The Dying Art of Letter Writing

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a Luddite – no mobile until 2003, no email until same year, used a Walkman every day until 2004 – but I do think that electronic communication has, to an extent, killed the dear old letter. Gone are the days when I used to write long, flowery letters – and if the emails I send (and receive) are anything to go by, communication in the digital age is shorter, more succinct and lacking in literary flair – real or imagined.

Which got me thinking about all those great edited collections of literary letters: Rousseau, Byron, Keats. If our writers now use email – which almost all do – what will happen to the great literary correspondences? Does anyone really want to read page after page of html from Will Self’s gmail account?

Spare a thought, too, for biographers of the future: how will these poor souls fare without lots of titillating, never-before-seen letters to give them new angles (and of course racy newspaper headlines)?

Perhaps I’m worrying over nothing, in my Guardian Books Blog from earlier this week, but will literary exchanges of real quality really survive the digital age? Or are tweets simply the new aphorisms? The Luddite in me still has his doubts…

A New Future for Derry after Saville

Early last Tuesday morning, 56 men and women, two relatives of each of the 27 people killed and injured on Bloody Sunday, met in silence at Derry’s historic city walls. In the course of a solemn, hour-long procession, they walked by the Bogside’s low-rise flat complexes and on past William Street before finishing up at the ornate Guildhall in the centre of the city.

Inside the Guildhall, the group put down the black-and white pictures of their loved ones – each photograph accompanied by the words ‘‘set the truth free’’ – and picked up a 60-page précis of Lord Saville’s long-awaited report into the killing of 14 civilians following a civil rights march in Derry on January 30,1972.

‘‘I was very nervous walking into the Guildhall, but within a minute or two, we were all smiling,” said John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was killed on that day.

‘‘It is a massive relief for us all,” Kelly said of Saville’s key finding, that the British army in Derry fired on unarmed civilians without justification or provocation. ‘‘It has been 38 and a half years of hard work, but the families were determined never to give up.

And to hear the words ‘your brother is innocent’ was so special. The tears welled up in my eyes.”

By Tuesday afternoon, thousands had gathered outside the Guildhall to watch British prime minister David Cameron’s speech from Westminster live on big screens specially erected for the event.

Applause rippled across the crowd as the prime minister said ‘‘sorry’’ for the actions of the British army on Bloody Sunday, which he described as ‘‘wrong’’ and ‘‘unjustifiable’’.

‘‘That a British prime minister – and a Conservative one – was prepared to stand up and apologise to the people of Derry, to the whole world, that was incredible,” Kelly told The Sunday Business Post.

John McKinney, whose eldest brother Willie died on Bloody Sunday, described last Tuesday as ‘‘a great day for Derry’’. ‘‘We always knew the truth, but when you get an official apology from the British government, that is just unbelievable,” he said.

McKinney – a founding member of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, started in 1992 – said he believed that the previous Labour government should be given credit for setting up the Saville inquiry 12 years ago. ‘‘I don’t think any of this would have happened if Tony Blair hadn’t been prime minister at the time. He took a real personal interest in Bloody Sunday and his involvement was crucial,” he said.

The days following the release of Saville’s report have been dominated by questions over whether or not the soldiers from 1 Para involved in Bloody Sunday should stand trail.

McKinney, like many in Derry, is unsure if the Director of Public Prosecutions could, or should, pursue the matter in the courts.

‘‘To be honest, I don’t know if there should be a trial. Whatever happens, I don’t think anyone is going to go to jail for what they did that day,” said McKinney.

John Kelly, however, believes that the dead – and their families – deserve to see the soldiers involved prosecuted.

‘‘The next step now is justice.

My young brother was only 17 and he was murdered. Soldier F murdered my brother, he murdered John McKinney’s brother, he murdered Paddy Doherty, he murdered Barney McGuigan, and the due course of law is to prosecute him. I think it should happen and it should happen quickly. That would be closure for me,” he said.

The memory of Bloody Sunday has hung heavy over Derry for almost 40 years. ‘‘Every day I wake up, I think about Bloody Sunday. I’ll take it to the grave with me,” McKinney said. But Kelly believed that the Saville report could help the maiden city to move out of the shadows of the past.

