York, London, Children, History, Dreams

travel12 Twelve years ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in London with a huge backpack and a brick of a laptop, brimming with excitement, anticipation, freedom, and a few nerves too. I stayed in a grotty hostel in Earl’s court. I went to British library and marvelled at the medieval manuscripts and hand written poems. I visited Southwark cathedral, because a writer I know told me she loves it. I went to Greenwich with a girl from the Maldives who I met in the hostel. I went to the British Museum and looked at the loot from Sutton Hoo. I wandered around peering at maps and looking anxiously for tube stations. Soon, I would travel around a bit before starting a masters in York. What adventures.

travel9 Last week I arrived in London with Felix and Antonia as my companions. Michael was working in the US for two weeks and I didn’t fancy staying at home alone for that time. I had been wanting to come back to the UK for years, and thought I’d better do it now before my maternity leave is over. We stayed in a clean and shiny hostel near Hyde Park, opposite the natural history museum. Once again I was excited and a little apprehensive. It felt so different. London was exciting the first time but also lonely and somewhat aimless – with all that time on your hands, how do you best spend it? Now I had two small beings to look after and there was no time for loneliness or aimlessness. I felt myself ferrying them around in a little bubble of care. We went to playgrounds and the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and I loved it. We took a boat ride with my brother to Greenwich. It was nice to go to parks with a purpose – the promised playground at the end of the walk a mecca for all. I felt I belonged.

london11 travel2 travel3 And early this week I arrived in York. Walking around the town centre on my first day, my heart kept clenching in recognition. These were the streets I walked and rode my bike, the streets in which I dreamed and longed and loved. I kept saying to Felix ‘this is amazing, I feel so strange’. ‘Why Mummy’, he asked, and I only said I lived here once, long ago, with Daddy. Arriving in York twelve years ago was a dream come true – after years of poorly paid care-work, I finally had time to read and think and study again, and forge wonderful friendships, and breathe the fairytale air of the north. That sounds romanticised, and it was, but well, that’s me. In York I did my masters and began my PhD, in York I fell in love. Felix and Antonia would not exist had Michael and I not met here.

minster2 So it felt strange and lovely to be back, in this city which is at once pretty and mysterious, cosy and ancient, cradling and awe inspiring. And it felt odd, to begin with, to have the little ones at my side, to not be able to slip into uninterrupted reveries or read for hours in coffee shops. And I missed Michael. But I soon got used to showing the little ones around, and how lovely it was to see Felix entranced by the stained glass window interactive displays in the minster. ‘They cook glass like dinner’, he told me, ‘did they cook the glass in our house too?’ There is a model train shop near our apartment which I must have walked past hundreds of times but never noticed until now – we have to stop every time to watch the train go through the tunnel.

minster4 minster7 I have visited old friends and old places, I have walked old paths. It feels good to be here. I’m staying in an excellent little apartment just outside the city walls, that just happens to be at a midpoint between the two houses I used to live in. It’s just behind a huge painted sign that is visible from the city walls that says ‘bile beans are good for you’ – impossible not to notice.

minster12 It feels right to be tucked away just here, in a place I rode past and walked past and spotted from the walls – here, now, with two small beings. Here, in a place awash with history, I feel I can almost touch my former lives, my former selves. I can wave, but feel no need to go back. I can wave, also, at the self who may visit here in ten years, in twenty, but I am here now, this moment, and it is good.



felix-photography-2-4 beach-baby-1

Felix: posing at a mock castle with Michael’s SLR – Felix had such fun taking photos on our holiday (another post to follow soon, hopefully).

Antonia: loving the beach at Schonberg Strand, near Kiel, on our last day in Germany.

We had a fabulous time in Germany (or Deutchland, as Felix insists), and got home last Sunday. I have so many photos to share with you but our internet is broken! I am snatching ten minutes of internet time in a cafe while Antonia naps in her stroller.

Linking belatedly with Jodi for a portrait of my children once a week in 2015.

Knights (and other dreams)

We recently went to the documenta 13 in Kassel. This is a huge art exhibition that takes place every five years, pretty much taking over the town. We had a great time when we went five years ago. This time, we loved it, and I’ll write more about it soon, but I first want to share with you one of my favourite exhibits.

