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March 31st 2020 will mark exactly ten years since my successful history PhD viva. I thought it might be nice to reflect on how the subsequent years have gone, and where things stand now for me, in academic terms.

I live with a severely disabling neurological disease, which struck in 1994 when I was just 22. It’s gradually progressive, and prevents me from working in any paid capacity in academia or elsewhere, and limits what I can do. The last decade saw me continue to battle a major relapse in my disease, including needing high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Fortunately this treatment helped stabilise my condition, although it is still progressive.

Nevertheless I have continued to be active as an academic, publishing new peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters, and presenting conference papers and participating in other ways.

In the early stages post PhD my primary focus was on publishing work from my PhD thesis. Increasingly I have moved onto new research and new topics, and have a number of interesting new research projects underway.

An unexpected more recent change of tack saw me switch from my usual eighteenth century interests to jump back into the seventeenth century. My pre-PhD MPhil (taught PG Masters) dissertation studied a rich set of seventeenth century Scottish local court records, and I felt strongly that these merited publication as well as my later PhD research. In addition I discovered a poem about the court in 1682 – written then too! I have an annotated transcript and accompanying essay about the poem due to be published soon. This might sound straightforward, but the seventeenth century context is far outside my comfort zone as a historian. Yet I have derived much pleasure working in it, and learning the historiographical ropes. Encouragingly I also think there could be more publishable outputs possible from this MPhil dissertation research.

I have also combined my historical interests with indie computer game development, specifically traditional text adventure games, or interactive fiction as they are more commonly known nowadays. Two games have been entered into competitions, one about Border Reivers in 1490s Liddesdale, the other an occult treasure hunt in 1590s Scotland based on a true story in my family history. I plan to write more in future. It’s a creative hobby that gives me much pleasure.

Another area I would like to explore more is digital humanities. I’ve always used large scale computer techniques in my historical research, probably inevitable given my previous background as an academic computer scientist. Yet I would like to do more, for example building online portals to some of the databases and resources I have built in my research, and using spatial analysis and visualisation to further explore Scottish book history and urban history.

One thing that has declined over the last decade is my participation in academic conferences. This has had a strong correlation with my neurological disease progression, and the increasing practical challenges of attending conferences given these circumstances. However I do still occasionally speak at conferences, or attend. I was due to speak at a conference in May, but then Coronavirus happened. Hopefully the event is just postponed, rather than cancelled.

Something else that has declined over the last decade is how frequently I have been able to attend Dundee University history research seminars for the university’s history academic staff and postgraduates in particular. There are various reasons for this, but my progressive disease is definitely a major factor. I was delighted recently when I managed to attend a history seminar, the first in a very long time. Many familiar faces to see and catch up with, as well as new folks to meet. Yet even largely home based I don’t feel completely cut off as an academic historian. Twitter is a particular boon, connecting me with fellow academics and historical researchers with shared interests, all over the world. I also have a good number of lecturer friends I can call on for advice if need be. Ever since my PhD I have had an honorary research fellowship in history at Dundee University, which has also been a huge help, and is very much appreciated, giving me ready access to electronic journals and other resources, so vital to allow me to continue to keep up with research in my academic fields.

I don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. But for now I look ahead with optimism, and hope to continue to build on the good progress I have made as an academic historian in the last ten years.

I’ve been playing tabletop Call of Cthulhu roleplaying (RPG) games for 13 years. Played in my case by web forum postings, meaning I can post when I’m able to, and play with people all around the world. The online asynchronous forum method of playing has been very practical for me with my neurological illness which would rule out face to face gaming or anything requiring longer periods of attention at a time. In the main games I’ve played we work through adventures and scenarios that combine Doctor Who with Lovecraftian horror. Tabletop roleplaying is a sort of communal improvisation / shared storytelling / puzzle solving experience. Each character takes on a different character, and acts out that role, responding to the situations posed to them by the Keeper who runs the game. It’s a somewhat difficult process to describe, but a fun pastime, and a dynamic form of storytelling and game playing. Past scenarios in our linked campaign have included battling ghouls in the 1930s British Museum, aliens on future Pluto, encountering fishy folk in 1980s Dunwich in Suffolk, exploring late republican Rome, and now the latest installment set in Blitz-hit wartime London.

