The Oxonian Review Fri, 24 Oct 2014 21:18:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Weekly Round-Up: Evil Politicians, Sublime Composers, Intellectual Cowards, Queer Writers, Royal Essayists, Empowered Theorists Fri, 24 Oct 2014 07:58:10 +0000 linguistics subin perlin naysayers procrastination The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “John Gray: ‘The Truth about Evil’“, The Guardian: Gray addresses the thorny problem of evil, and the role the concept plays in contemporary politics. Are politicians’ references to evil merely a cynical ploy to shape public perceptions? Gray argues not. “Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused, Blair thinks and acts on the premise that whatever furthers the triumph of what he believes to be good must be true. Imagining that he can deliver the Middle East and the world from evil, he cannot help having a delusional view of the impact of his policies.”

2. “Alex Ross: ‘Deus ex Musica’“, The New Yorker: Beethoven’s post mortem metamorphosis from great composer to divine figure of genius has not only influenced subsequent musicians but may, Ross argues, have intimidated them into silence. In a consideration of a number of new works on Beethoven, Ross strips away the myth and reveals the complex but compromised man beneath. The verdict: “for this conundrum—an artist almost too great for the good of his art—Beethoven himself bears little responsibility.”

3. “Chris Walsh: ‘Intellectual Cowardice’“, Times Higher Education: invoking Kingsley Amis, Dr Johnson, and—above all—Dante, Walsh describes the mise-en-abyme of the academic cowardice which gripped him as he wrote his book on cowardice (to be published imminently by Princeton University Press). Some of his concerns will resonate with many Oxonian Review readers: “Anxiety about being a fraud does seem to be an occupational hazard in academia… It often seems as if neither we academics ourselves nor others think us worthy. How can anyone finish anything in such conditions?”

4. “Philip Kennicott: ‘Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature’“, VQR: Kennicott offers a moving account of the crucial role that a delirious cavalcade of queer literature played in his adolescence. The words and worlds of Gide, Cocteau, Genet, and others introduced him to a new way of thinking and of being. “But the discovery of that kiss changed me. Reading, which had seemed a retreat from the world, was suddenly more vital, dangerous, and necessary.”

5. “John Jeremiah Sullivan: ‘The Ill-Defined Plot’“, The New Yorker: after the glorious example of Montaigne, it was the English who championed the idea of the essayist, the writer dedicated peculiarly to this mode of writing. And the unsung hero of the developing form was James I, whose Essayes of a Prentise preceded Francis Bacon’s Essayes by more than a decade. Could James have known of Montaigne? And could he have been the man to introduce the notion of the essay into the English language? “Was it the case, as seems plausible, that the two were connected somehow—that King James knew of Montaigne, or at least knew of his book (but probably both), and was appropriating the word from him? And if that’s true, why is James’s book rarely, if ever, cited in histories of the essay form, from England or France?”

6. “Terry Eagleton: ‘If I were king for a day I would execute eavesdroppers, morris dancers and Bruce Forsyth’“, The Guardian: the outspoken theorist lists—in the most entertaining way imaginable—his pet hates and how he’d cleanse the world of them. Despite the hyperbole, his views ain’t so outrageous. “All sport will be suspended indefinitely, to be reinstated only when everyone agrees to pull out of Nato and replace capitalism with self-governing cooperatives… Nobody will be allowed to complain about Jeremy Clarkson’s views, since that is exactly what he wants to hear. Instead, they’ll just point out how fat in the face he’s getting.”

If you would like to suggest a link, please email Benedict Morrison

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A Fugitive Virtue Thu, 23 Oct 2014 00:00:31 +0000 byatt’s byatt Kalika Sands

A S Byatt
Colloquium at Exeter College, Oxford
21 May 2014

The first time I experienced the work of A.S. Byatt, I was flying from Vermont to New York, ultimately bound for an undergraduate interview at Oxford. I can still recall, with striking clarity, clutching the pages of Possession as the plane cut through the lemony dawn, the jet engines whirring, the world around me still waking as the one in my grasp unfurled with consuming immediacy. And though that morning was now over a decade ago, it still feels only a breath away, the richness of Byatt’s narrative having fixed the moment in my memory.

On 21 May, Byatt was invited by the Rector of Exeter College to a colloquium of college members and guests. The assumption was that a literary discussion would ensue, yet how inadequate an assumption that proved to be. The discussion served as a reminder to us all of how easy it is to forget that our lives are constructed of words and tales and mythologies, and that the best writing serves as a point of reference. It is a mooring in a world that is too often rushing around us. Perhaps the most capable storyteller never loses sight of this: the power of a narrative to connect the fragments, to make them whole.

Byatt began a DPhil at Somerville College in 1958; when asked about the earliest moments of her authorial career, Byatt responded, without hesitation, with words her supervisor, the late Helen Gardner, imparted to her. “Every clever girl thinks she can write a novel,” Gardner informed her student. “None can.” As Byatt related the incident, her tone was imbued with particular satisfaction. How different Byatt’s life would have been had she heeded Gardner’s words, which, reiterated over fifty years after the fact, remained exigent, as if the author was still working against the conjecture.

