Soaring with seaguls at Seaford

has been one of the highlights of our time in Adelaide. There have also been some minor disasters, including gliders tangled in trees and drenched with sea water (not as bad as it sounds, but time-consuming). Oh, and bad storms hitting Queensland which meant we decided not to go there…

It’s always slightly strange coming home, knowing that I’m not the same person who left. Christmas was overwhelming but lovely. It’s been great catching up with some old friends but I no longer have the stamina to catch up with all of them. Every meeting is also a goodbye. In the past I have identified strongly with the place in which I live, so having homes in three different countries is confusing. But it’s been wonderful revisiting the South Australian landscape – we’ve spent a lot of time on the coast south of Adelaide – acres of sunlight, red cliffs beside a dazzling ocean. And sometimes we’ve seen it from the air.

Photos soon.

Queenstown paragliding

A lot has happened in a week. A lot of miles covered. A lot of time spent in the air. But here is the best bit.

Sorting the lines.

Ready to launch.

A few steps, the glider surges above me, and I’m off.

I find a thermal, and soon I’m above the launch, soaring next to the rocky, intricate peaks of the mountains. All by myself. I’m up for an hour. The glider turns beautifully. I love it up there. I remain inordinately pleased with myself for days.

Lots of good stuff

Pink clouds above the red terrace.

I am very excited. On Monday it finally started to sink in that I’m going to Australia. I’m heading down to London tomorrow night, and we fly out on Sunday. We have a day and a night in LA, and six days in New Zealand with my parents, before heading to Adelaide for Christmas. After Christmas, we’re going up to Queensland to hopefully get some paragliding in. Not only do I get a slice of summer and Christmas with my family, but I’ll be will the lovie for a whole month. Hurrah!

I taught my last writing workshop today and it was great fun. We discussed the students’ essay plans. Actually the disparate topics had some interesting connections: one was on ‘ancestry’ in slavery narratives, and one was on ‘modern heroism’ in Lord of the Rings. Both to do with interactions between the past and the present – my specialty. Fun fun fun. Tolkien taught at Leeds for a while. Apparently he hated it, and jumped on the train to Oxford at every opportunity. In its ‘dark satanic mills’ he saw an image of Mordor. Bah, I say, bah. Studying and teaching at Leeds has made me realise how completely brilliant it would be to do an undergraduate degree in English here – so much choice!

Anyway, if I teach essay writing workshops again, I’ll do more of this kind of hands-on approach to the students’ own work, and getting them to help each other. It’s often easier to see how to improve someone else’s essay than your own. I’d quite like to teach this again, because helping people to write is exciting. Such a nice change from staring at my own words.

A good work day. The trinity of computer, note-book, and printed draft seemed to go together well – three different places to write.

The other completely brilliant piece of news is that my supervisors loved my Stow chapter redraft. It’s too long now, and needs to lose about 5000 words, but when I’ve done that next year, it will be a pretty spiffy chapter. I’m exorbitantly pleased with it, and just so happy that all my hard work paid off. Reworking it took longer than I thought it would, but now every bit of it is interesting, and it hangs together, and I was able to refine my ideas and develop some new ones. Three cheers for clarity. That’s what I told my students today – keep an eye out for hazy statements and generalizations – it’s when you think carefully about what you really mean that you come up with the best ideas.

With that in mind, my Francis Webb chapter (the first one I wrote) will be in for a pretty hefty rewrite next year. I had a brief look at it yesterday, and it’s full of hazy metaphors likening time to chiming bells. Hmmmm. I’m glad it was enough to get me through my upgrade procedure, and supervisor one says he’s impressed with the way I read Webb’s poems (admittedly pretty complex stuff), but I can see why every time I showed it to them they told me it wasn’t quite there. Bring it on, I say (after my holiday, that is).

Now I just have to concentrate my mind enough to shave some rough edges off my Kevin Hart chapter, and send it to my supervisors before I leave. It’s not a whole chapter draft – more like two thirds – but I’ve worked through some of the difficult bits, and at least I’ll come back to a solid piece of work to build on. That’s 50,000 words I’ve written this year, including two chapters which are pretty much done apart from some minor tuning and pruning. And I’ve worked out what a chapter is really supposed to be – something I didn’t know nine months ago. I’ve almost got the whole thing in draft form. Next year will be a lot of work, but all going well, I will definitely be finished by this time next year. Hurrah!

Okay, enough gloating. Back to work…

Kitty Watching

Today, between sentences, I watched our neighbourhood tortoiseshell patrol our street. He likes to keep an eye one things. He strolls in and out of the little yards, and sits on the low walls. Whenever anyone walks past, he trots along with them for a little way. When I came back from the library, he was waiting, and accompanied me to my door, purring like a tractor. He wouldn’t stay still, but I think he knew how dashing he looked among the leaves.

He snuck in as I maneuvered the bike through the door. He explored all the corners, but we barred him from the food cupboard and the basement. He didn’t get any tuna, because he is fat and glossy, unlike my old friend Mr Cat, who clearly needed it. He wouldn’t stop purring, and curled on the couch. We put him outside.

