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September 29, 2012

The Day of the Beginning of the New Book


April 29, 2010

China Mieville Wins Arthur C. Clarke Award for Third Time

Here at Warwick we are celebrating our colleague China Mieville who, last night, won the Arthur C. Clarke AwardOur pal for the third time - an unprecedented achievement. Alison Flood of the Guardian writes:

His first venture into crime fiction – albeit with a fantastical edge – has won China Miéville the UK's most prestigious science fiction prize, the Arthur C Clarke award, for an unprecedented third time.

The City and the City is set up as a straightforward crime novel: in the dilapidated city of Beszél in eastern Europe, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is trying to solve what initially looks like a routine case. But as he looks deeper into the murder of a mysterious woman, he discovers that she has links to Ul Qoma, a city that exists in the same physical space as Beszél but whose inhabitants studiously ignore any sign of overlap.

The novel won the British Science Fiction Association prize for best novel earlier this month, when BSFA journal editor Niall Harrison predicted it was set to take a slew of further prizes. Miéville pronounced himself "absolutely gobsmacked" and "incredibly honoured" to win the Arthur C Clarke, an award originally established by Clarke himself to help promote science fiction in Britain. "It's very different from most of my other books," said Miéville, who has previously won the Arthur C Clarke with more traditional fantasy novels Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. "It was very much written in an effort to be absolutely faithful to works of crime fiction. Crime readers will denounce a book because it has 'cheated,' and I wanted to write a book that didn't cheat, that was faithful to crime rules and that if you'd never read any fantasy you could pick up."

Miéville triumphed over a shortlist also featuring former winner Gwyneth Jones, American author Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Roberts, Chris Wooding and Marcel Theroux to take the prize, an engraved bookend and a cheque for £2,010, this evening. "It was particularly difficult for judges to pick a winner this year," said chair of judges Paul Billinger. "China eventually won because of the intricacy of the book and the way the whole of the concept expands from the initial premise into the different types of city. The way that was done was so clearly and cleverly written."

Billinger called The City and the City "superb" and "very different from China's other books – almost more restrained, in a good way. The judges have always been open to any type of book which comes within the realm of science fiction – the crime element doesn't exclude it – so we are really pleased it's won." The novel is also shortlisted for major American science fiction and fantasy awards the Nebulas.

Miéville said that some people had questioned whether The City and the City was really science fiction or fantasy. "I think these debates are silly – genre is a moveable feast, but some people do ask these questions," he said. "What I don't want to do is disavow the fantastic tradition I come from. This is a book from within the fantasy tradition, which hopefully can also be a perfectly faithful crime book – and a good book."

Previous winners of the Arthur C Clarke include Margaret Atwood, who won the inaugural award for The Handmaid's Tale in 1987, Christopher Priest, Geoff Ryman and Richard Morgan.

March 31, 2010

'All Over the Open Pages of Wet England'

Hundred of Amounderness John Speed

March 25, 2010

Wild Bees: The Poetry of Martin Harrison

Wild Bee Nesy

Joy in making, seeing and connecting; simplicity without simplification: complexity without complication: that’s a single-breath summary of Martin Harrison’s hugely impressive poetic technique, a technique I feel caught out by in all the nicest ways. His work was entirely new to me yet I felt immediately at home in these fresh, vivid poems. I’m sure most British readers will feel the same especially if they are familiar with the techiques of Robert Frost, Les Murray, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver and Allen Curnow. Yes, those influences are there but Martin Harrison is very much his own maker: he’s simply assimilated the best of these poets as he travelled through their diction.

Harrison has travelled the world; his early years were in England. There’s a fine and painful poem about his father, a travelling wine salesman and amateur poet in Northern England who in the evenings ‘jotted screeds of ‘nature poetry’’:

He called it doing the accounts.

Sincerely, he hoped I’d do more, with more success:

but “study money, not poetry” was his long-lived, bleak

advice. In his 80s now, his steady observation:

“I’ve given up making sense of things. Work only

for yourself.” A palimpsest is what’s scraped away:

a scarping which reveals a trace, a ‘beneath’ that’s covered

over with new scrawl. Are memories like that trace?

‘Letter from America’

Harrison spent some time in New Zealand before settling in Australia. He’s an exported - now imported - writer of unusual range and observational skill, and that sense of being outside things helps him write some of the most brilliant metaphyical nature poems of our time, for example in ‘The Platypus’:

…it can shift from one medium

to another—from scrabble to dig to swim.

Fur, blood and bones, it lives out a warm theorem:

how cells communicate with mode and shape.

It’s pure exuberance of style. No post-modern,

it benefits from natural history. No victim,

it even shows how to adjust thoughts to

that maya, that dream, where illusion’s both true

and false…

In poems like ‘The Platypus’, ‘The Coolamon’, ‘Stopping for a Walk in Reserved Land Near Murra Murra’, ‘Late Western Thought’ and the two ‘Letters from America’, Martin Harrison takes a natural setting or creature and explores it scrupulously, writing it sideways - or should I say Harrison allows the pressures of the developing poem to write him sidelong: images blinking in at themselves, birdlike in their movement through his mind’s eye and the mind of the reader.

Sometimes the process risks sentimentality, but that’s one of the recognised hazards when writing such technically brilliant and emotionally alive poems, and Harrison gets it right each time. I recommend Wild Bees with extreme prejudice; this book altered my mood, my whole day and made me write a new poem.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems, Martin Harrison, Shearsman Books, pb., 168 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-84861-008-8

March 22, 2010

The Battle Between Books

The newcomers

I have run out of shelf space. Even the ‘pretend shelves’ – those Stonehenge temporary structures of plank and brick that end up standing for years – even they are crammed and complaining. You remove a single book and the rest of its companions close the gap with relief: there is no getting back up there. Like a packed tube train, the door slams and the whole shelf slides off – no room, no room.

New arrivals can be shocked; they have to be strong to stay. But old travellers must fear against strong newcomers, especially when they come as an army. Thus, the arrival of the twenty volumes of the mighty Oxford English Dictionary and its two-volumed polyglot lieutenant, The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary led to sharp skirmishes and fall-outs. The Oxfords won, at such cost my local charity bookshops are now almost all abandoned anthologies. The Writers’ Room at Warwick University is home to thinner survivors of this combat – at least two hundred reviewed poetry volumes sought a new home there.

The books say there is no room, but what they mean is there is no space. But there is always space on this desk, or across this bright and flickering desk at which we sit right now, writing and reading to each other. Above and beyond the books I get sent for review, or which I buy for that matter, there are always a snow of extra books which, like overhearing a world outside my mind, find me home. And I think these often surprise more than the books you think you like or were looking for in order to create more books of your own. Here are three which arrived unprompted - and are staying.

Andrew McMillan is studying creative writing a Lancaster and is the co-editor of a good, new magazine called “Cake”. A press that is new to me, Red Squirrel Press, published his first pamphlet last year. Every Salt Advance is a delightfully imaginative debut. The key to it is generosity. He’s a young poet, and sometimes young poets play up the most cynically to gain a reader’s attention. But here, there’s no pose, no urbanity or cringing English irony. He writes feelingly and allusively (a mark of good apprenticeship) and believes in language as a vehicle for play. He believes in language, not in using poetry as a means to a different end than poetry can offer.

Angela France’s Occupation is published by Ragged Raven Poetry, and I read the poems through with interest before leaving the book to work away in my mind for a few weeks. Did it stay in there? Did it possess me? It stayed and unfolded itself. Occupation has a depth to it which shouldn’t seem so surprising except that so few poetry books are possessed by any resonance beyond one reading or hearing. I remember a mental test that Charles Tomlinson applied to poems: does the language of the poem stand up to any sustained pressure? does the poem crumble into lettered debris after one or two readings? Angela France should be better known for making poems that are keenly focussed and wonderfully made. (I would argue that George Ttoouli’s recent first poetry book Static Exile possesses a similarly striking kind of depth and resonance. I am also aware that George and I work together at Warwick but that I’d still think this were he working on the Moon.)

The English Sweats by James Brookes is a really solid and inventive pamphlet, published by Pighog Press. Pighog are a new press but their publishing standards are astounding. Beautifully produced and printed, I’d have liked even if James Brookes had joined George Ttoouli on his Moon mission. For James is a former student of mine so you might regard my words as puffery, but I am also certain that James is going on to be one of our most interesting poets; and every volume of the long dictionary is standing to attention knowing they have another friend on the earth.

March 15, 2010


by John Drinkwater

    I do not think that skies and meadows are
    Moral, or that the fixture of a star
    Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees

    Have wisdom in their windless silences.

    Yet these are things invested in my mood

    With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,

    That in my troubled season I can cry

    Upon the wide composure of the sky,

    And envy fields, and wish that I might be

    As little daunted as a star or tree.

    February 22, 2010

    Poetry Cornered

    Writing about web page ttp://

    From an article published 3 December 2009 in the Times Higher Education SupplementAtomic stairway

    Keenly intrigued to read this piece by Neil McBride who is principal lecturer in informatics at the faculty of technology, De Montfort University. Not least because the book "Of Science" (Worple Press)- edited by Andy Brown and myself and cited here - contains a secret message in its structure and choices. Rather like this atomic staircase to the right.

    Article begins:

    Goodbye, sweet Calliope, farewell Erato? In a consumerist world where speed and image rule, poetry's emotional meanings are being lost. Neil McBride muses, partly through verse, on the future of this embattled art

    Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the renowned astrophysicist, hid her love for poetry from the world until she retired, out of fear of what people would think. Only when she was beyond attack could she write and talk about it.

    Of Science, a 2001 anthology of poetry by scientists, co-edited by David Morley, director of the Warwick Writing Programme at the University of Warwick, was published with the writers remaining anonymous. Good, intelligent men and women, clothed in cold rationality, considered it professional suicide to admit to any literary emotions.

    In his lab he's hid Whitsun Weddings behind the sink,

    The latest volume of Fuller sandwiched between reagent catalogues.

    Shakespeare's sonnets encoded in the lab book

    Rossetti pasted to the wall behind the periodic table.

    Amongst the chaotic dishes and tubes, there cannot be anything poetic at all

    Rhythm and language must be neutralised, the third person

    Is the wash of objectivity, the veneer of scientific discipline:

    Verse is hidden at the back of a drawer covered with Millipore.

    The poets of science have no names, clothed in the shame

    Of irrationality, the atrocity of the literary mind is unspoken

    Words must be disguised, sanitised. Any evidence of life

    Outside the rational, the objective, must be denied.

    The observatory is cold, dark, starless. Pulsars blip

    The steady drip, drip of numbers stripped of spirit

    The poetry of the stars is a dark matter

    Planets are mathematical objects swimming in an emotional vacuum.

    Do not suggest that patterns, laws, and the aesthetics of structure

    Hold anything of the spirit. Don't speak poetry to me:

    We silence our critics, mute emotions, declare ourselves "observers".

    There is no soul, nothing but a rotting body of clockwork chemicals.

    Perhaps the power of poetry is its downfall. It addresses uncertainty. It questions, it leaves frayed edges and loose wires. It draws out the hidden, the spiritual, the underlying rhythms of life that we swamp with information, noise and news channels. We reject poetry because we shun its emotional engagement.

    In the eyes of the general public, poetry is reduced to ditties. On BBC Radio 4, no less, poet and publisher Felix Dennis commented on swine flu in the form of a nursery rhyme. The only established poet to get anywhere near the dizzy heights of WH Smith's top 100 bestsellers is Pam Ayres.

    As for the established poets, only Seamus Heaney makes it on to the coffee table, displayed with picture books of coral reefs and unread books on quantum physics. The rest are nowhere to be seen. Hiding behind the prizes - T.S. Eliot, Forward, Costa - their work is held to the camera as yet another "slim volume". Their message is limited to a narrow band of aficionados, and their sales are held up by the mercenary study of the likes of Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage and the ubiquitous Heaney in A-level English.

    Nobody would deny the genius of poets such as Sean O'Brien, Paul Muldoon and Ruth Padel, but the level of academic achievement needed to appreciate them reaches doctoral standards. Even O'Brien's jokes in The Drowned Book (2007) require a good grounding in English literature: "The lady is a trope" raises laughs in English lit classes, but not from the uneducated.

