Myths of Transformation 
Saturday, September 27, 2008, 05:38 PM
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I’ve just returned from an excellent conference in Durham, Myths of Transformation, organised (very well) by Ingo Gildenhard. I gave the first paper, A Bug’s Life: Transformation and Science Fiction. This was an exploration of the way ‘upwards’ metamorphoses – into gods or posthumans – are often (perhaps surprisingly) presented as undesirable or problematic. In many cases such ambiguous posthumans are associated with insects, usually ants.

One of the aims of the conference was to pin down more securely some of the key characteristics of metamorphosis and, by extension, to pin down what it means to be (or cease to be) human. With these questions in mind it was fascinating to hear Evan Killick’s account of the Ashéninka people of Peruvian Amazonia. Their world view is quite alien to most Western conceptions of humanity for the Ashéninka perceive ‘humanity’ in a shifting and relative way, and assume that all creatures think that they are ‘human’.

Luke Pitcher’s paper on the relationship between Petronius and the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft was also very memorable. He argued that the motifs of cannibalism and necromancy within Lovecraft’s tales were used as a way of signalling the cannibalistic and necromantic role of the writer who draws on the works of his literary predecessors, reviving and ‘cannibalising’ earlier texts.

I was reminded by this of the journey undergone by Ovid’s tale of Philomela, in which the heroine’s mutilation becomes increasingly more horrific and extreme as it is transformed first by Shakespeare (in Titus Andronicus), then briefly by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land before reaching a (sticky) end in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed.

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Vanessa and Virginia 
Friday, September 12, 2008, 01:33 PM
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A few years ago I wrote a study of sisters in nineteenth-century literature. Here I touched briefly on two real life sisters from the end of the century, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, whose relationship seemed to be characterised by a strange blend of eroticism and rivalry. The sisters are the subject of an excellent novel, Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia which has just been published by Two Ravens Press.

Although the author is an expert on Woolf she chooses to tell the story through Vanessa’s eyes. Unusually the novel is written in the second person, addressed by Vanessa to her more famous younger sister. This strategy helps Sellers create a particularly charged and intense atmosphere, capturing the shifting and equivocal nature of Vanessa’s feelings for Virginia.

SPOILERS! (Though they won’t be spoilers if you, unlike me, know much about Bloomsbury)

Vanessa’s life was full of bizarre sexual triangles. Soon after her marriage she becomes jealous of her husband Clive Bell’s attraction to Virginia – but also of Virginia’s interest in Clive. Things get weirder. She leaves her husband to go to live with her boyfriend Duncan Grant – and then his boyfriend, David Garnett, moves in too. Weirdest of all, when Vanessa has a child with Duncan, Garnett says he’d like to marry her – and, 24 years later, he does just that.

The relationship between the Vanessa and Virginia, as evoked by Susan Sellers, strongly reminded me of a fascinating novel I read for my own book about sisters, Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons. Cassy’s feelings for her sister Verry are as intense as Vanessa’s for Virginia, both hostile and oddly erotic. On a lighter note I was also reminded of the very effective representation of a pair of similarly high maintenance sisters in the edgy BBC sitcom Outnumbered.

I have to confess to not being a great fan of Virginia Woolf. So when Susan Sellers makes Virginia say ‘Though actually I worry I don’t think enough about my reader’ I found myself nodding vigorously. Happily Susan Sellers does think about her readers and Vanessa and Virginia, as well as being both subtle and beautifully written, has lots of narrative drive. The descriptions of Vanessa’s paintings, the way they reflect and interact with her complex relationships, are particularly effective.

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Sunelia Le Col Vert Camping review 
Friday, August 15, 2008, 08:37 AM
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This entry is only really aimed at anyone trying to find reviews of this campsite on the internet - I couldn’t seem to find any ...

This site in the Landes area is very pleasantly situated in a pine forest by the side of a peaceful lake. The clientele is mostly French with a few Germans and a (very) few English. It is very much aimed at families and the facilities are excellent. The atmosphere is lively but not frenetic – everything was pretty quiet after 10pm or so.

There is a good informal restaurant serving traditional local food as well as a slightly simpler cafe and a pleasant terrace bar next to the swimming pool. The restaurant was surprisingly authentic – and good value. We particularly enjoyed the confit de canard, huge bowls of mussels and local wines. If you want a change there’s a good pizzeria just outside the campsite’s main entrance – this sells excellent local honey. Back in the campsite there’s also a useful small supermarket where you can buy freshly baked bread and croissants in the morning – and English newspapers. Although the shop is fine, it’s well worth going to the nearby village of Leon where there is an excellent market selling delicious gateau basque, local cheese, bayonne ham and freshly cooked take away paella.