‘‘It’s now a matter of getting on with life, which we haven’t been able to do. Now we can move on – not just the families, but the whole city.

Hopefully, now that the name of Bloody Sunday has been removed from the city, the people will be able to move forward,” said Kelly, who vividly remembers bringing his dying brother to hospital.

But not everyone in Derry agrees that, at £191 million, the Saville inquiry proved value for money.

‘‘My view – and it’s a view that is shared across the unionist community – is that the waste of resources that went into the Saville process was just that, a waste of £200 million that was never going to satisfy people on either side of the community,” the Democratic Unionist Party’s Gregory Campbell told The Sunday Business Post.

‘‘It’s £200 million more than was spent on inquiries into deaths in the unionist community,” Campbell said.

The Derry East MP’s opposition to the Saville inquiry was not shared by Mairead Walsh, 24, a librarian from the Catholic Gobnascale area in Derry’s Waterside. ‘‘Everyone in Derry knew that the [Bloody Sunday] victims were innocent, but to hear it like this is so important for everybody.”

Derry has long been one of the economically depressed regions in Ireland, but Walsh, like many others, believed that the Saville ruling could have a lasting, positive impact on the city.

‘‘There is a real sense of motion in this. It’s time for Derry to move on.

For years, the city has felt – and been – hard done by, but now there is the chance for it to build itself up, get more inward investment and for people to come back home.

For so long, there was never really a reason to stay, but maybe this could be a start of a new future forDerry and its people.”

This article appeared in The Sunday Business Post on June 20

Warm welcome in Derry as 'truth is set free' after 38 years

At 9:45am yesterday, 56 men and women met in silence at Derry’s historic city walls.

In the course of a solemn, purposeful procession, they walked by the Bogside’s low-rise flats complexes and on past William Street, each carrying a black-and-white picture accompanied by four short words, “Set the truth free”.

Less than an hour later, their 38-year-old call was answered. Inside the ornate Guildhall, the group, all relatives of the 27 people killed and injured in Derry on 30 January, 1972, read the first public copies of Lord Saville’s report into the events of Bloody Sunday. Despite stretching to more than 5,000 pages, this report, the result of the longest-running and costliest inquiry in British legal history, leaves no room for equivocation: the British Army in Derry fired on unarmed civilians without justification or provocation.

Acknowledging Saville’s report in the Commons, David Cameron’s speech – the most statesmanlike of his brief tenure – was peppered with words such as “sorry”, “wrong” and “unjustifiable”; sentiments conspicuous by their absence from Lord Widgery’s original, rushed, whitewashed report, published weeks after the event.

Back in Derry, thousands gathered outside the Guildhall, the city’s main civic building, to watch Mr Cameron’s speech live on big screens specially erected for the event. Ringed by larger-than-life photographs of the 13 people shot dead by British paratroopers – and pictures of another man, John Johnson, who died of injuries sustained that day – the people of Northern Ireland’s second city came expecting answers.

Applause rippled across the crowd as the Prime Minister summarised the report’s main findings: soldiers from 1 Para fired the first shots; none of the dead was armed; soldiers gave no warning. But claps audibly turned to boos as Mr Cameron praised the army’s role in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner: the North’s history is still a fractured and divided one.

The publication of the Saville report has been welcomed by republicans, but caused consternation among loyalists: if the deaths of 14 Catholics justify a £191 million inquiry, many ask, why do the 11 Protestants killed by the Provisionals at Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, 1989, or the nine dead at Claudy not deserve similar treatment?

But Bloody Sunday is different. The killers were not loyalist or republican paramilitaries, but members of the British security forces. It was the state, as Saville makes clear, that carried out these killings, the largest such incident since the Peterloo massacre in Manchester of 150 years earlier.

Saville’s findings are unlikely to disrupt the power-sharing government at Stormont – not least as they cleared deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, an IRA commander in Derry and one of the 922 people who gave oral testimony to the inquiry, of any wrongdoing on Bloody Sunday. But whether or not the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to press charges against any of the soldiers involved could have important implications, particularly for the North’s newly devolved policing and justice department.

