A brief conversation with medieval domestic objects

A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by Museum of London.
A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by the Museum of London.

I don’t quite remember the first time I thought about my ‘career’; neither do I remember a pivotal moment when I realised what I wanted to ‘be’. The only thing I remember is that I always had a huge desire to talk. Yet I do recall one peculiar moment at school, when we built our own ‘medieval feud maquette’. I loved building that feud. I loved building the cardboard castle and the incredible water mill, flowing with blue jelly. I also remember the first time I ventured into my mom’s wardrobe, in the late 1990s, where I captured a golden rope watch and a blue silk Indian scarf she’d owned since the late 1980s. I loved finding those objects. I loved wearing them (still do!) and loved the idea that they were my heirlooms.

There it is: I’ve always felt fascinated by objects. Actually, I’ve always liked talking to/about objects. I appreciate things that can tell stories, things that have a past. Somehow I inexplicably managed to design my career around stories from the past, mingling narratives from my past and from this curious geography that is medieval England – what a strange combination. Continue reading

Advertisements

Destroying Texts: Interview with Emily Lazerwitz

Hi Emily! Here’s the document for the interview. See you on here! I’m just getting a cup of tea, in case you arrive on here and I seem to be gone!

Hello sorry I am late. Internet was down.

No worries!

You have your tea. Should we start?


At art school, Emily Lazerwitz was told that she was “’too smart to be a still-life painter’”. Her cursor flickers for perhaps 30 seconds, and I wait for her to tell me more. I imagine she grins, or perhaps grimaces, at the memory. “So to spite him I first made several oil paintings, but then decided maybe it was time to try something new,” the ‘something new’ being making work with text.

She continues, typing quickly, speedily correcting spelling, apparently preferring to delete a whole word or two using the backspace key than move the cursor to any errors using the mouse. It seemed fitting to carry out our interview via a live Google doc, with the majority of the journal and our collaboration being carried out via Dropbox and Gmail – but I realise that, as with the design process, we will miss each other’s gestures throughout this interview. So, I try to read her cursor, the movement of her words across the page, as you read a face or pointed finger. Continue reading

Call for Submissions Issue #2: The Researcher’s Notebook

Submissions are now closed, although we are now seeking applications from artists and illustrators to bring this printed beauty to life!
Contact editor[at]thestillpointjournal.com.

Each [notebook] was a small landscape through which it was possible to wander, and within which it was possible to get lost. […] The notebooks, taken together, represented an accidental epic poem of [the writer’s] life, or perhaps a dendrological cross-section of his mind.

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

For Issue #2 of The Still Point Journal, we ask contributors to imagine that their submissions are part of a collective Researcher’s Notebook in both a literal, and a broader, metaphorical sense. We want to explore the idea of the journal as a space for spontaneous discovery or self-creation/autopoeisis; whether this be through pages from an actual notebook filled with doodles, mind-maps and beautiful scrawls, or pieces which explore the researcher’s thought-process and the genesis of an idea over time.

Pages from Frida Kahlo’s notebook
Pages from Frida Kahlo’s notebook

We invite submissions of non-fiction, short fiction, poetry and visual work in all forms. Responses can be as creative and as broad as you like, and we are particularly interested in seeing work that blurs the boundaries of form and genre.

The Still Point Journal is a literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers in London, funded by the LAHP (London Arts & Humanities Partnership) and the AHRC. The Still Point aims to be a forum for dialogue, collaboration and experimentation, and offers a space for creatively writing through ideas in original forms.

‘The still point’ reflects our experience of being new researchers and represents those moments when we take time out of our days for deep thinking and reflection: when the world gets quiet but our minds are still racing. The journal’s particular focus is on non-fiction writing, related – however tangentially – to our research and the kind of rich thinking and exploration we do during the course of this research.

Submission Guidelines:

  • Non-fiction pieces should be between 1,000 and 3,000 words
  • Short stories should be no more than 2,000 words in length
  • Please send between 1 and 3 poems
  • For all visual submissions please send us a high quality digital file.

Deadline: Please send any questions or submissions to submissions@thestillpointjournal.com by the 31st January 2016.

