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Masks and illusions – differing views on Venice: Part The First…

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Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky

Venice is a city which inspires extreme reactions; Georg Simmel, in his book I reviewed here, claimed that “Venice possess the ambiguous beauty of adventure, floating rootlessly through life, like a torn flower borne on the sea.” Russian poet Joseph Brodsky is equally entranced, as I’ll discuss in this post. However, I’m following that read with a counter-voice which comes from French intellectual and activist Regis Debray – more of that in a future post. Certainly, it’s a city that’s unique…

Very pretty and festooned with post-its….

Brodsky’s book was first published in 1992, and the lovely Penguin Modern Classic edition caught my eye during my recent Waterstones Wobble. I already own a collection of Brodsky’s essays, also in the Penguin, but a quick flick convinced me this would be interesting. Brodsky himself was a fascinating character; born in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known at the time) in 1940, he and his family survived the siege, although it had a lasting effect on his health. Because of their Jewish background, the Brodskys were often on the receiving end pf anti-Semitism, causing Joseph to feel like a dissident from an early age. He began writing poetry from an early age and eventually was mentored by no less than Akhmatova. However, he fell foul of the Soviet authorities, eventually being expelled in 1972 and after a little wandering, ended up in the United States where he lived and taught until his death in 1996. That sense of dislocation, of being peripatetic, certainly comes through in this essay, which I found quite mesmerising. And what’s not to love about a book that opens with these words:

Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two. The globe, too, was lighter by two billion souls, and the bar at the Stazione where I’d arrived on that cold December night was empty. I was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to meet me. She was quite late.

“Watermark” is subtitled an essay, but that’s perhaps a little misleading as it certainly isn’t structured in a traditional way. Instead, Brodsky ranges very far and wide, taking in his memories, his experiences of Venice, his reactions to its climate, its architecture, its very soul. The result is a wonderfully impressionistic sketch of a city which in many ways defies definition. He discusses books set in Venice that were pivotal in his reading life; and objects from his past which drew him to the place. An encounter with Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, is entertaining and yet disturbing. One piece which resonated was his description of the flooding of Venice, an event that takes place on a regular basis; I recall my last boss telling me of her visit to Venice when the city was overtaken by water, and her experience of walking around in waders and the stench…

But crucially there are musings on beauty, where it exists and how our eye finds it. That element of vision, and the visual, is crucial to Brodsky’s reading of Venice; it’s a place of reflections, both from multiple mirrors and the water itself, and the book is bursting with aquatic and seafaring language and imagery. Of course, Brodsky’s language is beautiful (as befits a poet) if sometimes a little oblique, and full of allusion – I’m guessing that some of its unique quality perhaps comes from the fact it’s written in English which was not Brodsky’s first tongue, and certainly there’s almost an air of Nabokov in there at times. As you can see from the sheaf of post-its in the picture above, I could have pulled out all manner of quotes but in the end I think you need to read the whole work in one go.

In “Watermark” Venice comes across as very much a mixture of decay and artifice, a city which attracts some and repels others. It’s a place with canals instead of roads, all glitter and surface, full of facades and although the falsity can be off-putting for some, Brodsky is seduced. Venice cast its spell so strongly over him that he returned annually over a period of 17 years; I wondered if perhaps something about the city was more appealing to an exile, a city suited to someone transient, an observer. Additionally, the constant recurrence of the aquatic motifs left me thinking that Brodsky might have been drawn to the place because of its similarity to Petersburg, another city constructed on land reclaimed from the sea.

In the end, Brodsky’s take on Venice is a very individual one, more of a prose poem than an essay, an extended meditation that is as much about his life, his loves and his thoughts as it is about Venice. It’s a fascinating and absorbing piece which creates a haunting effect which lingers in the mind; and it does seem that Venice left a watermark on Joseph Brodsky’s soul.