“Widgery’s lies have been exposed. The truth has been brought home at last,” Tony Doherty, whose father, Paddy, was shot dead aged 31 on Bloody Sunday, told the crowd at the Guildhall.

Saville has set the truth free – now the attention, in Northern Ireland and beyond, will turn to what the authorities decide to do with his answers.

This piece first appeared in The Scotsman on June 15

How Hollywood threw Shane Jones into the spotlight

Director Spike Jonze’s interest in surreal debut novel Light Boxes is a career boost.

February is persecuting the town. It has been snowing for 300 days, children are disappearing and all forms of flight are banned. The downtrodden residents are on the verge of revolt – but can they succeed? We might be less than halfway through 2010 but already it looks like the gong for the year’s most original literary premise has been taken: by Light Boxes, the debut novel from American writer Shane Jones.

“February is the writer of the story. He is a month, a season, but he’s also a person, he’s the writer of the book,” Jones, speaking from his home in Albany, upstate New York, explains in clipped, East Coast tones. He admits to finding the inevitable “what’s your book about?” questions difficult – although when your debut clocks in at around 20,000 words, features multiple voices, one-word chapters, and a malevolent season hellbent on destruction that transforms into a blocked novelist, distilling it all down into a Cliffs Notes summary paragraph is always going to prove tricky.

Aged just 30, Jones has a relaxed, amiable manner – his languid speech peppered with “cools” and “weirds” – but behind the Light Boxes’s quirky exterior lie dark, foreboding themes. The book is streaked through with melancholia, sadness and loss: a reflection, in part, of the author’s own struggles with depression. “Historically I’d get my most depressed in February,” he says. “March is a terrible month too, but February is the worst. It’s often the time when I feel lowest, when the depression is worst.”

Although not identified directly in the book, Jones admits that Light Boxes is set in his native New England. The most northeasterly region of the US is often depicted as the home of Liberal America. It played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery, is staunchly Democratic, and even boasts the only democratic socialist ever elected to the US Congress but, in Jones’s rendering, February has turned his homeland into a humourless, totalitarian state.

Bordered by Canada and the Atlantic, New England is renowned for its long, sub-zero winters, and its harsh, rugged landscape is evoked throughout Light Boxes. “I lived in Buffalo [in New York state] for four years and the running joke was the weather,” Jones explains. “It was so cold and dark. And by far the coldest and the darkest month was February – just when you thought that winter was finally ending it came back at you. That feeling has never really left me.”

Written in pithy, image-rich sentences, there is a frenetic, absorbing immediacy to Light Boxes. A published poet, Jones possesses a commendable economy of words, sketching characters in silhouette, most notably Thaddeus Lowe, the heroic balloonist-cum-insurrectionist in whose voice significant portions of the book are written. Thaddeus Lowe, the author clarifies, was an ingenious Civil War-era inventor from New Hampshire and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s that Jones first came across while working in a secondhand bookstore. “There was a biography of him where I worked. Lowe was credited with forging the navy and air surveillance. During the Civil War he did reconnaissance in the South for the North – Mark Twain said he was the most shot-at man during the war. That image of him in his balloon always stuck with me. So I just placed him straight into the story.”

On paper Jones fits easily into the same stock categories as most contemporary American literary successes – young, East Coast-educated, major publishing house backing – but appearances can be deceptive. He read English at the State University of New York in Buffalo, not Harvard or Yale, and even then he didn’t exactly shine. “I was a terrible student,” the author freely admits. “I almost failed college completely. I had to move back in with my parents and take Latin at SUNY Albany just to finish my degree.”

It was while living in his folks’ basement, along with his new wife Melanie, that Jones started writing Light Boxes. Although his poetry and short stories had been published in various online magazines and small-run fanzines, the writer says he was “amazed” when Publishing Genius, an independent press based in Baltimore, decided, in early 2009, to print 500 copies of his novel. Less than four months later, director Spike Jonze had bought up the film rights, catapulting his (almost) namesake into the eye of a stormy bidding war.

