Saturday, 29 November 2014

oxford reading room, working at the taylor, writing in a library - one day, one day - facing the strange, the servant contd


















Written this morning:

‎In Oxford - the only reader in the reading room. Complete stillness and quiet, apart from the tapping of Blackberry keys.

Ssshh!

I'll be crossing town and working at the Taylor shortly.

Earlier, a beautiful, relaxing walk from the ring road along Woodstock Road, down to the canal and across to the Parks.

Now wishing I had the time to spend days in this library writing, as I used to do as a student and as a reviewer and fledgling novelist. One day, day...

Finished Facing the Strange by S B Sweeney and loved it. Also, have been re-watching The Servant - have got beyond the first half and we're now well into the second. What a film! Especially enjoyed the London scenes - the London I  visited as a child.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

oxford clay, losey's servant, patrick gale, sb sweeney - facing the strange, facts of life

















While it's not been too wet this week, there have been some heavy showers and the water does sit on the Oxford clay.

The Joseph Losey 'season' continued with the first half of The Servant. I was surprised by how well this film had lasted. It's a powerful, beautifully scripted and directed story. It had faired better, I thought, than the later Losey-Bogarde film Accident, which I watched a few weeks back.

Meanwhile, reading two good books: Notes From an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and Facing the Strange by SB Sweeney.

The Gale was recommended by a friend. I immediately felt at home in the Cornish artist-colony setting. I've enjoyed Patrick Gale's work and very much enjoyed meeting him when he was the guest writer at an Arvon course I did several years ago at Totleigh Barton in Devon. I remember there was supposed to be a book signing but he had to leave before it happened. However, he took the trouble to arrange for signed stickers to be sent to everyone who had bought a copy of his novel during the course.

The first review I ever wrote for a newspaper was of his excellent novel The Facts of Life - see below.

I've nearly finished Facing the Strange and am much enjoying it. For more on SB Sweeney and his well-crafted and individual work, see http://www.sbsweeney.com.

ATTITUDES TO SEXUALITY SEEN TROUGH THE GENERATIONS - Oxford Times, Friday June 16 1995

Patrick Gale's new novel is an enjoyable read in spite its sombre themes. He makes us care about issues through good, well-rounded characters and a compelling storyline, though there are times when the narrative does get overburdened with his dizzying ideas.

His primary interest is in how post-war attitudes to sexuality have evolved, transforming individuals and families. He writes about sex, both gay and straight, with wit, tempered by maturity and intelligence.

At the heart of the novel is the Aids crisis. By setting the disease in a broader context Gale attempts, boldly, to rationalise our understanding of it.

He explores his themes through the experiences of three generations of the Pepper family. The comparative innocence of Sally and Edward contrasts with the carefree anarchy of their daughter Miriam with her coterie of lovers, and the complex, dangerous world of their grandchildren, Alison and Jamie.

The family home, The Roundel, a twelve-sided folly, plays an important part in uniting and redeeming the different generations. It is a powerful symbol of maternal love, linked poignantly to the healing power of time.

Although Gale dwells more on the present, his imaginative realisation of 1940s provincial life, quaking from the social aftershocks of war, is remarkably vivid. Throughout, his insight into both male and female experience is almost Tiresian.

Despite the plethora of ideas, what shines through in this novel is a refreshing optimism. Gale believes in the ability of ordinary people to face tough challenges heroically, and in their natural inclination towards fair-mindedness, if only given the chance.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

misty walk, reflection, familial love



















Walked above Oswestry in the mist yesterday morning.

We were staying with family for my mother-in-law's memorial service.

A walk of reflection. A day of sadness and remembrance and of strengthened familial love and friendships.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

cold, bonfire, diploma, stylometry, jan rybicki, stylistics, economist, future of the book, burger-n-picpoul, hollybush

















Suddenly, there's cold weather to contend with. And heavens above, it's not really cold for November but just seems that way after a spoilingly hot summer extending well into autumn.

The central heating's now on to supplement the log fire.

The above pic isn't in fact our grate but the remnants of the Wolvercote Green fireworks night bonfire, taken as I headed to the canal on the morning of 6th November.

Alas, one of my last walks this way for some months, I imagine, unless we get an unusually dry spell. The beautiful first quarter of the walk, that feels like you are in the country rather than town, is suitably muddy and while I don't mind this I am only too aware of mud falling off my shoes onto the carpets in meetings and in senior colleagues' offices. So, it's pavement till Summertown and joining the canal there, from now on.

This week, amongst other things, I've been preparing for my long fiction module of the Oxford diploma. It's been fun to revisit the course materials, not least in the light of things I've been doing on other courses and for the Continuing Education Open Day event last Tuesday (which was great fun to do - great group of people taking part). Now looking forward to the first seminar early next week.

Very much enjoyed Jan Rybicki's talk on Stylometry and visualisation on Thursday evening (see last week's post for the outline). Rybicki's approach involves determining the frequency of words in digital texts and then applying a statistical process to the results in order to put them into meaningful forms such as graphs or diagrams and other visualisations.

