Over the Pond, Into the Stream of Consciousness (Woolf Blog Post 1)

“I’m here for Virginia Woolf,” I said, looking down at the crude hand-drawn map being superimposed over the official Cornwall Tourism map. “You know, the famous modernist writer—”

The smile that overtook my b&b host’s face in that moment was a welcome change to the looks of obscurity I’d been receiving the previous few days whenever I mentioned Virginia Woolf, or modernity, or even English literature. For a country with such a prolific and rich history of literary writers, few people in England understood my motivations for being there.

“For Virginia! Well then, you’ve got to see your mate’s house.” My b&b host drew another circle on the map of St Ives, and suddenly there it was: Talland House, Virginia’s Talland House, within walking distance. 123 years since her last Cornwall childhood summer, 113 years since she’d returned at the same age I am now, 77 years after her death, the view that meant so much to her was just as it had always been. And then I was there, too.

I became ‘mates’ with Virginia Woolf in the second year of my undergrad degree. I didn’t expect to like her; my first impression was that she was old and stuffy, and wrote about simple things in complicated ways. I didn’t want to like her. But she was just so finely witty, so understanding of words, and so very very human, that I couldn’t resist.

You see, Virginia sees straight through us. She knows we don’t know what we’re talking about most of the time, knows we’re false and faulty and great and good. She believes in us. She was a lot of things, including a great writer, but above all, she was a person. And she dedicated the years she had to trying to understand people, strangers and loved ones alike. She wanted to know about us, wanted to think about us, wanted to see us living our lives, and to live through us, too. She fixed her mind on humanity, and watched us all squirm under her knowing gaze.


Virginia Woolf spent much of her life in London, and her intimate knowledge of the city and its people can be found in works such as Mrs. Dalloway and “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” In contrast to her city life was her nostalgia for St Ives, a seaside town in Cornwall where she spent her first 12 summers with her family at Talland House—the circle on my map—a vacation home her father leased annually. Talland House and its view of Godrevy Lighthouse across the bay would later become her inspiration for the setting of To the Lighthouse.

Virginia published Mrs. Dalloway—what I view as her London book—in 1925 and To the Lighthouse—her St Ives book—followed two years later in 1927. Quite unintentionally, my reading of the two books also followed this chronology. I had read A Room of One’s Own in the intermediate year—appropriately—after moving into my own apartment.

Now, I won’t lie to you; I’m the kind of person who writes in their books. I dog-ear, I highlight, I circle in red pen. I believe in the power of palimpsests.

I’ll forever be grateful that I annotated my Woolf books. After finishing my last classes at Trent this past spring, I nostalgically leafed through my copy of A Room of One’s Own, and found, underlined in blue ink:

“I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

It’s because of that underlined sentence that I’m writing this. I started rereading my other notes in other Woolf books and essays, and I found within them a travel guide, a call to action, endless allusions to real intersections, parks, and public spaces that Virginia had encountered throughout her life. She idled in London, she travelled to St Ives. And now I have, too.

In London, I found Mrs. Dalloway. I bought the flowers myself. I heard the chime of Big Ben, interrupting my days, my ways. I saw myself in other people, and imagined how my consciousness might dip into theirs. On my first day in there, I decided to become a local. I knew there would be no point in trying to see London as Virginia saw it while playing the tourist. I didn’t try to see the sights. Instead, I investigated the rhythms of the city. I followed the crowds. I let myself be fascinated.

From my hotel on Bloomsbury street, I wandered to and through Regent’s Park, one of Virginia’s favourites. I laid in the grass under trees she might’ve known. I walked around, found cobblestones and fountains, and people—people wherever I looked. I sat on a long green bench and told my jet-lagged eyes to people watch. This was one of the tasks I’d set for myself, my first step toward becoming (like) Virginia Woolf.


