Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Preliminary work on term paper

The Autumn Term is devoted to Autobiography. We are required to write a term paper of 3,000-5,000 words by 27 November. The subject is to be one of the topics discussed at weekly classes or a subject of one's choice, subject to approval.

The film Julie and Julia showed me how a blog could be a medium for publishing autobiography, or rather a slice of autobiography. In the film Julie Powell embarks upon the Julie/Julia Project, in which she sets out to cook in a tiny flat all 524 of the recipes in Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking while holding down a full-time job. The story she tells of this quest is amplified as she tells how it impinges upon the people around her: her friends, her work colleagues and above all her husband, who accuses her at one stage of having embarked upon one massive ego trip.

This film inspired me to propose writing a term paper on Autobiography on blogs and our professor agreed to this at our meeting yesterday. I intend to use this blog to be the place where I can store, under the label Term paper, my plans and summaries of what happened in trying to execute them. It might perhaps be better, if I were solely interested in writing a paper to use a conventional wordprocessor in the preliminary stages as well as the final one, but I want to explore how to undertake a task like this using what is to me a new tool, since this will also help me to understand better its limitations while I am researching how, if at all, one can write an autobiography on it.

Here, then, are the things that I intend to do as the preliminary steps towards writing the paper.

  • Google [autobiography blog] and [biography blog], then see how these terms need refining to reduce the massive number of responses they will generate, then start a Word file with the URLs of sites that might merit fuller examination, along with a note of what was first seen
  • Use Wikipedia, and perhaps other sources, to get a better idea about the development of blogs and in particular what search engines there are for blogs, then start a Word file summarising results
  • Study the Julie Powell blog, then start an Access table to store potentially-useful quotes and their URLs: as a preliminary to this I need to look at the MHRA Style Book which we were told about yesterday, to see how bibliographical details of material published on the web should be recorded.
  • Check at the library how to access the University of Hawaii's Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and check what other journals if any I should look to see what has been written on my topic
  • Contact biographical societies in the USA (e.g. via The Biographer's Craft website) and UK (e.g. the Johnson Society of London) to see whether any of their members has written anything useful about blogging and biography: this item is a posteriority

Writing this to-do list gives me the comfortable feeling that the paper has actually been begun: you don't eat a salami by swallowing great mouthfuls of it, but by cutting it into thin slices and carefully chewing them one at a time.

I am also happy that embarking on the study of this topic will also help me towards my dissertation at the end of the course, provisionally entitled How technology is changing how biographies are made. When I announced this at our meeting yesterday, the question "What do you mean by technology?" was immediately raised by colleagues. After all, the development of a method to produce solid graphite out of powdered graphite and clay made pencils vastly cheaper, just as the development of the biro made pens vastly cheaper. This question must for the moment be put on the back burner.

Monday, 28 September 2009

First meeting of Biography course participants

It's always an interesting moment when you are about to meet a group of people whom you are destined to come to know well over a period of time: is your reaction going to be Omygod or Wizard? How happy I am to say Wizard!

There is more, quite a lot more, that I should and would like to write, but I'm actually a bit knackered; after all, it's not every day that you go back into the snake pit of a new school; I awoke this morning long before the first sparrow had greeted the dawn.

I gave the URL of this blog to my professor and my fellow students. When I post a wholly commendatory comment like this about them they might well respond, with Mandy Rice-Davies,

"He would say that, wouldn't he?"

Tomorrow I will edit this post to create a link to a page to explain what this particular quote, from the Macmillan era, says to trainee biographers about the reliability of what people say. I'll also talk about what we'll be doing this term.

Added 29 September

I have added the HTML code, target="_blank" , to seek to make the link from the quotation open in a new window. This used to work in the days when I built websites but, as the code is listed in my 1996 reference book as a nonstandard extension, it seems likely that the latest version of Internet Explorer ignores it.

Unless and until I can sort this out, I will cause links to open in the current window. This will mean, however, that you will have to use your Back button to return to this blog. Go to my first post, and see what happens when you click the quotation there.

Comments on reading list

Jane Ridley sent me the reading list on 11 June saying

"I am attaching a list of books on biography. You are not expected to read all of these - we will look at some in the course of the MA - but reading a selection is good preparation. Richard Holmes's Footsteps is a good place to start."

