Thursday 27th June 2013 saw the Travel and Mobility Studies research network at the University of Warwick host its first annual symposium. The day focused on the theme of “contact and connections”, thinking about the different ways in which travel produces connections, creates networks, and provides opportunities for cross-cultural, -national and -spatial points of contact. The 14 speakers across the day provided a rich, varied and insightful set of papers around these themes which made for an interesting and stimulating day.
Although the papers were diverse in their topics of focus, if there was one theme that I found threaded throughout the day it was the sense that travel practices and narratives serve not so much to connect, but rather to destabilise categories of identity, places, narratives. In the first panel “Troubled Relations”, Churnjeet Mahn (University of Surrey) looked at how the Grand Trunk Road, a major connecting route from Calcutta to Kabul, has had its history eroded through cultural amnesia, while Roxanne Bibizadeh (University of Warwick) identified how displacement can provide the opportunity for rewriting and destabilising stereotypes – in the case of Leila Aboulela’s work, of the Muslim woman; and Claire Connor (University of Bristol) identified the “crossing the line” ceremony performed on board the SS Great Britain in 1852 as disruptive moment in which the boundaries of respectability became blurred in the liminal space of the sea. In the keynote address that followed, Tim Youngs (Nottingham Trent University) raised questions about the generic instabilities of travel narratives, the lines between representation and misrepresentation, and the (perhaps unexpected) conservatism of the genre that often finds itself complicit with patriarchal imperialism.
In a panel on “Global Britain” these ideas again came to the fore. Hannah Lewis-Bill‘s (University of Exeter) discussion of tea-drinking in Victorian Britain raised issues of cultural adaptation, modification and reflexivity involved in the circulation and usage of transnational commodities, particularly tea; Mary L. Shannon (King’s College London) spoke about the cultural interactions involved in the publication of the Melbourne Punch, the “child” of the London publication, which continued to position itself within London print culture while establishing a new Melbourne print culture. Robert Wells‘ (Indiana University, Bloomington) paper also looked at the cultural absorption of foreign travel ideals in a paper on spa tourism from 1560-1760, suggesting that English spas drew on European culture while emphasising the unique Englishness of these spa resorts. The next panel, on “Late 19th Century Travelogues”, took us through various points of contact between British and foreign countries: Kate Walchester‘s (Liverpool John Moores University) discussion of British travel to Siberia looked at photographs of Sami people, reading these for the negotiations of cultural relations they reveal, and Sam Knowles considered a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writing that argued for a more complex handling of imperialism in Stevenson’s work; Jenny Pearce (University of Hull) discussed English governesses abroad, exploring the unique and complex social position they occupied as enabling the crafting of a “third space” of cultural translation and negotiation.
The day ended with Cathy Waters‘ (University of Kent) keynote in which categories of identity again became displaced: looking at the rise of the special correspondent in the late 19th century press, Waters identified how these travelling figures found themselves in a position not dissimilar to, and often mistaken for, that of the spy. Waters explored how this fit within the reshaping of journalistic practices and late-19th century print culture, and ended by raising some indicative questions about the relationship between journalism and travel narratives, and the issues of authenticity that both foreground in their style and content.
The symposium was an excellent end to the first year of the Travel Network and it was a pleasure to host such an interesting day on the Warwick campus. Plans are currently taking shape for the next year of the Network, so I hope to be able to bring news of fruitful developments soon.