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.