Thursday, July 26, 2007

Report: first week of semester

* honours class is small and lovely. I think it'll be great to spend time reading Chaucer and other texts with them.

* Middle English reading group began yesterday, too. An hour a fortnight reading Pearl with eight or nine companions.

* still acting head of program and acting head of graduate studies, though no longer acting head of school, as my colleagues gradually return from research and holiday leave. Emails and meetings aplenty.

* have finished the document making the "case" for a major in literary studies for the review of the new Arts curriculum, but barely mastering disbelief about having to do this, and embarrassed about asking office staff for statistics in the first week of semester.

* still in recovery at discovering the name for the old BA. It's being replaced by the "New Generation BA", and will be known as a "heritage degree". Shudder.

* was planning a research day at home today, but Academic Board will be faced with a student protest about the job cuts in Arts, and also a staff protest about the plan to gut the research library, move the books to an outer suburb (literally), and use the space for a student "hub", so feel I must go in and support the students and my colleagues.

* a week without my laptop, now. It's taken this long for it to get to the off-campus computer people contracted to make the repairs.

* this morning, I counted six people upstairs and downstairs and outside (and soon, in my lady's chamber) as our building proceeds (two builders; two plasterers; two underpinners). There are ladders and scaffolds in the kitchen and outside the bathroom door.

*last night swept up much of the cornice from the ceiling of our bedroom which had tumbled down over the doorway, giving way under pressure from the building upstairs and the new underpinning under the walls. It's been cracked and unstable for the fourteen years I've lived here, but it's really starting to give way now...

*last night I came out here, where I am writing now, to work on Joel's computer in Paul's study in the back garden and heard the best sound: the little cree-cree-cree of the Southern Brown Tree Frog (litoria ewingi) in the violets by the tap on the back wall of the house. Last year Joel called him Herbert (von Karajan), and we mourned his absence (taken by cats, I fear, rather than migratory habit). Whoever he is, I see no reason to change his name this year. Check out this link to see his picture and scroll down to hear his call.

Update: 2.30 p.m. I went to the student meeting - small but passionate and vocal. I absented myself while they marched around to the Council Chambers and blockaded the entrance, and turned up later only to be turned away, as the President of the Board had decided to cancel the meeting and avoid hostilities. Only problem is, this means deferral of the debate about the research library: hope the decision doesn't get made before it is fully aired and discussed...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Evensong

Another unaccustomed dark and rainy afternoon in Melbourne. Time to tune in to choral evensong from the Temple Church in London, where my nephew James is a chorister.

This recording will be on the BBC website for just a week. Turn up your speakers and hear the sonorous voice of the Master leading the prayers from Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer (I heard him preach a 15 minute sermon in perfectly phrased sentences and cadences from a single tiny page of a notebook in April), and concluding with a detailed prayer for the Queen. Thrill to the beautiful introit by Thalben-Ball; and marvel at the extraordinary passion and urgency in the singing of Psalm 77 (... "Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?") in the setting by Day; hear the account from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel and naming the place Peniel ("for I have seen God face to face"); marvel all over again at the incorporation of the Song of Solomon into the Divine Service with the anthem by Purcell, "My Beloved Spake". You can also shut the door of your room and sing along with the hymns: "Come Down, O Love Divine" and if you must, the rather unCranmerlike, "God is Working His Purpose Out".

Yes, I know that few of the readers of this blog will be Anglicans. But I reckon there'll be a few like me who are fascinated by this beautiful language and the extraordinary ritual of canticles and sung psalms and responses (even if they don't have a nephew or a grandson in the choir), and by the liturgy. It's hard not to identify with this, for example: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."

I'm playing it now for the third time....

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just Too Weird for Words

From today's Age:



and from Friday night's lollies:



The third, much nicer pairing, is that of the father and son hands in this second shot.

It's very hard on a cat

... when the builders and their apprentices and their power tools and their compressor and their radios arrive sometimes as early as 7.00, and when there are very few warm and cosy places to sleep in the house during the day. But there are compensations, such as a sunny afternoon on a quiet weekend in a pile of insulation.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Happy Blogiversary, dear humanities researcher ...

