the interview: spies and romantics

Richard Marggraf Turley is a poet, novelist and literary critic originally from the Forest of Dean, now based at Aberystwyth University. His poem 'Elisions' won the prestigious Keats-Shelley Prize. I first encountered Richard’s work many years ago when I was an undergraduate at Aberystwyth, and read his refreshing  - and, to some, controversial - study, ‘Keats's Boyish Imagination.’ His lectures were always challenging and inspirational, frequently offering intriguing new political perspectives on the Romantic poets. I was reminded again of our close proximity to Lord Byron and William Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, when I read Richard’s recently released novel, The Cunning House, an exploration - and excavation - of a troubling historical mystery. Of which, more below…


You’re the Professor of Engagement with Public Imagination at Aberystwyth University. That’s a wonderful job title. How would you describe your role?


My role has different “modalities” (to use an expensive term), and they’re all rewarding. Partly, the role is strategic, and involves asking how, as an institution, we can “do” public engagement better. How, that is, can we involve more people, and benefit more groups, who might otherwise not come into contact with the university? Partly, it’s pragmatic: I get to bring fascinating colleagues from across the Arts and Sciences together in the same room, and watch what happens. I’m very fortunate, you know, in that my role allows me to shuttle across traditional disciplinary divides. One day, I might be talking about public engagement with colleagues in robotics or computer imaging; the next, I’m hobnobbing with artists or poets. As a matter of fact, it’s often the collisions between these apparently unrelated and far-flung fields that produce the most publicly visible light.


I’ll give you an example. Back in 2010, my colleague, the computer Scientist Professor Reyer Zwiggelaar, had just got hold of a new, and phenomenally expensive, piece of thermal imaging kit. Today a mobile phone would do the same job; back then, though, this camera was the dog’s knees. The obvious thing, it seemed to me, at least, was to film student volunteers reading Romantic poetry. All this, I should add, happened during the run-up to Valentine’s Day. What we found when we ran the experiment took us both by surprise. When someone lies under a thermal imaging camera, the corners of their eyes typically heat up and their cheeks cool down. Don’t ask me why, though I’m sure Reyer could tell you. The exact opposite occurred when our student volunteers read a selection of love poems by John Keats: the corners of their eyes cooled down and their cheeks warmed up, proving Keats’s maxim about the holiness of the heart’s affections and the beauty of truth. You see, the Romantics were right about most things. You can find reports of the experiment here.


 Richard Marggraf Turley photographed using 'edge capture' surveillance software.

Richard Marggraf Turley photographed using 'edge capture' surveillance software.

Reyer and I are running a related project this year using biometric measuring devices, which volunteers will wear on their wrists like smart watches. We’ll be assessing people’s responses in real time as they view images of gothic art and fiction projected in a dark box we’re calling “The Vortex”. The event is part of the UK-wide Being Human festival 2015, and will run in Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, on Saturday 14 November (11am to 3pm). Everyone’s welcome, and entry is free.


Finally, my engagement role has a practical aspect. I get to meet and engage with people all over the UK, and that’s the part I enjoy most. Happily, the old distinction between “knowers” and “learners” – where universities used to possess all the knowledge, and would deign to “transfer” it outwards – have largely dissolved. Now we think in terms of “co-producing” knowledge with our publics. I’m as interested in what people beyond the academy have to tell me as they are in anything I might be able to tell them. When I go out to schools and communities, to policy-makers and businesses, it’s to design engagement projects with them. We discuss every aspect together, and two-way communication gets baked in from the outset.


You’re also an expert on the Romantic poets, Keats in particular. What can our society learn from the Romantic view of the imagination? I’m intrigued by Blake’s statement, that ‘imagination is not a state, but existence itself.’


Well, you shouldn’t take anything Blake says too seriously. My old Romanticism professor advised me to stay well away from Blake. “You’ll go mad,” he assured me. I’ve managed, more or less, to take his advice to heart, though Blake does make a cameo appearance in my new novel, The Cunning House.