After setting such a generous, candid tone, Byatt spoke of the task of revising her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, twenty or thirty times before its publication in 1964, and how the writing process has evolved for her over the course of her career. Now, she casually informed the room, she writes only one draft of a given novel. At this admission there was some visible shifting in seats: the claim seemed fantastic. But as Byatt explained, the idea that she should write a single draft of a 600-page novel had become not only plausible, but entirely sensible. “I need the thread of the langue,” she explained, comparing writing to knitting, noting that the thread—the yarn—needs to go from the first knot to the last without interruption. She writes by hand, and if a mistake is made, the page is begun again. “I keep very complicated Coleridgean notebooks,” she continued, and something in even this small divulgence conjured images of Possession’s Christabel LaMott, of a sort of intertextual web being spun between reader and writer. Byatt’s own confident and thoughtful manner throughout made it clear that the lively abundance so present in her writing is not distinct from Byatt herself—the line between art and life is thoroughly and delightfully obfuscated.

While Byatt may have long ago rejected an academic career in the purest sense, her path still seems to be that of research and reason, moving towards the point at which life and work become a single expression of curiosity and diligence. This was perhaps illustrated most clearly when Byatt related some of her experiences in writing Possession, and the ways in which one can achieve ownership over a text, read or written. When questioned about the difficulties of inventing the poetry central to the novel, Byatt remarked that its composition was possible because it did and did not belong to her. “I hardly had the courage to write the poetry in Possession,” she admitted, explaining that she had originally suggested to Dennis Enright that she could simply use those of Ezra Pound’s poems in which he pretended to be Robert Browning. Enright replied, “Antonia, you will write it yourself.” The poetry that runs throughout the novel was a product of her childhood reading. “It was all the Victorian poetry I grew up on, that wasn’t useful as an undergraduate at Cambridge,” she said, adding emphatically that “[she] thought Robert Browning was a good man.” Once again, there was a sense that, for Byatt, the relationship between reading, writing, and living is an intricate one—both complex and necessary. “It wasn’t mine—that’s why I could write it,” she remarked of the poetry she sees as belonging to LaMotte and Ash. As compelling as this explanation is, it seems to illuminate another truth about Byatt’s writing. If she refuses to take ownership over the verse that frames the novel, this suggests that she is capable of building characters so full and felt that they take on their own power and agency. Byatt’s relationship with Browning—the verses she has carried since childhood—coupled with the fullness of her imagination, creates a singular expression of seamless art through the medium of the novel.

Byatt’s aim seems to be to expand the ways in which a life can be seen, by making the simplest objects striking and extraordinary. At the colloquium, she gave the impression that writing was almost a necessity—a response to reading, a response to the world. In Possession, Christabel LaMotte articulates the following position:

[W]ords have been all my life, all my life—this need is like the Spider’s need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out—the silk is her life, her home, her safety—her food and drink too—and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew—you will say she is patient—so she is—she may also be Savage—so she is—it is her Nature—she Must—or die of Surfeit.

Byatt has found a way of managing the excess of the everyday, of taking complex ideas and emotions and shaping them into something hard and stunning. Her busy intellect and hands are constantly at work in this quiet, elegant way, making connections, spinning intricate stories out of the surfeit. Sitting in the Rector’s living room, I felt like a teenager again, bleary-eyed and hopeful, anxious to be as close as I possibly could to the stories I love.

Kalika Sands is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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Bo-Kaap Houses Wed, 22 Oct 2014 08:45:11 +0000 kaap vinesh rajpaul cape cape’ houses morrison benedict Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we are featuring photographs by Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website.

Vinesh says about this photo: The Bo-Kaap (literally ‘above the Cape’) was once home to freed slaves after the abolition of slavery in the Cape. These days, the area is known for its steep cobbled streets, stunning views of Cape Town, multicultural character, and unique architecture. Here, I’ve tried to capture a different perspective of some of Bo-Kaap’s much-photographed, brightly-coloured houses.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Benedict Morrison.

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On Some Tacky Portraits of Women Taking Over an Oxford Dining Hall: An Open Letter to Hertford College Tue, 21 Oct 2014 09:13:06 +0000 hertford “hertford hertford’s salary dining hertford “hertford hertford’s salary dining hertford “hertford hertford’s salary dining hertford “hertford hertford’s salary dining hertford “hertford hertford’s salary dining April Pierce

This academic year, Hertford College will be displaying in their Hall twenty-one portraits of women associated with the college.

First of all, thanks for the tokenism. Really, thanks. As a female student of the University of Oxford, I know how fatiguing it is to spend every meal in the company of dead white males staring down at you with icy, smirking, pasty-faced colonial contempt—a reminder that no matter how hard you try, and no matter how many women have come before you in your field, history (or the Oxford version of it) is against you. It’s fatiguing to read mainly dead white males too, but that’s probably another conversation. Inevitably, in such an atmosphere, your decision to hang twenty-one photographic portraits of women—yes, women—in your hall may appear progressive. But, is it?

Listen: your poorly-framed photographs of women, composed, after all, by a man, and hanging for only a year in your dining hall, are a little distasteful, but not as distasteful as the apparent push to publicise the fact that you put them there in the first place. (Congratulations, by the way, on being “one of the first colleges at Oxford University to admit women for both (that’s both) housing and (yes, and) instruction.”) Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the spirit of the gesture: women are people too. Look at these women—we’re OK with them. They can hang out for a year, unframed, poorly photographed, by a man, in our dining hall. Look how progressive we are. Let’s get it into the New York Times. Let’s get this viral—Oxford is now, finally, cool with women as also-existing-in-historical-time. They can be people too. For a year. But do you know when Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”—the inspiration behind this shocking move to include women in your students’ dining experience—was first exhibited? 1979. And, while Hertford’s women get a year in the spotlight, Judy Chicago’s piece is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. Permanent. Display.

