As I write these words I’m lying in bed with what can only be described as a colossal hangover. But this is one of those rare occasions where I feel like consuming copious amounts of fermented vegetable drink was deserved. Over the last two days, the 17th and 18th of March to be precise, I was one of the organisers for the annual RGS-IBG PGF Mid-Term Conference (all the acronyms) at Newcastle University. Along with four co-organisers and some endlessly helpful colleagues from the geography department we’ve spent the last few months planning the conference, and to be honest it feels a bit surreal now it’s over. I’m probably going to get back into the office next week and sit there simply not knowing what to do with myself. Well, get back to my thesis probably, but it already feels weird to think that the conference has happened and that, apart from tying up a few loose ends, there’s not really any work left to do. In light of the conference, I essentially just wanted to share some feelings about the two days. Aside from organising, I also chaired five sessions, and as a result got to see some absolutely fabulous presentations. I also presented myself, and despite doing roughly 30 seconds of preparation it seemed to go down OK. So, what follows is my account of the two days, some thoughts, and some reflections.
So. It all began not on Thursday the 17th, but the night before, where we booked out the bottom floor of a local pub near the train station called The Town Wall to greet anyone who was arriving. There was, I don’t know, about 25 people there in total? Including our esteemed Chair of the PGF Greg, our equally esteemed Annual Conference session organiser Phil, and various people from various universities who had come for a pint (or gin, or both) and some food before heading back to their hotel to prepare for the morning. Due to some severe self-discipline, I limited myself to four pints, and as a consequence arose at stupid o’clock on Thursday morning feeling relatively fresh. Thursday began with registration: sitting on the desk giving out lanyards, goodie bags, conference handbooks, Wi-Fi passwords that ended up not working, realising that despite everything I didn’t know where the nearest toilets were (oops), and in general welcoming people to the conference venue and pointing them upstairs for tea and coffee. It was great to put some faces to the names I’ve been emailing over the last few weeks. Then, the absolutely amazing Maddy Thompson (and no, she didn’t make me write that!) opened the conference by introducing the first keynote by our Head of Geography Anoop Nayak. I didn’t get to see Anoop’s talk, but afterwards everything I heard about it was overwhelmingly positive, and rightly so: as well as being our Head he’s also been pivotal to supporting the organisation of the conference. Booking rooms, giving us money – Anoop insists he didn’t really do anything, not really, but he really, absolutely did. Then it was off to the first session of the day.
Which, for me, was called Historical Geographies I. As someone who works at the confluence of historical and political geography, it was an absolute delight to chair. Particular highlights were Brian Johnston of Queen’s University Belfast making geostatistics, weathering, and aged stones sound genuinely fascinating; and Josh Blamire of the University of Liverpool reflecting on anti-austerity protests in Liverpool. Then I chaired a session called Geographies of Nature and Energy, which featured my friend, housemate, and frequent pub companion Stefan Rzedzian from Newcastle. Before him though, we had two great presentations from Richard Sieff of Loughborough University and Adrian Gonzalez of Royal Holloway. Richard spoke eloquently about the possibilities of ‘off-grid’ energy in Kenya, and Adrian gave a great talk about his work exploring the political ecology of voice in Peru. Then the main man Stefan stepped up and – to be honest – gave a wonderful account of his stuff on environmental activists and NGOs in Ecuador. Stefan works on the rights of nature, which have been enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution, and how these rights are enacted and negotiated between the state and the aforementioned environmental movements. I know his work quite well, but it was still great hearing about the early ideas coming out of his 18 odd months fieldwork in Ecuador (even if he did go over time, shock!).
There were four workshops happening on Thursday too: one on publishing, one on impact, one on academic careers and CVs, and finally one on inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural research (to be necessarily brief). Again, I didn’t get to go to any of them, but the feedback has been solid. The final part of the day for me was chairing and presenting in Historical Geographies II. My friend and colleague Mark Lambert of Nottingham University spoke about his work on railway heritage and museums, before Stephen Walker (also of Nottingham) talked brilliantly about his work on the origins of the ‘industrial revolution’ (and I would never have put that term in scare quotes before his talk) in Nottinghamshire. Stephen was a geography teacher for 30 or so years before beginning his PhD, and it showed: it was a presentation that seemed effortlessly smooth and entertaining. Then (gulp) it was me. Although I’d had effectively no time to plan or practice my presentation, it was based on a paper I’ve recently wrote – any journal editors out there want to publish something on Cecil Rhodes’ (geo)political thought? – which meant it was still quite fresh in my mind. Apparently (‘apparently’) it went really well, and I had a great question off Sarah Evans from the Royal Geographical Society about the relevance of my historical research to the ongoing #RhodesMustFall movement in Oxford, which was trying to remove a statue of Rhodes from atop Oriel College as part of a wider struggle against the ongoing legacies of colonialism at Oxford University. Thanks also to Lucy from Durham for probing my ideas on the Friday too. Once that was done, it was time for the evening meal at the Copthorne Hotel.