“It just goes to show that you don’t need to write the Da Vinci Code to be picked up,” Jones says of the experience. Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, Jones’s new publishers, are certainly not treating his debut like a generic Dan Brown novel; at barely six inches in height and filled with lists, illustrations and unorthodox typesetting, Light Boxes is one of the smallest, most unusual looking offerings on this, or any, summer’s bookshelves.

“I just hope it doesn’t get lost on the shelf, between the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel,” he laughs. Jones ranks the author of Gravity’s Rainbow high in his list of literary inspirations – alongside Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace – but reserves special praise for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose magical realist influences permeate through Light Boxes.

“One Hundred Years Of Solitude was a book that really changed the way I write. I’m a middle-class white guy who had a fairly easy upbringing. I really wanted to write like [Charles] Bukowski but his life was so different to mine. I was 20 years old and writing about bar-room brawls and f***ing girls, stuff I wasn’t doing. But when I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude it made me feel OK to be a bit fantastical, a bit whimsical, a bit quirky.”

Garrulous yet self-deprecating, in person Jones is a world away from the likes of Bukowski and Burroughs. During the course of our two-hour conversation he, slightly sheepishly, admits that it is his first phone interview – he even researched The Herald on Wikipedia the previous night in preparation.

But while Jones would “love to come and visit Scotland”, that all depends on getting time off from his day job. Remarkably the writer still works 9-to-5 as an administrator for the New York State Senate, which is based in Albany. So far his colleagues have been puzzled by his literary endeavours: “People at work don’t get the book at all. They are all conservative, crew cuts, slacks. They are almost Attila the Hun conservative, and they think that I’m the most bizarre person ever.”

Jones has been tempted by the allure of writing for a living but admits to worrying about “what I’d do with myself” and, even more, what his parents’ response to any sudden career change would be. “My family are not artistic people. My father worked in the police department and my mother did secretary work. If I decided to just be a writer they would be completely terrified. They would think that I’m screwing up my life.”

Whether Shane Jones remains an administrator in upstate New York or becomes a full-time novelist also depends on his ability to keep producing stories – and premises – like Light Boxes once the Spike Jonze-induced hype has faded into the ether. “For me right now it’s all about what do I have to do to get another book published? Will Hamish Hamilton be interested in another novel? I hope they will be but right now I don’t know anything for certain. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Appeared in The Sunday Herald, June 7

Aarhus: A city that's second to none

This feature on the beautiful (and wonderfully vibrant) Danish city of Aarhus appeared in The Irish Independent on June 6.

“Why wasn’t Jesus born in Aarhus?” starts a popular Danish joke. “They couldn’t find three wise men.” Evidently, second-city bashing is not a sport confined to Ireland: Copenhagen’s urban sophisticates love to mock Denmark’s other city, but just as Cork has far more to offer than most Dubs would like to admit, Aarhus is no provincial backwater.

At just under 300,000 inhabitants Aarhus might be a fraction of Copenhagen’s size, but the latter’s reputation for studied cosmopolitan cool is alive and well among the Friday afternoon drinkers in Café Under Masken, a dive bar near Aarhus’s imposing Romanesque cathedral.

It’s not even 4.30pm but already the low-ceilinged lounge — it literally is the ‘cafe under the mask’, as an ornate African head smiles down from over the front door — is full of hip twentysomethings in skinny jeans and trilby hats (men and women), smoking like it is going out of fashion and shouting to be heard over The Pogues’ greatest hits.

Danish avant-garde artist Hans Krull owns Café Under Masken and the bar is decorated with myriad examples of his eclectic work — except, of course, on the three walls that the café’s gigantic aquarium runs along. As I sit slowly supping bottles of lager from the local Fur brewery and watching the tropical red snapper through a fug of cigarette smoke, the opening verse of Sally MacLennane kicks in, to howls of approval from the locals. Doubtless Shane McGowan is still longing to back in “the greatest little boozer” but I feel as if I’ve found it — and, much to my surprise, it’s in the middle of Denmark.