This is a very fashionable year to admit that women are people as well, isn’t it, ever since Emma Watson came out as a feminist, and polite society didn’t immediately crucify her? And she isn’t the only Emma with something to say. Sadly, though, Hertford’s very own Emma Smith was credited with a fairly terrible soundbite in the New York Times: “Our new portraits” she announces, “show that we are as proud of unsung achievement and potential as we are of high office or salary.” She might as well have said: “Hertford doesn’t usually give women high office or salary, so it’s lovely that they let us use their dining hall this year for a publicity stunt.” Or: “women don’t attain high office or salary most of the time in our version of history, but, bless them, they try sometimes.” Pat pat. Hertford, you haven’t had a single female principal in your entire history. Not one. Why is that? Admittedly, perhaps you’re not as terrible as other colleges. At my own college, for example, a female-benefactor-and-former-principal-who-will-not-be-named-but-can-be-Googled evidently supplied Times Higher Education with the material for the headline “Oxford College too strict on sexual harassment.” She came to this conclusion after “Roy Anderson was suspended following formal complaints from two female members of staff.” And don’t get me started on Oxford-as-a-whole.

Oxford: you didn’t let women matriculate until 1920—one lifetime ago. I have been openly mocked for being a feminist at many of your obligatory champagne receptions. I have been hit on, lewdly, by your drunken professors on more than one occasion, and have listened to my friends recount far too many stories of sexual harassment from your drunken tutors, principals, authorities, etcetera, so please forgive me if I sound a little cynical about this newly-found feminist sympathy. Sexism and sexual power games are so ingrained in your culture that I am no longer surprised to hear these stories. A lot of women are really too respectfully silent within your walls concerning the dark side of the old boys’ network. Maybe we assume that an ethos of entitlement and negligence is almost impossible to fight when it exists at the top of the food chain—in your private quarters, so to speak.

I digress. Thanks for the portraits, Hertford. I’m sure that the gesture was well-intentioned. But, you know, high office and salary are nice too. And why not leave the pictures up a bit longer? Maybe you could even get them some decent frames? Even better, how about hiring a few painters and doing the job properly? You do that, get back into the New York Times about it, and I’ll repost the resulting article with pleasure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxonian Review.

April Pierce is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and is Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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Weekly Round-Up: Turning down the Nobel Prize, What Shakespeare Does to Your Brain, Poetry in the Shadow of Death, the Equality of Languages, Frankfurters and the Modern Age, and Putting Things Off Fri, 17 Oct 2014 08:31:51 +0000 linguistics perlin subin naysayers procrastination golberg The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Stefany Anne Golberg: ‘No-bel’“, The Smart Set: as Patrick Modiano is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Golberg considers Jean-Paul Sartre’s controversial refusal of the award, and Albert Camus’ equally controversial acceptance. For Sartre, a writer’s freedom had to be freedom from all institutions. “Words, for Sartre, are powerful because words are actions… Thus, writing that is authentic cannot be a simple delight in words. There is a moral imperative involved in the act of writing. Because words create change, a writer is not only responsible for her own freedom, but the freedom of her readers.” For Camus, on the other hand, a writer’s responsibility was to honour as many readers as possible to aid them in their desperate struggle with the absurdity of life.

2. “Julian Hinchcliffe and Seth Frey: ‘Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense’“, Nautilus: using EEG and other electrophysiological equipment, the effect of Shakespeare’s verse on the human brain has been painstakingly studied. Shakespeare’s innovative style, including devices such as the switch between parts of speech, liberates the brain from the cognitive limitations set by conventional language use. This anarchic use of nonsense, though, does not cast the reader into chaos; “rather than plunging into the abyss of not-knowing, we soar above it. We are not falling, but flying.”

3. “Douglas Murray: ‘Poetry, Civilisation and the Critical Benefits of Facing Leukaemia’“, The Spectator: although iconic critic and cultural commentator Clive James finds himself in failing health, he has discovered a new drive for writing. His new Poetry Notebook, a collection of writings on poetry, has been released, and next year will see his Collected Poems. He wonders, though, whether his own critical success is a function of his illness; “‘I am getting the kind of praise now that poets dream of,’ he admits. ‘I wonder if you have to be standing on the edge of a cliff to get it, though. Has that occurred to you? If that’s true everyone will start doing it! Look, no parachute!’”

4. “Ross Perlin: ‘Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction’“, Dissent Magazine: Perlin offers a passionate plea for endangered languages, those without the cultural clout to ensure survival. Today, powerful cultures continue to impose their languages on the powerless. But the loss of the “vast reserves of history, literature, knowledge, and wisdom embedded in these languages… leaves all of us impoverished.” It is time to begin defending the assumption of contemporary linguistics, as espoused by Stephen Pinker, that all languages are equal.

5. “Alex Ross: ‘The Naysayers’“, The New Yorker: the work of the Frankfurt School remains influential in the world of High Theory, but what would Benjamin and Adorno have made of contemporary pop culture? Would they have seen it as progress, or merely as “the freedom to choose what is always the same”?

6. “Anna Della Subin: ‘How to Stop Time’“, The New York Times: this account of the creative benefits of procrastination will inspire and delight many students. Through a historical survey of procrastination, from its vague classification as a pathological behaviour to its starring role in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, putting-things-off has had a pretty bleak reputation. Subin, though, argues that it is “an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers”, the gateway to greater creativity.

