Like old times?

‘We’re really sorry we can’t offer you the job, we just didn’t think you’ve enough experience teaching Latin. But you interacted so well with the students so don’t change that for your other applications!’

Or cheery words to that effect. I had reason to think back to that particular interview recently, largely because before shortlisting the panel had seen a CV from which it was obvious I had never taught Latin in my life.

And today I was reading one of my northern chronicles on a dim, blowy afternoon, in the run-up to a video talk ‘in’ Sweden next month, and I had reason to think back to other autumns similarly spent in various parts of northern Europe. That peaceful engagement with the texts and ideas appears to have left an equal mark, even if it is not a job. Or because.

Look to the hills


Maps of the Highlands used to mean freedom. Now it’s fear. Can I go to this place that I want to go to precisely in order not to see anyone? Is it allowed? Is it advised? Is it legal? Will it be legal if I do it in a week’s time? I can smile grimly about the NO PARKING notices on official signs or unofficially shoved onto cars … but in return I get to worry about whether I’ll be reprimanded for twisting the rules and risking a second lockdown by returning on a train with one other person in the carriage.

The hills don’t care, of course. And at base nor do I, at least until ScotGov publishes evidence for why enjoying these places is so dangerous when not a single person is known to have been infected doing it. But it is frightening how effective the manipulation has been, how hard it has become to look at the tangles of contour lines and visualize the land in the old way, without the discourse of honeypots and littering and motorhome-hate and dumped tents and rules that has been wound into it.

But still I do. I had been hoping to take to the hill today, and very beautiful it would have been. But the rail replacement buses were out … so the plan is now to try Monday instead, for a different sort of experience, if the weather-watchers are right. Grey, damp clag in November – it has been a while, and that too I miss, the atmosphere of winter falling. It seems the more appropriate given that if I waited until Tuesday to live it, they might have announced I would be breaking the law.

It needs to stop.

Returning to what?

The wardrums were already sounding by Friday evening on the social medias, so it was with a somewhat macabre fascination that I headed to the hill wondering once again whether I would encounter any of the chaos, devastation, and misbehavour apparently to be anticipated. Once again, I did not.

The roads were not jammed with motorhomes and caravans. None of them were parked inappropriately, and none of them were depositing waste before driving off.

Nobody was camping indiscriminately. There were no fires, and thus no fences  shredded to make them, no discarded portable bbqs, no noisy booze-ups, and no truckloads of detritus dumped by the roadside.

There was no litter on the hill. What little I saw by the road did not look particularly recent, and as usual was far less than what I had seen that morning when I walked the half hour from the house to the station here in Fife (a mess that never seems to fill my timeline with uproar for some reason).

None of the parking spots I saw was overflowing beyond capacity. Here is the scene when I turned up around 2 in the afternoon (I was on foot, so no charges of not planning an appropriately early arrival please).


The horror of five cars and an unobstructed single-track road on a warm, dry, summer weekend after lockdown.

And the local couple I had a chat with were as genuinely friendly as one could wish for.

Once again, it felt as if I was tramping a parallel-universe version of the Highlands, completely at odds with the images doing the rounds at present. All I can think is that there are certain locations where there is a problem – one that absolutely needs sorting out – but that this is not necessarily representative. I also cannot help wondering whether this is not partly a result of the marketization of the landscape coming back to bite. Not just in the popularization of certain ‘honeypots’ per se, but in the thinking behind it: there is a circle that is not easily squared when you have people rightly being called out for post-lockdown damage to a few trees in Rothiemurchus … while the wreck on Cairn Gorm that has been painfully obvious for years remains so.

At any event, perspective matters, and I wish we could have a bit more of it. It might result in a more balanced discussion instead of the kind that has formed in the course of this crisis and by now has all but turned me off. Among other things, the hills to me are not a mere ‘hobby’ and sleeping out in them is an activity guided most of all by respect for the land rather than the virtue of being ‘considerate’. As it is, I find myself withdrawing from the disciplining and negativity into a quiet personal love for these places, and finding it just as much returned by them as it ever was. I suspect I am not the only one.


