Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Coming Home

No matter how long I stay away, it’s always the last few days that are hardest. The temptation to phone up Qantas and come home early is always very strong. Paul has done it twice, and just turned up at the front door a few days early: usually it’s just in time, as we have found that things tend to go wrong around the house when he’s away. It’s as if the house loves him as much as he loves it… I seem to have less impact on the house when I’m away, but I know my little Mima will be ready, after her initial disdain, to forgive me and settle down for a good long conversation.

These last few days of my trip I’ve been staying with my sister and family, though, so it’s been easier: I’ve not been tempted to call Qantas, though I am badly missing my own family. I’m writing the first part of this entry on the train down to Windsor Castle, where I have an appointment with Eleanor Cracknell (Miss) in the archives. I’m supposed to arrive before 10.30 to miss the changing of the guards, and have to check with the police on duty when I arrive.

The train is heading southwest past back gardens and allotments and row after row of houses. It’s spring, and there is blossom everywhere; it’s making me homesick for the garden and the pleasure of watching things grow. I wonder how far the stephanotis plants have climbed up the columns of our garden folly.

We had a lovely day on Sunday morning. My nephew James is a chorister at Temple Church; the church of the Middle and Lower Temple Law Courts, between Fleet Street and the River. He’s been singing there for about 6 months, I think, and on Sunday he graduated to full chorister status. This meant he was invested with his white surplice, to wear over his long red gown. The church is the one that features towards the end of the Da Vinci Code. It’s been there since the twelfth century, I think, but was partially destroyed in the great fire of 1666, and then again during the blitz in 1941. So much of it is reconstructed, but much of the old “round” is still intact. It has about eight medieval effigies of templar knights. Some are badly damaged, but William Marshall is there…




The music was wonderful: lots of Purcell and Buxtehude. James and the four other boys knelt in their red tunics before being robed in their surplices and blessed as they rejoined the choir, which sang beautifully. I took a photo of James afterwards for my parents, but he has his eyes closed a little:



But then another boy helped make a better photo:



We then had a little picnic in the Elm-Tree Garden, with champagne, smoked salmon and goats cheese sandwiches, tarte tatin and chocolate. I’d invited a few select medievalists …








and we pondered the nature of religion, ritual and medieval studies. Nothing like watching a ceremony of installation in a medieval setting while pondering the rituals of the Order of the Garter.




Ok, it’s eight hours later, and I’m sitting with a glass of chilled white wine at Windsor station, waiting for a train, having just missed one.

A pretty good day in the archives, all things considered. It was easy to pick up my pre-arranged day pass, stamped by the Royal Protection department of the police. They took my photo and the policeman said, “One for The Firm; and one for me!”, so they really do use that phrase for the Royal Family. (I hung around at the end of the day long enough to get a glimpse of Prince Charles going into St Georges chapel for a service…) The documents I wanted to see were all ready and waiting for me, but there was no dusty archive here. The catalogue says the archives are held “in the Garter Chest” in the Aerary, but in fact I was working in a lovely modern (though originally sixteenth-century) room, with space and light for the laptop; convenient catalogues, and a really helpful archivist. I’ll ponder the nature of what I read and saw later; at the moment, on the eve of my departure for home, I’m pondering the nature and the limits of my project in more general terms.

A true and comprehensive history of the Order would not be possible from Australia, since there are so very many records in the UK. Luckily for me, there exist several pretty detailed histories, so it’s a case, really, of just identifying the documents and ideas that intrigue me the most. They’re not that hard to find, either, since I’m interested not in who was in and out of the Order at any time, but rather how its monarchs and officers negotiated change; how they saw themselves honoring the medieval origins of the Order every time they made changes to its costumes, rituals and statutes (or its silver underpants: honestly, I’m not making this up: you’ll have to buy the book!).

Even so, and even while I feel I’m just about ready to sit down and finish drafting my book manuscript, I still feel a bit overwhelmed, sometimes, by the dizzying potential of the archive. It’s partly because my Latin and my palaeography could be a lot stronger, so I am slow, though I’m ok with most English texts (even ghastly sixteenth-century hands), and with formal medieval French ones (it depends very much on the script). It’s partly also that the depth of the archive is so profound. Again (am I sounding defensive yet?) it’s not as if most of the material hasn’t been looked at yet, and there’s no point combing through wardrobe accounts that have been edited and translated and commented on already. But I know enough to know there are scholars who could plumb every depth, who wouldn’t be content with the sixteenth-century printed edition, and who, given a couple of days in the British Library, would make mincemeat of the fifteenth-century Latin manuscript. Even then I have to transcribe the bits I’m most interested in and will have to translate them properly later. I console myself by saying all kinds of things, that I am interested in different kinds of issues of cultural history; that I know a whole lot more than I used to. And in the end, I’m confident that I can write the book, pretty much as I want to. And that is a Good Thing.

