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.

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!

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

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.

Interior of the postgraduate building

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.

Marie Michlova’s opening paper ‘Sex in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Scotland’ was a whistlestop tour through the sex lives of some of my favourite literary characters: James ‘Alas, too too plain was the dread approach of Signor Gonorrhoea’ Boswell, Robert ‘Fornicator’ Burns and James Hogg, the original naked rambler. I was also pleased to see an honorary mention go to J.G. Lockhart, famous for using an ellipsis of no less than thirty asterisks to suggest unlawful congress in his 1822 novel Adam Blair.

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.

Interior of the Armagh Public Library

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.

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Me presenting my paper

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!

Crossing the Line: Ritual and Superstition at Sea

ssgb My first academic paper, delivered at a conference at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, set a high standard for atmospheric locales. When I received a call for papers for a conference taking place at Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol, I knew I had to go. The subject, Crossing the Line: Ritual and Superstition at Sea didn’t quite fit with my PhD thesis on Milton’s Eighteenth Century Influence, but I had some old research lying around from my BA dissertation that fitted the bill.

I swiftly concocted an abstract for a paper entitled Edgar Allan Poe on Ice: Fictionalising Arctic Masque and Ritual in Dan Simmons’ The Terror and was delighted to have it accepted. After an all too brief period of revamping, rewriting and further researching, I took the train down to Bristol on a sunny Thursday morning.

IMG_0514 A brief confession – I always get lost in Bristol. It’s a city of sharp corners, sudden ups and downs, suspiciously similar brick buildings and awkward waterways. Matters are usually not helped by a pint or two of something tasting innocuously of apple juice and the fact that the last train back to Cardiff, in a quirk of the schedules, leaves at 01:37 in the morning. This time, however, I managed to thwart my natural haplessness by simply following the river Avon, after a brief confusion over whether I should go upstream or down, and arrived at the SS Great Britain in tolerably good time. The conference organiser, Laurence Publicover, gave me the hearty welcome due to the only speaker not personally shepherded over from Bristol University.

We were in the Viridor Theatre, part of the Brunel Institute, which looks out onto the port side of the SS Great Britain; a wonderful place to take tea and make friends. The conference began with four papers: Jimmy Packham presented a paper entitled “The aweful ceremonies of the Equator”: Reaching the Line in the Nineteenth Century which impressed me by the grand literary-historical scope of its narration, drawing in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mark Twain’s diaries. Claire Connor’s paper on “Crossing the Line” The SS Great Britain and Mid-Voyage Violence was a more detailed look at the crossing the line ceremony in the history of the ship’s voyages, and introduced us to various passenger diaries and the tantalising mystery of the gummed-together page in the ship’s log. Tasmin Badcoe followed us with “All the devils are here”: Crossing  Unholy Waters in the Early Modern Imagination which began appropriately with the opening of The Tempest and took us through some wonderfully far-out renaissance texts. Then it was my turn. I apologised in advance for the truly sailor-like language of my quotations, but secretly I rather enjoyed that, and couldn’t resist unleashing my am-dram side while quoting the marvellously resonant final lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I even managed to handle the questions that followed with easy fluency instead of my usual stammering and fluffing, and stepped out of the spotlight happily conscious that my somewhat thrown-together paper had succeeded better than I’d hoped.

After lunch we had a round table discussion with the shellbacks, as those who have crossed the line and been initiated by Neptune are subsequently called. One older man recalled a serious hazing that involved being locked into a pigsty, lathered over in a revolting mixture of paint and tar and shaved with a blunt razor, while another in a modern yachting team recalled a kind of food fight where they all threw mashed up Weetabix over each other. The highlight was definitely the naval serviceman who produced the instructions and script for the crossing the line ceremony from the appropriate service manual – ‘because in the Navy there’s a manual for everything.’ Finally the curators of the Brunel Institute presented their own research, which showed, intriguingly enough, that the scope and rowdiness of the crossing the line ceremony was steadily scaled down during the lifetime of Captain John Gray of the SS Great Britain, though they were unable to say quite why.

IMG_0534 There was time remaining after the conference to explore the SS Great Britain and its surrounding exhibitions, but not, unfortunately, to climb the mainmast yard. Sunset found me bathing my feet in the cool waters of the Avon while sharing a few bottles of rosé with Bristol’s Perspectives from the Sea research group, whose brainchild this conference had been. The waters before us, once thronged with ships of the empire sailing to and from every coastline on Earth were filled with paddleboarders and sculling teams and sailboats going about. It was a perfect evening. By dint of fast walking and diligent inquiry, I even found my way back to the station in time to catch the 11 o’clock train home – and that’s unheard of.

