What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.
Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.
This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.
Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.
Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!
Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.
I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.
As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.
I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.
While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.
Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.
And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.
It’s Valentine’s Day. People’s reaction to this seems to vary sharply between the blissful and the bitter, depending on a variety of factors including whether or not they’re in a relationship, their tolerance for public displays of affection and how well they respond to a traditional holiday whose rituals have been totally erased and rewritten by the forces of capitalism.
See? I’m sounding bitter already, and I’m not even trying. In fact, I’m in clover; this is only the second Valentine’s Day of my life I’ve spent in a relationship. Unfortunately, the lovely lady concerned is five thousand miles away with the whole continent of North America and the Atlantic Ocean in between us, so we’re going to have to content ourselves with a Skype date.
I also sent a card, which I don’t usually do. I worked for nine months in a branch of WHSmith, and daily exposure to their rack of greetings cards, which varied from the nauseatingly crude to the nauseatingly saccharine, put me off sending any kind of birthday, valentines or mother’s or father’s day card for the next several years. I sent letters and phone calls instead.
So, for much of my life, this day has been marked by no cards and no girlfriends. But I’ve had fun anyway, because I’m a practicing poet, and I have a mission – to reclaim Valentine’s Day for poetry.
Looking at my files, I’m surprised to discover I’ve written at least two sonnets every year since 2009. I knew I had a habit, but still… In 2010 I wrote four for Valentine’s Day – one for a good friend, two on spec. for other friends where I thought things might go further (they didn’t) and a silly one for a woman where romance would have been wildly inappropriate, because I came up with an amusing rhyme and couldn’t resist. It’s actually, looking back on it, the least embarrassing of the set, as the one least inflected by the phase of Miltonic grandiosity my poetry was going through.
Beatrice – or should I say Beatrice? No, I’ll use English, not Italian stress; The former one offends the ear the less, The latter makes this sonnet far from easy. Beatrice – in your jacket warm and fleecy – O God! This octet really is a mess! I wish I’d never started, I confess… Yet still, I’ll come out of it in one piece, eh? Beatrice, since my mania for rhyming Has put this poem in utter disarray And left me desperately short of timing To tell you what it was I want to say… No, I’ll leave off. The midnight bells are chiming And I shall write again some other day.
In 2012 and 2013, I flipped through my poets and anthologies a few days before and matched my friends to poems: Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ for an astrophysicist, Richard Lovelace’s delightful ‘Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair’ to a particularly gorgeous Irish blonde who had much to forgive me, Christopher Marlowe’s splendidly over-the-top ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ for an old flame I’d moved away from – and maybe three or four others. On the day, I posted each poem publicly on their Facebook walls, without any comment other than a ‘Happy Valentine’s’ at the bottom. I never got a lasting relationship out of it, but I was surprised how much love and appreciation got channeled my way. I’d do it again, and recommend it to any single poet with a few good anthologies to hand.
I was going to dedicate Valentine’s Day 2015 exclusively to feeling miserable and sorry for myself, but at the last moment I copied out the first stanza of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ onto good notepaper, folded it, sealed it with wax and posted it to a fellow PhD in Newcastle I’d been nursing a crush on. She guessed it was me.
This year things are going so rosily that I actually have the chance to write a full-on, bona fide love poem without bothering with the tiresome unrequited bit. This is an interesting challenge. Usually I try to write poetry that’s beautiful and complicated without being wildly obscure; now I had to switch gears and write something simple and beautiful without being saccharine.
Without further ado, this one’s for Valerie:
In the night sometimes I reckon All that keeps us two apart, All the dry and dreary distance In between each sundered heart. All the deserts and the mountains, All the empty, silent plains Stretching out into the twilight; The wide, wide ocean that remains.
Every desert has a well And every mountain has a spring; Every trickle gets its chance To growl and gurgle, roar and sing; Every raindrop finds a river; Every stream leads to the sea, And brings my lover back to me, And brings my lover back to me.
