World and time: the sense of an ending

Tuesday, 16 August 2011 23:45

Adrian Barlow has now retired from the Institute of Continuing Education. You can follow his new blog at


The Sense of an Ending was originally the title of an influential book of literary criticism and critical theory by Frank Kermode, about whom I wrote last year. Now the title has been recycled, this time for a new novel by Julian Barnes, published this month.* It’s a book I strongly recommend, and I’m not surprised it is already on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

The narrator of the novel is Tony Webster, a man in his early sixties who has had a mostly uneventful life until he is unexpectedly forced to revisit a period forty years earlier when his close friend at school, Adrian Finn, committed suicide. On one level, it’s Adrian’s ending of which Tony still has to make sense; however, he is also confronting his own mortality and trying to make sense of what his life has amounted to now that he is retired. He has the uneasy feeling that the life to which he had looked forward with such expectation in the 1960s has already started to slip into the past tense. All of which he finds unsettling:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others (p.80)

The creating of a history for oneself, the rewriting of history for others and the recovery – if possible – of the real truth (surely a revealing tautology?) is a key theme of Barnes’s novel. So it has also been of a surprising number of other novels and plays from the twenty-first century to date: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010, about which I also blogged recently), among others.

There’s always a danger in treating the past that one lapses into nostalgia, and this is a danger of which Tony is well aware:

I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knick-knack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time – love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty. (p.81)

In this my last week at Madingley, I too have been trying hard to resist nostalgia but it’s not easy when you have known a place like this for over thirty five years. I first came to Madingley on a course in 1974 and have taught here for the Institute since 1998. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. So I have been focusing on the last lecture I shall give in Cambridge this afternoon. It’s on Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, Human Chain (about which I blogged when I first read it last October).

There is a strong sense of an ending about this book, too. Indeed, I have called my lecture ‘Last Words? Heaney’s Human Chain’. In these poems the poet looks back over his life from the perspective of someone recently brought face to face with mortality: Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, and some of the most poignant and powerful poems in the collection are about this experience.

As ever, though, with Heaney, the sense of place is also very strong, whether he writes about the farms and country roads of Northern Ireland he has known all his life or the small communities, villages and towns whose names still resonate from news items about ‘the Troubles’ any time these past forty years. The places he recalls have sometimes witnessed public grief and private tragedy, but his sense of commitment to them is stronger than ever. (A line from Jane Austen’s Persuasion comes to mind: ‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it’.) So there is something wonderfully affirmative – not nostalgic at all - in the conclusion Heaney reaches in ‘A Herbal, after Guillevic’s Herbier de Bretagne’:

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

By any reckoning, that’s a good note on which to end.

Adrian Barlow
17 August 2011

[photo: Madingley Hall weathervane, SE tower

*Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape 2011

This is the seventy eighth and final posting to ‘World and time’, the blog I have written for ICE over the past two years. I have enjoyed blogging and have set up a new blog to write in my retirement. You can read the first post at


World and time: at Madingley

Sunday, 07 August 2011 13:02


At Madingley  it’s been a vintage weekend: the Hall has been at capacity and seven residential courses have been in full flow: courses on Marx and Engels, on the ancient Greeks in history, on memory and mental health, on Cambridge architecture, on art and propaganda in Nazi Germany, on creative writing and on Anglo-Norman castle building.

The weather has been excellent, the gardens admired; the food has been its usual high standard, the Bar well patronised. Everything has run smoothly. There are plenty of familiar faces among the students (some already on their fourth weekend, or more, of the year) but a good number of new and younger faces too. At dinner people swap notes about speakers and courses: which course will you come to next? Which tutor should you not miss next time?

Students have many reasons for coming to Madingley. ‘I think of Madingley as my college,’ one says to me, ‘and it’s the only one I’ve had.’ Another tells me that for her, Madingley is an academic retreat, and more: ‘It’s a lifeline, it keeps me sane.’ Some students always choose courses on their favourite or specialist subjects; others follow a particular tutor: they will sign up for whatever he or she is teaching next time. I admire those students who deliberately opt for a topic they know little or nothing about, or who want to discover a subject that has always sounded interesting but outside their experience. ‘The older I get the more I learn how little I know,’ I overhear a student say during a coffee break. ‘That’s not a bad definition of education,’ replies her neighbour, ‘and anyway, isn’t most of the trouble in the world caused by people who think they know everything?’

My course, ‘Exploring Cambridge Architecture’, is one I have taught every summer for the past twelve years. Usually it has been held in the first week of September, when Cambridge is a bit quieter. This year, as our party makes its way up Bridge Street and turns right by the Round Church heading for St. John’s, I realise why a Saturday afternoon in central Cambridge in August is not the best time to be having an architecture field trip. Our group of twenty is overwhelmed (almost literally) by a tide of visiting schoolchildren ‘doing’ Cambridge in an afternoon. I remind myself they have as much right as we do to be there, but I’m thankful when we are able to cross the threshold of the College and enter the tranquillity of First Court.

One of the strands of our course this weekend has been the Victorian re-invention of Cambridge: the way the Victorians embarked on a building spree that attempted to re-imagine what a medieval university ought to look like in the nineteenth century. But Sir Gilbert Scott’s new Chapel for St. John’s, built during the 1860s, shows how they sometimes challenged, as well as re-imagined, the idea of Cambridge architecture. His Chapel, in the sunlight and with a visiting choir rehearsing for Evensong within, looks, feels and sounds awe-inspiring, but is still outrageously out of scale and out of keeping with the rest of the College buildings or with the winding streetscape outside.

