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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In which I play a little jazz

When I play the piano, which is not all that often these days, I need a score, a good light, and the right glasses. I dig out The Children's Bach, or more ambitiously, the English Suites and plod through material that's much too difficult for me, but loving the abstract form of a fugue, or Bach's Glass- and Nyman-like progressions through chords, patterns, keys and harmonies I can barely name.

Sometimes I've picked up J's introductory blues and jazz books, but my training doesn't really allow me to swing rhythms with any confidence at all. Something about the new piano I still find daunting, too, I think.

But tonight J asked a favour. Still with his left arm in its heavy cast, he had written out a little four-bar melody in 6/8. Could I play it, so he could test out whether the chord progression he had devised would work?  I am sorry to say it took me a long time as he patiently took me through what will become the saxophone part till I could play it in a loop while he tried out his chords, playing what I would have thought of as the left-hand part with his right hand. And very sweet it sounded, too. By about the fiftieth time round my little loop J was off in full flight, and I had just added one little grace note, one time, and was starting to see how, yes indeed, it might be possible to improvise while playing, when he had thanked me and was off to start scoring the parts.

But I did get to play jazz, just a little.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Speaking faces

To Troilus right wonder wel with alle
Gan for to like hire meuynge and hire chere,
Which somdel deignous was, for she let falle
Hire look a lite a-side in swich manere
Ascaunces, "what, may I nat stonden here?"
And after that hir lokynge gan she lighte,
That neuere thoughte hym seen so good a syghte.

I am currently writing a paper for a very cool-sounding conference in Berlin in a couple of weeks. It's called "Performing the Poetics of Passion – Chaucer’s “Troilus & Criseyde” and Shakespeare’s “Troilus & Cressida” (just look at the list of papers below and see what an incredible treat is in store for me).

I'm worrying away at this stanza from book I, trying to think about the performative elements of Criseyde's expression, which she "let falle" ... "a lite a-side", as if to say "what, can't I stand here?" I love the defensivess of this facial expression. Boccaccio's is more direct, "E non ci si può stare" (None can stand here). His Criseida holds out her mantle to make space for herself: Chaucer's has only to cast a downward glance and she finds room for herself.  Chaucer's Criseyde's sideways look is followed by the lightening of her glance, as if she is relieved somehow to have silently spoken her anxiety on what may be her first public appearance after being welcomed by Hector.

According to OED and MED, this Ascaunces, "as if to say", while obscure in origin, is quite separate from modern "askance" (obliquely, or with disapprobation). However, influenced by the "let falle hire look a lite a-side", I find it hard not to see both senses in Chaucer's use here.

My question to all you rhetoric buffs out there is whether there is a name for this figure by which Chaucer and Boccaccio describe their heroines' faces as speaking. I guess it's a form of prosopopeia or enargia, but even this wonderful website, Silva Rhetoricae doesn't give any specific examples.

And what other medieval examples are there? There's the Book of the Duchess, of course ("By God, my wratthe is all foryive"), and even Troilus's appeal, equally ascaunces, to the heavens, "loo, is this naught wisely spoken?"

I must say it is lovely to be working so closely on a little bit of text. It's particularly lovely to think of other ways of reading faces than through physical features, which some of us find excruciatingly difficult. We have just started a five-week sequence on the Troilus in my honours class today, and I took them through some of the problems here. 

Here's the list of papers: what an amazing couple of days it will be:

Thursday, May 13
15.30 – 16.30 Welcome Coffee and Registration
16.30        Welcome Address
17.00    Paul Strohm ‘As for to looke upon an old romaunce’: Looking and Overlooking in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s Troy
18.00        Conference Dinner

Friday, May 14
9.30 – 11.00    Wolfram Keller Passionate Authorial Performances: From Chaucer’s Criseyde to    Shakespeare’s Cressida
                         Andreas Mahler Potent Raisings: Performing Passion in Chaucer and Shakespeare
11.00 – 11.30    Coffee Break
11.30 – 13.00    David Wallace, Changing Emotions in Troilus: the Crucial Year
                          Kathrin Bethke, Value Feelings: The Economy and Axiology of the Passions in Troilus and Cressida
13.00 – 14.30    Lunch
14.30 – 16.00     Robert Meyer-Lee Criseyde’s Precursor: Dido, Emotion and the Literary in the House of Fame
                          Hester Lees-Jeffries ‘What’s Hecuba to him?’ Absent Women and the Space of Lamentation in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Saturday, May 15
9.30 – 11.00    James Simpson ‘The formless ruin of oblivion’: Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Literary Defacement
                         Stephanie Trigg Public and Private Emotion in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
11.00 – 11.30    Coffee Break
11.30 – 13.00 Kai Wiegandt ‘Expectation whirls me round’: Hope, Fear and Time in Troilus and Cressida
                       Richard Wilson ‘Like an Olympian wrestling’: The Pause in Troilus and Cressida
13.00 – 14.30    Lunch
14.30 – 15.15    Ute Berns Love and Desire Delineating Selves in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
15.15 – 16.00    John Drakakis ‘No matter from the heart’: Passion, Value and Contingency in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In which I make myself cry