Aarhus, to borrow a phrase from one of Denmark — and Copenhagen’s — most famous literary sons, Hans Christian Andersen, is something of an ugly duckling. The harbour, one of the largest in northern Europe, is filled with Maersk containers and passenger ferries, and large factories still dominate skyline around the docks. A romantic stroll along the waterfront might not be possible but, over the past 25 years, Aarhus has transformed itself from the industrial powerhouse of the Midtjylland (Mid-Jutland) region into a vibrant, bohemian city with a reputation for food, drink and live music.

At the heart of this reinvention is the Latin Quarter, the rather incongruous, tourist office-invented sobriquet for what was formerly known as the Old Town. The warren of narrow, stone streets with historical names such as Klostergade (Convent St), Volden (The Rampart) and Borggade (Castle St) in and around the cathedral were, until recently, run-down and unloved but now are among the most trendy addresses in Aarhus and, indeed, Denmark.

Stella McCartney and Bang and Olufsen are among the designer stores vying for shoppers’ attention alongside independent craft-shops and small galleries on Badstuegade, one of the Latin Quarter’s main thoroughfares. Around the corner, on Rosengade, Casablanca is the city’s oldest café, dating back from the mid-1970s, a time when a lozenge-shaped ‘Tabac’ sign outside and a bottle of Chartreuse behind the bar was the height of Parisian sophistication (both, by the way, still present).

While Scandinavia is often held up as a model for what Europe should aspire to — socially liberal, progressive, fair — our Nordic neighbours are often traduced as safe, predictable and rather boring.

But, as I discovered when I lived in Aalborg, a nearby city of 100,000 folk in North Jutland, a few years back, Danes are anything but dull — as befitting the country that brought the world Carlsberg, Denmark is a nation of beer-drinkers and pub-goers. And Aarhus is blessed with a fine selection of bars to choose from.

A stone’s throw from Café Under Masken, the achingly cool clientele in Ris Ras Filliongong recline on opulent chaises longue, drink draught beers from Denmark and Germany and puff on cigars. Smoking is banned in public in Denmark but paradoxically allowed in bars of less than 40 square metres. It feels a bit too much like sitting in the smoking carriage on the old Dublin-Sligo train for my (ex-smoker) liking but, thankfully, the bar’s basement is larger and, consequently, smoke-free.

During my student days in Aalborg I often ventured south for gigs, and, outside urbane Copenhagen, Aarhus remains Denmark’s undisputed live music capital. Venues such as Voxhall and Train host top-notch international acts most nights of the week, while the burgeoning Danish music scene is well supported: bands such as Efterklang and Oh No Ono are closely connected with Aarhus and still return to the city regularly.

Not everything has remained the same since my last visit, however. The town centre is now almost completely pedestrianised, part of a broader initiative, begun back in the early 1990s, to reduce traffic. Bicycles have become the main mode of downtown transport in Aarhus — city bikes that can be rented by the hour are available on most street corners and are a great way to enjoy this most compact of European cities — and the area along Aaboulevarden (literally “the river boulevard”), once choked up with cars, is now the perfect place to kick back and enjoy the city’s burgeoning café culture.

Foodies take note: Copenhagen might be more than three hours south on the train but the Nordic food revolution that has gripped the Danish capital — Noma in Copenhagen was recently voted best restaurant in the world — is evident in Aarhus, too.

Noma famously uses only produce available in the Nordic region, a commitment to seasonal, local cooking shared by many, including Thorsten Schmidts, head chef at Nordisk Spisehus.

A favourite among Aarhus’s chattering classes, if the packed house on my Friday evening visit is anything to go by, Nordisk Spisehus is a pleasing marriage of minimalism, with sleek, white walls and unfussy service, and maximalism, with portions generous to a fault and all dishes available as takeaway. And, unlike many fine-dining establishments, beer is actively encouraged as a wine alternative. Jutland has undergone a brewing revolution in recent years, with more than 50 micro-breweries appearing in the past decade alone, and locally brewed beer is available in restaurants and bars throughout the city. Nordisk Spisehus boasts a particularly impressive selection (many in special 750ml bottles so you don’t feel left out among the wine quaffers).

Although Copenhageners mock Aarhus as backward and unsophisticated, across Scandinavia the city has a reputation as a cultural capital.