Nedlo Solakov’s installation ‘Knights (and other dreams)’ is housed appropriately in the Brothers Grimm Museum. It opens with a a videotaped interview with a Bulgarian actor/director, Oleg Kovachev, who is most famous for a role he played as a child in a movie called ‘Knight Without Armor’.

In the interview, he candidly talks about how frustrating he finds it to always be known as the boy from ‘Knight Without Armor’, especially as he tried to make it as an adult actor but failed, although he went on to become a prize-winning director. Solakov uses this as a jumping off point for thinking about his own unrealised dreams – he had always wanted to play the drums in a hard rock band, and he had coveted a remote controlled helicopter as a child. He also invented a dream – to own a real suit of knight’s armour. The rest of the exhibit consists of interviews with people interested in knights, including medievalist societies and the Maltese Knight’s Hospitaller, and documentation of Solakov’s decision to realise some of his own unrealised dreams, both real and imagined. This culminates in a quite spectacular performance of a knight playing the drums, and a not-so spectacular episode in which a knight attempts to stop a remote controlled helicopter from skidding around the ground. Some dreams turn out to be wonderful; some don’t.

It made me think about my own dreams, both realised and unrealised. Many of my dreams have come true: to fly in the sky like a bird, to study medieval literature, to get a phd, to live in a little house with sunlight on the floorboards, to live in Europe. Some I have revised – after experiencing Norwegian winters my old desire to visit Antarctica no longer seems quite so appealing. And some just haven’t worked out – as a teenager and young adult I wanted nothing more than to be a great Australian author, which now seems unlikely. And it made me think about my Dad, who has quite a few dreams (both realised and unrealised) that really shape his personality. The exhibition was whimsical and quite funny in places and I love that it left me with the sense that unrealised dreams can be precious things.

More thoughts on Halloween

I was thinking on the weekend that Halloween is great because it’s so different from Christmas and Easter. It’s not about the nuclear family. It’s wild and irreverent. In the middle of winter it feels right to come together quietly and light candles and dream about the return of the light, but this is such a fitting way to mark this particular change in season – a crazy party before it all falls down. A much more urgent affair when you know the winter will be long and harsh. This is something I could barely imagine when I lived in Australia, when autumn always came as such a relief.

Over here is an interview with the wonderful Jeffrey Jerome Cohen about Halloween and monsters. He says:

I really enjoy Halloween, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s not as if I dress up as a monster—actually I don’t, I almost never do. But there’s something about Halloween that’s just celebratory and fun.

The only thing that I’ll say has changed about Halloween for me, as I’ve gotten a little bit older, is it does strike me that—despite all of the fun that happens—Halloween is really also a brooding on our own mortality and that it’s got a deeply sad component to it.

Part of it is trying to overcome a fear of death by having celebration in the face of death. But it’s also an acknowledgement that death is a part of our lives and we don’t get this on any other day. Our contemporary lives are so lived in denial of our own mortality that it’s the one day that it’s actually out there.

Which is true. But for us, this year, it was just a great excuse to dress Felix up as a pumpkin.

Rainy day

Perfect for exam marking. But of course I am procrastinating. When there are exams to be marked, what better time to write a blog post! The rain is quite lovely in fact. Mermos is purring in my lap, Whitby is curled at my feet (I have a lambskin rug under my desk). They are such funny, friendly kitties. They always follow you around (even to the toilet, one thing I could do without!). A load of washing is on, I’ve sorted out the kitchen, and hung some pictures on my office wall.

On my left is a lovely print of an early drawing of a wombat family, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur in 1804. I bought it when there was an exhibition in Adelaide many years ago of early French drawings of Australian plants and animals. It was the most amazing thing! Because Australian creatures were still relatively odd to European eyes, the representations looked slightly odd because they hadn’t worked out how draw them yet. Anyway the print sat under my bed in Adelaide for about seven years, but I took it back with me in January and found a frame for it. There is a mother wombat with about four little baby wombats toddling out of her pouch (do they have that many babies?), and a father wombat looking on bemusedly.

