The heat: the first confirmation that the next four days will present in most ways a stark contrast to the past four. Unlike Inverness, Lincoln is in the midst of full-fledged summer. As I struggle through the narrow train door and heave my elephant of a suitcase and myself down onto the busy quay, the heat hits me with a force comparable to but completely the opposite of the wind at the Inverness airport. The email from the Sian, the conference organizer, has assured us that the hotel is within easy walking distance of the train station, and so we set off along the High Street, suitcase wheels conspicuously rumbling over cobbled intersections, dodging shopping bag-laden or dog-walking pedestrians, peeling off layers of sweaters and rolling up shirtsleeves as we go.
The Holiday Inn, the official discounted hotel of the Lincoln conference, is conveniently located across from the University on a rubble filled island in the center of two criss-crossing freeways. The view out the window of our ultra space-age hotel room on the fourth floor is of big box stores selling furniture and hardware and lighting fixtures: they line the freeway as far as the eye can see. From here it seems, we could be anywhere: Calgary, Cranbrook, Regina—any place where the landscape is flat and the retail potential endless. The plate glass floor to ceiling window by the elevator on the landing, however, looks out in the opposite direction, towards the city that spills down the hill from the great Gothic cathedral that dominates the landscape and draws you to it, your eye and your feet, as it has drawn pilgrims ever since its initial construction was completed in 1092 under the auspices of William the Conqueror.
The City: Lincoln’s shopkeepers close their doors and go home to their tea by seven o’clock and so while a friendly white noise spills out of the pubs and pizzerias, the streets are nearly empty as Pierre and I climb the steep hill towards the cathedral, passing through an ancient Roman archway into the old town. The ancient shop fronts here with their leaded paned windows and worn stone steps, have carried on their thriving trade for hundreds of years: Lincoln, with its dominating hill overlooking thirty miles of flatlands, and its river, the Witham, that links to the Trent and to the sea some thirty kilometers away, made it a strategically attractive location for first the Celts, then the Romans, the Danes, the Normans and finally the Britons. During medieval and Renaissance times, Lincoln was, after London, the second largest city in England. We pass the Lincoln pie shop, now a restaurant serving local fare (steak and kidney pies, Melton mowbray pies, mince and pea pies, leek and onion pies) that bears a sign boasting that T.E. Lawrence once worked there and lived in the room above the bakery where, his shift finished, his apron hung up, and the flour rinsed off his hands, he sat down to write The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Later, at the conference, I will learn that Lincoln has several other literary links: Tennyson lived in the countryside of Lincolnshire and Vita Sackville-West, Bloomsbury pal of Virginia Woolf, stayed here too: according to her diary, each of the entries of her three day Lincoln sojourn reads: spent the day in bed.
The Cathedral: When I hear the name Lincoln I think of grandeur. Abraham Lincoln was a towering man, so too my writing student Lincoln Welsh, (in photographs at last years’ grad, he is Gulliver among the Lilliputians). I once drove through the Arizona desert at sunrise in a white 1960 Lincoln Continental, an epic voyage in an epic vehicle: humanoid cactus silhouettes posed against a flaming horizon. Lincoln Cathedral, singled out by John Ruskin as the most important architectural structure in England, is equally awesome in its enormity and its Gothic elegance. We stare up at the western façade, craning to see the stone carvings of swineherd and the bishop on the south and north spires, but they are too high and too far away to make out in any detail and the sheer height of the towers combined with the wispy clouds blowing across the sky above them gives me vertigo and I have to sit down on the curb to steady myself.
The cathedral is still open, but only for the next twenty minutes. We decide to have a quick look, thinking (optimistically) we’ll return for a more extensive tour over the next few days. Entering into the dark quiet space lit only by a few candles near the entrance, it takes a few minutes for our eyes to adjust. There is that familiar smell of ancient stonework, of paraffin and damp. I take a pamphlet that tells us what to look for and where: The Bishop’s Eye, St. Hugh’s Head Shrine, Bishop Grosseteste’s Tomb, the Angel’s choir, the Gilbert Pots. On the ceiling near the join of two stone vaults, the mysterious name Fricabon is engraved: no one knows who or what Fricabon was. I like the way the space has been personalized, given its own character and identity. I like the names of the parts of the building too: the nave (derived from the Roman, meaning ship… a place of spiritual voyage and pilgrimage towards God ) with its beautiful crisscrossing stone vaulted ceilings, the transept, where coloured light streams onto the stone floor from the stained glass rosette known as the Bishop’s Eye (facing south and welcoming inthe light of God—the Dean’s Eye, at the top of the north transept faces north to protect the sacred space and its worshippers from the dark forces). Throughout the cathedral, the stone work is covered with beautiful intricate stone tracery, with demons, angels, fabulous creatures and faces, grimacing, grinning, contemplating adorn every the top of each pillar and each joining place on the arches.