But we hope he comes back.

Four Seasons in One Day

That’s one of my favourite songs. And it about sums it up at the moment. I don’t suppose this kind of work is really conducive to emotional stability. Grumpy/ hopeful/ exasperated/ contented/ miserable/ excited. None seems to last for more than half an hour. But I sit with the computer and the words anyway. I cannot believe that in just over a week I will be heading towards the Southern Hemisphere. The thought doesn’t seem to connect with my life here at all, even though it is quite wonderful, and I felt so happy after I booked my ticket to London last night. Quite a lot to get done before then, but I’ve set my word count quotas per day, and I’m sticking to them so far. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a draft of my final chapter before I leave. It’s slow going but satisfying.

I’d like to take some photos of the November trees and the November sky, but I never seem to get the right angle. Black on grey. A few scraggly yellow leaves hanging on in places. They are beautiful in their own way, the bare trees against the bare sky. Today the sky cleared for a few hours and I watched the trees frame the strange deep blue of dusk at four in the afternoon.

Earliest memories meme

Pinched from Jabberwocky.

My earliest memory is wrapping myself in a blanket and rolling around the floor while my Mum nursed my little brother. I must have been about three. I think even at the time I was aware it was pretty silly.

Because my earliest memory is a little boring, here are a couple more. I also remember learning to read – my Mum stuck words all over the house. And I remember being absolutely thrilled when I first read without moving my mouth.

Ariel from Jabberwocky’s first memories are of two books she made, so here are the first two books I made. No idea how old I was, maybe five, and they’re pretty spiffy productions so I must have had a little help. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and drawing the pictures. The first is about a birthday party, in the shape of a birthday cake. The second is my favourite. It was called The Stegosaurus Twins, and it was about, er, stegosaurus twins. It was in the shape of a stegosaurus, and I covered the front cover with tiny dots to simulate the texture of its skin. The stegosaurus twins were lonely because all the other dinosaurs had died and they had nowhere to live. A brother and a sister (human ones) discover and befriend them. Then it’s the stegosaurus twins’ birthday, and their present is, guess what: lots of trees. (So they have a forest to live in.)

Here’s a stegosaurus.

This idea of doubles (twins, friends, orphans) is quite intriguing. Ariel’s story relates to it in a way, as does a novel-in-progress Penni blogs about at Inside a Dog.

I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and, by the sounds of it, birthdays too. I remember writing an invitation to my birthday party to one of my favourite cousins.
‘Mum, how do you spell Richard?’
‘Just how it sounds.’
‘Okay.’
Dear Witcheard….

He remembers too. Unfortunately my spelling hasn’t improved significantly since then; thank God for spell-check.

I’m not tagging anyone, so help yourself it you feel like it! Let me know if you do it and I’ll come and have a look. The rules of the meme are:

1. Describe your earliest memory where the memory is clear, and where “clear” means you can depict at least three details;
2. Give an estimate of your age at the time;
3. Tag five other bloggers with this meme. (Or, do as I’m doing and just extend an open invitation)

UPDATE

I have decided to tag some people after all: Penni, because she writes so well about children, Fifi, because I’m sure she’ll come up with something magical, Mikhela, because her imminently appearing little ones will be forming their own first memories soon enough, Highly Eccentric, because (I think) it’s her birthday, and Richard, just for fun. And even if you’re not doing this meme, what’s your earliest memory? Go on, tell me…

Virtual Hikes and other Exciting Adventures

I had decided to console myself for my valiant decision to go to the library instead of hiking in the dales by posting a virtual hike – photos of my favourite walk ever. But the website which housed the photos has disappeared! Only one remains, pictured above. That day, the hills were frosted, icicles glistened on the gates and the puddles were as hard and bright as glass. And if it’s that pretty at the bottom of the hills, just think what it looked like from the top! A different shade of crystallized grass or rock or slope or sky everywhere you looked. One of those days when the landscape is music that you walk through.

No matter. Dedicated student that I am, I went to the library. At lunch time, as the cafe at uni was closed, I wandered into town and stumbled upon a German Christmas market. Not quite the same as being in Germany, but almost. I indulged in garlic mushrooms and fried potatoes and Glühwein (mulled wine), and bought some ridiculously overpriced domino stones. They were worth it. (These small cubes of soft gingerbread, fruit jelly and marzipan covered in dark chocolate are seriously wonderful. I’ve already eaten all the ones I brought back from Berlin.) I always thought the German word for mulled wine was a bit weird, sounding, as it does, like glue-wine, but actually the ‘glüh’ means ‘glow’. So it’s glowing wine. Which is exactly what it does, in your cold hands and in your belly. I then floated back to uni in a mulled wine haze for another two hours of photocopying and traipsing up and down stairs, accidentally causing an avalanche of over-stacked books-for-reshelving. All in a day’s work.

