Stephen Greenblatt lecture in Cambridge: Warts and all 
Sunday, May 20, 2007, 09:59 AM
Went to hear the Leslie Stephen lecture on Friday, ‘Shakespearean Beauty Marks’ given by Stephen Greenblatt. This was a rather grand event held in Cambridge University’s imposing Senate House, followed by drinks and dinner at Trinity Hall.

Although not especially striking, the lecture set out an interesting and enjoyable taxonomy of spots, moles and warts in Shakespearean texts and contexts. It was very professionally delivered – hardly surprising as SG seems to have spent the last two years giving the same paper at universities throughout the world. All the questions from the floor seemed to be put by students, and were mostly both interminable and incomprehensible. I felt relieved on SG’s behalf when the Beadle (?) brought proceedings to a close.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007, 09:20 AM
I went to Paris last week with Alex to continue our investigation of France’s grandes tables. Our last such outing was to the memorable Guy Savoy. This time we decided to try Alain Passard’s controversial L’Arpège.

Passard is famous for his vegetables and caused a stir some years ago by making L’Arpège completely vegetarian. (Happily) he has since softened his position though in fact most of the courses on the sampling menu we chose were completely vegetarian, and the most striking course of all was a harlequin of tiny vegetables flavoured with (amongst other things) argan oil, which comes from a tree found only in Morocco.

The vegetables themselves came from Passard’s own organic farm near Le Mans. Here the use of machines is completely forbidden, although the gardeners are allowed the use of a horse during harvest.

This harlequin ranked, we thought, alongside with Mark Veyrat’s contraste de foie gras or Guy Savoy’s ‘colours of caviar’. Another memorable dish was the Breton pre-salé lamb, served with a sauce of sea snails and seaweed.

The style of cooking here is ascetic, cerebral and subtle (though the bill was opulent, extravagant and capacious). The experience of dining at L’Arpège reminded me of an incident in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu Marcel’s long anticipated first visit to see the actress Mme Berma play Phèdre. He cannot immediately grasp her genius and only fully appreciates its impact when he reads a review of the performance.

‘As soon as my mind had conceived this new idea of “the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art,” it, the idea, sped to join the imperfect pleasure which I had felt in the theatre, adding to it a little of what it lacked, and the combination formed something so exalting that I exclaimed to myself: “What a great artist”.’

I do hope my back pay comes through soon.

Pierre Gagnaire next time I think.

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Reinventing the Renaissance 
Saturday, May 12, 2007, 10:11 AM
In advance of a formal call for papers, I’d like to invite proposals for papers/panels as part of a series of events planned for next year around the theme of ‘Reinventing the Renaissance’. These will take place at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

‘Reinventing the Renaissance’ will explore different ways of accessing and understanding the past. These range from the traditionally academic methods of criticism and scholarship to a variety of creative practices: film, fiction and painting, for example. This combination of very different responses to Renaissance literature and culture will promote debates about the elusive quest for authenticity, the conflict between presentist and historicist perspectives, and the nature of creative practice within research culture.

We are keen to experiment with different ways of using new technology to promote and disseminate debate, and would welcome proposals from colleagues who would like to design and implement an interactive project on a relevant topic.

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CCUE/Early Career Researchers 
Sunday, April 22, 2007, 09:40 AM
I’ve just returned from the CCUE conference in Oxford. This included a useful presentation on the RAE by Rick Rylance and a panel discussion on the problems facing early career researchers, with a particular focus on different kinds of postdoctoral opportunities.

It was noted that there was a kind of inflation process at work. As everyone knows, competition for any kind of first job is intense and it seems that permanent jobs go to older applicants than they did 10 or 20 years ago. The same is true of post doc posts, and a great many of these therefore go to people who haven’t just completed their PhD, those who already have some further teaching and research experience under their belts.

I was recently involved in short listing and interviewing for a Cambridge Research Fellowship and (so far as I recall) the front runners all fitted this slightly more experienced profile. When long listed candidates’ work is read by an external assessor it is more likely that they will favour the output of maturer scholars to a chapter written by someone just starting the third year of their PhD.

This is reflected in my own experience too – I secured a three year AHRB post doc when I was 29 and had already had a three year teaching post at St Andrews which allowed me a fair amount of time to develop my own research.

I think this trend has some worrying implications. Recently, a survey showed that university lecturers were more likely than any other profession to define themselves as ‘middle class’. And it could be argued that early career researchers from middle class backgrounds are more likely to progress in their careers because they are more likely to be subsidised while they make the transition from PhD to first job.

Again, I can use my own experience to back this up. I didn’t get a First and so didn’t get funding to do an MA. But my parents were able and willing to subsidise this. I then got funding to do a PhD – but wouldn’t have secured that without a good result from my privately funded MA.

These thoughts connect with another presentation given by Tony McEnery of the AHRC, a discussion of how best to support researchers in English. Perhaps more funding could be offered to people who have just finished their PhD, one or two semesters of additional support to allow them to secure a book contract or publish a couple of articles.

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Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk 
Monday, April 9, 2007, 08:50 PM
I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk. It is an extremely compelling novel set in Cambridge which combines present day intrigue with speculation about a string of mysterious deaths which took place at the time of Isaac Newton.

For me, the book’s particular interest lay in its use of entanglement – Einstein’s spooky action at a distance becomes a metaphor for the uncanny parallels between past and present events.

Entanglement lies at the heart of the novel’s composition as well as inhering within its fictional narrative. Implicitly we can see the process of entanglement at work between the novel and other cultural artefacts – the ones I was most aware of were Don’t Look Now and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone but I’m sure there are plenty of others there too.

This is the same kind of reflexivity Pullman plays with at the beginning of Northern Lights. The novel is predicated on a series of alternate worlds. The boundaries between these can be permeated using the ‘subtle knife’. But a subtle pen also does the job.

For example when Lyra hides in a wardrobe to spy on a secret meeting and is surprised by its size the reader might well be reminded of the parallel importance of a wardrobe in Lewis’s Narnia books. The wardrobe which transports Lucy from one universe to another transports Pullman’s readers momentarily into an alternative textual universe.

I also recommend two further novels which (for me at least) entangle with Ghostwalk, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver and Gregory Benford’s Timescape.

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