I love playing these games, and have got a lot of pleasure out of them. Our Keeper, who runs the games, has written and designed some excellent scenarios which are great fun to play through. The game is a combination of description, player decisions and chance. The latter is usually handled with dice rolls, normally digital in our case, and we have had some shocking luck along the way. Which can upend plots spectacularly, but makes the game unpredictable and exciting to play.

My character is a schoolteacher from 1950s Scotland, and one of the original characters in the series of linked Doctor Who games. She’s a companion of the Time Lord character, and so travelled to all these times and places. It’s amazing that she survived some of the things she ran into, not least given how bad her dice rolls have often been, but it’s been a marvellous journey.

Sadly it is soon coming to an end, although exactly how I will leave is not yet finalised. I have significant dementia like problems from my progressive neurological disease primary cerebral vasculitis, and these have worsened over the last few years, even while the disease has been more stable in other ways. I simply can’t keep up with game plots any more, not having a clue what has happened before plot-wise, either recently, or further back. I forget things constantly day to day, even hour to hour, and frequently minute to minute. It poses enough of a challenge when trying to follow plots in books, never mind trying to follow the plot in a long-running RPG game. I’ve tried to keep on playing, knowing that I am one of the few original players left in the game now, but it’s simply not viable.

So yes, sad to leave, but many happy memories, at least those I can just about recall. All the games are currently still online for me to reread, and enjoy again, marvelling at everything I’ve forgotten since.

One thing I really miss with my neurological illness is being able to walk around a place and explore. I used to love wandering around St Andrews as an undergraduate, and Hawick and other Borders towns when I was even younger. When the illness started in 1994, when I was just 22, it didn’t stop me walking right away, though there were issues. Walking difficulties have increased over time, especially after my major relapse in 2004.

I now always use two sticks out and about, and can hardly walk any distance. Often I have to use my wheelchair. I have had a Blue Badge since 2001 for good reason. It does mean that when we go on overseas trips I am extremely restricted. I have to sleep most days anyway, but even on other days I need the help of taxis or similar to get any distance away from the hotel. In Venice I had a huge struggle walking to the nearest water bus stop. And when I go back to Hawick I can’t explore as I’d like to. On trips my husband becomes my roving eyes, exploring a city on foot, with digital camera in hand, on the days I have to sleep. That helps me “see” a bit more of a place. But there’s still a great sense of loss. And I know I will never recover this. My disease is progressive.

It’s particularly frustrating for me as an urban historian. So much of my academic research in the last 20 years has been on towns, and town development, especially in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Luckily even with my disability I can make progress with a lot of documentary records – including digitised ones that I can access at home – and old maps and town plans. But there’s no real substitute for exploring a town on foot on the ground.

So yes, it’s sad, but I’m still able to explore my interests intellectually and academically. And life is still rewarding. Albeit not very mobile!

I keep track of my reading in Goodreads and last year finished 84 books. Looking back on them there are a number of patterns that emerge, and I thought it might be interesting to blog about overall trends and some specific titles that I particularly enjoyed. Note these 84 titles are just those books I read from cover to cover. I also dip in and out of a lot of academic books – usually it is rarely necessary to read those cover to cover for what I need as an academic historian. But the 84 books were read fully.

