Friday, March 28, 2008

Update: Aftershock

After the trauma of the break-in, I admit to finding it a little hard to concentrate. I have had a big clean-out of my email in-tray, for example, instead of working on my lecture for next week or the several other tasks at hand. But I was going ok, holding it all together to give Joel a sense of normality, until this afternoon, when I was in the supermarket. I'd left my trolley by the bananas, with my green recyclable shopping bags sitting on top, while I'd gone round to pick up some nectarines, and when I came back, I saw an old woman calmly taking one of my bags to put her grapes in.

I said, "Isn't that my bag?" and I swear she said, "I'm a beggar; I'm taking it, ok?" Of course I just shrugged ironically. Who is going to dispute ownership of a $1 bag with an old woman in her slippers? Not I. What am I going to do? I'm going to start collecting my own grapes and mushrooms, sobbing quietly into my hands. I have to keep going, because Joel is at his music lesson and I have to pick him up at 5.30, but I can't stop crying. No one comes to my aid. Clearly, if you run down the street in your socks yelling "stop thief" it's exciting and dramatic, but a middle-aged woman sobbing over the fruit and vegetables on a Friday night? Oh well, what would you expect?

I got as far as the check-out, still sobbing and shaking, clearly experiencing a delayed reaction of vulnerability and shock, and just wishing it would be one of those Fridays when I run into my friend Hannah at the supermarket. I looked up, and there she was, just exactly the right person to meet. I had had dinner with her the previous night, so she knew the whole story, and just hung on tight till I had stopped sobbing.

I'm ok now. Joel is at a friend's house; Paul is on his way home from the US; and everything's right with the world.

Oh. I do turn 50 tomorrow. Anyone else signing up for Earth Hour to help me celebrate? Because, truly, not everything is all right with the world...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Vigilantes R Us

Well, it was like this.

Yesterday evening I was out in the old studio in the back garden, helping Joel with his cello practice. As we came back into the house I heard a noise and headed down the corridor, and saw a man standing just inside the front door. The lights were off and it was still light outside so I couldn't get a good look at him. I said, with increasing volume, "Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" whereupon he froze, then turned and ran. Without thinking, I set off after him (in my socks) screaming at the top of my voice, "Stop that man! Thief! Burglar! Stop him!" He was much younger and running much faster than I could, and he crossed the road in the middle of the traffic, and headed towards the city. I didn't see anyone rushing out of the cafés and take-away places to grab him, and almost gave up, but since I'd stopped outside the pizza place, I asked them to phone the police.

There are always a couple of Italian boys hanging around La Sera, and I think they must have headed off after him. I was still on the phone when someone came back to say the guy had been caught, so I told the police and then within 5 minutes I could see the flashing blue lights of the police car, several blocks down. They told me later there were 3 or 4 groups of people who had grabbed the guy and were just holding him till the police arrived, and who have made witness statements. The cops then came back to our place, and examined where he had just shouldered the old wooden door (there is a security door, but because we were "home" it was open). We then went down to Fitzroy and made a statement, and the man has been arrested and charged.

What went through my mind? Nothing. It was a case of sheer maternal protective instinct. My house and my child were at risk, and Paul wasn't home: if I didn't do anything, nothing would have been done. I don't know what I would have done if I had caught him, but I am really thrilled that people on the street (it is a main road) stepped up and helped me. I remembered a story my parents told me about being at Victoria market one day and hearing all the stall-holders yelling out in chorus "thief! thief! thief!" as a man ran down one of the aisles until someone grabbed him. Honestly, it felt downright neighbourly around our inner-urban neck of the woods last night.

When I was on the phone, the constable said repeatedly, "Don't put yourself in danger", but my heroics were over by then. And the senior constable, and the constable who took my statement both said they normally counsel you not to get involved, but in fact they said "well done!" and "good on you" and gave me the thumbs up, so I was very pleased. I was also pleased I was able to shout. It's always my fear that if I'm attacked I wouldn't be able to shout or scream, but I was so angry that it was easy.

Joel was quite rattled, though, and so was I. We called in on a family who live a block away from the police station, just to make contact with friends, with warmth and food and a cup of tea. Thanks D and S: you are life-savers!!