I did indeed start with Footsteps, reading the paperback edition which had no photo of the author, whom I knew from seeing him often on military history programmes on telly to be bald and with glasses, nor did it give biographical details about him. I read with increasing puzzlement how he had, fresh out of a Catholic boarding school and with a rucksack on his back, retraced the path taken by Robert Louis Stevenson and his sometimes faithful donkey Modestine through the Cevennes in the 1870s. Was this the best preparation for a career as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and a steady climb to the rank of Brigadier General in the Territorial Army? Belatedly I realised that there are two Richard Holmes: in fact, if you google Richard Holmes Wikipedia you will see a so-called disambiguation page, which lists no less than six twentieth century bearers of the name deemed worthy to have their mini-biographies published in the online encyclopedia.

I dipped into a number of others. I read the recommended chapter in the Roland Barthes book; I read it again; I then read the translator's comments; I closed it with a sigh and a sad shake of incomprehension of my head. I read with astonishment Leon Edel's book. How could one devote the best part of one's adult life trying to track down every piece of writing by Henry James and to talk to very person who met him, then write a multi-volume biography of him? I read with admiration Ian Hamilton's book, after having disambiguated him from the British commander at Gallipoli in 1915. How could a man who had written an admittedly unauthorised biography of J.D. Salinger and been sued by the writer for his pains then himself write Keepers of the Flame, which details attempts by relics and heirs through the ages to control the published account of the lives of their loved ones?

I read with great enjoyment Martin Gilbert's book and with great enlightenment both of Nigel Hamilton's. After finishing the former, In Search of Churchill, I set myself to write a short piece inspired by it, since I had done no academic writing since 1957. I entitled it A Time for Silence, the text from Ecclesiastes which tells that sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut, in which I compared an incident in the lives of both Churchill and Gilbert when following this maxim marked a turning point in their careers. I followed this with a longer one entitled How Gilbert Wrote his Churchill Biography.

I then had the temerity to contact Sir Martin, asking whether I could come and see him. What then happened will be the subject of another post.

General reading list

Peter France and William St Clair eds, Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography (2002)
Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (1977)
– see 'The Death of the Author'
Mark Bostridge ed., Lives for Sale: Biographers' Tales (Continuum, 2004)
James Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art (1962)
Leon Edel, Writing Lives (1984)
Paul John Eakin (ed), The Ethics of life Writing (2004)
Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper
David Ellis, Literary Lives (2000)
William Empson, Using Biography (1984)
Robert Gittings, The Nature of Biography (1978)
Ruth Hoberman, Modernising Lives: Experiments in English Biography 1918-39 (1987)
Nigel Hamilton, Biography, A Brief History
Nigel Hamilton, How To Do Biography (2008)
Henry James, The Aspern Papers
Paula Backscheider, Reflections on Biography (Oxford, 1999)
Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame 1992
John Batchelor, The Art of Literary Biography
Richard Holmes, Footsteps. Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985)
Richard Holmes, Sidetracks (2000)
Eric Homberger and John Charmley, The Troubled Face of Biography, (New York: St Martin's Press), 1988
Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life
Dale Salwek (ed), The Literary Biographer (1996)
Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Granta, 2005)
A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance (1990)
A. S. Byatt, The Biographer's Tale
Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill
Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose (Princeton 2007)
Hermione Lee, Body Parts (2005)
Ira Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form
Christopher Ricks, Essays in Appreciation (1996) – see chapters on 'Victorian lives' and 'Literature and the matter of fact'


Sunday, 27 September 2009

Why go back to college?

A couple of years ago we sold our house in Richmond, where we had lived since 1965. Our three daughters had left the nest long since, many of our friends in the area had gone to live elsewhere and as I had finally retired I no longer needed to live in the metropolis. But the main reason for selling was that I had not put enough into our pension fund during my working life and my entrepreneurial efforts over the years had not succeeded in creating a comfortable cash cushion. We were living in a highly desirable house, in a quiet cul-de-sac adjoining Richmond Park, which we could sell and with the substantial proceeds buy a nice place in a town out of commuter range of London and put the surplus into our pension.

