John Gardner Talks


Forthcoming Talks

‘The Politics of the Pig: Samuel Beckett & Edmund Burke

  • On Monday 5 February 2024 at 5pm. John will give a talk at Anglia Ruskin University about Class and pigs. It examines the persistence of the Romantic period’s politics of the pig. In Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett has Pozzo shout ‘Think Pig’ at Lucky. Pozzo continues to call him ‘pig,’ ‘hog,’ or ‘swine’ in each exchange. Later Vladimir and Estragon act out the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky, calling each other pigs. Here, I engage Beckett’s work with several Romantic period texts, but most particularly with Edmund Burke’s Reflections, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) and Percy Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820).  James Joyce and William Butler Yeats use similar imagery as Beckett, but did they mean the same things? Class politics in the work of Beckett have not been much examined. Helen Bailey and William Davies write that ‘Beckett’s reputation and popularity have previously been founded on the perception of his work as resistant to politics: an intensely aesthetic body of work underpinned by an often radical, deracinated formalism, rather than any sort of politicism.’ Nonetheless Beckett’s politics are evident. As Theodor Adorno noted: ‘Greece’s new tyrants knew why they banned Beckett’s plays in which there is not a single political word.’ Jean-Michel Rabaté similarly argues that ‘Beckett’s texts exemplify the spirit of resistance in art, a spirit of obstinate ethical perseverance facing barbarism.’ This talk follows Rabaté’s advice to ‘read Beckett as closely as possible’ as it positions Beckett in a direct line from Burke and Shelley in their use of porcine epithets.

‘Sal Cline: A Complete Woman of Letters’

  • On Thursday 18 January 2024 at 7.30 pm. John will give a non-engineering talk at Milton Road Public Library on ‘Sal Cline: a Complete Woman of Letters’. Sally Cline was a multi-talented Cambridge-based writer who published over a range of genres including novels, short stories, biographies, journalism, handbooks and academia. Furthermore, Sal was also a dedicated teacher and a mentor who helped many writers to realise their publishing dreams. Friend, and former colleague, Professor John Gardner, Dean of the Doctoral School at Anglia Ruskin University, will discuss the life and work of Sally Cline.  Tickets for this event are available from Eventbrite here.  The event is free to members of FMRL, or £3 on the door  for non-members.

‘Thomas Love Peacock’s “Iron Chickens” Coming Home’

  • On Friday 5 January 2024 at 11 am at St Hugh’s College, the University of Oxford, John will give a talk on ‘Thomas Love Peacock’s “Iron Chickens” Coming Home’. At this ‘Work and Play’ conference, John will discuss how the comic novelist Thomas Love Peacock compartmentalised work and play to an extent that bordered on negative capability. Although described as a ‘hater of modernity’, Peacock was an indefatigable champion of iron steamships, and directly responsible for the first built in the 1830s. As well as commissioning four tugs at the start of the 1830s, Peacock commissioned six gunboats—his ‘iron chickens’– all of which saw service in the First Opium War with China between 1839 to 1842. Living in his new ‘age of iron’, Peacock was certainly a gunboat diplomat through his work for the East India Company. As Sylva Norman writes, ‘Few among those who study Peacock as a novelist, literary essayist, and poet have penetrated far into the specialized world he entered in the East India Company’s service.’ Working at the EIC from January 1819 until his retirement thirty-seven years later, Peacock promoted the latest industrial technology, commerce (to include opium), and war. Here John will examine the reasons why Peacock, who has been called a ‘liberal’, became an originator of the iron gunboat.

Previous Talks

‘Shelley’s Steamship’

  • On Monday 11 September 2023 at 7.30 pm in the Cambridge Museum of Technology John gave a talk on the poet Percy Shelley’s attempt to build a steam ship to trade between Livorno and Marseilles in 1820. This was new technology. The first successful passenger steamship was Robert Fulton’s Clermont which sailed on the Hudson River in 1807. In Britain this was followed by Henry Bell’s Comet of 1812. It seems odd to think of a poet engaging in a cutting-edge engineering project. The whole notion of Romanticism seems to be against it. As Phil Connell writes, ‘Romantic writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley have typically been identified with an unambiguous hostility to industrial society and its intellectual apologists’ (Romanticism, Economics and the Question of Culture, 2005, vii). Nonetheless this was a period when there were fewer distinctions between the arts of Engineering and the Humanities.
  • On Thursday 16 February 2023 at 5pm John Gardner discussed the Leverhulme Trust project, ‘Turning the Screw’ at the University of Cambridge English Faculty Board Room & on Teams. In this talk John talked about the emergence of engineering and literary standards.

‘Byron, Shelley and Peacock; from the Don Juan to the Nemesis’

Art workers guild flyer gardner talk 16 may 2023
  • On 16 May 2023 at 7pm at the Art Workers Guild in London, John gave a talk on connections between steamship technology and the works of Percy Shelley and Thomas Love Peacock. Byron, Percy Shelley and Thomas Love Peacock were famously keen on boats. What is little known is that Shelley was engaged on making two boats in the final years of his life: the famous one, Don Juan, which he renamed Ariel, and another, which was a steamship. The fact that Shelley was working on a steamship, to sail between Leghorn and Genoa, seems to go against the notion of Romanticism being antithetical to technology. Similarly, Shelley’s closest friend Thomas Love Peacock went onto superintend the building of the first iron gunboats, some of which took part in the first Anglo-Chinese War. This paper examined what the attraction of steamships would have been for Shelley and Peacock.

