Professor’s Note John Howard Letter from Palomares Thanks for writing. I’m well, ta. It’s sunny, warm, and dry here, a bit windy. I got a deal on the flat. Don’t rush to conclusions. No paradise, Palomares is infamous across Spain, actively forgotten in America. My project attempts to counteract that cultural amnesia. As you asked, I’ll explain. I research and write in the mornings, hike and make photos in the afternoons. My route often takes me alongside the dry Almanzora riverbed. If the United States Air Force is to be believed, this is where the first of four hydrogen bombs landed, intact, back in 1966. An accident waiting to happen, part of a 24/7 Cold War “airborne alert,” a B-52 had collided with its refuelling plane, killing seven airmen. The second and third bombs exploded on impact. No thermonuclear reactions, mercifully. No mushroom cloud. However, the devices were blown apart, scattering radioactive plutonium powder, a carcinogen, over the town and fields. Military officials lied: “There is no, repeat no danger to public health.” Diplomats deceived, and reporters colluded. Yes, a bomb “cracked,” they wrote, small amounts “leaked out.” If only. You’ll hear that language even in the best film inspired by the tragedy, Michael Cacoyannis’s The Day the Fish Came Out. Check it out, if you can find it. One of the first movies marketed with a spoiler alert. So I’ll say no more. The worst film repeated the worst lies. The wayward fourth bomb, at the bottom of the Med for eighty days, supposedly represented the greatest calamity. (Never mind The People and Plots of
Palomares, as I’ll have to call my project. Meantime, see jailed activist Isabel Alvarez’s memoir My Prison, a feminist classic.) In fact, that “lost” bomb was never hunted by commies. Even so, that’s the plot of slapstick musical-romance Finders Keepers, starring—wait for it— Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Imagine a young Cliff as heroic hetero foil to queer undercover agents. Rich, eh? From my flat, I can see the ominous green fencing around the bomb sites. A beautiful vista of the Almagrera Mountains is marred by yet more fencing. The vile winds, you see, weren’t blowing the contaminants out to sea, as claimed. The townspeople were not so “lucky.” No “god was watching over them,” as the priest maintained. Instead, an exodus ensued. One-third of the populace moved away. Some sea view: Down there on the bleak beach, US servicemen loaded 5000 barrels of contaminated soil for shipment and burial in the states. They said they took it all. But again, they lied. Much was left buried here, cruel irony, next to the cemetery. A literal cover-up. The 50th anniversary approaches. The mayor complains of continuing secrecy. Washington prevaricates. And the people of Palomares are left with an everlasting predicament, against which they somehow persevere. You’re nearing a milestone—graduation. So Shakti, please give my best to the finalists especially. You ask for words of advice? I’m not worthy to offer them. But here’s what I’ve learned from the protesters in Spain: Don’t just question authority. Question everything. Wish you were here! Yours, John 17 January 1966 Crossing, Palomares, Spain
Uncle Vanya, by James Thorpe “IT’S different. Think Pulp Fiction meets Anton Chekhov”, says Isher Sahota. “I like Shakespeare but I wanted to do something really experimental”. In front of me, Vanya casually twists a chunky, black pistol which looks unsettlingly real. Uncle Vanya is about to hold a meeting in the front room. In the next five minutes of the rehearsal there is a gunshot, screaming, tears, and biting sarcasm. I am nervous - I want to laugh but it feels like I should cry. The speeches are impassioned; the jokes are bone dry and sarcastic. After sitting in on just one rehearsal I feel a little drained. Isher, who spent a year at Met Film School based at Ealing Studios before coming to Kings’, is the director of the upcoming production of Uncle Vanya. He is hopeful that he can match the ambitious tale by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. “It has action, humour, and tragedy. It’s about a man who tries to come to terms with the prospect of fading into nothingness.” Written in 1897, the drama is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of modern theatre. The play centres on the estate of an old professor. The ageing Vanya is consumed by the obscurity of his own life and the others around him; he knows that he is no Dostoevsky but he is not content to stay put. The play is about spiritual hope, desperation, and the tragic-comic results of this quest. Clearly, the production is out to mix things up. “Rather than people going to a play to be entertained for a couple of hours, I want to step on toes and force people to think”, says Isher. It will take place in the Chapel but with an unconventional stage layout. The actors will move in amongst the audience in an attempt to break down the fourth wall and “take it out of Russia”. A fiddler will provide an interesting an unexpected musical input to the action – and yes, there are “some gunshots”, we are promised. Uncle Vanya looks very different from the last Shakepeare production I saw. I am convinced. If you still aren’t, watch the trailers.
