Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Medieval Manuscripts in Melbourne

For Melbourne readers, an invitation to an afternoon with some of the beautiful manuscripts in the State Library collection. Ignore the blurb, which tells you that manuscripts preceded books, and were made by hand! These are three experts and good speakers, and this would be a lovely way to spend a chilly Melbourne afternoon. Click to enlarge....

Monday, May 28, 2007

Chaucer hath cheezburger



Just in case anyone has missed this, check out Chaucer's Lolgrims.

I even knew what a lolcat was before Chaucer posted about them: I must be spending too much time blogging...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Three Days: Three Clubs

It's becoming increasingly clear to me why I am fascinated by the Order of the Garter; it's really another way to think about institutions and rituals of belonging, topics that have always intrigued me. Over the last three days I've done three very different things with three different clubs, though I belong to none of them. Theoretically, I could join all three...

On Friday night we were guests of a friend at the Lyceum Club in Melbourne. The Club was founded in 1912 to link with the Lyceum club in London and others, and as resistance to the (still) exclusively masculine Melbourne Club. "Membership is restricted to women graduates and other women who had distinguished themselves in art, music, literature, philanthropy or public service." The building is hidden down a dark laneway behind the back of the Melbourne Club's secret garden, and from our charming private upstairs room we looked into the leaves of the enormous plane trees and down into its courtyard. I had passed the grand facade of the Melbourne Club in Collins St a thousand times and had no idea of this beautiful space hidden away in the heart of the city. There is a discreet doorway from the Club into the laneway, and rumour has it that this provided a quick route to a brothel that used to occupy the spot where the Lyceum now stands (there may still be one not too far away). The Lyceum is rather more modest as a building, but has a wonderful art collection, and changing exhibitions of photographs and artworks. We had a lovely meal (a "Lebanese grazing banquet", far from the roast beef and three vegies I was half expecting), and the twelve of us sat around a circular table with Vicki’s family and friends and talked in groups of two or three, or occasionally someone would tell a story to the whole group. What a luxury, to be able to eat and talk without the clatter of other tables, or "restaurant" music.

On Saturday night, we went with 63,000 other folk to the “dreamtime” clash between Richmond and Essendon at the MCG. Once a year these two AFL clubs, who’ve both been actively supportive of Indigenous players, meet to commemorate the brilliant talents of Aboriginal footballers. In particular, my team, the mighty Bombers, under the coaching of Kevin Sheedy, have pushed for this event to become a regular fixture, and so we joined the small crowd that followed Michael Long (being interviewed here by Michael Voss),



from Federation Square to the beautiful MCG.




I went down to the barrier at the edge of the ground and took a few photos as Richmond were warming up; for some reason, I also seem to have caught mostly Richmond supporters in my snaps.








The MCG wasn’t full, but by the time the pre-match ceremonies began it was about two-thirds full. A didgeridoo player, wrapped in a beautiful possum skin cloak, stood above the electronic scoreboard, right at the very top of the ground, and then we heard Archie Roach, Shane Howard, Ivor Davies and others sing the immortal words, “It’s the colour of your jumper; it’s not the colour of your skin.” I do not think it likely that this is going to become one of the all-time great football anthems. Then Peter Garrett (ex-rock star, now politician) joined a bunch of others to sing along with Shane Howard’s “Solid Rock (standing on sacred ground)”, Auntie Joy Murphy welcomed everyone to country as the Wurundjeri elder, presenting manna leaves to the captain and coach of each club; and the game began. It was not a great game (not that I go very often), and by three-quarter time it looked as if the Tigers were going to score their first win of the season. We left, weak-spiritedly, to avoid the crush on the train, but when we got home and got in the car to drive Joel’s friend Nick home, scores were level at the end of the match, and then Essendon sneaked home by 8 points. Go Bombers!

The third club, much more modestly, was the suburban tennis club where Larry coaches on Sundays. It’s the only sport I play, and I don’t really play, yet, as I’m still learning, but it’s always fun to get out on the court and have a turn. It’s possibly almost time for me to join a club, though, and to see about playing a game. Today, though, we were practising volleying up close to the net (and sitting on a chair, to make us focus on our raquet work, not our footwork), and I got hit by a ball right between nose and upper lip. Ouch. I’m expecting a big bruise tomorrow, and have felt headachey all day, as if my poor brain got a knock, too. So much so that I had to lie on the couch most of the afternoon and read a novel. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow, for working.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Words and work

• A few days ago, I was writing about Isella, the Sicilian woman who ran our local milk bar for many years; six and a half days a week.

