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by Professor Peter Stoneley, Head of Department, English Literature, University of Reading

A poem about a man who murdered his wife isn’t an obvious choice for Valentine’s Day, but Oscar Wilde made it clear that his The Ballad of Reading Gaol was, in fact, about love:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.

Written after his two years of imprisonment with hard labour from 1895 to 1897, and first published on February 13th 1898, Wilde’s poem focused on an execution by hanging that was carried out in Reading Prison during his own incarceration. Charles Thomas Wooldridge was a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who, out of jealousy, stabbed his wife to death. Wooldridge thought his death sentence was right, and he did not seek clemency. He was hanged on 7 July 1896, and buried in an unmarked grave within the Prison walls.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘love poem’ was also a plea for prison reform

In the present climate, where attitudes and behaviour towards women are rightfully being challenged, presenting Wooldridge as a hero, or suggesting his actions were a “crime of passion”, seems abhorrent.  Wilde, though, draws Wooldridge with sympathy.  The trooper seems haunted by his crime, as he looks “with such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky”.

Further, Wilde chooses to explore the thought that all people fail their love in one way or another: “each man kills the thing he loves”.  The paradox of the poem is that Wooldridge becomes the hero of love because he, out of the intensity of his devotion, commits the greatest crime.

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Of all I’ve read in my life, and all that’s yet to come, what’s going to count? How much of it has changed me? How much has even marked me? How much has done both but I don’t know it yet? Readers get to make these discoveries in the privacy of their own heads. Writers must make them in public and then wear them in their back catalogues for as long as they have a readership who cares.

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In recent years, a number of specialist fonts have been developed which claim to help people with dyslexia to read more easily and fluently. The main idea is that by increasing space between letters and designing letters that are distinctive in terms of their height and shape, letters will be less confusable (for example letters such as b and d which are identical when reversed) and therefore reading can progress more easily. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

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It was pretty cold when I visited the archive in December and, in rebellion at the pummellings of pre-Christmas cheer, I ordered up some drafts of Beckett’s final prose work ‘Stirrings Still.’  I was intrigued by the description in Jim Knowlson’s biography of the physical frailty evident in Beckett’s handwriting as he worked on it in the last years of his life.

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Thirty international experts met at the University of Reading recently, to help the United Nations develop better policies and practices to safeguard the world’s pollinators.

The meeting of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was convened to identify the greatest threats facing pollinators in different parts of the world and was hosted by Professor Simon Potts, Director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental research.

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Multi-award-winning author Eimear McBride is the inaugural Creative Fellow at the University of Reading’s Samuel Beckett Research Centre. This role allows her exclusive access to the University’s Beckett Archive and leading Beckett academics, and will see her produce a brand new piece of work inspired by the work of the Irish playwright. Here, in part one of her monthly journal, she talks about the daunting, and fascinating, task of following in Beckett’s footsteps.

Eimear will get to explore the University’s Beckett Archive

I have the good fortune to be in receipt of the inaugural Creative Fellowship at the University of Reading’s Beckett Research Centre.

From now until the summer I’ll be haunting their reading room and ordering as much material by, and about, Beckett from their archive as I can possibly read – having already cast an eye over the fascinating ‘German Diaries’ and seen Beckett’s handwriting up close, it’s fair to say, the reading itself may prove something of a challenge.

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By Professor Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews

Bestansur site in Iraq

The transition of humankind from mobile hunters to settled farmers after the Ice Age is a period in history still shrouded in mystery. Very little evidence exists to shed light on what life was like in the world’s first villages in the Middle East 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

But our archaeological research, carried out in collaboration with local communities in Iraq and Iran, is uncovering clues that will help us understand how ancient civilisations developed. We will be presenting our findings at a public lecture on Wednesday 22 November, as part of the national Being Human Festival.

Earlier this year, we conducted excavations and interdisciplinary research at the Neolithic site of Bestansur, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is in the eastern Fertile Crescent – one of the areas of the Middle East where farming originated. Our aim is to learn more about how humans first started farming in this region, taking steps towards a more domesticated lifestyle.

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Kate Green, Partnerships Manager, Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH)

One of the farms managed by the University’s Centre for Dairy Research

The shocking fact that 1 in 4 adults in the UK are obese is quite something. This figure has trebled in the last 30 years and is expected to increase to an astounding 1 in 2 by 2050. Do we, as a nation, know what we’re eating when it comes to fat?

This was the question posed by ITV’s Tonight programme (Fat: The Healthy Option?) which asked us to consider what we know about fat and to question the widely held belief that fat is a key opponent in our struggle against weight gain and the health risks that come with this. Professor Ian Givens kicked off the show by challenging the belief that dairy consumption makes you fat, as the evidence from innovative research undertaken by the University of Reading suggests that this is not in fact the case and that in some cases diary consumption can actually enhance weight loss.

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Can we mend broken hearts?

Professor Peter Kruschwitz is Professor of Classics Mending broken heartsat Reading and a specialist in Latin Language and Literature.

The fence around the University of Reading’s Humanities and Social Science (HumSS) Building is currently decorated with images and captions illustrating Reading’s desire to be ‘asking big questions.’ One of the captions, attributed to Dr Sam Boateng from the School of Biological Sciences, asks: ‘Can we mend broken hearts?’

