Monday, 7 January 2019

#35: Malachi Whitaker

Valerie Waterhouse presenting Whitaker's 'The Journey Home and Other Stories' for Persephone Books at Ilkley Literature Festival in October 2017. Photo: Isabel Negri.

Ever heard of the writer Malachi Whitaker? No, I hadn’t either until I spoke to writer and journalist Valerie Waterhouse, who is writing a biography of this neglected author (actually a woman), as part of an ongoing rediscovery of working-class writers from the North of England. Valerie will be presenting Malachi and her work at London’s Persephone Books on 6 February, and tells us a bit more here.

Please tell us a bit about Malachi Whitaker.

Born 'Marjorie Olive Taylor' in 1895 in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Malachi Whitaker was the eighth of eleven children of a bookbinder. She attended Belle Vue Girls,  a local board school, which she left at the age of 13 to work for her father. She was largely self-taught and published her first story in 1927 at the age of 31. Between 1929 and 1939 she went on to publish four collections of short stories, a co-written spoof comic novel and a memoir, mostly with Jonathan Cape. There was a sputtering of new stories and two 'best of' selections in the 1940s -- and then: no more. She died in Skipton, West Yorkshire, in 1976, pretty much forgotten by the literary world.

You’re writing a biography of Malachi Whitaker. Why do you think her life story matters?

In October 2017, Persephone Books brought out The Journey Home and Other Stories, the first collection of  Malachi Whitaker's work for over 30 years, with a foreword by Philip Hensher and an afterword by myself.

Malachi matters because she is one of few literary authors writing about working class northern English people from eye level in the 1920s-40s, which makes her of immense social relevance. She is also a very fine writer, whose work, like that of many working class and émigré artists and writers, has been overlooked in favour of the dominant literary narrative of the time, centring around London's Bloomsbury. Working on this project, I have come to realise how dominant narratives of our literary and historic past so often prop up power structures: surely it is no coincidence that the Bloomsbury personalities were mostly upper middle class or aristocratic with their own personal sources of wealth and connections with power?

There is now a groundswell of research into alternative literary narratives -- from people of different social, ethnic, gender and sexual backgrounds -- which will hopefully provide both a foundation and historical perspective for diverse voices writing in our own age. I am not the only person researching Malachi: Susie Panesar, at Bristol University, is well into her Malachi-related PhD, and other contemporary figures are also being looked at seriously for the first time.

Can you say a bit about Northern British writers? Do you think they are relatively unknown? How might coming from Northern Britain influence their work?

Like other non-dominant groups, northern English (and Welsh and Scottish) writers do tend to get neglected, because they are not necessarily writing about subjects that fit the dominant  narrative, and because the publishing power base  is, and has always been, centred on London within the UK.

Despite this, Yorkshire, where both Malachi and I are from, has a strong literary, artistic and musical tradition producing internationally-known names during the 1920s and 1930s, including Frederick Delius, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and JB Priestley, all born in the Leeds and Bradford areas. Without exception all moved away from Yorkshire to establish their reputations -- whereas Malachi lived in Yorkshire for most of her life.

In general, Northern literary work tends to display great attachment to place, mixing a challenging, sometimes hostile and occasionally beautiful industrial landscape with wild and untamed countryside. Dry, northern humour is often used to leaven seriousness, or simply to reflect the way people in the north interact -- and this is very true both of Malachi and her Hull-born contemporary, Winifred Holtby. The literary shadows of the three Bronte sisters, born in and around Bradford, hover over all northern writers, including Malachi, adding tropes such as remote moorland farmsteads and after-death haunting, to some of the work. Finally, like many northerners, Malachi has a tendency to call a spade a spade.  This directness, or bluntness, may be one reason why she couldn’t do with extraneous words, leading to her unaffected simplicity of style.

What will you be talking about at the event at Persephone Books on February 6?

After a quick whizz though Malachi’s life, I’ll be talking about connections with some of Persephone’s other northern writers: Winifred Holtby, Lettice Cooper and Marghanita Laski (born in Manchester). Malachi may not have known all of them personally, but they often wrote for the same magazines, including John O’ London’s Weekly, or reviewed each other’s work. I’ll also talk about Malachi’s London life:  she had a bolt hole opposite the British Museum and hung out with a crowd of working class-origin provincial, regional and émigré writers and artists at Charles Lahr’s Progressive Bookshop, a few minutes’ walk from Persephone Books. This provided a radical alternative to Bloomsbury.

