Brookes Winter Symposium

It’s early December, so once again our little community of Arts and Humanities researchers at Brookes get together for a day of mutual edification (and occasional mutual mystification).

This time there was an overall theme of Memory – which suited me nicely, because I’ve been a bit obsessed by amnesia stories recently. Others took the theme in totally different directions, so it was a good varied day. I enjoyed two papers on very different ways of commemorating the Catholic dead – a small unofficial churchyard for seventeenth-century recusants  who would have otherwise have  missed out on consecrated ground, and flamboyant memorials in baroque Brazilian monastery churches, trumpeting colonial power in all its gilded glory.  These were subjects I would have known nothing about without a day like this; I even learnt something from a paper on Louise Bourgeois, an artist I find impossible to like (so self-pitying, so self-dramatising, so self-obsessed…)

Greg Leadbetter gave a luminous account of Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight (it’s so good to hear a great poem read really well) and Vicky Bancroft described some Restoration plays that I would definitely like to see (parables of Utopias gone wrong that were comments on the Cromwellian social experiment) . They sound as though they deserve a season at the Swan Theatre in Stratford when it re-opens for business. A paper on Andre Breton in exile found me a bit out of my depth, but gave food for thought.

I was very interested in a paper on memorialising the Holocaust in Berlin. I couldn’t help comparing the forest of grim grey anonymous  stones they’ve erected there with WW1 monuments like the Menin Gate at Ypres.   What impresses most at the Menin Gate (and at the Vietnam memorial in Washington too, I gather) is the naming – the long list of individuals, to many of whom individual visitors respond individually. The Berlin memorial (inevitably) has no names. It is an art work.  Visitors will find their own meanings there, it is hoped.  Maybe. I fear, though, that art works go out of fashion. When early twenty-first century minimalism goes out of fashion, will this memorial still speak resonantly? Or will it just seem a bit odd? Whereas the Menin Gate, which is not received by most visitors as a work of art, will keep speaking. Maybe. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to go to Berlin and see the memorial for myself.

My own talk went down well. People seemed to enjoy it, and I was helped by the fact that amnesia stories have been in the news this week, with that ridiculous canoeist. We had a really jolly and lively discussion after it.


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