Saturday, September 19, 2009

Conferences, culture and modern plumbing - two weeks in the UK!

Once a year, I must get my UK fix - while others head to New York or Paris, I go to London. This year worked well for I was able to combine two conferences with some play time. First, I signed on for the Oxford Conflict Conference which focused on The Making of the Modern Middle East. This was consistent with my interest in that area plus my participation with Global Exchanges’ December Israel-Palestine study tour. Following that was an Ancient World Conference at the University of London, focused on Egypt - I wouldn’t have made the trip for that but since it was there and I was there, why not? And then came several days of seeing friends met on various tours and going to theatre - at best, combining the two.

I knew the potent were positive: at the start, United Air upgraded me from economy to business class. And that’s it how it continued. The Heathrow-Oxford bus timing was perfect; the Christ Church college room was newly refurbished and ideal for me. I had stayed at St. John’s College last year when I attended to the TE Lawrence symposium. St. John’s was put to shame in comparison to the grandeur of Christ Church, particularly the magnificently high vaulted ceiling dining room used in Harry Potter films. One of my fellow attendees who had studied at Christ Church, commented he felt so unworthy - and I could understand that.

The conference was held in a small modern lecture hall with good sound. It was put together by the Middle East Centre at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford with experts from the UK, Australia, Egypt, America, and the Middle East. Starting with TE Lawrence, talks progressed through the mandates, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Egypt’s role, Hamas and Hesbolla, security issues and Al Quaeda ending with missed opportunities for some kind of resolution. It seemed Israel was mostly responsible for dropping the ball - or refusing to catch it.

For the most part, wonderful, engaging speakers. With an equally bright and knowledgeable audience including PhDs, retired and active Navy personnel, government staff and politically interested souls like myself. There were about 120 attendees (including thirty Elder hostelers), primarily Brits and Americans with a few assorted Europeans.

A pre-conference day gave me a chance for a walking tour of Oxford, including visiting several other Oxford colleges and a boat trip to Iffley with its lovely little ancient church, St. Mary’s. Mid-conference, we packed up and went to Waddesdon Manor, the home of the Rothschilds who were active in supporting early Jewish settlements in Palestine. It was an absolutely fascinating place: the Manor is actually a museum. The grounds are extensive. All part of a bygone era of “Conspicuous Consumption” as Veblen termed it.

I ws so stimulated by the conference, both speakers and attendees, that I didn’t sleep much but kept rewinding the tapes in my head. One of the speakers I met during last year’s TE Lawrence Society symposium and I did have opportunities to talk with him. In fact, all the speakers made themselves available to the conference attendees for questions and discussions. And comfortably housed and fed, I did hate to leave.

But, moving onto the London: I had miscalculated in booking my hotel, so had no place to stay the first night. Ended up in a small hotel in Bloomsbury where I had stayed in years past. It had deteriorated into a backpackers place: bed but no breakfast. Cheap and relatively clean. The rest of the time I was at The Celtic Hotel at Russell Square: recently repainted with bright new facilities. A rabbit warren of rooms throughout - three row houses combined, similar to The Tabard Inn in DC. I was on the top floor in a small room but with toilet across the way and shower down the stairs. Full English breakfast, for those that want that much. Impeccably kept place. I will return!

And off to the the Ancient World Conference at the University of London. This group was largely concerned with early digs in Egypt including facial analysis of ancient Egyptians and the like. It was hard for me keep alert though the audience was fascinated and the Q&A was spirited. I was interested in a talk about Nimrod for I had been so close and was totally awake for Michael Wood’s presentation: Alexander’s Greatest Battle. He was a terrific presenter with outstanding films of Syria and Iraq - and the Panshjer VAlley in Afghanistan. He had been filming there accompanied by the military and two armoured cars, a far cry from five civilians and a minibus.

Monday arrived and I now had three days to visit friends and check out theatre. Spent one day in Hampstead with a companion from this year’s earlier Iraq tour: a mid-seventish woman who bicycles all over: London, the UK, Africa, the world. The next day she and I met another Iraqi tour participant, an Ukrainian who may å be moving to Moscow, and had lunch while I spent the evening with a friend from my Mali trip - she is interested in the Salalah-Ubar-Rub Al Khali possibility. I’m recruiting for t hat, if I can get it together.

The final day, I had lunch with a young engineer, a survivor of Afghani chickhanas. And the evening was with a friend from my first Mid Eastern trip who is about as passionate about theatre and travel as I am. The plays seen were The Pitman Painters at the ‘Royal National (excellent); War Horse, also a Royal National production (outstanding total theatrical experience) and Judgment Day at The Almeida (dark Brechtian drama)

And United upgraded me to Economy-plus on the ride home. What more could a girl want?

Costs: Airfare from SFO to LHR: $831.60. Christ Church conference, including accommodation and meals: £1200. Ancient World conference, including meals: £155. Accommodation in London including breakfast: £250.

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