Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Tenth Annual NEICN conference

 There's an address, a postcard in the tone,
the foreign rhythm
and that emphasis, that accent on the off-beat
which echoes longing clearly; the picked-up place-music speaks
where you ache to be, with whom.
- from 'Accent', Carolyn Jess-Cooke

It has recently become apparent that when somebody meets me for the first time, it is believed that I am Irish. As lovely as it is to be temporarily honorarily Irish (despite the fact I did once get into an argument with somebody when they were adamant that I was from Cork...), I do love my Scottish roots. I am an Aberdonian by birth and, many will argue, by nature. The above extract is taken from the third  and final stanza of Carolyn Jess-Cooke's 'Accent', as published in Inroads. Its final line latches onto the tartan threads of my soul, and weaves them back to their original, unbroken form.

To admit that I've recently faced an increasing longing to be encompassed within the luscious tones of the teuchter tongue would be a mere pinch of the truth. However, when one brings all of my favourite elements into three wonderful days, it would appear that the Celtic harp within my heart begins to chime.

Yes, I'm talking about the tenth annual NEICN conference (Ireland and Scotland: Conflicts and Crosscurrents). The large part of me that supports the Ath-Bheòthachadh na Gaidhlig, or Scottish Gaelic Renaissance, is also a fan of the merging of Ireland and Scotland. From the 9-11th of this month, this was handed to me on a very fine silver platter.

So enlightening were the panel sessions, which saw the delivery of papers on a variety of appropriate topics, that, from day one, I found myself scribbling down an array of notes and ideas. What I would like to exclaim is that, whether or not one was familiar with the topics discussed, the weekend was impossibly inspiring. I've been on a 'writing high' for the last few days, unable to stop my fingers from spilling out (perhaps momentarily incomprehensible!) creative ideas synonymous with my passions.

The Boy Who Could See Demons,
Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Resisting the temptation to dissect for you the entire weekend stage by stage, I would like to, instead, draw upon my three personal highlights. Let's begin with Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Having fallen crazily in love with her writing (a fact that was embarrassingly relayed to the author herself!), it was only natural that I was looking forward to her slot. There's nothing more enthralling than hearing the creator of such a divine piece of writing orally share with an audience some of its wonders. The Boy Who Could See Demons remains an untainted symbol of perfection (und kannst sein auf Deutsch gekauft: Die Psychologin von Carolyn Jess-Cooke!).

Deirdre O'Byrne
The second of the third experiences I'd like to mention is that provided by the wonderful Deirdre O'Byrne. Have you ever before witnessed a dramatic reading of several  monologues from Joyce's Ulysses, with the performer donning sensational Molly Bloom attire? It was absolutely marvellous! O'Byrne's mesmeric qualities are extraordinary...

(...and I shall now never stop saying 'pussens'.)

Professor Cairns Craig
The dazzling star that guides us into the final of my three highlights is keynote speaker Professor Cairns Craig. Not only is he Glucksman Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies, Professor Craig is also the Director of the University of Aberdeen's Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies. Yes, that's right: Aberdeen! As if bringing home to me wasn't good enough, Professor Craig proceeded to mention all Byron, Yeats, and Aberdeen in the same sentence! I know, I couldn't believe it either. Plus, as with the aforementioned two highlights, Professor Craig has one of those voices that could be listened to until the end of time. Sensational!

To be fed with great insight and inspiration is, in itself, a delight. When this is combined with the presence of those that are fascinating and exalted, the icing on the Celtic cake is at its sweetest. My first, and the tenth, NEICN conference has been nothing short of wondrous, an enchanting experience, and now it is time to begin counting down the days to the eleventh...

Go raibh mile maith agat!

Amy x

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Three-volume Works of Lord Byron, 1819, 1st edition thus?! (Keel Row Bookshop)

Some of my best decisions have been made spontaneously. Plans arranged on the spur of the moment can create the most wonderful stories, and it is with great excitement that I am able to share with you today's impulsive adventure.

We must travel to North Shields for this tale, where can be found the most beautifully quaint antiquarian book shop. I'd heard great things about The Keel Row Bookshop, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I proceeded through its front door. Rows and rows of books to my left, piles of volumes and editions to my right. This was just the entrance though. Located in an eight-room townhouse, each wall is  brimming with books. You can barely make out the delicious wooden floorboards beneath the piles of book that line the stairs and bookshelves. It's overwhelmingly mesmerising.

After I'd recovered from the initial shock from the grandeur, I was given a tour of the building (yes, it really is that big!), landing me right in the 'Penguin room', in which could be located Byron books a-plenty. Is was there that I was drawn to something delightfully jaw-dropping.

Could it be? Was I really holding in my hands a three-volume Works of Lord Byron, 1819, 1st edition thus? Goodness, I was. I absolutely was!

Of course, I am now the owner of said three-volume Works of Lord Byron, 1819, 1st edition thus! It was, as one might expect, published by John Murray, and printed by Thomas Davison, Whitefriars, five years before Byron's death. To be able to hold, nay, hug Byron's words as they were during his time on the Earth plane is something that causes the tears to cascade. I am in disbelief.

It's when I realised that they cost just £65 - yes, that's less than £25 per volume! - that I was left with nothing but love in my heart. The first volume contains Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the notes to its cantos; in the second volume can be found The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Seige of Corinth, Parisina, The Prisoner of Chillon, Beppo, and their relating notes; the third and final volume contains Manfred, and the assortment of poems from Hebrew Melodies (which includes my personal favourite 'She Walks in Beauty').

Setting this particular set apart from the others printed at the same time are the labels on the inner left pages of the volumes. This shows the origins of the set before it made its way to Keel Row bookshop, travelling from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Durham, to North Shields. Upon purchasing the volumes. I was actually given a brief anecdote of the books' past, which is a wonderful insight.

