A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

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Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Smog on the Seine

Well that lasted ages, didn’t it? On Sunday 16th March, it was reported in the Guardian that half Parisian motorists would be banned from driving their cars into the city because of the smog caused by high PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns in size) levels and the prevailing weather conditions which had beset Paris over the last few days.

Traffic leaves Paris fuming (Picture source - telegraph.co.uk)

The environmental impacts of traffic – and of its amelioration – leaves Paris fuming (Picture source – telegraph.co.uk)

Air pollution from transport is a real issue, and Parisian authorities have pondered banning vehicles before – this time, though, they meant it.

Not all motorists would be banned – drivers of electric vehicles, for example, were still allowed to use their cars but internal combustion-engined cars would be permitted depending on whether their number plates were odd or even.

Free public transport and Vélib – the Parisian bike hire service – use was provided over the weekend, at some expense to the transport authorities, to dissuade people from using their cars and ameliorate the pervading air quality. You never know, perhaps one outcome of this measure is that more people may make use of these modes of transport in the future.

Anyway, on Monday 17th, less than 24 hours later, the Guardian was reporting that the ban was to be lifted because air quality levels – along with the weather forecast – had improved. The exercise had been a success.

Had it really been that successful? Both the article and the perceived wisdom from reader comments suggested that Parisians would routinely flout the ban, with some quoted in the article that a €22 fine was worth paying – indeed over 3,500 drivers were penalised. Had conditions really improved that quickly, or was this a response to public reaction?

It seems one thing that the ban had achieved, if only for one day, was reduced congestion. As for air quality – well, if it had improved sufficiently then, if nothing else, the one-day ban has provided a graphic illustration of the nature of traffic pollution and of the difference a transport modal switch can make towards the health of our cities. Of course, it may also be that weather conditions are better placed to disperse excess air pollution, allowing the turning a blind eye to traffic pollution. Again.

After all, it was reported that even those who had complained about traffic pollution were still prepared to use their cars, citing their essentiality. What does this say about our mobility demands and expectations, our mobility rights?

In my last blog post, I pondered the ethics of a similar, longer term, banning of older petrol and newer diesel vehicles from London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), however necessary it may be, noting that if we are to promote a truly sustainable low carbon automobility, a draconian disenfranchising of ordinary motorists is not the best way to go about it. In a consumer society, it seems meeting the environmental imperative is a PR exercise in itself. We need to bring motorists with us.

The car is ingrained into our way of life; it has utterly shaped our landscapes. However, perpetual prevarication over air quality and emission measures may well have left us with no alternative but to apply such stark automotive sanctions. The environmental imperative isn’t going to go away, and we have to consider what price we put on our respiratory health; are we really prepared put our cars and our mobility before our ability to breathe?

Auto ban?

Measures to curb transport emissions in London – such as the congestion charge – are nothing new. But the latest reported proposals go much further.

Autocar magazine has reported that moves are afoot to extend London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone and sanction the banning of older petrol and diesel cars from the centre of London.

They also note that, although such measures are still subject to consultation, an informal vote late last year to ban pre-Euro6 compliant diesel cars (those registered before 2014!) and pre-Euro4 compliant petrol cars (before 2005) won great support.

In considering such proposals, London would be following other European cities in restricting the movement of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles; Paris, for example, has previously proposed banning vehicles of a certain age, about which I’ve mentioned some cultural unease.

I’ve blogged before about air pollution resulting from our use of the car, and how electric vehicles can play a part in ameliorating this. In a blog for a postgraduate conference competition held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, a climate change research unit, I noted that while plans to lower the CO2 threshold for London Congestion Charge exemption from 100g CO2/km to 75g CO2/km may be justifiable –  even necessary – to achieve the air quality we all deserve, they run the risk of being seen as draconian, potentially disenfranchising motorists who want to do, or thought they were already doing, the right thing by driving lower-carbon ICE cars.

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

In my Tyndall Centre blog, I noted that true societal change comes from the bottom up, and that the social and cultural significance of the car means that an automotive bottom-up impetus need to be fostered if a true low carbon automobility is to be fomented. With this in mind, I felt the reduction from 100g to 75g CO2/km was a huge step, requiring the acquisition of vehicles beyond many motorists reach.

