Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kalamazoo, Hobbits, Re-enactors and Medievalists: my first academic conference

All good ideas come from either the bath or the pub, but here I was standing up at the 48th Congress of Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, Michigan, about to talk to a room full of august Medievalists about my novel Shieldwall - and I suddenly realised that this was my nightmare coming true. 


Two years earlier Shieldwall had just been published, and I had spoken on historical fiction for Nottingham University's Centre for the Study of Viking Age.  I had a fabulous welcome and spent a fairly idyllic few summer days there, and sitting with Dr Christina Lee in the  Victoria Pub, in Beeston, I was supping my Batemans Salem Porter  when she had the brilliant idea to go to Kalamazoo in 2013, with talks themed about the the thousandth anniversary of Swein Forkbeard's conquest of England. 

'We could do a series of talks about Knut,' she said, 'and you could talk about Shieldwall.'

'Great idea,' I said, and we clinked out pint glasses together, and so the plan was set. 


That day in the Victoria pub, over another pint of porter, Christina and her colleagues introduced me to the mysterious world of 'Zoo.

Kalamazoo - or 'Zoo or #KZoo - for those of you who don't know, is smallish town Michigan, which is the cold/hot flat bit where the USA and Canada meet.  It's 150 miles north west from Chicago,  and seems to have something of Detroit about it, for complete non-Americans.  The train station was full of all the wonderful weirdness of America: staff with way too much personality ('If you're ticket is on those iphone things then make it real big because the conductors on the train they ain't so young.  They don't see so well, if you know what I mean,' the conductor told us as we filed onto the platform.)  In that queue were all the shades humanity comes in, with rich, poor, and some odd looking folk wearing plain Victorian dresses, bonnets, and beards. 

'Oh look,' I thought, 'there must be a Civil War Re-enactors' event somewhere.'
before I realised they were Amish.

When boarding an Amtrak train,  you sit in carriages according to your destination.  I shared a train carriage with two US academics - one of whom was dressed for hunting, in tweet cap, jacket and waistcoat, while his drainpipe jeans were tucked into knee-length DM boots. The other one I never saw, but I heard him the entire trip, talking about himself and the many papers he had given over the years. He was, he explained, an expert on 'Zoo.

I took off my tweed cap and stuffed it my pocket and was glad I had left my tweeds at home, and could pass as 'normal'.

I got to 'Zoo by train - sometimes along the shores of Lake Michigan, occasional steel plants, more often through small-towns of painted clapboard houses that lined up dutifully along the traintracks each time we rumbled past.

When I got off the train, the hipster taxi driver said simply 'For the conference?' and I was off.

'Zoo is the largest gathering of medievalists in the world.  Some medievalists are very normal, I found out, others are particularly strange.  There were three hobbits outside the reception when I arrived, smoking very long pipes, and studiously ignoring the signs which banned smoking within 100 feet of the doorway. 

I was given my key, and my dorm number, and found the building in which I would be staying, and in the shared bathroom with next door, I found there was no door on the toilet, which seemed unnecessarily spartan, that he liked to leave toilet paper on the floor, and that he had two razors, one toothbrush, and Colgate toothpaste. 

(I never met my neighbour, but i heard him on the phone to his wife, because he was a mid-Westerner, and had to speak loudly, and when the silence went on so long, and I feared that he had died, I was reassured to see that he had moved one of his safety razors, or his toothbrush, which was the best sign of life.)


If you have never been to an academic conference, and I hadn't until now - then let me describe what happens.  People spend months, years, perhaps decades, studying some arcane point - and a year before the conference, when they think they have an idea, they submit an 'abstract' to the conference organisers, who then pick names out of a hat.

Well, that's probably not true, but I haven't a clue: the organisers probably decide on the basis of the organisers for each 2 hour session, which would be good papers or not and divvy out spots accordingly. 

Which begs the question, how the hell did I get to present a paper.  Well: I firmly tagged my paper to the coat-tails of Nottingham University.


