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This item is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

Letters from Michael Alexander, Geoff Pawling, Trevor Toley
Invisible Structure


Thanks to you and Judith Willson for her thoughtful review of my Medievalism, 'the first attempt to write a history of medievalism that traces its broad sweep from the 1760s to the late twentieth century'.

The book looks at the Medieval Revival in all its various manifestations, especially in literature, though it is also concerned with art, politics, historiography and architecture. The review concentrates chiefly on the last two areas, and quite legitimately.

I write, however, to correct the misleading statement on which the review builds its conclusion. Judith Willson writes: 'To return to Barry's Gothic Palace of Westminster with which the book began, what Alexander doesn't point out is that underneath that embodiment of the spirit of the nation in Ruskinian stonework, the roof was built entirely of prefabricated iron components. This was a modern building, created by the materials and skills of the Industrial Revolution.'

In the discussion of the Palace (p. 79), my endnote reads: ' "The invisible structure - foundations, construction, ventilation, heating, fireproof construction and the iron framing of its towers - was a triumph of industrial technology, making it the world's first large modern building, where the architect was forced to consider the mechanical systems as a central part of his task." Lewis, Gothic Revival, 83.'


Back to the Barricades


While I enjoyed reading his warm tribute to the late Professor G.K. Hunter, Neil Powell's uncharacteristically mean-spirited account of the student protests of 1968 ('Forty Years On', PNR 182) brought me hurrying back to the barricades. It is too easy to belittle the experience of 1968 which, for students alive to the times, was far from the 'ordinary' round Neil Powell evokes. I feel very fortunate to have taken part in one of the large-scale sit-ins of that year, the one at the Senate House of Bristol University. What I saw there did not at all resemble Neil Powell's description of student action.

Perhaps there was a particular air of realism about the Bristol sit-in because it took place at the end of the year. It was very clear to almost all of us that revolution was not imminent! (I'll never forget marching with the Bristol Communist Party at the October demonstration in London against the Vietnam War and hearing two veteran comrades discuss whether they would get home in time to see that week's episode of The Forsyte Saga.)

What I saw at the Bristol sit-in was disciplined collective action co-ordinated by an elected and accountable leadership who kept the focus on the immediate issue, the wish to share the very large and well-equipped Student Union building with students from the Polytechnic. This was a real issue but one well chosen to open up much broader issues of the structure of society - as it did: even the police constables sent to ensure that the peace was kept were drawn into the discussion as they played cards with the students on door-duty. Each evening open meetings were held in the great dining hall of the Senate House, meetings at which opponents, who shared Neil Powell's view that a sit-in was 'a counter-productive nuisance', were welcome to voice their objections. Indeed on one occasion their motion that the sit-in should be abandoned was defeated by only a narrow margin. Contrary to Neil Powell's contention, the 'young rebels' were confident enough to listen and to engage in genuine argument. In fact, the only expression of widespread impatience that I recall was the weary sigh which went up when someone leapt to his feet and interrupted a speaker by shouting 'Remember Che Guevara!' The students all remembered Che Guevara, but they also recognised empty rhetoric.

Far from obstructing access to education, as Neil Powell contends, the sit-in provided it, through the debates held, the mingling of people from different disciplines and the challenge of retaining wide and active support. A transitory but inspired community was created. One night-scene remains particularly vivid in my memory. With the electricity cut off, the building is in darkness; the evening meeting is over, the decision taken. Now the silkscreens are set to work. In pools of candlelight, teams of shadowy figures tend the frames, printing the next day's posters: WE STAY.

Of course, as Neil Powell notes, quoting Theodore Roszak, there was in all this a 'sense of enchantment and playfulness'; but, rather than being 'childish', it was celebratory, a break-out from greyness and repression.

Against Neil Powell's sweeping dismissal of sit-ins, I can only cite my own experience; but, even forty years on, I am sure that there are other readers of PNR who remember the intensity and exhilaration of student politics in 1968 and are happy to have taken part.


British Literary Periodicals


Thank you for publishing James Keery's well-researched review of my book, British Literary Periodicals of World War II and Aftermath. He points out that Miller and Price had found a copy of The Verist, which I had instanced as a periodical that had disappeared without trace. Keery himself found a copy of a periodical Blaze from 1940, which had a title that Reginald Moore had considered for one of his projects in the mid-forties, whose fate I was not clear about. My suggestion would be that Moore also found a copy and had hence decided that he could not use that title. Keery compliments me on making a distinction between two incarnations of Phoenix. However, I have to say that I do not think that I distinguish clearly in my bibliography between Phoenix and an earlier periodical called The Phoenix. An omission arose rather oddly. I had a photocopy of the contents page of a periodical that seemed to be called 'Oxford & Cambridge Writing'. The page appeared to have a decorative pattern at its top - a series of 'Z's. I did not realise that this in fact was the title, so that I was never able to find the publication. I.D. Edrich, who is handling my book in England, produced a copy of the only issue of Z, which contained pieces by John Heath Stubbs, Drummond Allison, Sidney Keyes, Michael Hamburger and Donald Bain. The contents page mentions that some poems have appeared in Platitude (which Keery mentions) and also in Sheaf, both of which seem to have disappeared. No doubt more obscure items will surface from time to time. I was surprised how many I found. In the meantime, there seems to be an active interest in periodicals of the period. Peter Wells, one of the few surviving poets of the 1940s, has recently reprinted Poetry Folios.

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This item is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

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