This year in celebrating Britain, Canada and the Arts, the IES held a conference offering a range of talks, discussions and screenings on the strong culture of artistic exchange, influence, and dialogue between Canada and Britain. Coinciding with and celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation and organised in collaboration with the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University, this conference acts as a major international, interdisciplinary event.

The conference explored the breadth of such exchange of social and cultural ideals, artistic talent, intellectual traditions, and aesthetic formulations. A variety of critical and disciplinary perspectives were to be explored, with scholars and practitioners working in theatre, history, literature, politics, music, film and television, cultural studies, design, and visual art.

Here’s what our attendees thought of the event:

Cultural Identity and the Politics of Influence

Organiser Dr Irene Morra (Cardiff University) and Matthew Adams (Loughborough University) took on the task of speaking on ‘Cultural Identity and the Politics of Influence’.

Matthew Adams, a historian of British intellectual and cultural history, with an interest in the development of anarchism as a political tradition, presented on ‘From the Blitz to the Blue Mountains: George Woodcock’s Cultural Politics’. Adams spoke directly on the development of anarchist cultural politics of George Woodcock, political writer, poet and anarchist thinker, in the British Canadian milieu.

Adams introduces, “Woodcock did well, if not exceptionally, at school and secured his place at Cambridge”, continuing to “avail himself of the cultural opportunities working in London” by exploring various museums and bookshops on lunch breaks and attending concerts in the evenings. Also during this time, Woodcock gained mild exposure in Alfred Orage’s New English Weekly with the publication of two poems. Yet, in the wake of the Spanish civil war, Woodcock became more-so involved in radical political circles interlinked with the London avant-garde. In Britain, Woodcock continued to develop his literary political career, founding the “anti-war paper” Now and, as Adams explains, “churning out” activist pamphlets.

Woodcock, however, “perplexed his literary friends” despite his success in Britain and moved to Sooke, Vancouver island. Wherein Adams jokes, it was only Orwell who accepted his move for the “good fishing”. It was a liminal first decade in Canada as Woodcock’s identification as a Canadian or British citizen shifted. He became known as “Canada’s first Man of Letters” and paved the way throughout the 1970s developing a sense of Canadianess, Canadian history and literary culture; striving to theorise more flexible, philosophically real world politics.

Woodcock, “something of an oddity” and “not one who fits comfortably into dominant categories of history”, is a complex figure, Adams concludes. He is an “anti-national nationalist”. Most importantly, he is one who is a pivotal figure while exploring the literary landscape of Britain and Canada.

Irene Morra, Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University, spoke fervently on ‘Imps, Outsiders, and Angry Young Men: from Beaverbrook to Richler’s ‘Canadian Club’. Irene continues from Adams, examining the prominent, indisputably anglophile voices of such influential Canadians in Britain as Beverly Baxter and Lord Beaverbrook.

In the years before the war, a dynamic had been marked primarily by Baxter and Beaverbrook. In English-speaking Canada, an established recognition of Britain as a dominant, if not originating, influence on definitions of cultural excellence continued to predominate. In the years following the war, however, that dynamic was to change, and an increased movement of artists, intellectuals, and artistic policy-makers between the two countries saw the reciprocal development of an emphatically modern, confident, and progressive definition of contemporary cultural activity.

Looking at the crossover of identity through understand both pre- and post-war case studies, Morra explores the changing attitudes towards culture and belonging. Both Baxter and Beaverbrook wanted to change Britain and “laid claim to their position as Canadian members of the empire” or, indeed, as equal participants.

Morra also looks into the “ironically self styled Canadian club” of writers and directors in the 1950s. A group of, most predominantly, men who sought to use British television as a way into Hollywood. Canadians spearheaded their way through the British arts scene, Mordecai Richler in particular, and sustained awareness of the contemporary British zeitgeist. Beaverbrook especially is considered the most influential Canadian of the twentieth century, changing the way Britain formulated the journalistic scene. Beaverbrook, centred in London, created propaganda for Canadian troops and established newspapers primarily for Canadians in London. Morra remarks the bemusement of the British at this point, as they were still yet to see their own distinctly British propaganda department. Of course, off the back of this, Senate House’s own Ministry of Information came to be.

Beaverbrook understood that information needed to be disseminated in a different way in the modern world, rather than hiring authors such as Thomas Hardy or Arthur Conan Doyle. Beaverbrook understood how to grasp his audience. Morra notes he realised the “news was not just about the news, but also about comments, the arts, theatre, film”. He “capitalised on difference” and continually “enjoyed provocation” both in his career and social circles.

The conference furthered larger intellectual questions in relation to the increased movement of artists, intellectuals, and artistic policy-makers between Britain and Canada, mapping the development of an emphatically modern, confident, and progressive definition of contemporary cultural activity. Thank you organisers Irene Morra and John Wyver.

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