Keeping it très réel en Paris…

Ms E-Mentor is currently not being very virtual, or particularly online. I’ve been doing a few of my VLE ‘demo’ visits to UK English departments, and most recently enjoyed meeting colleagues at the University of Chester. Professor Deborah Wynne, who invited me, told me she was once an undergraduate at Wolverhampton, which was nice to discover.

But Ms E-Mentor has undoubtedly been busy. Very busy. Last Friday I was part of le jury des thèses à la Sorbonne, en Paris, for a PhD candidate who had written on William Morris and the book arts and his influence into the early twentieth century on presses such as the Eragny Press of Lucien Pissarro and the Cranach Press in Germany. This involved my having to resussitate my very rusty A-Level French and I had a fortnight of quite intensive French revision.

The bonus, of course, was that I had 48 hrs à Paris. I was staying in the cinquième arrondissement, près de la Rue Mouffetard, which is fabulous: it’s a long, narrow, medieval street full of wonderful shops. I had simply forgotten how well les français ‘do food’.

Fromagerie, Rue Mouffetard

Les poissons, charcuterie, fromagerie, les légumes et les fruits — tous sont merveilleux! As I wandered along this street, several times during my stay as it took me from my hotel to the Sorbonne, I thought that some things will never ever be replaceable by the virtual.

I was so trigger happy after the viva that I decided to be a complete tourist and go all the way up La Tour Eiffel.  Par nuit. Me and a few hundred loved-up teengaers.  There’s no doubting that La Tour Eiffel is a nineteenth-century wonder of engineering and ingenuity, and as I stood underneath it I figured that it was going to have to make an entry into my introductory lecture on the Victorians to the First Years this week.

La Tour Eiffel


On the Saturday morning I also made a bit of a pilgrimage to La Tombe d’Oscar Wilde, crée par Jacob Epstein in 1912.  La Cimetière Père-Lachaise is well worth a visit.  It’s the Highgate Cemetery of Paris, where the great and the good wish to be buried, although — having never visited Highgate — I imagine it’s a bit less gloomy.  Really, it’s a kind of nineteenth and twentieth century sculptural feast of ways of remembering the dead.

I had seen a photo of Wilde’s tomb, and partly because I am just such a big fan of Wilde, and have been teaching him for several years, I knew that one day I wanted to visit.  And it’s still quite a tourist attraction.  There’s an official sign that says “Please respect the tomb of Oscar Wilde” … and then there’s the graffitti!  It’s quite simply fabulous, and it’s hard not to think that Oscar would have loved the fact that people write quotes by him on the tomb (“either this wallpaper goes or I do”) AND that it is covered in lipstick kisses.  His name had been outlined all the way round in bright red lipstick.  My French PhD student told me that one of the kisses was hers.

To my shame I did not bring green carnations, or even lilies.  I was slightly put off by the extortionate price of flowers in the flower shops en les environs de la cimetière.  But the excessive, wasteful gesture of buying expensive, over-priced flowers and leaving them to die in a day or two at Wilde’s tomb is surely what I should have done.  I’ll have to go back.

A few ‘blocks’ further on I found Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s grave.  No one else  interested in that at all except me on a Saturday morning, and it’s not a sculpturally showy grave, but I was quietly pleased they were buried together.

And now, back home, I’ve spent yesterday and this morning working up my ‘Introduction to the Victorian Period’ lecture.  Paris is going to get a mention…


If you are tired of London…

Now the snow has gone, Ms E-Mentor has decided to crawl out of her carefully-crafted igloo.  Actually it’s melted, but all in all what this partly adds up to is that there are not a lot of e-learning things going on at the moment because it’s our end-of-semester marking period, and Semester Two’s teaching has yet to start. 

So this gives me an excuse to drift off topic and talk about what I did over New Year, which was go to London.  I love London.  It is one of the most amazing cities in the world.  As I did my PhD there (Birkbeck College, University of London) I still know some of the centre of London well enough to be able to wander around with only the occasional nod to my A-Z.  The heading of this post is the start of a famous quote by Samuel Johnson (1709-84): “You find no man [or woman, Sam], at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.  No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.  Absolutely, absolutely. 

We were staying in Bloomsbury very near Marchmont Street, which is a terrific neighbourhood if you don’t know it.  One of the many delights of this street is a secondhand bookshop of great magnitude: Judd Books.  We wandered into Judd Books on our way to an exhibition;  well over an hour later and about £200 pounds lighter we then staggered back to the hotel with a shed load of bargains.  A good secondhand bookshop is a place of immense stimulation and satisfaction and Judd Books is up there with the best London has to offer in my opinion for an all-round, intellectually satisying collection.  They also give a 10% discount to students. 

The exhibition was “Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill”, on at the Royal Academy until 24th January 2010.  Being a bit of a Victorianist by background, I’ve just belatedly been getting into modernism in a big way via my MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University.  

Jacob Epstein, "Rock Drill" (1913-15)

 I have seen some of Eric Gill’s sculpture before, but not extensively that of Epstein or Gaudier-Brzeska.  The Epstein room is dominated by the extraordinary, huge, human-machine phallicly straddling its machinery that is Rock Drill (1913-15).  I’ve just looked in the accompanying catalogue and find, to my surprise, that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery own this.  Never seen it on display there.  It’s an astonishingly powerful piece of work.  It was one of the first pieces of sculpture ever to incorporate a piece of machinery into itself, and its sense of menace seems absolutely of its moment as the First World War is breaking out. But the figure too launched a thousand action movie heroes’ get-up: Robocop and Batman, you’re nothing new. 

I could go on for a long time about London.  We were there on Blackfriars Bridge at midnight (along with 200,000 others) to see the fireworks, but “I grow old … I grow old …” and in future it’s probably best left to youthful folks younger than I whilst I’m at home with my cocoa.  The other delight was revisiting one of the world’s most irreplacable and vital pieces of land: The British Library.  The BL is a beautiful modern building.  It becomes even more so if you read the architect Colin St John’s account of it: see The British Library (London: Scala Publishers, 2007).  At the beginning of this account St John says that “the library and what it houses embody and protect the freedom and diversity of the human spirit in a way that borders on the sacred” (p. 2).  The BL is a building absolutely designed to embody and encourage the love of scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge, and to celebrate the book above all else.  I think for me it is one of the most irreducably necessary places on earth.  There’s still time to catch the current exhibition on there: Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs (until March 7th 2010).