No, the picture does not introduce a lament about the lives of early-career academics who are barely paid enough to live on (not least because I no longer find reducing that problem to an ironic joke acceptable). Instead, this blogpost picks up a train of thought that began when I was out in the grotty yard in Durham burning off some leftover gas cannisters that couldn’t come with us to Denmark.
That stove, you see, normally comes in my pack on trips across the border to a landscape that seems a long way off from the Danish flatlands (or for that matter from a small university city in the north of England). The hardcore lightweight brigade would do without such comforts, of couse – for a stomach-churning take on the alternative culinary solutions that result, read this book – but I have not yet taken that particular step. Consequently, a remarkable sense of dislocation set in. Perhaps I encouraged it by making a brew so that the heat wouldn’t go to waste. There was something not quite right – the water was too clean, too pale – and yet other perceptions began to fall into place; the light, for a moment, was tempered, rain scattered, and a warmth cast into that yard that turned even the moss a redolent green.
Such moments do not last. They are a reminder of the things that matter. In this, it seems to me that there is a connection with academia after all, for having a similar imaginative response is part of being a medievalist: reading texts in a language we don’t know in a script that we have learnt, passing through buildings or landscapes that bear the traces of distant lives and stories, scanning the reel of manuscript illustrations on twitter … Not that we should mistake the product of such enagement with the past for knowing what it was really like; but then, the mind has a remarkable ability to change reality experienced as well, as will be familiar to anyone who looks back fondly on groping around in a bog to relocate tent pegs that have just been blown out in the middle of the night.
It would be a sad thing if the ability to experience such things were to be regulated, commercialized, sanitized out of a risk-averse society. Would it not be equally sad if the opportunity to engage with the past, the different, the unfamiliar were to be strategized out of a higher education system?