On my right are two prints of pages from the Book of Kells. I bought them on a trip to Ireland with the University of York hiking club in early 2004. Michael had organized the trip, so he was there, but we weren’t together yet. (We did, however, always sit next each other and talk for hours…) I remember offering him one of the posters on the train home in a kind of clumsy courting gesture. He said no thank you, he wasn’t into putting pictures on walls, he wanted to wait until he had his own place and could do it properly. (I bet he’s forgotten the entire conversation!) Anyway, here they are, and here we are. One of them is extra special to me now, because it is the Q from the Quoniam page, which Les Murray has written a poem about, and which I devoted about two and a half pages of my thesis to… (I can tell you more about that if you’re interested…)

Michael has been in the south of France all week which I am insanely jealous about. He gets back tonight only to leave again for Texas on Wednesday… Anyway, I’m very glad not to be at work today. Fridays are now my own! But the exams are calling. Wish me luck!


Was nice, if a little cloudy. Lots of delicious pizzas, waffles, and ice-creams were ingested, not to mention German beer. Here is Michael looking pensive in a pink cafe.

A highlight for me was gate-crashing a conference on Shakespear’s ‘Troilus and Cresseda’  and Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ for half a day, and catching up with not one but two of my favourite Australian medievalists. This was so lovely, and as Stephanie pointed out, it felt a bit like home away from home. The papers I heard were about gesture and emotion, public and private, faces and defacing. I must confess to not having read Chaucher’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ since my Honours year, but I have a very clear memory of the brilliant Tom Burton demonstrating the pathos of the poem. (For those not familiar with it, it’s a poem about love and betrayal, with the backdrop of the Trojan war.) Unfortunately the European spring put on a very poor show for all the international guests, but they seemed to enjoy themselves anyway.

We also climbed up to the top of the Berliner Dom, and watched a concert of Schumann and Bruckner there one evening. On Sunday, finally, the sun came out, and I wandered through the Tiergarten while Michael caught up with an old friend.

Whilst I was lounging in the sun, a tall dark handsome stranger from Cairo made a concerted effort to pick me up. He told me he was a masseur and a body-builder (!!!). As I gallantly extricated myself, he told me he was happy to merely ‘look see’. Having escaped Criseyde’s fate, I was immediately rewarded by a sign from the gods.

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

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.

Why medievalism?

In response to some questions from Penni, this is the first in a series of posts – or second actually, if you count this one on why Australian poetry – on how I ended up doing the phd I did ( – er – am doing. Can’t wait till I can use past tense here!).

When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2000 I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was heart-broken and burnt out. I’d just written an honours thesis on Dostoevsky which I had loved, but I was tired. I didn’t have an idea for a PhD topic, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD. In fact, I’d never really considered what to do with my life. So I decided to work for a while, doing anything, and write my novel (a long term project I’d been dreaming about for four years) on the side.

After a stint of fruit picking, I got a job as a home care-worker. This was a huge shock to the system, but I loved it in the end. At the end of 2001, I decided I wanted to keep doing it for another year.

Mid-way into that year, I realised I didn’t want to keep doing that forever, and started thinking about other options. I considered doing a degree in social work. I would also float into my old English department occasionally. And that’s when I saw it. A poster advertising a masters in medieval literature at the University of York. I’d been to York, once, it was beautiful. It was love at first sight. I looked up the masters on the internet and couldn’t believe how amazing it looked. You had to learn Latin and Old English and paleography. And there was a subject called ‘Rereading Old Books’, which looked at the books that were an influence on the Middle Ages – the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. I was hooked.

I’m not sure why the Middle Ages suddenly seemed so fascinating. Partly the age, and the distance. The thought of touching a far off world that was somehow connected to mine. And the aesthetics of it. The strange, barely recognisable language, the deliciously flexible spelling, the colours and the patterns of illuminated manuscripts. I’d done a couple of medieval literature subjects as part of my English degree, and I’d really enjoyed them, but they hadn’t stood out as something I’d devote my life to. But there are three things during my honours year that I now recognise as seeds for what I ended up doing later.

1. The Pearl-Poet. I can’t remember whether we looked at Pearl or Gawain that year, but I love both of them dearly. Ah, the language!

2. My honours thesis was on the image of the Holy Fool in Dostoevsky. The image of the holy fool goes back to the Middle Ages, and I’d done a lot of reading on that in the context of the Russian Orthodox church (something else I’d found fascinating).

3. The other thing was the theory subject we were forced to do. I was very anti this at the time. It was team-taught and not terribly well structured, with one huge tutorial group of about thirty students, which did nothing to make me like the subject more. There was a weird buzz about theory in the university at that time, particularly among the students. A lot of posturing. But I couldn’t help noticing, some of the stuff we read, Derrida in particular, reminded me a lot of writings I’d read by the medieval mystics. And everyone was saying this was all so postmodern and so new and so secular, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe it wasn’t. Maybe in some aspects of it were very old indeed, and not secular at all.

