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Looking north from the narrows of the Øresund. Helsingør felt like an opening out.

These days we’ve spent travelling have, together with memories of the sporadic excursions over the past few years, reminded me of how rich Denmark is. Not in the monetary sense, but in the variety of the landscape, the ever-changing relationship with the sea, the changing sound of the language from west to east, the history behind it all. This not only makes for a happier and more fulfilling depth of experience with which to leave than the laments about darkness and rain that have been so frequent in Odense. It also got me thinking, again, about the discourse of mobility that brought me here in the first place.

Being mobile must be one of the big ideas behind the Marie Curie programme. So it is all the more surprising, and disappointing, that it figures so little in the practicalities when one has actually got the grant. There seems to be no recognition in the framework for the experience of coming to a new country and discovering new surroundings, a new language, a new culture. This strikes me as part of a depersonalization that’s also reflected in the studied ignorance of the personal costs of peripatetic, insecure research careers.

Maybe I am more sensitive to this because of the field in which I work. This was not, for me, just about coming to do some research in an office on a relatively generic corridor in a relatively generic out-of-town campus. It was, beyond personal values such as curiosity or reaching out by learning the language I hear around me, about doing a project that was grounded in a sense of place. In Denmark. The personal enrichment that comes out of that is not tangible and it is not quantifiable, but it ought to be respected in any humane, kind funding programme. As it is, the final communication from the H2020 team was, like the final departmental remark about the Marie Curie programme, about money.

Does it need to be that way? No. At the start of my previous postdoctoral fellowship, I received a parcel from the Humboldt Foundation with a Baedecker guide and a dictionary. During the fellowship, there were several events that allowed us to explore the country we had made our temporary home. And at its end, there came a gift – a biography of the international scholar after whom the programme was named. If that is possible for a German funding agency on a German scale, why not for a European funding agency on a European scale?

 

 

Read every country

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A hard frost had formed unexpectedly overnight when I got hold of The Living Mountain at Braemar Mountain Sports before we left on 22 December. I had no other motivation than, finally, to read this puzzling, beautiful document of intimacy with ‘the mountain’ to which I had returned over the preceding days, sleeping in snow, tramping straight into the winter sun, becoming absorbed into the form of the land … It wasn’t until later that I realized that the book could also be the beginning of a project whose seed was sown in a conversation I had with my friend Steffen Hope last year. That project is to read a book from every country in the world.

The idea is not a new one, but there is so much to think about when actually doing it that anyone can make it their own. That is one reason why I am in two minds in categorizing this post as ‘academic’. Yes, it does relate to professional interests such as World Literature; but I also want it to cover a diversity of texts rather than just following trampled thematic paths such as globalization, colonialism, and what not. Similarly, I am not approaching the undertaking with a predefined frame of reference as one might expect in a scholarly context. I reckon that prose writing will be the most common, followed by poetry and then, perhaps, drama – but I might surprise myself.

There is also the thorny question of how one understands ‘country’ (raised, you will note, already by this very first book). Do places such as Catalonia and Tibet merit their own read? Does Ancient Greece get separate treatment from modern Greece? What does one do with Native American literature(s)? Rather than try to fix answers to such questions from the outset, I am going to see how the project evolves – what gets my attention, whether a pattern starts to develop – and come back as and when to ponder ‘country’ or whatever alternative term might present itself.

The only fixed criterion is that each book must be one I have not read before. There is no need for them to be classics, though they can be. Perhaps I will go through phases of focusing on particular areas; perhaps I will also pinball back and forth across the globe. I may well take the opportunity to read some works that I have long wanted to; but I will also pick up ones that have been on shelves and in boxes for too long; and I will let myself be surprised by chance as well, as with this beginning.

I’ll put the books in here as we go…

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1. Scotland

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2. Russia (but born in Kiev!)

 

Time to move on

Over Christmas and the New Year, we were in other places. It cannot have been much more than two weeks, but it was still our longest absence from Denmark in a long while. Perhaps that is why something seemed to have changed when we returned to an Odense that seemed so very quiet and, in an indeterminate way, different – changed in me, as I listened to the language afresh and noticed again the contours in a cultural landscape to which I had slowly become accustomed. Such as the inimitable ability to make even the special brew in one of my regular café haunts into a design experience. In black, of course.

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This sensation of discovering again has remained since; in fact, it had already begun many miles before the train pulled into Odense’s railway station. Here’s how I put it in my journal after we left Flensburg:

The station names, over the loudspeaker and then matched, alarmingly on occasion, to writing on the lit platform signs, carry something of the unknown with them too, the mystery of Denmark and its tongue, by virtue of my only having travelled this line once before. And I do feel they are different from Fyn on the Copenhagen run, or northern Jutland.

