Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Censorship



Today is Amnesty International's online day of protest about censorship and human rights in China. For more information, go here.

Imagine what it would be like not to have the freedom most of us enjoy, to write and respond and read our blogs at will.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Home

Well, it's a long flight home, but a happy one. Avoiding the drama of the plane with the big hole in it, our flight was on time and without incident, touching down at what would have been the civilised hour of 8.00 p.m., but for the fact of my case being on the very last trolley load off the plane, and me being at the wrong end of a 25 minute queue in the quarantine check-out. So I didn't get home till 10.00. Peter brought Joel home ten minutes after that (Paul is away for a bit: back very soon), and it was wonderful to see my boy, so tall and strong he nearly bowled me over with his bear hug.

We had hot chocolate and exchanged stories for an hour or so, then I slept, woke at 5.00, and then again at 8.00 and walked up to Ceres to let the chickens out (a fortnightly commitment to a co-op in an environmental park). It was lovely to be on the creek again, to see it full of water, and to see the golden wattle in bloom. In the garden at home, the hellebores and daphne are flowering, and best of all, last night I heard the little "cree cree cree" of a frog. I didn't blog when next door's cats caught Herbert last year: just too sad. But this was definitely the same species, so it seems as if Herbert's mating calls did have some effect... I think this one's probably called Herbert, too.

It's too wet for tennis, so it's a day for laundry, sorting out the travel receipts and preparing for the week ahead.

Friday, July 25, 2008

From the Heathrow lounge

So I wonder what demon made me open up my laptop and check the news while I wait to board my plane, so that the first thing I see is a picture of a Qantas jet on the flight I am about to board, a day later, with a dirty great hole in the fuselage, and a report of a terrifying 20,000 foot drop. I'm kind of pleased, now, I wasn't able to change my flight and go home a day early...

It's been such a mixed trip, with the first week of misery and homesickness and depression gradually giving way to the pleasures of intellectual and social exchanges, some productive research, two intriguing conferences, and a good chance to throw around some ideas and plans with various folk. I've had lots of good ideas, and was treated last night to an Australian barbeque with my sister's family in Barnes: fantastic steaks, sausages, salads and Taittinger (courtesy Tom, of course!), and then a concert from my incredibly talented and lovely niece and nephew. Imogen and James are both accustomed singers, but just stood up and sang for the group with such aplomb: I thought I was bursting with pride till I looked over and saw my sister's face.

I've bought Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake to read on the plane, and am not going to do a skerrick of work. I'm going to watch a movie or two, listen to music, and just try and chill, as it will be a busy week next week catching up.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chaucer conference blogging (2)

So the blog posts about NCS are starting to appear, as we arrive home, with a little time to reflect. Dr Virago (whom I met!) found it a little unfriendly and too full of academic posturing and competing for position, while Jeffrey Cohen wonders what has happened to Chaucer, given the multiplicity of other topics, periods, languages, cultures and historicisms we study. He also speculates on the question of timing. At what point do interventions into the field look like novelties? At what point do they seem to state the obvious? or at least, to encapsulate work that is already being done on a number of fronts?

These two points are not unrelated. In the corner of the field I'm interested in at the moment — the relation between medieval studies and medievalism studies — it's fascinating to observe the various waves of interest in the latter. The genealogy of medievalism, and its messy trajectories, would be an interesting study. It's very easy, in a closely contested field, to feel slighted if people don't cite your work; it's also easy to think you are more original than you really are (easy to forget you are standing on the shoulders of ... well, not so much giants, as your own colleagues). This is particularly germane to medievalism studies, which has had very little role to play at NCS in the past, but which has its own journal, and has had a pretty active presence on the fringes of medieval studies, not to mention the thriving business of Tolkien studies, for example. David Wallace's Presidential lecture in New York two years ago was the first "official", or at least, high level acknowledgement of the field at NCS, and in Swansea, the fact that Carolyn Dinshaw used the Michael Powell film, A Canterbury Tale, as a meditation on temporality, place, and the queer — even if she did not invoke the discipline of medievalism directly — suggests the field has rapidly accrued a new level of respectability.