On my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought myself a bicycle. Before that, I’d borrowed the one my AirBnB host, Albert, keeps for the guests, but it was the sort of deathtrap people who know nothing about bicycles buy for $30 off Craigslist and congratulate themselves for being such savvy consumers. The rear brakes didn’t work, along with most of the gears, and the front wheel wobbled worryingly between the two forks. It was heavy as a sledgehammer, and so old there wasn’t an allen key socket on the whole thing, never mind a quick release.
A little research and $145 later, I got my hands on a white fixie with red wheels and bullhorn handlebars, much like my ride back home. LA has turned out to be a hillier city than I reckoned on, but the two mile sprint from my house to the Huntington is pleasantly level.
LA, as everyone knows, is built for the automobile, but this far I’ve been pleased with the cycling provision in Pasadena. After years in Britain duking it out for priority with Chelsea tractors – or actual tractors – in lanes originally designed for medieval haywains, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be somewhere that actually gives you space. Some of the roads even have a bike lane that isn’t a little patch of red paint in the gutter with five cars parked in it, but a whole extra lane between the traffic and the kerb. You can take bikes on trains and buses, you can ride on the sidewalk and no-one gives a damn, you can work up a good head of speed on the long straight boulevards and, of course, you can turn right on a red light. For me, at least, it’s a great alternative to hiring a car and having to ease my way onto one of those scary scary freeways.
In other news it was raining this Sunday in Los Angeles. Rain! In California! Who knew? Apparently LA hasn’t seen this kind of cloudburst in years. Before the rain it was easily as warm as an English summer out here, and now in spite of the constant sunshine there’s a definite chill in the air. Mine host downstairs has switched on his heating, but I’m calling on my reservoirs of student grit and doing my reading and writing wrapped up in duvets.
While I’m spending three months away from my girlfriend, I have decided to fill the some of thetime by trying out wildly experimental facial hair. This Friday I lopped off the moustache and went down to a chin beard. I’m not sure whether I look like a Quaker or a 70’s Marvel villain – certainly nothing like Lincoln – but I kind of like it. I think I’ll try out mutton chops sometime in March.
Next week I’ll write you something about the Huntington Library, and the photos will be gorgeous.
In the last year and a half of my PhD, I’ve discovered the Visiting Fellowship – a means by which generous subsidies allow scholars to travel to new and exciting libraries, to research fascinating material neglected and long overlooked, and write like they’ve rarely written before. The only thing that excites me so much as a new library is a new place to explore, and my applications have largely been smiled upon. I spent October 2015 at Chawton House, a woman’s studies research library in a small, perfectly-formed country house that used to belong to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. Now, I’m spending the first months of 2016 studying at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, on a palatial estate dating back to a point when Pasadena and the whole Los Angeles basin was mostly thought of as good grazing land. Of which, more in later entries.
I was asleep while my plane was going over Las Vegas, so the approach to landing in Los Angeles was the first time I enjoyed the lightshow of an American city at night. Most people who get any kind of perspective on LA are struck by how close it seems to the opening titles of Blade Runner. That’s science-fiction, but it ceases to seem very far-fetched after any time in a city where the constellated grids of neon and tungsten spread across the earth, casting a grey and purple glow into a great blank sky illuminated only by the passing comets of airplanes and the shiny silver dollar of the moon. It’s a feeling augmented by the dog-eat-dog techno-futurism of the freeways, where I was heartily glad to have a shuttle driver doing the navigating to my door. It’s a feeling that made it doubly disconcerting when I was dropped off beside a darkened house that looked like something from the cover of a Stephen King novel.
The owner let me in and showed me around the place, which was a Queen Anne house, built in the 1890s and beautifully bought up to date. I cadged myself a room with a balcony, a high wooden headboard to the bed and closet space which would be £500 a month in Central London on its own. This was good, since my jet-lag manifested in under rather than oversleeping, and I spent most of the small hours of the morning reading in bed.
