Writing up the PhD thesis

I thought it might be useful – for myself and hopefully for readers currently doing a PhD – to jot down a few thoughts about writing up the thesis, while they’re still fresh in my mind. I haven’t personally come across many blogs or thinkpieces that describe the process in any detail, and this in itself strikes me as interesting. (There was this recently, http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2014/jun/11/writing-up-the-home-straight-of-a-phd but despite the title it didn’t really talk about the writing-up process itself – not surprising, considering the author was still 3 months away from submission.) On the grapevine, you hear isolated anecdotes of tears and breakdowns and bizarre eating patterns and sleepless editing marathons. Before getting there myself, I saw several friends and acquaintances fade away from the social scene for a few months and then return, relieved to have Writing Up out of the way but mysteriously muted about how it actually worked. I’m guessing this silence is due to the fact that generally, once you’re out of it, you don’t really want to go back there – and people are too polite to ask you to. 

Nonetheless I think, as with most aspects of academia, we can make a hard thing easier by talking about it. There are a few things I wish I’d known before I started the whole process. So with that in mind, and also with the more selfish motivation that I think it’s useful to reflect upon and learn from your experiences, here are a few observations about Writing Up drawn from my own experience. These are absolutely personal and are not meant to speak for everyone’s experiences – in particular, the way this works will vary hugely between disciplines. I’m an English Literature PhD studying at York, so I guess this should be seen as roughly applicable to the way Writing Up works for UK doctoral students in the humanities. But even then, your experience might be completely different from mine.

1) It took about three drafts, and about six months. 
What I mean by this is that in January 2014 I had five big rambling pieces of work on different authors that each addressed some aspect of naming in eighteenth-century literature, and that I swaggeringly called ‘chapters’. They weren’t chapters. They were overgrown conference papers, or three conference papers linked together, or hybrid lumps of literature review and close reading. I also had thousands of pages of notes and ramblings. I still didn’t know exactly what my argument was; how these things might all link up and form a cogent argument that could actually contribute to current scholarship. I realised this in January, and I panicked a bit. So what happened between January and June?

2) There shouldn’t be one big deadline. There should be several small ones.
Around January, I started to really use my supervisor. That is, I said, ‘I want to send you a draft of my thesis by x. Please hold me to it.’ I tried to make it so that I’d make myself look pretty stupid if I didn’t make the deadline. Then I got to work. And oh god, that first draft. It was awful. I was trying to link these pieces of work together, pulling new arguments out of thin air, jettisoning lovingly crafted ones that I’d worked on for the best part of year but just didn’t fit any more. It made me wonder what the hell I had been doing all my PhD. It made me think, ‘I can’t do this, I should just give up.’ But in the end I got a first draft, in all its awfulness, and sent it off to my supervisor. That first draft took about three months.

Once I got feedback from my supervisor, a funny thing had happened. I kind of knew a lot of what she’d say in advance. Working on the thesis as if it was a large, unitary piece of work – even though I was riddled with self-loathing as I did it – made me aware of many of the weaknesses of my argument, and also – a sadly smaller number – the strengths that I needed to research more, and make more central to the structure. Once I had my supervisor’s thoughts to confirm what I already knew and embellish it with insights that only she could give, I was away on a second draft, which took me from April to May. I passed it on to her again, with a tight turnaround for feedback, and then I wrote the final draft in the last two weeks before hand-in. 

3) Expect to be working right up until the last minute
The last draft in the last two weeks? Sounds a bit… close to the bone? Well, yes. I don’t know if everyone thinks they’ll be done and dusted a few weeks before the submission date, and just be leisurely proofreading, honing their acknowledgments, maybe doing a fun wordcloud. I did. But it didn’t work like that. Over those six months, I became more passionately invested in my subject than I had ever been invested in anything before. I wanted this thesis to be great. I wanted it to say everything. I read and read and read, sometimes scanning seven or eight books a day, following endless paper trails to find that critical source that I knew would bolster my argument, to revisit that text which I didn’t think I’d quite grasped yet. I re-shaped my chapters endlessly, splitting them into two, moving sections around, chasing after the Platonic Thesis, the ur-thesis, the thesis that would say EXACTLY what I wanted to say. This continued until the final week.

Maybe it shouldn’t have done. Maybe I should have eased off at the second draft, polished what I’d got, checked my formatting and sent it in. Or maybe I should have extended my deadline, because…

4) You can set yourself a hard and fast deadline and stick to it, or be more flexible.
At York, you have to file your Intention to Submit two months in advance. So around 6 April, I filled in a form to say I’d hand in on 6 June, and the talks about arranging examiners began. But here’s the thing: if your intention to submit is before the end of your registration period (that is, if you’re planning on finishing before your 4 years has expired) then it’s flexible. You don’t need to stick to the deadline.

But this wouldn’t work for me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. So, I set myself a deadline that I HAD to stick to for handing in my thesis. My motivation for doing so was that I had accepted a short term fellowship at the Huntington Library in California, and booked my flights and accommodation for 8 June. So I had to hand in by June 6th or I’d lose my money and perhaps my fellowship too. 

