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!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

Pavlov's Cat has a To Do list for this very hot New Year's Eve in south-eastern Australia. Top of her list is "Pull oneself together," which made me laugh.

Things aren't quite that bad over this-a-way, but my list is not dissimilar.

I've made one batch of oyster pies; one more to go. Last night I made a crab mousse, a summer pudding and an enormous dish of tira-mi-su. Paul is cooking up an absolute storm: just keeps coming up with one amazing-sounding dish after another. This afternoon I'll be rolling bits of bacon around prunes for devils on horseback, and providing cold drinks to the "band" practice: bass, lead guitar, drums and J on keyboards. They know each other pretty well, and some of them have played and jammed with some of the others before in school and other groups; and the drummer has already cut his first CD with another band. Even if it's a little rough around ththe edges, it'll be so nice to have live music.

We've been doing a new year's eve party for ten years now (though we skipped during the summer of radiotherapy in 2006). We have it pretty much down to a fine art. The tables and plates and glasses are all out; lights are being hung around the garden, and I'll float little candles in the fishpond so long as the howling winds don't make it impossible. It's 34 already, and they are predicting 38 in Melbourne before a change comes through with thunderstorms. So we might end up inside.

OK, back to the kitchen; and cleaning up the laundry: somehow I don't think I'm going to get to the ironing today.

And... a Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Screening the Past is Live

Regular readers may remember a series of posts in May and June this year, in which I solicited assistance with an essay on the representation of stained glass in medievalist cinema. I'm grateful to all those who wrote in with ideas and suggestions, and who commented on the fragments of the essay I posted on the blog.

I'm pleased to say the essay has been uploaded today, on the excellent Melbourne journal, from La Trobe University: Screening the Past. This is a fully refereed (and for Australians, an A* ranked) online journal. It is part of a special issue, on Early Europe, edited by the indefatigable Louise D'Arcens, whose introduction, "Screening Early Europe: Premodern Projections," would be worth the price of admission alone, except — wait for it — there's no charge. But honestly, this woman has an enviable knack of bringing people together and making excellent things happen. I'm so lucky to get to collaborate with her on this, and at least two other projects.

Anyway, the beauty of online publication is that little changes and corrections can still be made. So if you should get as far as my essay, and then get as far as the second footnote, and feel you would prefer to be mentioned, or not mentioned, or mentioned by some other name, do please let me know as soon as possible.

Because it's the night before the last day of my leave and the last day before our three day Christmas feast begins, I haven't yet had the chance to do more than skim the other essays, but for the record, I got terrifically helpful readers' reports for this essay, and I'm confident this will turn out to be a very important collection. I heard a version of the fabulous Adrian Martin's talk at the postgraduate masterclass that was the starting-point for this collection: it was great to see a cinema specialist coming to visit the medievalists, just as we have repaid the visit in this screen studies journal. Well, something to look forward to, anyway, when I get a chance to sit down and read them properly.

Here's a list of contents: sorry, no links...

Louise D’Arcens: Screening Early Europe: Premodern Projections.

Adrian Martin: The Long Path Back: Medievalism and Film.

Stephanie Trigg: Transparent Walls: Stained Glass and Cinematic Medievalism.

Anke Bernau: Suspended Animation: Myth, Memory and History in Beowulf.

Sylvia Kershaw and Laurie Ormond: “We are the Monsters Now”: The Genre Medievalism of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf.

Robert Sinnerbrink: From Mythic History to Cinematic Poetry: Terrence Malick’s The New World Viewed.

Helen Dell: Music for Myth and Fantasy in Two Arthurian Films.

Narelle Campbell: Medieval Reimaginings: Female Knights in Children’s Television.

Louise D’Arcens: Iraq, the Prequel(s): Historicising Military Occupation and Withdrawal in Kingdom of Heaven and 300.

Christina Loong: Reel Medici Mobsters? The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance Reassessed.

Laura Ginters: “A Continuous Return”: Tristan and Isolde, Wagner, Hollywood and Bill Viola.

Appendix: Raúl Ruiz: Three Thrusts at Excalibur.

I'd love to know what you made of any of these essays.

Rusty and Cate do Robin and Marion

Apart from Cate looking particularly beautiful in dark brown hair, is there anything about this trailer that suggests any new, or different kind of Robin Hood? Or are there now so many television and movie versions that each new one now appears in relation to the others as if it were simply a new installment in a long running television series?

[Ed. I'm removing that link because it keeps playing as soon as I open the blog: I find there are only so many horses' hooves that make a bearable accompaniment to everyday life... I'm sure it's easy to track down.]

Monday, December 21, 2009

Something to look forward to: the modern medieval

Here's a schedule, with abstracts, for a symposium in beautiful Perth next month. It'll be hot – and fabulous! All welcome.

UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

The modern medieval: a one-day symposium

Old Senate Room, Irwin St Building, UWA.

Thursday, January 28, 2010.

What do Australian parliamentary ritual, heritage tourism, fantasy fiction and cinema, and modernist poetry have in common? Answer: the middle ages.  The relation of contemporary culture to the medieval period keeps transforming itself at every level from the popular to the highbrow, with surprising results.  In this one-day seminar, a group of distinguished international scholars will examine what the middle ages mean to the modern world, and how we make that meaning.

All interested are welcome to attend. There is no charge. For catering purposes, please RSVP to Pam Bond, pam.bond@uwa.edu.au; phone: 6488 3858.

For enquiries, please contact Andrew Lynch, andrew.lynch@uwa.edu.au; phone: 6488 2185.


28 January, 2010

9.15 am: Coffee and welcome

9.30 am
Seeta Chaganti (University of California, Davis) 

Wild Surmise: Medieval studies and the realms of history and poetry.

For medievalists, the relationship between studying poetic form and studying history has always been complicated. On the one hand, as Lee Patterson has argued, formalist criticism always contained within itself the seeds of new historicism. On the other hand, practices of formalist and historicist reading can find themselves at odds with each other for various reasons. Privileging literary form is sometimes seen as hegemonic, and such conservatism can run counter to the Marxist-inflected historical analysis in which new historicism is rooted. In addition, as Gabrielle Spiegel has noted, because historicist study tends to absorb history into textuality (so that diverse kinds of historical evidence are all treated as interlinked symbolic systems), the particular forms that texts take are vulnerable to occlusion.  In this paper, I address this uneasy relationship between history and poetry in medieval studies, suggesting ways in which poetics and poetic form unexpectedly reveal themselves in visual and material aspects of medieval culture. I argue that by looking outside the realm of textuality, whether toward aesthetic objects or nonverbal performances like dance, we can ultimately derive a fuller sense of what the poetic meant in the Middle Ages, and what kind of work poetic form did.

10.30: Morning tea

 Laurie Ormond (UWA):
Fantasy fiction and the individual claim on cultural memory

It is a commonplace that the medievalism invoked in works of contemporary fantasy fiction has been uncoupled from historical context. There is pleasure for the fantasy reader in recognizing the past, but such recognition occurs through the reader’s appreciation of the adaptation and transformation of ‘traditional’ material. Many elements of European cultural memory that might be associated with the communal or even the national are refocused in fantasy fiction through the individual, emotional experiences of its protagonists. Indeed, fantasy fiction sharpens its focus on individual development around a character who is exceptional; exceptionally magical, exceptionally gifted, exceptionally persecuted, exceptionally questioning of his or her culture.  Following the work of Jane Tolmie, I will investigate how the ‘exceptionality’ of the protagonist constructs ideas of the medieval past.

Within fantasy fiction, 'the past' is experienced as something that necessitates exceptionality in the protagonist.  There is an element of otherness to the past even when it is experienced, in the logic of the fantasy novel, as the present. A critique of the medievalist past is usually focused through gender, in such a way that the medieval experience is claimed as it is rejected. The heroes and heroines of fantasy fiction seem to reflect the readers’ desire to inhabit a medievalist fantasy and yet to challenge it at the same time. The utterly contemporary nature of fantasy fiction’s presentation of an oppressive, dualistic, sexually paranoid past, and the tension in the novels between a desire to inhabit and to condemn this imagined past, seem to me to be revealing about present attitudes in medievalism towards gender and patriarchy.