Junkie, William S Burroughs Review by Hugh Thomson
It will come as no surprise that Junkie is a book about Drugs. Such a broad generalisation and the use of a capital letter are wholly intentional. The narrator conveys at various points in the text the notion that his life is defined solely in terms of getting his next fix: when he is not shooting up he is simply “waiting” for his next. One of the leading authorities on Burroughs, Oliver Harris, writes that Junkie is ‘half-way to being a pharmacopoeia’, and he certainly has a point. We are given insights into the use of marijuana, cocaine, Benzedrine, Nembutal, peyote, yage, and of course morphine and its derivatives. Admittedly this description doesn’t really do the novel any favours: frankly it makes it sound rather boring, predictable and unoriginal. Continuing this school of thought we might argue that surely the subject of drugs had already been exhausted in literature, even by the early 1950s, with De Quincey perhaps doing it better than anyone. However, Junkie is a world away from Confessions of an Opium Eater. For one thing it is impossible, at least in my opinion, to read this novel from a wholly detached point of view. The narrator of Junkie (technically not Burroughs but the autobiographical elements are clear) encourages the reader to become a vicarious smack addict, luring us into the narcotic world just as he was as a young man. Certainly some readers will have more addictive personalities than others, some will be more drawn to drugs than others, and indeed a large proportion of readers will probably be addicts themselves, but Burroughs manages to trap the reader in his world regardless of any ideological standpoint on drugs they might hold. It is very important to emphasise that this is not an easy thing to do as a writer, but Burroughs achieves this in several ways. Firstly, his interest in anthropology (he studied for some time at Harvard) shines through, particularly in his portrayals of the figures who make up the underground smack culture in New York. Despite being introduced to these characters only briefly, before they or the narrator move on (the novel cannot be faulted for its realism) they remain in the mind of the reader. Moreover, particularly in the opening pages but also interspersed at other points in the novel, we are given some profound insights on the nature of addiction by an expert on the subject which make for fascinating reading. Considering the relative brevity of the novel it is astounding how detailed the portrayals of New York and Mexico City are. For me, the former is most memorable for the scenes in which Bill, the narrator, and his friend wander the streets stealing money from passed-out tramps in order to fund their habit. The latter is notable for its candid descriptions of Burroughs’ early homosexual experiences with young Mexican men in shady hotel rooms. As one might expect from writing which takes drugs as its subjectmatter so unashamedly, some of the passages detailing the high are intensely lyrical. Interestingly I found that, rather than the euphoric highs, it was the lows, which ironically Burroughs repeatedly maintains are inexpressible through words, that were were most striking.
Book Review ‘Drug pornography’ is a term that I have heard used before, though admittedly not in relation to Burroughs, and it seems to have entered the vernacular. The phrase is fairly self-explanatory, but for reasons of clarity I shall explain. This derogatory term is used against the kind of literature which critics believe glamorise drug-use, writing which readers can ‘get off ’ on, giving them some kind of thrill, and is often but not necessarily sexual. It would be impossible to deny that there is not an element of this with Junkie: after reading the novel I for one undoubtedly felt an inclination to experiment further with drugs, and there were few passages devoted to the more gruesome aspects of intravenous drug use. Yet I say an element, and it is certainly only that: I took the impression from the novel that heroin was a purely negative force, especially in the passages describing withdrawal from the drug. I am giving little away by revealing that Bill repeatedly attempts to kick his habit, and repeatedly relapses. After the third or fourth of these relapses I even found myself letting out a cry ‘Oh come on Bill’: as a reader we cannot help but will him to kick his habit. Thus I think the description of Junkie as drug pornography is unfair: to describe it in such terms would be to liken it to watching sexual pornography in which one is made fully aware beforehand that the participants are riddled with sexually transmitted diseases: hardly glamorous. There is one final point I want to make, and at the risk of seeming incoherent it relates back to the idea I mentioned at the beginning about the essay on preconceptions. I used the example of my propensity to label authors with snippets of information, or perhaps the subjects they tend to deal with in their work. Ask me about Celine in a drunken conversation and I will assuredly tell you he was a nihilistic, anti-Semitic writer who nevertheless had a huge influence on modernist French écriture. Ask me for my thoughts on Orwell and I will shake my head at you, and patronisingly point you in the direction of his essays and journalism, which I will maintain are far better than his prose, despite my relative unfamiliarity with both (in all seriousness his essay Shooting an Elephant is one of the best I have read, a shocking but thought-provoking account of colonial rule). However, as I inevitably found with Burroughs, these generalisations serve no purpose. Certainly, his writing is about drugs, but to label it in such broad terms is derogatory and devalues its status as a work of indescribable (at least in the opinion of a pretentious undergraduate) genius, which even readers without the slightest inclination towards narcotics should be drawn in by. At the same time I think I understand why I, and indeed others, feel a compulsion to know something, anything, about every author whose name we hear: the number of books one can read in a lifetime is finite, in fact realistically it is a relatively small number, and yet a lover of literature desires to read everything for fear that we are missing out on something great: these snippets of information about authors make us feel like we have something of a grasp on them and their work.