Yes, my dear blog turns one today. It seems well more than a year ago that I began this blog with my very earnest intention of charting the progress of my new grant application. A hundred unexpected things have happened since then, and of course, I never actually submitted that application (just the re-submission of our "near miss").

Time, then, to reflect on the passing of the year.

First up, and looming largest in my mind, I got cancer and got as near to cured as they can get me. There's an unknown quantity of a 7%-10% risk of recurrence over these first ten years they can't control, but I'm doing my best with diet and exercise and a generalised intention of staying calmer, and trying to live a little more simply. It's not that I think I got cancer through working too hard; but I do find my health is better if I can keep anxiety and stress at bay.

This is pretty difficult in the academic sector, of course. And especially in my corner of it. What with the massive re-structures and widespread curriculum reform at Melbourne, the re-organisation of my ancient and ramshackle department into a program within a much larger school, and the disastrous budget deficit in my faculty, my workplace is barely recognisable from what it was twelve months ago. There are lots of things that are exciting about the new structures and plans; but much that's alarming, too.

Academic work often seems open-ended or provisional. There is a lovely finality about seeing an article published, or holding your book in its shiny and handsome covers, but you know you can nearly always do it better. You've almost never done enough, or it's the wrong kind of thing, or you've published it in the wrong place. One of the things I've learned about being sick, though, is to put all this stuff into a different time-frame. I've done hardly any writing on my Order of the Garter project these last twelve months. I'm sure I'm not the only scholar in the country whose work doesn't fit neatly into the time-tables we draw up for ourselves. But I'm not worried about this, and am starting to approach that project again, obliquely, so it doesn't notice me creeping up on it. I'm just going to do what I can, when I can.

And even with being sick, I've still done a fair number of things in the last twelve months. I've given papers at four conferences (New York in July, Adelaide in February, London in April and Perth in July), travelled to St Louis to start working on the Chaucer conference before I had to resign from the committee, and convened a day seminar at Melbourne in February. (I missed the Piers Plowman conference in Philadelphia but only because I knew I wouldn't be able to write something from scratch: if I'd had a paper written, I probably would have got myself to that one too.)

But it's true that life no longer stretches out into an infinity of endless health and energy. Given the limits I now find, I'm sometimes surprised to find myself still blogging. But it's part of the great mystery about how work gets done. Blogging doesn't stop me writing: it's a clearing house for ideas and reflections; and it helps me feel in touch with the broader community of readers and writers. That community is truly a virtual one, though. I know one or two colleagues and perhaps three or four postgraduates at Melbourne who read my blog. If others are, they aren't letting on. That's absolutely fine. I kind of like the mysteriousness of not knowing who reads and who doesn't.

For the record, I'm currently averaging 58 readers a day, and have received a total of 12,494 visitors (that's not counting my own visits). More than some, fewer than others. But unlike other forms of bean-counting in academia, this set of statistics isn't going to be used for me, or against me.

I'm currently reading the account by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford Redesdale of his mission to Japan in 1906 to take the Garter insignia to the Emperor Mutsuhito. He writes of a ball at the British Embassy:

Princess Arisugawa brought her daughter. It was her first ball, and very much she seemed to enjoy it. Being in Japanese costume she could not, of course, dance round dances, but she did take part in quadrilles. As for me, when I see these things I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I have been asleep, and centuries have passed over my head.

Redesdale's comment is striking. There he is as a modern ambassador for the medieval Garter, with its own centuries of ritual, commenting on the implicitly medieval scene of the princess and her daughter. For once, the Garter stands for the modern. The obvious contrast, this week, is with the brouhaha surrounding the Queen, the BBC and Annie Liebovitz. Reading between the lines, do we detect the Queen, after all her years of service to court rituals, tiring of it all? The picture shows the eighty-year-old in full Garter regalia, and it would not be surprising that getting kitted up like that, with tiara and all, would pall after all this time.

Apparently the BBC documentary shows scenes of the Queen walking down a palace corridor and telling her lady-in-waiting: "I'm not changing anything. I've had enough dressing like this, thank you very much".

