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“…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.

Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!

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The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!


I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…

Poetry

2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

Mapping the imaginary – gratuitous book pics and #utopia again!

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A recent post on the excellent Science Fiction Ruminations blog on the subject of maps and diagrams of fantasy worlds from science fiction reminded me that I had a rather old and lovely book which collected some of those together – and this is it!

I was gifted “The Atlas of Fantasy” by J.B. Post by Mr. Kaggsy longer ago than I care to acknowledge (well, it came out in about 1982 I think…) It gathers together an eclectic collection of plans, maps and diagrams of places unreal, and as I was a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy at the time I was very taken with it. I’ve always been fond of maps – I think it’s because my geography is rubbish and I’m not so good at visualising. Give me a map or a plan or a chart and I’m happy.

Anyway, this rather fab volume is stuffed to the gills with places I have or haven’t heard of, and a quick look at the contents pages gives you an idea of what to expect:

You probably can’t read all of that, but there’s basically everything from Eden and Hell up to Stephen R. Donaldson taking in all manner of interesting locations and oddities in between.

Favourites? Impossible to pick – but at the time I loved having the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth to hand, and there were several variations of each. And of course, you have to love a book that includes the Hundred Acre Wood…

It’s a long time since I had a look at the Atlas, and I would love to share a few more favourites but it’s now so fragile I was reluctant to manhandle it too much. However, this time round a couple of obvious entries caught my eye (ahem!)..

Gulliver’s Travels has slipped onto my radar as it featured in Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Utopia” series; I can’t say that I’ve ever read the book, although I have a vague idea of the plot. And then there is this:

There are actually a few Utopia images, and of course I might have been considering curating a sort of Utopian reading list recently. And these would help it:

Yes – there’s another copy of “Utopia”, a brand new shiny freshly translated version by Roger Clarke from the lovely Alma Classics (thank you!) And I may have to have invested in a copy of “Gulliver…” too. Utopia or the French Revolution or Russia – where next???? 🙂

Utopian Ideas and Ideals #utopia #professorrichardclay #bbc4

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One small advantage of being in depths of documentary repeat season is the chance to catch up on favourite progs. I’ve frequently rambled on about Professor Richard Clay’s marvellous three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream“, and so I was very pleased to note that the show is making a welcome return to BBC4 in the wee small hours starting tonight.

“Utopia” takes as its starting point the classic book by Sir Thomas More of the same name and goes on to cover myriad variations on that theme, from utopian visions that go wrong, the dystopian flip-sides, searching for your own personal inner fulfilment, how architecture affects our vision of life and so much more. It’s an exceptionally wide-ranging set of programmes, full of thought-provoking stuff; I highly recommend it and if you have access to BBC4 and/or the iPlayer you can give it a look starting from 00.30 tonight/tomorrow.

The Prof has an intriguing new documentary in the pipeline on the subject of the art of the meme, which sounds equally fascinating. It’s still awaiting a transmission date, and when it goes live I shall be covering it on the Ramblings in depth with some special posts – so watch this space… 😉

*****

As an aside…

I was reminded that I picked up a copy of More’s book back in April (I had one decades ago, but who knows where it went?); and as I posted at the time I was vaguely thinking about setting myself up a little utopian reading list, drawing on some suggestions in the Happy Reader magazine. I revisited that magazine and went on a rampage (oh, all right, a gentle rummage) around the house trying to find what books I already had that fitted into that list. And then I found a few more. And then I couldn’t find some I know I have somewhere (“Flatland”; “Looking Backwards”). And for those of you who love gratuitous pictures of books, I came up with this:

As you can see, there are some awfully interesting books on the pile – here they are without Thomas More blocking them. Yes, I *know* I have duplicates of “We”, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Brave New World” (and there are at least two more copies of the Orwell somewhere in the house) – I’m afraid I have a congenital affliction that prevents me being able to get rid of multiple book copies…. (ahem)

However, what occurs to me looking at the pile is that many of the books suggested by the HR mag (and not all are here) were actually dystopian, not utopian. Admittedly, they began their list with “We”, and that’s certainly not a jolly book. Still – I do wonder if we are naturally drawn to the negative; it does seem that we as a race have trouble in dealing with the concept of perfection and a happy life. But as I’ve said before, we are questing, searching beings and maybe the ideal world would be just a teeny bit boring…

Anyway, one thing the rummage did was produce this behemoth (as in a big book, not a big cat):

