Texts in Transit: Time to Move On?

Ever since the Marie Curie ended, this blog has kept hosting the website for the ‘Medieval Texts in Transit’ conference. Being back in Berlin for a workshop recently, reminded me of that. After almost two years, I can’t help thinking that it is time to take the material down and archive it away somewhere, still accessible but now apart from what the blog has become. I just need to find some way of doing it!

It is not as easy as I thought, either. When I glance at all that material again, the emotional responses are quite strange. I still do not know, for example, what to make of the fact that my supervisor could not come to the public engagement event and that I learnt through Twitter this year that another research group represented at the conference just happened to be using a storyteller at one of its own events. As with so many other things, one is tempted to ask: what was the point?

Workshop reflections …

Wine and the rusty skyline of Berlin after a day talking about texts could almost make one nostalgic — but academia can be very different, too. Thoughts of that kind were only to be expected when I returned to the old world for the first time in eighteen months or so. It is not easy to be reminded of the dynamic of success and failure, or the way a system in which I spent most of my adult life continues to operate in parallel to the rest of life, both in the aspects I loved and in the aspects that came to do more and more harm.

But it does not have to define me; and the very straightforward reactions when I mentioned that I have given up on the profession helped a great deal in that. One hears a lot about prejudice and insinuations of failure and what not, but there was none of that, no difference in how my contributions or presence figured, and that helped a great deal.

The framework helped a great deal, too. This is a group with which I had been associated from the very first postdoc, and in which a plurality of approaches has always been represented. One of the highlights for me was a presentation on Church Slavonic philology; yet we also had contributions on Heidegger and Agamben and the animal. That these very different kinds of scholarship can co-exist in a setting of tolerance and mutual respect, and a readiness for honest engagement, is a cause for hope. The questions asked about my own piece were intelligent, varied, genuine, and helpful. I am very glad I went.

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my final slide

What one does not miss

It’s the usual lunchtime get-together, and one of my colleagues seems to be dressed a little smarter than usual. But, as everyone is just sharing the usual friendly chat, I think nothing of it, beyond sensing a concern in the air to wind up the conversation a little more promptly than we might otherwise do. A few hours later, an email comes round congratulating said colleague on appointment to a permanent job. Clearly, the room had to be vacated for the interview …

*

I have tried to present this little anecdote in such a way that the where and when are not obvious. That is because I genuinely have no personal axe to grind, and because the issues reflected here are ones that I believe need addressing in academia as a whole. My career since starting my doctorate spanned four institutions in three countries, three postdoctoral fellowships, and various teaching jobs. So I think I am at, least to some extent, in a position to generalize in that respect.

It should not take much imagination to work out the message that this way of doing things sends. This position had evidently been created, advertised, and – as the recipient openly admitted – allocated to one of our number, without any effort to inform us about this collectively; whether specific individuals were being excluded, I cannot know, so that seems the fairest way to put it.

The episode is indicative of problems the profession needs to face up to regarding trust and power, collegiality, career sustainability, and various others – and it also became part of a pattern that made me feel deeply uncomfortable in academia. It is also entirely unnecessary: a few words acknowledging the effect decisions like this make on people’s lives and careers, and explaining why an open competition was not being run – would have gone a long way.

I am not sure why I feel the need to get this off my chest at this particular point in time. I suppose old wounds are re-opened by returning to some proper research for a presentation in a few weeks; and there is that nagging wish that I had listened to what my instinct told me at times like this. Please listen to yours, if you ever find yourselves in a similar situation.

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.

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.