The latest reported proposals, however, at a stroke run the risk of disenfranchising far many more people than might the Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) emission threshold proposals, from classic car enthusiasts to petrolheads to motorists on a budget for whom newer low-carbon, hybrid or electric vehicles are simply not an option (especially in such straitened times as these).

So why consider such drastic action now? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the EU is taking the UK to court over ‘persistent air pollution problems’, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. Exposure to such levels comes mainly from traffic and, in London, are perhaps a corollary of increasing numbers of diesel vehicles being driven in the capital as a means of achieving sub-100g CO2/km mobility so as to avoid the congestion charge; certainly diesel cars account for half of UK new car sales.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lowering emission thresholds is obviously a good thing environmentally. However, in concentrating on CO2 emissions and using them as the basis of a fiscal instrument, other emissions – such as nitrous oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) – have seemingly been forgotten. It may be that the threat of legal action has spurred the powers that be to do something about air quality in the capital and, in the face of possible sanctions, they would appear to have panicked.

But it needn’t have been like this. If the current political administration had taken wider air quality issues more seriously, then ‘persistent’ air quality breaches cited by the EU may have been avoided and draconian measures such as completely banning older cars – therefore compromising the mobility of many less well-off motorists – might not be being considered. At least, not just yet.

The banning of older vehicles may not come to pass. On the other hand, it may have indeed come to this, with the environmental imperative now demanding drastic action. Either way, it seems that an environmental complacency has meant the ethics of low carbon automobility becoming ever more problematic.

2013 – that was the year that was

So how was 2013 for you? As the year comes to an end, and a new one begins, here’s a quick academic and automotive review.

For me, 2013 began where 2012 left off as my data collection for my PhD continued with a couple of focus group sessions and further interviews. As such, much of the year has been spent transcribing and analysing interviews and other data, which can be an onerous task although the rewards upon analysing the gems therein more than make up for it! In addition, there have been little extra-curricular academic successes on the way.

I wrote a post about two postgraduate conferences I attended and presented at, namely the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum Mid-term conference at Birmingham University in late March and the Tyndall Centre Climate Transitions PhD Conference held at Cardiff University in early April. Cracking conferences both, the latter hosted a blogging competition pertaining to delegates’ interests, with the winner afforded the chance of their entry being published in The Guardian. I was pleasantly surprised that my blog post won and, although the Guardian didn’t run with it, you can read it on the Tyndall Centre website.

The Tyndall Centre PhD Conference was swiftly followed by Coventry University’s Business, Environment and Society (BES) faculty poster symposium, in which my entry secured not only 3rd place but also garnered the ‘student vote’ too, both resulting in prizes of Waterstones vouchers. By coming 3rd, my poster went forward to the main university poster competition in July, whereupon it was awarded a joint-3rd place as part of a clean sweep for the BES faculty.

Another academic event I attended in 2013 was a reading and writing weekend held at Gregynog Hall in mid-Wales under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society’s Social and Cultural Geography Research Group and, like the earlier conferences, was a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting event where it was great to meet other postgrads and academics, and to chew the academic fat.

Look carefully - that's me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Look carefully – that’s me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Automotive-wise, an obvious highlight was being invited to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day at the Milbrook Proving Ground in early May (thank you again, MajorGav!). I spent a great day meeting up with automotive twitterati and driving cars I wouldn’t normally get the chance to, such as the Porsche 911 and Toyota GT86, and I also drove the electric Renault Zoe for the first time; being taken on a brief ride around the Bedfordshire countryside in a vintage Vauxhall 30/98 on a hot sunny day was fun too.

I attended the launch of the Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle (GMEV) scheme in July, prompting another spin in a Renault Zoe and a closer look at, but not a drive in (boo), the impressive-looking Tesla Model S. It’d be intriguing to find out how the 250 chargers throughout Greater Manchester are used, particularly the ones in Rochdale.

November brought the Classic Motor Show at the NEC which was strikingly busier than last year’s event. Though at times photographically frustrating, this increased interest can only be a good thing as people engage with the social, cultural and industrial artefact that is the car, and maybe even contemplate how the car is, and has been, consumed.