I suspect my supervisor thought I was mad. No flexibility for emergencies, no time off to recover. But there was method in my madness. I have always found, personally, that I am most productive when I’m working to a deadline that CANNOT be shifted. There’s something about fear that induces a wonderful clarity of purpose. If I had been able to put the deadline back, and back, and back, then I think I’d still be there, labouring after Draft 2. 

Maybe that would have produced a better thesis. I’ll never know. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that I don’t think my health would have taken it. Because…

5) This might be the most physically difficult thing you’ll ever do.
I was prepared for Writing Up to be a mental strain. I was prepared for feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and nerves. What I was’t prepared for was how physically tough it was. It all stemmed from lack of sleep, I think. I found it very hard to get a good night’s sleep where I wasn’t dreaming about tracking changes, and eventually I found myself, near my three deadlines, sleeping and working in shifts – six hours’ work, two hours’ nap, repeat ad nauseam. What this means is that I stopped doing any exercise at all, because I was always too tired. And near my deadlines I ate whatever was in the fridge or takeaways, which made me feel even worse. Smoking didn’t help either. 
By the time of my third deadline, the sleep deprivation got to a point where I was actually hurting myself quite badly. I fell over in the street because my balance was constantly off – hilarious pratfall, but I was in pain for days. My face was always aching because I was grinding my teeth when I did sleep. I had a constant agonising crick in my neck. My stomach was a mess. My immune system was buggered, and I picked up a hideous cold in the final weeks. 

This is one thing I really think I could have managed better. If I’d controlled my diet better (maybe by getting a job lot of fruit and veg once a week) and tried to make sure I jogged just 20 minutes every few days, I think it would have paid dividends further along the line.  The time spent at the supermarket or in the park feels like a big sacrifice at the time, but trust me, you don’t want to end up as physically knackered as I was.

6) Deciding to apply for jobs at the same time as writing up is a big decision.
There were a few key moments over the last year of my PhD when, without even really being aware of it, I made some quite important choices about how the very crucial last few months would be organised. The first of these choices was: Should I apply for jobs during my final year, at the same time as I’m trying to write up? I chose yes, back in late summer 2013, because some goodlooking postdocs were starting to crop up on jobs.ac.uk and I would technically be eligible for them because I would be handed in (hopefully) by their start date of autumn 2014. But I could have chosen no, and that would have meant a less stressful year, but a vastly reduced chance of segueing smoothly into a job – instead, most likely, I would have planned on having a year out working in a cafe or bar and picking up teaching where I could, while starting the applications a year later.

It’s impossible to speculate accurately about the road less not taken, but I can tell you about the one I took. Applying for academic jobs is an exhausting process (and it will be the subject of a post for another day). Doing it while trying to write up is pretty hideous in a way, because the moment you feel like you’re finally getting into a work groove, another job comes up and you have to drop everything to write another self-praising spiel. It keeps throwing your rhythm off. Also, unless you are very lucky, you get rejections. And a slew of rejections, while you’re trying your best to keep your morale up, can feel pretty devastating.

But there are also benefits to it. When you get good news, when you get shortlisted or invited to interview or basically open any email saying “We are pleased to tell you…”, Writing Up feels, for a moment, feather-light. Added to that, I think that applying for jobs really helps you hone your ideas towards the thesis. When you’re constantly having to explain succinctly what your thesis is about, when you’re constantly having to send in sample work of different lengths, it’s like a series of min-deadlines that helps you towards your ultimate goal. It’s an irritation in the short term, but genuinely helpful in the long run.

7) You will, finally, feel that you know what you’re talking about. And that will feel amazing.
I don’t want this to be a misery memoir. I’ve saved this point for last, because it is so important. In one very bizarre way, the last six months was one of the best times of my life. I was almost exclusively focused on one thing, one project, one goal. To be working towards it, with few other distractions, was a buzz: I could lose track of time while writing and realise at the end that I had finally made that breakthrough; managed to express that tricky paradox or link up those two awkward thoughts. Finally, at the end of four years of study, I felt that I knew my field very well indeed, and knew where my argument fitted into it. I felt confident that I could defend my thoughts and inform those of my colleagues, and that I was making a genuinely original contribution to knowledge. That is a precious, exquisite feeling. That’s why we do this.

So, if you’re in the home strait (or approaching it) – bon courage. You can do it. Try to stay healthy, and try to enjoy it along the way. This is why we do this. Keep swimming.

(PS Let me know if you found this helpful – I’m considering doing similar posts on the viva and job applications, if they’d be of use to anyone.)