Earlier, we had been talking about what Alec Clifton-Taylor used to call ‘architectural good manners’. I had shown an image during my lecture on ‘The anatomy of a Cambridge College’ of the view of King’s College Chapel seen from across the Backs (or the ‘Kinge’s back-sides’ as they are labelled on Richard Lyne’s 1574 map of Cambridge). It’s probably one of the most photographed views in Europe, certainly in England, but also in a way one of the most shocking. The 18th century Gibbs Building, less than a cricket pitch’s length apart from the Chapel, fights it in every way. The Chapel is stately Gothic, the Gibbs Building aggressively classical; the Chapel celebrates the Perpendicular, Gibbs’ asserts the horizontal; the cold Portland stone of the latter offends the warmer Weldon stone of the former. In every way the design and positioning of the Gibbs ought to be condemned as architectural bad manners, crass insensitivity. But it isn’t. ‘One of the things age teaches us,’ says another of my students back at Madingley, is that architectural forgiveness can be just as important as architectural good manners.’

As ever, one learns from one’s students. ‘Humility is endless,’ T S Eliot reminds us in Four Quartets. I partly repent me of my intemperance about the Gibbs Building, but at least it has spurred the students into looking again at what they may have been taken for granted. Assumptions have been challenged, eyes opened, thresholds crossed. Once you have learned to see something differently, at whatever age, you cannot go back to thinking about it in the old ways, ‘under the old dispensation’ (Eliot, again, from ‘Journey of the Magi’). Lifelong learning in action, and a good weekend to be at Madingley.

 Adrian Barlow

7 August 2011

[photo: the topiary garden at Madingley Hall, early morning, 6 August 2011

For full details of all new courses offered by the Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall during 2011-12 click here.


World and time: Newman and now

Friday, 29 July 2011 07:12


On Wednesday evening, to the Senate House to hear Professor Stefan Collini lecture on ‘The idea of the University: Newman and now’. John Henry Newman has been much on my mind in recent months: he even supplies the epigraph for my forthcoming book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, due out in March 2012. So I was keen to hear Collini’s take on the great man, but also keen to see inside the Senate House one more time; keen, too, just to hear Collini.

When Newman set out to defend the value of a liberal education, he explained it thus:

‘To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible … as the cultivation of virtue.’

This was Newman’s unanswerable response to those who attacked the ‘inutility’ of liberal education. It was interesting to hear Professor Collini play variations on this theme. His argument was, first, that there is a tendency for subjects which start out as ‘useful’, presenting themselves initially as ‘professional training’, to move into a new and larger sphere. Law, for instance, or teacher training, have become ‘liberalised’, taking on new identities as subjects of enquiry in their own right. In this process the edges or limits of these subject – and others like them – have started to expand. Nursing (to take an example raised by a questioner at the end of the lecture) becomes more than just a finite body of healthcare knowledge to be transmitted to the next generation of nurses, midwives and practitioners: it becomes a subject of enquiry with a history, a philosophy, a sociology: it interrogates what might otherwise be taken for granted.

At this point Collini spelt out his key theme: that a liberal education today ‘goes beyond the accepted boundaries of current knowledge’. This was an idea to which he returned, later saying that he saw it as the job of a university to give some sense to students of the ‘contingency or vulnerability of knowledge’ which in other contexts would appear to have its limits, to be neatly organized and packaged. At the end of the lecture he summed up liberal education today as embodying ‘the ideal of the untrammelled quest for understanding’.

It was a virtuoso performance, and I’m very glad to have been there. I wanted to take away with me the memory of a really good Cambridge lecture, and certainly the Senate House is a memorable enough setting. Collini himself began by saying that he had never had the honour of lecturing there before. He noted that, as the building which above all others represented the heart of Cambridge University, the Senate House was not just a beautiful but also an appropriate location for a lecture on the idea of the university. He invited his audience, if they found his lecture hard going, not to worry but to gaze upwards and enjoy the architecture of the building and in particular, the beauty of the ceiling. This was easy enough at first; but as the shadows began to lengthen the edges of the coffered ceiling became less clear-cut — just like the edges of academic subjects under the pressure of liberal education. Ultimately, Collini said, intellectual enquiry is ungovernable: you cannot hold it back.

It is hard to imagine anything other than a formal occasion happening in the Senate House. I wrote a year ago about the Honorary Degree ceremony I attended there (World and time: Honoris Causa). We had been reminded in advance of this lecture that members of the University would be expected to wear gowns. Alas, mine is already packed for my imminent departure, so I turned up without one. ‘Don’t worry, said a kindly colleague, we have a few spares. Back she came moments later with one over her arm. ‘I’m afraid it’s only a BA,’ she apologized, ‘but I thought you wouldn’t mind: after all, it’s a Durham gown.’

Indeed I did not mind. There was the label: ‘Gray and Son, University Robemakers, Saddler Street, Durham.’ It was exactly like the gown I wore forty years ago when I stood up for the first time in my career to deliver a lecture (in Durham, where I had taken my degree) in front of a student audience. The lecture was on the poetry of Basil Bunting. Now, at the other end of that career and shortly to deliver perhaps my last lecture in Cambridge, it was a not unpleasant jolt to be reminded of where and when I started. So, if on occasion during Professor Collini’s lecture my mind strayed a little from Newman and now, it was not to the ceiling of the Senate House but to that apt last line of TS Eliot’s East Coker (from Four Quartets, which I taught on the first literature course I ever gave at Madingley Hall):

In my end is my beginning.

Adrian Barlow
29 July 2011

[photo: the Senate House, Cambridge

ICE runs a number of part-time literature courses for adult learners:



World and time: ‘Our speaker tonight’

Tuesday, 19 July 2011 22:18


The academic term may be over; the lecture season certainly is not.