Of course, as a textual scholar, I was intrigued by the production of text. The constable sat in front of a computer and asked me questions, and typed up "my" statement. Reading it, you'd think I was a completely coherent subject, whereas in fact Joel and I were full of nervous asides and doubts as we were talking. (I could see how medieval inquisitorial testimonies might be produced.) She asked me to look it over — we'd already had the obligatory conversation about her English teacher — and it was really terrific. Oh dear, though: I did correct a "were" for a "where". Oh well. I made up for that today by going on line to the Victoria police website and registering a "compliment" to the cops.

I'm going to nip down to La Sera tonight and thank them, too. What do you take the owners of a pizza place to show your gratitude?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

OMG There's a teenager in the house




Thursday night.

It's the eve of J's thirteenth birthday. He says he's happy for me to blog about this event, and tomorrow may even make a photo for the blog. I'm overly protective about posting images of my son on my blog, though I will post the photos I found he has already stored on my laptop, from a few months ago, in which he appears suitably deformed...

This night, thirteen years ago, I hardly slept for excitement. We knew we were heading into the hospital in the morning for an elective Caesarian, for J was a seriously breech baby: head up beneath my ribs and not going anywhere. We didn't know he was J, though. Given that everything else about his birth was completely known, right down to the hour, it seemed important not to know too much about the baby.

When they plucked him out — knees first, according to Paul — they laid him next to my head, and he started talking, saying "ah ah ah", as if he were just continuing the conversation we had been having while he was still in utero. And ever since then he has remained a great conversationalist. I remember lying with him next to me all day and some of the nights, for the week I stayed in hospital, his peachy little head nestled close to my ribs. He was only about six when I told him about these memories, as he snuggled up close one day. I told him how he used to lie with his head against my heart. "Music to my ears", he said.

When I tell that story, it reminds me of one of the great mysteries of time, and of parenting. J has the language bug in spades, and has always had a good vocabulary and great syntax. One of his first full sentences was adverbial. We were at the zoo, watching the giant tortoises lumber about. "Tortoise ... moving ... slowly", he said carefully (and trochaically). I used to write some of these gems down, but as a record, they tended to lose their point quite quickly, as they only made sense as examples of his growing maturity, relative to how old he was. So as time went by, the great leaps and bounds of language acquisition became blurred. But emotions stepped in to do the work. Around about this time, we put his cot back in our room while we had visitors, I think, and I can remember hearing him stirring, then standing up and holding on to the bars, and saying clearly, "I wake up". And what I also remember is the pleasure of that moment, the child so clearly starting his own day.

This seemed prodigious to us at the time, but I suspect most of our excitement was just at the novelty of his learning. But it is surprisingly hard to measure your child's growth and development, and to work out where the time goes between birthdays.

A few weeks ago, I found an old email. It describes a day when I was working at my desk, and J and his dear friend E were playing together. I started transcribing their conversation, and sent the email to Paul and to E's parents. When I found this email recently, I sent it on again, collapsing time, and trying to measure the miracle of these two children, both on the verge of teenagerhood, and also to measure the time of our own parenthood: three of the four of us are turning 50 this year. Here's what I sent.

J and E have just come in to my study, each with a couple of toys. You know how it is, you hear snippets of the presiding syntax, which is, "let's pretend we did such and such", but then they drop the "pretend", and wander around, narrating their actions in the past tense. So, they came into my room, saying, "and then we came into a strange land"... "and then the monster had decided to go and find a different land" " and then I had my own little cave and had to fold up to get inside" (crawling under the futon), "and then everyone came to visit me because I was so famous" "but then the ghost decided to move out to a different house" "and you thought I had betrayed you but I was just in my house for a long time" "and then friends came to visit us but we didn't say anything because we were too sad" "and then you saw me and apple and blackcurrant up on the mountain having a picnic." More and more and more of this: a kind of dual stream of consciousness...


I'm going to keep this email and send it on to the three other parents, every few years. The kids would have been about five or six at this time, I think. What great dramas they were enacting here, and what serious play: fantasy kingdoms, fame, ghosts, betrayal, misunderstanding, disfunctional grief, solitude, regimes of spectatorship. Both are only children who often used to spend one or two days each weekend together: they are perfect mutual analysands!

