7.30 am: I took the train to Shrewsbury and, from there to Newport and, then, on in the direction of Swindon to Marlborough (which doesn’t have a railway station) to attend an academic conference. The warm, raking light poured through the carriage, casting shadows and reflections, and superimposing inside and outside: life as a double exposure:
There are moments of reverie that seep unexpectedly onto the plane of consciousness. On occasion, profoundly vivid feelings, unbidden and associated with past places and periods in my life, override my sense of the present. Today, I had that experience again. Nothing changed, visibly; but my emotional memories transported me somewhere else: at Shrewsbury station I was also, in my heart’s-eye at Newport station, but as it was in my childhood. This is the day’s second manifestation of superimposition.
My journey to Marlborough was delayed by 15 minutes. Hardly anything in the bigger picture of life. The Visual Theology II conference was held in the magnificent St Michael and All Angels Chapel – a Late-Decorated Gothic building designed by Edward Blore and opened in 1848, which is in the grounds of the College:
The interior is dominated by 12 murals by the Pre-Raphaelite Spencer Stanhope. It’s a magnificent setting for two days focussed on Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. I served as ‘mummy’s little helper to the conference convenors.
Saturday, September 21: 9.15 am: The ‘Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites’ conference:
These blessed Gothic interiors turn curse as soon you open your mouth to speak. The architectural reverberation swamps the source. You must learn to articulate words with an exaggerated deliberateness – separating syllables, while maintaining a constant volume.
The topic of the conference is not immediately relevant to my own interests. However, it’s central to that of one of my PhD tutees, who’s one of the conference convenors. My own PhD in Art History, and research in the discipline up until the late 1990s, were aligned to the present conversation. Then, I addressed both Ruskin and Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the context of nineteenth- century Protestant homiletics, and the use of paintings and typology in the service of preaching.
A speaker needs to be present to their audience; and they can do so principally through their voice. (Striking looks aren’t sufficient, nor are they necessary.) However wise, original, or well-researched your text, it can only capture the audience through their ears. Speak as though what you wish to say is a matter of urgency. Speak as you would teach. Let the text come through your whole person, rather than just through your lips.
The musician Pauline Oliveros advised her students to always play their instrument in the venue in which they’d perform, so as to witness how the instrument interacted with the acoustics of the interior. In her view, a musician plays both the instrument and the space.
There was a moment when I consciously made a memory: ‘This, now, will be in the past. In the future, when all this has passed, I’ll recall not only the memory but also its construction’.
(‘Sacred art’. I cannot understand what that would mean in terms of my own work.)
At lunch I struck up a conversation with the Bishop of Salisbury, who’s an ardent ‘remainer’. (I warmed to him.) He spoke well in the afternoon: the delivery was engaging, funny, and relevant; it was a sermon of sorts, with a defined objective, structure, and direction:
The afternoon: Rehearse. Rehearse. Keep within the time limit. Know whether you’re going over time. (Develop a mental clock.). Write lively; speak lively; look lively; and just maybe your audience will listen lively. Write memorably; be pithy; deploy humour (where appropriate); and use metaphor and simile. Make the presentation vivid.
The day ended with a keynote address by my former colleague Professor Colin Cruise, a musical interlude, a drinks reception at Marlborough College’s gallery, and the conference dinner.
Sunday, September 22: 7.30 am: A pub-hotel breakfast, that only a man could prepare – everything wrapped in clingfilm:
8.30 am: I contributed the Gospel reading to the service for the rededication of the Chapel:
The introit was supplied by a sound and video work by the Rev. Mark Dean, who’s both an artist and cleric. He’s chaplain at the Central and St Martin’s School of Art. The work incorporated the sound of a choir singing, played over the PA and, at the same time. on the congregation’s mobile phones: a desynchronous splendour. Mark had produced an edited order of service based on the one used in the initial dedication.
9.45 am: The second day’s papers began. A good start: the speakers were clear, sufficiently loud, and kept to time. Examples of exemplary research and communication. One speaker read their paper from a mobile phone – ‘to save paper’. A noble gesture; but I was concerned that the battery might not last the course.
Over lunch, I conversed with the Mark Dean. Each person’s pilgrimage is a strange and wonderful thing. There were so many discussions with individuals that I wished could be continued indefinitely – face to face. By the close of the day, I felt saturated: no more knowledge was going in. The end of a conference is a melancholy thing. Delegates and speakers shake hands or hug and depart to their habitual domains. Most will never meet again, other than as writer and reader. The Chapel felt somehow emptier now than it did before the attendees arrived.