• The same day I read about Bryce Courteney, for a paper I must start writing soon about his medieval novel, Sylvia, and how he writes: "I spend 12 hours a day, six days a week, seven months a year alone in a small room looking at a blank wall where pigeons are pooping. That’s no life, so there has to be a compensation." His compensation? the pleasure of story-telling.

• We currently have builders working on our room and roof upstairs: they arrive on the dot of 7.00 am and work all day till about 3.30 or 4.00. They'll stop to talk if it's really important, but mostly, they just want to keep going. (Yes, they are exceptional builders.)

* We, on the other hand, keep typically loose and floppy academic hours: we often work late at night; some days we work at home, some days at the office; some days, since the builders began their work, I ride into the wonderful State Library. Our work is constantly interrupted by other bits of our work; and also structured by Joel's school hours. We struggle to wake around 7.00 am, and we breakfast, and then I go for my walk when Joel leaves around 8.15, and come back and shower before I think about getting to my desk, or onto my bike.

I collect these stories and images of the way people work. But it's not just about the hours. I've always loved TV dramas about workplaces, too; and thinking about the way people relate, in human terms, with their colleagues. One of the most forceful impressions for me, of being sick, was my engagement with a range of health professionals: they may be experts on our disease, but the patients are the experts when it comes to judging bedside manner or healthcare!

One of the tough things about academic work is that it is hardly ever finished. There is no easy "knock-off time": a book or an article can be years in the making; and no one ever tells you when you've done enough. There is no real end to the amount of preparation you can do for a lecture or tutorial (which is why teaching can be such a trap for graduate students). It's increasingly true that we are told how much we are to produce (in research, I'm supposed to publish an average of 2.5 refereed articles a year, for example); and the Federal Government's RQF will soon help me rank the quality and impact of those publications... Strangely, this is of little consolation. If our new system turns out to be anything like the UK's, we'll all be rushing to finish books by some artificial deadline in five years, or miss the cut till the next deadline, five years later. What this will do to the utterly mysterious way most research and writing in the humanities gets done can barely be imagined.

So much of our work is intuitive. I told Paul the other day I wanted to get a draft of my Garter book finished by the end of the year, and he asked why, fearing I was working to some such artificial deadline. But it's simply that the time feels auspicious; and that the book is starting to find its shape. There's heaps of work to do, yet, and lots of knots and problems to be unravelled first; and I do not think I am working all that efficiently on it at the moment. Yet I somehow trust, after all these years, that my work on this book is finding its own rhythm; that even as I make my way back into my badly filed notes, and consider the huge number of questions without answers, and as I potter around the garden and re-format my bibliography, I am somehow, mysteriously, Back at Work.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I Still Miss Isella

Here's a link to an article in The Age about tiny cafes opening up in former milk bars in Melbourne's inner north. American readers may not know what a milk bar is: a small corner shop dispensing bread, milk, minimal fruit and vegies (if you're lucky), assorted dry goods and tins and groceries, and odd bits and pieces, as well as icecreams, lollies (that is, candy), hot pies. Not coffee; not really. We looked all round St Louis, and never found anything remotely resembling one.

The photo here is of the cafe more or less opposite our house; though because it's next to a primary school, its clientele is rather of the parents-and-prams, or teachers-having-meetings variety, than the artists and writers with their laptops. And yes, it's great to have a place that does reasonable coffee and a respectable spinach pie within spitting distance, as it were.

But I still miss Isella, who ran the milk bar six and half days a week for something like 20 years in the same spot (Saturday afternoons and evenings she had off; to go to mass and prepare large meals for a family get together). She watched Joel grow, from my pregnancy until we went to St Louis; she taught him how to buy things, and how to say hello and goodbye; she knew all the neighbours and the story about the haunted house down the road; she told stories about her own children growing up; and showed us pictures of her first grandchild. After her husband was retrenched, he would stand in the doorway between the shop and the back room during the afterschool rush, just to make sure the kids didn't give her any trouble. Once every couple of years she'd close the shop for a few weeks and have a holiday in Queensland; and then once back home to Sicily. I didn't always agree with her politics and her comments about how it was time to have some more children, but I loved her warmth and her sense of the community we lived in.