Anyway, J is turning thirteen. I know it's supposed to herald the beginning of a ghastly period of adolescence, but at the moment such turmoil seems unimaginable. We still have great conversations; I am in awe of his musical ability; and English is his favourite subject. He will have a small party at the end of the school holidays in two weeks: a trip with six friends to the Game On exhibition of video games at ACMI; a meal at a Chinese restaurant; and then a sleepover party.

March 21 is also the first day of the astrological year, the first day of Aries, and the birthday of J.S. Bach. How's that for auspicious?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lucky medievalists

Great to see the wonderful list that Eileen Joy has put up over at In the Middle, of her round-up of recent discussions in ancient and medieval studies, as that blog's contribution to Carnivalesque Logo. Not just because Humanities Researcher gets a mention here, either.

What a great time to be a medievalist this is!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More beautiful handwork

And speaking of beautiful things, here a post about an amazing quilt my student Anne made for her brother.

Gosh, if I start blogging about the baby clothes I am knitting for my friend's granddaughter, this'll be turning into a downright craft blog...

How to make beautiful pictures

I don't understand why I can't save and post the beautiful picture I made of myself lecturing to the students on the Bayeux Tapestry, but here's one that Radha, the senior tutor, made for our multi-disciplinary course from the wonderland site. I've tried downloading another version of Flash, but to no avail. Maybe I'll have more time to play over the Easter break...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bayeux down; Roland to go

One lecture down ... twice.

It's 39 in Melbourne today: people are moving rather slowly around campus. But a respectable number of first-year students turned up to hear a lecture about the Bayeux Tapestry (Ok, I know: it's really an embroidery) as the first of two lectures on medieval romance warfare. This is one of our new interdisciplinary subjects, called Homer to Hollywood. They have already looked at the Iliad, for example; while my lecture on Wednesday is on The Song of Roland.

Today's lecture couldn't help but frame its discussion with the problem of medievalism that occupies me these days: how can we tell the medieval thing from the medievalist contexts and frames around it?

It was also fun to think about the difficulties of actually observing the tapestry, short of heading off on a field-trip to Bayeux. I had access to a good CD-Rom, but I couldn't easily download jpeg files for a powerpoint presentation. There are lots of good pictures in books, but they cannot give anywhere near an idea of the scope and scale of the thing.

One picture I got onto the powerpoint, but can't translate into a format blogger will recognise is a photograph of the tapestry hung around the walls and arches of Bayeux cathedral, too high for the eye to read comfortably, suggesting the tapestry's commemorative and possibly civic function: "look what a big tapestry belongs to this town!"

But there are lots of great web resources. For anyone interested in how technology facilitates the study of the middle ages, here are three great sites.

Images of discrete panels, in terrific colour and detail.

A panoramic thread, which you can scroll backwards and forwards.

And the YouTube link. This animates (only minimally, and that's all it needs to do), the second half of the narrative.





I also found a great drawing of the winch the linen used to be stored on, with a big handle. Presumably when curious visitors asked, it could be rolled out for inspection, then rolled up again.

There's no doubt in my mind that our modern mediated digital images make it easier to study and read the images, though they do tend to flatten out the textual/textile "thatness" of the thing as object.

And thanks to Wombat World, and the link to it I found at In the Middle, here's a recent example of many appropriations of the tapestry. What I love about this version of the Simpsons' couch gag is that it reinforces my argument about the tapestry commemorating a war almost between families, rather than nations. And it's certainly nothing like the situation in the Song of Roland, where "Christians are right and pagans are wrong". The Normans and the Saxons don't really look all that different, except for the Normans' tonsured haircuts. William's and Harold's families were related by marriage; hence William's claim to the throne. They were about as different from each other as the Flanders and the Simpsons.

And of course, I also held up my Bayeux tapestry teatowel. And weirdly, actually used it this morning to mop up the mess I made when I spilt my waterbottle over my desk on the way to the second delivery of the lecture. How's that for appropriation!