In addition to the several plenary sessions, there were a couple of what I'll call "de facto plenaries", in panels that spoke so powerfully to so many people's interests that other sessions on at the same time must have lost most of their audience to them. These moments are hard to predict in a two-year cycle between conferences. Carolyn's paper was one such (though she is such a beautiful speaker she will always summon a big crowd): another was the "clash of the titans": a debate on the relationship between formalism and historicism, between Jill Mann and James Simpson, set up by Chris Cannon. Both spoke terrifically well, ranging from polemic to argument, across the history of criticism and medieval studies in the twentieth century. Jill was at pains to show that formalism was a retrospective formation; and that the work of F. R. Leavis, for example, was as much concerned with historical context as "the words on the page". James was concerned to unpack the ideology of such close reading (including its support from the Rockefeller foundation, as a front from the CIA that wanted to encourage artists, writers and critics to develop individualist expressions of aesthetics and criticism as part of the Cold War). This was high level debate of the best kind, and done with no special rancour.

But James had another target in mind: some intemperate remarks in reviews of his work by Derek Pearsall, and the lecture theatre was hushed in shock as he worked, passionately, through a critique of Derek's criticisms, quoting a particular sentence — a claim that literature does nothing; has no political effect — three times. Derek was given first right of reply, and said he would not engage with the issues, but would say only that yes, sometimes one wrote intemperately, and was sorry afterwards; and that he had immense respect for James' work, and hoped they would continue to engage in civil debate. James acknowledged Derek's generosity, and the debate went on. At one level, then, a good example of robust disagreement, but it's clear that feelings had been hurt on both sides.

I felt, then, that the "clash of the titans" between Jill and James had been displaced by the clash between James and Derek, and I thought that was a pity.

But James' strategy of going after this one sentence (well, not just this one!) made me think: how many of my own sentences would stand up under such scrutiny? There are lots of things I've written I hope people won't worry too closely over. And then in my own paper, and on my own blog, I had quoted a section from Maura Nolan's essay. I know this is what we do: we are highly trained and clever close readers, and analysing small pieces of text is what I love to do most. But the potential for damage, for the kind of point-scoring Dr Virago did not enjoy, at each other's expense, is great. In our dealings with each other, then, and with the bodies of critical work we deal with, it is just as important to tread a careful line between historicism (these are real people) and formalism (these are real words and ideas).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chaucer Conference Blogging (1a)

I will blog about the content of the conference, but starting at the end first, this is an account of the practically perfect day that got me back from Swansea to London. There is no doubt that this last week of my trip away has been a thousand times more pleasant and instructive than the first.

The day began with a brisk hour-long walk around the rocky cliffs from Langland to Caswell bay, shared with a few other walkers, dogs, and joggers, and with a taste of Welsh sea water on the beach before I headed back up the cliff face. We had promised our landlady we would have a cooked breakfast on the last day — there had been unmissable sessions at 9.00 each morning — though Christine didn't think my order of egg, tomato and mushrooms was "full" until I added a piece of bacon. My companion, of course, had the sausages.

We packed up in leisurely fashion, then set off. I navigated us most of the way to Caerleon before setting us on the wrong path which sent us driving north towards Birmingham, but we cut across and made it to our second destination through luscious valleys and woods. Tintern Abbey sits on the banks of the Wye, and though the tour guide said it got oppressively busy in the middle of the day, there were only a handful of people wandering through its lovely bare ruin'd choirs. The sun was gentle; the grass was soft; the workers shoring up the fragments of the west face were having lunch; and the swallows swept and dived through the arches. We marvelled at the one room that would have been warmed; and had a debate with the guide book that said the chapter house was so named because there the monks would have had a chapter of St Benedict's Rule read to them. That can't be right, can it? Surely the chapter refers to the part of the church (i.e. the body of people), rather than the part of the book.