11.30- 12.00:
Sylvia Kershaw (UWA)
 The Gaiman/Zemeckis Beowulf

Robert Zemeckis' 2007 film Beowulf presents itself not as an adaption of the Anglo-Saxon poem, but as a creative rediscovery of emotional and psychological truths that have been obscured by the original source. Zemeckis' film performs a dual transformation of the epic narrative of Beowulf, presenting it simultaneously as a modern story and a 'timeless' myth. This paper examines some of the effects of this transformation, particularly with regard to the film's approach to gender.   

Zemeckis' film constructs 'myth' as simultaneously more ancient and more modern than 'literature,' as a pattern that maintains a presence in the present. The transformation of Beowulf into 'myth' encourages a reading practice that, to some extent, naturalizes ideas of gender and heroism that underlie particular film-genre conventions. Perhaps too the medieval setting provides a space where such 'essential' ideas of gender, heroism, and monstrosity do not seem out of place to a modern audience, where they seem in fact to be 'appropriate.' This discussion will examine some of the ways in which the medievalism of Zemeckis' Beowulf has been constructed through the conventions and expectations of popular genre, and, in turn, the ways in which its appeal to the medieval exposes some of the desires embedded in popular forms. 

12.00-1.00 pm
Chris Jones (St Andrews)

‘Wordum wrixlan’: modern poets reading Old English

Beowulf presents us with an image of an Anglo-Saxon poet composing, we are told that the poet began 'wordum wrixlan', 'to vary or alter the words'. Scholars have sometimes seen in this detail a glimpse into the workings of a poetic culture that is, at least residually, partly oral-formulaic in character; the poet appears to take pre-existing poems and alter their words in order to create a new work to suit his circumstances of composition. The 'Beowulf'-poet's image of Old English poetic practice also provides us with an analogy for thinking about how modern poets have made use of early English poetry as a resource for their own compositions, taking pre-existing Old English poetry as a starting-point in order to 'wordum wrixlan'. This illustrated reading will provide a 'tour' of modern poets who use Old English in their own work, and will include readings of work by characters such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney among others. The session will also provide commentary on the types of use being made of Old English, accessible to non-specialists as well as specialists. It will be shown that Old English remains a contemporary part of the living English poetic tradition.

1.00-2.00 pmLunch.

2.00-3.20 pm
Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne)

The traditional, the quaint and the medieval in Australian parliamentary practice

In 2004, Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate in the Australian federal parliament, gave a paper, “The traditional, the quaint and the useful: pitfalls of reforming parliamentary procedures.” In this paper he explored the deep affection in the parliament for many of its traditional rituals, regardless of their relationship to legislative or constitutional reality. “There comes a stage,” he wrote, “when the traditional and the quaint may not only conceal or repudiate substantial legislative values, but simply overwhelm them and bury them in such a pile of tradition and quaintness that they can scarcely be exhumed.”

This paper explores the medieval component of many parliamentary rituals and traditions, especially the offices of the Serjeant and the Usher of the Black Rod, and their accompanying instruments of authority: the Mace and the Black Rod itself. What is the relation between the medievalism of such practices and the idea of “tradition?” and how do we encode the “traditional,” the “medieval” and the “quaint” in Australia? The paper will also interrogate the changing role of the medieval at different moments of parliamentary reform in Australia.

I will suggest that modern parliaments perpetually define themselves against tradition, which is coded as predominantly medieval.

Louise D’Arcens (University of Wollongong)

Laughing at the Past: Satire and Nostalgia in Medieval Heritage Tourism

Satire and nostalgia would seem to imply opposing attitudes to the medieval past: one laughs at it, the other longs for it. And yet they operate within a shared cross-temporal frame, in which past and present are made to pass comment on one another. So is medievalist satire just a form of crypto-nostalgia? Does it increase or contain our sense of nostalgic distance from the Middle Ages? How does nostalgia function as a tool of satire? Can we laugh at the Middle Ages and long for them at the same time? These and other questions will be explored in relation to a range of satirical medievalist strategies used within heritage tourism in its attempt to make us laugh at the Middle Ages … or perhaps at ourselves.

3.20-3.50 pm Afternoon Tea

Panel discussion: Making the modern medieval

The old locked trunk in the attic

How will it get there? Take a boy, a messy bedroom, and a friend who is having a clear-out as she moves house. She gives the old trunk to the boy, and he fills it with toys and games he no longer uses: old note books, perhaps, and comics? Intrigued to have something that locks, he locks it. Several years later, as he is, himself, having a clear-out of sorts, he realises he has (a) lost the key, and (b) forgotten exactly what's in the trunk.

I'm reluctant to force open the lock: it's a beautiful old trunk. It's just possible we will move it upstairs to the storage space in the roof behind our bedroom. It will go nicely with the boxes and boxes of Lego that have recently been moved up there, boxes into which J has tucked a note to his future self: a kind of time capsule.

And there — voilà! — we will have our very own old locked trunk in the attic.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How to Become a Saint. Australian Medievalism #456

Some circles in Australia have become awfully excited about the prospect of our first saint, and it seems the final condition has now been met, with the declaration of Mary McKillop's second miracle (it takes two, apparently). The first was a cure from leukemia in 1961; now a woman in the Hunter Valley's prayers to Mother Mary have been certified as curing her cancer in the mid 90s. The report says, "The approved miracle ... had to be scientifically and theologically assessed before it was decreed by the Vatican." An announcement of her sanctity is expected from the Vatican next year.

I would have liked to hear a little more about this assessment process. Was it a joint committee? Did the same conditions have to be met by each body of experts? Apparently the woman in question does not yet wish to be identified. So her testimony has been taken over by the professionals, institutionalised and certified, and lifted out of the possibility of personal witness.

I guess this is similar to the medieval process, where miracles similarly had to be declared or authenticated by the church. I don't know enough to know if doctors were involved then as well. But I'm pretty sure that witnesses didn't often have, or want, the option of anonymity.

Mary's intercession apparently also played an important role in the recent successful separation of conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in Melbourne, the survival of burns and car crash toddler Sophie Delezio, and the awakening from his seven-month coma of David Keohane, the Irish backpacker who was assaulted in Sydney. So that's good to know...

She was also known as an educator, establishing her first school in Penola, South Australia. I've been there twice: most recently on a road trip with some medievalists (some Catholic, some not). The Mary McKillop centre did seem, indeed, as if it was in suspension, just waiting for some news... My companions and I walked carefully through the question of religion: it can be a sensitive issue for medievalists.

But here's a funny section from the report in The Age:
Former Pentridge Prison chaplain Father Peter Norden said he was ''very pleased and happy to celebrate the fact that recognition is given for Mary, that it's a woman chosen for sainthood." ... "Even though many would view nuns as creatures of the past, we see the earnest goodness in the way in which she lived and dealt with adversity and met challenges,'' he said.
Well, Mother Mary died in 1909, so yes, she was indeed a "creature" of the past, though I suspect Father Norden really means something more like "medieval", or "not-modern" here. Do others find a bit of a back-hander here, though? He's pleased that it's a woman who's been chosen, but nuns — creatures — belong in the past? A little unconscious condescension here, I can't help but feel.

Update: Helen's sent me this photo, taken a few kilometres away up near St Vincent's in Brunswick St. So she's really a local Fitzroy saint as well...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What do we think?

I felt it was time for a change. The retro styling of the "Scribe" template was starting to get me down, and I'm getting ready for a new year, so I've renovated to one of my favourite colour combinations (the eerie pale green you sometimes see on the horizon at dusk set against stormy grey clouds). I don't remember the name of this town, but I snapped this photograph somewhere between Vicenza and Marostica on our Italian cycling holiday in September. Joel had stopped to sketch the view, and Paul took out his mighty weight of a camera, and I just snapped this and went back to day-dreaming.

