Lucy Summers, one of our MALLE students, gives her impression of a day-long field trip to Tintern Abbey, as part of our Research: Methods, Resources, Dissemination core module.
On November 6th the MALLE students had the opportunity to visit Tintern Abbey in Gwent. The Abbey holds a lot of history, as anything founded in 1131 would. This history is intertwined with cultural, social and literary changes which affected the Abbey for better and for worse. Originally built to house Cistercian Monks by Walter de Clare, the Abbey was one of the victims of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries some 400 years later. From then until the late eighteenth century, parts of the Abbey were stolen, sold, chipped away and lived in. However, the late eighteenth century is where literary traditions came to the rescue and saved (what was left of) the ruin. It was at this time that it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country, such as the Wye Valley where the Abbey is situated. Thanks to its ‘romantic’ appeal and ivy covered walls, as well as its mention in Reverend William Gilpin’s ‘Observation on the River Wye’ in 1782, the Abbey was flooded with tourists. Wordsworth also joined the throng, increasing the number of visitors the Abbey received. This aided the Abbey’s purchase by the crown in 1901 when it was recognised as a monument of national importance, leading to repair work being carried out. Now a Grade I listed building, the Abbey still attracts tourists today.
Having driven in from Bath our first view of Tintern Abbey came from the A466, a road which cuts through the Wye Valley, giving you a magnificent view of the Abbey as you turn a corner towards the village of Tintern. Although a stunning sight, it was hard to forget that the view we in the 21st Cenutry have of Tintern Abbey is exceptionally different to that of the 18th Century writers we were studying, not just because of some 220 years difference, but also because of the way we had travelled to see the Abbey. As a modern day tourist it is very difficult to overlook these cultural appropriations of the Abbey. Nevertheless, that is exactly what we were asked to do upon arrival.
Looking around the Abbey at first with no cameras, note taking, or sign reading, went against everything touristy in us, but we managed it. We were told to just look, to forget the romantic view and the reasons the ruin is a ruin. We all came away with very different experiences which we shared. I, personally, was attempting to picture the ruin as it would have been in all its glory, with colourful stain glass windows, a red carpet instead of grass, pews lining the aisle and hundreds of people filling the space. I also wanted to climb on the ruins but I was pretty sure that wasn’t allowed given the Abbeys status as a listed building. Missy, our American student, came away thinking about how the ruin would be very different in America. I believe her words were, ‘We would have torn it down, built a hotel that looked like it and named it Tintern Abbey Hotel.’
On our second journey around the Abbey, we were allowed to give in to our urges and take photos, notes, draw pictures and talk to each other about what we thought. The scale of the building itself was remarkably impressive. As Kersten pointed out, the architecture of the Abbey is encouraging you to look up. No doubt when the building was at its finest, you would have seen an ornately decorated roof, but now all you see is the vast expanse which is the sky, in some ways a far more humbling experience. No one on the trip knew more about Tintern Abbey than MA student Crosby (except maybe our tutor, Sue). It was very interesting to hear from Crosby how the Abbey was actually inhabited even in its ruined state in the 18th Century, something Gilpin comments on in his observations. What amazed Gilpin was not just that people were living there, but also that they knew about the history and function of the building. I believe one lady vagrant even gave him a tour! As literature students, throughout the day we were thinking about the implications of Gilpin’s and Wordsworth’s writings about the Abbey. ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is actually quite a problematic poem in this respect, as Wordsworth does not actually mention the Abbey apart from in the title. He appears to use it more as a topographical reference point to tell his readers roughly where he is situated, rather than to make a comment on the ruins themselves.
One thing which really struck me about the Abbey was the fact that it is a ruin. I know this is a very obvious point to make, but the fact is, it is a ruin: a preserved ruin. I was also very struck by the fact that the reason the Abbey is a ruin did not seem to be mentioned. We are descendants of the people who allowed this and many other buildings like it to be destroyed. The pieces of façade that were not pilfered are laid out for visitors to see like dead bodies in a warzone hospital after a disaster. Tourists stare in revered silence at the grandeur of a building we attempted to demolish, still standing in defiance. In my eyes, the romanticised eighteenth century view of the ivy clad Abbey is not one which survives today. Tintern Abbey is beautiful; it is majestic and it is striking. It is not just the subject of some paintings and poems from the eighteenth century. It is part of our history and reflects the changes in our past. It should serve as a physical reminder of what people went through during the centuries it has been standing. I hope that people who visit the Abbey now are more culturally aware than ever before and realise, yes, we saved what was left of the Abbey, but it was us who only left part of it to save.