So it was partly spiritual, too. I grew up around various sorts of Protestantism, all dismissive of each other, and all dismissive of Catholicism. What I noticed, from my reading in medieval mysticism, was that some ideas that people claimed were very new or unique to their particular sect or whatever, were in fact very old. It really annoyed me that people would claim an idea or an image as original or unique when people had been writing about it hundreds or thousands of years ago. I thought the Middle Ages were unfairly maligned. Also, my own beliefs were changing, and the idea of a ‘cloud of unknowing’ was more appealing than a God who wanted you to feel bad about yourself all the time.

Anyway… I applied for a scholarship to do the masters in York, but it felt like a long shot, so I decided to apply for PhD scholarships in Australia as well. I listed everything I was most interested in:

  • poetry
  • the Middle Ages
  • Australia
  • spirituality

I looked at the list, and I thought – maybe I can link them all together!  I thought about how this would work out in the work of some Australian poets I liked, and I came up with a proposal.

Ezra Pound sings cuckoo

The things you find on Wikipedia. I must confess, I’ve never been able to get into Ezra Pound. I never had the chance to study his work formally, and the few times I opened his collected poems as a conscientious undergraduate in the library on rainy afternoons, I found them impenetrable. But I was looking up the ‘cuckoo song‘, for thesis related reasons, and I came across this. It won’t mean much to you Aussies right now, but it made me laugh out loud.

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.


Thinking about homes and houses – in a strictly academic sense – and have solved a niggling problem at the end of my best chapter. Ie – what to make of Randolph Stow’s very strange book The Suburbs of Hell. It’s still not my favourite of his novels, and it won’t be the most interesting point I make in that chapter – but it’s enabling me to draw it all together much more neatly. Before, all I could say about that book, really, is that it’s an experiment in genre. I have to say something about it, because of its overt medievalism. But when you think about homes, and houses, it clicks into focus a little better, especially in regards to my thesis. Hurrah! Hurrah! (Maybe I’ll tell you why sometime – it involves the Gothic and a mysterious assassin. Ooh, and can link in with Beowulf quite nicely too.)

I’ve been reading The Politics of Home by Rosemary Marangoly George. Rather late in the day for someone whose thesis title contains the word ‘belonging’. Still. It’s fun to tweak my perspective on things and see them in a slightly new light.

Walled Cities

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!


At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

A medievalist in New York

In New York I couldn’t keep my eyes off old things, or echoes of old things. When we were discussing potential tourist destinations, possibly art galleries, one of Micheal’s colleagues only wanted to see contemporary art, the really new stuff, because she always thought of New York as new. But mock medieval spires crown the sky-scrapers, and we found a huge imitation Gothic cathedral, St Patrick’s. It was pretty good, but there were no gargoyles, which gave it a strangely smooth complexion.

There were plenty of gargoyles in the cloisters museum. And amazing unicorn tapestries. I was slightly horrified – we all know the picture of the unicorn sitting demurely within its white picket fence, but I had no idea that the story ended with him being torn to pieces by dogs and arrows, and dragged dead into the castle, slung on the back of a horse. Possibly a good thing that it was too dark in there to take pictures.

Then there’s the massive Disney store, and the princess craze that’s taking over the world. My friend bought a ‘baby princess’ for her little daughter. These princesses are medieval too, after a fashion.

We capped off this medieval New York tour with an evening of Spamalot. I was slightly suspicious and wishing we’d chosen something more traditionally broadway, but it turned out to be brilliant. An English pantomime on a massive scale, with king Arthur, dancing girls, a murderous rabbit, and giant confetti tumbling down on us at the end. Perfect.

Did you know…

that the governor of South Australia between 1899 and 1902, and the Governor General of Australia between 1902 and 1903, was the son of celebrated poet Alfred Tennyson?

Me neither. But it’s kinda cool (and kinda creepy – British imperialism, and all that…).

I discovered this whilst poking around at fodder to use for my introduction. Tennyson, you know, beloved medievalist poet, well-read even in the colonies, UK poet Laureate.

