BSECS vs BARS: Clash of the Conference Titans! Part II

bars_sidebar_logoIt was 2am by the time I got back to Cardiff from Belfast and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies postgrad and early career conference, and by 9 I was up and clothed and in the university in time to catch the second day of the BARS Romantic Imprints conference.

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.

minions

BARS Conference Reps

Wacky minions of an evil genius

Wacky minions of an evil genius

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.

IMG_0896The 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.

Oh my.

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!

Ode to my study carrel

assl Nothing is quite as exciting as having a new library to explore, and I’ve been granted access to some good ones of late – Chawton House Library, a women’s studies centre set in a house which once belonged to Jane Austen’s richer brother; the high shelves and Victorian stepladders of York Minster Library; dozens of beautiful old Carnegie Libraries from Clitheroe to Cathays; even the high Medieval surroundings of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, thanks to a Postgraduate Studentship and the fact my supervisor emailed ahead. Yet despite all their glorious architecture, surroundings, and selection, none of them have usurped that place in my heart reserved for the drab concrete outlines of Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library, where I now have a small office to myself.

When I first applied for a study carrel I suspected that it was a word entirely invented by librarians – indeed, who better to do so? – but I made recourse to the OED and discovered that it is precisely the appropriate word for what it is – a small desk for private study within a library. Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library boasts a row of eight on their second floor, which are given to MA and PhD students on 3-month rotas. Bute library may have the spiral staircases and the Science library the Victorian neo-classical flourishes – at least, before they stuck an entire unnecessary floor right through the middle of it – but none of them have anything so useful as the study carrels. At first glance, they maybe rather poky and predominantly brown, with a view of the Lidl car park, but such an opinion is IMG_0562 sole preserve of the philistine who has not grasped the delight of having one’s own private space in the midst of a library. Safe behind my yale lock, I can actually stack my books in there without fear of some overzealous librarian returning them to shelf, leave my laptop or phone on the desk without fear that anyone might nick it and best of all, I can sit on the floor, or put my feet up on the desk, or roll into the footwell and doze off without anyone looking at me strangely. The view may not be the most sublime in existence, but mediated by the swaying birches and their million new leaves, it’s rather pleasant. Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of craning before I achieve a sightline across the thousand chimney tops of Cathays stretching out towards the Rhymney Ridgeway.

Cardiff University gave me access to my first university library, and after months spent scouring the secondhand bookshops of Winchester to build a poetry collection, I can still remember the thrill of discovering that they had collections by almost any author I could think of. I’d arrive, tap ‘Thomas Gray’ or ‘Gerald Manley Hopkins’ into the search engine, memorise the local reference and dash upstairs, chanting ‘PR4803.H44.A16.F80’ under my breath and hoping I’d get there before the rush. I often got my digits muddled up, but surprisingly enough, there’s yet to be a run on the literature shelves. The closest thing to it is when the first year essay titles are announced, and the shelves of Beowulf and Chaucer criticism empty as if by magic.

IMG_0565 For there’s still magic among these dusty shelves, even in a warm day in May. Since my first days at Cardiff, I’ve studied in places as diverse as the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. Even York University library had more power sockets, comfier seats, continuous 24 hour access and a better DVD collection. I still keep up my self-initiated tradition of jogging up the stairs, however, and there’s still nothing I like better than when a likely tome catches my eye mid-stride, and I have to take it out and flick through it until the original book I was searching for is quite forgotten. Having my own little piece of it – however temporarily – is like having my own box at the theatre. Sheer class.

Tending Bar at the Cardiff University Ale and Cider Festival

logo with dragonThis coming Thursday, I’ll be bunking off a seminar and taking a long train journey down to Cardiff for the Real Ale and Cider Society’s 17th Annual Festival. It’s the largest student festival in Britain. There should be about 50 ales and 50 ciders – I’m told there is a list, but apparently it’s being kept Top Secret until the festival begins – 5 types of mead and 7 types of wine. My mouth is watering at the very thought.

Despite this being my fourth year at the festival, I have never visited as a customer. I’ve always worked behind the bar, recommending my favourite brews, serving up the ale with a flourish and partaking liberally in the quiet moments. A certain degree of familiarity with the different types of ale is a most desirable characteristic, and so long as you don’t drink more that you serve, the few genuinely sober people about are quite forgiving.