That day back in the Victoria pub Christina gave me a brief intro to Kalamazoo - a place which attracts as many ladies who believe they are the second coming of Guinevere as it does august experts on Anglo Saxon poetry.

'Have you seen the tribes?' Christina asked me when we met on the way to a stodgy campus breakfast of fried eggs and sausage patties (not recommended).

There were many tribes - I found out, 'academic adacemics' such as the man dressed in his hunting tweeds; reenactors: who sport fabulous facial hair, are delighted to shake your hand, and hold eye contact longer than comfortable; Tolkienites, who come dressed as Hobbits or elves, there was even a tribe of historical novelists - and what a wonderfully strange bunch we were - audience and panel....and at the 5pm free tasting from the Medieval Brewers Guild - I found out that all the tribes loved to drink mead: and very good mead it was too!


What else is there to say?  In between all the socialising and book-shopping and meeting with editors of historical journals (not me - real academics) there were those sessions I mentioned.  Being on Hong Kong time while I was there, I had a lot of dawn walks through the campus: a lovely wooded place, with woodpeckers and geese and a lot of goose crap. 

I saw strange groups of students heading off to various early morning activities.  They reminded me of Karen Blixen's description of seeing elephants on the hills outside Nairobi, marching off to the ends of the world, or the herd of buffalo she saw one morning coming out of the mist, as if they were being created one by one. 

The dawn campus was empty, and then suddenly a band of thirty girls with too much make-up and flesh coloured tights with bags slung over their shoulders, all chatting and talking suddenly appeared and crossed in front of me heading to the end of the world. 

They were so young.  So American.  So Mid-west probably too.  

I followed the thrid group to see where they were going, and ended up in a corridor that took me to a student canteen where God was creating students at a furious pace, and I didn't have the heart not to eat anything, though I had learnt to avoid the sausage patties by then. 


As with any event like this I missed half of what I wanted to see.  I never got to find out about 'Doing it Doggy Style on Medieval Seals', nor the fabulous looking talks on 'Viking Winter Camps in England: New Archaeological Evidence' by Dawn M. Hadley, Univ. of Sheffield.  The list goes on.  I missed all these sessions: Violence and Warfare in Late Medieval England; New Voices in Anglo Saxon Studies I & II; Crown and Country in Late Medieval England; Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England; Memory and Community in Anglo Saxon England;  ''Can these bones come to life?' Insights from Re-construction, Re-enactment and Re-creation; Un/making mistakes in Medieval Manuscripts.

There were less knitted jumpers than I expected, I stumbled upon and found myself suddenly on a panel of historical writers, who spoke to an audience who were largely eating lunches which consisted of coloured salads packed into translucent 64 oz coke cups - like coloured sand - and which were eaten with a white plastic fork. I met Patricia Bracewell, whose novel about Emma of Normandy had just come out and which is now on my 'to read' list. There were medieval iron smelting demonstrations. In fact I could probably talk more about what I missed. Each session, and there were three a day, was an exercise in working out which would I be most appalled to miss. 

When you have to miss these kinds of sessions, with experts in their fields talking about them, then that's a testament to how good the rest of the stuff going on was.  Put simply this was medievalist nerd heaven.  More precisely - it was Viking and Anglo Saxonist nerd heaven. 

But I did get to hear four talks about Beowulf; I was at Anglo-Saxon Childhood, Adolescence, and Education where there were three talks about fostering, children and their role in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, and Anglo Saxon Preaching on Children.  And I got to sit and drink and talk and listen and learn. 

What could be more fun? 


Back to my talk: and here's a life lesson - the funny thing about nightmares coming true, is that they're often not as terrifying as you feared.  The assembled audience was very nice to me: and one man came up to me at the end, and said, 'You have changed my mind!  I have always avoided historical fiction, but I can see the point of it now.  It's a different way of telling the history.  Through a character rather than through events.'

I thanked him, and breathed a long sigh of relief. 

Would I got to Zoo again: absolutely! 



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