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A rediscovered and prescient book…. @shinynewbooks @KateHandheld

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I have a review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of a work that turned out to be remarkably prescient as well as being MIA for a century – “What Not” by Rose Macaulay.

Despite owning several Macaulay volumes in lovely green Virago Modern Classics, I’m not sure I’ve ever read one of her books – so this welcome reissue by the excellent Handheld Press was timely and a great way to be introduced to this unfairly neglected author.

And “What Not” is a marvellous satirical read, with an array of hypocritical politicians who seem very, very modern. There’s romance and comedy and an underlying thread of some very complex issues – so a thought-provoking work that predates many of the ideas of Huxley and Orwell. Plus it’s a very pretty book… 😀

I highly recommend the book, and you can read my review here. And in the meantime, these are my lovely Greens – I really do need to pick up one of these soon!

Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

eliot larkin

Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

“…all culture is a form of sign transformation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – Part 2 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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Following on from part 1 of my interview with Professor Richard Clay (which you can read here), here’s part two in which Richard reveals whether he prefers lecturing or seminars, thoughts on graffiti and nuclear deterrence, future book ideas, and much, much more! 😀

KBR: You went on to write and present the “Brief History of Graffiti” programme hot on the heels of “Tearing”. This could be perceived as a shift of focus, although there was of course content relating to the French revolution(s). Was this a concept for a programme that came from you, or was it suggested, and how did you feel about the final results?

RC: Yep it was my idea and I like most of the film, although I think it gets better as it goes on. I’ve been interested in graff since I was a boy. Growing up in rural Lancashire, East Coast hip hop seemed to make perfect sense to me and my mates and Graffiti was part of that scene. I was an undergrad at York, but many of the most important lessons I learned there resulted from my mates and I doing pirate radio in Leeds, organising parties (some of them legal), running a fanzine (‘Pure Sheng’), and DJing (we were good!).

As a postgrad in London, I was music editor for the UK’s first full colour, national, student magazine (‘Raise’). I used to write pieces on other topics that chimed with my work on the French Revolution. One of those articles was about contemporary graffiti and one of my interviewees, a train painter called Morn (because he could only see his work when the sun came up), reshaped my thinking about meaning making in public space. So, yes, I see graff and iconoclasm as closely related; for me culture is all that which is learned and all culture is a form of sign transformation…

The success of the Graffiti programme has kind of led to you being the go-to person for soundbites whenever there’s a news story relating to the subject. Is that kind of stereotyping a double-edged sword for an academic?

It is a bit odd to be the go-to graff person and I sometimes recommend that journalists talk to other people and I share their names. But I don’t feel stereotyped. I know how busy journalists are and the kinds of deadlines that working in news involves. My occasional comments in the news media have little impact on me as an academic; academics and students who know me and like my thinking know it’s wide ranging (like theirs).

Your most recent TV project was the three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” series for BBC4, broadcast in 2017, which was very well received. You obviously drew on a number of contacts and sources to produce a fascinating and wide-ranging series of programmes. Were you happy with the results and was there anything you would have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?

Aye, I rate the Utopia films and I was surprised and delighted by the warmth of the critical response across the political spectrum. Like all my documentaries, the films are a real team effort with brilliant ideas and impressive skills being brought to bear by the whole crew and the post-production team. Much as I’d like to take all the credit, I simply can’t!

Schedules and budgets are so tight on a shoot, and the amount of travel so intense for the crew, that we can’t really afford to leave stuff on the cutting room floor. But there were things I’d have liked to have included. For example, Robert Owen’s New Lanark, the Cadbury family’s ‘factory in the garden’ in Bournville, and the contemporary permaculture movement. But if they’d been included, something else would have had to be left out…

Your scholarly book “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” (which has featured on the blog a number of times) came out in 2012 and represented a considerable body of work on the subject. You’ve also written a number of pieces over the years on the French Revolution, or related to other strands of iconoclasm. Have you ever considered a more mainstream book on the subject?

