*Apologies for the late posting – I’ve been ill*

One thing I failed to mention yesterday, was the ‘Treasures of the Hardy Collection’ talk by Helen Gibson. It made me want to rush straight back to the DCM archive to look at many more of the TH manuscripts. While at the DCM, I went into the Victorian Gallery and saw the bound manuscript edition of The Woodlanders. He has a charming hand and – though it would take longer – it would be amazing to read entire novels as penned in the author’s hand.

Thursday’s proceedings began with a keynote from Prof. Tom McAlindon on Time and Mutability in Hardy. A fine array of quotations read beautifully helped to shape this lecture into a really beautiful thing to hear – and that was without the interesting content!

The next panel I sampled was smaller but really strong. Education and its effects in Hardy prove to be particularly interesting. I’ve never thought of education as being complicit in the process of (local) cultural amnesia, but of course as a systematic means of knowledge control, it is/can be. I’ve been thinking on this since: how educational reform can divide the generations, and how – for Hardy’s remote country folk – education might dislocate one from his/her cultural roots.

One paper on the folk songs of Far From the Madding was really entertaining, because examples of the songs being sung were played from a cassette tape. Yes, I said it. A cassette tape. Even better, a self-made mix tape including octogenarians singing the songs their forebears taught them. Wonderful. It reminded me of he that fun of hearing ‘A rotty trotty trotty, a rotty trotty tree’ in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard, on the same track as Robert Frost reading his poetry. The enthusiasm of these preservers of local culture is marvellous – and infectious.

To prepare for giving my paper, I retired to the lovely Oak Tea Rooms (about which I have waxed lyrical before). There is something calming about the historical surroundings, traditional B/W waitress-wear, old gramophone and penny farthing. Nervous butterflies kept me from demolishing their fabulous cake, though. Ach well.

I was speaking on belatedness and recognition memory in Hardy’s verse, but let’s turn to my fellow panellists. Other people’s projects are endlessly fascinating. The development of artificial light in the long C19th novel – I’m sold! I want to know more about that. In fact, I was watching the adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree this morning and thinking that our forebears must have been less generally scared of the dark than we, for there was so much more darkness to go around before the invention of electric light. One chap spoke on legal ethics in The Woodlanders, which I’d never considered. The question of altruism is a really fascinating one (I went to a seminar on the problems of medical altruism in Middlemarch once – really good).

Of particular interest to me, was the paper connecting Hardy to burgeoning theories of time (including Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). It’s an area I want to know more about, so hearing quotations and poems I know viewed in this different light was rather wonderful.

In the second postgraduate seminar, we furthered the post-paper Q&A/discussion from postgraduate presentations. I wasn’t very good value, though, being quite tired and post-presentation spaced out. When I was with it, I really enjoyed again being in a lively conversation about all things Hardy: I always want that to happen and it just never does! In the solitary library hours of the literature PhD and the silent study of the archive, it’s hard to feel like part of a community, thus it’s really great to meet other Hardy types (hehe!), to have people to bounce ideas off.

It was a quiet eve I needed after such excitements – dinner in Carluccio’s and a well-deserved glass of red. Even if speaking doesn’t make you particularly nervous, it somehow exhausts you.

Friday morning I packed my belongings and walked into town for the last time this trip. (Weep weep, indeed). I took photos of the lovely Hardy statue I’ve been walking past each day. You’ve gotta tip your hat to the man who makes your academic world go round! I also saw again one of my favourite ‘don’t litter Dorchester’ posters, designed by a local schoolchild. A cool idea well-executed that made me read its message: not bad, Dorchester.

Chairman of the TH Society, Tony Fincham, led us through some Hardyean landscapes to kick off the final day of academia. Knowing this was my last morning in Dorchester, I had to try out a teashop/coffee house I’ve been walking past and wanting to sample. The Gilded Teapot is a charming little place – a little bit like Ollivanders, but for tea/coffee instead of wands. When I went in I couldn’t help saying “what a lovely-smelling place to work!” (and – amazingly – I wasn’t thrown out on the spot). All of the different smells of speciality teas and coffees intermingled to smell simply brilliant. I can imagine several of my close friends quite happily working in such an environment. The mocha was delicious and if I’d had more money or time (or case space) I would have brought back some yummy tea for my flatmate. Anyhow, the message is: if you’re in Dorchester, go to The Gilded Teapot. It’s lovely, the staff are really friendly and you won’t regret it.