The final automotive event I attended was the December AutoTweetUp at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. I haven’t been to Gaydon for almost 20 years, so it was nice to look around the museum exhibits again and, as at the SMMT test day, it was a great opportunity to meet automotive twitterati old and new. Strangely, I haven’t blogged about it; perhaps I should.

Apart from my Tyndall PhD Conference blog entry, I’ve had one or two other things published online. An article I wrote about low carbon vehicles was published on The Green Car Website and, in a lighter vein, the PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn I compiled late last year was complemented by the very first PetrolBlog Real World Dream Shed (well, it was my idea), and it’s great to see that one or two more Sheds being have put together since; more to come in 2014?

In addition, I was interviewed in October about my study by Coventry University MA Automotive Journalism alumni Max Prince for US car magazine Road & Track which attracted some comments, tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ and may (?) potentially lead to other writing opportunities.

So, looking back, it seems 2013 hasn’t been a bad year. I’ve driven a variety of cars (if only for one day), had some posts published and been interviewed for a car magazine. I’ve attended some great academic events and had some minor academic results. In both academic and automotive spheres, I’ve met and been reacquainted with some cracking folk – thank you all; it has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure.

Insofar as my thesis goes, I began the year continuing collecting data and end the year assessing and reassessing it all; there are still walls to scale, academic mountains to climb and chapters to rewrite, but things are perhaps slowly coming together. As to when I submit my thesis, I can’t exactly say, but hopefully late spring/early summer 2014.

To round off the year, as I write, views to this blog have just hit the 2000 mark since I started it in October last year. Thanks everyone for looking; I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my posts and I’ll try to blog more often in the coming year (I think I said this last year too…!).

All the very best wishes for the coming year to you all, and here’s to 2014 – Happy New Year!

Classical gas: Volume 2

Last weekend, I visited an incredibly busy Classic Motor Show at the NEC. Here’s a brief roundup.

Such a lovely couple - Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author's photograph

Such a lovely couple – Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author’s photograph)

In the post I wrote on last year’s Classic Motor Show, I noted how busy the show had been compared to when I had previously attended in 2010. At the risk of repeating myself, this year’s show also seemed busier than last year; much, much busier. Having to queue to buy a ticket was no surprise (though this didn’t take long), but queuing to get into Hall 12 once I’d got my ticket was unexpected to say the least.

Eventually inside, I adopted the same plan as last year, which was to scoot around the stands taking as many photographs as possible before the NEC lights cast their distinctive hue upon everything, then peruse the autojumble for interesting models, books and brochures that I couldn’t afford (I almost succumbed to an Austin A90 Atlantic brochure), prior to making my way back through the show, all the while taking more time over things. It almost worked, but I still didn’t quite manage to get around it all.

It is remarkable to consider that while there is no British Motor Show any more, and hasn’t been since 2008, the Classic Motor Show seems to go from strength to strength. This year’s show was the 30th such event held at the NEC, and has grown from occupying just two halls in May 1984 to ten halls in November 2013. Taking photographs was difficult at times this year because of the sheer number of people there, and I began to wonder if the Classic Motor Show is beginning to get a bit big, a bit too successful.

I then stopped thinking like that, because it’s great that so many people want to look around cars that may well have played a part either in their past or in their dreams. The Classic Motor Show and its ever-increasing crowds would appear to prove how the automobile is more than mere transport; rather it is a culturally dynamic artefact, with each car on show invoking its own affect, for a whole host of reasons.

Taking a literal approach to the 17th century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of affect, it is perhaps true to say that cars on show moved each of us present to a ‘greater perfection’ within ourselves, if for differing reasons. Such feelings of a greater perfection may be manifest in a comfortable nostalgia as we glimpse an example of our parents’ old car, or of the car we learned to drive in, or of our own first car, or perhaps in something more stirring as we espy a sports car we may regard as a piece of art (or something more primal…).

Events like the Classic Motor Show provide the chance for visitors to realise that all these cars, whether on show or in our past, make us feel a ‘something’, providing an illustration of how the car is ‘consumed’, something we perhaps seldom dwell upon as we drive our cars today. Such consumption constitutes a geography in itself and, as such, these events are worthy of academic consideration in themselves!

In no particular order, here are just some of the cars that invoked a ‘greater perfection’ the, er, greatest.