Strangers came and went, stayed and sat. I listened to their chatter, their quips, their tattle; I saw how they walked, what they wore, where they stopped—as if these things would somehow suggest who they were, where they were went, what they came from. I paid attention to the types of people who drew my eye, and I asked myself why. Like Virginia, I invented stories for them.

One woman, reading on a bench just like mine, sitting one-leg-crossed-over-the-other just like I do, post-it notes, the same colour as the trees all around us, haphazardly lining the pages of her book just like mine would be. She leaned back on the bench as if she it had been built for her, for that exact moment in time. She wasn’t reading for pleasure—the presence of post-it notes suggested a search for something—but she was taking pleasure in the story nonetheless. She might be a reader for a publisher, or doing research for her doctorate degree. Her glasses made her look, stereotypically, academic—no, I was projecting onto her. I was seeing too much of myself in her stance, her circumstance. I saw her as if in a mirrored world—me, but not-me.

On the main thoroughfare, there, by a map, was the most colourful couple I had ever seen. They were fashionable in a way that suggested they’d stopped paying attention to fashion in the mid-80s, or the mid-1900s, or maybe both. The sunlight dappled on them, for them. They looked like they’d waited their entire lives to be there; as if they’d done the whole thing, marriage, kids, jobs—but couldn’t quite wait the last year till retirement, and they’d left their meetings early, told the kids they weren’t invited. They looked like they were making their first transgression and were loving every minute of it. They had abandoned their suits and skirts and finally embraced the complementary technicoloured lives they’d always held close within them. They were extraordinary for the fact that they were newly liberated from being ordinary.

Further down the path, a little pig-tailed girl swooped in and out of her mother’s reach as she skipped in lopsided loops around their bench. She held aloft an apple larger than her hand, bitten down to the core. She watched as the wind blew her dress against her legs, watched the people passing by, how big they were, how small she was—she paused, staring—I followed her gaze and found a bird had caught her attention—in a single moment she had forgotten whatever she had been thinking of in the previous moment—another pause—she looked down, and she was startled by her dress, by it blowing against her legs, by the things she couldn’t see or understand, but could simply observe.

That afternoon, with my jet-lag-drunken perspective set on the public passersby, I saw pieces of myself in other people, lived in their lives for long lolopping minutes, until the sun went down, until my stomach stirred.



Rooke 2018 - revised-01

Barbara Rooke Travel Prize Winner 2016: Simon’s Adventures in Florence (Part I)

Thanks to the Barbara Rooke Travel Prize, I am currently in Florence, Italy. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible.
I wanted to come to Firenze because besides being one of the important arts and cultural centres of the world, it’s the central location of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Continue reading

Mark Kingwell with special guest Andrew Forbes

Public Texts: Public Talk
Wednesday, March 22, 2017, 7PM, Bagnani Hall, Traill College:
Mark Kingwell, author of Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters
Andrew Forbes, author of The Utility of Boredom, Baseball Essays

A message from Lewis MacLeod…

Full Disclosure: I was a middling philosophy student.  There seemed to be so much knowing going on. Like, you had to understand what these guys were talking about all the time  and they didn’t seem especially helpful as regards the helping with the knowing.

Let’s just say that literature found me rather than the reverse.

One of the things I learned in lit classes (from MH Abrams, in fact) was to differentiate between “the mirror and the lamp.” The mirror, you see, is a mimetic supposition. In mimetic works, the thing in the book reflects  something in “real life” (like a mirror, get it?).  A lamp, however, illuminates something that might otherwise be shrouded in darkness.  Its impact is derived not from recognition (“That exact thing happened to me!”) but revelation (“I’ve never noticed/seen anything like it before!”).

I was thinking of this yesterday, after my home-made crackerjack experiment “failed to satisfy program expectations” and caused a minor kitchen fire.

I still wanted to give you guys a verisimilitudinous ballpark experience. I’d failed at crackerjack, but was I undaunted?

No, I was gonna “Fail Better.”

Did I find you an authentic cringe-worthy hotdog dispenser?

