Alan Hollinghurst and Some Archeological Digging

It’s not very often that my research requires me to get involved with something as interesting as archeology, but in tying up some last pieces for my new book The Vitality of Influence: Alan Hollinghurst and a History of Image (Palgrave Macmillan, early 2014) I have found myself tracking down archeological digs in some surprising places.

Skinner's Lane, the City of London

At the centre of Hollinghurst’s 1988 début The Swimming-Pool Library is the grand home of Lord Charles Nantwich, which is somewhat awkwardly hanging on in the City of London as the last reminder of a very different time.  One of the most fascinating features of Charles’s house is that it is covering the remains of a Roman bath, which serves as one of the points of reference for the novel’s paradoxical title.

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Too Big and Too Small

English: More rooftops Looking over the roofs ...

Looking over the roofs of Muswell Hill Place and Alexandra Gardens towards Springfield Avenue and the Alexandra Palace TV mast, from the viaduct at St James’s Lane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British domestic architecture is largely made up of strange angles and peculiar proportions.  Or, at least that was the case in the kinds of flats I lived in during most of my twenties, when I was, first, a student and, later, a young academic with precious little dosh for rent.  One flat had soaring double-height ceilings, impossibly narrow hallways, and, in my bedroom in the back, an overly wide Georgian door that opened to show shelves 3 inches deep.  Even my hairbrush didn’t fit.  In a later flat in Muswell Hill in London, the most exciting feature was a tiny window, three-stories up, that opened onto a massive flat roof the size of the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and bedroom below.  It was covered in gravel, but I spent many evenings there looking up to Alexandra Palace in the distance.

Neither of these flats were being put to the use they were intended, and the proportions of living seemed charmingly off-kilter because of that.  The former had been a Victorian boarding house in Leeds, before walls were shifted and latches were added to accommodate legions of Red-Brick students.  The latter began life as a middle-class family home in a leafy suburb that was neither then nor now serviced by the Tube.  But it has lately been carved up and made home to one middle-class family downstairs and several eager young career men upstairs, nearly doubling the original number of inhabitants.  From slim crevices to capacious outdoor landings, every feature of these buildings was always too big or too small.  Or, more regularly, both too big and too small at the same time.

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“How Do You Consume Your Media?” It’s Time to Get Serious


This week I reminded my students that if they are serious about getting a good job in writing or communications then they need to get serious about their media consumption.  That means: a daily newspaper with an international focus, a weekly news magazine, and two to three high-quality monthly magazines.  ‘But that doesn’t require you to read everything cover-to-cover’, I assured 22 horrified faces.  Rather, a good media consumption strategy gives you the framework to dip in and out of the most important events in the world, and allows you to feel connected to ideas bigger than yourself.  During interviews for the jobs that students with an English Studies degree will go into–marketing, journalism, PR, publishing, teaching, to name merely a few–the question of ‘how do you consume your  media?’ is becoming an increasingly common starting point.  And the response needs to be a bit more developed than ‘oh, I read Heat every Tuesday.’

It is advice that I give to students every year, but with the recent announcement that later this summer Google will be dropping Google Reader–their pleasingly functional and well-connected RSS reading platform–I began to think once again about how I consume my media.  I will be the first to admit that my methods of media consumption have been, until recently, what might be called… shady.  I’m of the generation of Napster and torrents, after all.  I’m part of the first generation of people who had computers in their bedrooms as children, paving the way for a bit of illegal downloading beginning with the era of Sugar Ray and Savage Garden and moving onward.  When a good friend of mine introduced me to the world of illegal .epub files for my Kindle, I was hooked.  But putting aside all the economic and moral arguments against illegal file sharing–and I do have a profound respect for musicians and writers, and believe they are owed fair compensation for their work–I have my own personal reasons for recently taking my media consumption more seriously.  And by that, I mean, exchanging cold, hard (digital) cash for the pleasure of consuming.

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