I have spent the last few days in the UK for the Classical Association’s annual conference in Reading! It has been a pretty tremendous experience, all round. I was really looking forward to watching Doctor Who in my hotel room last night, but unfortunately the TV in my room died. Instead of moping about, I thought I would try to record some of my experiences and impressions of the place while they are still fresh in my mind; I tried to make the most of the trip, given the time and budget that I had.
People often express incredulity when they hear that I had not traveled to Europe before now. Surely EVERY Romanist has been to Rome, and every Philhellene has been to Athens? Alas, no. Australia is very remote from the rest of the globe, and for some of us trips down the road seem expensive, let alone journeys halfway around the world. I would not have been able to afford this journey if not for the generosity of the University of Queensland’s school of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, which funded my airfare and accommodation.
My first impression as my bus pulled into Reading station was that it was a nice, quaint town. The locals apologised profusely for the weather, at an unseasonable five degrees Celsius. Still, every day bar one has had blue skies, and that’s something for which to be thankful. Reading isn’t quite like the little villages we see on TV, but it’s hardly a sprawling metropolis like London—it has a lot of cute shops, quite a few pubs (actually, an alarmingly large number given how small the population is!), and a couple of nice eccentric historical sites. I had little money for my trip, so shopping wasn’t really an option.
Hell, I was counting every jangling penny I spent on food and bus fares. This is my first experience of visiting a country with an unfavourable exchange rate, so every pound I spend here empties the bank account of $1.50 back home. There’s something about travelling that makes you feel so aware of poverty. Our family’s finances are very precarious, since my scholarship is our primary source of income, and it doesn’t stretch very far when it has to support two adults and two toddlers. Please don’t misunderstand me, our situation is not as desperate as that of many others. We don’t have a mortgage, and thanks to Kelly’s amazing budgeting skills we have never been in debt at all. Still, there have been many occasions where we’ve had $10 to see us through a week. Sometimes I haven’t been able to afford to travel to campus, which is pretty miserable. My wife had been looking for work for a long time, but the employment situation in Queensland is pretty dismal, thanks to the austerity measures implemented by our state government. Kelly and I have been scrimming and saving every dollar I’ve earned through my extra work—teaching, museum, freelance stuff– to get me here. Every free tea and coffee has been a blessing. The breakfast buffet also provides lunch surreptitiously smuggled out in a napkin.
The first person I met in Reading was a beggar at the bus stop. I was jetlagged, exhausted light-headed. I’d spent the last two days awake. He was bedraggled, thin, shivering, and there was a real desperation in his eyes. He asked me for a handout. I hesitated, but I gave him a few coins, as I knew from bitter experience what it felt like to be starving. We hear news reports all the time about how dire the economic situation is over here, and all in all, I come from a rich country. I handed over a few gold coins, thinking that would be the end of it. But I was alarmed as he got angry seeing how much cash I had in my wallet.
‘Gimme that tenner! Give it to me, I can see you got a tenner! Come on mate, you’re loaded!’
I refused, and he got angry, shoving his face into mine. He started shouting, and I walked off. Fortunately, he didn’t follow. I only realised when I got back to my hotel room that I had given him 2 pound coins, not 1 pound as I’d thought. I’m used to Australian currency, where for whatever reason $2 coins are half the size of $1 coins, but here it’s the opposite. I felt kind of stupid, especially realising that there was a good chance I’d just given him money for drugs or alcohol. In a space of seconds, I had gone from feeling compassionate to feeling that I was being taken advantage of. When I told this story on Facebook, my friends assured me that most of England’s homeless are actually mostly decent people, and warned me to avoid putting myself in that situation again as I could have been mugged. This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in Brisbane.
I decided to kill time before checking in to my hotel by hanging out in the local museum, and that cheered me up a lot. It was fascinating, and free. I was actually kind of surprised at the size of the space and collection, and I was impressed at how effectively they used the gallery—I thought they had struck a good balance between being a tourist spot, being a place where locals could bring their families for an afternoon out, and being an avenue for public education. I’ll admit that I bypassed some of the material from the modern period and went straight to the cabinets of ancient and medieval artefacts. There was an infinitesimally miniscule collection of Egyptian artefacts, and a lovely little collection of Cypriot and Apuleian pottery displayed on the ground floor.
There was also an amusing little animation playing on a loop, which showed some of the figures on black and red-figure vases coming to life. I smiled, but little did I suspect the full significance of the animation until the next morning.
