England, it must be said, is not at its best as it enters February. The snowdrops and daffodils have generally yet to make an appearance, and everything is cold, damp, and dreary. So, when someone offers you the opportunity to escape all that in favour of sunnier climes, you grasp the opportunity with both pale, sun-deprived hands.
And having long endured fellow students’ social media photos of sun-drenched cafés outside their Mediterranean archives, I felt like I had finally got my own back when I received an invitation from a colleague to join a panel on ‘the forgotten virtues’ at this year’s conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Society (ANZAMEMS) being held in Sydney.
My enthusiasm was slightly dampened upon typing ‘London-Sydney’ in Skyscanner, which resulted in flights daunting in both length and cost, but the lure of an Antipodean adventure was strong and I had some virtue diagrams I was dying to show off, so I got to work on honing that key skill of the doctoral candidate: begging for money.
Having already met with some success getting funds for a research trip to Paris last summer (where I wrote my abstract for the Sydney conference sitting in the gardens of Versailles – what a life!), I entered into the process again with a bit more optimism. I still find the applications a bit fraught, even beyond the cringe-worthy exercise of trying to ‘pitch’ yourself and your research. For example, do you stick to a threadbare budget estimate in hopes they’ll find you prudently thrifty, or add in every conceivable expense in hopes they’ll be disposed to help you cover it? Anyway, in the end it was well worth the administrative hassle, as between my college, the Faculty, the Royal Historical Society, and the conference itself, I eventually managed to get all my major expenses covered. Sooner than seemed possible I was making my way through snow-covered streets to Heathrow, headed towards summer.
Sydney is a stunning place, and well worth the outrageous flight time. The city was dazzlingly bright and colourful, and even the soundscape was tropical, with all sort of fauna I’d never heard before. Mindful of the jetlag, I’d arrived a couple days before the conference and had time for a few leisurely rambles around the city, especially the beautifully lush Botanic Gardens.
I also had the pleasure of joining a tour of the State Library of New South Wales the afternoon before the conference began, a tour which I was amused to note began with ‘We may not be Oxford, but …’. And indeed, while the age and size of collection might not compare to its European counterparts, the intentionality, both in the creation of the building and the curation of the collections, was very impressive. (I’m even envious of the cozy Friends of the Library room, equipped with periodicals and tea-making facilities and curiously – dare I say quixotically? – stocked with every edition of Don Quixote ever made.) We were even shown some of their lovely medieval and early modern manuscripts and incunabula.
The conference itself took place at the heart of the University of Sydney campus in the Old Quad—essentially an Oxford college teleported into tropical climes, complete with kangaroo and kookaburra grotesques.
As I told my supervisor on my return, I found the whole conference to be wonderfully refreshing intellectually. My colleagues and I were fortunate enough to have our panel scheduled in the first slot and so spent the rest of the conference just enjoying everything on offer. Covering both the medieval and early modern, there was a broad array of subjects on offer, and I sampled widely, from the Merovingians to Hobbes. The keynotes were also quite diverse and left much room for thought and debate.
On top of it all, the general atmosphere was one of the friendliest and most supportive I come across so far at an academic conference, particularly in its engagement with postgraduates and independent scholars. It was also interesting observing both the differences and similarities between Australian/Kiwi and British academic culture—of particular note was the awareness of their respective indigenous peoples, from the repeated acknowledgements that the University is situated on Aboriginal tribal land to mentions of local Maori interest in a fifteenth-century English genealogical roll.
All in all, I had a marvelous time, and I returned to England from the conference with revitalised levels of Vitamin D and a new excitement for my research.
And just in time to watch the snowdrops come out!