Yes I did!

Check it!

Did I get involved in protracted Kijiji negotiations about comparatively small amounts of money and time?

Sadly, yes.

Did I manage to pick it up?

Well, no.

That’s called failing worse. (If you’re wondering, I think he’ll probably sell it for $40 now that I’ve softened him up)

I did, however, get you an old school popcorn popper which you’re invited to operate (4 teaspoons oil, one cup popping corn) when you’re not involved in the pitching contest (starting, say 6:30).

Patricia got us a real radar gun.

I digress, however!

The point about the mirror and the lamp is this: some books show you what you already know in detailed and convincing ways; others enlighten otherwise mysterious topographies you never knew you didn’t know.

I watch a lot of baseball. I’m sure I know  how it all works. I can reflect its workings back to you any time you like.

Then this, from Fail Better:

“Only the pitcher can regard the ball as an ally; it does things for him and to everyone else…In baseball vulnerability and security follow closely on one another; and one may be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time…Success cannot be gained without risk– no runs are scored if I do not venture onto the basepath–but defeat can be swift. The ball returns with a vengeance, agent of my defeat: if it touches me I am out; I cover space as a mortal while the ball flies over it, a winged harpy of destruction.”

Got it?

Now watch this:

Success and Failure? Security and vulnerability? That’s the lamp, people.

That play happened Monday.

Kingwell and Andrew Forbes happen tonight!

You’d be sort of a failure if you missed it.


PS: Wear your baseball caps and whatever other arcane gear you’ve got at home. Prizes for anybody who shows up in full uniform. Hall of Fame induction for anybody who shows up in full uniform with high socks!


Call for submissions of Trent students’ creative writing

Hi there student writers. We hear you. You’re composing brilliant stanzas and muscular prose all by your lonesome, then reciting it to the clouds and the squirrels. We get it. You’ve got things to say. And we have a cure: publication!

Following up on the fortune-making, fame-inducing success of last year’s anthology, The Writers’ Block (the Department of English’s student creative writing group) is once again seeking submissions, this time for the second, annual volume of Chickenscratch, an anthology of student writing, to be professionally designed, edited, printed by Coach House Books, and launched at both Trent campuses (with fun events!) in the spring of 2017. All current Trent students are welcome to submit.

Please send previously unpublished poems, short fiction, and creative non-fiction as attachments in PDF with regular margins and font sizes to no later than Friday, January 20th, 2017. All submissions should include your name, email address, and a list of titles included.

For prose submissions:

·      please limit your submission to a maximum of 1500 words

·      fiction, creative non-fiction, and other forms are welcome; no genre fiction, please

·      please double-space

For poetry submissions:

·      please include a maximum of 4 poems

·      all genres of poetry are welcome

·      please single space

All submissions will be read, vetted, and considered by our editorial board, which will get back to you by the beginning of February about your work. Since we’re a non-profit outfit, payment will be a copy of the publication. All contributors will also be invited to participate in launch events for Chickenscratch near the end of the Winter semester. Good luck!

Winners of annual James Middleton Essay Prize

A final hurrah before they enter the classroom as teachers, fourth-year concurrent education students Julie Hockridge and Emily Frost certainly know how to kick off their final year at Trent University. Ms. Hockridge and Ms. Frost are this year’s winners of the James Middleton Essay Prize in Humanities.

The James Middleton Essay Prize in Humanities was established in 2004 as a way to appreciate the humanities as the core of professional studies. The prize recognizes the top two essays by second or third-year students in the humanities, alternating each year between History and English Literature, and Philosophy and Ancient History and Classics. This year the prize was presented to students from the departments of History and English Literature.

A special luncheon and award ceremony was hosted recently at Alumni House to honour this year’s winners. The ceremony offered the opportunity for prizewinners, friends, family, and department heads to come together in celebration of student achievement and strong academic discourse.

