Monday, 6 December 2010

University Funding

Not a literary thought, but then again the future of literary thinking in universities may be in for a rough passage. In this month's Standpoint Magazine, I have tried to explain the history behind the Browne Review and the current political controversy over tuition fees, whilst also suggesting that at a higher level the debate is replicating what John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century saw as the standoff between Benthamite utilitarianism and the Coleridgean idea of a state-funded "clerisy."
Here, meanwhile, is a further thought.
My father was the first person in his family to go to university. He came from what we now call the “squeezed middle.” The Bates were a family of shopkeepers until my grandfather qualified as a surveyor, thus making the shift from trade to profession. But grandpa died young, leaving my grandmother to bring up a family of five boys and a girl on a small widow’s pension, provided by the freemasons. My father was a bright boy and his school encouraged him to apply to Cambridge. He sat the examination for Emmanuel College and won a place, but couldn’t afford to take it up. In those days, some of the less prestigious colleges held their entrance examination a term later than the others, so he had a second shot, this time trying for St Catharine’s. He won an Exhibition, worth £40 a year. This time, he was able to accept, and he duly graduated in 1931 and became a schoolteacher.
When I was a student in the 1970s, Cambridge Exhibitions were still worth £40 per year, and Scholarships £60. By that time, they were almost entirely honorific (if useful for book-buying). When my father first told me that he couldn’t afford the place but was saved by the Exhibition, I naively assumed that in the late 1920s £40 must have seemed like untold riches. I was missing the point, since I lived in the golden post-war world where everyone had their university fees paid by the state, regardless of parental income. The point of an Exhibition was that you got £40 a year and a fee waiver. It was the fees, not the living costs, that stopped my father accepting his place the first time around.
The point of repeating this story now is both to remind myself that state funding for university tuition is a very recent phenomenon and to suggest that in the not so brave new world we are about to enter, a revival of Exhibitions and Scholarships for the “squeezed middle” will be necessary alongside the recently-announced bursaries and free-first-two-year places for the “deserving poor.”
But universities will face a grave difficulty: given a choice between offering places at £9000 a pop and full scholarships with no fee, they will need hefty new endowments in order to avoid the temptation to take the fee-paying students. There is, however, an obvious source of new endowment: those of us who graduated in the golden years.
In an excellent column in yesterday’s Sunday Times, Jenni Russell proposed that the people who should be helping to fill the funding gap are not tomorrow’s students but yesterday’s. We lucky ones. It has not escaped notice that one of the principal architects of the new university funding system is David Willetts, who has recently garnered so much praise for his book The Pinch, with its persuasive account of how the babyboomers are stitching up their own children … something that the new university funding policy does in spades.
But Jenni’s idea of a retrospective graduate tax will never be enacted. No government will accept the principle of retrospective taxation of this sort. And no Treasury will countenance the hypothecation of general taxation to particular causes. Besides, one of the many problems with any graduate tax, whether retrospective or prospective, is that it goes to the Treasury, not the universities. You can see the case for Jenni and me paying retrospectively for our excellent Cambridge education, but who is to know that our contribution wouldn’t be put towards a not very useful course at a not very good university?
We have to look to America for the answer, which is direct giving. I only did a year at Harvard, as a visiting graduate student, but they still chase me annually for support. The proportion of graduates who give to their universities in the USA is astonishingly high (and has only dropped a little, despite the recession), that in the UK astonishingly low. Well, not so astonishingly, because what the USA has and the UK doesn’t are serious tax breaks to support such giving.
So what about a proposed amendment to Thursday’s education debate: for every £1 that every living graduate gives to their old university, the government will – as a one-off gesture in the first year of their new funding policy – add a £2 tax deduction. Those of us who have seen our young people marching on the streets, and who are wondering how on earth our own children will get the chances we had, will, I am sure, give generously, and it will become possible for universities to be liberal with Scholarships and Exhibitions for those students from the "squeezed middle" who, in terms of academic potential, most deserve a university education.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Royal Shakespeare Theatre Reopens in Stratford

I have become an occasional blogger for PROSPECT MAGAZINE. My first contribution is now live. It is a slightly edited version of the following:

My old friend Professor Stanley Wells was on the 10 o’clock News last night, raining on the RSC’s parade as they showed off their new theatre to the world’s press. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of the RSC. But what’s the argument about here?

Shakespeare wrote for a bare platform stage thrust into the auditorium, with the audience gathered around it. The “open yard” playhouses of his world were torn down when the Puritans closed down the theatres in the 1640s. When the theatrical profession resumed with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, new indoor playhouses were built and the proscenium arch was introduced, creating a picture-frame stage. All through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, theatre was effectively experienced in a two room environment: the world of the play was separated from the auditorium by the proscenium. The division was heightened when Wagner introduced the innovation of a darkened auditorium.