We lunched at the pub, on pickles, salad, bread, and three Hereford cheeses (one yellow, one pink, one green) and I was able to phone home. My phone's coverage hadn't been very good up in the hills, and during the day at the conference was often a bad time to talk to Australia, and it was great to talk to Paul. (I've just now talked to Joel, too: yay!!!.) We then abandoned the idea of nipping back to Caerleon, and hit the road.

I drove straight into London and all went well. Though we were surprised to realise Tom's hotel was on the way. We thought about dropping him off, but he thought it might be better to have a navigator, and he was right. It was when we drove past Harrods I realised we had come in a different way from the route we had taken out of London, and had to get from Knightsbridge to Bloomsbury. It was 5.15, and we had to get the car back by 6.00. Undeterred (and I am used to driving in cities), Tom navigated us across the end of Oxford St, and north and east, and we made it to Hertz with about ten minutes to spare, only narrowly missing clipping a tour bus. That was exciting. It was only when we got into the car park that I lost my nerve, and got Tom to drive this quite big car into the quite small car parking space.

We then separated and I checked into my very nice hotel over on Gower St, with sheets of crisp white Egyptian cotton. But the day was not done! I showered off the road, and then met Tom again for dinner at this gorgeous Moroccan restaurant in Kensington, that looked like a set from an Indiana Jones movie, complete with belly dancers — though here again I lost my nerve and refused the invitation to join in; oh well. But wait, there's more: we then nipped over to the Albert Hall for a 10.00 p.m. session at the BBC Proms: the Tallis scholars singing two C15 masses, one by Josquin des Prez. The Hall was only two-thirds full, but to hear these unaccompanied voices, at night, after our trip to the Abbey, was just about perfect.

Of course, all day we had been dissecting the conference, and talking about our friends, and making plans for the next phase of our book: first thing is to make some revisions to an essay for a collection. Next post, I'll try and think about the ideas the conference raised for me. But in the meantime, in lieu of the Friday garter blogging I've fallen behind on, is a bit of Wordsworth...

    And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man 70
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.--I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love, 80
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.--That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes 90
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels 100
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul 110
Of all my moral being.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chaucer conference blogging (1)

Well, I’m just back from the conference dinner on the last night of the Chaucer conference in Swansea. Lots of great papers, debates, arguments and discussions, which I’ll digest a little before I blog about in more detail.

For now, just some reflections on how to go to a big conference. There seem to be two main options. You can stay in the college accommodation on site, and meet your fellow delegates in the bathrooms down the corridor, and at breakfast, and on the bus to and from the excursions. As well as all day, every day, for the days of the conference. Or you can put yourself in a hotel, and hire a car, and pretend your life is not completely bound to that of the conference. I speak, of course, only of those not on a very tight budget. If you have the choice, there are actually pluses and minuses on both sides. But as the days wear on, in a very long conference, it is often very pleasant to have a little quiet time away from the madding crowds.

For this conference, I made a two-day road trip to get here, stopping at Winchester (Round Table, cathedral, pub lunch), Bath (fabulous restaurant), Wells (cathedral; purchase of green man boss), and Glastonbury (abbey; one of Arthur’s tombs; the chalice well), with three delightful travelling companions. We were all staying several miles out of Swansea, in the seaside town of The Mumbles, and had a hired car, so we could take ourselves back and forth at will. And I’m really glad we did.

It was especially nice to be able to offer lifts to colleagues, and so one night, Tom and I gathered up George and Jeffrey, who were staying in the dorms, and went out to Langland bay for a drink on the terrace, before heading down to a fish restaurant in the Mumbles. We sat in the early evening light, watching some kids digging out a boat of sand, relishing the incoming tide and the way it promised to set the boat free. We all felt, I think, somewhat liberated, to have chosen each other’s company, and to find ourselves observing ocean time, not conference time.