I’ve always loved the morning after a night time arrival, when you finally get to see what the place looks like in daylight. 433 Martelo Avenue didn’t disappoint when I walked out into the new day at 8am. There were the palm trees lining the road whose shadows I’d glimpsed before, and there was the freeway to the south which I’d heard all through the night. There were also rugged, new, exciting mountains to the north of me, and streets and streets and boulevards and avenues of cinematic American suburbia which I wandered through, lost and marvelling. I scrumped an orange from a neighbour’s fruit tree, and it was perfectly ripe and fresh. Further down the road, I took the opportunity of hailing one of Pasadena’s occasional dog-walking pedestrians.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, but this is my first morning in your country, and I wonder if you might direct me to somewhere I can get some breakfast?’
Another ten minutes, and I was sitting down to a bran muffin and a mug of earl grey at Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters on Allen Avenue. It was a good start.
As winter nights enlarge the number of their hours, and autumn’s gold begins to displace summer green among the leaves of Bute Park, I look back on the promises of the spring and their fruits. It’s true that while several deadlines were met, chapters written and poems composed, my project, my project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays this year fell by the wayside. Partly this was due to other writing commitments, and partly due to the testing conditions I set myself: viz, one play every nine days, different editions each time, with an accompanying blog post. However, I’m determined to get out of the Comedies by Christmas, and that seems like a goal I can achieve.
I read As You Like It early in the spring, forging out into the woods and perching on various stumps, fallen trunks and climbable crowns in order to enjoy this least claustrophobic of all Shakespeare’s plays; almost every scene, apart from a smattering in the first act, might be played out of doors. My slim and pocketsized Penguin paperback was a delightfully portable companion, and like the play’s exiled Duke I found ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.’
I should have written this then, but by letting the year mellow I was able to catch two excellent performances that will linger in my mind long after my pleasant afternoon among the ancient oaks and alder coppices. The first was the annual family trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, the second Everyman theatre’s open air performance in Cardiff’s Bute Park, and it would be hard to say which performance I most enjoyed. While the Globe, as ever, wound up their performance with a lively Elizabethan jig, the Irish band at the Everyman combined Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘What shall he have that killed the deer’ with traditional numbers dear to my own heart like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’; while the Globe’s Jacques was excoriatingly satirical, gleefully mirthful and fulsomely melancholy, the sexual electricity between Orlando and Rosalind in the Everyman version crackled and leapt; while in the Globe we had the up-close underling experience of watching the play from the level of the actor’s boots, in the Everyman we had a wonderful arboreal backdrop to the stage as the evening drew on and the full moon began to dally with the treetops before arising in splendour to shine upon the wedding scene.
The title As You Like It, like What You Will, the alternative name for Twelfth Night, strikes a challenging note from a writer skilled at pleasing all classes of society from the poor groundlings to rich aristocratic patrons. No-one would dismiss this as insubstantial fare, for the characters are vivid and the dialogue substantial, but the plotting is often delightfully insouciant. Not that it particularly matters, but the play begins with the Wrongful Duke having usurped and exiled the Rightful Duke to the Forest of Arden, where His Rightfulness is content not to raise an army and scheme how to reclaim his throne, but to live like Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.
His Wrongfulness, meanwhile, steadily drives everyone to the forest with his tyrannical ways – first the talented young Orlando, then the Rightful Duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Here His Wrongfulness makes a big mistake, not realising his own daughter Celia is BFFs with Rosalind and more than willing to accompany her into exile, where Orlando and Rosalind enjoy a winning romance, complicated by the fact that, inevitably, Rosalind is cross-dressing as a man for no good reason. And then starts pretending to be a woman. It all gets a bit recursive at this point.
