jump to navigation

Another night, another morning, another cup of coffee December 17, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies, university.
Tags: , ,

It’s been a very long time since I’ve updated this journal, and I apologise.  I’m very good up adding to my LiveJournal with all kinds of silly memes, links and fangirling, but I always feel that this blog should be a bit more well thought out, so I write less.  I was chatting to Anna last night and she mentioned that lots of people had been asking her how I was going, so I thought I should do something to let everyone know.

I’m on holidays right now, and have been for about a week and a half.  First term was tough, but not as insane as I had first thought.  I had two classes – Latin and Irish – which required quite a bit of preparation (mainly translation and exercises).  On top of that was Welsh, which I’m taking, but not being assessed in, and the M.Phil seminars, which require reading and preparation.  It was hard to get back into the confidence I had felt as an undergrad in tutorials, and I was very silent and shy in class the first few weeks, before suddenly finding my voice and then not being able to shut up.

The main piece of assesssment last term was the review of scholarship (literature review), a 5000-word piece of writing summarising previous research that had been done on my area and locating my intended research in the previous scholarship.  While many of my friends found this exercise both distressing and annoying, I found it oddly relaxing.  Some people do this for the love of research, and some do it for the love of writing.  I am the second type of person.  I adore writing, putting sentences together, choosing words well, and it was a joy to write something other than a blog post or book review after so long away from the academic world.  I found it an oddly satisfying challenge.

When that was finished, I worked franticallly on my PhD research proposal (AKA Please Give Me Lots of Shiny Money).  I’m reasonably happy with it, and my supervisor checked it over and seemed pleased too, so let’s hope it’s good enough.

When I look back over this term, it’s measured out in coffee spoons and small glasses of wine.  There were the cups of strong coffee, enjoyed at a cafe I’m not prepared to name (it’s the only decent place in town, and it’s small, so I don’t want too many people to know about it.  Those who know me know what I’m talking about).  There were the two glasses of wine, usually pinot grigio or Australian shiraz, that I allowed myself every Friday night at ASNaC pub.  Sometimes there were people around me, sometimes there weren’t.

That’s one of the things I’ve noticed this term.  I’ve always craved a good balance between company and solitude, but it’s only now that I’ve been completely comfortable alone.  I’m utterly happy when left alone with my own thoughts (and even happier if I have a keyboard upon which to type these thoughts), and view people as a sort of added bonus.

People.  There have been a lot of them these past few months.  Sometimes I think I’ve met more people since October than I’ve met in my whole life.  There’s something about the college environment that causes everyone to rush out and befriend every stranger they come across.

The first people I met here were my flatmates.  There are 14 of them.  Of course, I am closer to some than others (some I simply never see), but I’m very happy how the whole sharing-space-with-strangers thing worked out.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly wretched, it’s enough to walk out to the kitchen or downstairs to the common room and talk to whoever happens to be there, remind myself that there are other human beings in the world, and I feel oddly happy.

I mainly hang out with the other ASNaCs, a mixed crowd of undergrads, PhD students from around the world, and M.Phils like me.  Unfortunately, most of the M.Phils aren’t particularly sociable, whether due to shyess, work pressures or lack of interest.  However, they’re all very nice, and I spent a fantastic weekend in London recently at the house of one of them.  She invited me to come and stay: I must have been sending out needy vibes, because she thought I could do with some home-cooked food and life in a non-student house.  I relished it, of course.

It’s been great to meet many of the sraffies, too. I had five of them come and visit, and we met up with several others, including the founder of TRoH, which was very cool.  I was a rather stressed out host, as I always am, but I still had a good time.  Meeting internet people is always a bit odd to begin with, because they are a strange combination of known and unknown, strikingly similar to their chatroom and forum personalities and different at the same time.

At the moment I’m just hanging around in Cambridge until I head off to Southport to visit relatives I’ve never met before.  I’ll spend Christmas there.  It should be fun.

On LiveJournal I’ve been promising to reveal a Secret Project for a while.  I promise that by the new year, all will be clear.  Right now, however, I’m looking forward to a bit of a holiday.

‘Far from my home/ is the country I have reached.’ September 30, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies, university.
Tags: , , ,

Yes, I’m quoting Suibhne, and I make no apologies about it.  After all, that’s why I’m here.