    So what are we to do? Do we leave poetry to the literary clique, with the occasional escape like a spurt from a sleeping volcano? Do we descend to the level of limerick and nursery rhyme? Do we leave the hard, thankless task of connecting people with poetry to the laureates, to the efforts of Andrew Motion through the Poetry Archive, or to the work of Carol Ann Duffy? Or do we look for a middle way that connects at one level and challenges at another?

    This is an age-old concern, what Padel calls the "2,000-year-old problem": the battle between obscurity and popularity, between depth and superficiality; the flight to comfort and familiarity, the story with the happy ending; the light ditty, entertaining for a moment and then forgotten. Poetry needs to challenge, to connect with deep emotions - to threaten, even. But if there is no hook, no connection with readers' world view to what Jurgen Habermas calls their "lifeworld", poems remain sterile and nobody will get anywhere.

    For Motion, part of the problem is dissemination. Poets aren't on the news, in soap operas or featured in the pages of OK!, Heat or TV Times. They aren't connecting with social networks; they don't have a high profile in the marketplace.

    The efforts of the BBC's recent "Poetry Season" must help, but even then it was the intellectual heavyweights, academics such as Simon Schama, who were hauled on to BBC Two and BBC Four while the rest of the population watched Britain's Got Talent five nights a week.

    On Newsnight, Armitage said that poetry and war are specialised. Afghanistan is hidden away and sanitised: distant, foreign, somewhat incomprehensible, with a language of its own and an obscure purpose, important but far removed from domestic economic realities. And what is an insurgent, anyway?

    And there is quite a parallel with information and communications technology (ICT) and computing. They are seen as hard, boring, for a clique of aficionados and geeks, not to be pursued. There is a social and perceptual barrier to overcome. The social importance of ICT and poetry, the excitement of engagement, the novelty, their range of ideas and their potential for the enrichment of life are ignored. And yet poetry is at the heart of our lives. The Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavadgita are full of poetry. The great myths and stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, are framed in poetic terms. Has poetry been hijacked by academics who compete with one another to be the most obscure? Is it merely an academic feat of snobbery left out to cure in the sun?

    There was no snobbery in William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. Shakespeare's audience was no academic clique. The unwashed - shouting, drinking, farting, walking in and out - turned up in their droves to the Globe. The political classes engaged with his material and showed it off to the diplomats, yet Shakespeare did not talk down to the masses, nor demand the purity of language and the preservation of its past. He wrote to entertain, but he wove together meaning and language on many levels. He took words out of people's mouths, transformed them and pitched them back.

    Much of Shakespeare's work beyond the stories and bawdy jokes must have gone straight over the heads of people in the audience, but they went away with new cadences and words ringing in their ears.

    So the Bard engaged with the people and yet pulled them into new realms. By doing so, he evolved language and struck emotional connections.

    Perhaps it is the scaffold of his dramatic storytelling, poetic relationships and their relentless narrative drive that provides the framework for deep emotion and deep language. Or perhaps Shakespeare's audience was more attuned to life, death and strong emotions. Perhaps it's time for a return to the ballad, to rooting poetry in strong storylines, to riding on the back of Hollywood. Can there be poetry in the language of the screen, in cuts, in short and long shots, in tight dialogue?

    Poetry connects with life and emotion and existence and the reasons for living. Perhaps today's superficiality has suffocated it. The reduction of life to money and consumerism, love to sex and orgasms, and death to sanitised crematoriums and renditions of My Way muffles the spiritual, deflects reflection and reduces debate to a social faux pas.

    We have found meaning, desire and creativity in the shopping mall rather than the book, the word, the verse. My desires are heightened by neon lights, coffee houses, designer shops and John Lewis. Inner meaning and spirituality are lost amid the consumerism, accumulation and buying that constitutes the new religion. Is it any wonder that poetry is banished to the classroom when the solution to the economic crisis is seen to be more rampant consumerism? Because poetry demands spiritual connection, its currency is all but exhausted.

    My first encounter with poetry was through Ted Hughes' 1960s work Poetry in the Making, a book for children that challenges them to think, to imagine. The images conjured up by his poems The Thought Fox and Pike challenged me to imagine and write my own descriptions of the natural world. With the spoken word, with radio, with written text, there is a demand for engagement. We must imagine. The work of creating the image, of imagining, must be done by the audience. Even in plays, the limited stage design and props are merely scaffolding for the audience to build an imaginative world. But our reliance on the moving image makes us passive recipients of someone else's imagination. As our imaginative muscles weaken, reading poetry becomes harder and harder work.

    If poetry requires thought and reflection, a pause, staying with an image or a line of inquiry instead of moving on to the next stimulus, how can it survive in a world where instant gratification is the norm, where we switch off if the next fix, shock or flash doesn't appear on the screen? We will not linger long enough with one image, one thought, one sentence for the picture to come into focus.

    Are we to be defeated by superficial engagement with life, consumerism, the atrophy of imagination and attention? Are we to paint over the walls with rationalism?

    Perhaps poetry is too slow. The late Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader (2008) took 25 years to appear. Where was the urgency, the currency? The gestation period, the writing and rewriting, leaves poetry discarded, stillborn as life and media press on. Perhaps poets should write quickly, producing to express the moment, realising that while today's poem may not (for hygiene reasons) wrap fish and chips, it will quickly end up in the recycling box or lining the guinea-pig cage.

    The poetry of the laureate is remaindered;

    A bargain amongst the romances and obscure biographies.

    The emotions expressed are put out to recycle;

    The sharp insights bleached by sun, browned by age.

    I might have written my heart out, explored tender wounds;

    But what remains is rendered basic,

    Unfit for fish and chips and buried

    In the detritus of a consumed life.

    Those who find it hidden amongst the Wordsworth and Coleridge

    Wonder if I ever lived or breathed or felt

    The tenderness of love, the frustration of queues

    The emptiness of crowds.

    This poetry captures an emotion,

    Projects my hologram hung briefly in the air,

    An image from the past, I reach out and call

    Before dissolving into the white steel wall.

    If hardly any word will be absorbed,

    If whole sermons are reduced to a single image,

    If hidden words remain ignored, lost in flight,

    The fleeting image must be written light.

    The whole poem executed by a pointillist's brush,

    Leaves some impression after the detail fades

    A whole interpretation requires a thousand words

    And an image picked out at a distance.

    I might as well write for Heat and Hello

    Endless words paraded by without recognition.

    You will only pick out the familiar phrase

    The comforting message heard too often.

    Or that which is so horrific, the image will stay

    The deflowered maiden, hands sliced, tongue stopped

    The shocking, the revolting, when the ground gives way

    And the landmarks are left behind.

    You may be drawn in by the simple verse, the easy idea

    A quick point, a joke, a simple message.

    Beyond the blue-mirrored shallows

    A deeper message awaits.

    January 22, 2010

    Michael Rosen to Chair Judging Panel for Warwick Prize for Writing

    Writing about web page

    Michael Rosen, the award-winning writer and former Children’s Laureate was announcedRosen yesterday as Chair of the judges for the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing. The £50,000 Prize, run by the University of Warwick, was launched in 2008 and is awarded once every two years. Unique in its scope, it stands apart from other literary prizes as an international cross-disciplinary biennial award open to substantial pieces of writing in the English language, in any genre or form.

    The theme changes with each prize, and the 2011 theme is ‘Colour’. Submissions for the 2011 Prize are now open, and all University of Warwick students and its staff– from porters to professors– are invited to make a nomination by 7 May 2010. The Prize aims to identity excellence and innovation in new writing, and help define where writing might be going: what new shapes and forms it may take and even through what media it might be conducted.

    Michael Rosen comments:

    "This is a prize that matches people's reading habits: most of us read across genres, hopping from fiction to journalism to history to biography. I'm guessing that one of the challenges in judging this will be comparing books that are usually regarded as too unlike to be compared. We'll have to raise our game to cope with that, I think, and that's something I'm looking forward to immensely.” 

    Michael Rosen is a writer, broadcaster, performer and Visiting Professor of Children’s Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. He was the Children’s Laureate 2007 – 2009 and has been writing books for children since 1975. He has presented many radio shows and occasional TV programmes, and is the current presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’.

    A longlist of 15 to 20 titles will be announced in October 2010 followed by a shortlist of six titles in January 2011, and the winner will be announced in February 2011. Naomi Klein was announced as the inaugural winner of the Prize in February 2009, for her book The Shock Doctrine (Penguin). On winning the award, Klein said:

    “At a time when the news out of the publishing industry is usually so bleak, it’s thrilling to be part of a bold new prize supporting writing, especially alongside such an exciting array of other books.”

    Professor Jeremy Treglown, Director of the Warwick Prize for Writing, comments:

    “The Prize brings together students and staff in debates about current work across all disciplines and genres. It adds a thrilling dimension to our teaching.”

    To find out more visit

    December 10, 2009

    Geoffrey Moorhouse

    Writing about web page

    Geoffrey Moorhouse

    Geoffrey Moorhouse, who has died aged 77, was a Guardian journalist of deep integrity who moved out of daily newspapers to write books on a variety of themes, most often invoking the human spirit. One book in particular, The Fearful Void (1974), is remembered some 35 years later in revealing in its author, as one critic put it, a sublime madness.

    Aged 40, without previous experience of the desert, or of camels, how to navigate or local languages, he decided to attempt the first solo west-to-east crossing of the Sahara, some 3,600 miles. His was not a journey simply to conquer a physical barrier, but more a voyage of self-discovery: he wished to come to terms with his own fears about life. Cross the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Nile, he felt, and he could do anything.

    After five months and some appalling hardships – not least the death of three camels, the dishonesty of companions (he found that he could not travel alone), dysentery that seemed never-ending, feet that were forever blistered, food ghastly to his western tastes – he gave up the struggle, still 2,000 miles from his destination. But in many an interview, he said he now understood himself better, even in failure. His account, although not pleasant reading, was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Britain a bestseller, which he greeted with a wry comment about almost having to die before readers took an interest.

    This was his sixth book, and more than 20 more would follow. As a reporter, Moorhouse had proved himself a generalist who acquired knowledge, as he once confessed to me, as "a jack of all trades". His books showed an eclecticism in his nature but were never less than expert in their research and writing.

    Born in Bolton, Lancashire (his surname was that of his stepfather), he was educated at Bury grammar school. He once recollected how much he learned at school about composition, but later made what he called his "great discovery through Orwell", that "labouring to develop a distinctive style was a fruitless exercise". He did his national service in the Royal Navy before joining the Bolton Evening News. After two years, and aged 23, he left for New Zealand. He not only worked on newspapers there, but also met his first wife, Jan. He brought her back to England in 1957 and for a few months worked in London for the News Chronicle, by then in decline. In 1958 he moved to the Manchester Guardian.

    Finding himself drawn to church affairs as a reporter – he was, he said, "pickled" in the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible – he wrote Against All Reason (1969), a highly praised investigation of monastic life. He was also enthralled by architecture and was with the historian Nikolaus Pevsner when he scrutinised the very last entry for his Buildings of England, Butterfield's parsonage at Sheen, Surrey. Later, Moorhouse's inquisitiveness led him to write about missionaries and diplomats, as well as lobster fishermen off the New England coast.

    At the Guardian, he became chief features writer in 1963, a post he held until he quit in 1970 for full-time book writing. In 1968, he took his turn covering the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, where he used his knowledge of trains to gain a modest scoop. Frustrated at being one of 500 foreign correspondents held at bay at Košice, some 10 miles from where the Russians were trying to browbeat the Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, at Cierna, it occurred to him that, as the meeting was taking place at the town's railway institute, there must also be a railway line. The next morning he rose early and circumvented the security cordon by catching a workmen's train, bound for Cierna. Although he was discovered soon after arrival and returned to Košice, Moorhouse was able to file 800 self-deprecating words of his experience for the next morning's paper.

    Four of his books were based on the Indian sub-continent. The first, Calcutta (1971), remains a classic and led him to write two other city books, New York (1988) and Sydney (1999) – his metropolitan trilogy, as he called them. In the early 1980s, he travelled in Pakistan to its border with Afghanistan and the result, To the Frontier (1984), won him the Thomas Cook travel book award. It was, though, originally suppressed in Pakistan by the regime of General Zia on the grounds that it was anti-Islamic.

