Interview with Benjamin Pickford, a ‘not very British-British’ Englishman in Switzerland

Benjamin Pickford joined Unil’s English Department this semester as a maître assistant. He is originally from Guildford, though has lived in London, and taught in Nottingham and Edinburgh before coming to Lausanne. He specialises in American literature, used to want to be Bob Dylan, and knows how to bake sourdough bread. If you’re interested in getting to know this newest member of staff, keep on reading below.

Describe yourself in 10 seconds or less, GO!

Ehhmm oh god that’s really hard, sorry, I’m so unspontaneous I have to plan things like that. I really can’t do those because I find it so difficult, I have to just think about which part I have to describe. I don’t know, I’m an Englishman in Switzerland.

Could you talk a little bit about your academic interests, the academic path you took, what you teach now?

Of course. I did my PhD on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I’ve worked on American literature since I started my studies, but I did my master’s thesis on French philosophy. So I’m interested in philosophy and literature, and the kind of intersection between them, especially in the 19th century. But here at Unil, I teach American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries and I’m particularly interested in literature’s relation to capitalism. I’ll be teaching more on that from next year onward. I guess that’s the main thing I work on, literature and capitalism and Marx, those kinds of approaches.

What made you decide on literature?

This is a long story. I left school when I was 16 and I got my worst mark in English literature. All I wanted to do was get involved in music, which is what I did. But it was while I got involved with music that I realised that all this music I was really interested in, which is kind of American music of the 60s and 70s, was all deeply related to American literature of the 20s and 50s, and so that sent me back through that, and once you go down that rabbit hole, you just keep on going down through the tiers of literary history that potentially interest you. So I did that, and then I went back as a mature student to do American literature at a university in London that did an undergraduate degree in English and American literature. If I had to pin it down to one book, it was probably ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac: the sort of book between music, and thinking ‘ah there’s a whole literary tradition behind this.’ That was the book that opened the door to all of that stuff.

As a child, who did you think you’d grow up to be, and how does that compare to who you did grow up to be?

This is a weird thing, I don’t distinctly remember my childhood as being sort of childhood, it was just different stages. I think until I was about 12, I thought I would be the sort of person that my grandfather was, who was a mechanical engineer. And that was what I sort of persuaded myself and my teachers I was going to do, until a few years after that. But then about the age of 12 onwards, I thought I was going to be a musician. I was going to be Bob Dylan for whatever generation that was going to be, but that didn’t pan out either. So, I don’t know, that doesn’t mean that I had any genuine faith that was the case, but then I don’t think I had a very reasonable, or very reasoned, sense of expectation or plan for the future, because I didn’t really know. I used to love playing music, and that was that.

What brought you to Lausanne?

I’ve been looking for something outside the UK for a long time, since before even my PhD. I’ve been applying for all of those things and this is the one that came through, basically. I applied to go to Berlin, to Aarhus in Denmark, the US. Some universities in the UK are good, but it’s kind of an oppressive place. And also, I’m not a very British-British person; I don’t like the cold weather – actually no-one likes the cold weather – I don’t like the food very much, I like the sense of humour, but other than that, there are not many things about the UK that I like. So I’ve been keen to get out and see a bit more of the world, and this is the first step. I don’t know whether it’ll be long-term of short-term, but I’m enjoying it so far. I’m just looking for something different, really. I came here not really knowing what to expect. Two things I did know about Lausanne were that T. S. Eliot wrote the first draft of ‘The Wasteland’ around here, and that the art brut collection is here, because I’ve always been interested in Jean Dubuffet and outsider art. I’d long-intended to come here, and to be honest that was probably the first thing that persuaded me that Lausanne would be a good place to come. If they’ve got a museum about outsider art then it’s definitely worth a shot.

What were your first impressions of Lausanne when you came?

That it’s beautiful, obviously. I think that’s probably everybody thinks. I liked the fact that it’s really studenty because that normally means that a place is interesting. The first couple of months I spent here, I just walked through from near Pont Bessières down to the old town, to Ouchy and kind of did a loop around and walked all the way back. It’s beautiful, but it’s also got a fairly young population, which is nice. And it’s small; I like small cities. I lived in Edinburgh most recently, and it reminded me – not in terms of the climate or the architecture of Edinburgh – but it did remind me of the sense of the city that feels like a city but only just on the side of feeling like a city. It’s still small enough to feel like you’re not oppressed by the sheer number of people that live there, or the fact that there’s nothing that you can see beyond the city. You can see the mountains, you can see the hills, it’s really nice. I like it.

In that vein, how do you find the English department?

I really like it: really friendly and a real sense of community in the department, which has not been the case in every department I’ve ever worked in. It’s big enough to be diverse, but small enough to be very friendly and welcoming. And the particularly interesting thing for me, and this is apparently a common thing, but the way the PhD students are fully integrated into the members of the faculty, essentially, for the duration of their studies, is amazing. And the student population is interesting, there’s a lot going on, everyone is friendly; it’s very collegiate, I like it a lot. And it’s in this wonderful building.

