Goodbye Feb

I cannot believe it’s the end of February. That’s two months best over and done with! The snow has been pretty. But I can’t wait until I can wander blithely along a footpath again without the very real danger of slipping on the silly ice. Bring on May, I say. May here is just the best. I’ve checked up on my handy back-blogging of weather, and it snowed in April both last year and the year before. The first birch leaves didn’t appear till mid-late April and the trees along the river were even later. I guess spring happens all of a sudden… But at least at half past five now it’s not quite dark. The sun has set, but the light lingers. And the only way is up.

March will be a blur anyway. Hopefully a productive blur!

Why you should still love Les Murray

I felt so tired this morning that I promised myself an early night tonight. Why is it not possible to get more done? I am making progress but I wish it were quicker.

I am working on my Les Murray chapter. I like his work very much. I’m not sure my chapter will do him justice. Actually, ‘like’ is not the right word at all. I adore his poems. He is a genius. His politics are also terribly problematic and unfortunately I have to deal with them in the chapter. But they don’t make me adore his poetry any less. (Not every single poem, but a lot of them.) I came across this beautiful review by Clive James that sums up one of the things so brilliant about him. He says Murray is an example of the way poets are ‘ unfairly interesting, as if they didn’t deserve to get so much said in such a short space’:

‘The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.’

Not only do you wonder how he thought of that, you imagine him wondering too…

There is another good example in ‘The Power-line Incarnation’, a poem about how it feels to clear fallen power-lines off the roof of your house and find them to be still transmitting their full load of electricity.

‘When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized held back from this life
O flumes O chariot reins
you cover me with lurids deck me with gaudies…’

The non-Australian reader need not think that there are outback Australians who call wires flumes. ‘Flume’, meaning an artificial channel, is Middle English following Old French, and comes out of the dictionary, not out of colonial usage. But the flumes, lurids, and gaudies seem appropriate here because the shock has sent the narrator back to the roots, of language as of life; the voltage has impelled a Jungian power-dive into the collective unconscious.

Isn’t ‘flume’ a lovely word? It sums up for me the electric shiver I get like get from moments like this in Murray’s poetry. Instead of writing my chapter I would like to write pages and pages about these incredible phrases. His bat poem for example. And oh, there are millions and millions. (If you click over to James’s review he discusses a few more.)

But these magic phrases are not the only thing that is wonderful about Murray’s poetry. He has all these elaborate theories about Australian identity, involving fusions of Aboriginal poetry, and Catholicism, and Gaelic poetry, and the Middle Ages, and the poor farmers, and about how he experiences belonging in the country the same way the Aboriginals do but also in the same way his Scottish ancestors did. Which of course is terribly problematic and you can’t really do that, and in designating certain groups as truly ‘Australian’ he’s alienating a huge proportion of the population.

But – I don’t think his poetry is brilliant simply in spite of his weird politics and his intense spiritual visions. I think they’re bound up together somehow, they come from the same place. So while I can unpick the unsettling way he aligns the Middle Ages with Australia, in some ways I don’t want to, because his vision is compelling and marvelous. It is a myth, yes, and there are real problems with some of the things he implies, but what he gives outweighs by far anything we can objectively say is problematic about his poetry.

And I was going to talk about how reading his ‘The Idyll Wheel’ – a suite of poems based around the Australian seasons – while holed up in my study listening to The Magic Flute in a snowy Norwegian February made me cry. But I have to go to bed now otherwise my new curfew will count for nothing and I will be a slow writer tomorrow morning. But the poem reminded me of how some weird woman on TV in England said she’d hate to have a Christmas in Australia because you’d know winter was just around the corner, and I thought – she knows nothing, winter is the least of their problems right now. Winter is unimaginable right now. As Les knows well:

Weedy drymouth Feb, first cousin of scorched creek stones,
of barbed wire across gaunt gullies, bringer of soldered
death-freckles to the backs of farmer’s hands. . .

. . .

. . . needy Feb, who waits for the raw eel-perfume
of the first real rain’s pheromones, the magic rain-on-dust
sexual scent of Time itself, philtre of all native beings

Deciding to stay

Photo credit – Michael. (Isn’t he clever?)

