…Stage-Management (The Oxford Diary)

by WE

So, Tuesday was the great day. I was going to visit the house I formed much of my master thesis on and around. For those very few of you who haven’t read it: my thesis starts from the presumption that you cannot spend years transforming a classical villa into a gothic castle without absorbing some of the structural and aesthetic principles into your mind. And that Walpole could not but transform the classical novel into a gothic novel after having been living at Strawberry Hill for 10 years, however, still adding to, changing and improving its gothicness.

When we (the 8 or so participants of the Oxford Experience Course on The Gothic Novel) approached the house in our little white minibus, expertly driven by Darren, we were surprised that he took us to a quite modern residential area. In fact, the first glimpse of the white tower and battlements through the branches of some trees comes as a pleasant shock. I can’t think but Walpole would have loved this, however sadly he might regret the loss of his beautiful gardens and the lovely view onto the river.

The first thing that struck me about Strawberry Hill was that it is so small. I actually was a bit disappointed. Except for the trappings (battlements, tower, turret), it doesn’t have the imposing presence of a gothic castle. It’s whiteness makes one think of Schloss Neuschwanstein, however. And this link did it for me. It suddenly all made sense. Strawberry Hill is a masterpiece!

We entered the hall and it got rather crammed with the eight of us plus guide. The ceiling was painted to look like gothic stonework without having the slightest chance of fooling anyone. The same goes for the fretwork. Still, every room was very well thought out and planned, from the painted glass in the windows to the colour scheme to the placement of pictures, furniture and other paraphernalia. And as you pass through the appartments, the gallery, the tower you can actually feel the fun the Strawberry Committee had, arranging everything.

And they were committed: Committed to producing soul rather than structure, effects rather than historic fact. “Go on, copy the cloisters of some tomb in Westminster Abbey for the book shelves – but don’t forget a comfortable 18th century armchair to sit and read in.” “Make this passage dark, full of ‘gloomth’ – but these stairs rather more shallow for my and my guests’ comfort.” Set the stage for the great innovator so that he may fill us with horrors unheard of and send cosy shivers down our spines!

…Thick Curtains and Dark Wainscoting (The Oxford Diary)

by WE

Whoever the people were who invented the said thick curtains and dark brown wainscoting – let me thank them from all my heart!

Despite the bright sun which heats up the courts and halls of Christchurch College, we have been able to get into the right frame of mind to read, discuss, enjoy and do justice to The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole’s “Gothic Story”.

On Monday – yes, I know, I’m a bit behind with my diary – I went to a bookshop because my “The Monk” had turned into “Melmoth the Wanderer” on the train to Oxford (in other words: I left my copy in the little net thingy attached to the seat in front of you). Up I went to the third floor where the shop directory said the ‘Classics’ were to be found. And true enough, the shelves were chock-a-block with classics. They had “The Monk” in various editions and I picked a nice (not quite blood) red one. While I was at it I thought I’d look up the others as well, you know, Maturin, Shelley, Stoker – and working my way through most of the alphabet I finally landed at the “W”.

I was delighted to see that there was a little plaque there – you know the things which are attached to the shelves for the more important writers – for the right Hon. Horace Walpole, diverted Earl of Orford. But, imagine my horror, not a single edition of the Book. At that moment, the nice shop assistant – probably thankful for my visit to his solitary post (you see I’m getting in the mood) – passed by and asked if I needed help. So I asked him about the plaque and the empty portion of shelf. He looked and after all found a copy of “Otranto” – not completely inappropriately – in between the Yeats. “Well, there is at least one. I don’t know if it’s the one you were looking for, it’s called the ‘Castle of Otranto’.” I told him that it was his only novel and that he was rather known for his letters and memoirs. He seemed a bit worried so I told him that the novel was not well-known, generally. I did not tell him that it was the first Gothic novel, that Walpole also wrote the first Gothic drama, that he was the youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, that he converted his cottage in Twickenham into a gothic castle and that I was very excited about going to Strawberry Hill the next morning. Taciturn. You know.

Well, I bought both The Monk and Otranto and we parted on very amiable terms having shared in the gladness that, anyway, Walpole did have his very own plaque.

…Peasants (The Oxford Diary)

by WE

Bad luck at High Table tonight. You get invited to dine at High Table once during your stay at Christchurch. Remember Harry Potter? High Table is were the teachers sit and look down upon the pupils.

I was seated to one end of the table – or maybe I should say Table – with an Australian (retired) sheep farmer from Perth to my right, a (retired) pilot/instructor (US forces) on my left, a lady from Melbourne opposite and, next to her, David from Michigan.