    He also wrote knowledgably about two sports – cricket and rugby league. His love of cricket (he followed Lancashire all his life) led him to write The Best Loved Game (1979), which won him the Cricket Society award, and, in 1983, Lord's, a study of the home of cricket, particularly the MCC. Moorhouse's volume of essays about rugby league (he supported Wigan), At the George (1989), led him to be made the game's official historian for its centenary in 1997.

    As he grew older and travelled less – and having survived a near-fatal heart attack – he turned to history, working from his home in Gayle, a village in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Hell's Foundations (1992) was about the effect that the Gallipoli campaign of the first world war had on the Lancashire town of Bury, whose young men formed the bulk of the 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers and failed to return. He followed it with three books of Tudor history: The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), on the popular uprising that almost toppled Henry VIII; Great Harry's Navy (2005), concentrating on the origins of the Royal Navy; and The Last Office (2008), which told of the dissolution of the monasteries through the example of Durham. The praise it received particularly pleased him, as that book brought together many of his life's interests.

    That year, a novel by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame – Towards Another Summer – was published posthumously. Moorhouse and his first wife, who had given hospitality to Frame in the early 1960s, appear in the novel. Moorhouse thought the portrait of his wife excellent, but hoped he wasn't "as plonkingly earnest" as Frame had drawn him.

    With Jan, he had two sons and two daughters. The younger daughter, Brigie, died of cancer in 1981. Jan was by then married to another Guardian man, Geoffrey Taylor. Moorhouse married again twice, but each marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Susan Bassnett, his daughter, Jane, and sons Andrew and Michael.

    Peter Preston writes: There were two great feature writers on the staff when I became features editor of the Guardian four decades ago. One was Terry Coleman, master of the full dress interview. The other was Geoffrey. And he was special, too.

    Geoffrey was quiet, brooding, very northern, always fascinated by time and place, as well as surface events. He was a reporter who delved and pondered, getting the facts right, making sure that the slices of life he portrayed were true. He believed in people and making their lives available for a broader audience. He had a quizzical eye and a gentle, reflective sense of humour. And, whether evoking a street market in Blackburn or Bologna, he was always detailed.

    It was probably inevitable, as his own life moved on, that he would find the role of author-reporter more fulfilling than that of feature writer on demand, given the latter's requirement of hours rather than months to turn a rich idea around. Moving on was a great career move. But the Geoffrey I shall always remember, wry, precise, in no sense overbearing, was and remained a great reporter with the most precious gift a reporter can possess: to be able to write as well as he can observe, to describe what he sees in a way that makes it memorable.

    WL Webb writes: Geoffrey reminded me recently that I had given him his first byline in the Guardian – a sketch of the kind once known as a "back-pager", about a stroppy curate getting on the wrong side of his Lancashire bell-ringers – and generally encouraged him in the late 1950s to push on and become one of the paper's stars.

    We spent much time together in 1968, covering the Prague Spring and taking turns to guard jealously from other desperate reporters an ancient teleprinter in a dingy hotel that needed much coaxing to send our copy out. Geoffrey's concentration was ferocious. Once, when I tried to interrupt him in full spate to explain some Czech speech that had just changed the story, he took a wild swing at me, as I struggled to stop him typing away.

    The same restless energies drove him on his solo slog across the Sahara and through all his other formidably researched and experienced books, until he came to rest in the Wensleydale he loved and celebrated so warmly in his north country pastorals in the Oldie.

    • Geoffrey Moorhouse, writer, born 29 November 1931; died 26 November 2009

    December 02, 2009

    "The New Yorker" Asks the Question: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?

    Writing about web page

    New Yorker! Why Do You Not Love My Book?

    Show or Tell

    Should creative writing be taught?

    by Louis Menand June 8, 2009

    Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

    This skepticism is widely shared, and one way for creative-writing programs to handle it is simply to concede the point. The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most renowned creative-writing program in the world. Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three recent Poet Laureates are graduates of the program. But the school’s official position is that the school had nothing to do with it. “The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us,” the Iowa Web site explains. Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma. “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the school says, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”

    “A nice conviction if you can afford it” might be the response of faculty working in less prestigious programs, and not everyone who teaches creative writing agrees about the irrelevance of the job. Some writers do seem to make it a matter of principle to bite the hand that writes the checks. Allen Tate, the poet and critic, complained that “the academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, but who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers.” Tate ran the creative-writing program at Princeton, where John Berryman was a colleague. Kay Boyle once published a piece arguing that “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” She taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State.

    Other writers, though, are very much with the program. John Barth taught for twenty-two years in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, one of the oldest and most luminous programs in the country. In 1985, he published an article in the Times Book Review entitled “Writing: Can It Be Taught?,” to which his answer was that it emphatically can, mainly on the ground that it so emphatically is. (He added the standard “genius” exception: “Not even in America can one major in Towering Literary Artistry.”)

    A few writing instructors have changed their minds. When Barth wrote his piece for the Times, he might have been recalling a speech given three years earlier by one of the leading figures in the field, R. V. Cassill. Verlin Cassill was a novelist and short-story writer who graduated from Iowa in 1939 and returned after the war to get an M.A. and to teach in the Writers’ Workshop. One of his students was Margaret Walker, an African-American, who was the author of “Jubilee” (1966)—the first of the so-called neo-slave narratives, of which the most famous is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” (“Jubilee” was Walker’s Ph.D. thesis; for the project, Cassill made her read Henry James, who, in those days, was considered a universal “writer’s writer,” even for a woman writing a novel about slavery and Reconstruction.) Cassill wrote a standard textbook, “Writing Fiction”; he was the editor of “The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction,” a position of power in the field; and, from 1966 until his retirement, in 1983, he taught creative writing at Brown, another program with a distinguished history. In 1967, shortly after arriving at Brown and just at the start of a boom in university-based creative-writing programs, he founded the Associated Writing Programs, the professional association of academic creative writers.

    But at a convention in Boston on the fifteenth anniversary of the A.W.P. Cassill stunned the membership by suggesting that the organization should be disbanded. He thought that writers had become complicit in the academic logrolling and gamesmanship of publish-or-perish: using other people’s money—grants from their universities and from arts agencies—they devised ways to get their own and one another’s work into print, and then converted those publications into salary increments (which is apparently how Cassill thought that most professors operate). They wrote poems to get raises. The academic system was corrupting, and it was time for the writers to get out. “We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them,” he said. The speech got attention, but the A.W.P. did not disband. It eventually renamed itself the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it now has more than twenty-five thousand members. Around the time that Cassill delivered his renunciation, there were seventy-nine degree programs in creative writing in the United States. Today, there are eight hundred and twenty-two. Thirty-seven of these award the Ph.D.

    Mark McGurl doesn’t mention Cassill’s speech in his book about creative-writing programs and American fiction, “The Program Era” (Harvard; $35), but it fits his argument perfectly. The argument is that teaching creative writing should always be a scandal, since it’s a scandal that suits everyone. It allows people in creative-writing departments to feel that, unlike their colleagues in the traditional academic disciplines, they are not cogs in a knowledge machine; and it allows the university to regard itself as what McGurl calls a “difference engine,” devoted to producing original people as well as original research. He points out that teachers in creative-writing programs were asking “Can it be taught?” right from the start, but that virtually no one has ever tried to lay down rules for what should go on in the classroom. This is because not having an answer to the “Can it be taught?” question—keeping alive the belief that all this training and socialization never really touches the heart of the imaginative process—is what marks creative-writing programs as “creative.” Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of “the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.” That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside.

    Still, the creative-writing program, unsystematic or even anti-system as it might believe itself to be, is a system. People go in at one end and they come out the other, bearing (like the Scarecrow) a piece of paper with a Latin inscription, but also bearing (unlike the Scarecrow) the impress of an institutional experience. The nature of that experience mutates as the folk wisdom of the workshop mutates—from “Show, don’t tell,” which was the mantra in the nineteen-forties and fifties, to the effectively opposite mantra “Find your voice,” which took over in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. McGurl suggests that these mantras encode shifting patterns of cultural assumptions—about identity, about work, about gender and class, and, of course, about what counts as good writing—and that they have had a big effect on the stories and novels that American writers have produced. “The rise of the creative-writing program,” he says, “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.”

    McGurl’s book is not a history of creative-writing programs. It’s a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass. (McGurl doesn’t deal with poetry.) As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

    This may sound like a formula for debunking, but it’s not. “The Program Era” is an impressive and imaginative book. It does three things unusually well. First, it interprets works of fiction as what philosophers of language call illocutionary acts. The meaning of one of Raymond Carver’s stories is not only what the story says; it’s also the way the story says it. The form of a Carver short story—ostentatiously brief, emotionally hyper-defended—expresses something. McGurl thinks that the style represents the “aestheticization of shame, a mode of self-retraction.” Literary minimalism like Carver’s—McGurl calls it “lower-middle-class modernism”—is a means of reducing the risk of embarrassing oneself, and is one way that students from working-class backgrounds, like Carver (he was from Oregon, where his father was a sawmill worker), deal with the highbrow world of the academy.

    Rather ingeniously, McGurl reads the work of Carver’s exact contemporary Joyce Carol Oates as an expression of the same class-based self-consciousness. (He notes that Carver once called Oates the most important writer of his generation.) Oates is a prolific practitioner of what McGurl calls “maximalist” fiction: it has been said that, at one point in her career, she wrote forty pages of fiction every day, or about a quarter of what would constitute an entire book for Carver. But McGurl thinks that maximalism, too, is “a way of shielding oneself with words.” The two styles are methods of self-protection and, at the same time, forms of self-assertion: the minimalist writer puts his craft on display, the maximalist his facility.

    Carver and Oates are both program products. Oates is from a poor family—she once described herself as “of peasant stock”—in upstate New York. She came out of the undergraduate creative-writing program at Syracuse, where she studied with Donald Dike, and she has spent most of her career teaching at Princeton, where Morrison, until her recent retirement, was also on the faculty. In Carver’s case, the career constitutes a virtual tour d’horizon of the creative-writing scene. Carver started as a correspondence student in an outfit known as the Palmer Institute of Authorship. He took classes at Chico State, in California, with the novelist John Gardner; at Humboldt State College, with the short-story writer Richard Cortez Day; at Sacramento State College, with the poet Dennis Schmitz; and at Stanford, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow; and he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with John Cheever. His second marriage was to another creative-writing professional, the poet Tess Gallagher, and he ended up as a professor at Oates’s alma mater, Syracuse, where Jay McInerney was his student. The beat goes on—McGurl’s point.

    A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.

    McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. (McGurl uses the term “reflexive modernity.” There is a lot of critical techno-speak in “The Program Era,” it’s true. There are also flow charts and the like, diagrams suited to systems analysis. If you don’t enjoy this sort of thing, you will not get very far into the book. It’s worth learning to enjoy, though.)

    So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives. And contemporary fiction does have many readers. McGurl argues that, far from homogenizing literature or turning it into an academic exercise, creative-writing programs have been a success on purely literary grounds. “There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period,” he says, and he offers the same proof that Barth offered in his Times article: there is more good fiction out there than anyone has time to read. The system must be doing something right.

    The third accomplishment of “The Program Era” is almost inadvertent. Changes in creative-writing programs are influenced by changes in two related bodies of thought, both of which try to answer the question “How can we make people more productive and more creative?” These are the philosophy of education and management theory. Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the “learning by doing” theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning. And, as McGurl suggests, presenting a story in a writing workshop is a little like making a business presentation in a corporate workplace. Such a presentation is, on some level, what he calls “a presentation of individual excellence,” a means by which we observe and test ourselves. It helps us measure how we’re doing in the human race.

    The unexpected result of combining a history of creative fiction writing with a history of education and management theory is a kind of slide show of postwar American life. “The Program Era” evokes a sense of how life felt in the nineteen-sixties, when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters took their bus trip (a writers’ workshop on the road), and a sense of how life felt in the nineteen-seventies, when Carver was writing his bleak little stories. And this helps McGurl to make a larger point, which is that university creative-writing programs don’t isolate writers from the world. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.

