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!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

There and back again

Wednesday, Jan 27.

I’m writing this on a plane from Melbourne to Perth. After a goodly 75 minutes sitting on the tarmac we’re now apparently making good time. We’re heading west, and into a late summer sunset. There’s a disc of burnished gold reflected on the wing outside my window, and we’re flying over miles and miles of flat-looking clouds. The white tip of the wing, behind me, is pointing up, just at the point where deep pink meets deep blue. As I look across the clouds into the west, the lines of blue are fading into pink and gold, and little scraps of dark grey cloud look like low rock formations rising up from still, golden waters.

Today was my first gig at speaking on behalf of the English programme as head. It was Academic Advice Day, when the new students come on campus to shop for subjects, and we all spruik our wares. Someone told me that’s a uniquely Australian word. Spruiking is not entirely dignified, but I tend to find it’s ok if you embrace the genre. And it wasn’t hard for me and two colleagues to talk up our programme. Even though our staff numbers are lowish, we’re a good team, I think, of energetic and productive researchers and teachers. What I must do soon is finalise my teaching materials for first semester. There’s another month before classes start, and yet I am already behind the various deadlines for getting stuff printed.

Tomorrow is a one-day symposium at UWA on medievalism and modernity. A bunch of us who attended the Wollongong symposium are heading there: Chris Jones, Seeta Chaganti, Louise D’Arcens and me. Also, two PhD students from UWA are presenting.

Update: two days later I’m on the plane coming home. Leaving around 11 in the morning, I touch down at 5.30 in the afternoon, because of the 3-hour time delay. It’s an odd way to spend a day, mostly in transit. We’re flying in bright sunlight, in a brand-new shiny plane with a new slick-looking entertainment system. Little screens on the back of the seat in front of you in economy class is a good look, and the seats seem a reasonable distance from each other for once. I started with Clare Bowditch and Prince, but now I have Scarlatti —  La Santissima Trinità — on the headsets, an empty seat next to me, and a bunch of work and reading to do.

The symposium was good. Seeta and Chris both gave excellent papers I’d not heard before. Both write and speak so beautifully about poetry and poetics: I found it quite inspiring to listen to them, and am going to pinch some of the poems from Chris’s paper on twentieth-century revivals of Old English poetic tradition for a lecture I’ll give half-way through my “Romancing the Medieval” subject on medievalism in English poetic tradition. I’m also going to try and recover something of the energetic love of poetry both demonstrated in their papers. Louise and I both gave papers we’d heard each other give before: Louise on comic medievalist tourism, with some lovely stuff on faciality and the idea of laughing in the face of the middle ages such tourism makes possible. I presented the paper I gave last week at Wollongong on medievalism in Australian parliamentary practice. I have to say I’m not really good at doing that, and probably should have insisted on giving something else. I tried to recover the nervous energy and adrenaline this second time around, but still felt a bit flat as I was speaking, until I couldn’t find pages 10-12. That got me going a bit better, and I remembered what fun it is to fly without a safety net. I think this time I made the mistake of half-writing the paper. I didn’t have a word-perfect script, but I had a lot of text. So it was too tempting to read, not talk. I don’t do that — talk to my paper — as often as I should. Chris did it beautifully, so I must remember, next time, how lovely it is to listen to someone speaking, not reading.

The great irony of this trip was a call from Pavlov’s Cat, in Melbourne for the day. Curses!

Oh look: lunch is coming down the aisle… Time to eat and then get to work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The funny thing about going to the gym ...

... is that one night you can be bench-pressing more weight than you ever thought possible, and doing all kinds of tough and difficult exercises under Sophie's gentle guidance; and then next morning, you can hardly lift a cup of coffee.