If you want to discuss an idea with us before you make a submission, please drop us a line: editor@thestillpointjournal.com. Contributors should be currently affiliated with a research institution, although we are also interested in hearing from artists, designers and illustrators who would like to collaborate with researchers on their pieces.

The aim of the journal is to encourage conversation and exchange between researchers from disciplines across the Arts & Humanities and in the thriving academic community of London. We hope that The Still Point Journal will engage readers and writers in new conversations and open up the narrow niches of our research to different disciplines and new audiences.

An evening of poetry, prose and music

The research experience is often imagined to be impersonal and isolated: anxiety-ridden scholars reading alone at their desks. Last Sunday, the launch of the journal’s first print issue proved this to be far from the truth. Researchers, writers, and friends came together to share their own peculiar experiences and to enjoy the curious connections between our work. It was with this aim in mind that we created The Still Point Journal, and pushed for it to be published in print, as well as online.

launch 2

launch 5The event took place at the beautifully lit Gallery Café in Bethnal Green and featured live readings from our contributors and music from The Interiors. Over good wine and great music, people were put in dialogue with one another in an informal, relaxed setting. Hearing the stories and poetry read aloud introduced a new tone and rhythm to the words, helping to continue conversations and start new ones, as well as put faces to pages. It was a showcase of everything we had hoped to achieve.

launch 3The evening was also a celebration for us personally: a culmination of twelve month’s worth of planning. We have thought about, written about, and talked about The Still Point Journal in various ways. There were initial emails asking if anyone was interested in setting up a new literary journal that would offer space to explore our research creatively. There were conversations in coffee shops, corridors, and wine bars, where we argued the pros and cons for keeping the word ‘The’ in the title. There were submission deadlines, all-day proofing sessions, and design meetings. There were ‘Still Point’ events: afternoon poetry readings and evening art exhibitions.

Now, finally, it’s officially launched as a print journal. It is, in fact, so official that it has it’s own ISSN number and a copy will be kept in the British Library.

launch 6

A brief round of thanks: to The Gallery Café for letting us take over; to The Interiors for providing the soundtrack to the evening; to sound engineer Natan for stepping in last minute; to the designers and contributors; and to all who came to celebrate with us.

launch 4

Photos by Christopher Webb, view them all on our Facebook page.

Write up by Briony Wickes, a second year PhD student in English Literature at King’s College London. Follow Briony @brionyjoy

The Importance of Unplanned Research Trips 

I have embarked on a three-year project which involves spending my time reading ancient Greek speeches and thinking about long-gone ancient Greek gods, so when I tell people I am off to Greece for two weeks, they assume I am going there to ‘do research’, ‘for work’, whatever that may be. I tell them, slightly embarrassed, that actually I am going on holiday. I am just travelling, hiking around for a bit.

I have been to Greece many times, and have travelled the well-trodden route of the country’s unforgettable and unimaginably affecting ancient sites, from Athens, via Delphi, Olympia, Corinth and Mycenae to Sparta. My PhD looks at political and legal speeches written in Athens in the fourth century BCE, and examines the religious discourse found in these. It is a study based on texts. Texts which are preserved in books and manuscripts and papyrus rolls not in Greece anymore, but dotted around libraries and archives around the world. I am not an archaeologist, nor an art historian. As such, I don’t have a particular, pressing need to go to Greece for my study. Continue reading

The Currency of Fieldwork

Interviews, receipts, recordings. This is the currency of fieldwork.

Sam Miles image

I interview gay men who use the digital apps Grindr and Scruff to understand how technology affects people’s everyday practice in London.

I knew my interviews would be fascinating – sex, after all, is fascinating. But what I was unprepared for is how rich the stories would be. Young or old, shy or outspoken: the men I interview pour out their stories. They talk and talk.

I understand for the first time what it means to be an active listener. I hear their stories and wind them into a bigger narrative: a narrative which presents their experience to audiences who might not normally listen.

Sam is a second year Geography PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. His research combines sexuality and space studies with digital technology to understand the impact of GPS media on queer space-making practices. @sammiles87

‘Piling, not filing’

‘Piling, not filing’ is a piece of advice to which I attribute my relative sanity. It was given to me in the very early stages of my PhD and has remained the keystone of my self-help litany. Spending the first couple of months meticulously taking both type and handwritten notes, I had been filing these away in neatly labelled folders (both real and virtual), ready to be instantly recovered and referenced at a later date. This, I told myself, is the year I get organised. This is the year that I streamline my life, via my research, into a super-efficient, well-oiled machine. No more messiness, no more chaos. All this was epitomised in and enacted through my filing system. 