    Is the rise of the creative-writing workshop, as McGurl claims, “the most important event in postwar American literary history”? Creative-writing courses did not suddenly spring into being in 1945. A course called Verse Making was available at Iowa in 1897, and from 1906 to 1925 George Pierce Baker taught a drama workshop at Harvard, the first graduate writing course in the country; Thomas Wolfe took it. The term (and the concept) “creative writing” dates from the nineteen-twenties, which is when Middlebury started the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where Robert Frost served as the world’s first writer-in-residence. In 1936, Iowa launched the Writers’ Workshop—officially, the Program in Creative Writing—under the direction of Wilbur Schramm, and began awarding the first M.F.A.s. In 1941, Schramm was replaced by Paul Engle, a prodigious creative-writing proselytizer and cultural Cold Warrior, who made Iowa into a global power in the field. Engle eventually brought writers from seventy countries to study at Iowa.

    There was a surge in creative-writing degree programs after the Second World War. The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins started in 1947; Stanford inaugurated its writing fellowships the same year; Cornell’s creative-writing program opened in 1948. As is the case with most new developments in higher education, changes in funding were responsible. Title II of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—the G.I. Bill—provided forty-eight months of tuition for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans, a much bigger number than anticipated, took up the offer, and by 1950 the government had spent more money on tuition and other college costs than on the Marshall Plan. The key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certificate programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.

    In the nineteen-sixties, the universe of higher education underwent a fantastic expansion. Between 1960 and 1969, enrollments doubled and more professors were hired than had been hired in the entire previous three hundred and twenty-five years. Most of the growth was in the public sector. At the height of the expansion, between 1965 and 1972, new community-college campuses were opening in the United States at the rate of one every week. A way for institutions to raise their academic profiles was to add graduate programs. (Once added, they became virtually impossible to subtract. This is one reason that there is an oversupply of Ph.D.s in the United States.) By 1975, there were fifteen creative-writing M.F.A. programs in the country. Today, there are a hundred and fifty-three. Creative-writing programs attract students (good for public universities, where enrollment may determine budgets), but, contrary to what many people assume, they are not generally cash cows. Most of the top programs—until recently, Columbia was the major exception—provide fellowship support for all their students, and the classes are tiny. In 2005-06, only four-tenths of one per cent of all master’s degrees awarded were in creative writing.

    The identification of certain writers with university creative-writing programs is, therefore, a postwar phenomenon. The list is long: John Hawkes (Brown), Guy Davenport (Kentucky), Robert Coover (Brown), Reynolds Price (Duke), Wallace Stegner (Stanford), Leslie Epstein (Boston University), Donald Barthelme (Houston), Tobias Wolff (Syracuse), E. L. Doctorow (New York University), William Kennedy (SUNY Albany), Robert Olen Butler (Florida State University). And many writers who are not normally imagined in an academic setting have circulated through the creative-writing system. Philip Roth has taught at several universities, including Iowa and Princeton. Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren both taught at Iowa. (Algren claimed to find writing programs worthless. He later complained, in a piece called “At Play in the Fields of Hackademe,” that “what it lacks in creativity, the Iowa Creative Workshop makes up in quietivity.” He is reported to have lost a lot of money playing poker while he was in Iowa City.)

    And it is remarkable how many fiction writers have come through university writing programs since the war—not just individual writers but entire cohorts. When Vonnegut was at Iowa, he taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving. Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”), and Tillie Olsen were all in a creative-writing workshop at Stanford at the same time. Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, and Richard Ford (a student of Doctorow, before Doctorow went to N.Y.U.) are products of the program at the University of California at Irvine. Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson all went to Columbia.

    The absorption of fiction writing into the university has a lot to do with the emergence of robust traditions (as opposed to scattered works) of so-called multicultural literature. As McGurl notes, virtually all the major figures in Latino literature have been American academics. The same is true of Asian-American novelists, many of whom have held university appointments, and of Native American writers. N. Scott Momaday was a student of Stegner’s at Stanford, which is where he began work on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “House Made of Dawn” (1968).

    These writers have a special relation to the “outside contained on the inside” feature of academic creative-writing programs, and many of the most celebrated have been accused of inauthenticity. McGurl tells the story of the attack on Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” by Karl Kroeber. Kroeber is not a Native American; he is a professor of English at Columbia whose many interests include Native American literature, and he criticized Momaday for attempting to “evoke an ‘Indianness’ for his readers (the majority of whom will presumably not be Indians) through an Anglo-American literary structure that must prohibit any authentically Indian imaginative form.” Native American literature can be taught in a university, in other words, but Native American literature should not be written in a university.

    Authenticity is a snark—although someone will always go hunting for it. McGurl’s response to Kroeber is sensible: since Momaday is a Native American, and since he developed his literary style by studying white modernist writers at Stanford and other universities, “rather than being contaminated by modernism, Indian art now includes modernism as one of its elements.” As McGurl points out, the horses that the Plains Indians rode when they hunted, so picturesquely, the buffalo were European imports.

    And though some readers are devoted to fiction about ethnic minorities because it tells “their story,” there is a degree to which such literature is for outsiders, a variety of anthropology in which natives “inform” on their own cultures to literary tourists. The rest of the natives are often not thrilled to find their practices paraded before the gaze of outsiders. “To celebrate one’s family to the maximum, to put them proudly and visibly into print, might require betraying them to the eyes of an alien observer we might call ‘America,’ ” as McGurl puts it. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is a case in point. All literature about an ethnic minority by members of that ethnic minority is, potentially, a shanda fur die goyim. More striking is that writing of this kind coming out of creative-writing programs today is the subject matter of literature and ethnic-studies departments tomorrow. Universities have become restaurants that bake their own bread.

    The creative-writing program is an American invention, and it has recently become an American export. The British were at first contemptuous of the idea of creative-writing courses; they regarded them, as the critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury once put it, as being “like the hamburger—a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat.” The first British master’s-degree program in creative writing opened in 1970. Bradbury and Angus Wilson set it up. (Bradbury taught Ian McEwan.) The first undergraduate degree program was not instituted until 1991. But the vulgar hybrid has spread. McGurl reports that there are now writing programs in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, and the Philippines.

    Still, the rise of creative-writing programs does not explain everything about postwar fiction, and there are some obvious limitations to McGurl’s argument, which he tends to acknowledge in the abstract but to ignore in the particular analysis. Plenty of postwar writers, from J. D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov to Thomas Pynchon, had little or nothing to do with writing programs. (Nabokov taught a course on the novel at Cornell, in which Pynchon was a student, but he never taught creative writing. Harvard once considered hiring Nabokov to teach literature; Roman Jakobson, then a professor of linguistics there, is supposed to have asked whether the university was also prepared to hire an elephant to teach zoology.)

    Writers are products of educational systems, but stories are products of magazine editorial practices and novels are products of publishing houses. Carver’s minimalism was shaped by his editor, Gordon Lish, whom he met in Palo Alto in the nineteen-sixties. As an editor at Esquire and Knopf, Lish (who attended Andover) put a highly identifiable impress on American fiction, some of it by writers of lower-middle-class origin and some not. Robert Gottlieb, at Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker, surely had as much influence on the fiction that was written and published in the postwar period as anyone who taught at Iowa or Stanford.

    McGurl is not interested in the effects of individual teachers and editors, though; he’s interested in the effects of systems. But magazines can be regarded as systems for processing fiction. And writers who have moved in and out of the institutions of journalism during their careers—Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe—reflect the experience in their fiction. Their novels are often staged either as a privileged type of reporting, writing that is somehow both faithful to and superior to the canons of traditional journalism, or as dramatizations of the emptied-out subjectivity of the reporter persona—the fly on the wall, the view from nowhere.

    Most readers of “The Program Era” are likely to be persuaded that the creative-writing-program experience has had an effect on many American fiction writers. Does this mean that creative writing can, in fact, be taught? What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

    And, even on the level of “just getting people to write,” different writers, when confronted with the blank page, have different modes of attack. “Revise!” is the war cry of all writing classes. David Morley’s advice in “The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing” (2007) represents the orthodoxy: “Write any sort of rubbish that covers the outlines of what you intend: the plot outline; character sketches; description; a hackneyed sestina. Begin by freewriting and free-associating sentences until some patterns emerge that begin to intrigue you solely for the sound they make, their rustle of possibility.” It’s a method that generates copy for a class to chew on, but writing that way is like throwing a lot of bricks on a pile and then being asked to organize them into a house. Surely the goal should be to get people to learn to think while they’re writing, not after they have written.

    No one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is, anyway. Stegner was an Iowa product, possibly the first person ever to receive a degree in creative writing. He founded the program at Stanford by persuading a wealthy oilman to fund a place where returning veterans who wanted to write could get away from their families and hang out. Stegner believed that the purpose of writing was to give readers what he called an “intense acquaintance” with the author. “The work of art is not a gem, as some schools of criticism would insist, but truly a lens,” he explained in an essay published in 1950. “We look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist.”

    John Gardner, another workshop legend and Iowa graduate, took a different view of the business. He believed in what he called a “fictional dream,” a vivid, continuous, and believable alternate reality. His book “The Art of Fiction,” published posthumously in 1983 (he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982), concludes with a list of writing exercises, such as:

    2. Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. . . . Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways.

    4b. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

    4c. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.

    27. Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.

    No doubt Gardner had success with this method of instruction, but the exercises have nothing to do with establishing an “intense acquaintance.” They are about acquiring a knack for adopting different styles and assuming different points of view. And for many writers writing is a job, or a way to escape from oneself. Those writers would not be happy in a Stegner workshop.

    On the other hand, Gardner was a flamboyant and intensely personal teacher. His preferred pedagogical venue was the cocktail party, where he would station himself in the kitchen, near the ice trays, and consume vodka by the bottle while holding forth to the gathered disciples. Stegner, on the other hand, hated informality and disruption. He quit Stanford after students in the nineteen-sixties insisted on lying on the floor, and he resented the fact that he was famous for having been the teacher of Ken Kesey. Personality is a job requirement for the workshop teacher, and it doesn’t matter what sort. Teachers are the books that students read most closely, and this is especially true in the case of teachers who are living models for exactly what the student aspires one day to be—a published writer.

    Writing teachers may therefore cultivate their own legends. Once, on the first day of class, Angela Carter, who taught at Brown, was asked by a student what her own writing was like. She carefully answered as follows: “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.” The course turned out not to be oversubscribed. One of Rick Moody’s teachers at Columbia asked the class to indicate, by a show of hands, how many found Moody’s work boring. Donald Barthelme, at Houston, assigned students to buy a bottle of wine and stay up all night drinking it while producing an imitation of John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Lish taught private writing classes that lasted from six to ten hours, a little like est training. He had students read their stories aloud to the group, and would order them to stop as soon as he disliked what he was hearing. Many students never got past the first sentence.

    All scenes of instruction contain the potential for transference, and the workshop format seems almost deliberately designed for it. Writing instructors have techniques for stimulating production, exercises for developing an awareness of how literature works, formulas encapsulating their particular notions of craft. But the path of transmission cannot be smooth. “I could write nothing that pleased Lowell,” Philip Levine complained about a workshop that he had taken with Robert Lowell at Iowa. “Arbitrary, petty, and cruel” is the way one of Lowell’s students at Harvard described him. The writing instructor’s arbitrariness is like the psychoanalyst’s silence: the blanker the screen, the more elusive the approval, the harder students will work to be recognized.

    For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work. I wrote poetry in college, and I was in a lot of workshops. I was a pretty untalented poet, but I was in a class with some very talented ones, including Garrett Hongo, who later directed the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon, and Brenda Hillman, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at St. Mary’s College, in California. Our teacher was a kind of Southern California Beat named Dick Barnes, a sly and wonderful poet who also taught medieval and Renaissance literature, and who could present well the great stone face of the hard-to-please. I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. We read the little magazines—Kayak and Big Table and Lillabulero—and we thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.

    Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

    And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    October 28, 2009

    New Works

    I have two new pamphlets out over the next month.cover

    The Rose of the Moon was one of the Templar Poetry Prize winners and will be launched at the Derwent Poetry Festival at Matlock over the weekend of 21st - 22nd November. I like this short book a lot. It’s vigorous and pounds with duende. You may have seen most of the poems in recent issues of Poetry Review and the current issue of PN Review carries a 420-line poem called ‘Hedgehurst’.

