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London in Aberdeen. Day One.

April 18, 2015


Up with the lark.  Long before the lark.  Actually annoyed quite a few larks on my way out  who complained about my early start.  “Do you have any idea what time it is?” they screeched?   In Lark.

To get to this conference, I had to get up at three, leave the house at half past three, walk to get a bus for four, in order to be two hours early for a flight at 6.30 am.  Then it was a bus from Edinburgh Airport to Waverley Station (a very timely and efficient bus let it be said), and then a train to Aberdeen.  I love arriving by train in Aberdeen in the sunshine.  Hurtling along the east coast looking at sea, sand and rocky outcrops a plenty with blue skies on each side and the knowledge of a conference at the end of the line represents a peculiar summit of human contentment.

So we’re here in Aberdeen to talk about “Radical London” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  This makes a strange kind of sense.  You need to get a bit of distance from your subject, and Aberdeen offers a bit of distance.  Our gathering is hosted by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, which is housed in a fine old house up in so called “Old Aberdeen” – a remarkable cobbled enclave of extreme charm where I’ve been to a number of conferences before.  (Traffic rattles over these cobblestones at no mean pace, creating a very strange sound.)

Following some introductory remarks, the conference proper began.  Two papers, one on drinking, acting and debating clubs and another on Welsh Londoners radical affiliations in the 1790s.  I learned a deal about Edward Williams, and his attempt to construct a welsh-language mythological epic that might prove sympathetic to the new discourse of Rights of Man “Breniau Dyn” as he would say.  This epic, “Rhitta Gawr” was never completed but it shows a rare ambition to appropriate a register of bardic prophecy for a new world of republican entitlement.

In discussion afterward, talk of Craig Bailey’s recent book on the London Irish middle class came up.  Law students in particular needed to be “bonded”, needed people to stand “bond” or “surety” for them in case they got into trouble, and in an immigrant context, the context of people who knew what it felt like to feel lost and foreign in the big city, this led to support networks of London-Irish and London-Welsh solidarity (the “Cymmodorion” – 1751-1787 in a Welsh context).  This legal literalization and revivification of “bonding” ritual did more than create expat communities.  It may have actually helped reinforce common national identities as a result of diasporic estrangement.

Someone who had grown up thinking he came from Meath, who identified primarily as a Meath man for the first twenty years of his life, would become “Irish” when he moved to London and was “bonded” by someone from Dublin or Kildare.

London, so distant and so necessary, has rarely felt as fully realised as here in Aberdeen.  Maybe it’s the radiation from all the granite talking, but right now, it seems to me that I have never known London as fully and as calmly and as persuasively as here, in this city of loud, giant and ferocious seagulls.

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