Snippets like this remind me, in the end, of how lovely it is to love one's research.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conference Blogging

I might have had an ambitious plan to blog about the Perth conference daily, but that was while I was still in Melbourne, and undergoing the between-conference amnesia that makes you forget the sheer exhaustion of conference-going. It's not as if I was out partying every night, either. I must be getting older, as I quite liked getting back to the hotel at a reasonable hour, crashing to sleep and waking up early for a decent walk before breakfast. Perhaps the young things were out raging? I like to think so.

My hotel was opposite Kings' Park, a huge expanse of parkland between the university and the city. I'd be up and walking along its roads by 7.30, though I never dared to venture into the bushland on either side of the road. There were just not enough people around to feel that would be safe, though it was good to think there was that kind of terrain in the city. The first two mornings I headed up along this more formal direction —


and had breakfast at the big cafe overlooking the city and the river.

The second two mornings I headed to the Zamia cafe. On Friday I couldn't identify this fantastically pungent aroma: what kind of tree or blossom could give off such a strong scent? But it was coming from several huge piles of mulched eucalypts. I don't really know my trees, but from the colour of the bark I would guess a red gum or the characteristic West Australian jarrah. The morning was chill, and the piles were sending up clouds of aromatic steam. The silly camera on the phone barely catches it. I think you have to be an Australian to sense the way this fragrance can fill the lungs with either deep contentment or desperate longing:


The conference was the first big gathering of the ARC Network for Early European Research. I've written about this Network elsewhere. A few comments here, though. "Early Europe" extends, for the purposes of this conference, from 400-1850; and our work is resolutely interdisciplinary. The theme of this conference was "Networks, Communities, Continuities" and it was terrific to see medieval and early modern scholars thinking in these broader terms. My paper was in a session called "Theorizing Medievalism Today", and Jenna Mead, Louise D'Arcens, Helen Dell and I were disciplined in only speaking to our pre-circulated papers so we had plenty of time for some great discussion. Louise had asked us all to think about Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale and so we did, from four perspectives drawing on deconstruction, film theory, psychoanalysis and my own vaguely Bourdieuian ideas about the circulation of knowledge about the medieval. We've been asked to submit the papers to Parergon so with any luck they'll appear in print before too long...

However, there weren't all that many sessions dedicated to medieval literature or medievalism. Or even early modern literature, for that matter. I suspect the historians have been faster to realise the network's purview extends as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

All the papers were supposed to have been put up on the conference website, so that we would only talk to them briefly and allow enough time in the 75 minute sessions for discussion. But when people insist on reading their papers, this is of course intensely frustrating; and really limits the possibilities for interdisciplinary exchange.

The organisers also experimented with poster displays for postgraduates, with only mixed success. I wonder if this ever works well in the humanities? New Chaucer Society pondered this at one meeting, but decided not to go ahead.

Three wonderful moments of affect, though. Constant Mews gave a brilliant paper on the nature of university communities and networks in the thirteenth century, and at one point had occasion to refer to Aquinas, who died before he was 50, said Constant, putting his hand on his heart and sighing. What did it signify? The tragedy of a life cut short? or comparisons with his own productivity? not that Constant needs to worry. But I suddenly realised the comparison might also apply to me in about nine months, and I was less sanguine. It reminded me of the William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon Frank described to me: a man standing disconsolately against the mantlepiece and his wife saying, "Of course you're going to be depressed if you keep comparing yourself with successful people."

Second was Dale Kent showing images of a sculpture of a child by Desiderio. People in the room were already making little murmuring noises at the sight, softening their bodies and leaning in toward each other when Dale showed an image of the back of the child's neck and said, "don't you just want to go 'num num num' into his neck?". And yes, indeed, we did.

Third was Hal Cook (this trio of names gives you an idea of the quality of the conference) describing the "republic of letters" circulating amongst natural historians, doctors and other scholars, and especially Jacobus Bontius, a Dutch doctor in Jakarta in the seventeenth century who researched local plants and animals. This correspondence, said Hal, "floated on a sea of lost conversations".