In 2005 I was listening to the radio and heard about a man attacking a woman in a milk bar in North Fitzroy, and so, indeed, it had happened to Isella. A man had come in and threatened her with a knife, and she had gone to get some money; locked herself in the back and called the police. She was ok, and would dismiss everyone's concerns with a wave of the hand. But in the second half of that year she took another trip home to Sicily and must have decided, then, not to return. The milk bar stood empty for a year; and then the horrible grey shelves were ripped out, the fancy open box windows in the picture were installed, and now there are Portuguese tarts a-plenty (as the article says) reasonable coffee, dreadful bread, and a rather self-consciously cool bunch of very young things behind the counter. It's ok, you know; but I'd rather have Isella. The very strangest thing is that the new cafe, Julio (by the school yard!), kept one sign painted in yellow on the glass: "hot and cold drinks". I'm a little nostalgic for the one they scraped off: "Isella's mixed business."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hoccleve, where art thou?

Just preparing tomorrow's lecture on Hoccleve and ... oh! on his return to public life from illness!! ... and wondering why, in all the proliferation of medieval blogs, there is no Hoccleve blog. I had nearly written "why Hoccleve hasn't started a blog"! But seriously, we have Chaucer (and John Mandeville and Tremulous Aescgar and the crew), Gower, Katherine Swynford and Langland, though his heart doesn't really seem to be in it. But why is not Hoccleve in the company? He has the ideal personality for a blogger: he writes about writing a lot; he's confessional and racy; and even seeks advice from friends about whether to go public with his problems or not (and when they say, no, don't do it, he blogs it anyway!). It would be very interesting to see what kind of voice a Hoccleve blog would adopt vis-a-vis Chaucer's....

Saturday, May 19, 2007

You Know You're No Longer the Invalid in the Family ...

When you offer, twice in one week, to drive your son back to school in the afternoon after he has left his English book in his locker ... (well, it did Look Like Rain; and he had already ridden his bike there and back)

When you offer to drive to the chemist on a rainy night when your partner's back goes out ...

And when you're really happy to do it because you're so glad to feel well and capable, and able to do something for someone else. And in any case, you get to go out for afternoon tea with the boy (Monday) and spend the second trip (Thursday) having a meta discussion about having a discussion about being more organised; and about whether the correct expression to describe having finished that discussion is "I've done now", or "I'm done now". This might be one for the Brontë sisters.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Personalised blogging

This question of blogging voices is obviously a pesky one. I'm going to try and untangle a few more threads.

Blogs clearly intersect with a whole bunch of other genres: logs, diaries, journals, confessions, chronicles, advice columns, gossip, home pages, my spaces, second lives, journalism, rants, letters, listserves, and so forth. I like the idea that people are writing so much, and playing with language and voices. Blogging as an expressive medium is clearly conditioned, though, by the discursive constraints of the form and the dominant and most influential voices: if you took away the graphics, colours and photos, it would be a whole lot harder to distinguish many of the voices that crowd the internet. I read somewhere recently that about a thousand new blogs are started up every day. It's easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by this; but luckily, you can just read the ones you like!

It's hard to tell in my case how it happened exactly, since news of my cancer spread just as my blog was starting to develop its own modest readership, but around the end of last year my email and mail correspondence underwent a dramatic flowering. People I hadn't seen for years (domestic partners, housemates, students, colleagues, friends of my parents, parents of my friends) wrote or emailed me to send their good wishes. Another lovely thing to happen was that friends read the blog and emailed me: sometimes heartfelt stories about their own struggles with illness, work or family; sometimes long cheery missives about family fishing trips and sports days; sometimes their own accounts of balancing writing and living; sometimes long and thoughtful responses to issues I'd raised on the blog about teaching, Piers Plowman or other issues. Strangers have also read the blog, directed thither by the wonders of the web, and tracked down my email and written to me. And then there is the joy of finding comments on the blog, from people I know, or used to know, or am coming to know via their own blogs.

There has been a blossoming of words, then, around the blog and perhaps around illness, too. The instant readership of a blog is strangely gratifying. Perhaps this is especially so for academics, given the very long lead time between writing and publishing in many areas in the humanities.

A couple of folk have commented recently (on line or in person) that my blog is brave. I'm guessing this is either because it talks about personal things like illness, body parts, menopause and anxiety; or because it exposes the vulnerable soft and squishy interior behind the professional facade. But one of the things about having cancer is a changed understanding of what there is to be afraid of. (Personally I think it was braver to make the early drafts of my grant application available last year!) From what I have read, people who've faced serious illness (customary acknowledgement here: my own situation was nowhere near as scary or difficult as many cancers, ongoing disability, sick children, etc.) do come through with an adjusted sense of priorities. In my own case, I'm fired with the mission of showing that breast cancer isn't always as terrifying or as difficult as you might think.