Imagine my horror, then, as it started to fall apart at the seams. As my research simultaneously broadened and deepened, the neat dividing lines between my files and folders and categories started to distort under the pressure. One set of notes was no longer only relevant to one avenue of investigation; one label no longer quite defined the uses and abuses of the notes it was supposed to contain. As hypothetical chapters began to emerge in my mind, both paper and virtual notes needed to be in several places at once, rather than in one folder forever. In what I now see as a vain attempt to control this burgeoning chaos, I flitted from one filing system to another. Expandable folders to contain the different sections of a chapter; a ‘current’ folder in which I would assemble that week’s work before deciding what to do with it, or in which to insert older notes that had permanent homes elsewhere. It was all getting rather complex, and my Ryman’s bill was steadily rising.

I never quite committed to either handwriting or word processing the notes I was supposed to be filing. Seeing advantages to both, I wanted them all. For a while I experimented with a division of labour: I handwrote less important notes, and typed notes from texts to which I thought I would need to refer more regularly and in greater depth. Of course, this was based on the naive assumption that I would be able to make this distinction before I had read the texts in question. This prescriptive error, as it turned out, was at the heart of the collapse of these systems. Instead of being led by my research, I was trying to force it into pre-ordained shapes and categories, the ultimate consequence being that I didn’t listen to what the words in front of me were saying. Not only was I prescribing how I was going to understand them later in my research, I was also, inadvertently, trying to file my notes before I had written them.

Before I realised what the problem was, it just looked and felt like I was unable to handle my own work. In a state of confusion and mild panic, I had a conversation with my second supervisor. Trying to conceal the fact that I thought everything was already falling apart, I casually mentioned to her that some of my notes seemed to want to be in lots of different folders at once. In an equally casual reply, belying the profundity of the sentiment, she told me, “There’s a lot to be said for piling, not filing. Trust yourself.”

I have been learning to trust myself ever since. I stopped filing. It felt at first like giving in to disorder, like losing control. But I gradually realised that gripping things too tightly suffocated and contorted them, and that the less I did this to my notes, the less it happened to my thoughts.

Most of my notes are now in a series of notebooks (albeit meticulously numbered, with handwritten page-numbers and hand-drawn margins), each one physically different from the last to facilitate recollection. I write down the date and location each time I write in the books for the same reason; I am, I have learnt, much more likely to remember something I have read or written by remembering where I was when I read or wrote it. I will also probably remember whether it was in the large purple notebook, or the small Mr Men notebook, or the mid-sized stripy notebook. I think of my notes as a kind of horizontal pile, or a series of diary entries, documenting not only what I have read, but how I read it, where I read it, and how I felt about it at the time. If a text particularly takes my fancy, I make notes on loose leaf sheets, so that they can circulate around and about the notebook bedrock, and can be read alongside complementary theory and scholarship. But the lion’s share of the notes are in the notebooks, and they are what I would rescue from my burning flat.

I can’t search my notes, but I know them well. I have much more involvement with them as I write them without a filing cabinet in mind; drawing in the margins, circling and highlighting, sticking in addenda and going back over them, days or weeks or months later, with a different frame of mind and a different coloured pen. I feel, when I write my notes, that I am having a conversation with the words and ideas I am reading. It is much easier to recall a conversation in which you have been personally involved, than one you have observed at a distance.

For what it’s worth, I have kept the notes I tried to file in the folders they were in when I started trusting myself. They were put there when I was in a particular frame of mind and had a particular perspective on my work. They, and their plastic homes, are part of an era of my research from which I have moved on, but which I can’t erase.stillpoint 1

Alice Hazard is a third year PhD student in the French department at King’s College London. She works on faces and faciality in twelfth and thirteenth-century vernacular literature.