Flash Fiction ATussle with a Unicorn: An Obituary for Dr Frederick J. Metzinger 29th December 1923 – 25th January 2012 The irony (and good fortune) of Herr Dr Metzinger’s death coinciding with the third ever publication of this newly established periodical would not have been lost on him. It is hard to analyze with any great insight the life and intellectual contribution of this wonderfully talented academic, whose pioneering work in the fields of psychology, historiography and Victorian Politics will (criminally) be obscure to the majority of the undergraduate body at King’s. Metzinger joined the History faculty at King’s as a lecturer in 1975 under the pretence of an academic specialty in Victorian Politics and Literature. His real academic interest, however, was far smaller, spe-
cific and, as it proved, expansive: it comprised solely of the figure William Ewart Gladstone. He kept from his employers and colleagues at King’s that his real motivation for leaving his post at Christ Church College, Oxford (Gladstone’s own undergraduate home) was to emulate his idol as far as possible. Metzinger came to serve God’s bastion in London whilst facilitating his study of Gladstone; William certainly would have approved. Metzinger, unfortunately, was unable to maintain his position at King’s for long. His specialty soon became obsession, his lectures sometimes consisting of no more than an examination of a single clause of a single line from a single entry of Gladstone’s adolescent journals. Despite the brevity of his stint at King’s, Metzinger remains among the most distinguished academics to have ever graced its corridors; one wonders why his image does not accompany the smokers outside the Strand campus. During his brief time at King’s Metzinger
The Unpublished Writer
had his most important, influential academic epiphany. It is said that gazing from his second storey office he caught a glimpse of something that changed permanently his outlook, both intellectual and emotional. Certainly, much academic attention had already been given to the comparison between Gladstone and his Tory archrival, Disraeli, and their metaphorical portrayal as Caroll’s battling Lion and Unicorn in Through the Looking Glass. Metzinger, however, apparently inexplicably, became obsessed with this idea of creative reflection. His behavior quickly disintegrated; he became unable to recognize himself in a mirror, and often mistook the ugly, florescent corridors of King’s for his own labyrinth mind. He was asked to leave his position, and soon after became irrevocably incoherent. Illuminatingly, I think, it has been reported that till the day of his death Metzinger maintained that if you sit in his office (S2.17) and look out onto the statue of Gladstone, in its eye you are able to distinguish the unmistakable figure of Caroll’s rearing unicorn.
By Joseph Prestwich
By Joseph Prestwich
The unpublished writer Ending his words mid-sentence Lost in the sun-tinted leaves that Dance, rolling on the wind in the street; But the landlord of this flat Won’t let nature pay the way For days to end like passing voices.
Another day is over and night’s slow fade Creeps in, mirroring the mugs and calendars and false work Filling the shelves of our lives. Did you Read something, think something new today? Nothing – like dust settling on a mantelpiece clock.
Even the wave of the city crashing Round his sinful mind won’t stop him Waiting, for present to turn its masthead to the future. He hesitates.
Breath the air of morning, see the veins of that red sky, And as you toss off yesterday’s fusty clothes, Follow your own pulse and chase the evening’s Setting sun, until it breaks again afresh.
Department Newsletter A Long Weekend in Early December The Writing Strand: By Jack Barton
The trees were rigid, like something terrible had happened I walked into the gunfire of leaves Shards found my eyes Winter’s shrapnel Under a slate-blue sky Feet drowned Beneath a sea of brittle orange The morning after, in the dark Tired-cold, swaying on aching shins I waited at the bus stop and watched An unbranded carrier bag get Bashed around by sudden, spectral gusts Dragged across the street onto Railings, forced through them like Intestines back into the open Wound they burst from Until It finally found shelter under a garden fence. The bus arrived. One day later, rested, I bounced Home across Southwark bridge Eyes drawn to the afternoon death of The sun, its slit wrist smearing Golden blood across the sky As day fell over the cliff edge of the West.