Like most ancient cathedrals, Lincoln has survived many disasters: a devastating earthquake, several fires, a toppling tower that killed dozens of pilgrims. Famous architects throughout the ages, including Christopher Wren, have vied for the chance to make their mark on the ever-expanding building. Now, it takes us the full twenty minutes to circumnavigate its immensity, walking at a good clip and trying to take in the constantly shifting sightlines of the vaulted ceilings and archways upon archways. Little wonder that Ron Howard chose it, to the delight of the Lincolnshire town council (tourism is up by 30%), for filming large sections of The Da Vinci Code. On our way out the door, we are lucky enough to hear the first few bars of a piece the cathedral choir is rehearsing. The beautiful music expands and fills up the cathedral like something pure and liquid.
The Conference: More contrasts: Lincoln consists of two distinct areas: uphill–the old town, castle, cathedral, and downhill–contemporary commercial enterprises, trendy restaurants and Lincoln University, built at the edge of Brayford Pool, a widening of the Witham forming a natural deep lake and moorage for boats and pleasure craft. The university buildings at Brayford Pool are the counterpart to the uphill Gothic cathedral: they are all clean lines, light spaces, atriums and warm wood lecture theatres. The English Department specializes in 21st century studies and the conference organizers are hoping to attract up-and-coming grad students to produce cutting edge work on new novelists, poets and playwrights. The delegates to this conference have come from universities all over Europe, and some from further afield: South Africa, the US, Iceland. The conference is organized into three parts: the plenary lectures, the papers and the performances, to which both delegates and the general public are invited. The plenary speakers take us through such topics as the structure of the poetic brain and new discoveries in genetics, the evolution of Black British theatre since the 90’s, Indo-British performance poetry. Two speakers particularly hit a chord with me: Ian Sinclair and Will Self both write about walking as a means of slowing down their daily experiences, their thought processes, their travel time. Ian Sinclair writes a book based on walks around his own neighborhood in London. I particularly like his true story about the man who decides to dig a wine cellar beneath his house and finds he cannot stop digging. He carries this enterprise on for years and it is not until he passes away that it is discovered he filled his entire house up with excavated clay and has tunneled for kilometers throughout his neighborhood. This story is rich in metaphorical possibilities, as Sinclair observes: it speaks of modern ennui and addiction, of the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, of absurdity and the heroism of human endeavors. And who hasn’t spent a grey morning over tea speculating on the secret lives of the neighbors?
While Sinclair is interested in the richness of his own personal landscape, Will Self goes on more fantastic walking trips. A self-styled rogue, Self reminds me of a British Hunter S. Thompson: a writer whose work constantly shifts between journalism, and fiction, incisive political irony and full-fledged fantasy. He is purposely provocative, responding to one audience member’s question by saying, “You’re the academic who’s supposed to figure out what my writing means, I have no idea.” Self reads from his most recent book Walking to Hollywood, a book he describes as either a comic farce or an intense misery memoir: “Think Angela’s Ashes written by Groucho Marx” self says in a YouTube pitch about the book (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuSm3147rzg&NR=1). One segment of the book is a memoir/comic fantasy about Self’s circumlocution of Los Angeles on foot, a walk in the land of freeways where nobody, it seems, walks anywhere. Another segment chronicles a walk he takes along the coast of England. Self speculates that he will have trod a path that no one will ever be able to tread again, so quickly is the land eroding into the sea along this particular part of English seaside. The third segment he describes evolves from his perception that intercontinental plane travel engenders a profound disconnection in human beings and he decides to attempt to counteract this by deciding to walk to Heathrow airport from his London home, and then, after his flight to New York by jet, to walk from Kennedy airport into Manhattan. This enterprise leads to another Self exploit: he decides to travel through the United States without any stuff. By stuff, he means, no luggage except for a multi-pocketed vest that stores his wallet and shaving kit and whatever. All of this is entertaining and funny but also thoughtful. It predicts, it seems, what may be a forced slowing down in urban life as oil wells begin to run dry and air and car travel become more and more luxurious and less and less practical. For me, as I am about to set off on a fairly long voyage powered by my own pair of legs through the French countryside, it feels a fitting and thought-provoking introduction. How does the speed at which we travel affect our perception of our own experiences? How alienated are we from our own worlds by virtue of the machines that dominate everything we do. The questions aren’t new but the exploration of these questions by Sinclair and Self makes me want to read their books and builds my anticipation of the bike journey to come in France.
