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!

Friday, December 28, 2007

I Know It's Not a Virus, but...

... we've just heard of the third friend/acquaintance/colleague to undergo surgery for breast cancer in the last three weeks, plus another, a few weeks ago whose lump turned out to be benign.

When I was first diagnosed, it was not uncommon for people to respond by adding me to their list of friends/acquaintances/colleagues with the disease. Or they might claim that breast cancer was a virus, or imply there was something about my lifestyle - my workplace, the time I spend in front of a computer, the way I worked - that might have caused the cancer. Suzanne, my surgeon, said simply, "we don't know why anyone gets breast cancer". The ABC studios at Toowong in Brisbane have been closed down, but to date, no reason has been found for the extraordinarily high incidence of breast cancer there. It's called a "cluster".

Of course I don't want to see my disease as anything I brought upon myself. Though I am full of determination about keeping on trying to simplify the way I work, to say "no" as often as I can (which still won't be enough), and to try and live more calmly. Will this keep any recurrence of the cancer at bay? No one knows, but I'll feel less at the mercy of forces beyond myself.

I am in the process of moving into my newly painted study, and making all kinds of ridiculous resolutions about keeping it clean and beautiful, as I get ready to pick up the threads of various writing projects in the new year. I do get things done, and I do meet most of my reading and writing deadlines, but I am not at all organised or disciplined about it. I have learned to respect my own work patterns of displacement activity (e.g. I have only written half that sentence but if I just go out and look at the goldfish one more time then when I come back I will bring it to a ringing final cadence), and even the longer-term patterns of the big halt halfway through a book. I wrote ten thousand words of my book on Gwen Harwood then threw them away and started again. I stopped Congenial Souls to have Joel and really struggled to pick up and find a way to finish it. This book on the Garter looks as if it will have suffered a similar hiatus, as a result of the horrible year I was having at work before I got sick; and then getting sick; though I think I am almost ready to pick it up again.

Anyway, at the moment only beautiful and clean things are allowed into my new study. This is not exactly "before and after", as the "before" image represents the rock bottom of the re-structuring. Literally. The old house had not much in the way of foundations apart from the rocks you see here:

And here is a glimpse of the "after", in the same corner.

The fireplace will re-appear, just as soon as we find a little extra money to install it. And for hot days...

I'm so entranced with these beautiful green walls I don't want to put anything in the room that isn't silver or grey or green or white. Luckily the computer qualifies...

I have a single gardenia on my desk and it's filling the room with its sweet white fragrance.

And I'm thinking of my friends and colleagues and acquaintances, and thinking of my life a year ago, and hoping they will be able to come through the next year into a similar place of peace and promise.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas lunch for 15? not a problem. Or is it?

Every Christmas Eve, Paul's family takes it in turns to go to his brother's place by the beach, his sister's in the country, or our place in the city. This year it was our turn. Photos aren't particularly good; posted here for the benefit of non-Australian readers who wonder what Christmas might look like in summer. Actually it was a bit chilly in the morning, but by afternoon warm enough to sit outside. For the first time since Joel, Angus and Sarah were born in the same year, there were only five grandchildren present: Nick, 18, was visiting his girlfriend's family.

We went all out with the food, since it's the first time for months our dining table didn't have my computer on it, and it was fun to put three tables together, bring in the garden chairs, and scrape the drawers for enough forks and spoons. Also, one child has a severe nut allergy, and another is vegetarian, so we had lots of options in addition to the paella and baked ham you see here. I can't believe I don't have a photo of my pudding, but it was glistening with butter and fruit, and the blue flame of the brandy. Note also the festive lights decorating the fishtank.

What an opulent display, though. At the time it felt like a lovely thing to do, to work and cook and clean for the family, but seeing the food in all its lavishness is a bit ghastly now. This family is very restrained with presents, but even so, I can't help feeling some of the best gifts we were given this year were a chicken for a Philippines family and a vegetable garden in Mozambique. Must make sure I shop at Oxfam next year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Bonus and a Reading Meme

A surprise Christmas bonus for me this afternoon. I had signed up for what I thought would be a day of "Unsatisfactory Progress" meetings in the Arts Faculty, but only four students turned up for interviews. I sat and went through all the remaining paper files and by 12.00 I was done, so I gladly accepted Sylvia's invitation to so and sing Christmas carols with the Faculty staff. Our pianist was the university organist, so we were well managed, along with a guitar accompaniment and about 25 folk sitting in the lecture theatre (the one with the piano, obviously). Our new Dean was there, too, as was Lauren, Joel's cello teacher, who's been working in the office this year. I was then invited to their lunch (rice paper rolls, sushi, dolmades, little pies, fabulous platters of fruit and cakes). But by the time they were getting to their Kris Kringle, it really was time to leave them to it.

I'm back in my office now. The English office has closed for the year, and I'm under instructions to lock the kitchen when I leave. The heavy rain that's forecast for the day has just begun. I have my car in the carpark, though, after the bicycle puncture on Wednesday morning (just after I had melted the plastic handle of the feather duster on to the iron).

It's been a momentous year for professional staff in the university. For academic staff, certainly, but our office and school are staffed by a wonderful team of folk who have really battled this year to stay calm and cheerful as their working conditions underwent a seismic shift. First they were re-organised from departments into schools, many of them having to re-apply for their own jobs, and then having to quickly adapt as different department cultures and practices were merged. And now the University is re-structuring student services, so there are more dramatic changes ahead. My own office is close to the Department one, and I like this. I don't really try to do any research or writing when I'm on campus, so my time here is usually rather social, and I like the sense in which we're all engaged with students, and with each other, but that will soon change, alas. Actually, yesterday I also happened to be in the office here just as they were having their last morning tea for the year; with staff from several buildings gathering to say farewell to the one leaving, and to give presents to our outgoing Head of School.

I'm going to spend the next hour or so tidying up my office, getting things off the floor so it can be cleaned, and then I'm going to go home and decorate our Christmas tree.

Dame Eleanor Hull, though, has tagged me for a meme: "books I've loved reading in 2007". A little tricky, this one. There have been one or two. Having Middlemarch read to me when I was sick was one of the reading highlights of my life. I ended up finishing it myself, but could hear my friends' and families' voices as I read. Of course I'm partial, but I loved the single chapter Joel read to me early on: Fred and Rosamund and Mrs Vincy at breakfast.

