Alexandra Harris

Professor Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris

 

Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Birmingham.

I remember feeling very eccentric in GCSE English lessons when friends complained about all the descriptions in Far From the Madding Crowd and wanted to skip ahead to the plot. The descriptions were the plot I thought. I was hazy about the order of human events, but the fern-grown hollow, the dangerous clover field, the ridge against the sky on which an occasional small figure would appear moving steadily on an unknown journey – all this was more real to me than the room I sat in. I was learning to read rooms as well though, and not only those ancient and easily romanticised ones I already cared about but bungalow paradises, city hotels, and the portacabin next to the astro-turf where those first encounters with life-changing literature unfolded. Twenty-five years later I’m very glad to help bring together, in the Arts of Place network, a wealth of people who are thinking in careful, imaginative, informed and questioning ways about our surroundings.

Much of my research over the years has been concerned with the presence of the past, and especially the past as it appears in landscapes and buildings. I’m interested in reading as a form of conversation across time and space, and in the capacity of art to establish complex relationships with history’s voices, variously reviving and revising them. My first book Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson 2010; Guardian First Book Award, Somerset Maugham Award) argued that some of the most original work of the modernist period emerged not from wholesale rejection of inherited ideas and places, but in finding new forms that might stretch to include valued histories and new possibilities.

In Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames & Hudson 2015; shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and adapted in 10 parts for Radio 4), I wrote a version of English literary history told in terms of the different weathers that have preoccupied writers and indeed whole cultural milieus at certain times. The book is in part an elegy for a climate we won’t know again, but more than that, and more importantly at the present time, it addresses the power and complexity of weather as it is experienced, as it is imagined, and as it is shaped by the arts.

For the past several years I’ve been working on a different kind of place-related project, one which has propelled me into a great deal of new thinking and learning. In The Rising Down, to be published by Faber, I concentrate on a few square miles of West Sussex, and investigate what this place has looked like to people over time. The method of close geographical focus has meant that, as I think my way through history, I don’t reach for the famed and canonical but try to work from the ground up: who was here? It’s made me appreciate the extraordinary and sometimes underestimated research done by local historians, and the new perspectives that emerge when we forge connections between international and local thinking.

Many of my essays and reviews can be accessed from links on my website: www.alexandraharris.co.uk

Examples of my work on place

Romantic Moderns, Thames & Hudson, 2010

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“Above all this is a book about art and place. Its protagonists are always out looking at England and they invite us to follow in their tracks … They were taking possession of the particular and local. And, like Chaucer, they were collecting stories along the way.” 

Weatherland, Thames & Hudson, 2015

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“So, by reading, I have tried to watch people watching the sky – and people feeling the cold and getting wet, and shielding their eyes from the sun. Virginia Woolf talked about biographers hanging up mirrors in odd corners to reflect their subjects in unexpected ways. I have tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it.

Time and Place, Little Toller, 2019

“I’m still imagining calendars: figures of the modern ‘labours of the months’ painted in blue on delft tiles, marks on a bedroom wall that tell the date from the moving square of light coming in at the window…”

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I worked with the arts and environment charity Common Ground, the publisher Little Toller, and contemporary artists to make a small book called Time and Place, published by Little Toller in 2019. This connects with a longer-term project of mine on the culture of the calendar, the seasons and the marking of time. I’m interested in all kinds of art that has played a role in creating days and months with character and association, making comprehensible shapes within the stream of time. Time and Place asks how time moves in particular localities. My text looks back at the history of local or site-specific calendars, and considers the many material forms they have taken.

Together, the University of Birmingham and Common Ground commissioned new calendrical work. Among the artists is the photographer Jem Southam. He traces intersections of cosmic, human, and bird time as he watches, night after night, year after year at a bend of the River Exe, becoming so deeply part of the place and its ecology that he can see patterns that might be invisible to others.

Ground Work: Writing on People and Places, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018

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My essay ‘The Marsh and the Visitor’ is about going home to the area of Sussex in which I grew up and realising how little I knew about it. It’s about the common quandary of being deeply attached to rural places while not belonging in them. It was the starting point for a concerted and sometimes overwhelming effort to learn some of the languages of the place and to bring to it something of my own.

The Feel of Things, Caught by the River, 2020

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“Item four pigs, item fourteen quarters of barley, item one dozen of napkins, item goods in the milkhouse: outside and inside, room by room, the items of lives are spelled out. In a great many cases this is the fullest account to survive of an individual’s existence. An account, literally: added up at the end.”