When Elizabeth Scott designed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the 1930s, she had a track record of creating cinemas. And the old RST auditorium did indeed resemble a cinema. The cinema took the two room idea to an extreme: the movie would be exactly the same whether the auditorium was full, half full or empty. That’s not something that can ever be said of a play performance in the theatre. The old RST was in thrall to the new art of film. But times have changed.

The need not to imitate the cinema seemed to me the overriding demand for a redesign of the theatre. That is to say, the movies, television and related digital/virtual media now create realistic alternative worlds so fully and powerfully that live theatre cannot compete with them. Soon, it will be routine for us to enter those alternative virtual worlds in three dimensions. What then is left for theatre to do?

There is no better answer than to say: return the Shakespearean theatre to its origins. Go live, create a shared experience in which audience and play-world are together in one room, looking at each other, interacting. Not sitting in the darkness as passive spectators of an alternative world. What is more, a thrust stage is amenable to what the great Peter Brook called rough theatre. By doing away with the elaborate, “realistic” stage sets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, theatre we can focus on the simple transformative magic of playing. Falstaff: “This chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown.”

Where I have some reservations with regard to both the reconstructed Globe on Bankside and the new RST is with regard to the depth of the thrust. The further the platform extends into the auditorium, the more problems you have with sightlines and the more it becomes necessary for actors to keep moving: as Peter Hall has said with regard to the RST’s smaller auditorium, The Swan, built on the same principles, it’s a great theatre on which to make a striking entrance downstage (who can forget Antony Sher bestriding that small space as Marlowe’s colossal Tamburlaine?), but once you’re there you have to find a way to go back. Shakespeare learnt his trade not at the Globe, but at Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre, which, as archaeological excavations in the 1990s revealed, had a wide, shallow stage. Imagine a lozenge. Sightlines are better in a space of that kind, and there are intriguing possibilities for lateral staging, for example involving paired tableaux that create a kind of split screen effect. Shakespeare’s Rose plays have many strong examples of one group of characters entering at one door, a rival group entering at the door on the other side of the stage.

One of the key differences in design between the new RST and the temporary Courtyard Theatre, further up Stratford’s Waterside, which has been the RSC’s (highly successful) temporary home during the redevelopment, and its prototype for the new theatre, is that the new auditorium has the capacity to be adapted to a wider and shallower stage. It can be a modern Rose as well as a modern Globe. And, as a matter of fact, the thrust can be taken out altogether, just in case one day theatre reinvents itself again in proscenium form. Somehow, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Female Repertoire

Further to my suggestion in English Literature: A Very Short Introduction that 'repertoire' is a more valuable term than 'canon', I have been asked to reflect on whether or not the shift of terminology has any bearing on the debate about the gendering of the canon. For a generation, feminists have been arguing that the canon as traditionally received is predominantly male. 'Canon' is a term that comes from Biblical criticism. It might be said that, just as the books of the Bible are predominantly male-voiced, with a few exceptions such as the Books of Ruth and Esther, so the canon is predominantly male, with a few exceptions such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes. What is more, Eliot and the Brontes wrote under male pseudonyms and Austen published anonymously. The assault on the canon is associated with the term "dead white European males." In my Guardian column linking the VSI to Michael Gove's remarks about the teaching of classic literary texts in schools, I defended the value of the dead and suggested that the literary repertoire of these islands has always been ethnically highly diverse, as witnessed by the fact that the earliest identifiable author in the tradition could variously be argued to be a Celt (Ossian), a Roman (Julius Caesar) or an Anglo-Saxon (Caedmon). This provoked the response: if these are the fathers of English Literature, who is the mother?

The answer that the book offers to this question is: a variety of female religious writers from the post-1066 era, for example the author of the 13th century Ancrene Wisse. I am not aware of any identifiable pre-1066 female authors, but I'd love to hear about them. The book also proposes that the study of English Literature has been in some sense limited by our tendency to think only about literature in the English language. Thus it suggests that the honour of being the first English poet to have their works collected in a quasi-scholarly edition, with commentary, in the manner of editions of the classics of ancient Greek and Rome, belongs to a woman, Elizabeth Jane Weston, but that she has been neglected not because she was a woman but because she wrote in Latin and lived for much of her life in Prague.

I introduce the term "repertoire" by analogy with the theatrical repertoire, which is something much more fluid than a "canon." One of the things that struck me in doing the research for the book was how the eighteenth-century repertoire gave much more space to women dramatists than the nineteenth: I'd like to know more about exactly when and why those fine dramatists Susanna Centlivre and Hannah Cowley dropped out of the repertoire.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Very Short English Literature

Fitting that my Very Short Introduction to English Literature is published on the day that Michael Gove tells the Tory party conference that we need a return to the canon -- to Pope, Dryden, Keats and Shelley. I argue in the book that "repertoire" is a better term than "canon", but I'm hoping for lively debate on the subject.