Righ Three from Blair Atholl


The first few hours were disconcerting. Not because anything was particularly different; more the opposite. After months of a discourse that frames taking to the hills as an irresponsible indulgence or health hazard or loutish pursuit or all three at once, it simply did not seem credible that it could all be there, just like that, for the sensing and treading, as familiar as ever and for the most part quite indifferent to all the fuss. I did have a wry smile when I found the first of the cars backed up from the Loch Moraig carpark … but was it really that much worse than it would have been on a dry Saturday in July any other year? And that was the first and the last time that anything seemed at all out of the ordinary.

The rest of this two-night trip took me round the side of Beinn a’Ghlo, down into Glen Loch, and thence to the high ground leading eventually to Glas Tulaichean, Beinn Iutharn Mhòr and tops, and Carn an Righ, and from there down north to Fealar Lodge and the Tilt and back to Blair Atholl. All told, I would think you are probably looking in the region of 60km and 2000m of ascent.

In fairness, transportation practicalities were one reason behind this choice; but it has a great deal going for it. The country between the big hills has a genuine feel of remoteness and wonderful spaciousness; you get a more natural round of Gleann Mòr than a convoluted out-and-back from the A93; and altogether a better understanding of this landscape and how it leads into the high Cairngorms that – another benefit of that long western ridge – define the view for so long. Spectacular in an in-your-face sense it may not be, but it is long tramps that bring out the real qualities of this corner.

As familiar as the environment was, for parched senses it was all very intense. The glow of evenings where you can just walk on and on; getting buzzed by an owl; the clarity of the airflow and colours of grass and scree and sky; just how green the ‘glas’ relatively is here; the last eaglish top; the misery of the midge; and the sense of an ending in the way the Tilt seems to guide steps home, in some idealized understanding at least.

I was actually surprised at how well fitness had held up – though the feet had clearly become unused to what is expected of them. A week further on, I’m missing ‘it’ – the exercise and the experience; the two are inseparable really. This makes me a little bit sad because, for all the longing on a pyschological level, I have not felt the physical ‘need’ for some time since this all started – and that is different. It would seem frighteningly easy to forget what being well feels like to the body. Is it any surprise in an existence defined by crude understandings of what counts as ‘essential’?

For what it is worth, I met two other wild campers (or whatever we’re supposed to call it now), saw no heaps of rubbish or overwhelming crowds, and for a considerable part of the way back to Fife was the only person in the train carriage …

‘Before’ national literary histories?

Looking back on the Marie Curie has had me reflecting again about this whole business of thinking medieval Europe away from national literary histories. It sounds so appealing, and I don’t mean that just in a critical way. On a very basic level, for me it meant the assurance that it was odd that there were some things my courses had hardly covered as a student, or some aspects of my field – German Studies – that didn’t seem to figure much on institutional scenes later.

But I never quite found myself at ease with the approach – though I never really could put my finger on why. For sure, it’s a very easy rhetoric, but that is the kind of criticism that could be levelled at any effort to make scholarship ‘relevant’ – and besides, I used it to sell mine as much as anyone else. Part of the problem was that I came to feel that it didn’t, in reality, so much overcome those old professional contradictions as replace them with new ones. I’ve written about that before.

But there was – and is – also the more fundamental issue of how one actually does such research. That the literature of medieval Europe preceded modern national borders, is important to recognize. It can yield all manner of important work on appropriation, nineteenth-century empire building, national philologies, and so on, and it is necessary to stop looking at the medieval texts in terms of a teleology leading from obsessively pursued origins to a later national literature.

But that is still, ultimately, defining the period in terms of what it was not. I want something constructive, and also something that avoids a further anachronism. By that I mean: just as it is misplaced to read ‘my’ medieval authors on the national terms of later centuries, so too it is misplaced to read them as a counterweight or reaction to those perspectives, to think them still, ultimately, in terms of the borders or philologies that did not yet exist. I don’t mean that just in the sense of avoiding back-transposing contemporary political concerns onto the period (along the lines of the Hanseatic League being a European Union before its time, etc. etc.), but also more fundamentally.

