I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Starting again

It's the nature of blogs to go from feverish activity to inaction, and Humanities Researcher is no exception.

It's been a very busy year, but I am currently in the first week of six months research leave, so the time feels right to take the odd moment and reflect again on what I do.

The bluestone project is still ticking away in the background, but there are rather too many writerly commissions jostling for priority at the moment. I'm just going to list them here, to give myself a fright. These are all due sometime between now and the middle of next year.
  • co-authored essay on climate and emotion, medieval to early modern
  • essay on Chaucer's General Prologue
  • short essay on The Canterbury Tales
  • co-authored book on Chaucer
  • bluestone essay
  • co-authored essay on women as prisoners and brides in the middle ages
  • afterword to an essay collection on heritage culture and emotions
  • essay on face and emotions
  • write up big talk I just gave last week on 'Chaucer's silent discourse'
  • co-edit special issue of a journal
  • talk on medieval love for Romance Writers of Australia
  • talk on Hoccleve for CHE
  • talk at Yale
  • talk at Columbia University
  • co-convene conference at Columbi
  • big grant application
  • talk to Lyceum club
  • Bluestone book (not due, but I'd like to get cracking on it)
There might be more that I have not remembered, here, but that seems enough to be going on with.

It's just as well I have leave. So, no teaching; a vastly reduced administrative load; and, because our Centre's research offices are moving to another building and the room I'm going in to is still occupied by someone else, I'll shortly have no office on campus, so these will be quiet days at home with the books and computer, apart from three weeks in the US.

One of the best things about this leave is that it began with a big talk in London last week that was weighing on me for some time. It went well, so although there are lots of things to do, I don't think any of them is going to be so fuelled by adrenaline. Just lovely, steady work as winter turns into spring and summer.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: On the Street Where You Live

Poor old bluestone project has had to take a back seat for a bit, while I taught this semester, and wrote and delivered papers on other projects.

Today I walked home through Carlton, keeping an eye out for initials carved in the long bluestone edges to the pavement. We had walked this area a few weeks ago, but I wasn't feeling so well that day and had no energy to stop and take photos. Today I was already laden with a heavy backpack, and also stopped to buy bread and apples on the way, but I was determined to photograph these initials. I walked along Canning St in Carlton, and all along, from around Princes St and all the way up to Richardson, where I headed east across to St Georges Rd, there are many many carved initials and arrows. There is one, I realise, about fifty metres from my front door.

The arrows are signs of convict work; and the stones themselves were probably dug out of the bluestone quarry under what is now the park in Rathdowne St near the Kent Hotel, and the stones were probably dug by the prisoners in the "Collingwood Stockade" where the Lee St primary school currently sits.

The most common initial is a big square letter T. It's amazing to me that after a while I began to be able to distinguish T's signature cutting from other Ts made less securely and less squarely. Was T a prisoner boss who had his minions working on his team and cutting his letter? There were a few Vs. And a few E.s, perhaps. Some of the stones have both a big T and the arrow.

These long rectangular stones are expertly cut, for the most part. They are much flatter than the smaller and rounded cobblestones that fill up the gutters or the lanes: these are firm edges to the street. I had to step carefully, sometimes, between folks sipping coffee in little cafes, or parked cars, or the bikes whizzing home along the long north-south stretch of Canning St.

After twenty or so minutes, I was feeling a bit dizzy from walking along looking down, but was getting a bit mesmerised by the contrast between the straight lines of arrows, Ts and Vs, and the long lines of air bubbles in the stones, the wear and tear of the occasional smashed edge, the cuts and patches where driveways have been cut in to the path, the metal rings to hold shades and chains on shopfronts, and the leaves and dust and stones scattered across the street. Towards the end of my walk it began to rain, so the last few images are also speckled with rain.  (There may be a way to process my images a bit better than this video: but for now I just wanted to capture the sense of how many initials there are.)

So, about 150 years ago, a man with the initial T had to cut long rectangular pieces of bluestone into sharp-edged flat planes. But he took the extra time to make two more neat cuts on lots of his blocks. I wonder if anyone knows anything about T. He is all over Carlton and Fitzroy, it seems. Keep an eye out for him, you locals, and let me know if you see him, or V, or anyone, anywhere else. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: The Mighty Apollo

My sister sent me this link to a film of Paul Anderson, "The Young Apollo". One of his great feats here is to be holding large chunks of bluestone while another man breaks them with an axe. You can see him flinch and hold his arm that has sustained the blow, but then power on to the next thing: pulling cars with his teeth. But it is a very Melbourne trick.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: What Can This Mean?

