Upstaging Ireland
Jun02

Upstaging Ireland

Birkbeck's Arts Week is an annual festival of workshops, lectures and activities around the School of Arts in Bloomsbury. In 2020, quarantine measures have meant that all events are taking place online, over several 'Arts Weeks'. As part of this provision, on 1st June, Birkbeck published the podcast Upstaging Ireland: The Theatre of Flann O'Brien. Flann O'Brien (also known as Brian O'Nolan and Myles na gCopaleen) was an Irish comic writer whose work has been considered at a series of previous Arts Week events. This year's contribution is on a lesser-known aspect of his work: his writing for the theatre. The plays Thirst (1942), Faustus Kelly (1943) and Rhapsody in Stephen's Green: The Insect Play (1943) represent an extraordinary burst of dramatic creativity, and were first produced at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre. The podcast draws on the expertise of Tobias Harris, who has recently produced a doctoral thesis on Flann O'Brien, and Hugh Wilde provides four readings from the plays. It can be heard in full here.   Image from Burns Library, Boston College, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence....

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Radio During Lockdown
Jun01

Radio During Lockdown

by Emily Best Barring climate change or maybe globalisation, the pandemic crisis of 2020 is arguably the widest-ranging event in terms of human impact since the Second World War. It drops individual instances – statistics, directives, shock photographs of packed roads on sunny days and videos of grandchildren getting hugged through cellophane – into the inertia of waiting. Those staying inside whether through furlough, home working or isolation experience the changes both fast and slow, immediate and projected, via the same screens, on the same sofas and through the same windows as they have and will continue to for months. Modern media and technology allow the documentation and review of every moment – a fact itself observed and commented upon far and wide. Despite isolation, it’s almost impossible for us to insulate. Radio is one of the oldest methods of communication we have, and in wartime it was indispensable both as a weapon of war and a domestic comfort. But when news is so ubiquitous, even inescapable, do people still find it comforting? I asked Leslie McMurtry, author of Revolution in the Echo Chamber: Audio Drama’s Past, Present and Future (2019), about this. She suggested that the ‘liveness’ of radio is what gives it its edge. Perhaps being tuned into a radio is the closest real-time access we can have to the world outside? McMurtry also told me that in the 1920s and 1930s, radio’s advantage worried newspaper publishers. This may go some way to explaining the way the panic caused by Orson Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast was in fact, thanks to newspapers, blown out of all proportion.  Of course, smart notifications and curated echo-chamber style feeds mean that many can get the news they want via alerts on their phones at least as quickly as on the radio. I did a quick poll on social media of my friends’ listening habits during lockdown, and the overwhelming response to live radio was avoidance: ‘sick of hearing bad news’ was the phrase that came up most often. For others, though, radio can still offer companionship, just as early radio did for those in isolated locations outside big cities. One person said that a particular breakfast show DJ knew their musical taste better than another, while others spoke of having it on for the background noise while at home. I fall into this category: working from home I may have a couple of Zoom meetings each day and the odd telephone call, but I don’t have the background hum of voices that fills an office. While intuition might suggest that a quiet workspace would be less distracting,...

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CFP – Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions
May10

CFP – Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions

11th-12th September 2020 Keynote Speakers:  Dr Nadine El-Enany and Florence Okoye   A border, like race, is a cruel fiction Maintained by constant policing, violence Always threatening a new map. from Wendy Trevino, 'Brazilian is Not a Race'   The arm twisted and turned with lightning Imperativeness as if to reach the point Of the borders of the day that touch Each other on the rim of the precision-discipline. Where is the place of the circles of the eternities? from Sun Ra, ‘The Arm’   The CCL is excited to announce the Call for Papers for this year's London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) annual conference! This will be the fourth event, which is usually held at Birkbeck, University of London. As a result of the ongoing crisis this conference will have to take place online, with the possibility of some optional in-person elements. We think now more than ever is a time to question the role of borders in our lives and so we want to proceed with this conversation. If you have any questions or concerns about this please feel free to get in touch.  Borders are one of SF’s most consistent preoccupations, from alien encounters, to narratives of outer space colonisation and on to the construction of walls between worlds. Moreover, the many barriers to entry in the publishing industry mean that borders also shape the conditions under which we read SF and determine whose SF we read. Borders are not always codified or officially policed. Too often, they are invisible, insidious and supported by supposedly benign institutions. However, while SF has perpetuated the violence of borders, it has also revelled in their transgression. Queer creators, disabled creators and creators of colour have shown us the decolonial and non-binary possibilities opened up by the genre. SF is filled with cyborgs, hybrids and monsters who challenge binary divisions of self/other, animal/human, technological/organic and material/immaterial. The body in SF is frequently broken down, expanded or pushed to its limits, as authors imagine new ways of being and strange erotic couplings. At this conference we will explore not only the ways in which SF makes visible the violence of borders, but also SF which imagines their permeability and deconstruction, SF which goes beyond. As Homi Bhabha has argued, ‘to dwell ‘in a beyond’ is […] to be part of a revisionary time, a return to the present to describe our cultural contemporaneity; to reinscribe our human, historic commonality; to touch the future on its hither side.’ We move beyond in order to touch and change what is happening now – we envision borderless futures in order to transform the borders which...

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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 be...

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Transitions 9
Feb07

Transitions 9

21st March 2020, 09:30 — 18:00 B35, Birkbeck Main Building Book your place now Transitions: New Directions in Comics Studies is an annual one-day symposium promoting new research and multi-disciplinary academic study  of comics / comix / bande dessinée / manga / and other forms of sequential art. The Transitions symposia have been a fixture on the UK comics scholarship landscape, with a focus on new voices and novel approaches in comics research. The programme emphasises a range of approaches in research, and especially invites participation from research students and early career researchers. This year, we are pleased to host two international keynote speakers: Prof. Dr. Sylvia Kesper-Biermann (Universität Hamburg) and Dr. Nick Sousanis (San Francisco State University). The symposium will start at 09.30-18.00, followed by a reception. Lunch will be provided. If you have any dietary requirements, please let us know in the special requests box on the booking form. Attendance is free, but registration is essential. Due to limited availability, please make sure you can attend before registering. Further information about Transitions and previous symposia can be found at http://www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk/events/transitions-symposia/ For questions please contact us at transitions.symposium@gmail.com. Transitions is organised with assistance from the CHASE research consortium and the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck.  ...

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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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