When it turned out that the Australian lady’s father and husband were with the RAF and that David from Michigan had always wanted to become a pilot (only, he had to have some brain surgery done at the age of 22, so they wouldn’t let him) the topic for the evening was fixed. Planes. The crash in San Francisco. Planes. Afghanistan. Planes. Vietnam (!). Planes. The sheep farmer did his best to turn the conversation around – once even offering David one Pound if he got up, turned around and shouted “Peasants!” at those who were sitting at the tables (not the Table), which was quite funny really.

But there was no way the others would be diverted from the course they’d taken. So, all in all, it was just a tiny little bit boring.

By the way, the food here is really good.

…Heat (The Oxford Diary)

by WE

Oxford and heat – two words I wouldn’t have expected to go well together. And up to know I haven’t been convinced that they do. Well, honestly, I have not seen much of Oxford, yet.

I arrived by train, which never yields a good first impression of a city. I didn’t get to see much of Lewis’s Oxford on the taxi drive either. But Christchurch, now, Christchurch College is everything I expected from it. It simply breathes history and learning. My room is just under the roof in one of the buildings forming the Pembroke Quadrangle.

Despite its modern (well English-modern) furnishings, you can still imagine someone like John Donne or Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carrol making their way up the four floors (I don’t actually know, if any one of these studied in Christchurch, they went to one or the other of the Oxford colleges, anyway). I’m not very tall but I can touch the ceiling without getting up on my tiptoes. Maybe, Lewis Carroll touched the very same spot?

The Blue Boar Quadrangle was a bit of a disappointment (being an annexe from the 80ies or so and looking it). But the Hall – you really do not need any Harry Potter movie trappings to make that impressive!

Shall I say something about the heat? Well, it’s just hot, you know. Sticky, stuffy, sweaty. And very light. What this does to my fellow students’ and my ability to concentrate on the dark and sinister workings of the gothic villain remains to be seen…

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Literary Scholar

by WE

Today, I felt like the loneliest person in the world for about half a minute.

My company sent me to attend a training for data security officers. For lunch, we went to the canteen of the Association of SHI Physicians which is just down the road. The lady at the reception desk gave us the directions: “Through this door, down the stairs and then just follow the yellow wall.” And, indeed, there was a long narrow corridor (with a little bit of imagination you could even call it ‘winding’) and one of its walls was painted a rich sunflower yellow. I immediately felt moved to remark: “Oh, so it’s not a yellow brick road”, and – realising my company consisted of IT administrators, company lawyers and similar – after an almost imperceptible pause added: “like in the Wizard of Oz.”

Were there any chuckles? Did anyone laugh out loud? Did one of the administrators answer on the lines of “oh, yeah, follow the yellow brick road…”? Was there even a condescending *old-chestnut-alarm* smile by one of the lawyers?

No. In fact, they didn’t even grant me a puzzled look.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame them or want to ridicule them. Probably the proportion of aspiring data security officers with special interest and knowledge in the field of literature (or even movies of the 1930ies, for that matter) is rather small – and not surprisingly so. In fact, I am the odd one out in this whole business – the “freak” as one of my best friends recently remarked.

She meant it in a nice way.

But I still feel lonely sometimes.

(Other literary scholars (be they IT administrators, lawyers, bakers, sweepers, freaks…) stay tuned for my Oxford Diary starting next Sunday.)

…Star Trek Into Darkness

by WE

Just home from watching Star Trek 2. Unfortunately in 3D.

I think I will avoid any 3D movie from now on. The number of blurred pans! And: the experience is not really enhanced. Okay, you have the occasional bits of spaceship flying in your face. And you might go: “Wow, look at at the things they can do today!” But actually, I wanted to watch a movie and not to be made a witness of today’s advanced technology. And I don’t want bits of spaceship flying in my face.

So, no more 3D for me.

As for the film, it was okay, but nothing special in my opinion. A typical part 2.


Unreliable Narrators – Part Two: Self-Unfolding Liars

by WE

[continued from: Unreliable Narrators – Part One: Liars in Retrospect]

An example from literature this time:The first-person narrator in “Me and Kaminski” by Daniel Kehlmann. The “me” as it were. There’s a lot of reviews and interpretation around on this novel. A nice and short account of the story and of its place within Kehlmann’s oevre was published by Phillip Oltermann (In: The Observer,

For my present purpose I would have liked to focus on the first few pages of the novel, in which the reader realises that he is dealing with an unreliable narrator. Okay, I’ll admit that the title is already a bit of a hint in that direction. But the true character of the narrator unfolds over the course of a few paragraphs in which he describes and assesses what he does and says or how the people around him respond. It is his assessment of his (inter-)actions which reveals him as an unreliable narrator.

