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!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Recipe for holiday happiness

Three people. Three bikes. Six panniers.

A three hour train trip to Wangaratta, then a rush of instant happiness as we collected our bikes and rode away from the station, with no accommodation booked, and no sense of how far we'd be able to ride. I think this was the freest I've ever felt on a holiday. I love my creature comforts as much as (if not more than) the next woman, but I've just unpacked my panniers and realised how much I liked living out of them. Next time, I'm going to take even fewer clothes.

We did just under 250 kilometres in five and a half days, mostly along the Rail Trails east of Wangaratta. The disused train lines have been ripped up and replaced with bitumen bike paths through King Valley and the Ovens River, around the wine and food paradise of Milawa, the historic goldfields town of Beechworth, and as far as Bright, base camp for Alpine skiing. Because these were train lines built by hand and horse, slopes were only mild, though I struggled very slowly up the long slow gradual climb to Beechworth on the second day, and sometimes riding west into the wind was tough, too, especially the 60 kilometres we rode yesterday from Myrtleford to Wangaratta. Joel found the wind tough, too, but he rode like a warrior-poet (sorry: please excuse Braveheart reference) the whole way.

We spent one night in an ordinary motel, a night in the family chapel of the old priory at Beechworth, two nights in an enormous and very run-down family apartment above the bar of a pub in Myrtleford, then a night in a grand "town-house" of a motel in Wangaratta.

We slept in, ate enormous breakfasts, and bought muffins, fruit, cheese and focaccias to eat on the road, and would typically arrive at the next town mid-afternoon, and sleep or read till it was time to go out for dinner. A local pub; a fancy restaurant in the old bank at Beechworth; a typical goldfields-town Chinese meal; an Italian pizza place; a motel restaurant with home-made gnocchi.

My head was filled, most of the trip, with thoughts and stories of Ned Kelly. We didn't get to Glenrowan, site of the famous last siege: I'm saving that up for a separate trip. But I did a Kelly walking tour of Beechworth, and collected lots of stories that wove in and out of my reading of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. This was the second time I had read it, and I found it totally compelling this time.

This is my favourite Kelly story at the moment: on his voyage back from Glenrowan to Beechworth for the initial hearing before he was sent to Melbourne to be tried and hanged, he had been wounded many times in the arms and legs, and could not walk, so he was lain on a pallet and brought back by train. My walking tour paused at the corner where he would have been brought up from the station and turned past the Imperial Hotel where Aaron Sherritt's wife stood watching (Kelly, lying on his pallet, is said to have doffed his hat to the widow of the gang member-turned police informant he had killed). Apparently the dray was followed by lots of kids running and pretending to shoot at Kelly with their hands pointed like guns. And he returned fire, in similar fashion. So there are scores of people now who report their grandparents were shot at by Kelly. This seems to me such a wonderful moment of self-consciousness: Kelly performing his own theatrical last return.

More to come, and much more to read on Kelly; some photos to post, too. But for now, time to prepare for my trip to Wollongong tomorrow for a postgraduate seminar: "Early Europe in Contemporary Media: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to Film, Television, Computer Games and Internet Studies". I'll be up at dawn for an 8.00 flight. Brr..

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Medievalism in California

Ooh er... Look what I'll be doing in November!

University of California, Riverside Events
Medievalism, Colonialism, Nationalism:A Symposium

Friday, November 7, and Saturday, November 8, 2008
9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

In cooperation with the Australian Research Council, this conference will bring together leading international and University of California scholars on how the European pre-modern past has played a role in shaping colonial and national identities and how our view of that past have been changed as a result. Panels will discuss King Arthur as a national symbol, medieval chivalry in World War I, the psychological significance of reviving the past, Beowulf on the page and on the screen, the Middle Ages in ballet, medieval crime fiction, the origins of blasphemy and the politics of reconstruction and rebuilding.
Open to: Public
Admission: Free
Sponsor: Center for Ideas & Society

Contact Information:
Laura Lozon

And look at this list of speakers; Elizabeth Allen, Seeta Chaganti, Louise D'Arcens, Aranye Fradenburg, John Ganim, David Lawton, Andrew Lynch, David Marshall, Anne McKendry, Maura Nolan, Thomas Prendergast, Brenda Deen Schildgen, Carol Symes...

This symposium is the brainchild of the wonderful John Ganim, and is part of our Medievalism in Australian Cultural Memory project. My paper is going to be on Ned Kelly as a Robin Hood figure. Watch this space...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Birthday turrets

I offered to make my friend Paula a birthday cake, and asked what kind of cake she would like. "Bananas are nice", she said. "Pooh!" I said, "that's not very festive!" So having told her what she didn't want, after asking her what she did want, this is what we made. Unfortunately, it suffered a minor collapse during the afternoon, and you can see it's had to be pushed back up, but it was truly spectacular, all the same.

