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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.

Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

I’ve blogged here before about my reading problems, from the neurological illness (cerebral vasculitis, very MS-like) I’ve lived with since 1994. From quite early on in my illness I was struggling more and more with print. Even large print books were a struggle. Luckily ebooks helped, when they appeared, but I still struggled with academic books, including throughout my history PhD. Which, ironically, was on historic reading habits.

Well I’m pleased to report that there are signs that my reading of print books may be recovering a little bit, or at least improving. In the last few months I’ve managed to read two non-fiction books (one academic, the other pretty in-depth), in print form. Very slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, and often less than that. And often quite extended periods before I can read any more. But even this is something I couldn’t possibly have tackled in many previous years.

There’s still no way I could tackle reading a long novel or similar in print, including in large print format. But if I can manage to catch up on some of my backlog of academic non-fiction books, albeit slowly, that would be brilliant. It would also help me move some of my planned academic history research projects forward.

My cerebral vasculitis is in a much more stable state at the moment, and the improved reading would fit along with that. But it couldn’t be assumed to happen, especially after so long. It may be that my brain is rewiring a little bit. There are probably limits to how much better it would get, given everything. Anyway it’s all very encouraging.