With some friends (our parallel family: two academic parents, one child), we also made an effort to read Romeo and Juliet before pizza on Friday nights. I was the nurse, in my best Sybil Fawlty voice, and I distributed the other parts according to character, as I thought. Joel and Eva (eight months younger) were Juliet and Romeo; both eagerly eschewing the type-casting of gender. But you could see how a boy could easily play a girl. Again, Joel threw himself into the cadences of the lines and the emotions, and I realised how all the hours and days and weeks I read to him when he was younger had paid off. But we only got half-way through Act IV. Once the novelty wore off, and once Mercutio's part was over, it seemed hard to keep everyone's concentration going.

There was also Andrew McGahan's The White Earth, thoroughly recommended to anyone wanting to think about land — possession, knowledge and use — in the Australian imagination.

But mostly - and this is a hard confession to make - it hasn't really been a reading year for me. It's taken most of my energy and concentration just to get through the reading and writing I've had to do for work. By the end of the day, or at the weekend, if I'm not working, I've tended to be sleeping, or feeding the goldfish. In part I think it's an effect of the medication-induced menopause (I will write a proper blog entry about this in the new year, I promise): concentrating on stuff has been a real problem for me this year. I'm hoping for much better in the new year.

So, if anyone wants to pick up the tag, I'm swinging it around: "how have you performed the act of reading this year?" in what company? with what voice? in what context?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Guest post: Katrina's Beowulf review

My first guest post! Katrina wrote this lovely review of Beowulf for our Medieval Round Table listserve, and I'm posting it here with permission.

Dear Roundtablers

The Roundtable Film Club had its first outing, to see Beowulf in 3D at the
big screen Imax. Helen H arranged the tickets, for which we are all
grateful, and we had a lovely time, except in the bits when we almost
threw up.

The film was immensely entertaining, and I’m sure all our ‘normal’ friends
are glad that we found other medievalists to go with, as we critiqued it
at length afterwards.

The rest of this email has spoilers, but you all know the plot anyway, so
what does it matter?

Actually, there are parts of the movie plot that even the closest reading
of Beowulf would not reveal, mainly about who is and is not sleeping with
whom, and I won’t reveal any details. (The same could also be said of the
frequently naked Beowulf, who was strategically prevented from revealing
his details protected by an entertaining array of helmets, other people'
shoulders, trestles, bits of Grendel, light fixtures and vegetables.)

Visually it’s a stunning film, which goes a long way to making up for the
fairly uninspired script and performances. The 3D-ness of it was
overwhelming at times, with spears landing in the middle of one’s
forehead, and the gruesome dribble of Grendel masticating a brave but
foolhardy Geat getting way too close for comfort.

The sets were ‘virtual’ creations and the actors were all digitally
mapped, which makes for some gee-whiz action sequences, but leads to
heavy, wooden acting. Beowulf’s dialogue came out with all the excitement
of a school speech night, and Angelina Jolie looked even more android-like
than usual (read more about what the actors thought of their digitisation here).

I’m pretty impressed that Angelina had a plait so long that it looked like
a tail and could be used as a weapon. She also has built-in high heels,
giving her the appearance, as Stephanie said, of the advertising poster
from ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ It was fun to see Ray Winstone transformed
from an ageing tubster into a Scandinavian warrior with Brad Pitt’s body.
But movements cannot be divorced from the bodies performing them, so
Beowulf never looked as if he really fitted and controlled the
impressively muscled body bestowed upon him by the digital technology.
The superhero-style action was sometimes at odds with the grubby realism
of the impressive setting, and rather than being scary or affecting was
often just plain silly.

Anthony Hopkins, barely recognisable except for eyes and voice, was King
Hrothgar, and was clad only in a bedsheet/toga to host a feast in his
accursed mead hall, so we saw far more of podgy loins than we really
needed too. I can confidently assert that no proto-Viking king worth his
arm ring would have shown up in anything other than his most impressive
warrior-standard party gear.

The film had, of course, numerous anachronisms and inaccuracies, but
no-one expected it to be a documentary. The setting is given as AD 507,
yet the Danish landscape featured buildings taller than any it would
actually have for about another thousand years. The Danes themselves
don’t come across terribly well, a bunch of wimps with bad teeth and no
backbone, whereas the Geats are tough in all ways except their names.
“I’m a GEEK” Beowulf proudly announced, or so it sounded. He was calling
himself a ‘Geet,’ turning into a nerdish grunt the name which, in a
Scandinavian pronunciation, would have a palatalised /g/ followed by a
rising diphthong which gives it quite an ominous sound guaranteed to chill
the marrow of the nastiest foe. ‘Geek’ or even ‘Geet’ just didn’t quite
have the same punch.

The whole ‘Finn-fighting’ section of the poem is omitted, but we do have a
Frisian in a bear-skin (complete with head) which is perhaps a nod to the
‘berserkr’ tradition. Beowulf, who fights Grendel naked, goes with the
other interpretation that ‘berserkr’ means ‘bare-shirt.” Oðinn is
frequently invoked, but so too is the new-fangled Christian god, with
Hrothgar’s Denmark subject to Christian missionary, centuries before the
Danes really underwent evangelisation. The introduction of religious
tension seemed a bit gratuitous. As these people are already stuck with a
flesh-eating monster and his scary mother, a sonless king and a golden
dragon, there is enough scope for conflict in there without adding
Conversion, but is perhaps one way of introducing the Christian
perspective of the Beowulf-poet into this decidely non-Christian milieu.

Credit where it’s due - the Viking ships looked absolutely gorgeous. They
were accurate reconstructions of excavated Viking Age ships, which might
make them anachronistic, but I’m not complaining. They were stunning.
I’d sail away on one of them any day.

Anyway, this is way more than my 2 cents worth. I’m going to resist the
urge to mention the preponderance of precious metals, and the visual and
verbal references to other Heroic Age Germanic poety, and hand over to
someone else who saw the movie and might want to share their views and

One last thing - If you want to read the Danish perspective on the
pre-viking age, have a look at the 12-13th century History of the Danes by
Saxo Grammaticus

Huge thanks to Helen for organising the trip. It would be great if we
could have similar excursions for any medieval-themed films that come out.
I know my friends would be very grateful if they didn’t have to go with me
. . .


Friday, December 07, 2007

Overheard on the bike path

Riding north along the Upfield bike path this afternoon, as it follows the train line west of Sydney Road (yep, just keep heading north to the Emerald City), I saw a man riding a bike with a girl sitting comfortably behind him. He must have been standing up on the pedals the whole way. As we crossed, I heard him say distinctly, "So at that time you weren't going to be in the circus, but then you were?"