It was a classic joint enterprise. I used 15 egg whites, half a kilo of ground hazlenuts and four cake tins of three different sizes, and melted the chocolate, and mixed up the coffee-flavoured and sweetened cream, and sliced the strawberries, and then Paul assembled the layers of meringue, brushed them with (organic, free-trade, 70%) chocolate, and sandwiched them together with fruit and cream, in this wonderfully asymmetrical fantasy cake. It's a version of the recipe we associate with Christmas and birthdays in my family, but I've never seen it put together like this! And yes, there were bananas in some of the layers, too. I was the classic nay-sayer, when Paul started talking about turrets, but in fact, the highest point of the cake on the left, was the most successful: layers and layers of meringue and cream and chocolate.

We sat Paula behind the cake, on her red couch with the red wall behind her, and voilà! the beauteous vision in the photo. Happy birthday, dear friend!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Going to the Show

Most years we take ourselves off to the Royal Agricultural Show. Usually it's me, Paul, Joel and Eva, our friends' daughter, born eight months after Joel. Sometimes one of us is away, sometimes one of Eva's parents comes, but today was a classic day, with just the four of us. Now that the kids are older, the day is easier, really, as we can give them some money and tell them to stick together and meet us at intervals. This allows us to spend as much time as we like with the chickens, geese and ducks; the woodchopping; and the craft and cooking displays. It also means we don't have to spend hours in queues for rides and while they make up their minds about their showbags.

The show has changed a lot in the years we've been going, though. They no longer have the lunchtime cattle parades, and there seem to be fewer farm animals. I used to like the Victorian government expo with the helicopter and the ambulance you could climb into, and the large satellite image of Melbourne on the floor you could walk over. One year I picked up a bookmark with the Parliamentary mace on it! I love the hot sweet corn drizzled in butter; I love the cats asleep on their posts, waiting to be patted; I love seeing the lambs being born (well, once); I love marvelling at the kitschy designs in the handcraft section; and I love seeing the judging of the cakes. I love the dodgem cars; and I loved seeing the kids being strapped into the "cliffhanger". They lay on little leather hammocks, on their stomachs, and when the machine started whizzing around, they looked as if they were flying. I love the stupid wigs and outsize sunglasses they bought; and the Elvis wig and white cape that came with Joel's "rock star" showbag. I bought a bag for myself for the first time ever: the farmers' market show bag, with little jars of olives and pickles and jam, some fresh and dried fruit, fresh asparagus, and a book about farmers' markets in Australia.

But most of all, I think, I love the woodchopping. We watched for about half an hour today. It's a wonderful festival of masculinity. The long rectangular yard is filled with men and boys, clustered around the three rows of different kinds of stands as they are got ready. The competitors wear white trousers and white sandshoes; and some wear t-shirts of their teams' colours. They don't say much, these men. And there's no particular body shape for this sport. Some are lean; some are less so. Most are muscly, but it seems to be mostly about the skill.

One round we watched was for kids aged between 9 and 13 years. One boy must have been only 9, but stood up on the log with great panache. All the boys in this group were learning so much about how to become their fathers. They didn't talk a lot, but spent a lot of time polishing their blades. They were allowed to have their coaches (mostly their fathers, I think), giving advice as they cut. The kid who finished first stepped so quickly off his block and over to where his menfolk were gathered that it took me a moment to work out he'd won; and then I saw his cheeks bright red with exertion. The boy who came second had his hair all dyed with blonde tips; and was so overcome he didn't realise his father was standing there waiting to shake his hand. The youngest boy took much longer to finish his log, and the commentator encouraged us all to cheer him along. When he finished, his dad reached over and patted him on the head. The wonderful understatedness of it all.

We saw a presentation of the three finallists from a different competition; and saw the winner come over to us and hand his ribbon to his girlfriend. We saw a beautiful Maori man rehearsing his strokes, dreadlocks flying, and then tuck them up into a knot before he competed. We saw one man sit down abruptly during his round, and take off his shoe. He'd cut through the shoe, and we saw a thin trickle of blood run down his foot as they propped it up on the log he'd had to abandon.