Teaching structure

I only have two writing workshops left to teach, and I’ve been wondering how helpful they actually are. They must at least be a bit helpful, because (most of the time) the students turn up, and it’s entirely voluntary. Because of the workshop format, we don’t have time to give a lot of one on one attention, which would probably actually be the most useful thing. We talk about structural ideas and grammatical rules, and look at examples. Next week we’ll discuss how to approach exam questions, and hopefully in the last week the students will bring along some of their own essay plans, which we’ll be able to look at with the group.

I know it’s been helpful for my own writing to read through some of the student writing guides, and think about how to best communicate some of the ideas to my students. This week we talked about structure: introducing an idea, pushing it along, and arriving somewhere. John Peck and Martin Coyle’s The Student’s Guide to Writing explains this idea really well, comparing writing an essay to describing a scientific experiment. My students were initially a bit confused about this idea, thinking it too prescriptive. The idea isn’t to pretend your essay is an experiment, however, it’s just to get you thinking clearly about what each section of your essay is doing. Peck and Coyle then talk about taking it further, or, as they put it: ‘set it up, push it along, then push your luck.’ Their point is that if you introduce the topic, and develop it clearly, it’s often nice to introduce a new element or angle about two thirds of the way through, to push it up to a new level.

I really like this idea because I can see that’s what the most interesting essays and articles do. Writing that does that is exciting to read. I’ve always found it difficult to pin down a mass of swirling ideas into a linear form. I’m too impatient to get to the point. One of the things I’ve had to learn in writing my thesis has been to slow down, to give ideas time and space to develop. To set up the basic points of my argument clearly before diving into the new stuff. Otherwise I end up mistaking vague, unsubstantiated statements for poetry.

So… This might end up helping me more than it’s helping them. But hopefully it’s also helping me to help them better. And I think in the end writing’s a bit like riding a bike. You can talk about it all you like, but it’s not till you jump on that you start to get somewhere.

Berlin

I first went to Berlin ten years ago, on a whirlwind backpacker bus tour with my mum. It was love at first sight. It snowed and snowed. The city was covered in cranes and big fat blue and pink pipes. We did an incredible walking tour and went to checkpoint charlie one evening. I bravely caught a bus out to the Die Brucke museum only to discover it was closed. We saw the Reichstag. The new dome hadn’t been finished yet, so, like everything else in the city, it was still in the throws of reconstruction. My high school history classes came flooding back to me (admittedly they were only a year old). I couldn’t believe it was the same building that burnt down when Hitler came into power. There was something strange and beautiful about Berlin, it seemed the centre of history: old and new, broken and healing.

So when, two years later, I got the chance to spend a month there, I didn’t take much convincing (I took a bit of convincing, because I was very shy). I went with a group of students about to embark on honours in European Studies, and our charismatic head of department. The idea was to learn German. They’d all done some before, but for me it was torture: I’d never even heard of cases and declensions, and my impatient beginner’s teacher would only condescend to explain them to me in German. I also have a stammer, which makes speaking new languages difficult. I didn’t get far. And I was intensely homesick. At the age of twenty, I was quite convinced I knew the meaning of the universe, and was scared of anything, or anyone that questioned this, which the people I was with, and the city itself, certainly did. Nevertheless, Berlin continued to work its magic. We had a guided tour of Daniel Liebeskind’s incredible building for the Jewish Museum, before it had any exhibits in it. It was like being inside a sculpture of silence and horror and hope. We had a tour of a Russian prison by two men who’d been wrongly imprisoned there for years. And I discovered the Pergamon museum, with its reconstructed Babylonian gate, which still affects me in a way I can’t quite explain.

There are monuments in Berlin which speak of wordless sadness and terror. And there are new buildings, shining, all of glass, like secular cathedrals. And there are spindly trees like black feathers – to me it is a winter city. And – cocktail bars, and bakeries on every corner, and a large, calm river, and a spirit about the place that just delights me.

No Apologies

Evolutionary Biology PhD student, bewildered and amused: Do you have conferences in English literature?

My Dad’s cousin (I kid you not): Medieval literature? That sounds really boring.

Smug undergraduate Erasmus student from Switzerland, studying atmospheric chemistry: Oh. English Literature. Heh. I do something, er – quite different to that.

Another Evolutionary Biology PhD student (they’re the worst) two years ago: didn’t stop laughing for weeks after I told him my thesis topic. And he was studying worms.

But I have decided to apologize for my thesis topic no longer. Now when people ask me what I’m doing, I wait till I have their attention, and say slowly and clearly: ‘Australian Medievalism.’ And I look them in the eye.

Henry the eighth I am I am

Well, apart from the somewhat more than frustrating fact that my favourite person is too far away for my liking, things are going quite well around here. The thesis is progressing in its own inimitable way. Which means: sometimes fluently, sometimes excruciatingly. But it grows. Revising my latest chapter sometimes feels like putting gilded roofs onto a beautiful castle, and sometimes like attempting complicated surgery. The body of the chapter lies sprawled before me, broken and bloody, as I try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing to it.