Isn't that great? I spent a while pondering the grammatical ambiguity here; was she now going to be in the circus? or was she now in the circus? or had she been going to be in the circus, but now she wasn't (a counter-factual imperfect?)? Is "were" the principal verb, or does it leave the "going to be" understood? I need a grammatical analysis of the different temporalities and tenses at work here.

Either way, she was having a lovely ride in the sun. And so did I, stopping to load up my panier on the left side, a shopping bag on the right handle bar, both filled with dried fruit that is now soaking in beer, brandy and port ready to make Christmas puddings. OK, a little late, but still a glad contrast to last year when my father had to come to my rescue and help me because I couldn't stir them. Twelve months later, I plan to have the mixture all assembled when my family comes to afternoon tea on Sunday, so we can all have a stir and make a wish.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gotta love those girls - and Antony Green

Spent a happy twenty minutes last night ordering my Maxine13 t-shirt, courtesy Ampersand Duck and Crazybrave. Gotta love those girls, all three of them!

Note to OS readers: Maxine McKew is former ABC journalist who has knocked out the PM from his own seat, although she has (graciously?) not yet claimed victory and he has (churlishly?) not yet conceded defeat. With three year terms, we reckon Kevin Rudd (his t-shirt was Kevin07) can have two, and then it'll be the turn of Maxine (she of the razor-sharp mind and the beatific smile on election night) to move into The Lodge in 2013. A side note: it'll be interesting to chart the Ruddster's transition from the rock-star reception at high schools, and the cheerful first-name address to the gravitas of the Prime Ministerial office. About as long, perhaps, as it's going to take some journalists to stop referring to John Howard as the PM.

Here's the ABC's call of the card, with 81.7% of the vote counted, as of this morning, after preferences, giving Maxine the seat by 51.6% to 48.4, a swing of 5.8%. It was certainly close, with the Greens vote down by 10%, where the ALP depended on Green preferences in lots of other seats to get them over the line. I didn't realise you can also do your own scrutiny, booth by booth, of votes: here are the Bennelong results.

And I've just discovered Antony Green's blog, whose first entry on November 16 uses encouraging words like "after resisting for a long time", "a terrible sense of ennui", "up to my armpits" and "hopefully interesting information". Wonder why this didn't catch on last week. Especially with such a cute photograph...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who's next?

Update from The Age this morning. This is Katharine Murphy writing:

THE sounds of paper shredders can be heard in a discordant symphony around the ministerial wing of Parliament House.

Wheelie bins clutter the corridors. Shattered Coalition staff in tracksuits and jeans are gathering possessions and trying to remain civil.

Nameplates have been ripped off the walls, awaiting their replacements.

The Coalition, like Elvis, is leaving the building, or moving to pokey offices with modest ensuites and concealed courtyards.

Barnaby Joyce — whose Canberra office has always been out on the fringes of the building — confesses he is afraid. "I'm scared, I don't want to go outside because I might find a podium to resign from," the Queenslander says before breaking into one of those laughs where it's clear there is absolutely nothing to laugh about.

And so it goes on. I know it seems like I'm gloating, but it's exactly this kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that I love to hear about: the intersection of the personal with the professional. Hard not to see it all through eyes trained by watching West Wing, though.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dropping like flies...

Gosh, who's next? 

I'm working at home today, finalising my marking and my documents for my annual appraisal tomorrow, doing some emails for our little forum on Early European research next month, and booking my flights to Hobart for another conference, but have to keep checking compulsively back to The Age website. It's all happening out there!

A week ago, as Howard and the Coalition seemed to be clawing back some support in the polls, it seemed we might be facing up to another three years of the same old team. But since then, the Coalition was wiped out; and four ministers had lost their seats by Saturday night. Yesterday, the Treasurer, Peter Costello, who's been just waiting for the leadership to come to him, announced he's going to serve out the next three years on the back bench then go off into a second career in commerce. Everyone who endorsed him so warmly on Saturday must be feeling a bit stupid and pissed off. Jeff Kennett (former Victorian premier) is contemptuous...

Then this morning Maxine McKew (former journalist) has all but claimed Bennelong from the PM in her very first electoral contest, making him only the second serving Prime Minister to lose his seat.

Alexander Downer (ex-Foreign Minister: these glosses are for the non-Oz readers), says he'll think about contesting the leadership but admitted he had been very bad at being opposition leader last time. Remember? At the time, the Coalition's slogan was "the things that matter". He turned this into an appalling joke about domestic violence: "the things that batter." Incredible. Though I must admit he has grown up a bit since then and to his credit, has apparently been quite good in East Timor...

Malcolm Turnbull (rich republican [i.e. in favour of Australia becoming a republican], recently turned politician) has put his hand up to lead the opposition. He's smart, eloquent, stood up to Howard and said we should sign Kyoto, but has little experience. And none of being in opposition.

Tony Abbot also says he'll stand, though he admits his electoral campaign went a little astray (understatement of the year).

Who else? Julie Bishop and Brendon Nelson (both former Education ministers) are being touted as possible leaders, but are yet to go public.

And now Mark Vaile (ex-deputy PM, and leader of Coalition's National Party) is stepping down too.

Paul heard someone say yesterday that the Mayor of Brisbane is now the highest status Liberal politician in the country.

I think that the party must have been on the point of implosion. And I bet this is not the end of the resignations, or the recriminations, either.

But the more I think about Julia Gillard, and Maxine McKew and Jodie Campbell, who picked up Bass and who looked phenomenal in her interview on Saturday night, and even Therese Rein, who's going to make a fabulous PM's wife, I am vastly cheered by the numbers of these clever, passionate women stepping up into leadership roles. Gillard hinted that Rudd would soon be organising an apology to Indigenous people, another thing Howard couldn't bring himself to do. I'm sure it's too much to hope that the meanness of the last eleven years can be turned around overnight, but it's hard to imagine a better start for Rudd.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Brand New Day: Election party wrap-up

