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Mermaids and the maritime imaginary

By Professor Sarah Peverley, Professor in English Literature, University of Liverpool

We speak to the University of Liverpool's Being Human hub advocate Sarah Peverley about her involvement in their programme and her current research focus on the historical use of mermaids across the ages. Liverpool's hub programme includes the nautically inspired event Mermaids on the Mersey led by Professor Peverley at The Walker Gallery on Saturday 19 November.

You’ve agreed to act as an advocate for the University of Liverpool’s Being Human festival programme this year. Why did you say yes?

I had such a fantastic time doing the festival last year that I would have been crazy not to get involved again this year! The events my colleagues and I ran in 2015 attracted such a diverse range of people eager to engage with everything from medieval werewolves to cyborgs that it was a delight to be able to share our work and learn from their responses. This year we wanted to go bigger and showcase an even wider variety of Liverpool research, so when our Being Human Working Group asked me to be festival advocate I jumped at the chance.

There’s a very diverse programme of events at the University of Liverpool this year. Do you have a favourite?

What a difficult question! I couldn’t be happier with the Liverpool programme because it genuinely has something for everyone in it and each event organiser has put an incredible amount of time and effort into making their activities accessible and appealing. I guess The Liverpool Players would never forgive me if I said anything other than Mermaids on the Mersey was my favourite strand though. We’ve worked so hard to bring the three parts of that event together into a full day of mermaid-related fun at The Walker Art Gallery. I’m looking forward to children’s author and illustrator Fred Blunt showing children (and grown ups!) how to draw mermaids and pirates. And, of course, our new adaptation of The Little Mermaid makes my heart sing. Alex Cottrell has really captured the beauty and mystery of the sea in his music and Madelaine Smart will leave audiences spellbound with her interactive storytelling.

Do you believe that the humanities should be more public? How does this connect to your own work?

Absolutely. Human culture is the very definition of the humanities, so all of humanity should be part of the conversation. Public engagement is at the heart of almost everything I’ve done for the last few years. I’ve been very lucky because the AHRC-BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers scheme(2013) has given me incredible opportunities to turn aspects of my research into public programmes and to experience the thirst for knowledge that’s out there. When I’m not working with the media, The Liverpool Players and I can be found collaborating with cultural venues in the North West to offer free humanities events to the public, especially families. We want to inspire and encourage young children to explore the rich treasure-box that is the humanities.

The theme at Liverpool this year is Fears of the past, hopes for the future. How does this connect to your own work?

My current research project, Mermaids of the British Isles, c. 450-1500, maps the role of merfolk in the national maritime imaginary, and explores our ancestors’ persistent reimagining of the mermaid’s mutable and elusive nature. Mermaids have been used across the ages, and across world cultures, to reflect human hopes and fears. In the Middle Ages, for instance, they were used as icons of pride and pleasure, speaking to clerical anxieties about female sexuality and worldly sin, and yet they could also embody Christians’ hope of achieving salvation. The mermaid’s hybrid form makes her a perfect cipher for navigating contrasting ideas and emotions like hope and fear.

Our festival theme this year is ‘hope and fear’ – what are your fears and hopes for the future of the humanities?

There’s been a chronic under-investment in the humanities in recent years and that worries me. The humanities give us space to be creative, to think, and to grow as a species. We need to invest in artists and musicians, in philosophers and linguists, and in historians and literary scholars, as much as STEM subjects. The humanities focus on what makes us human, they teach us to empathise, to make sense of the world and to ask questions about our past, present and future. I hope that things will change and that those wishing to pursue a career in the humanities can do so without the fear of having to eke out an existence on low-paid, short-term contracts.

Finally, there’s been a lot of fearfulness in 2016. Please tell us about one thing that makes you hopeful for the future.

My students. They’re a sparky and imaginative bunch. They’re living through very hard times and feeling all kinds of pressures, yet they have great resilience and they are determined to make the world a better place.

Sarah Peverley is a medievalist, book historian, broadcaster, and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Liverpool.  Her research focuses on literature produced during The Wars of the Roses, on medieval manuscripts and early books, and on mermaids in literature and art.

Teaser trailer for The Little Mermaid, read by The Liverpool Players.