I’ve recovered sufficiently from the long journey over here to finally post about my first impressions of Cambridge.

The flight over was horrendous, but I was expecting that. I was wedged between two other people, hemmed in by my numerous items of carry-on luggage (stored, overflowingly, under the seat in front of me). The food, as all plane food is, was disgusting. My feet, legs, hands and face swelled up. I slept for three hours of the 24. I then dragged my small suitcase, 28kg suitcase, laptop and overstuffed handbag from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 at Heathrow, and boarded a bus that would take me to Cambridge. The weather was incredible, with a layer of mist covering the land until about 10am. Although I was very tired, it was too beautiful to sleep, although I felt my first pang of homesickness, when, thinking of telling my friends and family about the landscape, realised I had no words with which to describe it. I didn’t know the names of any of the vegetation. Even the grass looked foreign, lush, green and silky-looking, as opposed to the tough, scraggly brown stuff in Australia. I arrived at Cambridge at 11am. A woman (who must’ve been on my plane over, since she had also come from Australia) took pity on me, offering to share her taxi, and when it arrived at St. John’s refusing to accept payment for my half of the fare. A kindly porter offered me free biscuits. I must’ve looked really pathetic.

Another taxi took me to my house, which is very nice (although the bathrooms make me feel like throwing up. They have no windows or fans, and their heavy doors slam shut. This lack of ventilation makes for a rather steamy and mouldy environment.) Several of my housemates had moved in already, but the majority arrived just after me, so it was nice to come into a house with a whole lot of other newbies.

Although I was fainting with exhaustion, I forced myself to walk back into town, to familiarise myself with the layout of the streets and to shop at the (very expensive) supermarket. Then I staggered back home and went to sleep for four hours. In the evening I went downstairs and hung out with my housemates. They’re a good bunch – quite a few girls from America, an American guy, a South African guy, an English guy who’s been at Cambridge for five years now, and a Canadian girl who’s also a medievalist (although she’s studying 15th-century English literature). A few more people have since moved in, and I’m expecting the rest to arrive on Wednesday, the ‘official’ opening day of university.

Sunday was fabulous. The English guy graciously played host-with-local-knowledge, and took us all around town. First we wandered around St. John’s and some of the other colleges (Trinity, Clare and King’s). Then we went and heard the choir at King’s, which was an amazing experience. (I’m supposed to say that John’s choir is better, but I find the whole inter-college rivalry thing thoroughly ridiculous.) When we emerged from the chapel, my English housemate had hired a punt from St. John’s and was waiting for us on the river. Luckily it was a nice sunny day. We all had a turn punting. I was shockingly bad (yes, it did ‘keep steering to the left’), but it was still fun. After that we had a bit of a look around town, and I picked up a UK phone number and got some phone credit.

The next day, I began my ongoing struggle with St. John’s insane bureaucracy. I’m used to everything being centralised. When you sign up at Sydney Uni, everything is in one room. You collect your card, perhaps sit for your Access card photo, pick up a university-made yearly planner and confirm enrolment all at once. Sometimes you have to wait a while, but it’s a straightforward matter. A week later you find your timetable online, confirm your choices (or, if you’re like me, fiddle around with them to squash all your classes onto three days), print it out. Much later, you’re sent a bill for your semester’s fees, which you pay upfront if you want a discount, or defer, according to the HECS system.

Here, it’s insane. Everything is in a different place. No-one volunteers any information. I have even asked, ‘Is there anything more I need to collect, sign or whatever?’ and been told ‘No,’ simply because there was nothing more to be done in that specific room. Needless to say, my bemused housemates have been a godsend. Each of us seems to find out one piece of inside information, which we pool in the evenings, and then make use of the next day.

What more to be said?

Classes don’t start until next week, when there are also a lot of meet and greet events (including a formal dinner for all new St. John’s graduate students, where we wear academic robes and sit in the College’s Great Hall). I’m feeling a little apprehensive because it’s been a while since I’ve been a student. I need to get back into that academic frame of mind. Also, I kind of coasted along a lot at Sydney Uni, to be honest. It was possible to do well there without putting in a huge amount of effort. But judging by my housemates, everyone here is super-ambitious. Most of them have conferences lined up, which makes me feel like a huge, publication-less fraud. I freaked myself out sufficiently to do a bit of translation of the Tain, borrow a book that may be useful for my thesis, and also Branwen Uerch Llyr to see if my Welsh has faded from existence.

