anybody – it’ll just be about me’. His film is indeed centred around his monologue, delivered to camera on Dublin location or as voiceover. Burgess’s voice is punctuated by others reading from Joyce’s writings, including a Leopold and Molly Bloom who both sounded lower in class status than those we have come to know from the more recent CD renditions by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. Burgess’s film is visually quite striking, using still images and close-ups of waves and water, as well as monochrome panoramas of Dublin Bay...

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Report: Child Be Strange
Jun14

Report: Child Be Strange

by Joseph Brooker The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised. Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place...

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Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition
Jun13

Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition

Report by Annapurna Barry On Tuesday 16th May 2017 MA Contemporary Literature and Culture students organised a pioneering and interactive event, The Contemporary: an Exhibition, that pulled in crowds of students, prospective students, tutors and family and friends. Our exhibiters, Hope Dinsey, Daniel Pateman and Aefifa Razzaq, created intelligent and thought-provoking creative pieces that explored the idea of the contemporary and what it means to us in our current social and political landscape. Daniel Pateman’s multimedia exhibition, Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation), created a discourse around the idea of our constant need for regeneration. As Daniel writes in an accompanying text, ‘there is a sense in our culture today of a desire for social, personal and political renewal; of myriad possibilities for change rather than the perceived inevitabilities of monolithic systems.’ Although Daniel’s photographs could initially be seen as an investigation into the hopelessness of contemporary life, they are instead aiming to be hopeful and to suggest that contemporary life is in a perpetual state of transformation and that ruinations are symbols of regeneration and in fact sites of recreation. The photographs in Ghosts of the Future feature a range of sites that are decayed and/or abandoned such as disused hospitals, graveyards and factories. I spoke to Daniel and our guests and everyone seemed to be in agreement that even though these sites remind us of mortality and echo Gothic ideas of the sublime, they are in fact a positive portrayal of the contemporary and of the now – society is moving towards a less binary view of the world and of life and death, and towards a mentality that sees beauty and hope in destruction. Daniel’s exhibition also featured poems ‘I am Demetrius’ and ‘I am Lazarus’ on black card, which metamorphosise and degenerate into a structure-free form that gives the poems opportunity for renewal and leaves them open to interpretation – an exciting development in contemporary aesthetics.   Daniel Pateman’s Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation) This idea of text and narrative being an unstable and unfixed concept, as seen in Daniel’s poems, is something that Hope Dinsey’s exhibit, The Expansion of Narrative in the Digital Age, explores. When I chatted to Hope about her work, she spoke of how since the advent of the internet methods of storytelling and traditional narratives found in literature, film and art have developed and morphed into something entirely new. Hope’s detailed exhibition explored avenues such as fandom, hypertext, fantext and interactive gaming, none of which possess a set narrative. We arguably live in a society that is characterised by choice and it seems that this desire has fuelled...

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Report: Dystopia Now
Jun04

Report: Dystopia Now

by Joseph Brooker On Friday 26th May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17. Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history (you can click here to listen to, or download, Caroline's keynote lecture). To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread. In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had...

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James Joyce on TV
May30

James Joyce on TV

Friday 16th June 2017 B04, 43 Gordon Square James Joyce belongs to the era of modernism. But how were his life and work narrated and inflected in the post-war world of television? A special event for Bloomsday explores this question with a very rare screening of two vintage BBC television programmes inspired by Joyce. Monitor: Silence, Exile and Cunning (50mins, 1965) Joyce in June (45mins approx, 1982, dir. Donald McWhinnie) Monitor: Silence, Exile and Cunning consists of Anthony Burgess’s apparently whiskey-fuelled reflections on Joyce’s self-imposed exile from Ireland. Burgess's film essay is illustrated by black and white 16mm shots of Dublin, including dead seagulls in the Liffey and some of the authentic Ulysses locations, including the Martello tower Stephen Dedalus lodges in and the dilapidated 7 Eccles Street, home of Leopold and Molly Bloom, shortly before its demolition. This is contrasted with a 1982 biographical sketch of the young Joyce, Joyce in June, which includes an inventive, and very funny, imagining of the happenings of the Ulysses characters on 17 June 1904, the day after the novel’s action. Filmed on video in studios, the image has an immediacy that speaks very much of early 1980s TV. It features a young Stephen Rea as both Joyce’s brother Stanislaus and Ulysses’ mysterious man in the macintosh. The programme is directed by Donald McWhinnie, one of Samuel Beckett’s favoured directors for screen, radio and stage. The programme is curated by Michael Garrad of Curzon Cinemas. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion. Reserve your ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/james-joyce-on-tv-tickets-33849094553 Image by Tim Sackton, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0...

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Report: He Doesn’t Talk Politics Anymore
May20

Report: He Doesn’t Talk Politics Anymore

by Joseph Brooker On Thursday 18th May I introduced an event about the politics of US fiction since the 1960s. This was part of Arts Week 2017, and a contribution to the theme of art & politics which was one element of this year’s series of events. Though I had been involved in organizing the event, its substance was provided by two speakers, Professor Martin Eve and Dr Catherine Flay, which leaves me in a position to reflect and report on it. Eve’s title came from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where it refers to a character in the Second World War who comes under suspicion because of his reluctance to discuss politics. Had the same happened, Eve asked, to US fiction in recent times? To answer this question he problematized a number of the terms involved. What, for one thing, was now the meaning and scope of ‘American literature’: could it even, he provocatively asked, include writing from Iraq and Afghanistan under US occupation? What is the best meaning of ‘politics’ itself, and how should we consider politics’ translation into literary work: should this be measured in a utilitarian fashion by the work’s effects, in the form of action taken by readers influenced by fiction? A further issue is the limits of the corpus that we study: the canon of contemporary US fiction, Eve argued, is very narrow compared to the real range of what is published in the US, and does not necessarily correspond to what most people are reading – insofar as they are reading at all, as a recent statistic recorded that 25% of people did not read any novel in a year. Eve also took note of the recent turn against ‘critique’ in literary and social studies. Scholars like Rita Felski have argued that ideology critique and the performance of symptomatic readings of literary narratives have become formulaic, and requested new models of critical reading. At the same time Bruno Latour in the social sciences has suggested withdrawal from the ideological critique of science as the revelation that science is ‘socially constructed’ can give excessive succour to authoritarian politicians who cast doubt on the evidence of climate change. Eve noted that these two critiques of critique in fact move in somewhat different directions and need to be viewed as distinct. Eve noted that African-American writers might make a significant contribution to a discussion of the politics of fiction, but also that they had often seemed marginal next to a certain group of white writers such as Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Eve pointed out that black writers are often viewed primarily as...

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