Walking through Carlton, and Argyle Square. What can it mean? The "foundation" corner stone is lovely bluestone, laid by then Lord Mayor John So, but the rest of the squares are rather nondescript concrete/granite. Did they run out of money? Or did they think commemorative stones should be bluestone?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: murder by bluestone

I'm blasting through the first draft of this first chapter. I've set myself a target of 2000 words per week while I get it started, but have a bunch of other activities lined up for the weekend, as well as a meeting at work at 9.00 tomorrow on my one day I'm often able to work at home and get more writing done. So this evening I have put 1000 words into the file, though some are longish quotes that I'm sure will have to be culled.

I need to get the right mix of overviews about the prison system with the affective emotional discourse that is my chief concern. It's easy to find gothic descriptive language to describe Pentridge architecture, for example. But harder to make sense of dark ironic facts, such as the murder at Williamstown of John Price, the Inspector-General of Prisons, formerly governor at Norfolk Island, and enjoying a grim reputation for cruelty. He had gone to Williamstown to discipline some prisoners on the point of riot, but made the mistake of turning his back on them. He was pelted first with clods of earth, and then with the stones the prisoners were breaking up: bluestones of course...  One of them hit him in the back, and he was taken away unconscious and died the next day of his injuries.

Bluestone is often described as soft in our laneways; but its sharp heavy edges would be brutal.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: My Friends' House

The weekend before I was supposed to go to Sydney to give my TEDx talk, I spent the afternoon at my friends' house two suburbs away. I remember feeling a bit queasy, and the next day I ended up in hospital with a fever and badly dehydrated.

Because of all that drama I had forgotten about these photos I took of the approach to their house. They bought it as a little cottage on a very long and skinny block, and turned it around, so the house facing the street became the studio, and the sheds at the back, looking on the bluestone lane, became the living quarters. So to enter the house you go down a long laneway that is rather elegantly framed with these cyprus trees marking the point where two laneways converge.

As I have noted elsewhere, the laneways sometimes get dug up and replaced, and are quite expensive to maintain. 

Here is the classic view, familiar from so many kilometres of back laneways in our suburbs. It lookas as if there has been a bit of a landgrab on the right, here, making for an unusually asymmetric laneway.

 And here is my friends' front door. When they built, some careful work had to be done to meet council expectations for the bluestones at the front, though the resulting pattern with the slope upward is quite unusual.

On this occasion, I had gone to watch a DVD of Simeon Ten Holt's Canto Ostinato: here you may view it on youtube: settle in...

Monday, September 07, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: The Collingwood Stockade and writing.

I've just come from giving a short talk to PhD students approaching the confirmation hurdle after about 9 months candidature. I spoke about how important social media was to my writing life. For all that, I am taking a break from Facebook for a month while I establish a writing pattern for this book. I'm setting myself an ambitious target of about 2000 words a week this month. So far so good, though I reached the target last week by writing 1000 words on Saturday; many of which, I will admit, were transcriptions from texts I'll use, but probably cut down later. 

I also mentioned this book: How We Write  — http://punctumbooks.com/tag/writing/ — which is not yet out, but which draws on the inspiring posts at In the Medieval Middle. "How Do We Write: Academic Dysfunctional Writings," by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alex Gillespie. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2015/05/how-do-we-write-dysfunctional-academic.html  The basic message here is: there is no single way to write, but let's embrace the way we do.

For me, this blog is part of that process; it's also a way of testing out, as I do with family and friends, the emotional and affective resonances of the things I am finding out about bluestone. 

On Saturday I was reading about the Collingwood Stockade, in what we now call Carlton, on the site of what became the Lee St Primary School in 1873. As this article by Peter Barrett explains, the prisoners quarried bluestone on the site that is now Curtain Square. There are only a few traces of the bluestone that remains: the footings of the school, and a stone table from the former Governor's house fixed to the wall of the school. I will go and check this out. 

Several decades ago, excavations discovered the traces of ten bluestone solitary confinement cells, completed in mid 1859. They were built underground, so there was no light. A former warder described the experience as like being 'buried alive'. It would have cold and dark in these solitary cells, even in summer: very different to the cheerfully lit bluestone wine cellars with which I am more familiar.