The evening meal. Crikey, I don’t know where to start. Between double whiskies, Anoop showing off his dance moves, 40 or so delegates doing the Macarena, Tess drinking a bottle of wine with a straw (sorry Tess, couldn’t not mention it!), and trying to convince Maddy and Phil to have a rap battle to decide who gets to be the next Chair of the PGF…it was sooooooooooo much fun. We all had a three course meal before the disco got started, and hopefully it gave everyone a chance to relax and meet one another in a less formal environment. I spent a lot of the meal running around and talking to the hospitality team, but – again – the feedback has been really great. Afterwards, Maddy took around 20 people off into the Geordie night: we have a bar in Newcastle called Gotham Town which is, let’s say, interesting. Me though? I was home and tucked up in bed, ready for my 6am alarm the next morning. In the morning I texted Maddy asking what time she’d got home from the night out, and her response was simply: ‘Pass’. Big night. But not as big as the Friday, as we’ll soon see.
The reason I was tucked up in bed so early was because I was back at the Copthorne to collect our second keynote speaker, Erin McClymont of Durham University. She was speaking at 9, and despite the poor attendance (caused in no small way by the antics the previous evening) her talk was absolutely fascinating – a great reflective discussion of her meandering pathway through academia and physical geography. After that I was back on chairing duties for a session on Political Geographies, which if I’m honest was probably my favourite of the lot. Dave Ashby from Leicester gave a great talk on popular geopolitics and humour in political cartoons, before Bertie Dockerill – quite bravely considering the conference location – gave a talk about how filthy Newcastle was in the 1800s. It was incredible: Bertie described how where we were the previous night, the Copthorne, was effectively a slum with no sewage or drainage up until (I think, can’t remember exactly) the 1860s. Then came the winner of the highly prestigious ‘Matthew’s-favourite-presentation-of-the-conference award’, Sam Strong of Cambridge University. He weaved a gripping and intensely thought provoking paper about food banks and austerity into a biopolitical framework inspired by Foucault, and it was great. It really got me thinking about the ongoing effect of austerity, which – whatever your political orientation – is one the most important things happening in the country right now. Sam will have no problem demonstrating impact, that’s for sure!
I had a breather from chairing in the next session, and after lunch our Professor of Social Geography Peter Hopkins gave the final keynote of the conference. It was about how to get published in international geography journals, and as the editor of Gender Place and Culture Peter gave some crucial insights into the publishing process and, as PhD students, what we need to do to get our work published. Then – and I was seriously flagging by this point – it was time for my final chairing stint in a session on Affective Geographies. If I’m honest, I don’t know a great deal about affect, but it was still absolutely fascinating and helped perk me up at the very point when I was struggling. All four presentations were brilliant, particularly Katherine Stansfeld’s, who talked about her work on video ethnography in Finsbury Park in North London. Tess Osborne brought the session to an end with a fantastic presentation, and that was the moment where I started to think: we’ve actually pulled this conference off, haven’t we? All that was then left was the close. We gave out the first and second prizes for the poster presentations that had been over lunch on Thursday – congrats to James Todd! – and harassed people into completing our feedback sheets, before Greg took over to host the AGM of the PGF (more acronyms). For obvious reasons a lot of people had left by this point, but Maddy and Phil both gave short speeches on their visions for the PGF should they be voted Chair. Evidently Maddy is one of my best pals, but having now met Phil too it’s safe to say that whoever it ends up being, the PGF will have a terrific chair for 2016/17. Guaranteed.
And then, all of a sudden, that was that. It was over. We tidied up (a bit), and then proceeded to the Northern Stage where we had a well deserved drink and something to eat. Then we went off into the night, drank some beer, did some dancing, before eventually crashing at around 3am. And now here I am, wondering how to end this blog post. I guess the first thing to do is the usual litany of thanks. So, on a personal level, thanks to Maddy, Wilbert, Sonja, and Graham – my fellow organisers – for what has been an exhilarating experience. Special thanks to Maddy for putting up with my not infrequent accidental sabotaging of her master spreadsheets. To Greg, Phil, Mark, and to all of the PGF Committee who couldn’t make it to the conference. To Fraser, Stefan, Graham, Laura, and everyone else in the PGR office in Newcastle who’ve put up with our incessant ramblings about all aspects of the organising over the past few months. To Anoop, Peter, Erin for their keynotes, and to Robin, Alison, Peter (again), and Cheryl for their workshops. To (final acronym alert) CURDS, CLACS, the HaSS Faculty, the NCL+ fund, PSP, Geographies of Social Change, New Economic Geographies, and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting for their financial support. To Alison at the Copthorne Hotel for making what could have been a very stressful experience as smooth as you like. To Lasairfhiona and Leeann for all the admin support. And to everyone else who in some way made the conference a possibility. To use a Geordie-ism, you’re all absolutely mint.
Now I’ve thought about it, the best way to end is actually on an anonymous line from our feedback sheets. “It was my first geography conference and I really enjoyed it, thank you.’ The whole point of the Mid-Term is to give postgraduates from all corners of geography a chance to present to their peers in a friendly and supportive environment. To meet and network with their colleagues from across the country. For many, such as the anonymous author of the above quote, it’s their first experience of attending a conference. And for many, it’s the first chance they get to actually present their research. If we facilitated all of that, even to a small extent, then I could not be more proud. So to end with a final thanks: thanks to everyone who took the time to submit an abstract and come to Newcastle for the conference. It’s been a pleasure, a privilege, and an absolutely amazing experience for us. We hope it was equally amazing for all of you. Now, I’m going back to bed…