I periodically consider writing such a book. But a book is such a time commitment that imagine my next one will feature iconoclasm as one form of meaning making in public space and will explore how such processes have been shaped by new technologies since the 1790s. I’m toying with writing a shorter mainstream book that might be called something like ‘Three Ideas To Help You Survive the Twenty First Century’ (snappy title, huh?): semiotics, dialogics, and critical thinking.

Your recent interests, as you’ve commented yourself, are very broad. Do you think you’ve moved on from French Revolutionary iconoclasm or is it something you’ll revisit?

I think I’m done with iconoclasm of the French Revolution for now, but I’m hoping that a new generation of scholars will continue to explore that field. I remain part of an international iconoclasms network that has published a couple of books that I co-edited and that also advised Tate Britain on its ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition. The network is about to start a new phase of work, but my contributions are likely to look beyond Paris and the 1790s; probably using far more recent examples to outline more concisely the theoretical underpinnings of my work on the French Revolution.

You have a new documentary coming up on BBC4 this week on meme culture, entitled “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”. Are you able to give us any information about this?

Viral’s basic pitch is ‘Why are the Cross and that Crescent internationally recognised symbols, but the sandal from “A Life of Brian” isn’t? Why do some symbols stick and others don’t?” The film goes from antiquity to the internet in 60-minutes, engaging with notions of memes and internet memes en route. It’s very fast paced in comparison to my other films; I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

You appeared on BBC Radio 4 last September with a highly successful programme on the nuclear threat. Can you talk a little bit about that?

‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ was my first foray into radio documentaries. Given that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ ‘Doomsday Clock’, is closer to midnight than it has been since 1953, the programme asks whether we all ought to be somewhat more worried about nuclear Armageddon than we appear to be. Personally, (to paraphrase Frank Herbert) I think that ‘fear is the mind killer’. But there are good reasons for all citizens to reflect on the risks of nations’ holding on to their nuclear weapons, not least those associated with accidents or hacking. After all, radiation doesn’t respect borders. I’ve long been a supporter of deterrence, but making ‘Two Minutes…’ rekindled some of my youthful idealism. Even if we accept deterrence, we need to be aiming for a global ban on these awful weapons.

You’ve attended conferences, delivered keynotes and papers, and spoken at numerous locations all around the world over the years, including Mexico, the USA, Taiwan, Riga and more recently Lisbon, to name just a few. Do you enjoy the travel that comes with your role, and where would you say you’ve found your best audience?

I can’t say that I like travel, but I love arriving! My favourite audiences are always students. They look at problems with fresh eyes and offer some amazing insights as a result. The best groups have the courage to say the obvious thing and they understand that just because it’s obvious to them that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone else. As a result, they learn from one another and knowledge multiplies. My father told me that ‘Lecturing is a means of communication whereby one person speaks without thinking very much to a room full of people who listen without thinking very much. Don’t lecture’, he said, ‘run seminars. You’ll know you’re succeeding when you shut up (for once) and learn from the group.’ My favourite audience is one which is also performing and of which I’m a member too.

You’ve also published widely on a range of topics; most notably, of course, French Revolutionary Iconoclasm, but also on subjects as diverse as industrial revolution numismatics, the role of graffiti in society, art and war, and even contemporary jewellery. Do you believe this variety is essential to avoid having too narrow an academic focus?

There’s nothing wrong with having a narrow academic focus! Without such work the rich weave of intellectual life would be weakened. Good educational institutions foster and celebrate work that is conducted at a range of different ‘resolutions’ and encourages debate between all involved. I just happen to be synthesist and to enjoy ranging across disciplines and periods (but that might just turn out to be phase!).

Do you find it difficult to juggle the commitments of academia with those of a television career; could you ever see a situation arising where one would have to take priority over the other, and if so which one would it be? And where do you see your career going in the future?