    The other pamphlet is a quite different creature – a limited edition called The Night of the Day.

    I’m sitting in front of a box of books right now. It contains fifty copies of The Night of the Day as a silver litho-print, the handwork of the genius Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press.

    It is a beautiful book, and I like the contents too. They are dangerous, more personal and darker in tone. The book also contains a recently-written and therefore unpublished long sequence, written while in the midst of illness. It’s not a personal poem by any means, but I do look on it as going way out on a limb in terms of voice and technique.

    This is what the publisher says about the book which will be launched in part at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on 7th November; then there’s a local launch at Wilde’s Bar in Leamington at 7.30 p.m. on 16th November; a London launch on 29th November at The Bell in Aldgate; and then at Cheltenham’s ‘Buzzwords’ on 6th December.


    David Morley

    The Night of the Day is remarkable for the skill and grace with which it travels through the difficult territories that map a journey from darkness towards light. In this movement from out of the shadows, it engages with tricks of the light, vanishings, illusions, magic and bitter realities, whilst using the terrain of language that each necessitates.

    From the brutally austere language that depicts a child’s experience of violence that opens this short collection, the poems move thematically into the natural world and the darting, shifting vocabularies of memory, friendship and loss. The Night of the Day keeps a solid and determined pace, which ultimately brings us under the canvas of the big top and into the lives of the travelling circus people, in their own words, their own voices, an undertow of threat and prejudice forever shadowing their footsteps on the road.

    Available as a standard edition (£5) and also a limited number of fifty, with special silver litho-print covers, which will be signed and numbered by David Morley. These are £7 and can be reserved, so please email us to order in advance.

    By post:

    Nine Arches Press

    Great Central Studios

    92 Lower Hillmorton Road



    CV21 3TF


    Email enquiries about the press and publications to:

    mail at ninearchespress dot com

    Launched November 2009

    ISBN: 978-0-9560559-7-2

    The Night of the Day is a special-edition Nine Arches Press pamphlet.

    October 04, 2009

    Giving You the Bird

    Writing about web page

    The excellent and always interesting "Gists and Piths" is running a mini-series of some of my unpublished birdStarlinh poems [you mean there are more?] with the charming accompaniment of links to birdsong.

    These concise poems were written with the movement and signature call of the species very much in mind in the rhythm and diction of the poems. Do have a look and listen when you can.

    For those reading this in, like 2021 when I am long dead, the bird poems and bird links appeared in late September/early October 2009.

    There are lots of other good poems and poets on this site. Read them all.

    August 07, 2009

    All the Twenty–Ones: The Wolf, Poetry Review and Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

    Writing about web page

    A lot of 21-themed happenings are happening. Yesterday I returned from the Poetry Society in London havingWolf by Thomas Roche at Flickr howled my poems to help launch the 21st issue of "The Wolf", a wonderful and truly international magazine of contemporary poetry edited by James Byrne.

    James Byrne is the real thing - an incisive, classy editor who is also a wonderfully-gifted poet; and it was an honour to read alongside two other poets I admire - Paul Stubbs and Valeria Melchioretto.

    I felt a bit of a popinjay - because as I began reading, jolly music started to rise from the streets and pubs outside; so I changed my set of poems to chime better with those noises off.

    Showmanship of this type is something I always feel guilty about after the event, but sometimes it's necessary for the moment and in the moment.

    The new "Poetry Review" is striking as it builds to Volume 100. The editor Fiona Sampson has kindly given a good home to another of my long poems (long poems are tricky to publish and I've been lucky so far).

    This one's written in an invented 'coming of age' stanza of 21 lines (there are six pages of them). The poem's called 'The Circling Game'. It's another Romany tale, utterly subverted, and goes to one or two dark places before - yes, I was as surprised as anybody else - closing with what can only be described as a happy if nervy ending.

    The UK's leading annual international celebration of contemporary poetry has revealed its programme. The Aldeburgh Festival's 21st birthday will be an inspiring weekend of readings, discussions, workshops, craft talks, exhibitions, open mic plus Wonderful Beast theatre company’s celebration of Adrian Mitchell and so much more. Full programme, illustrated by my pal and esteemed Warwick colleague Peter Blegvad, is available here

    I'm delighted to be doing several things for the festival this year - a day-long 'Workshop of the World; a blind criticism with the excellent Pascale Petit; a reading in the Jubilee Hall with Maureen Duffy and Ciaran Berry at which I'll be reading from and launching a new pamphlet from Nine Arches Press called 'The Night of the Day'; a craft talk about the poetry and birdsong in which I'll be mixing and matching a lot of bird calls with the music of poems; and an exchange with the brilliant Richard Price about 'What is Worth Preserving in Poetry' (any comments appreciated on what is worth preserving are welcome and will be credited!).

    A festival such as Aldeburgh is more than the sum of its events. I'll be looking forward to meeting a lot of oldBoat at Aldeburgh by James Clay Flickr friends among the poets and the audience. I am a great fan of Britten, bookshops and bleak beaches.

    There's a magical fish and chip shop in town and I intend to attempt to host a poets' picnic on the beach or, if it rains, the Larkinesque beach shelters.

    Anybody who reads this blog and wants to meet up for this informal, non-ticketed and bring-your-own-chips attempted picnic event, let me know. Audience or programmed poets both.

    I'm sure Benjamin Britten and George Crabbe would have approved. Maybe not Peter Grimes though.

    July 29, 2009

    ‘Papusza’ and ‘The Library beneath the Harp’

    I have just completed a series of poems and songs written from the point of view of the Romani poet ‘Papusza’ [image right]. The poet Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987) was known by her RomaniPapusza name Papusza which means ‘doll’.

    She grew up on the road in Poland within her kumpania or band of families. She was literate and learned to read and write by trading food for lessons.

    Her reading and writing was frowned upon and whenever she was found reading she was beaten and the book destroyed. She was married at fifteen to a much older and revered harpist Dionízy Wajs.

    Unhappy in marriage she took to singing as an outlet for her frustrations with her husband often accompanying her on harp. She then began to compose her own poems and songs.

    When the Second World War broke out, and Roma were being murdered in Poland both by the German Nazis and the Ukrainian fascists, they gave up their carts and horses but not their harps.

    With heavy harps on their backs, they looked for hiding places in the woods. 35,000 Roma out of 50,000 were murdered during the war in Poland. The Wajs clan hid in the forest in Volyň, hungry, cold and terrified.

    A horrible experience inspired Papusza to write her longest poem "Ratfale jasfa – so pal sasendyr pšegijam upre Volyň 43 a 44 berša" ("Bloody tears – what we endured from German soldiers in Volyň in '43 and '44”), parts of which are used in my poem ‘The Library Beneath the Harp’.

    In 1949 Papusza was heard by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski who recognized her talent. Ficowski published several of her poems in a magazine called Problemy along with an anti-nomadic interview with Polish poet Julian Tuwim.

    Ficowski became an adviser on “The Gypsy Question”, and used Papusza's poems to make his case against nomadism. This led to the forced settlement of the Roma all over Poland in 1950 known variously as ‘Action C’ or “The Great Halt”.

    The Roma community began to regard Papusza as a traitor, threatening her and calling her names. Papusza maintained that Ficowski had exploited her work and had taken it out of context.

    Her appeals were ignored and the Baro Shero (Big head, an elder in the Roma community) declared her “unclean”. She was banished from the Roma world, and even Ficowski broke contact with her.

    Afterward, she spent eight months in a mental asylum and then the next thirty-four years of her life alone and isolated.

    Her tribe laid a curse on Papusza’s poems and upon anybody using or performing her work. My sequence of songs called ‘The Library beneath the Harp’ partly borrows and reshapes some of Papusza’s introductory autobiography from the Songs of Papusza as well as three of her poems.

    The title of the poem was found among the opening chapter to Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isobel Fonseca. I am very grateful to Dan Allum of The Romany Theatre Company for introducing me to the story of Papusza which, I am sure you will agree, is fascinating as well as disturbing.

    June 16, 2009

    The Romany Theatre Company

    Writing about web page

    Late last week I travelled down to Devon to read at The Arvon Foundation. I was a guest of the Romany Theatre Company, a remarkable organisation whose excellent work can be discovered at the website above.

    Lively, intelligent and incredibly talented, the company and the course's participants – all travellers –Dan Allum RTC were welcoming and challenging, in the best kind of way. I haven’t felt so home among people, apart from my own family, for some years. In terms of manners, enthusiasm and honesty they refreshed my currently eclipsed spirits.

    Never have I been better tested in questions following a reading, nor better rewarded in songs and music afterwards. Yet we were all in bed by midnight and up for a read-through next day in the barn of all my new circus poems, a series of dramatic monologues finished very recently.

    As the persona passed from one voice to another, rooks started landing on the slate roof in numbers, clattering and cawing so hard you almost couldn’t hear the poem above the natural summoning.

    It reminded me of a moment in a poem of mine called ‘Skeleton Bride’ (in a recent Poetry Review) in which the teller of the tale is interrupted by the ‘gossip’ of the trees. The fact that the teller of the tale is finally revealed to be a campfire might provide a reason for the interruptions by these Ent-like elms and oaks. This is a short excerpt:

    Light up, phabaràv, kindle the kind wood

    for the rose of the moon is opened; the camp

    nested in darkness; our dogs snore in their heap.

    Prala, you are chilled. Seal your eyes when you will.

    Those lamenting tents might then fall silent.

    Our women are waiting on your rule of sleep.

    Here, take my blanket stitched with flame.

    Weave what warmth you can from what I say.

    Keep listening, more like overhearing I know.

    Don’t heed the wind’s gossip in the trees. Those elms

    lie. Oaks over-elaborate. I have coppiced them all

    for my word fires. Here is an ember to light you.

    I very strongly recommend the work of the Romany Theatre Company. The photograph above is of the writer Dan Allum (in the barn at Arvon) who hosted me. He’d be the first to also state that the company is a collective venture and adventure. Certainly I’d jump at the chance to work with them again.

    From their website:

    The Romany Theatre Company creates rich, powerful and inspirational theatre and radio productions. RTC's work is rooted in Romany people, their culture and the centuries-old struggle for equality, with a strong emphasis on challenging negative views of Romany people and the lives they lead.

    Through the accredited learning programmes, RTC are equally committed to empowering young Romany people by involving them in theatre and radio performance, increasing their knowledge and awareness of their own culture, so creating pride in their heritage and a willingness to celebrate their identity. RTC is working towards setting up a production company with a Media & Arts Academy linked to it.

    RTC's aim is to encourage Romany people to reach out and break down the barriers of ignorance and fear by engaging and educating the general public, and moving towards a positive relationship of confidence, trust and community cohesion.

    History of the Company from their website:

    RTC are the only Romany theatre company in the UK.

    • Set up in 2002 by Romany people and is run by Romany people.
    • Became a registered charity in April 2003.
    • RTC works with Romany people, non-Romanies and other ethnic minorities.
    • Produced a video, Best Days Of Our Lives in November 2003.
    • Won a national award of excellence 2003.
    • Video/seminar. A Gypsy's Wish (video) opened at UGC cinema in Ipswich, Suffolk to a packed house and headlined at ten high profile seminars. Short-listed for Institute of Public Relations award 2004.
    • First theatrical production, The Boy's Grave ran at the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich IpArt festival in July 2004.
    • A new show, Our Big Land went on a mini tour in 2005 and was received with wide acclaim. A soundtrack CD of the show was also produced.
    • Killimengro (meaning 'dancer' in Romani), a show featuring music, drama and dance and partly performed in Romani language, toured East Anglia in June 2006 and went national to Leeds, Wales, Cornwall and Doncaster in 2006-2007.
    • Romano Drom was a documentary about the changing lives Romany people in East Anglia over the years and ran as radio series 2007. It may be nominated for an award in 2008.
    • A company member will join the Channel 4’s diversity programme September 2008.
    • Atching Tan – BBC radio drama series begins broadcasting in October 2008 on eight local radio stations in the East with two follow up series in 2009-2010

    RTC will bring a whole new audience to theatre, that is Romany people.

