June 2008

On Thursday night I went to the first of my ‘social’ Society of Young Publisher’s events, a pub crawl they put on in Borough to provide an opportunity for members to meet and mingle. It was a fun evening and I met several lovely people who were all willing to talk about what they do and to give me advice. It also makes me feel more confident about going to other SYP events, as there should be at least a couple of familiar faces!

One of the best aspects of the evening, which I wasn’t expecting, was that some of the committee members who work in editorial and marketing had brought along a few early proof copies of new books they’re working on to give away – so somehow I ended up with 3 free books! Well, I couldn’t just leave them lying on the table when we left the first pub now, could I?

These early proof copies are the ones handed out to reviewers before or soon after the book is published, so, of course, I will review them! Already eaten my way through one: A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott, which is actually already out.

A Small Part of History is set in 1845, Pioneering America. Rebecca has just married a widower twenty years her senior and is struggling to make friends with his fifteen-year-old daughter Sarah when he announces that the whole family is going to emigrate westwards to the newly opened territory of Oregon. The cramped, stressful and often dangerous conditions of the wagon trail force Sarah to grow up and come to terms with her step-mother, just as it forces Rebecca to assume more responsibility and strength of mind than she could ever have imagined.

The novel is about the role women played in this fascinating period of American history, and the author based her research on real diaries of women who made the journey. In keeping with this, the narrative switches between the first-person accounts of Sarah, Rebecca’s journal entries, entries from the ‘notebook’ of fellow traveller Margaret, and a third-person narrative voice. This creates pace and variety, as well as allowing us to see all the women’s experiences. Elliott writes with conviction and emotion, but it is not a highly literary novel – it tells a story effectively but without high elegance or poetry. The story is very tragic in places, which I’m sure is an accurate reflection of the real dangers encountered on the Oregon Trail, but in some ways the tragedy comes so often and is dealt with so rapidly (for the book is not long) that I became slightly numbed to it. Nevertheless, the real enjoyment and interest for me was in the detail of daily life on the trail, and the women’s concerns to keep up some pretence of domesticity in the midst of a hostile environment.

A Small Part of History is described in its blurb as ‘a perfect reading group book’, which I think is right. It is a relatively quick read, but there is lots of interest to discuss on it, from women’s role in history in general, to the specifics of ninteenth-century American society and the excitement and dangers of the American pioneer trails.

On Tuesday evening I went to a postgraduate open day at the London College of Communication, as this is one of the universities which offers a Master’s degree in Publishing, which is what I hope to do once I graduate. The open day was structured as a ‘drop-in’ event, and to be honest I didn’t really feel there was enough information on offer. There was one general talk about the College, and a couple of tutors from each subject area available to talk to. There were meant to be students around too, but the girl who apparently did the Publishing MA only seemed to be around whilst we were doing a tour of the college, and didn’t seem very talkative or approachable.

I had a chat with Les Claridge, the Associate Dean for the School of Printing and Publishing, and with David Penfold, one of the tutors for the MA Publishing. Both were very friendly and willing to talk about how the course was structured and the ethos and strategy behind their approach, but to be honest they didn’t tell me much that I hadn’t already discovered by exploring the LCC’s excellent website. We also had a tour of the School of Printing and Publishing, which was pretty interesting.

The LCC is unique in having professional quality printers on site, allowing students to get involved in very hands-on projects, producing and publishing their own magazine from start to finish. I was given a copy of this magazine, BLURB, and it did look incredibly professional and impressive. Because the LCC is part of the University of Arts, London, their publishing course seems to come at things from a more artistic, design and production orientated approach – they also offer courses in book arts, book binding and restoration, digital media, graphic design and so on.

This is a real strength of their course if you come from a design background, as it puts your artistic skills and knowledge into a business context, but after the open day, I’m not sure if it’s the right course for me. The impression I got may be wrong – I was only there for a couple of hours and I didn’t get to talk to any of the students properly – but personally I think I need a slightly more business-management orientated course with a stronger taught element in things such as Publishing law, rights, finance, editorial management etc. The LCC was really impressive and I think I would still consider applying there, but I’m now researching and considering the MA Publishing at UCL as my first choice option. The time for applications for the academic year 2009/10 is approaching alarmingly rapidly – it will be this September/October – so it pays to be looking carefully at courses now. It is a big investment to do a postgraduate degree straight after graduating, so I want to be certain I’m picking the right one if I decide to do it!

So it’s been a while; I blame two things.  Firstly, a tiny matter called e-x-a-m-s and secondly, the complete and utter death of my computer a week before said exams happened.  Computer is being fixed tomorrow hopefully; meanwhile I am happily installed on a friend’s laptop, enjoying exam freedom by listening to the new Coldplay album Viva la Vida, which i cycled through torrential rain to buy at 9am this morning!  I’m pretty impressed so far!