Last week I gave a lecture to the Downham Market Lecture Society (founded in the 1920s and still going strong). My subject was ‘Venice Inscribed’ – Venice as imagined by Shakespeare and recorded by Ruskin. A year ago, this annual Downham Lecture was given by Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage. Last week he was in Cambridge to give the fifth Madingley Lecture. I blogged about the first Madingley Lecture, ‘Life in the Cosmos’, back in January. Since then these lectures have established themselves as important fixtures in the Cambridge calendar.

I’m afraid I missed Simon Thurley. That evening I was giving a lecture on Cambridge Architecture to the International Summer School (ISS). Earlier in the day, I’d given a lecture to the ISS Literature students about Seamus Heaney’s latest collection of poems, Human Chain. Back in October, I wrote about this book when it first appeared and said then that I hoped I would soon be teaching it. Now I have been, and my admiration for the poems and for Heaney is greater than ever.

Yesterday, I gave a lecture on Cambridge Writers; tomorrow I shall be in Slough, lecturing on the stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe, the subject of the book I start writing in the autumn. Next week I begin teaching a course on ‘Passages to India’, comparing and contrasting E M Forster’s novel with Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things. Then I have classes to teach on Jane Austen and three more lectures – on Thomas Paine, on Forster and on Heaney (again). And after that, that’s it.

I have loved lecturing, capturing the attention of an audience and (I hope) holding it for fifty minutes. Nothing pleases me more than when a member of the audience comes up afterwards and says, ‘Now I want to go and read x again straight away!’ or ‘You’ve made me see things I’ve never noticed before – and I thought I knew that book / building / poem / city quite well!’. Lecturing is a performance, yes, but not - again I hope - a showing off. I prepare my text, but I rarely read it straight off the page. I like to talk to the audience, not at them. I use PowerPoint, sometimes. I prefer my audience to listen to me rather than look at the screen, but I’d prefer them to focus on the images illustrating my lecture than to be covertly logging on to Facebook behind the lids of their little laptops. I eschew bullet points.

It’s interesting how rarely an actual lecture features in a novel. There’s Jim Dixon’s disastrous ‘Merrie England’ lecture at the climax of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. I can’t find one in Malcolm Bradbury’s classic book, The History Man, whose eponymous hero, Howard Kirk, prefers to create a little anarchy by playing dangerous games in seminars. However, there’s an entertaining lecture in David Lodge’s Nice Work, where the up-and-coming young feminist lecturer on the industrial novel, Dr Robyn Penrose of the University of Rummidge, deconstructs the phallic imagery in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

More recently, Philip Roth’s extraordinary novel The Human Stain kicks off with a lecture by Coleman Silk: from a single word (‘spooks’) in Coleman’s lecture, the whole astonishing plot starts to unravel. I have blogged before about Professor Pinkrose in Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War: he spends much of World War II traipsing around Europe trying to give a lecture on Byron, only to be assassinated when he finally gets to his feet to start speaking.

But my favourite lecture is the closing scene of Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty. Howard, the novel’s disaster-prone protagonist, is a History of Art lecturer about to lose his job and his wife, Kiki. He is due to give a lecture on Rembrandt, but arrives to find that he has left his lecture notes in his car and has not got time to retrieve them. (This happened to me the first time I lectured in that cavernous auditorium, Lady Mitchell Hall, on the Sidgwick Site.) Then he cannot operate the slide show properly (a recurring nightmare for any lecturer). Eventually, though, an image appears: Rembrandt’s portrait of his mistress. ‘Hendrickje Bathing, 1654,’ croaked Howard and said no more.’

The audience is restless, ‘awaiting elucidation.’ But Howard is transfixed because he has caught sight of his wife in the audience: ‘In her face, his life.’ Suddenly, she looks up and sees that he is looking at her:

Howard said nothing. Another silent minute passed. The audience began to mutter perplexedly. Howard made the picture larger on the wall …. He looked out into the audience once more and saw Kiki only. He smiled at her. She smiled. She looked away, but she smiled. Howard looked back at the woman on the wall, Rembrandt’s love, Hendrickje. Though her hands were imprecise blurs, paint heaped on paint and roiled with the brush, the rest of her skin had been expertly rendered in all its variety – chalky whites and lively pinks, the underlying blue of her veins and the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come.

I suppose bad lectures make good fiction, but by the same token I think good fiction can make good lectures. The lecture for which I forgot my notes had to be delivered from memory: it was one of the scariest fifty minutes of my life, but the lecture seemed to go down very well. Its subject? ‘Ideas of Englishness in the novels of Zadie Smith’.

Adrian Barlow

19 July 2011

[photo: Zadie Smith

ICE runs a number of part-time literature courses for adult learners:


'What is the use of Literature?'

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 20:47


A colleague of mine, a geographer, was dining on High Table recently. ‘So tell me,’ said her neighbour, ‘What use are geographers to mankind?’ All along the table, eyes and ears turned towards my colleague. ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘we make good travelling companions: we understand the weather, and we seldom get lost.’ Neat answer. It made me wonder (not for the first time) how would I have replied, about English?

I thought of this last week when invited to a Royal Society of Literature seminar with the provocative title, ‘What is the use of Literature?’ The panel of speakers included the great and/or good – Polly Toynbee as Chair, Sir Andrew Motion – plus writers and academics from King’s College London (where the seminar was held) and Cambridge.

For me, the most interesting speaker was the Scottish-African novelist, Aminatta Forna. “If you want to know a country,” Forna has written, “read its writers.” It seemed good advice and, knowing little about Sierra Leone other than its place on the map and that it has endured a bloody civil war, I immediately went out and bought her novel, The Memory of Love (2010). It’s a longish book (445 pages) but I have spent a lot of time in the last few days on long train journeys – Cambridge > Grenoble > Paris – and have now read and re-read it, three times. It’s been a remarkable experience.