I have an hour, now, to work on my new subject outline — Romancing the Medieval — before we head off to Melbourne Park for a day's tennis. It's unearthly quiet on the main road outside our house this morning: a slow start to Australia Day. Another occasion for the nation to ponder its past, its present and its future. Should we change our song? our flag? And can I just say? This was the burden of my Wollongong paper. If, as I argue, (royal) medievalism sits closely behind many of our parliamentary rituals and objects — the Mace, Black Rod, the cult of Magna Carta, etc. — then what will happen to those things should Australia become a republic? And perhaps an even more difficult question: what would medievalists who are also republicans advise? It would be hard, I think, not to register some sadness at the loss of those medieval rods of office, even if their use becomes/is already anachronistic. But doesn't the perpetual interrogation of those traditions, and the popularity polls perpetually conducted about our song, our flag, etc. bear out the idea that Australia as a nation-state is still relatively young? Strikes me as not unlike a teenager deciding what to wear that day.

Another question: will we sing at the tennis today? pity all the Australians have been knocked out by their betters...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Twelve days later

Goodness! I wonder if being head of programme will mean I don't have time to blog... I can already see my days and weeks are going to be taking on a different rhythm from last year's leave, as you'd expect. So what have I been up to?
  • wrote and delivered my paper for the Wollongong symposium, which (the latter) was truly amazing. 15 papers over 2.5 days, with maybe 24 people attending, all engaging, talking furiously and convivially. Papers on medievalism, medieval literature and its teaching and reception, papers by romanticists and Australianists and children's literature experts, all working together to set up some wonderful new lines of connection and inquiry. We hope to publish most of these papers in the next year and a bit. Watch this space!
  • completed an Italian intensive course ("lower intermediate") and graduated into livello cinque, starting in a week or two.
  • travelled to Sydney for a day with John and Bea before we went down to Wollongong. Highlights? Seeing Frank Woodley as Candide in a new production for the Sydney Theatre Company as part of the Sydney festival. We booked late, and got late-release front-row seats in the Opera House theatre. This is what you really want to do with visiting scholars: place them so they get to take part in a little audience participation in the theatre: how many visiting scholars can you say you have given the chance to yodel — solo, into the microphone — in the Sydney Opera House with Barry Otto (father of Miranda/Eowyn)? We followed this up with dinner in Potts Point and a stroll through the Cross.
  • travelled to Geelong to see my boy perform in the grand concert that concluded his stay at the Geelong Summer Music Camp. He had five nights with his grandparents while I was away. It turned out to be more like an intensive training course than a camp. He had to practise and practise when he got home each day after a full day's playing, just to learn the parts and keep up. But the 250 kids who took part put on an amazing concert. Highlights? Seeing J playing in Sibelius' Finlandia, and, in the string ensemble, parts of Elgar's Serenade for Strings and the last two movements of Holst's St Paul's suite (sweeping renditions of Greensleeves against the sprightly Dargason, parts swapped around between cellos and violins). Maternal pride in buckets; though mostly because the whole camp was so much harder and more demanding than we thought, and he just stuck with it, and came through in the end.
  • saw Nadal down Kohlscreiber last night at Rod Laver Arena, from the pleasant comfort of a corporate box (courtesy P's associate). Really very pleasant to be served a lovely dinner (esp. the crab salad), chilled drinks with ice, etc. It was a very hot night, but after dinner was served, our hosts opened up the spotless glass windows between us and the back row just in front, so we could cheer the players on and take part in the action (while still feeling the comfort of the air-conditioning, the freshly-brewed coffee and more chilled drinks with ice, etc.). An utterly sybaritic way to watch other people play sport, I must say. We are going again on Tuesday, and fully expect to be seated in the back row, just in front of such a corporate box. We will have to carry our own drinks up the stairs: can you imagine?
More scarily — and in a way that is completely inappropriate for a list of things that have been finished or completed — I'm starting to see just how many emails are starting to flood my in-box, and how many things there are to do in my job, in addition to the writing of books and the teaching of students.  I'm making lots of resolutions about how to manage it all. We'll see.

Monday, January 11, 2010

You know it's really too hot to ride home when ...