“As a student studying English Literature, this award has encouraged my love of writing,” explains Ms. Frost, whose essay Memory and Myth: Unraveling the Past in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House and Alistair MacLeod’s As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, took the prize for English Literature. “The recognition of hard work and passion that accompanies such a generous and respected award is an honour.”

This year the prize has additional meaning for both Ms. Frost and Ms. Hockridge as the prizewinners have been good friends since their first year at Trent University and motivated each other to submit their winning essays.

“Sharing the experience with a good friend further enhanced a wonderful event, and I am so happy to succeed together in doing what we love.”

Writers Reading – October 13: Linda Besner!

Join us in the Traill College Junior Common Room (Scott House) at 7:00 pm this Thursday, October 13 for Linda Besner’s reading! As usual, a reception will follow in The Trend.


A message from Lewis MacLeod…

Linda Besner‘s debut collection of poems is called, The Id Kid, which (I get it!) is a pretty punny and funny and provocative title. The book, according to Arc Poetry (and our very own Rob Winger – who put me in touch with Linda in the first place), “displays a wry matu­rity and aes­thetic self-aware­ness most debut poets can only dream of.”

That’s obviously true. It’s a fun, interesting book, a National Post, book of the year.

Good, good, supergood,  but at the risk of being a bad host I feel compelled to add, “Title’s also a bit redundant, no? Ever met a kid who wasn’t governed (wrong word?) by  id?”

I thought we all knew this already.

Compare, if you will, the average 4-year old birthday party with the most hedonistic, appetite-driven, unrestrained, rockstar hotel party you can envision.

Things you’re likely to witness: 1) somebody peeing his pants and passing out in a chair 2) somebody laughing/weeping for reasons nobody else can ascertain, 3) food and drink all over the floor/ceiling, 4) vomit, 5) “generalized” rather than “targeted”  hugs and kisses, 6) people intent on leaving but unable to find their clothes for protracted periods of time.

Unprovoked violence is, sadly, not unknown.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The kid is the id. The rest of your life is just one prolonged struggle to keep a lid on all that stuff: to keep (first!)  the crayon and (later!) the minivan inside whatever lines the super-ego draws up for you.

Reconcile yourselves, people! It ain’t going to change.

Except, that is, for brief, eruptive moments of intense, expressive, joy and pleasure.

Of which an opportunity this very Thursday evening!

The Malahat Review hails The Id Kid, for its “wunderkind, gap-toothed, off-kilter charm.”

Yes, but I’d just add that it also kicks a considerable amount of… well, you know what I mean.

Writers Reading September 20 — Ray Robertson!

A message from Lewis Macleod —

Here in Upper Canada, we may lack permanent world class attractions, but we find a way to make our own fun, don’t we?

To wit: 2016 Writers Reading Series kicks off Tuesday, Sept 20 with my old pal, Ray Robertson. Dates and bios for the whole series are on this site, but, really, you just need to make it out on Tuesday, then you can  pick up one of our cool bookmarks which supplies all the relevant info in an elegant two-dimensional design.

Take two of ’em!! One for the fridge, one for whatever you’re reading.

After Tuesday, you’ll be reading Ray’s latest book, The Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), a kind of personalized history of Twentieth Century Music as conceived by Ray. It’s sad and smart and funny, and, according to The Toronto Star, dangerous: “Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) should come with a warning label: May cause significant increase of spending on music. Readers are strongly advised to avoid record stores within 72 hours of reading.”

You’ve been warned, though, so don’t be afraid!

Looking forward to the whole business, and hoping to see you all there.  This’ll be a fun one, I promise.

But ain’t they all??

2016 Barbara Rooke Travel Prize

Blending Literary Learning with International Adventure

Mary Wollstonecraft’s quest for self-determination inspires Heidi Dienesch to trace the journey of the 18th-century author throughout Scandinavia.

Click here to learn more about the Department of English Literature’s Barbara Rooke Travel Prize.

Heidi Dienesch smiling to camera wearing her glasses in front of few building at sunset