Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Writing grief: Joan Didion, Blue Nights

Joan Didion surely did not expect to write two meditations on death. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) explores grief's strange processes and how she learned to recognise them when her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly in 2003. When Dunne died their only child Quintana Roo Dunne Michael lay gravely ill in an intensive care unit; she died in August 2005. Blue Nights is a sequel in a way, but also a dazed departure into how much more there is to learn about personal suffering. Critics have noted that Didion's writing is more spasmodic and less assured than in the earlier book.

The Year of Magical Thinking captured the thoughts and sympathy of many; Didion and David Hare adapted the book into a play, to international acclaim; the phrase seems to have entered the language. But it also attracted negative criticism. Frances Stonor Saunders placed the book in the expanding category of 'grief memoir', where at its upper level, famous authors can count on the 'professional support group' of other writers and reviewers: 'the bereaved writer [thus] projects his or her mask of mourning into the public domain and can expect to be treated with a kind of 19th-century douceur'. While her critical essay seems more directed at Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story than at Didion's book, Saunders regards these memoirs as indulgent and disingenuous:

Grief does not defeat language. It can be expressed, quietly or rowdily. JCO, [Meghan]O'Rourke, [Francisco] Goldman et al angle their memoirs as demonstrations of feelings. They protest, using slogans and placards. They complain that the good old ways of mourning are dead. All the ritual has gone, the religious props, the collective gathering in, and grief is now banished to some remote and frosty interior Scapa Flow where we just have to tough it out alone. "My pervasive loneliness was a result … of the privatisation of grief," O'Rourke discovers (as opposed to the result of pervasive loneliness?). This nostalgic reworking of the past is toxic for being unexamined and ahistorical. The ancients surrounded grief with vehement passions and rites (think of Achilles), but they didn't suffer less for it, as the stoics recognised.

In fact, Didion does think about how mourning rites change, in both  TYOMT and her California memoir Where I Was From. Noting that Emily Post's best-selling etiquette guide was written in the aftermath of the 1918 influenza epidemic, Didion recalls how Mrs Post's advice accorded with her family's understanding of public mourning:

When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keen or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post's 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read.

Have you read Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking? Do you agree that they fit a contemporary pattern of writing and thinking about grief? Please post a comment with your thoughts.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005); Blue Nights (2011) both published by Fourth Estate, London.

Photo: Joan Didion., colourised by H. Weeks. Reproduced for educational purposes only. No copyright claim intended.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Global spirituality: lecture this evening at FCH

Centre for Bible and Spirituality
School of Humanities

‘Spirituality and the Earth Community: Responding to the Spiritual Challenges Facing People and Planet’

Dr Ursula King
Professorial Research Associate at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS)

Professor Ursula King, formerly of Bristol University, and Professorial Research Associate at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS),is one of the UK’s foremost scholars in the area of contemporary spirituality. Her latest book is The Search for Spirituality: our Global Quest for a Spiritual Life (BlueBridge, 2011). Her other  writings include work on Teilhard de Chardin, and gender issues.

Thursday 1 December
Francis Close Hall TC001

Everyone is welcome

Image: the Museum of Peripheral Art accessed 28 /11/11

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Don't discount this career opportunity

Students choose to read English Literature at University because they love the subject. Some of us also choose it because we cannot add up. But a career in accounting may not be as wild a proposition as we had thought. Here's news of a career event from Vera Telford of the UoG's Careers & Employability team. Please get in touch with her if you're interested.

Calling students of all disciplines!
Did you know that the average salary for a Chartered Accountant in a senior role is £100,000 yet only 11% of trainee accountants is from accounting degrees! You can train as an accountant with a degree in any subject so if you think this career path might interest you why not come along to a presentation by ICAEW to find out more about it?
When?            Wednesday 7th December
What time?     1.30 – 2.30
Where?           TC105B, Park Campus
Who?              Adam Moore
   Institute of Chartered Accountants in  
   England & Wales (ICAEW)
Book your free place online at  

(This presentation is organised by the Careers and Employability team. Please ring 01242 714795 if you have any queries about the event.)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Professor Ursula King speaks about global spirituality

Centre for Bible and Spirituality
School of Humanities

‘Spirituality and the Earth Community: Responding to the Spiritual Challenges Facing People and Planet’

Dr Ursula King
Professorial Research Associate at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS)

Professor Ursula King, formerly of Bristol University, and Professorial Research Associate at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS),is one of the UK’s foremost scholars in the area of contemporary spirituality. Her latest book is The Search for Spirituality: our Global Quest for a Spiritual Life (BlueBridge, 2011). Her other  writings include work on Teilhard de Chardin, and gender issues.

