Friday, October 30, 2009

Why I Love my Readers

A while back I asked if anyone would be interested in reading a chapter of my book on the Order of the Garter. I was overwhelmed by people's willingness to do this, and am now slowly working through these comments as I try to get my six chapters ready to send to the publisher (hopefully, within a week or two). I'm working backwards, so as to leave the hardest chapters (1 and 2) to last, and so that I have the fullest sense of the book as I revise those crucial opening chapters.

People's responses have been tremendously useful, and I'm amazed at the tact with which people have pointed out where the argument is hard to follow or doesn't make sense. I'm also thrilled at the deftness with which people have suggested clever readings of the primary material I look at. I feel the book is really starting to come together properly now, and it's absolutely due to these responses.

I'm just going through Chapter Three now and have Philip and David to thank, today, for helping me make sense of this chapter, which has to work through the many variants of the Garter myth. I hope Philip won't mind my sharing this comment, which makes me laugh out loud each time I read it.

Page 16: "Other versions and variants also circulated."

- Did you write this chapter in a linear way, from start to finish? At this precise point you're sounding a bit lethargic, as if the sheer quantity and variety of material was too much to bear. Which of course it is, but you may want to seem effortlessly clever...


No, my dear, I assembled it like the whole book, in bits and pieces and scraps, and occasional bursts of 5000 words at a time. And yes, of course, I want to seem effortlessly clever, though I suspect this blog may have blown my cover there. Anyway, I've deleted the offending sentence in an effort to appear effortless.

Hey ho: back to work!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

World's Last Gothic Cathedral is Finished


Well, I guess this is a milestone of sorts:

From The Australian today:

OPPOSITION Leader Malcolm Turnbull tonight swapped the unholy noise of parliament for angelic tones in Brisbane's St John's Anglican Cathedral. Mr Turnbull and wife Lucy were among hundreds of guests from around the globe to celebrate the world's last Gothic cathedral to be completed. St John's was designed by English Victorian Gothic architect John Pearson in 1889. But it was not until this year that the third and final stage of its construction was finished - at a cost of almost $40 million. Brisbane's third Anglican bishop William Webber was mocked when he suggested the northern outpost have a cathedral, but he continued to push for the building because it would "inspire lofty thoughts and noble aspirations". The service combined the ancient and modern. It was webcast on the internet and featured indigenous elements including a traditional welcome and a Torres Strait island hymn. A didgeridoo played as Anglican Primate Dr Phillip Aspinall offered the consecration prayers. "We give thanks to God to everyone since 1906 who has laboured to create this magnificent building," he told the congregation.

I can't download them, but in my searching around I did see some rather intriguing images of the cathedral's new stained glass windows: I may have to go and visit. The picture above makes it look rather small, in fact: the spires look rather short and squat to me (especially in contrast to the new spires of St Mary's cathedral in Sydney - seen here on the left). Though both images interestingly demonstrate the difficulty of fitting gothic architecture into the format of modern cameras.

Weirdly, although the completion of Brisbane's gothic cathedral seems to establish a rather odd temporal disjuncture, there is also something medieval about taking a hundred years to build something.

Has anyone seen the Brisbane one recently? Is that picture a good image?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Another all-clear

The research assistant on the clinical trial, the nurse and the surgeon all said to me this morning, "it's going quickly, isn't it?" Yes, it's the third anniversary of my surgery for early stage breast cancer, and this morning I sailed through the annual mammogram, ultrasound and examination with Suzanne with flying colours. It was good to see the very reassuring initials NAD (nothing abnormal detected) going onto my files and x-ray reports.

But is it going quickly? Not really. Not when you examine every day closely as it goes by, as I do these days. This doesn't mean I always make the best use of a day: I rarely feel that. But I certainly do notice them as they pass.