Poetry Pin is a project we’re hoping to get students on the MA involved with in the near future. It’s a project that – to begin with – aims to record the changing Somerset coastal landscape around the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station development. It revolves around monthly focus walks. But the exciting aspect of this record is that it goes beyong the haptic experience of walking by utilising geo-location software on our mobile devices to bring to life the site-specific experience of that landscape. Users of Poetry Pin are able to create and upload their poetry, but that poetry can only be read or experienced while you are within that location. Samantha Walton – our MA’s specialist in contemporary and experimental poetry, is especially excited by this combination of environment, digital technology, and site-specific poetry!
Our students Kerstin Grunwald-Hope and Chao Xie attended a major four-day conference this summer, Reading Animals, at Sheffield University. Chao, also known as Percy, actually presented a paper (from his dissertation research) entitled ‘The Extended Sympathy: An Ecological Reading of Hart-Leap Well’ – well done! Kerstin has also written up her experience of the conference below, and needless, to say, we’re delighted to be able to support our students at such events.
From 17-20 July 2014, Percy and I attended the Reading Animals Conference in Sheffield which was organised by the School of English at Sheffield University. We had the opportunity to meet over 100 fellow academics ranging from Masters and PHD students to published researchers and lecturers from all over the world including Brazil, Australia and the USA. Over four jam-packed days of fascinating presentations and stimulating discussions we were introduced to a wide range of research interests and specialisms in relation to animals in literature.
Keynote speakers included renowned academics such as Susan McHugh on modern narratives about indigenous hunting practices, Kevin Hutchings on the relationship between animals and indigenous people as portrayed between 1770-1860, Tom Tyler on the history and concept of anthropocentrism, Laura Brown on the role of the lap dog in eighteenth-century literary culture, Cary Wolfe via video link on Wallace Steven’s bird poems, Erica Fudge on invisible cows in early modern culture, and Diana Donald on equine biographies and autobiographies such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty,
The rest of the conference was divided into nine sessions spread over the four days. For each session, we had a choice between four to five differently themed panels. My personal favourites consisted of a reading of the reciprocal relationship between a camel and a human protagonist as a re-evaluation of the animal as equal companion rather than inferior object. Another fascinating paper dealt with the importance and yet the paradoxical absence of the blood frog in a novel set in Haiti in order to argue the case for amphibians as indicator species for environmental degradation. In a panel on genetic narratives, an eye-opening presentation on the animal welfare implications of industrialised breeding practices for pigs and race horses in the USA made a strong case for the need of improved transparency in the relevant industries worldwide. In the same panel, a creative writer raised interesting questions on the increasing replacement of real animals as pets by technology such as robotic puppies. A session on literary slaughterhouses demonstrated how the concealment of places of meat production in literature aided in the dissociation of the animal from food in Victorian London. In a panel on shape-shifting narratives, international fairy-tales were shown to celebrate humans transforming into animals rather than perceiving the process as a crisis to be remedied. This was followed by a professional story-teller bringing to life a Welsh myth about a woman being created out of flower petals. A lyrical finish to the panel was provided a poet’s recital of her metamorphosis into a polar bear. In a session on violence and encounters, connections were made between the visual engagement with animal cruelty and the consequent barbaric enjoyment of bear-baiting in early modern England. Another fascinating thesis juxtaposed literature and art in which animals rise up to an upright stance with texts in which women either choose or are forced to walk on all four. In a panel on animal others, a personal highlight included a reading of the marginal status of dogs and ghosts in one of my favourite novels, Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, against the emerging biopolitics of the era in which the text is set, namely the formation of the welfare state in post-war Britain.
This conference was an invaluable experience and a fantastic enrichment of my MA studies. Moreover, it has inspired me to explore various new research interests and has motivated me to attend more conferences and hopefully even present my own paper next time.
To our delight Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians – course tutor Richard Kerridge’s nature writing memoir – will be Book of the Week on Radio 4, July 26th to August 2nd.
On the MA, we had earlier studied ‘Our Adder’, a shorter piece of writing that appears in the book, and had a stimulating discussion about its complex and fascinating reflection on human – animal relations. You can link to this piece, published by Granta, here.
Richard has been garnering excellent reviews, such as this by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian. He talked to Laura Rawlings on Radio Bristol and also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek: you can listen to this here (listen from around 33 minutes in).
“John Clare liked to get his head down in the grass – ‘close to nature’ in every way”. So argues one of our tutors on the MA, Dr Sue Edney, in a fascinating post for the Wordsworth Trust’s blog on the poet John Clare (1793–1864). Her piece focuses on his poems ‘Clock a Clay’ and ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, but also draws in Hooke, Addison, and Wordsworth (for more on Clare, go to their society’s website).
Sue teaches Clare alongside Wordsworth, Coleridge, Austen, and working-class poet Robert Bloomfield, on The Country and the City module on our MA.
This is student Chao Xie’s reflections on a course visit to see a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia.
Arcadia has been considered as Tom Stoppard’s finest play by many a critic. Our course field trip this time was to watch the play in Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol. Rachel Gilman and I both had a large fish & chips before joining the others in the tobacco-factory-converted theatre.
