Thursday, 12 August 2010

Why continue to blog?

Drafted 13 June: finally uploaded 12 August

This question can only be answered by asking a preliminary question, why did I start a blog in the first place?

One reason why many people start one is to create an informal online forum where you can put forward your views and enable other people who share your interests to comment on them. In my case I was seeking to create some sort of dialogue between me and my fellow students in particular and biographers both at home and overseas.

In this I have been spectacularly unsuccessful. It appears that only one of my fellows have read what I wrote with any regularity or any appreciation. Only one comment has been added to any of the hundred-plus posts I have made to the blog over the last eight months. Nobody with whom I have contacted by e-mail with my blog address, included as a matter of course below my signature, have commented to me about it.

Another reason was to act as an incentive to me to pay close attention at group sessions so as to be able to write a summary immediately afterwards to act as an aide memoire to me and, perhaps, to my fellows. This ceased at the end of the first term when a complimentary comment about a visiting lecturer's enterprise in, first of all, finding a publisher for a biography unlikely to have wide appeal and, after that, devising ways of publicising it was taken the wrong way and I received a terse e-mail asking me to remove what I had written about the lecture.

A third reason was to provide me with a means of practicing writing coherent and reasonably lengthy pieces of text after many years of writing reasonably brief business communications. The blog served this purpose reasonably effectively for the first month or two, but I found that I soon got back into the habit of writing at length.

A final reason was that I was looking for a way of writing short pieces about episodes in my past which might later form part of an autobiography I might possibly write after finishing the course. The trouble was that these pieces did not really fit into the nature of normal blog posts, which are in the vast majority focussed on today and tomorrow but not yesterday. Then, just as only one fellow-student has commented upon the pieces about our course on my blog, so only one member of my family – and an in-law at that – has commented upon the autobiographical pieces on it. This is perhaps understandable. My surviving sibling has never used a computer: my three daughters and my wife may well have felt unease at the idea of my talking in public about some of the less happy moments in my life: thus it was that I definitively closed this strand of the blog by writing, a fortnight ago, a micro-autobiography in (precisely) a thousand words, utilising a laconic style and eschewing the first person singular pronoun in order to make the piece as unemotional and impersonal as possible.

So there really is little point in my continuing to spend time on this blog. It may be however that over the next month or two I may decide to start another one on another topic. If so, I will post its URL here.

Au revoir or adieu?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The M-Word Manifesto

I propose that writing one's life story in a thousand words is something that each of us might consider doing. I have just done so, and I want to say why I did it.

One reason was as an antidote to having to write one thousand words or a bit more about someone else, as part of the university course I am doing. This piece of writing has to follow the formal structure of entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, starting with details of when and where the subject was born and who his parents were, proceeding through his achievements and ending with a brief mention of his family, where he was buried and how much money he had left his heirs.

The formula varies little from that established for the first edition of the Dictionary, published over a number of years in the late nineteenth century. It reflects the outlook and attitudes of that time, one aspect of which had been memorably summed up by Byron earlier in that century when he wrote "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, 'Tis woman's whole existence".

This formula may seem, from one perspective, a reflection of Victorian male chauvinism, but from another it is eminently practical. It is (relatively) easy to dig up facts about a man's work: it is (exceedingly) hard to do the same about his relationships. Besides, it is easier to write about what someone did rather than how someone felt.

So it was that when I started writing an outline of my life story I found it very hard to write about my relationship with my two wives, particularly the first. I found it slightly easier to do so by writing about this by dropping the word 'I': omitting the personal pronoun enabled me to write much more dispassionately. Writing in staccato, disjointed phrases also helped. So it was that I ended up with something similar to that which used to appear at the start of chapters in many eighteenth and nineteenth century books, a series of phrases succinctly describing a topic or incident, separated by em dashes.

By the time I had finished I found that I had written just over a thousand words and had what might be called a Eureka moment. If I could edit it to make exactly one thousand words it could be the pattern for other people to write their own stories and we could be witnessing the genesis of a whole new genre. I have had many eureka moments in my life and most have turned out to be flashes in the pan than bull's eyes but, as I believe Cicero once wrote, "Dum spiro, spero": while I breathe, I hope.

In an earlier post to this blog I said why I wanted to do this: I felt that, because of the lack of opportunity for students on our course to get to know each other, I would write briefly about myself, let my fellow-students know I had done so and encourage them to do likewise. After writing it I found that the exercise was of far greater personal value. I found that I had written something that my grandchildren could read when they are older which would tell them about the life and times of their grandfather: I would that my grandfathers had done the same for me. I felt also that I had put, however faintly and however briefly, my footprint upon the sands of time.

This is why I am writing this manifesto with its alliterative title containing the Latin way of writing a thousand to reflect the length of my micro-autobiography and, perhaps, of other people, not just in the evening of their lives but also at their high noon.

It would be great fun for me to start another blog – say, – on which I could publish this and other life stories – like yours? C'mon, tell the world what you've done and how you've dealt with those two imposters, triumph and disaster: a thousand words is worth far more than a picture!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Thousand Words is Enough for a Life Story

1933: born into Quaker family, third and youngest of three children – seven years after last sibling – home suburban Woking.

Father passionate gardener – prizes galore for hybridising irises – day job in electricity supply – post-nationalisation Chairman of London Electricity Board.

Sent away to boarding school in deep country one month after Dunkirk – fulfilling hobby-oriented school days – at prep school stamp-collecting, which sparked an interest in what happened when and where – started A History of the British Empire, Told on Stamps – at Leighton Park public school bookbinding and printing – bought Adana platen printing press aetat 14 for £4.17.6 (first "business") – won Minor Scholarship (worth a munificent £30 p.a.) to Trinity College, Oxford (exam having been taken to shorten National Service).

1952: RAF conscript – at Aircrew Selection Centre when KGVI dies – flying training in England and Scotland – basic training on Tiger Moths and Chipmunks – Oxfords (twin-engined advanced trainer) – skiing in Cairngorms – “wings” – Pilot Officer Randall – Meteors and Vampires (jets) – grounded after Korean Armistice – brief spell with Education Branch in Germany.

1954: hitch-hiking round North America – NY > Connecticut > Florida > Oklahoma > Highway 66 > California > Canada – spent 21st birthday watching Bannister beat Landy in Vancouver – Dreaming Spires – won (unofficial) University Shove Ha'penny Championship in the White Horse – read Modern History, intermittently – special subject Clausewitz and "Great Britain in the Mediterranean, 1797-1802".

