Monthly Archives: December 2012

Gap in-between: Malkin Child by Livi Michael

I recently attended a reading at my local Oxfam given by the author Livi Michael to promote her new novel Malkin Child (2012). This is a book commissioned for children that retells the story of the Pendle witches, which, as Michael suggested during her talk, was more of a challenge to write than she had initially thought. For a start the story is true, the events took place in 1612 in the county of Lancashire and are still remembered in that area. A family were accused of witchcraft, along with several ‘accomplices’, following an incident between their eldest daughter and a pedlar. Alizon, the young woman, was begging some pins from the pedlar and when he refused she cursed him. Now, as Michael pointed out during her reading, people truly believed in the power of curses at this time and although the pedlar suffered the symptoms of what we would commonly understand as a stroke, this neurological reaction was probably triggered by the sheer terror of being cursed. Even today, curses have deep psychological effects, imagine the hold that they would have gained in the darkness of an illiterate and isolated world without electricity.

I will not tell you the whole story of the Pendle witches; the mistakes Alizon made, the determination of the authorities to establish guilt – since I expect you to read Michael’s short and gripping novel. However, the real reason it was a challenge to write is the end of the story, which is worth knowing in advance. The grandmother, the mother, the sister and the brother of this family were all tried, convicted and ultimately executed on the evidence of a single person – their youngest daughter, Jennet. To be called Jennet in Lancashire today is still to be called ‘witch’, even though she was never herself accused of witchcraft. This fate, of both Jennet and her family, is a difficult one to present to children; however, Michael’s novel achieves this feat with breath-taking ease. Importantly the book is also linked to the modern day reality of witch-hunts, through supporting Stepping Stones Nigeria – a UK-based charity upholding the rights of persecuted children in the Niger Delta region of Africa.

I want to highlight two aspects of Malkin Child that particularly excited my interest. First, considering that this is such a story of gaps and lacuna, is the use of the ellipsis at the beginning to link up the introductory chapters:

‘James was just jealous, because his and Alizon’s dad died before I was born, and then a man came from over Our Hill, who turned out to be…

My Dad’ (p. 14)

James is Jennet’s half-brother, while ‘My Dad’ forms the heading for the next chapter. The form emphasises the significance of the gap between James and Alizon as primary and Jennet as secondary, marginal, unknown – since her father is cast both as an intruder while also simultaneously remaining invisible.

The ellipsis is a spinning out of the possibilities for signification because even at the end of a sentence, as above, it can be questioning, sarcastic, uncertain and also change the whole tone – forcing a rereading, particularly when the final ‘arrival’ of the phrase ‘My Dad’ is both a completion and a departure. This approach seems to suggest something about narrative, as operating out of the gaps, which is an ambiguity reinforced by Jennet who is trying to take ‘control’ of the story – Our James, Our Alizon, Our Hill, My Dad – but acknowledges that this is difficult. The Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, coaches the evidence out of Jennet in the King’s English – fascinating in itself – but, more interesting that the ends, are the means he employs. He positions Jennet as a saviour, which sets up fatal problems around meaning and understanding:

‘I’ve thought about it a lot since, and all I can think is, there’s more than one meaning to certain words, like save, and truth. There’s what he meant, and there’s what I meant’ (p. 77)

Another ellipsis, and a difficult lesson to learn whether child or adult – there is what you mean and there is what I mean – and then there is the gap in-between.

Beautiful ideas…


Read what is written here in this tattoo. It is worth the effort I promise…

Today is the day of the memoir

Jeanette Winterson wrote in her recent book Why be happy when you could be normal? that 1985 was ‘not the day of the memoir’, and yet ostensibly today is the day because everybody is doing it – John Prescott, Salman Rushdie, Jack Straw. What is going on?

Even the statement – ‘Today is the day of the memoir’ – seems like a contradiction in terms because how can today’s ‘now’ be yesterday’s ‘now’ as well.

The memoir is a conceptually solid representation or version of the past, it is a ‘product’. It is also part of current consumer culture, whereby people make purchases because they feel safe and because what they are buying is somehow ‘knowable’. Note that the tagline of a major highstreet bookseller is – ‘The Knowledge Retailer’ – as if knowledge could ever be that stable…

Find out more by following the link to my online article about contemporary memoir:

Jean-Luc Nancy and Hilary Mantel collide

This is the beginning of a paper I hope to deliver at the International Conference on Narrative at Manchester Metropolitan University in June 2013.

Akala asked ‘Who’s the Gangster’ at Manchester Metropolitan University

Akala - My power

Thursday 29th November 2012.

This event was truly inspirational!

If you want to know more… watch Akala talking about the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company:

Because that is how to teach Shakespeare!

A thing is its own best mask…

The title of my post is taken from Slavoj Zizek’s book The Parallax View and is used (on page 28) to describe the escape of Cavallo, the Argentinian economy minister, during protests against the government in Buenos Aires in 2001. He apparently made his way through the crowds disguised in a mask of his own face – being sold so that people could mock him.

There is a clip from Louis Theroux’s interview with Jimmy Savile, which I will not include here but do wish to comment upon. It now seems blatant in its revelatory quality.

Bearing in mind that a thing is its own best mask, recently on Have I got news for you? there was a similar comment made about Savile’s disguise, i.e. that he made a smokescreen of himself. This is of course the ultimate insignia of power – to see without being seen – which is the retrospective implication of Theroux’s interview.

My second point is that Savile appears in the interview as twice the ghost; the figure on the screen is the ‘ghost’ of Savile, who is now dead, but he is also the ghost of a ghost because the interview was shot prior to what has only recently been recognised. There is just the trace of a mask that once fooled.

I write this post as a counteraction to the hysteria following the Savile scandal, which is certainly ‘vile’ and especially so for remaining hidden in plain sight – but what has happened in response cannot be taken for transparency. Plus, it bears an elliptical gait because the problem of Savile’s death prevents social or legal ‘conclusion’.

And there is no certain way to deal with abuse, either on a personal or societal level, despite all the media’s attempts at reduction to a single answer. We can only read carefully what has happened, listen and reflect. This means that the only ethical path remains to live without conclusions.

Changing the game of academic publishing

The game of mainstream non-academic publishing has changed with the advent of E L James and other authors, such as Amanda Hocking, who have successfully used self-publishing tools to disseminate their work – and become very famous in the process. This is obviously a far cry from the rather embarrassing associations of the phrase ‘vanity publishing’ . This new game is empowering for the self-published author and what is more people actually read the end product, often in extremely large numbers.

And it is this extensive readership that interests me most in terms of the academic publishing world. Universities now have to account for the ‘impact’ of the research they produce as an institution; however, this angle is often in conflict with the traditional understanding of good academic practice – i.e. publish your work in the right place. However, the ‘right’ place is not necessarily where it will make the most impact, not with the advent of blogs, social media and so-called ‘viral’ phenomena. Unsurprisingly, the new generation of upcoming academics are extremely savvy with such tools and will only become more so.

Naturally, there are scams at work within web based academic publishing, which can be extremely seductive to many postgraduates desperate to get into print (it is absolutely crucial for any future academic job application). However, this is just a further reason to insist on taking back the power.

Question: Is it possible to change the game of academic publishing?

Answer: I really don’t know, but I’ll give it try.

Will you?