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BSECS 2016, Highlights, Day 2.

January 8, 2016


Everybody’s highlights are different.  No two people (unless they are joined at the hip – and probably the brain) chart exactly the same paths through the conference.  When we converge over coffee and later beer, we find that different conferences are meeting and swapping notes.

The day started (for me) with a Ward panel.  Ned Ward.  The guy people should read instead of Defoe.  The guy whose linguistic energy and unerring eye for bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes disgusting detail brings street level London to life like nobody else can.  We learned about the dung shortage in Jamaica in the 1690s and the environmental implications of calling anywhere in the Caribbean a “dunghill”.  We also learned parenthetically of planters suffering from severe constipation as a result of drinking too much rum out of lead-lined receptacle – a richly deserved yet inadequate punishment for being planters.  But we also tried to think seriously about comedy, about what it’s made of, and how and why people laugh – or rather how and why people think they’re laughing – as and when they laugh.

Following barely a gulp of coffee I was chairing a panel in the more secluded surrounding of the Old Law Library (which appears to have been largely denuded of books since last year) on “Enlightenments” of eastern Europe.   The difference between reformist agendas in Poland and Lithuania and those operating in the liminal Balkan spaces between the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires was discussed – as was the role of women in both political intrigue and international negotiation.  Each year – I ask just to chair sessions absolutely at the convenience of the organising committee – it’s a way of rolling the dice – making sure that I’m lured away from panels I know too much about – making sure that I actually learn something.

I seem to remember eating something around this point, but the abundance of intellectual sustenance drives mere food out of my mind.

Because our Haydn Mason plenary lecture was at hand – every two years delivered by someone deemed to be youngish and clever.  This year Alexei Evstratov gave a lecture on “Going to the Theatre” (in France mainly).  There was a deal of personal investment in this Foucauldian analysis of audience dynamics of eighteenth-century theatre-going as Dr Evstratov described what it was like to be in the audience of Joel Pommerat’s Fin de Louis in the suburbs of Paris on the evening of the attacks on November 13 last year.   The audience appears to have disengaged, when learning of the killings, and then re-engaged in a different ways.

The issue of felicitous and disruptive versions of audience engagement has long absorbed me.  My second book is largely about this topic.

But immediately I had to skip a few metres to another session with the delicious title of “British Jacobin Orators under the cosh in the 1790s.” This panel was all about how to make dangerous speeches during the Pittite repression.  I learned for the first time about Henry Redhead Yorke – a mixed race aristocrat born in the Caribbean who became one of the most incendiary of revolutionists before imprisonment and recantation.  I was reminded of the story of Thomas Muir and learned rather more about the strange combination of long-standing Scottish elective traditions and more entrenched government corruption and manipulation (meet Henry Dundas – Lord High Fixer of Scotland) that created such a tense and inflammatory atmosphere.  And we talked about oratory more generally (a long standing concern of mine), particularly with reference to the contrasting styles of the famous John Thelwall, and the undeservedly less famous John Gale Jones.

Then for a very different plenary with a very very different tone to it.  The Enlightenment decided to get real – and in a session organised by Caroline Warman, we found ourselves listening to four speakers

Karma Nabulsi

Timothy Garton Ash

Catriona Seth

Kate Tunstall

on the subject of the modern crisis of the “Enlightenment”.  This event, timed for the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings was no univocal defence of supposedly eighteenth-century values of enlightenment and tolerance.  Rather, it was about freedom and security, about the limits of “respect” and whether “tolerance” is too vapid and patronising and insulting a quality to be worth defending?

There was dissent.  There was agreement.  We like freedom.  We hate murder.  There was truth in the room and some love in the room and a lot left unresolved.  The strange emotional temperature on this occasion was a salutary experience.  It felt strange, unnerving, bracing and bewildering to be discussing matters that are transparently and obvious of immense importance to most people.  Of course – everything we do as eighteenth-centuryists is of immense importance to most people – but we know that we need to join a lot of dots to prove that, and we enjoy quite how many dots we’re joining.  But to actually talk about matters of life and death – matters of instant life and death – created a session like none I’ve ever attended.

Something to drink.  Something to listen to.  Something to eat.

I had to return to my room because my brain was full.  Also because of a deeply irritating and depressing work deadline that required some attention.  As a consequence of this deadline, I was unable to get to the usual jollification available late into the night at the Rose and Crown.  Missed it.  Missed out.   But perhaps, in that crowded pub full of real ale, where the different customised conferences met and mingled – people weren’t really having the wonderful time I assumed they were.

Oh what am I kidding.  They were having a MARVELOUS time.



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