... the water in your water bottle is almost too hot to drink.

It was not too bad when I left the house this morning, but after three hours of intensive Italian (sono nel livello quatro, ma forse questa classe e troppo difficile per me), the temperature had soared. In at the office, someone had sensibly turned off most of the lights in the corridors, so it wasn't too bad. I did a few emails, started some desultory filing, booked a ticket to Perth, filled out a bunch of travel forms, then rode home, very slowly.

When I got home, I felt a bit weak. After all it was 42 degrees out there (now 43). I had something to eat, then drank a couple of litres of water to replace the fluid I'd lost.

Now, a little Italian homework for tomorrow, then back to my paper for Wollongong. I finding myself running this very elaborate argument that the medievalism in Australian parliaments helps to define Australian notions of modernity. I might try and post a bit of this work soon, but I have to finish by Friday, so I can fly up to Sydney on Saturday morning.

The house is feeling quite schizophrenic. Downstairs and in the front, the rooms with brick walls are still pretty cool, because although it's been warm, it's not been ferociously hot till today, but upstairs and out in the back added-on sections, which are made of wood, it's downright steamy. It's going to be a hot night (maybe getting down only to 30), so no one in Melbourne will get much sleep tonight; and then the change will come through early afternoon. And then the back sections will cool down very quickly, while the front of the house will seem warm and stuffy by comparison.

Our household is so lucky we have me to police the strategic opening and closing of doors and windows.

Update: At midnight, it was still 36... hottest night on record in Melbourne, apparently.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

My New Phase and a Wishlist

Over at In the Middle, Jeffrey is posting about the new phase in his professional life, as he steps down from being head of department. Almost to the day, I am stepping up to a new phase in mine, as I take on the role of head of programme (English and Theatre) within a large school (Culture and Communication), within a large Faculty (Arts).

I haven't moved offices, but last week I did go in and start cleaning it up. It wasn't too bad, as I'd cleared some shelves and obvious surfaces because other folk were using my room while I was on leave. But I managed to fill a big paper recycling bin; and there's another pile waiting for the confidential recycling bin. And that's without really tackling the big piles of photocopies I should file properly. I'm finding it hard to throw away the files of Chaucer material I used for the Chaucer book. And I have lots of files left over on Gwen Harwood and Wynnere and Wastoure, too. Perhaps I'll just do this a bit at a time. All the Garter stuff is at home, as I never really do any research or writing in my office at work.

Jeffrey says he likes to position his desk at a bit of an angle, and seems to like the way it throws people off-guard. In my girly way, I'm making different kinds of resolutions, about keeping my office clean and tidy so it looks reassuringly calm, and sometimes putting fresh flowers in there. Or at least having a plant of some kind. Or perhaps a fish?

The emails have already started coming in, along with what I think I'll like least about this job: the regime of bureaucratic compliance. I'm also hoping not to do bureaucratic emails at night or over the weekend (though I've just now received one...).

I think there'll be lots of fun things, too, but the biggest challenge was made crystal clear to me when I went to talk to our manager about our budget. Our program is short-staffed, but our budget is school-based. So even though our Old English specialist has just left, and even though our C16/C17 person left last year to move full-time into administration, so that I am the only researcher working prior to the eighteenth century, our program, as such, is in debt, because we don't run any lucrative masters coursework programs. We have fabulous theatre people, and others who can also teach Shakespeare, but it would be wonderful to make a dedicated teaching/research appointment in early modern literature.

This state of affairs isn't so much the result of the "Melbourne model" — the dramatic reform of the entire university's curriculum — as it is a result of the funding model (the result of the progressive reductions in federal funding), and the move from departments into larger schools. As a result, although "English" used to be closely linked to other programs (Media and Communication; Cultural Studies; Creative Writing; and Publishing), we are all now disaggregated into discrete units in the larger school, which also includes cinema, art history, arts management, etc. etc. The funding model we inherit from Faculty breaks us up into smaller units, and so our challenge, as a School, is to find fair and equitable ways to think about cross-subsidising. Just as we expect the medical faculty to subsidise arts, for example...