Australian history never appealed to me when I was at school, and I think now that’s because it’s so messy and so fragile. Who can say when Australia begins – when was it invented? (Of course, it is still invented, daily.) When did the English cease being ‘us’ and become ‘them’? Pretty early on, I suppose, but it’s messy. (As I now know, ‘English’ and ‘British’ are also contested categories with tangled pasts, reinvented daily.)

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

Of Elves and Rings

A very long time ago, I read The Hobbit. I was hooked from the start, and when I got to the second half, where it suddenly becomes darker and tragic and achingly old, I was somewhat more than hooked. I went to find the school librarian. Look, I said, it says there’s another one, it says there’s a sequel. Where is it? You’re too young, she said.

A few years later, we were moving to the country. We put everything in boxes. Some hadn’t even been unpacked from our last move. On the top of one of them, I found the book – an enormous dusty paperback, fatter than a Bible. I might just keep hold of this one, I said.

I didn’t like it in the country to begin with. But I liked the elves. I read it slowly, the year I turned twelve. When it started falling apart, I covered it in plastic. I remember so clearly reaching the end of it as I sat in my parents’ threadbare armchair on a quiet afternoon. ‘”Well, I’m back,” he said.’ No, I thought, no, you can’t be. And the book in my lap transformed from a thing of magic to a heavy lump of soft, worn paper.

After that, I read it again and again. The last time was in the holidays after I graduated from High School. I read it in three days straight, and appreciated the battle scenes for the first time. I was afraid I loved it more than God.

In recent years, I have become somewhat ashamed of my youthful Tolkien fixation. I went to a session on him at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds a couple of years back, and it was dreadful. Laboured re-hashings of the way Tolkien based his monsters and everything else on medieval sources. (Yes this actually is interesting I suppose, but not when it’s already been talked about to death. More interesting is why, and what are the implications of his choices…) The unconcealed eagerness in the eyes of the Tolkien enthusiasts made me feel a little ill. They were talking about his creations as though they actually exist.

But we watched the movies again recently. And I thought – I’m glad he wrote that story. And I’m glad they made those films. Even if the elves aren’t quite as beautiful as I had imagined.

ps. Tolkien taught at Leeds, you know. Yep, my university. Even if he didn’t like it much, and scurried back down to Oxford as often as he could.

Mutated Medieval Meme

I was tagged by Highly Eccentric ages ago for this. You’re supposed to give eight facts about your favourite historical figure. Well, being more interested in things literary than things historical, I have more time for stories than for facts. Though I guess they overlap. I had an involved discussion with a historian once about this, who try as she might couldn’t get her head around why anyone would study English literature. I said I found the stories people told to be more fascinating than what they ate for breakfast.

Anyway, after much thought, my favourite historical figure is Caedmon. I discovered him during my masters at York. He’s one of those Old English figures who make you smile when you think of them (I’d also add Bede and King Alfred). This is in itself slightly curious, and I think it’s connected to a notion of Englishness. Anyway… I like Caedmon because I think Anglo-Saxon biblical poetry is just great. The language is shining and strong. The most fun I had during my masters was writing an essay on the creation myth in Anglo-Saxon verse: Caedmon’s Hymn, the beginning of Beowulf, ‘The Wonders of Creation’, and I think there was one other… The story of Caedmon is particularly interesting because Caedmon’s hymn is a myth about the creation of the world, embedded within a myth of origins of Anglo-Saxon poetry, embedded within a story about the origins of Englishness.

You can read about him in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Or here. I don’t know about little known facts – you either know about him or you don’t. And if you don’t, here goes:

1. He lived at Whitby Abbey with the Abbess Hilda (she was there between 657 and 680, and is a pretty impressive figure in her own right).
2. He didn’t like singing.
3. He couldn’t read or write.
4. When it was his turn to sing at dinner he was so shy that he went to sleep in the cowshed.
5. God appeared to him in a dream and told him to sing. After much protestation, he did.
6. The poem he sang (which he later sang to Abbess Hild and the others) is recorded as the first Biblical Anglo-Saxon poem.
7. The monks later would translate the Biblical stories from Latin into Old English, so he could understand them, and then he would make them into poems.
8. If you feel like it, these days you can have a chat to him in the museum at Whitby Abbey.

I wanted to include some pictures of Whitby Abbey, which is one of my favourite places in England. But despite having visited several times, I don’t seem to have any decent digital photos. Can’t be bothered tagging anyone, but pick it up if you feel like it, or tell me who your favourite historical figure is in the comments.