The times are about to change, a little, too. My leave is about to come to an end, and I'm about to take over as head of the English program (it's not even called a department any more). I'll have many more administrative chores to do, less teaching, no extra money, and almost no authority, from what I can see. I've been sent the (very short) list of staff email addresses, and after New Year will have to become dreadfully firm and authoritative (though see above, about not having any authority).

I certainly haven't finished all the things I thought I'd do over my leave (setting aside the fact that half of it was meant to be holidays), but I've done quite a few of them, and have pushed various projects along a fair way. I'll post about them soon.

There's still a little cleaning up to be done to the template, here, and some additions to the blogroll, etc. but I have spent long enough on this today, and must turn to some other tasks. Feedback welcome...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Want freshly-laid 100% free range eggs you collect yourself?

For about fifteen years now, we've been members of a co-operative chook group at Ceres, the environmental park in Brunswick. The principle is simple: a group of fourteen households take it in turns, one day a fortnight, to let the chickens out in the morning, feed and water them; then return at sunset to lock them in securely against the foxes, and take home the eggs the chickens have laid that day. The chickens roam around under the fruit trees all day, doing what chickens are meant to do. Then once a month (first Sunday) there's a working bee when all the households gather together to muck out the sheds, distribute the poo over the garden or take it home, line the permaculture sheds with a fresh layer of garden mulch, and generally carry out maintenance on the shed or the gardens. We then have a pot of billy tea around the open fire and have a meeting. All the members are also members of Ceres.

There's a surprising degree of satisfaction in painting a chicken perch with lime, or spreading mulch in an orchard in a relay team of wheelbarrows and pitchforks. Yes, it's just once a month, and a far cry from real farming, but still. Sometimes we've incubated and hatched the next flock of baby chicks, too, at home, which is an amazing thing to do.

The group can't afford to buy organic feed, but we supplement grains and pellets with household scraps, bread and greens scavenged from local bakers and greengrocers. The eggs are smooth and incredibly fresh, with golden yolks. They come with bits of feathers and straw stuck on them. They come in different sizes, too: big and brown or small and sometimes greenish (there's an arakuna strain in the mix so we sometimes have chicks with fluffy heads; and I think these lay the pale green eggs).

Anyway, there is a vacancy for a Friday slot, so if you think this might be fun, email me and I'll give you the contact details for Bryan, the co-ordinator. You can follow this link on the Ceres page, but don't contact Don, the past co-ordinator, as he's in hospital recovering from a motorbike accident...

It should be said that Ceres is in process of radical change at the moment, and the relationship between the management group and the chicken group is currently being re-negotiated. The main point of tension is — unsurprisingly — land. Ceres needs to generate more of a profit, and a number of folk think the chook group "has too much land," but in fact, we use almost the perfect amount that our size flock of chickens requires to be classed as "free range." To see them roaming around under the apple trees, or digging little holes for dustbaths, or rummaging around for insects is to be reminded of the contrast with most modern farming practices. If you're going to eat meat (and members of the group have very different opinions on this), at least let it be prepared humanely.

Well, let me know if you'd like to join, or go on the waiting list for a future vacancy. Kids are welcome, of course.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Teenage Sparklie Vampire Lolcats

An irresistible re-reading (courtesy Kerryn) ...


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Saving the rainforest 6.0m2 at a time: am I crazy?

I've just installed the green search engine, Ecosia, on my computer (and the fetching green movie in the side-bar, but tell me if this is going to get annoying). The idea is that in partnership with Yahoo, Bing (never heard of 'em) and the WWF, this search engine generates money that saves Brazilian rainforest. I've done my first search (for my own name, naturally), and my browser window tells me cheerily I just save 6.0m2 of rainforest by doing so. Can this be possible? Surely there's some catch?

Most interesting is that they say they power their searches only by using green power. All web searches use tremendous amounts of power, and if I were really serious about this, I'd probably make a concerted effort to perform fewer searches.

Has anyone heard anything about this? Is my green good will being exploited here?

Friday, December 04, 2009

In Praise of Public Education

A few days ago the excellent (rather, the honourable) Michael Kirby, former justice of the high court), gave a speech at Melbourne High school's speech night. I heard part of it on the radio the next morning, especially the bit in favour of public education in this country. Kirby said we should all blog and twitter in support of public education.

So here's my contribution.

Over the last week or so I've been to two school music concerts. The first was a cabaret organised by the parent-teacher liaison at Joel's school: parents loaned rice-cookers and a dedicated team cooked up wonderful curries to serve at the school canteen. The weather had been wild that afternoon, but we were able to sit outside and watch as the kids performed. I've written about the school's music before. What I loved on this night was to see the music staff up there on stage with the kids, playing along with them. And, when the parent who was going to MC the event had to withdraw at the last minute, and when Joel offered his services, there was not a moment's hesitation, and he was given the running sheet and complete freedom to compere. And his parents and friends all thought he was terrific, naturally...

Special praise for the year 8 student, Susie, who sang "Stormy Weather" with passion and verve, and the wonderful multi-talented Lena (trumpet, clarinet [and either trombone or saxophone, possibly both], who, sadly for the school, is leaving this year.

Then this week, one of the music teachers had organised an evening at Penny Black, a cafe in Brunswick. It began with the brilliant Claudia (year 10?) singing "I Heard it on the Grapevine" with great gusto and strength out in front of a band of about 16 musicians: keyboards, guitars, drumkit, and a fabulous brass section.

The school is stronger with jazz and swing and Latin ensembles than it is in orchestral terms: and the string ensembles can't compete in energy and numbers, though I like their ambitions (Barber's Adagio, for example). But the vocal performances are the most amazing to me: one after another kid — mostly girls - just stood up and sang, often quite difficult material. They don't always move with much confidence; and some struggle to perform the song's emotions. But they still blow me away. The kids are also encouraged to improvise and jam; so they have a wonderful facility with different styles.

This year one of J's electives has been a kind of music master class, where amongst other things, they were put into groups and asked to choose, arrange and perform a couple of numbers. Joel's group was a little diminished in size on Thursday night, so they just did one song: Tom Waits' "New Coat of Paint", with J on keyboard and vocals, sharing the stage with two close friends — Lenny, on scorching guitar solo; and the adorable Meg on lead vocals — as well as a couple of others. Oh, I did think it went very quickly. But it was lovely to hear these friends singing together: "You'll wear a dress; and I'll wear a tie".

I'm sure Australian Idol has played no small part in investing these young performers with a sense of what's possible, and what works when you stand in front of an audience to perform. But there was something magical about seeing them in a live, commercial venue, even if the entire audience was comprised of the school community. So while I understand this school is one of the better government schools, it still shows what is possible with energy and enthusiasm. And while I understand that not everyone in the school feels this way, there is an undoubted core of love for and identification with the school amongst its community: without badge or uniform to bind them together, and without the idea of financial investment in the young.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

They look happy, don't they?

Kym Smith of The Australian took this wonderful photo of members of the Liberal party witnessing their new leader's first press conference.

Good to see him uniting the party in a new era of joy and love so successfully...

For non-Australian readers: the Liberal opposition yesterday dumped the leader who was trying to force acceptance of the Government's piss-weak emissions trading scheme legislation. They've replaced him with a rearguard conservative who's "united" a divided party to vote down the legislation in the Senate today. What ho for the two female Liberal senators — Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce — who crossed the floor to vote with the government, though.

A little triumph

Yesterday I did something odd to my computer desktop (I have to admit I've never properly conceptualised the icon of the little house in OS X) with the result, as I realised several hours later, that I lost all the emails and folders from Entourage, which kept opening up in an empty window asking me to create a new identity. Much of my stuff was still available from the web interface, but in a really tricky and unfriendly format.