A little, over the last few weeks, I've been thinking about mortality; and not always in cheerful daylight hours. At times today, in the crowds and the commercial hustle and bustle, I felt a bit detached from the human world. Seeing the woodchopping, though, and seeing these traditions being passed down to the next generation, was consoling. And in any case, there we were with our own family tradition, too. Little continuous threads, holding us together.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Zuleika Dobson

I've been reading this hilarious novel, first published in 1911. It tells the story of the young Duke of Dorset, an Oxford undergraduate who is also a Knight of the Garter, who falls in love with Zuleika, the niece of the Warden of Judas College. After a desultory career as a governess, moving from family to family as the young men in each household invariably fall wildly and unsuitably in love with her, she steals one such young man’s box of party magic tricks, and establishes herself with great success in the music-hall world. She has never felt love for any of her many conquests, until the Duke of Dorset ignores her on her triumphant entry into Oxford. When, over the course of the next day, it becomes clear that he does in fact love her, she is repelled, and dismisses him, refusing his vast fortune and estates.

In despair, the Duke says he will drown himself for love of her, at which news she is delighted, and wants to make sure only that he will call out her name as he plunges into the river after the boat race. Hundreds of other youths make the same pledge, and the Duke’s attempts to dissuade them to no avail. On the morning of the fateful day, the Duke tries on his Garter robes one last time, and is so captivated by his magnificent appearance in the mirror that he decides to take his last fatal walk in them. Once the boat race is finished, he appears to hesitate before taking the final step, but it starts to rain, and fearing becoming a sorry, soggy, bedraggled lump of heron and ostrich feathers, the Duke plunges in to the river. His Garter mantle floats a while on the surface before finally sinking along with its wearer. Hundreds of other young men similarly drown themselves. We last see Zuleika asking her maid to commission a special train to Cambridge.

The story does so much lovely work for me: it describes the black japanned boxes in which the Garter robes arrive in London, and the "octoradiant star"; it has a scene where the Duke impatiently dresses himself in his robes; and it has this gem of a line: “It was only in those too rarely required robes that he had the sense of being fully dressed.” Beautiful! Fits my theory of the Garter as Derridean supplement: that which is added to the courtly body; but the thing which makes the ungartered body seem incomplete.

I have a folio edition with a few of Beerbohm's illustrations. I've recalled the Baillieu library's copy of the fully illustrated text; and am hoping soon to check out the edition in our rare book collection with Osbert Lancaster's drawings, too.

I love my work!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Girly pleasures: or why I love my moisturiser

I'm into the second week of this headcold now (apparently it lasts a good two or three weeks, with the possibility of a re-run later). I'm back cycling and playing tennis, though the combination of an hour's tennis and twenty minutes cycling home in a cold wind tonight nearly did for me. A little work tonight, then an early night for me.

Since I've been sick, I've felt constantly on the verge of dehydration, and had run out of my moisturiser, but have since been down to Klein's, and stocked up on my magic jar.

I open the black screw top lid on the little dark brown glass jar, and breathe in the aromatic scents of rosemary, sage and lavender. A fingertip full of soft white cream, and my skin suddenly feels normal again. I'm on the road to recovery.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Venus and Adonis

... is the title of a short masque by John Blow, written in 1683 for Charles II. According to the Rough Guide to Opera, it is "full of quirky and unpredictable shifts in harmony", and was one of the inspirations behind Purcell's much better known Dido and Aeneas.

You wouldn't necessarily expect such a work to feature in a school concert, but Joel and I have just come home from hearing most of this performed by a group at his school. The student cast and orchestra were assisted by a few staff performers (on harpsichord, for example), but generally these year 8-12 students did a terrific job with some very difficult music. There are some really lovely sopranos at this school, though all soloists did well; and the chorus was brilliant. I'm so thrilled Joel has, or will have, the opportunity to make music of this kind.

He wasn't in the Venus, but the Year 7 and 8 strings played three Handel minuets to start out the concert. Just a small event, in the school's main music rehearsal studio, but honestly, what a testimony to the enthusiasm and confidence of this school's music programme, to tackle such a work, and to play with such panache.

This is what a well supported state school can do; and I'm just so proud to be part of this community of musicians.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It's spring, but I'm sick

There is a very nasty cold doing the rounds of my family, friends and workplace, to which I have now succumbed. It's described as having a kick in the tail, as it tends to come back and back. Joel's gone a couple of rounds with it; and I have spent much of the last week in bed. For the first few days I must have been a bit feverish, as my skin felt it was made of hot paper. I still feel I have to drink gallons of water a day just to stay three-dimensional.