Meanwhile, I have blogged for the publisher, OUP, on the subject of the book, so I won't do so here, but will merely provide a link.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

One Man and his Dog

One more photo from The Man from Stratford in action. Simon Callow shares his stage with just one other creature ...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Shakespeare on TV

The Telegraph asked me to write a Comment about the news that the BBC plans to show 6 Shakespeare plays, including one live performance, as part of the Shakespeare Festival that will be the centre of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. I've always had my doubts about Shakespeare on TV - preferring it on radio in lots of ways - and I don't have good memories of the 1970s BBC versions. The National Theatre broadcast-to-cinema experiment has been fantastic, but the point I make in the Comment is that a cinema audience is a community, a group with a sense of occasion, whereas a television audience is fragmented and distracted. But let's live in hope.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Man From

This blog has been silent through a hectic summer, much of it spent following The Man from Stratford around the country. So here are some pix of The Man in action.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Henry IV Parts 1 & 2

The line of thinking that I was beginning to sketch out in my last blog entry has now been developed at greater length for a piece published in today's Guardian: Shakespeare's Best History Plays.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Shakespeare and the Privatized Military

Shakespeare has a long history of refreshing the parts of life that other writers have difficulty in reaching. One of the more surprising lecture invitations I have received was to talk to a conference of the “family offices” of “high net worth individuals.” Hard as I found it to imagine what it would be like to be so rich that you needed advisers to help you keep your family in order, I went along and it proved a fascinating occasion. The brief was to explore how Shakespeare dealt with the problem of succession. I took the examples of Prince Hal as rebellious son who goes slumming it in Eastcheap (or, as it would now be, snorts lines of cocaine at Boujis) and of King Lear’s difficulties over the division of his kingdom among his three children. Afterwards, several people—both advisers and family members—told me that I had precisely described their experience.
I was reminded of this sense that Shakespeare has something to say to worlds far from the theatre and the library when this morning I happened upon an article about Falstaff in the most unlikely place: the Journal of International Peace Operations. This is not, as the title might suggest, the august organ of a think tank for NGOs in the aid trade, but rather the house magazine of the International Peace Operations Association, the trade association of the burgeoning private military industry—though they do not call themselves "private armies," but rather "the Stability Operations Industry." It is reassuring to note that Blackwater Worldwide (now renamed Xe Services, following all its bad publicity in Iraq) was expelled form the association in 2007.
Anyway, here is the article in question: “Shakespeare on Military Contracting: Lessons from History about Private Contracting.” The piece proves to be extremely well informed not only about the tricky issue of the resemblances/differences between Falstaff in Henry IV and Sir John Fastolf in Henry VI, but also with regard to the finances of raising an army in the early modern period when there was no state standing army. I don’t know of any better introduction to the fascinating question of Falstaff’s role as a military entrepreneur.
I’m not sure that the author, Gary Sturgess, draws quite the right conclusion from the plays: “He may be a figure of fun, but Falstaff shows us that incentives matter.” A better conclusion might have been “state provision is usually burdened by inefficiency, but reliance on the private sector is usually tarnished by corruption and inevitably leads to the exploitation of the poor.” Still, at a time when all political parties are asking what are the services that must be provided by the state and what are those that can be contracted out in the name of “efficiency savings”, there is grist in the “lesson from history” that a state-run as opposed to a entrepreneurially-led army is a relatively new phenomenon in Britain.
My thanks to the polemical new journal Cambridge Literary Review for drawing my attention to the piece.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Amazon Reviews, Uxoriousness and Sock Puppetry

