On Turning Left

Donna NobleIt’s been an interesting week. My research may need to change tack quite substantially and so that is a lot to come to terms with. Pauses and stops and halts and the realisation that maybe turning left instead of right will be – something different and maybe something better. Maybe. I hope so, at least. I love what I do, and now is the time to figure out how best to shape that something. An intangible challenge; and yet, an odd relief to face it head on. The difficulties of decision. The release of decision, of definition

And as I think about these things, about pulling my own Donna Noble and deciding which way my car will go at the junction, I think about literature and the lines that guide us from book to book. My research is so very centred on space and the idea of mapping; the points of connection between the fictional and the real, and when you start to see them in one space, you see them everywhere.

The world of literature is full of connections, of lines that pull us to and from literature and on a route from book to space to site to book. Think about lines; the use of lines in a bookshop or a library. Think of shelves, really, and the direction of them. The enticement of shelves and shelving, the psychological reading of space and the teasing promise of something delicious around the corner, further in.

We read books before we see them, that much is a given, but we read space like that as well; I walk into a library and I am home, I know how to navigate that world, I know how to master it. I know its symbols, I know its signs. When we read, we read within a space that we know, we know how to handle it, how to be within that space. We know, perhaps, that when it gets too much we can close the book and step away. We know that this will start, this will stop, that books are here for us to pick up and choose and touch and look at.

shelvesImagine the static library, imagine that for a moment, the horror of a still and static space that does not breathe, does not live. That does not long for that presence of the other, that does not even want that other there, spoiling, ruining.

Literature, libraries, landscape; they need people, they need to be read and they need to live; they are half-texts without that, they are readless, restless beasts.

And so, I turn left; I turn, I trail my hands along the shelves, and I read E Nesbit and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and I touch ornate spines and wallow in lavish front covers and exultant design, and lines, everywhere, enticements, encouragements, and I turn, I turn, and I keep walking. I keep reading.

Because, I do not think I can stop; readers do not stop, literature does not stop, and I do not want it to live without me, I am in the library and I am stood on the kickstool and I am reaching for the book on the shelf, just to the left of where I would normally look, just to the left.


“Second to the left, and straight on ’til morning” : children’s literature and literary travels

Alongside this blog, I have another devoted specifically to my PhD research. What I want to do with this post here, is give you a little bit of a taster of that research as part of my contribution to #NNFN. NNFN is National Non-Fiction November and it’s a month spearheaded by the FCBG to explore the great world of non-fiction. If this is the first time you’ve heard of either, I’d urge you to explore those links in some depth – there’s some immense resources available on both.

My PhD centres on literary tourism and children’s literature. Sometimes I explain it, very glibly, as looking at sites connected to children’s books in real life: Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station for example, or Beatrix Potter’s books and the lake district. This description only really covers one part of my research as I’m also interested in the great systems of children’s literature and literary tourism; the way one text set in London calls and talks to another text in Bognor Regis which in its turn both calls back to that London set text, and on to another text set in Edinburgh. A Twilight Barking of books if you will.

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This much I know : reflections on the PhD process thus far

Back when I started my PhD, I remember doing a lot of looking online for articles. My search terms were something along the line of “Good god, what have I got myself into” and “What exactly is a PhD anyway” ? It, as you may imagine, was a fairly fruitless search. I found articles written in some sort of foreign language talking about praxis and methodologies and vivas; and I didn’t, really, understand them. I understood bits; fragmentary, terrifying bits, but the whole escaped me.

And so, when I started the PhD, I felt a little like Lucy must have when she took those first few steps into Narnia. Scared. Nervous. Excited. Confused. (Wait – a lampost?) Also I had, and still sometimes have, a very British sort of ‘gosh, am I really good enough to take this one I’m not sure that I am maybe I should just tell them they made a mistake’ sort of feeling, which really needs one word to describe it. (Wait: Imposter Syndrome. That’s probably the best way to describe it).

So what I wanted to do with this post is to reflect upon the process and share with you some of my top tips. I’m conscious that a lot of people I’ve talked to both in person and online have experienced a similar journey. I’m conscious that there might be somebody out there like me who is desperate to dive into their subject but doesn’t really know where to begin. I’m conscious that I’ve met people who want to do a PhD but don’t really know what one is. This one is for all of you.

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Remember that list I keep of children’s books set in the UK?

