Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Spy in the House of History

The Melbourne Writers' Festival this year is host to eminent historian, David Starkey, and he's also giving several talks at the university this week. I first came across his work on the late medieval royal household many years ago when I was working on Wynnere and Wastoure, and was keen to go along and hear him now that I am once more working on English court culture.

On Monday night I felt a bit like a spy.

The talk was hosted by the History Department. Starkey gave an extraordinarily fluent and practised performance, without a single piece of paper in front of him. He is a celebrity Tudor historian in Britain and in Australia; his "Elizabeth", sold, he said, 500,000 copies in the Commonwealth (not sure if this was TV series or his book). The emphatic burden of his talk was that while history was flourishing in popular and public culture, academic history was destroying itself in post-modernism and textual scepticism. He drew attention to the relative novelty of history as an academic discipline, and to the various vogues (for example, economic history) that set trends in history at different times. In apocalyptic vein, he threatened the death of academic history, amid the continued flourishing of popular history.

Hmm. As if the two aren't now completely inter-dependent.

Anyway, the historians were very polite. In addition to the general seduction of an audience by clever asides, funny stories about the Queen, there was certainly a vocal chorus of approving murmurs and laughter, and a few Dorothy Dixers in question time. But I know that many of my colleagues in my sister-department weren't in agreement with him. And I know that most of them are not afraid to speak their mind. So I thought they were extraordinarily polite. And I began to wonder about the different social cultures between English and History. My own department-that-was (before our recent re-structure) would have shown no mercy. (One example: I remember a colleague asking a British Council-funded visitor who kindly explained semiotics to us in the early 1990s how he would account for his "neo-naïve" position.)

Starkey kept saying, provocatively, that he expected to be shot down in flames; and yet the discussion was really quite docile. It's true the talk was more in the nature of a polemic than a reasoned, argued academic paper; and so perhaps the historians felt there was no point engaging. Anyway, a fascinating glimpse into the meeting of two worlds: popular and academic history.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bill Bailey does Chaucer

Thanks to Mark for this reference...

Malory on the Radio

Some time over the next week, while it's still available, check out David Wallace's BBC Radio feature on Malory. Alas, the segment we recorded at the College of Arms didn't make it into the final cut, even though Bluemantle Pursuivant was so wonderful.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/sundayfeature/

The program begins and ends at Winchester College. Contributors include Helen Cooper (on the Winchester MS, BL), ASG Edwards (on the Caxton edn, Manchester), Richard Barber (House of Lords Robing room), Martin Biddle (Great Hall at Winchester), Anne Sutton (Mercers' Hall, Newgate), Geoffrey Day (Fellows' Librarian, Winchester College), Lawrence James (biographer), Tim Sutherland (battlefield historian, Towton), poet laureate Andrew Motion (as the voice of Malory), and poet Geoffrey Hill (as himself). Producer: Paul Quinn.

Love the sound effects of the footsteps and creaking door as they re-enact the discovery of the Winchester MS in the Warden's bedroom in 1934...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The most amazing ... stuff

In line with our new post-cancer resolves, we have been making an effort to take time off to do things that don't involve books or computers or meetings.

A brief account of three such events over the last week.

Last Sunday we climbed on our bikes and rode the other (west) half of the Capital City Trail that rings Melbourne. In the past we've gone along the Merri and the Yarra down to Southbank; a ride of about 21 ks. We have then typically stopped for pancakes and icecream before putting the bikes on the train to come home. But last week we headed in the other direction, along the path Joel rides to school, across Princes Park, then Royal Park, past the Zoo (technically, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens: you'd never tell we were once an English colony, would you?), then down the new bike path that runs alongside the Moonee Ponds Creek, where Paul used to play as a kid, under the Citylink freeway and the Bolte bridge, and down to the Docklands. It's a shorter ride of about 8 or 9 k: check out a map here. By no means such a pleasant ride, since you ride under freeways and past concrete pylons, as opposed to leisurely gardens, boathouses, waterbirds, the Children's farm, the Abbotsford Convent, and the wide brown river. We didn't go all the way down to Southbank, but stopped for fish and chips at one of the rather soulless cafes at Docklands, a new settlement of fancy high-rise apartments, and watched small groups of people walking up and down wondering what they were supposed to be looking at. Pleasant to be by the water, though, and see the city from the west. We avoided the football crowds and rode home, fuelled by excellent potato cakes and fresh scallops.