Top 5 healthy recipes from someone very unlikely to do a blog post about top 5 healthy recipes

Bit of an unusual post for me, this one. I’m certainly not a healthy eating or (god forbid) dieting evangelist – I love my food and am very far from averse to a curry or cheeseboard, so you won’t usually catch me detoxing, counting calories, singing the praises of quinoa or lauding half-fat yoghurt. But after the Christmas binge this year, I felt really grotty and decided to have a few weeks of (mainly) eating healthily. I found it quite hard to get a good collection of recipes in one place that were heavy on the good stuff but also (a) filling (b) delicious (c) suited to the batch cooking necessitated by a student budget and hectic schedule. Eventually I assembled this crop of glories, and thought it might be nice to share. They’re mainly savoury dishes as I don’t have a massive sweet tooth, so you might need to get your low-fat blueberry muffins somewhere else, soz. And many of them are quite spicy.

As with any recipe I ever post, all the ingredients here are available in a big Sainsburys. You shouldn’t need any fancy kitchen stuff except a food mixer. If you don’t have a food mixer, I don’t know what to say to you except get one.

Without further ado, Coulombeau’s top 5 healthy delights:

5) Warm quinoa salad with grilled halloumi.

This one came my way courtesy of my best buddy and quinoa fiend Rosa. It is very good. I add a lot more peppers than they specify here, and use low fat halloumi (which is practically indistinguishable from full fat imho. Unlike low fat cream cheese, which tastes of bleach and sadness.) Make a batch, sort yourself out for four or five lunches.


4) Spicy red lentil curried soup


Ignore the fact it looks like vomit. This soup is unbelievably delicious and pretty much everything in it is good for you. Low fat coconut milk is absolutely fine – again, can’t taste the difference really.

3) Rump steak with sauteed fennel and green bean salad, pearl barley and low fat blue cheese dressing

I’ve lost the recipe for this one, which is annoying. So I’ll recreate it. It’s a bit posher than the others and includes cheese (maaaaaan, I love cheese) but it’s probably still alright for you, on balance. You will need (for two):

2 rump steaks

Pack of raw green beans

Pack of baby fennel

Pack of pearl barley






Put the pearl barley in a pan of simmering water – it will need to cook for about an hour. After forty minutes, trim the ends off the beans and put them on to boil in a separate pan. Take a third pan (pref a griddle one) and heat it up with a small amount of butter. Slice your fennel and sautee it for a few minutes each side. Remove. Get your steak, trim fat off and season both sides well, then fry in the fennel-juicy griddle pan for as long as you like. While you’re doing that, knock together this insanely good blue cheese dressing  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/light-blue-cheese-recipe/index.html

Drain the cooked pearl barley and green beans and mix well with lemon juice, salt, pepper and parsley. Put on plate and top with the steak and fennel. Drizzle with dressing. Scoff.

2) Crispy black bean burritos with avocado yoghurt dip.

Mmmmmm. And again, mmmmmmm. Make a big pot of this burrito mix (I add lean chicken), grab some wholemeal wraps and have delicious burritos for days. The avocado dip is fantastic too. Eat with hot sauce, if you’re me.



1. Malaysian spiced noodles with tofu


This is my go-to when I have the veggies over for tea, and I think it’s the only thing I make that honestly isn’t any better with meat. Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients – the initial paste only takes five minutes to make with a mixer, and the smell and taste you get from using it as a base is incredible. If you want to be even healthier, leave the deep-fried tofu out (that’s also the faffiest bit) and go in heavy on the mangetout and sugar snap peas (I use both.)

Enjoy! And now (ok, in an hour or two) I’m going to order a meat feast pizza. Because, sometimes, pizza. And that’s something for which no healthy version exists.

2013’s cultural highlights – and what I can’t wait for in 2014.

It’s the last day of the year – the crushed-up crumbs in the cereal box of 2013. As Twitter seems rather reflective, I thought I’d join in with a quick round-up of my cultural highlights of 2013… and a quick look ahead to the new year and the things I can’t wait for.

2013 has, on a personal level, been the year that I had my nose deep in a book – my own. I’ve spent the majority of the year grafting away on my obese behemoth of a historical novel, Point No Point. And when I haven’t been doing that, I’ve been working on my thesis and applying for postdocs. So in some respects it seems like I haven’t really had the time to get as fully stuck into the cultural smorgasbord as I would have liked. My theatre attendance has been particularly sorrowful. Still, for what it’s worth…


Mainly I’ve had my nose deep in academic books this year. I discovered E.P.Thompson’s ancient work on working-class crime and anonymity and it kind of blew my mind. William St. Clair, James Raven, Robert Hume and Peter Garside’s bibliographic overviews of the eighteenth-century book trade are a lot more exciting than they sound. On the recommendation of my friend James Baker I started poking around in Franco Moretti’s work on ‘distance reading’ and it got my brain whizzing and crackling like popping candy.

But I have had time for a few non-academic humdingers too. At the beginning of the year I loved Adrian Teal’s bawdy compilation of eighteenth-century smut The Gin Lane Gazette, and was mentally floored by Will Self’s Umbrella (that’s more complimentary than it sounds). While in Montreal for a few months I caught up on J.K.Rowling’s recent work – The Casual Vacancy was a brave, gritty departure from Harry Potter (marred by a few bizarre editorial decisions) and The Cuckoo’s Calling was a deeply enjoyable bit of crimey escapism. I love JK, and she’d probably be my novelist of 2014: I have undying admiration for the way she isn’t content to rest on her laurels and tries to reinvent herself with each new project. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a cracking page-turner, even though I felt the near-perfection of the first half didn’t hold up in the second. Sophie Hannah’s The Carrier made me think much harder than a crime novel has any right to do. And Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon managed to drag me into the gloomy world of a care system I’d rather not know existed, and also be effortlessly readable. No mean feat.

