Reflections on a Special Day

graduationday2Two days ago, I  attended the Open University Degree Ceremony in Edinburgh where, many months after finishing my Master’s degree, I was able to enjoy the glory that I had been striving towards for the previous few years. These occasions are notoriously emotional at the best of times, but on Saturday I spoke with some truly remarkable people who had overcome all manner of issues to achieve the success that they either thought, or had been told, they never would achieve.

I was the only person that whole day who was graduating with an MA in English; well, to be fair, there were only two of us in the whole of Scotland. My fellow degree-mate lives in the Western Isles which makes travelling to Edinburgh tricky at the best of times, so I was not surprised that she did not attend. I was sitting between two gentlemen in the hall: one had a string of other degrees, and had undertaken an MA in Classics just to widen his already vast knowledge base, whilst the other had left school early back in the 1970s, with no qualifications. Two complete ends of the spectrum. While one man has been to so many graduation ceremonies that he had thought about missing this one, the other had achieved his first Master’s degree, and his sense of pride was evident. Their stories are typical with those of others whom I have met over the years: some have had disabilities which left them struggling at school, some had had the fun of learning sucked out of them as teenagers, while others had been told that they were ‘too thick’ to go far in life and effectively written-off. I read an online post the other day by a girl who enrolled on an Open University degree course as a drunken dare, who then – rather than quitting like she thought she would – ended up graduating with a first-class honours degree very recently. Others have existing qualifications, but they want knowledge in a new area to keep them occupied in retirement, or purely for self-improvement. Even more had family members to look after while they were studying, or indeed the demands of employment to juggle. To see graduates in tears as they crossed the stage spoke of the obstacles each of them had overcome to be there and it was a truly humbling place to be. As person after person crossed the stage on Saturday, and as my hands became sore from clapping for each and every one of them, I saw hundreds and hundreds of human beings filled with well-earned potential to change not only themselves, but also their workplace, their communities, or even the world. Age and ability are not limits to success.

Of course, a university education is not the ideal route for everyone to pursue – there are very many skilled people in our communities whose valuable practical abilities I for one would never be able to emulate – no matter how many years it would take me to learn! However, if a diploma or a degree is the desired outcome, then they come at a financial and personal cost. Despite grants (for some), funding, graduationday1and loans, pursuing a dream involves personal and financial sacrifices to be made by people many of whom already have very little time or money. Within the past few years universities have had to raise their tuition fees, a factor which now makes education even more elusive to the keen learner. At the moment, it unfortunately looks as if student loans are here for a while, but one can only hope that the grant system (similar to that through which I obtained my Bachelor’s degree back last century) somehow makes a re-appearance. Scottish and EU students get undergraduate study free – at the moment anyway – but it really should be the same from elsewhere too. As I saw on Saturday, education is a game-changer, the pride and joy of all the graduates and their families was priceless and just went to prove that self-belief and perseverance reap rewards. Although I didn’t know them, I was incredibly proud of them.

Many thanks to the Open University, my family, and my friends for getting me to where I am today.

 

 

 

Advertisements

PhD chat: Why Anthony Powell?

The usual pattern of conversation these days goes something like this…….

A.N.OTHER: “So, what is your PhD subject?”

ME:  “I’m researching the Gothic and spatial theory in relation to Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ novels”.

A.N.OTHER: “Sorry, who? And what?”

Thus ensues the usual short explanation of who Powell was, a twentieth-century author, who wrote many novels which are often viewed as comedies of manners in mid to late twentieth century Britain. My research is concerned with the twelve novels which collectively make up his magnum opus ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. And then I try and stutter through the spattering of spatial theory I have actually understood (which isn’t much) over the preceding few days.

Then comes the question: “Why did you decide to base your research on Anthony Powell?” This is an easy, yet hard question to explain.

20170705_125239.jpg

Two Folio Society editions of ‘Dance’. I’m searching for the other two

Just before I was diagnosed with my latest lot of cancer, I had taken some sick time off work, as I was in pain and feeling pretty poorly. To banish the boredom of lying in bed and to distract me from my symptoms, I read book after book. After having read ten in the first week, I decided I needed a nice thick tome to get my teeth into (I am a huge fan of big books), so I googled ‘the longest book in English’, and Powell’s ‘Dance’ series appeared near to the top of the results page, after Proust. Without hesitation, I downloaded the first three novels of the series onto my Kindle and from then my love of Powell began. Within 10 days, I had read all twelve!