Then on Monday night Paula and I went to a concert in the Town Hall put on the University's Music Faculty. Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, Dvorak's Te Deum and the premiere of a new work by Tim Shawcross, "No Longer will the Ancient Souls Ascend", a wonderful meditation on the flight of the albatross and the fact that 19 out of 21 species are now endangered. Brilliant percussion section against resonant strings and triumphant brass. The Sir Bernard Heinze award was also presented to Graham Abbott, a Handel expert who spoke about music. He rhapsodised: "Music is really the most amazing ... stuff," and the whole town hall broke into applause. I was wondering how he was going to complete that sentence! I frequently listen to music as I work, but truly, it was wonderful, and quite a different thing, to sit very still and see and hear the orchestra and choir.

Yesterday we went off to the touring Pixar exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. This is what you see as you approach from Swanston St:



Then as you get closer, you see the big ball up on the steps, and remember those gorgeous animations of the parent and child light and the ball...



Inside is a wonderful exhibition of drawings and models, and interviews with animators and story-tellers. Lots of highlights for me, even though I've not seen Cars or The Incredibles. But I have watched Toy Story and Toy Story 2 many, many times with great enjoyment; and the installation showed the detail and care with which they put characters, dialogue and story-lines together. Some sequences on show were slide-show sequences showing how a pen-and-ink shape was gradually developed into a fully-painted scene. So at one level the show demystified the process and showed you all the work and labour behind the movies; and at another level made that magic all over again.

They had also made an amazing zoetrope on a grand scale. You enter a darkened room and stand around a glass enclosure with a display spinning round, with tiers of characters from Toy Story 2 moving: Jessie tossing her lasso, the toy soldiers parachuting out of their tub in the centre at the top, the aliens and Squeaky (?) Squeezy (?) the penguin playing on a see-saw and disappearing into a black hole in the ground. The strobe lights come on and you witness the full vision of repeated action; your eyes telling you that the characters are moving. Then the lights come on, and the display stops spinning, and only then do you realise that none of the figures is moving. It's a fixed display: thirty Jessies with her lasso positioned at different heights.

But still, it's the emotion that makes a good movie: I can remember seeing Toy Story 2 with Joel in Edinburgh when he was just 5, and him putting his fingers up to feel the tears running down my face when Jessie sang about the girl who grew out of cowgirl dolls... Waaahhh!!

We ate lunch in a cafe looking down over a courtyard into Flinders St; the top half of all the windows open to the north, with sun and warmth and spring streaming in, and picking up the luminescent green of a handful of leaves on the tree beneath us. So transfixed by it, I forgot to get out the camera.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Connecting to International Academic Communities"

A fun gig today, addressing the PhD Colloquium at the School of Graduate Studies. My topic? Connecting to International Academic Communities.

Easy, then, to talk about the need and desirability of attending conferences, hosting conferences, asking questions, meeting folk, writing to them and such. Blogging, of course, featured prominently in my remarks, and I talked about the generosity of Jeffrey Cohen in encouraging his blog to become such an excellent exercise in collaborative work and community-building.

I talked a bit about how things had changed since an eminent US medievalist visiting Sydney, many years ago, said to me, "you've got to get on the map." She meant it kindly, I'm sure, but it was pretty devastating to think how far off the map I might be, not just as a very junior scholar, but as an Australian. These days, I am more likely to hear and use the phrase "being part of the conversation", and this is something that blogging makes so much easier.

