Birkbeck English

The Guardian yesterday published a piece about the proposed job losses at Birkbeck, and our president, Joan Bakewell, has spoken in support of the English Department. I tend to keep schtum about my own experiences, because I’m terrified of looking like I’m disappearing up my own arse, but I think they are relevant to these discussions. They are very Birkbeck and I think perhaps unique. I’d kick myself if I didn’t share this now.

In 2005, when my wife and I had just had our first daughter, I decided to go back to university. I felt like I’d lost my way in my career. I wanted to write full time, so I’d gone freelance as a magazine journalist, rather than apply for more senior editorial roles that appeared to involve more management, but I’d ended up taking shifts as a sub-editor to pay the bills, and the stories I wanted to write barely broke even, in terms of the time they took. By 2005 I was essentially full-time on the arts desk at the Telegraph website and there was little writing involved.

My first degree was not great. A poet’s third in Japanese, which meant I spoke rudimentary Japanese and could do an amusing karaoke turn: My Way in a kind of performative pidgin. I had ambitions to become a novelist and had a sheaf of short stories on my hard drive. Katie was remarkably supportive. Her own career was far outstripping mine, and she was behind the idea of my trying to make a go of it.

I looked at creative writing courses, and my attention was drawn to Birkbeck. I didn’t know anything about Birkbeck beyond the posters on the tube, but the evening teaching would work well, because I’d be looking after the baby when Katie returned to work after her maternity leave. At some point I started looking at the syllabus for the MA Modern and Contemporary Literature instead of the MA Creative Writing, attracted by the reading list. My own reading was becoming more adventurous and this matched it. Did I know that I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of a better degree second time round? If so, I wasn’t admitting it to myself.

I applied, was interviewed and asked to write a sample analysis. I wrote 500 words on time in Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell Scarlet Tracings. I had no idea it was Sinclair’s first novel – I hadn’t yet learnt about context – but I knew I loved it. I was offered a place and started studying alongside a sixty-year-old retired taxi driver, someone who worked in political communications, another who worked in a second-hand book shop, teachers, charity-workers, finance people, you name it. We discussed Modernism with guidance from very calm and well-informed teachers, who treated us as equals, and went to the pub afterwards, and discussed more books.

I vividly remember working diligently on my first essay over the Christmas break in 2005, juggling looking after a baby while staying at my parent’s house. I remember getting 66, a mid-merit. I remember the feedback from Becky Beasley (now at Oxford), that I’d dutifully reproduced the secondary criticism (on Vorticism and the British avant-gardes, a topic on which Becky’s research is world-leading, though I didn’t know that at the time) and that I needed to step out from beneath it. I asked my friend Henderson if I could look at his essay, which had earnt a distinction. Henderson had followed his interests and written an absolute shellacking of Jonathan Carey. I remember thinking: “Oh. Wow. I’m allowed do THAT.” It was incredibly liberating.

Over the next five terms I took modules on the literature and philosophy of time, post-war fiction and Roger Luckhurst’s course on trauma, for which I wrote on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, just out in the Metronome edition now worth hundreds of pounds. Our second daughter was born at the beginning of the second year so I was even busier during the day, attending infant swimming classes, music classes, and soft play centres. By night I became a literature monster.

The teachers – now colleagues – who led these sessions introduced me to critical theory, and helped me understand it and how to think with it. There were skills sessions on how to write essays, use libraries, archives and online resources. I became a better researcher than I’d ever been as a journalist, and learnt skills I now use in journalism. I discovered the British Library, and learnt how to burrow through a chain of texts spanning hundreds of years. I rediscovered J.G. Ballard, and wrote about The Atrocity Exhibition for my dissertation, supervised by Roger, who’d literally written the book on Ballard. As an old hack I couldn’t resist writing to Ballard to ask him directly some questions I wanted answers to. I received some postcards in response and Roger encouraged me to include them as appendices.

At some stage I’d hit upon the idea of attempting PhD study. I didn’t really have any desire to become an academic, but I’d been captured by the ideas and research and what it was possible to discover in books. My writing had improved. I asked Roger about the idea I had, concerning the nineteenth-century writer Charles Howard Hinton: it seemed like new territory. Roger suggested that I speak to Steve Connor. I’d attended a number of Steve’s lectures, so I was initimidated by this suggestion. Steve was the College orator, his intellectual range was increidble – books on Beckett, Postmodernism, Skin. He ran the London Consortium, an interdiciplinary and inter-institutional body awarding PhDs. Over the course of a meeting, Steve seemed to persuade himself that supervising my research on the work of the Victorian bigamist and theorist of the fourth dimension might be a good idea. To this day, when I mention that I was supervised by Steve, people in academia become slightly awe-struck.

Becky Beasley told me to apply for some College funding, which I got. In the evenings I attended seminars led by Colin MacCabe, legendary veteran of the “theory wars” of the 1980s, alongside the actor Simon Bird and a range of intimidatingly intelligent people working on topics as diverse as Judith Butler, Rastafarianism, the idea of the ‘gift’ and Iain Sinclair’s Placques Tournantes.

