Eli Davies reflects on her time in Derry at the MeCCSA conference.
I am not a scholar of media or cultural studies, or a journalist or a filmmaker; I am a teacher and a writer, based in London. But, at the tail end of my longer-than-usual Christmas holiday, I found myself at Magee for the three-day MeCCSA conference, to help out with the general running of the event.
I was there as part of a fairly extensive team of other helpers, mainly students, all of whom, it has to be said, seemed far more expert than me at the whole business and had been preparing for it a day or so before I rolled up on Wednesday. For most of the conference, I was based at the registration table with two or three other volunteers; we welcomed delegates, handed out name badges and conference packs, directed them to the right rooms, and referred them to tech support, who smoothed over any last minute glitches with memory sticks and PowerPoints. The temperature seemed to drop quite suddenly in Derry as the conference kicked off and it was, at times, a draughty spot. But wrapped up in our cardies and scarves when necessary, it was a great place to sense the ebb and flow of the event.
I managed to sneak into the odd session over the course of the conference, a treat for someone who gets the occasional pang for her past academic studies. I am no stranger to critical theory – I’ve done my time with Barthes, Foucault, Butler and Zizek – but I am, I admit, a little rusty. So I had the odd panic before arriving, when I worried that it might just all go a little bit over my head. But the sessions I attended, which included a great panel discussion on the aftermath of Leveson, and the Friday plenary, featuring a typically provocative Terry Eagleton, were lively and engaging and left my head buzzing with thoughts and questions. It was fascinating also to look at the programme and see the amazing range of other topics covered in other panels, as well as chatting to PhD students about the papers that they were giving.
I first came to Derry ten years ago; back then I was a misty-eyed student of Irish literature, doing my masters at Trinity down in Dublin. I stayed with a friend who was living there while she wrote her Masters thesis about urban planning in the city. She walked me round, took me to all the places of note and told me the city’s story. Anne Crilly’s feminist tour of the city walls, which I went on the Thursday of the conference, gave a new angle to a walk I’ve done a fair few times since then. The walk included little-known tales of the local shirt factory workers and Anne pointed out the places in the city where they had met with Eleanor Marx and Mrs Pankhurst. On my first visit I became quite taken with Derry– with its walls, its history, its literary associations, its scenic backdrop. So it was nice, both on the tour and around at the conference, to hear other first-time visitors have similar responses to the place.
Several people on the tour, when walking past the Bogside and Free Derry Wall, remarked on how familiar these spots were from TV news coverage of the Troubles – a comment on media representation right there. Such questions obviously have very immediate resonance in Derry and several papers and discussions at the conference dealt with this. Other interesting questions are being thrown up by the Derry’s UK city of culture status. The aims of the City of Culture include regeneration and transformation – not unproblematic concepts, of course, something acknowledged and discussed by speakers throughout the conference.
There seemed, overall, to be a great buzz about the occasion. The mood was serious and scholarly, yes, but also lively and convivial. On Friday I chatted to one of the women on the university catering staff as she laid out lunch, and she commented on what ‘a good bunch’ the conference delegates were (the catering team were a pretty great bunch themselves). There was a similar positive feeling in the Playhouse, site of the Plenary discussion with James Nesbitt, and the Custom House, site of a very tasty dinner. On twitter there were posts about the conference from the hotels where people were staying and comments from delegates on how welcoming the locals were. When it came to Saturday morning, after the whole thing had finished, I actually felt a bit sad to leave.