One surprise to me was that Rybicki works with only a pretty small number of the most frequently used words in any given text - from 100 to 400. Also, these words tend to be common-or-garden ones such as 'the' and 'and'. Well, no great surprise there, given the parameters of the data collection - articles and conjunctions are bound to feature in the top most frequently used words list. What is really surprising, is that it is an author's use of the more mundane words that provides stylometrists with the information needed to attribute authorship and define an author's particular style relative to those of other writers. The words used in the analyses aren't the more esoteric ones that one might have expected to define individual style. And nor are they the ones that necessarily reveal the content of the work (as opposed to its tell-tale style).

Without going into too much detail (which would be beyond me, in any case), Rybicki has been using a statistical process known as Burrow's Delta (after it's creator, John Burrows) to analyse stylistic variations between ever increasing numbers of authors and works. The method appears to be an extremely accurate way of attributing works to a particular author. It also enables Rybicki to differentiate not just different authors but differences between the works of a given author. The works of Le Carré (who Rybicki translates into Polish), for example, cluster into different periods of authorship within the overall Le Carré-style grouping.

By applying the method to thousands of English texts, Rybicki is able to create beautifully striking visualisations that would make Rothko envious and that reveal relationships between authors across many centuries or other ways of grouping the word counts. While many of the groupings are as one would expect them to be, it is the small unexpected differences that are especially revealing. Tolkien's style for example setting him amongst writers of earlier centuries and Virginia Woolf cropping up in different areas of a diagram because of the different styles in which she apparently wrote. (Cases of statistical methods giving empirical backing to things that critics may have picked up intuitively - or at least less scientifically.)

Rybicki also noticed how women writers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century seemed to have developed male styles in order to get their work published, whereas in later periods women writers' styles became more differentiated from male writers of similar eras. Until we get to the present, where styles of both male and female authors become much more intermixed and more difficult to define as masculine or feminine.

I was intrigued by a story that Rybicki told against himself. When he looked at translations into Polish from English that he had done (Le Carré, Ishiguro and other authors) in comparison with the translation work done by Polish colleagues, he noticed that his translations seemed to cluster together, stylistically, no matter what author he was translating. Whereas, with other translators, the style varies according to the writer they are translating. He felt that this showed that other translators were better than him.

For more information about Jan, visit the Computational Stylistics Group website - which includes an excellent HOWTO PDF that explains how to apply his 'stylo' word-counting and statistical analysis method.

It takes me back to Stylistics classes at Oxford with Professor Suzanne Romaine. Stylistics and its successor Stylometry, have, I think, a very practical relevance to the creative writer, despite their initially rather abstract appearance.

Meanwhile there is a great, great essay in this week's Economist about the future of the book (both physical and e), which includes fascinating insights into new publishing models, as well as observations about the effect of digital reading on literary style and the changing expectations of authors, as far as the reasons why they write are concerned.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, just back from an excellent burger-veg-n-Picpoul lunch at the Hollybush, Witney.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

warm, misty, day of the dead, open, visualizing, accident, old friends


















Astonishingly warm morning - week indeed! Quite like it but also a part of me yearns for more seasonal weather.

Saving on heating bills. System not switched on since the spring, although we have had a few log fires to dry the air.

Enjoyed a misty canal-side walk in Oxford the other morning - top pic. Very atmospheric and calming.

Meanwhile at the Latin American Centre a Day of the Dead Altar has been constructed in memory of Gabriel García Márquez - see the paper skulls above and this interesting NPR article for the historical provenance of Day of the Dead Altars and an explanation of their elements and symbolism.

I've been preparing for my Continuing Education Open Day event next Tuesday (Fiction reader - fiction writer). The is fully booked, though there may be some returns nearer the day.

Have signed up for this intriguing event in Oxford next week: Visualizing Literature: Trees, Maps and Networks by Dr Jan Rybicki, Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. As the blurb says:

'Stylometry, the study of countable elements of (literary) language, has reached a critical moment in its development. It has transcended its earlier application in authorial attribution; it now aims at testing and challenging or confirming the existing models of literary history by going through more data than a traditional literary scholar ever could: big collections of texts that are analyzed with a whole new arsenal of quantitative statistical methods that rely on various distance measures to establish new, or confirm the old, patterns of similarity and difference between the oeuvres of individual writers, groups, genres, themes, traditions... But in doing so, stylometry now faces a new challenge of how to visualize such a big amount of literary and linguistic data.'

Another fascinating Digital Humanities event. While I am excited by the possibilities that the Digital Humanities offer us for analysing fiction, I remember visiting a friend who was doing a Linguistics DPhil in 1989, when I was attending Linguistics masters seminars with a view to taking my interest in Stylistics further. My friend was analysing the recurrence of a particular word in Shakespeare's plays and showed me reams of spreadsheets (reams of paper in those days) and I thought, Where are the plays! Digital Humanities offer possibilities but it is vital to keep contact with the wonderful works of literature themselves.

Downloaded Joseph Losey's film Accident, screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Dirk Bogarde, on iTunes the other weekend. I'd not seen the film since 1984. It was dated, has a strangely simplistic take on the academic and aristocratic 'establishments' but is still utterly compelling. Great to see views of Oxford from the sixties and how these have changed - or haven't.

Just had a lovely lunch with old friends who we haven't seen for several years. Five Alls, Filkins. A wonderful, warm occasion!