Can I just say how pleased I am that after several attempts to re-load everything back into its rightful place, I succeeded? Incredible.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas is coming...

It's a bit late — in Melbourne you are apparently supposed to do this around Cup Day — but it's still November, at least, and I am half-way through assembling my Christmas puddings. I really do need a proper camera, but this shot from the phone will have to do: that might look like a teaspoon, but it's a full-size dessertspoon, placed to give you an idea of the size of this mass of raisins, currants, sultanas, cherries, ginger, citrus peel, apricot, peach and prunes soaked in port, the whole pile soaking in brandy. It is extremely delicious. Almost a shame to go to the next stage, really.

This picture is brought to you courtesy of Bluetooth, which I learned over the weekend in a fabulous paper by the excellent Kim Wilkins at a terrific medievalism conference is named after King Harald Blatand (Bluetooth).

From their website:

Bluetooth started as the code name for the association when it was first formed and the name stuck. The name "Bluetooth" is from the 10th century Danish King Harald Blatand - or Harold Bluetooth in English. King Blatand was instrumental in uniting warring factions in parts of what are now Norway, Sweden, and Denmark - just as Bluetooth technology is designed to allow collaboration between differing industries such as the computing, mobile phone, and automotive markets.
Apparently the Bluetooth logo spells the name runically.... So there you go: tenth-century Danes providing a model of communications harmony.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Great Minds of the 21st Century

Further to my last post, I can't help feeling this latest invitation — for inclusion in the Great Minds of the 21st Century — might have something to do with my name having fallen into some database, whence I will never be able to retrieve it. Do they think we are made of money? This one offers a medal, a luxury keepsake edition of the volume, and a commemorative plaque, for a grand total of US $1300.

But how's this for a lure? "Great minds are like meteors, they glitter and are consumed to enlighten the world." Gosh. I wonder if I've been consumed yet? And if not, how will I know?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

International Educator of the Year

... is a title to which I have never aspired. But it seems I have been nominated for this "hand-crafted and prestigious Award". Sounds odd? Read on.

My mail box — email and pigeonhole — regularly receives notice of such nominations. Some of them seem legitimate. I've never checked the Who's Who of Australian Women but apparently I'm in it — or will be soon. I've certainly never forked out the money to the various organisations with more or less prestigious signifiers in their title — Princeton, Guinness — though I do know one colleague who very soon regretted giving her credit card details to one such. And in these days where your grant application is measured by your citations, who can blame him/her?

But this one takes the cake, I think. It's from the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, England, and features an outline of King's College Chapel on its letterhead. It doesn't say how many people have been nominated, or when the award will finally be made; just that I've been selected as "one of a very limited number of individuals" to receive this accolade which "is bound to raise your status significantly in the international community."

Blah blah blah... I guess there must really be individuals or institutions for whom this would work the required social magic of authority. But what I really love about this is that for a mere US $325 each, I can buy (1) a full colour pictorial testimonial; (2) an official gold-gilt medal of excellence; and best of all (3) a "hand-finished official sash of office."
This silken sash, with golden tassels, has been commissioned by the IBC and is hand-finished by Toye, Kenning and Spencer, makers of Official Regalia worldwide. It is woven in a luxurious Blue and has the Legend of the IBC along with the words INTERNATIONAL EDUCATOR OF THE YEAR embroidered in a golden thread. The recipient's name will be added to the Sash below the Legend.
Oh yes, I can just see me turning up to the Vice-Chancellor's Christmas lunch wearing my sash. Sorry, my sash of office.

But don't you think it's a little uncanny this is sent to the person who writes on Wynnere and Wastoure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter, when all these texts feature sashes or girdles or belts and embroidery in gold and blue or green? Oh, and Ned Kelly, who wore the green and gold sash he received as a boy, for saving a drowning boy, to the fatal siege at Glenrowan? Or is it just that the symbolism and textile luxury of a sash of honour are further examples of the afterlife of conspicuous medieval consumption? Wonder if the girls in the Miss Universe contest have to pay $325 for their sashes?

What's that blue thing in the pond?

Little routines before settling to work involve stepping out into the garden to feed the fish. But what's that blue thing that looks like a ball or a toy that's fallen in? Oh! it's the head of a rainbow lorrikeet that has somehow fallen into the water. I don't have a working camera, so here's a picture from the web.

I pick up the bird. It's still warm, but clearly dead. Its colours are extraordinary and detailed; its black and green tail feathers elegantly splayed. I turn it over. Its belly is delicately speckled: each feather seems to have several different colours of flame and autumn leaf and blue sky. How did this poor creature come to this untimely end?

Hmm. Last night when I was bringing in the washing, I saw four large black crows in the lemon-scented gum, which the lorrikeets also like. Is this a territorial war in my back garden?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What is Wrong with This Picture ...

... when the teenager stays at home re-arranging his room and doing his music practice while his parents go out to see the new teenage sparklie vampire love storie movie. The movie was washed down with a bag of mixed lollies and some tall glasses of Westgarth's finest sangria. As Chaucer says, "This ys absolutelie the beste teenage sparklie vampyre love storye ich haue evir reade" and the same goes for the movies, too. I've now read the last two books and seen the first two movies, and so while I can't quite remember what happens in Volume 3, I think I have a reasonable grasp of the entire sorry trajectory.

I say "sorry", because although in the first movie I was completely entranced by the brooding mystery of Edward, this movie reminded me that I don't really like vampires very much, despite what Chaucer describes as the "fayre skyn and fashion-sprede slow-mocioun hotenesse of the Cu Chulainn clan, the which have all eaten long ago of the magical Irisshe Salmon of Really Good Hair (oon byte of this magical salmon and ye shal have good hair for evir)."

There's been an awful lot written and said about Stephanie Meyer being a Mormon, and the programmatic chastity of the Twilight sage: no sex — or becoming a vampire — until you are married. Again, I'll quote Maister Chaucer (who's proving himself a most adept textual and cultural critic), when he remarks, "Ther is considerablie moore sexual tensioun than in Piers Plowman."  This is undeniably true. But there's something disturbing, and I would have thought rather un-Mormony about the idea that you might well have a soul; but that you would willingly destroy it for love. I can see romance fiction not being bothered with the idea of a soul, but once you invoke that metaphysic, don't you have to do something with it? Not easy, of course: and even Philip Pullman, for all his brilliance, couldn't quite bring it all off. If Meyer — and the films — get away with invoking the idea of a soul as a plot device, but countenancing perpetual everlasting romantic love and sexual desire and a prodigious child as sufficient compensation for its loss, it's not in any easy agreement with any model of Christianity I'm familiar with.

So the easy dismissive reading of Meyer — that she is somehow cynically exploiting teenage desires to push a Mormon model of sexual restraint— seems to me rather a thin one. Or perhaps it's true that for this religion, morality is more important than spirituality.

But where do we put it?

It's been raining all night. The gutters on the shed out the back are overflowing, but it's too wet to get up on the roof and clear them out. The two big water tanks are full. There are little runnels in the gravel path where rain is running out into the street. The upstairs windows are almost clean. The ponds are full to the brim. It's still raining, and the little frog is unaccustomedly croaking in the morning. The creek will be full and the bike paths flooded.

But now that all possible receptacles for water are full, what do we do with the stuff that keeps coming down? After training ourselves to use less and less, and to save every drop, it seems like a shocking waste. The bucket in the shower? I'm going to have to pour the water down the drain. Guess we just hope it's falling into the catchments, now. I bet I won't be the only one checking the dam storage levels when they're updated this afternoon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pressing "send"

Had you been close to my house ten minutes ago, you would have heard a loud "squeak". That was the sound of me pressing "Send" as I sent off the first six chapters of my book on the Order of the Garter to the very patient editor at the big US press I hope will publish this book. We've never signed a contract to publish, which was a good idea as I would never have met a deadline, and it would have just been a source of stress (as I'm writing this post, I can see in the email "progress" window that a quarter of the ms. has now been sent).