BMW Z1

BMW Z1Probably my favourite car at the show. While I’ve always liked the Z1, enough to include it in my PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn, this was the first one I’d actually ever seen in the metal (or plastic, even). Suffice to say I like it even more now, and I really rather want one.

Mercedes Benz 190SL

Mercedes Benz 190SLThe Mercedes Benz Club stand was a delight, with several wonderful cars thereon serving to remind how Mercedes Benz was once a byword for style and elegance. The ‘Pagoda’ 250SL, 300SL Gullwing and 600 Grosser present on the stand were all were fabulous, but the one I really liked was this 190SL. Almost impossibly glamorous, and also probably my favourite car at the show.

Austin Maestro

Austin MaestroI may be showing my age here, but I recall how, in my youth, I dragged my dad down to the local BL dealer launch party when the Maestro first went on sale, so the fact that the Maestro – noted for its talking dashboard – celebrated its 30th birthday (blimey!) this year made me feel a little old.

Renault 16TX

Renault 16Very smart, with an almost tangible comfiness, this Renault 16 was another ‘car of the show’ contender for me. There are, unfortunately, far too few R16s left nowadays.

Bugatti Type 51 – ‘le Roadster Mysterieux

Bugatti T51Dubbing a car ‘the mystery coupe’ might prompt memories of Scooby Doo for some but, in this case, there appears to be a real puzzle about this particular Bugatti. It seems that while the factory production records show this car to be a Type 51, it seems that the identity of the coachbuilder who created the bodywork is less certain. A splendid car, whoever was responsible.

Jaguar C-X75

Jaguar C-X75It wasn’t just old cars which were on display at the NEC last weekend, as the hybrid Jaguar C-X75 supercar which made an appearance on the Jaguar Classic Parts stand shows. Having not made production, it perhaps wasn’t quite the halo car for low carbon automobility that it could have been but, from popular reaction, it certainly seemed to provide a halo for Jaguar here.

Morris Ital

Morris ItalThere was a large Morris presence at this year’s show, as the marque celebrated its centenary. The Morris Centenary stand had a wide range of cars from the marque’s history from a 1913 ‘Bullnose’ to this Morris Ital which, for some reason, I really liked.

Peugeot 304

Peugeot 304Very sweet and utterly French (or should that be tout à fait Française?), this 304 estate was an unassuming delight which raised a smile. Incidentally, behind it was another new car at the show, the Peugeot 308. I only managed a brief sit behind the wheel, but I was impressed; that early road tests suggest it is more suited to the Périphérique than the Nürburgring than have some cars been of late (even from French manufacturers – quelle horreur!) is also good news in my book.

Citroën DS

Citroen DSAnother voiture tout à fait Française – quintessentially so, even – surely no classic car show is complete without a Déesse (another car to reside in my PetrolBlog Dream Barn), and this was a splendid example. I had a really good chat with the folk on the Citroën Car Club stand not only about things Citroën, but also the environmental impact of the car and the merits of contemporary low carbon technologies versus the reuse and recycling that constitutes classic car motoring. We also talked about next year’s Coventry MotoFest being held from 30th May-1st June 2014 – click the link to find out more.

Audi Sport quattro

Audi Sport quattroI must admit that I was a bit of an Audi fanboy in the 80s; I had the Audi Sport t-shirt and rally jacket, Hannu Mikkola was my hero and so the Sport quattro became very much a favourite of mine back in the day (the ur-quattro is another inclusion into my PetrolBlog Dream Barn too). Chatting with the Club Audi member in attendance, it was pleasing to hear that both the ur-quattro and Sport quattro on the stand had attracted more attention than had the newer mid-engined R8 also present. Which is as it should be.

Triumph 1300

Triumph 1300For a Triumphista such as myself, this was an epic car in more ways than one. While some classic cars are stored away, this particular car was taken on a 13,000 mile post-restoration trek to the China. I think it’s fair to suggest that it’s probably run in by now.

A whistle-stop tour, then, of the 2013 Classic Motor Show. There were many other cars I could have included (maybe enough for a Classical gas: Volume 2 ‘B-side’?). A cracking day out all-in-all but please, NEC, sort out the lights – these classic cars deserve better than the jaundiced glow afforded at the moment. Perhaps the show could be moved to a time of year permitting longer ambient daylight (how does May sound…?). Even so, I’m sure I’ll be back next year.

