I might have had an ambitious plan to blog about the Perth conference daily, but that was while I was still in Melbourne, and undergoing the between-conference amnesia that makes you forget the sheer exhaustion of conference-going. It's not as if I was out partying every night, either. I must be getting older, as I quite liked getting back to the hotel at a reasonable hour, crashing to sleep and waking up early for a decent walk before breakfast. Perhaps the young things were out raging? I like to think so.
My hotel was opposite Kings' Park, a huge expanse of parkland between the university and the city. I'd be up and walking along its roads by 7.30, though I never dared to venture into the bushland on either side of the road. There were just not enough people around to feel that would be safe, though it was good to think there was that kind of terrain in the city. The first two mornings I headed up along this more formal direction —
and had breakfast at the big cafe overlooking the city and the river.
The second two mornings I headed to the Zamia cafe. On Friday I couldn't identify this fantastically pungent aroma: what kind of tree or blossom could give off such a strong scent? But it was coming from several huge piles of mulched eucalypts. I don't really know my trees, but from the colour of the bark I would guess a red gum or the characteristic West Australian jarrah. The morning was chill, and the piles were sending up clouds of aromatic steam. The silly camera on the phone barely catches it. I think you have to be an Australian to sense the way this fragrance can fill the lungs with either deep contentment or desperate longing:
The conference was the first big gathering of the ARC Network for Early European Research. I've written about this Network elsewhere. A few comments here, though. "Early Europe" extends, for the purposes of this conference, from 400-1850; and our work is resolutely interdisciplinary. The theme of this conference was "Networks, Communities, Continuities" and it was terrific to see medieval and early modern scholars thinking in these broader terms. My paper was in a session called "Theorizing Medievalism Today", and Jenna Mead, Louise D'Arcens, Helen Dell and I were disciplined in only speaking to our pre-circulated papers so we had plenty of time for some great discussion. Louise had asked us all to think about Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale and so we did, from four perspectives drawing on deconstruction, film theory, psychoanalysis and my own vaguely Bourdieuian ideas about the circulation of knowledge about the medieval. We've been asked to submit the papers to Parergon so with any luck they'll appear in print before too long...
However, there weren't all that many sessions dedicated to medieval literature or medievalism. Or even early modern literature, for that matter. I suspect the historians have been faster to realise the network's purview extends as late as the mid-nineteenth century.
All the papers were supposed to have been put up on the conference website, so that we would only talk to them briefly and allow enough time in the 75 minute sessions for discussion. But when people insist on reading their papers, this is of course intensely frustrating; and really limits the possibilities for interdisciplinary exchange.
The organisers also experimented with poster displays for postgraduates, with only mixed success. I wonder if this ever works well in the humanities? New Chaucer Society pondered this at one meeting, but decided not to go ahead.
Three wonderful moments of affect, though. Constant Mews gave a brilliant paper on the nature of university communities and networks in the thirteenth century, and at one point had occasion to refer to Aquinas, who died before he was 50, said Constant, putting his hand on his heart and sighing. What did it signify? The tragedy of a life cut short? or comparisons with his own productivity? not that Constant needs to worry. But I suddenly realised the comparison might also apply to me in about nine months, and I was less sanguine. It reminded me of the William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon Frank described to me: a man standing disconsolately against the mantlepiece and his wife saying, "Of course you're going to be depressed if you keep comparing yourself with successful people."
Second was Dale Kent showing images of a sculpture of a child by Desiderio. People in the room were already making little murmuring noises at the sight, softening their bodies and leaning in toward each other when Dale showed an image of the back of the child's neck and said, "don't you just want to go 'num num num' into his neck?". And yes, indeed, we did.
Third was Hal Cook (this trio of names gives you an idea of the quality of the conference) describing the "republic of letters" circulating amongst natural historians, doctors and other scholars, and especially Jacobus Bontius, a Dutch doctor in Jakarta in the seventeenth century who researched local plants and animals. This correspondence, said Hal, "floated on a sea of lost conversations".
I'm not the only one who thinks the campus of the University of Western Australia is one of the prettiest in Australia. Again, the little telephone can barely do justice to it, but this is a most spectacular salmon gum outside the library:
And a glimpse of the green lawns:
The weather was cold for the first few days, bearing out the organisers' warnings about bringing warm clothes. But by Friday, and our jaunt to Fremantle and the Maritime museum, it was warm and sunny. Here are my delightful companions on our afternoon off:
The future is in good hands!