I had planned to fly to England today. But on Sunday night, I found myself wishing desperately that I had another two weeks at my desk. M said – why don’t you stay? He headed off to Finland today, and he’s going to Washington on Friday, without coming back here. Why not? I thought. I will. I have nearly two weeks of space and quiet to think and write and crystallize (yep, Genevieve, z is definitely prettier). Not that I don’t when he’s around. I love when he’s around. But you know.

And it feels good. Right at the end of last week, things started coming together. In a slow steady way. I sort of knew I was setting myself up for a fall last weekend when I declared I would have the most productive week ever. Because really there was no chance in Hell I could polish off three messy chapters in a week. Three weeks, now (including the one that’s gone), is another matter.

Anyway, I am still here. And it feels good. It feels like a gift. A gift of time, for me, to hang out with my thesis. To be kind to it. To attend to it. To notice its best bits and help them to shine. And this gentle attention is getting me a lot further than the panic I was in a week ago. I have realised I do not need to go fast. I just need to go steadily, and carefully, to hold many things in my mind and let a few things go. Because this thesis is mine and I love it, and even if flaws remain (they always do) it will still be a good thing.

So, for now, I am a little fish. Swimming steadily, strong but light. If I get stuck on or tired of one chapter, I will flick back to the other one, and make slow steady progress there. I must start working on my Webb chapter (the first one I wrote, the last one I will finish) within the next couple of days, so it has time to simmer and float with the others. Because really, I am quite a circular thinker.

And I will finish by the end of March. I will hand it in. For the first time I believe this.

A most beautiful day

On Friday, after lunch, I looked out the window, and the snow was still tumbling down, ever so lightly. But the sun was shining! A sun-snow-shower! So I put on my coat and pulled up my hood.

Everything sparkled, even the air, laced as it was with floating crystals.

And snow everywhere! Snow on the steps, snow on the boats, snow on the train tracks and the lampposts, snow on the stone walls and crosses.

The seagulls sat on little nests of snow on top of the posts in the river. Picnic anyone?

And I am so tired now, and not doing this justice. But it felt like the most beautiful day in the world, ever.

The snow glittered below and above and the sun shone on everything, and the seagulls swarmed and flocked like snowflakes themselves.

Catherine Howard’s hat

Last weekend I picked up Henry and had a go at Catherine Howard’s hat. She’s the one on the right. I have been avoiding the hat, as it is fiddly. And stitching brown thread is boring. But it will look good when it’s finished. It’s purple on top. With a feathered plume. After twenty minutes of happy stitching, I realised I was using the wrong colour. The symbol for colour I was using was a sideways ‘M’, when I needed to be using the upright ‘M’. So I dutifully unpicked it all, got the right colour out, and started again. And then I realised the last colour I’d done was wrong too. So I stopped. I need to decide whether to unpick the last thread, or just sew the two different coloured browns the wrong way around. I put it away.

A friend once told me her mum always said: ‘unpicking is progress too’. Which is true, and when you think about it like that it’s less painful. But still painful.

My Les Murray chapter started to come together today, very nicely. I realised the reason I had been stalling on it was the amount of unpicking required. I finished this chapter in a long night of rainbow-coloured fish, quite some time ago. My supervisors were very keen for me to produce a whole chapter, with arguments that built up, rather than just a collection of  ‘oh look he’s referencing the Middle Ages’ fragments. So I poured my all into it, and stiched it together, and forced it a bit. And they were pleased with it. They said yes, you’ve finally got it now. And I was happy, and I knew I could go on and write my next chapter with no problems at all, and I did, and they loved it first time.

But when I reread my Murray chapter at the end of last year, I was horrified. It was filled with grand statements that I didn’t really back up. It didn’t engage terribly well with secondary sources. It was awkward and naive. Ugh. Not all of it – some of it’s quite nice. But it kept glossing over really interesting things, rather than exploring them.

All it has needed is some unpicking. Some loosening of threads, to fit in some more details, some cleverer observations. And it’s been nice. Quiet, gentle, slow. Because this kind of attention is slow. But I think I will like it by the time I’ve finished it.