Revision did interrupt my reading a little, and as I predicted I haven’t got as far through my bookshelf of books as I’d hoped, though I did buy several new books from the Oxfam Book shop in Cambridge which I’ve managed to eat through – more on those in the coming days!

One book I have been reading all term is Stephen Oppenheimer’s Out Of Eden.  It’s taking me a while because it’s non-fiction and pretty dense in facts and figures in places.  Stephen Oppenheimer is a geneticist, and his work basically sets out to synthesise genetic evidence for pre-historic human migrations out of Africa with archaeological, climatic, geological and anthropological evidence.  Out of Eden argues that everyone on the planet today is descended from a single group of early Homo Sapiens who left Africa about 85,000 years ago.  He then traces the progress of this group as different splinter branches colonised different parts of the world.

I am just under half-way through and will hopefully soldier on and finish it at some point, but it will be a long term project.  I was slightly put off, however, by a discussion I had with by Director of Studies about Stephen Oppenheimer.  My Director of Studies is a Celticist specialising in Medieval Welsh and Celtic Philology, amongst other things, and I mentioned to him that I was reading a Stephen Oppenheimer book because the other Oppenheimer book I have on my shelf to read, The Origins of The British, discusses the relative Celtic versus English ancestry of Britain, and argues that this divide goes much further back into pre-history than we might imagine, and I thought this might be something he was interested in.  As soon as I mentioned Stephen Oppenheimer’s name, however, my Director of Studies immediately exclaimed ‘Don’t talk to me about that man! He’s a terrible academic, his arguments about the origins of the British are nonsense!’.  I quickly reassured him I had not yet read the British book, and he conceeded that Out of Eden was not as bad, then proceeded to explain why he has such a violent dislike of this man’s book.

My Director of Studies was asked to write a review of The Origins of the British, but quickly became irritated with Oppenheimer’s less than rigorous approach to academic articles.  For example, he apparently quotes the non-committal conclusion about whether the Belgae tribe spoke a Celtic language out of context and uses it as positive evidence for his argument that they must therefore have been speaking a Germanic language;  enough inscriptional evidence has now been found to prove that the Belgae were Celtic-speaking peoples.  Oppenheimer postulates two branches of pre-historic migration into Britain, a Celtic branch coming up from the south-west via Spain, and a Germanic branch coming through eastern Europe.  He then argues that this eastern branch must have been speaking a Germanic language long before the traditional date of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the fifth century AD. 

Now, I have not read this book yet, but I would definitely have been sceptical of this.  The problem is that Oppenheimer is making linguistic arguments for a period for which we have absolutely no linguistic evidence.  Celtic and Germanic languages are both ultimately part of the Indo-European language group and it is very hard to pin-point exactly when in the pre-historic period the different branches of this group split off.  By arguing that just because one group came from the east they must have been speaking a Germanic language, Oppenheimer is also contradicting himself.  He has spent a long time in Out of Eden explaining how the inate human ability to learn language is genetically pre-programmed, but exactly which language we speak is conditioned by environmental factors – where we are born and what languages we are exposed to when we are very young.  This is why it is possible for humans to learn more than one language, although this becomes more difficult as we get older because the syntax and grammar for our mother-tongue is hard-wired into our brain at that young age. 

It therefore seems a little silly and contradictory for Oppenheimer to be arguing that a group of people in a particular place must have been speaking a particluar language solely because they were in that particular place in a period long before there is evidence for that language.  What is more, Classical authors such as Tacitus who encountered and wrote about both Celts and Germanic-speaking peoples in the first few centuries AD must surely have been able to tell the difference between the languages they spoke, and would very probably have commented had he encountered any Germanic tribes in Britain.

The problem stems ultimately from the fact that Oppenheimer is a geneticist, not a linguist, an historian or an archaeologist; he is therefore bound to make errors when trying to interpret linguistic, historical or archaeological evidence.  Whilst it is always important to analyse and consider as many different types of evidence as possible when trying to understand an historical or pre-historical period or event, it is also important to recognise that each piece of evidence must be considered on its own terms, and that such different types of evidence which require such different methods of interpretation can very rarely be shoe-horned together in an accurate way.  My Director of Studies directed me towards this article entitled Genetics, Linguistics and Prehistory: thinking big and thinking straight by Celtic scholar Patrick Sims-Williams which addresses exactly these issues with such interdisciplinary work.

I do still intend to read The Origins of the British, but I will be doing so with a healthy pinch of scepticism and my Director of Studies’ invective ringing in my ears!