Gung-ho scholars launch new recruit offensive

October 24, 2003

Once there was a chocolate bar called Topic that was rich in nuts, fudge and additives. Now there is a magazine called Topic - rich in the claims it makes about itself.

"Who challenges the way you think?" asks the editorial in the first edition. Just about every new academic publication really. Editors and publishers may conspire to frighten us with the thought that unless we read this book or that magazine we had better not show our faces in intellectual circles, but once we begin to peruse the page it all seems a bit déjà vu . And so it is with Topic .

The first issue is devoted to war and the editor's language is suitably confrontational, wanting to "punch you in the gut". Thankfully the contributors do not take your breath away in so violent a manner. But some read as if they might like to should you not immediately assent to the proposition that there's no place like the US. No, there certainly isn't.

James Spencer tells us what fun he had as a bomber pilot in the second world war, Owen West sounds like John Wayne when he writes of his longing to blow Osama bin Laden "straight to hell", Anne Platt wants to increase America's arsenal, John Stilgoe argues for the reintroduction of the draft, and James Russell tells us not to be so agreeable to Arabs and, even more alarmingly, that "there's nothing as nice as losing a war to the Americans". Go tell the Iraqis. So far, so gung-ho.

The temperature is lowered a little in the second issue on fantasy, with military matters being confined to David Gibbons' enthusiasm for the Sealed Knot Society, which recreates battles of the English civil war. In any discussion about fantasy, the question of utopia is bound to arise. And so it does. Which do you prefer, Sparta or Disneyland? That's the choice here.

Moving swiftly on, Jamie Campbell recounts the fun he had pretending to be Alex Garland. Or is he only pretending to pretend he was Alex Garland? The benefits include impressing "a spectacular blond" in Devon. If you want something more gritty, try Vladilav's account of being a rent boy in the Czech Republic. There's lots of interest in volume two but little insight. Fantasy helps us cope with reality. Really? Gosh. One outstanding essay is Julian Dibbell's account of the role of the Kentucky caves in the American imagination.

Cities come under the spotlight in issue three. Brian Gallagher tells us that graffiti is a city's unofficial history, while John Scalan observes that garbage is a reminder of death. In Mexico they celebrate the Day of the Dead, and Robert Gilpin goes to the town of Merida to see a bullfight that no one else knows about. But the man in search of authentic experience cannot resist pointing his camera at the women in traditional Mayan dress. There is no escape from being a tourist.

And indeed there is something of the travel brochure about this magazine. Glossy and lavishly illustrated, it gathers experience from all over the globe in order to help the reader "engage with the world and understand it". Topic is the brainchild of very well-connected Gates scholars in Cambridge. That tells you a bit more about how the world works than the first three issues.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.


Editor - David Haskell and Joanna Guldi
Publisher - Gates Cambridge Scholars, quarterly
Pages - -
Price - £20.00
ISSN - 1477 5762

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