One of the lovely things for me about this practice is the sense of these teams of women working so well together (surgeons, nurses, radiologists, receptionists, researchers). I did see Mitchell, my oncologist, striding into the waiting room to meet a woman wearing a long scarf — I think they adminster the chemotherapy in this clinic, too — but everyone who attended me today was a woman. It's peaceful there. No televisions, no piped music, just magazines, comfortable couches and white towelling robes to wear while you wait. Women come and go, and although there's always a level of anxiety on our faces, it's calm. We are being attended by kindly, efficient and skilled women who know exactly what they are doing, how best to manage our visit and our health. For a place that is closely associated with a deadly disease, it's remarkably serene.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mimesis, Diegesis and Infinite Regress

One of the most useful binary oppositions in literary theory is that between mimesis and diegesis, or between showing and telling. To over-simplify: a play like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida shows the action; an epic poem like the Odyssey narrates the action in involuted folds of narrative, forwards and backwards like Penelope's shuttle. (And yes, Auerbach's Mimesis is indeed one of my favourite books.) And yes, I know this distinction is ripe for unpicking. But it's where I begin, today.

I've been thinking about the film, In Search of Beethoven, which I saw yesterday. It's a wonderful documentary, though it holds its fire all the time, and is quite restrained. It's more concerned with emotion than psychology, for example, and its attempts to fill out cultural and historical context are sketchy at best. For all that, though, it's surprisingly satisfying. It's full of irresistible close-ups of pianos, fingers, and the wood grain on the side of the piano keys and cellos, the extraordinary and unlikely tactility of bow hairs across strings.

The film has a clear message too: re-orient your vision of Beethoven as tempestuous angry man, frustrated by deafness; and re-think a man of a great mind and a great heart in struggle with each other. A man of generosity, spirituality and humane love.

Some of the most compelling scenes are where musicians demonstrate and talk about particular passages. Mimesis and diegesis working together. Someone explains that Beethoven was particularly good, as a pianist, at repeating a note, or progressing smoothly down a scale of octaves, and wrote such features into his work to annoy less able pianists. At one point, someone plays a repeated B, and shows how Beethoven is just "listening to the note" at that point.

But the most amazing moment for me was when Hélène Grimaud is rehearsing the second movement of the 4th piano concerto, and plays, very slowly, its slow descending scales (I listened to my CD of Lang Lang playing this this afternoon). Her face is overcome with anxiety, tension and love of every note of this music: in perfectly balanced irregular rhythm, note by note runs off wood and drops into a deep pool. It's utterly engrossing. Far less spectacular than the big symphonies, with their insistent obsessive rhythms, but completely compelling. It was about halfway through what is a rather long and academic film, but the cinema audience was suddenly transfixed and silent. I'm sure I was not the only one to feel the tears running down.

But of course, I can only try and tell you, diegetically, what this moment of mimesis was like. The other way to tell you is to say that I just put my ipod on shuffle. The first thing that came up was a Bach cantata, and I think for the first time in my life I heard Bach as a mechanical martinet of a composer. What if I am becoming a romantic, after all these years?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Off to Sydney

Have just cycled back from Italian class (starting the past tense; yay!) and about to throw things together for my quick trip to the emerald city.

Ci vediamo.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why It Takes So Long

As I reach the final stages of my book on the Order of the Garter (6 chapters about to be sent to the publisher; last chapter half-written), I'm tidying up references, and scanning my photos. And as I look at the titles I have just collected from the library, from up and down the Dewey cataloguing scale, it reminds me of why it's taking me so long. I have

Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray

William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words

Harriet Guest, Empire, Barbarism and Civilisation

Crowfoot, et al. Textiles and Clothing, c. 1150-c. 1450.

On my desk at home I have Rachel Holmes' biography of the intersexual doctor, James Barry.

And on my list of things to order and place on hold I have Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Pepys' Diary, and The Last of the Barons, by Edward Bulwer Lytton.

(Also on my desk is a History of the New South Wales Parliament, but that's for another project: quite separate...)

No wonder it's taking me so long to tie all my threads together. It sometimes feels dizzying to be moving across so many centuries and fields. Still, some sections in some chapters now make a satisfying "clunk" sound (like the sound when you check out a library book at Baillieu) when they come to an end. Getting there. Ever closer, every day.

It is of course ridiculous that this great enterprise will score me only a measely 5 points on our research productivity indicator things. But you know what? I don't care. Today, this week, I really like my book.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The mortality of elm trees

I don't know if we'd plant them now, in this era of climate change and the move away from European "exotic" plantings, but in the front of our house, there are several "stands" of elm trees. They are probably over a hundred years old. Like other elms in Melbourne, they are part of an ageing population. They also have regular infestations of elm-leaf beetle, and so every few years we have them injected with stuff that kills the beetles. Last year we left it rather late, and so by midsummer, when the air was burning, our normally dark green canopy was riddled with lacy holes in the desiccated leaves. It was a sad and grim sight, but we trusted that the next season, our trees would recover.



