Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Austin Rover

So I went to Austin, Texas for a few days, to attend the Britain in the World conference. Yes, I did travel United (and Flybe) and yes, it was pretty terrible. But no, I wasn't assaulted in any way by the cabin crew or security. The first flight I was booked for didn't actually exist, the transatlantic flight was delayed by an hour because the first officer's microphone was stuck, US immigration was distinctly lacking in bonhomie, and on the way back I had a seven hour wait at Houston (boy the charms of that place wear off after about twenty minutes) and the final Flybe flight had to return to the gate because…they'd forgotten to load the luggage. They forgot to unload it at our destination too. That last flight had all the charm of Huis Clos performed by the dishevelled and aggressive survivors of a particularly low-rent stag weekend too. Not that I'm a misanthropist at all…

Plus I hate flying for cowardly and environmental reasons. I have – for what it's worth – shovelled some offsetting money in the direction of ClimateCare. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I don't (can't) drive, cycle or get the train pretty much everywhere and don't have children. 

Anyway, Austin and the conference. It was interesting being a literary scholar amongst almost exclusively historians. They do things very differently - there wasn't much concern for theoretical approaches, and the papers were much more tightly focussed and descriptive than the kind of thing I do. Being a full-scale British Studies event though, the panels ranged around the world and back to the fifteenth-century. The joy of being an academic tourist meant that I could sit back and enjoy them without having to record every detail. I did like the panels on colonialism, emotions and culture - in particular there was one on flag-draped superheroes by Lawrence Abrams which was witty and very insightful, and gave me a couple of ideas for future work. Jennifer Warburton of Kansas U did one that juxtaposed official British doctrine on Protestantism with the pragmatic approach eventually taken when the Empire captured hordes of Catholics, and there was a wonderful session on popular culture: the London musical of Gone With The Wind (a flop involving a live horse), Martin Farr of Newcastle on Oh! What a Lovely War and Kevin Flanagan from Pittsburgh (his office is in the mind-boggling Cathedral of Learning!) doing a stunning presentation on Goodtimes Entertainments series of world war 2 'documentaries', which mostly seemed to involve setting newsreel footage to covers of Beatles tracks - such as Hitler at Berchtesgarten set to 'Fool on the Hill'.  


Amongst their other work is this, by Ken Russell - Ringo Starr was also involved. 



Two of the best things at the whole conference were the round table discussions. One was on the fraught subject of Brexit: some of the pro-Trump academics (yes, you read that correctly) saw Brexit as a huge opportunity but most were rather shell-shocked. Some interesting views from the anglosphere were presented: if the Brits think that New Zealand is going to save them they've another think coming. It was down to me and my colleague to put the view from the Celtic nations and the left however: with some honourable exceptions, 'British Studies' appeared to mean 'English Studies'. The other great session was 'Teaching Controversial Subjects', something my colleagues and I have long experience of: I'm currently teaching Jennifer Haley's The Nether and next semester we're reading Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. The range of material discussed and the kinds of cohorts involved was enormous. I picked up loads of new ideas about how to introduce and discuss tricky things without disengaging students or being paraded through the streets and publicly burned.

I think my panel went quite well, though the audience for Welsh matters was disappointingly small. I discussed Lewis Jones's work as both the end of the proletarian tradition and a missed opportunity for new forms of working-class writing; my colleagues talked about the 1950s Welsh Republican Movement, and this history of Welsh industrial relations in the post-war period. The discussion afterwards was lively, which was heartening. 

Other impressions of Austin: not as weird as it claims. And how could it be, with the Texas state legislature and all that comes with it, right in the middle of town? The relentless searing heat got to me, and the obscene consumption - (delicious) food and massive trucks mostly. I went to Denny's (wonderful) and various other places to try all the foods you can't get here. Grits: gritty wallpaper paste with no discernible flavour. Biscuits and gravy: neither biscuit nor gravy, but a scone with (quite tasty) white sauce. Collard greens: an absolute winner - good spiciness. The Austinites were utterly lovely. The bars are magnificent and the million-plus bats under the bridge are an amazing sight. So much so that I went down twice in the (forlorn) hope of getting some decent pictures. I also loved the classic car/hot rod scene. The stereotypes were sort-of marginal: I didn't see any guns being openly carried but there were plenty of signs restricting entry to various places with guns, so they must be around. Religion is also present but not pervasive, and there wasn't anything like the military-and-flag obsession you see on TV. Austin is pretty liberal though. Finally, I'll just point out that I only had to travel 5300 miles to watch a Stoke City match on free-to-air TV…at 7.00 a.m.. Thanks, Premier League and Sky!

Was it all worth it? Yes, I think so. I learned a lot, engaged with ideas and subjects outside my usual field, and joined in some interesting debates, while having a few days in a totally different culture. But next time it's going to be somewhere I can reach by train and boat!

Some of my favourite photos. The rest are here

Texas State Capitol

Sunset over Lake Travis





Lake Travis again







Release the bats!