Sunday, July 31, 2016

The London season

I'm halfway through a two-week trip to England, and as I make plans--or intend and then fail to make plans--with the dozens of friends who are also here for a few weeks, it occurs to me that academics live out a less-glamorous but equally peripatetic version of the lives of the wealthy of previous centuries.

Like the Englishmen and women who descended on London en masse for "the season" and then moved on to Bath or Brighton before returning to their country homes; like early-twentieth century Americans who were similarly assured of finding friends and neighbors when they decamped to Palm Beach in March; or the rich of many nations who were never more than a couple of degrees of separation from the other passengers on the luxury ocean-liners chugging back and forth across the Atlantic, so we wind up moving around the globe more or less in tandem with people more or less like ourselves.

Conferences, of course, are one version of this, and they too have a season (I've sometimes done three conferences in three cities in three months, seeing basically the same people at every stop), but taken individually they're most akin to the ocean-liner experience: you're thrown together with all these people you know--and almost no one you couldn't--in a confined space for a set number of days. Visiting archives or rare book libraries is another version: I never know exactly who I'm going to see, but I always run into a friend who turns out to be a long- or short-term fellow, or who's just in town for spring break. This past week, I ran into several people at the British Library whom I'd last seen at the Folger. I didn't know they'd be at either place, but it's not really a surprise. There's a circuit.

But for those of us who study the history or literature of Great Britain, London is a special case, as I'm sure Paris, Berlin, and Rome are for those in other fields. At this age and stage of my career, I assume that pretty much everyone I know will be in London every couple of years: for a conference, to work in the archives, or at the front or back end of travels elsewhere. And the academic calendar being what it is, those trips usually happen in June and July, so we're all here at the same time. These days I come an average of every other year, usually for 10-15 days, but I have friends whose research or personal lives require a full annual decampment and who settle in for two or three months every summer.

It's delightful, and nothing that I could have predicted twenty years ago, when as a college student I made my first trip to England. Even ten or twelve years ago, when as a grad student or first-year faculty member I scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket and a week in the UCL dorms to hit a conference or squeeze in five days at the BL, I saw myself as traveling to do my own thing, making a strategic strike, furthering my research or my career--not functioning as part of a larger community. Now, though, it feels natural, expected, tribal. I come both because I need to, and because my people are here.

But as that phrasing suggests, there's something insular about it, too--that we do what others of our class-loosely-defined also do, that we expect to know people wherever we go (because we go to the kinds of places that our kind of people go). As screwball comedies teach us, it's always possible that the handsome gentleman you met on the Queen Mary or at the Breakers is a grifter, but more likely than not he knows the aunt of your neighbor back in Philadelphia and she can vouch for whether he'd be a good match for your unmarried daughter or the pretty widow who dines at the captain's table. Even the new faces are already, in some sense, known.

Still. When the academic job market flings us so far asunder and we're perpetually trying to build up new networks--and bloom where we're planted and all that jazz--there's something comforting about having a tribe and having a center and being so easily fitted into the social order. Back home we need to connect to our communities in a larger and deeper way, and it takes time and effort. Here in the tribal bubble, it's easy.

Except I'm still not sure I'm getting invitations to the right balls.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

What a charming way to look at it.

We should have balls. Proper ones, with ballroom dancing, not just the K'zoo dance. And proper clothes for them. I'm sure you have suitable items in your closet for at least the 1920s shipboard dance!

AndrewSshi said...

I disagree with Dame Eleanor. The Kalamazoo and Leeds dances are the perfect late-modern version of the ball. :P

In all seriousness, though, it's great to be in the BL MS reading room and realize how many people you know and how many more you know than the last time you visited.

Maybe by the time you're emerita/-us, you just know everyone in the BL, Cambridge, UL, and Bodleian reading rooms.

Flavia said...

I've never been to Kzoo, but I love the ShakeAss dance. Still, I'd be down for anything that let me wear a gown!

And Andrew--

That actually sounds horrifying! Even apart from all the people one might see whom one might not want to. . . I hope there are still new people in our profession in 35 or 40 years' time.

But as I noted in my last post, it's hard to imagine what happens at the next life stage, so I guess I haven't spent any time thinking about what it might be like to work at X archive in 5 or 10 years--though I always think of my previous visits. I've been feeling that especially keenly this trip, which is my sixth and possibly final one to work with two MSS that have been in my life for 13 years.

Tony Grafton said...

Well, I'm probably two or three life cycle stages beyond you, Flavia. And I'm back in London too, for August, after two months in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbuettel. Even there, in a small half-timbered town near Branschweig, friends and students of friends were in residence or visited. Working in Rare Books or MSS at the BL is like drowning: every period of my past life comes before me, from my Fulbright year here in 1973-74 onwards. So that may be part of what lies in store. It;'s all right. In fact, it's great.

Tony Grafton said...

Incidentally: John P. Marquand's ancient satire on Boston society, The Late George Apley, echoes your vivid description of the academic season--Bostonians also traveled the word to meet one another, in another age and another world.

Kate said...

I love this account. Living here (when I used to live in the US) means there's an amazing and sometimes exhausting uptick in sociability starting in May - I occasionally baulk at too many Ottolenghi visits which is what everyone seems to want to do post BL. And it's odd to explain to resident friends that I am all booked up with visiting scholars.
I used to do this sort of season visit in Paris, which is where more of my stuff is, but now I live nearer I do shorter visits more often - and no longer bother so much about planning social events, just count on running into people in salle V...

Flavia said...


I hadn't considered what it must be like for London-based academics! (And, funnily, we've never actually made it to Ottolenghi, despite staying in a flat about a 7-min walk away, both on this and a previous trip. Next time, though, for sure.)


Sorry to have missed you! (Back Stateside now.) But I appreciate the report from a future life stage, and look forward to it.