I had totally forgotten I have “The Faber Book of Utopias“; it came out in 1999 and I suspect was a gift at the time and I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read it. However, it looks absolutely fascinating, with extracts from all manner of books, from More himself through to modern writers like Julian Barnes. I was very pleased to see that Margaret Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” is in there too, as I’ve been keen to have a look at her work. It’s 500 or so large format pages – I could be in there for some time…

So there you are. Another potential reading project, at which I will no doubt fail. Perhaps I should put the French Revolution and Utopia books in a room together and just let them fight it out, a la Swift’s “Battle of the Books“. Or give up work and sleep. Or stop buying books and thinking about reading projects and just damn well read! 🙂

Surreal, strange, satirical – and very, very entertaining! @AmpersandPubLtd

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Yes, I’m still on the little books – well, I do like things which are small but perfectly formed!! Ampersand, as well as kindly sending me “The Sisters” plus two other lovely book in the classics range, have also provided a further two classics – not an obvious pairing of authors, perhaps, but both remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking!

The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

Swift, of course, is the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” (which has a significant part to play in part one of the Utopia documentary – probably still on the iPlayer, if you haven’t caught it yet) and he was very well-known for his satire. “Battle” is often appended to “A Tale of a Tub” but here gets to stand apart and be appreciated in its own right. The dispute in question is between Ancient and Modern literature, and Swift took up his pen in defence of Sir William Temple (for whom he was working as a secretary). Temple had written an essay on the subject, declaring that the Moderns were merely standing on the shoulders of giants, and much controversy followed. Swift took things a little further, however, and his imagery of Ancient learning encased in books chained down in libraries certainly had me grinning.

Now, it must be here understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines.

Charles Jervas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is full of humour and allegory, parodying heroic works, but with the books mustering their forces and leading the battle. The concept of a book of Homer astride a horse, slaying authors and critics left and right, is certainly fun, but like all satire Swift has many layers to his work. Inserted into the middle of the story is a parable of a bee and a spider; the former gathers from nature and creates something new like the Ancients, whereas the spider absorbs and regurgitates (often unpleasant substances) like the Moderns. Modern critics were included in with the latter, and so Swift was presumably aiming his satire very specifically…

It’s all great fun, and a reminder what a wonderful writer Swift was. Definitely worth checking out!

The Stories and Adventures of the Baron d’Ormesan by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Elliot Koubis and Iris Colomb

Apollinaire is, of course, best known for his poetry (and I’m *still* convinced I should have a collection of his works in the house somewhere). However, until I had a look at the Ampersand site, I don’t think I was aware that he’d also written prose; and this collection brings together all of his short stories about a very slippery character known as the Baron d’Ormesan.

Guillaume Apollinaire [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Baron started life as a classmate of the narrator; however, he reappears in the latter’s life reinvented as the Baron d’Ormesan with a rather intriguing career. His apparent occupation as a tour guide is in fact a kind of flaneury, maybe even an early form of psychogeography, although it isn’t long before the Baron’s criminal tendencies show through. He continues to flit in and out of the life of the narrator in ever more outlandish forms with a series of  adventures culminating in an almost sci-fi tale of holographic projection – which is rather the undoing of things. The interim stories take in thieving, murder and cannibalism and the larger than life character of the Baron is very, very entertaining.

… I thought about this long-lost friend, whose habits and imagination, although invariably unsettling, had always captivated my interest. The fondness which had drawn me to him when he was my fellow classmate at school, and his name was simply Dormesan; the many times we met and I was able to appreciate his peculiar character; his lack of scruples; a certain chaotic erudition, and a most agreeable kindness or spirit; all of these things made me feel, occasionally, something akin to a desire to see him again.

As I was reading these stories, something was niggling at my brain; and I eventually realised there was an elusive quality about them that was vaguely reminiscent of Blaise Cendrar’s “Dan Yack” stories: the fantastical exploits, the lack of morality in the main character, the ever-more extreme escapades as the book went on. And interestingly, when I had a little search online it appears that the men were indeed acquainted… Maybe the times conspired to have a certain kind of story coming to the fore, and it seems that Cendrars also influenced Apollinaire’s poetic style too ! Who knew? (Well – not me, obviously….)

These two lovely little editions from Ampersand really did make fascinating reading. I love being able to read obscure classics which have slipped out of the mainstream, and both Swift and Apollinaire are fine authors. If you haven’t already checked out Ampersand I’d highly recommend their books – both aesthetically and for the content! 🙂

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

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I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

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