The annual Aarhus festival, which runs for 10 days in late August/early September, is the biggest arts festival in the Nordic region, with past events featuring everyone from the Rolling Stones and Ravi Shankar to Latin American rainmakers and African choirs. The theme for this year’s festival, which starts on August 27, is “neighbours” — expect music, dance, theatre, sport, opera and exhibitions for all ages.

Elsewhere, the Kvindemusset, or ‘women’s museum’, provides a fascinating feminist history of Denmark, while the nearby Frihedsmuseet tells the story of Danish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War.

Across town, a five-metre tall Boy hunches down, hiding his face behind his left arm. It might look thrillingly lifelike but Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculpture is the main attraction at the ARoS museum, a magnificent Guggenheim-esque edifice complete with spiral stairs and a light, airy glass roof. This remarkable contemporary art gallery wasn’t named after the Greek god of love but actually borrows its title from the city’s original name, Aaross, or the mouth of a small river.

From small acorns (well, rivers) Denmark’s second city has grown into an engaging, invigorating and vibrant destination. Don’t believe the hype from sniping Copenhageners, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot for a weekend break in Europe. And before you ask, yes, I have heard the one about the Aarhus man who threw his clock out the window…

Unlucky Jim fails to find a foothold as Lucky Jim holds firm

I argued that baby-boomers need to be coaxed down from the top of the academic tree in this opinion piece in The Times Higher Education on June 3. There’s been quite a bit of reaction and comment to the piece on the THE site.

A few weeks ago I bumped into an old college friend on a busy London street. We had been doctoral students together. When we had last met, two years before, he had just begun a postdoc at a prestigious institution and had signed a contract for his monograph with a respected academic publisher.

Now he is unemployed.

Away from the noise of traffic, in a nearby cafe, Jim, as I will call him, rather sheepishly told me that despite a first-class CV – including published papers in three of the top-ten cited journals in his field – and extensive experience for a candidate of his age, he has been unable to find a new position since his contract ended in the new year. Jim estimates that he has applied for upwards of 30 jobs in the past 12 months – and is now signing on the dole.

It would be easier to dismiss Jim’s as an exceptional case – a victim of bad luck or poor timing, or involved in a sub-discipline going out of fashion (which he’s not) – were it not for the postgraduate suites across the country filled with dynamic, brilliant doctoral students whose job prospects are equally bleak, and getting bleaker with every passing month. When I began my own PhD, about six years ago, it was still regarded by many as a sure-fire route into continuous, well-paid employment for the vast majority of those who survived the gruelling slog. For most recent graduates, however, the reality proved very different: a Herculean struggle to get on to the job ladder, short-term posts in far-flung places, a merry-go-round of postdoc after postdoc, poor remuneration, the holy grail of a tenured position at a decent university receding all the while.

Why is it so difficult for new graduates to forge an academic career in the UK? One reason, of course, is increased competition in a shrinking job market. Over the past decade, the number of PhD candidates in British universities has increased exponentially, with many recently completed doctoral students searching for jobs at a time when cutbacks in education are beginning to hit hard. But this perfect storm of more (highly qualified) applicants for fewer posts is not the only – or maybe even the main – reason why young academics are struggling to get ahead.

The upper echelon of higher education in the UK remains largely the preserve of professors born in the baby-boom era, who enjoy jobs for life and have, so far, proved very reluctant to shuffle off into retirement. In The Pinch, David Willetts offers a radical critique of the effect that this postwar generation has had on contemporary Britain. Subtitled “How the baby-boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”, the now Tory universities and science minister’s book cogently argues that today’s 55-plus cohort have, through sheer weight of numbers, loaded the dice in their own favour, using their electoral dominance to ensure their own supremacy even into old age, in the form of generous, fiscally cripplingly pension provisions.

These children of the 1960s retain a massive influence on the politics and society of today – nowhere more so than in our universities. The boom in higher education in the 1970s led to the formation of new institutions and the creation of departments in a swathe of previously marginalised disciplines. These new jobs were filled mainly by young, left-wing academics born in the 20 years from 1945.

