Interview with Dr. Tom Walker, 13th October 2011. Check out his TCD Profile here.
I understand that you studied at Oxford, and then Trinity and then Oxford again. Could you tell me a little about that?
I did my undergraduate, my BA, at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, which I finished in about 2004, and then I came here to do the M Phil in what was then called Anglo-Irish Literature, and then I actually worked for a year in London. I was an assistant editor of various classical music magazines.
And you decided that you didn’t want to stick with that?
Yeah. I think I knew I always wanted to go back but I kind of wanted to make sure. Have a year working and work out what I actually wanted to do in terms of research. Then I went back to Oxford to do a doctorate, which I finished just under two years ago, and then I had couple of temporary-ish jobs covering people on leave in Oxford, and now I’m here, and I guess that’s the chronology of it!
And how did you end up specialising in Irish Literature?
That’s a good question. People often think I must have an Irish family or something, but I don’t have any Irish ancestry as far as I know. At school I did Portrait of the Artist, which I enjoyed a lot, which I suppose led to me reading other related things. Then as an undergrad I was quite lucky, I was taught by an Irish poet called Bernard O’Donoghue, who taught me in my first year and has been a great help to me ever since. I did some Irish drama with him, things like Synge and O’Casey. In my final year I did a special author course, which was on Joyce, and I was taught by Tom Paulin, another Irish poet, so that’s why I thought about coming here.
And how are you finding being in Trinity as one of the faculty instead of as a student?
It’s very nice. For the Master’s course you’re never in the Department because you’re always in the Oscar Wilde centre, so in a way, although I was here, there was a lot of the Department I never had contact with, but it’s a lovely place to be. The location’s pretty unbeatable.
How do you find it compared to Oxford? It must be quite a different atmosphere.
It’s much more centralised – in Oxford everything’s collegiate and broken up and decentralised, so in that way it’s quite different. The course structures and the way people are taught and assessed are quite different, so that’s all new and I’m trying to get my head around things like ‘freshman’ and ‘sophister’ – this is all new jargon to me. The difference for my teaching is that mostly in Oxford it was one-on-one or one-on-two tutorials, and a lot fewer lectures and seminars.
How do you find that?
It’s fun but a challenge. I mean, writing lectures is quite hard work. There’s a Kingsley Amis quote somewhere where he talks about writing lectures being a lot harder work than people realise.
Is it quite a scary thing giving lectures? Given that public speaking is like the number one fear, is it quite a scary thing or is it just something you take in your stride?
I think I did used to be scared of public speaking, but I did give some lectures in Oxford, and as a research student I gave quite a few seminar papers, so I guess the fear has mostly gone. You sometimes get weird things like when you can suddenly start hearing yourself speak, or that moment where you look out at the audience and everyone’s looking quite glassy-eyed. So far it’s been OK. I gave one lecture to the big first year course on Literary Theory, and that was fine. And I have been giving lectures to a smaller group on fairly recent Northern Irish literature.
Which bits of the literary theory course are you lecturing on?
Formalism and Psychoanalysis.
Are those particular areas of interest of yours?
Well, they’re lectures I took over from Dr. Bernice Murphy as she’s on leave. Formalism is something I’m very interested in – issues of literary language and poetic form, and the history of thinking about that. Psychoanalytic criticism less so.
And whilst you’re here you’re also teaching the Sophister Option Art Writing. Could you talk to me about the crossover with the other art forms? How did you get on to that, and why is it important?
Partly it’s just something I’m interested in – I’ve written one tiny article about MacNeice’s interest in the visual arts (my doctorate was on Louis MacNeice) and I’m currently supposed to be writing something more about Yeats and the visual arts, so I guess on some level it’s a research interest, which is quite nice to teach.
It’s quite a weird thing to box off literature – writers themselves often don’t think of it in that way, they’re very interested in music or art, and they often have a much greater interest in that than literary critics do, so it can lead to a weird kind of distortion. For example, the history of Irish culture is very skewed towards literature, but once you start to be aware of some of the major figures, a lot of them are very interested in visual arts and have lots of links to visual arts – Yeats was the son of a painter, the brother of a painter, his sisters worked in printing and needlework. There is a whole history that’s kind of forgotten there, and that’s maybe also a product to some degree of technology. Books can be a mass medium, but seeing art is harder, particularly if people don’t end up becoming canonical artists, because then they don’t get shown in galleries. I just thought it would be something a bit different.