The final keynote was Dr. Marion Thain, who I’d been looking forward to. Affective form in Hardy’s poetry – a title that baits people like me. There was a possibility of my doing my PhD with Dr. Thain, and though I can tell it would have been amazing, she’s now moving to NYC, which wouldn’t have worked out so well for me! Having been writing a chapter on ‘Voice’, my focus within Hardy’s poetry has been very aural (and oral) of late. Thus, it was good to be shown again the importance of the visual to Hardy’s verse, especially in ways I had not ever considered. One always wants to end a good conference on a high, and this certainly provided satisfaction.

After that, it was goodbyes to newly-made friends and off on my 5 hour journey back home. I think that Hardy would have liked Kenilworth, which is pleasing. It only remains, then, to thank all of the various conference organisers for a wonderful week – and especially Dr. Jane Thomas, the Academic Director. Thanks also to all the postgrads for being so welcoming and fun to be around – keep in touch!

In the style of the Loony Tunes, that’s all folks! (Until next I find myself in interesting thesis circumstnaces…)

Pics: My official looking badge; Hedgehog hiding under a hat; light lunch Oak Tea Rooms style; post-paper dinner and sneaky glass of D’Abruzzo; affogato to close; Hardy statue; don’t litter poster; the DCM; inside The Gilded Teapot; TGT logo; the Hardy head which presided over the conference.

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Now I could lie and say that Ricks wasn’t the big draw of the conference for me, but I’m a very bad liar. Sir Christopher Ricks (or just Christopher Ricks, as we knew him from a book spine) was a large part of my undergrad degree, or at least my memories of it. His book on Tennyson’s poetry was the only secondary material with passages I actively wanted to learn off by heart, because they were as beautifully written as the primary texts (and no, sorry – that’s remaining my delicious secret). So I had been looking forward to the whole conference altogether, but I admit there was something special about seeing Ricks (and unlike Buzz Aldrin, he didn’t disappoint).

The lecture reminded me of one of my old supervisors doing an impression of William Empson. Ricks has one of those ve’y ve’y posh voices that contracts the two syllables of ‘very’ to one. It’s sort of amazing. There is something about hearing someone you’ve read for a number of years, and respected, give a keynote lecture.

Thinking about T.S. Eliot alongside Hardy is an unusual process (thinking about Eliot alongside Frost is strange enough), but brings out new ideas. Since I’m such a poetry person, one of the things I really appreciated about the lecture was Ricks’ sensitivity to the paragraphing of prose. Comparing this to lineation in poetry, he considered how prose writers can use paragraphing to shape certain cadences. All of the best lectures make you consciously aware of something you already vaguely knew. This did just that.

I nipped into the Dorset County Museum at lunch – you can’t go to Dorchester and not visit the DCM. Sure enough, I went to see my old dino buddies. A new addition: an amazing Lego dinosaur statue! I so wanted to play, but thought that the sign saying ‘don’t touch’ applied to adults as much as children… The temporary exhibition at the DCM at the moment is ‘Dorset Woman at War: Mabel Stobart and the Retreat from Serbia 1915′. To my shame, I had never heard of Mabel Stobart before, but she was certainly a impressive and determined individual. Against public opinion, Stobart set up a team of female doctors and nurses to travel to Serbia and help with the war effort. The exhibition has a series of incredible photographs showing the hardships and the hardy nature of these women and Serbian soldiers. There are also a selection of medical objects on show. I think it’s unfortunate that one brand of medical supplies was ‘Horrocks’, because maybe it’s just me but all I could see in the label was ‘horror’.

Having heard me talk about visiting Max Gate, and with nothing else planned for the afterrnoon, fellow postgrad, Rena, decided to join me in visiting Hardy’s home. I would have gone anyway, but how much nicer to visit with a companion – and a fellow Hardy enthusiast!

I didn’t realise quite how close Max Gate is to Dorchester town centre, having never been before. Ok, because of roadage and roundaboutage it’s not the world’s most pleasant walk, but it is infinitely doable and really quite quick. Set back from a busy road by a lane and some tall trees sits the house that Hardy designed, and his brother built. This was quite the occasion for me, having read about all of these eminent people visiting MG and recording their impressions, but never having been myself.

The National Trust own mini MG – mini compared to standard National Trust properties, but a more than adequate-sized dwelling to house husband, wife and pets. In the entrance hall, you could purchase potatoes grown in the garden (would that my case permitted room!). Friendly desk staff set the tone for our visit, since an extremely enthusiastic guide offered to give us a personal tour of the garden and show us her favourite gems.

Watching somebody love something, is to love something. Hearing someone else’s enthusiasm for a topic, is to share that enthusiasm. So it was with this lady and Thomas Hardy. Her eyes lit up and she couldn’t stop smiling, nor keep the thrill out of her voice: she simply wanted to talk to us about him. And so, we heard about the original two-up two-down structure of the house being added to as Hardy made money from his literary works. A tower added this end, a big study over there, Emma’s two attic rooms.