There has been a bit of a shift, over the last ten years, in Australia, for universities to work much harder at attracting private donations. Areas such as medieval and renaissance literature have been the target of a number of donations in the past, donations that go to fund small postgraduate scholarships, for example.

My dream scenario? Some wonderful benefactor to endow a chair in Shakespeare/early modern studies at the University of Melbourne. I'm just saying...

Friday, January 08, 2010

Another January event for medievalism

I mentioned, a while back, a day forum at the University of Western Australia. It is really a satellite of this upcoming event, the second symposium of our four-year ARC discovery grant. It's going to be one of those small concentrated affairs, but we're tossing up various plans for publication, so this is really just to give a foretaste of what happens when medievalists and Australianists get together. Think of us on the beautiful Wollongong campus, having walked along the beach in the morning...

Medievalism, Colonialism, Nationalism
An ARC-sponsored symposium
University of Wollongong
January 18-20, 2010
Venue: UOW Unicentre, Function Room 2


10am-12pm: Teaching the Middle Ages

A Teaching Roundtable convened by Stephanie Trigg
12pm-1pm: Lunch

Medievalism, Colonialism, Nationalism

1pm-3pm: The Politics of Medievalism

John Ganim, University of California (Riverside)

“Cosmopolitanism and/or Medievalism”

Jenna Mead, University of Western Australia

“Medievalism as a Pretext for Conservatism”

3pm-3.30pm: Afternoon tea

3.30pm-4.30pm: Telling the Story of Medievalism

David Matthews, University of Manchester:

“The Viral Past: Can the History of Medievalism be Written?”


9am-11am: Medievalism and the Premodern Pasts of Britain

Anke Bernau, University of Manchester

“The Return of the Repressed: Albina, Sixteenth-Century Historiography, and Wolf Hall

Chris Jones, University of St. Andrews

“‘Quhen Alexander our king was deid’: An Origin Myth for Scots Poetic Tradition”

11am-11.30am: Morning Tea

11:30am-1.30pm: The Medievalism of Randolph Stow

Melanie Duckworth, University of Leeds

“Grievous Music: Randolph Stow’s Antipodean Middle Ages”

Andrew Lynch, University of Western Australia

“Going ‘home’ by the Middle Ages: Randolph Stow’s The Girl Green as Elderflower and Visitants

1.30pm-2.30pm: Lunch

2.30-4.30pm: The Limits of the Medieval in 20thC Australian Fiction

Nicholas Birns, New School University

“Jack Lindsay, Patrick White, and Australia’s Twentieth-Century Byzantium”

Peter Otto, University of Melbourne

“‘Are we the future of the Past?’: Gothic Pasts and Gothic Futures in David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life

7pm: Conference Dinner: Ha Long Bay, 52 Crown St, Wollongong. (02) 4225 0338


9-11am: Ideologies of Medievalism: Australian Women Writers

Michael Ackland, James Cook University

“Dreaming of the Middle Ages: The Place of the ‘Mittel-alterlich’ and Socialist Awareness in Christina Stead’s Vision of Australian Destiny”

Louise D’Arcens, University of Wollongong

Meta-medievalism and the Future of the Past in the ‘Australian Girl’ Novel

11am-11.30am: Morning Tea

11.30am-1.30pm: Performative Medievalisms

Seeta Chaganti, University of California (Davis)

“Memory, History, and Motion in Nineteenth-Century Medievalism”

Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne

“The Traditional, the Quaint, and the Medieval in Australian Parliamentary Practice”

1.30pm-2pm: Lunch

2pm-4pm: Medievalism in Australian Fantasy Writing

Clare Bradford, Deakin University

“The Return of the Fairy: Medievalist Fantasy for the Young”