I didn't feel too bad for not buying all of the Byron books, as I knew I'd be visiting the shop again at some point in the near future, but I couldn't help but purchase an additional two books: Byron by Frederic Raphael (1982, Cornwall, Volatic Limited), £3.50, and The Chandos Classics: The Poetical Works of Lord Byron (1???, London, Frederic Warne and Co. Ltd) £8, the latter of which containing over 700 pages of Byronic goodness.

I'm absolutely over the  moon. To think that I am the owner of three volumes of Byron poems that were in existence during his lifetime. I can't quite get my head around it! A huge thank you goes out to the fabulous gentlemen at The Keel Row Bookshop for their assistance. Of course, I ended up flashing ankle to the shop (no, this is not me practising the art of nineteenth-century seduction, but rather flaunting my Byron tattoo!), in the spirit of all that is the Romantics. I will most certainly be visiting the shop again very soon, but for now, I have some delicious books to dance around...

Amy x

Monday, 29 October 2012

Recollections of a Guided Fantasy

(The following content is the result of participation in a Guided Fantasy. Please see here for more information.)

Beneath the warmth of the evening sun, they are twirling, dancing. The gentleman with the racquet sets his eyes upon the fair lady in the white shawl. Merriment echoes across the velvet grass as they huddle on the picnic blanket, passing around dainty offerings. The air is light with the sound of laughter.

They're gone. The sun has left. The laughter has been replaced with a bitter wind. You're all alone.

The silver glow of the moonlight you once loved no longer soothes, but rather pierces through you, an icy dagger in the heart. The mound of damp soil beneath you is the only comfort you're allowed. You arch yourself forward; the wall behind you is smothered with cobwebs, dust, remnants of life.

You shiver as you feel something brush against your foot. A sigh of relief; it was just a rat. The darkness slowly closes in, enveloping you in the chill of reality. Your surroundings, you cannot see. You've no notions, no remembrance. Staring into the unknown.

There's no escape. The screaming, always screaming. The torment, the torture, the turmoil. The chains, they're getting nearer. You can feel it. Growing louder. Louder. You try to run away, escape them, but they follow. Always. A part of you.

Your mouth fills with the metallic taste of time. Footsteps. He's approaching. Rock back, rock forth. Rooted. You're going nowhere.

You retch as he forces forgotten memories; heaving as you try to repress. You can feel the strength of his grasp on your nape. You don't struggle. You will never win this fight. You just weep, drained. Bled dry of existence.

He steps away, tells you you don't deserve release. As he vanishes, a shrill cry slices through the air, slitting through your last ounce of hope. You must wait. Abandoned once more, you whisper your only wish:

Take  me away, please take me away.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

My Helena Bonham Carter tattoo!

I cannot deny the fact that one or two people have questioned my decision to have Helena Bonhan Carter's initials tattooed to my left wrist. If you do not know anything about me, then perhaps this does seem a little bit bizarre. A few suggested that I may be better getting it done somewhere that can be easily covered up. However, my two other tattoos are rarely on display; I wanted this one to be something I can show off. After all, isn't that the main reason why we get them done?

Completely over the moon with the way the tattoo looks, I have zero regrets.Again, I've been prodded with thoughts of: "But what if you regret it when you're older?" and "What if you stop liking Helena?" First of all, that's never going to happen. That's like suggesting fans of Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe will stop admiring their idols and watching their films. Helena has an endless supply of talent that brings an equally unstoppable amount of entertainment. What's not to like?

However, the tattoo is not just a mark of my appreciation for Helena's acting abilities. Yes, the initials stand for 'Helena Bonham Carter', but the actual presence of the tattoo stands for seizing the day, and being who I want to be. Tattoos highlighting Carpe Diem are not uncommon, but I didn't want just that; I wanted something with a deeper, more personal meaning. Helena has a very unique personality who is, if she does not mind me saying so, not afraid to be true to herself. Her eccentric fashion sense is the cause of my own wardrobe.

It was only after I began to fall in love with Helena's roles that I started to feel comfortable with who I am. She also allowed me to realise one or two things about my own personality which I was not previously aware of. This tattoo is a reminder of that. Plus, it is, of course, a way to show my support for Helena's career. I absolutely love my tattoo, and no matter what anybody says about it, I will not ever regret my decision to have it done.

Amy x

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Vision so Spectral will connect and affect all.

If you take three motivational talks, an afternoon of wondrous workshops, and a programme packed with mystery and magic, stirring it all together in a large cauldron, what do you get? Spectral Visions: The Gothic, of course! 26th June 2012 saw the arrival of the long awaited conference at St Peter's campus, University of Sunderland. It promised to be an "exciting day conference [...] designed to ‘lift the veil’ on the enduringly popular genre of ‘Gothic’." The big question is though, did it deliver?

To put it simply, yes. Yes it did. Setting the mood for the rest of the day, Dr Alison Younger (Programme Leader, MA English) launches us to the genre of the Gothic, introducing us to some of its creatures, Professor John Strachan (University Northumbria) then taking us through a combination of Surrealism, and Romanticism, and the Gothic. Towards the end of the day, a fascinating talk titled 'The Dark Side of Macbeth' was delivered by Professor Willy Maley (University of Glasgow). I think it's fair to say that each of the three varied focuses proved to project an inspirational and intriguing experience from which a great deal could be plucked.

A selection of workshops ran in the afternoon, designed to introduce attendees to the style and atmosphere of the teachings of MA English. Delegates were able to choose from options such as Wuthering Heights, run by Dr David Fallon, and Dr Susan Mandala's 'Prehistoric Fiction: The Monster Within?'. On a personal note, I'd decided to opt for Colin Younger's 'Ghost Stories of the Northern Region', something I knew I'd find fascinating. However, I'd not quite anticipated the great level of enthralment the hour-long session was to bring. Have you ever experienced a discussion throughout which you're bandying around a hundred thoughts per second? It's riveting! For the A-Level students, additional workshops were run, covering topics such as 'American Gothic', Frankenstein, and 'Scottish Gothic'. Whatever your interests, there was certainly going to be something to cater for them.