On Thursday I managed to get out of bed and assembled myself to go to the Lyceum club, to give a talk on Women and the Order of the Garter. I excused myself from the lunch, fearing I would use all my voice up in conversation, and have nothing left for the lecture, but this was such a shame, as the women I did meet after the talk were all really interesting. It's a beautiful club. I'd been there at night, but during the day the lounges were flooded with natural light. I was speaking to the History Circle, but there are lots of other groups and activities within the club. I can see all kinds of reasons for having a women's club; and this one has an extraordinary location tucked away in the heart of the city. Its walls are covered with original artworks; its tables with fresh flowers; and its plates with lovely food.

I was sorry I wasn't feeling better, though. I would have liked to make more of an effort with my ... toilette: the best I could do was make sure I had an embroidered handkerchief instead of a clutch of tissues. My friend Paula came along for support and I was so pleased she did, but again, I was sorry I wasn't in a more performative mode. Adrenaline got me out of bed and onto the tram, and up behind the lectern, but I would have loved to have been able to present my talk with a bit more oomph, especially for Paula to see. We have a mutual friend who's been much in the news lately through his leadership of the Australian team working on the Large Hadron Collider, and so I've been thinking again about what happens when our research meets the community, and how hard it is to explain technical research to a general audience.

And I might have anticipated something of this kind in such an environment, but after my talk, I was introduced to the wife of a Garter Knight! A reminder I must try and set up an interview with the man himself.

Anyway, the talk just about did for me, and I spent most of yesterday back in bed. This morning I determined to start building up energy again, and pushed myself to do about half of my usual walk along the river. When I got to Ceres, though, I was feeling a bit faint, so I lay down on the bench to recover my strength. I was nearly home again when I realised my keys had dropped out of my pocket, so I had to go back for them, and ended up doing a huge walk. The trouble is, my cold has now gone down to the bottom of my lungs, which now make a dreadful crackling sound when I cough. It also hurts, as I think I've pulled a muscle in my coughing. I've said I'll be back at work next week, but that might be a bit optimistic. I'm a great believer in not spreading disease around the workplace...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

How this face-blindness thing works

Ok, so this is what happens.

I'm in the changing room on campus, about to head out to my weekly tennis game with Alison, Denise and Clara. I hear two women come in, and identify them from their voices as Denise and Alison. Two women come around the corner and I greet Denise cheerily and smile politely at the unknown woman. 'Oh!' I think, 'Denise has brought someone new to play with'. And then of course I realise it is Alison.

There are some reasons for this misrecognition, however. Before her chemotherapy, Alison used to have gorgeous long, shiny, straight dark red hair. After her hair fell out, she wore a wig that looked exactly like her hair, but for tennis she wore a little cap over her slowly re-growing hair. So I knew it had grown out curly, though no longer shiny dark red in colour. But she had, as she explained, 'come out' as a cancer patient, and was now wearing her curls clipped and coloured a beautiful pearly blonde, and so I did not recognise her, even though (a) I was expecting to see her; (b) I had heard her voice; and (c) I knew she had short curly hair. To cover my embarassment, I found myself explaining the concept of face-blindness. It was only a second or two of misrecognition, but it was obvious that I was greeting one woman as a friend and the other as a stranger. Awkward, especially as the attention should have been on Alison's new look, not my mild cognitive impairment.

Alison also told me one of her students complimented her on her hair, and said, 'Did you have that done for cancer?' Alison hadn't been particularly public about her illness, but thinking she was going to have to face lots of these queries, said, 'yes'. But then it became clear that the student thought Alison had cut or coloured her hair in support of cancer research.

And so we all go on, half-understanding each other, half-recognising each other, and only half thinking about other people.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Teaching. You're doing something right ...

... when your students leave the room singing.

This week in my honours seminar I taught several extracts from Froissart's Chronicles of the 100 Years' War: the battle of Crécy and the siege of Calais. It came in between The Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, which we start next week — four or five weeks that are usually the highlight of my teaching year.

We were all horribly struck, though, by Froissart's comments about Edward wanting to re-populate Calais with English blood. (I don't have my text in front of me, so can't quote.) I hadn't really thought of Edward as engaged in ethnic cleansing, but there it was.

However, even after this gruesome thought, as we were all packing up and leaving the ridiculously large room (there are nine enrolled students and one auditing/co-teaching graduate student), I distinctly heard one, and possibly another, singing.

I always associate singing with good cheer. It's typically a sign that Joel is better after being sick, for example, when I hear him singing around the house. At that sign, my mother's heart just releases that locked-up anxiety that surrounds a sick child.

He is home today, as it happens, with a barking cough; looking unaccustomedly pale and wan. So it'll be soup for lunch and lots of tea. I'll just put the kettle on now.