The deal is that these chapters can now go out to be read, while I finish the last, a third of which is drafted.

There are many stages to go, of course. If the reports are positive, I hope we'll then sign a contract; and while I secretly hope and believe the readers will think it's perfect as it is, there will certainly be changes to make. Then there's final approval, copy-editing (half of the message has now gone), tracking down of permissions for images, checking, and cross-checking of references, compilation of bibliography and all the rest of it.

Still, this is a big day: the first, very big milestone on the last stretch towards completion.

What am I going to do now?

I'm going to go outside and feed the goldfish, then come back in and work on a grant application for an hour or so. And then tonight, I am going to see this. How's that for timing?

And how's this? Entourage has just played its little chimes: message SENT.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flirting with a Handkerchief

In a poem of 1620, Richard Johnson attributes the Honi soit qui mal y pense motto to the queen of France, in his “Gallant Song of the Garter of England.” When her garter falls during a feast, the snickering courtiers seem to accuse her of dropping it deliberately to attract the king’s attention, so it is actually the queen who coins the motto in their reproof:

But when she heard these ill conceits
And speeches that they made,
Hony soyt qui mal y pens,
                        the noble Princes said.
Ill hap to them that evill thinke,
In English it is thus
Which words so wise (quoth Englands King)
                                   shall surely goe with us …

This reminds me of those stupid scenes in Mickey Mouse-vintage cartoons, where a simpering female character would drop her lace handkerchief in front of a male she wanted to attract. He is supposed, gallantly, to return it, and thus start a conversation. 

My question is this: what's the oldest known reference to this kind of behaviour? I did a quick google search and found an allusion, but it was a website selling a C19 French lace handkerchief. http://www.rubylane.com/shops/nicole-la-bay/item/1208LAC: 

At a time when women were not allowed to talk to a stranger, handkerchiefs were literally a means of communication, as ladies would drop these precious pieces of lace on the sidewalk, whenever they wanted to attract the attention of a gentleman.
Gentlemen were of course extremely flattered to pick them up and give them back to their owners.
I've no idea if this is just made up or refers to a "real" C19 practice. So, dear readers, from your wide reading in history, fiction, poetry, textile history, etc., can you think of any examples? I guess Johnson's poem suggests an early suspicion of feminine wiles, but it's the handkerchief that has become the iconic object here. But since when?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Australian undergraduate essay prize: Medieval and Early Modern Studies

A note about a neat essay prize open to Australian undergraduate students...

National Undergraduate Essay Competition 2009: Medieval and Early Modern Studies

The UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (CMEMS) is sponsoring a National Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS) Undergraduate Essay Competition in 2009.

The Competition will recognise and encourage excellence in the MEMS area of study at the undergraduate level. The writer of the winning essay will be presented with a $1000 cash prize at an award ceremony at UWA; be offered a two-week research-intensive internship with CMEMS; and be invited to present their essay as part of a CMEMS seminar. Financial assistance with travel and accommodation will be provided where required.

The judging panel will be made up of three CMEMS senior academic staff members, representing different MEMS-related disciplines. Essays will be submitted to the judging panel anonymously. The judges¹ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into concerning the correctness of their decision.

The Competition is open to students enrolled full time or part time in an undergraduate degree in an Australian university, who:
* are undertaking the second or third year level of their degree in 2009,
* enrolled in a unit during 2009 relevant to medieval and early modern studies,
* are available to spend two weeks at UWA at a time to be negotiated.

The Essay:
Students who meet the eligibility requirements are invited to submit an essay:
* of between 3000 and 5000 words on a medieval or early modern topic (defined for this purpose as being between the 5th and 18th centuries).
* The essay may be, or be based on, an essay submitted as part of the student's current course of study, or it may be written specifically for the competition.
* All primary and secondary sources used in preparing the entry must be acknowledged using an appropriate citation system. A bibliography must be included.

The Rules:

Submitting An Entry:
Before submitting their essay, students should ensure they adhere to the
following requirements-:
· The essay should be typewritten in 12 point Times New Roman font.
- Double-spacing should be used.
· Do NOT put your name anywhere on the essay itself. Your name should only appear on the cover sheet.
· Ensure the cover sheet is completed, signed and attached.
· Ensure you have a copy of the essay.
· Emailed documents should preferably be sent as a pdf file

When submitting their essay students should:
* Sign the declaration on the cover sheet provided certifying that the entry is his or her own and unaided original work.
* Ensure their essays have been submitted (either by registered mail or electronically) by Monday 30th November 2009, 5pm WST. No late entries will be accepted.

Each candidate can only submit one essay.

Entry is free.

Submit your essay to CMEMS by 5pm WST on Monday 30th November, by either of
the following two methods:

Email as a pdf file to: cmems-arts@uwa.edu.au

- or -

Send by Registered mail to:
CMEMS Essay Competition
UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies M208
University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA, 6009

For further information please contact Pam Bond (pam.bond@uwa.edu.au)

Pam Bond
Administrative Assistant
Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Faculty of Arts, Humanities &
Social Science
Administrative Assistant
ARC Network for Early European Research, School of Humanities

University of Western Australia
M208 / 35 Stirling Highway
Crawley WA 6009

email: pam.bond@uwa.edu.au
tel: + 61-8-6488 3858
fax: + 61-8-6488 1069
CRICOS Provider No.00126G

Blogging between the covers

As my year of leave from teaching draws to a close, it'll soon be time to contemplate the things I haven't done. At one point I thought (and with no small encouragement from a publisher) that I might write a book about blogging, and about this blog in particular. That didn't happen, for lots of reasons. Not having yet finished the two other books I'm supposed to be writing, let alone another project or two, is just one of them.

Another is the somewhat thorny question of translating blogs to print. So I am intrigued to read, over at In the Medieval Middle, that there is a plan afoot to bring the Chaucer blog into print.* Jeffrey Cohen is writing an essay on medieval blogging (and other online and electronic fora and media) as part of this Palgrave project, and in the collaborative spirit of a collaborative blog with a large readership, he's blogging about the process and inviting commentaries and discussions on-line. So this is my first writerly appearance at In the Medieval Middle in the "post", not the "comments" box. Matthew Gabriele's post is also up, and there'll be others to follow.

I'm hoping these discussions will constitute another layer of background and context for my panel on blogging at NCS next July, too.

In the meantime, for the record, over the last nine and a half months, I have actually been quite productive, work-wise, and am really truly about to send off my first six chapters of the Garter book; and have done other things as well. But I'm especially pleased with the things I've done on my long service leave, when you are supposed to have a real break from teaching and research and everything. Thus, I did have a short holiday in Europe; I did start learning Italian (still going); and I did join a gym (also still going). I haven't painted the back of the house, yet, as I'd planned. And I didn't write that book about the blog either. That's ok: at the moment, the thing I think the world really needs is a fabulously exciting book about the Order of the Garter.

*If you haven't checked out this blog for a while, there's a cracking new entry in part about a medieval teenage sparkly vampire book series: Chaucer Sparkleth in Sonne.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Son of Humanities Researcher Has (Yet) Another Blog

As my family approaches a great festival — my mother's 80th birthday party on Saturday — and as my sister has travelled from London to join the celebrations, we are thinking about generations and families in this household.

Non-Melbourne residents may have heard about our big horse race tomorrow: the highlight of the spring racing carnival that goes on forever (if I see another stupid bit of black tulle perched on the head of some simpering WAG ...), and whose madness has taken over the city so completely that school today, the day before the race-day holiday, was declared "optional" and the main street on which we live is carrying what seems like only Sunday traffic.

Anyway, Joel and I are having a quiet "pyjama day", only showering just before lunch, and talking about what my sisters and I did when we were young, and so forth. What he has been doing is starting a new blog: it's at least the fourth I know about, and perhaps there have been more.