This all sounds marvellous, but what if I told you a meal was also thrown into the mix? Yes, that's right. Lunch was provided, free of charge (yes, free, the very price of attendance at the conference itself!). We're not just talking a sandwich and a juice box, either. So, after watching a video clip of the slicing open of an eyeball, (thanks for that, Professor John Strachan, sincerely!), delegates were able to gorge in preparation for the afternoon's timetable. A-Level students were also able to explore the campus and gain a stronger feel for the university itself.

Providing enchantment in endless instalments, Spectral Visions was nothing short of a complete success. Attendees ended the day oozing with inspired and motivated energies, while all those involved in the piecing together of the intricately spectacular event could bask in the glowing light of prosperity. Eloquent and divine, Spectral Visions will forever remain unforgettable.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

REVIEW: The Mysteries, Customs House + Arbeia Roman Fort

Sitting outside for two hours in the nipping North East wind does not sound like it would be much fun. Throw in a mind-blowing production into the mix though, and spirits are instantly lifted whatever the weather. The Customs House takes The Mysteries to the Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields, and proves this.

Originating in the medieval 10th Century, The Mysteries tells the story of the creation of man, and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ, focusing on specific parts of the Gospels. As these stories are generally very well known, it’s needless to say that the production was going to have to provide something unique for it to be compelling. This was certainly not an issue.

A lot of ground had to be covered in just a few hours to project the Biblical tales in their best light. Thankfully, the play was paced marvellously. I felt that the emphasis was placed upon all of the right moments; not once did a scene feel rushed, nor were they dragged out for too long.

The stories are told mainly in verse, with occasional input from the beautifully melodic choir. The cast of some twenty actors, both professional and amateur from throughout the North East, take on over fifty speaking roles. I’ve seen smaller productions with fewer characters struggle to manage this successfully, but no signs of complications were present with The Mysteries. Each and every character remained believable and valued.

Stepping into the sandals of Jesus is a big commitment. David Robson portrays the Lord in all manners of eloquence, a representation to be proud of. He was able to stir emotions from the core of every audience member, many of who were reduced to tears by the end of the evening. The scene of the Crucifixion specifically hit the heart quite hard, the powerful moment projected effectively with the use of a mesmerising cross upon which we are forced to watch Jesus suffer. At appropriate intervals a slight interjection of humour was provided by the three shepherds, played by Peter Lathan, Karl Hicks, and Steven Stobbs. Their merry singing and comic banter ensured that the overall mood didn’t drop too low.

Both cast and crew appeared to handle the outdoor production magnificently. The Arbeia Roman Fort is a striking location and adapted itself well throughout the duration of the play. The wind did interfere ever so slightly with the microphones, but as the audience was seated very closely to the stage area, this was not a problem. A few cast members performed barefoot at certain points. This was done with great skill; you’d never guess they were standing on bare rock and pebbles!

Director Peter Lathan has successfully pulled together the many elements that provide this miraculous production. The Mysteries opens up to the audience the beautiful selection of Biblical stories to provide an entertaining and emotional production that will forever remain unforgettable.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

REVIEW: Mary Shelley, Northern Stage

(The review below, written for the Evening Chronicle, can also be read here.)
Known as the author of the early nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley lived a life of anxiety and pursuit that would eventually lead her to write one of the most complex novels of all time. With Mary Shelley, a play new to 2012, the Northern Stage brings her tale to life.

When sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin falls in love with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she is delighted to find that he is equally fond of her. However, when Mary’s father, William Godwin, disapproves of their relationship, Mary is heartbroken. Torn between doing right by her father and listening to her heart, drastic action is taken. Is Mary to live a life her mother, radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, would have approved of?

I cannot think of another time when I have seen a play that has unfolded so captivatingly, the progression through the narrative allowing us to understand why Mary desired to imitate the love she craved from her father by building a family with Percy Shelley. The pace of the play cannot be faulted.

It’s widely understood that the writing of Frankenstein came about after the Shelleys spent time with Lord Byron at Villa Diodati in Switzerland, in 1816. There was a slight chronological alteration with this significant moment in the play, changing the setting and timeframe in which Mary’s harrowing nightmare occurred. However, the story does otherwise display accuracy, if not for a few minor tweaks, to allow it to flow more easily as an art form.

Each cast member brought their characters to life. Credit is due all round, however two specific actors stand out: Kristin Atherton portrayed Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin exactly as I feel she should be – ambitious and adventurous, with passion in her core – while Shannon Tarbet provided an excitingly energetic Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont, with character traits that match those commonly known to have been displayed by Clairmont herself.  Weather is at the forefront of a lot of the emotion projected. As snow falls, you can almost guarantee that tears will too. The use of lighting to create darker stormy scenes, the stage often coated in a layer of Gothic-like mist, heightens the Romantic sensations that are conjured. With the occasional comical line weaved into the script, penned by Helen Edmundson, the play is balanced perfectly.

Anticipating the possession of your soul for the evening, the play will capture your attention in ways barely imaginable. With its talented cast, a creative use of lighting, and the capabilities of reducing you to tears, Mary Shelley reaches into the very heart of one of the greatest stories ever conceived.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Ambition, Adventure, and Achievement: The Makings and Markings of MA English

In one of his recent publications, Amazing Psychic Stories (2006), medium Derek Acorah expresses that "the more a spirit experiences during its physical lifetimes, then the more it grows and progresses" (p. xvii). With this idea in mind, I'm always looking to leap into new adventures. Although I'm an opportunist, I'm also a great planner, and have every intention of embarking upon the exciting path that is MA English in a few years' time. Ahead of this postgraduate study, I spoke with Dr Alison Younger, programme leader for MA English at University of Sunderland, to see what is in store for prospective students:

Other than a greater depth of knowledge of the topics studied, what does studying MA English provide that English at undergraduate level is unable to?
Dr Alison Younger
AY: Ahh, the interviewer’s chestnut: the obvious answer to which is that it equips students with a range of research skills so as to allow students successfully to complete a research led dissertation to be submitted at the end of the degree. This training in independent research also equips students with the necessary skills required to continue their studies at Doctoral level – an opportunity many take in the thriving research culture at theUniversity of Sunderland. That’s the official answer, but it’s so much more than that. Students have to make a significant conceptual leap from undergraduate to postgraduate. From learning to analyse they learn to philosophise and develop an independent critical voice in relation to text and theory. There is nothing more gratifying than an impassioned and informed debate wherein students are developing the confidence to challenge scholars in the field (MA staff included). The subject matter doesn’t only allow for this intellectual development; it positively encourages it. Far from the stereotypical (and if I might say jaundiced) view that studying literature is just ‘so much chatter about Shelley’, studying postgraduate English makes us think politically, it makes us philosophise; it changes us as people. Perhaps this would be as good a time as any for me to get off my soap box…

How flexible is the programme? Does it cater to a wide selection of interests within literature, or is it driven by a few specifics epochs/genres?
AY: It is entirely flexible. Its modular basis offers maximum flexibility in that it allows students to combine the study of Literature with those of Linguistics and Creative Writing – sometimes within one module. It’s also constantly evolving as our research does. The MA development group are singularly devoted to improving provision. It genuinely matters to us. Our degree is book-ended by research skills modules that are second-to-none. Other than that we offer a rolling portfolio of modules including a number of brand new ones. In the current academic year, for example all of our modules were newly written and ranged from ‘Early Humans in Fiction’ (where else could you study that?), to Creative Writing and Theory – a fantastic hybrid of critical thinking and creative thinking which students have adored. In September we press the regionalism button with ‘Writing of the Anglo-Scottish Borders. I’ll come to my own new module in due course, but the point I’d like to make is that we study ‘Literatures’ from Bombay to Berwick; from Ancient to Postmodern, and from the points of view of textual scholarship and High Theory. Where else could you do that?

What makes the MA programme at Sunderland stand out above other universities, specifically those in the North East?
AY: Ha! How many academics from other universities have you seen dressing up as ghouls to promote an MA programme? Seriously, I have the greatest respect for other programmes that are running in other local universities. I think we differ period, or specific subject focussed MAs can be summed up by what we’re aiming for: that is research led relevance. What I mean by this is that all postgraduate degrees should be research led; in other words you should be learning from the cutting edge research of those who teach you. That’s certainly the case at Sunderland. All of the people who teach on the course are experts in their respective fields, and have published work in them. Does that differ from other universities? I would hope not. I would certainly be using ‘dissemination of research’ as a yardstick when choosing an MA place. Where I think we do differ is in range and relevance. Academics, by nature are single-minded people, and we all think that our own research is fascinating to everyone. Let me give you an example (a hypothetical one, I should point out). I might have spent years studying the placement of commas in Byron’s Don Juan, and have come to the conclusion that the bold Lord was beating out a Satanic rhythm in morse code with the intention of world domination. It might be relevant to me. It might even be true (as it happens, I don’t think it is), but could I base a whole course on it? I don’t think so. It’s too esoteric. While we are aware that cutting edge research is the core of a good postgraduate degree, the MA English team have looked at what is relevant to prospective students and are tailoring our modules to address this. 
So, for example we work on special topic modules which are of relevance to prospective students which will give them the skills to develop their own ideas in the area. I think Alex Pheby put it best when he said that our MA is ‘edgy’. We’re not afraid to push boundaries, and we’ll develop modules which combine our research strengths in new and exciting ways, but ways that are aware of students’ career prospects. This is where our ‘Spectral Visions’ conference came from. We know that many students want to go into teaching; we have the research expertise in diverse areas relating to Gothic, and we saw that Gothic 
Necessary preparations for Spectral Visions...
was a central theme on A’ level syllabi. We realised that we could aid the continuing professional development of teachers, and give our prospective students some added value for teaching applications. The rest, as they say is history…

One final thing: our students are encouraged to engage in the symposia and conferences we hold at 
Sunderland. This means that they are engaging with eminent experts in the field on a regular basis. Let me give you an example: we are home to NEICN (North East Irish Culture Network) which is about to hold its tenth international conference. In past years we’ve had speakers such as: Terry Eagleton, Robert Welch, Luke Gibbons, Ailbhe Smith, Kevin Barry, Siobhan Kilfeather, Shaun Richards, and Lord David Puttnam, to name but a few with readings from Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Bernard O’Donoghue and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. Students have had the opportunity to be exposed to these massively eminent academics, and writers. Added to this, look at the academic juggernaut that is your Visiting Professor: Willy Maley. His list of publications reads like the Book of Kells. So, within and outwith the University students are offered a constant stream of intellectual brilliance and cutting edge research. This extends to our newly developing network, ‘SIN’ Scottish Irish Network which we hope will do the same with Scotland that we’ve done with Ireland. Watch this space…

What will obtaining a Masters in English do beneficially for employability?
AY: Of course ‘English’ doesn't have a clear ‘vocational’ label but the skills you will obtain from it such as writing and thinking clearly and creatively will equip you for many professions. It has been said that English will help you to: ‘develop the insight of an artist, the analytical precision of a scientist and the persuasiveness of a lawyer.' In other words it offers you transferable skills. This may seem very much the register of the sector, but the fact is that our students do develop many skills they wouldn't think about putting on a CV. Take exams, for example: these make students expend time and effort on developing skills and knowledge which they would otherwise not have taken the trouble to master. If I were going to put down the transferable skills I’d learned from exams in a job application I’d probably include: the ability to operate under controlled pressure; to think very efficiently in a controlled crisis; to formulate difficult issues much more simply; to draw conclusions which I would never have reached under other circumstances; the ability to prioritise and perform; the ability to think on my feet… All of these things are potentially very creative forces and engender the types of skills that employers look for. The same can be said for assignments. I’d employ a graduate from our programme in a heartbeat!