If you would like to suggest a link, please email benedict.morrison[at]

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Laconic Justice Thu, 16 Oct 2014 15:57:38 +0000 furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ furies furies’ Cameron Quinn

The Furies
By Aeschylus
Dir. Arabella Currie
15-18 October at the Oxford Playhouse

There is enough charm and peculiarity already in staging a play in the original Ancient Greek that any once-every-three-years Oxford Greek Play must answer the question: what does this interpretation add to an experience that starts from a baseline of singularity and ambition?

Arabella Currie’s The Furies (after Aeschylus) sets the final, Athenian chapter of the Oresteian trilogy in a minimalist semi-cyberpunk psycho-future. A small ensemble of tremulous strings, high woodwind, and off-beat percussion introduces a scene dominated by a narrow blood-red rectangular barrier extending upwards, a large circle carved out near its base. Orestes trudges onto the stage dragging a huge plastic shroud with a human form inside, avoiding the sleeping Furies arranged in crisp disarray around the stage, as he makes his way to Athena’s altar.

After a period of silence, the first lines are delivered by Lamorna Ash’s Pythia, and her performance sets the tone for what is to follow. Wild-eyed and wearing a Carnivalesque spiny headdress, she just manages to rouse herself from a stupor, then struggles to articulate the first words of her dedicatory prologue, sinking back down to earth a few times before the words finally come. Ash’s delivery (although admirable, acting-wise) gives the impression that the lines are an afterthought, a formality. While they are admittedly ritualistic in content and function, they seem to be imposed from without; they are not felt—merely delivered.

The laconic haze of this opening scene, set at dawn, never seems fully to lift. The characters lack passion and dignity—crushed beneath the weight of some unseen torment (no, not the Furies), every character seems only just able to muster their given lines and pair them with actions only rarely befitting them. As a result, it is difficult to believe that the lines recited by these characters really mean anything. Currie’s The Furies presents a world of listless, drug-addled teens, reciting words of power with nothing behind them.

Currie and her team have said that the aim of their adaptation is not to add anything, but to subtract, to strip down the play to its musical and painterly aspects and so allow us, the audience, to interpret it ourselves. ‘The purpose of theatre,’ producer Charles Graham writes, ‘is to create a mirror for the audience, and whether it is performed in Ancient Greek or contemporary slang—the role of the audience is to interpret it within our own context. Would you call this justice?’ This production, though, as is inevitably the case, does make deliberate interpretive choices; as a mirror, it is not spotless and distorts the audience’s reflection.

This interpretation is felt in Currie’s choice of title. Aeschylus’s title for the play, Eumenides, is transformed into The Furies, where conventionally it is simply left alone or rendered in English as The Kindly Ones. This bold transformation, the reverse of the one that occurs in the play itself, sets up the expectation of a particularly brutal rendering of the title deities, highlighting their viciousness and menace. Yet this expectation goes woefully unfulfilled here. Embodied by a nine-some of young women, each uniquely styled in a variation of dialled-down Edward Scissorhands, these Furies seem neither a swarm of insects nor the pack of hunting dogs suggested by the text, but a group of bored teens who can scarcely commit to light mischief, let along vengeful murder. Most of their lines, written by Aeschylus for a chorus with a leader, are delivered by individual Furies. This approach, and their varying styles of delivery, leaves the audience with a sense of these Furies as weak and at times whiny individuals, rather than as a chthonic death squad. Those lines that are delivered collectively are too often droned, muttered or slackly sung, which has the effect of removing their bite.

The Furies’ binding song, a climactic and potentially terrifying sequence in which the Furies make clear the depth and breadth of their menace, has nothing in it here to arouse fear either in the audience or in Orestes. In a carefully choreographed set piece, the nine Furies clap and stomp and ululate, their movements and delivery evincing more narcissism and mild annoyance than menace. Moments like this, where the stakes of the action seem low to non-existent, are frequent in Currie’s production. The Eumenides is often read (rightly or wrongly) as a watershed moment in Western thought, marking the transition from a tribal, retributive model of justice to an essentially liberal, state-dependent one. Anything resembling that sort of gravity is absent here, betrayed by the laconic tenor of the whole production. Even following the moment of transformation when the Erinyes become the Eumenides, from vicious, bloodthirsty avengers to protectors of justice, the harvest, and all things nice, there is no change in affect for the Furies. Their strident singing remains, along with their zombie-like movements.

None of this is to say that there are not some triumphs in this Furies. Contrary to the other characters, Kaiya Stone’s Athena, the highest-status character in Aeschylus’s text, does manage to command a certain degree of dignity during much of the proceedings. The set design and music are striking and cohere well together, and the presentation of Clytemnestra’s ghost in the first act is both novel and evocative. And of course, accurately remembering dozens and in some cases hundreds of lines of Ancient Greek, some spoken and some sung, is a gargantuan feat for which these performers deserve heaps of praise. But ambition and flair shouldn’t let a wanting interpretation off the critical hook. The audience hears the words in Greek and sees an interpretation of them in English, but it loses the sense of their weight and power through the listless and empty edginess that pervades this production.

Cameron Quinn is reading for an M.St. in Modern Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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Photo of the Week: Mumbai Wed, 15 Oct 2014 13:38:18 +0000 Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we will be featuring several of the photographs of Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website (

Vinesh says about this photo: While driving through South Mumbai on a warm afternoon a year or two ago, I spotted this man relaxing in the winter sunshine. I was struck by how peaceful he looked in his ‘room’ (the walls of which he had adorned with religious iconography) in the midst of Mumbai’s hustle and bustle.