Unfortunately, I cannot find my copy of the novel and last read it a couple of years ago, so – unless I keep the whole analysis extremely vague and only dwell on the impressions I remember to have had at the time – I can’t really proceed with my argument right now. Therefore, I will stop here and revisit this article as soon as I have the book back. (It’s probably right in the middle of the shelf which is at eye-level, which is an extremely perfidious place to hide.)

…Mary Poppins

by WE

I’ve just watched a repeat airing of “Bagger Vance”. Another of these Mary Poppins figures that keep appearing from time to time in American movies. There was more music in Mary Poppins, though. More dancing. More singing. On the other hand, Matt Damon is cuter than Dick van Dyke.

Maybe I should give some more thought to this in another text.



The Exclusive Interview with the Creators of ‘Sherlock’ which didn’t quite happen

by WE

[In case you’re wondering: WE stands for Working Ear and is no indication of my having thoughts above my station]

[Warning: Spoilers for Sherlock season two]

WE: Welcome Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat! Thank you for joining me in my head. It’s a bit crammed up here, sorry about that, I didn’t get around to spring-cleaning yet. Maybe you, Mr. Gatiss, will sit on this armchair I remember from my grandfather’s house and would you, Mr. Moffat make do with this swing from happy childhood days? It’s more comfortable than it looks.

[Gatiss and Moffat each take a seat and throw suspicious glances around.]

WE: Again, thank you for making the time. I’m sure you’re very busy at the moment what with filming the third season and so on.

[Polite smiles]

WE: So, let’s start with the first question. I’ve always wanted to ask you whether it’s more of a challenge or a relief for a screenwriter that so many people know the Sherlock Holmes adventures from the books, movies and TV renderings?

Gatiss: W…

WE: What I mean is – you know, on the one hand you have to meet the audience’s expectations and on the other hand you have to create suspense.

Gatiss: W…

WE: Is that, maybe, why you introduced the character of Dr. Stapleton but didn’t make her the murderer?

Moffat: N….

WE: Sorry to interrupt, but let me get this clear by another example. At the beginning of “The Reichenbach Fall” you seem to be wanting to build up some tension by this first scene in which Dr. Watson tells his therapist that Sherlock is dead. As if not everyone knew that his death was faked, haha [smiles getting more strained]. But then, shortly before the fall, you give clear indications of Sherlock planning something about his death and needing Molly, the mortician!, to help him carry out his plan.

Moffat: It…

WE: I was thinking that it was almost a bit schizophrenic to have this heart-breaking farewell scene, the fall, Sherlock lying in a pool of blood…and then just having him standing in the cemetery watching John Watson crying at his grave.

[Gatiss and Moffat exchange nervous glances]

Gatiss: W…

WE: Sorry to interrupt but let me formulate this in a question: I thought that maybe you wanted to serve both audiences? Those that knew the story and those that didn’t? Those who knew the story could start to wonder quite early on on how he did it. The others were allowed to waver between desperation (Sherlock is dead) and hope (I’m sure he’ll be okay, otherwise there would be no third season and it has already been commissioned by the BBC). Very clever of you. Then, again, I thought that [Moffat rolls his eyes] it is also possible that you wanted to develop the two very different points of view of Sherlock, the cold schemer walking over his own dead body, and Watson, the far more emotional character who is almost crushed by the loss of his best friend?

Gatiss: W…

WE: But that doesn’t stand to reason, does it? Because we know that Sherlock wants to protect Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade by faking his death, which is not cold and scheming but rather a nice trait. Hmmm – It seems you don’t want to shed any light on this. Or can’t? Maybe I should ask Steve Thompson [Moffat: YES], after all he wrote this episode.

Gatiss: G…

WE: Oh, I see our time has almost run up. So, thank you for these very interesting insights into your work! I’m sure, people can hardly wait for our next session. It’s been really fascinating…oh, they’re gone…well, tomorrow’s another day…Maybe the swing was not such a good idea. I should have another look at that scene in front of the fireplace before the next session and offer them comfy armchairs and a drink…[thoughtful pause]…

Oh, no! I completely forgot to ask them for the title of the third episode of S3. It would be funny if it was something like “The Prancing Women” [chuckles] or “The Four Garibaldis”… now that would be a bow to the confectionery industry…  [Falling asleep rambling.]

[Note to the esteemed creators of Sherlock, Mr. Mark Gatiss and Mr. Steven Moffat: Hope you’ll forgive me! Best intentions and everything…no offence meant.]