Unsurprisingly a high portion, over a sixth, of the books finished were Doctor Who ones. Yes I’m a big fan. Most were fiction, including some of the fairly recent new Target novelisations of Tenth and Twelfth Doctor stories. But I also read older books, both more recent Who full length novels, 1990s ones like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, and some pre-1989 Targets. A particular highlight among the Who books was the new novel Scratchman, based on a movie script idea by Tom Baker and Ian Marter, and turned into a novel more recently by James Goss with Tom Baker’s help. This was completely bonkers, and a delight from start to end. It also made some fun creative decisions writing-wise, in a similar way to the experimentation that Steven Moffat did with his new Target novelisation of his 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor. Most of my Doctor Who reads were fiction, but I also read some Obverse Books Black Archive books, which analyse individual Doctor Who stories, and are always fun.

After Doctor Who the next biggest chunk of books were classic literature. Non-English titles (read in translation) were Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which I insisted throughout on referring to as the Muskehounds), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All fantastic reads, but the first and third particularly so. From 19th century English literature I read Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (not a single likeable character in there I think!), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (that one superbly done), and reread my favourite Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. From slightly later was EM Forster’s A Room With a View. And I read and enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, though more for the adventure and scene setting than the hefty romance novel elements.

I made a deliberate effort to read some Scottish books this year, including Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song which I had never read. I really enjoyed that, though more for the sense of place and impressive presentation of language. Another Scottish book read set in a similar era was Donald S. Murray’s As the women lay dreaming about the Iolaire disaster. And I read and enjoyed David Greig’s play Dunsinane, a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Another Scottish author read was Iain Banks – the scifi “Iain M Banks” version of him! – with his The Player of Games, the first of his Culture novels that I’d read, and an inventive plot based around game playing. Another scifi book read was Michael Moorcock’s steampunk The Warlord of the Air, a theme that continued with a reread of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars was a fun scifi alternative history of the early days of space flight. And from the Worldcon scifi convention in Dublin’s panel on Irish fantasy and scifi I learned about 19th century Belfast writer Robert Cromie, and read his The Crack of Doom.

Another recommendation that I picked up from the Dubin Worldcon was Jane Gilheaney Barry’s Cailleach about witchcraft and a family in rural Ireland. Many other fantasy books were read over the year, including Ben Aaronovitch’s first Rivers of London, Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret, Charles Stross The Nightmare Stacks, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, and Andrew David Barker’s The Electric – that last an unexpected joy, a love letter to old films and the magic of cinema.

I’ve mentioned a number of 2019 rereads already. There were others, including Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows, Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills (part 2 of her Merlin trilogy), Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch (part 3 of her Dark is Rising fantasy series), Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and my annual pre-Halloween reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. For that last one, a Lovecraftian delight, I even treated myself to a first edition copy of the book. I reread it every year, without fail.

I finished many non fiction books. Some were related to my academic research, including Murray Pittock’s Enlightenment in a Smart City and Martha McGill’s Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland. Others were read purely for fun. I greatly enjoyed Mary Beard’s SQPR, a history of the Roman empire. Also Chris Lintott’s The Crowd and the Cosmos, about the Zooniverse project, which was arguably more interesting for its discussions about issues of handling big data and crowd participation than the astronomy content. Other Tolkien books read included Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook about the films (highly recommended) and two Tolkien books bought in a Palgrave sale, The Keys of Middle Earth (excellent introduction to Old English and Norse etc. studied through Tolkien’s reuse of themes/topics) and the less successful The Riddles of the Hobbit. I also read graphic novels, including Doctor Who actress Jessica Martin’s excellent Life Drawing, and a British Museum manga exhibition book.

Crime novels were also a presence in my reading, ranging from classic crime (including the first Campion and an Agatha Christie) through more modern works (including a Hamish Macbeth and the first Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael – the latter yet another reread), and my first read of Donna Leon’s Venice set crime novels, read just after we came back from a trip to the city. I’m less interested in real life crime or anything too gory, but like books that have a good sense of place and plot. I lean towards older crime novels.