When it all gets a bit too much, I do a bit of this:

I’ve been working on this for years, on and off, and I’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve nearly finished Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, but there’s another four wives, as well as the border adorned with Tudor roses, and all the back-stitch and French knots and beads (yes!) to go on at the end. But there is something immensely calming about working on such a long term project. Especially as it involves no major decisions or structural problems. I follow the chart to the letter, and it comes together! I’ve worked on this cross-stitch in York, Leeds, Norway, Austria and Germany. The threads bind my life together.

This kind of thing reminds me of both my grandmas. My mum’s mum knits and makes bobbin lace. She also used to make lots of clothes for us, and several wedding dresses! (We’ve been informed homemade wedding dresses are no longer on the menu – fair enough too.) My dad’s mum has painted and dressed hundreds of china dolls, made many lovely teddy bears, embroidered huge tapestries, and now makes the most amazing quilts. As a young girl, I loved nothing better than sitting with one or other of them, tapestries or bobbin cushions on our laps, watching tennis on tv into the wee hours.

At about the age of fifteen, I decided craft was a waste of time, as I was an artist. Now I suspect the distinction between art and craft is not quite so clear. Even what I would regard as art involves a fair bit of craft – skill, and attention, and time. And, counted cross-stitches aside, much of what is called craft is actually art anyway. It’s nice to have it to turn to. I like the richness of the threads, the motion of the needle piercing cloth.

Opera North

Opera North doesn’t have much in common with the Angel of the North except its name, and the fact that it’s located in Northern England. But the name is wonderful. Rugged and transcendent at the same time. Tonight I saw a production of The Fortunes of King Croesus, by the long forgotten German composer Reinhard Keiser. Apparently he influenced Handel. This was an English translation, and it was super. It’s a love story and a pride-comes-before-a-fall story, set against a backdrop of war. The props and sets were great – little golden fighter-planes in the first half, and a huge golden broken plane wing in the second half, spanning the stage. The five pound student ticket almost made up for the fact that I was seated next to all the other cheap-skate students, checking their mobile phones and unwrapping crinkly sweets.

The Grand Opera House is just amazing – red and green and gilded gold with chandeliers… It’s just been refurbished, and the seats are comfy now. It was fun to be there. It reminded me of another time, three and a half years ago, when something rather lovely happened. And the music was transporting. I’d forgotten what it can do to you. It actually transported me slightly too far, as I wasn’t concentrating as I rode home and nearly caused an accident. But all is well. I’m still smiling.

Comfort and vanity

Today I bought what is, quite possibly, the most wonderful scarf in the entire world. It’s pink and turquoise and cream and purple and lime green. It’s very long. It reminds me of a picture book I read as a child, about a girl who cannot stop knitting. She knits so many colourful squares that eventually they have to build a circus out of them. My scarf’s a bit like that.

And a bit like this.


Oh. And I had a haircut.

Dappled Things

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I couldn’t help myself. Not with all these autumn leaves, and the marbled light of the Lake District. I love the alliteration of this poem, and its strangeness. And sometimes my days seem dappled – how easy it is to switch from sadness to joy, from hope to tedium and back again. Not so much as I used to, ten years ago. Now it is easier to accept my days as dappled. These differing emotions are not so much interwoven, as flecked.

Teaching, writing, learning

Teaching is a lot of fun. At the moment I’m leading a weekly essay writing workshop. It’s great fun on two levels: preparing for the class each week, and interacting with the students. On the weekend I got together two pages of dot-points of what I thought was most important about essay writing. They seemed to find that helpful, especially my idea of labeling paragraphs while you are revising them (a technique I still sometimes find essential). Thinking about the details of writing, and of how to communicate these details effectively, is proving to be useful for my own writing as well as my teaching.

I think English literature students are more concerned with marks here in England than they are in Australia. This could be an unfair generalization, but I think that the fact that your degree as a whole is graded here has quite an impact on students. In Australia an Arts degree is an Arts degree. The only time the marks matter is if you want to go on to further study, and even then, your Honours marks are more important than your Bachelors degree (correct me if I’m wrong).

Interacting with undergraduates makes me reflect on how I learned things in my undergraduate days. Sometimes I wish I could give my poor undergrad self a good talking to, and go back and do things differently. I never had a problem with marks, mostly because I already had a pretty fluid writing style, which many undergraduates lack. But I did find some of the ideas pretty challenging. And I found some friends who confirmed my fears, and proceeded to block myself off from a lot of things (like theory) I should have taken more seriously.

We were scared, in those days, of Cultural Studies ‘taking over’. I think there was a bit of tension in the department itself, and some of the old school lecturers felt a bit under siege. I was intimidated by the super-trendy students who tried to fit the word ‘Foucault’ as many times as they could into one sentence, whilst leaning provocatively back in their chairs. They treated postmodernism as a religion. My response was to duck out of the firing line. I sat through the compulsory theory course in my Honours year under duress. It was torture.

