Late snow in the Cairngorms

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I woke to a light of thin violet . A heaviness on the bag indicated snow, and an inquiring look disovered that a loop was all that remained visible of the pack. Hands felt a miserably clammy interior, and I resolved once again to replace this product. It was nasty, and very familiar. Might as well get moving … progress would be slowed by the snow, by the restless night, by the cold I was carrying around … might as well get moving. But wasn’t it actually quite warm in here? Very familiar.

At least it was not the real bitterness of winter outside. There was the same sudden, slightly nauseating drop in body temperature and scrabble to get everything packed up before fingers became impossibly clumsy; but the body regenerated its warmth quickly, and it was even possible to sit for a moment before setting off. Even the showers seemed half-hearted. Might as well get moving …

*

I had begun walking at Glenmore at 1.30 pm on Sunday and was to be back there at 5 pm on Monday. It is always hard to grasp how time changes on such excursions. It was not even thirty-six hours in this case, yet so full of light and colour and being. There was the revelation of the region around the Fords of Avon, properly remote and elemental, and, I felt best appreciated from the hills around it, not just on the paths in and out. There was the understanding of landform that came from using the extra daylight to march on, away from the bank-holiday tent village, and suddenly being aware that it was a relatively short tramp to the Linn of Dee … a pick-up and a warm bed, the wandering mind imagined … . And there was the night, grey through an ineffective opening in the bag overspun with moving grey as the squalls came through, when simple peace slid uneasily in and out of dark reflections about finally having chosen to be closer to places such as this. They ought not be an alternative to anything.

The conundrum of forward motion …

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Retrospect.

That goes for the efforts of Scotrail down below as much as it did for the wind at height on this trip. There was a certain perverse enjoyment in being there at all, in the latter case at least … the sensation of involuntary movement, yelling as hard as one can and hearing nothing, discovering life on all fours. A satisfaction, too, in following contours through the maelstrom – and working out when enough is enough.

Dropping from the cloud into a sudden spaciousness, it occurred to me that I had a sporting chance of making the last train south … a half-hearted realization, but what would be gained by spending another night to wait for the deluge when I could pack up and walk out in the dry? The state of the tent, which the air was in the process of parting from the earth when I reached it, settled the matter.

Yet it was still true regret that I left the vast roughness of the west and jogged the last downhill stretch to make that train in the softest of evenings. And a little bit of regret, too, much later when the plot of a pleasant night in my own bed was thwarted by ScotRail’s miserable rail-replacement bus tour of the backroads of Fife … the house, when it finally came, was so silent. No wind. No water. No stars.

Done.

One morning this coming week, I intend to pack a bag with some books and a printout, walk down to the station in Rosyth, and spend a day in the National Library in Edinburgh. By its end, I hope, the last article from my time in Denmark will be ready for publication.

This has been a long time coming. I started reading Hertig Fredrik on the way to Kastrup in those first months, in the autumn of 2015. I was still working on the article in the final weeks of my contract, in a café by the shimmer of the Great Belt. That in its own way was an assertion of the value of my work … I had, like some of my colleagues, presented my project at the annual get-together that morning, and when the head of department wrapped up the session by announcing that more Marie Curie and similar fellows mean more money, I decided there were better ways to spend the afternoon.

At least to me, my research mattered, and something of that spirit must have kept me worrying away at this piece ever since. At first, I rotated between the branches of Nelles in Odense; later, about a year ago, came the coffee-shop chains here in Dunfermline, and my own desk looking to the Forth and, when the air is clear, the rim of the Highlands around Loch Lomond … how much my life has changed.

The research matters. To me, and to the journal editors and reader(s?) and to friends and colleagues who have encouraged me to see this one through. It means that I will, finally, have some kind of closure on the project (actually, there is another draft lying around, but it’s less important for all manner of reasons). There are so many things I still want to think about, so many ideas I want to take further – but I can develop them, if I do so at all, looking to the future, rather than being held back by a past and its open ends, its unfinished business, the need for my own sanity to have something to show for it.

Winter, wild camp, the Great Moss

“Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top …”. This passage in the Butterfield book had fascinated me for some time – one of those laconic guidebook remarks that seem to be a provocation to go and do it anyway, be it to prove them wrong or just as a challenge for those of a masochistic bent. Earlier this month, after all those years, I acted on it. The plan, drawn up around free time and the train timetable, was to get onto the plateau from Glen Feshie in the afternoon, sleep out, and visit Tom Dubh the next morning, before tramping on to Monadh Mor to make a day of it.

