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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Death in North Fitzroy: Music, Mortality, Sleep

Another school concert last night. Although J has a jinx of having his name left off the program for such things, last night he played piano and bongo drums to accompany the junior girls' choir, sang solo with a friend on acoustic guitar (Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Snow"), played cello in the vastly improved Camerata strings, and sang in the vocal group, taking a two-line solo. Plenty in the evening to gratify his parents' and grandparents' fond hearts. And just generally an excellent evening of music. Particularly affecting was the flute teacher's tribute to two year 12 students playing their last chamber music concert for the school, after six years of performing there — and winning prizes in national competitions, too. You could feel the generations swinging through the school.

Some of these kids will go on to start a career in music: the school has a strong record of such. Others will just always have music in their lives. Others will stop learning violin, and won't sing again after they leave school. But they will all have had that chance to make music together in a group, and to experience the terrors and pleasures of a loving audience.

I went to sleep instantly, as is the nature of this never-ending jetlag I'm still suffering. I've been waking on the dot of 4.30, and been unable to get back to sleep for thinking about the things I've been too tired to do during the day.

But last night at 2.00 I woke to a tremendous screech of brakes and a loud crash. I went downstairs and looked out to see a car crashed into a fence on the other side of the main road that runs at an odd angle from the house. The car's rear end was lifted a metre off the ground, its nose pointing down the garden bed near the bike path. I had the phone in my hand to call the ambulance, but then saw three or four taxis stopping (where did they all come from?), and people walking around calmly. I realised people were making calls, and I thought the people walking around had miraculously survived. So I went back to bed. I heard the sirens coming, then for another hour or two heard a low murmuring and rumbling. I assumed it was the tow truck struggling to lift the car out of the fence. I lay there, trying to sleep, refusing to get up again.

I woke, however, to the alarm clock radio speaking of two deaths in North Fitzroy. And at the same time the doorbell rang. Paul got there first and was faced with about eight people and several television cameras and very bright lights, asking had we seen or heard anything. P had not (he is a *very* good sleeper), but I started to stumble out my story, till I realised, and said, that I did not want to appear on TV, at which point they switched off the lights and went away. I've never liked those interviews with neighbours, especially since I know I'm not a brilliant eye-witness at the best of times. Besides, I was still in my dressing-gown...

But two people are dead. The driver of the stolen car was a 17 year old boy from Thornbury, two suburbs away, whose learner's licence had already been cancelled. His female passenger has not yet been identified. He was speeding, heading north, and lost control of the car, that must have then spun across the road and into the power pole, then tipped down the embankment. I hope it was instantaneous for them. I keep thinking of the sound of that dreadful screech of brakes: the last thing they heard; the terror of that moment; the shocking finality of such a death.

But it's hard not to be struck by the contrast between the proud parents of our school's beautiful young musicians, whom we took home safely in our cars, and the trauma of today for two other families. The age difference is minimal, and some of our kids will be out driving on these streets in a year or two. When they do, I think we won't be sleeping soundly till we hear them come home.

Update: well how annoying is this? I just checked a news website again to see my own face on the video footage. Clearly it's convenient enough for them not to show the bit where I say "I don't want to be on television". Hurrumph. Could I be bothered making a complaint? But you can catch a glimpse of the car. It's worse than it looked when I peered out the window; as it's clearly wrapped around the pole...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Marvellous Florence

After the Chaucer congress I'm taking another two days' holiday, and have just returned to Rome from Florence. The first night, Jeffrey and I arrived around 5, checked in, then regrouped at 7.00. Our hotel was gorgeous; and I lucked out with an enormous and serene room on the third floor and my own little balcony looking down into the courtyard and its terracotta rooftiles.

Armed with a map, and about twenty recommendations for restaurants, we found our way to the Mozzarella bar I remembered from September, in the pillared courtyard of an old bank. We started with a glass of prosecco and a liberal serve of antipasti. Mozzarella was promised, but never appeared on the self-service bar, so we had another look at the menu and ordered up a degustazione of five different mozzarelle, on a huge platter of greens and cherry tomatoes. They ranged from delicate to smoked, and there was also a ricotta style. But the highlight was a bowl of creamy mozzarella burrata, which I have discovered is my favourite thing to eat in the whole world. I ate it in Siena (and am waiting for Tom's photo), and it is creamy, with a tendency to form slight threads — I've seen it described as stracciatella, too. It is so soft they pile it on the plate, where it looks like a meringue about to go into the oven, or into a bowl, or even twist a little knot into the top. Sigh. Such sweet creamy goodness.