And this was a good week

I met with my supervisors on Wednesday, and they liked my chapter!!! This is my last chapter. It was pretty tough to write and I was worried they’d tear it apart. Instead they said all kinds of nice things like I’m streaming ahead on my own now, they’re happy to sit back and watch! It just needs a little stretching and tidying, no more than ten days work. They reckon if I put my mind to it I could be done in September! So. I’m putting my mind to it. Most of what needs doing is adding in more close analysis of poems, which is my favourite bit anyway.

I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….

The Stone Ship

A detour on the way to our grocery shopping takes us to Blomsholm. When the sign mentions stone ships I don’t pay much attention. These are standing stones. If they found stone ships here, they must have taken them away.

The wind is cold. The stones stand as they have for fifteen hundred years.

And there it is – the stone ship.

The stones outline the shape of the ship – a ghost ship, sailing through the earth.

What skies it has sailed.

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.

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.)

Paragliders, kitchens and the Green Man

Well, we’re packing up and heading off to the States tomorrow! Much excitement here. And much mess too. The important pieces of luggage are the paragliders (and the helmets and the walking boots) – the (minimal) clothes get to squeeze in along the sides of the backpacks. Salt Lake City should provide some pretty cool paragliding opportunities, including lots of ridge soaring. I’ll try to take some pictures this time.

I’ve had such a nice week. I do so love being here. When we arrived back from Germany I felt for about five minutes such a flood of relief and happiness. It really feels like home here – it’s all ours, just for us. The kitchen, the loungeroom, the bedroom, the study. Just ours. We chose all the furniture. Lots of lovely circles and pale wood. And all the kitchen utensils. We’ve got everything we need, just the way we like it. And, best of all, each other. Student share accommodation is okay, but after a while it begins to wear a bit thin. Anyway, I savoured the lovely feeling for five minutes before the nausea flooded back in and didn’t go away till last Sunday. But since then I’ve been loving it.

I’ve also been having lots of exciting though rather complicated ideas for my next chapter. It’s on Randolph Stow, and I’ve been posting some of my thoughts on his novels in The Little Book Room. What’s really fun is that his use of the Middle Ages is so completely different to Murray’s. Murray uses them as an idealised image of a creative, agrarian, spiritual world, which he believes has been replanted in Australia. So, for Murray, the Middle Ages participate in an affirmation of belonging. Stow is more concerned with terror and alienation. In Girl Green as Elderflower, the Middle Ages do participate in a reconstruction of self, and a regained sense of belonging, but the overwhelming mood is that of strangeness and exile. I think Stow used the Middle Ages as a mirror for the strangeness of the modern. Many of his novels are concerned with madness, alienation and death. He writes about intense spiritual experiences in the Australian landscape, madness, suicide and cargo cults in the Trobriant Islands, murder mysteries in Suffolk, and displaced green children from 12th century legends. The Middle Ages he turns to in his last two novels are a realm of monsters and mysteries, epitomized by the inscrutable Green Man:

In his room of icy light, its open windows (for he had grown unused to white men’s houses) commanding a leafless landscape, he tried to recreate the face which had appeared to him: a face made of summer leaves, not sinister but pitilessly amused. When he had woken, it had been with the Green Man’s voice in his ears, actually within the bones of the ear, supernaturally loud. Though he could not recapture the voice, he felt again his vague affright, for it was internal as sound never was. And it had spoken to him, he thought he now remembered, in that language in which he so often dreamed, and would not hear spoken again. But the sense of the speech eluded him. Only the tone reverberated, amused beyond the reach of pity.

. . .

Fire, the ancestral god. And as the kindling spat at him and he stirred, he seemed to glimpse once more the god’s face, the smile unchanging, whether sketched by leaves or by flame.

My ideas for my chapter have something to do with the curious temporalities Stow constructs in his novels. He writes about Australia, but it is an Australia of myths and legends and half-sketched maps. Time is somewhat fluid in his work. The present is always bordered with another world, which is not evil, but not good either, much like the Green Man. And it can be dangerous. I think the Middle Ages is one way in which Stow imagines this other world. But it’s not really another world at all, just a different way of looking at this one. His interest in Taoism comes in here too, and that’s when it starts to get complicated. But exciting too, because all the Taoist speech and silence stuff fits in rather nicely with my thesis topic of ‘medievalism and the language of belonging’. So there’s a few of my half-baked ideas, anyway. I can’t wait to tease them out properly. I’ve come up with a rather nice chapter title, too: ‘Grievous Music: Randolph Stow’s Antipodean Middle Ages’. I’m quite pleased with that – antipodean, upside down, opposite.