    June 04, 2009

    Armstrong's Poetic Blunder on the Moon: from the BBC

    Neil Armstrong missed out an "a" and did not say "one small step for a man" when he set foot on the Moon in 1969, a linguistic analysis has confirmed.

    The researchers show for the first time that he intended to say "a man" and that the "a" may have been lost because he was under pressure.

    They say that although the phrase was not strictly correct, it was poetic.

    And in its rhythm and the symmetry of its delivery, it perfectly captured the mood of an epic moment in history.

    There is also new evidence that his inspirational first words were spoken completely spontaneously - rather than being pre-scripted for him by Nasa or by the White House.


    In the recording of Neil Armstrong's iconic phrase he says: "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind". However, "man" and "mankind" mean much the same thing in this context.

    But on returning to Earth, he explained that he thought he had said "one small step for a man".

    Explanations offered for the discrepancy are that perhaps transmission static wiped out the "a" or that Commander Armstrong's Ohio accent meant that his "a's" were spoken softly.

    In 2006, an analysis by an Australian entrepreneur added credence to these explanations - as it found there was a gap for the "a". However, subsequent analyses disputed this conclusion.

    To settle the argument, Dr Chris Riley, author of the new Haynes book Apollo 11, An Owner's Manual, and forensic linguist John Olsson carried out the most detailed analysis yet of Neil Armstrong's speech patterns.

    Neil Armstrong (Nasa)
    Mr Armstrong said he thought he had said "one small step for a man"

    They are presenting the research at the Cheltenham Science Festival this week.

    "For me that phrase is of great significance," said Dr Riley.

    "It has been an important part of my life and those words sum up much of the optimism of the later part of the 20th Century."

    Using archive material of Neil Armstrong speaking, recorded throughout and after the mission, Riley and Olsson also studied the best recordings of the Apollo 11 mission audio ever released by Nasa.

    They have been taken from the original magnetic tape recordings made at Johnson Space Center, Houston, which have recently been re-digitised to make uncompressed, higher-fidelity audio recordings.

    These are discernibly clearer than earlier, more heavily compressed recordings used by the Australian investigation.

    These clearer recordings indicate that there was not room for an "a". A voice print spectrograph clearly shows the "r" in "for" and "m" in "man" running into each other.

    The researchers say the Australian analysis may not have picked up the fact that Armstrong drawled the word "for" so that it sounded like "ferr" and mistook the softly spoken "r's" for a gap.

    "It's perfectly clear that there was absolutely no room for the word 'a'," Mr Olsson explained.

    "Eagle" (Nasa)
    The "Eagle" made its historic descent to the Moon on 20 July 1969

    Riley and Olsson also concluded that Commander Armstrong and his family members do pronounce the word "a" in a discernible way.

    And based on broadcasts from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from the surface of the Moon, it is clear that the word "a" was easily transmitted to Earth without being obliterated.

    But their analysis of the intonation of the phrase strongly suggests Commander Armstrong had intended to say "a man". There is a rising pitch in the word "man" and a falling pitch when he says "mankind".

    According to Mr Olsson: "This indicates that he’s doing what we all do in our speech, he was contrasting using speech - indicating that he knows the difference between man and mankind and that he meant man as in 'a man' not 'humanity'."

    There has also been speculation that Neil Armstrong was reading from a pre-prepared script penned for him by another party. According to Mr Olsson, that is not borne out by Armstrong's body language and speech patterns.

    Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11 mission (Nasa)
    This is one of the few images of Armstrong on the Moon

    "When you look at the pictures, you see that he's moving as he is speaking. He says his first word 'that's' at the moment he puts his foot on the ground. When he says 'one giant leap for mankind', he moves his body," he said.

    "As well as this, there is no linking conjunction such as 'and' or 'but' between the two parts of the sentence. So it's for all those reasons that we think this is a completely spontaneous speech."

    It may well have been that spontaneity that led to Armstrong's slight mistake. But according to Mr Olsson - Armstrong may have subconsciously drawn from his poetic instincts to utter a phrase that, far from being incorrect - was perfect for the moment.

    "When you look at the whole expression there's a symmetry about this. If you put the word 'a' in, it would totally alter the poetic balance of the expression," he explained.

    This makes Dr Riley feel that the research has made a positive contribution to the story of the Apollo mission.

    "I’m pleased we've been able to contribute in this way and have hopefully drawn a line under the whole thing as a celebration of Neil and everyone involved with Apollo, rather than this constant little niggling criticism," he said.

    From The Indie: Now It's Bullying

    Joan Smith: Padel has been bullied for her frank ambition

    Sunday, 31 May 2009

    Blimey, have you noticed how quickly people get on their high horse these days? A week ago, the great and the good leapt on their steeds and galloped after Ruth Padel, newly elected Oxford professor of poetry, forcing her to stand down after only nine days in the post.

    Padel's offence was not admitting that she had alerted two journalists to the fact that her main rival, the poet Derek Walcott, had been accused of sexual harassment on a couple of occasions. Earlier this month, Walcott withdrew as a candidate, claiming he was the victim of a smear campaign.

    It was silly of Padel to hide the fact that she'd sent the emails, but hardly a hanging offence. It isn't as if the accusations were new or had never been published; they've appeared in a book and Walcott settled out of court with a former student. But last weekend, some of Padel's erstwhile supporters had a fit of high-mindedness and started harrumphing about how she'd let them down. Padel duly resigned, admitting to "a grave error of judgement" but denying that she was responsible for a wider campaign against Walcott.

    Does any of it matter? I don't suppose there are huge numbers of people who really care who holds the Oxford professorship of poetry or who could name Padel's predecessor. I certainly don't think it's the subject of heated discussions in pubs, where people are far more likely to be fulminating about MPs' expenses. But I do think there are parallels between the two controversies, and one of them is a public mood which is puritanical and uniquely unforgiving.

    I know Padel slightly and invited her to join the PEN Writers in Prison Committee when I chaired it. I always found her friendly, hard-working and decent, and I'm dismayed at the way she's been vilified in the past few days.

    Padel has done more than most to popularise poetry in this country, not least in a weekly column she wrote for this newspaper, and no one doubts that she would have done a brilliant job as poetry professor. She admitted she had done something wrong, had the guts to say so at a press conference and went on to appear in public at one of the country's biggest literary festivals.

    In the present mood, none of that is enough. It used to be a common complaint that no one in public life ever apologises; now people spend their time doing little else, but it is only a stage in an apparently unstoppable cycle of blame, shame and humiliation.

    Padel's supporters could have accepted her apology and assumed that she had learnt from a bruising experience; they might even have acknowledged, silently, that the academic world has always been characterised by the most deadly rivalries.

    Ambition is not exactly unknown in Oxford and I suspect that Padel's biggest mistake was to let hers show. On the whole, men are smarter about that; I've lost count of how many times I've heard a man who was positively gagging for a big job protest that it was a burden he had decided to accept only reluctantly. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has happened to a woman, and the spectacle of the boys' club closing ranks against her isn't exactly edifying.

    It's a measure of the times we live in that even the election of a rather obscure (to most of us) professor of poetry can be parlayed into a media storm. It may be that most poets would like to go back to being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but in such a febrile atmosphere I don't hold out much hope.

    May 27, 2009

    The Independent Quotes Ruskin

    The pity of the situation is almost worthy of some lines of verse itself. Oxford University could have been welcoming its first black professor of poetry or its first female one. Either would have been a breakthrough. But now the university is left with neither.

    The smearing of Derek Walcott and yesterday's resignation of Ruth Padel, after admitting her team's role in dredging up damaging allegations from Walcott's past, is a vivid lesson in the foolishness of fighting dirty for a prize.

    As Gordon Brown's ex-spin doctor, Damian McBride, discovered, in rather different circumstances, smearing rivals can end up damaging your cause just as much as theirs. The architectural critic and sometime poet, John Ruskin, once wrote that "nothing is ever done beautifully that is done in rivalship; or nobly which is done in pride". This destructive battle would seem to have borne him out.

    May 13, 2009

    My Private Adlestrop

    This morning I was
    heading to London
    to judge The CholmondeleyIt gets in your eyes even when you don
    Awards with Dennis O'Driscoll, Carole Satymurti and our new Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, when - I know this sounds unreal - the underside of the carriage in which I was travelling exploded and caught fire.
    Then about half a ton of metal snapped off the carriage, making our wheels bob and grind ever so meanly.
    Then the power blew out, and the train freewheeled through a green England engulfed by billowing black oil-smoke and the floor heating under our toes.
    And so on, and so on,  almost child-pull chugging, until the driver braked in Haddenham, and we were all ordered out at double the speed of sound with the carriage now a sooty nightmare.
    Trains on fire are awful and beautiful. Turner could have painted this.
    Haddenham: My Adlestrop Moment.
    Nobody was hurt but the line was now blocked by our train (and debris) so there was no getting to London that way.
    I had to hop across the tracks and catch the next North-bound.
    Inside this tale is a lesson about my hubris.

    May 12, 2009

    Jonathan Bate’s “Long View”

    I am both a scientist and a poet and have enjoyed employment in both fields. Given recent risible comments by ministersJonathan Bate on the economic value of Humanities subjects (as opposed to some outdated and false notion of ‘hard’ sciences), and given the likely cuts to be made within UK universities, it seems a good time to reprint what I consider a wise,  interesting - and quietlly revolutionary - essay by my colleague Jonathan Bate (pictured right). To give you a flavour of the invigorating areas that Bate addresses, read this to whet your appetite:

    ‘Imagine a civil servant responsible for the distribution of the research budget. Imagine them saying ‘I don’t lose any sleep at night over the spending of taxpayers’ money on medical research, but I do lose sleep over the spending of it on humanities research; I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so.’ Imagine, then, that you have the ear of that civil servant, or for that matter the minister to whom they report, for a few sentences. What will you say to help them to rest more easily at night on this matter of the taxpayer and humanities research?’

    The Long View

    Jonathan Bate

    ON ‘VALUE’

    There is a simple answer to the question ‘what is the value of research in the humanities?’ It is that research in the humanities is the only activity that can establish the meaning of such a question.

    What do we mean by ‘value’, by ‘research’ and by ‘the humanities’? These are questions that can only be answered by means of the tools of the disciplines of the humanities. They are questions of semantics and interpretation. And they require philosophical and historical understanding. Language, history, philosophy: the humanities.

    By the same account, a further value of research in the humanities is that it is the only activity that can answer the question ‘what is the value of research in the sciences?’ It is generally assumed that the value of research in the sciences is to advance knowledge so as to improve the quality of human life. The value of medical research is to cure disease, relieve suffering and lengthen life. Among the potential values of research in climatology, biochemistry, physical engineering and several other scientific disciplines might be the discovery of various means to fix an array of environmental problems. But questions such as why we should value long life and what ethical obligations we might have to future generations, to other species or indeed to the planet itself are ‘humanities’ questions, only answerable from within the framework of

    disciplines that are attentive to language, history and philosophy. In act two scene two of Shakespeare’s rigorously intellectual (and wildly bawdy) tragedy Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan lords debate as to whether it is worth fighting a war for the sake of the beautiful Helen. Hector proposes that ‘she is not worth what she doth cost / The keeping.’ ‘What’s aught but as ’tis valued?’ asks Troilus in reply. ‘Value’ here is initially conceived in economic terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – an essential product of humanities research – the primary meaning of the word value is ‘That amount of some commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else; a fair or adequate equivalent or return. [As in the] phr[ase] value for money (freq[uently] attrib[uted, used metaphorically]).’

    Value, then, as a term referring to a commodity, a medium of exchange, something quantifiable. An interpretation in terms of the market, of ‘economic impact’.

    Hector, though, comes back with a counter-argument that shifts the meaning of the term:

    But value dwells not in particular will:

    It holds his estimate and dignity

    As well wherein ’tis precious of itself

    As in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry

    To make the service greater than the god.