You can find the animations here…
I ambled up to the second floor, which was entirely dedicated to displaying a magnificent recreation of the Bayeux tapestry—a medieval French tapestry which narrates the Norman conquest of Britain through sequential art. It’s kind of like a comic book, only with less tights (but not much less) and more Latin. It felt nice to be able to read it by sight! The reconstruction was created in the late 19th century by a group of ladies in Reading. Perhaps this accounts for the covering-up of the squatting nude man in one panel, but I’m a little bemused that they didn’t think to do something about this.
On level three, though, I was amazed by their permanent exhibition on the nearby archaeological site of Calleva Atrebatum, better known as Roman Silchester. There was a lot of love put into this display, and the signage displayed a deft knowledge of the Roman world. I had difficulty containing my excitement, much to the bemusement of the staff and bored-looking children looking over the display. Basically, my reaction was that of the Eleventh Doctor looking over objects from the Apollo missions.
“LOOK HOW COOL THIS STUFF IS!”
Anyway, it was at last time to check in, call home, and finally sleep. Kelly mentioned that she’d gotten a second interview for a job, and I did my best to be encouraging without getting our hopes up too high.
The next day was the formal opening of the conference, but it mostly consisted of welcomes and annual meetings which had nothing to do with me, and I was a bit out of it, so I decided to hold off attending for a day. Also, and very importantly, I was planning to catch up with my mate Chris, who was going to introduce me to his girlfriend, Joanna. Chris and I survived undergrad together, but we sort of went our separate ways in academia as he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist via a Masters of creative writing. We still meet up once a month or so for coffee, but we hadn’t really hung out for a long time. We were both looking forward to spending time together, as he delivered a paper at the conference too. (Incidentally, it was excellent!) I hung out in the hotel room and did some thesis work (‘cos that’s how I roll!) and then headed into town to meet them for a meal and to do a spot of exploring. I was pleased but not remotely surprised to find that Joanna was charming and lovely, and in no time at all we were talking like old friends over steaming bowls of sensibly priced Chinese food. I almost literally jumped for joy when Chris told me that they are now engaged. Actually Chris said it was quite literal. I really couldn’t be more thrilled for them!
I woke up early the next morning and took a stroll around the suburbs. I don’t know why, but I always find walking around areas where people actually live is more interesting than going to tourist sites. I love finding people to talk to when I go travelling. I suppose that you get more of an idea of a place’s culture, rather than the glamorous face it wants to show the world. I thought it was really interesting to notice how different it was from my homeland—the houses usually adjoin, tiny little houses which we’d probably call flats, and often with three or four cars parked out the front. It gives you a good idea of how spread out we really are in Australia, doesn’t it? I was also amazed by the diversity on display—I saw Hindu shrines in windows, and Christian and Masonic symbols built into the very brickwork, all on one street. There’s a small church which has been converted into a block of units. I assume it’s been deconsecrated. I wandered over to the public soccer field, perfectly tended and manicured on public coin. My first thought was that this is a strange country, where tax dollars maintain the soccer fields like they’re holy ground while some people sleep without a roof over their heads.
Then I remembered Australia is no different, and checked my sanctimony.
Time to go to the conference! I attended some amazing papers concerning the work which some of the antiquities museums in the UK are doing. Here, I discovered that the animations I had seen in the Reading public museum were the result of a public engagement program spearheaded by the university of Reading’s Ure museum, where schoolkids were invited to observe the pots in the museum’s collection—really observe, and not merely look—and devise narratives from the scenes depicted, which they themselves storyboarded. Their storyboards were then sent to a local animator, who worked with the kids to create the scenes. It was, in a word, beautiful. It really got me thinking about the possible applications of similar projects at the RD. Milns Antiquities Museum, where I work. I think a lower-tech version with shadow-puppets might work brilliantly, on the budget we have. I also asked a question in that panel about the potential for opening a similar project for children who experience difficulties with literacy, and I was delighted to discover that such an idea is already in progress. I wonder if this might be a good way to engage with special schools at home. I also saw an excellent paper which mentioned some excellent public engagement programs at the University of Leeds, which offer an annual evening public festival known as ‘light the night.’ I told the speaker about a similar event our museum offers, the ‘carpe noctem’ series of evening events.