Thursday 1 December
Francis Close Hall TC001

Everyone is welcome

Image: the Museum of Peripheral Art accessed 28 /11/11

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Louder than Bombs: Shelagh Delaney

The playwright Shelagh Delaney, who has died aged 71, caused a sensation with her first play A Taste of Honey (1958). Bored with the drawing room theatre that dominated postwar British playhouses, Delaney borrowed a typewriter, took a fortnight's leave, and wrote her play about a teenage girl, Jo, who falls pregnant after an affair with a young Nigerian sailor; abandoned by her mother, a young gay man looks after her. The play is set in her home town of Salford and articulates the rhythms of its speech and its longings for the first time on the London stage. Delaney turned for writing advice to the great director and producer Joan Littlewood, at that time still co-ordinating a cultural revolution from Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Littlewood's marvellous memoir Joan's Book (1994) offers her side of this intriguing collaboration.

If the author had re-read her script, she certainly hadn't pruned it. It remained as it had been when it emerged from that unbelievable typrewriter. [...] The ending was downbeat. Jo was whisked off to the hospital to have her baby and Geoff lay down on the couch with a life-sized baby doll to commit suicide. We tried several alternatives. Avis [Bunnage] ad libbed the best closing line, 'Can you cut the bread on it yet?'
    How did Shelagh take all this? She arrived from Salford...she was going to watch one of the scenes.
    'Well, we've a lot of disjointed scenes', said Avis, 'and that's about it'.
    'Jazz will solve it' I said. 'Johnnie Wallbank has a group - trumpet, guitar, drums and sax. He can link the scenes and set the mood'.
[...] Shelagh sat through the first run with music. She didn't say a word.
    'What do you make of it?' I asked her.
    'I think it's going to be all right', she said. I don't think she noticed the difference between her draft and the company's adaptation.
[...] The play was a success, the audience arrived with agents and newshounds, anxious to get the lowdown on this teenage wonder. Louis MacNeice, the poet, came, slightly abashed to find himself watching 'this adolescent effusion'.
   Shelagh took all this is her stride, giving interviews, considering offers, opening her first bank account...She was seen in the right pubs coping with the latest drinks and entertaining her hosts with laconic comments in her broad Salford accent. (pp. 517-20)

The Smiths loved her work so much that they put her photo on the cover of  their 1987 compilation album Louder Than Bombs. Shelagh, take a bow.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Archives at the University of Gloucestershire

The University Archives host a fascinating blog. Each month you can read about a particular item, document or other hidden treasure. It also offers research guidance, opening hours at Francis Close Hall, conatcts and other information.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

John Martin (1789-1854): British Romantic

John Martin: Apocalypse is Tate Britain's major exhibition this fall. After years of critical neglect, Martin is now recognised as a highly original Romantic painter of the sublime. Martin's work has a close bond with literature; many of his paintings, mezzotints and prints illustrate English writers, notably Paradise Lost (the painting above is ('Pandenonium', 1841), Byron's Manfred, and the King James Bible. H.P. Lovecraft was quick to appreciate Martin's strange worlds. The painter was

enthralled by the darkly thunderous, apocalyptically majestic, & cataclysmically unearthly power of one who, to me, seemed to hold the essence of cosmic mystery....Night; great desolate pillared halls; unholy abysses & blasphemous torrents; terraced titan cities in far, half-celestial backgrounds whereon shines the light of no familiar sky of men's knowing; shrieking mortal hordes borne downward over vast wastes & down cyclopean gulfs.