Scroll down for a sight of the piano, and yours truly lounging on the sofa.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Why I Love my Readers

A while back I asked if anyone would be interested in reading a chapter of my book on the Order of the Garter. I was overwhelmed by people's willingness to do this, and am now slowly working through these comments as I try to get my six chapters ready to send to the publisher (hopefully, within a week or two). I'm working backwards, so as to leave the hardest chapters (1 and 2) to last, and so that I have the fullest sense of the book as I revise those crucial opening chapters.

People's responses have been tremendously useful, and I'm amazed at the tact with which people have pointed out where the argument is hard to follow or doesn't make sense. I'm also thrilled at the deftness with which people have suggested clever readings of the primary material I look at. I feel the book is really starting to come together properly now, and it's absolutely due to these responses.

I'm just going through Chapter Three now and have Philip and David to thank, today, for helping me make sense of this chapter, which has to work through the many variants of the Garter myth. I hope Philip won't mind my sharing this comment, which makes me laugh out loud each time I read it.

Page 16: "Other versions and variants also circulated."

- Did you write this chapter in a linear way, from start to finish? At this precise point you're sounding a bit lethargic, as if the sheer quantity and variety of material was too much to bear. Which of course it is, but you may want to seem effortlessly clever...

No, my dear, I assembled it like the whole book, in bits and pieces and scraps, and occasional bursts of 5000 words at a time. And yes, of course, I want to seem effortlessly clever, though I suspect this blog may have blown my cover there. Anyway, I've deleted the offending sentence in an effort to appear effortless.

Hey ho: back to work!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

World's Last Gothic Cathedral is Finished

Well, I guess this is a milestone of sorts:

From The Australian today:

OPPOSITION Leader Malcolm Turnbull tonight swapped the unholy noise of parliament for angelic tones in Brisbane's St John's Anglican Cathedral. Mr Turnbull and wife Lucy were among hundreds of guests from around the globe to celebrate the world's last Gothic cathedral to be completed. St John's was designed by English Victorian Gothic architect John Pearson in 1889. But it was not until this year that the third and final stage of its construction was finished - at a cost of almost $40 million. Brisbane's third Anglican bishop William Webber was mocked when he suggested the northern outpost have a cathedral, but he continued to push for the building because it would "inspire lofty thoughts and noble aspirations". The service combined the ancient and modern. It was webcast on the internet and featured indigenous elements including a traditional welcome and a Torres Strait island hymn. A didgeridoo played as Anglican Primate Dr Phillip Aspinall offered the consecration prayers. "We give thanks to God to everyone since 1906 who has laboured to create this magnificent building," he told the congregation.

I can't download them, but in my searching around I did see some rather intriguing images of the cathedral's new stained glass windows: I may have to go and visit. The picture above makes it look rather small, in fact: the spires look rather short and squat to me (especially in contrast to the new spires of St Mary's cathedral in Sydney - seen here on the left). Though both images interestingly demonstrate the difficulty of fitting gothic architecture into the format of modern cameras.

Weirdly, although the completion of Brisbane's gothic cathedral seems to establish a rather odd temporal disjuncture, there is also something medieval about taking a hundred years to build something.

Has anyone seen the Brisbane one recently? Is that picture a good image?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Another all-clear

The research assistant on the clinical trial, the nurse and the surgeon all said to me this morning, "it's going quickly, isn't it?" Yes, it's the third anniversary of my surgery for early stage breast cancer, and this morning I sailed through the annual mammogram, ultrasound and examination with Suzanne with flying colours. It was good to see the very reassuring initials NAD (nothing abnormal detected) going onto my files and x-ray reports.

But is it going quickly? Not really. Not when you examine every day closely as it goes by, as I do these days. This doesn't mean I always make the best use of a day: I rarely feel that. But I certainly do notice them as they pass.

One of the lovely things for me about this practice is the sense of these teams of women working so well together (surgeons, nurses, radiologists, receptionists, researchers). I did see Mitchell, my oncologist, striding into the waiting room to meet a woman wearing a long scarf — I think they adminster the chemotherapy in this clinic, too — but everyone who attended me today was a woman. It's peaceful there. No televisions, no piped music, just magazines, comfortable couches and white towelling robes to wear while you wait. Women come and go, and although there's always a level of anxiety on our faces, it's calm. We are being attended by kindly, efficient and skilled women who know exactly what they are doing, how best to manage our visit and our health. For a place that is closely associated with a deadly disease, it's remarkably serene.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mimesis, Diegesis and Infinite Regress

One of the most useful binary oppositions in literary theory is that between mimesis and diegesis, or between showing and telling. To over-simplify: a play like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida shows the action; an epic poem like the Odyssey narrates the action in involuted folds of narrative, forwards and backwards like Penelope's shuttle. (And yes, Auerbach's Mimesis is indeed one of my favourite books.) And yes, I know this distinction is ripe for unpicking. But it's where I begin, today.

I've been thinking about the film, In Search of Beethoven, which I saw yesterday. It's a wonderful documentary, though it holds its fire all the time, and is quite restrained. It's more concerned with emotion than psychology, for example, and its attempts to fill out cultural and historical context are sketchy at best. For all that, though, it's surprisingly satisfying. It's full of irresistible close-ups of pianos, fingers, and the wood grain on the side of the piano keys and cellos, the extraordinary and unlikely tactility of bow hairs across strings.

The film has a clear message too: re-orient your vision of Beethoven as tempestuous angry man, frustrated by deafness; and re-think a man of a great mind and a great heart in struggle with each other. A man of generosity, spirituality and humane love.

Some of the most compelling scenes are where musicians demonstrate and talk about particular passages. Mimesis and diegesis working together. Someone explains that Beethoven was particularly good, as a pianist, at repeating a note, or progressing smoothly down a scale of octaves, and wrote such features into his work to annoy less able pianists. At one point, someone plays a repeated B, and shows how Beethoven is just "listening to the note" at that point.

But the most amazing moment for me was when Hélène Grimaud is rehearsing the second movement of the 4th piano concerto, and plays, very slowly, its slow descending scales (I listened to my CD of Lang Lang playing this this afternoon). Her face is overcome with anxiety, tension and love of every note of this music: in perfectly balanced irregular rhythm, note by note runs off wood and drops into a deep pool. It's utterly engrossing. Far less spectacular than the big symphonies, with their insistent obsessive rhythms, but completely compelling. It was about halfway through what is a rather long and academic film, but the cinema audience was suddenly transfixed and silent. I'm sure I was not the only one to feel the tears running down.

But of course, I can only try and tell you, diegetically, what this moment of mimesis was like. The other way to tell you is to say that I just put my ipod on shuffle. The first thing that came up was a Bach cantata, and I think for the first time in my life I heard Bach as a mechanical martinet of a composer. What if I am becoming a romantic, after all these years?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Off to Sydney

Have just cycled back from Italian class (starting the past tense; yay!) and about to throw things together for my quick trip to the emerald city.

Ci vediamo.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why It Takes So Long

As I reach the final stages of my book on the Order of the Garter (6 chapters about to be sent to the publisher; last chapter half-written), I'm tidying up references, and scanning my photos. And as I look at the titles I have just collected from the library, from up and down the Dewey cataloguing scale, it reminds me of why it's taking me so long. I have

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray

William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words

Harriet Guest, Empire, Barbarism and Civilisation

Crowfoot, et al. Textiles and Clothing, c. 1150-c. 1450.

On my desk at home I have Rachel Holmes' biography of the intersexual doctor, James Barry.

And on my list of things to order and place on hold I have Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Pepys' Diary, and The Last of the Barons, by Edward Bulwer Lytton.

(Also on my desk is a History of the New South Wales Parliament, but that's for another project: quite separate...)

No wonder it's taking me so long to tie all my threads together. It sometimes feels dizzying to be moving across so many centuries and fields. Still, some sections in some chapters now make a satisfying "clunk" sound (like the sound when you check out a library book at Baillieu) when they come to an end. Getting there. Ever closer, every day.

