Saturday, April 17, 2010

Random notes from the dust zone

Since there are two or three of you who might be wondering what happened to us over the last week or so, we are happy to inform you that we were simply away from our desks and at the coal face of cultural knowledge exchange, i.e. the European Social Science History conference.

The conference was held in Ghent, which is a lovely city that I recommend you visit. (Although give it another year or so: there is some fairly intensive construction work going on in part of the central city (seems to involve installing or replacing tram lines) which means that that part of town is not at its best.) If you're driving, you may wish to tune into Belgium's Radio 1. I can't vouch for their usual quality, but we hit some kind of chart show on the way back (see reference by The Wife) and the music they were playing was far above your average radio fare.

It also introduced us to this song, which is not exactly great, perhaps, but which is nicely absurd and, because of context, took on a special quality.

Arno & DLS Band, 'Brussels'

The conference went very well (thank you for asking), at least from my perspective, and it was a pleasure to renew my contacts with a number of people and also to meet a few other people for the first time.

Of the latter, I especially wish to mention Randy Roth, whose recent book, American Homicide, was one of the featured books at the conference. I have been invited to comment on the book at a conference in Chicago in November, which is a tremendous honour, given how good it sounds, as far as I can judge from a few excerpts and conversations with the author himself. Some discussion of the book's contents might follow in the next few months.

In the meantime, we wish Randy--and a few other people that we met in Ghent--the best of luck in finding their way back to the US in the face of the Airborne Toxic Event volcanic ash cloud that has grounded pretty much all European air travel over the last few days. Given that a bunch of scary maps have tended to place where we live as part of a big red danger zone, we are happy to report that life--other than air travel--carries on pretty much as normal here under the Enormous Ash Cloud.

Not to say that it isn't a bit odd to have the skies cleared of aircraft (or nearly cleared: a few small planes and gliders were out this afternoon, but they fly well below the dust cloud, or at least that's what a computer graphic somewhere explained ...)

This is especially so as it's really only the second time I've experienced this kind of silent sky, the first being in the days after 11 September 2001.

There is something eerie about it.

As there was about something in a conversation with a now-retired historian in Ghent. He who was offering personal reflections on events in the 1960s and 70s and commented on the way that, if they live long enough, historians become not only investigators of the past but also, themselves, 'primary sources'.

This reminded me, in turn, of a discussion I'd had with a dear friend in London a few weeks earlier. I mentioned to him that it had occurred to me that Black Sabbath's self-titled 1970 debut (of which I am very fond) had had its fortieth anniversary in February of this year.

In the course of the conversation that followed, my friend pointed out that from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old today, that event was as distant historically as World War Two was to me at the same age (i.e. 1983).

Now, somehow that's obvious, I know, but I've been haunted ever since by the realisation that not only Black Sabbath but also my own birth is about as historically remote to a modern thirteen-year-old as was the battle of Stalingrad to someone of my generation at that age.

I'll have plenty of time to ponder this tomorrow, as I head off on a long-planned train trip to Britain. So far as I know the trains are running fine...except for likely being packed full of frustrated air travelers.

Ah, joy.

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