Seamus Perry is won over by Texas during an annual ‘pilgrimage’ to a modern language conference

This year I went to the convention of the Modern Language Association of America, the professional body that represents English Literature as well as all the modern languages. It gathers every year for four days in an agreeable city somewhere in North America, occupying all of the downtown hotels and spilling out to fill the coffee-shops and bars.

It is bigger than any other humanities conference with thousands and thousands of people turning up – partly because professors habitually head, as if in some mass migration that might interest David Attenborough, to read out 20-minute papers to other migrants, and partly because if you are unfortunate enough to be new on the American market for an academic job then it is to the MLA that you must surely tend, for it is there (if you are lucky) that you will have your first interview, sat in an uncomfortable chair or on the edge of a bed somewhere on the seventh floor of the Hilton or the Holiday Inn.

This year it was in Austin Texas, which I thought a very fine place, and not only because it was so sunny compared to home, though that certainly did help the buoyancy of my spirits. Why, even the signs by the café doors saying “No handguns please” seemed only to add local colour.

Hotel staff never seemed fazed by any human phenomenon, something I first learned in Whitby, where I chanced upon a Dracula convention that was being looked after with unflappable Yorkshire grace as though it were the Rotary Club. The folks in the Austin convention centre were just as kindly, as we all got lost in its caverns trying to find panels dedicated to subjects of vanishingly specialist interest. I often wonder what the locals really do make of us, as the normal human chat to be heard over a cappuccino or a Jack Daniels gets temporarily transformed into urgent conversations about hiring new faculty or how the pitch went with that prospective publisher from Nebraska.

I love the MLA, the whole buzz and immensity of its enterprise: it fitted very well in Texas, where everything is indeed enormous and a side order of fries sacrifices enough potato to supply a health-conscious German family for six months. “God bless the USA”, as Auden gratefully said, “so large, / So friendly, and so rich”.

The only remotely awkward thing ever involved is knowing quite what to say at passport control about the purpose of your visit: business or pleasure? When you say what’s involved it doesn’t sound exactly like business to anyone normal; but then again, if you go on to describe what’s involved, it hardly sounds like pleasure to most people either.

And the passport people can be tough. A Shakespearean acquaintance of mine was stopped at JFK and asked his business. “I am giving a paper before the American Renaissance Society”, he replied. The passport officer nodded and then suddenly assumed a look of acute suspicion: “Wait a minute”, he said, “there was no American Renaissance”.

Discuss, as we say on exam papers.