Just back, yesterday, after another whirlwind trip to the US, this time to St Louis for the meeting of the New Chaucer Society programming committee. We are planning the next Congress, to be held in beautiful Swansea, in July, 2008. I hear conflicting reports of whether it will be possible to surf or swim without a wetsuit there at that time of year. (Those of us accustomed to swimming in the more southerly oceans of the southern hemisphere might be more hardy, and the more likely, but I make no promises!) Our several meetings, more and less formal, went swimmingly (sorry), and although there is much work ahead, I'm confident that we have a great committee, full of ideas and energy. I found it quite luxurious, really, to be gathering with the job of shaping this next meeting that is so important to so many of us, especially with the prospect of making a pilgrimage to the National Library of Wales to visit the Hengwrt manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.
Not so luxurious, the long flights, of course. I managed to get a standby seat on an earlier flight from LAX to St Louis, and avoid the 8 hour wait there (as someone commented to me, that's an awful lot of sudoku). I had to fly back through Sydney, though, as Melbourne, this weekend, is host to the AFL grand final, and all the flights, as the Qantas person said to me, were "chockers". (Does anyone need a translation?) It was great to be back in St Louis, where I spent such a happy and productive sabbatical last year. I made various little pilgrimages to visit my landlady, my son's girlfriends (twins!), Kaldi's coffee shop for a vanilla granita and a farmer's market salad with "craisins" and almond brittle (though they have had to substitute other greens for the spinach because of the e-coli scare); and various other favourite haunts. Just lovely to meet up with old friends, too; and finally visit the Botanical Gardens there, decked out with wonderful Chihuly glass sculptures.
It was completely weird, though, to flip through the on-flight television channels and find myself utterly mesmerised by a Wiggles special filmed at Australia Zoo with Steve and Terri and Bindi Irwin, dancing cockatoo dances and laughing like kookaburras. I have not always said kind things about Irwin's propensity for provoking wild creatures into aggressive behaviour while saying "look, but don't touch" but I have come to a grudging admiration of the completeness — I can find no other word — of his personhood. Another weird moment was watching Richard E. Grant's Wah Wah, the autobiographical film of his life as a child in colonial Swaziland, just prior to independence. As Princess Margaret comes to preside over the hand-over, the white community decides to put on a performance of ... Camelot (complete with African gardener singing Lancelot in white make-up). As the colonial era fades away, with the Grant character taking on the role of Malory at the end, being sent off to write the story, they sing of the glories of Camelot and its "one brief shining moment". Medievalism meets colonialism.
Today I was right back into the throes of university politics, with an all-day planning meeting for our new amalgamating school (english, cultural studies, creative writing, publishing, media, communications, art history, cinema studies, arts management, theatre studies and more problematically, because temporarily, some parts of the soon-to-be-disbanded school of creative arts). Various working-groups presented their reports and recommendations on governance, research clusters, workload formulas and so on. Generally, the mood was great: another positive day of building something, though it is much easier for those of us whose future in the new school is assured. It is much harder for those academic staff whose areas may not find a place in the new school after a few transitional years, and even harder again for those administrative, or professional staff who may face redeployment or retrenchment. Their anxiety, in the face of some less than clear directives from powers beyond the school, was palpable and completely comprehensible.
My family narrative, living with the globalism-theorising, community-building partner and the fantasy-writing, warhammer-painting, lego-animating son, is usually that the males in my family are world-builders, while I have always seen myself rather as the close reader, the textual analyst, the one who is better at seeing the trees, rather than the forest. These last few days, though, with their possibilities of seeing much larger pictures, and being part of teams that are building big and new things, were surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps I am getting the bug, after all this time.
Right now, I had better get on with my grant. Tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a draft of our research applications (not due till February) to the Faculty so as to be assigned a mentor outside the department. I made a commitment that I would make my drafts available online and try and keep to this Faculty timetable, pour encourager les autres. It has been incredibly difficult, and as I worked sporadically on my draft in various airport lounges and the hotel in St Louis over the last week, I wasn't always sure if I was making it better or worse. But I did, at least, make it somewhat longer, and so I hope to have about six pages to forward to Faculty tomorrow. I'll work on it for a few hours now (get thee behind me, jetlag!), and send it to the departmental web person tomorrow to upload. If anyone in the department should be working on theirs tonight and would like to see where I have got so far, do please email me.