Conference Reflections

We’ve just come to the end of the 2007 International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s a pretty big event – over a thousand participants and lots of paralell sessions. It’s always a good chance to catch up with old friends from my masters in York. It’s also always a bit overwhelming, and if you’re not careful you can end up in very detailed historical sessions that don’t actually interest more literary minded types like me…

The highlight for me was a session on 20th century medievalism. Michael Alexander talked about medievalism in Eliot, Pound and Auden, and he has a new book out on the topic! I went to buy it but all the copies had been snapped up. There were also some really interesting papers on medievalism in early films – German and American. A German film theorist in the 1920s thought that the visual nature of cinema would herald a new physicality in human experience, which he though was a quality of the Middle Ages. Fascinating stuff.

My paper was on medieval children in Randolph Stow’s Girl Green as Elderflower (a very beautiful novel). I wrote it in a bit of a rush (as usual) but it went down well. Oh and the biggest thrill of the conference was discovering Nick Havely’s new book on Dante – he’s dedicated it to his York students, including me! And he cites the paper I gave at the Medieval Congress last year, on Dante in Australian literature and art. So that’s a bit of a thrill. Really must get on to trying to turn a few of these papers into articles…

Claire Souter


Recently I was reminded of the wonderful Australian artist Claire Souter, who used to live in the town where I grew up, Mt Gambier, South Australia. She used to exhibit regularly in the area, and I would run into her work every year at the Penola Festival, where she made a habit of winning the John Shaw Neilson painting prize, and I made a habit of winning the youth sections of the Max Harris Literary Award. She has since moved to Queensland, but she is still painting. Her gallery sounds like a wonderful place – you can read about it, and see many more of her beautiful pictures at her website.

I own the painting pictured above, or one very like it (I have a feeling it has two birds, but it is in Adelaide and I can’t check). It’s from a series called Green 1999, which was based on French lace patterns. I love it because of the layers, the stillness, the movement. It is at once lace and a jewel and a mosaic and a plant and a bird, flying. The green capsules which hover on its surface at once contribute to the sense of flatness and give it extra depth – you feel like you could reach out your hand and pick one up. But how do they stand up like that? There is something enchanted about the painting – it’s like a glimpse into a magical moment captured in skeins of fabric, of glass, of light. I bought it because the bird reminding me of a small dragon I was writing about at the time, who would have been happy there.

My parents own one of her paintings too, but I couldn’t find a picture of it. It’s golden light falling over a table. It’s beautiful. Here is another bird.

Bird and Tigers

And here is the sea:

Newcastle Beach

Souter has also painted several series based on medieval stained glass windows. I love them – the colours, the light, and again, the layers. She works with glazes a lot (very thin layers of paint applied over areas of the canvas) which I think helps her to achieve these effects.


Glory Vine

Silver Birch

You’re just going to have to go to her website, these few paintings are just a taster. Recently she has been painting the thick rain-forest foliage of her new home. I think there are themes running through these paintings – a fascination with surfaces, with light, with patterns and the natural world. I love the way she layers different surfaces that treat light differently – the autumn leaves and the stained glass windows, the skeins of waves on the beach. And the way she plays with the surface of the paintings – the capsules on the lace, the leaves on the glass, the watermarks on the rain-forest paintings. The word ‘surface’ can sometimes be used disparagingly – as though it is less important than depth. But it is through surfaces that we apprehend the world – our skin is a surface that can touch and feel other surfaces, our eyes apprehend light on the surfaces of objects. Souter paints surfaces with gentleness and delicacy – light rests on them, shines through them, floods around them. Yet again I am reminded of one of my favourite Les Murray poems, ‘Equanimity’:

… a field all foreground, and equally all background,
like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent
like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.

Beautiful Leaves

Leaf 10

Light and Shelter

Paintings and images copyright Claire Souter. Used with permission.

The Story of an Unknown Church

Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.

No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.

The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,

. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .

I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.

I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lilies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.