Sounds to Accompany a PhD #3

I must start this post with a disclaimer: I don’t really listen to music when I’m working on my PhD. I’m a silent writer and reader, someone who needs peace in order to become properly absorbed in my materials. Sometimes, I find the vague hubbub of voices and machines in a coffee shop relaxing whilst I reference. At other times, I have listened to just one song over and over on endless repeat to encourage greater focus. I can also admit to playing various RuPaul albums at max volume on those occasions when I’m either having a slump in productivity and confidence or I need to be reminded that I am a PhD ‘Glamazon’. These sounds, however, do not a PhD playlist make and, mostly, I prefer peace, quiet, and a strict lack of noise.

I do listen to music, however, when I’m travelling around the city. Commuting takes up a significant portion of my day, an experience which I’m sure many other London-based researchers can share. Long tube trips should be the perfect time to catch up on journal reading or compose a few emails but, as anyone who has caught the Northern Line at practically any time of day will know, personal space is usually at a premium and there is no room for outstretched arms clutching unwieldy tomes. So, for me, tube-time becomes music-time, and I block out the world with a little bit of determination, a stony ‘commuter’ expression, and my over-ear headphones.

It is also in these moments that I do some of my best thinking. As I travel to or from my place of work, I’ll often use my time on the tube to think about the wider project that I’m working on. When I research, I tend to work chapter by chapter, section by section, which is great for the depth but does mean that I am also in danger of ending up with a series of isolated, disjointed articles rather than a coherent PhD thesis. When I’m on the tube, I can stand apart from my work, gain a better sense of the overall shape of my project, and clearly articulate (in my head) why what I do matters.

I’m not sure if the thinking and the music are related. But the latter does help to block out distractions around me and so it must, in some way, be conducive to the former. With this in mind, I thought I’d share a playlist. I’ve tried to pick songs which help me focus, rather than just my normal daily musical fare (which tends to be a combination of The Hold Steady, Drake and, of course, RuPaul). To call it a ‘PhD Playlist’, then, is perhaps bogus, but these are some of the sounds that help me find a much needed ‘still point’ amongst the commuter chaos. Maybe it will do the same for someone else.

Briony Wickes is a first year English PhD at King’s College London, researching settler emigration, human-animal relationships, and global trade in the nineteenth century. Follow her @brionyjoy.

A Literary Topography of the City of London

Trawling through a database from 1650 to 1800 whilst sitting in the clock tower on Chancery Lane trapped in starkly lit, windowless white box number ‘4’, or in the simultaneously overheated and overchilled department on Kingsway, I find myself constantly at the heart of my research. Monotonously documenting the publication history of the translations central to my study has instead turned into a mapping of the 1-mile radius surrounding my research vantage point. The ‘Bibliographic’ column instead becomes the topographic:

The Strand
Catherine Street
Chancery Lane
Middle Temple Gate
Fleet Street
Black-Fryars
Temple-Bar
Pater-noster Row
Little Britain
Gray’s Inn

Stretching from Nelson’s Column to St Paul’s, they are the London landmarks and checkpoints of my morning commute. My own personal guided tour of the eighteenth-century interaction with Lucretius. My university life is a constant retracing of my research’s physical history. A daily pilgrimage of sorts; I pay my dues to the producers of these texts through walks from library to library to study the product of their work.

John Strype 'A new plan of the city of London, Westminster and Southwark' 1720
John Strype ‘A new plan of the city of London, Westminster and Southwark’ 1720

As I print the copies of these texts from my department on Kingsway, they gain another printed life in the centre of the square mile of their original emergence. By adding my own 21st century marginalia the texts are born anew, becoming my own manuscripts as I hope they will ‘guide [my] searching mind to farther truth’.

In this search I use the poem as my guide:

Pursue coy Truth with an unerring sense
Into her close recess, and force her thence:
Go briskly on, and in such things as these
Ne’er doubt, I’le promise Thee deserv’d success

It is in this pursuit and promise of success that I walk the close recesses of London herself. I weave through the Rows, Inns, Gates and Bars as my eighteenth-century counterparts in my search for ‘coy Truth’, becoming a new addition to the ‘curious Youth’ Creech’s translation of Lucretius’ poem originally appealed to. Retracing the history of my text, I cover 150 years in an hour’s circuit.

Through my poetic walk, Lucretius promises that ‘We from one Thing known/ To hidden Truths successfully go on’. These landmarks are my current ‘one Thing known’ in the depths of my uncertain research, not just cells of data but physical connectors between me and the eighteenth-century readers I’m trying to understand.