What struck me about these novels? Well, this is where it gets tricky to explain. To me, the narrative evoked colours, so that while I was reading them, a huge oil painting was developing in my mind. Each character was a colour, each setting had its own hue. By the time I finished, I had this abstract mental image, richly coloured, in a circular pattern. I have synaesthesia (as I have blogged about here), and often see colour in music or words – their distinctiveness make some songs/musical pieces or books very memorable. But Powell’s novels went beyond that for some unexplainable reason; the experience of reading them making me feel like I didn’t ever want to stop as I would be unlikely ever to read anything like this again. It was like a form of literary sublime!

I was extremely interested to discover, in Powell’s journal, that he admitted to being a synaesthete, and I began to wonder if this was an underlying influence in his writing, which drew me to it:

“V and I were talking about someone (possibly Rimbaud) remarking that he saw letters of the alphabet in different colours. I said I did; V, uncertain herself, suggested I ought to color-paint-palette-wall-paintingwrite down what these colours seem to me, so I do so: A, very dark red, almost black; B, very dark brown, almost black; C, light blue, almost grey; D, very dark blue; E, lightish brown; F, slightly lighter brown than E; G, about the same sort of brown as F; H, black; I, black; J, lightish brown; K, fairly light grey; L, darker grey; M, purplish red; N, brownish red; O, white; P, light green; Q, pale yellow; R, dark grey, almost black; S, darkish green; T, dark red; U, very light pale yellow; V, palish brown; W, darker brown; X, black; Y, lightish brownish yellow; Z, black”.  (Tuesday, 10th June, 1986).

I have to say, compared those I ‘see’, the majority of Powell’s letters are very dark in colour and many are repeated. That could have been a PhD thesis right there, but it encroached too much into psychology, and I wanted to avoid that! I decided instead to focus on the darker ‘paint’ in my mental masterpiece: the more gothic strands to the series. I don’t want to give away too much on my public blog about my thesis – yet anyway – suffice to say that each re-reading of ‘Dance’ evokes different images and different colours that appear as a palimpsest painting. See what I mean about being hard to explain why? This hugely underrated author wrote more than just a ‘comedy of manners’, he wrote what I consider to be the best modernist/postmodernist (I can’t quite make out which) prose of the twentieth century, and my mission is to encourage more people to read it.

I would be interested to know if any other Powell scholars or ‘fans’ (apologies, I hate that word but it seems the best one to use in this situation) who are synaesthetes have the same experience as myself, and if it was this that attracted them to the ‘Dance’.

 

Cited work:

Powell, Anthony, Journals 1982 – 1986, (London: Arrow Books, 2015), p.245.

 

Re-awakening my blog with a catch-up

bloggingSince I last blogged on this platform, many moons ago, a lot has happened. First of all, in November 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, not lymphoma on this occasion, but breast cancer brought on from the radiotherapy I had had for the first lot of lymphoma 18 years previously! (You can read of my past cancer encounters here , here and here). The upshot of this diagnosis was a cycle of biopsies, MRIs, CT scans, and 3 operations (2 minor and one very major operation), followed by 5 years of anti-cancer treatment. I recall sitting in my hospital room, recovering from my double mastectomy and reconstruction in June 2012, with tubes coming out of me all over the place, and thinking life is too short and precious for regrets – so why have them? I had always regretted shelving English for nursing when I left school, and I knew that returning to nursing after my treatment would not happen. So what better way to survive five years of treatment than to study for a new degree, and work towards a new career?