Edward Safra Lecture Theatre on Thursdays @ 11am The English Department is delighted to announce that The Writing Strand is resuming this term with a series of lectures on Ekphrasis, or writing about or with images. Reflecting on images and how they get translated into words offers rich possibilities for thinking about writing vivid, lively prose: the emphasis remains, as ever, on style and the business of academic writing. 16th February: Professor Mark Turner: ‘Visible and Invisible Connections: Writing About Art’. What do we mean by ekphrasis? And how might thinking about it shape our own critical writing? 1st March: Professor Clare Pettitt: ‘The Image of Elegance’ 8th March: Professor Gordon McMullan: ‘Greedy Cormorants and Talking Pictures’ A talk that brings together writing, images, writing that depends on images, and images that talk back to writing, which is designed to help you reflect on our own writing practice and to work out ways in which the use of images might enhance your essay writing. New Appointment: Professor Javed Majeed: The Department is very happy to welcome Professor Javed Majeed as our new Professor in English and Comparative Literature. Professor Majeed, who will join us in January 2012, comes to King’s from the School of English at Queen Mary University of London, where he was Professor of Postcolonial Literature. Royal Society of Literature Booker Prize Masterclasses Due to the ongoing partnership between the KCL English department and the Royal Society of Literature, we are able to offer two free places on the forthcoming RSL Booker Masterclasses:
All was empty and calm and serene again.
SATURDAY 14 APRIL: Hanif Kureishi The art of writing fiction Somerset House, London
One Second, Four Years
SATURDAY 26 MAY: David Almond Crossover Fiction The Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle
By Jack Barton
Today a waitress that wore your shampoo Walked by my table and left it in her wake Turned around with a flick of long auburn Revealing a face that could have been you I was sad stunned, her bright blue skirt like ice blue mornings watching you straighten your hair Lying on the bed which has become a Dark bar far away from there and a long time after Yet still you linger.
Any King’s English student can apply. To do so please send a 100 word description of a daily journey to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th March 2012 and clearly state which masterclass you are interested in attending. The department will cover the costs of the student travelling to Newcastle. The entries will be judged by Susie (the KCL/ RSL liaison officer), along with Professor Andrew O’Hagan, English department creative writing fellow. If you require any further information, please email Susie Christensen.
Interview with Michael Wood
By Helena Goodrich
Michael Wood is currently a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, but has previously been an academic in England at both Cambridge and Exeter Universities. He has written books on a diverse range of topics from America in the Movies to his most recent work on Yeats and Violence. He has written for The New York Review of Books and writes regular film reviews for The London Review of Books. He is currently working on a work to be entitled The Uses of Distraction, and his talk at King’s on ‘The Politics of Distraction’ is based on this. Michael was kind enough to allow me to interview him beforehand over an espresso in Chapters… So tell me a bit about the Talk you’re going to give and what the ideas are behind it? A few years ago I was asked to write a book in a series called After Theory, and mainly when people talk about this they mean; ‘theory is dead and good riddance, now we can get on with life.’ I think the opposite, I think theory had its defects but it was interesting and we haven’t really got our heads around it. I knew I wanted to write something starting with Walter Benjamin and I thought about the idea of commentary; what’s a commentary and what’s a criticism. Then I decided this was too huge, and it would involve all kinds of things I didn’t know anything about, so I settled on this other thing about Benjamin and that’s his curious idea on distraction which he thinks is not necessarily a bad thing. He’s discussing movie audiences saying that, in a way, the regular people at the cinema are not just mindless people watching the flicks; they’re not intellectuals, but they might be experts and they consume films in a special way. They are distracted, but they’re picking up stuff that you couldn’t pick up if you were concentrating. This is part of a larger thing I’m working on about avenues that are closed to you if you really concentrate, and things that are open to you if your mind is wandering. There are certain forms of distraction that we know are bad, but there are other forms where we don’t know yet. We know that being able to understand something perfectly and have it all under control is bad, because it can’t be worth understanding if it’s that easy. There is a mode of scholarship and criticism which is very pleased with itself because it solves the mystery, it gives you the answer to the problem and I think there’s a kind of failure of curiosity in that. You’d be better off thinking ‘I don’t quite get it’ or being tempted away by something else. A simple rule is, think about when you’re trying to remember something and you can’t; then you stop thinking about it and you can. That must mean something. There are certain things that aren’t available to us when we look directly at them. Focus is obviously good but focus would be too limiting if it stopped you from seeing what was just out of focus. So Benjamin places value on the everyday man’s experience of cinema alongside the critic. Does that parallel with how you approach film reviews? You can’t pretend, if you’re writing about movies, that you’re just anyone watching a movie, you can’t pretend to be an amateur. But you can stay in touch with what the amateur is in your own approach. People don’t go to movies as much as they used to but I think it’s a great me-
