How has your Charterhouse experience been?
Enjoyable and challenging in equal measure.
What inspired you to study English?
In terms of scholarship: Frank Kermode. He’s the real deal. In terms of excitement in what language can do: James Joyce. Pupils often think that studying English is just about studying works of literature. No! It’s about questioning received ideas. It’s about thinking creatively, imaginatively and empathetically. It’s about tapping into the spirit of the age. And it’s about understanding how narratives – the stories that all individuals and societies have to tell themselves – work. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of language. It’s the most captivating mirror through which to view our deepest desires and our need for meaning.
What was your PhD?
My PhD focused on Irish literature and art after the revolution. I had to learn to write again after that project. Heavily researched studies often lack narrative drive and direction. They are essentially defensive (you ‘defend’ a thesis from all possible detractors). I’m currently finishing a book on the Irish avant-garde, which I hope will be more fun to read.
What motivated your interest in the topic?
When Ireland became a new independent state and society during the early 1920s, there were bitter conflicts over what the future of Irish culture ought to look like. I became fascinated by the individuals and groups that collaborated during this period to produce, exhibit, consume and debate some of the most radical works of the twentieth century. I wanted to find out more about how dissident writers and artists moved the nation forward into a new age of politics, thought and feeling.
Do you have any future projects?
I haven’t got very far on realising these plans yet, but I want to write a book about literature and the jazz age and something much more boring: a practical educational guide on critical thinking.
What led you to teaching?
While I was a postdoc research assistant, I worked with 17-18-year olds from academies all over London as part of a university preparation programme. I enjoyed it immensely. There’s something special about going head to head with sixth formers, or ‘Specs’ as they are called here. Discovery is fast and furious. Lively characters and humours are in full flow. I’m also a firm believer in holistic education. It became obvious to me that I had to work in an environment that educates the whole being and grows the deeper character. Sporting, cultural and academic passions all need to be blazing for the spirit level to kick in. In academia, you spend most of your time sitting inside the four walls of the library, lecture theatre or seminar room. Sometimes it can be hard to get your energy and personal interactions from other sources. At Charterhouse, it’s exciting to think that you are, essentially, working in George Mallory’s office. I won’t comment on his views on Ireland, his teaching style, or the Carthusians who, according to Robert Graves, failed to grasp much of what he said!
For you personally is there something quite gratifying about spreading your wisdom or leaving an imprint?
Knowing that you’ve made an impact is hugely gratifying. But this isn’t so one-sided. I’ll be equally gratified when you fly past me.
If you could describe Charterhouse in three words what would they be?
Victorian. Energetic. Competitive.
Charterhouse is quite a hectic place. When you aren’t working or reading what do you like to do in your spare time?
Listen to music. Loudly.
What instruments do you play?
Woodwind. Flute and tenor sax.
What sort of music? Do you like jazz or baroque?
Sure. I love bossa novas and blues. Stan Getz and John Coltrane are two of my favourite musicians. On the subject of baroque, Bach’s Brandenburg concertos come first to mind. When I was at school, I performed the fifth with a talented pupil in the year above (now international organist) who played the harpsichord part. That’s stayed with me ever since. I’m into pop mashups, too!
What’s your favourite novel or film?
I recommended Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for the Charterhouse Library’s Book of the Week, so I’ll mention it again here. As for favourite film, let’s stick with another classic from war-torn Sicily: Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.
Which celebrity would you most associate yourself with?
I’ve been told I look like Andy Samberg by my girlfriend. Make of that comparison what you will.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Francophile, playful, sceptical. Or just a geek.