I also talked about the difference between networking as a way of treating people instrumentally and competitively, and networking as community-building. I have very little time for the practice of brown-nosing academic celebrities (or star-f———ing, as we call it in Australia) or gratuitously attacking scholars of a different generation just for being of a different generation. But I am all in favour of graduate students and early career researchers building bridges with each other (rather than competing, all the time, for every little bit of symbolic capital the academy has to distribute), and making connections with other scholars in their field in different countries.

The ARC Network for Early European Research maintains the Confluence website, where you can look up the profiles of over 300 medieval and early modern scholars, and post comments on their sites. It is a lovely example of an online structure that democratically enables networking between postgraduates, early career and established researchers, and it is here. Hmm; perhaps you have to register with the Network to be able to comment? not sure about that.

The wonderful Angela Woods, who would be my inspiration if I were just starting a PhD, tells me the recording of my talk will be available on line. I certainly won't be listening to it (who needs to hear their own garbled sentences and scattered paragraphs preserved for posterity?), but in the interests of general community-building, here's a link to the SGS Colloquia page, where a link to the talk will shortly appear.

But here's a question: is it true, as I was suggesting today, that most folks of eminence (whether academics, writers, or famous people in your own sphere of cheese-making or frog-watching) don't mind being approached by folks who are just starting out in the field? What's been your experience? And... is the star/celebrity analogy a bit too far-fetched for the academic sphere? Aren't we just fooling ourselves??

And... I've just realised I've set up the label "univerisites". That's rather a nice typo, I think.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thinking bloggers meme

Hey, I got tagged! Thanks, Meli, for my



It's taken me a while to get around to responding, but I am now doing so on my NEW COMPUTER! I'm sure there are faster ways of going through the university system to purchase a laptop, but at any rate, I now have this pristine, pearly white object sitting on my desk, full of promise like a big oyster shell, just waiting to channel my books and essays into life. I haven't connected it up to the big screen and the mouse and keyboard yet, since I thought I would trial out its clicky little keyboard first. I find I haven't loaded up my files yet, either. I'm making all kind of resolutions about managing files, emails and back-ups better, and am just going to wait till I'm confident I can do this properly.

But what blogs make me think?

First up, Pavlov's Cat, though I think I've actually seen her tagged by this meme before, so she doesn't have to respond. [Actually, no one has to: I think in the end a meme looks a bit like chain mail: I'm probably not following all the meme rules, and .... I don't care.] The Cat is brave and tough, and has the capacity to push me into uncomfortable territory. We have so much in common, but she can still often surprise and shock me.

Liz Conor Liz's blog is rather formal, for a blog, in that all the entries are like feature essays or articles. I love her take on aboriginal and feminist issues; and on bringing up children, especially on bringing up girls. When I was young, I always imagined a child of mine would be a girl, and was completely — and pleasantly — surprised to find myself the mother of a boy. Though perhaps I am now conflating Liz the blogger with Liz my friend. Still, the blog is great, too!

In the Middle This blog makes me think too hard! It's a marvellous group blog co-ordinated by a leading scholar in my field. Sometimes the discussions test the limits of blogspeak in that they are so detailed and rich they can't be read as quickly as other blogs, but you know that you can always go back to it. It's like overhearing a serious conversation at a conference that you're too shy to join in, and having the luxury of replaying it again later.

And a collective thinking bloggers award to Ancrene Wiseass, Quod She, and Sorrow at Sills Bend. These are three early career women academics whose energy, inspirations and struggles remind me how hard it is to establish an academic career, but also just what a wonderful job teaching literature is.

And the blogger I think about most often? As the Tumor Turns because as much as I tell myself I know I'm conscious of my relative prosperity and the excellence of the health care I receive for breast cancer, this blog makes me think — angrily — about the dreadful inequities of health care and the shocking distribution of resources in our two countries. And that's not to mention the Third World.

