Monday, October 20, 2014

A Silver Lining on the Wartime Paper Shortage

I've been in the British Library working on popular front Communism and its interest in the revival of an oral tradition in poetry. Like Jack Lindsay (see previous post), Edgell Rickword believed that capitalism was closely linked to print culture and mass literacy, so that Communism in England must involve a revival of pre-capitalist, oral forms. In a short essay published in Poetry and the People in July 1940 (also cited by Ben Harker in the essay I mentioned), Rickword discerns a silver lining on the wartime paper shortage:

Whatever happens about the paper shortage, it is certain that the big combines will feel the pinch less than the small concerns. So if things go on as they are, the material difficulties in the way of a genuinely popular cultural movement are going to increase. But difficulties create opportunities, and it would be no bad thing if the rationing of paper helped to restore the balance between the written and the spoken word which is now weighted so heavily in favour of the latter. Reading is a solitary act, it is often a means of escape from reality, but speech is necessarily social. So it may be a very good thing for us to be thrown on our resources and unable to stuff our heads with the crudities and sentimentalities of the millionaire Press. Then the natural storytellers and poets will come into their own, making conscious the feelings of their group, be it large or small. They are the organisers of emotion, one of the factors directing the collective effort to a common aim. Round the camp-fires of the armies of freedom, on the steppes and on the sierras, many stories and ballads grew up celebrating popular heroes and staunch leaders of the people. During the Spanish war it was no exaggeration to say that thousands of such ballads were composed by “amateur” poets and circulated in the village or the regiment, whilst scores of them became popular throughout the country. So it has been, so it will be again with us. It is not want of paper but only lack of conviction that could hamper a popular revival of poetry. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poetry and Phonocentric Communism

In the British Library today reading up on Jack Lindsay, a Popular Front poet. In his 'Plea for Mass Declamation' in Left Review (October 1937), he links the revival of poetry as an oral form to the Communist transformation of society.

‘Poetry has always found its vitalisation in a socially valuable relation to the speaking voice...
Only when capitalism started coming into its own was there driven a wedge between poetry and the speaking voice. Wordsworth tried to rediscover the poetically potent relationship in theoretical terms, thereby enabling a partially successful renaissance to appear. But this outburst failed; the impetus towards a fresh realisation of the living intonation (expression of the human potential in the great economic advance) was smothered by the discords of capitalism.
The wedge driven between consumer and producer had drastic effects in poetry and the criticism of poetry. The ‘literary product’ became the subject of consideration, quite apart from social process. The result could only be a poetry losing content and reality, whatever virtuosities its obsession with formal elements might induce at each spasm of the death throes.’

And as he puts it in a footnote:

‘The invention of printing, of course, had much to do with the deflection of poetry from the living voice. But printing did not arise in a social void. As a spreader of knowledge, it has a concrete good-effect; as a part of the capitalist forces, it intensified the forms of abstraction arising from bourgeois individualism. To analyse the way that these two aspects of the printed book—its uniting and dividing powers—operated, we would need to go into much detail. It is enough here to note how the book helped the severing of poetry from its communal basis.’ 

Perturbed by the 'dividing powers' of the book, Lindsay looked forward to a version of what Walter Ong would later term a 'secondary orality', associating this with the Communist dawn. To this end he wrote poems for 'mass declamation', which were recited by groups of workers at political meetings. 

(Ben Harker has written about this in his excellent article ‘Communism is English’: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front. You can hear Ben Harker discussing his recent research on Jack Lindsay at the next reading group of the Anglo-Russian Research Network, at Pushkin House on 21st November.) 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I love working on George Bernard Shaw....

I found this gem among his papers in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin:

‘It may seem only a laughing matter that we have to spell the common word “though” with six letters instead of two as the time lost is only a fraction of a second. But multiply that fraction of a second by the number of times the word hasto be written in the British Empire and in North America every hour, every day, every month, every century, and its cost grows from the fraction of a farthing to pounds, tens of pounds, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of pounds; and the cost of a change becomes unspeakably negligable. The fact that Russia, with its 35 letter alphabet, can spell my name with two letters instead of four, may conceivably make it impossible for us to compete economically in the world with Russia.
I am ready to bequeath all I posess (if the war taxation leaves me anything to bequeath) to anyone who will establish a new 42 letter alphabet with it. I have saved years by using such an alphabet for my own works; but they all have to be transcribed and typed and set up and printed in Phenician; so that nobody’s time is saved but my own.
If only the British Government was as intelligent as I am!'