It’s not torture any more. At least, not all the time. What is literary criticism anyway, but theories about literature? I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and research, and how they intersect. And exactly what are we teaching anyway? To write? To think? To situate yourself within an ever-changing field of ideas? Teaching, writing and research seem like linked adventures, raids on the inarticulate, to quote one of my favourite passages from Four Quartets:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

It’s fun to share this adventure.

Happy Supervisors

make for a happy meli.

Quote: ‘This is by far the best first draft you’ve produced.’

I knew anyway, but it’s nice to hear them say it. If you’re wondering how I can produce multiple first drafts, it’s because I have multiple chapters, which need producing one by one. Four down, one to go.

hurrah!

Wombats and Medievalism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self Portrait of the Artist Weeping at the Wombat’s Tomb, 1869.

This made my day. I was flicking through Michael Alexander’s Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England, and I thought – that’s a wombat. That has to be a wombat.

‘All beautiful women were “Stunners” with us’, wrote Van Pinsep, one of the band of Pre-Raphaelites who frescoed the Oxford Union in the Summer of 1987. ‘We copied his [Rossetti’s] way of speaking. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures. Medievalism was our beau ideal’ (Timothy Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 164).

Apparently Rossetti liked Australian animals so much that he kept wombats, kangaroos and wallabies in the garden of his house in Chelsea. Alexander points out: ‘wombats, stunners, and medievalism make an engaging combination’ (p. 142). Indeed.

I like wombats. A lot. Here’s one we encountered near Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, two years ago. But are they the most beautiful of God’s creatures?

Of Disappearing Deposits

The company who rented us our problematic last house owes students over 200,000 pounds in unreturned deposits. Including ours. We plan to fight it.

While I was desperately and unsuccessfully looking for a copy of the contract among my, er, perfectly ordered important documents, I came across a copy of the letter informing me of my scholarships from the University of Leeds. I remember the strange and fierce joy when I first opened it, to find more than I dared hope for. It must have been a Saturday morning, and the lovie was vacuuming, and I ran up to him and said: stop, stop, look at this, look! And the house was spinning.

In the meantime, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German mystic, says:

Now suppose a man has a hundred marks. He loses forty and keeps sixty. If this man thinks continually of the forty that he has lost, he will remain in despair and grief. How could he be comforted and free from sorrow if he turns to his loss and his pain and pictures it to himself and himself in it, and looks at it, and it looks at him again and talks to him? He speaks to his loss and the loss talks to him again, and they see each other face to face. But if he were to turn his attention to the sixty marks that he still has and if he turned his back on the forty that are lost, concentrating on the sixty and looking at them face to face and talking to them, he would certainly be comforted.

Sensible fellow.

Of Cathedrals and Bits of Paper

There are autumn leaves in England too. And rivers. And even sunshine. I made an abortive trip to Durham today to renew my British passport. Turns out it was unnecessary, because although the both the form and the woman on the helpline informed me that I need to give in my Australian passport too, I don’t. Which means it isn’t quite so urgent, and I can do it by post. Which I will do, because it’s cheaper. Aaaagh!

But Durham is lovely. The last time I was there, nearly four years ago, my cousin Richard and I built a snowman outside the cathedral. Today there was just sunshine. Durham cathedral is something special. York minster is wonderful too – enormous, pale, Gothic, intricate and grand, it was my first experience of a medieval cathedral, and I will never forget it. But Durham cathedral is friendly. Even as you approach it, it radiates quiet. Its Romanesque archways squat solidly and invite you in. Inside, it is something like a forest, and something like a cave. Its fat, round grey pillars are carved with zigzags and diamonds. It doesn’t have as much stained glass as York, but its rose window glitters magically in its heavy setting, and where the light from the windows touches the stone, it blossoms like a rainbow. Durham Cathedral is the resting place of St Cuthbert and the venerable Bede, which makes it a shrine for medievalists and pilgrims alike. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so here are the cloisters:

There is something quite wonderful about the way it is cared for, and opened up to the public. It has some wonderful modern sculptures which speak of death and resurrection, and the spiritual in the ordinary. The low-ceilinged, zigzag-roofed chapel at the back is cool and quiet and somehow replenishing – it gives me goosebumps just to step in there. At the moment it contains an exhibition called ‘The Museum of my Life’:

We all have them at home: significant objects stashed away in drawers, cupboards full of memories, photograph albums full of people closest to us. This project asked people to reflect on their own lives and to tell the stories and identify the objects which would make up the museum of their life.

The objects were displayed in what looked like ordinary chests of drawers, but when you opened the drawers they were topped with glass. It was heart-breaking seeing the objects displayed there: family photographs, paper packets of flower seeds, old postcards, pipes, dolls. All the ephemera which makes a life. Strangely, it seemed quite at home there, amongst the medieval paintings and the ancient stone, worn by the feet of ordinary people over centuries.

