All is as been rather quiet on the public engagement front since my first full academic year at Cambridge began back in October. But whilst in person I have been absorbed by the pleasures and demands of teaching and administration, the ‘Close Reading’ broadcasts for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme have been going out steadily every month or so and have been received very well by the public, which is wonderful. The fifth episode will be broadcast this Sunday 24th May, in which I wrestle with a challenging passage from near the opening of Ian McEwan’s disturbing novel Enduring Love. Check out my radio pages for links to all the aired broadcasts in the Close Reading Series, covering Elizabeth Bowen, Aldous Huxley, Muriel Spark and Katherine Mansfield. The final broadcast in July will take a close look at Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
I’m delighted to be able to announce my new miniseries – ‘Close Reading’ – for BBC Radio 4’s literature programme Open Book. The first episode went out yesterday, Sunday 23rd November, and guides listeners through a passage from one of my favourite novels, Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love. In an age when speed is everything and time seems to dwindle to nothing, the idea of the series is to go slow, to read texts with an acute sensitivity to detail, with an ear and an eye for how they are doing what they are doing. Outside of educational institutions, it’s not an approach to literature now commonly practised by readers around the country, so novelist Tessa Hadley and myself spent some time convincing Mariella of its value in the interview introducing the series. It was wonderful to discover both Tessa and I are passionate believers that such close attention to detail repays the effort. Close reading gets at the heart of what the writer has done with words and can spin the reader out from the tiniest of details to the largest of themes. It’s the way I was taught to read and it’s the way of engaging with texts that I find most intimate, exciting and rewarding. I hope listeners will think so too.
My next event on the Cambridge Festival of Ideas calendar is ‘Reading the Anthropocene‘ which takes place on Thursday 30th November in the Faculty of English. Again thanks to the wide-ranging interests of my PhD students, I was alerted to this term a few years back and have been following debates around it ever since. I’m delighted that joining me to talk about whether we are indeed now in a new geological era, and whether or not that actually matters, will be Philip Gibbard, Professor of Quaternary Palaeoenvironments in the Department of Geography here at Cambridge, and writer and environmental campaigner Tony Juniper. It promises to be a lively discussion that could not be better timed as the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ meet for the first time this week to assess the evidence of man’s impact on the planet.
The Cambridge Festival of Ideas began this week and runs until Sunday 2nd November. It’s a great event that each year prompts academics to think of interesting and engaging ways to share their ideas with the public. I had the pleasure yesterday evening of taking part in one of the Faculty of English’s How to Read sessions. Two of our graduate students gave fantastic talks, one on Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution epic A Place of Greater Safety (1992) and the other on Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel about the devastation caused by the Hiroshima atomic bombing, Black Rain. Having triumphantly just submitted the manuscript of my edited collection (along with co-editor Dr Caroline Edwards at Birkbeck) on Maggie Gee, I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk about her work in public, focusing on the short story collection The Blue (2006). The audience were fantastic and post-presentation discussion ranged from the benefits or not of ereaders to the universality of themes across literature. I even got to talk a little about one of my favourite words and things, something a wonderful PhD student taught me about many years ago – skeuomorphism. Check out the full guide to the festival here.
Tomorrow sees the start of the 34th Cambridge Film Festival, which is bringing me out of summer academic hibernation with a bang. It’s been running since 1977 with a brief break in the late 1990s which happened to fall over my undergraduate years at Cambridge, so it’s great to finally be able to experience the festival now, as both a film-goer and as a reviewer and Q&A host. Cambridge 105fm’s Bums on Seats will be hosting two radio specials this Saturday and next, where I’ll join Toby Miller and others to review some of the highlights of the festival. Take One magazine will be providing exclusive written coverage of the festival. My first review for them is of a film that was released in the same year the festival launched – The Glitterball is a self-deprecatingly comic children’s science fiction/Enid Blyton hybrid. For more reviews from me, and the other writers covering the festival, keep an eye on the Take One website. I’ll be posting my thoughts on a host of films from Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, part of the opening night extravaganza, to the much more hard-hitting André Sanger’s Night Will Fall, taking in many others in between. I’ll also be hosting a Q&A with André Sanger and producer Sally Angel after the 6pm showing of Night Will Fall on Tuesday 2nd September. And the preceding evening I’ll be hosting a Q&A with Rowan Joffe (writer of the screenplay for 28 Weeks Later) and Stephen J Watson after the 9pm screening of Before I Go to Sleep – a film which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in what I can’t help but think of as 50 First Dates turned to the dark side.
It’s going to be a fantastic ten days of unadulterated cinematic indulgence – tune in or turn up where you can!
One of the many joys of having moved somewhere you have no intention of ever leaving is that, after years of itinerant academic life, I can now start to set down roots in the local community. So I am delighted to have been welcomed with such open arms on to Toby Miller’s great Cambridge 105 film review show ‘Bums on Seats’. My first visit to the studio saw us reviewing an interesting mix of the summer’s blockbusters from Belle to Maleficent, with a little bit of sci fi thrown in there too, of course, by way of Edge of Tomorrow. Podcast available here if you’re interested to hear our thoughts.