What other areas of research are you continuing whilst you’re here?
Well my thesis will hopefully at some point see the light of day as a book. I’ve done a few things in the last year which are ongoing. One is to do with the work of John McGahern, and I’ve become quite interested, through thinking about his early career, his early intellectual contexts, He’s a writer who’s quite cunning in portraying himself as kind of naive and simplistic. He wrote a memoir which talked a lot about his childhood and then just stops and says ‘and then I was published’, but that missing bit is about ten years long. So I’ve been doing some research on that and also on comparing Dublin in the 50s in comparison with Soho in the 50s. The way we all think of Ireland in the 50s is kind of miserable, and a very similar thing happens in British literary histories – the 50s is a downtrodden miserable time when everyone’s wearing tweed and is in black and white – whereas if you do a comparative study, some more interesting things arise, and it’s a more bohemian scene than you might realise. Another thing I’d also be interested in this year is the centenary of Flann O’Brien, so I’ve been doing some research into the bicycle in the Third Policemen, and thinking as the bicycle as a cultural symbol, which has led me to think about Republican memoir after the Civil War, and the extent to which Flann O’Brien might be responding to how people having fought quite quickly became people writing about it. But both of those things are a bit of a sideline.
Is it easy to get sidelined?
Yes. With research it tends to be things that you take to conferences. Sometimes you have a half an idea and you say you’ll talk about it at a conference so then you have to do the work.
Is being an academic something you always wanted to do?
From my late teens over my last few years a school, I realised I enjoyed studying, and then at university I knew that I enjoyed it and would maybe want to carry on. I guess the decision to become an academic was more about coming back to do a doctorate, you know, quitting a job and thinking I kind of have to make this work. I guess there’s nothing else I’d want to be – other than things you can’t be, like a great musician or a professional sportsman.
And why English? Why is Literature important to study?
Well, it’s quite rare in life that you get to do something that’s a hobby. Until quite late on at school I didn’t think I was going to do Literature, my A Levels were Maths, Physics, Music and English, and I think I thought I was going to do Physics or Maths, and then you realise the thing you’re choosing to do is to read novels and poems, so why not study that instead of the thing you have to drag yourself through?
So it’s important to do something you enjoy?
Yes, and I guess that can seem a bit decadent, particularly in the current economic climate, and also coming from the UK where the fees debate has been ongoing and you can see why people would choose not to do humanities under those pressures. The silly thing is that even if you are going down that very economic road, a lot of people who do humanities degrees end up being very employable because of their various skills, their ability to think critically and articulate their thoughts, which has always been a strength of university education, as opposed to vocational training. Also, literature is a way you can intersect a lot of other ideas – history, philosophy, it’s a great melting pot.
And do you have time to read for pleasure?
Well the last couple of months have been quite busy, with moving over here, but in general I’m quite bad at reading things for pleasure that aren’t in some way related to work. I know a lot of academics seem to be obsessed with Thrillers as a kind of switch off, and I don’t tend to do that, although at the moment I am actually reading one of John Banville’s Benjamin Black novels. The things I’ve bizarrely begun reading for pleasure are big Victorian novels, which I was particularly resistant to as an undergraduate, but I’ve now realised they’re pretty amazing things.
I assume you can never really turn off that analytical approach?
Yes, I think that is true, although it depends on the speed you read things. If you read quite quickly, things can just suck you in, and certain kind of authors do that to you. I’m a big fan of Coetzee (me and the rest of the world) and I find his books very compelling to the point where I sometimes forget to think about them, which is odd since he is such an overtly intellectual novelist.
And what other kind of interests do you have?
Well, I’m actually a trombone-player, and I used to play in the Trinity Orchestra when I did my masters here. I also play cricket, in a very English way. In Oxford I played for the Bodleian Library, and I’d quite like to play for the staff team here. If it’s good enough for Samuel Beckett …
One last question: If you could be any fictional character, who would you be?
I’ve always felt a bit like Paul Pennyfeather from Waugh’s Decline and Fall, the man whom everything happens to. Another character in the novel describes the world as a merry-go round and Paul just wants to get off and watch it going round. Who would I want to be? That’s a tricky question. I guess, on some level, Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair. I envy her boldness, her wit and her charm, though not her morals!