Goodbye for Now

Well, I’m back. That’s the last sentence of The Lord of the Rings. It reduced my poor twelve year old soul to a quivering mess when I first read those words on my parents’ fat, threadbare armchair. Whatever Sam might be satisfied with, I didn’t want to be back. I wanted to stay in the magical land with the elves and the enchanted rings. What was so great about reality?

Luckily Norway isn’t actually an imaginary land, and Leeds isn’t so bad. They are both as real as each other, but when I am in one place, the other begins to seem like a dream. Halden is a nice dream: crisp lines and golden light and autumn leaves like jewels. I think my love for the place has become entwined with my love for the person who lives there. I felt a bit sad, coming back, but have learned not to give in to this feeling. I let it fly and twist beside me, a pale Chinese dragon, and I know it will quieten enough to let me get on with things. This is the way things are.

The lovie left for America yesterday morning, so I had the day to myself. Last night I visited Wendy, whose husband had also left for the states. They’re American, and just in Norway for the year. We played lego, and ate brownies and chocolate icecream, and watched a very inventive puppet show by her son, with cameo appearances from her daughter and the princess puppet. We also gossiped about the men. Despite being very clever with psychology and computers and international conferences and lots of other things, they appear to have similar problems with laundry baskets. It was fun. I wish we’d got to know each other better earlier. I love Halden, but I can see how it’s been trying for her. Maybe there are some advantaged to being half time…

So. I’ve washed off the travel grime (buses and trains times two, a plane, a taxi, platforms and departure lounges). I’ve snuggled into bed. Tomorrow I throw myself headlong into niggling jobs that need sorting (passport renewals, retrieving elusive deposits), and then into my valiant twelve month plan to finish my thesis. But right now, I’ll have another cup of tea.

Do I look like a sailor?

Norwegian man: Excuse me, are you English?

Meli: More or less. (I’ve finally tired of my usual oh I live in two countries but I’m from another one.)

NM: That means no. Are you Australian?

M: Yes, that’s right.

NM: Is that your boat?

M: Er, no.

NM: I thought you were a sailor. I was going to ask how the voyage was.

M: Oh.

Maybe it was the hat.

Fire Creatures

My Mum used to tell me there were angels in the flames. I sometimes pretended that I saw them. More often, crouched around the campfire on long desert nights, I thought about jewels. How coals were the best jewels in the world, but you could never touch them. Angels and jewels aside, in our fire, there are definitely creatures. What do you think they are?

Writing Loops

Thought I’d better write something here if only to get my silly smiling face off the top of the blog! I’m writing a chapter about Kevin Hart at the moment. After two weeks reading some pretty heavy stuff, I figured if I didn’t start writing I’d forget why I was reading in the first place. I’m going to write like mad for the next four days, so that when I get back to Leeds I’ll have a better idea of exactly what extra material I need to get my hands on.

It’s going okay. I find chapters get written more slowly at the beginning, and then they warm up. I always find a million ways to distract myself. One of them is thinking about what it feels like to be writing. It’s easier to write about writing than to write about what you’re supposed to be writing about. For me, anyway. And I think this is partly because writing involves a temporary loss of self. You stop being who you are and become instead a kind of conductor for ideas and words and sentences. Which isn’t a bad thing, it can even be pleasurable, and of course you aren’t really losing yourself, it just feels like it. I guess it happens when you abandon yourself to any work, or art, or even physical activity. There’s a beauty in it, as Murray puts it in ‘Equanimity’:

Through the peace beneath effort
(or even within effort: quiet air between the bars of our attention)
comes unpurchased lifelong plenishment

But if you’re writing about yourself writing, you don’t have the same problem with loss or estrangement, because your topic is yourself, doing what you’re doing, a kind of loop.

Many different kinds of writing go into a thesis chapter. Writing an introduction is a different experience to writing a detailed exposition of some critical point. And that is different again to analyzing poetry. And yet again, it depends on the kind of poetry. It is easy to let your own style begin to echo the style of language you are writing about. This thesis is an exploration, not only of reading and thinking and ideas, but of writing itself. And I think you only learn by doing it. But here are some images of what writing has felt like, lately:

  • carefully building a web
  • sitting quietly with a shy creature until it relaxes
  • playing a harp, slowly – listening to the individual notes, the echoes, the harmonies

And as for the finished product? Frangipani left an amazing comment on Eglantine’s cake, that I just have to repeat:

in the words of kb:
A worthy thesis must take the form of a snake
It must be long and intricately coiled
Apparently unhurried and innocent of malice
With deep inside it an enemy recently swallowed
Its unblinking eye must follow the examiner
Who must be too intimidated to deliver the usual blow

I’ll have one of those, please.

Update: The poet responsible for this nugget of brilliance is Kevin Brophy, and you can read the whole poem here.

Six Months Today

My blog is six months old! How to celebrate? When I began this blog, I walked along the river and thought about light. The ice was cracking and melting on the lakes. These days the lakes glow a curious toothpaste blue, which I suppose means they’re thinking about freezing again. When I began, the trees were bare, and now they are brittle and golden. We lit the fire for the first time this week. When I ride my bike, the cold bites my hands and my throat. Even sitting at my desk, my nose is an ice block by the end of the day. Soon the nights will close in. These northern seasons never cease to fascinate me.