Judge for yourself at Tate Britain until 15 January 2012.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


The University of Gloucestershire's Theology team has joined the blogosphere with a cunning pun on the Holy Name. Visit them here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

News from the mazed world

Image courtesy: (accessed October 19, 2011)
Greece is suffering seemingly on all fronts: national debt, soaring taxes, high unemployment. But art is flourishing in reponse. Street art and graffitti, so long a feature of Athenian neighbourhoods, articulates intelligent aesthetic responses to grief and hardship. Small galleries have been appearing across Athens in the Metaxourgio district and beyond, and a dozen of them are participating this month in the international ReMap 3 project. There is an article by Rachel Donadio with photos in the International Herald Tribune, weekend edition, October 15-16, 2011 (you can find it in a library archive; there's no free online access to IHT or the New York Times). Here's an extract:

'It's as if someone asked you that you have to be a different person tomorrow', the novelist Alexis Stamatis said. 'Every artist has a dilemma. On the one hand, we are witnessing history in the making. On the other, we are suffering'.

At the Kunsthalle Athena, an exhibition titled 'Summer in the Middle of Winter' filled the beautifully run-down building, a warren of rooms with peeling paint, ornate mouldings and spotty wiring. On the moldy walls of one room hung a simple, understated image by the Greek artist Lydia Dambassina: a Greek flag folded on a desk, with a copy of the the newspaper Ta Nea from March 2010, around the time that Greece's foreign lenders sent representatives to visit, and the wortds in German, 'Alle Wege sind Verschlossen', or 'All ways are closed'.

On another wall was a clever, wistful installation by the young Greek artist Stefania Strouza, who typed phrases from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and framed them. 'Before the time seemed Athens as a paradise to me', read one. 'The Jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion', read another. 'My soul consents not to give sovereignity', another. (p.3)

We are reading AMND in EX120 this week. It is a more melancholy play than many of us remember. While the future Duchess of Athens sports the time, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, voices the fear and uncertainty of the world turned upside down in Act III scene i. From Greece to the Globe, and vice versa.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Research seminar at the University of Gloucestershire tomorrow

Centre for Writing, Place, and History

Research Seminar

‘A "combination of Bolshevik determination and American efficiency": British Communism, citizenship and the language of consumer culture, 1936-1945.’

Dr Catherine Feely, University of Manchester

Wednesday 12 October
Francis Close Hall Campus Room QU122
5:15 pm

Everyone is welcome

Monday, 26 September 2011

Things we didn't know about Cheltenham

Last week was Induction week here at Francis Close Hall. New English Literature students researched and created projects on the theme of 'Literary Cheltenham: Writing the Town'. Every year, students teach us something new about the town and its environs. Did you know that Sir Walter Scott lived here for a while, as did Byron; that All Saint's Church, Pittville, is French neo-Gothic; and that the brother of Gustav Holst, both born in Cheltenham, was a Hollywood actor during the 1930s? 

Our thanks go to all our students for their fresh eyes and remarkable curiosity.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Welcome to all new and returning English Literature students at the University of Gloucestershire

Induction Week runs from Monday 19 to Friday 23 September. New students will get their timetables sorted out, meet their tutors, meet their new colleagues, and prepare for their degree programmes.  You can find links to all Induction week activities via the Humanities group on Facebook:

Returning students are warmly invited to join us, too. There's a screening of the 1968 movie if.... , a performance of Woody Guthrie's music, and don't forget that the student-run English Society needs you!  We love September, the busiest and best month of the academic year. See you soon.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Welcome to all new English Literature students at the University of Gloucestershire

We're nearly there. The Virginia creeper has turned red, the campus looks beautiful, and we're looking forward to meeting you. Please check back regularly for Induction week information. The official website will be uploaded tomorrow. Meanwhile, join us on Facebook:

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Recyling sound

Last weekend at the Worcester Music Festival, Liminal's new project, Organ of Corti, was one of the main attractions. The organ replicates the part of the inner ear for which it is named. It is an instrument that makes no sound of its own but recycles ambient sound; a 'sonic crystal' of four-meter high cylinders that absorb, refract and modulate sound. As you step inside the organ you don't leave the aural environment but participate in its reprocessing by means of body movement and your own ears' unique configuration. No two people will hear sound in the same way.

Helen Frosi's short essay explains the project's aim:

The Organ of Corti does not sound out to the caress of fingers nor the pumping of pedals. Instead one is asked to participate - to become both composer and performer at once - by moving into and through the instrument. By shifting one's own body through space and structure the multi-dimensionality of the sounds emitted becomes apparent . One becomes aware of the magnitude and duration of the world's hum - whether naturally created by the gush of a waterfall, or by man in the bustle of commuting. [...] Such acoustic surprises, created from the known world, resituate and ground the listener within the aural environment. Through once dulled senses, the ears listen consciously, actively once more - cutting through the noise and hyper-stimulation of contemporary life. Listening via the Organ of Corti transports one to a world moulded in and from sound. That is what it is to listen to one's self listening.