If you have a photo to submit, please email benedict.morrison[at]

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Queer Pride Tue, 14 Oct 2014 09:46:05 +0000 Benedict Morrison

Dir. Matthew Warchus
Pathé, BBC Films, Proud Films, BFI
UK Release 12 September 2014

Matthew Warchus’ Pride is a delightful film, and audiences have been laughing, weeping, and cheering along with it since it opened in September. It is the tale of a put-upon London group of gay and lesbian activists, alive with outrage at the plight of a group of Welsh miners whose pit faces closure. As fellow sufferers at the hands of a reactionary Establishment, the unimaginatively titled Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (the LGSM) show solidarity by raising money and campaigning to renew hope in the failing rural community. As this subject matter would suggest, the film is a play of oppositions, both its humour and its pathos deriving from unlikely juxtapositions; the sight of a group of twin-set wearing Welsh women hitting Soho clubs is marvellously funny, while the coming out of a young man in the stifling atmosphere of suburban Bromley is wretchedly painful. This contrast seeps, albeit subtly, into questions of form. The film’s opening fifteen minutes, set amongst the colour and dynamism of a London Pride March, is shot with a kinetic camera that rarely pauses for breath. This established rhythm is startlingly arrested with the first shot inside the Welsh Working Men’s Club, a courageously protracted shot of an old woman walking—with the same unhurried determination as a character from a Victoria Wood sketch—to answer a call from the LGSM. A film concerning the extraordinary political coming-together of two oppressed groups told in a form which privileges jarring contrasts: it is no surprise, perhaps, that the film won the Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Pride nevertheless seems to remain absolutely reluctant to accept its own queerness. From the opening moments of the film, it is inevitable that these narrative and formal contrasts will be synthesised into a conclusion of heart-warming unity. Like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and The Full Monty, Pride depicts industrial decline in Britain, and allows the shadows of depression and defeat to flicker at the edges of the narrative only as far as is necessary. In each entry of this quintessentially British set of comedies, an initially suspect but ultimately embraced source of empowerment (respectively music, dance, stripping, solidarity) intervenes to brighten the dour life of the failing community. Aware of this lineage, the scenes in which the Pride marchers encounter an old woman silently brandishing a sign which reads ‘Burn in Hell’ and in which wives of the miners sing Bread and Roses, though admittedly moving, feel somehow familiar. They are the signifiers of the kind of struggle which these narratives eventually overcome. Pride, like its ancestors, is relentlessly linear, unwaveringly straight in its progress forwards towards a tear-tickling conclusion of magnificent personal and collective achievement. Unsustained shifts in shot style are not enough to queer this formula.

Nowhere is this crude use of formula felt more keenly than in the character of Maureen (played by Lisa Palfrey). At first, Maureen’s anxiety about accepting support from so deviant a troupe of supporters is wholly consistent with the prejudices of the community at large. However, as the tide of public opinion begins to turn following LGSM’s first visit, Maureen finds herself out on a limb. Refusing to relinquish her rather undeveloped and unexplained hostility, and aided by her two thuggish sons, she stage-manages a homophobic campaign to drive out the invading hordes of philanthropic homosexuals. The film’s sympathy is so overstated that the eyebrow-arching Maureen, circled by her unsympathetic sons as The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is by vindictive eels, becomes a figure of pantomime. Pride’s use of theatrical villainy sidesteps depth of character and political nuance in favour of crowd-pleasing gestures, offering up baddies to boo and heroes to cheer according to the grand example of so much British comedy.

But—there remains something nigglingly impressive about Pride’s achievement. Perhaps it would be over-hasty to dismiss its linearity and adherence to formula as necessarily un-queer.

This achievement lies in the film’s use of history. The self-satisfied declaration that a film is ‘based on a true story’ is typically enough to sink the stomach; this ‘truth’ is so often merely a cheap means of pretending a kind of authority. However, with Pride it functions in an altogether different way. It is true that the blazing antics of the film’s colourful characters and the clashes between their ways of life—middle-aged women discovering a stash of gay porn, young gay men stepping for the first time into a working men’s club—follow the strict formula of any number of sentimental British films. However, it is precisely this relentless formulaic linearity which queers these generic underpinnings. The characters make decisions and act, unaware of the necessity of the history of which they are a part. And that history is one of mine closures, of Section 28, and of AIDS. Over the sunny valleys of this British comedy of triumph-against-the-odds falls the shadow of inevitable failure. Formal straightness is the cousin of a cultural straightness which, in the 1980s, would not tolerate difference and sought to wear it down. The film simultaneously longs for a carnivalesque reordering of social hierarchies and ultimately recognises that such a conclusion would be fanciful make-believe. It is this divided identity—both documentary and fairy-tale, both reality and fervent wish—that makes this delightful film the queerest of the year.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor of ORbits at the Oxonian Review.

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A True Hard Man Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:50:08 +0000 Morgan Wesley

Peter Cossins
The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest
One-day Races

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014
416 pages
ISBN 9781408846810

The myopic public discourse on professional cycling is currently dominated by two things: the Tour de France and doping. Olympic cycling receives sporadic coverage every four years, the World Championships attract a page or two of press coverage, and mentions of the other Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España) are buried in the back pages of the newspaper. In October 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency filed its Reasoned Decision against Lance Armstrong, shining a bright light into the shadows that had shrouded professional cycling in the 1990s. Popularised accounts of the rise and fall of riders during the Armstrong era are doing brisk trade at booksellers internationally, and doping reports still grab headlines.