I'm not the only one who thinks the campus of the University of Western Australia is one of the prettiest in Australia. Again, the little telephone can barely do justice to it, but this is a most spectacular salmon gum outside the library:


And a glimpse of the green lawns:


The weather was cold for the first few days, bearing out the organisers' warnings about bringing warm clothes. But by Friday, and our jaunt to Fremantle and the Maritime museum, it was warm and sunny. Here are my delightful companions on our afternoon off:


The future is in good hands!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Useful Knowledges and Vernacularity

Here's a call for papers for an interesting-looking conference in gorgeous Hobart in November...

Knowledge Networks and Communities of Reading (KNOW) and the ARC Network for Early European Research are pleased to invite papers for a symposium titled

'Useful Knowledges and Vernacularity: Manuscripts, Readers and Information in Late Medieval England'


This symposium is designed to interest a broad range of researchers working on the nature of knowledge networks in the late medieval England and the reading communities consequent on and sustained by those networks. Topics might include the reworking of tradition and the dissemination of new knowledge and ideas, not least through the translation of classical and non-English texts; the production of vernacular works of instruction; institutional settings and contexts for the transmission of vernacular learning; developments in codicology and manuscript dissemination; the rise of vernacularity; the effects of early printing and distribution; and the kinds of textual environments theorised through a range of historical and literary methodologies.

International guests include Linne Mooney (York), George Keiser (Arizona) and Alexandra Gillespie (Toronto)

The symposium will follow the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Conference in Hobart: 'Spaces of Print: Exploring the History of Books'. It will begin with a joint event, a public lecture on the history of books in the middle ages by Rodney M. Thomson (Tasmania)

9-11 Nov 2007

University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia

Abstracts to Professor Michael Bennett, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania (Michael.Bennett@utas.edu.au) or Dr Jenna Mead, School of English, Journalism and European Languages (jenna.mead@utas.edu.au) by 31 Aug 2007

My Letter from Hoccleve

Some readers might remember my speculating about the possibility of Hoccleve joining the company of Chaucer, Gower and Langland online. Not one to pass up an opportunity for discourse, Hoccleve has now written to me to announce his blog, viz.

To the worshypfulle Dame Stephanie Trygge dwellynge in Millebrunne (terra australis incognita)- be this lettir delyveryd in haste.

Ryght reverent Dame Stephanie, I habbe yhered that ye haue ben sechyng for me, urgyn me to blogge on the webbemundi. My penne nys that of the grete Maistyr Chaucer and my mynde is sumwhat confundyd of late (a certeyne Occleve has enioynyd my persone to som confusion) but a ryght merveillous sweven in whyche the sayd Occleve hath apperyd and entryd myn mynde (that of Hoccleve, I mene) has ychaungyd me and yhelpyd to moeven me out of myn maladye. The shorte for to seyn, he - thise Occleve - hath recommaundyd me that by weye of amendynge myn trotevale lyf at Chauncery a blogge Ichuld commence. It is but a small werke to-daye and hyt yclepyd is "Westmynstre blues" to uoyce out my troublyd lyf of wrytyng nyce documentys and rollys by daye (and redynge the grete Chaucer by nyghte). Hyt can by yfound on the webbemundi at http://hoccleve.blogspot.com but I begge youre pacience - hyt is oonly a begynnynge.

Wretyn at Westmynstre on the thridde daye of Juli. By yowre humble servaunt Thomas Hoccleve.

This professional letter writer, poet and invalid seems currently threatened by a mysterious Yorkshire alter ego — Occleve — but anyone wanting a taste of the difficulties of "Westminster blues" in the life of a clerk of the Privy Seal should check out his blog.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

In praise of my GP

On Friday I had to have my monthly injection of Triptorelin. Well, it was due next Tuesday, when I will be in Perth at this conference, and so I timed the shot for what I knew would be my doctor's last day of practice before her retirement.

I have been going to see Barbara, I saw from my rather thick file, since 1988, and count myself lucky to have been under her care these nineteen years. I'm not sure how long she's been practising in the little surgery in the heart of Carlton, but I know she was already famous then around Melbourne as a GP who also specialised in obstetrics. There were several years there when you'd have an appointment but you'd have to wait, or they'd phone you up to re-schedule because some baby had come along that day. Still, I've never felt rushed under her care, and always found her humane, intelligent and sensible. Until his sudden death around six or seven years ago, her husband Evan Burge was Warden of Trinity College at the University, and so she was always clued in to the currents of university life, with a sympathetic ear whenever I would trot along with the sinusitis and bronchitis that were always exacerbated by teaching, especially in Joel's early years when we all picked up whatever bug was circulating around the creche or kindergarten. If she sometimes attributed me with greater medical understanding than I had, she could always follow up with a clear explanation; and her counsel always seemed sensible.