1957: joined Shell on marketing side – fell in love before departing for year in Argentina – then Kano (edge of the Sahara in Nigeria) – visit by fiancée – jilted – sent roses and wrote sonnet – re-wooing unfortunately successful – married – Port Harcourt – six months later deserts – quit job – divorce proceedings start.

1961: Insead (business school in Fontainebleau, France) – jobs in consultancy in the UK (Sales Audits and Glacier Metal) – meet a better Julia in the Alps.

1965: at Jordans Quaker Meeting House (where Penn, founder of colony where Julia spent the war, buried) – "Friends, I take this my Friend Julia to be my wife, promising through divine assistance to be unto her a loyal and loving husband until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us" – started first company, Trenchermans (mail order delicatessen) – two daughters born – company highly seasonal and ultimately unprofitable – joined Rentokil to start French branch – during UK training successful in selling their new washroom hygiene service – French offer revoked – resigned, to start Waterloo Services Company – "where there's muck, there's brass" – third daughter born – moved from flat in Richmond to big house on the hill – seven years surveying washrooms in City offices – tedium relieved by starting Richmond in Europe Association – goal to twin Richmond with Fontainebleau – success after four years – followed by only foray into politics: chairing trans-party campaign in referendum to keep UK in EU – Richmond has highest percentage "Yes" vote in London boroughs.

1977: read about phototypesetting and prospects for small companies in The Economist – exploratory trip to USA – buy first Compugraphic machine and start Randall Typographic – over-trade – during civil servants' strike use tax money to keep going – Nemesis – but clever accountant ensures that key equipment saved from clutches of Inland Revenue bailiffs – all RT's trade creditors eventually paid in full – Waterloo Services continues as reliable cash cow – typesetting continues as Electronic Village Limited – with beginnings of personal computing and word processing, endeavours to find ways of turning authors' keystrokes into type without rekeying in composing room – ASPIC (Authors Standard Prepress Interfacing Codes) devised and promoted as The Way Ahead – unsuccessful with publishers, but principles adapted to dealing with tabular matter in tour operators' brochures and stockbrokers' publications, at time that modems were first being used for data transmission – highly profitable contracts with Thomson Holidays and Quilter Goodison.

1970s and 80s: family holidays either on narrow boats or camping in France, usually Britanny – Mirror dinghy on top of Danbury – then Volvo and trailer for Avon inflatables and outboard – one great trip aqua-camping down Dordogne, crew in one Avon, camping gear in other one, lashed alongside – three more going daily from campsite on Côte de Granit Rose to uninhabited offshore Ile Moléne. Not all sunshine and laughter, though – business downturn resulted in being unable to pay school fees – pain – periods of Julia's illnesses – general family grief – six month rift in marriage and separation healed by Relate.

1990s: business decline and fall – arrival of the laser printer and desk top publishing undermines phototypesetting companies, just as they had undermined hot metal ones fifteen years earlier – attempts to carry on single-handed in our empty-nester house, on the edge of Richmond Park – found keyboarding company in New Delhi to key manuscripts with ASPIC codes inserted – delays in freighting papers out and disks back made turn-round unacceptably slow for book publishers – abandonment, and start of frustrating attempts to develop electronic flashcards for foreign vocabulary learning in collaboration successively with Hungarian count, blind physicist and Greek Etonian – sold Waterloo Services to Rentokil – take in students at local English school to plug income/expenditure gap.

On holidays used to go as the cicerone, cavaliere serviente and chef for Julia and painting class ladies who took villas in Britanny, Andalucia, Tuscany and Provence – marketed and cooked while they painted –sat silently at dinner listening to their talk – what not known about stretch-marks scarcely worth knowing

2000s: Calliope CALL software developed with Muscovite company – but "with so much language learning stuff freely available on the internet, why should we buy yours?" – final throw of the dice with attempt to get EU funding for improved version fails at final hurdle –

2007: sell Richmond house to meet pension inadequacy – "More bricks for the buck in Buckingham" – develop web sites gratis for local organisations – take over cooking, to compensate for reluctance to do any of the cleaning of new house (had done enough cleaning to last a lifetime while running Waterloo Services).

Now: MA in Biography course at University of Buckingham – genesis of concept of From Clay Tablet to iTablet – "Death closes all: but … something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods" (Tennyson's Ulysses) – excelsior!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Idea of a University

Cardinal Newman wrote, characteristically beautifully, an essay with the title of this blog-post. He made a point in it which I have long remembered. He suggested that in the environment of a great university you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from your professors.

The Biography course at my present university does not provide the environment to encourage such interchanges. Plenary sessions take place not on campus in Buckingham but at a flat near Marylebone Station in London, without the benefit of any congenial wine bar, watering hole or coffee shop at which to rendezvous with one's fellows beforehand or to jollify afterwards. The argument seems to be that, as mature students, we have no need of such things: besides, neither Buckingham nor its campus is exactly swinging.

Regardless of this, I feel that the course is more like one at a crammer or a correspondence college than at a university. You pay your money, you turn up at a block of flats, waiting outside if you are early or your tutor is late, you work through the weekly topic for three hours or so and then you go home immediately afterwards. As a result, I know next to nothing about my fellow students: they know next to nothing about me.

Willie Sutton the American bank robber is reputed to have answered, when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is." This, I assume, is why the course is now held in London. Whatever, it means that I still know as little about my fellow students as they know about me. I am therefore putting the finishing touches to a thousand word mini-autobiography which I will post here tomorrow: it's something that would usefully have been the first assignment on the course.