I learned new things about Hardy while there, including his interest in – and support of – Marie Stopes, founder of the first birth control clinic in Britain. The toy dog by the fireplace to replicate Wessex was quite frankly frightening, though. The evolution of Hardy’s studies is interesting, moving as he did from one room into another as they were built/he required more space. I have to admit, though, I prefer the replicated main study at the DCM than the one in Max Gate (more of the original objects are in the DCM).

I think I went to visit Max Gate to see Emma’s rooms, really – I just didn’t know it in advance. There are several things to do with Max Gate that I could imagine without visiting, and others too which, in seeing them, chimed with what I had imagined. Emma’s attic rooms, though, (to which she increasingly retreated towards the end of her life) have to be seen to be understood. They are so small, so dimly lit and – in this weather – so hot. Awkward little staircase, stooping to get through the doorways, it is indicative of a limited life, a squashed solitude. The little teddy on her bed looks careworn and like he’s been through the wars.

One bedroom had a set of costumes lent by the Hardy Players. Inevitably, Rena had to suffer my trying on as many costumes as I could. (Flashbacks to spending hours in the costume room at Newstead Abbey, Bryon’s ancestral seat).

The Pet Cemetery is… odd. It just is, fashionable as they were for Victorians, normal as it was to Hardy. Also, he apparently used to enjoy not just showing visitors the graves, but explaining the horrible ways many of them died (cut in half by a passing train…). Since the weather was so good and we had nowhere in particular to be, Rena and I sat for a while (well, until closing time!) in the garden, discussing Hardy and academic careers and the funny things that children do/say. There are few more pleasant surroundings than Hardy’s greenery, red brick and the sunshine of a non-British summer.

The quiet evening I had planned ahead of giving my paper went somewhat interestingly when my flatmate rang to say the flat might be about to flood. It didn’t, but it was odd to be directing her to the stopcock…from Dorset.(And yes, I left that ambiguity in for funsies).

PS. I have learned that I am the kind of person who will read a perfectly normal and known word, like ‘unironic’, and think “oh my goodness! what’s a ‘ronic’? what is to be ‘ronic’? AM I???!!” I *think* I’ve gone wrong…

Pics: Get your kicks with Sir Christopher Ricks; amazing Lego dinosaur in the Dorset County Museum; dino costumes for children; Max Gate from the side (the large square windows are Hardy’s study and the upper windows Emma’s attic); the little path out of the garden; ‘at the end of a valley of bending boughs’ (‘The Going’); canine visitor to Max Gate; Emma’s attic bedroom; dressed as a Hardy female; Max Gate entrance; Tio, the bunny visitor, at Max Gate; pet cemetery; hedgehog at Max Gate.

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The blog posts are having to be delayed in their release due to internet connection (or a lack thereof). Sorry about that! After more sleep the second night, it was time to leap into Thomas Hardy Fun Times Day 2 – with a theme of Hardy and the war. 2014, of course, is the centenary of the Great War, a conflict with which Hardy had more than a few poetic brushes. Draw of the day was Prof. Tim Kendall (Exeter) on Hardy’s Poetry and WWI. Everyone agreed that this was a deft and insightful keynote. I particularly enjoyed seeing poems I know so well opened up again for further nuanced examination.

What’s amazing about this conference is the friendly and welcoming nature of the community. And it IS a community: evidently, many people come to this event every time it’s on – and they meet up in Dorchester not only to catch up on Hardy hype, but also to catch up on each other’s lives. Even the postgrads were mostly on their second conference this time round. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a conference with such a spirit about it – rather endearing, really. And because it’s a festival, too, there are lots of members of the public in attendance at the keynotes, as well as us usual academic crowd.

A Hardy and War call for papers panel followed the Kendall lecture, with more interesting facets to the Hardy and war relationship being opened up. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Hardy’s use of the term ‘creature’, being able to indicate both humans and animals (depending on the context) but often denoting some sense of kinship, or an affective relationship. As ever, it’s incredible to realise how much difference one word can not only make, but different meanings it can hold within itself.

Excellent conversation overheard in the Oxfam bookshop, while choosing collections of Geoffrey Hill and Kate Clancy to buy:
ELDERLY MAN [takes book up to lady at counter]: This is the best book I’ve ever read.
CASHIER [looking at it]: Oh, really?
ELDERLY MAN: Yes. It’s brilliant.
CASHIER: Does that mean you’re buying it?
ELDERLY MAN: No. But I thought you could use the tip.

