Don's Diary

October 13, 2000


Revel in glorious new office at Keele, made possible by swift departure of colleague for life as deputy vice-chancellor. Will be able to accommodate increased tutorial sizes anticipated for new semester. Reluctantly leave to resume role as wife and mother.


Anxious about conference in Berlin. Have hair done in attempt to boost confidence and invest in large box of Nytol. This purchase sparks new alarm - check I will not be arrested on arrival in Germany for importing drugs. Last-minute appointment with doctor, who advises a gin and tonic. Forget to ask if alcohol is available on prescription.


Off to Berlin for fifth International Conference of the European Association for Urban Historians. Having never flown before, arrival at airport sparks panic attack. Become surprisingly calm after checking in then taking off - discover flying is agreeable. Reflect that ghosts of both grandfathers (glider pilot regiment and RAF respectively) are undoubtedly giving silent encouragement. Wonder if there is a gene for the propensity to enjoy flight.


Register at conference, collect funky conference handbag, then give paper on charity and medicine from point of view of poor recipients. As it is a joint paper, have only five minutes to speak and seem to babble through most of them.

Reflect that embarrassment is magnified by dim lighting, spotlight on podium and vast lecture hall. Am flustered until able to answer question at end with confidence; feel as though have clawed back some kudos. As usual, impressed by everyone else's research, especially the hard-pressed postgraduates. Am heartened to learn that lunatics in 17th-century Zurich were not all incarcerated but retained shreds of identity, often with help from their families.


Take time out to see Berlin, have to shelter from rain in city-tour bus. Awed and appalled by remnants of the Wall. Commentary describes wartime devastation and subsequent rebuilding, birth and death of Wall, but avoids reference to Allies or USSR. Coffee and cake at classy Literature House on Fasanenstrasse.


Spend the last of my marks at the Museum for Transport and Technology, rubbing shoulders with trainspotters of all nations. Seems like banal shrine to engines and industry until am stunned out of my complacency. Railway carriages include examples of goods truck used to transport Jews to concentration camps. Sorrowful and damp trek back to the U-Bahn. At Berlin's Tegel airport, share sheepish smiles with other conference delegates.


Return to Keele. Read that average price of academic history books has fallen by 15.5 per cent; spend evening planning book (bodice-ripper), inspiration supplied by decade researching 18th-century poverty.

Casually map plot involving workhouse, scapegrace siblings, obligatory doomed love, etc and start writing but begin to daydream. In imagination, move swiftly from book to TV adaptation, with Alan Rickman as hero, self as heroine. Try not to look at sullen pile of articles waiting to be read.

Alannah Tomkins is lecturer in history, University of Keele.

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