Cross-posted at The Little Book Room.

Les Murray and ANZAC Day

I’m tired. And tired of computers. Today I finished a draft of a chapter on the Australian poet Les Murray, and emailed it off to my supervisors. I always find deadlines stressful – I need them to force myself to get things done but they’re not pleasant. Anyway, the chapter is well on the way, and I have expanded the 2000 words of the conference paper I gave earlier this year to 15,000 words, which with a bit of tweaking will make a chapter.

Today is ANZAC Day – which for you non-Aussies celebrates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Gallipolli in 1915. And all wars Australia has been involved in since then. Les Murray is ambivalent about the role of war in cementing a nation’s identity – though I suppose it’s a pretty global thing. He compares it with human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs practiced. Dying in order to give a nation an identity doesn’t sound much fun to me either.

Coming from a family (on both sides) of conscientious objectors, ANZAC day has never meant much to me apart from being a public holiday. This is despite the fact that my great uncle (who was English) died in World War II when his plane disappeared. There was never any mention of sacrifice or bravery, just a sense of overwhelming tragedy and even shame (he left behind his mother, his sister and his fiance, who all adored him).

My chapter is about Les Murray’s use of medievalism to construct notions of belonging in Australia. This means the way he uses images of and ideas about the Middle Ages in order to form images of Australia and establish connections to it. This sounds like a pretty batty idea, but it’s not actually as strange as it first appears – it’s about the way we all use history as myth, to construct our own identities and homelands. As I’ve worked on the chapter I’ve realised that Murray does not only use the Middle Ages to establish a sense of belonging in Australia, but also to explore notions of not-belonging. The not-belonging I’m talking about here has to do with his Christian perspective of ultimately belonging in the next world rather than this one. The Middle Ages can be useful here partly because that’s the way people thought back then, and partly because it’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a sort of lost world, which can then be used to imagine a promised land, waiting beyond death.

ANZAC day is also about using history as myth. All these ideas have been swimming around my head today. How in some ways the soldiers are supposed to have died to help people to belong, but because they’re dead, the soldiers don’t belong, they belong (perhaps) somewhere else. And what about the awkward belonging felt by those who refuse to fight? The picture, culled from The Advertiser, shows the dawn service at the war memorial in Adelaide. It’s near the University. I’ve always liked the angel.

Halden and Mt Gambier

Halden’s pretty cool. It’s surrounded by lakes and pine forests. It’s got a seventeenth century fortress, a river, a harbour, a paper factory, and a nuclear reactor. What more could a town want? Here’s a picture I took this evening of the fortress, or festning, from across the harbour.

And this one’s looking back down the river towards our house. You can see the chimney of the paper factory in the middle of the shot (that’s clouds behind it, not smog). The paper factory is powered by steam from the reactor. If it was a wide screen photo, you’d see the fortress on the hill to the right.

We live directly under the fortress, next to the river. On the other side of the river is the paper factory, and behind that, hidden in the mountain, is the nuclear reactor. So we’re right in the thick of things.

It reminds me of another little town I grew up in – Mt Gambier, South Australia. Mt Gambier has pine forests and paper mills, and a lake, and even a tower on a hill.

When I lived in Mt Gambier, I always had the sense it was dreaming of somewhere else. The pine forests and the green paddocks – these weren’t Australian. The ground is volcanic, laced with caves and sink-holes – a secret world beneath your feet. In summer, the crater lake is this unearthly blue. The tower, perched on its hill near the lake, is visible from all over the city. It had to be ancient. It had to mean something. (Okay, stick a lonely twelve year old in a country town, and this is what she comes up with.)

Maybe it was dreaming of Norway – a land of lakes, and pine forests, and ancient towers. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m pretty enamoured with Norway. I read somewhere many years ago that Scandinavia is the dream-centre of Europe, and that has stuck with me. Norwegian landscape is somehow very clean, pure, archetypal. Simple words describe it: mountain, forest, river, lake. These are the words of fairytales. When a fairytale says ‘forest’, it means a thick dark pine forest. And when it says ‘lake’, it means a deep, cool, watery lake, ringed by the forest. Not a pale, baked expanse such as Lake Eyre or Lake George.

I’m not saying European lakes are better than Australian ones, although they continually shock me – such an abundant excess of water. I just spend so much time analysing Australian medievalism that I thought I’d indulge in some.