And a postscript: as I write, it's 39 degrees, and the weather pixie has sensibly put on her bathers (this is, I think, a Melbourne usage: what do you call the garments you wear to go swimming where you are?), and I don't mind at all....

Friday, March 14, 2008

Writing lectures ...

... has changed completely.

The very first lecture I ever gave was on the poetry of Sylvia Plath (and Adrienne Rich, I think) to first year Modern Literature students. There would have been several hundred of them, and it would have been about 1985. I wore a long-sleeved purple cotton shirt. This was back in the days when women, though present in my department, were more likely tutors than lecturers, and certainly not senior lecturers or professors. I'm sure it was the surprise of seeing a young woman lecturing, and the astonishing poetry of Plath, or perhaps just kindness at seeing someone inexperienced making it through to the end of the lecture without falling over, but I received a round of applause and was instantly, thoroughly hooked.

The writing of lectures, and the nervous anticipation of presenting them, is upon me again this semester. I'm writing new lectures for my own medievalism subject, and next week I will also give two lectures in one of our new multi-disciplinary subjects, Homer to Hollywood. So on Monday I lecture on the Bayeux Tapestry at 10.00, then repeat the lecture at 12.00; then on Wednesday it's the Song of Roland at 10.00, then 45 minutes on Malory and the myth of Camelot to the medievalism students. One of my tutors will then give his first half-lecture in the course on Tennyson's Lady of Shalott (this is a ridiculous 90-minute lecture spot for the 118 students in this course), while I dash back to repeat the Roland lecture at midday.

Over the years I have become more economical in the preparation of lectures. My Plath lecture was a pretty complete script, written well in advance. These days, if I prepare too soon, or too comprehensively, I feel the lecture falls flat. I must also admit, even though I once made a speech about how Powerpoint was not a necessary component of good teaching, I do use it now, as a way of organising my thoughts and concentrating my preparation. So I'll prepare an outline on one slide, load up any images or text I want to analyse, add in a few notes at the bottom of some slides ... and just start talking.

It's a bit risky, this method. It's possible to spend too long finding good images and playing with the powerpoint designs, and forgetting about the actual points you want to make, though it's easier if, like me, you have no design imperatives or skills: default settings usually work just fine. I still find it a little hard to make the best use of powerpoint. It's great for images, and for close textual analysis, and that makes it great for teaching medieval culture, but it does tend to reduce everything down to dot points, when we know - and when we want our students to know - that things are usually a lot more complicated than that.

So while the hot northerly winds bluster around the house*, I'm uploading images of the tapestry, and re-reading the poem, and thinking about Malory, and trying to judge that perfect balance between preparedness and freshness that will see me through those 4.75 hours of lectures next week.

* Thank goodness the weather pixie hasn't put her bikini on, though. I had to think long and hard before choosing this model, because of the swimsuit option that came with it. What if people thought she was me? Worse than wearing the wrong frock to a lecture...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Dreaming about the Queen

Apparently some enormous percentage of Britons have dreamed about the Queen. I suspect the number is similarly high in Commonwealth countries; and proportionately lower in the US and Europe.

Last night it was my turn. I dreamt of a kind of tournament/sports carnival. OK, that's easy: I'm teaching A Knight's Tale next week; and was also reading about the Eglintoun Tournament of 1843 in Michael Alexander's Medievalism last week. But then I was taken into a seminar room at the back of the grounds, and there were the Queen and Prince Philip. I stumbled over the appropriate forms of address and Her Majesty smiled patiently and said she was looking forward to reading the chapter of my book where I wrote about her opinions of the Order of the Garter. I started to mumble something about the way I thought that insiders were able to make fun of or mock the Order, and she said that sounded interesting. And then I woke up.

Fantastic! A few weeks ago, my mother also showed me the David Campbell poem, "Australian Dream" which has the Queen, Duke and Queen Mother turning up to stay the night.

In fact I have been thinking about the Queen as an example of Bourdieu's "institution-made" subject. She's the pre-eminent case of someone who is completely formed by the institution she serves.

But then, if we are dreaming our books, what does that say about our unconscious?

Friday, March 07, 2008

One minute it's summer...

