When I was a Ph.D. student, I’d meet people who were curious about what I was doing with my time. ‘I’m studying medieval literature and history at the University of York’, I’d explain, or something like it according to my mood and inclination. ‘Ooh – York, such an historic city! That must be the best place to study medieval history’, would be the usual reply. Then I’d conjure up images of the fifteenth century stones exuding vapors of inspiration, which I would inhale and channel into my Ph.D through my typing hands. Or cobblestones running with babbling brooks of Latin grammar and Middle English, which would soak into my shoes and become part of my existence. ‘Mustn’t it?’ they’d say, and I’d snap out of my reverie and reply ‘yes, yes, it is’.
But I did find York an inspiring place to do my research. Not because I felt surrounded by the spirits of centuries of people, nor because I used the city’s history as source material – but simply because I liked to look at the pretty things. Now that I’m living in London, I am doing my academic work in a completely different environment. I posted on my blog before about my frustrations with adapting to London living. As I write – due to finding a lovely place to live, exciting hobbies and some promising friendships – I am starting to really like London. Funnily enough, not many people say to me, ‘ooh, London – that’s a historic city – it must be the best place to study medieval history’. Mainly because London’s pre-Industrial Revolution past has been gobbled up by centuries of fires, demolishment, re-purposing and re-building. But despite the lack of pretty wooden beams and finely-crafted medieval stone, I do feel inspired by London (when I am not breathing in its fumes).
‘If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs…’
Being a research postdoc in a big city is a privilege. Though you have to put in your hours, these hours are flexible to a certain extent. My big mistake when I started my postdoc was assuming the ‘London brace position’ as I traveled in to the library: eyes fixed on your goal, blank resting facial expression, slight nervous twitch at the sight of an empty seat. Eight months in, I have learned to chill out. I don’t need to get that train – If I miss it, then I can catch up on work at home in the evening. Therefore, I’ve started to walk slower (much to the annoyance of my fellow commuters) and observe the world that surrounds me. For example, this morning, the Northern Line was congested and passengers were being kept in the ticket hall like cattle in a pen. Instead of shifting my weight from left to right like a runner at the starting line, I observed the Londoners around me. Suddenly, there was a voice from the back of the crowd: “OI MATE” he shouted to the London Underground Worker. “Am I going to get a refund for the trouble you’ve caused me today?” Silence descended. Then, as one, a mass of people in front replied “NO, shut up!” On other occasions, I have watched men launch themselves head first into a tube carriage, pull themselves through the doors, and stand motionless as the door repeatedly closes … opens … closes again on their heads. Determination in their resignation to experiencing discomfort – that’s how I’d describe London commuters.
A more purely wonderful thing about being a researcher in London is being at the very epicentre of research within the UK. Of course, there are nodes of excellence all over the country – but London is a magnet for scholars who need to look at their primary material. In the past year, I have seen so many wonderful minds in the manuscript room of the library (even if they did not know I was looking, I saw them!) I have had the pleasure of drinking coffee with visiting professors, researchers, and postgraduates. So I am beginning to feel at home in my research environment. Not quite a Londoner, but that London has truly embraced me as a guest. As I begin to think about my next move – I have become to understand London as the wonderful place it is for someone beginning their academic career.