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Doubtless this change in mentality, or way of perceiving one’s surroundings, was in part a consequence of the awareness that the Danish adventure is coming to an end. It is, as our landlord dropped by to make sure, ‘quite clear’ we are leaving in mid-February. But there is also something else going on.

Even after the formal end of the contract last year, I was still able to sit in cafés or on trains and use the time to write up a paper, or keep the Old Norse or Proto-Indo-European ticking over, or read further into some aspect of my research. That doesn’t work any more. It is as if the academic-professional outcome of the two Marie Curie years is being rolled back; and what is left, or apparent again, for these remaining weeks in Denmark, in Odense, on Funen, is the fascination that was part of the excitement with which it all began. It is the right time to leave.

(Photo by Isabel. We do not work for the chain in question!)

A visit to the highlands in December

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This bedtime view from the tent is one of the memories I carry from four days of tramping in the hill country north of the border last week. It had been far too long an absence; there is an intensity to this place that makes one wonder what exactly one has been doing with the rest of days. The endlessly changing light and colours, the shimmering dust of the galaxy, the pallour the moment the sun sets – it is all both heartbreakingly beautiful and the most natural thing in the world. There is an instinct that knows this and finds itself again in ways such as the ease with which the body slips into a rhythm that follows the hours of daylight. I compare this to the complaints about the long winter darkness that have been a recurrent conversation topic during the past few years, and see how a whole framework of living can be dismantled overnight.

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It is sometimes said that the hills, in winter especially, are unforgiving. I do not think it is quite so simple. If one approaches one’s surroundings with respect and humility, there are second chances, and there are opportunities to learn and grow that never really come to an end. It is, more than anything else, a landscape in which simply to be. That takes many forms, but one of the things they have in common is the state of being utterly absorbed in the here and now. I remember following a bearing through the clag across a thawing wasteland of boulders, snow, and heather, staggering in a crosswind that made movement akin to a circus act. It is not just the experience of sensory overload as the brain plays catch-up and works out that one has, after all, popped out of the cloud where one expected to end up; it is the satisfaction that comes from navigation as an art rather than a button-pushing game with the sat-nav. And it is the intimacy with the land that comes from picking a way marked by whatever rock or snowfield corner or vegetated hummock happens to be in the right direction at the limit of one’s vision, and the next, and the next, and the next.

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Soon after returning, I made the mistake of checking my emails a final  time before Christmas. One made me very angry. What was said, how it was said, and what was not said brought together a lot of the things that have made me sad and disillusioned as time has gone by in academia. I had decided some time ago that this sort of thing is no longer worth my time getting worked up about, but on this occasion the contrast with what came before set back that resolution. It did so because these places are not just a source of refuge but are a form of alternative: one does not have to live this way. To understand that, is not to think of an anthropomorphized landscape that punishes or suppresses the things from which I flee. Perhaps one could see it in those terms when it comes to things such as arrogance; but for the most part it is much more straightforward than that: there is simply no place for them here.

Philological musings

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grabenJust a quick note to record how academic Twitter did something good for me this afternoon: I discovered that the third international conference of the Sällskap för östnordisk filologi is taking place in Copenhagen at the moment.

On the one hand, I’m kicking myself for not having discovered and joined this association before … it seems so obviously relevant to the research interest in Scandinavia that I have developed that I wonder how I missed it. It was of some consolation that I could not have made a quick visit to Copenhagen even if I had known about the event because I have to be in Germany to give a talk on medieval rhyming chronicles – including, fittingly, the Erikskrönika and the Danish Rimkrønike.

I was, however, able to browse through the abstracts (here’s a direct link to the PDF). Reading them, I felt suddenly at home intellectually. This wasn’t just because of the details – the approaches taken or the literary and linguistic questions asked – but also because of the overall philological discourse in which they participated. It’s what studying early texts has always meant for me, and I realized how important it is to make room for that way of thinking. Being attentive to detail, being sensitive to the language of the texts, acknowledging their value as a cultural heritage – all that is central to how I see myself as a scholar of literature and it was wonderful to be reminded of that indirectly while reading the abstracts.

This standpoint might sound rather too traditional for some tastes, so it is worth reflecting on the levelling effect it has. If one’s primary goal is to understand – motivated by a ‘love of words’, even – it becomes very problematic to treat particular kinds of text, or literature from particular parts of Europe, as more valuable, more worthy of study than others. And with that, I’m back full circle to the belief that underpinned the Marie Curie project.

 

The alternative final report. Part A.

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Isabel and I had an occasion to mark the other day and went to Copenhagen for the evening. Among other places, we ended up back in the National Museum. I say ‘back’, because I was last there one December afternoon in 2015 when my parents were visiting and we had some time to kill before they set off for the airport. I remember very well saying to myself then that I would have to return – and at last, I did.