Wonderful news

If you’ve ever wondered what Australian medievalism entails, but have been too afraid to ask, the best you can do is take a look at Stephanie’s post. They’ve just been awarded lots of money to research it in more detail. Hurrah! (And her next post contains even better news.)

Happy Birthday Dad

My Dad wooed my Mum with poetry – a paperback copy of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s selected poems. He used to sing ‘Morning has broken’ in the mornings. He likes opera, especially Carmen, which he listens to turned up very loud (especially when he’s the only one in the house – this is not a shared passion). He’s a great cook. He takes black and white photographs of spider orchids. He has a red motorbike, and a red push-bike, and a red raincoat. He has a tiny statue of Moses with his arms upraised, standing on a square of slate, from Jerusalem. He taught me to love Elijah and David (but not Elisha). He also taught me to draw houses with perspective. His Lancashire accent has only been slightly tempered by more than thirty years in Australia. He quit his high-flying job to become a care-worker. His beard isn’t as red as it used to be. He loves planning and renovating houses. And more. Lots more. Happy birthday for tomorrow, Dad.

And while we’re on the topic of birthdays, it was my brother’s birthday ten days before Dad’s. So, er, a late happy birthday to you too. I didn’t mention it, because I don’t think he’s too keen on this whole self-exposure side of blogging. He’s rather lovely, that’s all I’ll say. But I don’t think he can complain about this one (he’s the little one, in the middle – thanks bethie for the picture):

And, now we’ve started, this one’s my favourite. I think we look like we could be in a band.

The phd chugs along

An update on the Phd, now that I’m exactly two years into it. I’ve found it really interesting looking back on the odd posts I’ve made about it along the way, so this is as much for me as for anything else. I finished my Randolph Stow chapter on Tuesday. The plan was to get it done before I left (ie Thursday last week), but I didn’t quite make it. The computer dying didn’t help. I worked on it pretty constantly for the three weeks I was in England, and wrote about 17,000 words. Which, when added to the 5000 words I already had, makes quite a long chapter. I’ll need to cut it down to under twenty thousand eventually, but it’s a pretty good start. It’s also (I’m pretty sure) the best first draft I’ve done so far. It will need tinkering, but not vast restructuring. It makes an argument. It flows. I’ve finally got the hang of this.

It took me a long time to get into this Phd. The first six months were great, but we have an upgrade procedure at nine months, which means submitting about 15,000 words, a title and a five page thesis outline. Torture, all of it. I started with Francis Webb, whose poems are beautiful but extremely difficult. And although I produced nuanced analysis of the poems, every time I gave my draft to my supervisors they’d say: no, that’s not it. Not yet. I was terrified I’d fail the upgrade. Actually there was no chance of that, and I sailed through. But I still hadn’t worked out what a thesis chapter was supposed to look like.

Next we decided I needed to do some contextualizing, and work on an introductory chapter (not the introduction, but a first chapter to put things in context). This was supposed to be written over the summer but didn’t get very far. In fact I tinkered at it till Christmas (alongside tutoring my first subject, which also took up lots of time). It felt like pulling teeth. That chapter will need some rewriting next year. But it’s made all the difference, having read some of the key texts in the field, and put some of the terms in context. Everything is easier now.

Then it was Les Murray. I gave a conference paper on him at the beginning of the year, and expected that to convert quite happily into a chapter. But I had the same problem. My supervisors explained to me carefully and thoroughly what was wrong with it (they are completely brilliant), and I had another bash. I was approaching it like a poem, not a chapter. I was putting images next to each other, not arguments. After banging my head against the brick wall of it for ages, I finally cracked it. It felt amazing. I could see all the parts glowing and talking to each other. It was making sense.

So Stow came together quite painlessly. When I was writing it I visualized it as map or a snakes and ladders board – covered in tracks and little ladders, connecting bits together. It was a lot of fun – some of the older criticism on him is pretty hilarious, and best of all I got to have a look at some of the twelfth-century chronicles he draws on. I remember this brimming pleasure as I carried up the thick black volumes from obscure corners of the library. Proper medieval stuff. I love it. I think that deserves a post of its own, at some point – why I love it so much. What drew me to the Middle Ages in the first place.

And now it’s on to Kevin Hart. I’m glad I’ve left this chapter till last, because I don’t think I could have managed it till now. The aim is to get it done before Christmas, which will leave me next year to rewrite the whole thing and get it together. I’m looking forward to that. I feel like I’m only just starting to understand it all, and it will be just amazing to see it come together as a coherent whole. So we are on track. Hurrah!