But I am heartily sick of carrying around my computer, and will look forward to putting in back on my desk where it belongs. I’ve bought a ridiculously heavy snowdome for Joel (big as you can get; Tower of London; a police call box; old bus; houses of Parliament; glitter; plays a tune — I wonder what?) and will look forward to checking that in at Heathrow tomorrow, too.

I’m sure it’s carrying the computer around that is making my breast sore. I was warned that there might be post-surgical pain for several months, and a heavy back-pack is surely to blame for soft tissue damage and intermittent pain. Still, it’s horrible to feel this uncertainty. It’s definitely time to come home.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Paper

After all this time, it’s still a bit of a mystery to me how a paper gets written. The deadline or the topic is given months, or up to a year before you actually stand up behind the lectern. Vague ideas about the topic circulate in the background of the mind at odd moments over that time, but it’s usually not till much closer to the time that you sit down to write.

Often it seems smarter not to write in too finished a way too close to the day. This is not just intellectual brinkmanship (how close can you leave it?); it sometimes does just make a better paper if it isn’t all signed and sealed months before it’s delivered. A good conference paper, as opposed to a good essay or chapter, should be rather interrogative than conclusive. A paper that has all the answers to the questions it raises can often seem rather flat. It’s easy to forget this as you write, though; and I’ve heard a lot of papers that seem designed to forestall questions, rather than invite them.

There’s another school of thought that says it’s best not even to write and read a paper; rather, to speak from notes. I have sometimes been able to do this; and I know Paul does it every time, no matter how formal or grand the occasion. It’s usually lovely when that happens, when someone does it well. The nature of literary criticism makes it a little harder, though: our discipline does require a degree of precision in our textual work.

For me, the longer the paper is to be, the more likely I am to write a formal talk (though a good fifty minute lecture to my first-years is often no more written out than a few notes on the power point slides). My gig at this conference in London was a full 40-45 minute talk and I also wanted to take the opportunity to make some clearer formulations of the issues I wanted to talk about. I also had in mind that the talk might be published in some form or another. In addition, I had a chunk of about 15 minutes’ worth already written as part of the project with Tom, and so it seemed a good opportunity to generate more of that work so I could turn the paper into more of the book draft. (One of the things about collaborative projects is that you nearly always feel you are slipping behind the other person. Or perhaps it’s just me who feels like this!)

Monday was an odd day. At lunchtime, I was a genius, and the paper was brilliant. By about 4 o’clock, I was a sloppy scholar who couldn’t write a footnote to save my life. By 7.00 I was just another of the hundreds of scholars and students starting to stream out of the library. I knew that some of them would have had great days; some would have had terrible days; and some would have had a mixed day like mine. A bad writing or research day is a horror like no other, though.

The day before the conference I had a date at the College of Arms with David and the producer of the BBC programme he is making about Malory. We spent a few hours with Bluemantle Pursuivant, one of the heralds, looking at manuscripts and talking about chivalry and heraldry. I then gave myself the rest of the day off, and went shopping. What is that thing about being in a different city and needing to spend my money there? In any case, I bought a pair of shoes, and so my conference preparation was done.

It was a perfect-size conference. Two days of papers on a pretty restricted topic — Chaucer and Time — with barely any parallel sessions; and a wonderful Indian banquet on the first evening. I heard some really excellent papers, caught up with some old friends, and made some new ones.

My talk was on last; and so I had to cool my heels till Friday afternoon. The usual nerves, butterflies, last minute adjustments to the opening and closing paragraphs. But it went well enough; and the question session was really helpful to me. Perhaps it’s something about having been so sick, or perhaps something about feeling my Garter project and the medievalism project with Tom are both taking shape that I felt confident — I would even use the word ‘fearless’ — at some moments in writing and speaking this talk, which was a kind of continuation of the panel on Medieval Studies from the New York Chaucer congress. But of course it makes sense that a brush with mortality and physical vulnerability of the kind that cancer offers might make us less fearful in putting ideas and questions together.