For a start, this is the first novel I’ve ever read whose central character is called Adrian. Has not every Emma at some time measured herself against Jane Austen’s eponymous heroine? Or Flaubert’s? How often does an Adrian get the chance to do likewise? This is not a trivial point, and I have found myself wondering how far my reactions to this weak but well-intentioned character have been affected by our shared forename.

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist, seconded to work as a psychotherapist in Sierra Leone after its Civil War. Gradually, through his patients, he comes to understand something of the War and its effects on the lives of those who survived it. But where he sees signs of a whole population suffering different forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, those who have lived through the war see it differently. Dr Attila, director of the local mental hospital, tells him bluntly, ‘You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.’ Everyone has their own reasons to grieve or to keep silent, and the scars of war – the physical and the emotional, the amputations and the nightmares – are all too present. Nowhere more so than in a hospital: much of the novel’s action takes place in and around the emergency operating theatre or in the mental hospital's locked wards where the patients are chained to their beds and former enemies lie side by side.

Adrian has come to Africa to prove to himself that he can make a long-term difference to people’s lives (‘So tell me, Mr Lockheart, what use are psychotherapists to mankind?’) and at first be believes ‘that since arriving here his life has seemed more charged with meaning than it ever had in London.’ He befriends a young orthopaedic surgeon, Kai, who has become expert at repairing the savagely damaged limbs of those he treats. ‘C’ on a patient’s hospital notes stands for ‘cleaver attack’.

Kai is an insomniac, partly because of the ceaseless demands of his work at the hospital, partly because of the appalling nightmares he has. Dreams and nightmares, sleep and sleeplessness, are a crucial thread running throughout the book. Aminatta Forna, I should mention, is herself an insomniac who has written movingly about insomnia.

For Kai, the tragedy of the Civil War is compounded by his own private tragedy: his girlfriend, Nenebah, disappeared during it, and he has found no trace of her: his memories of her ‘come at unguarded moments, when he cannot sleep.’ When he treats patients with severed limbs and hears how they complain of ‘feeling pain in the lost limbs, the aching ghost of a hewn hand or foot’, he knows it’s a trick of the mind: ‘the nerves continued to transmit signals between the brain and the ghost limb. The pain is real, yes, but it is a memory of pain.’ Now he makes the crucial connection:

When he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces himself against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.

Meanwhile Adrian has fallen for Mamakay, a girl who plays the clarinet and seems to have a past so strange he cannot at first comprehend it or her. But it's Mamakay who has the clearest view of what is happening in post-war Sierra Leone:

People are blotting out what happened, fiddling with the truth, creating their own version of events to fill in the blanks. A version of the truth which puts them in a good light, that wipes out whatever they did or failed to do and makes certain none of them will be blamed. They’re all doing it ….

She challenges Adrian’s belief in the value of what he does and doubts his commitment to staying and helping the people he treats as patients:

Whatever you say, you will go away from here, you will publish your papers and give talks, and every time you do so you will make their version of events the more real, until it becomes indelible.

The Memory of Love is an important and beautifully written novel. It’s a book I want to teach, because it’s a book that teaches its readers. It teaches you how easy and dangerous it is to rewrite history, while paradoxically fiction may show you truths history never can. With this book I hope I could persuade anyone that literature is self-evidently useful. No, more than that: essential.

Adrian Barlow

30 June 2011

[photo: Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love, published by Bloomsbury, 2010

ICE runs a number of part-time literature courses for adult learners:



World and time: The Barbed-Wire University

Thursday, 16 June 2011 12:58


I’m going to discuss a new book about prisoners of war, The Barbed-Wire University, published this week. I must at once declare an interest: Midge Gillies, the author, is a tutor in Creative Writing for the Institute: in her Acknowledgements she pays tribute to the inspiration her students gave her. This won’t stop me from saying she has written a remarkable book. It’s one which will change the way we think about what it meant to be held captive behind barbed wire during the Second World War, for up to five years, with no idea how long your sentence would last or how it might end.

As a baby-boomer who only knew the Second World War at second hand, POWs figured strongly in my pre-adolescent reading: The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape, The Latter Days at Colditz. But before I had read any of these, as a new boy at prep school I learned to sing along to the tune of ‘Colonel Bogey’, the theme from the just-released film The Bridge over the River Kwai:

Hitler has only got one ball,
Goering has two, but very small,
Himmler is very sim’lar,
But poor old Goebbels
Has no balls at all.

This was my introduction to the history of the twentieth century.

The starting point for Midge Gillies’ book is her father, who was himself a POW. She admits, ‘I never knew my father when he was not an ex-POW, so I cannot fully judge how the experience changed him. But as well as the fear and despair …. being a POW marked him for life in a positive way, not least because he knew he was lucky to have survived. He was a storyteller and a teaser – talents that would have been valuable skills in the boarding school atmosphere of the camps.’ She adds, ‘I often wonder whether his need to engage with strangers grew out of his POW days – particularly when he was on the run – when the ability to make friends was a life-or-death talent.’ (pp.xvii-xviii)

I know it's true that boarding school was a a good preparation for Prison Camp. The former Bishop of Singapore, Dr. Leonard Wilson, was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese. One day he came back to my school (which had also been his school) and preached a sermon in Chapel, during which he admitted that it was only because he had survived four years as a boy at St John’s Leatherhead that he had been able to endure three years in Changi.