PS. To see the cross-stitch in larger than life detail, click on it twice, and zoom around. It’s pretty cool.

Ice crystals

I took this on the weekend. Not sure the past three days could be accurately described as my most productive days ever. Have put aside my loathed theory chapter for now (just wish it was less flimsy), and am getting back to one of my poets. Hopefully keeping feelings of hate and wretchedness at bay. (My poor books have even been copping it – I’ve been yelling at them when they hide on the shelves. Of course they’re always in an obvious place but with a different coloured spine than I remember.)

Today it is snowing, again. The sky is falling and falling.

Now quietly – as quiet as the cold – I will crystallise the last words and paragraphs into stars and pathways, and it will be enough.

Postcolonial writer medievalizes his own country

Chinua Achebe is visiting his homeland of Nigeria at the moment, and this is what he says:

In The Trouble with Nigeria, Mr Achebe wrote that “there is indeed no better place to observe the thrusting indiscipline of Nigerian behaviour than on the roads: frenetic energy, rudeness, noisiness”.

He described their indifference to safety as of “truly psychiatric proportions” and complained of convoys of VIPs travelling with police escorts becoming a “childish and cacophonous instrument for the celebration of status… a medieval chieftain’s progress complete with magicians and acrobats chasing citizens out of the way”.

Still, it’s an image that makes me smile – even just the marvellous selection of words he uses.

Ah – I could write a lot about this but I guess my brain power is better spent sorting through a few more thesis paragraphs at this point. What do you think of this observation? What are the implications of an amazing writer like Achebe using words like ‘childish’ and ‘medieval’ to describe his own people? What kind of Middle Ages is he invoking here?

(See, I can train you all up and you can finish my thesis for me.)

ps. I like Achebe’s novels a lot. Things Fall Apart blew me away when I read it as a first year undergrad, so I got hold of the other novels in this trilogy. They weren’t as immediately emotionally powerful as Things Fall Apart, but there was a complexity and a sadness in them that I felt I was just touching the surface of.

A Sunday drive

This afternoon we drove up along our regular summer cycling route, marveling at the icicles cascading over the rocks on the side of the road, and the little green islands in the middle of the frozen lakes. At the end of the route, we got out and had a stroll. I can’t believe I swam here in summer – just about where I’m standing. There were little ducklings bobbing around. And waterlillies.

The conditions were perfect for cross-country skiing, as fifi suspected, and the lake provides a surface about as flat as you can get. We saw a couple of guys out and about, getting a helping hand from their dogs (surprisingly effective).

I’ve never walked on a lake before. Occasionally we’d come across a crack, which was less than reassuring. I have to include this photo too, because of the lovely snowy trees in the background. It hasn’t snowed for days but it’s been so cold that it doesn’t melt at all.

I’ve taken the weekend off the thesis because yesterday my brain was dead. I can work through every other weekend it seems, but not every weekend. So… one last final push before I fly to England. M’s off to Sweden for two days now, and I’m hoping this will be my most productive week EVER. But this weekend was so nice. Just like the best sort of holiday.

Bushfire quilt auction

The lovely Anne has an fundraiser auction over at her site. She makes the most beautiful quilts, and is auctioning off one of the two following styles, any size up to a single quilt size (you can choose which sort and if you choose the first sort you can have it customized to whatever colours etc you like.) All the money paid by the winner will go to the bushfire appeal. So if you like the look of these and like the idea of helping the bushfire survivors, head over here. Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested!



This is the weather forecast for today and tomorrow. As you can see, sunshine, with a delightful temperature range of between minus five and minus fourteen. (Here’s the weather website.)

The town is still covered in snow. It is soft and dry and light, like dust. I tried to make a snowball the other day and it wouldn’t stick together but came apart in my hand. It’s fun to kick up little clouds of it.

Last night I came back from the gym with wet hair without putting my hood up. We only live across the road, and I was warm from exercising. As I climbed the steps to our little flat I thought – what’s that crunching sound? Agh, what’s that twiggy thing stuck to my head? My hair had frozen, in all of one minute.