BARS Romantic Locations Conference 2014

BARS Locations - Thomas Tyrell

My account of the conference is reblogged from the BARS blog, curated by Matthew Sangster.

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I had not even started my PhD when I first saw the call for papers for the BARS early career and postgraduate conference on Romantic Locations, but I had come away from an internal postgraduate conference at York brimful of misplaced confidence, and that very week I was hitch-hiking into Keswick for a few nights free board at the youth hostel where my friend worked. I took a copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes with me, and in the meditative moments between the rambles and the wild swims, an idea took root. It grew slowly – I sent my final abstract from a public library in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the three month interregnum, and I received my invitation to present a paper just before I moved into Cardiff for my PhD.

As the conference approached, I was filled with nervousness. I was after all a PhD of only three months seniority, and my research area wasn’t even properly in Romantic Studies. Would the others sniff me out as a romantic imposter, the Dr. Polidori amidst the Byrons, Clairmonts and Shelleys around me?

Such was the gloomy tenor of my thoughts, but as the train left Oxenholme and began to rumble towards Windermere, I found myself uplifted by the sublimity of the scenes around me. Arriving in Grasmere, I followed the hum of mighty workings into the Jerwood Centre, and over a reviving cup of tea I was reassured to discover that more than a few of my peers had cudgeled their brains, ransacked their notes and creatively re-interpreted their research plans in order to attend a conference in so splendid a location as Wordsworth’s own Grasmere; furthermore, I was the only one who would be talking about Romanticism and cartography, and would have a wide field in which to range. Feeling much more confident, I sat down to the first panel.

Highlights of the first day included Kate Ingle’s paper on ‘Personal Place-names and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Writing of Grasmere’, which immediately made me want to run out and find all the places mentioned; Daniel Eltringham’s on upland enclosure and Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, which read more critical theory into the practice of sheep-farming than I thought it ever could hold; and the final panel of the day, where Alexis Wolf, Honor Rieley and George Stringer introduced us to the impact of Romanticism in places as diverse as France, Canada and India. The concluding plenary lecture was given by Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster, whose paper on Romanticism and the history of mountaineering made every postgraduate with a pair of muddy boots in their luggage wish they had thought of the idea first. The wine reception, held by candlelight in Dove Cottage, was an experience I am sure that none of us will forget.

Next morning dawned bright and early, and in despite of having drunk an inadvisable amount of wine the night before, the fresh air and change of location wrought wonders. This was a good thing too, as my paper on ‘The map, the territory, and the small cloud between Scafell and Great Gavel’ opened the first panel of the day, at 9:30 in the morning. Other highlights included Philip Aherne’s ‘Incomplete Communion: The Reception of the Conversation Poem’ and Leanne Stokoe, whose paper on Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Shelley’s prose I had secretly been dreading, but which turned out to be absolutely fascinating. The day was varied by a talk from Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust’s collection (pictured below), who passed around plenty of original manuscripts for us to coo over and sent us home with our very own love letters – from Mary to William. This was followed by a seminar with Jeremy Davies on Percy Shelley’s time in Tremadoc, North Wales.

BARS Locations - Jeff Cowton

After the last panel of the day, we adjourned to the Traveller’s Rest for dinner. Last orders was called at eleven o’clock, but by a combination of special pleading and skilful flirting, we kept the drinks coming until well after midnight, and it was a little after two in the morning before this bleary postgraduate scrambled into his bunk. Nonetheless, Shoshannah Bryn Jones Square, Hannah Britton and Joanna Taylor had clearly eaten their Shreddies the next morning, and their panel on Romantic Borderlands was one of the best of the conference. It left me eager not only to discover Mary Shelley’s Matilda, but to reread The Eve of St Agnes and the poems of Hartley Coleridge with the benefit of their insights.

Interesting papers on Byron’s closet dramas, Mary Tighe’s sonnets and the layout of Hardwick Park followed, alongside a film by MA students from Newcastle University, who took on the challenge of presenting Wordsworth to a new audience with fortitude and invention. Sadly, after two nights of wine and revelry, not even the combined brilliance of Craig Lamont, Tristan Burke and Mary Shannon could keep my head from nodding a little during the final panel. I was, however, much refreshed by the second plenary lecture, where Professor Nicola Watson, president of BARS (below), entertained us all with her tales of fell walking with Jonathan Bate and Duncan Wu, and the wizard-like way in which she transformed a block of wood from a thing, to an object, to a literary artifact before our very eyes.

BARS Locations - Nicky Watson

With that, the conference concluded. Some were whisked off by minibus to Windermere to begin their journey home, while others (myself among them) remained for a weekend of walking the fells and communing with nature. As Wordsworth said,

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.