I look forward to bringing Malachi back to her London stamping ground after an absence of seventy or eighty years!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

#34: Kilpeck church

Kilpeck church doorway is on the cover of the Ordnance Survey map of Hereford and Leominster. It is easy to see why; it is charming and intricate. Sinuous lines wind up either side of the door and make a half moon shape on top, opening there like a crinkly fan. These pink sandstone shapes were made in the 12th century by the ‘Herefordshire carvers’. 

Amazingly, the detail is still there 900 years later, so that you can see fishes devouring each other, grimacing faces and an endearingly childlike angel. Fat serpents wriggle through delicate plant tendrils and a manticore (a lion with a human head) slinks past. The gentle relief of the carvings reminds me of the pattern on a custard cream biscuit, especially the stylised fronds on the tympanum over the door. No forbidding saints in dirty alcoves here.

Up under the roof is a Sheela na-gig, a baldheaded figure stretching her huge vagina wide open with overlong arms. This one has an impish confrontational stare which doesn’t give anything away. Sheela na-gigs appear all over Britain and may be fertility figures, but no one is really sure. Elsewhere a cartoon-like dog and hare snuggle together, staring down open-eyed. Two dragons touch tongues; two ducks bite a serpent.

The church is plainer inside, with high brick walls painted white. I briefly step up to the lectern, where there is a huge, slightly damp doorstep of a Bible. It is open at the Old Testament book of Kings, at the story of the prophet Elisha and the widow. The widow ‘cries out’ to Elisha that her husband is dead and his creditors are coming to take her sons as slaves. ‘How can I help you?’ he asks. ‘Tell me, what do you have in your house?’ Only a small jar of olive oil, she replies. The passage continues:

Elisha said, ‘Go around and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’
She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another one’.
But he replied, ‘There is not a jar left’. Then the oil stopped flowing.

The prophet tells her to sell the oil, pay off her husband’s debts and live off the rest of the money.

As I stood there, I wondered how a widow’s cry for help in Babylon had filtered down to a lectern in 21st-century Hereford. What countless processes of cultural and physical conquest, submission and storytelling were involved? And what use is it now, in a world of cold weather payments, female breadwinners and transferred pensions? I can imagine a vicar’s interpretation - the jars symbolising one’s capacity to receive God’s blessing, or a command from above encouraging neighbours to support each other. But stubborn questions remain - why ask the widow to find the jars? Why not create them? Why is it so important that they shut the door? Why is the prophet so precise about where to place them?

But what I like best is the way that more oil comes as the woman starts pouring. This seems to get at something about the way in which action, doing, has its own specialness. That it is sometimes only when something is started that results will come. Or that doing is qualitatively different from thinking about doing, or from planning.

Later that afternoon I find a table inside the steamed up windows of Morrisons Cafe in Hereford. Teenagers are arriving for toast and chat after school, many with their heads down over their devices. I join them by browsing the church website. Why have the carvings survived so well? The church is not sure, suggesting: ‘The sandstone is very fine so does not easily retain moisture and, in sunlight, there is a glint which could suggest hardening with mica or quartz. It is hoped a knowledgeable visitor will help.’ 

Little is known about Herefordshire carvers either; like the widow in the Bible story, they are anonymous. ‘Their work draws on a variety of cultural sources for its religious and mystical images,’ Wikipedia says. ‘Norman military figures, Anglo-Saxon animals and Celtic abstract patterns combine to create a unique and beautiful synthesis. Despite its overtly religious nature, Herefordshire School work also has a playful, occasionally bawdy approach.’

I think back to the doorway. Phrases like ‘cultural sources’ and ‘approach’ fit uneasily with the tail-in-mouth dragons and wriggling worms on the door. Such a tracking back of influences, to my mind, does not reflect the magpie-like nature of creativity; it halts the flow of oil, as scholarship so often does. But I still want to return to the sculptures.

Monday, 15 October 2018

#33: The Open University

Wandering around the Open University campus in Milton Keynes recently, I was reminded of that old academic ‘joke’ that universities would be wonderful if only there weren’t any students. Here, there were very few to be seen. The library, ‘Hub’ restaurant, nearby church, flowerbeds, sculptures, signs – all bespoke a peaceful well-equipped institution dedicated to civilised learning – except that the students would all be beavering away off-site, presumably. 