(Not my photo, but this is what the leaves looked like.)

This week I've seen elms elsewhere in Melbourne coming into bright green leaf, while ours remain bare. They normally produce millions of flaky dry seeds that fall all over the car and the roof and the paths. We were starting to fear our trees would not make it; that somehow the drought and the extreme temperatures of last summer and the beetles might have combined to bring about their end. It was dreadful to contemplate: presiding over the death of these magnificent creatures. The house itself was starting to feel denuded; the bare trunks and branches a sign of our shame.

You can tell from the tenses in that paragraph that I haven't given up all hope yet. Today was warm and beautiful, and I can now see little buds and tiny flashes of delicate green leaves. Don't know what's happened to the seeds, but it looks as if our beautiful trees might be ok.

This is not my photo either, and not our trees, but this picture shows you how beautifully these trees sit in Melbourne's European style parks. Read about Melbourne's elms here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Things

Last night, courtesy of my friend Anne, we watched the director's cut of Lord of the Rings. Much longer, and much more coherent and emotionally satisfying as a narrative than the commercial release, though if the third one has any more of Sam I doubt I'll be quite so thrilled: what an annoyingly abject character he is, with his "Mr Frodo". (I thought we were being told to disapprove of the hobbit class hierarchy with the jibe at the Sackville-Bagginses, and all.)

Anyway. As one after another character's eyes glazed over at the sight of the ring, I started thinking about the talkback radio I'd heard the other day. It was bushfire-awareness day on the ABC, as Victoria starts to count down for the next fire season, coming way too quickly on the heels of the last. I don't know how many times I've heard Christine Nixon explain to people who complain about how slowly things are happening that many people are still in the grip of post-traumatic stress, and can't be hurried to make decisions. At the same time, it's becoming clear that if last February's conditions are repeated this year — and there's every expectation they will be — that the only safe thing for many people to do is to leave, and not stay and (heroically) "defend" their property. But with many towns in the hills, there is just one road out. How easy it would be for those roads to become blocked.

Anyway. Richard Stubbs was discussing the difficulty of cleaning up your property, and sorting out what you would take if you had to evacuate in a hurry, and started coaxing callers who were hoarders to phone in. Not that they identified themselves as such, but there were a number of calls from slightly puzzled folk who said yes, they did have lots of piles of papers in the house, but that it was possible to walk a path through from one room to another, and was that really a problem? Another said a friend had volunteered to help him go through the piles of papers on his dining-room table, but that it would take a while, because he had to look at every piece first before deciding if it could go. Some huge proportion of house fires, it turns out, are in the homes of hoarders.

And then I read Jeffrey's post about going through most of the household items before a temporary move, and giving and throwing things away.

And I think about my son, who buys lost of his clothes from second-hand and charity shops, but now makes a point of trying to take something back whenever he goes shopping.

So. I am at least going to clean up my study today. I do try not to keep papers, but I have 6 filing cabinet drawers at home, and 16 in the office. When I go back to work next year, I'm going to get rid of at least one four-drawer set: I can't possibly need all that stuff. I'm going to do a clean-out of my wardrobe, soon, too (although now that I am in my new gym routine, there are a number of items that will soon graduate into the "wearable" category).

But it's hard not to love beautiful things. I have a ridiculous affection for pretty cups, plates and saucers; I love the jewellery I have collected, and that has been given to me, over the years. I love the convenience of my books, but as objects and vehicles of ideas, they are mostly replaceable. If I think of a fire going through the house, though, which of my personal possessions would I want to take? The computer (or the hard drive back-up); two drawers of Garter files, which would be very hard to replace; the photo albums (maybe: so long as my family were safe I wouldn't mind so much); and my jewellery. And apart from the house itself, which we have laboured long and hard on, what would grieve me most to lose? I think it would be the piano. Which is irrational, because if our insurance ran to it, it would be replaceable. But it was one of the hardest things to buy and to commit to, and is one of the most beautiful things in the house. And the thought of all that finely wrought wood going up in flames is quite shocking.