On my first year, I went home for the festival weekend, and only worked on the Thursday – how little I knew back then! Still, I returned to my halls addled enough to forget to shut the shower door, and completely drenched my ensuite – so evidently it was not time wasted.

The second year was a bit of a blow out, I admit. I managed to time myself so perfectly on the Thursday that the last thing I remember is last orders. And then, as usual, I woke up in bed, in my pyjamas, to find it was the next morning. My survival instincts often astonish me like that.

The festival that year was a sell out success, so there wasn’t the same chance to drink myself under the table as there was on the Thursday night – the paying customers had it all, the greedy beggars! I blame the undercover policemen, who prowled around quietly on the first night and came back to drink on day two in a massive group. But my memories are good. Being the most beardy member of the society at that point, I was quite identifiable, and got a lot of hugs. There was a lovely moment when I was listening to a band I’d helped book – who were fantastic – with a pint of ale in my right hand and my left around a rather pretty girl, and I thought how jealous and disbelieving my sixteen year old self would have been if he could have seen me now. I felt cool, which, God knows, doesn’t happen often enough. Unfortunately, I blew it almost immediately by reaching that plateau of drunkenness where I can dance completely unselfconsciously. The last band started off by covering Staying Alive, and got cheesier by the minute. At no other point have I, or would I EVER, dance to Gay Bar.

But all too soon the beer and cider had vanished down a thousand thirsty throats, and it was all over save for taking everything down the next morning, and the massive fried breakfast that inevitably follows.

The next year was not quite so exuberant, as I had begun to develop an (utterly unjustified) reputation about the committee, and they refused to give me any mead after nine o’clock. Spoilsports. There was a rather fun moment in the clearing up, where my housemate lent her head against my arm and said ‘Carry me home.’ She was out of the Great Hall and halfway out of the building before she managed to convince me it was a joke. What the security guards must have thought, I don’t know.

Surprisingly, considering I hadn’t drunk myself into complete insensibility, that morning was the worst hangover I’ve ever had at the festival. I stumbled into work at 3pm in my day-old festival t-shirt and oldest jeans, looking like hell and smelling of stale beer. Yet to my astonishment and delight, I pulled shortly after last orders, and turned up to the fried breakfast on Saturday with a big cheesy grin on my face that didn’t fade for a week afterwards.

I doubt I’m going to get that lucky again. But whatever happens, I’m going to have two nights of good music, cracking cider and wonderful ale, among some lovely people who I haven’t seen for over half a year, and that’s more than worth the journey.

The Cardiff University Real Ale and Cider Society Festival is open from 2pm to Midnight on the 21st and 22nd of February. Entry is £3 with a commemorative pint glass.

Book rhymes

When I was cataloguing marginalia and provenance information in the Cardiff University Rare Books Collections, I discovered many interesting things – not least how dirty three century old books could be. Inside a tiny duodecimo copy of The Whole Duties of a Communicant, I found a beautiful hand-drawn map of Bath that someone had tucked away for safe-keeping. There was a wonderful, lavishly illustrated 17th century book on The Buccaniers of America that I would have given my whole months wages to walk off with, and plenty of the marginal annotations I’d been told to catalogue – some learned, some argumentative, some very funny.

One of my favourite discoveries were the book rhymes. They were the precursors of bookplates, lines of catchy doggerel that interested readers would scribble inside their front covers along with a few personal details, to mark the book as theirs and remind recalcitrant borrowers to return it promptly. The first one I came across was:

If thou art borrowed by a friend,
Right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge doth
Diminish learning’s store,
But books, I find, when once they’re lent,
Return to me no more.

A nice enough piece of doggerel, but my favourite book rhyme is somewhat shorter, snappier, and more punchy:

If this book you steal away
What will you say
On judgement day?

Which summons the pleasant thought that when Christ descends from Heaven on the Last Day, to judge the quick and the dead, he will be particularly harsh on the subject of stolen books. Let the unrighteous tremble!