This trip cannot, beyond truisms about the changed nature of the game when snow is on the ground, really be called mountaineering; but it is a means of finding a genuine sense of remoteness, a space with no unnatural light and a form of suspended existence on a vast plateau bounded by arcs of crag that are more sensed, or remembered, than they are seen.

*

A body changed

After a quick visit to the Aviemore chipper, I took a cab down to the carpark by Achlean. It was almost a year to the day since we rolled up in Braemar for a few days before Christmas 2017, while we were still living in Denmark and casting the die about where to go next – and since I realized how desperately unfit I was on an overnighter in the vicinity of Glen Quoich. I was, therefore, curious to see how much had changed; and what better way to do that than start walking at 1.09 pm with the intention of getting up the hill and reaching the planned spot for the night?

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It’s hard to keep a decent pace with this view at one’s back.

I surprised myself. Progress was, despite the winter and overnight gear in the pack, rapid: almost effortless, and at one point impossibly peaceful. There was just enough visibilty and depth to make out the contours and tell from the land exactly – more or less – where I was, absorbed in the cloud and snow. Despite the white everywhere, the failing light, a wind that could be felt nasty — I felt no hurry, no disquiet. All was plain, all content. You might call it a sense of being at rest, or at home; and I like the latter idea because the effect was broken by the same place that caused it: an evil, overcoming cold when I reached the vague col where I intended to sleep, and fumbled with the tent just before the darkness came down.

 

Night, and clearance

After a night made restless by the continual wind and whishriff of spindrift, dawn passed unnoticed; outside was a grey that promised brutal cold. It delivered as soon as I emerged, shuffled and at once set about generating warmth by marching off towards the first of several elementally pointless landmark elevations on the way ahead; movement, at such times, is a necessity.

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C – O – L – D.

I was already cursing another less-than-accurate forecast, when cloud untangled itself from the earth to the south-east. There was no excitement at first, merely a base thankfulness that some warmth might be gleaned from the sun. The process of release had its slow rhythm, but the clues were there and it cleared sure enough. Tom Dubh – located after a longer-than-usual perceptual readjustment to cloud breaking – came, and went, and on the flow took me to the plateau’s end, as an inversion rose and returned uncertainly across lesser heights behind.

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Not quite of this world!

 

Departure

A case of retracing steps. There was no flamed sunset – a weak front gathering cut out the West – only subtleties: cobalt and emerald in the sky left over the giants, and clouds layered with a shine like mother-of-pearl. Around that instant when the light is turned off, the last sacks were rammed, in the stunting cold once more, into the pack, and the final rise brought darkness, the lights in Speyside beyond the crest and a sparkling torchlit descent to the snowline. Tbe path to the road was walked and jogged; a brief phonecall generated a lift; and then it was just another empty Monday evening in December, and the chipper again, before the train south.

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What one leaves behind.

*

Tom Dubh itself is not pictured here … at least not up close … so you will just have to go and see for yourself. And on that note, here, by way of motivation – or challenge, or provocation – is what the book has to say, in case you are not familiar with it:

Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top – Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh). Those who wish to take this in during a Braeriach traverse might consider starting up Ross’s Path from Gleann Einich or from Achlean in Glen Feshie […]. From the edge of the Moine Mhor, Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh) may be discerned above the streams feeding the Eidart. Its ascent involves a considerable detour from whichever route is chosen on traverses of the neighbouring tops. This is one for the real enthusiast, the most meaningless 3000ft ‘top’ in all Britain, for here lies the ultimate in desolate wilderness, a landscape so featureless that it almost defies man’s ability to use map and compass. Devoid of landmarks, in mist, only the oozy drains of the plateau’s few streams offer guides of any consequence. When frozen by winter blizzards even these fail to assist, and dead reckoning by compass is the only sure guide to the safety of the glens below. (Irvine Butterfield, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, London 1993, p. 128)

 

 

Scotland in May

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The Cairngorms … being reliant to public transport can make walking in from Aviemore a necessity. Although there may be mutterings to the contrary when one is banging out the final stretch with minutes to spare before the last train south, this long approach does have something to commend it as an alternative to motoring up the ski centre road. It is not a landscape to be rushed. It is too big, too subtle, for that, and one might, I thought, as well adapt to its rhythm from the outset.

Understanding it is a different proposition. The pass carried a wind out of nowhere. On the eastern flank, a crack-thump could only be the shattering of rock, the land re-creating itself, and in the lower shade that same process seemed to be caught in the scattering of boulderfields, the seepage and moss, the crumbly snow, the watercourses in turns absorbed and released by the ground.