Doing this provides a creative balance to the Biography thousand words I am writing to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography format as part of this term's three assignments. Doing this is also giving me the energy and will to finish them before the deadline of Friday week: so, back to the notes and the books!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

“... it concentrates his mind wonderfully”

The Reverend William Dodd was a spendthrift parson who in 1777 sought to solve his financial problems by forging a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, Lord Chesterfield, and who was condemned to death for the then capital offence of forgery. Many petitioned against the sentence and Dr Johnson wrote most of "The Convict's Address to his unhappy Brethren" for the condemned man to pass off as his own. When someone expressed doubts about the sermon's purported authorship, Boswell reports Johnson as replying, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

With the deadline for the term essay and two other pieces of work now just twelve days away, I identify with the hapless parson. On Friday afternoon the Society of Authors finally came up trumps by forwarding e-mails a handful of biographers I particularly wanted to contact. There were a couple for whom they did not have addresses, so I sought these by looking for their publishers on Amazon and their phone numbers on Yell, through which to get an e-mail address through which I could forward a request: this was time-consuming and inefficient. Yesterday evening I stumbled upon a British Council website with an excellent directory of British writers which could be searched by genres, which include Biography and early this morning I was able to add forty-plus prospects with details of their agents to my database. First thing tomorrow I'll phone these agents to get their agreement to forward my e-mails, which I have been able to personalise by adding names and dates of their first and latest biographies. This personalising was, as I was sure it would be, important: two out of four responded positively within six hours.

If I have the same conversion rate with the forty as with the four I'll be home and dry. But if so, it will have been, as the Duke of Wellington is mis-quoted as saying of the Battle of Waterloo, "a damn close run thing".

Saturday, 22 May 2010

A Biographer’s Quest for Biographers

The titles of two books on the reading list, given me three months before the start of the MA in Biography course which I started in October 2009, immediately caught my eye.

One of them was Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill. I remember as a small boy being taken by my mother down to Woking Station to give comforts to troops returning from Dunkirk and recall the dejected face of the defeated poilus who were entrained for western ports for a futile attempt to return to France to continue the battle: I remember seeing from the top floor of my home the flames of blazing London reflected in the clouds over the eastern horizon during the Blitz; I remember the house with half the windows boarded up because a near miss had shattered them and there was not glass immediately available to repair them. I have then good cause to revere the man who led us from defeat to victory and to read with fascination the story of the man who wrote the magisterial Life.

The other was Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History, since I knew him as the biographer of Montgomery, Churchill's most successful general, and since as a history graduate I liked the idea of getting a feel for my new subject within a chronological framework. It also helped that, when I obtained a copy from the university library, I found it beautifully designed and printed, aspects which to me, a sometime typesetter and typographer, are particularly important.

After reading these books and before the academic year started I set out to talk to each of these men as I was considering doing as my final thesis something about the impact of technology on how biography gets written. In doing this I felt the first faint stirrings of the passion that drives biographers, that urge to find out, the thrill of the hunt, the tally-ho! when you first spy your quarry. No matter that the kill may come something of an anti-climax; no matter that, from the ninety enthralling minutes I spent with Sir Martin the only insight into his use of technology was his use of the fountain pen for writing and of the treasury tag for data storage; the quest is the thing, not the kill.

Over the first two of the four terms of the course I gradually developed the framework for my thesis. I believed that I could illustrate the impact of technology upon the creation of biographies in the manner described by Lytton Strachey in his Introduction to Eminent Victorians, in which he explained how he proposed to deal with the vast mass of material available about Victorians and their era; he would illuminate the whole by flashlighting a few isolated items. The wise biographer, he suggested, "will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity."

From the beginnings of life writing I tentatively chose The Epic of Gilgamesh from the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and Sinuhe from the western end. From classical times I chose something from Plutarch's Parallel Lives but then, because of my ignorance of Greek and because of something that I recalled from my interview with Nigel Hamilton, I took Suetonius' Twelve Caesars instead. From the era of the manuscript book I selected Robert of Shrewsbury's Vita Sanctae Winefredae (Life of St Winefred) and Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), the latter translated by William Caxton and with the addition of a version of the former, making it the first piece of life writing about a Briton printed in English. There was no significant technical change in the book production process till the nineteenth century and the application of mechanical power to the printing process, and so a biography of William Caxton by another printer, William Blades, seemed a more relevant choice than any of the much better-known Victorian biographies. For the period when mechanical typesetting was being replaced by photosetting and letterpress printing by offset litho, nothing more appropriate than Martin Gilbert's Winston S Churchill could possibly be found, since the first of his volumes was produced by the older technology and the last by the newer. The ninth in this series again chose itself when I recalled that Nigel Hamilton had told me that he was having trouble having his latest work, American Caesars, accepted by his publishers because of its length and after I had googled that title and found that it is to be published in a couple of months' time, in July 2010. The tenth and final one may not have been published yet, since I am seeking something that will appear electronically only, thus rounding off my long-term goal of writing Life Writing from Clay Tablet to iTablet.

The enormity of this project did not really occur to me, but it certainly did to the course supervisor who suggested a much more restricted topic. I considered therefore narrowing my focus to the last quarter century, during which time the advent of the personal computer and of the internet, or rather the World Wide Web, has changed and is changing everything. My difficulty in accepting this stemmed from my inability how to construct a hundred-item bibliography about a topic about which so surprisingly little appears to have been written, if my experience in writing my first term's essay on blogging one's autobiography is a reliable guide.

This finally led to the radical decision to switch topics and to write on St Winifred for my thesis and on technology and its impact upon biography as my 6,000-word third-term essay. The decision was made with little over a month before the essay was due to be submitted. With just a fortnight to go, and with the disappointing results of my efforts to carry out sufficient meaningful interviews to write a satisfactory essay, I sat down and re-examined my options.

I started by writing the skeleton of the essay I would have liked to complete and which I had in fact already started. The title was Writers, Biographers and Technology: the USA and the UK Compared. This was followed by the section headings that follow naturally from such a title: Purpose, Method, Sources (printed), Sources (interviews), Writers and biographers compared, USA and UK compared, Conclusions and Appendices. The problem about the paucity of sources was compounded by the much greater problem about how to present my research data, all of which is stored on a database which cannot, I understand, be submitted with the essay as a vital and integral part of it.

I then thought about Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill and of A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo, about which I had given a presentation to my fellow students a month previously. In each of these books much if not most of the interest lies in the story of how the writers found or dug up the pieces of their respective jigsaw puzzles, rather than in the final picture when all the pieces had been assembled. This was a eureka! moment. A new title almost immediately presented itself: A Biographer's Quest for Biography Writers. This would detail what I have done in chronological order, describing the difficulties I encountered in seeking information and the manner in which I recorded what information I did find. This narrative, which would be relatively short, would be accompanied by a number of appendices which would principally be in tabular form.

