The Striders: The cloud is a place where nothing ever happens

Other People’s Places: America 1770. Maps as Spectacle. early 1980’s Hull. An unexpected trip to the 70’s.  The Cloud.

My colleague Lydia Plath organised an International Research Symposium last week. I was presenting with Ken Fox on The Desert in Breaking Bad and and with Sam Hitchmough on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Tours, which will have their own posts. On the day, there were some insightful presentations but, as ever, it is the post-symposium collage of ideas and perspectives mashed up together, which is the true outcome.

Peter Vujacovic’s paper assessed maps as Neo-Baroque spectacle and their current, sinister media use to illustrate various wartime scenarios. Another presentation,  on the 18th century early American settlement, included a poignant list of passenger requirements for the sea passage. There is something about shoes (2 paire) which is a punctum (Roland Barthes’ word for the poignant detail which evokes deep emotion).

In the break, I was transported from 18th Century America to 1980’s Hull University, where I did my American Studies degree. Co-incidentally, Professor Brian Ward had studied there at the same time.  He described my lecturers at their annual conference: “Those guys were striding around”. They did stride. My lecturer Ralph Willett had a mustard leather coat and a Zapata moustache. He introduced me to films such as Gold Diggers of 1933, to the Theatre of the Absurd and to images like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. John Mowat’s cowboys were true and West: “the hero’s bullet always hits its mark, the outlaw’s bullets just spray around”. John Osbourne in his Modernist boater and white suit. There was an EE Cummings, grammar-free freedom to Hull which had nothing to do with the history of slavery, emancipation and Museums, but was inscribed in these men and their teaching on 1960’s America which made me feel that Vietnam protests and The Summer of Love weren’t just a blip in the monitor of a very conventional society. For me, the legend of those men is located in that time, still sitting in a smoky seminar room. Nostalgia is a weak word for a powerful force.

Brian has written a book on Southern Rock. He presented with a large dollop of affection for the tropes and conventions of Southern 70’s rock, spandex and the mythical Big Jim Dandy. My 1970’s started with Bunty and ended with The Clash. I loved it all.

The best part of the Symposium is always after it has finished. If you don’t rush off, you find yourself in an informal talking space which exists because a scattergun of ideas that peppered the room earlier are drifting about bumping into each other. Chris Pallant (another book for the list) was telling us how some film storyboards (the cartoons on which films are based, the shots pre-drawn, frame by frame like graphic novels, setting the tone for the action’s look and feel) have to be deleted due to lack of computer space or software upgrades. They will be lost forever. So after the symposium we ate crisps and reflected on those lost storyboards, leading to the familiar conversation: “What if we lose the Cloud?” Do we fail to commit things to memory because we are organically reliant on Google? All that serial recording, for what? None of us print out. For a Generation Xer like myself, doom is always on the horizon in the form of a blooming mushroom cloud and now it is evaporating with our photographs and memories.

I picture the Cloud as an eternal city the size of the Library of Ancient Alexandria, overflowing with silence, containing the frozen chatter, clutter and detritus of people doing endless variations on very similar things. Within the inconsequential clamour loop are the records of lost, much-loved faces, the eyes you can only meet again in photographs, the resemblances you can trace to the next generation. I don’t have any pictures of my lecturers. I never took them and I never printed them out. I don’t need them. They are imprinted, striding down the concrete corridors of Hull University in 1983, opening doors to other cowboys.

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