"What a place!" Gavin exclaimed, walking down Broad Street completely heedless of the rain, admiring the ancient buildings. "Beth, what gave you the idea of holding the conference here?"
"Well, for a start. this is where Tolkien actually lived and taught," the Professor pointed out, hanging onto her umbrella as another gust whipped past. "We've gotten so caught up in what Prof. Oshukwe calls 'Tolkienism', I sometimes think we forget there was a real person at the bottom of it all. And -"
A car hummed past and one wheel dipped unexpectedly into a pot-hole, sending water sloshing across the pavement. Both academics jumped aside in a hurry.
"And?" Gavin asked idly, watching the retreating vehicle, one of the new Russian superelectrics.
"I found out that this was where something called the Tolkien Society used to have annual meetings, a hundred years ago." Beth said. "It seemed appropriate."
Gavin turned and looked at his colleague, surprised as much by her soft tone as by what she said. "How did you find that out?" he asked. Beth started to walk. "I think I told you that my Great-grandmother died recently?" she began.
"Yes, you did," Gavin answered. "I only met her once, but I was sorry to hear that," he said awkwardly, uncertain of the proprieties.
"She was special wasn't she?" Beth returned, and for a moment a reminiscent smile touched her face "Anyway, I went down to help clear out the house, and there was an old trunk in the attic with 'For Elizabeth' scrawled on it in chalk. I'm the only one of the name in the family, it was definitely for me. When we opened it up we saw why. Inside it were all of Great-gran's mother's papers and books. That was when I discovered she'd been a member of this Tolkien Society, a hundred years ago."
Gavin whistled softly. "What a find! Private papers from that period are very rare. What are you going to do with them?" he asked, intensely interested.
"Oh, they'll go to the British Museum up in New Birmingham eventually," Beth said. "They're too important not to. But I've been reading them myself first."
Gavin's jaw dropped and Beth laughed. "I asked the University Archivist about handling documents first, I assure you! And I had to ask one of our History of Computing people for help to read some of these really archaic data-storage devices they had back then."She shrugged. "It was my family - I wanted to have a took before I turned them over to the historians, and there was the Tolkien connection as well. That was pretty obvious, almost all the books were by or about him and his writings, and that's my subject, so ..."
"No wonder you wanted to read them." Gavin admitted. "A hundred years! What a lot's changed since then," he said, shaking his head. "How on earth did those papers survive?"
"It's a long story," Beth said dryly.
"Look, we're almost at the White Horse Inn." Gavin pointed out. "I'll - what's the phrase, stand you a pint? - and you can tell me all about it."
Beth nodded. "Done," she said cheerfully. "And I'll buy lunch. My turn."
Soon they were comfortably settled inside, with tall glasses full of beer to hand and orders placed for lunch. "Those papers," Gavin prompted.
"The papers, yes," Beth replied slowly. "You wanted to know how they survived. I don't have the full story yet, but as far as I can see, my great-great-grandmother was living near Milton Keynes at the start of last century. She died in the London Flood in '07 -"
Gavin started and whistled.
Beth nodded. "I know ... Well. The last dated item in the whole archive is a letter from a friend of hers who tried to warn her; it seems my great-great picked the worst possible time to go to London to visit someone, and the warning never reached her. The friend sounded awful - so upset. Anyway, I know Great-gran moved to Hay-on-Wye from Milton Keynes when she married a bookshop owner in 2012. She must have taken the papers with her - I gather the house in Milton Keynes was sold then, and most of the contents dispersed. Just as well Great-gran made the move," Beth said wryly, stopping for another mouthful of beer.
"Of course - Hay's the middle of nowhere," Gavin agreed, fascinated. "Well clear of the riots, the War, everything." He waved a hand expansively, narrowly missing his glass.
"Just so." Beth said. "And the cottage was already 300 years old when Great-gran and her husband moved in. It's well-built to say the least of it. Even in the Great Storm they only lost a couple of slates." She laughed. "Great Grandad always reckoned the biggest excitement the village ever saw was when a French pilot came down in the War. All the Home Defense people were in the local Drama Club and they were in the middle of rehearsals when they heard. They all went running off and when he saw the crew of Gilbert and Sullivan pirates chasing him, the poor man fainted on the spot!"
Gavin choked on his beer, then roared with laughter. "If I remember that picture of your Great-Grandfather rightly, I'd have fainted too!" he managed to say. "He'd look like Blackbeard in person!"
"Wouldn't harm a fly, but he looked like Gothmog's big brother," Beth agreed reminiscently. She shrugged and leaned back. "Anyway, that's how the papers survived. You'll hear more about them at the conference."
"Are you giving a lecture on them, then?" Gavin asked. Beth nodded. "It's a bit of an interim report, but it fitted in rather nicely."
At that, lunch arrived, and conversation stopped for a while. "So, what is the program for next week?" Gavin asked finally.
Beth promptly produced her personal computer and opened it. The screen brightened and in a second or two a chime announced it was ready. "Computer, category conference, thread 'Programme', file 'Highlight', recite," Beth told it crisply.
The computer obliged in a clear small voice while Gavin listened intently. Beth was presenting her paper, 'First Generation; Attitudes to Tolkien in 2001'; the inevitable Professor Oshukwe (Republic of California) had actually found something interesting to say - 'Did the Movie Matter? Was Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" important, or did it merely confirm existing trends?' He was coming to Oxford in person not just presenting in VR, a prospect Gavin viewed with mixed feelings. Chang Lee Fen of Nanking had 'T'o Li-Kien the Sage; Tolkien as part of Far Eastern Culture'. Hernandez - good Gods, he was coming from the Space Station - was presenting something called 'Tolkien and the Re-invention of Religion in the Twenty-first Century'.
There were papers on 'Why Did it Take so Long For Tolkien's Genius to be Accepted? Elite Culture and Misperception', on 'The Nasmith School; Tolkien and 21st Century Art', on 'Cultural Revolution and Cultural Creep; Tolkien and a Hundred Years of Change', on 'Fantasy Then; Physics Now'. Gavin was presenting a paper too - 'Speaking Peoples; Images of Communication with the Alien'.
"Quite a programme," Gavin said, impressed. "It should be a good week. I'm surprised so many are attending in person, though."
"So was I," Beth answered with a wry look. "It's been quite hard to arrange. The colleges here aren't really used to this sort of thing any more." She smiled. "I think a lot of people wanted to see Oxford, and the Ashmolean Museum is holding an exhibition to coincide with the conference, too; it's called 'Illustrating Tolkien; Fin-de-Siecle Art of the 20th Century'. Some amazing paintings came to light when they began to ask around - it should be well worth seeing."
"Well I never," Gavin exclaimed. "Nasmith?" he asked eagerly. Beth nodded. "Nasmith, Lee, Currie, and a lot of lesser known people." They talked about the conference until Beth's personal computer coughed politely to remind them time was passing and they had other things to do that afternoon.
As they left the White Horse Inn and walked down the road towards University College, heads turned to stare at the odd couple, for Oxford was a provincial town these days which rarely saw their like. A dumpy little woman in a retro tweed suit taking two steps for every one of the tall, bony archosauroid beside her, whose featherfurred tail peeked out from under his overcoat, were worth a second glance. Ignoring the stares and embarrassed second glances, the two academics walked on through the chill September rain, wrangling amicably about literature as they went.