In his new book The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races, Peter Cossins, dives into the fray with an historical offering that breaks the cycle of scandal-based narratives. Eschewing populism, he focuses on the rich history of cycling’s greatest one-day events, in a cerebral account of some of the most important races in the sport’s history. He understands that far from the front pages of international news, in the eyes of the professional peloton (the main group of riders) and legions of cycling enthusiasts, reputations are made and the fitness of tour contenders is measured across the cobbles and over the climbs of the Spring Classics of Europe. These one-day races have been cornerstones of the race calendar and the progression of professional cycling since their founding around the turn of the 20th century. Of the Spring Classics, five races stand above all others, collectively known as The Monuments: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, The Tour of Lombardy, Milan-Sanremo, and the Tour of Flanders. The importance of these races is summed up by Thor Hushovd, a professional rider from Norway:

These races are brutally hard, they are dirty, they are very long. Everyone knows the rider who wins these races is a really tough guy, a true hard man. Then you think about the history of these races, you look at the great names that have won them in the past, and you realise what it would mean to win one of them, that your name would go down alongside all of cycling’s legends.

This quotation begins the concluding chapter of Cossins’s book, but one cannot help think that it should begin the whole work. For it is the list of riders and the routes of cobbles and climbs that form the major thrust of the text. Writing a chronicle of even a single Monument would be a daunting task; to treat all five races in a single volume is a staggering undertaking. For the cycling enthusiast, demanding of accuracy, exhaustive detail, and an unwavering dedication to the glory of cycling, Cossins has triumphed. Few details are omitted in this encyclopaedic account of The Monuments. The casual reader who has become interested in cycling because of the recent scandals will struggle to keep pace with the text, and many will be left behind in the process, like stragglers in the peloton, as a result of Cossins’s unrelenting focus on the specifics of the races.

Cossins is a committed member of his target audience, and navigates with easy authority the vast legion of riders and sponsors and the tiny tactical decisions that make up the full course of these races. From the first chapters discussing the first 33 riders lining up for the inaugural edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on May 29 1892, to the riders of the modern age battling for victory at the Tour of Flanders in 2013, the names and details flow seamlessly. Cossins gives each victor a moment on the podium without neglecting those standing on the second and third steps or the sport’s larger-than-life characters. Riders such as the daring champion Henri Pélissier and his younger brother Francis, left their mark on the races through their fierce spirit and occasionally questionable antics even when out of contention.

Cossins is similarly adept at highlighting the unique character of each of The Monuments, rather than letting them blend together into a “tour” of one day races. Much of this is accomplished by treating each Monument in its entirety before moving onward. This allows him to explore the context of external events and their impact on each of the Classics. While shared European roots and continental events affected all the races, there were different political and economic implications for cycling in different countries. By avoiding the presentation of The Monuments’ history as a general chronology, Cossins manages to capture these differences. His treatment of national pride and regionalism is particularly skilful, demonstrating a sure hand in exploring the thorny areas around cycling’s controversies. The cultural conflict between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons as it played out on the roads of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is given a nuanced treatment in the text.

The dedication to a complete treatment of each race, and ensuring a text that would survive the extensive scrutiny inevitable for a book written with a specialist audience in mind, comes at a cost. More problematically, because of the separation of the races, sections of each chapter have to be given over to re-introducing riders, teams and developments as they become relevant to each individual race. At times, Cossins is able to seize on this to elaborate a rider’s biography with new anecdotes and developments extraneous to a particular event. At others, the reader is left with a deep sense of déjà vu when reading about the top five or six riders contesting a race, unsurprising considering the periods where a single rider or team dominated the yearly calendar.

This repetition is particularly noticeable during the periods dominated by Alfredo Binda’s impact on Italian Cycling and stage-racing tactics, Fauto Coppi’s dominance of international cycling in the inter- and post-war years, and reaches a crescendo at the height of Eddy Merckx’s almost oppressive reign from 1968-1975. It would be impossible not to devote extensive space to these periods in any text that was not a dedicated biography of the rider, but the need for continuous re-introduction makes these sections of Cossin’s text a bit of a slog.

Similarly, the technique that allows for the excellent treatment of regional response to global events presents a barrier to the smooth discussion of changes to the fabric of competitive cycling as a whole. One such example is the establishment of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo in 1948. For the decade that it ran, the Challenge offered a glimpse of the annual points chase format of contemporary cycling, with the Challenge affecting the scheduling and perceived value of all the major European races. It shifted the focus of riders and teams into entirely new patterns of racing and planning. For the riders a new path to success was created: rather than merely targeting events with courses that catered to their strengths, or as tests of fitness leading to the Tour de France, an alternative arose: the idea of the all-round rider who could excel at a variety of one-day events, but who was not possessed of the raw endurance to compete as a General Classification contender at a multiple-day Tour. This had a tectonic impact on cycling, yet the fragmentary nature of Cossins’s discussion makes it seem an extension of The Classics’s impact on cycling, rather than the reverse.

It is in capturing these massive shifts in the paradigm of cycling that the structure of The Monuments is most limited. Cossins offers tantalising details that whet the reader’s appetite for revelations of this bigger picture, but ultimately he chooses to stick to the encapsulated narrative of each race. The final chapter offers a glimpse of this larger picture, and provides wider context for the races, beginning with Hushovd’s remark quoted earlier. With the extensive knowledge and passion that Peter Cossins has dedicated to the painstaking record of The Monuments, one is left wishing that he could take these larger issues further, even if it means that the occasional has-run was consigned to the footnotes.