The ‘Texts and Textuality’ panel of the afternoon brought further fruit for delection. (This week wasn’t a game of Hungry Hardy Hippos, but also, I did have that much fun!). One paper about Hardy’s bibliographic identity introduced me to some annotated material I didn’t know about and which could help shape my future thoughts on Hardy and cultural memory. It also took me back to the sheer joy of handling Hardy’s own books and seeing the marginalia with which he chose to converse with his reading material. My love of the archive was also fuelled by the subsequent paper on Hardy’s use of old newspapers. I was particularly struck by the idea that in replicating Hardy’s reading, it is like looking over his shoulder while he is reading it. True, and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The first of two postgraduate panels finished the day. In an amusing icebreaker, we tried to come up with what we’d have characters/things say to each other if they could step outside the bounds of their own text. Hmm, many conversations could occur, but I would rather see some of Hardy’s lively characters have a dance-off. In fact, the more I think about it, I’d quite like to have a dance-off with Hardy himself: I think I’d give him an impressive run for his money, but that ultimately he’d beat me.

The postgraduate papers are intermingled with those of seasoned academics, which is a great opportunity, but it’s also nice to have some time in the week dedicated to being with others who are at that initial stage of the research career. Also, hearing about other people’s projects is fascinating, inspiring and makes the thesis seem – a bit! – more doable.

PS. I sat on a bench in Dorchester and tried to collect my thoughts. Ten minutes later, a middle-aged quite overweight topless man came to sit next to me and crack open a can of something. It was time to leave.

Pics: Fred Astaire shoes; one hard-working hedgehog

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Well hello, old friends! Been keeping well? (I should know better than to ask). I thought I might blog at you again a bit this week since I’m in Dorchester for the 2014 21st International Biennial Thomas Hardy Conference and Festival. That’s – well, that’s quite a lot like its title anyway. Many people come to this event every time, so there’s quite the solid community. Slightly nerve-wracking for a first-timer like myself, but everyone seems to be quite lovely.

The weather is cracking here in sunny Dorchester, with sunhats at the ready. I’m here thanks to a bursary from the Thomas Hardy Society, for which I’m extremely grateful. Even though this is only my third ever visit to Dorchester, it feels very much like coming back home.

The 4-hour train journey down on Sunday went almost without hitch (even if I did see a girl try and stop a train with her calf muscle, so that her parents could hurry aboard). I’m staying at the Sydney Arms, a pub on the brink of town by Dorset County Hospital. To anyone who knows me, my living above a pub is hilarious, even more since my room is called ‘Savoy’. To a Leicestershire-bred (and thus land-locked) lass, though, no sound can be more exciting than that of seagulls. It never goes away, that excitement – the sea is near!

A hearty breakfast Monday morning – and meeting a fellow Hardy scholar over it – and I was away to United Church, South Street, for the start of conference proceedings. The morning keynote speakers came from Boston University (USA) and the University of New Brunswick (Canada): international indeed! First, we heard about Hardy and the Gothic, which brought back interesting memories of various texts, including (inevitably, though irrevelantly) Northanger Abbey.

Next, Mary Rimmer led us through Hardy’s Culture Maps. This was really interesting to my thesis, since how Hardy positions himself within high and low culture alike is of great interest to how he is remembered. The brilliant thing about being here at all is that everyone is talking about Thomas Hardy. In my day-to-day life, that’s just me (and everyone else wants me to shut up!).

I took lunch out in order to gather my thoughts ahead of the afternoon’s papers. Conferences are so intense, and without due time to digest the information it all just gets a bit lost in the Pile of Cognitive Stuff that I’m so aware my brain is sifting through (or labouring under the weight of).

The first call for papers panel set the bar high. Among the topics offered were the somatic awareness of Hardy’s barefoot runners, trauma theory as applied to Tess and epistolary communication in Hardy’s fiction. The latter topic appealed to me in particular, as a letter-writer myself: I’ve always wondered about the difference(s) between a person’s ‘letter self’ (that one is prepared to write) and a person’s real self (which one has to be prepared to live). It also brought back great memories of studying eighteenth-century epistolary fiction (and mailing a letter from the top of San Pietro, Vatican City!).

One oddity is that this whole conference is being held in a church. It is slightly odd to be talking and thinking about Hardy facing an altar, lectern and magnificent church organ. Each chair has ‘Complete Mission Praise’ in the shelf at the back. It’s just an interesting juxtaposition.

I met the youngest delegates here; well, the children of a delegate. Nothing puts a day’s conferencing into perspective like the level of engagement and delight that an empty crisp packet can cause a months-old baby. Also, when a two-year-old picks up a knife and fork, his (in this case) sense of achievement is palpable. Why do we lose that? I, and fellow PhD students and normal adults alike, fail to appreciate anything we do – from the menial and small, to the mega and impressive. Onwards to the next day!