Just three computing books show up on my 2019 list. A fun, quick read was Steven Howlett’s A Diary of an 80s Computer Geek, which recalled 1980s British home computing, albeit with a heavy leaning towards the ZX Spectrum. Far less successful was Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games, which promised interesting insights into game developers, but ended up being far too much about the author’s own life and travails. Far better for me was Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, which gave an often agonising behind the scenes account of the development of a good number of computer games, both small-scale indie ones with a single developer, and huge large studio projects. It did not always end well, but was a riveting read.

Other than this there were some other scattered books. I particularly enjoyed another Obverse Books publication, Paul Magrs’ festive Bowie tale Stardust and Snow. Recommended reading, especially for any David Bowie fan. Another highlight was the reprinted edition of the Usborne World of the Unknown Ghosts book. This book captivated many children back in the 1970s and 1980s, but somehow passed me by. Now rectified!

So it’s been a good year of reading for me. Almost all read on my Kindle with a gigantic font (think the youngest children learning to read book style, including some Ladybird books) that helps me overcome significant reading problems from neurological disease. Next year I think I’ll continue trying to read more word literature books, and already have some lined up waiting on my Kindle. But beyond that who knows! Looking forward to it anyway.

Photo of Grand Canal in VeniceI recently returned from our silver wedding anniversary trip to Venice, our third visit to the city since the 1990s. We always go in winter, out of season. It’s much quieter, and very atmospheric. But of course you run the risk of the acqua alta or high tides. And this year has been exceptionally bad for that, with already the worst tides to hit Venice for over 50 years. Given that, just days before our long-planned trip, we considered carefully whether we should still go. But taking into account the tide forecasts, and armed with our wellies we were taking anyway, we went ahead. We know the city well, and were confident we could get on well enough. Also we checked that our hotel had electricity and its lifts were working. As it was we flew in on another day of exceptionally high tides, albeit later in the day after levels had dropped a bit. Even so, when we got to our hotel the staff were still in rubber boots, albeit expecting to be back in normal footwear the next day.

I was most struck by the sense of resilience among Venetians we met. Everywhere there were still signs of the recent problems, with raised walkways at the ready if needed. Many shopkeepers were still cleaning out their flooded shops, and more metal flood barriers were being attached to buildings in case the high floods returned. And, of course, home owners were hugely affected, and trying to restore a sense of normality to their damaged homes. Everywhere many Venetians still wore wellies out and about, even on drier days, and were getting on with things in a stoic manner. But we always found people welcoming, kind and generous.

As a disabled visitor Venice poses many challenges, indeed I hadn’t thought I would ever get back again until my neurological disease unexpectedly became more stable for a time at least. I walk with two sticks permanently now, and struggle with stairs and distance. Venice is best explored on foot, but then you have to contend with bridges – with steps up and down each side – and of course crowds, even if the latter are far less of an issue out of season. We did see a wheelchair user boarding a vaporetto – water bus – but both of us wondered how well he would get on elsewhere in the city. There are lifts now for some of Venice’s larger bridges, but they are often out of order. And that still leaves many smaller bridges to cope with. To add to the hazard many tourists stop on top of bridges to take photos and selfies, so become obstacles. Much cursing. At least most folk were walking on the right hand side, in the Italian manner.

On the plus side we made many wonderful new memories. Much of our time saw visits to familiar sites. I was particularly keen to go back to the Accademia Gallery, to see massive detailed paintings by Gentile Bellini and others. I especially love the enormous city scenes with architectural details, that seem to jump off the canvas, like a 3D picture or stereo photo. This time I also saw the newly restored Vittore Carpaccio narrative cycle of St Ursula paintings. Gobsmacking. On the downside there were a ridiculous number of stairs in the building, and only limited lifts – asking about a lift on entrance got no helpful response, so after buying our tickets I battled up the opening stairs to the first floor. The lack of lifts would deter me from going back. But there are some gorgeous artworks in there. Also on the art front my husband Martin had an unplanned but wonderful visit to the Museo Querini Stampalia where he was blown away by the amazing ceilings and delightful collection of paintings and other artworks. He couldn’t stop talking about it and he’s not normally into art like this.