The caption, a playful curtsy to Reading’s leadership in cardiovascular research, reminded me of a passage attributed to the Latin poet Lygdamus, a love-poet of the first century B. C., who wrote in his Elegies 2.1-6:

Qui primus caram iuueni carumque puellae
eripuit iuuenem, ferreus ille fuit.
durus et ille fuit, qui tantum ferre dolorem,
uiuere et erepta coniuge qui potuit.
non ego firmus in hoc, non haec patientia nostro
ingenio: frangit fortia corda dolor.

‘He who first robbed a young man of his love, and a girl of her beloved, that person was made of iron. Hard, too, was he who could bear such pain, and who could live, with the partner snatched away. I am not strong in that respect, nor is there such endurance in my mind: pain makes brave hearts break.’

The image of heartbrokenness – ancient, yet familiar – begins to intrigue: how can a heart be broken, how can it get broken? Is it just the lack of resilience to emotional strain, one’s weakness, as Lygdamus suggests?

A possible answer can be found in even earlier Latin literature, in an author of the third and second centuries B. C. As far as one can tell from the fragmentary transmission of Latin literature, it may in fact have been the comic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, who first employed it in his comedy Cistellaria (‘Casket Comedy’). In this play, Plautus has a lovesick young man called Alcesimarchus say (Cistellaria 221–2):

‘maritumis moribus mecum experitur: ita meum frangit amantem animum.’

‘He handles me the way the (stormy) sea would do: thus he breaks my lovesick heart.’

Plautus exploits the imagery of a ship exposed to the heavy sea, battered by the waves, lacking direction, and ultimately crushed to pieces by the forces of nature to describe the battles, external and internal, that Alcesimarchus has to face in his quest for fulfilled love.

From here it is only a small step to the image’s predominant use outside the realm of Latin poetry: here, animum frangere is frequently used particularly as an image denoting the ‘crushing of someone’s spirit’ (rather than heart itself – the Latin term covers both facets).

Yet, in Latin writing it does not always have to be debilitating trauma that may result in the proverbial ‘broken heart’. Quintilian, Rome’s first professor of Latin, when discussing the best way in which to design the epilogue to a courtroom speech, suggests in his Institutio Oratoria (11.3.170):

‘si misericordia commouendos, flexum uocis et flebilem suauitatem, qua praecipue franguntur animi quaeque est maxime naturalis: nam etiam orbos uiduasque uideas in ipsis funeribus canoro quodam modo proclamantis.’

‘If they (sc. the judges) are to be moved by pity, (sc. employ) an inflexion of the voice and a whiney sweetness, by which hearts are broken first and foremost, yet which is most natural: for you see parents bereft of their children, and you see widows, at the very funerals, lamenting in that peculiar song-like voice.’

Even this very small selection of Latin usages of the image of the broken heart does show: pain, worries, sorrow (and ultimately: death) are deeply connected to it – and the idea of suffering and even of death due to a broken heart (figuratively, not literally speaking) is not alien to the medical profession.

What is interesting to a linguistic scholar, of course, is how a verbal image that started its life as a poetic metaphor can be appropriated by the language of science – a language that often (albeit incorrectly) is deemed objective and descriptive.

The image of the broken heart that Dr Boateng uses in his big question is by no means an exception in that respect. Instead, it even adds another facet to it: the allusion to the image does not restore a literal facet of the phrase ‘broken heart’ that did not exist in its figurative use – hearts, unless subject to substantial physical force, do not literally break into pieces, like a clay vessel if dropped. Instead, it combines the pre-existing image with that of a broken piece of machinery (an engine, perhaps), thus expanding the metaphoric use rather than restricting it.

Dr Boateng asks a big question: ‘Can we mend broken hearts?’ – and I very much hope he can (or that he will be able to do that one day in the very near future). An even bigger question than this could be: ‘Should we mend broken hearts?’ One must not be cynical when it comes to deeply unsettling matters; yet, the answer to this question, whether for the scientific or the poetic use of the phrase, will have to remain a philosophical one.

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Professor Richard Tiffin, Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading discusses the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security, published this week.

The House of Commons International Development Committee report on Food Security is a comprehensive and challenging attempt to highlight some of the issues which confront us with this complex problem.

The report highlights: the potential of GM to contribute to food security but recognises that care must be excercised in promoting this as a solution; the importance of agricultural research; the importance of open international markets in protecting against shocks; and that a focus on malnutrition may be as, if not more, important than that of hunger.

However, while the aim of the report is to take a global focus, it is perhaps guilty of oversimplifying the issue of meat production and coming to locally-centred, rather than global, conclusions. It notes that the rate of increase in meat consumption is unsustainable and recommends that meat should be promoted as an occasional product. By highlighting the place of animals in ensuring global food security the report is to be applauded but the reality is that this area is complex and not well understood at the moment.

It is irrefutable that demand for meat globally will grow as populations become richer.  At a local level, it might be sensible for us to reduce meat consumption and the reality is that price increases will probably lead us to do this voluntarily.  At a global level, however, it is much more important to consider how the inevitable increase in demand can be met and what its implications are for human health. We should not solely focus our attention on repelling the tide.

The report correctly states that we need to identify sustainable livestock systems, but it is not necessarily true that extensive pasture-based systems are more sustainable. For example there is evidence to suggest that more intensive feeding reduces the emission of greenhouse gases caused by livestock.  The role played by livestock in providing a route out of poverty for some of the poorest farmers should also not be overlooked.

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