PS. I have also bought Fred Astaire’s shoes in a sale. I intend to use them for vivacious walking and Astaire impressions.

Pics: The inside of United Church, South Street, Dorchester; Hardy banners!

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A modicum of sleep later, it was time to take a second bit of that oversized apple (I do hope it’s a Braeburn). My original intention had been to go to the Jewish Heritage Museum this morning, but still a bit emotionally drained from yesterday and knowing my propensity for pre-flight stress, I didn’t think I’d be in the right frame of mind to best appreciate a visit. Also, with all the hours of contained-plane sitting ahead, it seemed that the best thing to do would be to be outside in the world and noticing the sunshine on my face.

With that in mind, I took the 1 train down to a corner of Central Park. My great confusion at why one woman couldn’t hold onto the supporting pole in the train carriage (she was pushing on it only with the palms of her hands) was resolved when I realised that she’d just had her nails done! I’ve never seen that before – our movements and physical traits are completely defined by our actions, it’s incredible.

I sat on a bench and did some origami, to be at peace in a garden. There was something today about needing to be outside (very Roberta in The Railway Children, if you know that marvellous film). Lots of different groups were out playing baseball, which was nice and American to watch. Baseball has very distinctive noises associated with it. It also reminded me of being in Jane’s car in New Haven, seeing a father and son on the green and excitedly saying “oh look! They’re playing – er… mitt… catch…?” Yep, I’ve definitely got all the terminology down.

Running is a big thing in New York. It’s not just that there were so many runners in Central Park, but that there are so many dedicated running wear shops in the city. Everyone is kitted out with their running-specific gear.

Squirrel count was high, you’ll be happy to hear.

Brent the Amerihog decided to show Hedgehog his stomping ground and they had a high old time looking at the trees and lakes. And making several tourists/New Yorkers confused/perturbed by their presence.

CP is a very pleasant part of the city and round the edges there are quaint farmers markets and the such like. For lunch I returned to Shake Shack, the fast food joint with really good tasting beef burgers and obviously-potato-derived fries. Yummy!

After that, I was heading for Columbia University district to force Rachel to have a study break. Because the day was so nice, I did just walk up Broadway from 77th Street. It’s quite something just to wander the streets of NY, with all of their colours and screens and text and offers and different languages and everything else.

Walking up Broadway in a straight line counting up from 77 to 111, I managed not to get lost. 10 points to me. Someone said “Hey, Babygirl!” to a grown woman – 50 I-SPY America points (and on the last day!). Rachel and I went to our beloved Nussbaum & Wu for freshly made smoothies. I chose mine mainly based on my opportunity to then ask the following question: “Can I please have a large Columbia University I.Q.?”. Rachel was impressed by how energetic I seemed, but really the main work of today has been to remain awake (a genuine struggle). I am running on empty and this point and doing what I imagine is the laboratory rat’s final frenzied little dance before he pops his ratty clogs! I’ve danced in clogs before: it’s a very strange sensation.

With anything to do with anxiety, stress, or being a chronic pain in your own arse, you have to be incredibly pleased with any 0.05% improvement you manage to implement within yourself. So I’m pleased that I managed the ‘getting to the airport for a transatlantic flight’ scenario a fraction better than I did last time. I planned a route which didn’t involve a taxi and when on the subway tried not to stress and remember that I had allowed plenty of time to get there. I tried only to think about the current stage of the process (and not pre-empt Penn Station… it’s enough to be in Penn-Head when you’re there!). Knowing I had time to spare and that my arm was bad I let the crowd dissipate before trying to find the lift which – without the time and people pressure – I did. Navigated Penn well and got my ticket. When other people were running past me to the platform I said to myself “the platform is over there, the time is 4.00 the train departs at 4.07, cool your boots, Charlwood” and then sang daft little 10-second songs to myself with titles like Please Don’t Bash Into Me, and I Like Your Case, I Wonder Where You Bought It.

The NJ Transit train to the airport was quite nice really and not crowded. They made brilliant announcements about how Newark Penn was not the airport, and then when Newark International was next, the conductor came through to tell us individually. As he got to me, I saluted him and said “I’m on it!”.
“You’re on it? I knew it. You looked like someone who’d done this before.”
Funny conductor – I like him. When I got off onto the platform, he was leaning out from the other end of the carriage to check progress, so I gave him a jolly wave. Because he couldn’t stop me.