A commission from the superb Museum of English Rural Life in Reading prompted me to think about the objects listed in rural inventories. My response was published on the Caught by the River website, where you can also read poems by Melissa Harrison, commissioned for the same project.

 

Jessica Fay

Jessica Fay

 

Teaching Fellow in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham

 

As a Wordsworthian, I am interested in the feelings and memories that become attached to specific places and how they are captured and communicated through literature. My first book,

Wordsworth’s Monastic Inheritance: Poetry, Place, and the Sense of Community (Oxford English Monographs; OUP, 2018), explores the poet’s extensive knowledge of the monastic history of the north of England which he imbibed from a series of eighteenth-century topographical studies and from numerous visits to the sites of ruins. Wordsworth’s interest in monastic history is not, therefore, strictly a matter of religious belief and practice; rather, it encompasses an appreciation for how the landscape was inhabited and shaped by his medieval forebears. Through his own intimate connection with that landscape, Wordsworth became part of a transhistorical community and shared in the quietude that had been observed at monastic sites for centuries. The book explores how this sense of place inflected the tone and style of the poetry Wordsworth produced between 1807 and 1822.

My second major project (funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship) considered the collaborative exchange between Wordsworth and his friend, the amateur landscape artist, patron, and co-founder of the National Gallery, Sir George Beaumont.

My edition of The Collected Letters of Sir George and Lady Beaumont to the Wordsworth Family, 1803-1829 (Romantic Reconfigurations; LUP, 2021), reveals ways in which Beaumont’s neoclassical responses to landscape, on the one hand, and Wordsworth’s more local outlook, on the other, shaped one another as their friendship developed.

 

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Lecturer in Victorian Literature, University of Birmingham

I specialise in empire and literary studies in the nineteenth century, and the idea of ‘place’ is crucial to my monograph Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). In it, I examine the relationship between place and mobility: as an increasing number of people moved away from Britain to the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, literature became one of the ways through which they sought to articulate a sense of place or home. Yet, the diaries, letters and novels that they wrote, and the periodicals they produced were not tethered to any one place, but instead circulated through the empire, gaining wide readerships not only in Britain, but in the colonies too. Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration seeks to understand the ways in which these different genres construct an affect of place and a sense of belonging, but also the ways in which place travels through these mobile texts. The interconnected questions of texts, mobility and place, of course, play out in a number of different ways across the nineteenth-century British empire, and I am also interested in the ways in which imperial environments are variously constructed in genres as diverse as autobiography and memoir, travel writing, and adventure fiction.

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Birmingham

My research focuses on contemporary literature and ecocriticism and the recent popularity in ‘place writing’ forms a crucial chapter in my monograph Teaching Environmental Writing: Ecocritical Pedagogy and Poetics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). Here, I explore the recent phenomenon of the environmental writing course (a specialized form of the creative writing course) offered at UK and US universities, which, in many, if not all, cases, includes an element of place-based pedagogy. Indeed, it is now possible for students to undertake an MA dedicated to ‘Place Writing’ at several institutions including Manchester Metropolitan University. My research investigates the influences behind this pedagogy: the canon of environmental literature, which includes David Henry Thoreau’s Walden; the recent boom of British ‘new nature writing’ first articulated by Jason Cowley; and the history of place-based education that arose with the environmental movement in the 1960s. My investigation looks at how university courses today frequently aim to foster in their students’ writing a reverent approach to local place, and I compare this to contemporary ecocritical perspectives that often critique such an approach. Ursula Heise’s influential argument in Sense of Place, Sense of Planet (2008) articulates the necessary challenge of engaging globally. Drawing on her theory of ‘eco-cosmopolitanism’ and Juliana Spahr’s poetics of communality, I suggest ways of developing current pedagogical emphasis on intimate connections with local environments by cultivating awareness of place in the context of global ecological relations.

 

Difficult Paradises

For our ‘Monday Conversation’ on 26th October 2020, we welcomed Tim Dee, Michael Malay, and Liam Olds.

Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed: 
This land, cut off, will not communicate …

(W.H. Auden, The Watershed)

In our newsletter, Michael Malay (English, University of Bristol) wrote about natural renewal on the sites of coal spoils and wondered about the role of writers in responding to such ‘difficult paradises’. To pursue these questions, Michael was joined online by entomologist Liam Olds (founder of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative) and by Tim Dee, widely considered one of our greatest living nature writers. Tim’s book Landfill is (in the words of Helen Macdonald) ‘a deep meditation on difficulty and waste, on the beauty of the disregarded, and on what we make of matter out of place’.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing…
(T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)

Michael Malay

Michael Malay

Michael Malay

 

Lecturer in English Literature and the Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol.