The appendices that I then listed were these:

  • Responses: in alphabetical order, answers given to key questions, both in direct and indirect speech
  • Writers' Rooms: pics: 5 pages with the photos of the first 25 writers in the alphabetical list in the table created from The Guardian's series that appeared weekly 207-2009, plus what those writers say in their text about use of technology
  • Writers' Rooms: data 1: table with first 25 writers by name, with genre (and fiction/non-fiction), gender, age, first draft how done, type of computer, DOM/WHOT scale &c
  • Writers' Rooms: data 2: table with 100+ writers by name, with URLs of Guardian articles
  • Standard soliciting: the text of e-mails used in soliciting help, with comments about their relative success
  • Non-standard soliciting: outline of how this was done
  • UK e-mails: listed in chronological order of dispatch, with answer (if any, and short/long) with date
  • US e-mails: -do-
  • Structure of database tables
  • Tabular results: summaries by genre, gender, age and residence (UK/US)

This has been written so that it could form the first part of my essay, to be submitted in a fortnight. It is being posted to my blog today to give my supervisor an indication of what I propose in advance of our meeting on Tuesday. The essay would not contain the last paragraph with its list in precisely that form or position.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Finals nightmares

Every three months or so over the last half century or so I've had my Finals nightmare. They vary slightly in detail and duration, but the fundamentals are the same. I dream that I'm about to go into a fortnight of exams and I'm more (usually) or less (occasionally) unprepared. On one extreme occasion I was taking exams in a different subject altogether. You wake from such tormented sleep and say "Thank goodness! That was only a dream".

Now however it is not a dream. On 4 June I have to submit the following:

  1. A bibliography about the thesis I will write in my final term containing one hundred items, twenty five of which should have a critical summary of the book or article attached
  2. A piece of between 1,000 and 1,500 words in the style of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, using the precise format used by actual contributors to the work, or an essay on a group of people with similar identifiers, the majority having entries in the dictionary
  3. An essay of between 6,000 and 8,000 words with a biographical slant

Additionally, next Tuesday I need to give my fellow-students a twenty minute discourse on How Symons Quested Corvo: this particular soufflé is still half-baked.

For reasons which would take far too much time to explain here, the subjects of my thesis, my ODNB entry and my essay are in the process of changing. I am therefore having to go through our diary and cancel or postpone as many social occasions as practical and to realise that any further posts to this blog until 4 June will only be written if they are, like the previous two, recording something relevant to my undertaking these tasks.

Less than four weeks to go! Sweet dreams?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Getting to grips with the DNB project: 2

I did not in fact add a new field Sources to the table because of the difficulty of reading the text it would contain, either when displayed in Table mode or in Form mode, and because at this stage I had found that only 14 of my monks were listed as hagiographers. Therefore I created a wordprocessed file for each of these and stored them in a subfolder, Hagiographers, in the folder DNB Project.

The great thing about database programs like Access is that they are relational. This means that, when you want to add each title with date and notes to the table, you can create another one which, with the use of a query, you can extract just the data you want from two tables to create a third one.

I then created a new table, Vitae, in which to store details of hagiographies, with these fields:

  1. ID
  2. Writer: as indexed, e.g. Osbern
  3. Title: e.g. Passio Aelphegi
  4. Full title: e.g. Vita et passio S. Aelphegi archiep. Cantuar. et martyris; per Osbernum monachum Cantuariensem
  5. Written: date, normally followed by c (about) or > (after)
  6. Saint: e.g. Ælfheah
  7. Latin form
  8. Death
  9. Notes

This yielded a disappointingly small tally of titles, which showed no clear pattern. At this moment I began to think of doing a rewrite of the entry for Robert of Shrewsbury, mentioned in my post of 20 April as Prior Robert Pennant. Before abandoning the present database-underpinned approach, however, I did another search replacing Benedictine by hagiographer and extending the search to a couple of hundred years either side of Hastings. This did of course add a number of claustral hagiographers from other orders: Augustinian (2), Cistercian (3) and Dominican (1), compared to a final total of 17 Benedictines.

The titles of their works did not, however, shine much light upon the second question I posed yesterday, ""How if at all did the subject matter of Benedictine biographies change after the Conquest?" or give much support to my hypothesis that there would be a swing away from vitae on Anglo-Saxon saints towards more universal ones. The only indicator of this is in the entry for Dominic of Evesham, which says "[His] most widely read collection … was of fourteen miracles of the Virgin Mary, Evesham's patron. … In that form [with additions by Anselm of Bury and William of Malmesbury] they laid the foundations of a new genre, devoted to the Virgin herself rather than to places or saints that she had honoured, which was to permeate the culture of western Europe." Even this support was weakened by the statement that Dominic "was perhaps born of English parents, as some slight linguistic evidence suggests": nothing here to support my guess about the Norman juggernaut crushing Anglo-Saxon sensibilities!

As to the first question I posed on Monday, “How rapidly and completely did Normans replace English in the senior ranks of the Benedictine order?”, I would have wasted my time trying to answer it in the way I did. The answer can be found on pages 111-113 of David Knowles’ The Monastic Order in England which I only read this morning. Moreover, there is some doubt whether Benedictines living up to two hundred years apart could actually be deemed to belong to the same Group as the editor of the ODNB would understand it.

As to the time I have wasted on this wild goose chase, I hope that the way I have detailed what I did may help other people to research the ODNB more effectively and to use the power of the electronic database to tease interesting insights out of their research material.

So, I now need to look closely at the entry for Robert of Shrewsbury to see whether his present entry of 297 words can be boosted without padding to something over the minimum of one thousand.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Getting to grips with the DNB project: 1

In my first post about this on 20 April I described how one of the three options in undertaking this piece of coursework, worth 10 units, is to do a biographical essay styled and modelled on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography template. This is straightforward for most of my fellow students, who have embarked on the course with a clear idea about whom they wish to write, but it is not so for me.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. The one I favour is an essay based upon a group sharing common characteristics, using the ODNB search facility to highlight which of that group have been written about in it. To do this however is by no means as straightforward as at first sight it might appear. I am therefore going to describe the steps I took when I embarked upon researching an essay I entitled Pre- and Post-Conquest Benedictine Monks, which would seek to address the question "How rapidly and completely did Normans replace English in the senior ranks of the Benedictine order?"