Another highlight was riding the vaporetto water buses, up and down the Grand Canal. We used these to shortcut the amount of walking I needed to do, and to cross the Grand Canal easily. So it was very much a case of leapfrogging from one stop to another. I’d forgotten the sensation of sitting inside the vaporetto stop (a floating box with seats), rocking gently, waiting for the vaporetto to arrive and bump heavily into the stop. If you want to use the vaporetti to help with mobility problems like this buy a multi day tourist ticket, which is good value. You can even buy one at Marco Polo airport when you arrive, then have the ticket in hand. Vaporetti staff were very attentive and supported me as I made my way on to and off the boats with my sticks. Though I never felt unsafe. I wouldn’t like to do that transfer in a wheelchair though.

Caffe Florian in St Mark’s, the world’s oldest coffee shop, was extensively damaged by the floods, but reopened during our stay. We turned up on my second outing day, got a quiet table inside, and treated ourselves to a wonderful meal of sandwiches, ice cream and cake, amazing coffees and chilled drinks. The service was sublime. A real treat, and somewhere we were delighted to return to. Another highlight was visiting our favourite restaurant, near our hotel, for a lovely Italian meal, in an atmospheric room looking out to a nearby canal. Superb food, and, again, incredibly welcoming service. We couldn’t have had a nicer time there.

Venice is, of course, a city filled with shops to appeal to tourists. I’d made a long list of the shops I wanted to get to, largely inspired by the Venezia Autentica website. In the end some were still closed, recovering from the recent floods. But we did manage to visit the masks shop I wanted to go to, and bought an amazingly blingy full face cat mask. Another must visit was Scriba pen shop north of St Mark’s. Set in an extremely compact unit, Scriba cram in a phenomenal range of pens, stationery and their own marble paper journals and notepads they bind with their own traditional presses. I’m a fountain pen fan, but didn’t need to buy any more fountain pens. But I did fancy a Murano glass dip pen, and the shop put together a set with my choice of glass pen (style and colour), glass stand, and ink colour in a wee bottle. All marvellously packaged up, safe for travels home. I also bought a good sized marble paper covered lined journal. Oh and they have a section of the shop set up where you can try the dip pens before buying.

As an academic I’m obviously prone to buying books. I managed to largely restrain myself this time though, thinking of taking our wellies back in our suitcases (the wellies had already taken up a lot of suitcase space on the journey out). But I was delighted to pick up an Oxford University (!) book about the printing revolution in Europe 1450-1500. Packed full of illustrations and interesting infographics, it was perfect for book historian me. My husband also bought a number of fascinating books in the Museo Querini Stampalia shop.

Having a comfortable hotel was vital. Location was important, given how difficult walking is for me. Luckily we stayed in a great place before, just a short distance from St Mark’s, en route to the Accademia, but in a very quiet side street. As usual I had to sleep extensively, in between days of activity. Luckily we’d allowed time, a week visit this time, but in practice that meant we would fly in, then I slept all the next day, then a day of activity, then another day of sleep, before a second day of activity, then more sleep before flying home. On those days I slept my husband explored Venice on foot and by vaporetto, often in wellies, and had a great time.

Visiting Venice is always a bittersweet experience, and that was no less the case this time. There is a palpable sense of decay, a city clinging on despite the ravages of time. But it is also an uplifting place to visit, full of curious nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in, gorgeous things to see, and welcoming people. Winter has a particular atmosphere in Venice. Magical.

But of course I fear for the city’s future. It’s a clear warning for the dangers of rising sea levels, more uncertain weather and global warming. It’s hard to be optimistic for Venice’s long term future. Though in the short term there are steps that could help, for example getting the much delayed flood prevention scheme up and running, and reducing access to and damage from big cruise ships. It’s likely some very difficult decisions will have to be made about Venice. But for now, anyway, it clings on, albeit increasingly precariously.