Part of the fun lies in what is brought onstage and what is left off. Most of the set-piece speeches, including Jacques’ party piece, the Seven Ages of Man, do little to advance the plot; a complex action sequence involving a snake, a lion, and a slumbering villainous brother is told entirely in narration; and the Wrongful Duke, who has been advancing threateningly upon the other characters’ location for at least three whole acts, is disposed of in a handful of lines at the plays end when a previously unheard of character enters to tell us he’s met with a religious hermit and had a change of heart about the whole thing. Yet what would be an utter disaster in anyone else’s hands remains utterly charming in Shakespeare’s own. It’s illuminating to compare the passage that seems most ridiculous in the print version with its performance on stage. In the scene Celia and Orlando’s brother Olivier meet, exchange a few civil words, and part. It seems fairly innocuous until the beginning of the next scene where are told they fell madly in love with one another at first sight and are to be married directly. Laughable on the page, but with the aid of lighting, sound cues, and a pair of good actors it works beautifully – indeed at the Everyman Olivier and Celia’s moment was not only obvious to everyone, but it got one of the best laughs of the evening. It’s a striking example of the confidence Shakespeare had not merely in his own language but in the skills of his acting company.
It’s that confidence and panache, not in the midnight faerie magic of a midsummer dream but the daylit quotidian magic of the Elizabethan stage that lends As You Like It its subtle, individual and unquantifiable charm, as fragile and as eternally renewable as the the English spring itself. To see two good productions in a year has been a fabulous treat.
BARS – that’s the British Association of Romantic Studies – is one of the largest conferences in the discipline of English Literature, and the change in scales was vertiginous. BSECS only had one or two panels per session; BARS never had less than seven or eight. The collected abstracts of the BSECS papers covered a dozen sides of A4; the BARS abstracts had been collected in book form, with a table of contents and an index at the back. BSECS only needed one or two rooms; BARS took over an entire building, and annexed the cafeteria of another.
At this scale there was far too much happening for the conference organisers to keep track of, so Anthony Mandal and Jane Moore recruited a small cadre of conference reps, myself among them, to make sure all the speakers were adequately hydrated, the PowerPoint presentations hadn’t crashed, and to handle any emergencies. Anthony had contrived to make us instantly recognisable by providing us all with bright yellow t-shirts with the conference logo on the back, and we swiftly became known as the yellow minions, after the wacky goggled monsters from the Despicable Me movies. We were from every conceivable level of the academic hierarchy – postdoctorate, doctoral student, postgraduate, graduate and undergraduate – but we developed fast friendships and a striking esprit de corps over the course of the conference.
The first panel I supervised, ‘Locating the Imprint’ was enlivened by multiple dives for the light-switch since the building seemed only willing to give us twenty minutes illumination at a time. This didn’t too much disturb a fascinating panel – the material on obscure literary clubs and books rejected from the Bodleian for being too populist turned out, in typical academic fashion, to be a mine of interesting details and unexpected connections. Leonard Driscoll’s paper on John Clare’s antiquarianism also proved to be deeply engaged, not just with the countryside that John Clare knew and the material traces that remained, but with Clare’s poetry as well – something that can often get buried in papers that deluge you with background detail without a particularly close examination of the text. John Clare – a poet my secondary school teacher once dismissed as ‘a gardner who went mad’ – seemed to be having a good conference, with a plethora of interesting papers.
James Chandler’s plenary lecture on ‘The Romantic Impression: Locke, Hume and Wordsworth’ was a sober and in-depth examination of the history of the notion of impression that felt a little more like an essay than a presentation, but which cast a revealing light upon the conference’s central theme. The first of the afternoon panels, on ‘Disruptive Romantic History and Technologies of Mediation’ boasted an illuminating paper by Ian Newman on ‘Consuming Sedition in the 1790s’, examining the metaphors of consumption surrounding radical texts such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Brian Rejack’s paper ‘Keats’s Joy in the Time of Photography’ revolved around the famous opening lines of Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;
Rejack examined the reproduction of those lines in various contexts throughout the nineteenth century, after which I brought things into the twenty-first – and caused a small sensation – by admitting I had them tattooed on my right shoulder!
