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Recollections of CLAS: Dr Niall HD Geraghty, CLAS MPhil and PhD student, 2010-2015
Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of Latin American Studies, London
I was fortunate enough to spend five years studying at the Centre of Latin American Studies, completing both my MPhil and my doctoral studies at the Centre. Perhaps due to the fact it is located in a University with such a long history, at the time, it seemed like the Centre was endowed with a certain permanence; as if it always had been there and always would.

Having moved on to another university (and especially now, on the 50th anniversary of the Centre) I have become increasingly aware of two facts that are presumably obvious to those who have gone before me: that CLAS is a very young institution, and that it is somewhat transient. People continually move through CLAS, they are perpetually arriving and leaving, and the Centre is but a temporary home.

Yet, it is inescapable that while I was studying at the Centre, it felt completely immutable. Despite the continual movement of people, and the fact that I and all the other students at the Centre knew we would only be there for a precisely limited time, the Centre did not seem at all momentary. With that perspective that is gained from a little distance in time and space (and perhaps with a little self-importance and pomposity), I now think that I can pinpoint the underlying reasons for the Centre’s apparent durability. Indeed, I believe I have found the two fundamental elements without which the Centre could not hold: the Open Seminar Series, and the key to the wine cupboard. Fortunately, during my time at CLAS, both of these essential components were supervised by the Centre’s present custodians: Julie Coimbra and Joanna Page.

Each Monday evening we would congregate for the week’s seminar. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre, at times, it was a little difficult to leave my work behind when the topic was removed from my own area of research. But with the thought that it would only last an hour and a half and that I could always return to my work afterwards, I came regardless. We would shuffle in, exchange muted greetings, listen, take notes, and somehow I always found something of interest in the paper. Stimulated by the topic and keen to talk a little, I would move upstairs with everyone else.

Situated in the reception, I would strike up a conversation. While the audience would change (sometimes I spoke to my colleagues, sometimes the speaker, sometimes a current or former member of the Centre) and the topics varied tremendously, one thing was constant: with the first glass of wine all thoughts of returning to work were forgotten. As time passed and the evening seemed to be drawing to a close, I would catch Geoff Maguire’s eye. We would turn together to Joanna and Julie to see if tonight would be one of the special evenings. We would search for the trace of an illicit smile, or a glint in the eye at once permissive and mischievous, that signalled that the key would be deployed. Those nights extended wonderfully, and the academic would blend with the personal enriching both.

I would find myself consistently surprised that abandoning work on a Monday evening was the perfect way to improve my research. On Tuesday mornings the interdisciplinary strength of the Centre was clear. By some strange diffusion, bibliographies would be expanded, new lines of enquiry would have opened up, or I would have gained a new perspective and the problem I had been ceaselessly turning over in my head would be resolved. Additionally, I would feel motivated and supported. The open seminars draw people together for a time, and the key to the wine cupboard unlocks the exchange of ideas and affections. People may be continually arriving and leaving, but they are altered by their stay and they invariably return.

Having now moved from one Parry Centre to another, it seems that these institutions are not transient, but rather permeable. Moreover, the CLAS seminars seem more important than ever. In a practical sense, there is a bank of knowledge concerning Latin America that I can draw on in conversation, in my research, and in discussing the work of others. And the key to the wine cupboard has ensured that there is a series of contacts throughout the world with whom I have a shared experience. The open seminars and the key to the wine cupboard: the principal elements in the creation of a community.