This was supposed to be a pre-dinner treat, but we were unable to contemplate eating any more, so we just walked and walked, across the Arno, along its banks, then back across the Ponte Vecchio. During the day, it just looks like a bunch of jewelery shops: at night, it's clear that they are more like little market stands, though locked up with ancient wooden panels and heavy black metal clasps: an odd mix of transient and secure. The half-moon shone over the water, as we found our way to the Palazzo Vecchio. Curiously it was open, so we wandered through its vast hall and endless suites of rooms upstairs, out into upstairs loggias with wonderful views of the city and beautiful breezes. Many of the rooms had their windows open - perhaps to clear out the air after the day's heavy traffic - and there was hardly anyone there. We found the little studiolo where Machiavelli used to work; and marvelled at the choice of the rape of the Sabine women as decoration for the rooms for the Medici's waiting women.

Emerging into the piazza della signoria, it was time for a midnight gelati: I had amaretto and pink grapefruit.

Well, you know: we work pretty hard. It was good to have a holiday. And there was more to come the next day. But that's for another post.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pick the odd one out

At dinner last night my dear friend Anne had phoned the restaurant early, and had ordered a beautiful bottle of champagne on ice to be waiting for us when we arrived. So while I'm away, I've certainly been able to celebrate.

Here's a list of the centres of excellence that were funded in the recent round: this will give you some of idea of the exceptional triumph the UWA centre represents for the humanities...

* ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid System
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Geotechnical Science and Engineering
* ARC Centre of Excellence for History of Emotions
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Tera-Scale
* ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Wall Biology
* ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology
* ARC Centre of Excellence in Study of Cognition and its Disorders
* ARC Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems


An extraordinary day. Logged onto email this morning and found a flood of congratulatory notes. The Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion, 1100-1800, based at the University of Western Australia, has been funded! The Australian Research Council has awarded us 93% of what we asked for; and together with the contributions of our partner institutions (Unis of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland) we have a budget of $30 million over seven years.

It is an amazing coup for the humanities; as these centres are rarely awarded to our disciplines. All that running around and rehearsing for the interview was totally worth it.

I sat through various sessions today with an enormous grin on my face, and shall be opening a bottle of something with bubbles in it tonight: dinner is at l’Osteria le Logge, Siena. Drop by and raise a glass with me!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Last night in Rome

What an amazing city! I love it here. Everywhere you turn there's something else to look at: Roman ruins at the end of the shopping street; a farmer's market (oddly-shaped sausages, perfectly round cheeses, jams, eggs, flowers, vegetables) on a back street on the wrong side of the forum — the side where the entrance isn't. The people? wonderful. Billions of tourists like me; but an interesting bunch of wedding parties gathering for photos around the enormous Victor Emmanuel monument, which everyone fittingly describes as the wedding cake. I was there on Sunday, devouring my macedonia and coffee with the other tourists, positioning ourselves under the evaporative fans, when a bunch of very fancily dressed bridal guests turned up in their silks and satins and high heels to eat gelati on the rooftop terrace, too. There's an endless variety of people to look at. I wish Paul were here with his excellent photographer's eye — and his camera.

It's very hot. I packed very lightly, but clearly had a failure of imagination, unable to remember what a hot summer is like, as of course it is mid-winter at home. I had to go shopping today for sandals, a frock, a top and some linen pants. Nothing very spectacular: just European high street brands we don't have in Australia. And everything very cheap in the July sales.

Last night I found a Bach organ recital in San Antonio dei Portoghesi, between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Away from the Piazza, the streets were quiet, windy and narrow. I was early, so I sat in the Piazza a little. There was an old man "busking", with a tape playing "nessun dorma", and holding a microphone and lip-synching, in the vaguest and most minimalist possible way, with a few hand gestures to signify the great drama, as Pavarotti vowed to prevail... The bells of the church summoned me back in time for the recital. It was one of those incredibly ornate baroque churches. The organist struggled a little with some of the rhythms, I felt, but really let fly when it came to those ringing last movements. In the pew in front of me, a woman a little older than I am, quite elegantly dressed, moved arhythmically, perpetually, in response to the music.

When I'm travelling on my own, I stay and eat in cheapish places, unless I'm feeling particularly sorry for myself with homesickness. I really lucked out with this hotel, though. It's 10 minutes from the Termini station, in an area where every tenth building is a hotel or a restaurant. You press the buzzer, and the door opens and you are standing in a cool, dark, tiled vestibule, looking into an ancient courtyard with a moss-covered statue. The office is around the corner. Everything downstairs is tiny: the reception area; the breakfast room — and the breakfast. But upstairs, my room is spotless; my bathroom is clean and new; my sheets are fine cotton linen; and it's quiet, as my window opens onto the courtyard. I can hear a family laughing and playing; and a cat miaowing. It's nice; hearing these sounds in the summer evening.

