A Feeling for Flatness: In Conversation with BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, Dr Noreen Masud

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Dr Noreen Masud will soon be taking to the airwaves to ask us to reconsider our views of the ground – specifically landscapes that, though flat, are actually far from dull and empty. In this interview, Noreen tells us more about her forthcoming work as a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.

The theme of your research, which you’ll be bringing to the New Generation Thinkers programme, is ‘flatness’ in twentieth-century literature. How did ‘flatness’ become a topic of interest for you?

I’ve been interested in flatness since I was a child. I grew up on the flat, scorching Punjab plain in Pakistan. On my way to school I stared at wide empty fields, with battered signs promising that soon a hospital would be built there. Nothing changed over the years except that the signs grew more and more weatherbeaten.

During my doctorate I worked on aphorism: a short, witty statement which seems to sum up an absolute truth. Aphorisms make their claim ‘flatly’ – in a way which seems to dismiss all further conversation or argument. I started to realise that flatness isn’t just passiveness or emptiness – it’s a kind of firmness, a quiet confident assertion. All my current work seeks to understand that.

Of course, research like this has its own inherent value, but what made you decide you wanted to talk about this more publicly, through applying to the New Generation Thinkers scheme?

I realised that people really, really hate flat landscapes. Or they pretend they hate them. Flat landscapes scare people, or bore them. They feel they have to apologise for them: tourist boards praise the Cambridge fens and the Norfolk broads by saying things like: you may think this landscape is flat, but really there’s lots to see!

Fair enough. But what if we accepted the fact that a space might be primarily flat? How do we look at it, and appreciate it, and enjoy it, without trying to deny its flatness?

This was something worth talking about, I thought. Everyone I speak to about my research, inside and outside academia, has an opinion about flat spaces. Even if people start by saying  ‘Why are you bothering to study that? What’s there to say about flat landscapes?’ often by the end of the conversation they’re remembering flat landscapes they’ve seen, and describing how those landscapes made them feel, often in original, striking terms which seem to surprise them as much as me. So I love talking to people, from all walks of life, about this project.

Boat on the Norfolk Broads
Norfolk Broads, Mike Hudson / CC BY-SA

What do you hope BBC listeners will take from what you have to say?

There are so many beautiful flat spaces in Britain, and in the world. They demand a special way of looking: a way, I realise, that might not necessarily come instinctively. Flat spaces need a gaze which is patient and steady and open, not enforcing expectations about what counts as ‘interesting’ or ‘important’. It’s that special way of looking that interests me. I think it might help us understand other things or people which seem inscrutable or blank or reserved. Above all that’s what I’d like listeners to ask themselves after my broadcasts: how do I use my attention? What do I give it to and why and how?

What were the challenges of thinking through the application process about how a complex topic could work for broadcast?

I rewrote my pitch so many times. If I thought it was clear enough, it wasn’t clear enough. I’ve been thinking about this for so long, I’m encrusted with assumptions which won’t be self-evident to fresher minds. So I showed different versions of the pitch to lots of friends, especially non-academics, experimenting with different methods of storytelling and visualisation to guide people to the heart of my topic. The challenge is to clarify without simplifying, and to zoom in on one contained, interesting part of your research. That’s something I think I’ll go on learning forever, and hopefully getting better at.

What sorts of programmes and events will you be working on, and when can we expect to hear you on the radio for the first time?

COVID-19 may change plans very fast. But at the moment it looks like I’ll be on air around late June, with a short taster about a research sideline of mine: nonsense literature and absurdity. Then a longer piece – an ‘Essay’ – will follow on Radio 3 later in the year. More news as we have it!

Are there any ways in which the public you’ll be speaking to can, in turn, influence or speak back to your research? Is there anything you’d like to learn or discover being an New Generation Thinker that could affect your core project?

I adore it when people tell me stories about their encounters with flat spaces. They say amazing things which change the way I think about my work. One story I heard is about a girl who grew up on the plains in Nepal, and felt she couldn’t breathe when she went up into the mountains. Another conversation was at a dance class, with a woman who lit up when she heard about my research. Did I know any good flat spaces nearby, she asked. It turned out that she wanted to organise a sponsored roller-skate across the North East countryside. I love that image: a line of roller-skaters making their way across a desolate flat.

Roller skates on a path

I keep records of these stories, and with permission I plan to use some of them in the book that’s arising from the project. As I prepare my longer broadcast, I really hope to meet some people who live in flat spaces like Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, hear from them how these spaces make them feel, and hopefully thread some of these accounts into the programme. So if anyone’s got any good anecdotes about flat spaces – please get in touch on Twitter!

And finally, imagine lockdown rules are lifted and you’re allowed out to exercise anywhere you want. In an ideal world, would you rather climb up a mountain, or wander along a flat landscape?

Absolutely a flat landscape. I am alone in lockdown (with my cat), and extremely lucky to have income, space and time, and no tiny children to entertain. But small things loom in solitude. I’m noticing that every morning the same objects in my house force themselves on my eyes. The microwave, the sofa, the scratching post. Those objects interrupt me; we need a break from each other. Right now I’d like to be on a wide empty beach, near my mother’s home in Fife, with nothing disturbing my vision except bits of seaweed and shaggy driftwood. I’d like to lie down there and look at the sky.

If you have any anecdotes or thoughts about flat spaces that you would like to share with Noreen, contact her on Twitter @NoreenMasud. You can find out more about Noreen’s research at her website Parrots Ate Them All.

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