Well, these are the blogs I would tag if I were to pass on the meme as the instructions Meli links us to suggest I should. Dreadfully unpublically spirited of me, I know, not to pass it on, by actually tagging these other bloggers. One of the chief motivations from the original blog post was to see how far the meme would travel. And... I think I'm just too boringly old to want to play by those rules. So I'm not going to pass on the meme, though I thank Meli warmly for tagging me, and giving me a reason to think about these terrific blogs. I know a blog meme isn't really like chain mail, but even so, sometimes it's ok not to play by the rules.

Monday, August 13, 2007

More weekend rituals

Another weekend of ritual practice.

Saturday was the graduation of my PhD student Larissa, so I joined in the academic procession, via the "robing room" where the mysteries of my academic hood were resolved with a bunch of little gold pins: seems to be much easier to get this to look right if you are wearing a tie. I also had to interrupt my own robing with an undignified dash to the mirror with my hairbrush, since it was a very windy day and I had arrived rather bedraggled and flustered. Still, once I had been pronounced presentable by the protocol office, it was not unpleasant to muster in the cloister, tucking our arms into our robes against the wind, greeting our students as they received their lesson in "doffing", and catching up on a bit of gossip with colleagues. They then marshalled the procession in its careful hierarchies. The BAs and MAs were already in Wilson Hall, but the new PhDs were lined up in alphabetical order on one side of the cloisters, and the academics on the other, in even more scrupulous hierarchy. First the Lecturers, Senior Lecturers, Associate Professors, then Professors all ranked according to the date of their promotion: you have to include this information when you register to take part. Then the Deans, Vice-President of Academic Board, the visiting speaker, the Vice-Chancellor, the Esquire Bedell, carrying the Mace, then the Deputy Chancellor. My informant tells me that even the University of Sydney, Melbourne's equal in tradition and formality, doesn't rank its procession in this way.

Other academic bloggers have written about the rituals of graduation, with a mixture of feelings. I must admit I quite like taking part once a year or so; and to my delight, it was also the day when a recent MA graduate and an honours student, now doing an MA with me were also taking out their degrees. It was lovely to see Michelle and Andrew, as well as Larissa and her family, especially her two children born over the course of her candidature, along with her parents and her grandmother. I saw several colleagues who attended the ceremony but did not process. But I think if you are going to go, you may as well dress up in a funny hat and experience the ritual moment.

Our ceremony takes place in a high modernist building, built in the 50s after the gothic splendour of the old Wilson Hall was destroyed by fire in the heat and wind of a hot January afternoon.

My guide says there was considerable debate about the style of the re-building: to rebuild in gothic style and affirm the ceremonial links with the medieval period; or to trust in modern engineering and architectural style. Apparently the cost of building in stone was prohibitive, and so the current building was designed to capture a sense of modernity. Of course it now looks completely dated; perhaps just entering its retro phase now. In fact, it's recently been registered as a Historic Building.



The standard speech of welcome and the accompanying brochure both stress the continuity of our procession, our gowns and hoods with medieval universities, and of course it's true, though it seems very easy for the modern practitioners of this medieval ritual to pick up or set aside this inheritance almost at will.

My second ritual for the weekend was a football game in Geelong. Paul and I had been invited to the Pivotonian Club at Kardinia Park. It's a much smaller ground than the MCG, but their rituals are just as strong. We were in the second ranked club (first is the President's), but the dress code specified tie and jacket, and no denims. As we waited in the car for the rain to stop I saw a number of women heading in wearing high heels and sheer stockings (I admit; this was my dress choice for the graduation, but I couldn't come at it for the footy!). We sat down to a three course lunch with "silver service" and some excellent regional wines from the Bellarine Peninsula, and little place names (one of the very few times I've had to answer graciously to "Stephanie James"). The MC for the lunch was Ian Cover of the Coodabeen Champions, and long-time Geelong supporter; and the guest speaker was -- oh! Rodney Hogg, former fast bowler for Australia, and the rather debonair and stately Rodney who was sitting at our table. After lunch, we all trooped out into the stands to watch the game. There was a glassed-in enclosure where you could watch and be out of the wind, but my table said "you're not really at the footy if you're not outside", and so we sat down at the front of our little area. I have to admit they were brilliant seats. The ground is small, and the stadiums aren't all that high, and our box sat out in such a way that you felt you were really on top of the action. These are not fantastic photos, and this is not a very powerful camera, but you can see how close we were:



That's Nathan Ablett, by the way, No. 45.