Beyond this, I think it’s important to say that we encourage our students to take ownership of their programme, and to be involved in the promotion, and organisation of events, symposia and conferences. In doing this students are gaining skills in events management, organisation, liaising with outside bodies, promotions. I could go on and on…

What do you find most enjoyable about being programme leader for MA?
AY: Watching the programme, and the students evolve and develop. We learn from students as they learn from us. I stick by the old adage, often attributed to W.B Yeats: ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire’. I’d like to think that my role as programme leader is the fire-starter, ably assisted by the rest of the development team who develop the incendiary devices (aka modules) to inflame our students.

Which modules taught at postgraduate level do you personally prefer? Are there any topics not covered on the programme that you'd like to be able to teach?
AY: Goodness! I teach a number of Irish Studies modules which range from Ancient Gaelic ‘fabliau’ (in translation), to contemporary political drama and poetry. That said, I ran my ‘Late Victorian Gothic’ module for the first time this year (based on some work I’ve been doing for SIN on Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde), and I’ve loved it. So have the students. I’ve published on Melodrama and Music Hall, so popular cultural forms spring to mind also. I’m currently working on a collection entitled ‘Celtic Connections’ with Willy Maley, and I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘Archipelagic Literatures’; in particular Scottish and Irish Gothic. I’d love to develop something in that area. I’m also developing a module on ‘the Fantastic’ with Alex Pheby which will cover critical and creative writing. It’s a reasonably extensive wish list, but our MA is big enough, and bold enough to accommodate it.

Do you find that many students choose do study MA English at University of Sunderland, having done an undergraduate degree at a different university prior?
AY: More and more do. What we find at Sunderland is that we get numerous students who come to the university as undergraduates thinking it is perhaps less ‘prestigious’ than our Russell Group neighbours, but not wanting to leave at the end because of the excellent provision they’ve received. That message is starting to get out to students of other universities, not only in the region, and the country but internationally. I’d match our MA against any other, anywhere. That’s the message we need to get out to people, and I think it is getting there. We’ve had a massive surge in applications this year; many of them from other universities. If I were me, I’d certainly apply for it…

What do you look for in a student of MA English?
AY: I feel I have to rise to the challenge of the fantastic blog you did with Willy Maley, and follow the alliterative antics of the Professorial punster, so I’ll say intelligent, innovative and inspired by the subject – or perhaps erudite, engaged and with enquiring minds. In short I’d say people who are creative minded and willing to think beyond the box.

What advice would you give to somebody considering applying to study MA English at Sunderland?
AY: The graduate job market is so competitive right now, an MA can give you the edge to land that perfect job, or to pursue research. It’s an investment in your future. With that in mind, (and bearing in mind how fantastic our MA is) I’d say, work hard, read lots and follow your dreams.

Thanks, Alison!

I think it's fair to say that we will all be rushing to apply for MA English at University of Sunderland as soon as we can! As much as I'm looking forward to the next two years of BA English, I cannot wait to sink into the MA waters. I do hope you'll all be joining me on what is quite clearly to be the unmissable adventure of a lifetime. 

Amy x

Creative Writing at Sunderland...

One of the things I love most about the English department at Sunderland is the mixed bag of personalities who take the shape of  the lecturers. I caught up with Dr Alex Pheby, Head of Creative Writing, during a gap in his busy schedule to see what he had to say about the university and the courses on offer.

What would you say are some of the assets of the English department?
AP: The department is full of staff who know their stuff; we're all experts in our own fields. It is also quite small, and we all have something important to add to the programmes that we run. People are very interested in reading students' stories. Everybody is fully committed.

Why did you choose a career as a lecturer?
AP: I like teaching students who study English as they have appreciation for the written word and literature. It's a rare thing nowadays. I've heard people proudly declare they've never read Joyce!  It's great to be around people who share similar interests.

Tell me a bit about the creative writing course at Sunderland. Why should people choose to study here?
AP: Well, it's better in the North East as it's largely more flexible, I think. There are the possibilities to do a lot of things here that perhaps other departments are too rigid to attempt. For example, we’re looking at producing a book for the second years, and this is something that’s going through at the moment. Some of the second year work that’s being produced is excellent, and there’s no reason, providing you’re on top of the distribution chain, where we can’t actually get this work out and published. At the University of Sunderland we try to not only give people an education in English, but also an education in writing, and on top of that an education in how to use that writing outside of the University setting. We’re people who try and do the best for our students, largely because we understand the problems that people are going through, in terms of getting out in the world, and the kind of things people are interested in. It’s a BA in English and Creative Writing, so our graduates get the best of both worlds.

Which module/s within the creative writing programme do you enjoy the most?
AP: I’m not a poet. I don’t tend to write poetry myself, but the one I enjoy the most I think is ELL231, which I’m not teaching this year which I’m a bit sad about, The Art of Modern Poetry. That is great because you get to do a lot of material that you’re not always familiar with yourself. The way that I teach poetry involves a lot of non-literary material, so in weeks on rhythm for example we listen to a lot of music, and act as if the lyrics to songs are poems, and listen out for the beats behind those. Producing that kind of thing fora a class for people is good fun, because they act completely differently that they would react if you asked them to sit down and read them a poem and work out its metre for example. We use a lot of visual images to as a way of kind of driving the idea that the poem is a kind of visual form. Because it’s not in my normal run of expertise, I have to do more work, so that brings me into contact with loads of material that I otherwise wouldn’t have looked at, which is fun for me. I often think now that the only time I ever learn anything is when I have to teach it
I’d like to do some more modules around creative non-fiction, things like life writing and travel writing.

Do you find that people tend to write in the style of the literature that is most popular?
AP: Yeah! I try and force them not to by the structures of the stuff that I do. I tend to make people write on various topics, to get them out of that sense that they’ve got to rewrite Twilight and rewrite Harry Potter. I think often people find it quite liberating. To be honest, there is no room for another Harry Potter or Twilight.  You’ve got to do something different , because those things are already there. You don’t need to do those again.  You need to think of things that only you can do, and you can say.