The funny thing was, we were each laughing at the other. Was it more laughable to be staying in humble student quarters on what can hardly be described as a lovely campus, or more laughable to be driving around from hotel to restaurant to beach to pub? Tom and I were expecting Jeffrey already to have blogged mockingly about our taste for the good life; so I’m glad to see, as I think, I have the chance to blog first…

We all had the afternoon off yesterday, too, so Tom and I played tennis, then drove out along the Gower peninsular and watched the tide come in over the Worm’s Head point. I will speak a brief paean to my writing collaborator, who is such a great friend and conference buddy. He is always the one who knows how to find a good restaurant, who always has something interesting to say about the session we’ve just attended, who is funny, and who is kind. When we were playing tennis, he was getting a little frustrated with some kids on the next court who kept wandering back and forwards across the courts, with some girls drinking diet coke and shouting, and kicking a soccer ball around too. It did get a bit hard to concentrate. But when we finished, he gave the new canister of tennis balls, which he had just bought the day before, to the kids, who had been playing with just one raggedy old ball, that was completely bald. “You’re a legend!” one said, and another: “A gift from the Americans!” I thought that was just a lovely thing to do.

A Dylan Thomas-ish moment, too. As the kids were mucking around, a car drew up on the hill above the courts, one yelled out, “Oy.. Pritchard … Dav!”, in that beautiful Welsh lilt.

There’s heaps to think and say about this conference, but for the moment, the thing that’s strongest in my mind are the friendships I’ve made and consolidated over the last few days. And that’s a great thing to be able to take away from a conference.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Between papers: between medieval studies and medievalism

Poor neglected blog…

I’m just over half way through my trip, and have been struggling a bit to find the energy and spirit to blog.

Before I came away, I had to put together my application for the National Teaching Awards, and I talked a bit there about this blog, so I have been thinking of it a little as a teaching instrument. When you are a bit down, and you have to go into the classroom, you have to put all that aside and gather yourself up with the help of adrenaline. And that’s usually possible without too much trauma: I usually find I’m fine once I enter the room. But blogging doesn’t have the same immediacy, so there’s not been the same drive. I’ve also had goodly amounts of time on my own, so I’ve not needed the blog’s therapeutic charms. I’ve had very social bursts, but also lots of time walking around in the morning, and sitting in the library.

Anyway, I’m in the space between two conferences, back in London from my couple of days in Leeds, and setting out for Swansea two days from now. It’s still pretty chilly in London, though the sun was out this morning.

The Leeds trip was pretty good. I tried hard not to write a paper out, and did end up talking to my notes, rather than reading a script. So it felt very imperfect and ragged, but was probably no worse than a lecture from notes. I was talking about the blurry lines between medieval studies and medievalism, and tried to talk about the moment when Malory’s Guenevere falls down laughing at the tournament of Surluse, when Dinadin is brought into the court dressed as a woman, as a moment that challenges us to think about the different models of time and temporality in the medieval text, the medievalist text, and the way we think and talk about those things. As a means of bringing the two together — teaching the medieval, and re-enacting the medieval — I enacted this moment, literally falling to the ground in the middle of my paper, asking whether that was an act of medieval studies (demonstrating the play between realism and non-realism in the text) or of medievalist re-enactment. This stuff is so hard to think about, and the paper felt very much like work-in-progress. Completely terrifying to fall down like that, but also fun, too. The text says “and so did all that there were”, so I invited the audience to fall down too. They didn’t, of course, and Louise was right to say later that if I had been a real queen, they would have!

A highlight was meeting the redoubtable Eileen Joy (will do some links when I get home: too hard in transit) at Leeds. She made a great contribution to the discussion, that John took up later that day on the round table on medievalism. We had been talking about medievalism as play, and she reminded us that it was also a very serious business for folk like Bruce Holsinger, etc. So I’m trying to think a bit about this for the Swansea paper.