It was an amphitheatre with several columns intruding into the acting area which, together with the studio-style decor, delivered a intimate ambiance. Although it was a play with time shifting between the past and present, the props – a big table, a portfolio, a tortoise, and a macbook – remained unchanged and served as a magical bridge linking the characters in different times.
Fast-paced, the play was ambitious and thought-provoking, discussing the dichotomies between science and art, past and present, Romanticism and Classicism, and order and disorder. These serious intellectual themes were balanced by sophisticated wit, provoking frequent bursts of laughter from the audience.
As the performers moved around the stage, we kept spotting bits and pieces we had discussed in our seminars. When Septimus was defining ‘picturesque’ to his precocious student Thomasina, I recalled how Sue Edney, our tutor on the ‘Country and City in History’ module, had humorously explained to us the difference between ‘picturesque’ and ‘beautiful’ in a landscape session. At that time, our classmates Verity and Trevor tried their best to explain to we international students the English Garden ‘ha-ha’. My thoughts also flashed back to Samantha Walton’s strand on ‘deep time’ when the character Valentine stressed the irreversibility of time. The play was continuously speaking to us, inviting us to get engaged. It was really striking how, in the last scene, the characters of both past and present appeared on the stage with each people in turns talking to the other from the same timeframe. The double times therefore merged into a seamless whole.
It was 22:30 when we left the theatre. Despite a taxi booking mishap we managed to hop on the last train. But I found it was difficult to get the play out of mind. Looking beyond the sprawling darkness outside the window, I had a strong sense of disorientation. Maybe it was the time to think in terms of time.
One year ago I was talking to Stephen Gregg (course director) and Tracey Hill (department head and tutor on Early Modern London) about the course’s field trips during the phone interview. Several months later I will go back to my own country doing something which I can not predict at the moment. If, as the character Valentine implied, all time is irreversible, that is what time means, then where are we heading to? The flickering lights in the distance outside the window did not seem to answer my question.
Verity Rudge, one our students, gives her impressions of a two day field trip to London, part of the Early Modern London strand of the Chorographies module studied on the MA.
On arriving in London our first destination was the Clerkenwell area, where we navigated the modern streets using the Agas Map. It was using the Agas that we discovered the current location of the well that gave Clerkenwell its name: it’s inside a building, but you can see it through the windows. In the process of locating the well we also visited St John’s Gate which was originally part of a monastery and is now a museum documenting the history of the Knights of Saint John (we also saw the 16th century church of St John and the Norman crypt beneath it where there are memorials for the original knights and also for those who have more recently died in service for St John Ambulance).
In the afternoon we made our way to the London Metropolitan Archives where we were given a tour and, more importantly, we got to handle some maps and manuscripts! One of the sources that we got to view was a hand painted map of London and then compare it to the original black and white version. We were also allowed to handle the Treswell manuscript which is a beautiful leather bound book that contains amazingly detailed, hand-coloured illustrations of house plans. When we were eventually pried away from the Treswell manuscript – it is just too pretty – we continued our tour of (Early Modern) London.
Our first stop the next morning was a visit to St Andrew Undershaft (right by the Gherkin) which is the church that was attended by Lord Mayor Hugh Hamersley, Hans Holbein the Younger and John Stow. It is due to Stow that this is such a place of interest for the course as we had studied his Survey of London prior to the trip and his memorial is found within the church. The church is no longer open to the public and therefore it was a privilege to be shown round by a warden of the neighbouring church St Helen Bishopsgate.
Once we had seen the memorial and Dr Tracey Hill had said hello to her beloved Stow, we then set off for our final destination of the trip.
Guildhall Library is where most of the livery companies keep their archives and it is for this reason that it is such an important place to visit when studying Early Modern London. Here we were able to handle pamphlets, books and manuscripts: what more could you ask for? In one of these manuscripts we were even able to find and admire Thomas Dekker’s actual signature! But after too short a time – an hour and a half is just not enough – we had to leave. I’ll never view London in the same light.
We’re delighted to say hello to Dr Samantha Walton, our new member of staff who will be leading our Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism module and contributing to the Chorographies: Case Studies in Place or Region module. This year Samantha will be teaching on the subjects of ‘Deep Time’, ‘Ecologies of Place’ as well as a strand on ‘Writing Scotland’.
Samantha Walton completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2013, specialising in detective fiction, psychology and law between 1920 and 1945. As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Advanced Stuides in the Humanities (Edinburgh), she combined interests in environment, Scottish literature and the mind by focusing on the novels and nature writing of Nan Shepherd. Samantha is currently turning her doctoral research into a monograph, and aims to develop her postdoctoral work to produce a more detailed survey of British interwar landscapes and literature. Before joining the department at Bath Spa, she taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Teesside. In Edinburgh, Samantha co-organised Syndicate poetry and research series in collaboration with New Media Scotland, and in 2013 she was Bright Ideas Fellow and Poet-in-Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, working on lyric poetry and the life sciences.