Through the course of her book, Midge Gillies follows the fortunes of the later-to-be-famous – Clive Dunn the actor, Ronald Searle the artist among them – and of her father and other POWs both in Europe and in the Far East. Her book is not about the escapes outside the wire, but about the ways in which prisoners tried, and often succeeded, to escape inside their heads. It’s a book about the importance of books:

Many POWs had their own bookshelves which reinforced the territorial boundaries around their bunk …. As the war progressed the supply of books increased and libraries expanded. The best stocked libraries usually indicated an active educational system within a camp. Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug, in what is now Lithuania, was the most northerly of all camps and had a library with around 6,000 books, partly to support the educational demands of its inmates where study was so intense that the camp became known as Barbed-Wire University. (p.260)

Some POWs remembered the happiest days of their imprisonment as times when, either in solitary confinement or in the Prison Hospital, they could read without interruption. Anthony Trollope, it is good to learn, was regarded as the ideal novelist because (as Paul Fussell later noted in The Great War and Modern Memory) he ‘paid such leisurely attention to detail, to the textures and nuances of everyday life.’ Others used their time to write books – on mountaineering, cricket, ornithology – often basing what they wrote on lectures they were giving to their fellow prisoners. In fact, the camps came to be extraordinary examples of continuing education in action.

Books could, however, serve unexpected purposes. On the Burma-Siam railway, Ronald Searle smoked his way through half of Pickwick Papers; other books supplied toilet paper.

All this Midge Gillies describes, often with moving understatement:

As soon as they arrived at Singapore Central Station it became obvious that their living conditions were not about to improve. They were herded into windowless metal containers where, among the Other Ranks, thirty or so men were forced to share a space the length of three men lying down (except there was no room to lie down) and ten feet wide. The walls were red hot and started to slow-cook the occupants. (p.309)

It comes as a shock (it shouldn’t, but it does) to realise how chaotic and dangerous were the last few weeks of the war for POWs on the point of liberation – or extermination. Some of them, on forced marches through a collapsing Germany, were victims of friendly fire attacks by allied aircraft. After the understatement of the earlier chapters, the tone of the chapters ‘Somewhere near the end’ and ‘Victory in the Far East’ belies the blandness of their titles. These pages are harrowing to read, but I finished this book understanding far better, and admiring far more, the character and extraordinary resilience of the ordinary POW. Above all, Midge Gillies shows how so many of the men managed to make something positive out of so grim an ordeal. She ends the final chapter, ‘Aftermath’, by describing her father’s death, which happened while she was still writing the book:

During his final hours there were other people gathered round his hospital bed … They were people we had never met and could not see. My father greeted them with enthusiasm, calling names that we recognised from POW reunions. Perhaps this final gathering proved more than anything else that lifelong friendship was what my father took from his time as a prisoner. (p.427)

Adrian Barlow
16 June 2011

 The Barbed-Wire University, by Midge Gillies, is published by the Aurum Press at £25.00

Find out more about the book and hear Midge on the BBC Today Programme

Midge Gillies will be teaching a course on how to write non-fiction as part of ICE's new programme of short courses, the Madingley Weekly Programme.

Writing non-fiction: being creative with the truth - Midge Gillies' new short course at the Institute of Continuing Education.


World and time: the line of beauty

Thursday, 09 June 2011 21:50


I’m embarrassed to admit I have only recently discovered that William Hogarth coined the phrase ‘the line of beauty’. Nor had I understood its significance. For Hogarth the serpentine, S-shaped line was an essential concept in his treatise on aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty: the line of beauty, according to Hogarth, indicates liveliness and movement, by contrast with the straight lines and right angles which denote only stasis and lack of vitality. Straight away, I understand why I so much prefer Gothic to classical architecture.

It makes perfect sense, as you can see for yourself at Madingley, where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown adopted Hogarth’s principle in his 1758 landscaping of the east approach to the Hall. As you come in through the gates you pass on your right the lake which Brown created from a much smaller, earlier fishpond. The lake itself curves away towards the woods, and its edge is indeed S-shaped. So, too, is the drive which snakes gently - serpentine almost the right adjective to describe its course - up the slope towards the great archway which is in its own way every bit as imposing as the Hall, to which it is attached by a curtain wall.

I’ve mentioned this arch before (see World and time: Honoris causa) and how it came to be at Madingley. Originally, it stood at one end of University Lane, a narrow little street (long since gone) linking Great St Mary’s Church and the Old Schools, whose main entrance it once was. Then, in the 1750s, it was carefully dismantled when the new Palladian façade of the Old Schools was erected, and was stored in case a later use might be found for it. Along came Sir John Cotton of Madingley, who wanted something imposing to greet the eyes of visitors coming up his new driveway. He bought it on 17th October 1757 from the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sumner, for the sum of 10 guineas and carried it home well pleased, no doubt, with his bargain.

Or at least, he was until he discovered it was too small.

As originally built, the arch wasn’t freestanding at all: it had been an entrance into a building, a doorway rather than an archway. Now Sir John needed it to be both wide enough to allow carriages to reach his coach-house, and strong enough to support the weight of the heraldic devices that were part of the original design. The solution he came up with was as risky as it was ingenious. He converted what had been a depressed (i.e. low) 15th century arch into a magnificent depressed ogee by adding an extra, sharply upturned and cusped, central section. This made the arch both wider and higher, and gave it the distinctive double-S shape you can see today.

The effect of this transformation was dramatic, but it was structurally a nightmare, because ogee arches are notoriously weak; in fact they are usually decorative, not structural at all. John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, had described this problem in relation to the small ogee windows and arcades to be seen everywhere in later Gothic Venetian architecture:

So long as an arch is pure circular or pointed, it does not matter how many joints or voussoirs you have, nor where the joints are; nay, you may joint your keystone itself, and make it two-pieced. But if the arch be of any bizarre form, especially ogee, the joints must be in particular places, and the masonry simple, or it will not be thoroughly good and secure. (The Stones of Venice, Ch. XI)

You could not call the masonry of Madingley’s arch simple. If you stand behind it and look carefully at the joints between the sections, you’ll see that they are held together by iron staples – without which the arch would no doubt have collapsed years ago. Indeed, I know of no other ogee arch in the world as wide as Madingley’s – nor one that supports so much weight on top of it. If you see one, please let me know.