We were so close that when the boundary umpire had to put the ball back into play, he was facing us, and I could see the intensity of his expression as he put his head back to take in a deep breath, then bring the ball almost down to his feet before leaping back and sending the ball flying over his head in a perfectly round arc. A few minutes later there was a dispute over his awarding a penalty to Adelaide, and the man in front of me, wearing an immaculate suit and dark glasses, called out distinctly, and loudly, and I swear the words came out of his mouth in capital letters: "YOU ARE A COCKROACH!"

One funny moment, too. Early in the first quarter the Cats put on four or five goals before the Crows had even troubled the scorers. Adelaide tried to buy some time by passing the ball backwards and forwards along the 50 metre line, to the jeers of the extremely partisan crowd. Ian Cover called out, "there's a man out there in Moorabool St", the main road that runs alongside the ground.

At halftime we went back into the clubrooms for afternoon tea: scones with jam and cream; and little meat pies. Because, as several people said to me, "you're not really at the footy if you don't have a pie." Such fun, to be in this dangerously liminal territory: to be in the clubrooms of one of the oldest, most traditional clubs in the league, and to be flirting with the idea of not really being at the footy, of taking part in the ritual, but at the same time, not taking part in the ritual.

My poor old team, the Bombers, having dumped their coach of 27 years, are floundering down in the bottom half of the ladder, and so I'm fast losing interest in the AFL for this year. Still, by the time we got to my parents' place for tea, and to pick up Joel, my neck was completely tense from the concentration of watching the game. I think I need to go to more games, to learn how to relax into them a bit more!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Watching People Working

Can home renovations really be fun? Sure, the mess and noise are pretty bad, and we certainly won't talk about the cost in the week that interest rates have gone up another .25%. But I have to admit, I love watching the way these people work.

Our alarm radio begins its gradual crescendo at 7.00 but by then Peter and Shannon have usually arrived. They'll spend a little time sorting things out on the front verandah, but even before one of us has staggered out of bed to make breakfast, Peter is striding down the corridor and running up the stairs to where most of the work is going on. And this is how his day goes. He literally runs up and down the stairs each time. When he's on the job, he is a model of concentration and focus. When he stops to consult with us or the architect he is clear and patient; and is cheerful and funny when he is taking a break, but it's hard to engage him in any small talk if we take friends and family up during the day to show them the progress. I sometimes wish I could focus on reading and writing with the same intensity.

A few weeks ago he proudly announced we had to all bow down to Shannon, who has just completed his four-year apprenticeship with Peter, and who will probably soon be moving on. "Can't afford him now," he said drily. Peter is stocky and compact; Shannon tall and lanky. And it was Shannon who showed us the picture of one of Peter's buildings used as an illustration on the outside of the paint tin. Anyone want a recommendation for a builder? Go here.

Some days there are up to ten people on site. It's just an upstairs bedroom and bathroom being built into the roof space, plus a little balcony, but it has involved a fair amount of structural work, too, on foundations, and walls, and roof. The painter is lovely, and brought us a bottle of sweet and syrupy home-made wine. The electrician drives Peter crazy because by contrast to his enthusiasm and passion he is quiet, reserved and pessimistic by nature. But in spite of all his dire warnings about things being difficult or too long or too short or the wrong kind, everything he's done so far seems to work.

