Hail to the chief

October 14, 2010

What is it/was it with senior Australian academics (Letters, 7 October)? Sixteen years ago, I was attending a population-geography conference at a Swedish field centre with my nine-month-old son, who was still breastfeeding. I was sitting outside the auditorium, soothing my grizzling infant, when an Australian professor arrived late, sat down to wait for a convenient moment to go in, then noticed us and enquired whether my husband was in the session! My calm response, that I hoped my husband was in Edinburgh attending to our three older children, made the poor man realise his enormous gaffe.

But the story does not end there. Back at the accommodation block, a fellow delegate took turns holding the baby while helping me build a Scandinavian cot that our hosts had thoughtfully supplied - in 20 or so separate flat-pack pieces complete with Allen key.

The academic concerned has probably forgotten that spontaneous act of human kindness/academic solidarity, but I never will. And there may also be far-reaching and positive effects on the UK's social science community, for that individual, 16 years later, has just been recruited by the Economic and Social Research Council as its chief executive.

Alison McCleery, Professor of geography and director of research Edinburgh Napier University.

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