Forty years on, many members of this once-radical cadre are still employed by universities, as professors, vice-chancellors or ancillary staff. But now, rather than facilitating change, these older academics are standing in its way: the lack of movement at the top of the tree reduces the upward mobility of mid-career academics, preventing juniors getting a foothold on the career ladder at all. Given the baby-boomers’ dominance of the top jobs – and, consequently, the bulk of salaries – young academics have little or no chance of achieving full-time, permanent positions at anything like the age of their 55-plus colleagues.

It is not that the baby-boom generation, in higher education and elsewhere, has been consciously selfish, they merely profited from a huge post-war swell in numbers and opportunities. But there is a need to look closely at how the disparity between older and younger academics can be addressed in the present, especially given the crisis facing university funding.

There are options available – “retiring” chairs to make way for new blood or ring-fencing jobs for recent graduates – but these are not being actively explored. For the sake of Jim, and other dedicated younger academics bulking out job centre queues, perhaps it’s time that they were.

The explosive affair that scandalised Victorian society

This review of Chloe Schama’s excellent debut book Wild Romance appeared inThe Sunday Business Post on May 30.

In February 1861, the Four Courts hosted a trial that gripped the public imagination, not only in Ireland but in Britain also. Thelwall v Yelverton was one of the most explosive cases ever to come before a Victorian court: William Charles Yelverton, an impecunious Irish aristocrat, stood accused of bigamy and of marrying and abandoning Theresa Longworth, a middle-class Catholic Englishwoman.

Yelverton and Long worth’s relationship, as the court heard in intimate detail, was anything but standard, buttoned-up Victorian fare. Having met aboard a steamer sailing from France to England in 1852, the pair began a clandestine, largely epistolary, affair that, Theresa testified in front of a rapt gallery, culminated in the couple marrying in secret some five years later.

The Irishman, who vehemently denied any previous marriage, had wed Emily Forbes, a widow, in 1858, an act that lead to the Four Courts trial.

The scandal inflamed the sensationalist press and inspired many novelists of the time, notably Wilkie Collins, but the affair was long forgotten by the time Chloe Schama, daughter of British historian Simon, stumbled across allusions to it while researching her thesis, in the British Library, in 2004.

Schama shares her father’s eye for a good yarn: from a footnote in an obscure scholarly article, the author, in her first book, spins a taut, confident tale of love, betrayal and the double standards of Victorian morality.

Wild Romance concerns itself primarily with Longworth, a character who – despite her quixotic mix of bravery and self-deception – cuts a noble and sympathetic figure throughout.

We learn how she fell for Yelverton while just 19, and pursued him from England to the Crimea and back again She finally joined him in Edinburgh, the setting for the first of their two unwitnessed marriages, an oath sworn over the Book of Common prayer.

Anxious to put her distinctly unusual marriage arrangements on a firmer footing, Longworth convinced her reluctant suitor to travel to Ireland where they were, putatively, wed a second time, this time with only an ill-informed Irish priest for company.

The Four Courts trial hinged on whether Yelverton was a Catholic or not, but while the Dublin court found in her favour, a team of judges in Edinburgh and, later, the Law Lords. dismissed the couple’s irregular Scottish marriage.

Women occupied an ambivalent position in mid-19th century Britain. On the one hand, they provided a much needed labour force for the industrial revolution, but they were expected to play the role of wife and child bearer with little rights of their own within marriage.

Longworth set out to challenge this orthodoxy: not long after her victory in Dublin, she published the first volume of her autobiographical novel, Martyrs to Circumstance.

Although poorly received – the Athenaeum called it ‘‘silly, dull and coarse’’ – Longworth spent the rest of her life writing. She died in obscurity in South Africa aged just 48, having spent the previous two decades detailing her travels across the globe.

Longworth described herself as ‘‘a rolling stone’’, and in less capable hands, her peregrinations, which make up more than half of this book, would have made for dull reading after the courtroom’s heady excitements.

Schama, however, skilfully weaves sources, styles and detail to produce a satisfying and immensely readable account of a woman who was ‘‘a harbinger of a new era’’.

‘‘Life, indeed, is a wild romance, if truly written,” Longworth once wrote. Her passions were her undoing but, almost 150 years later, Schama has done justice to an instructive tale of a woman who refused to give in to the constrictive demands of Victorian society.