In 2014 I’m looking forward to reading a few academic books – most prominently Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common-Law World by Tim Stretton and K.J.Kesselring; Hannah Greig’s The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London; my supervisor Harriet Guest’s Unbounded Attachment: Sentiment and Politics in the Age of the French Revolution and Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities. I’ve been trying to avoid fawning ‘Up-and-coming novels of 2014!’ articles, mainly from reasons of fiery jealousy since in my experience trying to write a novel while getting up to speed on the competition isn’t a great work strategy; but I do feel obliged to mention that Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist looks absolutely fantastic and I’ll look forward to reading it once Point No Point is finished. I’d also like 2014 to be the year I read more poetry. After meeting Zafir Kunial at the Northern Writers’ Awards I looked up some of his work and thought it was stunning. (see here http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/npc30/npc2011/kunial/ )It made me miss the clean, clipped brevity of poetry and I’d like to redress that. Reading suggestions welcome!

Films and TV

Tough one, this. I’m not the greatest film buff at the best of times (I have the attention span of a particularly flirtatious gnat when it comes to visual media) and I don’t go to the cinema that often. To add to that, I’ve mainly been trying to avoid engaging in watching anything too challenging on TV because my brain needs the fallow time after a long day’s writing. I’ve mainly been re-watching old favourites on Netflix like Buffy The Vampire Slayer – still the best show ever made to my mind, and I’ll fight anyone who says it ain’t so. Oh, and Downton Abbey. Comfort food for the weary brain. 2013 was also the year I watched the entire Leprechaun quintet and Sharknado. And The Room, a million times. Don’t hate.

In 2014, once I’ve handed my thesis in, I will be instantly chained to the sofa and forced to watch The Wire and Breaking Bad by my lad Rich, who routinely foams at the mouth with indignation that I’ve seen neither. I also really, really want to see Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing – as far as I’m concerned, the man is God. Oh, and Alan Partridge Alpha Papa.


I have hardly been to the theatre this year, and it makes me sad. Early in 2013 I saw a cracking show called Detroit at the National, and a bit later I saw a brilliant revival of Simon Stephens’ Port, but that’s about it. Stewart Lee’s latest show Much A-Stew About Nothing was predictably caustic, intelligent and uncomfortable. In the upcoming year, I will mainly be weeping and gnashing my teeth that I couldn’t afford tickets for the RSC production of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies in Stratford-upon-Avon. I am a rabid admirer of Hilary Mantel’s books, and I’m pretty sure seeing the shows would be the zenith of my earthly existence. But a trip to see the shows (kindly staggered so you have to stay at least 2 nights in Stratford) meant it would have cost hundreds of pounds. So, no go. Exciting possibilities closer to home include Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and Simon Stephens’ Blindsided at Manchester’s Royal Exchange – my favourite theatre in the world.


I’m shamelessly indiscriminatory when it comes to music, so look away now if you’re a snob. This year I’ve been listening a lot to Deerhunter, Chvrches, Vampire Weekend, Allo Darling, and Cosmo Jarvis. And Meatloaf and Cher. I really enjoyed my first visit to the Proms, lying up in the nosebleeds after a few pints gave the music a beautiful dreamy quality. Literally; I think I might have dozed off. It was lovely. And all for a fiver.

In 2014, my best amiga Rosa is taking me to see McBusted in Birmingham for my 30th birthday. Scorn me publicly if it makes you feel better; you’re crying inside.

Art and museums

I’ve hardly been to see any special exhibitions this year – much like theatre, the prices are just too astronomical for this student. I have enjoyed exhibitions at York’s According to McGee – Richard Barnes’s psychedelic Yorkscapes are absolutely stunning. Whenever in London, I like to tip my hat to the Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery. And I’ve spent wonderful mornings in the Imperial War Museum in Leeds and the Museum of London. My own art (such as it is) has generally revolved around silly acrylic portraits of historical or present celebrities who make me smile. I’d like to experiment more with silhouettes in the New Year – Jan Pienkowski style.

Speaker events

Back in March I had a grand old time seeing Will Self talk at the York Literature Festival. The York Festival of Ideas also had some brilliant speakers, particularly the panel of Ross Raisin, Jenni Fagan and Kamila Shamsie. It’s been a conference-lite year but I was absolutely blown away by Robert Hume’s plenary at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies annual conference in January, and I also enjoyed going to my first Institute for Historical Research seminar in London. This year I’d like to make it to the Hay Festival (I’ve never been), and I’m looking forward once again to the York Literature Festival which features Germaine Greer and Roger McGough in 2014. I’m presenting a paper at BSECS again (panel entitled ‘The Fame Game’, paper entitled ‘O’ my life, I think he makes talk for the who;e county: Naming Caleb Williams’, but after that NO MORE CONFERENCES. Not until I am Doctor Coulombeau.