My remarks caught the attention of the Ure Museum’s director, Amy, who invited me to come visit the museum to share ideas about the possible applications of the new technology of 3D scanning. I would not make it there until the next day, and I skived off a couple of papers to get there. It was absolutely worth it, though! I had an amazing conversation with Amy and the Ure museum’s education officer, and steadily we realised that our museums have very similar resources and aims—we hope to forge a closer relationship in future. It felt great to act as an ambassador for my museum, and I look forward to reporting it all to my bosses back home.
Anyway, I saw lots of papers, so many that it all wound up being a bit of a blur. I attended some excellent ones on teaching, and reports on what works and what doesn’t. I was particularly fascinated by one paper which advocated an experiential teaching method for the teaching of dead languages—I can’t say I would have thought of that. It felt wonderfully weird to attend papers which had practical applications, and were not as esoteric as the usual fare. My mind was buzzing with ideas, and I can’t wait to try them out in my own teaching practice.
I saw some great academic papers. I loved every second of the panel on narrative description in the Greek novel, amazed at a paper on the portrayal of Nero as the anti-Christ in late antiquity. The plenary lecture by Robin Osborne was, quite simply, breathtaking. The whole conference was like a revolving door of academic celebrities, and I felt simultaneously over-awed and ebullient to be among such high and mighty company. The CA isn’t like other Classics organisations. As a postgrad, I felt welcome, that this is simultaneously a learning opportunity and a chance to shine in our own right. I relished the opportunity to talk to European PhD students, to spend time among young people so full of optimism for their futures, more or less secure in the knowledge that they could and would walk out from their doctorates into academic jobs. Well… Maybe not in Greece, sadly. Still, it made a heck of a change from the latent anxiety so prevalent among early-career Classicists in Australasia. I feel I have made new friends even in the few days I’ve been here. I’ve also reconnected with old friends I haven’t seen in a long time, which is an experience I’ll always cherish.
And then, of course, there was the moment of truth, when I had to deliver my paper. I was a bit nervous. I delivered the paper, stumbled once or twice, but mercifully nobody seemed to notice. I made light of the fact that they had misprinted the title of the paper in the conference booklet, made as much eye contact as I dared. It was over before I knew it. Question time. Stunned silence. Oh dear. Make a feeble joke saying this means I’ve convinced everybody. Scattered laughs. Finally, an older professor whose name I sadly neglect to write down asks an intelligent and helpful question. Then gradually the questions start to flow. They’re not hostile, not attacking me for neglecting a vital aspect of the topic. They’re interested in my research, and they want to know more. Over the next couple of days, there are requests for me to e-mail copies of my powerpoint presentation, people asking if I have contacted Professor Such-and-Such of the University of Thingummy to let them know about my research, because they would find it really interesting.
I wonder why I was so bloody nervous.
I walk out from the conference with this music on my ipod, as I feel like I’ve just destroyed the Death Star using the power of the Force.
I visited some really interesting places while I was here. As part of the conference, I joined Chris and Joanna on an excursion to Roman Silchester, which was pretty astounding. I may make a post about the historical side of the site, but mostly I loved being on an actual Roman site, to see the wall of the town with sections torn away and recycled during the middle-ages. I loved being able to have an intelligent conversation with the archaeologist heading up the excavation about the interpretation of a small Third Century structure on the site which is suspiciously reminiscent of a Church, but probably isn’t one. There is a small medieval chapel on site; it really hit me to see the juxtaposition of pagan and Christian, as the church is possibly built upon the remains of an ancient Celtic temple, and incorporates the Roman wall as part of the outer perimeter. I loved having jammie dodgers and sipping tea with my friends in this ancient structure.
We just don’t have buildings that old in Australia, and we likely never will, so long as we keep tearing them down before they have a chance to grow old. I overheard a couple of people sniff at the site, as it’s not as spectacular or as well-preserved as, say, Pompeii or Herculaneum. But standing in the remains of arena, I felt fortunate indeed. It was snowing, and there were more profuse apologies for the weather. I’ll admit, I was freezing, as I hadn’t dressed properly (that’s a learning curve, I think!), but I was so happy. This was so much more beautiful than the wet slush I’d seen in New Zealand. I’d never seen snowflakes properly, never been able to appreciate that each one is unique; holding one in my hand for a few seconds before it melted was precious, and I felt that something tiny and special had passed out of the world, never to be seen again. And it would never be appreciated by anybody but me.
Today I found the mouldering ruins of Reading’s original abbey, which are now sadly closed off. I considered jumping the high, spiked fence, then decided it wasn’t worth risking serious injury to read the Latin inscription *just* visible from the gate. Apparently Jane Austen went to school near this Abbey.