This is a long story, so I will keep it short. I enrolled with the Open University and undertook two undergraduate English literature modules (one Year 2 level, and the other at Final Year level) – I may have written about them before in this blog. I passed both of these with Distinctions – you have no idea just how proud and amazed I was to do this! My treatment gave me the condition known as Tamoxifen Fog which made concentrating, writing essays, and exam revision very, very hard. Sometimes I felt likestudying my head was filled with cotton wool, and could barely think, let alone read. Couple this up with never-ending nausea (which made me lose so much weight that I ended up a UK size 4 at one stage), I was a mess. Thank goodness the OU modules were online, as I would have been in no physical or mental state to get to a brick University! So to get such high module results was a HUGE source of pleasure. (I had made a conscious decision NOT to tell the OU of my situation, as I wanted to challenge myself to do these courses on my own steam – and indeed my Master’s – without any extensions on my essays, or to be treated any differently from my course-mates). Because I was feeling so lousy and ‘spent’ all of the time, my blogging just stopped.

With my history, I was keen to get on and study for a Master’s degree – hanging about was not an option. I asked the Open University for their advice, and they said that as I already had a 2.1 undergrad degree (albeit in nursing) and two Distinctions in my English modules (which would have got me a First Class Honours if I had completed studying at Undergrad level) then I would be permitted to enrol onto their Master of Arts in English degree. By this stage, I was halfway through my treatment and I figured that, with the OU’s Master’s following a part-time schedule, I would finish my degree roughly about the same time as I was due to finish my treatment. So, rather scared, I signed up for it. In March 2016, I found out that I had passed the first part of my Master’s with Distinction; again, a huge source of pride and elation. My treatment was going well, there was no sign of any recurring disease, and I’d nailed Part 1 of my MA and earned myself a sneaky little PG Dip (Hum) at the same time!

After a little break, I started to get organised for Part 2, my Dissertation. I ended up writing this on Charles Dickens, and how he used representations of puppets, waxworks, automata, monsters, and ‘robots’ to convey his attitudes towards mechanisation in society, following the Great Exhibition. I absolutely adored writing this Dissertation, as graduatingDickens is my very favourite nineteenth-century author. Again, my treatment was making things tough, as it had done since the beginning, but in the end I pulled through and submitted my work one month early. As it turned out, the last official day of my degree, in January 2017, was also my last day of treatment; that particular evening we had a double celebration! Eight weeks later, I found out that I finally had the permission to put the letters MA after my name…… I had passed my degree! A double victory!

That was not all. After I had submitted my Dissertation, I was at a loss. Suddenly I felt lonely, almost like a good friend had passed away. I don’t have a good social circle in the town where I live, and am not included in any social groups, so – apart from my family – my work was my everything…… and it was no more. Although it was Christmas time and all around me was excitement and anticipation, I felt as if a part of me was missing. I spoke to my hubby about it, and he urged me to apply for a PhD – if I wasn’t accepted then at least I would not regret having tried. To cut a long story short, three days after obtaining my Master’s degree results, I learned that academically I had met the entry requirements, and my Research Proposal was of high enough a standard for Edinburgh University to give me an unconditional place on their PhD in English Literature degree programme. This was literally a dream fulfilled: my dream university and my dream degree! (Yes, I certainly felt like I was dreaming!).

I am now just over one month into my PhD and, although progress is very s-l-o-w, my supervisor has helped me narrow down my research area enough so that I can start more focussed reading. I chose to change from nineteenth-century literature to twentieth-century to widen my knowledge base, as I am wanting to remain in academia when I eventually finish. I am studying for my doctorate part-time partly because ofbooks-book-pages-read-literature-159866 family commitments, partly because I am still recovering from Tamoxifen fog (which has vastly improved since January!), and partly because I am almost twice the age of my doctoral colleagues! I am involved in peer-reviewing and blogging for Uni magazines/sites, I’m a PhD reader for the Uni’s literary prize, and am about to set up a Twentieth Century Research Group with one of my colleagues. Life is really busy but is totally great, and is worth all of the horrid, painful, and depressing days that my treatment gave me.

Blogging for the Uni (whose blog can be found here) made me miss my own blog, so I have decided to raise it from the ashes, like a phoenix. I have decided to give it a literary base, so most of my blogs will be related to books I have read, literary places I have visited, or PhD- related things. There may be the odd random blog too, I daresay! I will endeavour to update it as much as I can, and they won’t be as long as this, you’ll be glad to know.

 

 

 

 

My dislike of snow conveyed in a poem and sung to a carol.

Sleepy June has just looked out

And was disbelievin’

At the snow that lay about

Deep and cold and even.