Around about 7.30 last night, when no one would call it anything more decisive than a cliff-hanger, I started to relive the moments of despair I've felt in other years, as my optimism is confronted with the sheer determination of John Howard, and the success with which he has turned this nation into a bunch of individuals keen, at any cost, to propel their own fortunes forward. Well, I know there are forces larger than Howard responsible for the fracturing of community spirit, but his version of Liberal entrepreneurialism has really given it an acceptable face in this country. My recent example comes from a taxi-driver in Brisbane. We had skirted around the question of our respective allegiances a while before he came clean as a Howard supporter. I climbed up on to the moral high ground and said, "You know, the thing is: he's a liar, and I don't want my country run by a liar." "Oh yes, that's right, he's a liar," said the driver, "but look at what he's done for the country." 
Anyway, all turned out well enough in the end. I'm particularly thrilled about Julia Gillard as our first woman deputy PM. I've come to like her more and more over the last six weeks, monotonous pitch of her voice aside. I thought Howard's concession speech was just fine, and cannot see the great statesmanship it is being described as displaying. He appeared to me as a practised politician; nothing more, and nothing less. Rudd's speech was completely lacklustre: balanced, tedious, bland. Where is the great political rhetoric of yesteryear? But all he really had to do in this election was not be Howard; and I'm far from optimistic and buoyed by his programme. We sign off on Kyoto and make some headway there; there is lots of talk about higher education, but no major reforms to the university sector that I can see. It seems likely Labor will defer the introduction of the national RQF, the research-assessment exercise, and then probably streamline it, so it will be (a) easier to administer but (b) less finely tuned to the humanities. 
It looks, indeed, as if Howard will lose his own seat to Maxine McKew, former ABC journalist. I read in The Age this morning that someone at liberal party headquarters called out to a big image of her on the TV screen, "why don't you get a facelift, you slag?" Still some ways to go on gender equity, then.
The mood in our circles was optimistic and positive a few weeks ago: we had four invitations to juggle. But we spent the evening with our friends and neighbours (must have been the most optimistic, as their invitation came in first). I had laughed at Richard and Paula's seriousness: they wanted to keep the party small, so they could really concentrate on the television. But as it was, I was the one most glued to the set. One of the highlights is normally Anthony Green, the ABC's psephologist, and his computer graphics, but they were absolutely abysmal. They kept cutting out, and showing irrelevant information, like the shape of the electorate, rather than its location. The Foxtel box also had trouble managing the ABC screen, so we lost the side edges all the time. Had they counted .7 or 10.7 of the vote? We switched over to the commercial channels and stared, disbelieving, at the paucity of debate and analysis offered by Ray, and Kochie and Mel, and switched back. The kids (six boys aged between 12 and 8) waxed between enthusiasm and boredom, and requests for explanations of the voting system at inopportune moments. 
We ate extraordinary cheeses, meat from the barbeque, salads, and my favourite thing to make and take - mascarpone and prune tart. By the time Rudd came on, we were exhausted, and had started walking home around the corner, to the sound of fireworks. We turned on the TV at home to watch him, and I fell asleep. Will the nation change much? We can only hope.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vote The Bastards Out

What this election campaign needs is ... more music! This is enough to make me want to head into the city: the Spooky Men's Chorale is about to perform this somewhere in the CBD very shortly...

Thanks to John for this link

Monday, November 19, 2007

Brisbane distractions

Back from Brisbane on Saturday night, after attending the symposium of the Australian Humanities Academy. Brisbane was gorgeous, though I took my customary approach to a conference — fly in at the last minute and leave early — so I didn't see that much of the city. Why do I do it this way? To fend off that awful feeling on the first day away, of wondering why in the world one would want to leave one's home, and hang around airports and burn up greenhouse gases, and sleep in a hotel. So I try and minimise the pain by not really committing to the city. Paul and I never seem to manage to go on such trips together, so that's another reason not to hang around.

I did manage to get in a couple of walks, though, along the boardwalk along Southbank. Restaurants, cafes, a Nepalese pagoda, and the little sandy beach built into the riverbank (where I swam, 11 years ago), though it was closed for renovation, with all the sand piled up under tarpaulins, while they sealed the base. It was mild for Brisbane, I think; a balmy 26, which made sitting outside in the evening extremely pleasant. The first evening saw me and two companions sharing a bowl of succulent mussels in a rich tomato and chili broth, sopped up with an excellent sourdough.

The theme of the conference was the nature of e-research in the humanities. There were some terrific papers showcasing wonderful projects and resources; and also some reflections on the nature of this work, too, so it wasn't just "show-and-tell".

One remark struck me, though, when a prominent Vice-Chancellor commented that the era of the lecture was dead; that students simply wouldn't tolerate being lectured to in the old way. I guess that's true, that our attention span has been horribly reduced. My companion at the conference dinner on the second night told me how Pascale had anticipated the "distractions", like email, that break up our concentration span into bits and pieces. But it was odd to speculate on the irony that the symposium was presented in a conventional lecture theatre, that had been adapted to take powerpoint, etc. So when speakers presented their sites and applications, they were in darkness at the side of the stage, while the screen was lit up. Most of these applications were text-intensive, too, so if you were sitting up the back, it was pretty hard to see what was on the screen, much of the time. Nor were the speakers miked up, so that when they were answering questions, you couldn't always hear very well. No wonder some of the academicians were seen nodding off. And in truth, it is hard to concentrate for a day of such presentations. It might have been an idea for the conference to be held in a lab, where we could have interacted with these resources ourselves.

In fact, the organisers had made several laptops available, and I got used to seeing people surfing around sites that were being discussed in front of them. Some were also checking their email, too... But if that's the best way of presenting this material, either to a conference, or to a class, then it's no wonder that the connection between audience and presenter is diluted. I'm not a luddite in such things: I do use powerpoint when I teach, for example, and I have offered minimal online sites for larger subjects; but I do also love the human connection it's possible to make in a lecture, and the way that quite unexpectedly, sometimes, the group goes completely quiet and you realise that something has struck them, collectively, and you had no way of anticipating what it would be. The symposium wasn't really concerned with teaching, though.

Oddly, it's the idea of the "distraction" that has stayed with me. I'm determined to try and exert some discipline over my own. I wonder if reading Pascale would help. Or is that just another distraction?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Anyone still in doubt?

Anyone still in doubt about the customary associations of pink, shopping and the infantilisation of women? Or about the way commercial enterprises might be capitalising on the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign?

Thanks to Paula for this one...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Thursday Frog Blogging

How cool is it when you get to blog about a blog set up by a friend of your parents? Bushranger posts about birds and plants and books in the Geelong area, and has put up a magnificent photograph of a poddlebonk frog in her garden.

Our own frog, Herbert, is much shyer, and I've only seen him once, swimming in the stone basin underneath the tap. But I can hear him as I'm typing now. And have even thought I detected a different cry. Perhaps Herbert has found happiness amidst the violets?