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I revisited some old favourites – the rune stones and the sun chariot – and made some new discoveries, such as this beautiful Christ figure from Åby. We found him in the medieval and renaissance section, an endearing and chaotic step back in time compared to the slick exhibition spaces on the ground floor.

Being there again made me so very sad. It was impossible not to feel again the excitement I’d had the first time – it wasn’t just about learning about a new country but the feeling of something opening up in a wider sense. A sense of hope, perhaps; or if not that, at least of the potential that was becoming apparent in the Marie Curie project as I settled in.

In reliving such emotions, one knows also all that has changed. Almost two years have gone by. To a system motivated by grant income, that time is simply a number in a box in the paperwork.

For me, it is part of my life. It is a small fortune spent relocating and commuting. It is boxes packed and unpacked, possessions consigned to containers in a warehouse. It is the mental energy spent trying to make a home somewhere that is not going to be a home. It is memories. It was trying to be part of something. It is the effort put into a project and career that I am currently in the process of mothballing.

It is very hard not to ask myself whether it was worth it — and I do not mean that in the abstract sense that this was always, to some extent, going to be a way of literally buying more time on the academic job market. I knew that might not work out.

So, was it?

When I think of the good things, I think of the friends I have made and, as this is about memories, the joyful ones — the Estonian holiday, the seas around Funen, self-harm by chocolate cake as the rain poured down in Aarhus in the dark (obviously), Proto-Indo-European on an (obviously, again) overheated nighttime express, Jelling in the spring when the wind was still cold, the happy places in Copenhagen … it is all there, a part of me and I could go on and on — but none of it has much to do with the grant agreement or my job. Perhaps that is as close as I will get to an answer.

Stay tuned for part B, a post in which I hope to write up the kind of advice that, looking back, I would give to anybody thinking of trying for a Marie Curie Fellowship.

Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?

Somewhat melodramatic, I admit – but there is a certain sense of inexorability now. The draft articles are tidied up in case the master-pursekeepers require sight of them. The final report is, contrary to expectation, proving remarkably straightforward as long as it is tackled in small doses; I even recognize in it the same mix of candour, ambition, and aversion to mumbo-jumbo that marked the original proposal way back when. Preparing for the paper I’ve been invited to give in Germany later this month, on the Kaiserchronik and the verse chronicles of medieval Scandinavia, is a joy. So it really does seem that, by the end of October, all will be done and dusted. A line drawn.

It ought to be sad that it is now, of all times, that I feel excitement and pleasure in my academic ‘work’ again. Noticing the parts of the Old Norse puzzle falling into place, or having the mental space in which properly to read and think about the medieval Baltic … there is here the beginning of something. It is the product of time and energy spent over at least the past two years – a foundation for future research, if you will. The fact that it has materialized the month after I left SDU and will in all likelihood not be returned to, says a great deal about what is wrong with the structures of ECR academia.

But dwelling on such things seems like wasted emotional energy. Instead, I simply enjoy the freedom of reading, thinking, writing unencumbered, and let my mind wander also to plotting a trip across the North Sea in November to clear out the cobwebs before whatever happens next. Perhaps the snows will have come …

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Back to old haunts already …

I had reason to go back into SDU yesterday – to pick up a journal article on the early Germanic sound laws, and to have a chat with my new Marie Curie contact about the final report (which is, in one of the many gratuitous hurdles of grant management that necessitated the meeting in the first place, not the final report as we know it).

Going back to places that have, in one way or another, become part of one, always results in a state of heightened sensitivity. Distance and closeness at once draw change away from the abstract. Memories are everywhere. It’s like standing in front of a door that is open and shut at the same time.

But it’s only twelve days since I left … I was not expecting it to be that tangible that soon. Perhaps the efficiency with which one is consigned to the institutional archive had something to do with it – one’s name had disappeared from the library collection slip, from the pigeonhole, from the office door, just as the previous occupant had been written away before I turned up. This is not something I take personally – but that is, if you think about it, the point. Whether it’s the end of teaching cover, an externally funded research grant, a REF submission post – the institutional apparatus, with a few notable exceptions, seems to find studied indifference the easiest attitude to take.

It does not have to be that way. The fun conversation about the ins and outs of the bureaucratic end-game showed me that … the expressions ‘caring’ and ‘taking an interest’ come to mind … it is possible. And out of it came the fact that I left seeing the report not as a pain but as an opportunity.

It is a chance to draw a line under it all – to be unabashed about what I have done in these two years, but also to say some of the things for which there is not usually a space. That thinking and understanding need time and stability, that learning is not a commodity. Perhaps, even, that funding agencies could themselves, for once, embrace the rhetoric of innovation and develop new, sustainable frameworks that stop perpetuating the harm that is being done.