Things I love so far:
My housemates seem very nice, and there’s a lot of hanging around in common areas and socialising, which makes me confident we won’t turn into one of those ‘everyone sitting alone in their rooms’-type households.
Cambridge is really really beautiful, but in an awe-inspiring, daunting way. It’s a grand, bold, imposing beauty. I still feel like a bit of an upstart visitor, rather than a local.
The sraffies have been really wonderful. They’ve been posting supportive replies to my angst-ridden posts on the forum. The instant they found out my mobile number, they sent me welcome text messages. Barney’s arriving soon, and wants to meet up, which will be great. I’m lucky to have had such good, caring friends around when I moved to a new country.
The libraries. Oh, the libraries. Massive. The university library has a copy of every book ever published in the UK (I’d assume over the past hundred years or so, but I may be wrong). Even my college’s library has some good Irish texts. I haven’t even seen my departmental library, but I’m sure it’s good too.

Things I don’t like so much:
The feeling of anxiety and self-doubt that creeps up on me every so often when I worry that I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll fail and flee back to Australia with no more options.
The sense of entitlement that some (not all) longer-term students of this university seem to have, almost unconsciously. Let’s hope I don’t transform into one of them. If I keep feeling anxiety about my ability to cope here, I imagine such a transformation would be impossible. I hope.

The limits of fandom; or, I just wanted a poncy-sounding title for this post August 23, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, sraffies.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This post is inspired by a few things, although it’s about stuff I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

My last post, about fangirlishness, and the books, TV series and music that makes my life worth living, was about the more personal, individual side of fandom. But as any internet-addict knows, half the fun of fandom is finding a community of like-minded social misfits with whom you can obsess, pontificate, squee, rant and argue about your chosen literary, televisual and cinematic loves. Online it’s easy. You gravitate towards sites, communities and groups that like similar stuff, whether it be Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jane Austen, Veronica Mars or ’90s memorabilia.

Often, your online friends and communities act like vast, libraries of recommendations. Clearly, if people have the good taste to like Joss Whedon’s TV series, they’re bound to know what they’re talking about when they recommend books. And if they like Anne Rice, they’re likely to have read other vampire novels and be able to compare and contrast pretty well. Essentially, we’re all geeks here, and although we won’t see eye to eye on every book, movie, TV show or band, we’ll see eye to eye enough that we can trust each others’ recommendations to be mostly decent and to each others’ taste.

But what about in real life? What about when you try to convince the people at your work that their life will not be complete without having read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods? What happens when you’d give anything to watch Buffy with your beloved younger sister, but she’s more of a Sex And The City girl? What about the embarrassment and indignation you feel when your Milton lecturer has never heard of His Dark Materials?

There’s a long thread on Obernet about attempts to introduce friends to the books, films, TV series, music etc that we passionately love, and the mixed results that have ensued.

I’ve become much more wary (or perhaps selective) of recommending stuff to my friends because I’ve been burnt so many times. My best friend and I used to swap books all the time in high school. She was a fan of sweeping historical sagas, a la Leon Uris and Sebastian Faulks. I was the same nerdy fantasy girl that I am today. HDM was (as it is still) my favourite series of books. I lent her the trilogy. She liked it, but it wasn’t life-changing for her. She just got on with life.

One of my housemates last year (whom I’ve known since Year 7) and I share very similar taste in the trashier end of fantasy novels. It was excellent because I was getting a pretty good supply of unwanted review books from work, which we’d pass around. We both discovered the Tide Lords books at the same time. She introduced me to Sharon Shinn’s Samaria books. Good times.

Raphael and I have probably had the most success at recommending stuff to each other which has since become great favourites. I take credit for turning him into a card-carrying Whedonista, while he introduced me to the joy that is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m grateful that he told me to start with Guards! Guards!, since Samuel Vimes is certainly the finest guide you could have to Pratchett’s wonderful universe.

Mimi is the one I’ve most struggled with. I know for a fact that she would adore Stephen Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. It’s a detective series, set in Rome at the end of the Republic and beginnings of the Empire, and it presents the era as one of debauchery, political machinations and soap operatic melodrama. She’s an ancient history nut, and she loves detective stories, but she absolutely refuses to read them.

