AHRC block grants for postgraduates: a missed opportunity? 
Tuesday, July 31, 2007, 08:14 AM
I attended a useful workshop on the AHRC’s proposed new method of postgraduate funding yesterday. Rather than all applications being handled by the AHRC, as at present, 80% of awards will be allocated to institutions as ‘block grants’. Students will apply to these institutions directly rather than go via the AHRC. 20% of awards will still be ‘open’ and will only go to students applying for places at institutions who don’t have these block grants.

An institution can only apply for a block grant (and I think the smallest block will comprise 10 awards) if they have a good track record of attracting successful AHRC applicants. So institutions like my own, Anglia Ruskin, would not be eligible to apply as we get very few research council funded graduate students.

In so far as I understand the new system the changes are unlikely to have much effect on us. We can still hope to attract the odd AHRC funded student through open competition so we won’t be disadvantaged by not having the ‘block grants’.

But I think this could have been an opportunity not simply to (effectively) maintain the status quo but to recognise the efforts of departments which, when it comes to attracting excellent research students, punch below their weight.

Thus my own department got a 5 in the last RAE but doesn’t attract many postgraduates who are likely to get research council funding because it is a new university and thus lacks kudos. For, despite our rather – ur – forceful poster campaign we aren’t poaching all that many students from Cambridge University, as yet.

If the AHRC could give departments/institutions like ours very small block grants (of say 3 awards) that would help redistribute students better amongst qualified supervisors - at present young and inexperienced supervisors at Russell Group Universities are probably likely to have more, good graduate students than more senior figures at new universities.

I realise that other factors, such as library provision, training and general research environment are important, not just the qualifications of individual supervisors, but still think the AHRC might, perhaps in the future, consider the case for a mild redistribution in favour of the many excellent departments to be found in the new university sector.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Exceeds Expectations?? 
Sunday, July 22, 2007, 11:38 AM


Perhaps the biggest problem with the final Harry Potter book is that it closed down all the possible plot twists and different alternatives – is Snape good or bad? – will Harry live or die? – providing us with the canonical answers to all our questions.

A more specific – and far more avoidable – problem was the introduction of the ‘deathly hallows’ themselves. When there were so many resonant strands she could have tapped into from the six earlier books why did she have to introduce this uncompelling additional complication? (Horcruxes were bad enough.)

Admittedly, when her readers’ collective expectations were so great it was hard to live up to them, let alone exceed them. I think on balance the ending (if not the epilogue) was pretty powerful and effective. But the book did seem to be missing some kind of big surprise or punchline somehow, some truly devastating revelation.

My own pet theory, for example, had focused on the character of Snape. I thought (in defiance even of the Rowling universe’s internal logic, I know) that Snape would turn out to be James Potter under the influence of polyjuice potion. This would account for Dumbledore’s unswerving trust in the sinister Potions Master.

I wasn’t too surprised to be proved wrong, but I was disappointed not to see more of Snape (my favourite character) in the final instalment. I wish Rowling had abandoned the ‘Hallows’ motif in order to spend more time in Hogwarts developing established characters such as Snape, Slughorn and Neville.

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Dorian Gray/Jekyll and Hyde: The Mystery of the Vanishing Body 
Friday, July 13, 2007, 07:11 AM

The Puzzle

I was recently rereading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and was struck by a little incident which I’d completely forgotten about. After Dorian stabs the portrait painter, Basil Hallward, he enlists the help of an old friend, Alan Campbell, to help dispose of the body.

Campbell is a scientist who had been Dorian’s friend five years ago but now loathes him. However, because Dorian knows about an unspecified secret which would ruin Campbell if it were revealed, the scientist agrees to use a mysterious chemical process to dissolve Basil’s body.

I started wondering why Wilde introduced this episode – why not just have Dorian push Hallward into a river rather than bring in a whole new character at a late stage?

A Clue

Maybe a clue lies in Dorian’s reaction after Campbell’s later suicide:

"As for Alan Campbell, his suicide had been his own act. He had chosen to do it. It was nothing to him."

It is tellingly difficult to disentangle the pronouns here. This draws attention to Dorian’s own culpability in Alan’s suicide despite his attempt to deny any responsibility for the act. It also, within the context of a novel which pivots around a sinister double, suggests that Alan is in some sense a further ‘double’ of Dorian.

A (speculative) Solution

This hint that Campbell is Dorian’s double makes more sense if we think outside the box – or outside the text – about the significance of the mysterious medic. Alan Campbell has a conspicuously Scottish name, he followed the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge and has since made a study of both chemistry and biology: ‘every day he seemed to become more interested in biology, and his name appeared once or twice in some of the scientific reviews, in connection with certain curious experiments’.

With his Scottish antecedents, scientific curiosity, notorious experiments and mysterious secret, Campbell can be seen as a kind of avatar of one of the key sources for Wilde’s novel, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which also deals with a man’s destruction by his malevolent double.

A further clue to such a reading of Campbell’s role is offered by the information that Dorian had been close to him ‘five years before’. Stevenson’s own doppelganger novel was published exactly five years before Wilde’s.

And Finally …

The Picture of Dorian Gray could be seen as Jekyll and Hyde’s evil twin, as its decadent atmosphere and moral uncertainties contrast with Stevenson’s apparently more upright novel. It is therefore significant that Dorian should play Hyde, as it were, picking up again the theme of blackmail which also haunts the earlier text. But if we interpret Alan Campbell as an emblem of the novel rather than simply a reincarnation of Jekyll we might probe the relationship a little further. Wilde’s decadent tale threatens to expose the secrets of its textual ‘double’, and its overt homoeroticism casts a new and more lurid light on the homosocial world of Jekyll and his bachelor friends.

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Scaena: First Call for Papers 
Thursday, July 5, 2007, 10:10 AM
In advance of a more formal call for papers this is to announce that the third SCAENA conference will be held at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge on Saturday 19 July and Sunday 20 July, 2008.

The conference will focus on the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and their later critical and creative reception in fiction, film and performance.

The last two SCAENA conferences were highly successful and enjoyable – the most recent event, in 2001, led to the publication of three edited collections of essays.

Do get in touch if you would like to offer a paper or organise a panel.
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Luxury Family Hotels 
Friday, June 29, 2007, 07:14 AM
It’s nearly holiday time so this is simply a (disinterested) plug for a UK hotel group, ’Luxury Family Hotels’, which is good (but quite expensive) if you have children.

We discovered Luxury Family Hotels when our son (now 9) was a toddler. Further details of all their current properties are available on their website but the ones we’ve been most struck by are Moonfleet Manor (near Weymouth) and Fowey Hall (in Cornwall). Our children like them just as much as we do, luckily.

The group is aimed at families with young children, laying on ad hoc childcare in a ‘den’ during the day and baby listening or (for an additional fee) babysitting during the evening while parents have dinner. There are games (both traditional and electronic) for older children.

Children can stay in the parents’ room for free – z beds and travel cots are provided as necessary.

Both Moonfleet and Fowey are former country houses – both are elegantly furnished, although Fowey is a degree smarter than Moonfleet – and both are near the sea. The food is consistently pleasing, though not absolutely outstanding.

Although they’re both expensive, we’ve returned regularly to these hotels over the years because they’re far more relaxing than any other type of holiday – this is down to a combination of feeling pampered and feeling unanxious about whether the children will behave because all the other guests have small children too.

If you are thinking of going check out the reviews on Tripadvisor. The negative reviews give as accurate a picture as the positive ones – clearly the formula doesn’t suit everyone.

I particularly recommend the hotels to parents of pre school children as it’s far cheaper to stay during term time.

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