    The word ‘value’ must now be understood in the light of another of its definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The relative status of a thing, or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness, or importance. In Philos[ophy] and Social Sciences, regarded esp[ecially] in relation to an individual or group; gen[erally] in pl[ural], the principles or standards of a person or society, the personal or societal judgement of what is valuable and important in life.’ The relativism of Troilus (things only have value in so far as they are valued by particular people who prize them) is replaced by the proposition that there can be essential values, that a thing might be intrinsically valuable (‘precious of itself’). As the dictionary definition reminds us, this essentialism may eventually have to be dissolved into another relativism: ‘society’ will make judgements as to ‘what is valuable and important in life’. We need historians and anthropologists and researchers in comparative literature to show us how different societies have different values. Shakespeare, following Montaigne, was very interested in the idea that what one society regards as the product of ‘nature’, another society will regard as mere ‘custom’. In a world of globalised communication, international exchange and migratory labour, this knowledge of difference is especially important.

    But every society has gods of one kind and another. In response to the commodified understanding of value with which he and Troilus began, Hector reminds us that it is mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god. This is as if to say: a merely economic understanding of value makes the service – the instrumentality – greater than the thing served, the real value. The value of humanities research is to identify the nature of the god.

    In the arena of higher education, the relationship between the service and the god appears to be changing. Universities had their origins in the service of first the church (the centrality of theology in the medieval curriculum) and then the state (the idea extending from Tudor reforms to the last days of the British Empire that one of the primary functions of universities was to form the minds of civil administrators). But for Cardinal Newman, the idea of the university was premised upon a god: the university was ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’. Historically, the idea of ‘education’, deriving from ‘educere’, the Latin for ‘to lead out’, is intimately bound to the notion of character formation. The model for the university tutorial is the classical sage –

    Plato in his academy or Epicurus in his garden – in dialogue with his pupils, imparting wisdom by example and through training in the art of argument. The platonic university is a place where young people learn to think. Their starting point must be the art of thinking disinterestedly, not instrumentally.

    The Victorians were the first generation in this country to believe that the state had a role to play in education. They created a government department to oversee the process. Whilst the main educational business of nineteenthcentury politicians and civil servants was the provision of universal school education, they also initiated processes that led to the reform of Oxford and Cambridge, and the growth of civic universities elsewhere, especially in the north (though, interestingly, the running in this latter regard was made within local, not national government – a model worth pondering in the context of the various other kinds of devolution that are reshaping our society today).

    Ours is an interesting moment for the idea of the university not least because one of prime minister Gordon Brown’s first actions on taking office in 2007 was to abolish the Department of Education that the Victorians had invented. If only rhetorically, this was a bold move: is there any other modern state that lacks a department of education? Given Mr Brown’s own upbringing as a son of the manse, a sometime student rector of an ancient university and a thoughtful reader of the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, this symbolic rejection of the classical notion of ‘educere’ was also a little surprising. Structure and nomenclature are inevitably formative of content: the creation of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (‘DIUS’) implies that universities are now to be regarded not as the ‘higher’ end of the educational process that begins in primary school (or before), but as servants of ‘the innovation and skills agenda’. Crudely put, academic research must pay its way by generating real returns in the wider economy.

    The big new idea is ‘knowledge transfer’. This is defined on the DIUS website as ‘improving exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives,’ to be achieved by means of ‘people and knowledge flow,’ together with ‘commercialisation, including Intellectual Property exploitation and entrepreneurial activities.’ These ambitions do sound very much like the service becoming greater than the god: the predominant language (‘exploitation’, ‘economic’, ‘commercialisation’, ‘entrepreneurial’) is that of the commodity and the marketplace.

    But even in the hard sciences, the relationship between original research and commercial exploitation is usually indirect and long-term. More than half a century passed between Arthur C. Clarke’s visionary conception of the communication potential of orbital satellites and the massive economic impact of the manufacture and sale of GPS devices to individual motorists. Medical research, too, has a long history of vast sums of money being spent on journeys up blind alleys, with new breakthroughs often coming by chance in quite unexpected places. Cyclosporin, the immunosuppressive agent that revolutionized organ transplantation, was discovered as part of a general screening programme, not through a funded research project specifically addressing the problem of graft rejection. Medical history is full of stories of this kind.

    Government and its officers have a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but in measuring the value of research a much more subtle style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life – such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgement is time. A long period of time, not the duration of a government spending review. One phrase in the DIUS definition of ‘knowledge transfer’ stands out: ‘exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives’. Public service, a concept most often used in relation to the charter of the BBC (‘public service broadcasting’), comes from a different lexicon to that of economic objectives and commercial exploitation. It actually takes us back to some of the historical functions of the university. Like the BBC, the universities are in the business of educere as a public service. In this regard, their most significant form of ‘knowledge transfer’ goes under another name: teaching.

    The value of humanities teaching at university level is not in doubt (one hopes). The question, then, is to ask what kind of public service is provided by humanities research. The obvious answer is that it feeds into teaching: in good universities, research questions emerge through teaching and new hypotheses are tested out on students. An artificial barrier between research and teaching in the provision of government funding for universities – exacerbated by the impact of the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ – has obscured this obvious answer. The division is sometimes justified on the grounds that the university teacher needs only ‘scholarship’, not new ‘research’, but such a distinction between scholarship and research simply does not hold water in any humanities discipline. To take an example from my own discipline, English Literature: to teach a literary work well at university level, one requires a good text of that work; the establishment and creation of such texts through the discipline of textual bibliography is a highly advanced, technical and timeconsuming form of research (my new recension of the text of Shakespeare’s complete works required more than fifteen person years’ research time); the resulting product cannot be described as ‘merely a textbook’ in the way that synthesis of existing scientific or medical knowledge into a textbook for students could be described as ‘scholarship’ rather than ‘research’.

    The primary impact of humanities research will always be within the educational system – which now means the global educational market. The universities that promote the best research and scholarship in the humanities will attract graduate students from around the world, thus greatly stimulating the economy and increasing our international competitiveness. The universities that build research into the undergraduate ‘learning experience’ will produce the most able students, who will bring their ‘innovation’ and ‘skills’ to every sector of the economy.

    These are important truths that need constant reaffirmation. But other kinds of answer are also needed to the question of the value of humanities research of the kind that is funded by Research Councils UK. I polled a random sample of colleagues with a hypothetical question (developing the art of posing hypothetical questions is, of course, another of the values of the humanities):

    Imagine a civil servant responsible for the distribution of the research budget. Imagine them saying ‘I don’t lose any sleep at night over the spending of taxpayers’ money on medical research, but I do lose sleep over the spending of it on humanities research; I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so.’ Imagine, then, that you have the ear of that civil servant, or for that matter the minister to whom they report, for a few sentences. What will you say to help them to rest more easily at night on this matter of the taxpayer and humanities research?

    Here are the – representative – replies of six colleagues:

    (i) Britain is a major world centre of publishing and intellectual life. Research in humanities makes possible the intellectual property and the cultural institutions that sustain this position. Without British humanities academics there would be no Oxford English Dictionary, no Macmillan Dictionary of Art, no Grove Dictionary of Music, no Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, no Oxford Classical Texts, all of which are sold on to the world and whose publication in turn guarantees Britain’s place as a world intellectual centre. Furthermore, humanities research provides an infrastructure that maintains Britain’s place as an intellectual and cultural centre, a place of publishing and reviewing, which enriches the work of our composers, artists, playwrights and novelists, whilst attracting creators from other countries and cultures to live here. We abandon this at our peril.

    (ii) To a person dying from cancer, the ‘cure for cancer’ is abstract and meaningless. It will only come after they are dead. What is needed by a dying person, beside the palliative medical care that is now available, are resources for working through their grief and anger and fear. Recent research in ‘bibliotherapy’ suggests that reading – reading in groups in particular – provides an extremely effective (and cost effective) resource for this purpose.

    That is hardly surprising. The links between poetry and mental health have long been established. After all, William Wordsworth was the effective inventor of cognitive behavioural therapy (an initiative that the government are now fully behind funding because it’s cheap, easy to train people up to practice, and has immediate, if not long-lasting effects). This is the sort of area which the research councils should be funding under their theme of ‘Ageing research: lifelong health and wellbeing.’

    (iii) I see that one of the research councils’ strategic priorities is ‘global security’. If George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s security and strategic advisors had been educated in the historical research of Erez Manela, the world would be a less dangerous place. See Pankaj Mishra’s review of Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment (

    (iv) Humanities research engenders and fosters critical thinking, which is indispensable to innovative work in any field whatsoever.

    (v) If the civil servant’s horse riding were of a standard to make her a potential Olympic competitor, wouldn’t the taxpayer be content to fund her? National prestige need not be confined to sport: what is the objection to funding the research that allows our best historians and literary scholars and classicists and philosophers to be the Olympians of their disciplines?

    (vi) A great deal of humanities research has to do with the question of how we have come to be who we are and what we might come to be as a community in the future – locally, nationally, and globally. Given the emphasis on ‘Britishness’ and questions over cultural identity that are continually being asked, I’m surprised that this isn’t one of the research councils’ key themes. These all seem to me very good answers, and the rest of this essay could easily be devoted to any one of them. To illustrate the possibilities, I shall pursue the final response. In doing so, I will give an example of humanities research in action – in an area that seems far distant from contemporary society but that actually has great contemporary resonance.


    On 20 February 2008, Gordon Brown said in his speech on ‘Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship’:

    Citizenship is not an abstract concept, or just access to a passport. I believe it is – and must be seen as – founded on shared values that define the character of our country. Indeed, building our secure and prosperous future as a nation will benefit from not just common values we share but a strong sense of national purpose. And for that to happen we need to be forthright – and yes confident – about what brings us together not only as inhabitants of these islands but as citizens of this society. Indeed there is a real danger that while other countries gain from having a clear definition of their destiny in a fast changing global economy, we may lose out if we prove slow to express and live up to the British values that can move us to act together. So the surest foundation upon which we can advance socially, culturally and economically in this century is to be far more explicit about the ties – indeed the shared values – that make us more than a collection of people but a country. This is not jingoism, but practical, rational and purposeful – and therefore, I would argue, an essentially British form of patriotism.

    I would suggest that humanities research alone has the capacity to test the meaning and validity of this claim. Consider for a moment, Brown’s resonant closing phrase ‘an essentially British form of patriotism’. Humanities research is where we need to go in order to find out whether there is or was or could be such a thing. My own research suggests that there is in fact an interesting relationship between the origin of the idea of us as ‘British’ and the origin of the idea of ‘patriotism’. Here is a summary report of my findings.

    The Reformation in religion, and more particularly Henry VIII’s break from Rome, was decisive in shaping the modern English, and then British, state and, at the same time, the idea of love of one’s country (‘patriotism’). The culture of England was until the early sixteenth century always implicitly part of something larger: the culture of Catholic Europe. After 1536-39, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and proclaimed the supremacy of the English crown and the independence of the English church, it became necessary to forge a new kind of national culture.

    A key work in this project was a huge book called Britannia, by William Camden, antiquarian and second master at Westminster School. Published in Latin in 1586, it went through six editions by 1607, and was translated into English by Philemon Holland in 1610. Dedicated to William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer and chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, Camden’s weighty book began with a history of early Britain, then proceeded to a county-by-county guide to the topography, history and antiquities of the nation. Britannia was an attempt to write the nation into being. Britain is proclaimed as a chosen land, symbolically set apart from the European main.

    The opening of Camden’s text implies that Britain is one nation, if with several names, played off against ‘the continent of Europe’. But his title-page presents a more complicated picture. Holland translated it as follows: Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adjoyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie (‘chorographical’ means ‘the writing of regions’, as opposed to ‘geography’, the writing of the whole earth). The county-by-county survey begins with Cornwall in the extreme south-west, goes across to Kent in the extreme southeast, then criss-crosses northward until it reaches Cheshire, at which point Camden writes, ‘I Thinke it now my best way, before I treat of the other parts of England, to digresse a while and turne a little aside toward Wales, called in Latin Cambria, or Wallia, where the ancient Britans have yet their seat and abode’. Wales is thus subsumed into England, though with the recognition on the one hand that it is marginal – you must turn a little aside to acknowledge it – and on the other hand that it is special, since the Celtic or ancient British heritage remains unusually alive there. The latter acknowledgment might look to a Welshman like condescension masked as flattery.