‘Turning the Screw: Literature, Technology and Culture. Engineering Romanticism, 1798–1851′

  • On Thursday 16 February 2023 at 5pm John Gardner discussed the Leverhulme Trust project, ‘Turning the Screw’ at the University of Cambridge English Faculty Board Room & on Teams. In this talk John talked about the emergence of engineering and literary standards.

‘The Screw, Verse, and Vernacular Forms’

  • On Friday 10 June 2022 at 11.45am at the Manufacture Conference in the Sir Ambrose Fleming Lecture Theatre, Roberts Building G06, University College London, John Gardner will give a talk titled, ‘The Screw, Verse, and Vernacular Forms’. Linking the adoption of screw forms to the tolerances adopted for flatness in the nineteenth century, and to the standardization of poetic forms, John will discuss texts including Joseph Whitworth’s ‘Plane Metallic Surfaces’ (1840); Whitworth’s ‘On a Uniform System of Screw Threads’ (1841); and Coventry Patmore’s ‘English Metrical Critics’ (1857). I will argue that behind the official standards on threads, flatness and poetic form that arose in the mid-C19 lies vernacular knowledge and practice.

‘The Politics of Lamb, Peacock and the East India Company’

  • On Saturday 18 June 2022 at the ‘Charles and Mary Lamb: Elia and Beyond Conference’ being held at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, King’s Manor, University of York, John Gardner will give a talk on Charles Lamb and his fellow East India Company employee Thomas Love Peacock. The Company was, Thomas Babington Macauley writes, “the strangest of all governments; but it is designed for the strangest of all empires. […] intrusted with the sovereignty of a larger population, the disposal of a larger clear revenue, the command of a larger army, than are under the direct management of the Executive Government of the United Kingdom.”   It was while working for this company that Peacock oversaw the creation of his ‘Iron Chickens’, which were the first iron gunboats the world had seen.

Films of Previous Talks

‘Turning the Screw’

  • On 4 August 2022 at 11am at the NASSR/BARS New Romanticisms Conference at Edge Hill University, John Gardner discussed how new cutting tool technology allowed thread form standards to emerge. This paper looks at the relationship between standardized screw thread and Romantic period literary and engineering cultures.

‘On the Eve: The Grand National Holiday and Defensive Instructions for the People’

  • On 3 August 2022 at 3.30pm at the NASSR/BARS New Romanticisms Conference at Edge Hill University, John Gardner discussed intersections between ‘high’ and ‘low’ technologies and revolutionary violence. Macerone, a Mancunian Italian engineer who had been aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s brother-in-law Murat, produced works that would be banned today, such as Defensive Instructions for the People, which was published by Benbow. This pamphlet shows amateurs how to make pikes, bullets, incendiary devices, and bombs, as well as ways to engage in street-fighting.


  • On 15 October 2021 at Heriot Watt University, John Gardner gave a talk on ‘Gaslight’ and working class agency at the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute. This is part of a conference to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mechanics’ Institutes.

‘Pollution and Paternalism at Mechanics’ Institutes in Glasgow, Ipswich, Manchester and Sheffield’

  • On 26 May 2021 at ARU, ‘Conversations’, John Gardner gave a short talk on early Mechanics’ libraries and Institutes. The talk mainly centres on tensions between paternalistic governors who knew what should be taught, and students who knew better. You can view the talk here:

‘The True Plane’

  • On 4 March 2021 at ‘Materialities‘, Oxford Brookes University, John Gardner gave a talk on ‘The Leverhulme project, the True Plane, Measurement, Standards and Form’. The talk concentrates on Joseph Whitworth and uses the work of Gilbert Simondon and Bruno Latour. You can view this talk here:

‘The Rising’

  • On 8 January 2021 the University of Glasgow School held a public event on 200 years of the 1820 Scottish Radical Uprising. This was attended by a large international audience. The day included a lecture by John Gardner on plays inspired by the rebellions in 1820. The talk focussed particularly on dramas by James Kelman on James Wilson’s march to Cathkin; and by Hector MacMillan on the attempt by a group of men to take the Carron Iron Works. You can view the talk here:

‘Shelley’s “Sublime Archimedean Art”‘

‘Inaugural Lecture’

Here is a link to John Gardner’s Inaugural lecture as professor: ‘Machines made out of words

Other Presentations

  • Below is a link to an interview on the Leverhulme Trust Fellowship:

Interview on the Leverhulme Project

  • Here is a link to the Powerpoint of a talk on Mechanics’ Institutes that John Gardner gave at the Society of Antiquaries in July 2017:

The Emergence of Mechanics’ Institutes

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This work is supported by the Leverhulme Trust