I don’t think that I’m likely to have to make the choice between the academy and the media – not least because the media stuff that I do is fairly niche. But if I did have to choose, it would undoubtedly be the academy. As for where my career is going, I like the balance I’ve got at the moment. I’m fortunate in having a Chair that spans my whole faculty and I’m very excited about cross-disciplinary and cross-sector developments that are taking place at Newcastle University. I’m inclined to wait and see which opportunities arise. But I’m always mindful of my father’s career advice, ‘Never take a job you can do’. Oh, and ‘cast slowly’ (like him, I fly fish rivers).

******

I’d like to thank Richard so much for taking time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed. I’ve found his documentaries and writings to be fascinating, so it was a real privilege to hear directly from him about his career and the genesis of some of those projects. “How to go viral: the art of the meme with Richard Clay” will be broadcast on BBC4 on 20th March and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you watch it! I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the programme shortly after broadcast…. 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

“…human stories of conflict and contestation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – part 1 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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A slightly different kind of post here on the Ramblings today, but one I’m very happy to present! Anyone with only half an eye on the blog will have noticed me developing a serious fondness for documentaries over the last year or so, and also for Iconoclasm and books thereon… I’ve been particularly interested in the work of Richard Clay, who of course presented the wonderful “Tearing Up History” documentary back in 2014. He was also responsible for a fascinating documentary on Graffiti and the excellent three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” in 2017, which I have of course gone on about regularly…

Richard is also, of course, the author of “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris” (a monograph which caused me much stress and strain tracking down) and in fact has contributed to a number of scholarly books on the often controversial subject of iconoclasm, as you can see from the little selection below:

Currently a Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle University, Richard has had a distinguished academic career: after studying at York and UCL, he joined the University of Birmingham in 2002, where he was based for a many years, being responsible for a range of innovative projects, most notably the Digital Humanities Hub. Appointed AHRC Research Fellow in 2014, he moved to Newcastle University in 2015 where he’s continued to foster cross-disciplinary working, as well as developing his television career.

Richard presented a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, “Two Minutes to Midnight”, which I have of course covered extensively on the blog.  I was curious to find out how his interesting ideas came to be formed, and as he has a limited online presence and no Wikipedia page as yet, I ended up with a *lot* of questions. When I found out that he also had a new documentary in the pipeline I contacted him to see if he would be prepared to be interviewed for the blog, and I’m delighted to say that he agreed. So ahead of his new programme “Viral”, I’m very pleased to welcome Richard Clay to the Ramblings!

KBR: Richard, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! I’d like to start by first asking you about your training. I understand that you originally intended to study History but switched to History of Art. I wondered what drove that particular change?

RC: Yep, I went to University of York to read History. I’d been hoping to learn about theories and methods, but felt in my first year that that focus was missing. Plus, I was a little overwhelmed by the vastness of history. Where do you start and where do you stop with your research? I took an art history module and realised that the discipline was really theoretically engaged and that essays could start with an object (or objects), explore historical contexts, and return to the object. Somehow, that helped bring focus to my thinking. To be honest, as a nineteen year old, I also liked the idea of only having to write one essay a term for History of Art and getting a free trip to Paris; it sounded like decadent efficiency!

Having made the switch to History of Art, your specialism developed with the study of iconoclasm during a specific period of revolution in France. Was there a particular trigger for this focus – perhaps an interest in the revolution itself? Or was there another motivation in choosing this aspect?

As an undergrad, I was interested in how audiences responded to works of art and how those responses shaped art works’ production. But it was often the case that lower class reception wasn’t recorded in the past and we were left reading about the views of the wealthy and educated (even if the works of art were on public display, say, in churches). However, I was very impressed with Thomas E. Crow’s ‘Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris’ – a book that triggered interests that I pursued as a postgrad and beyond. Crow helped me realise that, despite the Ancien Régime’s censorship, there was a vibrant, often illegal, and cheap pamphlet culture of criticism. These cheap publications focused on the biennial art exhibitions, the Salons, held by members of the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving in France.