A couple of correspondents, recently, have expressed doubts about the advisability of blogging under their own names, especially as graduate students. I guess it depends on what you're going to say, how personal you're going to be in the blog, and how critical you might find yourself being of your department, in which case you might indeed think twice. And there is comfort in a mask or avatar, I guess. But I don't think there is ever complete anonymity. Even Chaucer, who manages this better than most, has declared him/herself to Jeffrey Cohen!

The final question I'll raise here is whether it's different for men and women, the question of academic blogging, that is, and the relative dangers of the personal voice in this context? Is it related to the changing vogue for the confessional voice? Once the preserve of feminism, then male new historicism, and now...?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What My Disease Looks Like



What a shock, to follow the links on the BBC website to an article about breast cancer researchers at the University of London, and see this lovely image of 3D breast cancer cells that they have made in a test tube. They are using this form of modelling to see how the healthy cells respond to cancerous ones, and may be able to reduce the use of animals in testing the progress of the disease.

"They discovered that one type of cell - myoepithelial cells - from healthy breast tissue can suppress the growth of breast cancer cells, but this ability is absent in cancerous breast myoepithelial cells."

I'm not sure, really, what we're looking at in this image. Is this one cell, a cluster of cancer cells, or one or more of these clever little myoepithelial cells? Either way, all I can think of when I see this image is a nipple. I can't help feeling there must be a figure of speech to describe this resemblance: a form of synecdochic mirroring, perhaps?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Voicing, blogging, working and recovering

One of those weird mornings, today, given the recent non-disclosures of the Chaucer blogger, in that I found myself lecturing on Chaucerian voice and constructions of authorship. How could I not close the lecture with a viewing of the Chaucer blog and his guest spot on In the Middle? I was talking about questions of genre, of course, and medieval contexts for authorship, and the odd temporality of Chaucer's relationship with the so-called renaissance 'authorship' of Petrarch and Boccaccio. There is such pleasure in thinking about the mystery of Chaucer as a medieval writer and his fascination with his own modernity. This is another reason for the Chaucer blogger's spectacular success: not only does he seem a kindly presence (even the vitriol against Gower seems to have subsided, much as Gower's own blog has [Update: Gower is Back!]), but he offers a perfect suspension between the medieval and the modern.

But lecturing about voice and authorship (still in a very part-time guest appearance kind of way myself) made me think again about the distinctive blogging voice we all adopt, and the extent to which it's conditioned by the genre, or influenced by the blogs we read; and the nature of the differences, if any, between an 'authored' blog like mine, and a scrupulously pseudonymous one like Chaucer's. There are lots of in between possibilities, too: the group blog of In the Middle, the third-person voice of Whitebait, the semi-pseudonymity of Pavlov's Cat, who names herself on her profile, but comments on other blogs in her feline voice (so to miaow). I also read a fair few academic blogs by graduate students and early career scholars who are very careful about revealing their identities.

At first blush, a blog looks like a very personal piece of writing, yet the fact that the majority of bloggers use a persona of some kind underlines the affinities of blogging with the kind of alternate universe of Second Life. Pavlov's Cat and I discussed this in Adelaide in February, and she reminded me that most bloggers were much younger than we are. There are a handful of blogs I read regularly (note to self: must update blogroll soon), but sometimes in moments of inability to work — and no, I'm not going to say how often they recur — I'll trawl around the blogs and follow a link from each blog to another. This takes about five minutes before even my own blank screen looks more interesting. I'm just not of the right demographic for most bloggers, I think. Occasionally I come across a gem of a new blog, but mostly I'm happy just following the threads of a few lives and discussions.

Oh, but I did feel for one of the commentators on In the Middle who said how much he/she was loving the discussion about Chaucer's blog, but felt too intimidated by the senior scholars debating it back and forward to offer any more in the way of a comment. What a lovely thing a pseudonym is for such an occasion. And what a good reminder of the capacity for academic hierarchies to cut across the democracy of the blog.