‘Let’s go home’

The other day, leaves fell in Odense. It was not quite cold enough, but the greyness was back. I’d left an office that looked as though it had not been occupied for very long, and the campus bus was filled with students as term began. Outside, here and there, were signs of rain.

My bag was packed. I should have been going to the station to pick up the train to Kastrup and a wicked game of aerial ping-pong across the North Sea and the length of England. There would be the metro, and one last train – not even fifteen minutes, if one was lucky. At some point on that journey, it would be dark, and there would be the sensation of air at the end of it all, the walk down the hill then up the hill, through the wood perhaps; and there would be our damp house on Gilesgate with Isabel waiting.

I missed that time. Part of me wanted to return to those months when Marie Curie felt like a new beginning, an opportunity. When the future was not quite such an immediate concern and the grounding in the north-east of England meant there was not the knowing self-delusion of setting up a new home in Denmark.

But the other part of me, sad in a different way, saw no point in that. There are things I would do differently – there always are – but I doubt that the end result would be anything other than what it is now. Besides, the mise-en-abyme image of Alastair sitting on the bus with the last books from the office, wishing he could go back and relive the beginning of the Fellowship, is too much for me to get my head around.

The hard fact is that, unless ‘other factors’ come into play, one’s use as an employee in a programme such as this ends along with the grant one has got to pay for one’s own job. It is not a particularly pleasant awareness to have on one’s way to work each morning, and being free of it is a large part of why I am so happy now.

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Behind that is a complex mix of relief, most of all, and other, often contradictory emotions. There is the sense of something being over, and of finding a way back to what matters. Home, in some meaning of the word. Hence the title of this blog entry as way of closing the circle: as chance would have it, when I dropped by for an event in 2015 before the start of the Fellowship, Danish TV was showing a documentary about John Ford in the hotel … a little puzzle, if you don’t recognize the allusion!

Re-opening the mind

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in St Olaf’s Church, Tallinn

Walking through the Baltic where it is so smooth and shallow that progress is quicker in the water than it would be in the reeds and boulders on the shore. Latching onto Russian, German, Estonian, and English one after the other and all at once in the old town of Tallinn. Finishing the book about the Northern Crusades. Carting many more books out from the office to pile up in temporary stacks all over the little house opposite the Andersen museum. Translating a paragraph from the Old Norse reader at dusk in the yard with – at last! – something approaching fluidity.

Such are the things that stick in my mind from the past fortnight. Quite a mix, but they have at least one thing in common, and that is the fact that they have brought an understanding of how little fulfilment academia has come to give.

With the clarity of the landscape, and the historical intensity of Tallinn, the Estonian holiday evoked the old desire to understand things again. I realized just how much it had been worn away, just how much curiosity, discovery, and learning had been displaced by the pragmatic circumstances and consequences of year upon year in insecure positions.

I knew this already on some level, but it took the change of scene to make me grasp it properly. And, when I came back, something was different as a result: there was no longer any mental disjunction between clearing out the office and entering the world of history, language, and literature that the books open up. In fact, it suddenly seemed accessible again.

Why is this so? What has got in the way?

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There are the practical things – exploitation, cynicism, cronyism, insecurity, and all the rest of that. There is the intellectual frame, which seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented into narrowing specialisms and particular lines of enquiry that are identified as ‘the future’ in any particular context. There are, finally, the changing principles that define the spaces in which research and teaching happen – such as what I perceive as a tendency to embrace the rhetoric, if not the agenda, of utilitarian approaches to university ‘education’.

All of these things – to an extent, at least, they feed off one another – have become more and more noticeable to me since I started out. How much of this is really new, may be a harder question to answer … I have come across too many cases of scholarly rivalry in earlier centuries to idealize the academic past. I think, though, that one can safely say that the consequences are the more pressing in a climate such as the present one where long-term opportunities are so very rare.

What has saddened me most is none of this as such, but more the apparent inability of the profession to confront the inequities that result from it. Take for instance the job market. Anyone who has been in this game for any length of time knows that things happen that are not fair in any reasonable sense of the word – but how often is this discussed frankly and inclusively in public?

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It’s not that I’ve had enough once and for all. One of the nice things about this fellowship is that it has left me knowing very clearly what I would like to do with my research in future, without too many lose ends to carry over, and with a relatively clear intellectual framework for how I would do it.

But that would require – as I wrote a few days ago to a truly generous colleague who offered to keep an eye open for teaching cover needs – a position with a meaningful future. Further tilting at windmills trying to create it by proving the ‘value’ of what one does – is simply not an option.