Leaves of Silk

by Clare BrantProfessor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research

The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and  BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).

One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was  British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).

A diary’s lure of intimacy…

Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.

W.P. Barbellion
W.P. Barbellion, or Bruce Cummings, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived. Continue reading Leaves of Silk

Confessions of a Medical Humanist

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

When I first came to King’s more than 10 years ago now, I was dubious about ‘the medical humanities’. I knew what the medical humanities were, or at least I thought I did. It was a name that could be applied to any attempt to make sense of matters in which medicine has a say, using ideas or frames of reference derived from humanities disciplines. But I would never have described myself as a medical humanist. My work – which until then had largely been rooted in the historical study of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature – belonged in ‘English’. ‘English’ had an intellectual and institutional history I could admire (if only I had the talents of William Empson or Helen Vendler!), unlike the medical humanities, which seemed by comparison so diverse, so underdeveloped, and so wannabe. Continue reading Confessions of a Medical Humanist

Book Review: Thinking in Cases

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

thinking in cases
Thinking in Cases, by John Forrester. Published by Polity, 2016

John Forrester, who died in 2015, was the most original historian of the human sciences of his generation. His great love was the history of psychoanalysis – he was for 10 years the editor of the journal History and Psychoanalysis – and he published no fewer than four major books in that field, including the classic Freud’s Women (which he wrote with his wife, Lisa Appignanesi).

Thinking in Cases is the first of two books to be published posthumously, the second being the monumental Freud in Cambridge (co-authored with Laura Cameron), due out later this year. It comprises six essays written over the last two decades on what he memorably termed ‘case-based reasoning’. Forrester, along with many historians of science, believed that case-based reasoning had embedded itself in a variety of disciplines, in ways that experts were often reluctant to acknowledge. It might be thought that in the era of evidence-based medicine, medical education no longer needs the case. Yet, as Forrester argues in his classic essay, ‘If P, Then What? Thinking in Cases’ (1996), novice practitioners learn their science by absorbing a handful of standard experiments from scientific textbooks. These case studies – for that is what they are – serve not only to make the underlying principles more memorable, they also provide something like a shared professional memory. Continue reading Book Review: Thinking in Cases

‘We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

by Diya Gupta, PhD researcher, Department of English

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War.  Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.  And yet military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative.  What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

Extracts from these letters, exchanged between the Indian home front and international battlefronts during the Second World War, become textual connectors linking the farthest corners of the Empire and imperial strongholds requiring defence against the Axis alliance.  Such letters map the breadth of a global war and plunge deep into the Indian soldier’s psyche, revealing ruptures in the colonial identity foisted on him. Continue reading ‘We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

Painting in circles and loving in triangles: the Bloomsbury Group’s queer ways of seeing

Featured image: Duncan Grant © Tate

by Ellie Jones, PhD researcher funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Tate. Her thesis centres on expressions and perceptions of queerness and race in early twentieth century British art.

“Dearest, at this moment I would give my soul to the Devil if I could kiss you and be kissed.”

In the summer of 1908, the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant wrote anguished letters to his sometime lover and lifelong friend, the economist John Maynard Keynes. In the infancy of their romance, the pair had been forced to spend time apart while Grant holidayed with family friends, a period of separation which served only to deepen their emotional closeness. Absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Grant’s letters expose a longing for the comfort of commonality, the security we find in shared experiences. He needed the company of someone who understood what it meant to be a gay man living in Britain before decriminalisation in 1967. “How much I want to scream sometimes here for want of being able to say something I mean,” one letter reads: “It’s not only that one’s a sodomite that one has to hide but one’s whole philosophy of life; one’s feelings for inanimate things I feel would shock some people.”

Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911 © Tate

These letters are revealing of the ways Grant linked his sense of alienation, at the hands of his sexuality, to a broader sense of difference relating to the way he perceived the world around him. He understood his queerness as a central organising structure of his vision and his personhood; his “whole philosophy of life”. By making an explicit connection between his sexual alterity and his way of seeing, he leads us to consider: in what ways do our sexual pleasures and fantasies inform the way we see the world? Continue reading Painting in circles and loving in triangles: the Bloomsbury Group’s queer ways of seeing