That’s pretty much it, though I’m sure I’ve left a lot out. Feel free to let me know your cultural highlights or what you’re looking forward to in 2014. And happy new year to one and all!


Amazing CFP – ‘Encounters, Affinities, Legacies: the 18th century in the Present Day’ – conf at York in June.

Here’s a CFP for what looks like it will be an incredible conference. I’m not involved with the organization & not trying to take credit for it by putting it on this blog, but it just seemed like the easiest way to share over Twitter etc since there isn’t (yet) a website.

CFP Encounters, Affinities, Legacies – the Eighteenth Century in the Present Day II


I’d quite like to submit an improved version of a paper I originally came up with for a ‘Celebrating Carter’ forum I ran with two friends in the Spring to mark the 20-year anniversary of Angela Carter’s death. It’s called (something along the lines of) ‘Celia’s Bits: Demystification of the Feminine in the writing of Angela Carter and Jonathan Swift’. Would quite like to do a panel. Any other Swiftians / Carterites/ scholars of the grotesque / female bodies / mythologies out there?

In London at the moment researching – super interesting stuff emerging about surname change. Each name change petition a little narrative. Blog update soon!

‘The Tinker’. Or, ‘Bumming, bumming, bumming.’

This is the most bizarre poem in existence by Wordsworth. 
Or by, you know, anyone. 

Unsurprisingly, it was never printed. 

The Tinker

 Who leads a happy life
 If it's not the merry Tinker?
 Not too old to have a Wife ;
 Not too much a thinker :
 Through the meadows, over stiles, 
Where there are no measured miles, 
Day by day he finds his way 
Among the lonely houses : 
Right before the Farmer's door
 Down he sits ; 
his brows he knits ; 
Then his hammer he rouzes ; 
Batter ! batter ! batter ! 
He begins to clatter ; 
And while the work is going on 
Right good ale he bowses ; 
And, when it is done, away he is gone ; 
And, in his scarlet coat, 
With a merry note, 
He sings the sun to bed ; 
And, without making a pother, 
Finds some place or other 
For his own careless head. 
When in the woods the little Fowls 
Begin their merry-making, 
Again the jolly Tinker bowls
 Forth with small leave-taking : 
Through the valley, up the hill ;
 He can't go wrong go where he will :
 Tricks he has twenty, 
And pastimes in plenty ; 
He's the terror of boys in the midst of their noise ; 
When the market Maiden, 
Bringing home her lading, 
Hath passed him in a nook, 
With his outlandish look, 
And visage grim and sooty, 
Bumming, bumming, bumming,
 What is that that's coming ? 
Silly Maid as ever was ! 
She thinks that she and all she has
 Will be the Tinker's booty ; 
At the pretty Maiden's dread 
The Tinker shakes his head, 
Laughing, laughing, laughing, 
As if he would laugh himself dead. 
And thus, with work or none, 
The Tinker lives in fun, 
With a light soul (sic) to cover him ; 
And sorrow and care blow over him, 
Whether he's up or a-bed.

Strange Bedfellows: The School Years (or: Public engagement & why it matters)

I’m incredibly happy to announce some brilliant Strange Bedfellows-related news. The project team has received funding to run a public engagement programme in York over Spring Term 2013 that will add a fascinating dimension to our research about project about  creativity, analysis and arts/educational policy. Six humanities research students from the University of York, and six from the University of Leeds, will be workshopping with Year 12 students from Huntington School to observe and calibrate their creative and analytical processes, and interview them about their creative lives, curricula and aspirations. This will lead to a project report and hopefully a journal article about the findings of this strand of the project; a short film; and an exhibition of the Year 12 students’ creative work to coincide with the York Festival of Ideas in June 2013. We’re very grateful to Huntington School and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York for investing in the project to enable this to happen!

We are currently recruiting postgraduate workshop facilitators  – if you’re a humanities postgraduate at either university, and you’d like to gain unique public engagement experience, please have a look at the full info here and drop us an email!

Facilitator recruitment email

Why are we doing this, you might wonder? What are PhD students doing poking around in secondary schools? Don’t they have enough on their plates? Well, yes, we do. But when we set up our project originally (see here for a post talking about its origins), we decided that we weren’t happy with the prospect being just a series of seminars or lectures given by academics to other academics in the rooms of a university.  We wanted our knowledge base and audience to be far more inclusive than that. Inspired by the emphasis in recent years on public engagement in academia, we decided to talk to a rising generation of school leavers from different social backgrounds and pursuing different educational curricula, just deciding what to do with their lives, about the issues that we’re interested in. How do they see creativity? How does it relate to their current school curriculum or other analytical activity? Is creativity a passion, an aspiration, a hobby, a luxury, a necessity? We wanted to observe the processes by which they create and analyse, and give them the opportunity to challenge our values and preconceptions, which can’t help but be somewhat rooted within the academe.

