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A History of the Literary London Society, 2001-2014

The Society was founded in July 2011, but it has its roots a decade earlier. In 2001, Lawrence Phillips was completing a PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London, from where he and fellow student David Rose decided to issue a call for papers for an interdisciplinary conference on the theme of Literary London. The conference was held in July 2002, the same year that Phillips was awarded his doctorate, featured a keynote address by Iain Sinclair, and attracted a large group of scholars from around the world. These included Brycchan Carey, a former Goldsmiths undergraduate, who had recently completed a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, and was now a new lecturer at Kingston University. At the conclusion of the conference, the two discussed the success of the conference, and agreed to work together on a second conference, to be held the following year.

In the meantime, Phillips began to put into effect his vision for a free, online journal to bring together the wide range of current research into London literature. Drawing largely on contributions that had been made to the first conference, the first edition of Literary London: Interdisciplinary studies in the representation of London was published on line in March 2003, hosted on Goldsmith College’s web servers. In his editorial, Phillips wrote that:

A great deal of work still needs to be done to quantify and understand London’s weighty, exhilarating or just plain disturbing presence in Britain’s literature, not least so that the plethora of new writing on London both in Britain and around the world can be coherently discussed. This is a topic that seems to draw scholars from a number of disciplines as is evident from the many courses on London in literature and other media that exist, in some isolation, as part of the syllabi of numerous universities in London, Britain and around the world. The hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and monographs have been and are being produced on some aspect of London’s literary and aesthetic legacy, not to mention the ongoing research around the world. This presents a particular challenge for the researcher. All this activity lacks a common focus where work may be noted and referenced, a starting place for new research and an academic locale where ideas may be shared and developed; a focus that many topics of a much more narrower focus achieve by field consolidation and promotion. London is a significant topic in British and other literatures and there is critical mass of superb research to initiate such a discussion and a research community. This is the rationale of The Literary London Journal and the mutually supportive Literary London Conference. This Journal needs the support of that community to flourish. It is time that the interdisciplinary study of the representation of London came forward as a major scholarly project and coherent discipline. (Read the full article)

Thanks to Phillips’s vision and dedication, both the journal and the conference were quickly established as important venues for discussion of London in literature. The second Literary London conference took place at Goldsmiths over the weekend of 26-27 July 2003, again principally organised by Phillips, but with some help from Carey, who became increasingly active in the organisation of the conference over the following years. This second conference began with a plenary roundtable event chaired by Ben Pimlott and many of the speakers from the first conference returned. Some of these continued to be regular attenders over the coming years, forming the nucleus of what would later become the Literary London Society; these included Jenny Bavidge, Susan Alice Fischer, and Phil Tew, all of whom were present when the society’s constitution was adopted in 2011.

In 2003, Phillips took up a lectureship at Liverpool Hope University, while Carey remained at Kingston University. With the link to Goldsmiths now broken, the question was whether to end the conference series almost as soon as it had begun, or to find a new home. A venue was quickly found at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, in Bloomsbury, and to mark the event the 2004 conference was the first to have a light theme – in fact two themes – which were ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ and ‘The Flâneur’. Each conference since has been themed, and in the early years the theme often reflected the location of the hosting university. Between 2004 and 2009, the conference was peripatetic, being hosted by Kingston University (Suburbia), Greenwich University (the River), Westminster University (the Stage), Brunel University (Liminal London), and Queen Mary, University of London (Urban Geographies). The opportunity to explore different London neighbourhoods was an exciting feature of this phase of the conference’s history.

By 2009, both the conference and the journal were well-established fixtures in the London academic landscape. Phillips continued to edit the journal almost alone, which became increasingly time-consuming. Carey specialised in organising the conference, which was likewise a sizeable task. Indeed, it was becoming clear that these activities were neither secure nor sustainable. The journal had been moved some years earlier to an independent server under Phillip’s control, but although this was more secure it was self-funded and required much management. Moving the conference from one venue to another introduced many uncertainties and much extra work, and the number of institutions willing to the host the conference was dwindling in number. Both Phillips and Carey moved into more senior academic roles, and had less time to devote to Literary London. For a time, the future of the Literary London project looked to be in doubt.

A number of solutions were proposed. The first was to move the annual conference to a permanent venue. The Institute of English Studies offered the conference a regular annual slot, starting in 2010, which the conference has occupied ever since. The support of the IES, and in particular of the Insitute Manager Jon Millington, was invaluable in securing the future of the conference. Phillips and Carey also decided to launch a new society to spread the workload over a greater number of colleagues and to put the project on a more secure finanical footing. Delegates to the 2010 conference were consulted over the scope and structure of the proposed society. Over the following year, Carey drew up a draft constitution and this was discussed, amended, and adopted at a General Meeting held at the Institute of English Studies, on 20 July 2011. Those present were: Jenny Bavidge, Nick Bentley, Brycchan Carey, Laura Colombino, Laureano Corces, Preeti Desodiya, Kim Duff, Susan Alice Fischer, Simon Goulding, Peter Jones, Julia Kind, Chi-fang Sophia Li, Tzu Yu Allison Lin, Carmela Mana, Lindsay Martin, Lawrence Phillips, Tatiana Pogossian, Holly Prescott, Amrita Satapathy, Philip Tew, Candy Wood, and Mazin Zeki. The society’s first president was Brycchan Carey, the first vice-president was Jenny Bavidge. Adele Lee was elected as the secretary and Simon Goulding as the treasurer. Phillips and Carey both stepped down from organisational roles; Martin Dines was elected as the conference organiser and Susan Alice Fischer as the editor of the journal.

The new society faced some initial challenges. There was an early change of treasurer, and due to pressure of work and the need to overhaul the website, no edition of the journal appeared in 2012. The conference continued unabated however and, by 2013, the journal was back in production too, now renamed with the shorter title The Literary London Journal. The Society opened for business, reaching around 100 paid up members by July 2014 and starting to accumulate funds to secure its future. The society’s postgraduate members launched a regular reading group, the secretary began to distribute a newsletter to members, and society Facebook and Twitter accounts were opened and signed up to – the latter garnering more than 800 followers by July 2014. The society started to give money away too, offering an annual Presidents’ Prize for the best paper by a postgraduate student at the conference, and announcing plans to give a postgraduate travel bursary from 2015. In July 2014, Carey stepped down as president, passing the baton to Jenny Bavidge, who is supported by Martin Dines as vice president. Peter Jones became the new conference organiser.

This history was written by Brycchan Carey in July 2014. It is hoped that others will add to it well into the future.