Here my research has a sense of true belonging, from my vantage point on Kingsway the streets of this eighteenth-century city pull me along, retracing the journey of my texts to uncover the ‘hidden Truths’ waiting to be discovered.

To turn to John Banks in 1738, ‘This is London! how d’ye like it?’

James Morland is a first year PhD student in the English department at KCL, researching the changing interactions with Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy in eighteenth-century poetry. After spending a year in art school, James has spent the past few years studying English literature, though constantly tries to find ways to tie together the academic and visually creative sides of his thinking. Follow him @jameswmorland

Emotions, Ideology, and a PhD

Often, I think as serious students of English literature we are tempted to deny our most personal – frequently deeply emotional, sometimes frivolous, always totally nerdy – interests in our chosen topic, both amongst friends, and in our thesis-writing. As soon as I reveal my intention to study Anglo-Saxon poetry at PhD level to a new acquaintance, the most frequent courtesy follow-up question is ‘so what made you choose that?’ I feel like I should respond with some scholarly sound-bite, something along the lines of:

‘I’m simply fascinated by the philological implications of translation’

or

‘I’m concerned with exploring the linguistic word-hoard of a poetic idiom now lost.’

But I don’t want to start throwing academic jargon (that I’m not even sure I’m using correctly) around, even if it does give me a little thrill to say words like ‘philological’ or ‘idiom’ aloud. So I usually end up laughing away the bemused looks, murmuring something about how ‘someone has to do it’, before moving the conversation on. However, I’m always afraid that one day I’ll end up spilling my secrets and spout either something incredibly geeky and boring, or worse, I’ll reveal an innermost daydream that should never be said out loud:

“Actually, I am, like, totally in love with getting lost in a world of fearless seafarers and warriors, I mean, we’ve all seen Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings right? I like to think of Beowulf having his face, I mean you definitely would, wouldn’t you…?”

Probably not something you should reveal on a Tinder first date. Alternatively, I’ll get political, and start bemoaning the fact that, in general, we as a nation know so little about our medieval past and I want to explore ways of changing this: isn’t it a shame that school children are more likely to think of Daenerys Targaryen than Queen Ælfgifu if asked to imagine a medieval woman? And by crowning Chaucer as the father of ‘English poetry’ aren’t we missing out on a rich treasure-trove of poems from the centuries before him? I could bang on about how outraged I am that the very words – ‘medieval’, ‘The Dark Ages’ – that we use to talk about the time period that spans 500-1400CE either get the bad rep of being associated with baddies from ISIS to FGM advocates, or are otherwise totally misunderstood as referring exclusively to Arthurian knights, damsels in distress, magical fairy kingdoms, and elves. So too ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often appropriated now by the likes of the English Defence League or the Republican as a way of defining ethnicity, of othering and neatly excluding anyone they don’t like either because of the colour of their skin or their religion. Of course, I’ll conclude, my thesis will be part of an effort to reclaim and redefine all of these words, helping to liberate all things medieval from the clutches of fascists.

Image by Fran Allfrey
Image by Fran Allfrey

But again, this sort of conversation probably won’t make me many friends, or will at least have me sounding like a smug armchair activist with a grandiose delusion that anyone beyond my supervisors and my parents will read my thesis. Furthermore, it’s these sorts of conversations that I long to weave into my writing, but feel pressure to do so in a measured, academic way. Phrases like ‘I love’ or ‘I am outraged by’ feel too personal, too impassioned, and could never be part of a serious argument. But it is love, and outrage, a childish sense of adventuring and time-travelling, a complete fascination with playing with language, a desire to simply get lost in poems, reflect upon beautiful art, and immerse myself in the ideas of other people, whilst trying to come up with my own opinions, that are all driving me. So, over the next three years, I’ve just got to find a way of channelling all these drives that push against each other, compete for attention, and conflict with what I understand to be ‘scholarly’, into coming up with some serious, passable, research. If I can also find a way of making my PhD sound interesting to Tinder dates, that would be a bonus.

Fran Allfrey will begin her PhD in the English Department at King’s College London in October. Her research asks questions about what cultural work Old English poetry can do, or can be made to do, now, and what exactly medievalists might get out of this new work. Follow her @francheskyia.