The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, September 16, 2013

Aboard the GCU Well, You Did Ask For a Concrete Example

Last Wednesday I was at Brunel University for The State of the Culture, a one-day symposium on the Culture books of Iain M. Banks. The campus has changed a lot since I was a postgraduate student there in the late 1970s. New buildings have been added, and others have been retro-fitted. The concrete Brutalist structures that form the hard core of the place are still there, with the famous Lecture Centre a listed building, albeit now garlanded with flowerbeds on its fire-escape and grass and trees on the plaza in front of it. Tower D, where I did research in biomechanics and where I recently housed an entirely imaginary sociology of science department, looks just the same as I remember it, at least from the outside. The most obvious change in the campus is that the male-female ratio is no longer 4:1.

My visit was as a guest of Fairies and Flying Saucers, the university's research cluster on fantasy and science fiction, and they looked after me well: Joseph Norman was at the bus stop to welcome me, and he showed me to the comfortable accommodation of the Lancaster Lodge and then met me in the bar for a pint or two before he and others took me out for a curry.

The conference was held in the Antonin Artaud building, and it ran smoothly, with breaks and refreshments at just the right times. My opening talk was billed as the keynote, which it certainly wasn't: despite much preparatory thinking and note-typing, when it came to delivering it I fell between the two wobbly stools of rambling anecdote about the man (and boy) and amateur analysis of the work. However, the audience listened sympathetically and laughed occasionally, and the questions that followed were well asked. SF critic Paul Kincaid was kind about my talk, and gave the whole conference such a good write-up that I really can't better it. (A full report is projected for Foundation issue 116, a special issue on Iain.) Two new books, The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders and Gothic Dimensions were passed around, and their editor and author respectively each gave well-received and stimulating talks. It's exciting and indeed moving to see so much scholarly interest in Iain's work, coming at it from so many different academic angles.

Joe kept things on schedule, and after the conference finished on time, I had an hour for a reading -- from the opening of Descent -- and a Q&A, all professionally and unobtrusively photographed. Then about twenty of us headed through a light rain to dinner and subsequent pints and conversation at the fine local pub The Malt Shovel, whose very existence I had managed to miss in all my years at Brunel.


Gotta love brutalist architecture. It's a travesty that so many unique buildings are being torn down and denied listed status. It's so short sighted too, when you consider the regret now expressed over all the "Ugly" (in the eyes of a previous generation) art deco buildings that were torn down willy nilly.

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