I’ll never forget the day she decided that she liked Massive Attack after all. I’d been raving about Massive for years, since Year 11, I think. She always professed disdain. Then, one day, I got more obsessive about their song lyrics than I usually do, and raved for about an hour about their brilliance. Her ears pricked up. ‘You say that Teardrop’s opening lines are ‘Love, love, is a verb/Love is a doing word’?’ she asked. ‘That’s insanely cool.’ The next thing I know, she’s imported all of Mezzanine onto her iPod and telling me how ‘you really have to be an adult to appreciate Massive Attack, I think.’

But why is it that we try so hard to get our friends to like the things we like? And why does it hurt so badly when they don’t?

I thought about it, and the answer, at least for me, is that I’m the sum of my fandoms. I’m not a 23-year-old book-reviewer/patisserie worker/childcare worker/about-to-be-Cambridge-postgrad-student. No, I’m a Whedonista. I’m a sraffie. I’m a vampire fangirl. I love house music, trip-hop, ’90s Europop, Calexico. I have a love of Robin Hood: Men In Tights that borders on the pathological. I think the most wonderful character ever created is a foul-mouthed, sarcastic, arrogant yet self-doubting illegitimate 12th-century Christian Arab Templar squire/novice monk/Archdeacon of Carcassone. I gravitate towards dark fantasy and stories of unlikely lovers saving the world. These things are my identity, more than who my friends are, more than the way I present myself to the world, and more, definitely, than my job/s. So when I’m recommending this stuff to people I love, it is like offering a piece of me to them. So when they dislike things, it’s like they’re rejecting something essential to me. They’re part of the Ronni package, and, irrational though it is (why should the people I like love the things I love?), it feels like they’re saying, ‘this part of you, this part of Ronni, I dislike/think ridiculous/despise.’ Which kind of hurts, when you think about it.

My friends are not my friends because they share all of my literary tastes. My friends are my friends because we have shared experiences both wonderful and horrendous. Because they are part of my history. But that is exactly why I love my favourite books, films, TV series and music. Because they’ve been with me when I’ve been my best, and when I’ve been my worst. They are part of my history. They’ve made me who I am as surely as my friends and family have. Can you blame me for wanting to share their awesomeness?

Something for the sraffies May 29, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies.
Tags: , , ,

So, for some weird reason, I found myself last night re-reading lots of my old reviews. I was searching for one on Peeps and The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld, but I ended up reading them all. It was like peering back through the pages of an old diary, laughing at the clunkiness of my old prose and, every so often, shocked, thinking, ‘I believed that?’ My review of Eragon is absolutely painful to read. I described the book as ‘richly imagined’? That pile of dross recycled from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and The Earthsea Quartet? What was I thinking?

What I really wanted to post here, was, however, my article about literary internet fansites. I think it will be amusing for all the sraffies. I certainly laughed when I read it (and not only at the clunky writing). The illustrations show a very early image of the BttS homepage, with news stories by Merlyn (that’s how old this article is, sraffies) and Blighty (is that Will?).

So, for your reading pleasure and amusement, I present ‘It’s Booklovers Anonymous in cyberspace’.

One of the delicious thrills of joining a literary Internet chat room is the possibility that you may actually be talking to a friend. Hidden behind the many adopted noms de plume may be someone you know – a casual acquaintance or even someone you passed in the street that day. While in the library at uni a few weeks ago, I noticed something unexpected as I waited in line to check my email.

Another student, already on the computer, was browsing the forums of an unofficial literary Internet fan site with which I was perhaps too familiar. I did not know this girl – indeed, I know none of the other members of the fan site. All go by pseudonyms, preferring to cloak their almost fanatical love of books in obscurity. It is strange and slightly unsettling when the anonymity of the Internet is threatened in this way – when its artificial world comes too close to the real world.

This girl and I did not know each other, and yet we may have been sharing thoughts on our favourite books for months. A literary fan site provides anonymous possibilities similar to the pleasures of a masked ball.

While many have claimed that the wonder of the Internet is email – instant communication in real time – for those with a passion for particular authors or genres of literature, the unofficial fan site would have to run a close second. For booklovers who perhaps had scorned the Internet as yet another small-screen diversion from life’s real purpose, of reading more books, the development of literary fan sites has proved as much of a diversion as the Australian Idol website has been for those with a different kind of passion.