It is informative and necessary to know that language/dialect/author/region/genre X is not canonical/has not been studied fully because of the legacy of privileged nineteenth-century imperialist scholars. Setting that out can clear the way to giving it the attention it deserves. But it does not answer the question of how to understand it in its own time as part of whatever configuration of literary-historiographical space preceded the nation states.

That ‘whatever’ often seeems, in the end, not to be quite so important after all once studying the actual object of interest has been legitimized. A glance at some of the chapters on ‘German’ locations in the Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418 anthology, with its opening proclamation of ‘eschew[ing] nation-based frameworks inherited from the nineteenth century’, would be just one example. And yet the ‘whatever’ is so interesting and important in its own right! Maybe I will get round sometime to following up some of my thoughts on how to go about getting to grips with it …

Closing the circle

P1190655I’ve just had an article published that is something of a landmark because it is the last to come directly out of the Marie Curie. It’s about an Old Swedish tale in the red hardback I purchased very early on, bemused at having funds to cover my research again, and that I began reading on a packed train to Kastrup, over the Little Belt. That, too, must have been very early, in the autumn of 2015, because I had not learned to book seats, and because I was still revelling in discoveries as plain as the placenames over the loudspeaker.

Almost two years later, a week before the end of the fellowship, I was still reading it and worrying away at fragments of a draft – back by the Little Belt, outside a café in the harbour of Nyborg that felt a world apart from the get-together that morning. It was in places like this that I worked out an identity outside fixed-term contracts, regaining that original curiosity. Here was a little bit of the Danish everyday, and me in it with my interests, and the shimmer and pages trying to break away from the mug holding them down.

The draft was done by the end of the week to satisfy the letter of the law in the grant agreement. But the reading and writing and thinking with the red book continued, in  three branches of Nelles before we left Denmark, and then over here, in Costa and Nero and the National Library in Edinburgh. And now it is out there, finished. Very nearly five years.

In a way, this is merely a rehash of the tired but necessary point that research needs time, and the stupidity of funding systems that support work only to stop it in its tracks. How many other ideas and findings will never be shared because people haven’t the resources to see them through or write them up independently? But it is also another plea for a human understanding of mobility; for what I really remember now is not the familiar impersonality of just another contract being wound up on schedule, but wandering through the woods at Middelfart overlooking the other Belt, or exploring waterlogged Skagen in November, or roaming the backroads of Nyborg in an unmistakeably Scandinavian light, munching blackberries from the hedge, on the way back to the station.

Just another afternoon on the hill


A quick raid on the Aviemore area, largely because Isabel wanted a visit, turned into a very special few hours on Saturday. One emerged above a sea of clouds lining the main Cairngorm range, fading into the ragged outlines of the west, unending to north and east.

It was not that cold, but cold enough to wield the edge that cuts through any prolonged stops, so I followed the string of successively lower tops to savour the display for a little longer. Eventually, by nightfall, the proceedings had degenerated with the loss of height into an unfortunate mix of soft drifts, heather, and semi-frozen bog; and then merely bog. Lots of it. Yet the jog back through the dark, misted trees restored the balance.

And then was the long train ride through the dark, now separate, back to one of those unsettling outbreaks of the old life that seem to figure a lot on this blog.

THE flogging its invitation-only reputation survey for next year’s rankings on Twitter. A kind review of book #2 that is a source of pride but also of frustration at how little it seems to count for in practice. Being discouraged by the reaction to a job add – ‘Does this appear to match the profile of anyone I know?’ – that had sadly but not without reason become almost instinctive. Cold, of a different sort, then.

Intellectual retrospect


Relics on the floor of the editorial office

As I said, it is time for an intellectual reckoning with the Danish postdoctoral fellowship. Doubtless, I would write something a bit different if I were still trying to keep the H2020 apparatus happy, or still wondering whether a selection committee member might happen to read it sometime. But that is not my life these days.