From the 1730s onwards, the Salons were held in the Louvre royal palace. As entry was free of charge, audiences were large and diverse; people attended as much to observe one another as to see the art. Salon pamphlets’ discussions of the art works and audiences often used carefully coded language to articulate arguments about society, politics, and culture (in the broadest sense) in ways that avoided arrest. The Salon gave me a route into exploring the interactions of emergent ‘enlightenment’ ideas and more established modes of thought and to do so in ways that weren’t focused solely on elites.

When I went on to do my MA, PhD, and then to be a Henry Moore Fellow at UCL, my focus shifted to revolutionary France. I wanted to write ‘art history from below’, to examine how less privileged members of society thought about, and made use of, art in their day-to-day lives (especially during times of struggle) and how educated elites responded. By asking why people chose to attack art in public spaces during the Revolution, and why authorities often responded by passing iconoclastic laws, I could also critique some of the more reductive art histories that I find so patronising to people of the past.

Why the first French Revolution? Partly because of the Salon culture, partly because of the rich archival holdings, but perhaps mainly because I felt that the very worst and the very best of human nature can be found in periods of conflict. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by military history – especially the ‘worm’s eye view’… Despite being the son of pedagogues, I didn’t read until I was seven. I just wasn’t interested in Peter and Jane. My mother noticed that in family photos I was often pointing at the sky because I loved aeroplanes. So, she bought me a doorstep book about military aircraft and I devoured it; it led to a fascination with the human stories of conflict and contestation.

I believe you spent time in Eastern Europe following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I wondered whether this informed your study of French iconoclasm, with the constant toppling of monuments which was taking place, or whether you had a specific interest in the changes which were happening there?

Yep, I went Inter Railing on my own as an undergrad in 1992 and spent most of my time in Prague and Budapest. My sister is a couple of years older than me and had read Russian and French at Cambridge. As an undergrad, she had spent 6 months in Leningrad and she was there when half the city’s lights were turned off by the population as a declaration of support for Gorbachev’s reforms. She is built like me (skin and bones and then vital organs) and she returned home looking grey, having lost a stone, and she wept when we took her to Sainsbury’s on the way back from the airport because she had left her Russian friends who were hungry. I was deeply struck by her stories of Russian generosity, of stoic defiance, and by getting to meet some of her Russian friends as Perestroika took hold and they could visit the West (my father paid because we owed them so much).

I realised that the Russians really do love their children too and that Cold War rhetoric had often dehumanised the potential victims of Nation State struggles. Reflecting on this now, it reminds me of what my mother had said when I was in trouble at High School for proudly wearing a Soviet badge on my braces. ‘Why do you want a Revolution?’ she asked, ‘The best way to change the world is to change the mind of the person in front and the person behind and to ask them to do the same.’ Watching the Wall fall and the statues being toppled on TV stuck with me as real world evidence that she was right (again). I could sense the hope of those involved, but I also knew just about enough about history at that point to feel anxious about the potential consequences of such conflict down the line.

By MD [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Hence, I headed to Eastern Europe. Prague was amazing in 1992, it felt buzzing, optimistic, open, and it was staggeringly cheap (5p for a beer!). The graffiti still covered the Wenceslas statue in the centre of town and the Lennon wall. The children’s art of the Jewish cemetery, dating from the World War II Prague ghetto, also left its mark on me. In short, I was fascinated both by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and by the roles that art had played in those and earlier struggles. But, I lacked my sister’s aptitude for foreign languages and I’d already learned French. Hence, my French revolutionary turn…

Your later career has involved a considerable number of digital aspects, from your role at Birmingham in the Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub to your current post of Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle. Yet I’ve heard you state that people are even more keen to embrace the real in the form of authentic artefacts as the digital develops. Is that a statement you still stand by and do you believe that there will always be a human need for the analogue or physical to sit alongside the digital?