Literary fan sites – on authors from Sir Thomas Malory to George Orwell to the generic writers of The Saddle Club – are generally run by fans, places where groups of like-minded people can discuss their favourite books, trade gossip on book-related topics, and essentially indulge their obsession with a particular series of books. (argh! three ‘books’ in the one sentence. *winces*)

Indeed, one of the chief delights of literary websites lies in sharing the obsessive pedantry of the fan with like-minded souls around the world. While some of the sites are little more than chatrooms providing a front for selling merchandise, others include transcripts of interviews, heated discussion about the significance of particular events (on the fan site for His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the discussion about whether two characters slept together goes on for 36 pages and counting!) and speculation about where a particular series of books is heading. (hmm, only 36 pages? It must be close to 200 by now…)

Many fan sites, particularly those related to fantasy writing, are really clusters of sites. The main site for Isobel Carmody fans is obernewtyn.net, which has a sister site, Obernewtyn Theories. The main site has transcripts of interviews, fan fiction, fan art, news and gossip. The second site is an endless forum for discussion of the meaning of texts, plot development and cross-text references.

The Philip Pullman site, which is at bridgetothestars.net, includes a series of forums dedicated to not only the His Dark Materials trilogy itself but all other books by the author, as well as separate forums for discussing other books, movies, music and interests. As well as the inevitable fan fiction (stories using the original novels as a starting point), bridgetothstars.net also has a section where fans can publish their essays.

Fantasy sites seem to attract mainly young people, who enjoy writing themselves into the story. However, these fantasy sites are not simply filled with lost children escaping the real world. The existence of an essay section in bridgetothestars.net actually encourages readers to research and write essays about aspects of their favourite texts. (No, really?)

Children and teenagers are writing essays on topics as diverse as the scientific basis of the multi-universes of Pullman’s world, to his use of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in in work, for the sheer love of it.

Just as the line between fantasy and reality can be thin on the Internet, so it it too for these avid fans. One of the more recent issues discussed on the Pullman site was the possibility of dedicating a park bench – which plays a significant role in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – in the Oxford Botanical Gardens to the chief characters in his books. Later, English fans returned to the site to report that the characters’ names had already been carved into the bench by more switched-on fans. They also reported that the bench had been formally dedicated to a couple of women already, and a search began to find out information about these women and the possible reasons behind this dedication.

The obernewtyn.net site hosts monthly “moonfairs”, complete with competitions and prizes, in an attempt to emulate similar moonfairs in the series. The moderators of the sites use a number of creative methods to contribute to the intellectual life and discussion of the site. For example, members of obernewtyn.net belong to “guilds”, similar to the guilds created by Carmody’s heroic characters; each guild member attracts points by contributing to the site.

On bridgetothestars.net members are rewarded for posting on the numerous forums by being moved up on the invented hierarchy of characters from Pullman’s trilogy. For example, a member who has posted 25 times or less is known as a “grazer” – a bovine-type character with no consciousness – whereas 25 to 50 posts puts the member in the category of the “mulefa” – a creature similar in appearance to the grazer but with the bonus of human-like consciousness. (hmm, someone didn’t understand the conventions of php-based forums, clearly. Someone also appeared to think that post-count related ranks were there to reward post-whorage. *shame*)

All of these things combine to create a friendly, if obsessive, atmosphere, full of like-minded people. As for collectors of memorabilia and the other groups of passionate oddballs, the sense of community, of shared experience, in literary Internet fan sites, is strong. They provide an outlet for such people to enjoy literature away from the academic world, and without its pressures.

With the freedom of anonymity, users are able to cultivate individuality and enhance any quirkiness they are able to express. While the rise of the Internet was seen as a threat to the future of the book, just as television was supposed to signal an end to reading, literary fan sites encourage an appreciation of literature and should be applauded.

Fantasy web sites, in particular, created for the most part by young people, have encouraged the close reading of texts and the self-expression dear to the heart of any English teacher. They are also lots of fun!

~ This originally appeared in the CT on Saturday, January 31, 2004.

I feel shame that I ever wrote this badly, but the comments about teh sraffies crack me up now. Anonymity? *falls over laughing* I also love that I hadn’t quite been bitten by the Internet bug yet – and still believed in a false dichotomy between the ‘online’ and ‘real’ worlds.