The Virgin Atlantic man was very nice but called me ‘sweetheart’ every single exchange. Clenched grin, clenched grin, I’m so happy that you’re calling me that you 30-something man… Awkward.

Right. Flying home. Here we go.

Pics: views of Central Park; Brent shows hedgehog a favourite haunt; boating lake; hedgehogs look across the lake to the NY skyline; sharing smoothies with Rachel.

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Last night I had my usual hating-Penn-Station experience as I got off the Amtrak. The queue for taxis was magnificently long and the weather was pretty biting. Still, I had some jollity with fellow wet waiting people. In fact, generally, people have been nice and talkative here in New York: i had a lovely chat with a man in Starbucks about being in NY and making the most of one’s time here, and at a dance performance the lady next to me was voluntarily interested in conversing with me. I do think that Americans are more easygoing about chatting to strangers than we are in England.

So my first goal, after last night’s experience, is never to get in another NY taxi for as long as I live (if I can help it). It’s not the expense (though considerable), or that they always ask you “where is that?” when you give the address – it’s just not worth the fear and panic I apparently go through in a NY taxi. Yes, the traffic was particularly dire last night, but it’s the constant fits and starts (or rather rev-zooms and whiplash brakings) that through my breathing entirely out of whack. If I was an animal with hackles, I’d’ve been busting through my own fur. The only way to calm down was to accept that I might die. No, yes, this is because I’m an anxious, catastrophising individual, but for the moment I can do less about that than I can about not getting into a taxi! (Also, the little TV screens with a round of 6 adverts are extremely annoying. How the hell is Jeopardy supposed to work?!).

Anyway, I got to my destination after about 40 mins of scaredom, and was grateful. I’m staying once again with my elderly relatives: my Grandma’s cousin and her husband. Marjorie and I really hit it off last summer so it’s great to be back. We have great discussions about life, death ad all that’s in-between.

“It’s difficult to keep the roaches away in New York City.” Now there’s a sentence I won’t forget.

No, today was not a good day to have messed up my pain medication, but then I’ve never been a master of timing. It is proof of the miraculously bizarre things the brain can do, though. I’ve had the same medication routine for a couple of years now, but when I’m very tired, I can risk falling asleep before I’ve thought to take the requisite pills. Thus, in the shower last night I repeated “Now do remember to take that pill, Catherine” to myself in my head. Now why I went for the singular anyway, is beyond me, but sure enough I did remember to do something – and took my MORNNG combination of pills instead of the EVENING ones. What am I like?! And how could my brain remind me to take things, but then mistake the right combo for the time of day?! Human beings, eh? Who’d have ‘em?

My favourite sentence that Marjorie has said to me is “If you’re a human being you’re already in a predicament”. True, and observant.

I was really good with the subway yesterday (this is an achievement for a claustrophobe and Class A transport idiot like myself). However, lady who was stood behind me at 72nd St when I was trying to top up my metro card – it is not helping to loudly “Oh my God” and complain about how “it does NOT take this long”, when I’m an out-of-towner literally punching a touch screen that is not responding!

After visiting the 9/11 Memorial (see separate post) I managed to get lost in NYC. Now to everyone who says “You can’t get lost in New York City! It’s a grid”, I answer yes you can, and here’s how. It’s very simple. First, you need to have no idea which subway station exit you’re using and thus which direction you’ve ended up facing. Then you need no wifi signal while you’re on the move so you can’t look up maps. You also need not to have a physical map. Not knowing how the grid system works (with the streets avenues thing) also helps. Then, you just need to look at an actual map and be convinced you’re walking in one direction… when actually you’re walking 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Ta-da! You are lost!

Also, at one point I couldn’t see the street signs because the avenue was closed off. I chanced upon some Scottish parade? No idea what it was, but there was tartan and bagpipes everywhere. Then I ended up accidentally on 5th Avenue and that’s how I knew I’d gone wrong. The reason this was a problem was that I had a ticket for a dance performance at 3pm. And it was 2.38pm. Cue rapidly trying to figure out how I could get to where I needed to be and then sprinting 6 blocks. Because that’s the state you want to be in when you settle back to appreciate art.

I had booked a ticket to see Ailey II, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s smaller, sister company. The theatre was in the basement of the Alvin Ailey Dance Center, a huge complex in which countless different studios etc. hold tons of classes not just for dance professoinals, but children, adults and members of the community. The AA’s commitment to education and outreach has always been impressive.