I spent the next five years very happily bouncing between home life with Katie and two, and then, from 2010, three infants, Birkbeck, the British Library, and occasionally the pub. I presented at conferences. I started writing a blog, encouraged to do so as a useful adjunct to research practice. I was contacted by an editor called Max Porter, who’d read something I’d posted online. He’d just started at Granta and was looking for writers. I pitched hard when we met for lunch and he liked one of my ideas. I sent him what I had and he told me what he wanted to publish, and I started constructing what I knew would be the collage that would become I’m Jack.

I was offered teaching at Birkbeck, and taught modules on the BA in Arts and Humanities. I had to learn fast: from Machiavelli to Marx. My students were yet more diverse than the PhD cohort. Some didn’t get along. I had to mediate while ensuring they all got what they wanted from the course.

I wrote a paper on Tom McCarthy’s work for a conference at Birkbeck, organised by my fellow PhD students, attended by Tom. Tom was interested in the paper and we talked. I attended a session for PhD students at Birkbeck about how to pitch your academic book project (Steve Connor had encouraged me to write a book from the get-go, another liberation in the world of PhD research). I pitched mine to Oxford University Press. They took it on. I gave papers at conferences on weird fiction, science and literature, the radical journalist W.T. Stead. I heard people speak about the sonic environment of a thirteenth century village; how Goodreads data could be used to investigate reading habits; liquid crystal displays; Tin Tin; the idea of genre. I finished my PhD and straightaway started turning it into the book.

Meanwhile, Birkbeck colleagues offered me the opportunity to teach at MA level. Carolyn Burdett backed me to be able to teach Victorian Literature to Masters students. I just about managed it, reading Middlemarch in two weeks. Jo Winning asked me to stand in to cover for her teaching on Robert Mapplethorpe. From Middlemarch to Mapplethorpe in weeks.

Steve Connor went to Cambridge to become the Grace 2 Professor in English, which was no surprise. They got the generative thought and eloquence from which so many at Birkbeck had benefitted. Roger Luckhurst, who had been “deep cover” as my second supervisor, invited me to be part of an application for research funding as a post-doctoral researcher. We won the funding and I worked with the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Roger for six months.

My novel I’m Jack was published by Max at Granta and Tom McCarthy and Iain Sinclair both agreed to write blurbs for it. A three-year post came up at Birkbeck. Despite almost fucking up my interview by getting the time wrong, I managed to land the post. I started in 2015. Typically, I was trusted to dive in at the deep end and was given an MA programme to run: what students achieved on that programme will always be the proudest intellectual and professional landmarks in my life. The quite brilliant Esther Leslie, whose teaching on cultural theory I was covering, was impossibly kind as Head of Department.

In a decade, I’d gone from being a freelance sub-editor who was curious about postmodernism, to a novelist and lecturer with two books, read by his literary heroes, and three daughters. Birkbeck English made this possible (not the daughters, my wife did that pretty much on her todd).

I could go on to list how the colleagues who’d supported me, trusted me, inspired me and given me opportunities for those past ten years have continued to support me in my job; how the English Department at Birkbeck has been a spiritual and intellectual home. I could mention how colleagues I’ve asked to collaborate with, or taught with, or had a meeting with, experts in theatre, medieval literature and culture, technology, Modernism, screenwriting, how these colleagues have treated me immediately as an equal and in so doing invited me to step up to their level in intellectual terms. How they’ve given so generously of their time and energy. How they’ve become friends.

I could write essays about what I’ve learnt from Birkbeck students, about people, and about diversity of thought and background, because I know there is nowhere else you’ll encounter that mix of people; despite having lived in London for twenty years, I didn’t really know London until I encountered it in a Birkbeck classroom. We have an ethos that is both simple and radical: education for all. We live it in the classroom, and it is reflected in the people you find there. I could write about the sixty-six-year-old Ghanaian man who told me how his school teachers beat him; about the seventy-year-old conservative dentist who told me how discussing his writing in a workshop with a twenty-five year-old British Asian Marxist poet had changed his entire world view; about the Welsh former stripper with MS who worked with me on her two MA degrees, overcoming breast cancer in between. Colleagues in the School of Arts have established The Compass Project to provide routes into education for asylum seekers.

I could write about how woeful policy decisions at every level have betrayed this astonishing, occasionally utopian enterprise. We’ve been under the pump since the coalition government pulled funding for part-time education – something my colleagues protected me from when I was a student – and subsequent policy decisions have just made it harder and harder for us, as we’ve tried to persuade eighteen-year-olds to choose us over institutions whose reputations are one hundred years out of date. We know we’re great teachers, that we’ll treat them like adults, and that our work is of the highest standard. But we can’t give them bars, or ipads, or tennis courts. All the while, research again and again calls for more educational opportunities for adults in this country.

I have nothing to say about senior management, beyond the observation that the two most senior managers are, combined, remunerated at a level that would pay for fifteen new lecturers.

In addition to the books I wrote in those first years, I’ve written a second novel on the life of Charles Howard Hinton and edited a collection of Ballard’s non-fiction. Clearly, these have emerged form the same period of study and learning. Birkbeck English has broadened my mind, given me laser-sharpened research skills and created the atmosphere in which intellectual curiosity might become a professional intellectual life. It creates that atmosphere for everyone who walks through the door at Gordon Square. The word transformative is not marketing boiler-plate. It’s what Birkbeck English is.

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