To round off my dramatic week I went along to BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking (what was Night Waves) to chat with Philip Dodd and drama critic Susannah Clapp about science fiction theatre. Is it on the rise, and if so, why? Does theatre need to define itself against SF cinema and the special effects it is now capable of? Or does it need to stretch and develop itself technically by rising to the challenge of staging SF narratives in and for the 21st century? Have a listen to our thoughts here.
This week I’ve come over all dramatic, having caught the current buzz around SF theatre. This afternoon I popped down to London to watch the new Headlong production of George Orwell’s 1984 which has just begun its West End run. I have to say I found it a little disappointing. The opening was almost embarrassingly patronising as it gathered together a reading group to ‘teach’ the audience how to understand the novel. But once they got past that, it steadily improved and Mark Arends was subtly convincing in his portrayal of a psychologically damaged, disoriented, if not downright unhinged, Winston. On the train ride home I finished off a new Sci-Fi-London blog on SF theatre, which will appear here shortly. And if I could have been in two places at once, I’d also have sent my avatar over to LA to catch Sci Fest, the first science fiction theatre festival (poster above, and more on them in the blog ) which looks nothing less than tremendous. All in all, a satisfyingly science fictionaly theatrical day!
I feel like an intrepid explorer into unknown waters, but my life as a blogger has begun! The folks down at Sci-Fi-London, the London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, have kindly invited me to post my thoughts on their website every so often, so I started with some musings on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. All my blog posts can be found here. The festival has been the launch pad for some fantastic sci-fi films, including one of my all time favourites, Splice, as well as the zombie classic 28 Days Later, so I’m looking forward with excitement and anticipation to the launch night of this year’s festival tomorrow at the Stratford Picturehouse with the world premiere of new sci-fi thriller Lost Time.
So my BBC Arts TV short film is now Live and can be found here. In it I talk about the relationship between literature and science since the mid-twentieth century. This date is marked not just by the end of the Second World War and the national and international changes that ensued, but also by another date – 1959 – when the English chemist and novelist C. P. Snow took to the podium in a packed Senate House at the University of Cambridge. There he stood and boldly delivered a lecture that was to change the face of the debate about the relationship between literature and science.
Snow believed that the intellectual life of Western societies was split into what he famously called ‘the two cultures’: the arts and humanities at one pole, the sciences at the other, an unbridgeable gulf between the two. Scientists, he said, don’t read; and literary types don’t have a clue about science, most of the ones he knew couldn’t even explain something as scientifically fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
So what did Snow want his lecture to do? Well he wanted it to provoke debate and he wanted it to spur people on to attempt to close the gap between the two cultures. Since Snow’s lecture, many intellectuals and scientists have risen to his challenge, working hard to prove that the divide between the two cultures is more imagined than real. Strangely enough, though, most scholars of literature and science have sought to prove Snow wrong not by looking forwards, but by looking back. They point to the nineteenth century as evidence of the intimacy between literature and science. Behold, they say, Darwin’s love of Milton, or Coleridge’s close friendship and collaboration with the visionary chemist Humphry Davy.
Yes, the nineteenth century was an era in which literature and science were common bedfellows. The title page of the very first issue of the journal Nature, published in 1869, in fact bears an epigraph from Wordsworth. And that epigraph remained there for nearly 100 years. But it was abandoned in 1963, only four years after Snow’s lecture. This timing is not coincidental. For the contemporary history of the relationship between literature and science is different to that of the nineteenth century. We need to look forward in response to Snow’s challenge, not look back.
And what do we see if we do indeed look beyond 1959? Well, we see a troubled relationship. Sometimes the two cultures are at war. Sometimes they are in love. In the 1990s, the famous science wars exploded in the States. Postmodern theorists argued for the equal value, even the fallibility, of all forms of knowledge. They challenged science’s claims to objectivity, authority and truth. And the scientists fought back, defending science from the perceived attack. Physicist Alan Sokal even went so far as to plant a hoax article in the journal Social Text supposedly to expose the lack of intellectual rigour of the new forms of cultural and literary theory and thought.
On the other hand, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we’ve seen moves towards reconciliation. In October 2011 the Royal Society held its One Culture festival, exploring the crosscurrents between literature and science; in 2013, the Barbican ran a season called ‘Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain’. Whilst the cultural theorists of the end of the twentieth century got into trouble because they argued for science’s similarity to other forms of knowledge, in an oddly similar spirit, though to different ends, the reconciliatory projects of the past twenty years also concentrate on what the two cultures share, be it a sense of wonder, or the crucial role imagination plays in both. But it is time to come out from under Snow’s shadow. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with there being two cultures. Perhaps, in fact, we need to start valuing literature and science precisely for their differences, rather than continually attempting to bring them together. Science and literature offer us different ways of understanding the world, different routes to knowledge. And if we are to survive as a species, and retain our humanity, we are going to need to keep both.