As to a book rhyme for the title page of my own volumes, I gave the matter five minutes of thought while I was in the shower the other night, and came up with the following attempt:

Steal this book away from me;
You are my enemy.
Drop it idly in the bath
And taste my wrath.
Tear or dog-ear any page
And feel my rage.
Break the spine, or spoil the story
And know my fury.
Return it safely to the shelf;
And stay in perfect health.

A little over-protective, perhaps – but no more than any of my treasures deserve.

Discovering Seafood with Keith the Fish

HobbitI came back to York University early in order to spend New Year with some friends, and I’m alone in the house tonight. Well, alone except for the wonderful smell of grilled herring that’s wafting up the stairs. I ate it with steamed green beans and boiled potatoes, and felt like Bilbo Baggins before the rascally dwarves burst in to steal his supper. Best of all, the herring cost me precisely 67 pence, and it wasn’t even going off! What a preposterously undervalued fish it is.

You would not catch the smell of fish wafting up the stairs in my home in Winchester. My father doesn’t like it, and while my mother has always had a thing for sardines, she refuses to let me eat my beloved breakfast kipper underneath her roof for fear of the smell. Given my oily-fish deprivation, it’s amazing I’ve turned out as smart as I have.

It all started with kippers, really. I ate my first kipper in a guest house near Campbeltown in Scotland, on the morning of the 27th of August, 2007 (O, historic date!) It was fresh, local, and delicious, and once I’d figured out the challenge of separating the fish from the bones, I was hooked. By the time I came to Cardiff University in October 2009, the two things I wanted to cook and expected to live off were kippers for breakfast and yorkshire pudding for tea.

I never really managed to do yorkshire pud successfully (I kept forgetting to add hot oil to the pan first) and I now shudder to think of those breakfast kippers. They were cheap fillets from Tesco, three-to-a-vacuum-pack, which I’d microwave and eat. I liked them well enough at the time, but the rest of the flat weren’t terribly happy with stumbling hung-over into the kitchen of a morning to be confronted with the rich, kippery scent of my breakfast. After I found ‘AARGH KIPPERS’ spelled out in fridge magnets a few too many times, I quietly dropped the habit. And for six months, I returned to the fishless days of my youth.

And then, as my second year in Cardiff began, I discovered Keith the Fish.

Keith the Fish takes some discovering. Tucked away behind Marks and Spencer‘s off of Queen Street, he’s definitely off the beaten track. To make matters worse, his operating hours are 9-12 Tuesday through Saturday, so he’s quite hard to catch. I forget what dire exigency could have gotten me out of bed before noon, but I happened to pass by and ask if he did kippers. Turns out he did Manx kippers a pound a time, so I bought one and ate it jugged the next morning. To jug a fish, you pour boiling water over it and leave it for six minutes, then pull it out, slap it on a plate and eat it. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast, it’s delicious, and provided you don’t leave the bones lying around, surprisingly fragrant.

My visits to Keith the Fish became weekly, and I got to know Keith himself, a grand old survivor of the fishmonger’s trade who recently celebrated

Keith with a whopper of a catch!

Keith with a whopper of a catch!

his seventieth birthday. Our conversations always began the same way. ‘The fish trade in this country is going to the dogs!’ he’d growl, before going on to lambast supermarket fishmongers for their smelly fish, or the Arab Spring for driving up the price of his petrol. His main complaint was the lack of fish getting into children’s diet. He loved kids. He had a wonderful trick to pull if any kid came by. There was always some mighty salmon sprawled out across the shopfront, his tail tucked away beneath the display. Keith would pretend to be fussing with something up another end of the stall, lay his hand on the fish’s tail and give it a few twitches. When the screams began he knew he’d done his job!

I slowly got up the confidence to attempt something requiring more complex cookery skills than the application of boiling waterI can’t say I ever really cooked white fish to my satisfaction, but my grilled rainbow trout was so fresh I could taste the water it was caught in, and moule mariniere remains the best thing I have ever cooked for myself.

Now, alas, I have moved into York and all is changed. I have yet to really get a taste for Whitby kippers, and fresh cockles are impossible to find. I was forced to purchase my grilled herring from Keith’s despised supermarket. If I really wish to remain true to his standards, I reckon I’m going to have to take up rod and waders and go angling.