These reflections on the arch at Madingley have been prompted by two things. First, I came across this passage in Alan Hollingsworth’s 2004 novel, The Line of Beauty:

The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative, not structural: a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome …. The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. (p.200)

This is a good example of free indirect discourse. Are these the thoughts of the narrator, or of the novel’s main character, Nick Guest, who at this moment is gazing at a different ‘line of beauty’ – the naked back of his lover, Wani? ‘He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell – he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh.’

Second, the arch at Madingley illustrates powerfully the links, seen and unseen, between the University and its Institute of Continuing Education, with its home at Madingley Hall. So it’s only right the arch should be on the cover of the brochure introducing our new Madingley Weekly Programme. The brochure is published this week, and you can also read it online. See for yourself.

 Adrian Barlow
10 June 2011

[photo: detail of the moulding of the ogee arch at Madingley

‘Capability Brown’s Profusion of Water’ is the title of a residential course to be held at Madingley Hall 8-10 July. For further information and an application form, click here.

Full details of all residential courses at Madingley Hall.  


World and time: discovering Ivor Gurney

Saturday, 04 June 2011 16:49


Ivor Gurney is one of those remarkable voices from the First World War who was both poet and …. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, was both poet and artist; so was David Jones. Gurney was both poet and composer. And as with Rosenberg and Jones, if we read Gurney’s writing in the context of his other creative activity we can greatly enhance our understanding of both his verse and his music.

Gurney was acutely sensitive to sound, to the spoken voice and to the sounds of the natural world, especially the world he loved – the Gloucestershire valley of the River Severn. Here, as a taste, he writes about a lock-keeper (‘No one more wise in ways of Severn river’):

A tall lean man he was, proud of his gun,
Of his garden, and small fruit trees every one
Knowing all weather signs, the flight of birds,
Farther than I could hear the falling thirds
Of the first cuckoo.

There is much that is characteristic of Gurney in these few lines. You are well into the second line before you meet a word of more than one syllable, and the only technical word in the passage is the reference to ‘thirds’: Gurney unselfconsciously expresses the cry of the cuckoo of spring in terms of the musical interval between the cuc- and the koo. Notice too the sprung syntax (showing what Gurney learnt from Gerard Manley Hopkins): the verb ‘knowing’ refers backwards to the fruit trees and forwards to the weather signs and the flight of birds.

His admiration for the lock-keeper is made clear: what the ‘tall, lean’ countryman knows about the natural world far exceeds what the poet-musician (who was not tall) can hear. A little later in the poem he is struck by the way the older man

Smoked his pipe ever, furiously, contentedly,
Full of old country tales his memory was;
Yarns of both sea and land, full of wise saws
In rough fine speech...

For all that the lock-keeper smokes ‘furiously’, he is content, rooted in the traditions and lore of the countryside. Indeed, like several of the figures in Edward Thomas’s poetry (Lob, for instance, ‘shovel-bearded Bob’ or the ploughman in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’) the lock-keeper embodies the past and present of the country in a way the poet can only envy. His describing the man’s way of talking as ‘rough fine speech’ suggests Gurney’s admiration for the nobility of one of ‘nature’s gentlemen’. He knows he’ll never find ‘A winter-night companion more to my mind’.

This poem, ‘The Lock-Keeper’, was written in 1918 as a tribute to Edward Thomas, who had been killed at the battle of Arras in April 1917 (where Gurney also fought). It’s one of the most striking facts about the war poets that those who survived were tireless in making sure the voices of their colleagues were still listened to, their poems kept in the public eye. Edmund Blunden in particular, who also edited the poetry of Wilfred Owen, did much to promote Gurney’s work. The two men kept up a long correspondence, and Gurney for his part set some of Blunden’s poems to music.

I would say Gurney has – on the whole - been fortunate in his friends and in his editors and biographers, without whom it would have been all too easy to write him off as a minor provincial who lost his way and his wits after the war. But there has always been a sense that much of his work (his music particularly) remains to be discovered. There has often been a sense, too, that accounts of his work have tended to focus either on his poetry or on his music, rarely both/and.

This is changing. Kate Kennedy, the musicologist, broadcaster and literary scholar, is at work on a new biography of Gurney, and this coming weekend is due to present an important course at Madingley Hall. Discovering Ivor Gurney is designed for everyone interested in learning about Gurney’s life and work and, more generally, about the relationship between music and literature. It is also aimed at performers who would like to hear and to learn some unpublished and previously totally unheard songs, violin and piano music by Gurney.

So, for now, if you need a reminder of how war, music and poetry define Gurney, try this:

Bach and the Sentry
Written in October-November 1916

Watching the dark my spirit rose in flood
On that most dearest Prelude of my delight,
The low lying mist lifted its hood,
The October stars showed nobly in clear night.

When I return, and to real music-making,
And play that Prelude, how will it happen then?
Shall I feel as I felt, a sentry hardly waking,
With a dull sense of No Man's Land again?

Adrian Barlow
4 June 2011

[photo: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

For further information and booking details of the Madingley Hall course Discovering Ivor Gurney, led by Kate Kennedy, please click here.

The Ivor Gurney Society and the Friends of the Dymock Poets are particularly important in promoting the work of the poets who lived and wrote in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire before and during the Frist World War.

Information about all residential weekend courses held at Madingley Hall, home of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education (ICE).

ICE has just announced its new Madingley Weekly Programme, to be launched in January 2012.