I think Coleridge was closer to the mark when he said the imagination is the “living power and the prime agent of human perception”. The imagination’s common to all of us, and gives us access to a profoundly democratic, a profoundly levelling, space of possibility. Educational background or social status become so much less important when we begin to value the insights the imagination brings. My engagement role explicitly calls attention to the importance of the “public imagination” – and it’s Coleridge I’m thinking of when I say that public engagment opens a space of imagination that we can all step into.


As a society, we’ve become excessively instrumentalist. Which is to say, we’ve grown to value only those things that seem to be leading towards definite and guaranteed outcomes. We see it in schools, colleges and even in universities, where educators can feel under pressure to teach towards rigid “learning outcomes”. There’s some utility in this approach, but the danger is that we lose faith in the idea of a contact hour as a transformative, recalibrating encounter, where our way of thinking about a particular subject, author or text is challenged, or “swerved”. For me, my best seminars are those in which I come away wondering whether everything I’ve just suggested about, say, Keats, Mary Shelley or Wordsworth, might in fact be profoundly wrong. I want students to unsettle the old orthodoxies, want them to stage insurrections against the fixed view. I hope they’ll prevent me from become imprisoned in my own views. Outcome-led teaching has its place, but more important is that students develop a critical infrastructure that allows them to remain healthily sceptical of the attempts of others to foist views on them, and that, armed in this way, they can be self-confident in the world.


You mentioned your new novel, The Cunning House, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a fast paced crime thriller set in London in the Romantic era that leaves the reader with a great deal to think about. It seems to hold a mirror up to our own time, exploring sexual scandal, corruption, surveillance; all important topics today. Would you like to reflect on the parallels between then and now?


It’s more and more important to me that as university researchers we demonstrate the pertinence of our disciplines to so-called “real-world” challenges. I think we have a responsibility not to shy away from the complex issues. I’ve been working for several years with two extraordinary friends and colleagues, the early modernist Jayne Archer, and plant scientist Howard “Sid” Thomas. Our interdisciplinary, multimodal work has examined how representations of worked land in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and George Eliot tell us something profound about our own anxieties around food security – as well as offering insights into future resilience and issues of sustainability.


A manuscript draft of Keats's poem 'To Autumn' (from Wikipedia)

One of the highlights of my academic career was to find with Jayne and Sid in 2012 the leasehold on the Winchester cornfield Keats describes in his ode “To Autumn” (1819), and to realize that the poem isn’t – or isn’t just – a sentimental piece about aging and mortality, but rather a desperately angry poem about the economics of food production and the politics of exploitation. For a start, Keats’s cornfield isn’t where people have traditionally assumed it is. For years, an important part of Winchester’s tourist industry has been built around the city’s picturesque water meadows, long-assumed to be the source and site of Keats’s inspiration. In fact, the only vantage point where Keats could have seen all the things he describes in his ode is a field overlooking the city on St Giles’s Hill. Only a year before Keats arrived in Winchester, the cornfield had been a copse. Its trees were cleared to make room for wheat production due to the sharply rising price of bread in the years following the Napoleonic Wars. Financial speculators started buying up all the land suitable for corn production in Winchester because they knew they could make a fast buck. Traditional farming families and labourers were pushed off the land, and labourers wages were suppressed. Keats’s workers are asleep on the job – snoozing between the furrows. You weren’t supposed to sleep before the crop was in. Perhaps these workers aren’t being paid enough to work flat out, or perhaps Keats is witnessing an incipient strike. At any rate, the poem enshrines tensions only too familiar to us in the UK today. You can see some coverage of our research here.


As you say, I also have a serious interest in surveillance, and have spoken about the light the Romantics throw on our current predicament at conferences around the world. It’s worth remembering that the concept of mass surveillance emerges with the Romantics. Jeremy Bentham published his design for the Panopticon in 1791, the same decade as Wordsworth and Coleridge set off a revolution in poetry with their co-authored volume, Lyrical Ballads (1798). Modern sensibility changed profoundly in all sorts of ways at that time. What’s more, many of the best writers, poets and philosophers from that period wrote about their experience of state eavesdropping in ways that continue to resonate. We’re still working through, still living out, the tail end of that Romantic aesthetic, that mode of feeling. For instance, we continue to exist in the Romantic “confessional” mode: just as Percy Shelley declared “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed”, we also record (or inform on) our innermost feelings and desires. We blurt them out into emails and externalize our responses to political events around the world on social media. We don’t hesitate before clicking “like”, even though each click is a gift to the algorithms that are continuously profiling us.


