Saturday, 21 March 2009

An Overdose of Conan Doyle

This month has officially been "Honorary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" month for me, and it's all the fault of Philip Pullman (yes, of His Dark Materials fame). Basically, what he did was this. He posted a really interesting reading list - one of those "Top 75 Books to Read Before You Die", which featured a book by Arthur Conan Doyle I'd never heard of, called The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard. Now I thought I'd run the spectrum of Conan Doyle - after all, I'd read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Lost World - (a great Boy's Own adventure with crazed university professors and dinosaurs, making me VERY glad I'm not learning science in the 19th century), so this new find set my bibliophiliac senses tingling. After wandering casually into a bookshop and pretending I was just browsing, I not only guiltily left the shop with Brigadier Gerard stuck under my arm, but with a spinetingling collection of Conan Doyle ghost stories called Tales of Unease. What can I say? they were on a 'Buy 1, get 1 half-price' offer. I'm a terminal book addict. Brigadier Gerard made me smile, though, because of the way Conan Doyle writes him as a complete holiday from Holmes. It's as though he threw aside the latest short story, screamed "To hell with it!" at the ceiling, and manically scribbled down everything that's absolutely apposite to the world's favourite sardonic detective. Intelligence? Logic(Even some every-day common sense)? Scorn for the fair sex? Preternatural sense for danger? Brave French Hussar Gerard possesses none of these qualities. He's reckless to the point of stupidity - well, fighting your way through Spain whilst it's swarming with the English to deliver dispatches that were meant to fall into enemy hands (which don't, by the bye, meaning that he indirectly loses the war for Napoleon. Ah, success) isn't particularly bright, and if anything he seems to enjoy the scrapes he gets himself into. As for Holmes' disdain for women... well, lets just say Gerard is the French version of Sharpe, with a new damsel in distress per story (sometimes two or three - even Gerard is vague on the subject). The stories finally come to a close (spoiler! Gerard does NOT wrestle Wellington over a waterfall ) with an ending fanfiction writers have been trying to work into Sherlock Holmes stories for decades. Gerard doesn't die - he gets married instead! It's an insane romp through the Napoleonic wars, and Conan Doyle clearly loved every minute of it - probably before settling down with a groan to write another Sherlock Holmes story. Have to say, though - contrary to common belief, reading ghost stories at bedtime isn't a good idea if you're nervous. Tales of Unease, crazy though it may seem, made me .... uneasy. Doyle's fascination with spiritualism and the uncanny really comes across, and some of his best work lies in mostly forgotten ghost stories. The Ring of Thoth was a tragic tale of immortality, Ancient Egyptian curses and lost love, and seems to have inspired The Mummy. The Captain of the Pole-Star was another bittersweet tale of lost love, based on Conan Doyle's experiences as a doctor aboard a whaling ship (Dammit, what is it with me and brooding whaling captains?). There was even a rather (unintentionally funny, but horribly macabre nonetheless) story about huge jellyfish creatures in the sky eating pilots alive if they go up to forty-thousand feet. The best, in my opinion (for sheer terror, anyway - a med student who shares my flat has an actual human skeleton in her room, and the story struck nastily familiar bells) was Lot No 243 - another story of university, mummies, sinister med students and horrible revenge. I won't spoil it for you - but I can't help but wonder if my friend really minds I stole the last chocolate biscuit from the drawer... Hehe. Ha. Um.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

America, An Intellectual Paradise

There;s been a distinct lack of rambling topics from me, of late, so i thought I'd use the poor little neglected blog to discuss something I've noticed of late:
Being an academic has no worth any more in the UK. TimesOnline has a really good article about the current problem - which is worth looking at if you have a spare minute
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article5864546.ece

But it isn't actually that the subject is being dumbed down. Oh, every national newspaper rants about how we're all idiot schoolchildren from time to time - and to be honest, the fact that you can do a degree in looking after football pitches in some universities is a sign that there is some truth in this. It's more that academia doesn't have the respect and interest it used to spark. No one can quite get into the fact that you can choose to learn for the fun of it - the interest a subject can have for you if it's your particular passion. Unless there's a profitable career at the end of it, it doesn't work.
I consider this unfair (for all I guess I'm extremely biased as a Lit student amongst medics in my halls - when I'm asked what my chosen career path is, I'm met with gawping amazement when I confess I don't know). After all, since when is knowledge a BAD thing? For all I may not have a job open and waiting for me at the end of my Literature degree, I hope I'll come out a little wiser and more passionately interested in my subject than when I went in - and I'd like to think I'd be able to find a job where I can pass this interest on.
Alas, maybe not in England. It's interesting to note, though - that most critical essays and literary theory I've read that really communicates an enthusiasm for English Literature have been written in America, by American academics. Where would we be without the beautiful The Madwoman in the Attic - incidentally the best piece of feminist literature I've read so far? And my essay would be absolutely nothing without The Endurance of Frankenstein - a collection of essays written... guess where? America. America is a place where knowledge and enthusiasm is still a wonderful thing to have. There are still a few lecturers who can commuicate their interest to their students here in Manchester, but I won't say they're in the majority. Intellectual apathy is definitely setting in.
My mother (probably as a result of weeping with me over inspirational Mr Keating in Dead Poet's Society), has the idea of me in the future as a future "inspirer of the generations". I just hope she's right!