It is of course ridiculous that this great enterprise will score me only a measely 5 points on our research productivity indicator things. But you know what? I don't care. Today, this week, I really like my book.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The mortality of elm trees

I don't know if we'd plant them now, in this era of climate change and the move away from European "exotic" plantings, but in the front of our house, there are several "stands" of elm trees. They are probably over a hundred years old. Like other elms in Melbourne, they are part of an ageing population. They also have regular infestations of elm-leaf beetle, and so every few years we have them injected with stuff that kills the beetles. Last year we left it rather late, and so by midsummer, when the air was burning, our normally dark green canopy was riddled with lacy holes in the desiccated leaves. It was a sad and grim sight, but we trusted that the next season, our trees would recover.

(Not my photo, but this is what the leaves looked like.)

This week I've seen elms elsewhere in Melbourne coming into bright green leaf, while ours remain bare. They normally produce millions of flaky dry seeds that fall all over the car and the roof and the paths. We were starting to fear our trees would not make it; that somehow the drought and the extreme temperatures of last summer and the beetles might have combined to bring about their end. It was dreadful to contemplate: presiding over the death of these magnificent creatures. The house itself was starting to feel denuded; the bare trunks and branches a sign of our shame.

You can tell from the tenses in that paragraph that I haven't given up all hope yet. Today was warm and beautiful, and I can now see little buds and tiny flashes of delicate green leaves. Don't know what's happened to the seeds, but it looks as if our beautiful trees might be ok.

This is not my photo either, and not our trees, but this picture shows you how beautifully these trees sit in Melbourne's European style parks. Read about Melbourne's elms here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Things

Last night, courtesy of my friend Anne, we watched the director's cut of Lord of the Rings. Much longer, and much more coherent and emotionally satisfying as a narrative than the commercial release, though if the third one has any more of Sam I doubt I'll be quite so thrilled: what an annoyingly abject character he is, with his "Mr Frodo". (I thought we were being told to disapprove of the hobbit class hierarchy with the jibe at the Sackville-Bagginses, and all.)

Anyway. As one after another character's eyes glazed over at the sight of the ring, I started thinking about the talkback radio I'd heard the other day. It was bushfire-awareness day on the ABC, as Victoria starts to count down for the next fire season, coming way too quickly on the heels of the last. I don't know how many times I've heard Christine Nixon explain to people who complain about how slowly things are happening that many people are still in the grip of post-traumatic stress, and can't be hurried to make decisions. At the same time, it's becoming clear that if last February's conditions are repeated this year — and there's every expectation they will be — that the only safe thing for many people to do is to leave, and not stay and (heroically) "defend" their property. But with many towns in the hills, there is just one road out. How easy it would be for those roads to become blocked.

Anyway. Richard Stubbs was discussing the difficulty of cleaning up your property, and sorting out what you would take if you had to evacuate in a hurry, and started coaxing callers who were hoarders to phone in. Not that they identified themselves as such, but there were a number of calls from slightly puzzled folk who said yes, they did have lots of piles of papers in the house, but that it was possible to walk a path through from one room to another, and was that really a problem? Another said a friend had volunteered to help him go through the piles of papers on his dining-room table, but that it would take a while, because he had to look at every piece first before deciding if it could go. Some huge proportion of house fires, it turns out, are in the homes of hoarders.

And then I read Jeffrey's post about going through most of the household items before a temporary move, and giving and throwing things away.

And I think about my son, who buys lost of his clothes from second-hand and charity shops, but now makes a point of trying to take something back whenever he goes shopping.

So. I am at least going to clean up my study today. I do try not to keep papers, but I have 6 filing cabinet drawers at home, and 16 in the office. When I go back to work next year, I'm going to get rid of at least one four-drawer set: I can't possibly need all that stuff. I'm going to do a clean-out of my wardrobe, soon, too (although now that I am in my new gym routine, there are a number of items that will soon graduate into the "wearable" category).

But it's hard not to love beautiful things. I have a ridiculous affection for pretty cups, plates and saucers; I love the jewellery I have collected, and that has been given to me, over the years. I love the convenience of my books, but as objects and vehicles of ideas, they are mostly replaceable. If I think of a fire going through the house, though, which of my personal possessions would I want to take? The computer (or the hard drive back-up); two drawers of Garter files, which would be very hard to replace; the photo albums (maybe: so long as my family were safe I wouldn't mind so much); and my jewellery. And apart from the house itself, which we have laboured long and hard on, what would grieve me most to lose? I think it would be the piano. Which is irrational, because if our insurance ran to it, it would be replaceable. But it was one of the hardest things to buy and to commit to, and is one of the most beautiful things in the house. And the thought of all that finely wrought wood going up in flames is quite shocking.

Of course, we are not in a fire zone. But then, that's what a lot of people think...

What would you would find hardest to lose?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In praise of lycra

It's Ride to Work day today, and if I were heading anywhere other than to the revisions of my preface and first chapter in my home study today (thanks to the careful responses of my [blog] readers), I would probably be taking in free coffee and muffins at Bike Hub on the way to work.

There has been a bit of argy-bargy on television and in the press lately about the perennial struggle between cyclists and motorists. I am both, and can be equally irritated by both, at different times. But what I don't quite understand is the vitriol directed towards lycra.

It's true that it often comes in unattractive (though road-safe) colours such as lime and orange; and it's also true that for many years I've refused to wear it when riding.

However. Before we headed on our cycling holiday, I took the advice of the bike-tour company and went out to buy some padded shorts. I ended up buying some below-the-knee pants in discreet grey, with seams that sort of curve around the leg. They have minimal padding (enough to feel comfortable; not so much as to be obvious to the observer), and they were wonderful on the road. They were warm when it was cold; weren't hot when it was hot; dried quickly when wet; and even seemed to repel the water when it rained. I felt a bit like a seal when it was wet. Moreover, they turned out to be like a sporty foundation garment. So instead of feeling the weakness of the flesh was exposed, as I had feared, that weakness was, shall we say, contained. Let's be frank about this: these pants are downright flattering. If you ever see me on a red carpet of any description wearing a long sleek dress, you'll know what I'm wearing underneath...

Friday, October 02, 2009

When Tom Comes to Town

As he starts winging his way to Melbourne, here's a notice about a talk my writing collaborator, Tom Prendergast, will give next Wednesday. All are welcome!!

School of Culture and Communication Seminar
Tom Prendergast

"Violating the Sanctuary: Westminster Abbey and
the Inhabitation of the Middle Ages"

In this talk I will examine how the medieval idea of “chartered sanctuary” was connected to the sacral idea of the inviolable body of the Abbey. I argue that, in fact, it was a violation of this space that led to its delineation and sanctification. In 1378 an English squire, Robert Hauley, was murdered before the high altar. This violation of the sanctuary (a national drama that included John of Gaunt, John Wyclif and Richard II) not only led to the closure of the Abbey for four months and the suspension of Parliament (which then met in the Chapter House), but mapped out a national space for England’s cultural productions. For Hauley’s corpse, reverently buried in what would be Poets’ Corner (the South Transept), became a sign of the inviolability and extralegal status of the Abbey. Connected with, and yet separate from more traditional notions of the saintly body, Hauley’s dead body becomes productive of a kind of secular reverence that anticipates the corporeal aesthetics of Poets’ Corner. My talk, then, will uncover the ways in which Poets’ Corner itself becomes not just a burial site, but a kind of sacred space that enables the process of literary “canonization.” Further, I argue that this largely post-medieval poetic graveyard in the “national Valhalla” of England (Westminster Abbey) continues to be haunted by its own violent history, and that it is this violent history that enables us to “inhabit” the prehistory of Poets' Corner.

Thomas Prendergast is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Comparative Literature at the College of Wooster. He is the author of Chaucer's Dead Body: From Corpse to Corpus and the co-editor of Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602. He is currently working on book entitled England's National Plot: the Secret History of Poets' Corner.