A few of us went for a beer and then dinner, and I got back to the hotel in good time. But at 3.00 in the morning I was woken by various revellers out in the square and wrote/am writing this in the middle of the night. I’ve been here two weeks but it feels like jetlag. Or it’s adrenaline, after having given the paper. What is the time when one writes a blog entry in a hotel room, but has to wait till morning to go down to the lobby to post? A good question for a conference on time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Emotion at high altitude

My very dear blog,

I’ve been in London nearly a week, now, and a little surprised to find I haven’t had time to update you. It’s not as if it’s been technically hard to do so, either. My laptop’s wireless function allows me to sit in the British Library and order books from the catalogue without leaving my seat; I’ve paid a modest sum so I can also access my email and the web there; and have even worked out how to take pictures on my new cheap little phone (which has a thousand more features than the old Australian one) and download them (see below). My hotel also has free wireless in the lounge. Here's the view from where I'm sitting in the lobby.



I also realise that the nature of the blog means that I could write, as normal, from London and still seem to be writing from within the blogspace, but I feel so far from home that it is as if I am writing back to my desk at home, hence the epistolary style.

The flight over was pretty punishing, as always. I had a nice seat, but the plane was crowded and we were stuck on the tarmac for two hours in Singapore before we took over for the second leg. I read a little (Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces) and watched a couple of movies: Shakespeare in Love and The Holiday, and wept, indiscriminately, at various points in both. My friend Peter calls this "emotion at high altitude", and it's true that there's nothing like a long distance flight for exacerbating and accentuating emotion. This trip seems harder than some too; and it's true that this last week has been rather mixed, workwise. If I'd been smart, or able, I would have finished the paper before I left Melbourne, but it just wasn't to be. I've thus been uncertain as to how best to use my time here: in the archives, at London or Windsor, or just writing the paper. It's an awful feeling, not knowing what to do, what to transcribe, what to read, what to write. However, the pressure of the paper has come to the surface, and I've written a punishing 1200 words today. Still, it's the usual mix of anxiety about conference papers; again, what to read, and what to write.

Having friends and family in London makes it much easier, I must say, and I don't get a chance to be lonely. I'm also keeping up some little routines. I get up and have breakfast, then head out for a good 40 minute walk. The first few mornings I looked for a nice route around Bloomsbury; now I just settle for several turns around Gordon Square:



This takes me past the house where Woolf lived:



So I guess, as I take my "turn" around the square (though at top pace, and about eight times!), I am walking in paths she trod. I then skip over to the slightly larger Russell Square, for more of the same, where there is a rather odd floral display:



I then come back and shower and head off to the library, along with thousands of others. The library is under financial pressure, so they have allowed undergraduates to come and use it, to make it look as if the service is being used. Which is fine and dandy, except that it is unpleasantly crowded, and you cannot always get a seat. Which, if you've come a long way to read Edward VI's drafts of his changes to the Ordinances of the Order of the Garter, and know that your seat has been taken by a student falling asleep over the notes for their first-year biology exam, is not conducive to happiness and calm.

Well, I've spent long enough at the computer today, so I'll sign off for now. I hope you're checking out all the other blogs for me while I'm away.

Wish you were here,

Stephanie

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Medievalism in Australian Poetry

Lovely to see Melanie Duckworth's essay on the medievalism of Les Murray in yesterday's Australian. I heard Melanie give this paper at ANZAMEMS in Adelaide, and it's great to see an academic paper make such an easy transition to the national newspaper. It's also good to see someone else writing about the topic of our current grant application!

Melanie works from Murray's defence of the Boeotian sensibility (rural, natural, creative) as opposed to an Athenian one (urban, artificial, rationalist and colonialist) and shows how he associates this with the vernacular, with the first phase of European settlement in Australia, with the medieval, and even with Aboriginal art. Murray's vision is counter-intuitive, provocative, sweeping, but in the end, not all that convincing. He writes:

"Within our civilisation we repeatedly see a pattern of autonomous, distinctive art at the beginning of each people's cultural history ... Each New World people gets, as it were, a short period of anarchic, makeshift cultural independence in which to produce its Chaucers and Langlands and its literary and artistic gothic cathedrals, or at least the foundations for them."