We also wanted to try to give the students a voice in some of the debates about educational and arts policy that are currently raging – after all, they will  be just as affected by current government policy on these matters as us, and perhaps more so. Recent developments in government policy indicate a worrying trend to dismiss the arts and humanities as unimportant or disposable. Key among these are the slashing of funding for arts organisations across the UK, the accepted recommendation of the Browne Report to eradicate the teaching grant for arts and humanities subjects in universities, and the recent decision to exclude arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate.­­ The government’s current approach – paying lip service to the importance of creativity while systematically removing support from its facilitators – risks producing a generation of young people whose state education system dismisses arts subjects as unimportant, who are opting out of arts degrees which might enable careers in the creative industries because they are too expensive, and who have no access to affordable cultural activities in their local communities. To the best of our knowledge, the young people whose futures are at stake have seldom been asked for their opinions on the relationship between creativity and analysis, their curricula and their creative lives, their aspirations and the opportunities that are provided for them by the state. This workshop programme aims to give them an opportunity to intervene in this debate.

So if you know anyone at York or Leeds who might be interested, do point them in the direction of this blog post or of the Strange Bedfellows website, and ask them to drop us a line. We’ll be selecting facilitators just before Christmas, and training in January to commence the workshops on 30 January 2013.

Ode to Arts Council England

Recently Arts Council England published this write-up of my German translation deal for Rites. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/yorkshires-next-great-young-novelist-signs-transla/  This led me to reflect, first soppily, then angrily, on a couple of things.

I’m constantly aware of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to ACE for its role in funding the Next Great Novelist Award and the publication of Rites. However, not everyone appreciates its importance in the same way. Among other measures, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announced £34million cuts to DCMS, some of which will very likely hit ACE (which has already cut administrative costs by 50%) hard. (see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/dec/05/autumn-statement-2012-arts-funding).

I’ll be writing to my MP about the amazing impact that ACE has had on my life and how worried I am about the impact of these cuts. I know most people won’t have the time / motivation to do this, but if anyone has enjoyed or profited from reading Rites, please do just bear in mind that, like many other books you may have enjoyed, it’s an Arts Council England baby. As well as funding initiatives to discover and nurture new talent in unusual places, ACE undertakes very important work in supporting writers who need to take a bit of time out from their day jobs to write. The vast majority (especially new writers who aren’t lucky enough to be independently wealthy) simply can’t survive on (retrospective) earnings from sales of their books, the lion’s share of which goes to retailers. So, if you love literature, love the ACE, and appreciate its work, and spare it a little thought come May 2014.

A Portrait Of The Thesis As A Young Scrawl

Once again, it’s been a ridiculous amount of time since my last post. Well over a month. As ever, I have big gropey handfuls of excuses. Been away. Been writing a play. Been exhausted. Been teaching. Been marking. Been applying for fellowships and funding. Been supporting friends going through difficult times. Been planning public engagement project. Been submitting papers for conferences and journals. Been drunk. Been reading Bring Up The Bodies. However, most of all been doing  something I haven’t blogged about that much so far – the bread and butter of PhD work – a Chapter.

The fact that the Chapter, and the associated re-working of my thesis that it occasioned, took up so much of my summer and autumn means that the academic side of stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. Given this, and the fact that I have recently been chatting to several friends who want to start a PhD / have just done so and are anxious about it, I thought it might be worth blogging a bit about the thesis in its own right – where it comes from, how it develops, why it takes as long as it does. Partly because my posts about academic work seem (somewhat to my surprise) to find the readiest audience and most enthusiastic reception to date, but also partly as a selfish exercise in reflectiveness. Doing a PhD in my subject, you’re so often bogged down in the most quotidian and minute of details – how can I go about dating this letter? where can I get access to this out-of-print book? – that I think it’s beneficial from time to time to squint broadly at the project as a whole as if taking in a view of a landscape. Ask where it came from, ask where it’s at, ask where it’s going.  Ask why you’re bothering and why it’s important.

I am now a bit over two years into my PhD, which is sort of only supposed to last for three years (that is, this is how long the AHRC pays my fees and gives me a stipend for) but really always lasts four (that is, I’ve only ever heard of one person doing my subject who finished in three, and a senior academic confided in me recently that “when someone’s finished in three years, you can usually tell by looking at their thesis”. The fourth year is a tricky prospect, which shall be blogged about hereafter. For now, any offers of lucrative work that can be combined with frenzied writing-up will be gratefully received). My project, as I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog post, examines how the relationship between personal proper naming and identity was conceptualized in Britain in the late eighteenth century (specifically 1779-1800). I do this through examining a large number of different kinds of text – novels, poetry, plays, pamphlets, diaries, philosophical and political treatises, dictionaries, prints and paintings, government records and correspondence – for manifestations of concern or preoccupation with this relationship. I then work from that evidence to ask how and why the act of proper naming was made, during this period, to stand as this kind of site where anxieties about kinship, belonging, social position, gender, race and nationality were worked out. What impact this process of working out has on literature and especially the development of the novel. And how it has impacted on notions of identity as they exist today.