Of course, we are not in a fire zone. But then, that's what a lot of people think...

What would you would find hardest to lose?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In praise of lycra

It's Ride to Work day today, and if I were heading anywhere other than to the revisions of my preface and first chapter in my home study today (thanks to the careful responses of my [blog] readers), I would probably be taking in free coffee and muffins at Bike Hub on the way to work.

There has been a bit of argy-bargy on television and in the press lately about the perennial struggle between cyclists and motorists. I am both, and can be equally irritated by both, at different times. But what I don't quite understand is the vitriol directed towards lycra.

It's true that it often comes in unattractive (though road-safe) colours such as lime and orange; and it's also true that for many years I've refused to wear it when riding.

However. Before we headed on our cycling holiday, I took the advice of the bike-tour company and went out to buy some padded shorts. I ended up buying some below-the-knee pants in discreet grey, with seams that sort of curve around the leg. They have minimal padding (enough to feel comfortable; not so much as to be obvious to the observer), and they were wonderful on the road. They were warm when it was cold; weren't hot when it was hot; dried quickly when wet; and even seemed to repel the water when it rained. I felt a bit like a seal when it was wet. Moreover, they turned out to be like a sporty foundation garment. So instead of feeling the weakness of the flesh was exposed, as I had feared, that weakness was, shall we say, contained. Let's be frank about this: these pants are downright flattering. If you ever see me on a red carpet of any description wearing a long sleek dress, you'll know what I'm wearing underneath...

Friday, October 02, 2009

When Tom Comes to Town

As he starts winging his way to Melbourne, here's a notice about a talk my writing collaborator, Tom Prendergast, will give next Wednesday. All are welcome!!



School of Culture and Communication Seminar
Tom Prendergast

"Violating the Sanctuary: Westminster Abbey and
the Inhabitation of the Middle Ages"


In this talk I will examine how the medieval idea of “chartered sanctuary” was connected to the sacral idea of the inviolable body of the Abbey. I argue that, in fact, it was a violation of this space that led to its delineation and sanctification. In 1378 an English squire, Robert Hauley, was murdered before the high altar. This violation of the sanctuary (a national drama that included John of Gaunt, John Wyclif and Richard II) not only led to the closure of the Abbey for four months and the suspension of Parliament (which then met in the Chapter House), but mapped out a national space for England’s cultural productions. For Hauley’s corpse, reverently buried in what would be Poets’ Corner (the South Transept), became a sign of the inviolability and extralegal status of the Abbey. Connected with, and yet separate from more traditional notions of the saintly body, Hauley’s dead body becomes productive of a kind of secular reverence that anticipates the corporeal aesthetics of Poets’ Corner. My talk, then, will uncover the ways in which Poets’ Corner itself becomes not just a burial site, but a kind of sacred space that enables the process of literary “canonization.” Further, I argue that this largely post-medieval poetic graveyard in the “national Valhalla” of England (Westminster Abbey) continues to be haunted by its own violent history, and that it is this violent history that enables us to “inhabit” the prehistory of Poets' Corner.

Thomas Prendergast is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Comparative Literature at the College of Wooster. He is the author of Chaucer's Dead Body: From Corpse to Corpus and the co-editor of Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602. He is currently working on book entitled England's National Plot: the Secret History of Poets' Corner.

Wednesday October 7, 4.30-6.00 pm. Dennis Driscoll Theatre, Doug McDonnell Building. (NB it is third floor of the building between the ERC Library and the Alice Hoy Building)
http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/seminars.html

Drinks at University House afterwards

This seminar is free of charge and open to all staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students and members of the public.


I'm currently washing the sheets and about to clean up the spare bedroom, while making various plans for eating-out and playing tennis. I have also printed out what we have already put together of our book. We have about 50,000 words in five chapters of a draft manuscript now, and a suggested submission date of February. Not quite sure how I came to be at a similar stage of completion of two books at the same time, but there it is. Actually, Tom's book on Poets' Corner is only a little more advanced: we may end up publishing three books between the two of us rather close together. Talk about flooding the market.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

A Sydney date

Now that it's October, time to give notice of a talk I'll be giving in Sydney later this month for the Australian Heraldry Society: hope to see some Sydneysiders there.

Click to enlarge these two pages of the lovely four-page invitation they have prepared.