Monday, November 05, 2007

You know it's the first Monday in November in Melbourne when ...

... there is a big parade through the city streets, the day before the Melbourne Cup, and even though there are no horses in the city this year, because of the dreaded equine influenza, there are still thirty thousand people there to watch the jockeys and the trainers pass by. Heaven knows what the madness will be like at Flemington tomorrow.

It's "Cup Eve", and yet it's been a quiet day in our little corner of Fitzroy. I've finished writing up the second seminar paper in a week to submit for publication, and am just about all written out. But not quite.

Time, still, to speculate on the relationship between the Melbourne Cup and the medieval tournament.

From the weekend Age:

IN THE opulent corner of Flemington's Birdcage that houses the nearly completed four-level Venetian palace of Emirates, the top names in tents reach heavenward in the corporate game of "mine is bigger than yours".

Emirates yesterday fitted a century-old gate complete with authentic floodwater rust from a palazzo in Venice.

Moet has flown chef Shannon Bennett to France for inspiration for its finger food. Lexus will adorn its two-storey chandelier with 1000 flowers. And Saab has trucked in six tonnes of ice to carve a frozen bar.

The race that stops a nation has spawned a week of unashamed hedonism in the Birdcage's ever-growing palaces of pleasure.

This time tomorrow, there'll be hundreds of photos of silly hats, horses and excess of all kinds. People are already complaining that race-day fashions more nearly resemble nightclub wear than the stylish elegance of Ascot. There'll be people drunkenly staggering around in high heels and fantastic and fun constumes. Let's hope no horses get injured or distressed tomorrow, as they so often do.

Tim Costello, head of World Vision, in the same article valiantly tried to suggest that race-day excess was ... excessive.

World Vision chief executive Tim Costello yesterday condemned the lavish marquee scene as a sad indictment on society. "I think the marquees are the outward sign of great wealth and self-indulgence, but not necessarily the sign of great generosity and strength of spirit," he said.

Mr Costello, who returned from a trip to Africa for World Vision yesterday, said he was appalled that a marquee invitation was regarded as a sign of having "made it" in Melbourne.

"It's a sad aspiration for young people to being invited to an exclusive marquee, and if that is held up as having made it, then that is a fairly shallow, sad way to make it," he said.

It's hard not to agree with his assessment, but also hard not to see the similarities between the races and the tournament. Think of the elaborate jousts built at Smithfield and the Round Table at Windsor; think of the danger of the joust itself; and the chroniclers' complaints about the dreadful clothes of women, and their scandalous behaviour. Think of the pleasures, shared equally by both forms, of dressing up, in fancy jockeys' silks, high fashion, or silly, carnivalesque costumes; or, as in medieval times, knights disguising themselves as the Pope and his cardinals, or as Tartars, or cross-dressing. The Melbourne Cup is not just for the rich, either, any more than the tournaments were. Everyone gets a holiday (except the university), and most schools had today off as well. It is licensed mayhem.

I think my favourite detail about the Emirates tent, though, is the "century-old gate complete with authentic floodwater rust from a palazzo in Venice". The most extravagant and fantastic hoop-la still wants a touch of the historical real.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bea Wight, Bea Wright, Bea Rich

Update: here is footage of the John Howard Ladies' Auxiliary Fan Club: Bea Wight, Bea Wright and Bea Rich... Worth getting to the end to appreciate the contrast with Ratty fawning over the commercial radio presenters...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Four women satirical protesters

Now here's a lesson for the Chaser: better frocks!!

I love these photos from The Age, and am proud to know one of these women well, to know another from the primary school over the road, and to recognise another from her mother's more familiar face...

Go Liz!!

Caption: Four women satirical protestors dressed in 1950's garb and wearing rosettes naming them as the "John Howard Ladies' Auxillary Fan Club' walked, sung, offered advice and asked questions as well as offering home cooked cake to the PM during his walk. Photos: Andrew Taylor

Actually, it was Yellowcake...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Man in the Moon

In our new upstairs bedroom, cunningly built into the old roof space, there are several windows that don't have any curtains or blinds on them yet, so we wake very early. It's a little easier, now that daylight saving has begun, but still extraordinary to wake in bright daylight around 6.00 am, after the relative gloom of the old downstairs room. I guess we'll put blinds or something up at some stage, but for the moment, I'm revelling in the pure bright light of spring, flooding one half of the room very early in the morning. I can lie there and look out at the chimney pots and tree tops and the enormous Norfolk pine two doors down.

But this morning I woke in a little alarm, feeling someone was watching me. It was about 4.00 a.m., well before sunrise, except for a bright moon, just on the turn to gibbous, shining directly onto the bed. I looked up, and for the first time, I think, could really see the man's face watching. It was too uncanny to dwell on, so I just went back to sleep, but the vision stayed with me all day, reminding me of the beautiful moons we had seen in the desert.

I mentioned it to a friend at work and he started musing about how lovely it would be if our planet had more than one moon. I mentioned that trashy movie Stargate, with its vaguely Egyptian styling, and the three moons that fell into position for some significant thing or other. He confessed he had even watched the trashy TV series, and, emboldened, I admitted I was watching Idol. But we all have our weaknesses, and this wasn't one of his, so we couldn't have a proper Idol conversation. But if you are watching, you might want to check out blandcanyon for a hilarious running account of each show. Brilliant.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Last night I went to the launch of Traffic, vol. 9. This is the interdisciplinary postgraduate journal at Melbourne, and I had been asked to be one of the judges of their essay prize. The journal's theme this year is Serendipity, and the prize went to Daniel Whyte, for "The Flipside of Serendipity: Human Genetics Rediscovers Race", but all the short-listed essays were excellent.

The volume was launched by Dr Andi Horvath, who gave as her example of serendipitous research the inventer of velcro, who was out hiking in a season and place where those little burrs were getting stuck to his socks. He took them home and examined them under the microscope and realised they had little loops that hooked on to his socks. Thus velcro — velvet crochet, apparently — was born. Andi asked us to find the velcro closest to us, on shoes, wallets, clothes, and "launch" the journal with a velcro orchestra making the "hooray" after she said "hip hip." Very cute indeed.

Judging the prize was difficult, because the essays ranged across so many fields; but all were encouraged to write for an audience beyond their specialisation, and so I learned heaps about genetics, race, biochemistry, publishing, and politics. My very dear student Philip had won this prize a few years ago for his essay on the Summoner and Pardoner, so I was very pleased to take on this job.