I rounded off the day with a panel on ‘The Romantic Writer and the Imprint of the Humanities’, where Brecht de Groote’s paper on Thomas De Quincy caught my imagination. There’s no sound quite like the murmur of an academic audience with its interest roused, and a striking susurrus arose as de Groote showed De Quincy grasping the onset of the information age, and going on to predict something strikingly similar to the internet.
I skipped the plenary lecture in order to go offer comfort and consolation to an unhappy friend of mine who had travelled all the way down from Newcastle to present a paper, only to be struck down by food poisoning on the very first day! That evening’s entertainment was the early career pub outing, and it was a pleasure to catch up with various people from earlier conferences, and to buy my MA dissertation supervisor, Mary Fairclough, a drink at last. Some serious drama erupted when Alex, one of my fellow yellow minions, who had a nut allergy, started going into anaphylactic shock and had to be whisked off to hospital by Mikey Goodman, the hero of the hour. Alex was stable, however, Mikey was back before last orders, and the rest of the evening passed without life-threatening incident.
The next day’s began with a panel on ‘Coleridge’s Afterlives’, populated by Philip Aherne, Anna Mercer and Jo Taylor, all of whom I knew from an earlier conference, and none of them worse for the previous evening’s adventures. Philip reprehended me for paying too much attention to Coleridge’s poetry, which is a mere 10% of his total output – and neglecting his prose; Anna Mercer analysed some of the poems of Sara Coleridge, his daughter, somewhat of a new discovery and still causing a stir in Romantic circles; while Jo Taylor did a paper on Coleridge’s grand-daughter Edith, the winner of the Coleridge-least-likely-to-acquire-a-major-critical-edition award, which was an intriguing consideration of how to analyse and make use of terribly bad versifying.
At the next plenary, I nipped down to the stage to check the organisers wanted for nothing. The speaker, Devoney Looser, was friendly, eye-catching in peacock leggings and one of the few academics to bring her kids along, but it wasn’t until Gillian Dow introduced her to the lecture theatre at large that I realised she was that Devoney Looser – famous for proving that academia and roller derby are not mutually exclusive, and known to her team-mates as Stone Cold Jane Austen. Her paper on the illustrated editions of Jane Austen’s novels was an interesting examination of a little regarded area, and I made a note of a few editions to investigate.
The afternoon featured a coach trip to South Wales’s Romantic Location of choice: Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire. I’d walked past it many times before, following the line of the riverbank or peering down from the Devil’s Pulpit on Offa’s Dyke above, but it was the first time I’d actually spent time among the ruins. A poetry reading had been laid on for us, but sadly the acoustics were far inferior to when the roof had been vaulted with grave arches rather than open to the sky above us – but there was something to be said, I mused, for listening to Wordsworth’s great ode as ‘a soft inland murmur’, sprawling upon the greensward while the swallows flit in and out of the empty chancel windows.
Getting all the academics back onto the bus turned out to be like herding cats, and we still would have ended up short a few if someone hadn’t had the bright idea of checking the pub. There was just time in Cardiff for us reps to dash home, throw off the yellow t-shirts and don the gladrags for the conference dinner. What a crowd of luminaries there were, packed into the dining hall, and how pleasant to troop up to the stage and receive our acknowledgements for helping the conference come to be such a success. I stayed up afterwards – with my friend Harriet as my glamorous assistant – to read out the raffle tickets. Nicola Watson, the president of BARS, was kind enough to come over and say that if I somehow didn’t get a teaching job after a PhD I clearly had a bright future ahead of me as a bingo caller!
After dinner and several glasses of wine, we trekked over to the Urban Taphouse, where over another couple of pints of high a.b.v. ale the subject of my Keats tattoo came up again. Some of the ladies were importunate to catch a glimpse of it.
Which is how I woke up the next morning and realised I’d just done a striptease in front of bunch of academics and a senior Jane Austen scholar.