In my own case, I never thought of making my blog pseudonymous. Partly as a result of my great age, and longevity around the university, I don't feel that blogging puts me at any risk. This means there are lots of things I don't write about, though. I was struck by Jeffrey Cohen's picture and description of his first-born reaching double digits today; and was momentarily tempted to write about my own son, who is as gorgeous and clever and lovely as anything. But this is one of the constraints I put around my own blog, to limit mention of him and my partner. And I'm completely superstitious about posting his photo, though I really wanted to post a picture of my nephew, in London, in his surplice. I'm not saying I'm consistent; I'm saying it's complicated.

Anyway, in the spirit of the mixture of the personal and professional this blog is trying to celebrate, I'm proud to report that today I gave a lecture without paroxysms of nerves beforehand; and even hung around the department a while without feeling anxious or teary. I saw the psychologist linked with the breast clinic for the second time and was happy to agree with her assessment that while there was still a fair way to go (at least a year, she said, no matter how difficult or short the treatment), I seemed to have most of the bricks in place for a gradual restoration of equilibrium and the finding of a new path in the utterly changed university (of which, more another time). I then saw Mitchell for my monthly injection and the six-monthly questionnaire related to the drug trial I'm on. He examined my breasts and reassured me, by poking and pushing till it hurt or didn't hurt in various places on both sides, that the tenderness and aches I was feeling are all within the area affected by radiotherapy (Meredith, you were right!). He also said the magic words, "no focal points". So, seven months since diagnosis, and ten months since starting the blog, things are looking .... just very good, today.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Confessional blogging

Medievalist bloggers, and many other bloggers or blog-readers with half an interest in the genre's potential will probably at some stage have come across the wonderful blog of Geoffrey Chaucer. Like me, they will have marvelled at its brilliant simulacra of Chaucerian voices and temporalities. Whoever this is, he or she has been able to channel that aspect of Chaucer's writing that addresses his own times in his poetry with an immediacy that produces the contradictory and irresistible effect of timelessness. Alternatively, it's our complex history of reading Chaucer as a writer for all seasons that allows us to "recognise" as Chaucerian the Chaucer blogger's extraordinary take on Brokeback Mountain.

But what community wouldn't love to see itself treated so kindly by its presiding spirit? Even though I've never made it to the big medieval congress at Kalamazoo in Michigan (about to start any day now), I relished Chaucer's advice to those attending, even though, since his own paper on himself was rejected, he didn't actually get there. He volunteered "thes lynes of picke vppe – sum shorte, sum longe, sum of noble caste and otheres churlishe, sum onlye vseful at kalamazoo and otheres of applicacioun more generale." This one comes under the penultimate category, I think: "Ich loved thy papere, but yt wolde looke much better yscattred across the floore of myn rentede dorme roome at dawne."

In medieval circles, speculation has been rife as to the true identity of Chaucer. Many of us refer our students to the blog, which itself links readers to a range of scholarly sites such as the Harvard Me Websyte or the Newe Me Societie. Did he or she make it to the New Chaucer Society congress in New York in July? Have we met him ... or her ... without knowing it?

Imagine the anticipation, then, when In the Middle staged the blogging coup of persuading Chaucer to post directly to that blog! But who could have imagined the curious disappointment I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling to find that the confessional disclosure is written in a voice with an uncanny resemblance to that of Holden Caulfield. As Jeffrey Cohen himself commented, "It is somewhat disconcerting, I admit, for the curtain of the Chaucer blog to have been pulled back and for J. D. Salinger to be revealed standing there. But you know, what were you expecting? Carolyn Dinshaw?" (who, for the non-medievalists, is the most elegant, clever, kind, original and famous Chaucer scholar who also works in queer studies you could possibly imagine).

Of course it makes sense for the writer to disguise his/her voice. It's clear that anonymity is important. For whatever reason, this person doesn't want to be known as "the Chaucer blogger". And the virtuoso Caulfield voice is something else; it really is. Even apart from its narrative voice, this "confession" is a remarkable document. It tells us a lot about the genesis and development of the blog, though there is little here that will come as any surprise to attentive or regular readers. But the entry has attracted only a handful of comments on what is a blog with a huge readership; and I think that's because it gives so little away, in terms of a personal voice. I also wonder how "Chaucer" will go about returning to his Chaucerian voice on his own blog... It's clear that many blogs have a finite, or natural life; "Chaucer" seems to be struggling to keep his blog going. Is this the end, or the beginning of the end? Chaucer says he has plans for the future of the blog: they sound rather earnest to me.

I'm thinking some other thoughts about this question of voicing, confessions and blogging; perhaps another post on this topic in a day or two.