Through the course of the various re-structures of our syllabus and curriculum reforms we've undergone over the last few years, I struggled to find the right balance of medieval literature and medievalism in the one subject I offer in second and third year. I'm glad to say I think I might have got the balance just about right. The subject is called Romancing the Medieval, and we have 75 students reading Chaucer and Malory in Middle English, Sir Gawain and Margery Kempe in modern translation, amongst a few other things, while I gave a lecture last week on medievalist poetic tradition (OE translations by Tennyson, and Heaney; and thanks to Chris Jones who is expert in this stuff, a sonnet by Borges on Old English; and Chaucerian extracts from Lydgate, Spenser and Dryden, as well as Ted Hughes' poem about Sylvia Plath declaiming Chaucer to the cows, etc.). We will move, soon, to Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and some of the Idylls, The Lord of the Rings, and a week on medieval fairy tales.

But today it was the Prioress's Tale. We are moving into the second half of the course, and now that they have had a pretty solid introduction to medieval literature, I wanted to start thinking about scholarly medievalism. I got them to read Michael Calebrese's essay (the one Eileen had a bunch of us respond to for one of BABEL's sessions at Kalamazoo last year) for its uncompromising scrutiny of the easy absolutist ethics the Prioress seems to encourage amongst readers.

Anyhoo, in thinking about this tale of blood libel against the Jews, who are said to have murdered the little Christian boy so devoutly singing his Marian hymn, I also told the story of St Hugh of Lincoln, and remembered my visit to Lincoln Cathedral, where next to the remains of his shrine, the cathedral has framed this notice and prayer:

Trumped up stories of "ritual murders" of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later.  These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend, and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.

Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:

Lord, forgive what we have been,
amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be.

Perhaps it's because I'm overtired, and frankly, a little up and down in spirits at the moment, I couldn't read this prayer to the class with choking up a little. It's the sheer simplicity of the acknowledgement of wrong that gets me. Yet this often seems such a hard thing for the church to say...

But of course, in the context of Calabrese's critique of emotional absolutism, and my discussion in the lecture of affective piety, I don't really trust my emotional response here. Was it too easy?

In thinking about the Prioress, though, I kept returning to the description of her in the General Prologue, where we are told she "peyned hire to countrefete chere/ Of court, and to been estatlich of manere." So here's my question to the Chaucerians amongst you: has anyone ever suggested that the Prioress's sentimentalism is part of this performance of courtly demeanour? Do we know anything about a self-conscious fashion for this kind of piety in the Ricardian court? Is there something blindingly obvious I'm missing here? Yes, I promise I will do my own research on this soon enough, but in the meantime, what do you reckon?

Monday, April 19, 2010

To break one wrist is unfortunate; to break two...

No, not J (though I have been hearing many stories about people breaking both wrists in bike accidents). J's going ok; and able to make surprisingly rich sounds on the piano with one hand. But the band was booked into a recording studio next Saturday to make an audition recording for a week-long jazz intensive — run by the Juilliard jazz school — at Trinity college in July. Unfortunately, the drummer is also a rugby player, and has strained a ligament in his left arm. P took a photo of the band after rehearsal on Saturday — now with two boys concealing their slings and bandages of outrageous fortune.

There is something about being adolescent and male and feeling invulnerable, on the bike or the rugby field, that's not all that compatible with having musical ambitions at the same time... They've deferred the studio booking for a few days, but they are losing percentage all the time, so I doubt this will be their best performance.

New suggested names for the band?

The Band Who Hurt Too Much (Melbourne ref: The Band Who Knew Too Much).

Any others?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Comment moderation begins.

It's not that I get a huge number of spam comments. But one of them today was of an obscene nature. And I don't have to take that, or have it sitting on my blog until I can get to it and delete it.

So from now on I'm moderating comments. I don't think there'll be much of a delay between your posting and my releasing it. And a little delay is better than your reading filth in this place.

That is all.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The slowness of waiting, and writing

The week without teaching is disappearing. We arrived at the hospital this morning for a 9.30 appointment. We waited several hours, then when we finally got in to see a doctor, they removed J's cast to check the wound. Whereupon, seeing the pins sticking out of his wrist, he promptly blacked out, so we had to help him onto a gurney so he could lie down to have the new cast put on. By 3.00 he was back home, dozing on the couch, watching Scrubs with the cat...

Actually, typing that, I'm starting to feel a bit faint myself.

When not waiting around, this week, for various systems to work (the council busking permit yesterday; the hospital today; the university's wretched email all the time), I have finally prepared my response to the readers' reports on my book. They both say yes, the book is publishable, but each also seems to want it to be a slightly different kind of book. So I've tried to take a middle way, accepting some really good suggestions, without signing up for a major structural re-write. Fingers crossed the editor will agree with me... It took me ages to process the reports and write the response: everything seems to be moving in slow motion at the moment.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The "pointy bits" at the gym

If Sophie, my lovely trainer at the gym, is sick, I get to work with one of the other trainers. It's always a bit scary, and I'm never sure if that's because Sophie and I have such fun laughing and gossipping that I don't realise how hard I'm working, or if her method is gentler, or if the others make a special effort to work me hard. Yesterday was one such day, starting off with some aerobic work that had me breathless from the start...