Morgan Wesley is a student at Linacre College, preparing to submit his DPhil thesis in History while competing as a Triathlete for TeamUSA.

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Whose Values? Which Justification? Mon, 13 Oct 2014 02:40:48 +0000 Gabriel Roberts

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

The last four years have seen intense debate about the value of the humanities, much of it stemming from the education policies of the current coalition government. On the teaching side, the increase of student fees to £9,000 a year and the effective abolition of public funding for humanities teaching raised a pair of related questions, one about what degrees in the humanities are worth to students and the other about who should pay for them. On the research side, the overall cut in government funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) by around £21m (17%) between 2009 and 2013 also raised a pair of questions, one about the extent to which humanities research should be publicly funded and the other about what humanities research should be like in order to be funded in this way. The announcement and subsequent enactment of these policies provoked a broadside of books, articles, blog-posts, protests, and speeches, all aimed at explaining the humanities’ value. Among other things, we were told, the humanities promoted happiness and economic growth, were vital for the healthy functioning of democracy, and mattered for their own sake.

Partly as a result of this debate, the last four years have also seen the consolidation of a new kind of research, aimed at direct contributions to the public good, and efforts across the sector to demonstrate the public value of humanities research. In March this year, the AHRC showcased research which contributes to the creative economy, including a study of Indonesian death squads which formed the basis of the Oscar-nominated film The Act of Killing and research on the history of Channel Four which is designed to inspire the broadcasters of today. In a similar vein, a report published last year by Oxford University found that “the long-established system of humanities-based higher education in Oxford has proven highly responsive to national economic needs” and that “humanities graduates played a large and growing role in employment sectors which brought about growth in the UK economy in the 1970s and 1980s.” In each case, the emphasis was on demonstrable, quantifiable, consequentialist, and primarily economic contributions to the public good.

Yet to someone working within the humanities, the situation may have presented a different aspect. In many contexts, the discussion of the value of research was phrased almost entirely in terms of the traditional scholarly values of originality, rigour, clarity, accuracy, cogency, comprehensiveness, and the rest. In literary and intellectual history (in which I was working at the time), book reviews and article abstracts continued to proclaim that research was “subtle, important, and nuanced”, “illuminating, probing, and scrupulous”, “intimate, thorough, and attentive,” and so on. Delegates at conferences and participants in graduate seminars continued to ask questions which were designed to test the quality of research in terms of these values. The emphasis in these contexts was not on the contribution of humanities research to the public good, but on its value as scholarship.

These two kinds of value, the public and the scholarly, are formalised in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the five-yearly survey of the quality of academic research which is being conducted this year (research has already been submitted and the judges will report in the coming months—for details, see especially their Guidance on Submissions and Panel Criteria publications). Under the terms of the REF, humanities research will be assessed according to three weighted measures, entitled “impact” (20%), “outputs” (65%), and “environment” (15%). The last of these concerns the foundations which an institution is laying for future research and, as such, can be discounted from the present discussion, whereas the remaining two measures, “outputs” and “impact”, enshrine the public and scholarly values which are invoked in other contexts. “Impact” relates to the effect which research has on the economy, society, and culture (controversially excluding staff and students at the submitting institution) and is defined in terms of “reach” and “significance”, which in turn are illustrated with examples, such as research informing policy decisions, creating cultural capital, enhancing public discourse, making money, and so on. “Outputs” relates to the quality of published research and is defined in terms of “originality”, “significance”, and “rigour”, which in turn are defined in terms of “importance”, “innovation”, “understanding”, “findings”, “imagination”, “coherence”, “precision”, “accuracy”, “analytical power”, and “depth”.

It’s worth noting here—and this is something which I’ll come back to—that the remit for impact is broad. It certainly doesn’t mean (as early critics of the REF feared) that humanities research will be assessed to any great extent in terms of its contribution to the economy. But the evidential bar is high, with the result that submitting institutions will have been better off trying to demonstrate some kinds of impact, such as footfall at an exhibition or listeners to a radio programme, than others, such as informing policy decisions or enhancing public discourse. The result is a bias towards more readily measurable kinds of good—a specific instance of a far more general problem.

The REF is also structured so that public and scholarly values will have been kept separate. Institutions were required to submit evidence of outputs (roughly four articles for each academic included in the assessment) and evidence of impact (a template describing the institution’s approach to impact together with a set of case studies), but there was no requirement that the research submitted as evidence of outputs should be the same research as was submitted as evidence of impact. Indeed, the REF requires far more research as evidence of outputs. An institution required to submit 100 articles as evidence of outputs would only have to submit four case studies, each making reference to “one or more” articles. And it also imposes more strenuous qualitative standards: whereas research submitted under the ‘outputs’ heading will be graded on a one-to-five scale (with institutions hoping to score as highly as possible), research submitted under the “impact” heading has to reach only level two on the same scale. This means that any institution which was producing enough research to avoid submitting the same research twice could have pursued outputs and impact as separate objectives. It may even have been politic for some institutions to appoint academics who were less talented than their peers at producing research and more talented at creating impact, which was not a concern before the REF. The guidelines for the next REF are yet to be published, but if the same methods of assessment are employed then we could see humanities faculties creating parallel streams of researchers and research communicators.