There's something about such sweeping statements that makes me very nervous. All I can really see here is Murray's desire to make his own genealogy, to find a distant analogue for his own tradition of "anarchic, makeshift cultural independence". The identification of this vernacular as a medieval is problematic, as Melanie's article shows. Murray's self-marginalisation (even though he is perhaps Australia's best-known poet) draws on a set of associations between the medieval, the vernacular, and the underdog. This last, in many forms of Australian culture, is a sure fire way of attracting support; but Melanie comments further: "If Murray medievalises himself, he is also medievalised by others, positively and negatively."

And ... what can it mean to describe Aboriginal culture as "a Boeotian resource of immeasurable value for us all." I don't think Murray means to speak in the voice of the coloniser here — just the opposite — but it's very difficult to agree that there is any easy kind of alignment between the medieval and the Aboriginal. All the same, Melanie's essay pulls out this neat thread: "If the Middle Ages are vernacular, they are living, present and local."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Three Happy Endings

Within two days last week, three projects came to a happy conclusion. Not mine, alas, though I did manage to send off my draft of the Piers Plowman essay to my long-suffering editor.

No, I went to two book launches, and had the pleasure of ringing a PhD student to say her examiners' reports had arrived, and that all she had to do was make a handful of tiny changes.

The booklaunches were of two friends, and what a contrast they made! First was Paul Salzman, launching Reading Early Modern Women's Writing; and the second was Ken Gelder, launching Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practices. Paul's launch was held in a lovely room at La Trobe University, with the sulphur-crested cockatoos flashing white through the soft greenery of the bushland campus against stormy grey skies. Speeches were thoughtful, modest and heartfelt; food and wine were plentiful; but the hardback Oxford volume was very expensive. The next night was Ken's turn. The launch was held in a Carlton bookstore (in fact, see Whitebait's terrific evocation of the event): more crowded; less food and wine; longer, cleverer, more self-referential speeches. Two immortal lines: a sentence from Justin Clemens, the launcher, beginning "My tattooist's sister... "; and another from Ken affirming that reading the book was a bit like a slap for the reader (for the record, Ken said he thought this was a good thing). The Routledge paperback was half the price of Paul's.

This is the divided world of scholarly publishing, then. It's not completely schizophrenic, though you don't need a degree in semiotics to decode the contrasts here. What is particularly wonderful about these two events is that Ken and Paul are friends and collaborators. They've already produced a study of Australian fiction, The New Diversity, and are at work on a sequel. Both their careers are models of versatility and productiveness. Paul's, in particular, I find instructive, as he balances work as a specialist in early modern literature with his work on Elizabeth Jolley and Australian fiction. For better or worse, it's pretty hard, in most Australian departments of English, to focus just on one research and teaching area. Most of us medieval and early modern folk have very few colleagues in our immediate areas, and often end up teaching and supervising in other areas. Which is why we travel so much; and why we love blogs and conferences so much. I say this with some feeling today, having just given a lecture on D. H. Lawrence to the first-years this morning...

On the other hand, last night we had about eighteen folk gathering for the monthly Medieval Round Table, hearing a wonderful paper from Kathy Troup on the patterns of marriage amongst medieval brewers. This group has been meeting for over ten years now. It's a very diverse group, but meetings are always fascinating, and people are always friendly, interested and supportive of each other's work.

In my graduate supervisions, I usually have about a third of my students working on modern women's writing, which brings me to the third moment of closure last week. At Melbourne the PhD is a thesis of 80,000 words written under the supervision of one main supervisor and an auxiliary supervisor whose main role until recently has been to step in at the end of the probation period, whenever the principal supervisor is away, and at the end of the candidature. On completion, the thesis is sent away to two anonymous readers who can't have had anything to do with the supervision process. With any luck, they'll agree the thesis is ready to be passed, but they can sometimes send it back for re-writing and re-submission. They are supposed to take only about six weeks to do it, but it's often a much longer wait until the candidate gets a phone call out of the blue with the good, or the reasonably good news. This was a part-time enrolment, so it had been a long haul project. Larissa had had two children over the course of her candidature, and more than her fair share of health and other kinds of interruptions to her work. The reports are in, now; and say lovely, positive things about her work: an analysis of Foucauldian heterotopic spaces in Australian second wave women's writing. We met last night to look at the reports together, and a mutually satisfying exchange of congratulations took place. Congratulations again, Larissa!

My own work now is to sit down and puzzle out what I need to take and do before I climb on the plane to London on Saturday. I'm off to the fabulous-looking London Chaucer conference on Chaucer and Time, and will spend some time in the British Library, the College of Arms and the Public Record Office in Kew.