But the funniest thing was hearing Leanne telling me how to stand, with the bar of the Smith machine on my shoulders, ready to push it up, with my feet positioned below the "pointy bits" of my hip bones. Looking at her own youthful, strong and lean body, I could see what she meant, but it has been a very long time since I could describe any part of my hips as "pointy".

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


So the Blue Manoeuvres are rehearsing at our place today. Everyone sets to with a will to bring in the drum kit (kudos to the drummer's mother: roadie par excellence). They are on their third run-through their first number, taking turns to improvise and 'comp' when it's someone else's turn to solo. I can't help but admire their work-ethic (they have set aside three hours for rehearsal) and their co-operative spirit. I'll send them out for hamburgers for lunch later.

Best of all, for me, is to hear J playing (even if one-handed), and to hear the happiness in his voice. Right now he and the bass guitarist are making a little duet (R. plays double bass when he can but the guitar is easier to transport); and now it's piano and drums. The sax will kick in the melody soon - ah yes, there he goes!

They are working towards making a recording for an audition in the next few weeks; and may also be applying for a busking licence. Watch this space for their next appearance (and for the corrected spelling of contemporary. Any day now).

Friday, April 02, 2010

bedding down

If things have been quiet around humanities researcher lately, it's not because I recently joined facebook (I can see how it might be addictive, but I hope I'm not going to be sucked in too deeply), but for these reasons:

(a) there is not much research being done around here lately. It's the pointy end of the teaching year for me, with two new subjects to bed down and a bunch of additional lectures; plus the whole getting-used-to-being-head thing and the business of bedding down our teaching for next year.

(b) there has been a lot of fussing (much of it on my part) about our large Centre of Excellence application (actually based at UWA). I have some excellence in some areas: budgets are not one of them. But finally the draft letter and draft budget of the Melbourne end of it are completed. It seems they all may have to be done again, but at least, now, there are some senior people in some senior research offices at two ends of the continent working together. It's working with an inadequate sense of what might be required that is very difficult.

(c) Finally, about two hours, on Wednesday, after the very successful inaugural recite-the-first-18-lines-of-the-General-Prologue competition (with appropriately Easter Lindten rewards [there's a good joke in there somewhere trying to get out], with first prize going to a beautiful solo rendition from memory; and second to a team effort, acted out with sun, winds, plants and birds, ending in a tableau of poor St Thomas with pilgrims kneeling at his side), I picked up a telephone message from my boy, rather apologetically saying he thought he had hurt his arm when he went over the top of the handlebars of his bike when braking suddenly, and might need an x-ray.

Thus began a two-day saga: I took him to emergency and after a couple of hours he was x-rayed; and then began the question of admitting him, and finding him a bed. Too young, really, for adult hospital, but unwanted by the Children's, he was in limbo (another incipient joke: if only I wasn't so tired) for several hours. It was becoming a political question, which would be resolved only by measuring the extent to which particular bones had finished growing. After P arrived, I left to attend my student's graduation: the hospital said they would send him home and admit him the next day. But because I went straight from hospital, after riding home, I was still in jeans, flat riding shoes; no make-up, and not even a hairbrush. I felt decidedly undistinguished sitting on the stage of Wilson Hall as a procession of beautiful shoes paraded in front of me to take out their degrees. I was very glad of my long robes. I was home by 10, but there was a note from P saying they had admitted Joel to St Vincent's, but because he was under 16, an adult had to spend the night with him.

I turned up at 8 the next morning to relieve P, who had an all-day meeting about his Centre of Excellence application (alas, we are rivals). They hadn't been admitted till 11 the night before; and had to wait and wait for a bed for P to sleep on. J was fasting since 6.00 am and was scheduled for surgery after 1.00. Well. He was bumped several times down the list as the afternoon went on (it's just a wrist fracture, but needed to be pinned), and so then it was my turn to stay overnight. At 3.00 this morning they were still planning to operate, so he had to remain fasting, while they put in a drip. At 5.30 am they wheeled him off to surgery, and nearly twelve hours later we are finally home. Everything went well enough, and apart from some nausea after the anaesthetic, he's feeling fine.

Oh. I forgot to say that the night before all this happened, I stayed up too late finishing the second Song of Roland lecture; and then after the graduation, came home to wrestle with the grant budget. I emailed it at 1.00 in the morning, and got a lovely personal message back from someone in the research office. The Perth people were up and on the case, too, but it was three hours earlier, there.

So while the doctors and medical staff lead odd hours (the orthopedic surgeon in particular often has to wait and wait for a free surgery while road trauma patients and knife victims are being treated), so too do scholars applying for research grants, and the research administrators who support them.

After three late nights and early mornings, then, I am just about counting the hours till I can go to bed again.