On the ODNB home page I clicked the Search tab and on the ensuing Search page I clicked People search. On the ensuing page I made the following choices:
Fields of interest (from drop-down menu): Religion and belief
Life dates: 1000 to 1200, with Active not Alive selected
Text search: Benedictine abbot
Exact selected: 1 life
All words selected: 75 lives
Any words selected: 258 lives

Clearly, All words indicated the most promising approach. At this point I looked at a handful of the names listed and it was immediately clear that there was sadly little that was certain about the ethnicity of the majority of them, so I felt that it would be wise to change the Text search from Benedictine abbot to Benedictine. This yielded 98 lives.

Equally clearly, handling all this material would require something better that a wordprocessed file. I could have used a spreadsheet, but this would have made data entry slower. In the olden days people would have used index cards, so it was natural that I chose to use a database, MS Access, which is in essence a drawerful of electronic index cards. I chose to give these index cards (in techspeak, records) these partitions (in techspeak, fields):

  1. ID: index autonumber
  2. ODB ref: how indexed
  3. Ethnicity: E [English=Anglo-Saxon], A/N (Anglo/Norman), N [Norman], E/N [Efather, N mother], N/E [N father, E mother], F (French), O [Other, with origin in brackets], ? [unknown]
  4. Birth date, followed by, if necessary: ? (unknown), c (circa=about), fl (floruit=flourished: this usage in the ODNB is obscure), < (before), > (after)
  5. Death date
  6. Reject why: a=Benedictine monk who worked mainly abroad, b=bishop/archbishop, not having been Benedictine monk, e=other ecclesiastic, h=hermit, n=nobleman, x=lived too little in period
  7. DNB essence: as contained in opening sentence, less Benedictine or monk
  8. Final position
  9. Monastery: principal, if more than one
  10. Prior: date of becoming
  11. Abbot: date of becoming
  12. Quotes: copied and pasted from entry, giving one or more key points
  13. Notes: made by me

Fields 2-11 are all Text fields, with a default size of 50 characters and maximum of 255.
Fields 12 & 13 are Memo fields, with practically unlimited size.

It must be emphasised that this format was not formed like this at the outset, but because one of the strengths of Access is its flexibility I was able to add fields as it became clear that this was necessary when reading online the Dictionary entries.

On completing this exercise, about a third of the list needed to be rejected, so I made a copy of the original table (techspeak for the drawer which holds the index cards) and deleted 35, leaving 63. By using the Access Sort feature on the Reject by field, this was done in 10 seconds.

I now sorted on the Ethnicity field, to find that my initial suspicion was confirmed: only 20 of my surviving 63 could be clearly identified as either English or Norman, or a cross of the two. This made my original question incapable of being satisfactorily answered from the data.

At this moment I felt a faint sense of panic: all this work, to no avail! I considered abandoning the database and doing a piece on Robert of Shrewsbury, the prior of the abbey in that town that instigated the transfer thither of the relics of the saint on whom I am writing my term paper. However, the existing entry on him was only 297 words and there is no way that I can sensibly pad this out to the minimum 1,000 words required.

Then it struck me that much of what appears in these entries comes from contemporary works, much written by Benedictines, and all cited in the Sources part of the entry. Therefore I rewrote my question as "How if at all did the subject matter of Benedictine biographies change after the Conquest?", my initial guess being that there would be a swing away from vitae on Anglo-Saxon saints towards more universal ones.

Therefore I will add a new field to my latest table, Sources, into which I am going to copy the entire contents of that part of each entry and to change the Notes field to just the titles of anything biographical written by the subject. I will then look at all this, having sorted the table on the Birth date field, and reconsider the question.

I trust that I will be able to reveal what I find in a sequel to this post later in the week.


Incidentally, if any of you would like to see what I have done, I would be happy to send you the tables, either for Access 2007 or Access 2002-2003. If you'd like this, just put your name and e-mail address in a comment on this post.


I notice that I have just written 1,000 words: what a pity I can't submit this piece as my assignment!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Time capsule: 2

To a future owner of Dial House

I am writing this at six o'clock in the morning on May Day, 2010, sitting at my desk by the window on the top floor room on the left as you look up and using the keyboard on my Dell computer to form the words that display on screen.

I am Tony Randall and my initials, AGR, you can see at the bottom right of the sundial which I caused to be made to celebrate my 75th birthday.

My wife Julia would normally still be asleep in the next room, but she is stuck in South Africa because the airspace over Britain was closed for six days due to fears about the volcanic ash in the atmosphere blown from a volcano in Iceland.

She went out just after Easter to visit our eldest daughter Rozi who lives with her husband and daughter on the coast just north of Durban. With her went our youngest daughter Bella, with her three children.

Our middle daughter Helena is in the last month of her BA course at the University of the Arts London at which she is doing well, despite having a husband and three small children.

I am just over halfway through my MA in Biography course at the University of Buckingham. Perversely, they have at the start of this academic year moved the location of seminars to London, so that instead of a short stroll down Hunter Street I have to trek up to the Tesco roundabout to catch the X5 coach to Oxford and then catch the train to Marylebone from Bicester North station (or, it has to be said, if I'm feeling lazy, drive across).

It's a curious feeling writing for the eyes of someone who is quite possibly not yet born and who will almost certainly read this only after I am dead. I could go on in this vein, but I have much to do, not least of which is writing by 4 June (eek! that's now only a month away!) a 6–8,000 word paper on St Gwenffrewi, known in English as Winifred, entitled The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr.

I can do nothing better, I am sure, than by ending with a poem by James Elroy Flecker (who like me studied at Trinity College Oxford) entitled To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence.

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

Time capsule: 1

We are coming to the end of the embellishment of the outside of our house: repainting the windows, replacing the glass in the front door and the fittings on it and putting a plaque above it saying DIAL [7] HOUSE, a reference to the sundial I caused to be put up to mark my seventy fifth birthday on the auspicious date of 08.08.08, celebrated too by a billion Chinese with the opening of the Peking Olympics.

As soon as I've figured out how to get photos off my Better Half's digital camera, I'll add a picture of it. The plaque was painted by Les Edge of Banbury, a master of his craft. When I went across to pick it up I had a long and lovely chat with him about how he did it: a fascinating story. He succeeded superbly in matching the typeface (Trajan) used on the sundial above it, down to and including maintaining the same weight of character when emulating small caps by reducing the point size by 20%, which have not been created for this font.