Andi also offered an additional challenge to all the contributors, to go one step further and produce a version of their essay for some other venue beyond the context of the university, for the tennis club newsletter, was her suggestion. Not easy to do, but increasingly important for academic research to be able to explain itself in broader contexts.

I have just come off air myself, I'm pleased to say, giving an interview to South East Radio about my essay on pink ribbon day. I'm sure I gabbed and garbled, but I did at least try to give an account of my work in the introduction.

And now, on to write a job reference, find some references for a first-year subject reader for next year, and finish writing up two papers for publication by next Wednesday. I've just spent a messy two hours scooping up three inches of water from the cellar and carrying the buckets up the stairs. There is a pump, but since our water tanks are in, but not properly connected yet, it means there is this temporary problem. I don't even like being in the cellar, let along carrying buckets of water up the ladder.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Response to Sara and Lance

I started posting a response to Sara and Lance's comments on the previous entry, but it got a bit long, so I thought I would make a separate entry.

Warm thanks to Sara and Lance for generously sharing their stories, and for posting their responses. Both comments raise really important issues.

Sara raises the question of other diseases that don't attract a fraction of the funding that breast cancer organisations have been able to mobilise. I'm very sympathetic to this point, and can see that from the point of view of many other cancers and other diseases, it might seem ungracious to criticise some aspects of breast cancer publicity.

Lance's comment is very heartfelt; and I honour his tribute to the women in his family who have died, or struggled with, or who live in the shadow of breast cancer.

I would comment that lots of these commercial promotions add only a tiny proportion of their sales to breast cancer research. Those interested to know more might want to check out the link to Breast Cancer Action on the side-bar.

But of course, when someone is wholeheartedly involved in fund-raising, I can see how my response might seem to undermine that cause. I didn't intend my remarks to "white-ant" those efforts (and tried to say in my essay that there were many wonderful aspects to pink October); but I am concerned about the way many of these promotions are capitalising on a very narrow understanding of women's concerns.

Of course, the ideal solution would be adequate government funding for research, care and awareness of many more diseases, supported by an equitable tax system. I think a lot of people find it disturbing to think of diseases competing with each other for a limited market share of public support.

I should say that most of the responses I've had to my essay, both on the blog, and in emails, have shared my concerns. Many people comment that they prefer to make donations, and don't expect to be "buying" products in return. And that was the way I was brought up, too.

Lance suggests I get involved in the Cancer Council Arts Awards. I must admit, I didn't know about them: I will try and find out more about this. When I was first diagnosed, one of my first impulses was to get involved in some kind of support group, to help other women with fewer social and economic resources than I enjoy. But the advice I read said, "you need to go through your own treatment and journey before you can help others". I've hoped my blog might be some kind of help.

Thanks again to all who've responded, by blog, by email, and by phone. These are difficult issues indeed.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pink Links

Here's a link to my op-ed piece in Sunday's Age.

And ... courtesy of my neighbour Alan ... a hilarious spoof on the 'wear a yellow ribbon to show your support for the war in Iraq' campaign in the US.

And, possibly even more hilarious, another:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Blogging and public engagement(s)

I am very belated in posting a response to the Writing and Society session at the University of Western Sydney last Friday on "The Uses of Blogging". Luckily, Judith Ridge at Misrule has posted a lovely long account of the session, and Pavlov's Cat has commented, too. It was a most enjoyable afternoon; and as Dr Cat says, a pleasure to sit behind the seminar table with a friend. Well, I guess that's not such a novelty: I do get to do that with the medievalists, on occasion. But great, all the same, to see Kerryn in such excellent form - even while she was busy incubating a ghastly virus that attacked her a day or so later. We also got to hang out in gorgeous Potts Point, with views of The Opera House and The Bridge from the hotel's wonderful rooftop garden (if you ever get the chance to stay here, do!); and eat meal after meal of delicious, fresh and delightful food. I also met up with two friends: first for dinner at Darling Harbour, where we were sat and watched a spectacular Sydney storm. It was like watching a dishwasher in action through the plate glass of the restaurant over this small area enclosed by glass buildings: sound and fury and foam and light; and then the sparkling rinse of rain on the water. And second for Saturday breakfast in Potts Point. Stewed rhubarb two mornings in a row: bliss!

Some of the most interesting and thoughtful questions to come up in discussion, though, concerned the problem of blogs and their ilk in educational contexts: if students are encouraged to write and post in pedagogical contexts, how do they learn the difference between that kind of writing and more formal contexts?

We were also asked to talk about blogging and being ‘public intellectuals’. I admit I haven't really thought of myself as such, but over the last few months I have been doing a little more reviewing and writing for the newspaper.

Since coming back from Sydney, I’ve written an op-ed piece that I think will appear in the Sunday Age tomorrow, on the pink consumerism associated with breast cancer awareness in October. In the essay I am very critical of the idea of ‘shopping for the cure’, the direct association of femininity with consumerism, and especially the shopping for clothes and jewellery, and the very girlish model of femininity that has become so pervasive in our culture. Of course there are some wonderful projects and images of women associated with breast cancer fund-raising, and I tried to acknowledge those in the essay. But I find, now, I am quite nervous about the possible reactions. I’m not sure I have a thick enough skin to be a ‘public intellectual’.

Still… on Thursday night I went to a lecture by Brian Castro, who talked passionately about the need to voice criticisms of an Australian society that was becoming increasingly market- and consumer- driven. So I felt emboldened and encouraged to write as I had done.

On the other hand, I have found, even in the context of my very good health news (and thanks to all who have sent their congratulations and cheers), that I still do sometimes get overtired and overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel being sick has made me more resilient and stronger at the core; sometimes I feel it’s made me define real limits to what I can do. Perhaps it’s time to pull my head in a bit now and get down to some work.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Another Joyous Announcement...

... to report that I had my 12-month mammogram, ultrasound and examination with my surgeon this morning; and I am clean as a whistle. The ultrasound is the worst: it's the most pleasant physical experience, but the most testing on the nerves as the sensor slides up and down and around over the gel, and presses in hard to get a good look at what's happening, deep down under the scar tissue, where it is still tender after radiotherapy. But no one could find anything out of the ordinary, so I am in the clear for another year, now. I felt as fit and healthy, and as confident that I had done everything I can to avoid a recurrence, while also knowing there's a large part of the risk factor over which I have no control at all. How would I have handled a recurrence? I'm glad not to be tested in this way, just now.

I asked Suzanne when, over the five years after surgery I am still receiving treatment, and still at risk, the chances were greater of recurrence. She said over 80% of recurrence is found in the second or third year. So I guess it's early days yet.