Paul and Penny had been with us on holiday on the Canal du Midi earlier that year and had told us that they were downsizing from Sherborne, for similar reasons, to Buckingham where they had just bought a Georgian house in the centre of this ancient market town which lies twenty miles to the north east of Oxford and about ninety minutes drive to our two daughters in London. When we returned from France Julia and I checked out a couple of other towns as well as Buckingham, but it soon became obvious that you get "more bricks for your buck" there than you do in Bath or Saffron Walden.

We found an ideal house and spent eighteen months adapting it to our needs and seeking to integrate ourselves into our new community. I then made an attempt to resurrect the language flashcard project on which I had previously spent so much time and money, but decided not to press ahead after my trip to my dental clinic in Budapest, during which I had canvassed a number of language schools in the city without eliciting much enthusiasm for the concept.

I had brought with me to our new home the golf clubs which had been languishing in the attic since I had resigned from the Richmond Golf Club a dozen years previously when pruning costs had been necessary. I then joined the Buckingham Golf Club and took a number of lessons from the pro. The old magic (if, indeed, there had ever been any) had alas vanished and I did not even feel sufficiently confident to venture onto the course proper from the practice ground. Therefore I did not resume my membership at the beginning of this year, thus closing striking another pastime off the list.

All this while there lurked at the back of my mind a possibility that I had entertained even before leaving Richmond, the possibility of doing a postgraduate degree at the local university. The MA in Biography is open to graduates either in History or English, and there are no upper age restrictions. My hesitation about enrolling all along had been due to the fact that there is no individual in whom I was sufficiently interested to study in depth for the final dissertation, but I concluded that doubtless something would turn up if I pressed ahead, so in April I applied, I was interviewed then accepted and on Friday I went through the registration process.

I am now the proud bearer of a University of Buckingham satchel which could contain my new Toshiba notebook and various other electronic gizmos, but these I think I will put in my claret-coloured hessian Waitrose wine bag when I go to meet my fellow students with Professor Jane Ridley at noon tomorrow.

Saturday’s post completed: why blog?

Today I started a blog. Why?

Yesterday I enrolled for the course in Biography at the University of Buckingham. Why?

The answers to these two questions have a lot in common.

On Wednesday evening Paul Burns told me at the New Inn of the film that he and Penny had just seen at the multiplex in Milton Keynes, Julie and Julia: they'd loved it. A month earlier Matt Wills from Colorado Springs, a retired lawyer and newly-minted historian and who like me is married to a Julia, had written to me, enquiring whether I'd seen it yet.

I already knew the film was about Julia Childs. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is one of the six books in my kitchen library that five years ago I rebound while doing a bookbinding course at the Richmond Adult College: its case had come loose over the time I had used it since I had bought it in the Sixties.

She is not an inspired or inspiring writer like my Three Graces (Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Marcella Hazan, listed in alphabetical order since it's impossible to list them in order of merit), but she tells you precisely and authoritatively how to do what it says on the spine of the book. Do this, do that, then do the other, and voilà: bon appétit!

So I suggested to my Julia that we went see a film about two other Julias. It told two stories in parallel, scenes switching back and forth in time from one to the other.

One is about Julia Child as a diplomat's wife in postwar Paris learning how to cook à la française, then collaborating with a couple of Frenchwomen to write a cookery book for "servantless American women". After eight laborious years they finish it, but then struggle—finally successfully—to get a publisher for a book of that size.

The other is about Julie Powell, a bright young wife in a boring fulltime job who undertakes the daunting task of not only cooking every one of the 524 recipes in MAFC within one year but also writing about it on a blog, with her success in this goal resulting in her receiving offers to publish her story.

That's enough for today. We've asked Tony Seaton to supper to share the boeuf bourgignon I cooked yesterday from the recipe in MAFC and to debate whether the film makers were justified in showing Julie making the dish with far more carrot in it than the recipe specified.

At least, gentle reader, you'll now have some idea of why I've started this blog: I'll say more tomorrow.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The first post to my blog, and I can't paste here something that I wrote elsewhere! But, as the lady said,
"Tomorrow is another day".

Added 29 September
I wrote the above directly into my Blogger window, having failed to copy text written in Word into it. Only the next day did I find out that all you have to do is to select the Publish option, from the same menu as Save and Print, add a title to the post, click the Home tab and select Publish.