The use of small caps has almost entirely died out with the dumbing down of typesetting and the decline in typographical standards since the onset of Desk Top Publishing. I cry that giving the uninitiated a hundred fonts in dozen of sizes is like giving a Stradivarius to a gorilla, but the response tends to be "Well, it's cheaper, innit?" But read what Beatrice Ward, the great typographer of the 20s and 30s, had to say here, and then try to deny that text is not as elegant or indeed readable as it used to be. "Does it really matter?", people respond, "Everybody will get used to it!" "Pshaw!", say I.

It occurred to me that it would be nice to write something to be encapsulated and put behind the plaque when it is screwed up, saying a few words about ourselves to the person who unscrews it sometime in the future, that person almost certainly being my successor as owner or his agent. I wrote the piece early this morning and it will go up when Trevor comes round to put the last coat on the front and kitchen doors. You can read it in Time capsule: 2.

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Quest for Corvo

Another of my tasks this Spring Term is to give a presentation lasting twenty minutes or so on a biography-topic. I arrived late for the first group session of the term, by which time the only two topics in the short list of options not already taken were Corvo or Freud and Biography. Unhesitatingly I chose the former, leaving the last latecomer to draw the short straw. She, actually, didn't appear to be too put out: in fact, she seemed to quite relish the prospect, but then she's a talented lady.

The Quest for Corvo is the biography by A.J.A. Symons of the unusual Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. I read it a very long time ago and remembered only that he was an utter misfit in society, someone who had been dismissed from seminary where he was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest and had then lived a penurious life as an author, picking quarrels with practically everyone with whom he came into contact. I also dimly remembered seeing a dramatised version of it, or rather that part of it which deals with the novel in which an obscure parish priest is unexpectedly elected pope as Hadrian the Seventh.

Years later my memory was jogged when I was reading a splendid science fiction novel, A Case of Conscience, in which a Jesuit biologist working on a planet in another galaxy … I won't reveal any more of the ingenious and riveting plot, suffice to say that he is led by what he finds there to fall into the Manichaean heresy (the belief that Satan, as well as God, can create) and is summoned to Rome to be interviewed and excommunicated by the pope himself, Hadrian the Eighth.

All of this was far from my mind when I went from Gwytherin to Holywell in Flintshire to visit St Winifred's Well, a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of years which boosts itself as The Lourdes of Wales. How the spring which feeds the well came into existence I will not repeat here, for the legend will be related very shortly on my new website,

After looking at the fourteenth century Perpendicular building over the spring itself and watching two pilgrims in the water on a chill spring day circling the pool outside the requisite three times and fully immersing themselves thrice, I went into the small two-roomed museum. There was nothing of significant interest in the outer room but the inner room was riveting. On each of the three walls hung a couple of banners of the kind displayed in religious processions. On the mantelpiece rested a picture frame containing four photos, two of processions in what looked like Victorian times, one of a priest and the last of three laymen in profile.

One of the banners depicted the martyrdom of St Winifred: in none of the books about her that I have inspected had I seen it reproduced. "All these", said the volunteer custodian, "were painted by Corvo, and each contains somewhere within it is the picture of a crow," adding helpfully "because crow is the translation of the Italian corvo." Pointing to the last photo she said "That's him, on the left." I beheld a man in his early middle age, smoking a curved-stem pipe and staring fixedly at something out of sight. And pointing at the priest she said "And that is Father Beauclerk, who befriended him. He arrived here virtually destitute, and the Father took him up, gave him £60 a year to live on, plus £10 for clothing, and gave him £10 for each banner. But Corvo quarrelled with him; demanded more money; wrote to the Bishop; poor Father Beauclerk was removed from the parish and posted abroad."

She read some text in the museum guide. "After he left, Corvo wrote a story about his stay in Santo Pozzo [=holy well] in the province of Selce [=flint] which he describes as 'a squalid enough village in a desolate province. All the men were sots; and all the women, lewd'." My experience of the town – as opposed to the shrine – is based solely upon my visit earlier to the Red Lion in the High Street. This was without doubt the worst pub I have been into in years: three hand pumps at the bar, but with the labels reversed because they no longer stocked real ale; nobody talking at the bar, but men sitting round on hard chairs set against the walls, morosely drinking lager; two peroxided women, displaying more flesh than is seemly for their age; scruffy linoleum, and even (I probably imagined) the long-lingering smell of cheap cigarettes.

All of this provided me with a stimulating background to my Corvo about whom I started to read when I returned to Buckingham.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The first resting place of St Winefride

The cross to the right of PH (the Lion Inn) in Gwytherin is the site of the nineteenth century church originally dedicated to St Winefride but now deconsecrated. Alison, who has recently bought the building and the land, assures me that the saint was buried in the glebe land to the south of the churchyard. She is sending me her evidence for this assertion.

It was to the monastery at Gwytherin that she came in about 640 AD after the events that had taken place at Treffynnon (in English, Holywell), some 25 miles north east and a mile inland from the Dee estuary. Of these events, more later.

Early Welsh monasteries were quite different from the later ones like Tintern or Llanthony. The very word monastery conjures up in one's mind's eye those "bare ruined choirs" of David Knowles' evocative phrase. They were more likely to have been collections of separate dwellings in each of which lived a monk or nun, much like the Desert Fathers had in Egypt and the Sinai. In this form of monasticism, the eremitical form, individuals would live as hermits but would come together on occasion, particularly for common worship.

At least one church has stood on the spot where the present one stands. No trace of an earlier church remains, but as towering evidence of this having long been a holy place three enormous yew trees loom over the existing one. These have apparently been shown to be over two thousand years old. It would seem highly likely that here was the spot to which Gwenffrewi, as she would have been known then, would have come together for worship.

As to where Gwenffrewi actually lived, the tradition in the village is that it was at the back of Brin and Rhiannon Owen's farm at Tai Pella, the spot marked by the arrow on the map, at the quiet and peaceful place where two mountain streams come together. There are no traces of any past habitation. I need to ask my archaeologist god-daughter about what things like post-holes might be looked for underground to give evidence of earlier habitation. I will show photos of it when I have found out how to transfer pictures from my Better Half's camera when she finally manages to get back from South Africa.

There is evidence in place names to support the hypothesis that Gwenffrewi's nunnery, of which she was abbess, was of the eremitical kind rather than the cenobitic, in which monks or nuns live together under some kind of formal Rule. From Peter, who has lived in the village for all his 57 years, I learnt that Tai Pella means Furthest House(s), that Llwyn Saint means Field of the Saints and that Bryn Clochydd means Hill of the Bells.