I am thinking of subtitling this chapter "the penitentiary affect" as I am looking at the discourse around the establishment and perpetual reform of the prison system, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. These cells are the scariest thing I have come across so far.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: breaking out with Winifred Johnson

I'm slowly finding my feet and my way into the writing of this book. My fabulous research assistants Helen and Anne have located a terrific mass of materials, and the evidence is often irresistible: the voices of the past are crowding in thick and fast.

At the moment I'm working through a report to the Legislative Assembly and a series of interviews dating from 1857. There are two accounts of a woman breaking out, and I am guessing it is the same woman.

The first report comes from Claud Farie, the sheriff in charge of the Melbourne gaol: 
There is one most unruly woman there now [i.e. the Eastern Hill gaol]: I cannot keep her in the western gaol from which she broke away; I have had her in the main gaol ever since she got her last sentence. She tried to break through the cell into one of the other prisoner’s cells, by means of a spoon; she got out the whole of the lime and mortar round one of the large stones; she took an immense stone out of one side of the cell…. Last Sunday afternoon her language during Divine service was most horrible; the clergyman was obliged to stop; and without gagging her, it is almost impossible to keep her quiet.

The second longer interview is with John Price, a settler who became Inspector of Penal Establishments, after working at Norfolk Island and Van Dieman's land. He was eventually murdered  [more to come later on him, I hope].

It is not long ago that Winifred Johnson broke out of the female gaol. At the time they were putting up a portion of that building I said any woman who know how to go about it will break out of it. [ ... ] That woman was removed up to the western gaol, which I look upon as a strong building, and she made a hole there the size of this fire-place, through those heavy stone walls.
I'm presuming this is the same woman. Winifred Johnson was unruly in every sense; breaking out of the prison both physically and verbally.

I have come across several stories about prisoners removing a single large bluestone block, which would have given enough space for a person to climb through. I like the comparison with the fire-place, though it's not all that helpful in this context: how big was the fireplace?

There is a great deal of discussion about the quality of workmanship; Price also describes some walls for another building that looked great till the roof was put on, and the walls collapsed.

So bluestone looks strong and hard, but there are human skills involved in assembling walls, and also in disassembling them, with a humble spoon.

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Interdisciplinary Anxiety

I was very happy to start writing my book last Thursday. I have drafted the first thousand words of a chapter which will mostly be about prisons. I have lots of ideas and lots of materials. So far so good.

And then I had a momentary anxiety as I was thinking about structuring the next section/paragraph. It was an anxiety that took me back to my work on the Order of the Garter, when I would sometimes ask myself, "where's the text?" Trained as a literary critic, I am always most comfortable when I have a text to organise myself around. But as with the previous book, I am happy to think about the emotive language used about these bluestone buildings and natural formations; and indeed, that is the main concern of this book. I'm also getting better at reading images, and applying my discursive analytic skills to texts (journalism, reports, histories) that aren't obviously "literary." So I'm pretty confident of my general approach in this book.

But I recall one particularly aggressive review of the Garter book that chastised me for calling that book "a vulgar history". The gist of this review was that non-historians like me should stop using that word "history" so loosely (and also stop writing studies that weren't proper historical ones).

Undaunted, I am thinking of a comparable subtitle for this bluestone book. Bluestone: An Affective History is my working title. So I will be treading into same disciplinary hot water. Similarly, although I have some training in historical method, I won't be writing a "straight" history in the sense of a sequential, comprehensive narrative.

I've also just been reading readers' reports on an essay going into a book collection where most of the other authors are historians. Apparently my essay sticks out a bit because it is based on a single text. Nor does my essay deal with broader social movements like the others do. (That's because it's based on a single text.)

So here are my questions.

  • How does interdisciplinarity really work in practice between Literature and History? There are some brilliant examples in medieval literary, cultural and historical studies, but what about in other, later fields?
  • Do we police our respective territories with equal vigilance?
  • Should we be trying harder to respect each other's starting-points and assumptions? 
  • Should I use "history" in my subtitle?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: a question

Something that has been on my mind a little as I think about bluestone. Is it soft or hard? It's often described as forbidding, gothic, dark and awe-inducing, but I've also read a few things about its attractiveness as a walking and tactile surface because it is soft. Think of all those rounded edges in all those laneways, and our (Melbourney) familiarity with its rippled edges on the foundations of so many buildings, or on the edges of our kerbs as we cross the road.

It's a stone that's hard to carve -- though I need to find out more about this from a sculptor. But what do we mean when we say a stone is soft?