Wednesday, 15 April 2009

A breathless hush

It’s been deathly quiet at work this Easter week. There’s a breathless hush in the common room, and the sound of tumbleweed in the corridors. As Blackadder might have said, it’s as quiet as an isolation tank populated solely by Cistercian monks and librarians, all dressed in earmuffs and slippers with ‘Do not disturb’ signs around their necks.

Where is everyone? Maybe it’s because Easter is the start of the academic conference season. I am supposed to attend at least one conference a year, but as far as I am concerned this policy has turned into what New Labour and Ken Clarke would call ‘an aspiration’ – and even that is stretching it a bit.

I do not like conferences. The problem isn’t the people you meet, who are mostly friendly and scrupulously, even painfully, polite. It’s just that I am no good at talking about my work and the whole process makes me feel a FRAUD (which, in my better moments, I concede that I am not).

The idea behind conferences is that the paper you deliver is like an iceberg – the paper is the visible bit, and the research underlying it is this much vaster block of ice underneath the sea, which you call upon for an interesting and stimulating after-paper discussion. But I put so much work into the rhetoric of any paper I’m writing, that the writing is all I’ve got; there’s nothing else there. My paper isn’t an iceberg; it’s just a bit of floating ice. So when I get asked questions at the end what I really want to say is something like this: ‘I am afraid you have very quickly reached the edges of my little island of knowledge about ------ and are now proceeding to leap into the vast ocean of my ignorance.’ I don’t, of course. I flail around for an answer I don’t have, tripping over my words until my sentences peter out.

So while my colleagues become conferees, their lives measured out by 20-minute papers about their work-in-progress, and tea and biccies (that’s real tea and biccies I mean, not academic papers about tea and biccies – although obviously I would find those quite interesting) I am left here to stalk the building like a ghost, consoling myself with the words of the metaphysical poet:

Though you be absent here, I needs must say
The trees as beauteous are, and flowers as gay.


It has just occurred to me why this blog does not have any readers. I have not been sending any emails to all and sundry, trawling for scurrilous information about politicians. I didn’t realise this is what bloggers were supposed to do. I now concede that my behaviour has been juvenile and inappropriate. This is a matter for regret and, although it is not my fault, I can apologise and I have already apologised, and now I hope we can draw a line under this matter and move on going forward.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The commonplace needs no defence, / Dullness is in the critic’s eye, / Without a licence life evolves / From some dim phase its own surprise’ - William Plomer, ‘The Bungalows’


  1. I think I can speak for all your non-existent blog-readers when I say there's no need for any 'moment of madness' apologies.

    I even gave what I believe is termed 'a shout out' on my own similarly under-visited blog. In fact, there's a fair chance any recent 'downturn' in 'hits' you've experience might well be down to my toxic recommendation-powers. For which... I apologise.

  2. Thanks Richard. I'll check out your blog. Us unread bloggers need to stick together.