A 9:30 panel on a Sunday morning is never easy under the best circumstances, but somehow, I hauled myself up from the shower floor and went into university for the final day of the conference. ‘Material Culture and Intermedial Relationships’ turned out to be worth the effort, covering such little-considered artefacts as literary annuals, relief maps and ceramic transferware: the description of how the ceramicists swooped down on new books of topographical views like a flock of vultures was arresting, as was the analysis of how they collaged their compositions from various sources.
In despite of the fact that the speaker, Peter Garside, was one of the nicest academics it was my pleasure to dogsbody for all conference, inquiring politely into my PhD and Miltonic interests, the plenary lecture ‘Another Golden Age for the Novel?’ proved beyond my (by now severely limited) comprehension. I dallied in the last panel session for two excellent papers on Robert Southey before heading downstairs to take part in the general clean-up. Then Anthony and Jane said their closing words – there was a round of applause – and all was suddenly over! I had survived the week of conference bedlam with nothing more than a mild case of the caffeine shakes and the loss of a few IQ points through sheer fatigue, and I had just enough left in me to cycle home before I lost consciousness. A success by any measure!
In theory the big academic conferences have the whole wide expanse of the summer break to stake out dates in, but in practice they all tend to cluster in July, possibly because in June everyone’s catching upon on their paperwork and in August they want to go on their holidays. Sod’s law being what it is, sometimes they clash. This year, two of the biggest beasts in my field have locked horns – The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) postgrad and early career conference in Belfast, and the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) general conference in Cardiff. I had a paper accepted at BSECS, but the BARS early career conference in Grasmere was the first place I’d ever given a proper paper, and I’d made a lot of friends I wanted to catch up with. Not to mention the fact it was in my home town and the organisers needed people to help out. This led to five solid days where I lived on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night, barely ate anything but conference food and ran mostly on caffeine and alcohol. Academics tend to party hard.
For my flight to Belfast I’d consigned myself to the vagaries of the public transport system, which meant a 2am start in order to catch the 7am flight to Bristol. The weather was so low, grey and drizzly there was nothing to be seen after the plane leapt into the air, and scarcely anything before. I dozed gently in my seat, to wake as the plane began to descend towards the sunnier shores of Northern Ireland. I caught the bus into Belfast town centre, and walked to Queens University.
I come from a city that likes to think it can do Victorian Gothic, hosting as it does the medieval fantasy of Cardiff Castle – with the fairytale Castle Coch not far up the Taff trail – and a variety of chapels and private dwellings now largely converted into hotels and restaurants. Still, I have to admit that the postgraduate building at Queens, with its gargoyles and waterspouts and gorgeously renovated interior, complete with setpiece spiral staircase, took my breath away. I found the conference in the back, and had just time for a revitalising cup of tea and a few introduction, before I went to the catch the first panel, on the saucy subject of Sex and Illegitimacy.
The revelation of the panel, however, was Kate Gibson’s ‘Natural Alliances: Connections between illegitimate children and their families’ which yielded the intriguing information that it was the not-terribly-subtle habit of the Pembroke family to give their illegitimate children anagrammatic surnames: hence such oddities as Augustus Reebkomp and Miss Mebkoper. I spent an entertaining five minutes deciding what to name my hypothetical illegitimate child, before settling on the pseudo-Welsh ‘Llyrret.’
After a coffee break I had a second panel on Philosophising Connections. Philosophy not being my strong suit, I recall very little about it beyond Audrey Borowski’s valiant attempt to explain to me the subtleties of Leibnitz’s thought, which held me engaged through sheer force of presentation alone. It was pleasant also to hear from someone as early in her career as Laura Griffin presenting her MA research. As someone who cut his teeth presenting at York University’s internal humanities conference, I know the experience will stand her in good stead.
After a disappointingly greasy lunch, we gathered once again to hear Professor Matthew Grenby talk to us about ‘Applying for External Funding’ who succeeded in imparting information, keeping us amused, and not crushing our spirits – three important features in an info-talk.