Re-reading Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I was struck by a passage that reminded me of some the issues that came up recently when teaching Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain on our MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. It was, to say the least, a surprising association between “a novel about books and technology, cryptography and conspiracy, friendship and love” and a description of eighteenth-century London. But here’s the passage from Sloan’s novel in which Neel Shah (CEO of a niche software company) and Kat Potente (evangelistic Google data-visualizer) are contemplating a New York sidewalk:
“It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.” …
Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”
“I don’t know about that,” Kay says, narrowing her eyes. “I’m pretty good with complexity.”
“See, I know what you’re thinking,” Neel says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking it’s just an agent-based simulation, and everybody out there follows a pretty simple set of rules” – Kat is nodding – “and if you can figure out those rules. You can model it. You can simulate the street, then the neighbourhood, then the whole city. Right?”
“Exactly. I mean, sure, I don’t know what the rules are yet, but I could experiment and figure them out, and then it would be trivial – “
Neel believes that no computer of Google’s could ever be big enough to analyse the city’s complex and organic interactions. The allusions are rich, the most obvious of which is to the Simcity and The Sims franchises. But Sloan makes a Google employee extol the possibilities of designing an algorithm for a city of people; a fact that brings to mind Google’s efforts to map and photograph the world in its entirety. Indeed, in a previous passage, Kat has used Google Street View to locate a secret library in New York. Both platforms have a set of related aims: to comprehend and model a complex ecology. But there’s a gentle irony in this scene that it is Neel who is sceptical about such modelling. It’s a question of scale, and – as any student of satire will know – comparing the ostensibly small with the apparently epic produces some interesting ironic effects. Neel’s company designs the software to enable 3D digital simulations of female breasts, and the irony of a dubious industry in simulating a relatively small part of the female anatomy critiquing the gargantuan designs of Google Earth cuts both ways. However, it is Neel that has the last word – the city cannot be modelled or contained – so Sloan seems to be directing the irony primarily at Kat’s, or Google’s, totalizing hubris.
Now on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment, we were paying close attention to the modes through which eighteenth-century authors represent landscapes of various kinds, and at this point comparing Pope and Defoe’s attitudes to the city of London. So here’s the section from Defoe’s Tour in which he grapples with the size and complexity of early eighteenth-century London:
This great Work is infinitely difficult in its Particulars, though not in itself; not that the City is so difficult to be described, but to do it in the narrow Compass of a Letter, which we see so fully takes up Two large Volumes in Folio, and which, yet, if I may venture to give an Opinion of it, is done but by Halves neither.
Defoe, like Neel, acknowledges the limitations of contemporary technology: the attempt encompass London within a letter, when even John Strype’s 1720 multi-volume folio edition of Stow’s Survey is ‘done by halves’, may come at the cost of the complex ‘Particulars’ of the city. Defoe goes on to say that perhaps the City itself may indeed ‘be viewed in a small Compass’ (2:95). However, the attempt to contain and represent London as a whole is thwarted by its uncontrolled and complexly organic evolution:
It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just at the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs, whether for Trade or otherwise; and this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confused Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal. (2:95)
In response, Defoe circumscribes this vital London by drawing a ‘A LINE of Measurement’ (2:98), effectively creating a static model of London – a simulation, if you like – in order for it to be properly analysed.
There is a neat parallel between Defoe’s and Kat Potente’s – and Google’s – attempts to model the complex ecology of cities. Both of these scenarios speak to the desire to be, in the words of Michel de Certeau, ‘the solar eye’, the voyeur elevated above a city laid before them. Such a perspective ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’ and creates, he argues, a ‘panorama-city … a “theoretical” (that is, visual) simulacrum.’ It is a desire to overwrite the messy real city with a fictive version of the city.
Yet complicating such a desire, Defoe and (with the caveat of irony) Neel Shah are both also fascinated by what de Certeau calls the forces of ‘human agglomeration and accumulation.’ Partly out of frustration, but partly out of admiration, Defoe asks ‘Whither will this monstrous City then extend? and where must a Circumvallation or Communication Line of it be placed?’ (2:97). When Kat mentions Google’s ‘The Big Box’ (a fictitious project of huge interlocking modular servers, and a dig at Google’s search box), Neel responds, “It’s not big enough. This box” – Neel stretches out his hands, encompasses the sidewalk, the park, the streets beyond – “is bigger.” (128). For Neel and Defoe, the city is always poised to burst beyond the confines of book or search box.
 Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (London: Atlantic, 2013), pp. 127-28.
 Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724-25]), 2:94. Further references in brackets after quotations.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 92-93.
 Google increased the size of its search box in 2009.