Even so, we polished off a rather nice Jacob's Creek sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir as we were reading about the parable of the vineyard in Pearl in the Middle English reading group just now. Time to nip out for a foccaccia and a strong coffee before the rest of the afternoon's work.

Just a year ago I found we had missed out on our grant and that I had breast cancer in the same week. A year later, what a joyful contrast. So... strength and solidarity and warm wishes to anyone else facing up the rigours of the grant system and/or of medical tests. May my good news be yours, too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Formal (and Joyous) Announcement: Medievalism in Australian Cultural Memory

When I began this blog over a year ago I aimed to chart the process of applying for an Australian Research Council research grant. In the end, or rather, shortly thereafter, I got sick and didn't go ahead with that application. But over the summer, I was able to work on revising an unsuccessful collaborative grant. My research team was fantastic; and one burning hot day last January as I came to the end of my daily radiotherapy treatment, they were the first to see I was exhausted and was finished for that day. The lead-up in this immense national system is deeply attenuated. We submitted in early Feb, wrote a "rejoinder" to our four assessors' reports in July, and have just heard now that we were successful, with four years' funding to commence next January. It is a huge relief to be successful, partly because it is such a public process: lots of people read drafts and the final version, and can be quite scathing in their comments and suggestions. It's good for my program, school, faculty and university; and also for those of my collaborators, as funding will flow back into those units as a result. It's good for the PhD student we'll be able to offer a scholarship to; it's good for the postgrad or early career researchers we'll employ as research assistants and tutors. It's great for the field of medievalism. And it's great for our summer, as it means we won't have to revise and re-submit it all over again.

I've been a bit coy about naming our team or our project, but I have everyone's permission to do so now. We are me, Andrew Lynch (University of Western Australia), Louise D'Arcens (University of Wollongong) and John Ganim (University of California, Riverside). We have been awarded $340,000 over four years to study "Medievalism in Australian Cultural Memory". Here is our magic 100-word project summary:

This project is the first comprehensive study of the influence of medievalism — the imaginative reconstruction of the middle ages - on Australian literature and culture. Detailed examinations of archives, texts, artefacts and public records from 1800 to the present will trace Australia's transformation of its European medieval legacy, with reference to literary, public, academic and popular modes of writing and cultural production. The research will offer a new perspective on Australian cultural history, and the first comparative study of Australia's relationship with international medievalism. An illustrated monograph, a refereed essay collection and a digital repository will bring the resuts to the public.

And... the summary of national/community benefit. This is the bit that is "for public release"; i.e. the bit that has to pass the scrutiny of those who love to criticise the expense of public money on university research:

This project will provide the first long-range analysis of Australian cultural responses to the medieval period, and the first comparative study of Australia's relationship with international medievalism. It will show how Australians have used reference to the medieval past, both favourable and hostile, to articulate our complex relation to European tradition and our aspirations to a distinctive national culture. The published research will offer an original perspective on the development of Australian cultural identity and will enhance public understanding of our British and European heritage, in the context of contemporary debates about republicanism, the monarchy, and ethnic and cultural diversity.

What Pavlov's Cat and I will be doing this Friday

The Writing & Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney has organised this seminar for me and Dr Cat: what larks!

Friday 12 October

"The Uses of Blogging"

with Kerryn Goldsworthy, literary critic & author of
the blog Pavlov's Cat

and Stephanie Trigg, medievalist & author of
the blog Humanities Researcher

University of Western Sydney, Bankstown campus
Building 23, conference room 1
(via the Henry Lawson Drive exit of the M5)

All welcome - lunch served at 1pm.
RSVP to writing@uws.edu.au

Monday, October 08, 2007

Back from the desert, where it was hot and red during the day, and quiet and black at night. A few highlights...

The first night a hot desert wind blew till 5.00 am. We had camped in our little hired campervan, with Joel in a tent pitched close to the sliding door. We had parked just off road, halfway between Alice Springs and Uluru, and I struggled with all kinds of fears and anxieties as it got darker and darker, and there was no one in sight. The sky was full of clouds and the moon struggled to be seen. Joel and I both slept badly, as the hot wind howled through the open doors of the van, and the badly assembled tent. Day dawned crisp and still, though.

Second night we watched the sun set over Uluru, having walked a little at its base in the afternoon. Even though there were lots of tourists, it was still breathtakingly quiet and beautiful. As the great rock turned red in the sunset, a thin, pale, watery moon rose just to the left. We camped in the only place you are allowed to, for miles around, at the Yulara resort. Girls in the bathroom with hair curlers and straighteners, re-charging phone and camera batteries.

Third night we watched the sun set at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), after a wonderful hike through the Valley of the Winds. No moon, until we were on our way to our next (off-road) campsite. Then it rose, bright orange through the red dust of the desert.

The fourth night the moon modestly rose later, allowing the full spectrum of stars and planets and satellites to appear. We were staying at Kings' Canyon (a huge campsite), so it wasn't until several nights later, at Trephina Gorge in the East Macdonall ranges (thanks to Elsewhere for this tip), that we were in pitch blackness at 10.00 p.m. to see the stars in all their glory and glamour. We were in a tiny campsite (one other family; and a pit toilet), and so we could turn out all the lights, and see nothing but what you could see by starlight. The Milky Way streaming moodily across the great canopy of stars, a shooting star catching my eye, and stars right down to the horizon - at your feet, as someone said to me today. It's like being in a huge snowdome; the glass hung all over with stars.

In the end, we spent very little time in Alice Springs, and while I thought I would be hanging out for hotels and lavish campsites, I found I treasured best those nights when it was just us, the stars, and the Scrabble box. We sang and talked in the car, told stories and worked on jokes with each other. I read Andrew McGahan's White Earth, the perfect choice of a gothic Australian narrative about land use and land ownership: thoroughly recommended. I then started on Alexis Wright's Carpentaria. I'm struggling a bit, but the man in the restaurant at Alice Springs (The Lane) said it was worth persevering with, so I will.

We got back on Friday night: the house is still covered in dust, though the end is in sight; and the best news when I opened up the email.... We got our ARC grant! It's hard to give a sense of just what a wonderful thing this is. They awarded money to only 21% of applications this year, and though they cut our budget down, we can still do most of the things we want. I'll write about this in more detail soon (it's in part what this blog is supposed to be about), but just wanted to clock in. Will find a few photos, too.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Checking in before holidays

Crazy days at the moment. Chaos at home, with dust and piles of furniture everywhere. The builders dug the holes for the new concrete stumps in two rooms on Friday: there was so much dust everywhere the smoke alarm kept going off, and clouds of black dust (the volcanic clay of the Merri creek bed) have filled the house, even upstairs into the beautiful new room.