What was the strangest teaching experience you’ve ever had?

I guess it’s not that strange, I’ve never had the sort of cow-come-through-the-classroom or have a fire alarm or anything like that. One of the most strange educational experience all-round, was when I had an evening course at a night school in London to get into university. We went to see a performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’ because we were working on that play. The key thing about ‘Waiting for Godot’ is that they’re not waiting for anything: Godot never shows up, and the second act is the same as the first one. Anyway, half-way through the second act of this performance, the guy playing Vladimir dropped dead of a heart attack on stage. Like, he died. And I hadn’t finished reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ at this point, and so it was 30 seconds or more before I realised that this wasn’t part of the play, so I had this flash of an experience of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Anyway, I taught ‘Waiting for Godot’ when I was in Edinburgh last year, and it was actually much more productive to think about it in terms of staging: what happens if you could see one of the actors dying half-way through in the performance of this play? And so it is not a particularly peculiar teaching experience – it amounted to more of a peculiar experience of that particular play – but I suppose it’s one of the things that teaches that it can be interesting to take a counter-factual approach to the text that you’re doing.

What are you currently working on?

So I’ve got 2 books: one is the extension of my PhD, and the other one is the extension of my post-doc. One is a biography of Emerson’s literary persona rather than Emerson himself, and looks at how he created this literary persona which takes on literally a life of its own after his death. The whole thing is deeply related to the way that he wrote, and it thinks about this kind of literary persona in American literary history afterwards. Which is either going to be really niche, or really general, and I’m not quite sure which direction I was going to go in yet, I’ll have to see. And the other one is called ‘Capital in American Poetics’ and it looks at American poetics and American literary theory in the latter half of the 19th century. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment, which is not very similar to most of the Americanists in this department. But those are the two books I’m hoping to have published in the 4-year contract I’ve got here at the moment.

Which fictional character best represents you and why?

That’s really hard. It’s the sort of thing that you’d imagine someone who works on literature would just be able to come out with one, and that’s actually really challenging. I guess if there’s any time when I’ve identified with literary characters, it’s the kind of weird, repressed narrators of Kafka’s novels. There’s just something in the thought process of those characters that makes a lot of sense to me, but then I guess the reason that it makes sense to one is that Kafka is trying to represent those thought processes as being completely logical and reasonable under these peculiar conditions. And so I guess because there is a kind of life experience that feels more necessary. Because the character has to get through this particular situation that they’re in, I mean the character never does get through, he always ends up being crushed to death or suffocated or whatever, there’s just something like that when you’re in a particularly strange environment and just think ‘ok what’s next, what’s next, what’s next’.

Do you have any secret or not-so-secret talents?

Well, I play the guitar. I’m a very, very committed cyclist, I cycle a lot and that’s kind of what takes up an awful lot of time. I can bake sourdough bread but I don’t have to here, because the boulangeries sell stuff that is not absolute, complete and utter crap, unlike in the UK. British bread is diabolical. So yes, I can bake pretty good bread, but I don’t do it because it takes hours and I only did it out of necessity before.

What would your Walden look like?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been to Concord a few times because I work on Emerson, so you necessarily work on Thoreau. Always had a lot of problems with Thoreau – I think he’s fascinating, I love his writing, but when you come to it critically, there’s just too many problems to leave it with a considered opinion. One of those problems is that Walden itself, if you walk to Walden from Emerson’s house, which is where Thoreau used to go get pies, it’s about a mile, it’s not very far. So it’s a kind of miniature escape, and Thoreau could only squat on this land because his friend [Emerson] owned it. And he squatted there by virtue of the fact that his friends helped him build this hut, and he could still go back to Concord to get food. But when you walk to Walden now, and you leave Concord and you go down the road – that is the old Turnpike road that leaves town from Emerson’s house – you think ‘oh, this is just how it would have been, I mean there’s a few more cars, it’s the tarmac, but still it’s beautiful’. And then you get almost there, and there’s a six-lane highway, literally next to Walden pond, that you have to cross in order to get there. And I think all of those things slightly taint my idea of a sort of escape, or what Walden represented for Thoreau. I think the same thing in a way would be amazing, a remote hut, a lake view, an opportunity just to do all that thinking. But then the fact that there’s now this six-lane Turnpike, right next to it, flags up the fact that that’s impossible. You can’t have that Walden, least of all in the 21st century. And I suppose that the 20th century equivalent in European philosophy, Heidegger, who used to go sitting under trees and sitting at his hut and writing his books and ignoring the fact that Europe was tearing itself to pieces around him. So I guess if I did have a Walden, it would have to be close enough to civilisation for me to accept the fact that this was really a kind of Bourgeois delusion that I was indulging it.

Those are all of our questions for now, thank you very much for the interview!

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