When the southward view came with nightfall, it was not beautiful: too bulky, too stark, yet I felt a symmetry and an order was behind it, at once present and beyond. So too the next afternoon on the high plateau patchwork of dusty rubble, soft vegetation, boulders, springs half-covered in snow, gravel formed into waves like sand on a beach and at the edge of it all a chain of cliff-arcs cut out of air.

It was somehow not quite of this world. This unsettled me, for all the splendour: I have tramped these hills often, slept on them in summer and winter, but never had that sensation before. Why? What had I not seen? Having finally written up this post, I realize that it might, in an almost paradoxical way, have been a mark of how familiar the place has become.

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The route: through the Lairig Ghru to a bivy site a little downstream from and above the refuge in the Garbh Choire, then up Cairn Toul and down to the Glen Einich between the northern corries of Braeriach. It deserves (or needs, depending on fitness) a night out to be savoured; a start at Coylumbridge lends itself better to this round than the standard approach from the Cairngorm road, and by far repays the extra distance involved.

The joys of getting out

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P1100892On Tuesday, I filled an empty day in the rhythm of editing work by heading off to the hill country again. It must be almost exactly two years since I last visited that particular corner of the Highlands. We were still based in the north-east of England then, and I had taken the train up to this same station for a raid before heading back to Denmark … those were the bittersweet months when it was becoming apparent where the Marie Curie Fellowship was heading but I still wanted to believe it might be otherwise.

Things change. The hills are much closer to my doorstep now; and I have put an end to the self-delusion and -harm of directing my working life at academia. In fact, by another coincidence of timing, it was also two weeks to the day since one last permanent job interview – at which the panel showed no interest in my field or engaging with my contribution to it, and concentrated instead on ascertaining what should have been obvious long before shortlisting: that my research doesn’t belong in the small world of Theory to which German Studies appears to have been reduced in that place. Confirmation bias, perhaps … but the long march in, when spring seemed very close and the air was palpably mild, gave ample time to reflect on such things.

The marginalization of philological, wide-ranging scholarship, the back-stabbing and cronyism, the cynicism and the breakdown of trust … it is not worth the energy of anger any more, but it does sadden. And the way it changed how I was, particularly toward the end, parting me from the good things and feeding a downward spiral in how I behaved. I suppose it has to remain an open question whether I would have ended up that way if, just once in the course of a decade of jobs, there had been a sincere institutional interest in my future. At any rate, it evidently still hurts.

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Higher up, winter remained and the wandering mind was refocused. What would in the summer be just a long walk with a pleasing sense of remoteness, turned into a miniature adventure. Navigating without the cop-out of a GPS, wending through beetling crags, making steps down and up truly pleasurable snow-slopes in a world of total whiteness: it was all, despite the vile conditions, hugely enjoyable, hour after hour after hour; and about as far apart as I can imagine from the horizons that end with what one already thinks one knows.

 

Close-reading casualization

Financial security and, as one striker put it, ‘a viable future’. Wouldn’t it be nice if the discovery that these things are worth fighting for led to an improvement in the lot of precariously employed academics? They could certainly do with a bit of both here and now, not just a few years or decades down the line.

Judging by a part-time, fixed-term position that has just been advertised in my field, one should not get one’s hopes up. I have already sounded off about it on Twitter, but in this case, coming as it does from my old undergraduate college, and at a time of so much idealism in the USS strike, I wanted to give it a bit more attention than an emphemeral rant. So, what I propose to do in this post is to take apart what exactly is going on here – to show how casualization becomes institutionalized in the very language of appointments – with a close reading of the job ad and further particulars.

The facts: it’s a ‘five-hour Stipendiary Lecturer in German, for four years’, with a stipend on a scale ‘currently starting at £16,040 per annum’.

To begin with: in fairness, it is at least possible that these terms might be a bit more favourable than they sound. There could be a slightly higher salary (perhaps – the omission of the upper range of the scale can be interpreted in more than one way…). It is also conceiveable that fewer than five contact hours could be involved in practice (it is not clarified whether the stint is in ‘weighted hours’, in which case group sizes can lead to fewer hours actually being taught). And the right to some meals in college can also be helpful when one is struggling to make ends meet. Time to read on…

On ‘teaching needs’

We are initially told that ‘this appointment is to fulfill teaching needs arising from the reduction in teaching hours’ for the current full-time staff member. Reading on, however, we discover that the post is not just about teaching cover but also involves playing

a full role in the running of Modern Languages and its joint schools in the two Colleges, including arranging tuition, participating in admissions processes if requested, setting and marking college examinations, submitting timely teaching records and reports each term, attending Freshers’ Week meetings and report readings at the ends of term if required, assisting with the pastoral care of undergraduates, acting as personal tutor and graduate advisor, and contributing to the Colleges’ Open Days.