At least, that is what my project is NOW about. It wasn’t always thus. It started off like this:


This is a page of notes I found the other day that tickled me pink, because it records the exact moment at which I hit on a PhD project. I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was sitting in a seminar on William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, which was taught by Professor Stuart Curran (a great man in the field of 18th century studies… it was actually the last seminar Stuart taught before he retired).  Stuart casually mentioned at one point that he wished someone would do a project on literary names, because the name ‘Tyrrel/l’ (as in, Godwin’s character Barnabas Tyrrel and Burney’s character Justice Tyrrell) has an interesting lineage and there are many others like it in literature of the era. My notes show my excitement. “Names! Names, names, names. Waverley / Willoughby. Anville / Lovell / Tyrrell” I scrawled. For that seminar, I wrote a paper about how the novelist Charlotte Smith engaged with Lockean philosophy around naming in her novel Desmond. Stuart was incredibly supportive of the essay, and encouraged me to send it off to a competition run by the journal Eighteenth Century Fiction. They turned it down for publication, but sent me a very nice letter saying I was ‘considered a runner-up’. Mildly gratified, I left Penn to start a job working for the government back in London, and forgot all about it.

But not for long. Civil service work did not agree with me, and I hankered after the books. So after a year or two, I got back in touch with Stuart, now retired, and asked him if he thought my project had legs as the focus for a doctorate. I got an incredibly encouraging email back, and the name of a potential supervisor at York with whom he strongly recommended I get in touch. She was no less supportive. I managed to slap together an application in my evenings after work; the rest is history.

But the project, the project. What even was the project? I remember well the feeling of utter disorientation I got from turning up at York with this vague idea, this inane-seeming suspicion that “there was something quite interesting about how people were talking about names” and little else. I knew I thought several writers were talking about names in particularly interesting ways – Burney, Godwin, Smith – but what they were really getting at or why they were doing it or what its importance was I had no idea. I felt guilty that someone had given me money, had placed their confidence in me to come up with something worth knowing, when I had so little solid certainty to offer in return. I spent my first year reading widely and erratically – about seventeenth-century memorial sculpture; twentieth century memorials for genocide victims; deed poll procedure today; eighteenth debating societies, charities and embryonic law enforcement agencies. I blundered down blind alleys that led nowhere (presenting papers about epitaphs and satire) and others that actually led somewhere fascinating, though not the place I’d imagined (surveillance theory, anyone?). I changed the focus of my prospective thesis a million times; in terms of chronology, generic focus, subject matter. I narrowed it to one author and widened it to include the world. I lay awake at night worrying that I would never settle, never get it sorted, that I would be kneading and poking a vast limitless expanse of playdough-like text, failing to mould it into any definitive shape, for time immemorial.

Eventually (and not before a few months ago) I settled on a compromise that just – and I really can’t put it any better than this – felt right. Twenty years, not fifty. Five or six major writers and a lot of ‘backup singers’ to boot, not just one. Proper personal naming only – the names that human beings call themselves and others – rather than all kinds of naming, which basically becomes a thesis on language itself. I defined roughly, clumsily, how the question I wanted to explore fitted in with criticism that already existed, on historical naming practices, on literary naming strategies, on existing theories about how the fluid notion of ‘identity’ came to exist in the form that we understand it today, on accounts of the novel’s importance in this process. I took the material I had written so far- one long chapter on Burney, about five conference papers and a lot of book reports and fragments of text – and parceled them out into five rough clusters of related material. I kept those pieces of paper on a notice board and wrote questions and ideas and re-shaping suggestions on post-its and stuck them up there. One of the chapters was bullying all the others in a most unseemly manner, so I broke it up and moved all its bits around. Another was clearly never going to thrive, so I brutally exterminated it. Eventually I was left with a workable plan. And a lot of things that I still had to do.

This was the work of a whole summer. And, really, of two years. Just to get an idea of the shape of it all.

And I’m not even finished yet. I’m so far from it.  Barely halfway there. I have a monstrous first chapter, a sort of engorged scene-setter, about the relationship between common naming philosophy and proper naming theory from 1700-1779. It needs fully rewriting and a lot more work on dictionaries. I have a reasonably polished second chapter on Frances Burney and the historical phenomenon of surname change, but this still needs to benefit from a two-week research trip I’m undertaking to the College of Arms in January. I have a conference paper and an abstract and a lot of notes that will become my third chapter on Godwin, Bentham, and disciplinary naming. I have that old paper that was rejected by Eighteenth Century Fiction, which should form the basis of Chapter Four on matrimonial naming (it looks crude and confused when I read it now, although there’s a kernel of sense at the heart of it. I can see why they said no). And I have a scattered multiplicity of book reports, anecdotes and general feschtenschrift that will become Chapter Five, which reflect on how all these different kinds of concern with naming interact when an author names a character, and what this can tell us.  That’s it. And I’m willing to bet that by this time next year, it’ll look different yet again. All the chapters will have grown, shrunk, swapped limbs, merged, dragged in their mates that I don’t even know exist yet. I will have many sleepless nights.