I saw the Alvin Ailey Company at Sadler’s Wells in London a few years ago and just loved it. I have long been watching AA clips on youtube anyway, so it was a natural progression. Ailey founded his company partly to show African-American cultural experiences through the medium of dance. In terms of American cultural memory, his work is of primary importance. When I think of the Alvin Ailey company I think of jaw-dropping flexibility and athleticism, a deep plie in second, and arms in a wide second with the elbows inverted. I wasn’t disappointed by Ailey II. The programme I saw was called ‘Returning Favorites’, with four separate works being performed.

The Ailey company is so obviously well-loved, from the audience turn-out and reaction. In fact, I was sat in front of some Ailey-connected people with comp tickets, one of whom was (rom comments he made) obviously a retired Ailey dancer himself. The appreciation and camaraderie was really wonderful. I’m glad I got to see a work choreographed by Ailey himself ‘Streams’, which really showed off the Ailey technique I’d so wanted to witness again. The music (Eight Inventions, by Miloslav Kabelac) reminded me of the score for Planet of the Apes, because of the rhythmic drive and use of xylophone. Don’t misread this as a slight: Planet has an ace score and was groundbreaking in its use of electronic effects.

‘We’, a pas de deux by Robert Battle had me in tears. Honest, understated, beautiful. After ‘Streams’, the lady next to me turned round and started up a conversation about how good it was. I like that, when sharing in the same performance temporarily forms you into a community. It is testament to the Ailey II dancers that I really enjoyed ‘Virtues’, even though the score was by Karl Jenkins. My Mum and sister would have loved it – and really like his music – but while it is very danceable, KJ does some very silly things in his compositions as far as I’m concerned. For me, the Alvin Ailey company has never been embarrassed about showing how enjoyable movement is. Their joy is infectious. The Henri Oguike company, based in England, has a similar effect. I’ve seen lots of the world’s best dance companies perform and I love many forms of dance, but the Alvin Ailey Company is the one which I most consistently recommend friends make an effort to see. With them, I am most confident that the audience will leave loving dance, but also wanting to rush home, stick on some music and just move.

On the way back home to change for dinner, I saw the Capezio store and had to go in. To a dancey person, it’s another form of tourist attraction!

I met up with my Ameribuddy Rachel for dinner, at a favourite Italian place called Pisticci’s. Wonderful food. I also tried the Morningside Martini, because I’m living in Morningside Gardens! Delicious. The waiter recited a full 5 minute (I kid you not) specials list with no prompt whatsoever. It felt wrong not to applaud at the end of such a feat. Then Rachel and I felt very guilty when neither of us ordered anything from said specials list… (He took it well, but we felt bad). When we got a shared starter with the mozzarella on the side and I ordered a main ‘without the ricotta’, the waiter said “you must be the no cheese girl”. As titles go, it’s pretty true and non-offensive, so I’ll take it. Friends back home will be amused by this branding: their brie parties were a distinctly non-brie affair for me!

Rachel and I had a great time: reminiscing about living together in Cambridge (UK), discussing the Yale Univ Art Gallery (Rachel is a Yalie) and playing my dramatic drinking game. The Dramatic Drinking Game goes like this (and is safe for all ages): you take your glass of water, swig a sip, react AS IF IT IS NEAT VODKA or some such spirit, slam your glass on the table, eyeball your friend and improvise a line that could legitimately be from a scene in an old movie. “Well I guess I shoulda seen that coming” would be an example, but it can get pretty creative. It’s hysterical good fun. People will, though, wonder just what you’re doing…

All in all it was a yummy and delightful evening (though as ever I want to pack Rachel and bring her to Britain). A very exhausting, but well-used day in NYC, methinks!

Pics: my weekend home!; 125th Street Station; Brent the Amerihog introduces Hedgehog to one of the most important figures of American dance; an iconic Ailey image – a still from ‘Revelations'; the Alvin Ailey Dance Center; the Capezio store; thirsty hedgehogs; delicious food; Morningside Martini anyone?

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I’m posting this separately, as I think it’s important that it stands alone from my other NYC-based activities. I booked a timed ticket to visit the 9/11 Memorial for 11am this morning. The Memorial is open to the public, but the much-awaited Museum opens in May of this year. I caught the subway down to the area, got completely lost and then found the crowds. Crowds swarm around the entrance, and there are two queues: one for those who have their advance tickets and those who need to be issued with tickets. Tickets are free, but advance purchase is strongly advised.

The first thing to note was the sheer number of people going through the snaking queue system. Then my attention was abruptly brought into contact with the number of people photographing not the memorial, but themselves. A group of young women bunched together to take a picture: dentist-advert-perfect smiles and poses to best suit their assets – this is a photo heading for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (whatever it is that that is). Then another visitor offered to take a photo of all of them together, so another of these shots was taken, this time with the former photographer crouched prettily in front. Already I was thinking that it would be difficult it you had come to the 9/11 Memorial to grieve. How would you take the merriment of those queuing? I began to worry that someone might ask me to take their photo – what would I say? I couldn’t do it, but what on earth would I say?

