Henry James never saw this. Stepping out of the lift into the former restaurant at London’s BT Tower, the most extraordinary night-time view of a massive city stretches away in every direction, lights twinkling as far as the eye can see. I suppose city workers in their skyscrapers behold such things every evening, but an overview of London is a rarity for me; like James—for whom only the smog of late 19th-century London suggested its magnitude—I am usually grounded, hemmed in by uniform canyons of 5-storey high buildings.
I’ve been up the Mordor-ish London Shard, looked down the Thames from the Eighth Floor of the King’s College London History Department, and experienced the measured revelations of the London Eye: but the BT Tower, isolated in Fitzrovia better to transmit all London’s telecommunications, outdoes them all, not least because the cluster of other view-points are in its purview. (It reminds me of how Guy de Maupassant lunched at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant simply so he wouldn’t have to look at it.)
I am here to help celebrate the achievements of the 2014 Accelerate Award recipients, arts professionals who enter a British Council mentorship and placement programme in Australia and the UK. They are so impressive a bunch of Australians I’d appreciate some mentorship from them in turn; and indeed a clear outcome of the scheme is that the experience flows out from a single award to the recipient’s community. The affirmation of commitment and hard work is, I suppose, a considerable reward in itself, but it is also extraordinary the effect of being lifted from one’s own locality and given a new perspective on it to draw back into one’s everyday view.
Becoming Director of MCAS has been to enter something of an accelerate programme of my own. Firstly because I feel like I have been slingshot into a new temporality, when systems for promoting change all need, it seems, to have been instituted yesterday. And secondly because I have suddenly and repeatedly bourn (sideline) witness to the ‘business’ of the university executive, of diplomacy, governance and trade in ways I have never experienced before. Without going over to the dark side, it is impressive stuff that goes on. And there is an extraordinary sense, more often than I expected, of arts and educational institutions, government and business pulling in the same direction. I may look back at this post and see only my own naivety, but it is also easy to be prejudiced against the work of those whose perspective is always well above the ground.
Previously I have used the low-high perspective metaphor to explain to undergraduates something of the university ‘hierarchy’ also: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. The latter, through the simple expedient of having had longer to read and write—and having witnessed directly shifts in their field(s) of expertise (sometimes occasioned by their own writing)—are often able to offer widening perspectives on disciplines and the future of academic research. It’s about looking at, moving through, and helping forge an intellectual terrain over extended time.
We saw something of this in action at MCAS during our Remembrance Day seminar (12 November 2014) when our own resident professor, Carl Bridge, gave a masterful account of British-Australian diplomatic relations during the Great War. He was able to ‘dive in’ to a selected point in each year of the War and dispel prevailing myths; and also afford insight into the reasons—not delusions—of Australians’ sense of direct involvement in the conflict (i.e. not merely as dominion Britons). Dr Noah Riseman, a youthful Senior Lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University, provided a tighter focus, but no lesser insight, into the amazing and still neglected story of Aboriginal Australian diggers: their often having to lie about their identity to be enlisted; their extraordinary contribution to the war effort; and their appalling treatment at the end of the war. Both speakers, in their way, provided overview and spotlight; if varying degrees of each.
But I want to start messing with the low-high perspective metaphor. For one thing, going up the lift I also got younger, undercutting the hierarchy. At 177 metres tall—the restaurant is lower than that of course—the Tower makes a perfect toy-town of the streets below. You feel like you could reach out, grasp a double-decker bus and whoosh it along Tottenham Court Road. I am inside my childhood in another way also: watching The Goodies repeats on the ABC, laughing myself silly as a giant kitten pushes us over.
And let me end by inverting my hierarchical metaphor altogether. If the Indigenous Australian visual arts have taught me anything it is the priority of ground, not sky. It reminds me of a discussion I had with MCAS’s Helen Idle about whether we had ever seen the sun depicted in a work of Indigenous art. I couldn’t recall it (if you have let me know!): but wanted to say it is everywhere in evidence, as if light came out of the ground. It is a paradox corresponding to the way grounded traditional art often looks like a birds-eye view. And to how ochre placed on skin seems rather to express law that comes from within it. I sensed, then, that the Accelerate Awards recipients might have a thing or two to teach all of us up the Tower about perspective.
Let this learning stand as an early account of my first three months in office. I am about to head to Australia for a couple of months, first to the International Australian Studies Association conference in Hobart, where I will seek further input into the future of MCAS; afterwards to put my head down and write during my research leave. MCAS has two exciting events still to go in 2014: the second meeting of the Group of Readers in Australian Studies (26 Nov) and a launch of Anne Henderson’s Menzies at War (10 December).
And our incredibly exciting January to June 2015 programme is soon to be released. In it you will find strands focused on public affairs, the centenary of Anzac Day, Indigenous Australia (in association with the upcoming British Museum exhibition), and Australian print culture. My colleague Dr Simon Sleight will kick these off in January in his new role as Acting Director of MCAS while I am on leave.
But I will keep posting: from Down Under.