Where do you find your own inspiration from? Are there any specific authors you admire who you'd always recommend?
AP: It’s always a difficult question. I like anybody who says something unusual. I find myself going outside the canon of straight English. People like Patrick Hamilton I’ve been reading a lot recently. Anybody who’s got something interesting and unusual to say, I think. The good thing about working in the English department is that you’re never short of somebody to lend you a book to read. Everybody walking around has always got something interesting to say. In general though, if it’s got a boy wizard in it, I don’t like it. If it’s got a vampire in it, I don’t like it – unless it’s Dracula!

If you had to write a novel about life as a lecturer at Sunderland, which genre do you think it'd fit into?
AP: Horror! Crime! There’s a genre of writing called campus novels – David Lodge has written a series of novels based around a university campus, so it has its own genre. The University has an interesting mix of people.  You’ve got a lot of students, and the kind of anxieties and experiences that young people have, and then you have the, generally, almost exclusively, eccentric crowd of lecturers, who have been…not driven mad  by their subjects, but are kind of on the verge of being obsessed  with their material, which any good academic is. Academics aren’t really normal people. They’re, by definition, people who have become obsessed with one particular area of knowledge, and that just marks you out as somebody who is not usual. Generally, people are more rounded than that. In order to be an academic, you have to be over too focused and too driven for the real world. One step away from care in the community!

What do you look for in a student?
AP: Hard work is a big one. You can pretty much get over any inadequacies of talent or failures of being interested in just by working really hard at it. You can develop all sorts of skills just by working hard. Talent’s good, being interesting in the world is good, but hard work is better. Commitment is the other thing. Providing you’re committed and you’re willing to work, then I’m happy.

Finally, what advice would you give to anybody thinking about applying for one of the English programmes?
AP: Do it sooner rather than later. Once the cap is met, we have to stop letting people in. Be proactive. Get your applications in as soon as you can. Get good A level results, and fill the form in correctly.

Thanks, Alex!

Needless to say, the English department here is absolutely fantastic. I'll echo the above statement, and encourage you to apply as soon as you possibly can. I can't imagine where I'd be now if I hadn't been accepted onto the English programme. I certainly wouldn't have it any other way!

Amy x

(Blog also published here)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

'Sleep no more: the dark side of Macbeth'

"Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron, boil and bake..."

Professor Willy Maley
As you sit there cackling along to the incantation, allow me to draw your attention to further Shakespeare delights. Providing a taste of the subject he will be addressing at the Spectral Visions conference on June 26th, Professor Willy Maley (University of Glasgow) shares some thoughts on Macbeth, discussing both its  Gothic and Scottish elements:

Do you think that there is a tradition of Scottish Gothic as distinct from an English tradition?
WM: I think there is a distinctive Scottish Gothic as well as a distinctive Irish Gothic, and colonialism and religion are among the markers that set them apart.

Despite the fact that Macbeth is a sixteenth-century text, and Gothic is generally accepted as a nineteenth-century genre, is there anything about Macbeth we can label Gothic?
WM: I don't know if Gothic is generally accepted as anything other than a highly contested category with very deep roots. Attempts to historicize it may fail to grasp its transhistorical nature.
Terry Eagleton describes the witches as the heroines of the piece. What's your opinion of this?
WM: Terry Eagleton is an old hero of mine, but I think he's better on the Brontes than the Bard.

Would you say Macbeth deserves the description of 'butcher' and Lady Macbeth 'fiend like'?
WM: Butchery is in the eye of the beholder. Macbeth is a hero when he butchers for the state, and a villain when he kills the king. Fiendishness likewise. Lady Macbeth has a conscience in the end. I'm still searching for Tony Blair's.

Do you think the Celtic provenance of the story has any importance to our understanding of it?
 WM: Yes, and that 'Celtic provenance' has Irish and Welsh analogues too. I think calling it the 'Scottish play' has been a piece of stage superstition rather than an invitation to think seriously about its national contexts – in the plural. The Scottish context matters and has to be taken into account. That is annoying for formalists and for Anglocentrists. That's a wee shame.

Dr Alison Younger
Programme leader for MA English, and
Spectral Visions' chief Fallen Angel.
Photographer: David Newton

Why do you think Shakespeare changes the ‘historical’ Macbeth from a ‘good’ king according to the stands of his time, into an evil, usurping regicide?
WM: Does he? I like the readings by critics like Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Goldberg and David Norbrook that find a more complex character and a republican undertow. 

In your opinion, would you say that Macbeth provides a greater experience when read as a script, viewed on stage, or watched on screen? Do you find this to be typical of all of Shakespeare's plays, or are there elements of Macbeth which allows it to work better in one format over the others?
WM: I like reading texts, but every reading or performance is an interpretation so it depends on the context. I saw a performance in Washington in 1995 with key roles played by black actors that made me think about the play in a different way – suddenly the Scots language allusion  to a cream-faced loon stood out in stark relief – so particular productions can bring new elements to the fore.

 How much does Macbeth add to the genre of the Gothic? What impact would you say it has had on literature in the more recent years?
WM: It's a big bloody brooding bird of prey in the background so I'm sure it feeds into and feeds on what's darkest and richest in the Gothic.

Is Gothic symptomatic of a given society's anxieties of the Jacobean period?
WM: It can be to some extent about the hauntings and unhingings – the out-of-jointness - that come with dramatic change, yes.

Why should students attend Spectral Visions? What do you think they will get out of it?
WM: Spectral Visions are the only ones worth having. The rest is zombification.

Click here to find out more about the Spectral Visions conference on 26th June. Places are limited, so make sure you email Colin Younger on colin.younger@sunderland.ac.uk to secure your place today!

Photographer: David Newton

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Born for Byron, Living for the Lord.