The swimming pool is perfectly adequate but there are no flumes or slides. Our children liked playing pinball and table football in the small games arcade.

Staff (some of them anyway) speak good English and generally everything was very well organised. We booked directly with the campsite and they dealt efficiently with queries, payment etc.
This was our first camping holiday so we decided to go for the soft option of a chalet rather than just a tent. This – a chalet reve’ - was simple but comfortable and well equipped. You have to pay extra for linen hire.

Overall we really enjoyed our stay – a very relaxing holiday – and would certainly be keen to try other Sunelia resorts.

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Holiday Reading: Marks out of Ten 
Wednesday, August 13, 2008, 05:01 PM
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We’ve just come back from a pleasantly long and idle holiday in France (and Cornwall). Lots of time to catch up with reading, and here’s my verdict in ascending order of enjoyment/merit.

Reginald Hill A Cure for All Diseases. I have mixed feelings about Hill’s detective stories. The characters and plots are fun but just a bit too whimsical at times. This time the story is loosely based on Jane Austen’s unfinished fragment Sanditon. It was enjoyable but the denouement was rather drawn out and tortuous. 6.5/10

Ella Hepworth Dixon The Story of a Modern Woman. This is the absorbing - if ultimately rather dispiriting - story of Mary, a poor but genteel young woman who attempts to make a living (first as an artist then as a hack writer) in the late nineteenth century. 7/10

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom Why Truth Matters. I’m sure it does but, as I read this book right at the beginning of the holiday, I can no longer remember precisely why. Sorry.

Seriously, it was pretty good but a bit costive – I read it because I enjoy Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies and Wheels blog. 7.5/10

Frank Furedi Where Have all the Intellectuals Gone? I found myself reading this while drinking Pina Colada and listening to europop in the swimming pool bar of a French campsite. Maybe it wasn’t the most conducive environment, but I didn’t find this quite as compelling as Furedi’s shorter pieces. In particular I thought that he was a bit too ready to dismiss widening participation moves and popular culture more generally. It seems odd, for example, to grumble about an updated version of Hamlet when Shakespeare’s play was itself an updated version of an earlier story – and is full of topical references. 7.5/10

Grant Allen Typewriter Girl. Grant Allen. Cigarette smoking, rational dress wearing Juliet Appleton is a much more lively and cheerful New Woman heroine than Hepworth Dixon’s Mary. The accounts of Juliet’s experiences as a (rather high maintenance) secretary – and (briefly) as a member of an anarchist commune – are particularly entertaining 7.5/10.

Richard Marsh The Beetle Yet another welcome reprint from my favourite publisher, Broadview Press, this is a highly enjoyable late Victorian adventure story – a kind of cross between King Solomon’s Mines and Dracula. 8/10

Patrick O’Brian Desolation Island. Rum, covert homoerotic undertones, and the lash. The fourth in O’Brian’s excellent Aubrey-Maturin series. 8/10

Judith Herrin Byzantium. An excellent (and widely acclaimed) history of Byzantium for the general reader. 8.5/10

Ursula K Le Guin The Lathe of Heaven. Is it possible to improve society or will our efforts always result in some further unforeseen problem? Not as emotionally involving as The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, but this cool and cerebral story (it reminded me rather of Philip K. Dick) about a man whose dreams have the power to change reality is a compelling and thought provoking novel.8.5/10

Robert Tressell The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This Socialist classic tells of a group of painters and decoraters in Edwardian England who have to deal with villainous bosses, hypocritical clergymen, identikit politicians and the constant fear of unemployment, illness and the work house. It’s rambling, crude, repetitive and preachy – but also completely absorbing – difficult to put down. 9/10

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SCAENA behind the scenes 
Monday, July 21, 2008, 07:21 AM
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As Alex can testify I became increasingly fretful as SCAENA approached. Would the food arrive on time? Would Anglia somehow have double booked all the rooms? Would all the speakers pull out at the last moment?

And would our conference house guest like mess, small children and three legged cats? He seemed fine with these things, luckily, and we soon discovered important shared intellectual interests and spent the first evening of the conference in a local pub with a few other delegates.

I can’t remember much about the pub, but I am grateful to Alex for his mercy dash to Asda very early on Saturday morning to purchase orange juice, coffee and ibuprofen.

Actually I think Alex quite enjoyed his role as conference widower. When I came home briefly on Saturday afternoon for a pre dinner bath he was looking after, not just our own children, but the children of one of my conference colleagues as well. He had done all the laundry too and was radiating smugness.

I really enjoyed the conference dinner at St John’s – a traditional Cambridge affair with four different wines, including a very interesting white wine from Tblisi. And then off to the Eagle! The conference lunches, courtesy of Cotto, were outstanding – I have lots of compliments to pass on to Hans and Ruth, Cotto’s new owners.

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