One of the pleasures of being married to another writer is the discovery that two people can do the same sort of thing—researching, writing, publishing—in such different ways. I can only write at the last minute before a deadline, whereas Paula gets herself organized way in advance. I get very insecure about published reviews but ignore readers’ reviews on Amazon, whereas Paula refuses to read her reviews in the press but pays a lot of attention to what she calls “real readers’ reviews” on Amazon. I suppose the difference there is that as a professor I worry about reputation and the “peer-review” process of published reviews, while as a full-time author Paula cares most about giving pleasure to her readers. To judge from the glowing reviews of her Mad World on Amazon, almost all of which have “real names”, anonymous reviewing is going out of fashion there—except, of course, in the much-discussed case of Professor Orlando Figes (who seemed to me a perfectly good bloke when I met him at a dinner party when we were graduate students aeons ago, and whose Natasha’s Dance was, I thought, a very enjoyable and informative survey of Russian culture). As everyone knows, first he denied any involvement in the anonymous Amazon reviews knifing his rivals’ books and praising his own to the skies, then he announced that his wife had written them.
At this point, I felt like raising a cheer for Mrs Figes. Uxoriousness (maritoriousness?) seems to me an excusable, even a desirable, vice. Indeed, I committed a gross act of it myself last summer when Mad World was published. One particular review claimed that it covered the identical territory to another, previously published book: knowing how extensively Paula had sweated over primary sources, how much new material she had unearthed and how utterly different it was from the other book, I wrote an irked email to the reviewer and editor in question, chiding them for this blatant untruth … which elicited a charmingly apologetic reply that quite disarmed me and made me very glad that I had not embarrassed myself by throwing my husbandly hissy fit in public.
Now it is revealed that it wasn’t Mrs Figes in the library with the pen poisoned by uxoriousness, but actually Professor Orlando in the chatroom with the sock puppet. For me, the discovery of the splendid term sock puppetry has been the real revelation of the affair. Here is a link to an article about how a couple of years ago the prof appears to have used some other sock puppets to tart up his own Wikipedia entry.
On a more serious note, though, the attempt to use threatening letters from lawyers to silence fair literary comment, as described in the TLS’s powerful account of its own role in the affair, is chilling in itself and utterly bizarre, in a very Freudian way, coming from someone whose most recent book concerns the whisperings of the Stalinist secret police and their informers.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

In our Time: Hazlitt

The In Our Time discussion of Hazlitt should be on the iplayer for a while. I'd have liked it if we'd had more time to talk about his portrait painting and the continuity with his writing - perhaps his best book is The Spirit of the Age, which is a series of pen-portraits of the great minds of his time, a writerly equivalent of portraiture.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Leader with a Temper

Some things don't change. Leaders do not like being told bad news and can lose their temper with the messenger. Shakespeare, inevitably, catches this impeccably:

MESSENGER Madam, he’s married to Octavia.
CLEOPATRA The most infectious pestilence upon thee!
Strikes him down
MESSENGER Good madam, patience.
CLEOPATRA What say you?
Strikes him
Hence, horrible villain, or I’ll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me! I’ll unhair thy head!
She hauls him up and down
Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,
Smarting in ling’ring pickle!
MESSENGER Gracious madam,
I that do bring the news made not the match.
CLEOPATRA Say ’tis not so, a province I will give thee,
And make thy fortunes proud: the blow thou hadst
Shall make thy peace for moving me to rage,
And I will boot thee with what gift beside
Thy modesty can beg.
MESSENGER He’s married, madam.
CLEOPATRA Rogue, thou hast lived too long! Draws a knife
MESSENGER Nay then, I’ll run.
What mean you, madam? I have made no fault. Exit
CHARMIAN Good madam, keep yourself within yourself.
The man is innocent.
CLEOPATRA Some innocents scape not the thunderbolt.

Great stage direction, that: she hauls him up and down.

Monday, 11 January 2010

On Delivering

Probably the most satisfying moment for an author - more than seeing the work set in print when the proof comes or even when receiving the first copy - is that of delivery. Hitting the send button. Especially as the final stages of writing - cutting to length, removing repetition, checking references - are so laborious. Ecstasy therefore this morning as my English Literature: A Very Short Introduction wings its way through the ether to Oxford University Press.

Early research for the book was done over a year ago (mentioned in my Writer's Rooms feature in The Guardian), but the writing has been rapid fire in the last few months, including a blissful escape to France alone for a few days, and then, for the final push, taking advantage of the village being snowed in.

An especially satisfying book to write because short! A ludicrous proposition to introduce a subject the size of EngLit in 50,000 words (I pushed them up from the standard 40k for the series by cunningly asking for 60k and splitting the difference...). But the series guidelines are very helpful: "The text should not read like an encyclopedia entry or a textbook; depending on the topic, it may be more comprehensive or more idiosyncratic in its coverage. Don't be afraid to express a point of view or to inject some style into the prose. Focus on issues, details, and context that make the subject interesting; you should draw your reader in with examples and quotations. Give the reader a sense both of your subject's contours and of the debates that shape it." Good principles, which have made for a great series - so many people have said how much they like these little books.

No one will expect 'coverage' from such a thing, but there are bound to be some reviews and reader responses along the lines of "I can't believe that X didn't get a single mention." Among the initial candidates for X are: medieval mystery plays, the Brownings and the Rossettis, H. G. Wells. Over the coming months before publication - scheduled for October - I will try to list as many as I can of my apologies to the shades of the mighty dead whom I have neglected. As far as the living are concerned, I've been very selective. They can look after themselves.

A living author I greatly admire is Richard Powers. I review his latest novel, Generosity, in the latest TLS, but it doesn't have a free access online link to the piece. So instead, here is a picture of the village - well at least the church, which I look out on from my study - covered in snow.