I wouldn't ever say I didn't appreciate being from Aberdeen; the city has a lot to offer, and contributes quite widely in many aspects. However, it wasn't something I embraced. Six months ago however, I was introduced to the work of the beautiful Lord Byron, and fell head over heels in love with him. It just so happens that Byron was brought up in Aberdeen*, and last week I spent my first week back up in Aberdeen after having birthed my undying love for Byron. And what a Byron-filled week it was!

Despite the fact that the lashing rain was soaking me through, I made a successful trip to the Grammar School grounds, where I became acquainted with the Byron statue. I'll be honest, I didn't think the thing was going to be so tall. I know I'm short, but that's just ridiculous! However, I still managed to blow some kisses and send them up his way. If you ever get a chance to go and visit the statue (which I have recently discovered to be the image of an Angus Calder book), do take up the opportunity. It's gorgeous.

It's fantastic when Byron is mentioned on television; I want to hug the damn thing just to thank it for adding warmth into my heart. On the second day of my visit, Katherine Higgings was selling a photo of Byron on Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (for £30, FYI), and then upon turning over the channel three minutes later to The Chase, he pops up straight away again as an answer to a question. Only on my 'Byron trip' to Aberdeen would that happen!

To make the trip all the more perfect, my father lives not too far from the area of 'Byron', which I found to contain Byron's name no matter which way I turned. Byron street signs, Byron shops, Byron pub... my excitement could not be contained. To say I was in Heaven would be an understatement.

I don't like having muddy shoes. However, after trekking across filth and puddle, I ran (somewhat Julie Andrews style) down the hill to the ruins that is Gight Castle. Catherine Gordon had to sell the castle to pay off her husband's debts, but the new owner ended up abandoning the castle (granted, he was killed in a horse-related accident; I cannot exactly blame him) let the building fall apart. It's such a beautiful ruin though, and I do hope to visit it again someday. Be careful if you go down though - it's a) impossible to find, and b) definitely away to crumble at any given moment...

Lord Byron, you have made that week perfect. I could not have asked for things to run more fantastically; even the weather was atmospheric at the right moments. 188 years ago today, Byron, your spirit slipped back into the higher world, but on earth you'll never be forgotten. All my love.

Amy x




*Note: he was not born there! This mistake is often made.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Spectral Visions: Gothic Literature reading group

Do you love reading?

Are you a fan of the Gothic?

Do you like socialising and meeting new people?

If you've answered 'yes' to any of the above questions, then there's a fine chance that you'll be interested in joining us for the first Spectral Visions: Gothic Literature meeting on 3rd May!

Spectral Visions: Gothic Literature is a brand new reading group set up to bring fans of the Gothic (and those new to the genre!) together to explore and discuss a variety of works and writers.

The first meeting will be held in The Gateway* at 4pm on Thursday 3rd May 2012. If you'd like further information, please email spectral.visions13@gmail.com with your interest.

We hope to see you there!

*Room number TBC

Friday, 6 April 2012

'An Interview with the Vampires': More on Spectral Visions

From the blood-dripping fangs of Count Dracula to the chilling words of Poe, the Gothic evokes great emotions in all of us. Ahead of the Spectral Visions conference on 26th June, members of the MA English team at University of Sunderland Dr Alison Younger (as programme leader) and Dr David Fallon share their views on the Gothic. With both Dr Younger and Dr Fallon having published on the genre, I was interested to hear what they had to say...

Why do you think we respond to the Gothic in the way that we do?
DF: Fear if experienced directly is just horrible - but an imaginative recreation of it, and a sympathy with other people in the representation of fear is a pleasant, sociable thing. We agree on what we find frightening and we can share that, but at the same time remain safe in doing so. It feeds our curiosity about danger and fear in a relatively comfortable way.

It’s back to the pleasures of the Sublime. That said, there’s also the whole question of ‘desire’ and the erotic. The figure of the vampire, for example is symbolic of unlimited desire and he breaks all taboos and blurs boundaries in pursuit of his desires. He’s often a typical Gothic blend of the hero/villain (Like the Byronic hero) who combines the pathos of compassion with the torment of his own desires.

What is it about the Gothic that has allowed it to remain alive in the twenty-first-century, something which other genres have failed to do? Why do you think it is more successful nowadays in prose form rather than poetry or plays?
DF: The Gothic speaks to fundamental anxieties and fears rooted in the human psyche. Although the objects of these fears might change in form over time, the fears and the psychology behind them remain pretty constant. We can still sympathise with the fear of being pursued down corridors by a mad monk, even if we're unlikely to dally in cloisters and monks aren't so easily met with...

It’s about what Edmund Burke described as ‘the Sublime’ – that is, the transcendent, the numinous, the awe-inspiring or the ecstatic. We take pleasure in the face of terror or horror, in that which we can’t grasp or understand. We experience our mortality, but it’s about self-preservation. The Gothic offers us a safe-forum - an outlet to experience the pleasurably terrifying; then we transcend it. It’s pleasurable catharsis.

Do you feel that the production of films and adaptations of classic Gothic novels are a help or a hindrance to the literary genre? Are people too quick to say they enjoyed, for example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, when they’ve experienced the interpretations of the directors, but never actually approach the texts themselves?
AY: The Gothic became a tour-de-force during the Romantic period; a period in which the imagination took precedence over almost everything else. For me a filmic interpretation can augment or supplement the original text, but never replace it because it’s in the individual imagination that the text comes to life. That’s where ‘our’ interpretations take place. We’re the final piece of the jigsaw – the essential element required to finish the text. Could a filmic interpretations of Byron’s Manfred stimulate the visions we create in our own imaginations? I’m not sure it could.

I think they're a help - as they're all readings and interpretations of the text - but it's always helpful to read the text first so that you have your own opinions and ideas to test against others' interpretations. It can be helpful, though - people familiar with the 20th Century horror Frankenstein can be pleasantly surprised by the literary sophistication, depth, and intellectual complexity of the novel if they come to it after the films.