Helen Frosi (SoundFjord, London), 'Listening with Open Ears', A Guide to the Organ of Corti, edited by Frances Crow and David Prior (London: Liminal, 2010), pp. 3-4.

Romantic critical theory describes poetic creation as a radical combination of perception and creation, external and internal impulses:

[ ...] of all the mighty world
of eye and ear, - both what they half create,
And what perceive; [...]
Wordsworth, 'Lines [Tintern Abbey]' (1798), ll. 104-06

Poetry is sound heard and unheard, as Keats reminds us. Most of us have developed carapaces over our ears in order to survive twenty-first century life, though nineteenth-century writers felt deafened by contemporary life too. But as readers of literature our ears are always open to sound and rhythm. We just have to learn to work the filters.

Photos: Hilary Weeks, August 2011

Friday, 19 August 2011

Autumn reading: Cheltenham Festival of Literature soon under way

Here in Cheltenham the upcoming Festival of Literature adds to the excitement of the new academic year. Click here or on the sidebar for the programme.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Media Blog at the FCH Learning Centre, University of Gloucestershire

Media Services at the Francis Close Hall Learning Centre have an excellent blog for students, staff, and anyone interested in the Humanities. Check out their archive of TV and radio programmes.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

National Theatre Live Presents 'The Cherry Orchard', June 30

The National Theatre continues its exciting season of plays screened live in cinemas across the country with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The University of Gloucestershire's English Society can attest to the brilliance of these productions, having recently attended Danny Boyle's Frankenstein. The NT's promotional material appears below; there will be screenings at Cineworld Cheltenham, the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, and Number 8 Arts Centre, Pershore. Click here for all venues.

‘A funny and affecting production with an excellent cast, who capture the wild exuberance and piercing melancholy of Chekhov’s play.’ Metro

Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, in a version by Andrew Upton will be broadcast live on
Thursday 30 June into cinemas. Set at the very start of twentieth century, The Cherry Orchard captures a poignant moment in Russia’s history as the country rolls inexorably towards 1917.

ZoĆ« Wanamaker plays Ranyevskaya in this spirited version of Chekhov’s last play. For your nearest venue and to book tickets go to
What is National Theatre Live?

National Theatre Live offers an exciting opportunity to engage students with best of British theatre in your local cinema. With 400 cinemas participating in over 20 countries, National Theatre Live has brought productions such as award-winning Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein and smash-hit musical Fela! to classic productions of Hamlet and King Lear to audiences worldwide.
This unique experience allows theatre to become more accessible and with
additional digital resources such as the
downloadable programme featuring
interviews, video content and photos students can immerse themselves in the world of theatre.

For more information watch the trailer on our website.The Cherry Orchard

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V & A

This marvellous exhibition represents and reconsiders the late nineteenth-century search for Beauty. Long before the syncretism of cultural studies, writers, painters, weavers, architects, bookbinders, furniture makers, potters, dressmakers, glassmakers and even some manufacturers tried to saturate living spaces and cultural products with beauty; to live artistically, to break free of conventional responses and stale imagery. If you haven't visited, enjoy the pictures, and hurry - the exhibition ends July 22. If you have, please post a comment.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Research paper at the University of Gloucestershire this week

The Centre for Writing, Place and History

'Eyewitnesses, Conspiracies & Baudrillard: 9/11 & The Literature of Terror’

Dr Martin Randall


Wednesday 11 May at 4.15 in HC 202

All are welcome

Religion, Philosophy & Ethics Blog at the University of Gloucestershire

Religion, Philosophy and Ethics's course blog is a wondrous thing. Check in for pictures, conversation and more. Link:

Friday, 8 April 2011

The confectionery of genius

Robert Crum explains why we should value the material trace great writers leave behind, from Hardy's desk to John Fowles's breath mints. Read his blog article here.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


Francis Close Hall Campus
We're building a blog for English Literature at the University of Gloucestershire. Please check back soon.

Hilary Weeks