Quite a substantial workload. We then find that the job also involves covering central University/Faculty teaching over and above the five college hours on the basis of which the stipend has been calculated. The successful candidate

will be expected to contribute eight lectures each year to the lecturing programme of the Sub-Faculty, to supervise Masters students (as appropriate), and to assist with examining and other Faculty activities.

Now – again, in fairness – at least some of these other responsibilites will be renumerated: examining, admissions interviewing, and (I assume!) central teaching, for example. All that, however, is likely to be paid on a piece-by-piece basis: per script, per hour, etc. To make what that means in practice a bit more tangible: when I last gave an eight-lecture course in Oxford, in 2015, the fee was £50 per lecture, so a total of £400 (pre-tax). I can but hope that the figure has since increased; at any event, it should be obvious that the amount of additional income generated if extra duties are paid on top of the stipend in this manner, is not going to be terribly substantial in proportion to the labour put in.

What about research?

Given that the employer on its homepage promises students ‘tutorial teaching from first-class academics’, it is no surprise to find that research is part of the selection criteria. Candidates should ‘should be able to demonstrate a research record or potential at the highest level’ and provide ‘brief account of their research interests’ with their application.

How curious, then, that research is not included in the responsibilities of the successful candidate. One wonders quite what the point is of hiring somebody on the basis of their research potential unless they are going to realize it at some point in the next four years. One might also wonder why a seasoned researcher would be appointed on the basis of their record and then be expected to abandon it. It is very hard – particularly if we know, as we all do, that those in fixed-term jobs need to publish to advance their career – to conclude anything other than that unpaid research labour is being sanctioned.

Making ends meet

Indeed, the further particulars obliquely acknowledge that the deal being offered might well need supplementing with other sources of income:

It is fully expected that there will be further German literature and language teaching available at other Oxford colleges which it would be possible to combine or formally link with this post, entirely at the discretion of the successful candidate. Additional teaching would be paid separately, either at an hourly rate, or in the form of a further stipendiary lectureship.

Note, though, that the possibility of ‘a further stipendiary lectureship’ remains vague: we must conclude that it is for the candidate to obtain one, if they are lucky – and we should not forget that such posts tend not to have a research component, so the issue of unpaid research remains even then. The opportunity to do additional, hourly paid teaching is also something of a red herring: it is entirely different, in terms of renumeration and benefits, from having a formal position – being able to rely on a monthly salary rather than waiting until the end of each term to be paid, is just one of those differences that tend to matter when one is not earning that much in the first place.

So, who could actually do the job then?

We have seen here how the – in itself not unreasonable – need for teaching cover in a part-time position becomes something akin to a front for a job that involves – and I think I am entitled from experience to say this – a great deal more: undergraduate pastoral care, graduate supervision and advising, administration, faculty service, examining, central university lecturing, all paid, if at all, at an hourly rate or similar.

This is particularly problematic because of the duration of this post. It is not just a term or two, as these things often are, but a four-year commitment. Applying and carrying out the role means making a life decision, not merely taking the chance to get some experience and fill a short-term gap after handing in a thesis.

It has, therefore, to be asked: who could actually take up a job such as this? We can be reasonably confident that relocation costs will not be covered. Together with the low salary and the need for connections in order to get the extra teaching, this means that the terms are weighted toward someone established in Oxford already. This effect is reinforced by the fact that the income-to-working hours ratio will be more favourable to somebody who has taught in Oxford before than to somebody who has to prepare everything from scratch. The position is, finally, inherently biased toward a scholar who already has financial security from other sources, and it envisages a candidate who does not need to prioritize research in their future career – or is willing to do it for free.

On alternative careers

None of the above is particularly new, nor is it unique to any particular institution – we might recall, for example, the Institute of Historical Research advertising a 12-month Fellowship with a stipend less than last year’s mean annual salary for street cleaners in the UK. It should not really need to be explained why all of this is so questionable, but the fact is that there is an ongoing collective unwillingness to talk about it. That is largely why this post has spent so much time stating the obvious.

In that vein, if it’s not clear enough already: the alternative. It would be to offer an up-front salary that acknowledges the true amount of work being done – rather than taking the cheap combination of this stipend with hourly pay for the additional duties. It would also be to value the research of the successful candidate – in both senses of the word. Even if still a part-time position, the result might then at least aspire to supporting a reasonable standard of living in a city as expensive as Oxford.

As it is, however, one cannot help noticing that, next to this job, the position of Gardener is also being advertised – at a salary ranging from £17,062.50 to £21,196.50. The money, at any rate, would appear to be there.

Farvel

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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.

*

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!)