Two of the century’s greatest series – Harry Potter and Twilight – hold monsters and fantastical creatures at their core. Why do you think that, as a nation, we’re so taken by the presence of fantasy and ‘make believe’ in the media?
DF: I think the Gothic and fantastic help us recall our childhood, when we believed such things to literally exist. Part of the pleasure of the Gothic is that it appeals in different ways at different ages. I'm constantly horrified by the amount of fantasy and make-believe in the modern media, especially newspaper...

There’s a lot of ‘wish fulfilment’ in Both Harry Potter and Twilight. Harry Potter, despite its Gothic architecture and magic represents a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure world. It endorses a very bourgeois ideology whilst apparently challenging it. As for Twilight, it’s a reworking of the Cinderella myth wherein the ‘eccentric’ girl gets the hero – a sympathetic hero who will only break taboos out of necessity. It’s all very safe…

Would you say the monsters and creatures we’re faced with in literature – Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula - play on fears we already have, or rather open us up to new terrors, encouraging us to adopt the fears put forward by their creators?
DF: I'd say that they form an image around which crystallises pre-existing fears. If you asked different people what they feared in the monster, you'd probably get some different responses. But everybody would probably agree that an incompletely formed, remorselessly pursuing monster is an effective image of some of our deepest fears.

Jeffrey Cohen puts it best when he argues: “Monsters are our children…they ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to revaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we created them”. In short, the monster is a scapegoat - not only a creation of civilisation but a requirement of it: the monster comes to be all that is rejected by society, all that is contradictory to its principles. In this way society is able to rid itself of the undesirable and able to define itself. The monster becomes a negative imprint, a mirror image of society.

The Gothic inevitably plucks at the darker side of our souls. Do you think this has any dangerous elements that may have a negative impact on: society, mental health, religion?
It's healthy to be aware and reflective on these darker elements of the human soul, and the Gothic has always functioned as a vicarious outlet for the more disturbing side of human nature. I don't think Gothic literature and art presents anything that doesn't already exist in the human psyche - if someone goes on a Gothic themed killing spree, it's a pretty safe bet they already have some problems...

Gothic endeavours to elicit a response of fear and horror from its readers. It doesn’t endorse or affirm monstrous acts. In general we’re given a sense of catharsis at the end when Good overcomes Evil. Aristotle would suggest that they Gothic is actually psychologically healthy for us then, in that in purges us of negative emotions at the moment of denouement. Staring into the abyss is vertiginous - it gives us a frisson of fear, but if we decide to jump over the edge then I’d guess that the idea was already lurking in the labyrinths of our mind.

How much do you feel the Gothic adds to the culture of the UK/Ireland? How vital has the genre been in shaping literature?
DF: Since the eighteenth century, some of the greatest literary works from the UK and Ireland - and some of the most enduringly influential during the 20th and 21st century - have been Gothic works. For a culture like Britain's, with its reputation for being staid and polite, the Gothic has allowed us to keep in touch with the more disturbing, repressed, and violent aspects of its identity which have often got written out of official history. The fact that the Gothic has always kept readers in touch with the deviant, the surreal, the fantastical, and supernatural means that it has always had a valuable role to play in fostering symbolic, non-realistic, and experimental literature.

I agree with David. To add to what he says, in Ireland (and, in Scotland also) we see Gothic tropes through the lens of a colonial history.  Protestantism, and the fear of marginalisation are central features of the Irish Gothic tradition. The demonisation of both Catholics in general, and Catholicism as a system, is also central to the Irish Gothic: its monsters are invariably Catholic, the clearest example of which is the anti-Catholic manual that is Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in which the Catholic Church is depicted as a cornucopia of perverts, control freaks, Satanists, and power-hungry sadists. Combine this with the Irish fascination with folklore, superstition and antiquarianism and you’ve got a crucible in which Gothic can flourish. I suppose, in short Gothic is symptomatic of the particular anxieties or a particular society, at a particular time. 

 What does the future hold for the Gothic genre?
DF: I'd say that the Gothic has always been about exploring the dark and forgotten pathways of the human psyche, and I imagine that some sort of cyber gothic - with the passageways and secret chambers replaced by networks, passwords, and long forgotten information - might be a natural place for the Gothic to go in a networked age.

  Though I'd like to see a return to its old Melodramatic roots, I think David is absolutely right here. Gothic is a highly-persistent cultural phenomenon, and continues into rock culture, internet groups, cults, fashion, film, etc. Cyber-Gothic is an obvious way forward. That said, the 1950s kitsch of folms like Twilight could suggest a nostalgia-frenzy...

What can attendees expect to take away from the conference?
DF: If they're lucky, a broadened understanding of the Gothic genre and a sense of what postgraduate study is all about. If they're unlucky, some sort of monstrous supernatural force that will pursue them to the grave...

David’s right, I will pursue them to the grave (joke). To wax lyrical, there’s a quote that has been attributed to W.B Yeats: ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire’. What we want to do is offer fuel, heat and air so we can ignite a spark in teachers and students so they in turn can light beacons and carry the Gothic flame out to others. I’m hoping for student-organised reading groups, film-showings, debating societies. The only limits are in your imagination, and, as we know, that’s limitless…

On a practical level it allows us to offer the fruits of some brilliant minds to a wide audience of people, who might not otherwise have this access. Also, it allows us to showcase the tremendous work our MA students have been doing. That is too good to stay behind closed doors, or, to risk a pun in the vaults of the classroom.

Why should people secure their place today so they don't miss out?
AY: Because we want to create an army of Gothic acolytes who will go out and spread the word to the world (laughs evilly). Seriously, it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn, network and have a really good time with like-minded people. It also gives us a chance to showcase what we do on the MA, of which we are justly proud…

If you don't, the monster will be with you on your wedding night...

To book your place on the Spectral Visions conference, held at St Peter's campus on 26th June, make sure you email Colin Younger at colin.younger@sunderland.ac.uk as soon as possible. Places for the event are limited, and you won't want to miss out!