And the funniest thing. We have a wall where we have been writing Joel's height as he grows. There are lots of other names, there, too, of Joel's friends, and family - and we make jokes about how long it will be before Paul and I start to shrink. No one laughed at us when we said we didn't want them to paint over this record. I'm not sure if the plasterer heard this but in any case, he's added his name "Plasterer. 26/7/07", just above Paul's height. What's really funny is that he's actually a fair bit shorter!

We sometimes don't leave the house till mid-morning, and often seem to be pushing the bikes out the door when there are up to half a dozen people already having morning tea on the front verandah. But no one makes any rude comments about our odd hours - and I never have to take up that defensive tone: "But I was working till 10.30 last night...".

I don't mean, at all, to sentimentalise manual or artisanal labour; just to express my respect for the sheer energy and concentration of the work going on around me.

And computer update: I've finally ordered my new laptop and hope to have it commissioned and registered and uploaded by next week. And the Arts IT folk are producing a series of CDs, all labelled with my name and all, without my having to sit with them and go through my files, so the back-up will be comprehensive and well organised. Life about to return to normal!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Calling all medievalists...

Get ready to run, fly, swim to Hobart for a pre-Christmas treat. Seriously, Carolyn Dinshaw is simply one of the most exciting medievalists going around at the moment. She's a brilliant speaker and this will be a rare opportunity to spend a day or two with her in beautiful Hobart (place of my birth: ahem). As you can see from this outline (click to enlarge), her current work engages a "queer history" of temporalities, and I think this will be a conference Not to Be Missed. You'll have made your Christmas pudding well before then, anyway.

A computer is just a computer

(to be read while listening to the soothing sounds of this.)

It's still the same old story.... You develop some excellent habits as far as backing up your computer goes; and you maintain them, and you might even have recently backed up the most important documents and files on which you're working. But even so, when your laptop, bought in November 2005, suddenly develops an electrical fault and starts fusing whatever power supply you plug into it (I told the ArtsIT man about this and he still plugged in his own cord and fused that too), and you are told, after two weeks, that it's going to cost $1660 to repair, while a bright shiny new one is listed at $1749), what are you going to do? You're going to hold your tongue, and get ready to go through all the hoops again: working out which computer to get (and which colour: black or white?) and wait for Arts IT to upload all the relevant software, because our School can no longer afford our own LITE person and the wonderful Damian has now left to work on an amazing-sounding ornithological project with his wife.

Then you're going to see if they can retrieve any of the files from your old computer, and then if you're as bad at this as I am, you're going to start to build your email address book again, one by one. You're going to make some excellent resolutions about storing emails on the clumsy server, rather than on Eudora; and you're going to spend hours customising your music, photos, emails and files (and hope like crazy they can save your son's unfinished Lego animations: yeah, he thinks they're all technically imperfect, but you think they're great).

And then maybe three weeks after your battery ominously stopped re-charging, you might be back at work.

So, it could be a lot worse: but it is still very irritating, just when I feel ready really to start writing again. I'm currently working on Joel's computer in Paul's study (and nursing a sore throat, too, just to make everything really lovely).

I used to develop a kind of sympathetic affection for my computer: I don't think I feel that any more. Partly because when they break down they just seem to give up the ghost completely: they don't even want to get better when I'm doing all I can to keep myself healthy. Partly because, if I think about it, a fair amount of my work does take place on the server (as email correspondence), or is stored on the ARC Network's Confluence site, or is stored on my collaborators' computers. Or, since I truly have not been too bad about this, book and essay drafts are mostly filed away and duplicated on little memory sticks.

Still, the fundamental things apply.... back up NOW!

Update: The word is that Apple is about to make an announcement about a new range next week, so that it's probably worth waiting till then (and even the additional time it will take to order and load up with the stuff). Apparently the current 13" Powerbooks that I was tossing up between (black or white) have very shiny glass screens that are great if you want to watch movies, but irritating if you want to write books. Wonder if the new range will give us some options here. In the meantime, back to Joel's computer...