Well, it might just be a coincidence but, museum and gallery attendance has continued to go up as the digital has become ever more embedded in our lives. And my students are buying record players and vinyl. I think that my old friend, Richard Davidson Houston (Head of All 4, C4), nailed it when he said that ‘the “digital” isn’t through a door somewhere, it’s part of our day-to-day lives.’

At its best, the digital enhances ‘real world’ experiences rather than replacing them. It also offers us new ways of thinking and, in some cases, of being. But this isn’t the first communication revolution that we’ve lived through (and worried about), it’s just the largest scale and fastest (hence, perhaps, increased anxiety). For the first time in human history it is possible to imagine that all humans might have access to the means of production and reception that allow them to share information. My parents’ generation invented the internet technologies that made that possible, my generation got it up and running, and my students’ generation are working out how to put it to the best use. But hey, I’m told that I’m an optimist.

Your step into documentary presentation began with “Tearing Up History”, first broadcast in 2014. I sense that the programme may have been some time in the making. Was the concept of making the transition to TV presenter one that was particularly appealing and did you encounter any difficulties with this?

I liked the idea of presenting because I care about the issues that I explore and I wanted to engage with larger audiences than I can reach in lecture theatres or seminar rooms. In part that is just selfishness, I love the questions that audiences raise and the ways they provoke me to rethink and question my own assumptions. But yep, there were difficulties with making the transition.

I think we filmed ‘Tearing’ in 6 days, but I’d been thinking hard about the subject for almost 20 years. Condensing it all down to 59 minutes was the main challenge. Plus, I needed to start to think visually about where to shoot and why, and to avoid certain terms (I’m still having a long running argument with broadcast execs about discussing semiotics on camera). Fortunately, I’m not in the least bit fazed by the camera and I love the buzz of working with such talented crews, although I very occasionally find some of the broader TV bullshit frustrating.

In my first meeting with a commissioning editor I ended up with my head on the table and, when they finally asked if I was okay, I said ‘No, I’m not okay. It’s taken me 3 hours to get here, I’ve got tons of actual work to do, and you don’t want me to do eighteenth century art, you want me to do contemporary art in ways that are youthful, edgy, and contemporary. How the hell can I explain the Chapman Brothers without explaining Goya? You need to understand that if I wanted to be a TV star, I’d have been a TV star in my twenties. I want to lecture to lots of people and I only want to lecture about things I care about. If you don’t want that then I’m more than happy to focus on the job I love.’

They ended up commissioning a short taster film about French revolutionary iconoclasm, bits of which we used in Tearing, but the full film was commissioned by a different broadcaster – the BBC. The Beeb was a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking ‘this is right’ when I got into an argument about Hegel with a commissioning editor, asking him ‘but how can an age have a “spirit”? I’m not even sure that humans have got spirits?’ But on balance, despite the early frustrations with making the transition into broadcasting, it’s been enormously worthwhile.

“Tearing” was well received, although perhaps slightly controversial – iconoclasm is an emotive subject and also you do tend to wear your left-wing heart on your sleeve. Did you ever feel any compromise whilst making the programme?

Not really. I’m never been asked to compromise for TV (apart from avoiding semiotics!) and I wouldn’t be making documentaries if that wasn’t the case. Yep, some ideas and some positions are controversial, but a film is just one contribution to a public debate – and debate is good. As for my left-wing heart, you should meet some of my colleagues! You’d realise that I’m a pretty moderate social democrat who’d just like to see a somewhat fairer form of capitalism.

*****

In part two of the interview, which will follow on the blog soon, Richard goes on to talk (amongst other things) about his other film projects, his foray into radio, lecturing vs. seminars, and future plans. Stay tuned, as they say, for more fascinating insights!

Richard is also due to make an appearance on BBC4’s Front Row programme tonight at 7.15 p.m. ahead of “Viral” – so do check it out!

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane

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When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

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