Safe Havens for Books

Selwyn quad. Don't walk on the grass!
I’ve had a very interesting few days at Cambridge university. We stayed in student accommodation at Selwyn College, around one of those beautiful quadrangles - Neil in the boys' block and me in the girls'. The rooms are very basic - not exactly Brideshead Revisited, more like boarding school. A single bed (no chance of any clandestine doubling up!), a few bookshelves, a built-in coat cupboard and a wooden desk under the window. But the outside was something else. Beautiful gardens, ancient buildings, a chapel, and a great hall that could have been a set for Harry Potter.  And beyond it, the river Cam where you can go punting, though none of us had time.

 It’s a very privileged environment. Selwyn College was until the 1970s an exclusively male college, but we had dinner in one of the historic women’s colleges Newnham, originally one of only two to admit women - and I thought what it must have been like to have been one of those early women who braved all that prejudice to get an education here - though they weren’t allowed to have a degree like the men, they got only a titular qualification, rudely referred to as a BA-tit.

Dinner at Newnham
 The conference was interesting - Katherine Mansfield experts from all over the world, including some of the finest literary minds. Writers Jacqueline Wilson and Ali Smith were also going to be there. So I was understandably nervous about standing up and talking. I was also the last act on the last day, so lots of time to get nervous. But in the end, because we’d had days to get to know each other, it was more like a conversation with book-loving friends. Afterwards, those of us not rushing off to catch planes and trains, went for a Thai curry and then sat on the floor in someone’s room drinking wine out of plastic tooth mugs like a group of students.

Spring in the gardens
 I’m very ambivalent about the growth of academic literary criticism. I think writers write books for readers to read and enjoy, not to create material for the university industry to torture students with. But that industry exists and, as a writer, it’s necessary to have a dialogue with it. It is also very seductive - this world of books and book talk - and I know I could easily be swallowed by it.

These beautiful Cambridge colleges with their atmosphere of reverence for The Book, seem very safe havens from what is currently a very rocky world for both publishers and writers. But in the end, more than anything else, I know that I want to write them, not de-construct them.


  1. having struggled with literary criticism in some of my OU modules, I am delighted to read your conclusion:

    'But in the end, more than anything else, I know that I want to write them, not de-construct them'.

    phew! had you written otherwise I might have had to stop following your blog!

  2. No chance of that! Barthes' 'The Death of the Author' had me foaming at the mouth for months.

  3. Lovely piccies!
    It sounds like you had a great time.

    It seems that these things always go better than you dread they will. A sign of professionalism perhaps?


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