Did you know that I keep a few reading lists here and update them when I come across something relevant? One of those lists was a list of titles set in the UK. This all came from one of those late night conversations on Twitter where I and a few others wondered whether you could read your way around the UK. Turns out you can. You so can and should. Really, there’s some splendid books out there. We’re so incredibly lucky with what’s out there.

Well, that was then and this was now. Today, I’m letting you know that that list has evolved. Basically, it was once a Pikachu and now it’s gone all Raichu. As part of my PhD (I’m doing a Phd, have I mentioned it? 😉 ), it’s evolving into a much more specific and user friendly sheet. The data on this sheet is free of duplicates, of typos (there were a lot…), and all those lovely white gaps are going to get filled in with some very specific data – such as full citation details, actual specifics of locations features, and their real life equivalents where applicable.

And I thought I’d let you have a look at it now in a sort of covert, sneaky peek sort of manner. Shush. Keep it under your hat. Don’t tell anyone. 🙂

A Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain : Mark West

A Children's Literature Tour of Great BritainA Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain by Mark I. West

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

West’s tour of Great Britain from a children’s literature perspective both satisfies and frustrates in fairly equal measure.

What interests me about this book is the palpable tension between the nature of such a guide and the literature it concerns. The blurb on the back cover comments that: “Many of the sites on West’s Tour are geared toward children, while some are clearly intended for adults. All will add depth and delight to your next excursion into the fantastic (and fascinating) world of British children’s literature.”

There’s a lot to unpick there, so let’s begin. The initial sticking point for me is this distinguishing between sites for adults and sites for children. This is a tension which surfaces quite often critical work around literary tourism as a whole. Fairly early on in The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain, Watson comments that: “[visiting] places with literary associations is essentially an adult vice” (2). Other theorists suggest how literary tourism allows us to regain our childhood (therefore suggesting that the ‘regainee’ is old enough to have had a childhood) or stating that literary tourism is an attempt to memorialise (or to commercialise?) creativity (therefore suggesting that the memorialisee (sp!) is able to validate and register the value of creative cultural capital).

I grant that many of the points in the previous paragraph are cherry picked, but I hope to share with you my rationale and that is this: all of these schools of thoughts presuppose an adult tourist.

Whilst juvenile tourists most certainly do exist, they exist within certain parameters and these are mostly adult defined. However these defining parameters do not define the experience of the juvenile tourist. They also do not obliterate the experience of the juvenile tourist and it is vital to remember that, when discussing literary tourism and children’s literature, that these tourists exist and that, whilst we may not understand their interpretive strategies or their communication strategies, we need to understand that they exist.

So, now that that is said, West’s book is problematic due to this nature of partial audience erasure but also, I think, because of his selection of authors / topics to feature: King Arthur, The Rev W. Awrdy & Christopher Awdry / JM Barrie / Michael Bond / Frances Hodgson Burnett / Lewis Carroll / John Cunliffe / Roald Dahl / Ian Fleming / Kenneth Grahame and Thomas Hughes.

The gender split of these chapter headings is obvious, as is the temporal split. I was surprised to read the publication date for this book being 2003 as, from the selections of authors chosen, I had read a much earlier date for the research. Whilst the entries for each author / topic are interesting, they are brief. Each chapter picks out a relevant attraction for tourists to attend and sometimes the rationales for selection are somewhat oblique. In addition to this, the practicalities of West’s book have suffered due to time as books of this nature often do. Several of the attractions he references are now closed. Certain other details, such as the prices, have also inevitably been affected.

I do laud West’s commitment to his subject throughout this book. Children’s literature and literary tourism is a rich, rich topic and work that focuses on it is welcome and overdue. However, I think if I were to be asked to reccomend a specific guide to Britain for children’s literary purposes, I would put West’s tome aside and head over for the infuriating and yet wildly magical How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (a book I originally reviewed here), primarily because of Bodger’s itchingly vivid stylistics when compared to West’s more practically inclined tome. And yet, I wonder why I make that decision, why I ache for that wilderness of text that sings of its subject and I wonder if that is to do with my hope, my love, my fervent belief in the space of children’s literature, and of allowing the reader, of whatever age that reader may be, that space to breathe in and to bring their own story towards.

I wonder, perhaps, if that is at the heart of this issue of children’s literature and literary tourism. I wonder if that distinctly un-academic edge is necessary.

I wonder, perhaps, if I need to stand outside a house in London and clap my hands and believe in fairies.

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