Review of the GSAH 'Trailblazing' Conference - October 2003

Kate Maxwell (Music & French: University of Glasgow)

To use Dante's phrase, I am here reading from "the book of memory". As I write, seven full days have passed since my attending the Trailblazing conference, but my memories are numerous and long-lasting. What follows will inevitably be, and can only be, a personal account of my own experience, and I apologise now to anyone who is not mentioned, or who feels that I quite simply got the wrong end of whichever proverbial stick they were brandishing that day. To this I can only smile, and invite further reviews. The papers mentioned here are by no means meant to be the best, the funniest, or even the last of the day (and thus more likely to stay in my memory). The moments described here are simply those enduring memories which I now carry with me, which I have dwelt upon since, and which I will take with me into future projects. Caveat in place, let me now invite you to take a step with me into the past, and open the door to some trailblazing.

Listening to all of the papers during the two days of the conference I made one enormous mind map, and it is to this which I now turn to see the pathways and the new interpretations brought together by the conference. There seem to be four principal branches from which other ideas stem. Directly linked to "trailblazing" in the centre are "influence", "travelling", "the self", and "moral responsibility". Most of these I wrote during Professor Broadie's opening paper, if paper is the right word, on Glasgow's place in the Scottish enlightenment. I question the use of the word "paper", for Professor Broadie appeared, to my fascination, to be talking without notes. This only served to make what he said even more interesting, for not only did I come away with a much-increased knowledge of the immortal names of our university buildings, but I was also imbued with a strong sense of admiration for someone whose face and eyes showed his genuine love of his subject, and had me entirely transfixed.

The first link I have to trailblazing is "influence", which branches out to the question "what is new"? This I asked myself during Rhona Brown's look at Robert Fergusson and innovation, the unsung heroes who are known more for their influence on their successors (in this case "Burns / of the Night", as I learnt that Les Murray's poem goes). In this section I also noted the words "discovery vs transmission", which was borne out by Fiona Stewart's look at Nuto Revelli's approach to publicising oral testimonies. Here Fiona raised questions of authenticity and observation, as well as, to my mind, the question of ownership and authorship - after all, who owns experiences? Here am I sharing mine with you, but my experience of the same event is necessarily different from yours. We are all differently the same. Another link from this branch is that of "gender", and "(inter)nationality" as demonstrated by Ms Aileen Christianson from the University of Edinburgh in her discussion of better and less well-known Scottish women writers in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In listening to her paper I became aware of the fact that "gender" and "Scottishness" are sticks with which some of these women have been beaten, and as well as being cause for celebration they are the also the tags on the pigeonholes which separate off many them from the world of "popular" writing.

"Moral responsibility" may seem like an unusual aspect of trailblazing, yet it is one which was evident in Raphael Höermann's look at the depiction of poverty in songs. Tracy Chapman's simple lyric "run, run" was linked in my mind to issues of punishment and justice, issues which, "like Banquo's ghost, just won't go away". These words come from the 1980s television series Edge of Darkness, with which Kirsty Macdonald left the lasting impression in my mind of media as a tool of education and well as entertainment. "Travelling" too is a pleasurable learning experience, and one of the papers which I particularly enjoyed was Fiona Parrott's discussion of whether backpackers are today's trailblazers or western sheep trampling through the fashionable "unexplored" (except by the people that live there who don't count of course) world. With a stroke of planning genius, Michael DeLashmutt's paper on Augustine's quest for the self was scheduled to follow, and so we were treated to the juxtaposition of a twenty/twenty-first century quest with one from late Antiquity. On my notes I have written "Is St Augustine the 'Lonely Planet' of the soul?", for his quest for the divine seemed to balance beautifully the western middle-class backpacker's quest for adventure.

The last branches of my map are rooted in "the self". Linked to "travelling" through Augustine, I noted the words "reflections", "ego", "creativity", and "unity". It is in this section that I am reminded of two papers which dealt with the broad title of "art" - Kris Jurgens's look at the Dunmore Pottery and Christine Williams's take on innovation and tradition in Cesare Pavese's early poetry. Whereas one of these two art forms is that of creation and marketing, the other is of words, memories, and the environment. In "I Mari del sud" ("Southern Seas") Pavese writes about a traveller returned home, and the poem for me was not so much about travelling as about the self which is discovered abroad and so returns home "as a total stranger". (Re-)discovering ourselves was also the topic for Helen Lloyd's surprising and stimulating paper on Mass-Observation, a movement which uses volunteers' diaries and observations as a tool for learning "the science of ourselves". I could read in the faces of other people the startlement that our mundane selves might actually be interesting; yet here I am writing about what I too observed and felt. I was struck by the fact that, although Helen was talking particularly about the movement as it was born in the 1930s, in a culture where Bridget Jones rubs shoulders with Big Brother our desire to learn about ourselves has not diminished.

For this, I think, is what I gained from the conference: the knowledge that trailblazing comes from within. As if to demonstrate this, on the Friday night in the wonderful Tchai Ovna we were treated to free tea and stories by our very own university's creative writing students. Here were trails being blazed live as we listened, privileged. It was a humbling experience for me, so used to the comfort of a time lag between composition and reception, to hear pieces fresh out of the minds of some of our most talented individuals. On the Saturday evening in the Glasgow University Union, listening to the relaxing wind-down entertainment by people who I had met over the two days revealing yet more startling colours, I thought about what we had learnt, and what we had shared. Travelling together in the conference, appreciating trails which had been blazed in both the past and the present, I felt very strongly that as we watch the present slip into the past we should think, and smile, and reflect, and appreciate, and never forget that our own creativeness can light a trail for others to follow - the constant transmission of inspiration with which we as human beings can make our mark on the future.

esharp issue: spring 2004 © Kate Maxwell 2004. All rights reserved ISSN 1742-4542