While Shelley and Keats only had to worry about their letters being opened, the bulk collection and storage of all our emails, video chats, photographs and internet browsing history means that anything we do today can be retrieved and retroactively mined at a later date. Unsurprisingly, many people have become more guarded about searching for information about, say, drone strikes in Yemen, or spying on Amnesty or Greenpeace meetings – and this has a chilling effect on civil society and the robustness of democratic structures. It boils down to what Coleridge called “social confidence”, on which he thought “all our happiness and the greater part of our virtues depend”. In 1795, dismayed by the vast extension of the British government’s surveillance network, Coleridge added: “This beautiful fabric of Love the system of Spies and Informers has shaken to the very foundation”. It was well said then, and remains true today. I think we’re all experiencing what Coleridge described, whether we realize it or not, and on a much larger scale. You can read more in this transcript of a talk on surveillance and crowds I gave with Anne Marggraf-Turley at the Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg.


My new novel, The Cunning House, is animated by a sense of outrage at the ways in which soi-disant arbiters of public taste and morals, aided by webs of spies and informers, are able to ruin lives while perpetuating their own privilege and remaining largely immune from the governing structures they’ve helped keep in place. In the novel, set in 1810, I drop a fictional detective, Junior Prosectutor Christopher Wyre, into the middle of one of the biggest historical scandals of the Romantic period – the violent death in St James’s Palace of the Duke of Cumberland’s male valet. At the time, there was wide public suspicion of the Duke’s involvement in his valet’s death, but the internal Palace inquest dismissed this idea out of hand, pronouncing a verdict of suicide, which has been accepted by all subsequent official royal biographies. My novel is very much “case reopened”! Dipped in the prejudice of the age, prosecutor Wyre soon finds himself drawn into a labyrinthine case that appears to link the death of the Duke’s valet with the arrest of a group of cross-dressers in London’s most notorious “molly-house” (gay brothel, in today’s parlance), the rise of a religious cult, and the war with France. Before long, guided by an enigmatic woman who may be more, or less, than she seems, Wyre is questioning everything. Oh, and there’s a giant. Here’s a recent review.


With climate change, mass extinction of species, overpopulation, political inertia and the so-called ‘age of austerity,’ it’s very easy to be pessimistic. Can the arts play a role in creating a more sustainable society?


The short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is “Yes, but …” There’s some fantastic work out there addressing the challenges you describe, some amazing work opening the space of imagination I began this interview by mentioning. Let me suggest people check out the work of James Bridle, Laura Poitras and Trevor Paglen, to name just three. A writer and journalist friend drew my attention just yesterday to “Human Nature”, an art collective who are attempting to create Europe’s biggest environmental art street in Bristol.


I’m realistic, though, about the chances of the arts bringing about the kind of transformation we’d need to make even a dent in some of the issues you mention at an operational level. If we’re honest, there’s very little in the history of the arts to suggest that large-scale transformation is possible if the corresponding political will isn’t (already) there. In fact, as we all know, the needle is moving in the opposite direction with regard to safeguarding the environment, halting species extinction, reversing the gains made by corporatocracy and rolling back surveillance programmes. To be sure, the arts continue to have an important role to play in shaping the conditions in which key debates take place. Actually – and I’m not a conspiracy theorist – it’s awfully convenient that central arts and humanties funding is being slashed just at the time when creative practitioners are more vital than ever in the process of imagining a balanced society where resources and opportunities are distributed more fairly. Political life seems to have gone backwards in the UK, with the electorate perhaps more disempowered than at any time since the gains of 1918. We find ourselves in interesting times.




Kristian Evans 29.07.15