This may seem like a good situation or at least an understandable one. Scholarship has been protected from demands for public justification, and some academics have been able to pursue their research without worrying much about its public value—an activity which might have debilitated their ability to research at the highest level. If the value of humanities research is bound up with researchers’ ability to pursue it for its own sake—as one might think—then it may have been wise to insulate scholarly values against the clamour of public ones. There is a question here about the distribution of justificatory labour, and it may be that this labour is best performed by a minority of academics.

There are, however, a number of things which the REF leaves out of the equation. In the first place, the incentive which it provides for institutions to conduct research which has readily measurable impact, together with the separation which it imposes between research which is excellent scholarship and research which creates impact, omits the large part of humanities research which has unpredictable, long-term, or dispersed effects. The REF makes some provision for these considerations by accepting case studies of impact underpinned by research conducted as long ago as 1993, but it seems unlikely that many submitting institutions will have opted to undertake the complex data-gathering necessary to demonstrate that research conducted twenty years ago has had impact rather than to steer its researchers towards work with more readily measurable effects. Nor, looking forward, is there any incentive in the REF for academics to think about how the research which they are conducting now might create impact in the future or any guarantee that this will be relevant to the REFs of 10 or 20 years’ time.

The problem is further compounded by the sharp distinction which the REF imposes between research which doesn’t have to have an impact and research which has to have one. The results of case studies will not be used to estimate the impact of research which has been submitted under the “outputs” heading and there is no suggestion that all research might have been assessed in terms of impact and the total impact achieved by a submitting institution worked out through aggregation. In these ways, the REF directs attention away from the effects of research which is submitted under the “outputs” heading, even though a great deal of this research must create impact in some way.

There’s also a curious lack of detail about how research submitted under the “impact” heading is supposed to create its impact. The REF supplies a long list of ways in which impact can be measured, including “citations in reviews outside academic literature, independent citations in the media, including in online documents, reviews, blogs and postings”, but there’s little requirement for submitting institutions to describe precisely how impact happens. For example, an institution might submit a case study of research which underpinned an exhibition and cite attendance figures as evidence of impact. But it wouldn’t have to provide any evidence that the visitors went away having learned anything or without having acquired false beliefs or undesirable attitudes. The problem here is that questions about whether the consumers of research are correct in their interpretation of it or respond to it in desirable ways are difficult to answer in quantitative terms. Yet one might think that these are questions which the humanities should peculiarly address.

Finally, there’s a problem concerning the relationship between the values which are used to evaluate humanities research and the private reasons why humanities researchers believe their work to be of value. Because public and scholarly values are the only values in terms of which the value of humanities research is typically expressed (at least for the purposes of assessment), researchers may feel unprofessional, selfish, or inadequate insofar as the reasons which motivate them in their studies are out of step with these values. They may inadvertently acquire the kinds of interest which are compatible with these kinds of values. Or they may come to think that the value of the humanities, to them or anyone else, boils down to nothing more than excellent scholarship and impact.

Some examples may help to make this clear. An academic may write a history of political representation in order to expose the thin notions of accountability which exist in modern British politics. Another may write an analysis of Shakespeare to show that the performance of his plays promotes an unhealthy view of women. And another may write a philosophical study of rationality so as to criticise the use of the term in economics. In each case, the academic seeks a goal which extends beyond the production of excellent scholarship and which they think will make society better, but which not everyone would recognise as a contribution to the public good. After all, some people may not believe that there’s anything wrong with current notions of accountability in British politics, with the view of women promoted by performances of Shakespeare, or with the use of “rationality” in economics. Nor will these disagreements necessarily be about means rather than ends. They may arise from fundamentally different conceptions of what society should be like. Under the terms of REF, research which is controversial in this way needs to be repackaged and sold as research which excels in terms of scholarship or impact, which is problematic for several reasons. In the first place, the trouble of repackaging research may atrophy the enthusiasm of humanities researchers. But more importantly, the requirement that humanities research should contribute to the public good in ways which everyone can recognise as good may enormously restrict the kinds of research which can occur. The assumption apparently underlying this is that the best way to promote the public good via humanities research is by requiring that all humanities research should contribute to the public good in ways which everyone can recognise as good, and there is little reason to suppose that this is true.

The central question here is about how research should be assessed in order to qualify for government funding. But it also has implications for how humanists should defend themselves. It’s fair to say that in the last four years humanities academics have sought to present a united front. We’ve seen this in the willingness of academics—locally, in events hosted by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH)—to emphasise that similar problems affect the humanities and other areas, such as the social sciences, the medical sciences, and the hard sciences, and we’ve seen it in the eagerness of the humanities’ defenders (see the books by Jonathan Bate, Stefan Collini, and Helen Small) to defend the humanities as a whole. The latter move is understandable, but it comes at a certain cost. If we adhere to the view that the humanities are uniformly valuable, without internal gradations between what is more and less valuable, then we may place ourselves in a bad position to make decisions about what to cut or expand in response to inevitable fluctuations in funding.

A less united front might be stronger by being more flexible. Just as one can think about the humanities in terms of who performs the labour of justification, one can also think about them in terms of the amount and explicitness of disagreement which they can tolerate about matters of value. At the moment, the tolerance level is low. Debates about the value of research are restricted to its contribution to the public good (conceived in highly restrictive terms) and to its formal scholarly properties, and this prevents more deeply-seated disagreements, about the sort of society we want to live in and what we as individuals want, from coming to the surface. In an area like the humanities, in which diversity and subjectivity are important, this is something worth worrying about.

Gabriel Roberts is a final-year D.Phil. in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

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