The following panel seeming rather heavy on papers about eighteenth-century Romanian dictionaries, I took the opportunity to go explore the city with a few fellow renegades – John-Erik Hansson, Grace Harvey and Jen Wood, whose panel on the works of William Godwin I had regrettably given over for the Sex and Illegitimacy panel. There are some conferences by the end of which I seem to know everyone by their first name – Locating Fantastika, earlier in the month, was like that – and others where you spend all your time hanging out with a small group of friends. John-Erik, Grace and Jen were a fine example of the latter – no sooner did they hear that I was planning on spending the following month deep in Godwin’s works as I prepared to write about his early novel Imogen then I was declared an honorary Godwinist with Corresponding Society privileges. We had a pleasant wander into town via an independent bookshop and an upmarket cafe before returning to the next panel, Challenges to Enlightenment Science. Stephen Server got us off to an excellent start with an entertaining paper about gout and therapeutic networking amongst its victims, but the next two papers were fascinating subjects let down by poor presentation. A paper on Catholicism, exorcism and the supernatural in Ireland, with a gripping case study at its heart, was delivered in a mumbled monotone, and during another interesting paper about native medical practices versus Spanish colonial attitudes in South America the speaker seemed to be groping for every word. it was left to Dr Caroline Warman to restore energy to proceedings with her vibrant keynote, in which she defiantly upheld the importance of Denis Diderot’s neglected late work, Element of physiology, and restored it to its proper place in the canon.
The conference dinner at Molly’s Yard proved one of the best I’d ever been treated to, and after rounding off the evening with a few pints of Guinness at a convenient tavern (when in Ireland) the Godwinists and I retired to our accommodation.
Conscious, perhaps, of one Guinness too many, I breakfasted frugally on a bowl of muesli, but stepped off the bus to Armagh with a song upon my lips. The location chosen for the second day of the conference was even more impressive than the day before. We were speaking in the reading room of the majestic Armagh Public Library, founded in the eighteenth century but extended, the archivist admitted, in the nineteenth. The old boards were perfumed with that fabulous old book smell I recollected well from many hours spent among the special collections and archives. An original edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with the author’s own corrections, was proudly on display amongst the manuscripts, incunabula and rare editions, while the library’s eccentric habit of storing books by size and not by subject meant that running an eye along the shelves was an entertaining treasure hunt.
I opened the first panel with my paper ‘The Forger, the Lexicographer and the Poet’s Granddaughter: Samuel Johnson and John Milton in 1750’ and I was followed by a pair of enthusiastic and knowledgeable papers – Sophie Liu’s on paper wars and crises of succession, and Cameron Quinn’s on the French authors Voltaire and Jean Meslier. Sadly in our enthusiasm we had all over-ran, and were limited to one question each, which was a disappointment as well as something of a relief.
I’m aware once more of perhaps overtaxing the patience of my audience, so let me just say that the stand-outs among the remaining papers included Samantha Lin’s intriguing talk about the creation of her romance game, Regency Love, for iOS, though her – perhaps overfaithful – recreation of eighteenth-century female accomplishments and strictures of courtship raised a few feminist hackles. Peter Collinge’s work reconstructing the network of places, clients and connections created by Jane Williamson at the Derbyshire servant’s registry office also proved fascinating in its complexity.
I’d had all too little time to see the sights of Belfast, Armagh, and their surroundings – what little I’d seen had tantalised rather than satisfied, but no matter – I was on the plane home that evening, and in despite of having the most uncomfortable seat on the flight (middle, back, non-reclinable) I was asleep soon after take-off. I got back to Cardiff by 2am and sunk gratefully into my bed – after all, I’d have to be up bright and early next morning for the next conference.
For details of more fascinating academic papers, together with how I completely missed my friend Mikey saving a man from anaphylactic shock, my free trip to Tintern Abbey and how I wound up doing a strip-tease in front of a senior Jane Austen scholar, tune in for Part Two!