Snow and fire

The landlady is shoveling snow off our steps. Yesterday was the first blue day in ages. I saw shadows I had never seen before.

And I am sad about the bushfires. Which of course doesn’t change anything but there it is. And because I am writing about belonging right now, I can’t help but notice that the reason I am sad is because they are burning in my home. My country. The place that shaped my childhood. Luckily for me, they are not burning the people or places dearest to me, but they are burning people like them, places like them.

So I feel really quite Australian right now. Having grown up with warnings of how to deal with snake-bites, which jelly-fish not to step on, which spiders can hurt you, where not to swim, how to cover up in the sun, and how much water to take with you if you go for a walk in the bush. And stories of what bushfires can do. How you should wrap yourself in a blanket, and stay down. (Amazingly, in all the news stories I’ve trawled through, this does seem to work in some instances.) I’ve never been bitten by a snake or a poisonous spider – but I’ve seen plenty. I’ve felt the tug of dangerous rip-tides as I’ve stood in the shallows. I’ve never seen a bushfire. But I’ve seen the glowing lick-and-flame of campfires, their nests of embers. I know the heady, dusty scent of eucalypts, and how days like this, they’re fuses waiting to go.

And yet – it’s white outside, and quiet, and cold. I wish I could send some snow.

Chapter 3 is done!

57 pages, 215 footnotes. I had it practically finished last night, apart from one monster footnote I just couldn’t face. There’s also about twelve footnotes I need to check once I get to Leeds, but I’ve listed them neatly on my ‘things still to be done’ page, and it shouldn’t take too long. I am tempted to go over the whole thing again and make a couple of things more explicit, but I’m forcing myself to put it down for now and get on to the next thing. This is my best chapter. It’s fine. If I have time at the end I will tweak it a little, if not, no problem.

Now for the hard part… Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are in much worse states.

Chapter 5 is done!

It’s now 58 pages, not 55. I hope I won’t have to go back and shrink it. And it has 245 perfect footnotes. Well, perfect enough. Now for chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4. Oh, and the conclusion. My giddy joy and anticipation as the number of pages left to check through grew very thin and very light has now been replaced by well-earned tiredness. But – it was a nice feeling. I would like to have it again. Soon.

Small things

  • This week I ate porridge for breakfast every day
  • There is thick snow outside and it’s still snowing
  • My three day plan became a five day plan
  • I went for a swim for the first time in years (not counting splashing around in lakes and beaches)
  • We found and lost the house of our dreams
  • I decided two warm jumpers are the way to go
  • When I walked out of the bathing hall at five pm, my hair still wet, it was dark. The ground was covered in a not insubstantial layer of whiteness that hadn’t been there when I went in. The clean blank footpath glinted like diamonds. Tiny, tiny flakes swarmed down. If you looked up beneath a streetlamp it seemed the air was made of glitter.

Embrace the grey

We haven’t seen the sun in nearly three weeks. But I have been telling myself, the grey isn’t as grey as it could be. The clouds are a little higher than I remember them being in England, on those days in winter when you couldn’t remember what blue and space felt like. Anyway, I saw a patch of blue sky today. And coming back from the gym tonight, a cold bright half moon.

On Sunday I tried to climb the fortress. I was defeated by the icy path.

I even tried to go up a different way, but if you look closely, you can see the other path, the stone path, behind the stone wall. No thanks.

Ah well. Today I am grateful for yoga and for google books (life saver!!!) and for things that are coming together work-wise. M is away for three days and I have a three day work plan of the things I want achieved before he gets back: get chapter 5 (one of the good ones) to a state in which I could hand it in tomorrow if I wanted to, and write a couple of pages on postcolonial belonging for chapter one. Chapter five is fifty-five pages, and right now the first twenty are good to go. If I can get through thirty-five pages tomorrow (I only got through 20 today but you never know!), I will be on track to write my new stuff on Wednesday.

And then… agh, I really don’t know how I’ll get the whole thing basically polished off in the next three weeks (which is when I’ve booked my flight to the UK). But I must try as hard as I can. At least I seem to be in a good working mode for a change. (I need to keep coming up with new tricks to force the progress.)