Postgraduate Lives: From rock guitar to Jacobean text

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The Independent Online

Pete Langman, 37, did a research Masters at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London. He is now undertaking a PhD

Pete Langman, 37, did a research Masters at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London. He is now undertaking a PhD

Before this, I was a rock-guitar tutor. I came to Queen Mary as a mature student to do English. For my final-year dissertation, I transcribed as music some recordings of Ezra Pound reciting his poetry. He said that musical rhythm was vital in poetry, and I wanted to examine this. He also said that he had a voice like a bullfrog - which was true! So the pitch of his recitation wasn't that important, which was lucky, because the British Library wouldn't let me in with my guitar! I managed to get a First in my degree, and some of the tutors asked me to stay on. I got a studentship to do my Masters, and have research-board funding for my doctoral thesis.

The Masters is about textual scholarship and research skills, and covers the period 1500-1800. So, how to find, understand and edit early texts. This includes how to write descriptive bibliographies - physical descriptions of a book- in order to be clear about which copy of a text you are referring to.

We also looked at the history of how books were manufactured (including watermarks, inks, editing practices, etc) and studied letters. They were written in different forms or "hands". For example, a capital "C" in "secretary" hand is a crossed circle - like a hot cross bun. And contractions were used - if you don't know them, you haven't a hope in hell of translating the work.

The course is designed to give you the skills to do biographical or literary research, and present your findings convincingly. If I wanted to make an edition of someone's letters, write an academic or popular biography, or work as an archival researcher, I could.

For my dissertation I made an electronic edition of Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, which was a challenge because there are academically accepted ways of doing things in books but not online. Lisa Jardine, who is one of the course directors and a real inspiration, was keen on my doing the edition, probably because she knew that I'd have trouble with it! She is my second supervisor - rather intimidating because my PhD is on Bacon and so was hers. My first supervisor is Graham Rees, an authority on Bacon. I'm studying New Atlantis, which is unique among Bacon's works as a piece of imaginative fiction, and his magnum opus, Novum Organum. Both are concerned with the future - Bacon has been called a prophet of science.

Today, I'm in the British Library looking at epistles dedicatory, in some ways the equivalent of the modern literary puff. Bacon used these letters to manipulate how readers and patrons received his work. For example, he dedicated the Novum Organum to James I, and made a joke about stealing the king's time to write the book, because he was Lord Chancellor.

Someone said that by the end of the first year of my PhD, I'd know more on my subject than my supervisors. I doubt that I'll ever know more about Bacon than Graham Rees, unless I live to be 130, but I do hope to produce some new insights.