Barbara saw me through various ailments, picked me up and put me back together when I crashed my bike and cracked a bone in my finger (and then later my wrist: separate accident); dug out varoukas from my feet; told me to give a proper burial to the poor blighted ovum that preceded my pregnancy with Joel; and saw me through his joyful birth. She refused to try and turn the baby when his little head was still nestling resolutely up under my ribs in the last weeks, and wouldn't countenance my going into labour. "That's real tiger country," she said, and sent me off to see a specialist surgeon. All the people she's referred me too over the years have been fantastic: the physiotherapist, the psychiatrist, the gynecologist, the obstetrician, and of course the wonderful Team Suzanne at the breast clinic.

When it became clear from the mammogram and the ultrasound last September that there was something that had all the appearance of a carcinoma, I think I was pretty much ready for the news (blind Freddie could have seen the big black mass the radiologist froze on the ultrasound screen), but Barbara still made sure that the moment when the word "cancer" was uttered was a calm one, and we sat and talked for quite a while before she'd let me get back on the bike.

I'm going to miss that lovely sense of her familiarity with my medical history when I find my new doctor (must start researching soon, with the list of names she has given me). I'll miss her network of medical practitioners of all kinds around Melbourne. I'll even miss the little wooden framed pictures of ducks that have sat above the examining table for years - a curious point of focus during pap smear tests.

Last Friday's appointment was a long one. I had the shot; Barbara checked the sore muscle on the side of the breast surgery and confirmed that yes, indeed, I had strained it doing too much serving at tennis, and that no, it wasn't secondary bone cancer (too much reassurance is never enough, I am beginning to realise); she also gave me a tetanus shot; and we talked about other doctors in the area I might like. She reminded me not to strain the arm too much, and as she did so, laid her hand on my forearm in a gesture of affection, with her quick and ready smile. Other signs, too, in this immensely admirable woman, of how her customary restraint was gradually loosening up, as the day, and as her professional life came to an end. Never before had I seen her take a call about another patient, but there she was, giving her home phone number to a psychologist she wanted to call her back about a young woman in distress. We talked about others of her patients I knew, which we would never normally do. And when it was time to go, it was good to embrace her in goodbye.

But the first thing she said when I came through the door was "I'm so sorry to hear about Paul." Turns out she had seen my dear friend Robyn the previous day, and so she heard the news about his melanoma in Robyn's last appointment. Paul hasn't featured much in this blog, but he was intrigued to think I could write about his cancer too. He goes into hospital tomorrow for the day to have a melanoma removed from his chest, and further surgery on another little patch on his nose. The surgeon thinks this is all the treatment that will be necessary since the melanoma is nowhere near the magical 7.6 mm thick that triggers the next stage of alarm, but there were several days last week when we were thinking about radiotherapy and chemotherapy and lung and rib damage, and it was all just a bit too scary and odd. He will be in the same hospital, and he is also pleased that his surgery will be on the same side as mine. It will be an anaesthetic that sounds as if it is somewhere between a local and general, and with any luck he'll be back home in the early afternoon, ready to take it quietly for a few days, until he is well enough to go out and buy a HAT. We're so confident he'll be ok that I'm still hoping to head off to Perth as planned on Tuesday morning. If I have time I'll log on tomorrow night to update with news, but otherwise will be missing in conference action till Sunday.

[Update: Paul sailed through surgery this morning and was home and tucked up in bed by 1.00. He can't remember much of the procedure, and slept through most of the day. How lucky we are to live in a city that offers such efficient and prompt medical care. It's a mere week since he received the pathology reports on the first biopsy and his treatment is complete. All the same, we are now advocates for early detection in this family. Any doubts about lumps or moles? off to the doctor with you, NOW!!!]