Kim Wilkins, University of Queensland

“Sovereignty, Feudalism, Fantasy: The Guilty Pleasures of Australian Popular Medievalism”

4.30pm: shuttle to collect those travelling back to Sydney Airport

Friday, January 01, 2010

Food, Glorious

As predicted, a tremendous storm hit Melbourne early into our party. Undaunted, the musicians played on; the revellers kept revelling; and the little old cat Mima came inside and sprawled flat out in the middle of the area where people were serving themselves dinner from the buffet table. A shame it was really too wet to be outside for much of the evening, but so lovely, in many cases, to see people we hadn't seen for a while. The teenagers went out into the rain, of course, and came in soaked to the skin. The children explored the house (it's a mixture of very old and run-down; and architect-clever ingenious spaces), and carried the cat around a bit. For all her great age, she quite likes a party, ever since Pavlov's Cat let her play with her Christmas earrings when she was a baby. People brought food, wine, and friends; we cooked up a storm; and at one point I went around opening as many windows as I could, to let the cool air in. People drifted over to the sink, and washed or dried a load of dishes. At midnight, we lit sparklers and ate lollies.

Paul's parents were fabulous, as usual: washing dishes, and going around talking to as many people as they could. Our dear friends and neighbours, whose boys were part of the band, stayed on cleaning up and helping us with the preliminary party de-brief, but by 2.30 we were in bed. One of the girls' parents (obviously a younger generation than ours) didn't come to pick her up till after that... Joel had a few other friends stay over.

We woke late — bliss! — and did a bit more cleaning up, before Paul grilled some scallops with bocconcini, haloumi and grilled peppers, which we washed down with a wonderful Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc someone had brought along (thank you!), before we found some enormous creamy oysters in the back of the fridge that also needed to be eaten today. And the tira-mi-su was possibly even better, two days after making. During this late luxurious lunch, Mima appeared: she'd had the longest sleep-in of all of us. After all that, I am going to head out for a big ride on the bike soon...

But in the meantime, as per Meredith's request, Oyster Pies. This is a recipe from Maggie Beer that appeared in the Australian in September 2000. I cut the page out, and periodically lose and find it again. The pastry is wonderful: easy to make; very delicate but good to handle, as you can roll it reasonably thick, and it still becomes very light and buttery to eat.

Leek and Oyster Pies - my annotations in red

12 young leeks, cleaned, cut into 5 mm slices (but I've also used onions)
sea salt & freshly ground butter
125 ml champagne (but who's going to measure that? I've also used a dry white)
100 ml cream & an extra dash of cream
30 large Pacific oysters - this means big fat creamy Tasmanian ones, I reckon, not Sydney rocks oysters.
1 egg

Sour Cream Pastry

200 g chilled unsalted butter, diced small
250 g plain flour
125 ml sour cream

Pastry: process butter and flour until mix resembles breadcrumbs. Add sour cream and pulse until the dough has just incorporated into a ball. Wrap in plastic film and rest in the fridge for 20 minutes. Roll out dough and line moulds, then cut out lids slightly larger than moulds. Chill for 20 minutes.

I have a tray of 24 little moulds with straight sides,  3-4 cm in diameter? definitely worth the investment: great for mini-muffins, etc. 

Sweat leeks in butter until soft, then season. Deglaze the pan with champagne and reduce the liquor. Add 100 ml cream and reduce a little more. Allow to cool. Chop oysters in halves or thirds. Put a spoonful of leek mix into each pie mould, then add oyster and cover with a little leek. Position lids and seal carefully (I use the beaten egg for this, but also pinch the pastry, and make sure the lid doesn't stick to the mould anywhere: otherwise the lids will come off when you take them out). Chill for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 220 degrees C. Beat egg and add the extra cream, then brush over pie lids. Cook pies until golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes in the tin before turning out and serving. Makes 30.

Excellent with champagne, but I reckon they'd also be good with stout. Fiddly to make, but absolutely delicious. The pastry's very good for other things, too. Happy cooking!