So, what changed as a result of packing my bags with my twelve-page proposal on literary relations between medieval Germany and Scandinavia, and joining a research group concerned to adopt a pluralistic approach to the literature of medieval Europe with a strong interest in Byzantine studies and anchored in a history department?

Well, it did, truly, open up my horizons. I notice this often when I, in one sense or another, return to my disciplinary ‘home’ in Medieval German Studies. The perspective can seem limited, defined by the same old questions and themes; there is an awareness of a wider historical, cultural, geographical context, but at the same time there seem to be limits in quite how far one can go in engaging with it.

Yet I am, perhaps surprisingly, insecure in the new space in which I now also move, be that as a medievalist, Germanic philologist, Balticist, northern Europeanist, or whatever one wants to call it. I cannot, at any event, characterize my thinking as looking at the Middle Ages outside any one modern national perspective without cringing. It is a rhetoric that lends itself just a little too easily to gaining funding or making research seem politically relevant and contemporary.  I worry, too, about how its grounding in openness and inclusivity sits with the selective specialization and gatekeeping in an academy that cannot possibly support all its young scholars equally. And I know that the undertaking, which is, when one strips all that away, so exciting to me can be dismissed in an instant by scholars with whose theoretical preoccupations it does not overlap.

Perhaps for those very reasons, the endless new interests that the project spawned remain important to me, even if at some remove now that I am not working on them daily. Exploring comparative philology, trying to find ways to link the close reading of texts to wider discourses of European or world literary history, themes like geography and literature, seas, islands, lost texts … all that enriched how I think, and it is of some comfort, albeit in a bittersweet sense, that, as platforms such as Twitter tell me, I am not alone in believing that they matter.

Back in the Cairngorms (again)

P1160351.pngThe  slope by the waterfall in an evening rainshower was not the place to get one’s hopes up. It was dry when I unfolded the bag, and sun roused me the next morning, but I was off-colour: fitful sleep not helped by the end of the bedtime book, and an obvious energy deficit. And the pack was rolling around all over the place.

So I backed off, engaged the boulders and probably the highest-altitude ferns I have ever seen in this country, to gain the upper corrie, and found a way up and out from there. Unplanned explorations of this kind can bring unexpected surprises – on this occasion, one of the mysterious mossy, rocky pools of great clarity that are scattered around these parts.

By this point, it it was turning into a scorcher and I decided that to get my fix after all, I would try using the new shoes in the function for which they were  acquired: running – as much of the long loop along to the Devil’s Point and out to Glenmore as possible. With that heavy pack, this was a curiously brutal form of training; but when I left it for the out-and-back, there was a glimpse of freedom.

Is it not all a glimpse, though: a night in shadow at peace with the elements, or a clarity of air that is rare in summer heat?

I think the next time will be a fast and light out-and-back in a day; or the lochan could be reached from the plateau and the gear ditched and picked up again after scrambling back up. As if one needed an excuse to return!


Intellectual haunts

In the gap between editing jobs, I went last Friday to a small café in the retail park near us. I went for a change of scene, with a book and a notepad, to put in an afternoon on the paper I’m giving in Berlin at the end of June. Reading placenames, names of scholars cited, titles of their work, I slipped back.

To the little bakery with a few stools that did coffee round the corner from us on Gilesgate, where I brought the Old Norse readers sometimes – for a change of scene – before starting off for Denmark. To places like Nelles or Baresso or Brød in Odense, filled with intonation that came alive again through the Scandinavian wordforms.

This was not there, I worked out, counting off all that was different – no candles, the grime on the floor, the absence of interior black – but that hardly mattered because the sense of being enveloped by the ideas was just the same as it was. Book, and notepad, and coffee.

I spent a lot of time in those spots before the contract, and after it ended, especially; and, curiously, I missed that genuinely. I could imagine them all; and I thought of an office, the real place of work, that was stacked with books and notepads but never my own, just a space with a name by the door to be replaced with the same efficiency as that with which the keys were demanded back. Imagination stopped, then.