Wednesday October 7, 4.30-6.00 pm. Dennis Driscoll Theatre, Doug McDonnell Building. (NB it is third floor of the building between the ERC Library and the Alice Hoy Building)

Drinks at University House afterwards

This seminar is free of charge and open to all staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students and members of the public.

I'm currently washing the sheets and about to clean up the spare bedroom, while making various plans for eating-out and playing tennis. I have also printed out what we have already put together of our book. We have about 50,000 words in five chapters of a draft manuscript now, and a suggested submission date of February. Not quite sure how I came to be at a similar stage of completion of two books at the same time, but there it is. Actually, Tom's book on Poets' Corner is only a little more advanced: we may end up publishing three books between the two of us rather close together. Talk about flooding the market.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

A Sydney date

Now that it's October, time to give notice of a talk I'll be giving in Sydney later this month for the Australian Heraldry Society: hope to see some Sydneysiders there.

Click to enlarge these two pages of the lovely four-page invitation they have prepared.

Monday, September 28, 2009

This still makes me laugh, two days later

On the way home, I read Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A fantastic, funny and sad meditation on careers that falter, the idea of wasting a life, and on internet fan communities. Towards the end there is a tense family scene: the previous partner of one of the main characters has taken a child (not her own) to the zoo. People are trying to behave well.

"He was impeccably behaved," said Natalie. "A pleasure to be with. And he knows more or less everything there is to know about snakes."
"I don't know how long all of them are," said Jackson modestly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jet-lag is weird. Italy is magical.

Well, no surprises there. You could hardly expect to sit in three planes over twenty-four hours, cross the equator and who knows how many time zones and not feel weird.

It's just that a holiday is supposed to make you feel rested, and yet here I am feeling not much different than the exhaustion after a work trip.

On the other hand, I have not thought about my work at all for three weeks, and have filled my eyes and ears and, I'm sorry to say, my mouth, too, with sights and sounds and tastes a-plenty.

We did this trip on frequent-flyer points, and with my several weeks' pretty careful planning on the web; and I'm pleased to report all went smoothly. No flight delays; no lost luggage; no dreadful hotels. We stayed in ** or *** pensions and hotels, and while the rooms were always small, they were all clean and quiet, with smooth cotton sheets. The centrepiece of this trip was an eight-day cyling circuit in Italy. We picked up our bikes in Treviso, and every day we'd leave our cases in the hotel lobby and navigate our way to the next town, where the cases would invariably be waiting for us. This was a circuit from Treviso to Venice to Chioggia to Padova to Vincenza to Bassano del Grappa and back to Treviso. J and P did the navigating, and I brought up the rear, day-dreaming my way around the countryside and back lanes of the route. We also gave ourselves a couple of days in Pisa and Florence, a second bite at Venice, an overnight in Milan, and a couple of days in Paris, with visits to family in London at either end.

P took great photos, J sketched in his book and I took a couple of desultory snaps and did some more day-dreaming.

Two highlights.

The first day of our cycling tour was one of the longest: Treviso to Venice. We struggled a bit with the road maps and instructions, and also got a bit lost before heading through the industrial zone of Venice before riding along that long strip of land to the main island. When we got there, we had to find our way through to the Casa San Andrea, on a small lagoon near the Piazzale Roma. When we arrived, we were exhausted and collapsed onto the beds, too tired to get up but wondering if this was going to be such a great idea, if we were going to be too exhausted to see anything of the beautiful places on our itinerary. After a while we regrouped, though, and struggled out to buy vaporetto tickets in time to do the most magical trip down the Grand Canal as the sun began to set. I had not been to Venice for 35 years, and it was P and J's first time. Global traveller that he is, P was still not prepared for the magic of Venice, and it was extremely gratifying to see his amazement. (I can't get the little camera to start at the moment: I'll try again when I'm less tired.) So much water! So many beautiful buildings! I bought myself a creamy guipure lace fan (even the tourist souvenirs are elegant) and for dinner had fresh sea bass with what the waiter called a "sausage": she served my fillets onto a separate plate then mashed up much of the head and other parts with more oil, then strained this extra-flavoured oil over the white flesh. Delicate and delicious.

The restaurant was just around the corner from the piazza San Marco; just near it was the entrance to one of the narrow calles that lead you into the shops and alleys and laneways. People would mysteriously enter or leave in single-file; so as we were sitting and watching we had this tremendous sense of potential: the city both opened up to us, like the fish served before me, along the Grand Canal; but also holding its secrets in reserve.

When we returned a week later, it was to a different hotel, and with a date. I'd found a website selling tickets to a performance of the Barber of Seville in a palace, and had booked, but failed to print off a map. We had a day touring and wandering around, and had planned to go back to the hotel, change, and get directions. Instead we decided just to find our way there. Turns out there is not just one Palazzo Barbarigo on the map, though. We wandered and wandered, and eventually found our way to La Fenice, thinking the main opera house would know where it was (I knew our palace was not far from there). But the box office had closed (they'd had an afternoon performance) and the cloakroom staff had never heard of it. I was starting to think I'd been the victim of a scam. I started desperately asking strangers, as I had enough Italian to ask politely for directions (though my comprehension of the spoken word is only rudimentary). Most people had never heard of it; but one man gave me detailed instructions I couldn't follow... Eventually I strolled boldly into a posh hotel and asked the concierge, who gave me several maps, the brochure from the company and set me straight, also running out after me when I left the reservation behind.

Eventually we did find the entrance, down the darkest of narrow dark alleyways, with a locked gate and a sign with a hand pointing mysteriously around the corner, which seemed to lead only to an apartment entrance. Then we found the button you pressed; and a voice said they would open the door at 8.00. So we went off to eat, and came back in plenty of time. It was a chamber performance — four or five singers; a piano, a cello and two violins — performed in several different rooms in the Barbarigo-Minotto palace; and it was utterly magical. The rooms could accommodate only about 50 people, and the singers were wonderfully engaging, moving amongst the audience with charm and grace. Beautiful strong voices and accomplished acting all round. No sur-titres, no sets apart from the palace itself, but it was perfect for this drawing-room opera to be staged in drawing-rooms with Tiepolo paintings and a palatial bedroom. When Figaro shaves Dr Bartolo, we were close enough to smell the shaving foam. After the first act, we were ushered into a different room, but invited to take in the view of the grand canal from the balcony. When you're in Venice as a tourist, you get glimpses of much wealthier travellers and residents in private courtyards and balconies. For a brief moment, we had our own balcony from which to look out at the water traffic below. Pretty much a perfect musical experience, I would say.

Other wonderful things on this trip: a Chopin concert in a C13 church in Paris; As You Like It at the Globe in London; the artichoke tart served with gorgonzola cappucino followed by potato ravioli with truffles and truffle oil at an unassuming little restaurant halfway between Bassano and Treviso; mint liquorice and morello cherry gelati eaten on the enormous chessboard in the square at Marostica; Giotto's Scrovegni chapel in Padua; being given two huge bunches of grapes by a lovely family as we rode from Vincenza to Bassano; reading A Room with a View in Florence; supper at the Mozzarella Bar, also in Florence; buying a coral and glass necklace in Venice; sneaking into my nephew's choral rehearsal in the Temple church in London; two pilgrimages in Paris: first, to climb the towers of Notre Dame after an hour queuing in the sun to see the chimeres and gargoyles up close; and another to take J to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre; and a day in London with our dearest, much-missed family friends currently taking a sabbatical in Oxford.

Oh. And in case you're thinking this all sounds too perfect, factor in the horror of waking up in the middle of the night in Bassano, and realising you have developed a case of raging conjunctivitis. Spend several hours lying awake rehearsing conversations in your elementary Italian about locating and talking to pharmacists and doctors. But then when you tell your partner, he reaches into his first-aid kit and pulls out the broad spectrum anti-biotic drops for ears and eyes... Oh. What can I say? It was perfect after all.