We leave for a holiday in Alice Springs first thing Tuesday morning, and before then I have the usual pile of deadlines to meet. A tenure review for someone in the US; my Shakespeare review for The Age (done!); a job reference for someone that has to be done tomorrow if I'm not to miss their deadline; a conference proposal for NCS in Swansea next year (half-done: a grovelling letter to the panel chair promising a proper proposal when I get back). I'm also at a symposium, tomorrow, for most of the day, on philanthropy and the humanities. I should also be cleaning the house for the family members who are going to babysit the cat and the fish; and updating my publications on the university's research file.

Well; what gets done will get done. What doesn't, will have to be left behind.

Will be back in ten days, eyes filled with desert and sky, and looking forward to the symposium on October 12 on blogging and writing at UWS with Pavlov's Cat. I'm hoping she'll be posting about this before it happens; if not, I'll update when I get back.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Room - and a Bed - of One's Own

I spent the oddest morning chasing up bills and papers and receipts and passwords and forms. They were scattered all over the house — and that's after making sure I had gathered everything I needed from the office at work. OK, some people are good filers, and know where everything is. I admit I am always rather haphazard. But could someone who was a good filer experience a tenth of the joy and satisfaction that was mine when I did finally find the membership renewal form - in one of the dozen special piles of important papers around the house?

And in my defence, life is particularly chaotic at the moment: my work places are scattered between the dining-room table, the spare bedroom, the tv room and our bedroom. And why? Because I have no room of my own, temporarily, at least. Part of the house re-building we are doing involves my study:

you can see how deeply they have dug down below the level of the hearth. This is more than just re-painting; rather, proper re-stumping. These floors have been here a hundred years, and you can perhaps make out fragments of the original roof tiles that dropped to the floor as they were building.

I've also just now signed off on the upstairs room with builder and architect. Peter and Shannon have lifted the bed up the stairs and I'm about to spend a happy weekend, when I should be reading biographies of Shakespeare and his wife for a review I'm writing, moving our clothes and bedlinen and all that odd bedroom stuff upstairs. I have in mind a resolution to try and find a few things I no longer wear and no longer wish to keep. Paul is away, though, so I'll do it on my own and have a week up there before he gets home. How odd that seems; in that we have been sleeping for 14 years in a most ramshackle, run down old room with plaster falling off the ceiling, and yet he is not here for the big move. Upstairs is so grand I can't bear to move our random old bedside furniture up there.
Here are snaps of the ceiling in the old bedroom:

A serendipitous connection leaps to mind, though, between the work I'll be doing and the work I should be doing, in Shakespeare leaving his second best bed to Ann Hathaway. I'll try and find out more about this in between armfuls of clothes.

P.S. Here's what the other side of that pile of books looks like. Click to enlarge. What do you have on your bedside table?

Monday, September 10, 2007

"It's brought out a strength in me I never knew I had."

Monday night. Normally time to prepare for class tomorrow. But tonight, as the kids sang and danced their way down the corridor to bed (Joel's oldest friend, Eva, has been staying with us since last weekend while her parents are a-conferencing), I flipped across the channels and realised Andrew Denton's Enough Rope was on. Tonight a "special", on three women with metastatic cancer, which had begun, in all three cases I think, with breast cancer. Paul is away, too, in Norway (Hi Meli!), and in any case, would probably have been working, if he had been here. So with a stomach full of tender roast lamb and home grown rosemary, and with these two beautiful young children safely tucked up in bed reading, I watched alone.

Here's a link to the website: I think transcripts and excerpts will be available there soon: Enough Rope

I don't think you would need to be a cancer patient or carer to be moved by this program, but the tears were certainly streaming down my face. These women were brave, and scared, and positive, and pragmatic, at different times. But I can't put a measure on the extent to which my story is their story. My medical prognosis is better, but at the same time I know myself touched and changed by the things that have touched and changed them. I don't put myself in their class, but on the other hand, to refuse to do so might be a form of denial, as I still must work out how I am to live; and I think their courage might help me.

One of the women said, "It's brought out a strength in me I never knew I had." It was said smiling under the eyebrows her husband painted on for her each day (that's their sex life now, they joked), and I realised how far cancer can take you beyond the normal vanities. Everywhere else on television are beautifully groomed faces and hair; here were bald heads and darkened eyes, confronting their own deaths; in one case, little more than a week away.

But I knew what she meant, about the strength. I have sometimes, myself, been surprised to find myself less distressed about things that normally would have worried me. (If I had had to, I think I probably would have been able to face the world without hair, for example.) But has it brought out a strength that was buried in me? Or did I grow it myself?

In the first half of last year I went to the physiotherapist complaining about pain on the outside of my right knee. He diagnosed a weakness of the muscle on the inside of the knee, and gave me what seemed like minimal exercises to strengthen the inner muscle so as to re-balance the whole knee. I realised, too, that I had developed a habit of riding my bike with my right leg slightly bowlegged (to protect my pants and shoes). One of my legs is very slightly longer than the other, too, as the dressmaker discovered when she made my long "wedding" skirt (scarlet silk chiffon over midnight blue peach satin, for the record). I've re-oriented my walking, running and riding habits, and now have no pain in the knee, and even a discernible bump where the strengthened muscle sits.

I think this is the kind of "strength" that cancer helped me grow, little by little as I got through the treatments and the sheer shock of being ill, last spring and summer.

At the same time, the program was a wake-up call for me. I feel so strong, physically, that it's been hard not to slip back into old ways of committing myself to lots of things. And yet I do get tired and wrung out by stuff; and I have to remind myself that while I'm nearly at the one year point since my diagnosis (with a mammogram and ultrasound to mark the event next month), it's a much shorter time since I was suffering considerable anxiety about re-entering the world of work. That world is particularly distressing at the moment, with the threat of job cuts in my faculty, and while I want to be involved, I'm finding it harder and harder. I'm not sure I do actually have enough strength for that.

I turned off the television, and could hear Herbert, our little frog, croaking into the balmy spring air, and was reminded of the ephemerality of it all. How hard it is to keep the balance between one's normal, human commitments to others, and the sense of stillness that mortality grants us.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

New Toy on My Computer

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.


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!