[Edit: part of this post has been removed by the author]

Anyway, the great highlight today was La Bohème at Covent Garden. On my friend Paul's advice, I treated myself to a glass of champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches, before climbing up to my seat. Not too bad, actually; right down the front of the top tier, which raked steeply up behind me, and pretty much in the centre. And it was beautiful. Wonderfully sung, especially the tenor; and surprisingly moving. I didn't think it would get to me, but I did shed a tear at poor old Mimi's death, and the difficult reversals of her love with Rudolpho. Sigh.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Travel sickness

Well, I certainly intended to blog this trip properly, but it didn't really start as expected. I found it very hard to leave my home and family this time; and it's taken the best part of a week in England to throw off a dark cloud of anxiety and depression. I won't go into all the ins and outs and whys and wherefores, but it is not to be recommended, travelling in such a state. It's certainly not conducive to blogging.

Anyway, I've caught up with my sister's family, and some dear friends, and eventually moved myself into a rather nicer hotel than I was before, and things have looked up a bit. I'm now in Leeds, catching up on the blog instead of trying to finish my paper for tomorrow.

I am experiencing a bit of déjà vu this time, actually, as last time I was in London, in April last year, I remember blogging about feeling homesick, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by the archive.

Similarly, this year, I'm really conscious that my work on the Order of the Garter has to steer quite a difficult line between the extensive records, and the conceptual work that has the capacity to make it a more interesting book. I finally spoke to someone at the College of Arms today, and I will go there next week, but it seems unlikely they have anything on the issues I'm most concerned with. I'm so accustomed to working in places like the British Library, and the National Archives, that it takes a while to realise places like the College, and the Royal Archives at Windsor work with quite a different brief, and mission. That is, the research of Australian academics is not their highest priority, and there are real limit to what they can make available.

That's ok: I have plenty of material, and enough to shape the book around. Found a nice thing in the National Archives in Kew yesterday; a letter from the English ambassador in St Petersburg in 1742, reporting that the Czarina would quite like to be offered the Garter. Here's the quote:
Your Lordship cannot conceive how much the Czarina is pleased with these Distinctions; and I am sure, that nothing in the world would be more agreeable to Her than if the King would send Her the Order of the Garter. I do not know whether it be practicable, but if it can be done, I am persuaded it would have a very good effect. The Czarina frequently appears in Man’s Clothes, and the new Ornament of the Garter would, I am sure, please Her above all things.
Looks like another quote for the Queer Garter section.

What else have I done?
  • my nephew's school music concert in St Mary le Bow (if you're born within sound of their bells you're a true cockney)
  • several days combing through Garter books and papers in the British Library, transcribing these verses from Gilbert West's Garter masque of 1771:
I.
O the glorious Installation!
Happy nation!
You shall see the King and Queen,
Such a scene,
Valour he Sir,
Virtue she Sir,
Which our hearts will ever win;
Sweet her face it
With such graced,
Shew what goodness dwells within.


II. O the glorious Installation!
Happy nation!
You shall see the noble Knights!
Charming fights!
Feathers wagging,
Velvet dragging,
Trailing, sailing on the ground;
Loud in talking,
Proud in walking,
Nodding, ogling, smirking round—
O the glorious, &c.
  • Had dinner in Walthamstow with my friend Mac
  • Saw Leonard Bernstein's Candide at the Coliseum theatre
  • Booked a ticket to La Bohème for next Sunday
  • Went for a late-night fox-watching walk with David and Rita around Coram Fields
  • Bought leather jacket on sale to fend off summer wind and rain
  • Went to church to hear my nephew sing at Temple Church, where he is a chorister
  • And just now, had a fabulous Indian meal with a lovely bunch of medievalists.
I'll try and get a bit more detail happening in the blog soon, now that my spirits are back on a bit more of an even keel.