But the great thing? The great thing is that I’m starting, as the thing solidifies in my hands a bit, to stop feeling like a fraud. To start being able to say with a bit more confidence, “No, there is a need for this. This is a good project, and it’s important.” When I hear any discussion about civil liberties on the news, I start thinking about what I’m going to say about Godwin and Bentham, about how little work has been done about the origins of the census, and about how patchy work is on practices of documenting individual identity. When I hear someone talking about whether to change their name when they marry, I’m able to offer some kind of historical context for the way that the notion of changing this symbol of identity makes them feel; to surprise them with how many people laid out vast amounts of money on getting an Act of Parliament to change their surname in the eighteenth century and why; to interest them in Burney’s Cecilia and its pantheon of fans (Burke, Johnson, Gibbon, Napoleon, George Washington, John Quincy Adams…). When my undergrad students start chatting about J.K.Rowling’s (deft and intelligent) use of allusive names in the Harry Potter series, I’m able to enrich and contextualise their understanding a bit by talking about some of the traditions of literary naming of which she is a part. Recently I got an email from a TV production company who were potentially interested in making a programme about personal proper names and the role of eighteenth century fiction in popularising certain ones – clearly they think there might be some kind of appetite among the non-academic public to find out about this stuff.

I also had my first article accepted for an academic journal. It’s about Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the text that originally sparked my interest in this stuff, way back in 2008 in Philadelphia. My interest now comes from an entirely different angle, but it owes its existence to that early, formless instinct – “Yes, there’s something here, there’s something“. Difficult as it is at the start of the PhD, I think you have to trust that instinct. I’ve often been tempted to describe the thesis as like a jigsaw that you need to put together, fitting pieces in, taking them out, forming different clusters and then it all suddenly coming together. But in a way that’s a rubbish analogy, because it implies that there is an ur-thesis, an ideal thesis that just needs to be figured out and assembled. A friend of mine got much closer the truth, I think, when she said last night when we were discussing this, “When you get pregnant, how can you know what the baby’s going to turn out like? Even though it’s inside you.” Same with a thesis. You want it, you look forward to meeting it, you know the materials that go into it. But what will come out at the end is anyone’s guess. Hopefully you’ll love it no matter what.






“Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner.”


I do not like science. I’ve never liked it. This may have something to do with the fact that when I was eleven years old, an odious boy in my biology class put earwigs in my glasses case. Or it may have something to do with the fact that science has always seemed, in a vague way I’ve never really bothered to articulate properly, to stand against what I love most about art. It seeks to state, rather than to question. To close things down to facts, rather than open them up to possibilities. To say (mangling the words of Virginia Woolf) that “someone [or something] was this or that”. Literature, my most beloved form of art, has always seemed to be about the opposite of saying that things were this or that. It seems to be about taking the thisness or thatness, and prizing it apart to show the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the room to reframe or reinterpret. Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner. Oh, of course it’s NECESSARY. I owe science one every time I turn on my bedside lamp or log into my beloved Twitter. But that doesn’t mean we need to TALK about it.

What I say above is, of course, in itself a statement. Perhaps a rather silly one. In recent years, following my re-entrance to academia and the current vogue (an entirely worthy one, in my book) for interdisciplinarity, I’ve started to wonder whether my instinctive prejudice against the scientific bullyboy is misguided. Counterproductive. Whether perhaps my dislike for science is born more of fear (all that jargon! all those graphs!) and envy (so NECESSARY! so INDISPENSABLE! so … government-funded!) instead. I’ve started to take a tentative interest in one particular branch of science – psychology. What I’ve found has surprised and (cautiously) delighted me. Psychology, it seems to me, might be the story of the mind. Which gives it something rather in common with literature. 

This is another, more eloquent way of putting it. 

“No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?”

That is the psychologist / novelist Charles Fernyhough speaking – you can read the full article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/15/scienceandnature.society It’s rather old (2005) and Charles has done a lot of other stuff since then, but it was enough to convince me and my fellow Strange Bedfellows coordinators that we wanted to ask him to be our first speaker in the SB speaker series that kicks off on Thursday. The mission of the Strange Bedfellows project is to investigate and clarify the relationship between creativity and analysis. Who better to address this relationship than a scientist/artist, somebody who not only practices both disciplines but also sees a powerful and persuasive linkage between them? I’m looking forward to hearing how Charles separates the different strands of his professional life, forces or encourages them into interaction, and perceives the similarities and differences between them; to having him no doubt demolish my woffly objections to science’s stranglehold on the truth, but also perhaps to query convincingly whether science is concerned enough with beauty. 

Come and join us if you’re in York on Thursday and it sounds like your kind of thing. See the poster below for details. You can find out more about Charles here http://www.charlesfernyhough.com/about.html and more about the Strange Bedfellows project (including the recent fantastic posts from our interdisciplinary blogger team) here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=25.Image