dium , obviously for making great works of art, but also to talk about. There’s always an interesting gap between what one person sees and what another person sees, what the reputation of the film is and what the film is itself and it’s great to have that sort of discussion. So does the ‘reputation’ of a film suggest that we have already decided how we’re going to react to it? We bring a lot of fantasies to film, for instance, if we like Meryl Streep, we really want her to be terrific in the film but if we’re fed up with Meryl Streep we could be surprised by how good the film is. It’s a medium in which our own expectations are more than usual. You’ve suggested in some of your writings that current arts journalism has a less critical approach. How has that happened? There was a time, probably the late eighties, when journalism, in papers like the New Yorker especially, gave up on critical essays and arguments and just told stories. They didn’t want discussion of a film they wanted the story of how it got made. They didn’t want an assessment of an actor but they wanted an actor’s life story. It relates to other things like the rise of biography and the fact that we are interested in real life stories rather than novels. There’s a real appetite for what people think is a real story as such that people think that if you fake a real story, it’s better than an imagined story. How have you managed to combine both academic and journalistic writings? I have been lucky, but there are pressures on both sides to be one or the other. There’s a tendency for people to say ‘are you really a journalist’ and for universities to say ‘are you an academic or not?’ I taught a course at Columbia on America in the 1950s with an American journalist; there were journalism students in the class as well as English and History students. People would come in and give talks about their experiences and we would ask questions. The journalists, once the interview was over, would think that there was nothing to talk about, whereas we would think ‘now is the time we start really talking about it.’ There’s a difference in approach, I think you can do both but most people decide one way or another. How has digitalisation changed our attitudes towards books and publication? In a library you can wander round, pick books of the shelf and flick through them. On a kindle, for example, you can’t find what you’re not looking for whereas you can in a book. Books are a much better technology. More and more people have books on their shelves that are
not the copies they read. They’ve got The Complete Works of Mervin Peake but they didn’t read the story in that copy, they read it in some ratty old paperback. I think the concept of the finished object and the book will carry on. However, I think other forms such as the newspaper will lose that final version of writing. Having worked as an academic in both England and America, how would you compare your experiences? The initial differences had to do with the teaching style; people in England take a course, such as ‘English’, you teach them over the years and you tend to know a lot of them quite well. In America you’re teaching a class and people just show up; you’re not taking their course, they’re taking your course; you don’t have the same kind of relationship.
There are also cultural differences; American students tend to be more talkative and eager to ask questions, are less polite. English students often need to be encouraged, they’re less provoked im some way. American culture is more mixed over time; the families are all immigrants of some kind, and represent many different nationalities, even though they’re all American. There’s a culture in which immigrants are very anxious to learn things. When I left America in the early eighties, the academic job was essentially the same in England and America. You taught your classes, you did a bit of administration and you wrote books. Within five years in Exeter, everything was adrift. First of all you went to lots of meetings, you spent hours in these; then you did your teaching and then, if you had any time left, you wrote your book. I went back to America in 1995 and it was like a dream, nothing had changed. You shared administration and you wrote. But then in America if you didn’t want to write anything you could also do nothing. I’m not sure that the culture of requiring people to write something actually gets more out of them. In my experience of academic writing nobody wrote more or better because they were told to. They felt bad about it, but actually that’s not a motivation for writing, it’s just a motivation for feeling bad. So you feel bad, but you don’t do it. How does having an outside ‘English’ perspective affect your writing as an Academic in America? I think being an outsider is very helpful because you feel that there are things that you will never understand. You’ll never know what it’s like to grow up watching baseball; you’ll never understand why the political parties have to have conventions that are like circuses. I had a student who went to Columbia who he was working on Dickens and Elliot in the 19th century and he told me that he’d decided to move to American Studies. Although he loved the English novels he said ‘I’m never going to know what a vicar is’. I sort of think the opposite; I think he’s right, that he’ll never know what a vicar is, but it’s not necessarily a problem. Particularly if you get to know somewhere and think ‘I know this place well, even though I’m not a native’.
Into the Trap presents..... In Association wih the English Society,
Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’
At the Old Police Station, Amersham Vale SE14 6LJ 27th and 28th February 2012 www.theoldpolicestation.org/
is nothing but “ Cauliflower cabbage with a college education
Mark Twain, Puddn’head Wilson Editorial Team: Thomas Brewer, Coryn Brisbane, Helena Goodrich
Presented by the English Society: Shakti Bhagchandani Thomas Brewer Coryn Brisbane Miztli Cadena Helena Goodrich Maia Jenkins Francesca Paul Benjy Rabinovich Design by Thomas Brewer