Grumpy she went back to bed

Snow’s a total nightmare

Pulled the duvet o’er her head

And is going no-oh-where.

Image

 

Bring me coffee, bring me food

Bring my laptop hither.

Staying in bed today is good

Snow just makes me shiver.

I’ll stay cosy, read some books

They are my salvation

In my bedroom, if one looks

I’m planning hibern-ay-ay-tion.

 

Image

 

Shopping in an online store

Really is the business

I just need a little more

Then I’m set for Christmas.

In my bed and drinking tea

Forgetting wintry woes

This is just the life for me

Who cares if it sno-oh-ohs?

The Duchess of Malfi in one minute… my Fringe offering?

As part as my Open University course in English literature, I have had to wade through some formidable novels and plays; but I have learned that it is probably best NOT to read the four most depressing pieces of literature (Wuthering Heights, Othello [loved those two!], followed by the Duchess of Malfi and The Emigrants) one after the other, especially when you want to stay cheerful! Have just finished reading the last thing on the set reading list, Dancing At Lughnasa, and I’m thinking……well…..to be honest, I don’t know WHAT I’m thinking; I just didn’t get it.

However, in celebration at having finished my preparations for this part of the course, I have written a parody on the Duchess of Malfi – in case any of my blog readers are doing the same course as me and haven’t read it yet, or you are unfamiliar with this piece of historical drama. Just so you get an idea of what the “gist” of the thing is about.

So may I present:

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI IN 1 MINUTE.

Characters:

Ferdinand – Duke of Calabria, Duchess’s brother

Cardinal – Duchess’s brother

Antonio – Duchess’s secret hubby

Duchess – herself

Delio – one of the few survivors of the play

Bosola – the baddy and spy

Cariola – Duchess’s lady-in-waiting

Julia – The Cardinal’s bit-on-the-side

Doctor – self-explanatory

Pescara – a marquis

 Scene 1:

CARDINAL TO DUCHESS: You are a widow and your brother and I forbid you to marry again.

 Several days later:

 <band strikes up the wedding march>

 DUCHESS: (Aside) Too late! Antonio and I had better keep our nuptials under wraps. Don’t tell!

SCENE 2:

 9 months later:

 BOSOLA: methinks the Duchess is “in the club”, she’s filling out her dress a bit. Let me give her some apricots.

<to DUCHESS> What ho Duchess! I’ve got a lov-e-ly bunch of apricots.

 DUCHESS: Oh how lovely! <takes a bite> oh oh dear! I do believe this apricot has magically sent me into labour, seconds after I have eaten it. To my room, servants!

Image

SCENE 3:

 Time passes during which several odd things happen.

FERDINAND: So our sister is married to Antonio? I must kill him! Since she is married to him I won’t get any of her money when she dies, and this WILL NOT DO! <stamps foot>

Bosola, kill my sister for me will you? It’ll earn you a promotion.

 BOSOLA: Ah, ok. I’ve got a bit of experience in the old murder business. <goes to Duchess’s room>

<to DUCHESS> What ho Duchess! Don’t mind me – I’m here to measure you up for your coffin.

 DUCHESS: But that would mean I’m going to die. This is surely wrong!

 BOSOLA: Nope – you’re a dead wumman <strangles Duchess>

Ferdinand enters

 FERDINAND: Have you killed my sister?

 BOSOLA: Yup.

 FERDINAND: Why?

 BOSOLA: Errrrr, because you asked me to.

 Duchess returns from the dead.

 DUCHESS: Where’s Antonio?

 BOSOLA: Ach he’s around somewhere, don’t worry we’ll find him.

 Duchess dies for the second time.

 Cariola enters

 CARIOLA: Arrrrggghhhh a dead mistress!!

 BOSOLA: You’re next missus <strangles Cariola>

SCENE 4

 Cardinal chats with Julia

 CARDINAL: my bro and I have just murdered my sister and her kids, but you mustn’t tell anyone.

 Julia screams

 CARDINAL: Kiss the Bible to promise you won’t tell.

 Julia kisses poisoned Bible cover and dies.

 CARDINAL: Murder number 3. Antonio next.

