Reflections on ‘The City: Myth and Materiality’ symposium.

An image depicting sunset over Waterloo Bridge from the south bank
Waterloo (bridge) sunset’s fine

Once again I have taken Rochdale on tour, this time to London for a symposium (an academic meeting). On Tuesday, I attended The City: Myth and Materiality symposium organised by Association for Literary Urban Studies, and the Institute of Historical Research, supported by the University of London and the Turku Institute of Advanced Studies.

I took 15 pages of notes but I’ll try to keep it succinct while attempting to do justice for each speaker/not divulge verbatim in case a paper is a potential journal article! I’ve tried to represent each speaker as accurately as I can through the notes I’ve made, any errors in these representations are mine (let me know – I’m happy to correct). The programme for the day can be downloaded via this link.

*** I’ll include my slides at a later date after writing around them first. This is not the first super fast presentation that I’ve done – hello, 3 Minute Thesis! – but it’s the first lightning panel that I’ve been on so I wasn’t quite sure how to write a paper this way so it was certainly a learning experience and a different way to write. That said, I wanted more from the other lightning bolts, however, that may have extended the day to a full week’s conference! ***

The purpose of the symposium was to explore the intersections (and connections!) of literary studies, urban histories, human and cultural geographies. It was, as you may have guessed, highly interdisciplinary.

Opening: Dr Peter Jones

Dr Jones told the story of the London Stone. A physical object, oolitic limestone with its own mythologies that I was not familiar with, and, as readers of this blog know, I love a good folk tale! This London legend set the scene for the rest of the day accompanied by the usual fire alarm, toilets and lunch break spiel.

Traces of the 1905 Revolution in the Literature and Urban Space of Tallinn: Monumental Myth, Novelistic Materiality – Elle-Mari Talivee and Dr Jason Finch

This paper discussed the juxtaposition of myth and materiality in the construction and subsequent removal of different memorial monuments. The spacialities and urban topographies of commemoration. An amusing piece of information I found particularly pertinent were the communal nicknames given to Tallinn monuments built to recall the 1905 revolution, more out of amused affection than spite, such as the “cheesewheel” (1930 – 1958) and “Taxi!” (1958)

The Novel and the Geography of Post-war Melbourne – Dr James McGregor

Dr McGregor is an urban planner who has followed up his interest on literary representations of Melbourne. His paper drew upon his current project on post-war novels. He is utilising the scholarly fields of literary geography and quantitative literary history to present, and represent through maps, how Melbourne is written about and conceived in the imagination. In this paper he highlighted understudied women writers, including mapping the suburbs, typologies of building/s in the Melbourne area, and mapping the landscapes of class and housing.

European Reservations, Nigerian Literature, and Decolonization – Dr Tim Livsey

Dr Livsey’s paper reflected upon how historians could use literary texts – novels and song lyrics – as an ‘alternative archive’ to understanding European reservations towards the end of Empire. In order to make ‘meaning of spaces…way [they’re] represented…[through reading and listening] to artists with deep experience’. While acknowledging that there are contrasts with historical primary research yet it is about ‘reaching for a variety of different resources for dialogue’. Just want to pause here to state how much I learned from this, how many more books that I’ve added to my reading list, and basically, what Dr Peter Jones said:

I concur!

Lightning Panel!
1. ‘The Royal Academy over the Water’:  Excavating the Myths and Materials of
Popular Culture at the Canterbury Hall – Dr Peter Jones
The ‘transpontine triangle’ on the south side of the river Thames (basically, there were theatres, it was not a cultural lacuna).

2. Robinson Crusoe Modernised: Liverpool as Literary ‘Contact Zone’, c. 1840s-1930s – Dr Alexander Scott
The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary depictions of Liverpool – Charles Dickens ‘Poor Mercantile Jack in Uncommercial Traveller (1861), Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1845/46), and Herman Melville’s Redburn: His First Voyage (1849).

3. Assessing the Urban ‘Stations’ of Christ: Agnes Blannbekin’s Visions of a
Mercantile Christ – Amanda Langley
Agnes was a medieval, uncloistered mystic. She had powerful visions of Christ, accompanied by a sweet taste. Three heavens and three stations: wares, food, and clothing. Strong images of material goods and a benevolent Christ. (Our panel Q&A was offered some strong percussive thunder, which was joked around!)

4. Jerusalem, A City in Waiting? Divided Arab Jerusalem between 1948-1967 – Haneen Naamneh
A legal geographical outlook on the contested area of Jerusalem – the quotidian reality of that time is an understudied area. Considering representations before and after the Mandate. Plus amusing news headlines calling for pants for donkeys.

5. Toronto is a City of Trees and Rivers with Londoners Wandering in the Clearings – Meeria Vesala
Exploding myths of Toronto from certain heritage and cultural depictions: a “mean city”; a “self-obsessed” city; the “capital of Canada”, and the “most multicultural city”. Or worse, accused of being ‘a city in search of its own creation myth’. Using locational research, narrative inquiry, and a study of material histories.

6. (Re)Making Rochdale: Exploring Heritage and Regeneration Stories of Place – Er, that’d be me.
Rochdale: more than a shadow of Manchester and more than its negative media depictions; a place that deserves more than neat regeneration and heritage narratives. And some wondering on how to facilitate place writing as a form of campaigning: a brief straddling of literary studies, storytelling, and creative writing praxis.