World and time: Pope’s visit to Madingley

Sunday, 15 May 2011 10:31


My history teacher at school was Derek Pitt, known to generations of Old Johnians as Horsey Pitt. He was a very good historian, and his teaching method, up to O level, consisted of dictating notes on the Tudors and Stuarts as he paced up and down the rows of desks, longing for his next cigarette and peering over our shoulders to check our spelling. He was fierce about punctuation, too: his own dictation was punctuated with instructions like ‘comma however comma’; and to this day, whenever I see those essential separators omitted by a careless journalist or a sleeping sub-editor, I think ruefully of how Horsey would have snorted.

In the Sixth Form, Derek no longer dictated. By now we were expected to take down our own notes as he lectured on the Hanoverians or the French Revolution. He enjoyed teaching the nuances of 18th century history, nuances I scarcely registered at the time. I remember being puzzled, for instance, when he wrote on one of my reports, ‘Barlow is making great strides with British constitutional history’. Was I? I hadn’t even realised we’d been studying constitutional history – whatever that was.

It was with Derek, too, that I first encountered Alexander Pope:

Thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.

This may have been his favourite Augustan couplet. We heard it frequently, and he always paused after the second ‘sometimes’ before pronouncing the last word with great emphasis: ‘tay’. Then he would throw his head back, whinny with delight and resume lecturing.

Alexander Pope is not, I confess, a favourite poet of mine nor (pace poor Derek Pitt, who smoked himself to an early death) is the eighteenth century my favourite period – of history, literature or architecture. Political satire has never appealed to me, and poems such as The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad or even the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot have always left me cold. My loss, I know. The endless epigrammatic cleverness of the mock-heroic I find wearisome. There are, however, exceptions: I admire these lines from Windsor Forest:

To plains with well-breath’d beagles we repair,
And trace the mazes of the circling hare.
Beasts, taught by us, their fellow beasts pursue
And learn of man each other to undo.

I first committed these two couplets to memory forty years ago this month when, as a student, I knew I should have to write on Pope in my Finals. Which I duly did; nor have I written on him since, until this moment. But I like the way Pope begins here with a neat description of beagling: hares do run in wide circles when they have a pack of dogs in hot pursuit. Then, almost before you have noticed, he’s undercut the complacent mood of gentlemanly relaxation (‘we repair’) with a sharp reminder that if beasts will behave like beasts, it’s because men – by their own example - have taught them how to be so.

What brought these lines back to mind was the recent discovery by our Madingley Hall archivist, Sue Pemberton, that Pope himself had been a visitor, and possibly a frequent one, to Madingley. Sue unearthed a reference to his having visited the Hall during the time of the arch-Tory and anti-Hanoverian baronet, Sir John Hynde Cotton, the third of that ilk - about whom I wrote in my very first blog, two years ago). Did Pope, himseIf a deeply conservative traditionalist, follow the hounds at Madingley, I wondered, as the Hyndes and the Cottons had certainly done ever since the Hall was built in 1543, probably as a hunting lodge? Maybe not. I suspect Pope and Hynde Cotton’s cabal (a word I learned in A level History) of Jacobite conspirators, spent most of their time plotting fresh onslaughts against Walpole and the Whigs. Pope relished it all and knew that his pen could ruin reputations and puncture self-importance – other people’s if not necessarily his own:

Yes, I am proud, I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.

He wasn’t popular in the nineteenth century, and his poetry went so far out of fashion that only one poem by him found its way into Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, that seminal anthology published in 1861. This single poem is a surprising and touchingly atypical piece of Pope, a short ‘Ode to Solitude’: not satirical, not even in rhyming couplets, and as distant in tenor from the lines I have just quoted as you could imagine. It would not have appealed to Derek Pitt. I don’t know that I had ever come across it until a fortnight ago; but reading it now I find myself seeing Pope is a different, more sympathetic, light: 

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
   Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
   Tell where I lie.

Adrian Barlow
15 May 2011

 [illustration: Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

 Full details of all programmes and courses offered by the Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall are given on our website: .


World and time: John Hencher

Sunday, 10 April 2011 18:29


An old colleague emails to tell me a mutual friend has died. I’d known he had been ill, and anyway we had not seen each other for over thirteen years; even so, the news is a shock.

John Hencher was at various times in his life – though often these times overlapped – an actor, an Anglican priest, an artist and calligrapher, a Quaker, a teacher and counsellor, a Buddhist and a gardener. He had a great talent for friendship, and for encouragement.

I saw him act at least three times: as King Lear, as the dreadful father, Max, in Pinter’s The Homecoming and as Prospero. Though he had been a professional actor and a member of the BBC Repertory Company, the performances I saw him give were in school plays, surrounded by actors whose ages ranged from 11 to 19. I understood Lear better for watching John play the king’s madness with a pathos I had never seen before – at Stratford or anywhere else. He never overacted, but by his simple presence on the stage he encouraged (that word again) the cast to perform at a pitch they might never have reached on their own.

In the pulpit, as on stage, he was mesmerising; but he never hammed it up, he’d rather say too little than too much. The Quaker Meeting House suited him well. Indeed, when he told me he had written to his friend Rowan (Williams, then Archbishop of Wales) ‘to take a sad leave of the Church of England’, he added, ‘But you know, I feel completely at home with the Friends. They’ve made me very welcome.’

Hospitality was something else John did very well. He lived with his partner John (‘the two Johns’) in a beautiful, remote half-timbered cottage, but for many years divided his time between Herefordshire and Monmouth, where he taught and where I knew him. He had a top floor eyrie overlooking a courtyard: each summer we used to watch from his window the swifts careening and screaming around the tight corners of the building and about the trees beyond. He liked company, always made you welcome, but did not expect you to talk for the sake of it. Sometimes we talked about the English mystical writers: Thomas Traherne especially, whose home village of Credenhill was on the way to where John lived; and George Herbert.