Transitions

I’m back in Norway again. I am happy. Yesterday I watched my world sliding past the train windows. The train journey from Leeds to Manchester is very beautiful. It crosses the Penines. Soft green-grey and amber mountain peaks, interspersed with grey stone villages. More like hills really than mountains. But they are lovely. I sat there on the train and all these words came bubbling up inside me. It was being in an inbetween space. It was having time to think, which I haven’t, for weeks, because every waking moment I’ve been thinking or writing or reading about Randolph Stow, or sorting out a pressing matter that was preventing me from doing so. It was nice, to sit on the train, and read an entirely unrelated novel, and look out the window.

The words bubbled up so insistently that I thought I would write them down. Just as I got my computer out the man with the drinks trolley came past. As he dragged it behind him he was talking to it like it was a dog: ‘Come on girl, good girl, sit!’ He explained he’d been working since three in the morning. I wrote a couple of sentences. Suddenly all the noises of the train seemed oppressive: the dull hum of ipods, people coughing. I closed the computer, and it was okay again. The words liked it better when no one could see them, or even imagine they were there. The other people were too close – when I tried to write the words down, there wasn’t room for them to sing.

I am writing some of the words down now. Some are secret. Some of them are lost. They knew that might happen. They didn’t mind. I could almost see them – transparent, fuzzy at the edges, rising upwards like flames. My own words, mine.

In the blue room

I sit in my blue room, with my grey bird for company, and I write. And read, and think. Today it is autumn, and the air is cold on my hands when I ride my bike. But mostly, there is the blue room, and the words. The words come slowly, or in bursts, and the chapter grows like a living thing. It grows slowly, every day. It will need pruning. It will need its tendrils to be tied to stakes. It demands constant attention. But it grows.

I’m having a lot of fun with Randolph Stow. These are my two favourite quotes from the articles I read about him:

‘He has (in a masculine way) some of Emily Bronte’s wildness.’

That one (written in the fifties, can you guess?) just cracks me up every time. I can’t remember who wrote it. I have to fit it into my chapter somehow.

‘…his poetic sense of language and absolutely certain ear for tonal effects – he has, it seems, the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch – mean that . . . his work is never marred by over-writing.’

Bruce Clunies Ross.

That one, I think, is just true. You can hear it in his titles: Girl Green as Elderflower. You can hear it in the first page of Tourmaline. And you can hear it, most of all, in his poetry.

My mare turns back her ears

and hears the land she leaves

as grievous music.

-‘Outrider’

I just love the assonance and the slow shifts of vowel sounds here, like some strange, tonal, grievous music.

I feel very calm. I am almost in my third year of my phd. Everyone warned me of the second year drought. Oh no, I thought, not me. But it was. But right now, it feels good. It feels purposeful. I am happy.

Birds and Tigers

When I arrived back in Leeds just over a week ago, it was like Christmas. I had been away for seven weeks, and my desk was overflowing with envelopes and packages. A one hundred and thirty pound refund from Yorkshire water. Photos of the Lake District and a Kookaburra card from my grandparents. Hagues chocolate teddybears in a tin from my unbelievably kind cousin in Adelaide, who thought I might need some cheering up. And, most wondrous of all, this.

Claire Souter had been touched by my previous post about her, and was interested that out of hundreds of paintings I’d included Birds and Tigers, which she said had never been framed nor exhibited, nor hardly seen. Waiting for me, she said. She sent it to me.

So now the beautiful bird perches in my room. I can’t quite believe how lovely it is. The bird’s soft grey feathers, its quiet, intense glance, the way it concentrates, the golden light, the golden ring, hovering. It is like a myth and a fairytale. A muse. Just looking at it calms me, and helps me think and write. I love the lace beneath it, too. I used to make lace. These days, when I’m feeling crafty, I stitch away at a giant cross-stitch of Henry VIII and his wives (two wives down, four to go). Claire’s delicate painting of the lace makes me think of women, and patience, and skill and love – and all the hours which must have gone into such creations. It is a metaphor for my own work as well – a thesis is built and held together by tiny stitches. And the tigers looks pretty happy, bounding in from unknown fields, as flowers bloom above them. It is a wondrous painting, a meeting of worlds. I can’t help but think it captures the fleeting, private, luminous act of creation itself. It reminds me of a poem I wrote, once. In the poem I mention a nest. Claire has painted one. Thank you. Thank you.

Paraclete

You would like a poem about a bird,
about that bird
which is a deeper grey than pigeons,
is delicate,
and is visiting our feet.
We do not know what kind it is
but there is something lovely
about grey wings which sheathe
realms of air beneath their quiet feathers,
about the pointed bright eyed head
which bows and bobs
and knows something, but will not say.

Apart from that
it is a bird, and birds
have soft breasts we long to touch
but cannot own –
brittle underneath and light as air,
warm quickly pulsing
(our groping hands would crush in loving
or die of gentleness)
– and mostly, a presence
which can dip away swiftly
but is near now.

I would like to build a nest with words
(nothing like a cage)
fine enough and firm enough
for the bird to live close to you.

You could carry her around like a good secret
you could take her out at night.

She would diminish the darkness
but you still wouldn’t own her –
the bird would be just as precious
just as rare, pure gift.