7. Don DeLillo’s Evanescent Materialities: Underworld, ‘The Power of History’, and the Polo Grounds – Dr Markku Salmela
The ballpark as a physical and as an imagined place. The incarnations of the Polo Grounds (1911) and a legendary home run. A mythic event, a place-made event, and a place remembered through one game. Ending with a rather sombre image depicting a scene of destroyed bleachers, of a club house pre-demolition.

CUT TO: Lunch montage
CROSS FADE: back to the symposium

Metaphor and Myth of the New York Waterfront in Vision 2020, New York
2140, and ‘The Sixth Borough’ – Dr Lieven Ameel

Drawing upon actor network theory, Dr Ameel’s paper explored how agency is described – and myth and materiality at the waterfront – the 6th Borough of New York as heterotopia. Paying particular attention to the use of metaphor in a specific planning document. This paper gestures towards a larger, longer-term project. Also featuring a literary tour of the imagined sixth borough in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005).

City Buildings as Non-Human Narrators: The Materiality of the Mythical in Wim Wenders’s The Berlin Philharmonic (2014) Dr Tania Rossetto and Giada Peterle

This paper is also from a larger project on architectural geographies and the authors discussed the use of a more-than-human perspective: that of a building – the Berliner Philharmoniker – narrating and presenting a tour of itself. This was a beautiful, imaginative paper that demanded thought about different ways in performing the architectural gaze, thinking ourselves through objects.

Metropolitan Marble Mythologies – Dr Maria Mitsoula

Dr Mitsoula is an architect-academic and her paper explored the collective memory of a city. In this case, Athens pre- and post- the 2008 protests – and the importance and symbolism of white marble. How marble has come to represent the city in collective memory – in a material and mythic sense – and how the ancient, and contemporary, architecture is linked to its imagined. Plus literary interpretations and images of street art that highlight the absence of marble post-riots.

Beyond Realism: London and the Theatre of Harold Pinter – Dr Peter Lawson
This paper positioned London as a contested space. Drawing on modernist theatre and Harold Pinter’s writing, London and Jewish heritage. Suggesting that both the ideas of London and of Jewish identity are kindred notions in their ‘indefinability’ and universality. And the use of jokes in Pinter drawing upon his East End Jewish heritage in The Dwarfs (1963). And, of course, the use of the “Pinter” pause – for the unsaid and the unsayable.

Plenary: Would you Adam and Eve it? Geography, Materiality and Authenticity – Professor Richard Dennis
‘What comes first: the place or the story?’
With this opening critique, and drawing upon the works of George Robert Gissing, Professor Dennis discussed approaching texts as a geographer interested in topographical veracity, the power of toponyms, and the real and imagined literary geographies of London. He argued that a knowledge of geography would aid understanding of the author’s intentions, further that geography generates stories. The inner city streets are walkable and relatable but the suburbs, although recognisable, are more anonymous and ‘sites for comedies of manners’ (particularly Surrey, it seemed…). And although he emphasised this halfway through, I think it’s a good place to end with the idea that ‘GEOGRAPHY MATTERS’.

So, I hope that was interesting for you. And, believe me, I now have a bigger TBR (To Be Read) booklist than I did before. I enjoyed a day that featured many global, temporal, and historical voyages: London, Liverpool, Rochdale, Lagos, Toronto, Jerusalem, Melbourne, New York, the Jewish East End, plus mystical visions of the geographies of a mercantile Christ. With added more-than-human perspectives, so many truly interdisciplinary and wonderful papers, and much to ponder upon further. (And a fab lunchtime conversation on ECR life, Emile Zola and Paris with Dr Kit Yee Wong. Germinal! Germinal!)

Ultimately, though, what has this to do with Rochdale? Well, it has reinforced my belief that urban regeneration and heritage narratives are ripe for critique. That the privileging of these narratives, and subsequent town/city planning informed by these (or, indeed, in tension with these), should be scrutinised. Campaigning place writing, such as the Seven Sisters book proposal – eventual published literature that will be consumed and later critiqued – continues a rich tradition of writing that challenges top-down decision making regardless of whether or not it’s considered ‘high’ or ‘low’ cultural value. (Popular example: consider Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and how it galvanised environmental action against pesticides, writing as a call to action.) And how imaginative place writing – such as Simon Armitage’s Xanadu (1992) regarding the decline and fall of Ashfield Valley social housing – can colour the way in which places are considered. Literary writing, quotidian stories, and the – frankly weird and wonderful – folklore, of Rochdale, in tandem with regeneration and heritage narratives, on one level complicates the contemporary media depictions of Rochdale, on another level offers a challenge to these neatly packaged, top-down narratives.

Other blogs on the day (I’ll add to this!)
Dr Lieven Ameel: The City: Myth and Materiality – London, 29 May 2018


Because trains in the UK are, frankly, rubbish, expensive and unpredictable I had to leave dead on 5.30pm. The train connections were tight, and running was involved. Feel like I’m always running for trains these days and I’m still resisting joining the car club even though I’ve had a license for more than twenty years. (Aside: I’m glad that I’ve been walking more and have returned to the gym as my aerobic skills and recovery are much improved. Phew!)

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