Michael’s current project is about four creatures – eels, moths, freshwater mussels and crickets – that are disappearing from Britain, and about the people who love and care for them.

The project takes the view that animals are not only present in places, but co-creators of a place’s presence, and that, as these world-making beings disappear, the human imagination is altered as much as physical landscapes are.

Alongside this narrative of loss, however, the project is also about the hope and wonder these animals can inspire in us and about their capacity to flourish again in damaged or neglected places.

The book is provisionally entitled Late Light and a section from the ‘eel’ chapter can be read online at The Willow Herb Review. 

Tom Roberts


Tom Roberts

DPhil Candidate, University of Oxford and part of the TIDE project: Travel, Transculturality and Idenitity in England, c.1550-1700

tom.roberts@ell.ox.ac.uk

TIDE

My research looks at England’s interaction with the Italian commedia dell’arte during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and how the form manifested in the cultural imagination of early modern London when the surviving evidence suggests limited contact.

I also work on human migration to sixteenth-century London and the small population of Italian merchants, scholars, and liberal artisans residing in the City’s eastern wards. I am particularly interested in how these migrants navigated their new environment, importing certain spatial practices and remodelling them to the specifications of the material city.

Thomas Kaye

Thomas Kaye

PhD Student (Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar), Department of English and Forest Edge, BIFoR.
txk006@student.bham.ac.uk

My research delves into the woodlands and forests of contemporary fiction where these ancient biotic spaces radiate with warping pressure. I am especially interested in how modern authors reimagine mythic and folkloric roots, twisting them into contemporary tales that lead to the blending of the human and the more-than-human through contact with trees. I am developing a thesis that examines the affect of trees, how they metamorphose both the human and the text – I am exploring this symbiosis as an imaginative rewilding.

Currently I am researching our often imperceptible, yet ever present, reciprocal respiration with trees. The dual meaning of respire – to breathe and to recover – lends itself to a discussion of texts that confound vegetal and bodily processes all the while engaging in a recovery. To select texts that are themselves a form of renewal makes them analogous to the woodland space they engage with and create – for woods are self-renewing. I hypothesise that forests and woodlands respire in our art. They aid the recovery and retelling of tales that in return provide a respite for our rapidly depleted woodlands.

My research covers the writings of Richard Powers, Annie Proulx, Daisy Johnson, and Sarah Hall. I also hope to engage with sculpture, particularly the work of David Nash.  

On the Making of Gardens (first published 1909)

George Reresby Sitwell (1951, Charles Scribner’s & Sons)

Recommended by Hattie Walters

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Sir George Reresby Sitwell could frequently be found in analytic concentration within great Italian gardens, making meditative notes that would form a large part of On the Making of Gardens—his personal design treatise. It is a curious text, devoid of  plants—made up instead as part rhapsodic commentary on derelict garden architecture, part summary of garden historical progression, part examination of the effects of the Renaissance garden, part rules for good design—and was painstakingly constructed in his attempt to revitalise the modern English garden. Initially, his endeavours had limited success (Sir George blamed the book cover design), and yet his text provides an intriguing insight into his planning of the gardens at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire; his particular understanding of Renaissance formalisms, and his tantalising descriptions of old gardens in states of solitude inaccessible to the modern visitor.

Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories (first published 1904)

Gertrude Jekyll (1999, The History Press Ltd)

Recommended by Hattie Walters

Old West Surrey by Gertrude JekyllUnlike Gertrude Jekyll’s numerous other “garden books”, which are predominately dedicated to the planning and maintenance of a garden over the year, Old West Surrey was intended to memorialise the elements of rural working-class life that she saw rapidly disappearing from her beloved late nineteenth-century stomping-grounds. Roving from the architectural features of specific properties to characters remembered from childhood church sermons, fragments of dialect, dress, custom, and house ornament; and peppered with her own photographs and illustrations, Jekyll’s text is devoted to recording her impressions of local culture, used to promote her own Arts and Crafts sensitivity to place. This work is an important example of the twentieth-century reclamation of the distinctiveness of local village life, and Jekyll’s prime concern is the countryside included in her personal definition of Old West Surrey.