I recently embarked on another reread of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings. I considered blogging my way through it, but for various reasons, mainly my health situation, I decided against doing that. However I think it still merits a blog post.

It’s been my favourite book for a very, very long time. I first read it back in the early 1980s. At the time I was still using the children’s library in my home town Hawick, and this title was shelved in the “grown ups” section. So a parent borrowed the volumes for me, in turn. I was gripped. A few years later I got my own single volume paperback copy, on a summer holiday day trip to Dundee. It was bought in a tiny gaming shop (RPGs, miniatures and board games) in Exchange Street in the city centre (long since closed). Little did I know that two decades on I’d be living in Dundee myself …

That paperback copy was read lovingly repeatedly over the following decades. I still have it, and it’s one of my most cherished books, albeit in a “well-loved” state by now! But nowadays I generally read fiction on my Kindle, for disability reasons, and have trundled through Lord of the Rings that way several times over recent years.

The book is an epic tale of little people, of various kinds, fighting against adversity. But it’s also a tale of a vanishing rural idyll. And a world of myths and legends, and magic, all vividly imagined by Tolkien in the fantasy world that he created.

As I reread the opening portion, Fellowship of the Ring again, I’m struck by how many things I don’t recall noticing so much before. For example the opening prologue has a surprising amount of spoilers, albeit easy to miss, for what happens later! Likewise I was enchanted by Elvish names for constellations such as Orion and the Pleiades. It very much makes you feel that the book’s Middle Earth is an earlier version of our own world, and that looking up to the sky today you see, by and large, the same view that the hobbits and the elves did that night in The Shire.

Rereading this book is proving to be a delight, as always, and something that I will continue doing for the rest of my life. It never loses its magic for me, and is always a familiar friend to return to.

I’ve blogged before about the considerable difficulties I have attending academic conferences now, due to a neurological illness.

I’ve persevered for years with access problems and excessive fatigue meaning that I can only attend often a day at most, or have to do a day at the conference, then a day of solid rest, then another day back at the conference, and so on. But even though my disease is doing better at the moment, I’m now seriously considering whether it will be practical for me to attend academic conferences from now on. This is despite the pleasure that I can get from attending a conference, and the academic stimulation, and benefits of networking etc.

To be fair a lot of conference organisers have been enormously helpful in helping me attend. In particular many have allowed my husband to attend free as my carer, to help me get around, with or without my wheelchair, fetch food etc. But equally I’ve had huge problems. A particularly notorious example was at the SHARP 2016 book history conference at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Despite assurances in advance, and my confirming repeatedly to organisers which talks I wanted to go to in my wheelchair, the conference organisers scheduled one of my desired panels up a flight of stairs with no lift. A simple human error, yes, but one that caused me considerable difficulties on my sole day at this conference.

Attending international conferences like the Paris one puts particular strains on me. I need to sleep for much of my time there, on alternate days at the very least, so I’m limited in how much I can attend any event. My husband is needed there to help me attend. I don’t have financial support from a university, so we foot the double travel costs ourselves as well as registration fees (my husband usually gets in for free, but I often have to pay a full multi-day conference registration fee, even if only attending on a single day). More worryingly many academic conferences are in university buildings which vary markedly in their accessibility, and, as the Paris example shows, organiser assurances about accessibility aren’t always reliable. And so often it’s just simply not worth the hassle to me.

I don’t want to rule out attending conferences completely, but I think it’s going to be increasingly unlikely that I’ll attend international ones in particular. I had hoped, for example, to attend the SHARP book history conference in Amsterdam in 2020, but for various reasons, largely out of my control, I’m doubtful of doing that now.

But I do still intend to travel overseas. I have travel plans for later this year, but the focus increasingly will be on fun and enjoyment, under my control as much as possible, rather than trying to do something that’s increasingly impractical for me, difficult to manage, and reaps insufficient rewards.