To Warriston Crematorium today to pay respects to my former tutor, Pam Jackson, who passed away earlier this month. I hadn’t known until this summer that she was living in Edinburgh. We last crossed paths briefly (a quick chat in the queue at lunch) around 2001, when I went for a job interview (unsuccessful!) at Edge Hill, where I’d been an undergraduate between 1984 and 1987. Pam was my seminar tutor in the first year, and again for an option course on Literary Criticism in the third year. I was taught by many great tutors at Edge Hill. Pam was the first of them, and retrospectively the most significant. It’s only with hindsight that I can really appreciate how influential her seminars, and in particular her highly personal choice of texts, were on my subsequent career. We studied modern and contemporary British writing on that first-year course – Harold Pinter (No Man’s Land, a strange play, and we watched the TV film with Gielgud and Richardson), Iris Murdoch (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine), War poetry, some modernist poetry (I remember Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot – the latter’s “still centre of the turning world” and adapted lines from Julian of Norwich crowned today’s funeral ceremony). Pam added a personal choice to the list of texts that year, novels by Emma Tennant. She presented us with eclectic texts, from a wider historical range, for analysis – a comparison of a passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its source text, Brooke’s translation of Bandello, a section from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a chunk from a critical book on Emily Dickinson. This somewhat idiosyncratic range of texts was to be the bedrock of much of what I did over the next couple of decades. A few years later, at Sheffield, I tentatively began a PhD on Emma Tennant, switching after a year (and after an evening in Ormskirk drinking with Chris Baldick and harvesting advice) to Angela Carter, a change I never regretted despite still liking Tennant’s weird version of mid-70s magical realism in Alice Fell, Queen of Stones, Hotel de Dream, etc. I also started teaching a first-year Practical Criticism course, putting into very amateur practice a little of what I’d been taught years before.
In the third-year Criticism course Pam presented us with a condensed history of critical thought from Plato to deconstruction. For the most part it both baffled and intrigued me, and I ended up studying what was then called Critical Theory for my MA. We had guest lectures from people like Drummond Bone on Coleridge’s metaphysics in Biographia Literaria. We read David Daiches (had she been taught by him? I can’t recall). We worked through some of Norris’s Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, which helped to initiate my long, endlessly enriching struggle with Jacques Derrida’s writings. When I visited Sheffield Uni for my MA interview in the autumn of 1986 I picked up a copy of Vincent B. Leitch’s Deconstructive Criticism from a second-hand bookstall, which Pam then borrowed off me. The exam at the end of this course was demanding, and contained what I still think of as the ideal exam question: ‘“Texts of maximum determinacy tend to be tedious” (Iser). Respond.’I didn’t respond. I wrote instead on Barthes, and on Derrida and difference. Years later, after teaching vast amounts of cultural studies, popular fiction, Modernism, Romanticism, and contemporary fiction and poetry, I ended up meeting Derrida at a conference in Loughborough, taught books and essays by him and Barthes (among many others) on several courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and managed to visit the exhibition of Barthes’ work for A Lover’s Discourse at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris a year or two ago. Again, what Pam had taught me years before remained at some level of intellectual sediment, surfacing periodically when less resilient silt momentarily washed away.
I have an essay I wrote in third year, responding (!) to a quote from Carlyle: “We are all poets when we read a poem well” (hence my not responding to the reader-response question in the exam). Her comment, full of praise, nevertheless focuses quite rightly on my neglect of the issue of what “to read well” might mean. I guess what I learnt most from Pam’s seminars, particularly those first-year ones, was exactly that – how to read well. That is, not simply to consume texts (which is what I did before college, a lot, without any real critical relation to them) but to read them productively, for what I now think of as the pleasure of their difficulty. To begin to appreciate the bewildering, invigorating complexity of the literary across its huge (infinite, surely) range of expression. To understand in some dim, undergraduate way that criticism and literature are inseparable, interdependent, each endlessly defining and redefining the other, and to read each for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so within that understanding. To regard readerly eclecticism, range, and diversity across texts and genres as strengths, rather than to parrot a version of the Leavisian ‘Great Tradition’ line. I’ll not forget those first-year seminars (Wednesday mornings, 9-11, I never missed one), her voice, with its Edinburgh accent (then unplaceable to me, a Hertfordshire council estate and comprehensive school kid living for the first time in Lancashire, surrounded by new accents and dialects), deftly summarizing contexts, carefully placing writers and works in relation to traditions and trends, histories and geographies, inviting and listening carefully to our comments, conveying via questions her own balanced judgments on books and authors (Pinter: “All those pauses, just for effect. But what effect, eh? What effect?” Murdoch: “What do we all make of our first taste of, er, Irish Mudrock?”), and poking gentle but encouraging fun at some of the pretensions of us 18-year-old wanabee critics. And I realize now, writing these last few sentences, that what she taught me was, ultimately, that reading well involves learning a kind of confidence, the kind imparted (thanks to what was, in those days, a loans-free English higher education system) to people like me by people like Pam.