It is possible to imagine that the Abbess would live in the remotest spot and that her sisters would live in huts mostly between her and the church. When it was time for communal worship, Gwenffrewi would call at each of the nun's huts as she walked the two and a half kilometres to church, then they would all pause at Llwyn Saint before going to Bryn Clochydd to summon anybody not already called upon to come to church.

At this point you will probably look back at the map and ask the question, "But what about the two other houses which are further away than Tai Pella?" At least, that would be your question if you don't speak Welsh, If you do, you wouldn't ask it, because Ty Draw means Further House, indicating it was built later, and Tw Hunt means [hic est magna lacuna: I must contact the amiable landlord of the Lion and ask him to ask Peter what it means].

This knowledge of place names has however raised another question. Gwenffrewi's bones were translated from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury, where she was known as Winefride or Winifred, in 1138. The name of the Benedictine prior of the Abbey of St Peter in that town who organised the translation is normally given as Robert of Shrewsbury or Robertus Salopiensis. In the medieval detective stories by Ellis Peters about the sleuth Brother Cadfael, Robert is named Robert Pennant. This surname combines the two Welsh words for Head and Stream. Is it a coincidence that the area around Tai Pella is named Pennant? Or did Prior Robert get a nickname which celebrated the most significant action of his life and which gradually transmuted into a surname? If he was Welsh or even half Welsh, how did he get such a senior position within an ecclesiastical hierarchy now dominated by Normans? Perhaps my researches for my DNB Project will throw some light upon this fascinating (but not really important) question.

Watch this space!

The Quest for Gwenffrewi

One of my tasks this Spring Term is to write a paper of 6–8,000 words and I have chose to write about the seventh century Welsh saint Gwenffrewi, known in English as Winifred or Winefride. She lived the last fifteen years of her life in a monastic community in a remote part of north Wales near the village of Gwytherin near Holywell, the spot where she had miraculously caused a healing spring to gush forth. So I took the opportunity of my Better Half's absence in South Africa with Number Three daughter and grandchildren visiting Number One daughter to go to the place that she died.

When that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, …
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

The Lion Inn at Gwytherin is right opposite the entrance to the churchyard of the now deconsecrated church dedicated to Saint Winifred. My stay there started well with looking at the folder of visitors' information in my room I read at the start a piece by the priest and poet R.S. Thomas.


Not conscious // that you have been seeking // suddenly // you come upon it.

The village in the Welsh hills // dust free // with no road out // but the one you came in by.

A bird chimes // from a green tree // the hour that is no hour // you know. The river dawdles // to hold a mirror to you // where you may see yourself // as you are, a traveller // with the moon's halo // above him, who has arrived // after long journeying where he // began, catching this // one truth by surprise // that there is everything to look forward to.

There was indeed everything to look forward to, "Seek", it is said, "and ye shall find." It was easy enough to find the place where she is locally reputed to have lived as a hermit, half a mile up a track into the hills from the farmyard of Tai Pella, at a spot where two streams come together. This is what I had come to see, but I also hoped to stumble upon other nuggets about my saint.

Stumble I did. Chatting with a fellow guest from Cardiff I learnt that a friend of hers from south west Wales had as a child been taken by her mother to the local holy well before going to see the doctor and that this was common practice. Apart from promising to e-mail me something more corroborative about this, Janice also talked to me, from her scientific background, most wisely about writing theses and introduced me to the idea of the Null Hypothesis.

Yet better was to come. I was sitting reading in the evening sunshine on a bench opposite the pub when the landlord came across to say that the new owner of the church building had just come over from Liverpool and led me to introduce me to her. Alison is a multi-faceted woman – artist, photographer, musician, teacher – who has personal reasons for wanting to keep the memory of the saint and her beneficial influence with a place of focus.

She has been studying Winifred's life for years and we had, as might well be imagined, a lively conversation. She can obviously help me with my researches and I can help her get a website about her project off the ground. It promises to be a most productive collaboration.

And so, with the sun just rising above the two-thousand-year-old yew trees in the churchyard, I am just going back to Tai Pella to the place that Rhiannon told me about yesterday evening to photograph it in the morning light and then to the Lion Inn for breakfast and on to the saint's well at Holywell.

Drafted on Sunday 18 April 2010

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

DNB Project

This is a summary of the briefing received on 13 April about the DNB part of the MA in Biography course. I ceased writing about the course at the end of our first term, for reasons I outlined in my posting on 26 February. I am resuming writing about it here because my colleague, the RFCG*, was indisposed and has asked me to record what happened. This I am happy to do, not only because she has been of immense help to me in giving me a flying start in writing about cuneiform and hieroglyphs for my website but also because it will help me in being clear about what I need to do.

In essence, we each need to write 1,000-1,500 words by 4 June related to the ODNB, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Before expanding this, here is what the Guide Michelin would call un peu d'histoire.

The DNB was begun in 1882 by Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolfe, and carried to a successful conclusion 20 years later by his lieutenant and successor, Sidney Lee, and a host of less prolific collaborators. It represented a triumph of the Victorian work ethic, the first volume appearing in January 1885 and a further 62 volumes appearing punctually every quarter until June 1900. It contained concise biographies of notable Britons from the earliest times: I found Queen Boudicca a.k.a. Boadicea (d. 60/61 AD), but couldn't find King Cole, the merry old soul. The subject of each entry had to be dead and the text had to be factual, not written in the eulogistic style of an obituary notice.

The subjects of the first edition were overwhelmingly white, male and upper middle or upper class; they were principally civil servants, politicians, clerics or empire builders. The opening paragraph was, and remains, brief and formulaic: full name, dates, claim to fame, born where and when, and details of parents (with occupation of father) and grandparents. This was followed by details of education, details of (usually successful) career, description of appearance and character and ending with a brief paragraph noting spouse(s) and issue (if any): this was the extent of the personal information.

It was updated every decade until the eighties, with new worthies being added but less worthy old ones remaining unculled. By then many of the older entries had been outdated by new research and the publication of Missing Persons by Christine Nicholls in 1993 made clear how many noteworthy people, particularly women, were not featured.