For those getting their tickets upon arrival, they were asked for a donation to the Memorial. Donations above $10 earned you a 9/11 Memorial charity bracelet. I saw this on the website, when I was sorting my advance ticket and it just doesn’t quite sit right. I know that charity bands have long existed, but it used to be that any donation meant you could have a band if you wanted (same as a one pound pin for Cancer Research or whatever). It felt a bit oddly like a marker of status than anything else.

Security is extremely tight at the Memorial and you will be asked to remove coats, hats, scarves, bags, belts etc., put them in plastic trays and walk through a scanner individually. It bears strong resemblance to airport security, but the line moves fairly fast. The site itself is policed by 9/11 Memorial staff, 9/11 Memorial Security and the NYPD. Your ticket is scanned, checked multiple times and marked.

For all of this seriousness, many visitors were still acting like it was any other tourist attraction. The phrase ‘memory tourism’ from conferences I’ve attended came back with a vengeance. I’m the kind of person who wore what my Mum calls ‘black school trousers’ today, because I didn’t want to go in jeans. I wasn’t happy about wearing trainers, but with all the walking it was necessary.

To get to the Memorial itself, you walk a scaffolded route across uneven ground, stepping up and down from curbs, always ushered in a particular direction. Security is everywhere.

I remember all of the debates that went into the creation of this memorial: who should be remembered, as well as whose design should be chosen. Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s design was chosen from 5,201 submissions from 63 countries. It’s a very understated memorial in many ways, which I think works. The base sites of the two towers have been transformed into two pools, into which cascades the water of 30-foot waterfalls, with the water draining into a central void. The noise of the water is one powerful part of the experience. It is constant, overwhelming, natural. Around these pools, the names of the victims are inscribed on interconnected panels.

I didn’t spend long at the South Tower: it is the first thing as you go in and everyone was crowded around every part of it. Pushing to the front (as some did) just didn’t seem like the way forward.

I also saw the ‘Survivor Tree’. The information leaflet notes that this was found by workers, ‘reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump, in the wreckage at Ground Zero’. Nursed to health, it has grown tall and flowers again.

I wasn’t expecting to be desperately moved by the Memorial, given my inauspicious start and seeing so many families taking super-grinny photos (with the pools in the background), girls popping their knees for the classic ‘group shot’ pose. Everyone drinking from their Starbucks cups while they wandered around. I don’t want to think that I’m militant when it comes to memory, but I do think there are certain ways to behave. I wouldn’t be best pleased if someone wandered past my relative’s grave swigging a Starbucks. That’s a personal feeling. I started to invent little rules: no coffee, please; go by yourself – or at least break from your group and try to find out what it is that YOU can take from/wished to take from this experience. Please don’t go with your ‘gal pals’ for a girly visit – it isn’t that kind of place.

I wasn’t expecting to be desperately moved – but I was. When I wandered over to the North Pool, it was largely deserted. Big signs advertised ‘Warning – Strong Crosswind’, which – when water is involved – means the possibility of being sprayed. I actually quite relished that, and it being more of a living memorial that quite literally touched me. Since other people were trying to escape the water, I got the solitude I was looking for. In fact, I decided to walk the entire perimeter of the pool, whatever the weather. Because there were no crowds, I could read the names semi-continuously, and said some aloud as I went. The variety of nationalities is strongly evident this way and it puts 9/11 into global perspective. Twice I saw names with ‘and her unborn child’ inscribed along with them. Of course that was upsetting – all of the potential for life therein.

We all have our personal memories of 9/11 and whether they are flashbulb memories (i.e. likely to be false) or not, they remain ours and important to us. I was 14 when 9/11 happened and came home from school to this incomprehensible news item on TV. A morning event for America, of course it wasn’t for Britain. I think I remember seeing the situation develop and the eventual falling of each tower. What I really remember is watching panic and fear, and not knowing what to do about it.

I did end up in tears at the 9/11 Memorial. I sat by myself and allowed myself to cry. I was glad I had a hedgehog to hold in my hand. I felt ridiculous about crying, because nobody else around me was. It is, in itself, an apt memorial. And it is worth going to attend. I choose that verb purposely: you attend it – to be present and bear witness, but also to deal with what it was and what it is.

Pics: The notice remind visitors why we’re here; security notices; social media for your expereinces; the South Pool; the waterfall; centre of the pool; some of the inscribed names; the survivor tree; names of the rescuers who perished; view from the North Pool.

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