SCENE 5:

More time passes:

 PESCARA: What’s up with him? <points to Ferdinand>

 FERDINAND: ahhhh-ooooooooooooooh.

 DOCTOR: Ah don’t worry, he thinks he is a wolf.

 PESCARA: O-K….

 Antonio sneaks in to visit the Cardinal.

 BOSOLA <hiding in the shadows> Wahhhhhhhh stranger! <murders Antonio> Oh no! Antonio? It was you! Oooh heck, he’s dead! Better go and see the Cardinal. He’ll be rapt. But I don’t like the Cardinal – he is weird…..hang on, I have an idea….

 Visits Cardinal

 BOSOLA: Cardinal, take THAT! <wounds him with sword>

 CARDINAL: Owch! That hurt!

 Ferdinand enters and wounds Bosola by mistake

 BOSOLA: Ow! You shall pay for hurting me <fatally stabs Ferdinand>

 CARDINAL: Someone help me! I’m not feeling too good. <dies>

 BOSOLA: Come to think of it, neither do I <dies>

Enter Delio and Duchess’s eldest son

 DELIO: What a mess, best get this cleared up and let you be the Duke of Amalfi.

And there you have it. See? From my blog you have learned all about this fine piece of literature!

Studying continues…..

My desk

This is not mess, it is productivity.

 

My blog has been sadly neglected over the past few weeks as I have had to rapidly catch up with my Uni reading list. However, now I am almost there, having just finished Othello this morning, and starting Webster’s The Duchess Of Malfi. Have to say, I have loved all of the books on the reading list so far (hope I haven’t spoken too soon) despite the last three I have read (Wuthering Heights, Othello and now DOM) being tragedies.

For those unfamiliar with Othello, or anyone reading this who has to study the play in academia, here is Othello in 30 Seconds:
IAGO to CASSIO: “You’re having a fling with Desdemona [Othello’s wife]; you have her strawberry-patterned handkerchief!”

CASSIO: “Yes I am….amazing woman she is too”.

OTHELLO: “Wahhhhh! This cannot be! She must be killed!”

DESDEMONDA ENTERS.

DESDEMONA: “Hi sweetie! What’s wrong…….? Pwthpwthpwth”…..<is fatally smothered by Othello>

CASSIO: “Wait a moment, I thought you said Bianca, not Desdemona. I’m not having a fling with Othello’s wife at all. Bianca’s my woman. The name sounds similar, I do admit….”

IAGO to CASSIO: “I know, I planted the handkerchief in your room as a joke. Muahahahahahaha!”

EMILIA [Iago’s wife]: *gasps* <dies>

OTHELLO: “Whoops! I’ve just killed my wife for not believing her and listening to that nasty Iago. Time to kill myself then”.

OTHELLO TOPS HIMSELF.

Now, I wonder if I can condense The Duchess of Malfi into a similar-sized act?  Watch this space……

 

 

 

 

Nearly as long as a life sentence…..

Just a quick blog this evening, folks, to share with you my amazing new discovery. I do believe I have found the longest sentence in the world – not the prison variety, but the written type.

I thought Anthony Powell and Aphra Behn were bad enough for long sentences, but this one takes the biscuit. Or should that be coconut…..?

For my OU module, I have to read Sam Selvedon’s “The Lonely Londoners” which is written from the narrator’s viewpoint. The narrator in this book comes from Trinidad, therefore this book is written in both first and third person in Creole – so at the best of times, it is quite hard to “get” (especially for a grammar snob like me!).

Well, I was going great guns until I reached page 92. Then something happened. Either the narrator (via the author) had swallowed some oral laxative, or there had been an error in publishing (I have the Penguin Modern Classics version) but a sentence started which went on and on and on and on and on, without punctuation or paragraph breaks, and on and on for TEN pages! So not only was I craving a strong dose of caffeine, but I was having to decipher a constant stream of Creole, trying to get it to make sense by inserting full-stops etc into the appropriate places. Phew!

Image

Excuse the poor quality of the photo – my dinosaur iphone 3GS has a rubbish set of cameras – but these are pages 2 and 3 of the neverending sentence. It’s like a game – “Make the next ten pages make sense – extreme edition featuring Creole English”.

Hmmm, methinks it won’t catch on.