The World Cup: The night of the Fifa World Cup final, Pierre and I go out in search of a good location to watch this much discussed and debated game. We’ve followed the progress of the games since the beginning, first irritated, then inured, and finally strangely enamoured of the buzzing vuvuzelas (http://www.vuvuzela.fm/). We watched the heartbreaking Ghana loss while packing for the trip, cheered and jostled with the crowds at Vancouver International Airport for the Uruguay versus Spain game, and consoled a dejected East German couple sitting next to us in an Inverness pub when Germany went down to defeat against Spain. We’ve come to admire the incredible finesse of the Spanish team’s footwork, their deft and clever passing but also the skill and the incredible honour of the Dutch players, who are never unwilling to stretch out a hand to help up an opposing team player. Given our equanimity regarding the outcome, it seems appropriate that we find an Australian pub about half-way up the hill with several large screens and a jovial but calm atmosphere. Several of my fellow delegates have also come here to watch the game. The Spanish delegates from the conference are here: one of them, Irena, and I have spoken at length about Canadian literature, especially west coast writers. There is a smaller group of delegates from the Netherlands, in fact, there seem to be people here from all over the world. The atmosphere is jovial between supporters of both sides and when the winning goal finally comes after almost 90 minutes of brilliant but inshakeable defense on both sides, the Spanish are jubilant but genteel, the Dutch congratulatory and gracious. Not a soccer hooligan in sight.
The panel discussions at the conference consist of papers given by the delegates, mainly PHD candidates eager to make their mark on literary criticism with dissertations and papers on subjects such as queer theory, trauma theory, climate change literature, and androids and robots in contemporary British fiction. The books focused on by the majority of the papers given at the conference, though, are surprisingly mainstream: there are papers on McEwan’s Solar, a book that further develops McEwan’s preoccupation with the conflict between individual self-interest versus the common good (essentially the fundamental dilemma that underlies the problem of climate change and global warming–Solar is a “failed book” in the opinion of the speaker, because it never moves beyond a satirical take on attempts to deal with the way climate change must, if acknowledged, fundamentally change the way we position ourselves vis a vis the rest of the natural world). There are papers on Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis, Cormac McCarthy. Some papers look at neo-Victorian writing (Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White) and some at poetry that uses barcodes and environmental spaces as part of the piece. All of it is interesting and I take copious notes on ideas that are striking and on books I want to read but I am surprised that most of the work being discussed was in fact written just before or after the year 2000. I am also surprised that, with the exception of the performances by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, playwright Tim Crouch, the Will Self reading, and one other poet/novelist delegate from South Africa, Hazel, with whom I become fast friends, there are virtually no writers here. It is a conference dominated by literary theorists who continually reference the French theorists: Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and whose discourses are sometimes a tad well, theoretical (read ethereal, esoteric or unintelligible to the uninitiated). This great enterprise of literary criticism reminds me of the essay I have recently read by Robyn Sarah: (www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=3536) It is a discussion of a poem by George Johnston, a sonnet called “Cathleen Sweeping”:
The wind blows, and with a little broom
She sweeps against the cold clumsy sky.
She’s three years old. What an enormous room
The world is that she sweeps, making fly
A little busy dust! And here am I
Watching her through the window in the gloom
Of this disconsolate spring morning, my
Thoughts as small and busy as her broom.
Do I believe in her? I cannot quite.
Beauty is more than my belief will bear.
I’ve had to borrow what I think is true.
Nothing stays put until I think it through.
Yet, watching her with her broom in the dark air,
I give it up. Why should I doubt delight?
This business of literary criticism, one that I have been involved in for the better part of my life, seems essentially like Cathleen with her little broom, sweeping away. It is an enterprise that seems both intensely pointless and heroic, an act of inquiry that asserts the delight of intellectual pursuit, the endless possibilities of interpretation and meaning-making, and the absurdity of dissecting the aesthetic mystery that is at the heart of any great work of art.