I’m writing this quickly, having just made it to the New Chaucer Society Conference at Queen Mary, University of London. NCS is a big conference by medievalists’ standards, and there is a huge number of talks I just won’t get to see, despite wanting to, because of the tight timetable. And there are a lot of people I want to see, many of whom are coming in from the US or parts of Europe or even Australia. We see each other rarely – only really at conferences like this. Of course, you can chat on facebook, and leave friendly comments, and even read each other’s work, comment on it and co-author to an extent, but there isn’t yet any technology that recreates what it’s like having everyone who works on the same topic in a room, talking together.
NCS is the first conference I’ve been to since the UK voted to leave the EU and – for many reasons – I was wondering how and whether this would feel different. And before I made it to the conference venue, I spent the day wandering around Hampton Court – which is probably one of the least diverse areas, racially, economically and in every other possible way, that you could hope to land up in. You can absolutely imagine that, were you to transport the current inhabitants back to 1515, they would be making sucked-lemon faces about the appalling things successful politicians do with new money and wincing at the look of red brick. We went round the flower show, which was lovely and gentle and also absolutely full of the sort of people who’ve taught their children not to double-take more than once, and who consequently give you anxious smiles before asking mummy why those ladies are holding hands.
The campus of Queen Mary is a contrast. Located in Mile End, it’s a collection of modern, concrete-and-glass buildings, on either side of a busy road, with an unexpectedly beautiful view of Regent’s Canal.
Even more unexpectedly, tucked into the middle of the campus between several concrete blocks, in an unpromising piece of concrete that had the look of unfinished building works, I came across the old Jewish cemetery that was here before the university. I knew that Mile End was a historically Jewish area of London, and that its roots go back centuries, but I did not know of the existence of this graveyard. The stones are intact, and though many are covered in lichen, some are readable – and more would be readable if I read Hebrew. I saw memorials for Esther, wife of Solomon Haim da Costa Andrade; to Isaac Cohen Belifante; to Moss Comes da Costa. Could you find more Jewish – and Portuguese – names?
The Sephardi Jewish community in Mile End – Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, who had come to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – found the need for a new cemetery in 1733, and secured the land for the so-called ‘Novo’ Cemetery in what is now the middle of the Queen Mary campus, a listed site for English Heritage. To find a site like this in the middle of a university is unusual: it disrupts your sense of past and present, of current purpose and former dedication. The stones, with their arresting names and dates, demand attention and reflection. Time is required, so that the fact of their continuing presence can be taken in. Looking at this cemetery, you are forced to remember a multi-cultural, multilingual past, which was so far from being on the fringes of society that it left its mark in stone and marble: a monument to centuries of community that puts modern ideas of ‘Englishness’ to shame.
Coming across this cemetery so unexpectedly, in the middle of a very modern university campus, made me think how Queen Mary proves the need for pan-European, cosmopolitan, wide-reaching interactions between people. I’m hugely looking forward to this conference – and to meeting all the colleagues who come from outside the UK – but, just as much, I plan to enjoy the idea of this conference taking place in sight of the shadows of a thriving community of England’s immigrants whose history dates back so many centuries.