    From Wales, Camden proceeds through the northernmost counties of England and into Scotland, which he says that he will willingly enter into, ‘but withall lightly passe over’, since he does not know its customs well and will not presume to trespass upon them. His text passes it over in a score of leaves, whereas it has dwelt in England for hundreds of pages. Camden quotes an apt Greek proverb, ‘Art thou a stranger? Be no Medler’. One senses that Camden is a little uneasy about subsuming the Scots into his treatment of England-asimplicitly- Britain, as he had subsumed the Welsh. His task became much easier after King James united the thrones of Scotland and England in 1603. Holland’s 1610 translation proceeds with a passage that Camden added to his 1607 edition:

    Certes, I assure my selfe that I shall bee easily pardoned in this point, the people them selves are so courtuous and well meaning, and the happinesse of these daies so rare and admirable, since that by a divine and heavenly opportunity is now fallen into our laps, which wee hardly ever hoped, and our Ancestours so often and so earnestly wished: Namely, that Britaine so many ages disjoigned in it selfe and unsociable, should all throughout like one uniforme City, under one most sacred and happie Monarch, the founder of perpetuall peace, by a blessed Union bee conjoyned in one entire bodie.

    Because Scotland has a court, unlike Wales, it is thought of as a place of courtesy. The joining of the two courts is conceived as a knitting together of the body-politic. King James is then praised for bringing a long history of ‘dismale DISCORD’, which has set the two ‘otherwise invincible’ nations at long debate, to ‘sweet CONCORD’, so that ‘Wee all one nation are this day’.

    The lifetime of Queen Elizabeth was a unique period for England, lying between the schism from Rome and the union with Scotland. The special conditions of the period 1533-1603 gave birth to a recognizably modern sense of the nation. It is no coincidence that in the late sixteenth century the term ‘the nation’ took on the meaning of ‘the collectivity of the people’ and the word ‘national’ enters the language, as did the grammatically absolute usage of ‘country’ as a personification of the native land – as in Shakespeare’s ‘Forgive me, country, and sweet countrymen’ (Henry VI Part One). In 1615, Camden dedicated his Annals of Queen Elizabeth’s reign to ‘God, my country, and posterity’ (‘DEO, PATRIAE, ET POSTERIS’). Such a trinity would have been inconceivable a century earlier. Nor is it coincidental that in the 1560s Laurence Nowell applied to Cecil for aid in mapping the entire realm, county-by-county; in the next decade Christopher Saxton completed the first comprehensive Atlas of England and Wales. The Elizabethans did not only ‘discover’ new worlds across the ocean:

    they also discovered England. And, despite – or because of – a succession of rebellions and the constant persecution of Roman Catholic recusants, they unified England. By the end of the sixteenth century, the government’s administrative machinery had put in place a nationwide network of civic and legal officers ultimately answerable to the crown, while the ecclesiastical settlement had established the supremacy of Anglicanism. Most importantly for our purposes, a national culture had come to full flower, thanks in large measure to the educational advances effected by the grammar schools, the translation into English of the foundation texts of Western culture (the Bible, Homer, and the major authors of classical Rome), the writing of national history, the increased availability of books of all kinds, and, for Londoners at least, the completely new cultural arena of the public playhouse. Anticipations of some of these individual factors may be found in earlier periods, but it is their concatenation in the aftermath of the break from Rome that marks the distinctively Elizabethan image of the nation.

    Wales was absent from Camden’s title-page because it was regarded as part of England; in 1536 Henry VIII had given royal assent to a bill formally uniting the two countries. Scotland, as we have seen, was deferred to as a separate nation. Ireland represented more of a problem. It had its distinctive topography and its independent history, which Camden duly and indeed respectfully recorded, but since Henry II’s conquest in 1172 it had been under the rule and power of England. Camden, with his immense reverence for Christian learning, was fascinated by the figure of St Patrick and the Irish monastic tradition that extended back to the fifth century. He even suggested that the English Saxons learned literacy from the Irish. This led him, in a fascinating sentence added to Britannia’s sixth edition, to formulate and resolve a paradox:

    And no cause have we to mervaile, that Ireland which now for the most part is rude, half-barbarous, and altogether voide of any polite and exquisite literature, was full of so devout, godly and good wits in that age, wherin good letters throughout all Christiendome lay neglected and half buried; seeing, that the Divine providence of that most gratious and almighty ruler of the world, soweth the seeds and bringeth forth the plantes of Sanctity and good arts, one whiles in one nation and other whiles in another, as it were in garden beds and borders, and that in sundry ages: which being removed and translated hither and thither, may by a new grouth come up one under another, prosper, and be preserved to his owne glory, and the good ofmankind. (Holland, translation of Camden’s ‘Ireland’)

    Camden’s expectation was clearly that a reader might well marvel at the transformation of Ireland from centre of erudition and holiness to cultural and moral desert. His explanation for the change relied on a providential and cyclical view of history, in thorough accordance with the Elizabethan theory of the translation of empire and learning (translatio imperii et studii) in which England was regarded as the nation chosen by God to succeed Greece and Rome as the pre-eminent home of world power and high culture – and indeed to exceed the ancients, since imperial glory and ‘good arts’ were combined with Christian ‘Sanctity’. The providential explanation diverts the reader from another possibility: namely that all traces of high culture have been extinguished from Ireland because it has been so long subjugated to England, that it is the English who have made the Irish ‘rude’ and ‘half-barbarous’.

    Between 1586, when Britannia was first published, and 1607, when this passage was added, Tyrone’s rebellions had been suppressed and the English crown’s stranglehold on Ireland tightened. Though strangers in Ireland, the English did not hesitate to meddle. You can only invent a nation by positing its other, by creating an outside, by denominating and demonizing aliens. Ireland, Catholic Spain, the Ottoman empire, Italy – paradoxically regarded as the source of both artistic sophistication and machiavellian decadence – and the New World served the Elizabethans well in this respect.

    At first sight, the above piece of research may appear antiquarian, parochial, even pedantic. An examination of the textual changes between the Elizabethan and Jacobean versions of Camden’s Britannia does not sound like the kind of thing that has ‘relevance’ to the early twenty-first debate about ‘earned citizenship’ and ‘national identity’. But it is precisely in Camden’s negotiations of the relationship between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, between service to God and love of ‘patria’, that modern notions of citizenship, patriotism and national identity begin to emerge. The ‘British question’, as historians call it, has been the focus of much of the most innovative and provocative historical and literary-historical research in the last twenty years – the line of distinguished work extends from Hugh Kearney’s The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (1989) to John Kerrigan’s Archipelagic English (2008). The fostering and dissemination of that research, through teaching, through books aimed at a wide intelligent readership, through broadcasting and – why not? – even through seminars for the education of politicians and civil servants can play a major role in raising the level of debate about nation and devolution, arrival and belonging.


    Humanities research is about taking the long view. That is why it is difficult to justify in the language of immediate accountability. This essay has taken the long view of the question of what we mean by ‘value’, the long view of the function of the university and the long view of the peculiarity of English/British national identity. It will end by taking the long view of the debate about the role of quantifiable (‘economic’) measures of the public utility of humanities research.

    One of the values of humanities research is that it teaches us that all controversies have historical precedents – the lessons of which we are very good at ignoring. The debate between those who look for ‘economic impact’ and those who appeal to the pursuit of knowledge as a civilizing virtue replicates a dichotomy identified by John Stuart Mill in the early Victorian era, in his pair of essays on Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840).

    Mill contends that Bentham and Coleridge are the two ‘great seminal minds’ of the age. Britain, he proposes, is indebted to them ‘not only for the greater part of the important ideas which have been thrown into circulation among its thinking men in their time, but for a revolution in its general modes of thought and investigation’. Bentham and Coleridge, he argues, were destined to renew a lesson given to mankind by every age, and always disregarded — to show that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey. The writers of whom we speak have never been read by the multitude; except for the more slight of their works, their readers have been few: but they have been the teachers of the teachers; there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of mind, who (whatever opinions he may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from one of these two.

    To effect a revolution in ‘general modes of thought’; to inhabit a realm (‘speculative philosophy’) that seems utterly remote from ‘the business of life’ and yet to influence society more than anyone else; to be ‘the teachers of the teachers’; to be the figures from whom all serious minds ‘learn to think’: even if these claims were to be greatly diluted, the implication would still be that the intellectual work of Bentham and Coleridge was of extraordinary value to society, even though its direct impact (in terms of the number of people who read their major books) was minimal. Their importance is in itself is a salutary warning against the short view of our question.

    What, then, were their great innovations? Bentham, says Mill, was ‘the great critical thinker of his age and country’, ‘the great questioner of things established’. He was the iconoclast who was no respecter of institutions and traditions. A latter-day Benthamite might well say: why should we fund research in the humanities just because we have funded it in the past? Bentham, continues Mill, ‘introduced into morals and politics those habits of thought and modes of investigation, which are essential to the idea of science’. A latter-day Benthamite might very well say: prove the value of what you do by quantifying it. Be precise, be empirical, do not rely on windy rhetoric. Give me a metric.

    Famously, Bentham’s utilitarian principle was ‘the greatest happiness of the  greatest number’. If push-pin (a children’s game) gives happiness to more people than poetry, then push-pin is more valuable than poetry. ‘Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.’ In this view, quantity – or, as we would now say, ‘access’ or ‘inclusion’ – trumps intellectual athleticism and aesthetic value. By this logic, government might well find itself subsidising access to push-pin’s modern equivalents – computer games – and leaving poetry to the mercy of the market. Mill admires the modernity and the democracy of Bentham’s utilitarian position, but deplores its lack of imagination: ‘He committed the mistake of supposing that the business part of human affairs was the whole of them.’ Bentham failed to take into account other aspects under which human activities should be judged – the moral, the aesthetic and the sympathetic (a modern term for the latter might be ‘the socially cohesive’). Bentham must therefore be balanced against Coleridge.

    Whereas Bentham began by asking of every received opinion ‘is it true?’, Coleridge began by asking ‘What is the meaning of it?’ How can society foster those dimensions of human life that Benthamite utilitarianism cannot account for – the ethical, the beautiful, the cohesive force? Through the creation, Coleridge suggests, ‘of an endowed class, for the cultivation of learning, and for diffusing its results among the community’. Mill describes how in his treatise On the Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge (who was actually developing an idea first put forward in Germany by Friedrich Schiller) proposed that there should be what he termed a ‘nationalty’ or ‘national property’ in the form of a fund – derived from taxation – dedicated to ‘the advancement of knowledge, and the civilization of the community’. This national fund should support and maintain what he called a clerisy, a kind of secular clergy, with the following duties:

    A certain smaller number were to remain at the fountain-heads of the humanities, in cultivating and enlarging the knowledge already possessed, and in watching over the interests of physical and moral science; being likewise the instructors of such as constituted, or were to constitute, the remaining more numerous classes of the order. The members of this latter and far more numerous body were to be distributed throughout the country, so as not to leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident guide, guardian, and instructor; the objects and final intention of the whole order being these – to preserve the stores and to guard the treasures of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the future; but especially to diffuse through the whole community, and to every native entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of knowledge which was indispensable both for the understanding of those rights, and for the performance of the duties correspondent; finally, to secure for the nation, if not a superiority over the neighbouring states, yet an equality at least, in that character of general civilization, which equally with, or rather more than, fleets, armies, and revenue, forms the ground of its defensive and offensive power.

    Researchers and teachers in the humanities are of value to the state if and when they fulfil the function of the Coleridgean clerisy. They must remember, though, that they are a form of ‘national property’: their work must be for the benefit not of themselves but of the entire nation. Reading Coleridge’s definition of the clerisy in the light of twenty-first century debates about research funding, what is most striking is the huge emphasis that he places on what is now called ‘dissemination’. The results of our research must be ‘distributed throughout the country, so as not to leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident guide, guardian, and instructor’.

    The investment must be large, the responsibility – the public duty – placed upon the latter-day clerisy is heavy, but in the ‘knowledge economy’ and faced with the global insecurity of the twenty-first century, the return on the investment is potentially vast. Even more than in Coleridge’s day, the work of the clerisy in binding past, present and future, in yoking inheritance to aspiration and tradition to innovation, and in maintaining the understanding of ‘those rights’ and ‘correspondent duties’ that are at the core of national identity, can play a major role in ‘securing for the nation’ that ‘character of general civilization, which equally with, or rather more than, fleets, armies, and revenue, forms the ground of its defensive and offensive power’.

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