I thought of John lately when I was teaching Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer’ as part of my course on Cambridge Critics and Cambridge Criticism: we were studying Herbert’s poetry through the lens (as it were) of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. This was a poem John and I often discussed and which I remember he used once as the subject for an entire weekend retreat at the Bleddfa Centre, in Radnorshire – a place he cherished, long before it became famous. John asked me to choose the line from the poem which most appealed to me. I chose ‘Heaven in ordinarie, man well dressed’. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Good choice. Clothes keep cropping up in Herbert, don’t they?’ I hadn’t noticed, but John was right:

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
   The way that takes the town,
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
   And wrapt me in a gown.
                                    (Affliction I)

‘Poor old Herbert: I know just how puzzled he felt,’ said John with a laugh (his laughter filled any room). He used to talk about how his having become a priest was still a mystery to him after all those years.

John’s calligraphy was in the tradition of the Welsh poet and artist David Jones, but his lettering was distinctively his own. He often painted on wood, and his arrangement of texts – especially his sense of the space needed to give each word its due – was, well, illuminating. Early on, I bought a picture of his, and the text is one I think of often. It’s from William Blake:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

He loved the garden he and John had created, filling it with flowers and sculpture. I wish I could have shown him the garden here at Madingley as it is now. He would have enjoyed our Buddha by the pond, and I’m sure he’d have approved the words of Edmund Burke, carved in slate at the entrance to the topiary garden: ‘No man could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he himself could do only a little.’

John’s love of poetry expressed itself through his knowing the perfect text for every occasion. Once, when I was struggling to find the right reading for a memorial service (to a student who had died of cancer after only one term at Cambridge) he pointed me to Ben Jonson:

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk doth make Man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night—
It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

That was written for someone who died young. There were no short measures about John: he was 79 when he died, but I think he, too, lived an exemplary life. I’m very glad to have known him. I owe him a lot. Another quotation he taught me (it’s from Edith Sitwell) seems apt: ‘Love is not changed by death, and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest.’

Adrian Barlow
10 April 2011

[illustration: Topiary Garden, Madingley Hall

Read John Hencher’s Times obituary notice and visit News from LE2 to read another blog about John.

News about Garden open days at Madingley Hall

The 2011-2012 Residential brochure of weekend courses at Madingley Hall is due to be published on 12 April. Full details of all ICE courses can be found at


World and time: lit. crit.

Sunday, 03 April 2011 13:48


I was much taken by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review. Stefan Collini was reviewing a new book, The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan and published by Faber. It sounded my kind of book: a collection of thirteen essays about recent novels, most of which I have read and some of which (J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, for instance, and Colm Tóibίn’s The Master) I have also taught.

I admire Collini’s writing. He is good at pithy, memorable statements. One that has stuck in my mind from a few years back is ‘Close reading is inseparable from hard thinking’. Quite. Nearly eighteen months ago he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement a passionate polemic, defending the humanities in the face of what he saw as the absurd decision to assess the quality of academic research and scholarship in terms of its impact outside academia. The impact of impact has been a contentious issue ever since, and Collini’s essay will be cited for years to come, I’m sure.

What struck me about his Guardian review on Saturday, as it happens, was also about the essay. He was talking about the value of a particular kind of writing:

These thirteen essays together constitute something like a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. (‘The art of making it up’, Guardian Review, 02.04.11)

Collini’s enthusiasm for the critical essay is heartening indeed; even more so, his definition of literary criticism as an intellectual activity:

Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents in the scale of things.

Some people might seize on that phrase ‘at its best’. How and why, they might ask, should one presume to make such value judgments about literature - or about literary criticism, come to that? Isn’t that simply intellectual snobbery? Collini is not a whit abashed:

The best criticism involves being intelligent about the best writing, and the best writing involves being intelligent about living.

I’m delighted Collini has said this so emphatically, and said it just now. In a single sentence he has reasserted the importance of intelligent reading and writing and the importance, too, of the relationship between writer, text and reader. In doing so, he has summed up just why literature matters so much outside as well as inside the academy, and why studying it with students, whether eight, eighteen, forty-eight or eighty years old is so worthwhile.

Collini stands (though he might not thank me for saying so) in a tradition of Cambridge criticism that stretches back to the origins of the Cambridge School of English itself and to its founding father, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. On Monday I shall come to the end of the Diploma course I have been teaching this term, on ‘Cambridge Critics and Cambridge Criticism’. I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve learned a lot while preparing it. It’s also my last such course. I retire in the summer.

I can’t imagine a more rewarding job than teaching people who actually want to learn how to become critical readers of literature. As part of that work, I have been lucky in the past fourteen years to spend a lot of time working with teachers on new - and old - ways of teaching literature: helping (mainly) young people learn how to read critically and with respect both for what they read and for the writers who wrote what they read. I spent two days last week in Paris, with a group of fifty teachers from all over France, doing just that. And while I was there, a few lines by Susan Sontag about the importance of literature kept nagging away at the back of my mind. I couldn’t quite remember them, but I’ve looked them up now that I am home again:

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives lived may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. (At The Same Time, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007 p.213)

I hope Sefan Collini would agree with Sontag about this. Certainly her words resonate with what he wrote in his polemical TLS essay, and together they convince me that what I’ve been trying to do all these years has been fundamentally worthwhile.

It is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. (‘Impact on humanities’, TLS, 13 November 2009)

Adrian Barlow

3 April 2011

[photo: Madingley Hall lawns, early morning

For full details of all courses and programmes offered by the Institute of Continuing Education, visit


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