Just hanging out the washing when I saw something pink up in the Manchurian pear tree. What could it be?



Oh. It was autumn.
And it was in the maple, too.




Oh. And it was already at my feet. That was quick.


How to Write a Book

The way books (or theses, for that matter) get written never ceases to amaze me. I'm always intrigued by the different ways my graduate students go about putting words together, and how they strike their own balance between reading, writing and talking about their work.

For me, the most fun part by far is the writing. I'm dreadful at the filing and organising my notes; and often put off the necessary reading, too.

The book I'm writing now is a little like my book on Chaucer, in that it runs from the fourteenth century through to the present, but this time it ranges over much broader cultural fields: literature, ritual practice, costume, religion, historiography, tourism, etc. My shorthand answer to the question "what's your book about?" is to describe is as a cultural history of the Order of the Garter, but it also stems from my interest in how the medieval is figured and re-figured as the point of origin of this more or less continuous form of ritual practice.

I gave my first paper on this topic way back around 2001; and have only just recently locked my chapter structure into place (I've nearly finished drafting the fifth of seven chapters, so there's still a way to go). How am I going to balance the imperatives of chronologies and histories against the thematic threads I want to draw out? I think I have a solution; and am grouping the first three chapters into one section, "Ritual Histories"; and the next four as "Ritual Practices". Neat, eh?

But this struggle has taken place in a part of my brain that has repressed a memory. In the latest edition of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, I've reviewed David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aprha Behn. The title alone will give you an idea of the scope of this book, if you're not a medievalist. If you are, it's certainly come across your horizons. In part, I wrote:

Wallace’s practical method is dizzying, as he moves through what must be an extraordinary archive of filing-cabinets filled with photographs, maps, references and allusions to events, emotions and memories of these six locations across several centuries, and from many different kinds of writing. He lays a rich and fascinating wealth of material before us in this book, as he traces the patterns of remembering and forgetting that influence the cultural histories of place and period.

This is not a narrative strategy without risk, however. Premodern Places is a wonderful and practical exercise in the multiple temporalities invoked by postcolonial criticism, in critiques of periodisation, and especially by scholars working in the fascinating territory between the late medieval and the early modern, a problem neatly solved by the inclusive “premodern” of its title. It is a book preeminently concerned with the shaping power of broad cultural forces, and many will find it an inspiring, even liberating project in uncovering multiple forgotten histories, places and voices. Wallace is interested, after all, in the way literary scholars can sometimes fall silent, and let texts speak “in the past’s own idiom”; indeed, he gives the last word of his book to the pseudonymous poet “Tryphossa”, writing in 1973, in the hybrid language Sranan: “Èn beybi-Jesus krey a fosi: yè-è-è.”

Nevertheless, the book depends on an extraordinary mastery in marshalling and organising its materials. Wallace’s narrative voice is engagingly candid and modest, but the hand of the compilator remains firmly in control. Moreover, the impulse to write of the superego and the id of the Renaissance, for example, to speak so broadly of what history, or cultural history represses, skirts dangerously close to re-instituting the unfashionable grand narratives of modernism and colonialism. Perhaps it is impossible to write this kind of long history without such perspectives. Premodern Places will undoubtedly stand for a long time as a important test-case for this method.
Apart from my propensity to over-use the word "extraordinary" (an early draft had a third usage in these three paragraphs), what strikes me only just now are the obvious similiarities between David's book and what I'm trying to do in mine — though my prospective publisher has indeed suggested I take Premodern Places as a model for a book that might appeal to a somewhat broader audience than a narrow specialist one. This is daunting indeed.

But perhaps the filing cabinet I had in mind when I wrote the review is my own. I have drawers and drawers of Garter stuff: books, articles, pamphlets, photographs, newspaper cuttings, even a drink coaster.

So my questions are ones about mastery. How do we master these vast and complex archives without re-instating master narratives over them? Or perhaps a master narrative is appropriate here? Does the last paragraph of my review speaks more to my own anxieties? And perhaps they are more about my fear that I won't be able to find a grand narrative.

So as I often say to myself, Beckett-like, when writing: "I can't go on. I'll go on."