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review of "We Modern People" by Anindita Banerjee

My review of Anindita Banerjee's We Modern People appears in the latest issue of Literature and History (23:1). It's an interesting book so read the review here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writing the Moscow Trials: Anglo-Soviet Debates about Jurisprudence

I'll be giving a paper at this conference on Saturday 24 May 2014:

British–Soviet Friendship and Cultural Exchange: promotion, partnership and propaganda 

This interdisciplinary conference will look at the scope and nature of Soviet culture disseminated in Britain and significance of cultural relations with the USSR in Britain. It will ask what mechanisms of cultural exchange existed, how Soviet culture was presented to the British public and specialists, and what influence these relations exerted on British writers, creative artists and professionals in fields as diverse as law, music and architecture. It will examine the intersection of this subject with related fields and the methodological challenges associated with approaching literature and culture in a highly politicized context.

The event will be held at the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies, 320 Brixton Road, London  SW9 6AB.

The Programme is available to download.

The cost, including refreshments, is £20.  Please book via the online store here.

This event is sponsored by BASEES

Here's a brief summary of what I'll be talking about:

Writing the Moscow Trials: Anglo-Soviet Debates about Jurisprudence

This paper explores British debates about the Soviet legal system, particularly in relation to the show trials of the 1930s, and with a focus on Stephen Spender, Harold Laski and D.N. Pritt. D.N. Pritt—a lawyer, Labour MP, prominent fellow traveller and president of the SCR in the 1940s—had a longstanding interest in Soviet justice and witnessed the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial in 1936. Publications including ‘The Russian Legal System’ (1933), The Zinoviev Trial (1936), and The Moscow Trial Was Fair (1936) document Pritt’s attempts to make an accommodation between bourgeois legal norms and both the theory and the reality of Soviet law. Harold Laski made similar arguments in Law and Justice in Soviet Russia (1935), and also lectured on this subject at the SCR. This paper seeks to situate these arguments in relation to Marxist theories of justice on the one hand (elaborated in the Soviet Union by Pashukanis and others) and the work of British writers, using Stephen Spender as a case study. Spender’s brief membership of the Communist Party coincided with some high-profile show trials, and concerns about justice and law emerged in his later autobiographical writing as a key justification for his turn towards anticommunism.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity

A new volume of essays, G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Matthew Ingleby, has been published by Bloomsbury Academic. It includes an essay by me called 'Distributism and the City', and lots of other fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mimesis Annotated

Erich Auerbach's Mimesis is one of the great works of literary criticism of the twentieth century, and yet students are put off by the many untranslated quotations from Latin, Medieval Italian, Medieval French, Modern French, Spanish and German. I teach this book to first year students at UEA who are understandably daunted by the demands it seems to make on its readers.

I have decided to create a free online resource, which will be located here: (an empty shell at the moment). This resource aims in the first instance simply to supply annotations containing literal English translations of all the untranslated material in Willard R. Trask's otherwise excellent text. The initial aim is to provide students and readers not conversant in Auerbach's many languages with the basic information they need to read the text.

If you would like to contribute to this project--for instance if you are teaching a chapter of Auerbach's book and would be interested in providing annotations to that chapter--I would love to hear from you. Please contact me.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Russia in Britain: Panel Discussion at Pushkin House, 4/11/13

Join us for a roundtable discussion with the editors of and contributors to a new collection of essays, Russia in Britain, 1880-1940: From Melodrama to Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Russia in Britain offers the first comprehensive account of the breadth and depth of the British fascination with Russian and Soviet culture, tracing its transformative effect on British intellectual life from the 1880s, the decade which saw the first sustained interest in Russian literature, to 1940, the eve of the Soviet Union’s entry into the Second World War.

By focusing on the role played by institutions, disciplines and groups—libraries, periodicals, government agencies, concert halls, publishing houses, theatres, and film societies—this collection marks an important departure from standard literary critical narratives, which have tended to highlight the role of a small number of individuals, notably Sergey Diaghilev, Constance Garnett, Fedor Komissarzhevsky, Katherine Mansfield, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf.

Drawing on recent research and newly available archives, Russia in Britain shifts attention from individual figures to the networks within which they operated, and uncovers the variety of forces that enabled and structured the British engagement with Russian culture. The resulting narrative maps an intricate pattern of interdisciplinary relations and provides the foundational research for a new understanding of Anglo-Russian/Soviet interaction. In this, it makes a major contribution to the current debates about transnationalism, cosmopolitanism and ‘global modernisms’ that are reshaping our knowledge of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British culture.

With Rebecca Beasley, Philip Bullock and Matthew Taunton.

Further details here.