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Austerity, Beer Ballads, and Sexy Fruit

January 9, 2014

A quick round up of some of the highlights of Day One of BSECS 2014…

This is not definitive – this is just my list, based on my own peculiar road map through the event.

This conference, like one more than a decade ago, was marked by floods.  Inundations.  As I ran around Didcot Parkway station yesterday it occurred to me that perhaps I loved this conference too much.  Perhaps there was something a little idolatrous about my love of BSECS and God as made wroth and had opened the heavens in order to take it from me.

Then a voice divine the storm allayed, a light propitious shone and a train was found to crawl, inch by inch along a narrow embankment in the middle of what had become a large lake – bubbling and eddying on either side of us.  Oxford had a moat, and our bridge looked perilous.  We held on.

I arrived in Oxford at last just in time to hear Helen Berry’s plenary lecture on the pleasure of austerity.  For Professor Berry, austerity was part of the aesthetic of rich and poor.  She instanced a number of examples of peculiar aristocratic rigidity and privation which, as far as I was concerned, invited the attention of the late Pierre Bourdieu.  We were reminded of George Cheyne, the enormous diet doctor of Bath  – but critically, unlike Roy Porter and others who see such austerities as part of a “modern” self help culture, for Berry, a culture of studied privation signalled the strength of a primarily religious culture, tied to self examination and the structure of the salvation narrative.

From this plenary I skipped to my session on Ned Ward and ballads.  Daniel Cook noted the distinctive quality of Robert Southey’s ballads, and the extent to which there is a difference between writing poems called ballads (Wordsworth) and “making” ballads.  Daniel also used the word “archepelagic” a lot, which certainly impressed me a lot and I’m determined to work the word into conversation as often as I can in future.  Kate Davison meanwhile talked about Ned Ward, who is always a joy.  Ned Ward is a wonderfully earthy and curious author of the very early eighteenth century.  He is better than Daniel Defoe and deserves to be better known than Daniel Defoe.  There.  I said it.  Kate Davison’s paper stressed the importance of Ward’s occupation of brewer, not as a tedious day job that funded his writing, but something that was key to forging his convivial occupation as a writer.

I went on to chair a session on fruit.  Liz Bellamy explained why it’s important never to compare apples and oranges in the eighteenth-century – discussed the peculiar and obsessive gendering and sexualisation of fruit.  Alison Cotti Lowell talked of the “Isle of Pines” – a late seventeenth-century anti-monarchist satire which described joyless, reckless and profligate procreation in a Caribbean setting.   We were down a paper, unfortunately, but this only resulted in a joyously overextended discussion of fruit in all its fecund and expensive complexity.  We talked about pineapples for at least half an hour.  I came up with a very smutty suggestion about James Boswell and pineapples and everyone in the room possessed of a well informed and filthy imagination sniggered for a bit.

From this session, we went straight to the AGM where eighteenth-centuryists plotted how to save the world.  I think you’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

I don’t do formal sit down meals at conferences.  I prefer a more basic pub meal surrounded by raucous scholarship.  A few younger delegates left the pub early, disappointed at how quiet the place was.  After their departure of course, all the grizzled veterans burst in and stayed until close.  The conversation in the pub was, without doubt, even more magical and erudite than that enjoyed during the formal conference proceedings – but in the cold morning light, I’m having a little trouble retrieving any sense of it.

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2 Comments
  1. shgregg permalink

    Reblogged this on The Daniel Defoe Blog.

  2. Sounds like fun! Though I’m not much for the pleasures of austerity.

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