I wandered along the Blake River toward the Thames, found another little museum mostly dedicated to the river, showcasing things they’d dredged up. There was a fifth-century BC Greek Kylix. Your guess is as good as mine how it got there! There was also a 19th Century gypsy wagon behind glass, which was fascinating.
I made my way to the Oscar Wilde memorial walkway, which is situated at the prison where he was incarcerated for his sexuality. It was sad, but kind of beautiful at the same time.
There were a couple of blokes sitting quietly holding hands. I guess it makes sense that it would be a kind of pilgrimage destination for a lot of people. Once upon a time, the sight of two men openly expressing their love, even in a perfectly innocent way, would have revolted me. It doesn’t now. I’ve spent too much time among people, and had too many people question my own relationships on religious grounds to discriminate like I once did. It was a painful realisation that I was hurting others, but now I realise it I can try to make amends. I think it’s good to see how far we’ve come in our recognition that love exists in so many ways. I thought of my friends who are part of the queer community, or at least have loved ones who are. Actually, that’s pretty much everyone I know. I can only hope that we continue to move forward in our acceptance of change and difference. Maybe this means I’ve grown up? I don’t know; I hope so. If I can change, society can.
I found a few people to chat with along the riverbank. I talked to a lovely old guy who travels around the country’s canals and rivers in a narrowboat. I also talked to another fellow about our work—he’s a soccer coach, but he took Latin in school. I was surprised at how much we had in common—turns out he’s an actively involved dad too, and his job mostly involves working with kids. He was worried about his eleven-year-old son, who is enjoying history at school but seems to struggle with source analysis. The guy asked me for advice from my museum work, because he wants his son to do well. It felt great to think I was helping to make a difference, however small.
Ah, children, family. My mind keeps turning homeward. I’ve only been away a few days, but I wish I were home. My children miss me, and I miss them. Noah, my oldest, has been asking where I am. Though I carry Kelly in my heart always, I want to hold her now. I want to go back to our little Narnia, to the family we’ve made, the family I was born into, the family I chose.
The best part of the trip was hearing that Kelly was accepted for that job. She is now the second in charge at a small department store. Our financial worries are over, now, and I suddenly feel like Christmas has come early. We’ll no longer have to worry if there will be enough to pay for groceries, if we’ll be able to pay rent. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it alleviates a lot of burdens. I’m so glad that Kelly will be happier, being out in the world and making a living.
But I’ll never forget what I’ve seen and experienced here in England. This morning, I got into an unexpectedly wonderful conversation with a stranger. It all started when we were on the bus toward London, and we were swapping our stories. I asked where she was from, and she unexpectedly started shedding silent tears. She is from Bosnia, and is on her way to her war-torn home. We ended up having tea together, and sharing a packet of shortbread I’d bought to munch on in London. It felt much better to share food with someone than to eat it alone. She poured her heart out to me. I won’t share her story, as it’s not mine to share. But let’s just say I have never felt more… privileged to live in Australia. She’s an amazing person, fighting to better her life and change her country, to end the cycle of violence which has plagued the region for so long. We swapped e-mail addresses, and she hugged me goodbye. I feel like that one conversation with a near stranger has affected me deep in my bones. It certainly helped to put my problems in perspective.
Right now, I’m sitting in a Starbucks across the road from the British Museum. My planned pilgrimage to the museum, my own personal Mecca, has failed. Alas, I had not counted on the fact that my luggage would prevent my entry.
Still, as I sip horrible coffee and shiftily pick at the sandwich I made at the buffet this morning, I can’t say I care that much. The experience of poverty, and hearing the horror story of civil war has sharpened my resolve to continue fighting poverty and inequity back home. Life is good in Australia, for most of us. It should be that way for everyone; I never want to see my land become what I’ve seen and heard of here. I have resolved to start volunteering at a homeless shelter, to provide more aid to our society’s most vulnerable members.
I can’t save the world, but I’ll do what I can.
The conference is over, and I have various German and Swiss academics’ email addresses scrawled in the margin of my conference booklet, and I’m ready for the final stretch toward home. I’ve only been here a few days, but I feel that my little adventure is a turning point in my life. It all brings to mind a poet favoured by one of my old teachers, UQ’s Emeritus Professor Bob Milns… ‘Ithaca’ by Constantinos Cavafy. I’ll leave it to James Bond to read it for me.
Vale for now,