Black and white and read all over

Last weekend, I joined 27 postgraduates and academics for the Royal Geographical Society Social and Cultural Geography Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Weekend’, held at Gregynog Hall, approximately 6 miles north of Newtown, in Powys.

Gregynog Hall - a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall – a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author’s photograph).

Having booked my place late, I would also arrive after most of the attendees on the Friday, due to my presenting at the Regional Studies Association Early Careers Conference in Manchester that afternoon. No matter; with Manchester Piccadilly station only two minutes walk away from the conference venue, I could easily pop onto a train down to Newtown (and grab some reading time too!) before then getting a taxi to Gregynog Hall itself. However, somewhere between Welshpool and Newtown, a huge bang followed by a massive shuddering of the carriage and the sound of cracking brought the train to a halt, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Blimey. What the hell was that!??!!?

It transpired that we’d hit some cattle on the line, ultimately stranding the train for over an hour and a half. While obviously a far from ideal situation (livestock and rolling stock aren’t a good mix), it must be said that the Arriva Trains Wales staff were tremendous, doing all they could to both keep us informed and get the train moving again. Having tweeted about the accident so as to let others already at Gregynog know that I’d be later than planned, I was also able to provide updates to our progress via twitter – despite an intermittent phone signal – to a stranger who was meant to collect someone on the train from a station further down the line and who’d picked up on my tweet. Alighting at Newtown just after 10pm, I tweeted a final update when the train departed and, with my good deed for the day done courtesy of the wonders of the twittersphere, I finally managed to reach Gregynog Hall where supper had been kept warm for me. And the bar was still open too!

I recommend the Blayney’s Ale, by the way.

A civilised reading space (Picture source: author's photograph).

All very civilised (Picture source: author’s photograph).

The reading on this weekend wasn’t just limited to academic texts. With acres of dark wood panelling, big leather sofas, stone-walled spiral staircases and a brilliant library, Gregynog Hall is a marvellously evocative building, invoking a real ‘affect’ that can be perhaps best described as somewhat ‘Agatha Christie’ – a cue for lots of references to candlesticks and lead piping over the weekend.

Having ascended said stone spiral staircases for the introductory seminar after breakfast, we were placed into four groups to discuss the sets of journal papers we’d all been assigned to read, before reconvening to discuss them more widely; fittingly, my group – led by Peter Adey from Royal Holloway University – was despatched to the library for the Saturday reading sessions pertaining to ‘Identity & Interaction’ and ‘Mobility & Migration’. These sessions were interspersed by lunch, afternoon tea (and cake!) and seminar sessions on academic writing and on the philosophy and rationale of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group itself, entitled Why Social and Cultural Geography?

It was during this session that the clock on the wall of the seminar room sprang a surprise as we all noticed that the hands had begun to rapidly spin around the clock face of their own accord. Was this a corollary of a long day’s reading and thinking or, as had been earlier mentioned by some, Gregynog’s apparently haunted reputation? Either way, Saturday evening was a thoroughly civilised round of supper, academic natter, some drinks and a large Jenga.

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After a bleary (for some) Sunday breakfast, the rounds of reading discussions continued, this firstly on ‘Pedagogy & Place’ and then on ‘Sustainability & Food’, with another seminar on academic writing in between; however, the logistics of Sunday taxi availability coupled with one train every two hours meant that the latter reading session was missed by some (including myself) who left Gregynog just after lunch, musing on the weekend’s events and encounters as we went.

PhD research can be a lonely furrow to plough, and one of the reasons I (belatedly) decided to attend this reading and writing event at Gregynog was to somehow try and rediscover my academic ‘mojo’ after a recent creative lull. Events like postgraduate conferences and this weekend’s reading and writing session are always uplifting and reaffirming, and are a great way to meet with other postgraduates and learn about their research. Many thanks must go to Sarah Mills from Loughborough University and Rhys Dafydd Jones from Aberystwyth University for organising a great weekend, and also to everyone who attended for making a great weekend.

We must do this again sometime.

Gregynog Hall front elevation (Picture source: author's photograph).

Until next time…? (Picture source: author’s photograph).