There'll be time for fancy dinners at the conference; I've been happy on my own, dining at little pizza bars and cafes. Tonight, my pizza was served on a beautiful ceramic plate. It was fragrant and thin, as a pizza is supposed to be. It had carciofi (artichokes), salty black olives, truffle-flavoured mushrooms and some fine prosciutto. Not scattered evenly over the whole pizza, but artfully arranged in groups. This, plus a little red wine, came to eleven euros, in a cafe directly opposite the station.

And how weird: the "preview" I just checked appeared with a banner across one corner of the screen, saying "anteprima". A little new vocabulary every day.

Time, now, to go back to Wolf Hall (does anyone else think Hilary Mantel has read her Dorothy Dunnet *very* attentively?)

Friday, July 09, 2010


Thanks to all who’ve posted comments on my questions about medieval blogging: I’ll post again after the session in Siena and see what comes out.

I’m drafting this on the plane from Melbourne to Singapore, on my way to London, then another flight back to Rome where I’ll hang out in the sun for a few days before heading up to Siena.

It’s been the usual scramble to get things done before getting on the plane. And much harder this time as yesterday (can it really just be yesterday?) I was in Canberra, fronting up as part of a team representing a bid for an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence on the History of Emotions, 1100-1800. It was very nerve-wracking, as it is a bid for 7 years and millions of dollars to fund a research centre which would be based in Perth at the University of Western Australia, but with people also based in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Melbourne. There were about 130 expressions of interest, and they interviewed 18 finalists for perhaps 10 centres. And this is from all academic fields. There were only one or two more, I think, in all of the humanities and social sciences. We’ll hear in August, perhaps, if we were successful.

I’m only a minor player, here. If the Centre gets funding, I’ll lead one of four research programs, but by far the greatest burden fell on the shoulders of the team at Perth, especially Philippa Maddern and Susan Broomhall. The work they did was incredible; and they had magnificent support from UWA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for research, Alistar Robertson. Alistar’s a marine biologist, but has worked enthusiastically with the historians for the last eighteen months as the bid came together. We were given a list of possible questions: some generic, about governance, intellectual property, etc; and some specific to our proposal: did we have enough psychologists? were we too Eurocentric, etc. I took part in three rehearsals for this interview (one in Perth; one on skype; and another in Canberra on Tuesday), and by the time we rocked up yesterday morning, we felt as prepared as we could be. A panel of seven, plus three support staff also in the room taking notes as we spoke.

Philippa’s 30 minute powerpoint presentation (with embedded video from one of the industry partners, WA opera) went beautifully; and then the questions started.

The initial mood of the panel was avowedly skeptical: they thought we were a strong team, but how did we really think we’d be able to make this early period relevant to Australian life? As we had planned, I took this question (my research program will be called Shaping the Modern, and will examine the tradition of European emotional regimes in Australian culture), and off we went. We all performed well, I must say: keeping to our script and our plan. Mostly these centres go to the sciences: I don't think the panel was expecting our team to be so incredibly well prepared on all the managerial-style questions. As the 90 minutes went by, we could feel the panel becoming less skeptical; and saying things like, “I had a question about governance, but you’ve answered that very well in your presentation”… Alistar sat quietly with us till towards the end, answering questions with great point and sharpness (if we erred, we were perhaps a little wordy and diffuse). The last question was a killer. What would you do if we funded you at only 50% of what you’ve requested? Philippa was firm — we had anticipated this question, but the size of the projected cut was pretty brutal. But then Alistar came in with this very powerful and ringing endorsement: this was the team that would re-shape the nature of humanities research in Australia (through its intellectual ambitions; its postgraduate training; its collaborative methods); it was an amazing opportunity; and it would be, he implied, mealy-mouthed in the extreme for the ARC — he addressed the questioner by her first name here — to fund it only at such a rate. This DVC, I must say, really gets the humanities, and what we’re about.

With that, the panel was done; and we gathered up our specially made laminated name cards with the prospective centre’s logo, and marched out, though perhaps not getting quite far enough away before we started congratulating each other as if we had just defeated Germany 4-0 in the World Cup. Honestly, I don’t think we could have done better. If we don’t get it, then that’s a shame, but it won’t be because we didn’t make the most of the opportunity we were given.

Remarkably, I don’t find myself going over my answers and kicking myself for not doing it differently. And it was really lovely to be part of such a team. Wish us luck!