In fact, it seemed rather like an organisation run for the benefit of its staff, who walked hither and thither, identity passes flapping gently.

I particularly enjoyed dropping into the library – no pass required! – where an intriguing mix of displays made a wonderfully stimulating environment: a huge 3D map showed the drastic fall in world poverty over the last 200 years (from 85% in 1800 to 15% of the world’s population today); shelves held a mix of the OU’s learning materials – creative writing, sociology, classics, law – which on a quick flick through still seemed to be of the highest quality; a display case had photos of women who had contributed to making the OU what it is, including former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd, OU Chancellor from 1995-2006. 
In his memoir Time of My Life Denis Healey names the OU, set up in 1969, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s standout domestic achievement, and many people would agree.

It opened university doors to many who would not otherwise have been able to get in, helped improve the skills of the UK population and gave a big push to the use of technology in teaching (remember those late night TV broadcasts?). It is still the biggest university in the UK for undergraduate education.

So how is the OU doing these days, in the age of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), free Harvard lectures online and student loans? 
Not well, apparently. Since 2010/11 OU student numbers have fallen by 30% (overall there has been a 56% fall in numbers of part-time students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency). When the cap on part-time fees was raised in 2012, so universities could charge more, many prospective students were priced out. In addition, funding was withdrawn for students who already had a qualification at the level they wanted to study at – so if you already have a degree, you can’t get a loan for another one. On top of that, you need to be studying at least 25% ‘course intensity’ – in other words, in order to get a loan, your course cannot take more than four times as long as a full-time one. 

All these things hit prospective OU students hard, since they are often older students who may already have qualifications, want modules spread over a long time and may be more risk-averse than younger applicants, so less likely to take out loans.

In a THES article in April this year, three OU academics (Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller) bravely suggested the OU change its role to produce ‘core online methodology modules’ which could be used by a range of universities and that its partnership with the BBC be changed to include the production of an ‘interactive learning resources lab’. Both these take advantage of the OU’s expertise in design of learning resources. 

However, my own experience of producing HE learning resources (mainly with museums) suggest that university tutors want to use their own materials. Unlike schoolteachers, who need to follow the National Curriculum, and who often welcome targeted learning resources, HE staff are often fiercely protective of their own interests and approaches and want any learning materials to mesh with these. Universities also want to champion their own ‘brand’ and may be reluctant to use materials from their competitors.

Access to brick and mortar universities is much wider now than when the OU started, and many of these run their own distance learning courses. The HE learning landscape has changed considerably since the late ’60s, and of course there is no reason to keep a venerable institution going for the sake of it. But I hope the OU can reinvent itself and keep going, and that that student-free campus will not close any time soon.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

#32 paper encyclopaedia

Do people still buy paper encyclopaedias? According to a feature in my local paper interviewing local second-hand booksellers, they are very hard to shift (although I can’t find wider sales figures). And are companies still publishing them? Apparently not – the last 32-volume printed Encyclopaedia Britannica (with new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project) appeared in 2010 and it is now online only. It appears Wikipedia and the web have put paid to them.

But I found myself reaching for this bulky object recently when I wasn’t feeling in the best of spirits and was staying at a friend’s house. There was something peculiarly comforting about learning, or relearning, the names of the muscles and bones in the human body, the speeds of trains planes and automobiles, the properties of different plants, the development of cinema. 

In his poem ‘Ode to an Encyclopaedia’ James Arthur praises ‘the Questing Beast of blue and gold’ thus:
my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain.

This sense of comfort and relaxation would not be quite the same on the web and I’m not sure why – perhaps the attractive feeling of a stable canon of knowledge rather than an ever-changing hive mind, or even that encyclopaedias are still thought of as partly for children (although apparently the word comes via the Greek for ‘well-rounded education’).

Anyway, here is a short quiz based on things I learnt from this (admittedly 1995) encyclopaedia. Scroll down for answers.

1. Which country has the densest population?
2. Which planet has the longest seasons?
3. Which fish swims the fastest?

1. Bangladesh 2. Uranus (each pole gets 42 years of light, then 42 years of darkness) 3. Tuna

PS for an interesting analysis of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s early battles with Microsoft’s CD encyclopaedia Encarta, see this article by Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School.