It was therefore decided to start afresh, with OUP as its publishers and Colin Matthew as its editor, under the title of The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This was published, after Matthew's's death, in 2003 and was a success from the start, primarily because it was simultaneously published on the Web. It is now widely and freely accessible in England to members of public libraries and university students.

For the Project, we can write on three topics:

  • A person, using the standard format as described in two documents we have each been given, the Sources sheet and the Information sheet: our RFCG will need to get copies of these
  • An essay, similar to those on a list of over 250 groups listed when Themes is selected on the Search page
  • An essay, on some aspect of the history of the DNB

Our tutor admitted that the first possibility is getting increasingly difficult to do because (i) with 57,258 biographies published, it is difficult to find a new subject and (ii) with so many of the entries having recently been competently revised, it is difficult to say anything relevant or new.

The second possibility is interesting, but is made difficult by the fact that the methodology demonstrated to search the list of themes was not clearly explained and was not documented, so that, even though I was told that there was for example a group on Welsh Saints, I have not been able to replicate it to consider an essay on a sub-group of, say, Virgin Saints or Martyred Saints, into each of which group the subject of my term paper, St Gwynefri a.k.a. Winefride, would naturally fit.

I have used Search, and then People Search, to look up two groups of people, Twelfth Century Benedictine Monks and Assyriologists. The former search yielded twelve names and the latter, eleven. I have not yet read any of the 250 essays written on themes, but my provisional thinking is to do an analysis of eleventh and twelfth century Benedictines, looking at the monastic positions they held, their involvement if any with life outside the cloister and their racial origin. I hope it may give some indication of how rapidly the top jobs came to be held by Normans rather than Anglo-Saxons but even if it does not it will at least give me some context for Prior Robert Pennant, the monk responsible for the translation of the bones of St Winefride from Gwytherin in north Wales to the Abbey of St Peter in Shrewsbury.

* Resident Fertile Crescent Guru

Monday, 12 April 2010

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

I first built a website in the last millennium. The World Wide Web was still new and exciting, and I had no difficulty learning HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) because I had spent most of the previous couple of decades coding text for typesetting financial and other complex text. The browser of choice was Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer had not yet been introduced. Netscape's version 1.3 introduced the capability of using frames, whereby you can but text and pictures from different files in separate parts of the screen. You could thus, for example, put your navigation buttons in a narrow frame on the left of the screen and this would remain visible while you scrolled down a long piece of text on the right-hand side. Within a frame you would position pieces of text with the aid of tables, which could if necessary be nested within each other to produce the desired effect.

If, pace Harold Wilson, a week in politics is a long time, a decade on the Web is an eon. Web page design and its attendant coding has changed significantly. For a start, frames and tables are now deprecated by the WWWC (World Wide Web Consortium), for valid and lengthy reasons: in brief, don't use them any more.

Coding is now returning to its roots in the SGML (Standard Generalised Mark-up Language) protocols around in the Seventies and Eighties, in that a code such as <h1> described what a chunk of text is, such as a first-level heading, rather than what it should look like, such as 24 point Bodoni Bold. These stylistic instructions can now be – and should be – contained in a separate CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) file, which gives the typographical instructions for the entire site.

Up till now I have been building all my dozen or more sites in a way that suite me. For example, I would put the codes in upper case, <H1> rather than the recommended <h1>, because that is what I was used to when coding text for CompuGraphic typesetting terminals when I was running a business. Likewise, I didn't bother with putting the CSS variables in quotes, happily keying font: Bodoni MT; rather than font: "Bodoni MT";

All this must now change, for three reasons. Firstly, I am preparing to hand over the last of the Buckingham websites that I developed after moving here from Richmond to other people, enabling me to focus on my university course. Secondly, I want to build a new site which tells the story of how technology has changed the way biography gets written, as an adjunct to my university course. It therefore seems sensible that I bite the bullet and learn to code the new way with Cascading Style Sheets. Thirdly, I've just put myself forward as a candidate for the webmastership of the National Printing Heritage Trust: I am promoting my candidacy by saying that the revised site will use the latest approved methodology and will be easily maintainable when the time comes for me to pass on the baton to younger hands.

Wish me luck, as I grapple with my O'Reilly manuals!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Why so little?

During the autumn term last year I was averaging about twenty posts a month to my blog. This year it is averaging just one. Why? There are three reasons.

Firstly, you can't safely say anything even potentially controversial without running the risk of reproof. Thus a guest speaker at one of our seminars objected to remarks I had made in which my purpose had been to praise her for seeking a publisher without using an agent and for persevering when her first promising contacts came to nothing. Likewise, any remarks I might think of making about college or colleagues which are less than commendatory would be unlikely to be well received. Even my description of an esteemed colleague as "our resident Fertile Crescent guru" was looked at somewhat askance because of interpreting the final word as meaning more a charlatan than the wise and learned person which I had intended.

Next, the blog format for writing the autobiographical snippets, which make up almost half of my posts, is unsatisfactory. The format in practical terms restricts you to a practical maximum of 600-800 words, above which the use of the scroll bar acts as a deterrent to the reader. Within this maximum you can record an anecdote but it is difficult to tell a proper story, with all the necessary background and description of the characters involved in it.

Lastly, blogging is time-consuming. This was time I was happy to spend last term, as I was getting back into the swing of writing continuous prose after a lengthy fallow period. Now, however, I am having to start planning my course thesis, beginning with a bibliography. This is hard if, like me, you have started the course without any clear idea about what the topic of that thesis will be. This means that you have to identify the books that you will be using to support your arguments before reading widely round your subject. Since we are also having to annotate many of the citations in our bibliographies with annotations about why the texts have been chosen, I am having to do a lot of superficial reading in order to comply with course requirements.

Therefore I am going to continue to use the internet as a useful recording medium, but in a different way. Rather than writing my blog I will start writing web pages within a format which will suit the very diffuse nature of the subject of my thesis, Life Writing from Clay Tablet to iTablet: How Technology Changes the Way that Biographies are Written and Read. These pages will act as an interactive hypertext reservoir of material that I will ultimately have to pull together as a linear narrative before the December deadline. This will be hard, but while we are still only in the second month of the year, my feeling at the moment is, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

If you would like me to tell you the URL of the website I am about to start, just ask for it by putting your e-mail address in the Comments box below.

Sunday, 31 January 2010


I am making no more postings for a while, for reasons which I will give at a later date